"The whole fun of it is for me is that, if I had to be stuck in a genre, I'd like to be pushing it."
Former carnival-game operator and construction worker John McNaughton is probably best known as the co-writer and director of the critically acclaimed cult hit Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. But since the worldwide surprise success of that film, he has gone on to create a unique and powerful body of work that has been largely overlooked by a film culture that doesn't quite know what to make of it. After directing an adaptation of Eric Bogosian's one-man show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, McNaughton entered the big leagues of major studio filmmaking with Mad Dog And Glory. That Richard Price-written, Martin Scorsese-produced comedy-drama starred Bill Murray and Robert DeNiro, but opened to mixed reviews and tepid box-office reception. McNaughton has dabbled in television, directing episodes of the acclaimed cop drama Homicide, as well as the Showtime original movie Girls In Prison, based on the last script of legendary writer-director Samuel Fuller, who died in 1997. In 1996, McNaughton made Normal Life, a harrowing drama starring Luke Perry and Ashley Judd: Though barely released in America, it holds up as one of the most underrated films of recent years. McNaughton's new Wild Things is far more conventional, but still has its charms. The Onion recently spoke with McNaughton about Wild Things, the mismarketing of his films, and why he wouldn't direct Warlock.
The Onion: Wild Things seems like a departure for you. What attracted you to it?
John McNaughton: Well, after having made a bunch of small pictures that no one wanted to either distribute or pay attention to, I decided it was time to… After making Normal Life for a small amount of money, where they didn't even have to release it to make money, it was time for me to go back into the studio situation and make a big picture with movie stars that everyone would see.
O: What was the deal with Normal Life? Why didn't it receive wider release?
JM: Well, it was made for $2.75 million, and Fine Line took $1.25 million of that, for which they received all North American rights. So I think it really came down to the fact that it really wasn't their sort of picture, and they could dump it, still make a tidy profit, and not have to work. Which, as I've often said, is something they're very good at.
O: You did a television movie, Girls In Prison, that was written by Sam Fuller. How did that come about?
JM: It was a film based on a drive-in movie from Sam Arkoff's AIP Pictures. Arkoff's son Lou approached Showtime with an idea to make 10 films using the titles from his father's pictures from the '50s and '60s, and they would then hire 10 so-called "name directors" to pick one title, then basically do with it whatever they wanted: You could shoot it shot-for-shot over again, or you could change everything but the title, which is what we basically did. I was in Brussels to be on the jury of a film festival, and, as it turned out, Sam Fuller was the chairman. So we got along very well, and, even though the money wasn't too great and the budget was pathetic, I went to Lou and asked Sam if he'd be interested in writing something, since I could tell that he really needed the job. Lou said fine, since Sam had already worked for his father, so he knew who he was. So Sam and his wife, Christa [Lang], wrote an original screenplay based on the title Girls In Prison. I felt proud that I gave him a chance to practice his real vocation, which was screenwriting.
O: After the success of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, were you offered a lot of horror films?
JM: Yeah, but they were the exact type of films that I went out of my way not to make. In fact, I was offered the opportunity to direct Warlock. At the time I was offered it, I was dead broke and starving, but I still couldn't bring myself to do it.
O: Do you have any sort of control over how your films are marketed?
JM: No. Very few filmmakers do. Actually, the new studio put me in the loop, and I talk with them and I've worked with them, but, again, you have to be careful. You can't tell them that you hate everything they do, because they'll hate you and they won't do anything. I've worked well with this group and, for the first time in my career, I feel like my picture is being marketed correctly.
O: Would you consider making another horror film?
JM: The whole fun of it for me is that, if I have to be stuck in a genre, I'd like to be pushing it. I mean, Henry is supposedly a horror film, but is it? Is it traditional in any sense? I don't think so. I guess it takes from the genre. The same with Wild Things: It's supposed to be a thriller, but it's really playing with the genre, turning it on its head and using it and then not using it. So, if I'm in a genre again, the whole challenge is to make it original.
O: Have you ever seen the Italian film Caro Diario [an Italian comedy-drama during which writer-director-star Nanni Moretti tortures a film critic by tying him to a bed and reading him the critic's ecstatic, deliriously pretentious review of Henry]?
JM: Yes, I have. Believe me, I started a whole big stink in the press in Italy. Nanni Moretti used clips from Henry but didn't credit any of the clips anywhere in the film—which is basically stealing—so I accused him of being a hypocrite. And the Italian press loves scandals. So I was over there jurying yet another film festival, and it was in all the papers.
O: Yeah, and the really horrible thing is that he had cancer, so you couldn't really attack him.
JM: Yeah, but he got better, you know? I think he had skin cancer or something.