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Melbourne, New Hampshire: Jamie Blanks and other urban legends

To be asked to interview Australian director Jamie Blanks upon Via Vision’s release of the Urban Legend trilogy Blu-ray box set was serendipitous for this correspondent, almost 30 years in the making.

In the early ‘90s, as part of Monash University’s Filmmaking Society, Jamie Blanks was already a (urban) legend of sorts. He had just commenced film school at the Victorian College of the Arts, but the experimental shorts he had produced with friends as a teenager were making the rounds and generating excitement in fellow horror genre film fans, myself included. There was a Raimi-esque sense of fun in Blanks’ shorts – essentially exercises in schlock, stunts and gore SFX – that were so spirited compared to the trite attempts at ‘auteurism’ of many of his student peers you couldn’t help but love them.

Anyone would hope that such a promising, young director could find his place in Australia but being one of only three genre devotees in his class at film school – one made a martial arts film, the other a science-fiction, and Blanks made a “creepy Twilight Zone-type movie” – gives some idea of how his local prospects were severely limited. Genre film is something of a poor cousin in the Australian film industry.

Urban Legend (1998)

This was a time when the so-called ‘Ozploitation’ scene was still buried, if not dead. The spotlight shone retroactively on Australian horror genre cinema by Quentin Tarantino and Blanks’ Haileybury College schoolmate, Mark Hartley (director and producer of the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!), was still 15 years from fruition. And this wouldn’t be so much a resurrection of these forgotten films but an introduction to them for the first time ever.

For Blanks’ part, he couldn’t even get an interview for a job with an advertising agency; such was the lack of legitimacy in Australia for filmmakers of his kind.

“[In America], they are so much more open to new talent and giving new guys a break,” he remarks. “It was easier to get a meeting at Paramount than it was to get a meeting at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in Melbourne. It was just crazy.”

So Los Angeles was the destination that would beckon him, not surprising for someone who reels off names such as Carpenter, Romero and Cronenberg when talking about those who inspired him as a youngster.

“I was dragged along when I think I was about 12 years old to the Mentone Lifesaving Club [in Melbourne’s south] for a movie night, and they were showing John Carpenter’s The Fog,” Blanks recalls. “I’d never been to a horror film before. I’d seen movies but I’d never seen a horror film. I Just remember being riveted to my seat and my knees were shaking. A few weeks later, I saw The Amityville Horror on television and then I watched Halloween. I clocked that the producer – Debra Hill – had made The Fog as well, so I felt she made all of these movies [laughs]. I got the bug very early. This was the era when lots of people had VHS recorders but we weren’t one of them, so I’d have to go around to my cousin’s and my neighbours’ houses to rent these things. We finally got a VCR and then my fate was sealed.”

While it is sad to think Australian iconoclasts like Brian Trenchard-Smith (who Blanks says, “I finally got to meet at a movie theatre in LA watching Gladiator.”), Colin Eggleston and Arch Nicholson are missing from Blanks’ rollcall of influences, their omission is not a case of cultural cringe; it is simply the sorry fact that he, and his other Australian genre film fans, just didn’t get the opportunity to see them.

Take, for instance, Arch Nicholson’s remarkable monster film from 1987, Dark Age, which didn’t even get a local theatrical release and had to wait 30 years until being resurrected on Blu-ray by Umbrella Entertainment in 2017, for which Umbrella assigned Blanks with the task of restoring the original trailer of Dark Age, frame by frame. And Australians wonder what is wrong with the Australian film industry and why they can’t gain traction with Australian audiences? Local film critics often bemoan relying on associates in either the US or UK to tip them off about new and classic Australian content.

Urban Legend (1998)

In acknowledging mentors, there were a few notable exceptions within the Australian film industry that were extremely supportive in helping a young filmmaker like Jamie Blanks get a break.

“I sent Richard Franklin [director of Roadgames and fellow Haileybury College alumnus] my student film when I was about to graduate in ’93,” recalls Blanks. “He came along to our graduation film night and sat with me to watch the film. He wrote me this beautiful letter about how he felt the film worked and what was interesting about it. That letter got me my first job as an editor in Melbourne [at Fred Schepisi’s production company, where Blanks would also start bonding with his wife-to-be, Schepisi’s personal assistant, via their love for Carpenter’s Escape from New York]. I’ve been the beneficiary throughout my career of a lot of goodwill from so many lovely people who have worked in the genre.”

