Thursday, May 15, 2014

Richard Griffin And The Art Of Staying True To Yourself

Actors Michael Reed, left, and Elyssa Baldassarri with Richard Griffin on the set of "Normal."

By Lars Trodson

Back in 2005, Quentin Tarantino decided he'd make a B-movie with a big budget. He called it "Grindhouse," and it was supposedly an homage to all those drive-in flicks of the 60s and 70s that were made by slightly unhinged characters who had a camera, a little cash and a lot of chutzpah. "Grindhouse" didn't do so well, in part, I suspect, because it didn't feel authentic. It had movie stars (Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell, among others) and, despite the fact that there was considerable effort to make the celluloid look distressed, it never even remotely felt as though the film had been made by outsiders. It was Hollywood all the way.

Even the films that seemingly fit the bill of an old grindhouse picture — such as the first "Hostel" movie by Eli Roth, or some of the other torture porn pictures — all had the patina of having been made by college- or film-school educated pranksters who were looking to get their break into the big show. This was a departure from real grindhouse roots. The old school pioneers of the grindhouse — whether it was Russ Meyer or Herschel Gordon Lewis — never had any real desire to move into the mainstream. They wanted to make movies their own way, which, in the end, is the purest form of integrity there is.

Welcome, then, to the world of Richard Griffin, co-founder of Scorpio Films Releasing, and a man who is proudly on the outside, doing it his way, and with no real desire to get asked to the Hollywood dance.

Now, before you get all excited and begin to believe that maybe the reason Griffin wants to stay on the outside is that he has no chance of actually getting in. After all, isn't he the director of such movies as "Atomic Brain Invasion," "The Disco Exorcist," "Exhumed," and "Nun of That?" Aren't these films full of nudity, out-of-nowhere musical numbers, foul language and gratuitous violence? Aren't they made for, like, what? — $7,000?

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

But I am going to tell you that Richard Griffin is by far one of the most exciting, talented, creative and — yes — good-natured artists working in movies today. His films, made on microbudgets, have all the earmarks of an independent work.

But despite all that — oh, fuck it — because of that, Griffin's films are dazzling. They're made with real integrity and care. They move — the editing is absolutely rhythmically perfect in film after film. The plots keep pumping along and in almost every picture there is something to both surprise and delight you. When you realize just how small his budgets are, the slightly superior feeling you might have had at the beginning of the film begins to evaporate and then a slight feeling of appreciation starts to emerge that will then border on envy when the picture is over. How the hell does he do it? And keep doing it, in picture after picture, year after year?

I caught up with Griffin right before the premiere of his latest film, "Future Justice." We share some common ground. He lives in Pawtucket, and I grew up in nearby East Providence. We talked about the movie theaters of your youth, which included the Darlton, in Pawtucket, and the Four Seasons, which was the local first run theater located next to the old Narragansett Race Track. The Darlton was, as we remembered, slightly disreputable. (I remember walking out of a particularly grisly Hercules-type movie in the mid-1960s because it terrified me.)

But the upcoming "Future Justice" was on his mind and so we asked what that one was about. And that's when we also learned that he was working on two films that are about as far apart as films can get — an indication of the fertile and prolific atmosphere that surrounds Scorpio Films Releasing.

"'Future Justice" is a sci-fi post-apocalyptic action film and currently I'm working on the film version of Lenny Schwartz’s Off Broadway play, 'Accidental Incest — The Musical." Griffin says this as though it is the most natural two-film pairing in the world.

"'Future Justice' has special effects and stunts and action sequences. For a micro-budget film, it has a lot of scope and sheer production value and tons of visual effects," Griffin says. "It was a very complicated production but I'm very happy with it." He said the script, by Nat Sylva (who also stars) was not "trite," as these movies so often are. "It's incredibly well written," Griffin said.

Getting started

"We were very lucky that the first film we made was called 'Feeding The Masses,' a zombie movie that came at the new zombie craze. (2005; the website called it "a very sophisticated zombie film.") We put out one press release and it made it onto a horror website. I got six offers to distribute the movie sight unseen and that got my name in the door," Griffin said. "Once you get distributed, it becomes easier. You become established."

Griffin said that right at the beginning he knew there was something that would also set him apart: even though his films had low budgets, they would have a "lot of production value."

Distribution companies, he said, were used to seeing what he called "backyard movies." What they liked about Griffin's movies is that they were (and are) "technically polished." Griffin attributes this to his background in television production. He became a skilled editor, and he knew how to make a fast deadline.

"The editing — that comes from commercials," he said. "I grew up in Pawtucket and in that time, in the 1980s, you did not become a filmmaker. I was going to be a writer." But he happened to be working in a bookstore and next door was a small TV studio. "I looked in the window and saw someone editing. I was 16 years old and I said, 'What is that?' I fell in love with the notion."

