Body Count Rising: Besides “Combat Shock” (American Nightmares) being based on a Suicide song, were any of your other films based on music?
Buddy Giovinazzo: No, and I never thought of “Combat Shock” as based on music. Frankie Teardrop (Suicide’s song) just had such a narrative visual story. I remember I used to sit in my friend’s attic getting high and I just saw this incredible film where we could tell about this poor guy in such a dire situation. I listened to that album maybe a thousand times, who knows? You can feel the obvious influences on the film: “Taxi Driver” and “Eraserhead.” Those were made by filmmakers I admire and as a young filmmaker you try to model your films after the ones you respect. Ten years went by before anyone got the connection between “Combat Shock” and Frankie Teardrop, and when the person confronted me I had to laugh.
Body Count Rising: Was Suicide your favorite band?
Buddy Giovinazzo: I wouldn’t say that necessarily. They were interesting and unique. They certainly had their place. I used to live on East 4th Street, so I lived right around the corner from CBGB, although I’d never seen them in concert. I’d go there about once a week. I played there. The music video on the Combat Shock DVD was footage of the band I was in, Circus 2000 A.D. The people at CBGB didn’t really understand us, but they liked us. They knew we were good, so they gave us Tuesday nights at midnight. We never got a weekend. It was a weird scene, and really disgusting, but there was just something so authentic about it. The bathroom was probably the most repulsive place on earth. The dressing room hadn’t been changed since the 60’s so everyone had their name in there. The walls were just covered with signatures, and curses, and poems, and just… everything. It was always cool hanging out there and being a part of punk history.
Body Count Rising: What are the most amazing performances you’ve seen at CBGB?
Buddy Giovinazzo: There were two. One was a punk rock violinist that dressed up as the invisible man. He was really great. The other was an artist named Joe Coleman. He had this show where he put a garbage can over his head and lit firecrackers so they would be flying all around his body. As long as you had a good act that wasn’t disco, CBGB would let you perform. There was really a lot of variety.
Body Count Rising: In your film “Unscarred” you stated Berlin is going to be Europe’s New York. Does it remind you of a throwback 70s New York or the new sanitized version?
Buddy Giovinazzo: It’s definitely the old school New York feel. Here anything goes as long as you’re not hurting anybody. It’s a tremendous wild freedom, although it is changing. In the past few years it’s become more expensive.
Body Count Rising: Is that why you’re so comfortable there?
Buddy Giovinazzo: It is. When I first moved here I didn’t know any German and I didn’t know anybody. I was doing a film called “No Way Home.” We had a screening for the film in Berlin and it just felt like the Lower East Side of New York; like home and where I loved to be. That was about twenty years ago.
Here’s a look at Buddy’s Berlin from outside his window on New Year’s Eve 2016.
Body Count Rising: They say write what you know. How much of what you write is autobiographical?
Buddy Giovinazzo: Probably all of it to a degree, but it is fictionalized too. You know I’ve always been fascinated by “those people” and I hear “Oh yeah, that could never happen” but these situations do happen. There’s always that one person that can’t get food stamps, or for whatever reason can’t get welfare. They can’t survive in the system and they fall through the cracks. I give them a voice. “Life is Hot in Cracktown” (the film and the book) was based on when I was living in New York’s Lower East Side.
There were these gang members that took over this old guy’s house. The old guy was on welfare and Medicare and the gang members would come in and use his house like a club, exactly like what was in the book. They would come in, beat the hell out of him, threaten him, smash everything and take his checks, money and medication, and they had done this for months. A social worker was in the building to see someone else and saw these four guys coming out of the old guy’s apartment and knew something wasn’t right. She went in and saw what happened, called the cops and the four gang members got arrested. It turns out they were 12 year-olds.
