Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chapter IV: The Unseen

Code Red released The Unseen on DVD in August 2008. People involved with the project are on the DVD: Anthony Unger, Stephen Furst, Craig Reardon and Tom Burman. There is a lot of (mostly negative) talk about the director and the writer of The Unseen: Danny Steinmann, but no word from Danny himself on the project. Danny has not spoken about the project in any great detail since he took his name off the film and used a ‘Peter Foleg’ psuedonym. Until now.

Danny Steinmann: Back home, Stan Winston and I remained the best of friends. We were both great fans of Jerry Lewis and were constantly imitating him. We couldn’t get through a meal without both of us being overcome by hysterical laughter. Stan would secretly stuff food in his mouth and begin to tell me his opinions on the nuclear arms race while big chunks of food would fly out of his mouth. We acted like 12-year-olds and loved it.

On rare occasions, we got serious and talked about doing a movie together. He would produce and I would direct. The idea we came up with is about a middle-aged couple that pose as husband and wife who are actually brother and sister. They have an overgrown child who has not developed mentally and is kept in the cellar. Add to that three young women who become guests in their incestuous, secluded home and soon are targets by an unseen force. The Unseen, being the overgrown man-child who lives in the cellar and is sadly an innocent killer.

We hired a writer who we thought could do a formidable job, Michael Grace. A month later we received a script that ignored our concept, was not understandable and contained dialogue written by an idiot. We paid him in full and literally threw him out of the house. There’s more to be said a bit later about this no-talent asshole.

About this time, my marriage was coming apart. We went to a marriage counselor, which only made things worse. We were getting a divorce. Shit!

Stan and I decided to open up an office in Hollywood. He insisted that I could write the screenplay. I tried to work with Kim Henkel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) on the script but had accomplished nothing. So I was deposited in a hotel and told I couldn’t leave until the script was finished. A production assistant came by each day with notes on the pages that I had written. I completed a first draft in about ten days. Stan was pleased. It wasn’t half-bad. We now could look for investors and begin casting.

Stan told his friend Tom Burman (make-up man for Planet of the Apes) about our project. Burman liked the script and asked us to stop by his studio. I had cast Stephen Furst (Animal House) as The Unseen. His improv audition was impressive. Tom had made a small clay sculpture of Stephen in diapers. I thanked him and asked if he would think of any action or bits of behavior that The Unseen might do.

A couple of days later he gave me a page and a half of suggested movements for Stephen; hiding behind garbage, splashing water that was on the floor with his hand over and over again and playing with an electric outlet. We thanked him and appreciated his thoughts. But more about Tom Burman a bit later.

My father had invested some seed money into our work. He gathered a few of his investor friends and told Stan and I to come to New York for a meeting to help finance the film. We did but there were no takers.

Stan was very concerned about being unemployed and needed the cash back that he had fronted the project. He had a wife and two beautiful kids to support. My father gave him back all the money that he had spent. Now I was on my own desperately looking for backers. I met with studio executives, independent producers and financiers.

Eli Landau, a producer with major credits said he could package the movie if I would cast James Mason (one of my all-time favorite actors) and Claire Bloom as the brother and sister/father and mother. I said no. I said no? The reason being I only saw Sydney Lassick in the lead. I had written the script with him in mind. One of the dumbest moves I’ve ever made. Imagine turning down James Mason. His performance in Lolita is one of the all-time great works in film. Who was I? Nobody.

And along came Tony Unger, who had produced some decent films. He claimed he could raise the money and produce the picture. He thought I had a hot property that he could finance by pre-selling it to foreign markets. He and his partner only needed a name actor that was known throughout Europe. My dad, lovingly, was still in as an investor. Finally, Barbara Bach, she was one of the Bond girls. I forget which picture she was in.

Jeff Cramer: The Spy Who Loved Me.

DS: The Spy Who Loved Me?

JC: Yes.

DS: She would star, which helped secure the financing.

