It’s my pleasure and honor to have Director Steve Latshaw as my guest today, talking about his latest movie “Return of the Killer Shrews” and other fascinating topics! “Shrews” has its world premiere this week, as a major fund raising event for a worthy cause - Speedway Children’s Charities.
Not too long ago I wrote a blog post on my favorite old science fiction movies, one of which was the original “Attack of the Killer Shrews.” Turned out to be one of Steve’s favorite movies as well. We exchanged e mails about the movie and I was very excited to hear he had just finished directing the sequel, with James Best returning to star again in the role of Thorne Sherman, which he originated 50 years ago! The movie also stars John Schneider and Bruce Davison.
Steve was kind enough to do an interview for my blog on his many experiences with the magic of movie making and “Return of the Killer Shrews” in particular. So welcome, Steve, and let’s proceed with the interview!
Please tell us a little about your background in film making.
I made my first Super 8mm movie at the age of 8… a documentary about making plaster art. Made home movies into teen years… was obsessed with old flicks… serials, monster movies, westerns. Anything made by Republic Pictures. Plus schlock sci fi like THE SLIME PEOPLE, ROBOT MONSTER, DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER, etc. Dreamed of one day living in Hollywood.
1972: Saw a horror film about killer snakes called STANLEY at the Decatur, Illinois Lincoln theater. Read an article about the picture and its director, William Grefe. Turns out it was shot in Florida. So immediately got the idea to go to Florida and start making low budget horror movies… and that would be my route to Hollywood.
1988: Move to Orlando, FL. Worked as entertainment reporter for local TV station, doing documentaries and news stories about Florida moviemaking and moviemakers. Met, became friends with William Grefe, director of STANLEY. He mentored me. I was introduced to prolific, genius genre film king Fred Olen Ray, who started his career in Florida. He also knew Bill. I made a low budget horror film in Orlando with my writing partner Pat Moran called VAMPIRE TRAILER PARK. Bill talked me up with Fred… Fred was impressed enough to finance some low budget movies for us with real stars, and on film – and we were off!
Between 1993-1995 we cranked out DARK UNIVERSE, starring Joe Estevez, a huge hit for Curb Entertainment (We made it for $40,000 – it took in over $400,000 in world wide sales)… shot that one in ten days. More monster stuff followed for Fred… BIOHAZARD 2 aka BIOHAZARD THE ALIEN FORCE, starring Chris Mitchum. Big hit for Trimark. JACK-O – big hit for Royal Oaks… featured for an entire hour of the Phil Donohue show (scream queen contest – winner got to be in our movie). JACKO starred Linnea Quigley plus the late John Carradine and the late Cameron Mitchell. Producer Fred Ray had leftover footage of them and we gleefully put it in our film, using doubles to cover. To this day, JACK-O is a big cult hit. We put out a 10th Anniversary DVD in 2005. An indy movie followed… the little seen DEATH MASK, starring and written by my dear friend James Best.
In 1995 moved to Hollywood… fell into screenwriting after this successful run as director. Got known for family films after INVISIBLE DAD (1996). Got known for military action and disaster movies after SCORPIO ONE (1997). 40 movies later, here I am, thanks to William Grefe, James Best, Producer Andrew Stevens and, especially, Fred Olen Ray. And a lot of help from co-conspirator Pat Moran.
When did you first see “Killer Shrews” and what did you like best about the original movie?
Tight. Compact. Full of action. Suspense. Dark and scary. James Best. Saw it first on video cassette back around 1988.
What drew you so powerfully to the idea of making a sequel?
James Best, James Best and James Best. I wanted to bring him back as Thorne Sherman. I met him in Florida after the DUKES OF HAZZARD had finished its run. He had a big acting school in Florida. I did a news story on him and saw a lobby card for Shrews on the wall of his office. Gotta do a sequel. For the first five years he laughed at the idea. For the next fifteen we worked on various scripts. I only wanted to do the film if Jimmie played Thorne again. Otherwise, for me, there was no point.
I understand it’s been quite a journey from concept to finished film. How did you persuade Mr. Best to reprise his role as Thorne Sherman?
See above. He was always willing if it was a good script.
The cast has a number of amazing actors – Bruce Davison, John Schneider to name a few. Were they fans of the original? I heard Bruce’s remarks on the website about the interesting challenge of acting with cgi – was that what drew him to the project?
John agreed to do the film because of his friendship with James Best. But when he hit the set he realized the bar was pretty high in terms of acting and comedy… and he turned in an amazing performance. You’ve never seen John like this… funny, intense, imitating cultural icons, amazing. It’s like that moment when the first AIRPLANE came out and we all suddenly realized that great character actor Leslie Nielsen also happened to be a comedy genius. Bruce Davison loved the script. He agreed to do it as soon as he read it. Bruce told me he liked the fact that all the other characters do the set up and he delivers the punch lines. He insisted on doing a number of WILLARD references in the film, among them the iconic line “Tear ‘Em Up!”
