The Creep Behind The Camera was easily one of my favorite films at this past Fantasia Film Festival. The docudrama details the sordid history of Vic Savage and his efforts to get Z-grade monster movie The Creeping Terror off the ground. Equal parts hilarious, haunting and downright disturbing-often within moments of one another-the film is a case of real life trumping fiction. Director Pete Schuermann paints a striking portrait of a small time hustler that could have one arm around your shoulder while the other picks your pocket. Schuermann pulls no punches in the biopic, putting all Savages worst tendencies-the lying, the boozing and drugging, the womanizing, the physical and verbal spousal abuse his wife Lois endured along with even darker demons that lurked within Art Nelson/ “Vic Savage.”
Ahead of this October’s Screamfest
(running from the 14th
through the 23rd
) Schuermann sat down for a phone interview to talk about what drew him to Savage and what it took to balance the humor and the horror of a story you could not make up if you tried.
The subject of your film is Vic Savage, director of The Creeping Terror, which has been immortalized by MST3000. What was it about his story that drew you in and made you want to make this film?
There’s been kind of a concurrent thing going on with me and movies and the message I wanted to do with a feature film. When I was very young and eager to get in to the film business, I kept encountering the same kind of people-well maybe not as bad as Art Nelson-but people that had no problem taking advantage of men and women dying to get into the film business one way or the other. A lot of the people I encountered left that impression. I definitely had a “Let’s get even with them some day” desire to make this movie. Also, being a big fan of these films since I was thirteen years old and being in to monster movies and the whole genre of B and Z grade movies from the era. We used to do our own version of the Mystery Science Theater when we were young. When I saw the MSK show I was in hysterics through the whole thing but I was dumbfounded that I had never heard of it. I had all the old monster movie books and old Starlogs. As I got into my adult phase I had completed my first documentary and the questions started coming in about what I was going to do next. That’s when I started going through the Michael Medved book, The Golden Turkey Awards and there’s this fantastic picture of the pickup truck with them parading up and down Hollywood Boulevard and I thought “Man wouldn’t that be a great scene in a movie?” I started researching online. Medved was vague about who Nelson was. He said he was a con man that came and went but then I found all kinds of blogs about the subject. When I encountered Nelson’s ex-wife Lois, she had written a book Hollywood Con Man where she uses aliases for the names but she outlined what he was really like and their experiences in Hollywood. That’s when it came together.
A typical biopic often glosses over the bad side of people but your put that front and center. One of the more powerful things is how you give Lois a voice. There were moments where she welled up bringing up memories about just how terrible a man Nelson was. At the same time your movie is often funny. How much of a challenge is it to balance the humor and horrific when you’re talking about a real person and you don’t want to glorify or excuse his actions?
That’s a great question. It’s definitely a challenge and an ongoing one. We’ve opened ourselves for criticism with some people who ask how we can possibly have humor alongside these awful things, but I think that the people who resonate with the kind of things we are trying to say and do appreciate that it is so absurd what he was doing and saying-he has this carpet and he’s telling everyone how this is going to be the greatest monster movie ever-and he does these awful things and everyone around him has an awareness that he’s either trying to get laid or trying to scam money, but they deny it. This might be a little deep philosophically but I think I deliberately wanted to make it so you had to laugh at this because it’s so ridiculous and because it makes you think about the similar people you know in your own life that you let get away with it. Yeah, everybody does get off the hook in Hollywood retrospectives. We all know that we are opportunists. We see the starlets come in to the director’s office and ask “What are you willing to do to be in the movie?” Whats the moral choice? Nobody talks about it, it’s like alcoholism, which of course, is a big part of our movie. I decided to go for broke. I like movies that are roller coasters where you feel one thing at one moment and something completely different the next. I love the quote from Steven Spielberg when he was asked what the proudest moment of his directing career was and he said it was in Jaws when Roy Schneider is scooping chum into the ocean and bitches “Come scoop some of this shit. The audience laughs and I remember seeing this when I was ten, and that laughter turns into screams. If you can be a director and manipulate people like that it’s a big challenge. The verdict is still out if we pulled it off.
When you deal with this really dark material, especially when you’re examining the life of another director, how easy is it to shake of the subject matter when you go home at night?
