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Interview with Harry Bromley-Davenport (Xtro)

Although they had enjoyed considerable success during the 1970s as the distributor of such cult flicks as Reefer Madness and Pink Flamingos, New Line Cinema eventually turned to production in 1982 with the stylish thriller Alone in the Dark. Their second feature was a low budget British horror called Xtro, which had been developed by independent filmmaker Harry Bromley-Davenport and writer Michel Parry, previously known as an editor of fantasy anthologies. Although the basic premise saw a man abducted, only to return to his family three years later as something far sinister, the movie was noted for some truly bizarre set pieces and gruesome special effects.

Two loose sequels would eventually follow; 1990′s Xtro II: The Second Encounter and 1995′s Xtro 3: Watch the Skies, the latter of which would be scripted by Daryl Haney, known to horror fans for his work on Paramount’s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood almost a decade earlier. Last year, Bromley-Davenport informed Fangoria that a fourth movie was in the works; ‘I am going to be starting Xtro 4 this summer; you are the first to receive this shattering news…A script by Daryl Haney is in the works, and my sales guys are salivating. It’s going to be a very odd movie indeed. Sort of back to the roots of the first one, but much stranger and, hopefully, more uncomfortable.’

Harry Bromley Davenport reveals the status of Xtro 4 and his thoughts on the franchise.

It has been over fifteen years since you produced the last Xtro sequel; why have you decided to return to the franchise?

I have been repeatedly asked to do another Xtro film by distributors and viewers alike. The general suggestion is that we ought to get back to the atmosphere of the original movie.

How difficult has it been to attract interest in such an unusual project or does the Xtro brand carry enough recognition that investors and producers are interested in hearing your pitch?

Since I moved to Los Angeles over twenty years ago, I have largely produced and directed films of my own choosing. That means that I have to engage a writer, do the casting, find the locations, raise the cash and generally put the movie together myself. And if financiers don’t want to come along for the ride, I go ahead anyway finding the money by fair or foul means. It’s risky. Very risky. And the key to the whole game is to establish good relationships with film distributors. To them, film is a commodity.

Once I have finished it, I show it. They get no input beforehand. That’s because they always want a happy ending, or for it to be about a group of teens stranded in a remote location or to make me employ their horrible children as actors. Either that, or they say: ‘Here’s a great idea…why don’t you set the whole story in a supermarket?’ or something equally fatuous.’

With Michel Parry having written the original script, did you ever discuss collaborating together again on the subsequent sequels and how did you come to work with Daryl Haney?

Michel, who is an accomplished writer, does not live in L.A., and for me to mete out sufficient psychic trauma on the writer, I need the victim to live here where I can maximise the misery I inflict. I am also very fond of Michel and would not wish to subject him to my hideous method of work. I met Daryl Haney through a remote connection with Roger Corman when we were putting together the third Xtro. Daryl talks a lot and has a fresh idea every thirteen seconds, which means that I don’t really have to do any work.

Our method is to spend several months having lunch at Taix Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, where he expounds and I take notes. After sufficient money has been spent on these three-hour lunch marathons, Daryl disappears for a few weeks and then sends me a first draft screenplay which has no connection with anything we have previously discussed. But we have managed to actually make seven movies together and that probably means something – perhaps what idiots we both are.

New Line Cinema are known for exploiting their products as much as possible, yet they chose not to take part in the sequels. Why was that?

Because I own the rights to the title Xtro and they do not. But I do not own the rights to the original story. This is caused by some quirk of the original production contracts. Strangely enough, they did call me a couple of years ago to discuss doing a ‘re-boot’, but Bob Shaye, the CEO of New Line, who co-produced the original film along with Mark Forstater, had been shown the ejector seat button and I didn’t care to deal with anyone there but Bob. He’s a wacky individual who is far more cultured than most film executives.

However, Bob was in a bad mood for the entire shooting period of Xtro and that somewhat curtailed his desire to be nice to me. He was in ‘I-am-the-dark-demon-boss-Bob’ mode for some inexplicable reason. But he sure as hell promoted the shit out of the film in the States and for that I am grateful, although it is a mixed blessing to be associated with a film that, at the time, was considered somewhat shocking.

So far there have been three separate scripts written for Xtro 4; can you reveal details on any of these and what is the main obstacle you have faced in developing this project?

Daryl has written three complete scripts for the fourth edition – maybe more – I can’t recall. The obstacle is me. There has always been a more tantalising project to film which has taken precedence and it is only now that we are serious about it. I am hoping that there is a geriatric fan base that will support the new effort.

The surreal tone of the original movie seemed largely absent with the sequels; were you under pressure to produce something more formulaic and do you intend on returning to this kind of style for the next film?