I noticed quite a few ties to the “Dukes of Hazzard,” in the cast, one way and another – will movie goers see some hidden references to “Dukes” perhaps?
Hidden and not so hidden. We also have Rick Hurst, who starred as Cousin Cletus on the Dukes… there are plenty of delightful references for Dukes fans.
What was the major challenge you encountered in making the sequel?
Convincing the world it was ready for a sequel. Now they’re convinced!
The original had an underlying message about overpopulation – does the sequel hold any “message” or is it pure adventure?
Adventure, horror, comedy. And one of my favorite movie themes. You’re never too old to kick some serious monster ass.
Any humorous anecdotes you can share from the Making of Return of the Killer Shrews?
Too many to count. It was the happiest set I’ve ever been on. Jimmie (Best) and actor David Browning, who do a lot of personal appearances together (David, a talent actor, is also known world wide as “The Mayberry Sheriff” – doing a faultless Don Knotts imitation at various Andy Griffith Show conventions). Jimmie and David would do classic comedy routines spanning everyone from Laurel and Hardy to the Johnny Carson show. Jimmie would also be doing his Jimmy Stewart and W.C. Fields imitations (I am almost as good as he is on that one)… periodically we’d have to cut down the laughter so we could shoot. Jimmie would also tell great stories about the old days in Hollywood. There was a very emotional day at Bronson Canyon. James Arness had just died. He’d been a friend of Jimmie’s; Jimmie had done many GUNSMOKE episodes. So there Jimmie was, at Bronson canyon, where he’d filmed so many westerns (and it looks the same). I think that was a tough emotional moment. Shooting –wise, we had seasoned crew members running away from the set in tears from laughing so hard during the “goat” scene… probably the funniest scene in the movie, thanks to our comic genius Chris Goodman and a wonderful deadpan performance from young Sean Flynn. Working with Sean was a delight. He’s the grandson of the great Errol Flynn and a talented comic actor on his own. He’d spent four years as the teen idol star of Nickelodeon’s ZOEY 101… ours was his first “adult” role. For me, I’d been a surf music fan since the 1970s. I got the opportunity to work and record with Dean Torrence of JAN & DEAN on some songs for our soundtrack. Bruce Davison had actually played Dean on screen in a 1978 CBS TV movie about Jan & Dean called DEADMAN’S CURVE. So I had a fun afternoon listening to Bruce singing Surf City and Barbara Ann. Later, in the fall, we were able to reunite Dean with Bruce in the recording session (“The Two Deans!”) so that was a thrill… which we have immortalized in the closing credits of our movie.
Will we learn what happened to the character of Ann Craigis from the original movie?
Yes. Her character motivates a major plot point.
(VS sez: Good! I liked her character in the original, glad we’ll find out what happened to her!)
Toward the end of ”Killer Shrews” Dr. Craigus explains to Thorne that by the next morning only the largest shrew will be left on the island and it will die of hunger. How does the sequel get around this point? (Or do we have to see the movie to find out!)
We got around this by conveniently ignoring any scientific or plot points in the original film that did not gel with what we had in mind for the sequel. Look at the Universal horror films of the 40s… they do the same thing. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN… movie ends with the monster sinking in a bog with Boris Karloff. HOUSE OF DRACULA (sequel) begins with monster being found in a cave near the edge of the ocean. THE MUMMY’S GHOST ends with Kharis the Mummy dying somewhere in New England. THE MUMMY’S CURSE finds him waking up in the swamps of Louisiana. In all seriousness, though, we stuck as closely to the original film as possible. It’s a good solid retro sequel to the original, with a visual style we described as “1965: SECOND SEASON MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” The original film was in B&W and dark and grungy, which added to the appeal. Because ours is a bit lighter, a genre blend ala SHAWN OF THE DEAD (with horror and comedy), we went the opposite way, as if this was a brightly lit, garishly colored A.I.P. Euro backlot jungle epic ala 1965, in Pathecolor and TechniScope.
What is your favorite aspect of directing a movie, versus being the scriptwriter? Do you prefer one role over the other?
Moviemaking is the director’s palette. He calls the shots. It’s his movie, win or lose. Writing a movie is like drawing a blueprint of a sculpture, then handing the blueprint to someone else who actually uses their hands to make it. Having said that, Jimmie, Pat (Moran) and I spent lots of time re-writing on the set. Our actors were so good and adding so much we kept adding scenes, refining scenes, etc.
As a director, how do you work with the actors? Do you let them explore their characters pretty freely or do you give detailed notes and direction?
