For over forty years, Tom DeSimone has carved a career our of the B-movie and exploitation film industry. Having first gained acclaim while still at UCLA for his student short Wooden Lullaby, DeSimone began in the industry as a post-production supervisor during the late sixties. His first feature film as a director, Terror in the Jungle, proved to be a disappointing experience but DeSimone soon found work in the adult industry, directing a slew of X-rated pictures including Dust Unto Dust, Catching Up and The Idol under the alias Lancer Brooks.
After the surprise success of his adult comedy Chatterbox, DeSimone’s commercial breakthrough came in 1981 with the gothic slasher Hell Night, which starred The Exorcist‘s Linda Blair. Having previously directed two women-in-prison movies, 1972′s Prison Girls and 1982′s The Concrete Jungle, DeSimone teamed up with B-movie veteran Sybil Danning for 1986′s Reform School Girls, which saw wet-behind-the-ears Linda Carol sent to a tough all-girls reform school run by the sadistic Danning.
Tom DeSimone looks back over twenty years later on the making of his cult exploitation flick.
Reform School Girls was produced by New World Pictures. How involved was the studio with the development of the movie and how was the project first conceived?
I had just finished The Concrete Jungle and was trying to come up with a new project. The idea of a women-in-prison spoof appealed to me so I wrote the script on spec and shopped it around. Two investors were interested and they optioned it and then brought it to New World. The studio wasn’t a problem setting it up but they did get involved during production and post production. My only complaint was that I felt they didn’t promote the film enough after completion.
How inspired were you by the women-in-prison of the seventies, such as The Big Doll House and Black Mama, White Mama, and was it your intention to update that formula for the eighties?
Actually, I was more inspired by a little-known film from the fifties, So Young, So Bad, which was about girls in reform school. That’s where the tag line for my film comes from, SO YOUNG, SO BAD, SO WHAT. I saw the film as a teenager and it just stayed with me for years and when I decided to do RSG it was a big inspiration. That plus other WIP films such as Caged.
Reform School Girls was one of your more sexually explicit commercial movies, how do you feel your background in adult films prepared you for shooting the various nude scenes?
Nude scenes are always more difficult for the actors than me. But it’s always a bit awkward. For that reason I had a mostly all-female crew on set where I could. Female assistant director, female sound, etc. My background in adult films only meant I was aware of what to expect and also made it easier for me to be aware of where to place the camera and how to best handle the actresses, since there were many in the shower scenes.
All of the actresses were well aware that there would be nudity, particularly shower scenes. This was all agreed upon before signing on. If you couldn’t handle being nude on the set, there was no contract. I didn’t want certain girls excluded from being nude out of respect for the ones who were willing. It wouldn’t have been fair, so everyone had to agree to be nude at one point or another.
Having already worked on the X-rated Prison Girls in 1972 and The Concrete Jungle a decade later, how would you say Reform School Girls compares to those earlier films?
Prison Girls was a disaster from the start and I have no good things at all to say about that film. It was an accident that I even ended up directing and I didn’t like anything connected to that project. Concrete Jungle was a bit more professional than the other, but of the three, Reform School Girls is my favourite and by comparison I think it’s the one film that best showcases my talent and is closest to my original vision and sensibilities.
Reform School Girls seemed cut from the same cloth as Danny Steinmann’s 1984 exploitation classic Savage Streets, which featured your brother, Bob DeSimone. Looking back twenty-five years later, how do you feel about those type of films produced during the mid-1980s?
Those films served a purpose back then; unfortunately, there’s no market any longer for these type exploitation pictures. The audience for them, mostly young males, has lost interest in that kind of titillation. Today they prefer super comic book heroes, bigger budgets and big action set-pieces. I guess the internet feeds the other interests now and topless girls on the movie screen seem old and dated.
I was actually hired to direct Savage Streets and that’s how Linda Blair and my brother came onboard. I brought them to the project. However, well into production, the script kept getting re-worked and re-imagined by one of the investors who fancied himself a writer. It soon became clear to me that the picture was heading off in a different direction than where we began and I was unhappy with where it ended up. Frustrated over all the changes I felt were bad, I walked from the project and that’s where Danny came in.
Having already worked with Linda Blair on Hell Night, who later starred in Chained Heat in 1983, did you consider approaching her for a role in Reform School Girls?
I did offer her the role of the social worker in Reform School Girls but she was at a point where she didn’t want to do any more exploitation films for a while. Even though she wouldn’t have been a victim in Reform School Girls, something she was tired of playing, she didn’t think she could bring much to the project.
Another veteran of Chained Heat was Sybil Danning, who was becoming something of a B-movie regular at the time. How did you come to cast her in role of Warden Sutter?
New World kept insisting they wanted her in the film and were pushing me to give her the role of Edna, the Pat Ast role. I was very insistant that there was no way she could play that role but they wanted her in the film because they said her name on the video box would sell tapes. We fought and fought over this issue and eventually I decided to change one of the characters, Warden Sutter, to a woman’s role. I pitched the idea to them and they were satisfied, as long as she was in the film.
I knew Pat from NY and always thought she’d be an interesting person on film. There was no way I was going to give up her Edna to Sybil. Sybil was fine in her role but I never sensed that she could have handled the satire or spoof it up enough. Letting her play it straight was actually funnier in the context than if we tried to make her go for laughs. Seeing her so serious with all the chaos around her is what makes her character work better.