Tony and I put a cast and crew together and were finally getting ready to go. For some reason I felt secure. I never had any doubts I wouldn’t be able to direct this script into a decent horror film that audiences might like. I had lived with the project for over two years. Promises broken, expectations that were never met, and lie after lie. Anytime these two words are spoken to you, run away as fast as you can. “Trust Me.”

Principal photography began and things were going well. All departments were doing good jobs. The rushes looked excellent and the DP was super. Tony was pleased and the actors were performing nicely.

Barbara Bach was a sweetheart. She’s an intelligent woman and a wonderful mother. Her acting experience was minimal but she performed valiantly. She would often ask after a take, “Was that okay, Was it what you wanted?” And she’s drop-dead gorgeous. She was bruised and battered once or twice during filming but never complained. After being dragged down the cellar stairs quite a few times, she never objected and insisted on doing it herself.

The next day I was told that she was badly bruised and in considerable pain. I went to her trailer and asked to see the damage. Large portions of the skin on her back were blood red and inflamed. I was responsible. I wanted to shoot around her for a few days to give a little time for her injury to heal. She was quite adamant about continuing on schedule and was on the set in a few hours.

As The Unseen was being shot, I was going through a painful divorce and child custody case. My son was ten and a complete joy. He was on the set a few times and was stoked.

Meanwhile I began to have problems with Sydney Lassick. He was having trouble remembering his lines and looked and felt uncomfortable onscreen. I had a bunch of pep talks with him and he seemed to lighten up, gaining confidence. One time he pulled me aside and claimed he couldn’t do the kissing scene. He told me he was gay, which I obviously knew. He said he was repulsed by the kiss and begged me to find another way. I told him that the actress playing the part of his sister was really a man. I made him swear he wouldn’t reveal the secret to anyone. Overjoyed, he gave me a big hug and flitted away. After shooting the scene, the actress playing his sister told me that Sydney tried to French kiss her.

Shooting in Solvang was a bit awkward. The three young women played a news team covering the Solvang festival. We had to shoot the celebration one month before principal photography began. We only had this one day to get what we needed. The town knew that a feature film was there to shoot the parade and all other activities that were taking place. About midday, one of the town elders ordered us to stop shooting. Somehow, he had discovered that we were filming a horror movie and told us to leave. He was paid off and we finished shooting. Money always works.

My biggest mistake was not shooting the cellar scenes on a soundstage. I could have done it in half the time. Instead, I needed 14 or 15 days on location. The cellar was claustrophobic. The air was heavy and damp. There were pillars that we had to shoot around and it was very difficult to light the set. The cast and crew were not pleased with this environment and neither was I but we all worked hard and survived.

I tried to create enough suspense and moments of horror to satisfy the audience. I am an avid sci-fi and horror film buff. I knew that there were elements in the horror genre that, if executed well, would surprise and shock most horror fans.

Although this was soft-core horror, I felt the lack of blood and guts would not be missed because I put great emphasis on making the viewer feel at ease just when a shadow crosses in front of the lens. I spent time with and without actors, shooting enigmatic points of view to maximize the payoff. More on this later.

As the picture was ending and I reviewed the individual sequences that had been shot and included the sound and music to be added in my head, I thought that I had done alright. I believed that there were at least five or six moments of jolting horror that the audience would react to and more importantly, feel both rage and sadness toward the demise of this strange family.

As the picture wrapped, I was told by Tony Unger to take three or four days off and be rested for the most creative aspect of movie making, in which I felt the most skilled; editing. Anxious as I was to get started, I took Tony’s advice and crashed.

Three days later, I went to the screening room to see the last day’s rushes. When the lights were turned down and the first images appeared onscreen, my nightmare began. I was watching a fine cut of my film which I barely recognized. The producers had hired a European editor as I began principal photography and instructed him to cut the film scene by scene. Each completed episode would then be screened, commented on and then fine cut. This was done behind my back so as not to create an explosion which they knew was coming. As I watched silently, my only thought was, “Who do I kill first?”