When you see someone editing, he said, "you can see how movies are actually made. It's the mechanics of making movies."

He spent 14 years editing commercials, public service announcements and magazine shows. "My favorite part of the process was always the editing. You can destroy a film in editing and you can take something mediocre and make it great with editing."

It is this lifetime of experience that gives Griffin the stamina to create a film such as "Future Justice" in about two months. He calls it one of the "fastest" films he's ever made. "It was written in a month and in a month we were done shooting," he said. "A script usually takes two to three months, and then there is three or four months of production — so a production can take eight months," he said. But on "Future Justice, "one we got halfway through the script we knew who was going to be in the movie and so we started shooting."

The sets for his films are both built and found. In "Future Justice," the interior of the spaceships were built by his art department. People familiar with Rhode Island's landscape will see such landmarks at the old China Star Restaurant — a beautiful example of art deco interior design — in films like "Atomic Brain Invasion."

He tends to use the same crew and actors, although a set of circumstances pushed Griffin to use some new faces in "Future Justice."

With more familiar actors, "You don’t have to figure out what their work ethic is. It's also kind of important to know what an actor needs or doesn't need," he said. "In 'Future Justice,' I brought in new actors because I lost six actors to a play —they were all cast in a play. We brought in new blood and everyone got along. On this [set], it was incredible. Everybody gelled beautifully. It’s an alchemy. In this case it was harmonious," he said.

This is instructive for anyone out there looking to make feature films with little money. The days are long, tempers can flare — but the shot also has to get done. A positive atmosphere can go a long way. (Griffin also has another tip for first-time directors: don't make a comedy. They're too hard to pull off and even harder to get distributed.)

One of the other aspects of his filmmaking that keeps bringing the same actors back is trust. "It’s a matter of trust that I'm not going to show [the actors] in a bad light. In 'Disco [Exorcist],' there’s a good bit of nudity, but we know each other professionally and personally. I can say, 'What do you think if we did this?' We talk about it beforehand."

Griffin mentions the time when he was working on a particular scene and one actor did not have to be nude. "We’d talk about it every Friday night and this actor said, 'I’d like a nude scene.' We’re all friends and that takes the edge off," Griffin said. "I’m incredibly shy in real life and people know that I’m right there with them."

He mentions "The Disco Exorcist" again. This is a film that could easily totter (and for some, it may) into tastelessness and condescension, but to me it never does. The word Griffin uses is "playful."

"The greatest thing about 'Disco Exorcist' is that the people in it are enjoying having sex and there’s male frontal nudity; its equal-opportunity exploitation," he said.

The Jesus Song

Griffin said that one of his big stylistic influences is an English director by the name of Ken Russell. Russell, who died in 2011, was the cinematic incarnation of flamboyance and controversy, but his movies, whether you liked them or not, were unforgettable. He mixed the baroque with the Victorian and added a heavy does of psychedelia and he ended up with a canon as distinct as Kubrick's — only with a helluva lot more feeling.

With that in mind, it's easy to see how Griffin could envision a script titled "Accidental Incest" as a musical.

The script did have what he called "a very burlesque feel to it. One of my big influences was Ken Russell — there's that shock value — so let’s put some songs in it. I love working with musicians and love musicals, but in real life I don’t watch them."

The key to making a musical — or at least a film that has the occasional musical interlude is, Griffin said, to "know where to put" the numbers.

A highpoint of this kind of offbeat, unexpected musical number in the Scorpio Films Releasing catalog happens in "Nun Of That" — a gangster flick that would make John Waters proud. In that film there is an utterly inspired number that Griffin called "the Jesus song." The lyric is genius and the tune will have you tapping your feet.

"The funny thing about the Jesus song — in it Jesus comes out using a crucifix as a stripper pole — is that everyone who sees my films thinks I’m not religious, but I actually am," he said. "I don’t want to do anything disrespectful to God or Jesus."

How it came about, he said, was that he "called up my friend Marty O'Connor and challenged him. I said I bet you can’t write and produce a song within 48 hours. In 12 hours he gave me the demo. The lyrics are brilliant," he said.

Part of the fun of being able to do this kind of thing, Griffin said, is that "you are surrounded by amazing artists and I love challenging them and shaking them up a little bit." (He mentions that the song was filmed in a nightclub and the only rule the owners imposed was that they couldn't turn on the heat. Half the actors were half-nude.)

Future Justice and future films

"I'm not Hitchcock."

Griffin was discussing how he directs and produces his films. Hitchcock is well-known for story-boarding his films to the point where there was minimal editing done to the film in the can. Everything had been planned out.

Griffin does it differently, not only because his budgets require him to think fast on his feet (sometimes a location will suddenly become unavailable and yet the scene must be shot anyway) but it keeps his creative juices flowing.

