Speaking with Diabolique, John Luessenhop recalls a pre-production discussion he had with Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper on the prospect of helming his first action feature, Takers: “He said, ‘There’s nothing on your resume that’s action.’ I said, ‘I shot 25 TV shows of action for America’s Most Wanted. I did a zillion car chases, no problem.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, but I know what you are. I hired you because you’re an art director. I want to see what happens when an art director does an action film.’”
Whether or not a 3D installment of a bankable horror franchise spawned by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre constitutes “high art” or not is a topic of debate perhaps best reserved for another time. But the scenario Luessenhop describes speaks to a larger issue – that is, the plight of a director called upon to subvert the familiarity of genre. Though it’s inevitable that Texas Chainsaw 3D (out from Lionsgate January 4) will revisit some grisly stuff of old to deliver the promises its title makes, the director’s take on cannibalism as a family affair aims more to modernize what the very expectations of said title raise, for midnight movie-goers eager to ring in the new year in horror.
Luessenhop shared with us his thoughts on the power of the original Texas Chain Saw; his reconstruction of its classic tropes; the film’s representation of on-screen violence; and the catch-22 of taking on a name brand project in 3D.
DIABOLIQUE: First, I want to thank you and your film for giving me the first chance to see the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre on the big screen. I was doing a double take during the opening credits, imagining what it must have been like seeing it in theaters when it came out.
JOHN LUESSENHOP: [Laughs] The photography in that movie is very underrated. There’s a lot of poetry in those compositions. Maybe some of the best work Tobe [Hooper] ever did. It was banned for several years in Texas. It didn’t come out till 1980 or ’81. It wasn’t until VHS and DVD and the ancillaries that the film actually started to make money, and was sort of rediscovered in the early 2000s. Now I guess it’s found its way comfortably into the horror elites.
DIABOLIQUE: Directing an actor to play Leatherface is no small undertaking. The character is very much rooted in physicality, so much so that one false move could foil the whole performance. How did you approach directing Dan Yeagar in the role?
LUESSENHOP: Well, I’ll go back to even selecting Dan. I didn’t want a guy who had any sense of a gym body, physically. Dan, if you look at him, he looks like a sort of Midwestern kid. Well, he’s a 45-year-old man. But he’s huge, and imposing, naturally, which is what I wanted. I never [formally] cast the role. I saw him at a Christmas party and I went “I want that guy.” He had a huge forehead, these sunken eyes, and when he stared at something, I really didn’t know where his mind was. To me, Leatherface has a lot of child in him. He was never developed. He was damaged and abused, and never really progressed. But he has some earnest instincts. If someone comes into the house and he thinks he shouldn’t be there, he kills him. If his girl gets away, he needs to go after her, because the last time that happened, he lost his family. If he’s hungry, he eats. When Dan came to work everyday, he never broke character. He stayed in the mode of this mindset throughout the day, until it was time to wrap. He was always ready to perform. We worked on a walk that would be persuasive. It was part of his routine.
LUESSENHOP: Well, at the end of the original, Leatherface saws his own leg by accident. The saw cuts his pants and tears up his thigh. So, from that, we thought we should give him some kind of lurching limp. He can run, but it’s always awkward. He doesn’t look like a kid who’d do well in PE class. [Laughs] We did a lot of videotaping where we just had him walk, and worked from that to find him. One of the questions I always had to ask myself when I was making the picture was, “How would Leatherface have evolved over the decades? What would he be that’s truthful to the original?” He’d be a little more stubborn now, set in his ways. He’d be a man now, instead of an 18-year-old, or 20-year-old, or whatever. A little more grizzled. He maybe has a little more confidence when he wants to do something. Things that would make you go, “Is that the same Leatherface that was in Tobe’s movie, but now older?”
DIABOLIQUE: You mentioned Leatherface’s childlike qualities. Here, he’s probably the most humanized we’ve seen him in the history of the franchise.
LUESSENHOP: Well, in the original movie, when he kills the fourth kid, he goes to the window, and he does fret. He shows remorse and regret, and also some anxiety and trepidation that “Drayton’s coming home! What do I do? Have I screwed up? I don’t know.” After killing these people, we spend a good two minutes with him at the window, like a kid looking out like, “Did I do something wrong? I spilled milk,” or something. That was my cue that he could be humanized.
DIABOLIQUE: The moment in the kitchen at the end of your film re-creates Leatherface as a tragic, Frankenstein-esque figure. There’s a sense that his “evil” isn’t inexplicable, but rather that it’s constructed by all the carnage happening around him.
LUESSENHOP: For me, it was a Beauty and the Beast moment – but this beast isn’t tamed. He’s still lethal. He still has his barriers. Touching the face, going beyond the mask… He’s not ready to do that. This dog doesn’t do that. He drew the line. And that’s where I wanted to leave it. [He and Heather, played by Alexandra Daddario] are a little off balance, but they’re still accepting of each other. They’re a family [laughs]. It sounds cliché, but that’s what it is. I wanted to separate Leatherface from the Michael Myers and Freddy Kruegers of the world, which are nightmare characters. This guy’s a nightmare, but he’s a little more accessible to us. In the first script I ever saw when I got involved with this project, Leatherface walked into town and deflected bullets with his chainsaw. It actually helped me, because I felt that they had blown it up so big, that I knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t Terminator. It was gonna stay grounded in this small-town Texas thing, and this house.
