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Interview with Douglas McKeown (The Deadly Spawn)

Shot on an extremely low budget, The Deadly Spawn would become a cult classic amongst fans of 1980s creature features, a regular attraction at the drive-ins and late night movie theatres. Marking the debut of independent filmmaker Douglas McKeown, The Deadly Spawn told of a meteor that crashlands in the woods, prompting two campers to go and investigate. A creature emerges from the wreckage and begins to lay havoc with the locals, some strange alien monster that is more deadly than anything man has ever seen.

Released in 1983 and having been distributed under a variety of names, including Return of the Aliens, the movie recently enjoyed a new lease of life when he was interviewed for Stephen Edward Thrower’s exhaustive study of exploitation cinema, Nightmare USA. Despite failing to attract much attention upon initial release, The Deadly Spawn has since enjoyed success on home video, including a DVD from Synapse Films back in 2004, while Michael Perilstein’s soundtrack was unearthed the following year.

Douglas McKeown reveals his filmmaking background and his experience shooting The Deadly Spawn.

How did you first become interested in cinema and how did you come to create special effects yourself when you were younger?

My first exposure to cinema, or shall I say movies, was through television – King Kong and all the old Depression-Era Universal horror pictures, which were telecast for the first time ever when I was still a pre-teen. My interest in special effects came from watching King Kong over and over again when it was shown nine times in one week. But my first real interest as a director, even though I had no camera, stemmed from the giant monster films of the 1950s. I would re-enact the films I saw at the local theatre in my neighborhood by casting a bunch of kids as terrified extras and instructing them how to look up at nothing and pretend it was a giant octopus or dinosaur. I spent some childhood years directing countless horror scenarios with me as the monster, always with the camera in mind, if not in hand. I still didn’t own one at that time.

Did your amateur filmmaking career begin when you were given a Bolex 8mm camera and what were your early experiments with directing films like?

Right! I got that while I was still in high school. The Bolex had single-frame capability, and at that time what really mattered to me was model animation. I wanted to make dinosaurs. My first effective model was a 13-inch Tyrannosaur I made out of Plasticine sculpted over a copper wire armature and coated with liquid latex. I named her Parkhurst, after an ancient professor I had Freshman year of college. Her first movements were just about as unsteady and jerky as the old teacher, mostly because I shot double frame exposures thinking to save time. Never made that mistake again. Later on I made a far more convincing dinosaur film using a 16 mm Bolex.

Having been rejected from UCLA, did you feel that become a real filmmaker was unlikely and how did you eventually become involved with ABC-TV?

I suppose I did take the grad school rejection as a verdict on my ability at that time – after all, it was UCLA, and they should know, right? An ironic note: in 2004, the UCLA Film and Television Archive invited me to their screening of The Deadly Spawn as part of their horror film series! I got a job with ABC in New York right after college from an employment ad in the newspaper. But I was stuck in the commercial editing department pretty far from production, so I eventually quit. I wasn’t really interested in TV at that time – I was into great big-screen classics and modern imports. I had spent my college years in art cinemas soaking up Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa films.

After some time as a high school teacher, you finally managed to direct a feature film with The Deadly Spawn? Was the budget difficult to raise and how did the project first come about?

Raising the money wasn’t my department. I don’t really know how Ted Bohus, et al., managed to finance the project. I do know no one was paid anything, at least not until some time after the film was distributed. Film stock was donated, I think. The idea of making a cheapo horror-sci-fi picture was hatched by Bohus and Dods, who had met at one of the horror conventions, as I understand it. They called me in because of my expertise working with actors. Dods also well knew my background in horror effects and horror make-ups, not to mention film directing, since he had seen at least one of my films. They didn’t have anyone to write the screenplay either so I volunteered for that job as well since I had a lot of experience writing scripts.

How did you first make the acquaintance of Ted A. Bohus and how would you describe your professional relationship?

I met Ted for the first time when John Dods invited me out to New Jersey to hear their pitch. I thought Ted and I got along very well for most of the shoot. He was very supportive and involved every day. Anyway, I would say we worked together well. All three of us met frequently just to get up to speed on the storyline – since I was writing the screenplay as we went along. And contrary to some reports, I wrote all the dialogue during the year we shot principal photography – as well as mapping out the plot we agreed on.

Was the picture intended as your homage to the old b-movies of the 1950s or was it closer in spirit to the low budget monster flicks that had appeared during the early 1980s?

Well, it had similarities to some pictures of the 1970s. I was aware of the most recent horror and sci-fi movies, of course, and the three of us actually talked about the huge success of movies like Alien and Jaws, but my real passion was for the movie style of my formative years, the 1950s. So I would say that was where my spirit was. We did know we would have to be modern in terms of a getting an ‘R’ rating, though, if only to put Ted’s company on the map. Certainly the film was going to have to show more violence than there was in The Blob, say, or It Came from Outer Space.