"It goes through a metamorphosis," he said of each film. "They're written, then written again when its shot and written again when its edited and you hope that its better when your done. I don’t storyboard or do a shot list. Within 10 or 15 minutes [of coming onto the set] I know where I’m putting the camera," he said. The shot set ups could be "very different from what I've conceptualized." He also listens to the creative people around him.

"The actors, crew, producers will bring something to it. You don’t know what you're going to get. I’m not Hitchcock. I'm much more organic and freewheeling. A lot of times we rewrite on the set. I've handed [actor] Rich Tretheway, who appears frequently in Griffin's films] new pages on the set." Griffin said that for his more dramatic films, like the recent "Normal," he will adhere more closely to the script. (Griffin described "Normal" (2014) as "a very somber piece, a meditation on loss and death and identity. I would love to say it was a lot of fun to make but the material was so depressing. The tone of it kinds of seeps into your skin. I had just lost a good friend of mine a week before shooting. Its one of the best things I've eve done, but it was grim.")

Scorpio Films Releasing has been around for 10 years. Griffin has been in TV production for a total of 25. Up next is "Sins of Dracula," his 15th feature. And through it all, Griffin said he "has no plan." The only plan, perhaps, is to keep doing his own thing.

"That’s why I started Scorpio with my producing partner (Ted Marr). I sit in my office. In eight months, I know we’re going to have a movie that’s finished. I don’t stand on ceremony well. I like to follow my own vision the way I want it to be," he said. "In the case of "Nun of That," (2009) we had an offer to finance to the film, a lot of money for us, but they said we don’t want Sarah Nicklin and I said I can’t see the movie without her."

Unlike almost any other person making films to day at the local level, Griffin said he truly has no desire to go to Hollywood, which he called "odious." What he values is his independence, and he trusts his own vision.

"You have to stand in front of the audience and say, 'This is my movie.' If you compromise, it’s no longer your own. Succeed or fail on its own terms. If the film fails, it’s on my shoulders," he said. "My big dream right now, it's a pipe dream, is that some production company will give us $50,000 and say give us three films, With those budgets, you're pretty much guaranteed a profit."

But he realizes that when someone puts up money, they'll also want to have a say in the creative process. "They'll say, 'This film could go a lot further if you put Eric Roberts in it for a cameo.' But I don’t really see what that's going to change. I don’t see the value in it."

The classification of what, exactly, is an "independent film" or "independent filmmaker" is almost impossible to define any longer. The big studios appropriated the terms to mean any film that wasn't made on a studio lot even though the budgets were in the millions and movie stars were involved. Everyone was an independent, and then the movement seemed to dry up. Griffin has another definition for what he is, however.

"I see myself as a regional filmmaker," he said, in league with "people like John Waters (Baltimore) or George A. Romero (Pittsburgh). I like this status." He is, therefore, a Rhode Island filmmaker. He shoots there and lives there. He grew up there.

"I love working here. We’re all New Englanders." he said of the people he works with. "We have a work ethic that comes from our Yankee roots. Even if [people] don’t respect my movies, they respect my work ethic."

He also called Rhode Island "the best backlot in the world. I shoot a lot in Pawtucket because it has a lot of different looks to it. The architecture is interesting," he said. "We have a very good Film Commission. They're here not just here for the bigger guys when they come in."

When he was asked who he thought his audience was, Griffin said, "I think it's the same audience that enjoys something that’s handmade rather than mass produced. People who want a hand-sewn blanket as opposed to one you get at Target. My films don't look mass produced."

He said that, in Hollywood, "We're now seeing reboots of reboots. 'Spider-Man 2' made $95 million in its first weekend [in the beginning of May] and they are saying it's a bomb. There are so many movies coming out now there is a blur effect." He mentions the fairly recent remake of Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" as an example of Hollywood eating its own past.

Griffin found such methods as Red Box, which are in supermarkets and other venues to dispense movies, is turning a film into, essentially "Coca-Cola. They're treating movies with such disrespect."

He dislikes the notion of Hollywood so much, in fact, that Griffin said "I hate the term Hollywood East. Why do we have to co-opt something that really isn't working anymore? I find it odious."

As for whether he would ever go there, despite these beliefs, Griffin said, "They’re not buying what I’m selling and I don’t want to sell it to them."

When asked what was up next for Scorpio Films Releasing, Griffin paused for the first time. (He's a fast talker.) He's said he's working on "Sins of Dracula" now and getting a few projects together. He's done 15 features in 10 years, plus freelance work and maybe a short pause was in order, he thought.

"What am I willing to spend the next nine months of my life on?" he asked. "Now that I'm middle aged, that becomes a little more poignant."

Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" ( and "Tide Turning." (

A clip from "Future Justice:"