Interview with Richard W. Haines (Class of Nuke ‘Em High)

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After graduating from the New York Univerity in the late 1970s, Richard W. Haines was taken under the wing of the legendary independent studio Troma, where he worked as an editor on such cult classics as The Toxic Avenger, before making his directorial debut with the low budget slasher flick Splatter University. Produced independently but distributed by Troma, the company’s own Lloyd Kaufman was impressed by the picture and offered Haines the chance to direct. Adapting his script Atomic High, Haines and Kaufman collaborated together on what would become Class of Nuke ‘Em High.

Riding high on the success of The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High became one of the studio’s most infamous titles but Haines decided to focus on projects away from the company, developing a science fiction flick called Space Avenger. Since its release, Haines has worked in various genres and has remained dedicated to preserving the original film negatives of each of his movies.

Richard W. Haines reminisces over thirty years of filmmaking.

How did your time at NYU influence your taste and techniques towards film and what kind of work did you produce whilst you studied there?

The two teachers that influenced me while I attended NYU from 1975 to 1979 were William K. Everson and Leonard Maltin. Maltin was teaching at another university but I was able to take a comedy course with him for credit which was held at the Museum of Modern Art. He showed an original 35mm nitrate print of W.C. Field’s You’re Telling Me which looked spectacular. Everson illustrated the difference between dye transfer Technicolor and Eastmancolor which had an impact on me years later when I made Space Avenger in the process.

I made a few student films at NYU in 16mm which I still have. I’m an archivist and have all the elements of my movies – negatives, stereo tracks, out-takes and pre-mix tracks – in my own temperature controlled vault which is pretty rare since most filmmakers don’t become involved with the preservation of their work. One of my student films starred Dan Grimaldi, later of The Sopranos. It was valuable in that I learned how to edit, negative match and mix in the 16mm format which is what I shot Splatter University in. The Maltin link turned out be benefitial when he interviewed me on Entertainment Tonight regarding my Technicolor film.

Upon graduating, how much of a struggle was it to find a way into the industry and what led to your involvement with Mother’s Day and your introduction to the world of Troma?

Actually I lucked out. There was a notice posted on the board at NYU regarding Mother’s Day. They were looking for crew members so I called them up and got an interview with Charles Kaufman. I went into Kaufman’s office and discussed films in general and horror movies in particular of which I was an afficanodo of. I think I told him I did a comparison report of Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls noting that the two directors came from a similar industrial background and their features ended up being companion pieces and very influential. Charles seemed impressed with my knowledge but told me I didn’t fit any parts in his proposed movie.

I told him I wasn’t there as an actor but was looking for crew work. He sent me over to Dan Lowenthal who was the editor and he hired me on the spot. I ended up the sound editor of the film because no one else knew how to do it. That’s where my NYU student films came in handy since I had done everything on them.

I did meet two other people from that shoot that I worked with on Space Avenger years later. Ray Sundlin was the executive producer on Mother’s Day and became the co-producer of my picture and Michael McCleery was one of the actors that I used as a lead. Michael Kravitz was the producer and by strange coincidence, he happened to be walking down the street in NYC while I was shooting What Really Frightens You. He recognised me and was impressed that I had directed eight feature films since I worked for him back in 1979-1980. He had left the business in the interim like most people I encountered in the eighties.

Having worked as an editor on the likes of The Toxic Avenger, how did you land your first chance to direct?

Charles Kaufman sent me over his brother, Lloyd, after Mother’s Day and I edited a number of Troma sexploitation and exploitation films including The First Turn On and The Toxic Avenger. I didn’t land my first directing job, I created it. I took a break from editing Troma movies to shoot my first feature, Splatter University in 1982 independently, four years before I edited The Toxic Avenger. We filmed it in 16mm and then had it blown up to 35mm for release as many movies did back then, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Due to our limited funds and the fact I continued to edit other people’s movies I didn’t finish Splatter until 1983. Troma offered to distribute it for me but I put a time limit on the contract. It did very well financially and then the rights returned to me and I continue to market it. I sold it to Elite Entertainment a while ago for DVD release although it was distributed on VHS by Vestron Video back in the eighties. Troma had nothing to do with the actual production of Splatter but because it was profitable for them it’s sometimes mistaken for one of their in-house movies.

By 1984, the slasher genre had all but run its course. What new ideas and themes were you hoping to bring to the formula with Splatter University?

Actually it hadn’t entirely run its course although I was on the tail end of the cycle. I tried to bring some religious satire to the genre along with black humor. Remember this was my first movie as a director and the primary goal was to complete the film within the budget and then get it released. I had to cut a lot of corners to do that which is why it doesn’t have the production value of my later movies which were all 35mm and look quite good in comparison despite the limited funds. As I got more experienced I learned how to stretch the budget to make it look like it cost more than it did but not on my first attempt. I was only twenty-three years old when I shot Splatter.

Why do you feel the Troma approach to filmmaking (toilet humour, slapstick violence and over the top nudity and gore) has appealed to such a wide audience and what was it like to work in this kind of environment?

I have no idea. I only worked at Troma from 1980 to 1986 so I’m not familiar with any of their movies, since I formed my own production/distribution company in 1987.

How did you come to write and direct Class of Nuke ‘Em High with Lloyd Kaufman, and where did the initial idea come from?

I wrote an original screenplay entitled, Atomic High. I lived near the Indian Point nuclear power plant which was always having minor accidents which I used as an inspiration. I was going to make it independently with John Michaels who co-produced Splatter University. Then Troma offered to finance and market it as a collaboration. I agreed but it turned out to be a mistake from my perspective although the movie was profitable and has a cult following. I decided never to do a ‘work for hire’ again and retained complete creative control in all future productions. I consider my first two movies ‘warm ups’ for my actual career which begins with Space Avenger in 1988, the first ‘Richard W. Haines Film’ in terms of the themes I like to explore and my style.