When the lights were finally turned on, I remained silent. Unger quickly explained that the Cannes Film Festival was only a month away. They knew they had a winner and would cash in big time at Cannes where films were bought and sold to individual countries. He said my father had been consulted from the beginning and enthusiastically supported the decision. Tony’s partner claimed that the film was terrific and the editor had done a masterful job. I somehow didn’t react at all and left.

In the book, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, the main character, Howard Roark, was an architect who created innovative apartment and office buildings, which were turned into cheap, common, and unsafe monstrosities by greedy builders. Roark’s only option was to burn and destroy these abominations. I’m certainly not comparing his wonderful talent to mine, just that my film was turned into an abortion by greedy, lowlife cocksuckers. The Unseen became slow, bland and tame with no suspense, no scares.

For the next two nights until dawn, I sat in my car, heart racing, parked a block away from the editing room, small cans of gasoline riding shotgun. It’s truly some kind of small miracle when an independent film gets made. I had to let go or people would get hurt and I would spend the rest of my life in prison or worse. Believe me, these are not just words. I almost did some very bad things.

So I took my name off the film. Not being permitted to cut my own movie even now reeks of insanity. I had the answers, they chose to ignore that fact; instead the picture was left on the editing room floor.

I went to New York and got a call from the Writers’ Guild of America about three weeks later. It seems that when I took my name off the film, the WGA released this fact in the trades and were contacted by four people claiming to be the true writers of The Unseen.

Michael Grace, Kim Henkel, Tom Burman and a young girl who was a production assistant on the film all came to a meeting at the Writers’ Guild to make their case. Outside of Burman’s page and a half of behavior by The Unseen, I wrote every line, every word of the script. I’m not very proud of it. I think it’s an average vehicle with many flaws but I wrote every fucking word.

As a result of the meeting, they all received a writer’s credit. Ready for the punch line? Michael Grace, this low-life, piece of shit scumbag was awarded and paid $50,000.

I really should be on death row right now. Sadly, I trust noone. Always on guard and alert. These are memories that should have remained dead and buried. That the picture tanked is no surprise. I’ve never seen it.

A transcript of Unger’s comments on the new DVD was recently sent to me. This tub of guts better hope he stays deep in the shadows. Friends have told me that he and his partner have done very well with The Unseen and have received a nice paycheck recently from the sale of the new DVD with extras. Neither my brother nor I have received a check! For shame, Tony, you’ve been a very bad boy. Webs of deceit! Not nice. You need a good spanking.

JC: What does the pseudonym Peter Foleg stand for?

DS: Peter is my brother’s name and Foleg is Gelof spelled backwards and Gelof is my mother’s maiden name.

JC: What made you choose Solvang?

DS: I liked the idea of the women coming to a place that was full of life, fun and visually exciting and slowly entering a world full of nightmares and death.

JC: Why did you want Sydney Lassick so bad that you chose him over James Mason? Lassick has a creepy cartoonish look to him, but at the same time, he is a bit effeminate, so I'm curious why you saw him as a father figure.

DS: I don't think Ely Landau ever offered the part to James Mason or to Claire Bloom; though he thought they were available and would agree to do the picture. I can't think of any reason why I dismissed his offer; it baffles me. While I was writing the script, I kept thinking of Sydney Lassick for the role; I saw him as an innocent, funny character. Problem was that I had not seen any work by him playing an evil, sadistic psychopath. In time, I discovered that no matter how I prepared him for the role, he wouldn't be able to deliver. Sheer idiocy on my part.

As to Sydney's effeminate side, I believed at the time it would create another level of mystery for the audience to consider.

JC: Many people, including myself, wonder why Stephen Furst did this film shortly after Animal House. In other words, what attracted Furst to the film?

DS: I'm afraid you're going to have to ask Stephen. I suppose when a person is very good in a role and can perform a part so well- so effortlessly, you would want to display your craft to an audience. It was an extremely challenging part and that might have affected his decision.

JC: The reason Unger claims he took you away from the editing room were for two reasons. The first is that you had an agreement with them when he agreed to finance the film? Do you recall any agreement or signing a contract? The second reason is that you were taking forever to edit the film. They didn’t have the time and budget to wait. What happened?

