Poster for Maniac

In doing a bit of research for this interview we discovered
that a few years ago, at a well-known festival in France where director
Bill Lustig was scheduled to speak, the theater audience began chanting
Billy! Billy! until he made his appearance. At another festival
in Europe, they hung a banner across the road welcoming him to town
Here at home, the L.A.-based Lustig is best known as a cult midnight
moviemaker who has crafted some of the most fun, frightening, gory
films of the ’80s, including Maniac, Maniac Cop, Vigilante,
and Relentless. Intelligent, articulate and intimidatingly
well-steeped in film lore, the hardworking Lustig recently began
a new career as a film restorer (and DVD producer) with Anchor Bay
Entertainment. He obviously loves this work, which he rightfully
considers extremely important for the longterm health of the motion
picture arts. Lustig recently spoke with MM about his career and
what it takes to stay at the top of the moviemaking game over the
long term.

Jennifer Wood (MM): First, please just give
me a brief bio on yourself. Where you were born, grew up, education,
all that good stuff.

Bill Lustig (BL): I was born February 1, 1955
in Bronx, NY, where I lived until I was seven years old and my family
moved to Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The Sopranos turf. I dropped
out of high school (a mere formality since I hardly attended anyway)
on my 18th birthday. However, I did attend two semesters at New
York University film school. The legendary NYU film school professor
Haig Manoogian, admitted me into his class despite my lack of a
high school diploma when I demonstrated my ability to load film
into an upright Movieola with my eyes closed.

MM:When did you first become interested in
film, and when was it that you decided to pursue film as a career?

BL:My earliest cinema memories are going to the
huge movie palaces in the Bronx to see Disney films and taking the
subway with my mother to Radio City Music Hall to see the holiday
films with the Rockettes stage show. I think it was around 1968
when I became passionate about cinema. The movies of that period Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, The Wild Bunch, Z, Putney Swope, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the
Sergio Leone films, The Dirty Dozen, Thunderball, Goldfinger, Midnight Cowboy and many others planted
the need in my soul to direct films. The grand cinemas of 42nd Street (now sadly torn down) offered me the opportunity to see Fellini
films, Roger Corman exploitation flicks, spaghetti westerns, Kung
Fu epics, Hammer horror as well as the latest Hollywood pictures,
all on any given day and often on the same double or triple bill.
This experience ingrained in me a respect for the entertainment
values of diverse cinema which I’ve applied to my current work with
the Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVDs.

MM:You’ve worked in all facets of moviemaking:
writing, editing, producing, directing, acting, restoring films
and even stuntwork appear on your resume. How has this variety of
occupations affected your approach to the medium? Also, what was
your first film and how did you get it?

BL: My earliest work was as an apprentice editor
when I was 16 years old, when family friend Peter Savage (who later
co-produced Raging Bull) became my mentor. At this time,
he was producing/directing very low-budget, unsuccessful sex comedies.
His editor, Larry Marinelli, who later edited my films Maniac and Vigilante, encouraged my interest by letting me sweep
the editing room floor. In exchange, he taught me the skills and
mechanics of editing. I began skipping school to work endless hours
at Larry’s company for only travel and meal money. I didn’t care.
I was 16 years old, living at home, and didn’t have any overhead.

With the massive success of Deep Throat, Peter
(along with every other exploitation filmmaker in the world) turned
his attention to the hard-core adult genre. In 1972, I began working
as a production assistant on theatrical porno films. It was invaluable
training because it gave me the opportunity to learn practically
every behind-the-camera job on a film set, which no film school
can offer. During the same period, thanks to Peter’s friend, the
producer Ralph Serpe, I also worked on mainstream action films shooting
on location in New York, including The Seven Ups and Across
110th Street.
It was a glorious time for me because I was in
love with the work. Nothing else in my life mattered. Through an
acquaintance at NYU film school, I raised $15,000 (ultimately $21,000)
to produce and direct my own 35mm porno film. During post-production,
I did some market research by visiting Times Square adult bookstores
(pre-video/DVD) and asking the clerks which were the biggest selling
books. Their biggest seller was The Violation of Marcy, so
I titled my film The Violation of Claudia. By the way, there’s
no violation of anyone in the movie, which was loosely based on
Bunuels Belle de Jour. Even though he passed away in 1982,
I feel to this day that I owe my career and life to Peter Savage.

MM:Throughout the ’80s and ’90s you created
some classic horror films, including
Maniac and Vigilante.
Where did your interest in horror stem from?

BL: I think my film Maniac is the closest
to being pure horror. The Maniac Cop series and Uncle
were more twisted visions of authority  (the police
and military, respectively) with horror/thriller moments. Vigilante, Hit List, and The Expert (unaccredited director) were
vigilante action films, and Relentless was a police/serial
killer thriller. I realize that even though I’ve really only made
one true horror film, I will forever be thought of as a horror film

MM:What do you think are the elements of a
great horror film?

BL:Horror has always been viewed by mainstream
society as a disreputable genre. Even the major studios and critics
look down upon horror films and their makers. Yet historically,
horror films generally have more longevity than so-called ‘respectable’
films. In 1980, Paramount Pictures released both Ordinary People (which won the Best Picture Oscar) and Friday the 13th.
Which of these two pictures is better remembered today? Which of
these two pictures would you like to be a profit participant in?
Like sex and humor, horror taps into very primal emotions that tend
to be uncomfortable for many adults to accept. That’s why these
films are embraced by the young–or young at heart. Horror, like
sex and comedy, is a director-driven genre. It’s impossible to articulate
what’s scary. But the best horror filmmakers have a gut instinct
for fear.

