Originally Posted on: April 18th, 2014
Charlie JJ Kruger sits down with Hal Masonberg, the director/co-writer of 'The Plague: Writers & Director's Cut'.
H-P: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me, i am a fan of your 'true' edit of the movie, The Plague... can you tell me a little bit about how the original story came together?
HAL: My writing partner at the time, Teal Minton, and I wanted to make a horror film that harkened back to the kind of horror films we grew up watching, the films that effected us, that stuck with us, and that seemed to be fading away in contemporary cinema. Neither one of us were big fans of the slasher genre and felt that horror had, more or less, descended into that. By the mid-80’s, horror was seen mostly as a genre for teenagers. The films were excessively gory (not that we had a problem with that, per se, but the content, for us, seemed lacking) with not much else for us to hold on to. Horror films had become less “scary” for us. It seemed more about startling the audience than actually digging under their skin (at least metaphorically). :)
Our desire was to make a film that, like so many of the horror films we loved, tapped into existing social fears; horror as a means to explore already existing fears and play them out in a metaphorical, almost dreamlike fashion. Both Teal and I also had a love of the B-horror genre. And we loved John Carpenter films because they were fun and scary and always felt like terrific storytelling with iconic characters. We also admired horror films from the 70’s like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST (the films we grew up with) that dealt so brilliantly with growing social fears. They reflected society at the time. So our intent with THE PLAGUE was to make something that had that flavor, but like the best horror films, tapped into existing fears and concerns. In our case, kids and violence and guns. You have to remember, we wrote this and shopped it around before Columbine ever happened. I think the direction this country has gone and the events that have occurred in America since we made this film have borne out that we were tapping into something that was growing in the public consiousness. I think, in may ways, our film is even MORE relevant now.
H-P: Were there any early signs that the production of this film was going to be rocky? At what point was it clear that you would be fighting an uphill battle?
HAL: Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Yeah, there was a lot of infighting between Clive Barker’s producers and the production company producers (Armada Pictures) very early on. We should have walked away then. There was a point even earlier on when Teal and I wanted to walk away because we didn’t feel like Clive Barker’s people wanted the same film we did. But Jorge Saralegui, the producer in charge at Clive’s company, swore up and down that the film they wanted to make was the film WE wanted to make. They wanted to make different kinds of horror films, not just Clive Barker-type horror films. You see, Teal and I were never fans of Barker’s films. We appreciated that they were unique and clearly had a vision behind them, but it wasn’t our particular taste and Barker’s films were far more focused on gore than what we desired. We weren’t convinced that his audience would be our audience. But Jorge assured us that “Clive Barker makes Clive Barker films” and that they were now looking for something else, something different. And that thing was THE PLAGUE.
Had I done my homework at the time and looked a bit deeper into Jorge’s history, I might have discovered that he was likely responsible for a good many films over at Fox (where he’d been an exec) being re-cut without the directors’ involvment . By the time we got to set, Jorge was regaling us with proud stories of how, for example, John Woo didn’t know how to direct an action scene so Jorge had to come in and “fix” the film (BROKEN ARROW) or how Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t know where to put a camera so Jorge had to “save” that film as well (ALIEN 4). Then there was QUEEN OF THE DAMNED and lord knows how many others. To listen to Jorge “brag” about these things on set was incredibly disturbing. It seemed to me that he had some issues with directors and that staying true to the film’s original vision and the director’s intent was not one of his strong suits. Jorge could be very helpful and supportive in the script-writing stage, but in my personal opinion, he was a nightmare on set and in post. I have personally never met anyone who seemed to be a more destructive and mean-spirited individual. It seemed to me that there was a lot of rage and anger and lord-knows-what-else brewing in that man and there came a point where it felt to me personally like he vomited it up all over this film. There was a point during production where Jorge had been so abusive to Teal that Teal got in his car and started driving home. From Winnipeg, Canada! Jorge used, what I considered, to be grossly unnecessary and vastly inappropriate humiliation tactics on crew members and, ultimately, I felt, on me in post-production. His actions and behavior, both on set and off were, to me, extremely damaging and ultimately irrevocably hurt the film in my opinion; both in alienating me personally from the editing room and in his treatment of crew members I thought as simply doing their jobs. Working with him, for me, was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my entire life. I felt like I’d allowed myself and this film to get caught in one man’s incredible and seemingly uncontrollable dysfunction. Unfortunately, I’d put my trust and faith in this individual and the outcome of the film, for me, hung on that trust.