It was a challenge, mainly because of the dedication, hmm, you’re rolling the dice trying to be profound and silly at the same time. Knowing that you’re all in on this, when you cross the threshold and you’re no longer a straight forward documentary with talking heads. That and getting to know the real Lois, who is a sweet, sweet lady, and you know despite that she has been through hell and back and probably experienced, my God the things that this person has seen. She’s a sweet old lady that would remind you of your Grandma, and she’s very Christian now. The weight of that hangs over your head. All of that hits home. I can say this about Josh (who played Vic Savage/Art Nelson) he’s not particularly a method actor. He can be sleeping on set, and we’ll wake him up only to see him immediately turn it on and off. It did bother him to have to push Jodie Thomas (Lois) aroundbecause she’s a sweetheart and five foot nothing. Jodie loved it. She loves dark movies and thought it was awesome. If the people around started getting weirded out I think it would have been worse.
You mentioned the film being a roller coaster. The film doesn’t so much build Nelson/Savage’s dark side so much as it presents it from the get-go, but it contrasts that with scenes moments later where he’s jerking off in the bushes stalking Jayne Mansfield before one of her dogs attacks him. This is great! When you talked earlier about how Hollywood is now versus then, and bring in some of the talking heads like Bill Thoroughby who produced The Creeping Terror, it seems like everybody saw through Savage from day one, and saw what a schnook he was yet they continued to enable him. Why was it that he was able to dupe people for so long or even get an opportunity to begin with?
You were talking about me and my home life and bringing the work home. This is something that I will still obsess over and my wife will hear me go on about it. How can they hire this person? How can this nice girl go out with and marry this guy? I just don’t get it. It’s a question we raise in the movie but don’t answer because I really don’t have an answer. I think it’s just avarice on one hand and the lure of all these things. For Thoroughby, he was looking at it as an exit strategy from a Hollywood system he didn’t like and he thought he could make money. His dad had told him “Don’t go to Hollywood” so in one sense it was a way to show his dad he could make it work for him. For the women though, and I tried to play this out in some of the scenes-Lois figured out early on what he was about but he continually wore her down by telling her she couldn’t make it without him because she knew nothing. I think that happens for a lot of abused women. Like you said if this “schnook” won’t accept me who the hell else will? Ultimately, I don’t have a real good answer and it’s something I’ll seek throughout my life. You just shake your head and as how they fall for this crap.
So what’s the next step for the film. Is it still making the festival rounds or has it been picked up for distribution?
The next step is a critical juncture for us. We play LA’s Screamfest this October. They’ve also gotten the rights for The Creeping Terror so it’s going to be a double feature. We’re bringing the monster prop out there and since it’s in Hollywood we figure let’s try to bring a lot of that crowd in. We figure between Fantasia and Screamfest, why keep going the fest route, let’s sell this movie while it’s hot!
Are you tossing the monster on the back of the flatbed and cruising around Hollywood in order to drum up interest?
I guarantee you we’ll be doing that. The festival is at the Mann’s Chinese so we will definitely be going up and down Hollywood Boulevard.
What I really appreciated about the film was how funny it was. You had bits where everyone working the monster would pass out from the heat and the fumes. It was a hoot and so over the top.
That was definitely a fun part and I still get people that come up and say “Those actors you hired to do the interviews were really good” and I have to correct them and tell them they were the real people involved.
It’s a sign of a good actor when they can deliver a line badly really well. How did you see this playing out in your head as you were researching the subject?
It was fun. The research took about a year. We really did think we were going to do a straight forward documentary with a little bit of dramatization. But as I went forward I kept thinking “I got to turn this part into a scene.” It was hearing about the Charles Manson connection that turned the corner along with reading Lois’ book. Her book is kind of off the record and more like a diary. Seeing how her life with him unfolded as he was making the movie and showing what a joke he (Savage) was- the movie and his life paralleled each other. It was after reading her book we had our “Aha” moment where we had an arc, which is ironic, because the book does not have one. We had to build that monster.
Well you certainly built something.
Thanks To Pete Schuermann for taking the time to talk to us. Look for The Creep Behind The Camera to make it’s Boston premiere on October 19th at the Somerville Theater.