In 1996, during Jamie Blanks’ freshman years as a director, a talent scout sent him the screenplay for Scream (1996) on the strength of his graduating student film.

Scream was called Scary Movie at that time,” he admits. “I remember sending them a 15-page response about what I’d do if I got to direct it, but I missed out to Wes Craven. Deservedly so – he’s the master.”

However, having been given a whiff of a studio breakthrough, Blanks was especially keen to land the next film that came his way, I Know What You Did Last Summer. In order to prove his worth, he created a mock trailer for the yet-to-be-produced feature that he shot on weekends using short-ends of 35mm film. Unfortunately, by the time he submitted his trailer, the film had already been offered to Jim Gillespie. But the producers were impressed. Blanks’ efforts demonstrated that he had the grunt and gumption to bring this thing to cinematic life, and also the commercial nous to produce something the studio could possibly sell.

A year later, Blanks was offered the first in what would become the Urban Legend franchise (1998). He wrangled a budget of approximately US$14 million across a 12-week shoot, grossing around US$38 million in the States alone, which is a decent penny for someone’s feature directorial debut.

Blanks’ cast would consist of heavyweight horror icons like Brad Dourif and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, who is someone he describes as a “pure joy” and fellow “film nerd”: “I love that man so much. I bumped into him a few months after we finished the movie at a midnight screening of John Carpenter’s The Fog in Westwood – yes, that film seems to always come back to me in my life* – so that tells you all you need to know about Robert Englund. He loves what he does.”

Call it blind faith or what you will, but Blanks showed more than just a self-assured grasp of Urban Legend and, despite not penning the screenplay, successfully made it his own with a number of personal references, including the setting of the action in the fictional town of Melbourne, New Hampshire; a direct reference to his birthplace.

Valentine (2001)

He followed up the success of Urban Legend with another teen horror, Valentine (2001), starring Denise Richards and David Boreanaz, which doubled its approximately US$10 million budget in domestic takings. A self-taught musician – he learnt to play the piano by ear after prolifically listening to John Carpenter’s soundtrack of The Fog as a kid – Blanks was eager to compose the music on Valentine but his editor talked him out of it. “We might gain a composer but we’re going to lose the director” was the argument put forward, and Blanks had to agree. But he would eventually work on the music for a number of other film projects, especially when back in Australia.

Post-Valentine was the time when, rather than ride high on the Hollywood tsunami, Blanks surprisingly packed up his bags and hightailed it to Melbourne.

When questioned about this decision, he says, “My son was born in America and we had to make a decision whether we stayed in America and continued developing projects there, or whether we brought him back to get to know his family and grow up in Melbourne. Having grown up in Melbourne myself, this was a really easy decision. As much as we had great friends and we loved LA, I wanted my son to know his family so we came back here.”

It was around this time that Blanks would play his own part in the renaissance of the previously neglected ‘Ozploitation’ cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not only would he appear as himself and contribute as editor and music editor to the Hartley documentary, Not Quite Hollywood, but he was also asked to direct a screenplay called Storm Warning, written by one of the greatest, unrecognised names in Australian cinema, Everett De Roche.

“The script of Storm Warning was one of the few Australian scripts I ever got sent from my manager,” says Blanks. “It had Everett’s name on it, and I said, ‘Well, this is automatically a ‘yes’.”

“We interviewed Everett extensively for Not Quite Hollywood, and I ended up making two films with him before he passed away. I always thought I’d missed out on my chance to make that raw, nasty little independent film but Storm Warning ended up being my chance to do that. Everett wrote that screenplay in the ‘70s so it was kind of like getting to make a ‘70s movie. He had sold it three times. One of the directors who was attached to making it was actually Brian Trenchard-Smith, and he said to me ‘Is the penis fly-trap scene still in the movie?’ Yes, it is. It was my wife who convinced me to go for it and leave that scene in the film.”

Storm Warning (2007)

While American-born, De Roche emigrated to Australia with his wife in his early 20s and transitioned from journalism into screenwriting by way of Crawford Productions; a prolific Australian television company known for its small-screen police dramas such as Division 4, Homicide, Matlock Police and Cop Shop. His feature screenwriting debut was the prophetic nature-gone-wild horror, Long Weekend (1978), directed by his Crawfords cohort Colin Eggleston, and starring Briony Behets and John Hargreaves as the bickering nature haters at its rotten core.