Once back in L.A. and the second my contract was officially up, Jorge told me “This is MY film now, not yours.” This was followed by “We’re cutting out the characters and turning this into a killer-kid film.” A “Killer-Kid” film was the term we all used to use when discussing what a studio would do to this film if they got their hands on it. I was basically made to feel completely unwelcome in the editing room and told in no uncertain terms that I had no say in how the film was to be cut together. Jorge yelled, screamed, threw what seemed to me like immense tantrums all ending with the line “you fucking piece of shit!” It was surreal, incredibly sad, and painfully disturbing. When I confronted Jorge that he’d done the same thing to John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, his answer was a brutal “That’s right. And now I’m doing it to you!”
I feel pretty strongly that whatever Jorge and the other producers told Clive was not the whole truth. I read somewhere that Clive said about me that I abandoned the editing and got in my car and drove away. Shame. I wish I had been more in touch with Clive. I trusted that Jorge and the other producers were speaking on Clive’s behalf and representing his interest. But time and again, when I’d mention talking to Clive, they’d respond by telling me that Clive didn’t have a clue what was going on and that it was pointless to try and talk with him. I even tried to get Clive to see the first 40 minutes of my cut while I was initially editing just so I could make sure it was something he, too, would be happy with. He agreed, but by the next day, Jorge called and said that Clive wasn’t going to watch what I’d done after all. What happened there exactly, I couldn’t tell you. But I do know that Jorge had called my manager accusing me of going behind his back by contacting Clive on my own. However, I had promised Clive personally that I would let him know how the editing was going and that I would tell him if I thought we needed to do any reshoots or pickup shots. So my call to Clive was to tell him that I was finding workarounds to any footage we didn’t get and that I’d love him to see it.
Clive always seemed like a nice guy to me. Sadly, it also seemed to me that he surrounded himself with people who not only didn’t have his back, but completely misrepresented his interests and were not honest and truthful with him.
One of the many reasons we didn’t get to shoot everything we intended on THE PLAGUE was because the production company, upon our arrival in Canada, informed us that, not only had they sold the film to Sony Screen Gems without our knowledge, but that they were cutting the shooting schedule down from what was supposed to be 28-30 days to a mere 20 days! At that point, three line-producers had all agreed that this film, this script, could NOT be shot in less than 28 days minimum. The production company ignored them and found someone to tell them what they wanted to hear, even though, in my opinion and the opinion of most other professionals, it simply was not realistic or possible. But we had to find a way. And it, in no uncertain terms, compromised the script and the visual storytelling and performances. Entire scenes were cut or squeezed together. I feel, under these circumstances, that what we all managed to shoot and put together was actually quite miraculous given the near impossibility of it. I’m very proud of what we accomplished. Great things often come out of tough situations. That said, it’s rough to make a film when you sense the people behind the scenes don’t care at all about the film itself and appear to have no interest whatsoever in that film’s integrity or outcome.
One of the Armada producers, Chris Sievernich, sat me down before I went up to Canada for pre-production to tell me that he didn’t want me to ever shoot more than one take of each setup. Ever. One take, move on. That was one of the many clues for me that the folks at Armada Pictures seemed far more interested in delivering a product than they were in that product’s actual quality. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m far from being a prima donna who thinks he has to do 100 takes. But doing only one take on a film with no rehearsal time scheduled for the actors and director is a disaster waiting to happen. And one that I was not willing to play into. I made a promise to the actors and to myself. I was not going to allow them to look foolish or not be allowed to do their jobs.
It seemed to me that the producers I worked with at Armada Pictures prided themselves on what they could get away with. During shooting, they were cutting extras and equipment without telling anyone on set and forcing us to scramble. Even though we were on time and on budget from start to finish. We had also all agreed that this film would do the festivals before finding a domestic distributor. We knew it was going to be an odd little film and not a straightforward commercial horror pic. It defied some genre expectations. But they sold it outright without telling us to Screen Gems who, it seemed, had no interest in the film we were making. One of the Armada producers confided in me that the folks at Screen Gems didn’t even like the script! Armada could not have picked, what I consider, a more inappropriate distributor or a less director-friendly distributor for this film. As soon as my contract ended, the Head of Acquisitions at Screen Gems called my manager and told him “We own this film now and see no reason for the writers and director to be involved.” Understand, no one at Screen Gems at that time had ever even met me. We had never exchanged a single word.
