I’d like to introduce you to filmmaker and actor Mark Pirro. For those not familiar with his work, he is most known for making successful micro budget films. Most notably, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, which was shot for a modest budget of $2500. The film went on to make $500,000 when it was released in 1983. Recently, I did a Q&A with Mark to discuss his film career, and his latest film Celluloid Soul. I started by asking him about when he made A Polish Vampire in Burbank.
Marc Heller: Mark, you did this at a time when there wasn’t digital technology, and you had none of the advantages aspiring film makers have today. You lost your star, you had to cope with injuries from a car accident, and as time went on, you lost more people. What drove you to put this film together despite all of these obstacles?
Mark Pirro: Well, I guess it’s the same force that drives a drug addict to get his fix. I had a strong passion for filmmaking. Once I started Polish Vampire, from then on, my only goal was completing it. When Eddie Deezen, the original star of the film, left the project, I already had several days of filming invested in the movie and didn’t just want to call it a loss; so I regrouped, did a little re-writing of the script, jumped into the role myself, and kept forging ahead. Same thing for when I had gotten into the car accident. It was either about buying another car, or start taking the bus and finish the movie. I was in my early 20’s and didn’t really have a lot of money to bat around, so it was an either/or situation. I have to wonder if I would still have that kind of determination today. And yes, today’s technology has changed everything. Today, there is no excuse why a person can’t go out and make his own movie. Back in the day, it was budget. Not anymore. The big irony here is that my last five features cost less to make than my first one from 1983.
Marc:A decade after you released a Polish Vampire in Burbank, aspiring film maker Robert Rodriguez shot El Mariachi for $7,000. The film went on to become a multi million dollar franchise, and Rodriguez has gone on to become a very successful director. Do you feel that your successes as a director made it possible for other opportunities such as El Mariachi to become possible?
Mark: I doubt I had anything to do with it. A filmmaker will always figure out a way to get his project made. Polish Vampire may have been unique in that it was one of the first films, if not THE first film, shot for $2500, that actually got mainstream exposure on the home video market and on USA Network, but it was all about timing in that case. Home video recorders had just come along into the mainstream and distributors were looking for product. The studios were reluctant to give up many of their films for home viewing; so here comes a film, brand new, made exclusively for the home video market. That’s why it got snatched up so quickly.
Marc: I want to briefly go back to your time before the release of A Polish Vampire In Burbank. You were an aspiring filmmaker. You get a job at Universal studios, where you connect with like minded people. Together, you rent out a theatre and create a film festival. Your contribution is The Spy Who Did It Better, starring John McCafferty who would go on to frequently act in many of your other films. The film was an homage to James Bond, a franchise which we both love, sort of. I know you aren’t the biggest fan of Daniel Craig. So I have to ask, who is your favorite Bond?
Mark: No question about it: Sean Connery. He defined the role. You know when he dies, that’s what’s going to lead the story – the original James Bond. We based The Spy Who Did it Better solely on the Connery Bond movies, right down to his pose in the opening gun barrel scene. Even McCafferty’s fake accent was based on Connery’s voice. I even had the honor of meeting Barbara Broccoli around the time we were making the film. A tour guide friend, Eric Douglas, knew her, and she was working on a little super 8 film. He asked me if I would be willing to go to her house and help her with it. I was thrilled to. In fact, one evening John McCafferty and I went over to her house and watched “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” with her in 16mm (remember, there were no VCRs in wide use back then). Ahh sweet memories.
Marc: Am I correct that one of the filmmakers at that festival was Frank Darabont?
Mark: Yes. He made a short film called “The Maltese Mystery,” which was a Humphrey Bogart film noir spoof. Very well made. I met Frank when we both worked as ushers at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in the late 70s. I knew he was a filmmaker too and when a fellow filmmaker and I put together the festival, which was dubbed by the L.A. Times as “The Poor People’s Film Festival,” I invited Darabont to be a part of it. I even helped him put in sound effects for the screening. The original film just had music and narration.
Marc: The Spy Who Did It Better was a short film, how was the process to transition from that to a full length movie?
Mark: Not a big transition. Really the only difference was that it just takes longer to make, and you need to rely on people sticking around a bit longer. In fact, when we started Polish Vampire, originally entitled Virgin Vampire, we weren’t sure it would be a feature. I think the original script was about 60 pages. It’s when Deezen quit and the script was retitled and rewritten that the movie’s length increased. I’ve since learned that you try to cast people you’re familiar with and know that they won’t flake out on you. I have very few flakey actors these days.
Marc: Moving forward, in 1987 you filmed Death Row Game Show, starring John McCafferty as a smarmy game show host in a role that seemed to be written for him. When you made the film, did you think that three decades later this would closely mirror how our society has become?
Mark: It is sort of where we’re headed, isn’t it? No, we were just out to make a fun little movie, with no pretensions. It was my first 35mm film and the first time someone else gave us money to spend, so it was just about getting through production without blowing it. It was a bit overwhelming, working with grip trucks, bigger lights, and some people trying to take advantage of our inexperience with the medium, but all in all a pleasant experience.
Marc: Vinegar Syndrome recently released an amazing blu ray of Death Row Game Show. They did a 2k restoration, and added a ton of special features including The Spy Who Did It Better in its entirety. How did this come about?
