For the last decade, David Gregory has dominated the behind-the-scenes market with an array of featurettes and documentaries charting the history of some of the most iconic genre pictures of all time. While often included as an extra feature on special edition DVDs from Anchor Bay, Gregory soon gained a reputation for his exploration of cult cinema. Working with his producer Carl Daft, his first significant production was Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth, an account of the making of the 1974 horror classic that saw cast and crew members reunite for the first time in years.
Over the next ten years Gregory forged a prolific career in the world of film documentaries, directing retrospectives on such artists as Dan O’Bannon, Lynn Lowry and Jess Franco, while also forming distribution company Severin Films with Daft and John Cregan. Gregory turned to directing horror movies of his own with Plague Town, an Ireland-set thriller in which a visiting family are terrorised by mutant children.
David Gregory talks about his work as a documentary filmmaker.
Over the last decade, you have become one of the most in-demand filmmakers for movie documentaries and DVD featurettes. How did you first come to work on these kinds of projects?
When my friend and business partner, Carl Daft, and I started a VHS label in the UK, we tried to include interviews at the end of the features whenever we could: like Alan Ormsby on Deathdream or Harry Novak on The Child. Then I met Gunnar Hansen at a film fair and started chatting with him about doing a proper doc on the original Texas Chainsaw.
I grabbed a credit card, a friend’s camcorder and a couple of pals and we hightailed it to Texas and made the feature-length Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth. I shot the Tobe Hooper interview at William Lustig’s office in LA. He and I became good friends and he asked me to start producing all the featurettes for the Anchor Bay DVDs he was producing at the time.
Your films can run at anything from a few minutes to feature length; how do you approach establishing a premise and then covering all the key points in what can be such a short space of time?
Depends on who you can get and how many days/locations the budget allows. The length is justified by the subject. We’re fortunate in that there is rarely a specified length when we’re asked to do featurettes. I cut around what the subjects have to say. One of the biggest and most prevalent crimes in the featurette world is padding them out with useless, uninteresting shit to make them longer. Hate that. Sometimes you only have a couple of principal interviewees, like with The Godfathers of Mondo, but they’re so fucking fascinating and have so many untold stories that you want to include it all. Actually, in that case there was a lot we had to cut out to avoid being an obnoxious length.
Having explored the making of so many movies, do you often get a feeling of childlike nostalgia when covering those that you adored when you were younger?
Absolutely. Apart from making my own movies, I couldn’t think of a gig I’d rather have. Travelling around interviewing people I admire about movies I love. And often the choice of which films we license is dictated by personal nostalgia. Bloody Moon may not be the best movie to some, but when I saw it as a nine-year old I thought it was the best film ever made. So, it gives me immense pleasure to restore it and put it out on DVD.
Many of your documentaries have been produced in association with Blue Underground or Anchor Bay, both of which have played a significant role in the revival long-forgotten cult movies.
For both Anchor Bay and Blue Underground, I was working with Bill Lustig who gave me a lot of freedom to approach who I thought would make a good subject. He was as into documenting the making of these films as I was/am. Both of us were more passionate about some over others; for example, when he suggested doing a tribute to Joe Spinell for Maniac, I thought it was a great idea and he let me run wild with that one and it turned out to be one of our best collaborations.
When you are assigned a new documentary, what are the first steps you go through to develop the project? How do you approach writing a retrospective on a movie, franchise or even a genre?
A lot of the films I shoot interviews for these days are for release on our own label Severin so I already know a fair bit about the film before starting on the featurettes. But we still get a fair amount of calls to do featurettes for other companies. In these cases, I do as much research about the productions and the key personnel as I can then start contacting them to see who’s up for talking about it.
Sometimes the director or star doesn’t want to talk or is no longer with us so you have to find another key player. But that’s never a problem. We can always find an interesting participant to tell stories around any given film. We’ve interviewed everyone from costume designers, to composers, to FX artists, to art directors, to historians, to fans, etc.
Having grown up in the UK during the 1980s, did you already have a personal connection to the ‘video nasties’ when you made the Ban the Sadist Videos! documentaries?
Sure did. I’d say Carl and I had seen about half the video nasties when they were outlawed in 1984 (at which time we were twelve) and continued to collect them throughout our high school years, via the fledgling UK underground horror fan network. When the opportunity to make BTSV came up we dove into it with complete dedication. The notion of telling the story of this ridiculous time and documenting how dumb and out of touch the do-gooders and politicians were and the, well, crimes they got away with was something we really sunk our teeth into.
A definite favourite, BTSV parts one and two. And thankfully we had the backing of the late, great Mo Claridge of Anchor Bay UK, so we were able to get all this wonderful archive footage from the BBC of these fucking idiots spouting their drivel. Hard to believe in this day and age that honest people lost their livelihoods and even were jailed for renting copies of The Evil Dead, Last House and Zombie. We heard from an insider that the doc is shown to new recruits at the BBFC to educate them on what went down not so long ago.
With a résumé that includes retrospectives on everything from Tom Savini to spaghetti westerns, are there any projects that you have declined on moral grounds and which of your films do you feel is the most confrontational?
Never declined anything on moral grounds and never would. Even if you don’t agree with something you can put your perspective on it. However, we’re talking about movie documentaries here so morality really isn’t an issue. On the contrary, the aforementioned directors of the Mondo Cane movies I felt often got unfairly lambasted as exploitative scumbags but I looked at those films and saw two fearless dudes who took cameras into places that no one else would in those days and got some amazing footage, no matter how you feel about what they had to say when they put it all together. And there was plenty of criticism of their work over the years, but very few interviews with the filmmakers themselves. So I was glad to document their perspective.
How did all these documentaries prepare you for your feature debut, Plague Town and did you draw influence on many of the films you had explored in your other work?
I suppose in that I’d heard so many stories about low budget horror production that I knew to expect any and all catastrophes that may come my way. Plague Town was a difficult shoot for sure but overall went quite smoothly, considering that we were shooting on film in Connecticut at night in the fall with lots of children and a ton of practical FX. It was a brilliant experience. And the company that financed the film generally left us alone to make the picture, at least during production they did. Post-production and the promotion and release of the film was where it became a less pleasant experience.
Do you have any pet projects that you hope to get off the ground and do you intend on making a return to feature films?
Since 2006 Carl, me and John Cregan – and lately Evan Husney – have been running Severin Films, releasing a slew of fine exploitation films onto the DVD and Blu-Ray market such as Hardware, the original Inglorious Bastards, Gwendoline, The Sinful Dwarf, Psychomania and various Jess Franco, Lucio Fulci and Joe D’Amato classics. This year started very strongly with the release of one of my personal favourites, Santa Sangre. We also just released Birdemic: Shock and Terror, last year’s best/worst midnight movie sensation. And we have a bunch of cool stuff coming up like Horror Express, Bloody Birthday, The Baby, BMX Bandits and John’s original movie Devolved, a teen comedy.
I also just directed my segment of the anthology horror film The Theatre Bizarre. Other segments of TB are being directed by Richard Stanley (Hardware), Tom Savini (well, you know who he is), Doug Buck (Sisters remake), Karim Hussain (Subconscious Cruelty), Jeremy Kasten (Wizard of Gore) and Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock). My episode is called Sweets and is a beautifully disgusting piece that is coming together wonderfully. In fact all the segments are looking great. It’s going to be a hell of a film which we’ll start taking to festivals this summer.