I wanted to call Donald Farmer the King of the SOV, but I thought before I throw around monikers I'd better double check the internet and make sure there was no one else already holding that title. Of course the first result was Jesus Christ. Now I can't say I've seen any of Jesus' SOVs, but you know, he probably has all the best equipment and you know he lands the sickest shots with perfect lighting and sound each time, so I guess I can't argue with the internet. It appears the title of "Prince of the SOV" hasn't been taken, so now I will bestow it on Donald Farmer. Donald, the Prince of the SOV. This is less ceremonious than I expected... and on with the interview.
Body Count Rising: You started making movies in the 70s where you shot on 8mm, and then you transitioned to SOVs in the 80s and digital in the 90s and today. Has you vision also evolved with your medium?
Donald Farmer: If it's up to me and I have total control over a movie, I'll always prefer to do horror movies. There are times I just work as a director for hire for other producers, and in those cases they call the shots. Although I try to steer the movie as far in my direction as I can, and get as much leeway as they'll let me. A friend hired me to do a murder mystery, but he seemed pretty agreeable to letting me sleaze it up as much as I could, so I tried to push it in the direction that the people who like my movies would kind of expect. There was no compromising with the producer for the civil war movie I did. It had to be PG level, and he wouldn't let me do anything that would exceed that ratings level. He was really strict on that. So with producers, sometimes you can bend them, and sometimes you can't.
Body Count Rising: Gotcha!
Donald Farmer: That's why I always say it's better to be your own producer. When we did “Chainsaw Cheerleaders” I had this producer who put up all of the money for it, but even then, paying for the whole film, he was agreeable to anything we wanted to do. He was one of those producers that gave you the money and didn't make a lot of demands. They just let you do what you're going to do. He did, however, have to approve the casting, and sign off on the title. I suggest three different titles, and “Chainsaw” was the one he picked. Once we had the cast in place, though, I could pretty much do anything I wanted.
Other producers have been way more controlling. We had this guy who was going to give us $750,000 to make three movies, but he wanted to be the lead in them. So yeah, some have conditions, and some just stand by and let you do what you're going to do. I'd rather do a cheap movie with total control then something bigger budget with stipulations. I don't like shooting long hours nowadays. I prefer to get my cast together one day a week, and just shoot a couple of scenes. But when you're working with somebody else's money you don't have that luxury. When I'm using my own money, though, I'll shoot at a leisurely pace.
Body Count Rising: And with the less costly movie you have the chance to make the most profit too...
Donald Farmer: It's all about the cheap movies. The more expensive ones almost never turn a profit. If your budget is way more expensive than it should be for the market simply put you're not going to make your money back. The corner of the market is now Blu-Rays & DVDs, so if you spend a quarter of a million you're not going to turn a profit. It helps if you have some recognizable names in it, not just B-grade actors. It's just not going to make much of a dent unless it's something like the “Blair Witch Project”. That guy who wanted us to make the three films for him had a chance to produce the “Blair Witch”, but eventually he passed on it, so that was a sad day for him.
Body Count Rising: So was it Eduardo (Sanchez) he was working with?
Donald Farmer: It was Neal Fredericks. He was our camera operator, but he went on to be the director of photography on "The Blair Witch Project”. Neal brought Eduardo to my producer's office one day for a pitch meeting. Eduardo had done a bunch of impressive stuff at that point, but none of it was out on DVD, or any kind of format. He gave this producer the chance to produce his next film, but he didn't say what it was. He declined, and it's good thing he didn't sign on because he definitely would have tried to incorporate himself into that movie as the lead, and it wouldn't have worked.
Body Count Rising: So I know that was when Eduardo was in Florida. Speaking of Florida you've also worked with Tim Ritter out there. Do you work with a lot of Florida filmmakers?
