July 25, 2010
The Godfather of Gore
These days Herschell Gordon Lewis has made a pretty penny for himself as a direct communicator - one might say a "shining light" - in the sophisticated world of general advertising and direct marketing. He is without peer. Nobody has written more books (more than 20 and counting). Nobody has written more articles (he writes monthly columns for a number of trade journals). Certainly nobody in his field is more respected.
As former chairman of Communicomp, a full-service direct marketing agency with clients throughout the world, now renamed as a division of the advertising holding company Interpublic, Herschell Gordon Lewis now heads Lewis Enterprises, through which he writes and consults individually. Some of his clients include Barnes & Noble, Lens Express and CNA Insurance. He is arguably the best-known direct response writer and consultant in the United States. With a background that includes more than 20 years as adjunct lecturer to graduate classes in Mass Communications at Roosevelt University, Chicago.
Incidentally - though hardly - Lewis is also the Godfather of Gore. Ever respectful of his key role in the vanguard of exploitive cinema in the 60s, he embraces his past with vigor and enthusiastically spoke with me by phone about film projects past and future.
I appreciate your taking the time to wander down memory lane with me a little bit.
More like stagger...
First and foremost, I want to be clear that I'm aware that your current genius is in direct marketing, but I do appreciate that - as you say - you're willing to "stagger" down memory lane with me today. I was wondering if you have exchanged any meaningful glances with motel sphinxes lately?
[Laughs.] The Suez Motel, sadly, was torn down two years ago, so the little sphinx there is long gone. Somebody graciously - I think! - sent me some pieces of cement from the Suez Motel. Now what am I supposed to do which a chunk of cement from an ex-motel?
You could probably get good money for it on eBay!
It's probably floating down some river somewhere or sitting at the bottom. I'm not sure what your question means. Do you mean am I currently at anything or what?
I was just joking. No filmmaker has probably attracted more alliterative appellatives than you. You're the Guru of Gore, the Godfather of Gore, the Dean of Direct Marketing, and so on and so forth. Are there any particular nicknames that you like?
Well, I'm usually referred to as "Hey, You!" [Laughs.] That's a strange question. People have asked me whether I object to being called the Godfather of Gore. No, I don't! Good heavens. I don't want it on my epitaph but I certainly don't object to it being there.
I love something you said in an interview with John Wisniewski for Bright Lights Film Journal: "I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form and spends money based on that immature philosophy." Clearly, your psychological motivations for filming these gore fantasies was the box office, where you did much better than anyone might have expected at the time. Though you were aiming for the immediate payoff, did you ever imagine your films would achieve the cult status they have achieved? Or the influence they've had on the horror genre itself?
No. If I had known that, I might have spent more time making them. But, you see, that's the chimera; that's the dilemma on whose horns I might have been impaled. If I had spent more money making them, then chances are that I would not have made as many as I did, and whether or not the additional money poured into it would have reflected itself in additional interest, either by gorehounds seeing them in movie theaters or by the critics attacking them - which has always been a very nice thing to have happen - that's questionable. To me, the concept was simply one of trying to make the kind of motion picture that someone would want to see and that some theater might show. You see, that's part of it, too. One reason that today we have so much stuff, the things that are shot on digital that are being sent directly to video, is that these pieces are made on an ego basis rather than on a business-like basis.
Of course I've become a firm believer in serendipity. I found a niche that had not been occupied. I jumped into that niche with both feet and yet with great caution because, what if I had made a movie of this type and nobody ever would play it? Then this would be another movie at the time - and there were plenty of them - that would be sitting rotting away in some film laboratory vault waiting for somebody to pay for it. That was a risk I didn't care to take. So, obviously, the combination of trying to make a movie no one had made before and trying to make a movie that would minimize the risk - those two things were not at all at odds in my mind.
My opinion is firm that no one has ever walked out of a movie because of a ragged pan. People have walked out of movies or sent them back after looking at 10 seconds of them, saying, "This is pretty doggone dull; I don't want to see any more of this." Word of mouth can break you in half or word of mouth can make you a giant. It depends on the entertainment value. It doesn't depend on the critics saying, "Gee. Look at the miserable level of acting in this movie."