Would you say there is ever any kind of political or social subtexts in Troma films or are the use of toxic chemicals simply an excuse to make an outrageous splatter flick?

You’ll have to ask the people at Troma for any further information about them. I worked for them twenty-three years ago as an editor and one time director while developing my own properties outside of their place.

How come you chose to leave Troma after making Class of Nuke ‘Em High and how daunting was it to once again enter the film industry on your own? What kind of effect did your work with Troma have on the rest of your career?

I always planned on having my own production/distribution company. My second independent production, Space Avenger, had already been started while I was finishing the editing on Nuke ‘Em High so I had my next project underway when I finished the Troma movie and then moved on to work with Ray Sundlin and Bob Harris as co-producers. Harris was restoring Lawrence of Arabia at the same time he worked on my third feature film.

How would you compare directing your Troma films to Space Avenger, your first effort away from the studio? How much of a challenge was it to make a science fiction-orientated movie and were you pleased with the result?

As I said Space Avenger was my second movie as an indie writer/producer/director with Splatter University my first. I had complete autonomy on it and retained creative control on all subsequent features. The challenging part of Space Avenger was getting it printed in real three strip Technicolor. I had contacted the Beijing Film Lab and they agreed to fly me out there with the 35mm color negative to make 10 dye transfer prints. They looked great with rich and vivid primary colors which also suited the comic book story I was depicting.

When I researched how to shoot a Technicolor movie I ended up meeting many of the technicians who used to work at that place as well as compiling information about the process itself from the Chinese lab. I had so much material I decided to write an article about it which was published in The Perfect Vision magazine. I did a follow up article on restoration in a later issue. Then I took these published articles to McFarland and Company and proposed expanding them into a book and they gave the go ahead.

The end results were Technicolor Movies and The Moviegoing Experience 1968-2001. I received excellent notices for both books and Technicolor Movies is on it’s second print run and that’s how I became film historian. It was all derived from my research and experiences with Space Avenger. In addition, Space Avenger was the first part of my ‘life imitates art’ trilogy. The other two were Unsavory Characters and What Really Frightens You. Although linked thematically each is photographed in a unique style. In the case of Space Avenger, we tried to replicate the colors of a comic book in real Glorious Technicolor.

In Unsavory Characters we photographed portions of it in black and white simulating the film noir look of the forties. In What Really Frightens You we shot the hallucination/fantasy scenes to resemble a Hammer thriller of the sixties. Space Avenger chronicles the story of a comic book artist who discovers his fictional alien terrorists are real. In Unsavory Characters a pulp fiction author picks up a femme fatale and uses his real life experiences to finish his novel. In What Really Frightens You, a horror fanzine writer asks the title question to a group of New Yorkers and after it’s published their primal fears come true. Life imitates art.

Was shooting Run for Cover in 3D a satisfying experience and is this a technique you would wish to use again in the future?

I like technical challenges, especially when working on low budgets so the idea of filming a 3D movie under these circumstances appealed to me. It did a lot of research and tests to get a handle on the technique. Aside from compositions that show off the depth and devising off screen effects, the key is to use a lot of light and shoot at high f. stops (f. 11 indoors) to generate a sharp depth of field between foreground and background. We used the above/under 35mm StereoVision process and lenses that Jaws 3D was filmed in. It was a lot of fun but I’m not interested in making another dimensional picture. I want new challenges.

What can you reveal regarding your latest project, What Really Frightens You? How did this come about and what kind of reaction has the movie received from audiences and critics?

I enjoyed the monster fanzines of the sixties which I read as an adolescent. Famous Monster of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein were my favourites. So I used them as inspirations for the premise which I described above. What were people’s primal fears and what would happen if they had to confront them. Although we utilised a lot of special effects including latex monsters the story is basically a psychological thriller. I prefer character driven horror films and don’t like movies where strangers get randomly killed. It’s better when the audience identifies with the protagonists and have some emotional connection with them so when they are put into danger, they feel the horror on a subjective rather than objective level. I’m very proud of our visual and audio sound design of this film. For the ‘real’ part of the story we shot in a conventional manner in 35mm with front only stereo.

Richard W. Haines
Richard W. Haines
For the hallucination/fantasy scenes we did a lighting change to simulate a gothic horror film and expanded the sound field into the surrounds with a subwoofer kick. So the audience gets a visual and audio cue something terrifying is about to happen. Tom Agnello was the cinematographer and he did a great job creating the stylish lighting design on the film. The F/X artist was Brian Spears who created the latex monster make up effects. We even found a real Gothic Castle to shoot in for our climax. It’s called Wing’s Castle in Millbrook, New York. We’re currently making the festival rounds and played the New Jersey International Film Festival and BUT Film Festival in the Netherlands last week with tremendous audience response. I have the sequel ready to go into production once this movie is released on DVD.

Our high definition digital master was derived directly from the 35mm camera negative and looks great. I am definately a filmmaker that insists on shooting in 35mm which generates a more permenent medium for archival storage than any current video format. As they keep upgrading the machines and formats I can continue to re-transfer my film in whatever new system they create. For example 4K was considered state of the art but they recently transferred The Wizard of Oz at 8K. Anyone who shoots in a digital format will be stuck with that pixel count of the moment and of course nothing digital is considered archival for the long term. The data degrades. Modern low fade 35mm negative can last upwards of seventy-five to a hundred years in good storage which is important to me.

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