DS: Motherfucker!! I never cut the film. I had nothing at all to do with the fucking finished product. Let me say it a little differently, I never cut the fucking film!! Their objective was to get the film to Cannes as quickly as possible. Unger and Goldfarb thought that they had a very saleable picture; they thought I was not needed to cut my own film. As far as signing a contract stating that I knew the film had to be released by a certain date, they're full of shit. Let me say in it a different way, they're full of shit!!

JC: Unger also claims that the actress Lois Young, who had the nude bathtub scene, had problems with full frontal nudity. Do you remember that?

DS: Yeah. Lois Young was eager to do the nude bathtub scene. She had a very cute body and gave me no indication whatsoever that she was unwilling to show it. As a matter of fact, after the dailies were shown, she asked me to please reshoot the scene; she wasn't happy about the way she looked. Was it the lighting? The make-up? I don’t know, but I found time during the next few days to reshoot the scene. She saw the dailies and was very pleased. Hey Unger, stay deep in the shadows pal.

JC: The first death; Junior jumps out of one of the grates and starts to drag the girl, Lois Young, into the grate with him. She resists and the grate door falls on her neck, breaking it and killing her. While this is going on, the film crosscuts with a chicken getting its head cut off. Was that your decision?

DS: Okay, you’ve hit on a big mistake that I regret. There's no way for Junior to exit that grate in the bedroom. He's just too big. You got me. Crosscutting between this scene, and what's taking place in the barn, is indeed in the script.

I wonder how the editor cut these scenes. I filmed a series of shots of chickens at rest. Then as the chicken is grabbed, individual shots of chickens beginning to cluck. Back to the girl being grabbed. We only hear the sounds of the chickens rising sharply. Back to the barn. Pan across a series of chickens flapping their wings. The sounds of them clucking wildly continue as the chicken is put on the chopping block. Back to the girl, the chicken noises are stifling, she is pulled down, and the grate severs her neck. Back to the barn as the chicken's head is cut off while the noise of the chickens are at its height. Cut to the exterior of the house. Silence. Just a few birds. Cut to the exterior of the barn. Silence. Only the wind.

JC: I’m curious to know the actor’s name who did the voice of the father.

DS: The actor who played the father – forgive me, I don’t remember his name, but when I was a kid in the '50s, this gentleman was on a TV series called The Millionaire. Each week he gave away a million dollars to some deserving family. It wasn't a game show; it was a fictional TV series. While writing the monologue, I thought of him as the father. His voice was unique.

That scene was fine cut in my head; I had a variety of tricks and jolts that would add to the impact of the history of this sick family. Remembering and commentating on this mess is not very easy. As a matter of fact, it's very painful.

JC: Stephen Furst has said people have come up to him and asked him to sign Unseen posters. Some people have told him that’s one of their favorite films. He’s also heard from a restaurant that has a “Junior” night where they only serve chicken. What would your reaction be if you met one of these fans?

DS: That I’m very grateful. Remember, I shot every piece of footage in that movie. But in post-production, in the editing room, you can possibly make a bad film fair, a fair film good, and a good film very good. The reverse is also true. So much of The Unseen is in the presentation; the sounds, opticals, and crisp editing add to the quality of the piece. Creativity and imagination are what’s lacking. The jolt-scare moments must be set up. A sudden eight-frame musical blare at the right moment can lift you from your seat. But it’s enough already for The Unseen. It was more than 25 years ago and you can’t change the past.


Carrigon said...

Thanks for this interview. That old film has always stuck with me. I think Stephen Furst did such an amazing job that it's really his performance that stands the test of time. He should have gotten an award for that role.

It's a shame Danny got so screwed over. I believe it. It happens all the time in the entertainment industry. I guess he doesn't feel like remaking it. But I would love to see a remake of this film with his original vision in tact.

Phantom of Pulp said...

What a fuckin tragedy the way Danny got treated.

Typical of the film industry (I've had my own experiences!)

Congrats to you, Jeff, and Danny, for your candid recalling of THE UNSEEN's production history.

This is a monumental interview.