To me, one of the challenges to the script was “How are we going to end this movie?” The easy way out is the girl gets away, obviously, whatever obstacles you put in front of her. Or, is there something more we could do? So we said “Let’s create an arc for the girl, and her longing for family.” A lot of people would take their own family, whatever their dysfunction or flaws, over a fake family, or no family. Once we cracked that, we went back and layered all these things with Heather saying, “I just wonder where I fit in,” and finally emerging, “I’m a Sawyer!” It was hard, because the story really takes place in about 24 hours. But I think it’s ended on a more provocative place, instead of, you know, the monster died, or the girl got away. I’m proud that we teed it off to go for additional installments. I wanted to revisit the original, but also break new ground. I really didn’t care about any of the other installments, outside of the original. The original was my piece of ground that I went from.
DIABOLIQUE: The news media’s recent coverage of increasingly escalating gun violence in America tends to scapegoat films that depict rough violence as factors to blame. Texas Chainsaw 3D isn’t shy in the way of the violence, but it almost seems to be anti-violence, or at least satirizing violent attitudes. I laughed out loud when I heard that “God Will Fuck You Up” song…
LUESSENHOP: [Laughs] I loved it when I heard it too. I picked that song before we ever filmed it. It wasn’t in the script. If the genre didn’t have all 90-minute movies, I would have used more of that montage, and more of the song. Also, knocking off that Louis Prima song, “Closer to the Bone,” at the end, and turning it into a rock song was really fun – to rewrite the lyrics, but then keep the hook.
The thing is, when you go and do a movie like this, all your friends call you up and they say “Look man, I’ll be in it for free! Can I be killed by Leatherface? Let me come down, I swear, I just wanna come down! Can I be killed?” And they didn’t understand – I wanted a very low body count. That was intentional, because it desensitizes the audience if he just goes around and everybody gets killed. Leatherface is not a sociopath that way. He doesn’t need to kill. He doesn’t desire to kill. That’s just kind of what happens. Where we did have violence, I did that to be true to the genre and to Texas Chain Saw, and I tried to differentiate the deaths, so they’d at least be novel in some respect. But I used the violence only where it suited the genre. Beyond that, I didn’t want to make it all about that. We shot our film before Aurora and the Connecticut tragedies. I still don’t think we influence it. This movie is sort of a franchise – it’s accepted for what it is. I don’t think people would go out and do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Having said that, I do think Hollywood needs to be more responsible. I’m in the conundrum [laughs]!
DIABOLIQUE: It’s always that way. But it is easy to point fingers at filmmakers depicting violence, as opposed to those who are actually going out and committing it.
LUESSENHOP: I think it’s actually role-playing, a little bit of fantasy, when you do show it to them and they don’t have to go do it. They’re getting to act it out, or participate in it, and that’s that. I could be wrong, but I don’t know.
DIABOLIQUE: In terms of the gore gags themselves, what was your approach to shooting those as a first time horror director – not from a moral standpoint, but an aesthetic one?
LUESSENHOP: I wanted them all to be different. So the audience can go “Oh, remember the deputy who gets killed up in the kitchen?” versus the other guy being pounded with the hammer outside the door. I didn’t want to do Hostel. That was one of my comments to the producer when we started: “I’m not gonna go there.” That’s not to criticize Eli [Roth] at all, but I think the audiences have seen so much of that shock gore, that they’re past it. There’s nothing incredible you can show them anymore. Each kill was supposed to be special, so that there wasn’t just blood laying everywhere. It was intended to build. We made sure that each person went further and further into the house, until the deputy went all the way in. That way, you always have a curiosity as to what really is down there. It was really fun to use the sounds from the original. I use the camera wind from the original Texas to get to the basement, rather than really show anyone being dragged, or whatever.
Shooting a scene out of focus, man – that’s risky. I did that on purpose. That wasn’t done in post [laughs]. When you’re flying home after filming something and go “Boy, what if I get in the editing room and really needed that focus?” It’s too late, man. I already made a decision, and what if I don’t like it?
DIABOLIQUE: Shooting in 3D has become a staple of slasher flicks in some capacity. What’s your takeaway from shooting this film in that format?
LUESSENHOP: I approached it by watching animation films, like Coraline, that just have beautiful 3D, and are so easy on the eye. I also watched films I didn’t like, which I won’t reference. But I said, “Let’s just create a cool world in 3D – not drop the movie on the audience’s lap from frame one.” That way, when you do have any of the extreme moments, they can stand out. You can’t have fast until you’ve had slow. You can’t have sudden until you’ve had lethargic. Building a cool world makes these other elements pop later. It did take some discipline to know when to say no, and to use other elements later. I made a different lens choice than I did on my previous film, Takers, which is long-lensed and Michael Manned and glossed. Here, it was more Citizen Kane, so that when you did 3D, it was in focus. You could look around, your eye could explore it. You make fewer cuts, and you can sustain a take. I wanted 3D to be easier to watch; that you’re watching a movie, and suddenly you forget that it’s in 3D, except that it looks kind of interesting.