All in all, I don’t know the inner workings of what went on behind the scenes at Armada Pictures, but I do know that they had a reputation already established up in Winnipeg Canada and that, according to the many people I spoke with there, it was not a good one. The stories I was told about the producers’ behavior was abhorrent. I might have taken a bunch of it with a grain of salt if I hadn’t witnessed much of this —what I consider gross and inappropriate— behavior firsthand. To me, they seemed like a bunch of egomaniacal, immature frat boys given a lot of money and a little bit of power let loose up in Canada with no one to keep them in check. And the result was what I considered quite an offensive, distasteful and phenomenally untrustworthy bunch, both publicly and professionally.
After production, there were stories floating around regarding some “financial dishonesty” surrounding the allocation of money on THE PLAGUE. I honestly do not know if there is any truth to that or not. I have not seen anything, personally, to suggest that it is true. But I think it speaks to the lack of trustworthiness they instilled in me that I find it altogether believable. When I didn’t receive my tax forms from Armada Pictures and called them to find out about it, the person I spoke with told me that they strongly advised that I NOT claim my earnings from THE PLAGUE on my taxes since they, themselves, weren’t going to be. For the record, I claimed my earnings anyway.
On top of all that fun, the production company insisted on casting James van der Beek in the lead. You need to understand, the role was written for a man in is early 40’s. James was in his late 20’s. He was completely wrong for the role in almost every way. Jorge, Clive and I sat down and met with James and that resulted with Clive leaving the meeting early. Jorge told me after the meeting that Clive had walked out because he knew James was wrong for the part. Jorge told me Clive was going to call me and tell me that James was wrong for the part. But Jorge said that if I didn’t agree to James, that the production company was going to hold on to the script (which they now owned) and never let me make the film. Jorge also told me that Clive didn’t care if this film was made now or two years from now or never. Jorge told me that I had no choice but to hire James or I would lose the film entirely. Clive called me, told me he didn’t think James was right for the part, and I told him I thought I could make James work. I gave in to the threat that Jorge had laid out behind Clive’s back. I didn’t want to lose the film, lose this script I’d spent 8 years trying to get off the ground. I bit the bullet and it, essentially, blew up in my mouth.
I’d worked for years in casting before this and already KNEW the cost of miscasting a project. But I went along anyway and I can’t blame anyone but myself for that. That said, once I committed to James, I really was committed to making it work and finding James’ strengths and using those to help bring the character of Tom alive. James looks great on film. The camera loves him. And he has a certain appeal. All this required rewriting the script to be for a much younger man and someone more like James than the Tom I originally envisioned. Unfortunately, once James showed up on set, it seemed to me that he was less interested in the character and more interested in setting himself up to be an action star. James called Clive and demanded that there be at least one scene where we showed him with his shirt off so that he could show off his body. James also kept asking for more action scenes, more chase sequences. Every time I tried to sit down with James and discuss the character and the story, he would get what I considered to be incredibly belligerent.
The night before we started shooting, two major cast members approached me to tell me that James had called them into his hotel room for a private pow-wow. According to them, James told them that, since I was a first-time director, they needed to take over the film themselves. The actors that came to me were not happy about that conversation and were extremely concerned about it and about James. Again, if I’d done my homework and talked to folks who had worked with James in the past, I might have discovered that this behavior and attitude was not exclusive to just me or to this film. A lesson learned the hard way for me. The end result was that working with James wasn’t a good or rewarding experience for me and, ultimately, his version of Tom does not resemble any version of the character I would have wanted to see in this film. One of the biggest problems for me is that I felt James played Tom as a very “reactive” person, jumping back, running in, always reacting on impulse. The Tom I had written, which is crucial to the story in my opinion, it’s the backbone of the whole script and what allows the ending to either work or not work, is that Tom is no longer reactive. He thinks. He killed a man when he was young because of his reactive nature. He has, since, spent his time in prison learning how to be thoughtful and NOT reactive. It is, ultimately, what his character offers the kids at the end of the story. That side of himself. With James, that side never existed, from what I can see. It remains, for me, the most glaring failure of the film itself. I don’t believe James as Tom. I don’t believe he has the wisdom or self-awareness to be that person and do what he does. And if you don’t believe your leading man…
Normally, I would choose not to discuss these types of experiences in public, but by the end of the shoot, James had managed to garner so much resentment from so many cast and crew members that I feel it’s a legitimate part of the story of what happened on this film. And at the end of the day, James’ performance not only reflects his attitude, but my inability at the time to find a way to step up and change that situation and turn it into a productive one that didn’t hurt the film. On so many levels —probably the most important ones— the end result falls on me. I was the director.
My lesson? In the future, I don’t care what’s at stake. If I don’t find the right actors for the roles, I won’t make the film. It’s a mistake I will never make again. The cost is too great.