Even though De Roche’s career would stretch across three decades and incorporate the now genre classics Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981), Razorback (1984) and Fortress (1985), Long Weekend would also poetically act as his final film before he succumbed to cancer. How could that be? Because he joined Jamie Blanks in helping him remake Long Weekend in 2008.

“Everett was on-set every single day for both Storm Warning and Long Weekend, explains Blanks. “I always like to have my writers close by. The idea of having someone who knows the script as well as I do… I wanted that. I wanted to discuss things directly with Everett. We got into competitions to see who could come up with the more subversive stuff. Whoever’s idea was the sickest, we’d go with it.”

Blanks enlisted Long Weekend’s original cinematographer, Vincent Monton, as his second unit DP. By this time, Colin Eggleston had already passed away so his family got involved, and Blanks attempted to secure the film’s original co-lead Briony Behets in a cameo that, unfortunately, didn’t work out.

In remaking Long Weekend, Blanks confesses, “I actually wanted to make a much closer adaptation to the original film because there were so many people who had not actually seen it.** It’s an eco-thriller; it’s more relevant in 2008 than it ever was before, so I wanted to stay very faithful to the script.”

“Everett had many things he wanted to change about the story. Some of those things we incorporated but I said I didn’t want to change it so much that it stops resembling the film I loved. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake but it’s a beat-for-beat remake. I’m very proud of that movie and I’m very sad it’s the last time that Everett and I got to work together.”

There are many things that can be said about the Australian film industry but one thing is for sure and patently evident from this discussion: it is a small industry. In extrapolating on his influences, Jamie Blanks makes mention of a book he is currently reading, Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo, which just so happens to have been written by film historian and Associate Editor at Diabolique, Lee Gambin.

“I’m reading Lee Gambin’s book on Cujo at the moment and it is superb,” says Blanks, out of the blue, not realising the connection between Gambin and the person interviewing him. Upon letting Blanks know about the Gambin connection, he says: “Cujo is one of my favourite films so it’s like it was written especially for me. Please tell him [Lee] that I’m loving his book and I’m so pleased I got one of the hardback editions; I’m savouring it.”

Upon telling Blanks about Lee Gambin’s book launch and his presentation on dogs in film, Blanks continues, “I tell you who would have loved that is Everett (De Roche). Everett always had a dog in his movies, and he never wanted anything bad to happen to the dogs. Even in Storm Warning, he wouldn’t let me hurt the dog. ‘C’mon, let Rob Taylor at least kill the dog in Storm Warning because it’s one of the villains’ but Everett said, ‘No, the dog’s not the villain, Jamie – Poppy’s the villain and he gets his just desserts so leave the dog alone [pause]. He would have loved Lee’s Cujo book.”

There’s something about interviewing horror filmmakers that never fails to impress – their passion for life, people and the horror genre is utterly infectious. Jamie Blanks concurs with the observation and he also fits the mould.

“This is why people like Don Coscarelli [director of the Phantasm films] are so awesome – he’s one of my favourite friends in America,” continues Blanks. “People in the genre are just cool people. It’s as simple as that, Emma. They are just good people. There are rarely exceptions to that rule.”

“The people who make horror movies embrace it and they get all their demons out,” concludes Blanks. “It’s a healthy thing to embrace the dark side.”

The Urban Legend Trilogy is now available on Blu-ray from Via Vision – featuring Jamie Blanks’ Urban Legend, Urban Legends: Final Cut (first time on Blu-Ray worldwide) and Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (first time on Blu-Ray worldwide). Bonus materials include audio commentaries, deleted scenes and featurettes.

 

* Blanks confesses to having begged producer Debra Hill to let him direct the remake of The Fog (2005) and she concurred that he was a perfect fit for the project but the decision was out of her hands.

** Blanks originally saw Long Weekend at film school and only got to refresh the experience many years later via a US DVD release because it was not yet available in Australia. Similar to Dark Age, Umbrella released Long Weekend on Blu-ray in Australia in 2017.

About Emma Westwood

Emma Westwood is a writer from Melbourne, and broadcaster on Triple R FM’s Plato’s Cave film criticism program, with an interest in horror and extreme cinema. She is the author of Monster Movies (Pocket Essentials, UK, 2008) and is currently working on a monograph on David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) for the Devil’s Advocates series.

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