MM: In 1997, you directed Uncle Sam with Robert Forster. Did Forster’s Oscar nomination that same year
Jackie Brown increase the visibility or success of your
own film?

BL: Robert Forster starred in Vigilante in 1983 and later appeared in Maniac Cop 3 and Uncle Sam.
Bob is one of the few true friends I have in this business. I was
so happy when I saw Jackie Brown, which Quentin wrote specifically
for him, and incredibly proud of his subsequent Oscar nomination.
He is a brilliant actor and, more importantly, a fine person.

MM:Uncle Sam was the last time we heard from
you as a director. Any directing plans in the near future? If so,
what is the story?

BL: I have no definitive plans to direct in the
near future, but I always keep the door open. In the meantime, I
love what I’m doing now.

MM: When did you begin working with Anchor
Bay Entertainment and what is your title within the company? In
your time there, you have worked to restore various previously
hard-to-find and classic films for DVD distribution. Can you list
a few of the films you’ve worked on?

BL: In 1997 I began a new chapter in my career
as a film restorer and Laserdisc/DVD producer when I acquired the
U.S. rights to 21 Hammer Films titles that had never been released
on home video. I then licensed the VHS rights to Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Film restoration on video was an entirely new adventure for me.
Since then, my relationship with Anchor Bay has grown to include
the restoration and/or supervision of nearly 400 films, including
Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Deep Red, and Opera; Michael
Mann’s Manhunter; The Wicker Man; Sergio Corbucci’s
landmark Spaghetti Western’ Django; John Cassavetes’ Minnie
& Moskowitz
; John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2; Repo Man; Heathers; John Carpenter’s Halloween;
Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond; Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic; The Stunt Man; the Ilsa series; Tender Mercies; Frances; and nearly a dozen Werner Herzog films.  Those
include Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu. We’re
currently preparing such films as Richard Lester’s The Three
; Emmanuelle; Nicolas Roeg’s The Man who
Fell to Earth
; a Wim Wenders collection and the entire Ealing
Studios catalog.  In addition to the restoration of picture
and audio elements of these films (which are often akin to archeological
digs), my staff and I also create extensive bonus features, including
poster and still galleries, audio commentaries and original featurette
documentaries. We’re all extraordinarily proud of the work we do.

MM:Do you work in acquiring the films that
will be restored? If so, what do you look for in a film? Do you
have certain criteria for deciding which films are worth restoring?

BL: I do much of the acquisition myself, as does
Jay Douglas of Anchor Bay’s corporate offices in Michigan. Quite
simply, we both look for under-appreciated films that people want
to see, whether they realize it or not. We love ‘orphan’ titles,
and we love films that other companies tend to shy away from. I
look at it this way: If Criterion is the ‘classical music’ of DVD
restoration and distribution, then Anchor Bay is pure rock &
roll. I like to think that most people hide their Anchor Bay DVDs
on their shelves behind the Criterion titles.

MM:For you, what was the most rewarding film
to work on as a restoration and why? If you were given the chance
to remaster any film yours or otherwise what would it be and why?

BL: The main reward is being able to restore
films that I love. It’s a true thrill and honor to closely work
with such diverse directors as Dario Argento, Werner Herzog, Monte
Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop), Sergio Sollima (Violent City),
Val Guest (The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Hell is a
), Paul Verhoeven (Soldier of Orange, The Fourth Man),
Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Army of
) and others to create the definitive editions of their
great films. I’ve seen directors moved to tears when they see the
final product because they thought their work had been forgotten.

Probably the most rewarding film to work on thus far
has been Sidney Furie’s The Ipcress File. I still think it’s
a landmark film on so many levels, and I knew that no one else would
have made the effort to restore it. My dream titles would have to
include Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (which Paramount has seemingly buried) and the long version of Sergio
Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (which is not a big enough title
for MGM to bother with). I would see either as more than just restorations;
I’d consider them rescue missions.

MM:You have worked on the restorations of
some of your own films, including
Maniac and Vigilante.
Is the process different when working on your own film?

BL: When I restore my own films, I don’t have
to chase licensors or hunt for elements. And in the case of Maniac,
in addition to upgrading the audio and picture, we also created
an all-new and remarkably powerful 55-minute documentary called
The Joe Spinell story.  Maniac was Joe’s film as much
as mine, but his inimitable life could belong to no one else. Everyone
in this business adored him, and everyone in this business mourned
him. Maniac is Joe’s legacy. This documentary is his tribute.   

MM:You have been a well-respected name in
the film industry for a long time now, both in this country and
in Europe, where you are a true cult hero. What do you think is
the key to longevity in an industry like this one, which is constantly

BL: Longevity in this business is all about discipline.
Every day, whether I’m actively working on a specific project or
not, I do something anything to advance my work. For more than 30
years, I’ve always kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities.
Seizing many of those opportunities has led me to some great places,
including my current position.

MM:What do you expect from your collaborators
as a: Director? Producer? Writer?

BL:I look for and expect professionalism,
enthusiasm and creativity. Do the job. Love the job. And always
bring something fresh to the job.

MM:What was your very favorite experience
on a movie set?

BL:Working with the legendary Woody Strode
on Vigilante.

MM: Worst experience on a movie set?

BL: Working with the intolerable Jeff Speakman
on The Expert.