Donald Farmer: I moved to Florida about '86 or '87 when I did my first full movie “Demon Queen”, so I was friends with Tim. Tim just finished his first feature “Truth or Dare”, and recommended us the actress Mary Fanaro, because she did a really great job in that. So she was in “Demon Queen”, and she got the best reviews of any other actor in that movie. After she did our movie she got a nice guest starring role on “Miami Vice”, and she had a small part in “Any Given Sunday” with Al Pacino. She was really good friends with Courtney Cox, and they started a charity organization together called Omnipeace. So that's what she does now.
Body Count Rising: You've had quite a few scream queens in your films over the years. Which ones did you have the best experiences working with?
Donald Farmer: In the 80s I did four projects in a row with Melissa Moore, and then in the 90s I did six projects in a row with a lesser known actress Maria Ortiz. We did one where we had Misty Mundae and Tina Krause together. I've done about four projects with Michelle Bauer I think most people know who she is.
Body Count Rising: Pia Snow!
Donald Farmer: I did two projects with Debbie Rochon, and two projects with Tiffany Shepis. I've done movies with Brigitte Nielsen, and Margaux Hemingway. I've done one with Dana Plato. Also Channing Dodson who was in “Shark Exorcist” and “Cannibal Cop” is a really great actress.
My favorite actresses I've worked with though are lesser known ones like Maria Ortiz, and Alaine Huntington, because I'm friends with them in real life. Michelle Bauer, and I are friends, but I only see her when we're working on something. So yes, my favorites are my real life friends; people I talk to without having business reasons to talk to them.
Body Count Rising: What was your most challenging film?
Donald Farmer: “Compelling Evidence” was the most challenging for its time. It had one of my biggest budgets. The movie I did before that, “Red Lips” was done for under five grand. From the space between Spring to Fall I went from a $5,000 film to “Evidence” which was a $250,000 film. It was a culture shock coming from poverty row budgets to working with real money.
But yeah, “Compelling Evidence” was the first time I was in charge of a fairly big budget movie. I had a 20 person crew, and I had to have stars signed on by the start date or the movie would have been canceled. Everything had to be on schedule because there was a lot of this producer’s money involved. Just a lot more pressure… I did three movies in a row for him. Just bang… bang… bang... Afterwards it was more fun to go back to lesser budget movies, because there was more freedom.
Body Count Rising: Speaking of Camille Keaton, I heard she walked off the set of “Savage Vengeance”. What happened there?
Donald Farmer: She left a little early, but we shot all the important stuff first. We had everything we needed, except one scene that we successfully used a double for, so it was anticipated to some extent. There were some strange feelings onset, and she has since apologized. I did two movies back to back with Camille in 1988, but only a few people have seen the $350,000 movie “No Justice” that I did for Richard Martin. It was shot in 35mm, and we posted it on film. We made 35mm prints which we exhibited in theatres.
I met Camille in '87 when I lived in L.A. She was working as a hostess for Amtrak, and a friend of mine who was one of the actors from “Cannibal Hookers” introduced me to her. She told me she hadn't worked for several years at the time. Her last movie was “Raw Force”, and she had a very small role in the “Concrete Jungle”. I told her I'd hustle up some work for her, and the very next year I was put in the position to cast a fairly big budget theatrical film which I got her involved with immediately.
Even though “Savage Vengeance” and “No Justice” had extremely different budgets, Camille got paid the same. The difference was on “Justice” her salary was just a small portion of the budget, and on mine it was 80% of my budget.
Body Count Rising: Is there still a plan for Mongrel DVD re-releasing “Cannibal Hookers”?
Donald Farmer: They're still working on it, but it is coming. There's a bunch of special features on it. A well made documentary, a commentary and scenes from the original shoot that we did before we re-shot everything in California. They've hired Massacre Video to author the menu, so that's what's going on now. Mongrel's also working on a book version of my fanzine from back in the day The Splatter Times. They're putting out a hardback book of all the back issues in one collection. We just finished all the layouts, and it's about to go off to the printers. They've spent a fortune on both of these projects.