One master of cheap horror and sci-fi was Roger Corman, as was Larry Cohen. Were either of these an influence on you and which movies in particular inspired the style or story of The Deadly Spawn?

I was inspired by Corman’s pictures to do a better job! I remember being disappointed by It Conquered the World because the monster was laughable. The campy, tongue-in-cheek films like Little Shop of Horrors and The Raven I only now appreciate; they were too silly to me then – I took my horror very seriously when I was young. And I never really connected with the period stuff Corman did with Vincent Price – with those brightly lit, too-colorful, fake-looking sets and recycled props – I didn’t buy the nineteenth century costumes with 1960s coifs and makeup on the women. I was a stickler for realistic detail. But I definitely ate up the idea of low budget. That’s because when I had made props myself as a kid, I took pride in making things look real and evocative on NO money – a convincing army tank out of an old refrigerator box or a spaceship out of cardboard tubing and oak tag or paper maché.

I loved small transition scenes in even some big budget Hollywood movies where a door would open and close and the painted backdrop outside could be glimpsed for a second. For instance, I remember realising that a flat studio interior that suddenly appears in The Grapes of Wrath was a budgetary consideration, and it was up to Gregg Toland to light and photograph the brief scene to match the exterior location. This fired my creative instincts like nothing else. It’s one reason I admired, and still admire, production designer-showmen like Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, The Man from Planet X) and William Cameron Menzies (Things to Come, Invaders from Mars). And don’t forget Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie). That was a wonderful collaboration, chills and thrills on a shoestring.

The Deadly Spawn

The Deadly Spawn

How difficult was it as the director to find the perfect balance between suspense, gore, humour and character?

Well, it helped that I wrote the thing. A lot of that balance could be worked out in my head before arriving on the set with the actors. I will say one thing. Humor, gore, character, suspense are all elements to develop, for sure – but one principle guided me, the same one I always have – and that’s that the story is more important than any isolated effect, no matter how sensational, and it should be driven by character. As crazy or insane as the premise was – e.g., a weird and terrible monster from space is in the basement – the characters should all be completely sane in the sense of being as real and ordinary as the actors could make them.They can go insane, like Pete, if the trauma drives them to it, but they shouldn’t start out that way. H.G. Wells had the same idea, I believe: The more outrageous the circumstances, the more familiar the setting should be. Otherwise it would be too hard to suspend disbelief. I have seen so many supposedly scary movies that I just didn’t want to bother suspending disbelief for.

What kind of instructions did you give John Dods on how you wanted the monsters in the film to be designed and how were these special effects achieved?

Oh!! Ha! I have to laugh at the question. No one tells John Dods how to design a monster! He knew better than anyone how he wanted this particular monster to look – the mother spawn, that is – well before they even brought me on board, and he had pretty much designed the whole thing already. No, the creature was the reason he wanted to make the film to begin with, I think. He and Ted and I figured out together the idea of the spawning of little baby monsters, and we talked a lot early on about how all the creature effects would look and how they would be done, but John was the master of his domain. As to how the effects were achieved: all by live action, no camera tricks or animation. But some very clever live action, indeed.

Apparently there was tension between yourself and Dods on set. What can you reveal regarding this?

In fact, John and I did clash when I wanted his monster to be more agile, to move faster, etc. Now, if you ask him he might disagree with me here, but I think human interaction scenes really annoyed John, because it meant he had to cede some control of his creature. I was adamant about trying to get all action in the frame and not shoot humans and monster effects separately with the latter being inserts to be assembled later. I knew some later inserts were going to be unavoidable, but I tried hard to keep all the action together as much as possible. I even had quite an argument at one point with John about getting the mother spawn up the stairs to attack the kids in the bedroom. A few years ago, he told me we also fought over how to shoot part of the climactic attic sequence, but I don’t remember that.

How did you cast the movie and was the role of the child hero, Charles, a difficult one to fill?

We put an ad in Backstage newspaper to audition for the younger parts, and I filled in some of the character parts with actors I knew and had worked with on stage in New York, both as a director and as a fellow actor. Charles was easy to cast. His father, the artist-illustrator Tim Hildebrandt, was one of the producers of the film and owned the house we shot in, and Charles’ actual bedroom was his character’s room! In short, he was always available. Not to mention smart and sympathetic. Just right for the part. He was great to work with.

How long did principal photography last and with the film being shot on a relatively low budget how difficult were the conditions that you were working under?

What I call principal photography – that is, all the dialogue scenes I wrote with the actors and some of the effects stuff that included them – were shot on weekends from the fall of 1980 through early summer of 1981. I don’t know exactly how many months more were taken to shoot effects inserts (and to re-shoot certain scenes!). The conditions were not ideal. For one thing, every time we arrived at the Hildebrandts’ New Jersey house from New York City, the rooms had to be rearranged – the ‘set’ dressed, so to speak. This involved removing a lot of bric-a-brac from walls and surfaces, and then restoring them afterwards – very time-consuming, and since there was no one else to do it – since I had no personal secretary or assistant director – I had to do it myself.