I worked nights, anywhere from 10 at night to 4 in the morning, right next to Radio City Music Hall on the west side and I would walk to work. Every night coming and going I would pass these houses, and there would be these little kids out there with everyone who was getting drunk and stoned. One time when I was walking, I saw a little girl sleeping on the concrete steps with her little brother sitting next to her and that was just an image that I never forgot. I wondered where the mother was and I figured she was somewhere strung out. But that’s how “Cracktown” came about… just living there and seeing it.
The “transvestite hookers” down the street were interesting because they weren’t really considered women or men and society didn’t have a place for them back then. I never directly involved myself or talked to anyone. I didn’t know any people in these situations personally. That’s why it’s fiction. I would just imagine “What is it like when she goes home?” I think its fantastic transsexual people are more accepted by society today. I think we’re heading in the right direction.
Body Count Rising: Your films have a trademark grimy tone and feel. Is this achieved with filters, through editing, with set design or is it something else?
Buddy Giovinazzo: It’s the set, the location and the way the actors are performing. It’s all in the detail of how the character comes across, and that can be achieved without a huge budget. Plus, I don’t generally have a lot of time while shooting. In “No Way Home” I had the most time out of all my films, which was 36 shooting days. Generally I have two weeks, so it’s important to be organized and get everything established right away. It’s all done on set. Because I have the experience of managing time in this way, I can add desired effects to a film that others who are not used to working on such a tight shooting schedule potentially couldn’t.
Body Count Rising: You’ve had to make many cuts to your films. Do you continue to have trouble with the MPAA?
Buddy Giovinazzo: The MPAA was really hard on "Combat Shock" and Troma didn’t want to cut my film. Now, the MPAA gave “Cracktown” and R rating; even the director’s cut, which was surprising because the opening was pretty hard. I actually get more resistance from the company than the MPAA. The producers approve the script, they approve the cast, they approve everything and then when they see the film it’s always harder than they imagined.
Body Count Rising: Your films are definitely a dark slap of reality. Do you consider your films a brand of horror?
Buddy Giovinazzo: Yes, somewhat. My audience is a horror audience. “Cracktown” was a financial disaster because the mainstream audience couldn’t get past it being so disturbing. The only problem the horror audience might have is that my films aren’t truly horror films. If you wanted to see a traditional horror film, you’d be disappointed because they’re not really horror, even though my films are horrifying.
Body Count Rising: You teach cinema in New York and Germany. What is the most rewarding part of teaching for you?
Buddy Giovinazzo: New York was tough because at the time it was trendy to take a film course. Back then you were shooting on film instead of digital, so it was quite costly. Not to say that digital is necessarily better. You can have a $2,000 film now that never should have been shot because there’s no story and they have nothing to say. The most rewarding part is when you get a bunch of good students. Then it never feels like work.
Body Count Rising: What advice would you have for a filmmaker just starting out?
Buddy Giovinazzo: I would say that you need to have something to say. I keep seeing the same film over and over where the protagonist is just mean and nasty, but they don’t have a reason. They’re not mad at the government, society or anything relatable, so the audience can’t empathize. They’re just unhappy for seemingly no reason and it comes off two dimensional and flat. Also tell the truth. In film we see characters trying so hard to win the audience over. Often we like characters despite the fact that they don’t necessarily want us to like them. That’s a quality that I think more filmmakers could use. I’ve had to correct my actors who were always smiling. I told them your smile should be like a gift. Only smile when you truly have a reason to smile. I’d say the same thing about when an actor wants to cry. They think if they cry it will make the audience feel sad, but going against what the audience would expect and fighting back tears when you should be crying can come off as something really powerful. It’s so much more touching to watch someone who should cry, but doesn’t.
Buddy is currently working on a TV show pilot for a 10-hour series for Cinemax, stating he had been brainstorming, writing and planning some time before the network showed an interest. When the series is picked up, he’ll take an extended visit to the US for filming, but Berlin will always be home.
View Buddy’s projects on his IMDb, Wikipedia or follow him on Facebook.