Body Count Rising: Ohhh that sounds awesome. I want that book! Your early films have a great time capsule aesthetic. The 80s ephemeral, the colored gels, your casting… I find they have a higher watchability level than a lot of the other SOVs. They just get more endearing with subsequent viewings. How did you create the look for these movies?
Donald Farmer: For “Demon Queen” I wanted at least one scene with saturated color gels. My DP didn't bring any color gels, so I went out and bought the gels myself so we'd have some for the climax.
When we did “Cannibal Hookers” I had a DP, Richard Kashanski that was very creative, and proactive about lighting effects, and he brought lots of great ideas to the table. He was a cameraman on the original “Dark Shadows”, and he worked for Orson Welles on the famous unfinished film “The Other Side of the Wind” starring Cameron Mitchell and John Huston. He would tell me about shots Welles would make him do like lay on the floor, and film through the springs of the mattress. He was Gary Graver's assistant on that film. He taught me about scrims, and we used them for all kinds of cool, weird shadow effects on “Cannibal Hookers”.
Body Count Rising: When you were shooting at the castle was Ted. V. Mikels there?
Donald Farmer: No, he'd been evicted. I didn't even tell him we shot there until years later when I saw him at a convention, which cracked him up. He built a torture dungeon into that castle with shackles on the walls, and prison cells. The neighbors would tell us that he had several common law wives that were there with him, and the neighbors would hear screams coming from the castle.
Body Count Rising: Ted's harem! (laughing)
Donald Farmer: When they asked him about it he said they were just late night S&M games. (laughing) That dungeon came in handy when we shot the film, and we wrote scenes around some of the castles more eccentric attributes. It looked like squatters had run amuck in there though, and we had to clean before we could shoot. There were mattresses on the floor, and debris everywhere. The weirdest part of the vandalism was that there was 35mm film hanging out of all the trees! Just hanging from the branches like toilet paper after a prank... You'd look out the windows and see celluloid draped over all the limbs just blowing in the breeze. It was just pathetic.
Body Count Rising: Oh that's horrible! Geez... You did a segment for “Hi-8”, and “Grindsploitation”. Would you ever consider doing a complete throwback faux- 80s SOV feature?
Donald Farmer: I pretty much did everything I could do with that concept with the “Hi-8” project, trying to recreate what those movies used to be by shooting with the cheapest cameras possible. They actually wanted me to shoot cheaper than I would have done in the 80s. They didn't even want us to use color gels but I did, just on a more of a discreet level… a lot of day for night filters, filtering down a room to make it seem like it was nighttime. I did a trick this DP taught me where I would just splash the back wall with the gels instead of lighting everything individually. It was more subtle, and something I could get away with so the backgrounds wouldn't be so boring.
Body Count Rising: What can you tell us about the “Grindsploitation” faux grindhouse trailer project? You did a trailer for it “Dirty Cop: Simon Says”…
Donald Farmer: I was one of the two stars in the sequel to Tim Ritter's “Dirty Cop No Donut”, and I've had ideas about a third installment. Tim wasn't motivated to do a third one, and I wouldn't do it without him because it's his franchise. I asked him if he'd mind then if I just did a trailer for “Dirty Cop 3”, and he didn't. I had it up on You Tube first before they incorporated it into “Grindsploitation” concept.
Body Count Rising: You have a reputation for using protagonists that aren't generally the nicest people to say the least, but somehow you can still empathize with them. The drug pusher in “Demon Queen”... Uh not so much the rapists hicks in “Savage Vengeance”... Do you identity with your protagonists? I know that you're an auteur. Why do you feel the flip side of the story needs to be told?
Donald Farmer: When I write characters I'm usually conscious of who will be the surrogate for me. The character Alaine Huntington played in the “Thicker Than Water” segment in “Hi-8” resonated with me personally the most. She's in a relationship she's very insecure about, and she kidnaps her boyfriends ex and has her tied up in the garage. She wants him to prove his love to her by murdering his ex right in front of her. I just thought it would be really nice gesture to have someone show you that they were devoted to you like that. (laughing)
Body Count Rising: (laughing) Oh wow… sure! Speaking of murders you were on “Megan Wants a Millionaire” with Ryan Jenkins, a dude who murdered his model wife and stuffed her into a suitcase. Any interesting stories from the filming of that VH1 surreality show?