We are definitely returning to what you call the ‘surreal tone’. But that’s difficult to pull off and not drive the viewer to throw bricks through the screen. The danger is that, if one goes the surreal route, one risks losing the viewers’ attention. The first film was indeed somewhat surreal because we had not yet had our brains fried by the conventions of film storytelling and that naiveté allowed us to go bonkers.

How did you come to include so many bizarre ideas in the first film and do you feel that you are still able to conjure up so many nightmarish concepts?

I’m immensely pleased that you find it nightmarish. Good. I think we were young, inexperienced and foolish and didn’t know what we were doing, and this liberated whatever bizarre and unpleasant ideas were knocking around the crocodile part of our brains. One of the more outlandish and unexplained moments in Xtro occurs when a black panther appears out of nowhere and kills a cast member. That was Bob Shaye’s idea. It was he who wanted the film to be ‘off-the-wall’ – that was his term for it.

In his review of Xtro, film critic Roger Ebert described it as ‘a completely depressing, nihilistic film, an exercise in sadness.’ How does this make you feel and would you say this is in any way accurate?

I’ve seen that review on YouTube. And Siskel and Ebert look like a couple of nannies telling their children not to go near the swamp. It’s a statement of enormous self-importance. It is cruel too – designed to make him sound like the saviour of mankind. I refute that observation. I find that real critics – not ‘reviewers’ like fat Ebert – take tenable positions about the films I have directed when they don’t like them. This dope just aimed at an easy target – a low budget independent exploitation film – and let rip.

I would like to remind your readers that the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls flowed from the pen of Mr. Ebert. I’m glad that I didn’t see that Xtro review until recently. Had I seen it when I was younger, it would have cut me to the quick. I hope that he gets eaten alive by an army of big black spiders.

You once described the first movie as ‘an extraordinary mess.’ Its surreal and almost Avant-garde approach to narrative at times makes it feel close in tone to another cult classic, Phantasm. How do you feel thirty years later about how successfully all these elements came together?

I am astonished that Xtro has been available for nearly thirty years and is regularly reissued. We were just kids trying to shock people. I was disappointed in the end result – and still am – because I don’t think that I did well personally. It is a mess. But, at the time, I would have sucked Charlie Manson’s dick for a shot at directing a movie. Perhaps if it had been more logically thought-out it might not have been as successful or have lasted as long as it has. I don’t like any of the ‘toys-come-to-life’ stuff because, even at the time, that was corny.

However, I did see it again from start to finish about five years ago and I was struck by the fact that we got away with all that weirdness and that it was a theatrical release of some success. I’d like to remake the original, but I think that any filmmaker with a degree of humility wants to tear the film down off the projector and re-do their work.

You have also stated that most of the more shocking aspects came together during meetings, where a group of you would suggest the most outrageous ideas you could imagine. With this in mind, would you say that Xtro works well as an actual story or is it more a collection of set pieces?

The answer lies within your question. It is indeed a collection of set pieces and I was aware of that. Who cares? Is it fun? Does it hold your attention? It’s not high art. It’s an exploitation film and therefore has to have ‘bumps’ in every reel.

Xtro came under fire in the United Kingdom during the 1980s due to several graphic sequences; most notably the pregnancy scene. Were you shocked at this reaction and do you feel the censors overreacted?

I was greatly surprised – and pleased. When the film came under the scrutiny of the censorship brigade, sales roared. I wish I could get that kind of attention today. Now it’s impossible to shock people. We’ve seen everything.

The first film mainly focused on abandonment issues, both of the child losing his father and the man losing both his family and his own identity. Was this something you intended on exploring in the next film?

Wow! Abandonment? I guess so. I never thought of that. You’re right. Maybe I should ask Daryl to do yet another re-write of the current script to emphasise this abandonment issue. Does that ring true for you? Now that you force me to think about it, you may have tapped into something that helped the film to hold the viewer’s attention. Wow! Don’t ask perceptive questions like that.

Xtro

Xtro

Do you intend on utilising the same kind of practical effects that made the original so notorious or do you think the concept would work better with CGI?

We’ll have a mix of on-set practical effects and digital stuff, although I’m a complete convert to digital movie-making because it allows such freedom. But there’s still something to be said for having the real thing present on the set so that the actors are not forced to react to some dopey assistant holding up a card that says ‘monster.’

It seems inevitable that every cult movie is eventually remade; has this ever been discussed with Xtro or would you rather continue the series with further sequels?

I was approached by New Line, which owns the original story – but I would rather shoot another sequel far from the interfering hands of the conventional Hollywood executive phone-monkeys. The fun part about having directed a movie which was, at the time, infamous, is that I frequently receive emails from people all over the world which tell me of how they first saw it when they were kids and how it terrified them. Or else it was a film which they couldn’t shake off.

Cool stuff like that. It makes life worth living, you know? Watch out! I will return with something far more disturbing in the next edition. I send loads of love to all fans of the bizarre and outrageous. Now please go away and let me prepare dinner for my dogs before they eat me alive.

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