Using the equipment is a whole other journey, for any filmmaker. You can’t go as fast as you’ll go with 2D. There’s no way. A lot of days, it would be over 100 hundred degrees, and the cameras would conk out. They’re digital. We had to put ice on them to cool them down, like they had a headache, and then bring them back to life. On these movies, the budgets are never that great, so you can’t afford to lose two hours. The whole thing is already crammed in there. 3D becomes a challenge that way. I don’t think I was ever a big fan of 3D. I wasn’t a big fan coming into this film, and if someone asked me to see another 3D movie, I would have to look long and hard on whether that would make sense for that particular film.
DIABOLIQUE: Before I saw Texas Chainsaw 3D, I was desperately making sure it was actually shot in 3D, rather than converted.
LUESSENHOP: [Laughs] Oh, we didn’t convert anything. 3ality, their rig on which we mounted the cameras, really is a remarkable piece of equipment. Now I’m finding out that everyone’s using it – Peter Jackson on Hobbit, Amazing Spider-Man used it. Anything after that, you’re in the B-land of Hollywood, or the Valley.
DIABOLIQUE: In any case, 3D originated as a gimmick to begin with.
LUESSENHOP: [Laughs] Yeah, it is!
DIABOLIQUE: I’m still shocked when directors come out in favor of 3D being this revolutionary medium. It’s always been Incredible Shrinking Man, Creature From the Black Lagoon…
LUESSENHOP: It was a gimmick when it started – back when the seats shook and the theater smelled – to bring you into the movie. I think it works for the genre. It can, arguably, be overused. I’m not one of those filmmakers who say everything should be 3D. I’m the opposite. You need to be very selective with what you pick for it.
DIABOLIQUE: You had some tenured character actors come onto this project – Bill Moseley, Thom Barry – but the film also marks Marilyn Burns and Gunnar Hansen’s first acting turns in over 20 years.
LUESSENHOP: That was warming. These are the people part of the original, which made it into the pantheon, and they had been discarded. They were never in any follow-ups. They were just cast aside. They were very happy to participate, and finally be part of it again. Marilyn had a lot of energy, and information about what happened on the first one. They were a bunch of kids when they made that movie. They were all 23, 24, 25, all told by Tobe to go out to this house in Austin or wherever and shoot this movie [laughs]. I don’t think that they ever knew it would be this.
It’s like a 45-year-old going back and seeing their teenage room at home. When Gunnar got out of the van, walked up the driveway and saw the house built back to scale, he stopped. This was something for him to digest. To me, it’s a set. For him, it was this nostalgia – “I can walk into the house and touch things… Oh that’s right, that’s where the chicken was! You’re right! I remember going to this room…” No one asked him to play Leatherface again, after the first one. For him to be included, he did brighten. It felt good.
Moseley was great. He’s a link to a lot of the history of all of it. He knew the actor who played Drayton the first time around. Bill’s just a cool guy anyway, that I enjoyed working with. It brought some continuity from the original into what we’re doing now, which is all I ever wanted to do. I’m not dismissive of the other films, but they don’t have nearly the impact that the original had on me. I discarded them. I didn’t care about following up any of their stories, plots, facts, or anything.
DIABOLIQUE: What were their reactions to the more knowing homages you shot – the freezer moment, the armadillo?
LUESSENHOP: They weren’t there for that. But just to comment on that – the freezer, the armadillo, the use of a van… There’s tons of them. When I saw the original, I saw about ten things I liked, and I shook it like a salt shaker and threw it on top of the script, and said “Let’s find places for this.” The bodies being put up on hooks – I mean, when Pam was put up on a hook in the original, it just freaked me out. I said, “I’ve gotta do that again.” I just wanted to reshuffle the deck.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you suspect you’ll be returning to genre work anytime soon?
LUESSENHOP: I do want to, but I want to do something that’s not an easy knockoff. I want to do something that’s a little fresher, and a little more intelligent. I’d like to stay with Texas. I don’t know if I’d direct, but I’d like to participate in crafting where it goes from here, so that we can evolve it without being unfaithful to it. That’s a tough balancing act, but I do want to open up the canvas for it. I’m proud of where we left it, however it goes forward, but it begs for another part of the story. We’ll see where we can go from there. I didn’t know anything about horror when I started this stuff. I knew The Shining, I knew The Omen, I knew The Exorcist. But I didn’t know Rob Zombie, I didn’t know what Eli Roth’s work was, I didn’t know Neil Marshall. And I love what these guys have done. They work with little money, but they make social statements, they make sexual statements, they make comments on things – either with a wink, or about very personal things that they were afraid of in life. On level one, it’s a horror movie and it’s “Who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die?,” but then it’s other little statements, with shadows. It’s a remarkable medium.
– By Max Weinstein