Donald Farmer: We were more or less friends. He was the only one on that show that would go out of his way to help somebody. One guy broke a glass before a scene, and before the camera guys could exploit the situation reality TV style I helped Ryan clean up the mess. There was another time when they were interviewing me for one of the inserts, and before they caught it on film, he brushed off a piece of lint that was on my shoulder. Just a really, really nice guy. He wasn't a murderer when we shot the show in February of 2009. He didn't kill his wife until August around the time they were airing the 3rd episode. VH1 pulled it immediately saying nobody wanted to watch a show with a wife killer in the cast.
There was another guy on that show that was just a horrible irritating individual. He was from Texas. I thought if anybody was a maniac in real life that it would be him. Too bad horrible things couldn't happen to him in their real life. (laughing) What's really weird is that around the same time a female friend of mine in Tennessee was killed by her husband, and stuffed into a suitcase. The same thing Ryan did with his wife. I knew both these people and in the same time frame one killed somebody and stuffed them in a suitcase, and the other was killed and stuffed into a suitcase. What a weird synchronicity of the universe... Just so WEIRD! I've known two people that were my friends that were murdered. Have you ever been friends with anybody that was murdered?
Body Count Rising: Noooo, not like actual friends in real life.
Donald Farmer: One of the reasons we shut down the Florida shoot for "Cannibal Hookers" was one of my actresses got to the location before anybody else arrived, and saw a car parked there. There was a body of a woman in the front seat. Some guy had killed his girlfriend, stabbed her to death in his apartment, put her in the car and drove her to this building that we were filming. He just left her there. My actress was so freaked out by discovering this dead body that we shut down the shoot, because she didn't want to film anymore.
Body Count Rising: That would be jarring! I can't really blame her. It would be stranger if she was fine with it…
Donald Farmer: I never hear about any of the famous horror directors like Dario Argento or Herschel Gordon Lewis finding corpses on their filming locations.
Body Count Rising: I guess that's one of the pitfalls of working in the lower-budget horror arena? (laughing)
Donald Farmer: That's one of the luxuries of higher budgets that you don't find corpses on your set? (laughing) You know it’s been easier finding distribution for my lower budget films than it has been with the ones with decent size budgets.
Body Count Rising: On a lower budget you're not spending all this money to go out of your way to be fake. All that CG crap... It's more grassroots. It's more real. You have cameos in most of your films. Do you find you do it more for the fun, or is it necessity?
Donald Farmer: Both; fun and sometimes pure necessity. I just did a cameo in “Cannibal Cop” out of necessity. We had an actor in a role, and when we were cutting it together he was talking to another actress where the sun was brighter in his shots, so the lighting didn't match up. He was no longer available for a quick re-shoot so I just stepped into the role and re-shot all his scenes myself. Like I mentioned before I was in charge of all the casting for “No Justice”, and I cast myself in a scene opposite Cameron Mitchell, because I was a huge fan of his horror output, specifically Bava's “Blood and Black Lace” and “The Toolbox Murders”. That was one of my big priorities with that movie. We were working with a 30 person crew, and I nailed my entire dialog on the first take, so Cameron was really impressed. He did this scene with this other actor where the guy kept flubbing his lines. Cameron never made mistakes he was a complete professional. So were Brigitte Nielsen and Dana Plato. They were very serious about their craft.
Body Count Rising: You were in Romero's “Day of the Dead”. Please tell me the story behind that.