H-P: What advise do you have for new filmmakers who don't want to have their work held hostage like yours has been?
HAL: Insist on final cut. In your contract. And not just final cut to be delivered to the distributor, but that the distributor cannot then go in and change your film in any way after they receive it.
Maintain legal control. I hate to say trust no one, but from a legal perspective, if you have control, then you don’t have to worry about trust. My experience is that there are a ton of egos involved in filmmaking as well as some highly dysfunctional individuals. And there are a lot of people involved in the process who are in it for the business and not for the art. Fortunately or unfortunately, filmmaking costs money and so both sides are necessary. It’s when they work at odds with one another that everything starts to fall apart. There are also many well-intentioned people who set out with one goal in mind and then get scared the closer the film gets to that goal. More films fall apart in post-production than in any other stage. It’s a common occurrence. Protect what’s important to you. In writing. In your contract. Know what the negotiable areas are for yourself and what is non-negotiable. And stick to that. You will be told by almost everyone in Hollywood that NO ONE gets final cut. It’s a lie. If you insist on it, then you will get it. Or you walk away and find people who are willing to work with you and place their trust in you. If you do not protect yourself against the worst-case scenario happening, then you might find yourself living it as I did. And if you truly care about the quality of the story you’re telling, then it’s your duty to yourself, your actors and your audience to protect that.
H-P: What sparked your interest in taking over the editing to edit the film yourself? Having helped write it, directed it and now edited it, the film MUST be close to you...
HAL: It was twofold. First, I simply did not want to be a victim in all of this. What happened on THE PLAGUE was both personally and professionally devastating to me. It felt essential that I finish the film. For myself. I wanted to see the film I had made!
I was also advised by almost everyone to just walk away. And while that may have been the proper thing to do as a career director, for me that just meant I was allowing this behavior to continue.
More producers and distributors would take more films away from more directors if there really were no consequences. At the very least, I was going to finish my film any way that was possible and be completely transparent about my experiences, what happened and who did and said what. It’s a little scary to do that. You never know how and if that will come back and bite you. Hard. And that fear keeps most people from taking action, from speaking up, from finishing their films. All this fear, all this distrust becomes part of the natural landscape of Hollywood. But I have no desire to work or create in that environment. I was told I would be “blacklisted” if I were to go ahead and finish my cut. But my whole attitude was and remains that I am fine being blacklisted because anyone who would blacklist me for finishing my film and writing about my experiences is not someone I would want to work with. I’d much rather attract people who “get” me and who may understand why I chose to finish this film and not stay quiet and just “walk away.”
H-P: Do you have any interest in working on more horror films, or has this experience left you feeling a bit too burned?
HAL: I want to make films that inspire me, that challenge me to look deeper. I want to make films that reflect something about me, how I see the world, how I experience the world and, hopefully, tap into something in others that makes sense, that they recognize in themselves. I also want to ask questions, I want to make people think, because I enjoy when films ask me to think. So I’m happy to explore or re-explore any genre that does that for me. But I don’t see myself as a horror director. If anything, I’m more drawn to sci-fi than horror, though oftentimes those genres intersect in really wonderful ways.
I think with THE PLAGUE, I was thinking about making something as my first feature film that would have some measure of commercial value while being a little different. I believe now that was a mistake. Instead of pushing boundaries and really exploring who I am as a filmmaker, I wrote a script that was essentially pretty straight-forward. I wasn’t making a film that came entirely out of my heart, out of my deepest imagination and creativity. I was thinking too much about the audience, about funding, about what might get some attention. I learned the hard way that simply does not work for me. THE PLAGUE had enough of the “standard horror film” in it that a company like Screen Gems could mess with it and try to homogenize it, try to force it into being something more familiar, more formula. Had I trusted my own creative instincts, written a script for the type of film I would most want to make, if I wasn’t at all concerned about popularity or second-guessing what people might want, then I would have more likely attracted producers that understood what it is I wanted to do and would have been less motivated to turn it into something else. That might be the biggest lesson of all for me. Make the films I want to make exactly as I want to make them and trust that the audience will find the film. Not the other way around. I tried to make something with a bit more of what I perceived as “commercial value” and in doing so ended up not only NOT being true to myself, but I created a scenario that attracted the wrong people.
H-P: Why 'Grapes of Wrath'? I love that novel, and I really enjoyed how this movie mirrors the story in so many ways. How did you come to put the two together?