I give them a certain amount of detail… enough to build a character from. Sometimes they might not use it. The best situation is when an actor comes in with a good idea for the character. We had written the character of the director (Willard) a certain way… but Chris Goodman came in with something that was completely differently, yet brilliant and incredibly funny. The second half of the film is much more serious and with this tone change I had to push Chris in a different, more serious direction. He handled the transition beautifully. With really good actors, you don’t have to say much. Just be prepared to answer their questions intelligently and usefully if they have them.
If you could tell ANY story on film, rights, budget and stars being no object, what would that be? What’s your all time favorite movie monster and why?
I have a number of projects I’d like to do. Books I’d like to make, etc. I like to keep them to myself. RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS was a movie I’ve wanted to direct since 1989, after first meeting James Best. I still get a thrill when I think to myself that we actually got it made. I love showbiz biographies and am currently circulating an original screenplay about Al Jolson’s 1950 trip to entertain troops in Korea. I don’t have a favorite sci fi film… I have eras… for me, 1951 to about 1962 is my favorite period. However, I have a few guilty pleasures I always return to… THE SLIME PEOPLE… NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST… ROBOT MONSTER… FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS (A Republic serial – if anyone can find me the feature version of this one, called “MISSILE MONSTERS” – I’ll be eternally grateful)… GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN… WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST… RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON… INVISIBLE INVADERS… BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS… HIDEOUS SUN DEMON… ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS… NOT OF THIS EARTH…. IT CONQUERED THE WORLD… MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND… ASTRO ZOMBIES… and all the early 1980s Fred Ray classics like BIOHAZARD, THE TOMB, PHANTOM EMPIRE, WARLORDS, ALIENATOR, HAUNTING FEAR, BAD GIRLS FROM MARS, STAR SLAMMER, SCALPS, etc.
(VS sez: You’re listing a lot of MY favorites above as well!)
What’s your favorite science fiction book or series?
Original Star Trek series and movies. Even GENERATIONS. Heinlein’s FUTURE HISTORY stories. TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. But my biggest influences are adventure fiction writers (novelists). Alistair MacLean (GUNS OF NAVARONE, WHERE EAGLES DARE, ICE STATION ZEBRA) probably has had the biggest effect on my writing, in terms of stories and characters. And Ian Fleming, in terms of how, and when and how much I write. I’ve been reading and re-reading his James Bond books since 1969. A great travel and historical writer… his novels are now picture perfect looks at the bad old world of the 1950s and 1960s.
When can we expect to see “Return of the Killer Shrews” released?
We’re doing festivals right now and benefit screenings. I’d like to see it out soon.
Besides this movie, which of your other projects is your most favorite and why?
BIOHAZARD THE ALIEN FORCE because of the wonderful memories of Florida, our cast and crew, and the fact that we broke all the rules and made an action-packed sci fi adventure with 28 speaking parts, 50 locations, car chases, helicopter battles, running and jumping fights, more car chases at Universal studios, exploding lab complexes and Chris Mitchum. And all for about $50,000.
COMMAND PEFORMANCE (2009) because it was a wonderful, fun collaboration with co-writer/director/star Dolph Lundgren. Dolph and I set out to make a fun, 90s retro action piece, with tongues firmly in cheek. And we did it. Set in Moscow, Dolph plays a formerly violent ex-biker turned rock and roll drummer for a metal band in Russia. He’s opening for a Brittany Houston type. Fun stuff… we had one of the Pussycat Girls as the singer. Not surprisingly, it was a major ingredient in Dolph’s recent career surge. And I got to work with Dolph, who’s a hell of a nice guy and a fine filmmaker, heading rapidly for Clint Eastwood status as he directs more and more of his own stuff. It has one of my favorite lines… “Dying is easy… rock &roll is hard…”
What’s the next creative project for you?
Next up is a balls-to-the-wall horror western called COWBOYS & ZOMBIES. Leone meets Romero. Writing this with Pat Moran and Steve Spear. Spear is an up and coming writer/producer you’ll be hearing a lot more from in the near future. The project was his concept; we are collaborating with him on characters, story, settings, everything. It’s got homages to everything from RIO BRAVO to the MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, DJANGO, GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, THE BIG GUNDOWN and DAWN OF THE DEAD. This has actually been in play for a while. Some would suggest comparisons to COWBOYS AND ALIENS but our films are distinctively different. There’s was a western that happened to have aliens in it… something that hurt the film with present day audiences (though I loved it, as a western buff). Ours is a flat out, rapid fire zombie movie that happens to take place in the old west. I think it’s what you want to see with a title like that.
Do you have a question you’d like to ask the Readers today?
What movies haven’t you seen that you’d like to see? What do you like and dislike about today’s movies?
Thank you so much for being my guest today – I can’t WAIT to see the movie!