Donald Farmer: The only way to get on the set of those movies was to be working for a magazine. Back then in '84 I was submitting articles to Fangoria, so I approached them first to do on set coverage. They said the editor was going to do that one, so they couldn't give me that assignment. I went to the magazine Fantastic Films, and they said I could do it for them. This French magazine L'ecran Fantastique said they wanted to publish the article too, so I ended up on the set representing two different magazines. Romero flew in journalists from about 20 different magazines. They had Kurt Loder from Rolling Stone and somebody from US Magazine. Once we got there they said we think you will all write much better articles if you play zombies in our film. We all said "Sure, we'd love too!" I had grown up with these films, so I never wanted this experience to end it was just so much fun.
It seemed like they had an army of people working on the film. You'd go through a zombie assembly line where one person would give you your tattered zombie clothes, then somebody would put globs of goo in your hair, somebody would do the make-up for your hands and then future Oscar winner Howard Berger did my face and neck make-up. Savini was supervising, but he was just working on the featured zombies. Berger decided to make me up as a broken neck zombie. I had to hold my neck to one side and I had a big bloody gash on my neck. Apparently my character had died from a horrible neck injury. The touch up artists would run up, and paint black goo on your cheek, and then somebody would powder your hands to make them look drier.
Body Count Rising: John Carpenter doesn't do anything for my household. He's just totally overrated. I've seen credits for you working on several different behind the scenes capacities, but I don’t think I've seen one for special effects make-up? Have you ever worked on any of your own effects on your films, or anybody else's film?
Donald Farmer: I've done lots of make up on my movies or assisted, but I never take credit for it. I did all the effects by myself on two of my earliest films “The Summoned” and “Taste of Flesh” which just came out together on that Donald Farmer Collection Vol. 1 Blu-Ray. There are a lot of effects in those too. I've always thought wounds look better on camera when they're actively gushing blood opposed to just pouring blood all over some wound where it's just static. A trick that I used on “Shark Exorcist” that's really cheap, but effective is have the actors pour blood in their mouths and puke it back up when they're stabbed. Opposed to building a dummy that looks real and stabbing it. I go to the Halloween store Party City and buy the "professional movie blood" so the actors have more confidence putting it in their mouths, because sometimes they can be unsure about home mixed concoctions. (laughing)
Body Count Rising: “Cannibal Hookers” had amazing distribution out of Canada. Was that your best distributed film?
Donald Farmer: The best disturbed in the U.S. market. The early 80s video explosion put a mom and pop video store in every town right before the big chains like Blockbuster bought out all the little guys in the early 90s. I found “Cannibal Hookers” in nearly every video store I went to; an average of eight out of ten stores. They had it in Times Square in New York and Greenwich Village. Everybody seemed to have it. The Canadian company that distributed it technically only had Canadian rights. They took their contract and just decided they could sell it anywhere they wanted to, and soon everybody knew about that title. I was happy about that aspect of it. I still had the U.S. rights and I sold them to a company called Magnum in 1992. “Demon Queen” was poorly distributed. When it came out I drove all over Nashville and could only find it at one store.
Donald Farmer: I need to finish “Cannibal Cop” but I'm working on three scripts now. I've wrote a script for a film called “Gein Versus Manson” which brings together Ed Gein and Charles Manson. I'm trying to make it as plausible as possible. Charles Manson was 22 years old in 1957 the year Gein got arrested. In the script Manson is just an aspiring musician with a couple of girlfriends who gets kidnapped by Gein, and barely escapes being skinned alive. This harrowing experience with Gein turns him into a future maniac.
Body Count Rising: After forty years of making movies do you have any advice for any budding directors out there?
Donald Farmer: I've noticed that people that want to get into filmmaking go about it in either one of two ways. I know a lot of people believe you have to do it the traditional way which is go to film school then try to immediately get work on hit movies. They don't even think about working on low budget films. An actress I know that was in three of my movies went to film school just to learn how to be a crew member. She was hired straight out of film School to be a gaffer and best boy on Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies, which provided her with very steady, well-paid work for several years. So for somebody who wants to make a living only through filmmaking, that might be a smart way to go.
Keep up with Donald's latest projects on his IMDb or follow him on Facebook.