HAL: THE GRAPES OF WRATH is one of my all time favorite books. And while I was looking for a book and a character to inspire Tom, GRAPES just fit in perfectly. Much of what Tom Joad struggled with internally in GRAPES is what I saw my Tom struggling with internally in THE PLAGUE. And both are, in my opinion, Christ-like figures who give of themselves. Now I’m not at all religious, I’m an atheist, in fact, but I love religious icons and concepts. They fascinate me. They are part of our collective mythology and storytelling. I’m also a huge admirer of John Ford’s films and GRAPES is one of the ones that I always return to. I wanted to pay homage to both the book AND the film in THE PLAGUE. And I think I was successful in doing that.
H-P: How can people help you to get this DVD released properly?
HAL: Honestly, I’ve been at this for so many years now that I truly don’t know what it would take to get this cut released. And in many ways, I’ve moved on to trying to get my next projects off the ground. My hope is that any future success I may have will allow me to buy back the rights to THE PLAGUE. Several years ago, there was a mass emailing from fans of THE PLAGUE to Sony Pictures asking them to release the Writers & Director’s Cut. I guess it got so annoying that the Head of Acquisitions for Screen Gems, —the same guy who had told my manager “We own this film now and see no need for the writers or director to be involved” — called up to complain and see what I wanted. I told him that I wanted my film back or at least permission to release my cut. They claimed THE PLAGUE had lost money and that they would give the film back to me if I paid them what the film lost. According to them, it lost a million dollars. Well, firstly, if they had released the film we actually made, maybe they wouldn’t have lost so much money. Secondly, I live hand-to-mouth so a million dollars might as well be a billion. But it was nice to know that fans can take action and have some impact. And it’s not that I think THE PLAGUE is some masterpiece that NEEDS to be seen. Far from it. I’m not particularly happy with my cut either as it is still not the film I set out to make. But it’s a helluva lot closer than the butchered producers’ cut with Clive Barker’s name above the title. And THE PLAGUE was always meant to be a B-horror film, only with a smart edge to it. At the end of the day, what happened on the film was quite nasty — a perfect storm of dysfunction and egos— and the end result for me is that there is this film out there with my name on it that does not in any way represent who I am as a person or as a filmmaker. For me, that’s painful, as so many hard lessons are. To get my cut released would be both a personal as well as a professional victory. But I also refuse to devote my entire life to making that happen.
There are other films to make, other stories and other narratives.
That said, if the opportunity to get the Writers & Director’s Cut released looks possible, I’ll grab it. Right now, the only way that happens without me coming up with a million dollars is if there is enough demand from audiences out there to see it so that it looks like there is substantially more money to be made by releasing it. And that starts with people like you, Charlie. People who want to see it.
My suggestion: contact Screen Gems. They are in control of it. I have no control. Go to the people with the power to release it and let them know you are interested and willing to put down money for the opportunity to see the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT. I truly don’t know if there’s enough interest to make that a reality. It really is just about people stepping up and letting others know what they want. If the demand is there…
H-P: On a lighter note, what were some of your favorite experiences while working on the film?
HAL: I loved most of the Winnipeg, Canada crew. What an amazing bunch of talented, committed folks. I felt enormous support from them. They made it all worthwhile.
And the actors. With the exception of James, I really felt like the actors were so generous and trusting and willing to take risks. They were also just an amazing group of really terrific human beings. I’m so honored to have worked with them and so proud of the work they did in this movie.
And working with cinematographer Bill Butler who had shot JAWS and one of my favorite films, THE CONVERSATION, as well as so many other classics! What a joy that was. It’s a shame that Screen Gems wouldn’t allow Bill to come in and color-time his own work. The look of the released version is completely wrong. Bill and I picked a film stock that had a lot of leeway. We shot everything bright to saturate the film with detail with the intention that we would then bring it down several stops in post. But when you alienate the creative team from post, you end up with people making choices and decisions they know nothing about. To this day, no one has seen what this film is supposed to look like. Not even in my cut. I was forced to work with low-resolution materials. I didn’t have access to the 35mm negative so it is impossible for me to properly color-time and grade the film.
H-P: So, keeping things on a lighter note... who really wins, Freddy or Jason?
HAL: Freddy. He gets into your head, man! Into your dreams! He has the power.
H-P: Thank you again for sitting down with us. I really enjoyed your true edit, and I hope it if finally released in full, is there anything you would like to add?
HAL: Only how much I appreciate your interest in the film. Even though I shot this film 9 years ago, it is still that child that was taken away from me. Hell, it wasn’t just taken away, it was taken away and beaten! I’d love to give it the life it deserved, even if it’s a bit damaged and scarred from all the abuse.
Get 'The Plague' on Amazon: amazon.com/gp/product/B000GFRI5O