It wasn’t easy to concentrate on the scene to be shot while acting as production designer, set decorator, make-up man, my own assistant, and P.A. (This is not to say that people didn’t pitch in where they could. Ted’s then girlfriend, Kathy, for example, was a terrific general help.) I almost forgot to mention that the script called for rain throughout the entire film until the very end. Fine, except that it never rained that year – not one drop. It was the worst drought to date in New Jersey history, I believe. We used garden hoses when we shot exteriors – and they became illegal to use at a certain point, so we had to dodge the law as well! Also, late in the game, for some of the final scenes, it got extremely hot up in the attic. We shot these overnight to minimize the suffering, but still, without air-conditioning, it was almost intolerable.

How come you were removed from the movie before filming was completed and how did the final cut differ from what you had intended?

Well, I’ve already touched on this, but the short answer is, John Dods – if he will forgive me saying so – really wanted to direct the picture. The short answer, but it does need a bit of an explanation. Suffice it to say that John got so frustrated with my approach to his creature and to the film as a whole, that he engineered my removal without my knowledge – I only learned this in 2003 or 2004. It freed him up to take months more to carefully light and photograph his effects and to re-shoot some early footage. The cinematographers I had worked with on The Deadly Spawn – though very professional – did not have the luxury of time to do set-ups, nor did they have John’s particular skills – he’s a real artist with lighting, in my opinion.

As a result, one of the longest sequences in the film – the basement confrontation between Charles and the mother spawn – is about twice as long as I would have wanted. I think it slows down the film story, even though the effects are marvelous and great fun, and it’s beautifully photographed. Apparently, to make room for this extended sequence and other effects, they decided to eliminate Pete and Ellen’s first love scene (John Dods has confirmed this) – really a flirtation scene that was maybe their best acting work and was important to setting up their kissing scene.

I was stunned by its omission when I saw the final cut at the premiere. I felt their strong emotional connection was necessary to drive Pete to crack up so completely after what happens to her. There were many other minor details and additions I would have written or shot or edited differently. But hey, that’s also true for a lot of the stuff that I did write, shoot, or edit!

The Deadly Spawn has been released under a variety of different names, including Return of the Aliens and Eating Machine. Which of all the titles do you prefer and how did the alternative names originate?

Don’t know how for sure. That was all distribution. I’ve heard that a distributor decided The Deadly Spawn would be more marketable with the word ‘alien’ in the title, and ‘Return of’ would fool at least a percentage of the audience into thinking our film was somehow connected to Ridley Scott’s ground-breaker. So when they released The Deadly Spawn on video later as Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn and also Return of the Aliens’ Deadly Spawn, an unfortunate consequence of these title changes was that people apparently thought they were going to see a sequel not to Alien but to The Deadly Spawn. They were understandable annoyed when what they got was just a truncated version of the same film! Anyway, of course I prefer the original title, The Deadly Spawn.

Were you ever tempted to shoot a sequel and how come you chose not to pursue a filmmaking career?

No I wasn’t tempted to shoot a sequel. And I never chose not to pursue a filmmaking career. I still am a filmmaker, just haven’t yet got another opportunity to work on a feature.

Douglas McKeown

Douglas McKeown

Do you look back fondly on the making of The Deadly Spawn and are you proud of what you managed to achieve?

I’m certainly proud of having made a film so many people like, but I do still have mixed feelings, as you can probably tell. One thing I seldom mention now is my ambivalence at the time I accepted to direct it. See, I always had a dislike for the more gory movies of the horror genre. I believed as Karloff did, that the best horror films were really terror films where the bloody violence is left to the imagination. Nevertheless, once I actually decided to do it, I gave it my all. And I loved every single creative aspect of working on the film, except the severe limitations to our time, and, obviously, the unpleasant parting of the ways with Dods and Bohus.

I did regret not being able to assemble more of the footage myself into a rough cut. I really was the only one who knew how it was to go together, and it hurt to have to abandon so much work to others – and then to have to see it in its final form with so much I had intended end up, well, compromised. I will say I enjoyed meeting the editor, Mark Harwood, at the big screen premiere on Broadway. I thought he’d done a heroic job without the benefit of my shooting script; he told me he never even knew there was a script.

I am proud that some of the sequences I shot so close to the bone – without ‘coverage’ by alternate camera angles, etc. – that they couldn’t be messed with by anybody, and could only be edited exactly as I wanted. And I’m proud of some scenes throughout the film, like the one of Charles being interviewed by Uncle Herb, where the writing and directing have a bit more interest than is usual with this kind of film. But I’m most proud of the two ‘vegetarian luncheon’ scenes – particularly remembering my time limitations, both in the writing and the shooting. I think that whole sequence of the wacky suburban ‘ladies who lunch’ really holds up, flaws and budgetary restrictions notwithstanding. It’s still both funny and disturbing/scary. Exactly what I intended.

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