Mark: I got contacted by Vinegar Syndrome, who told me that they just acquired the rights to the film from Crown Pictures (the owner of the film). They asked if I’d be interested in doing a commentary for it. I had already done a commentary for an earlier release by a company called Code Red Video, but Vinegar Syndrome didn’t have the rights to that one. So I invited actors John McCafferty and Robyn Blythe to join me and we did a new commentary. It was easy to get them since we’ve stayed in touch all these years. Then Vinegar Syndrome asked me if I had any other material to include on the disk and I offered them a ‘making of’ documentary that I put together in 2013; and to complete the package, I offered them two short films that I made years earlier (both featuring McCafferty): The Spy Who Did It Better and a 22 minute comedy called Buns. I also gave them a remastered version of Deathrow Gameshow itself. There were a lot of technical issues with the film that I hated since 1987. Thanks to today’s technology, I was able to ‘fix’ a lot of the problems with the film; mainly audio problems and a few visual flaws. I would have preferred that the remastered version was the only one out there, but VS wanted to keep things pure, so they released the original flawed version. But at least they included the remastered version, so there’s some solace in that.
Marc: A notable name that pops up in your films is Forrest Ackerman, who was in Curse of the Queerwolf and Nudist Colony of the Dead. Did you have a relationship with him beyond your films, and what was it like to work with him?
Mark: He was the best. I met him through Plan 9 From Outer Space’s Conrad Brooks, who was also in a few of my films. After filming Polish Vampire, Conrad, who knew Forry, suggested we have a screening of it at his Ackermansion in Hollywood. We brought the film to his house and ran it. I told him that I was starting another film (Curse of the Queerwolf) and asked him what he would charge to appear in it. He said something like, “I’m cheaper than cheap.” In fact, he once quipped that if you can’t afford Vincent Price, you can get him for less the Price. He did Queerwolf for free, and Nudist Colony for nearly free. He loved doing cameos in movies, whether they had a budget or not. We stayed in touch over the years, pretty much right up until the end. In fact, he did the narration to the documentary on the making of Polish Vampire, and did the forward to my 1994 book on filmmaking: Ultra Low Budget Movie Making. Great guy. I miss him.
Marc: Modern filmmaking has changed a lot due to political correctness. Everyone is stepping on eggshells. Yet, you are not afraid to tackle subjects other people won’t touch. Most notably religion. How did God Complex come about?
Mark: I’ve always thought that religion was low hanging fruit when it comes to comedy, and had wanted to do some kind of religious parody for years. My film Nudist Colony of the Dead kind of danced around that concept, but that movie dealt more with religious zealots as opposed to God himself. Around 2007, I started writing a script called “Jesus Christ Conquers the Martians,” and that was going to be my religious parody. The concept was that citizens of Mars were getting too smart, so the Martian leaders decide they need something to ‘dumb them down.’ One of the leaders suggests that they borrow what’s kept people on Earth dumb for quite some time: Jesus. So they travel through time and space, kidnap Jesus right before he’s crucified, take him to Mars, and hilarity ensues.
Well, I got about half way through the script and then hit a roadblock in the story. The concept just ran out of steam. Once Jesus made it to Mars, the script didn’t really go anywhere. So, I switched gears and decided to go back to the Bible. I mean, there’s enough comedy in there to sustain a story, and that’s what I did. Following the Bible’s narrative, I made God a fat, bald, jealous, egotistical moron who can’t seem to get anything right, and really only does the crap he does to impress his girlfriend. Once I used that as a launching pad, the script just wrote itself. The movie covers many of the more popular Biblical myths: Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Moses and the Burning Bush, the story of Job, Abraham and Isaac, and of course, the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Naturally, we took a few liberties with the stories (like Virgin Mary suing God for sexually molesting, and getting her pregnant, in “The Deity’s Court,” and an angel of God delivering the message of Jesus’ birth to Joseph as a singing telegram).
Marc: And how did you get the idea to make a talking Jesus toy?
Mark: The Submissive Jesus Pray Answering Talking Head. At the end of The God Complex, God and Jesus are forced to sign a contract not to interfere with science or intelligence ever again (which is why you haven’t heard much from them in over 2000 years). So to blend in, but not attract attention, they conceal themselves as employees of a Toy Factory. A toy being created under their noses is the Submissive Jesus, which answers your prayers by saying 1 of 100 random smart-ass phrases with the twist of his crown. Anyway, we had one made for the film, then I thought it might be a cool thing to mass produce a few more and market in the real world. So I had a batch made up, created a handful of commercials for it and started selling them at www.thesubmissivejesus.com. Almost 10 years later, we’re still selling those little holy bastards.
Marc: Speaking of ideas, do you have a creative process? Or do ideas like a giant killer ass just come to you?
Mark: I’m always trying to think concepts for stories. I think that’s one of the hardest parts of the creative process: coming up with something worth spending your time on. When I start a movie, I know I’m going to be spending at least two years of my life with it, so I want to be passionate about whatever project I pick. It’s like a relationship. If you know you’re going to be spending some lengthy time in this relationship, you had better be really in love with it. Sometimes one project can lead to another; for example, the movie Curse of the Queerwolf was inspired by a minor character in Polish Vampire in Burbank. There was a Queerwolf introduced in that film. The character always got great reactions at screenings, so that gave me the idea to create a whole movie based on that character. In the case of Nudist Colony of the Dead, we just started with a title and built from there.
Marc: Although you are known for fun movies like the films previously mentioned above, you also made movies about serious subjects. Color-Blinded addresses race issues.
Mark: That one came as a result of my dating Darwyn Carson, a black actress in several of my early films. She often spoke of how different her life, career, and relationships would be if she were a blue-eyed blonde. So, that gave me the idea of creating a movie about a beautiful black gal who one day wakes up as a beautiful blonde Caucasian woman. Up until Rage of Innocence, that was probably the closest thing to a movie of mine that had some human emotion attached to it, and required real acting – something that wasn’t a prerequisite to appearing in any of my earlier films.
Marc: And then there is Rage of Innocence. Which is a complete 360 from what we are used to seeing from you. It’s a really powerful film. How did Rage of Innocence come about, and will we see more films like this from you in the future?
Mark: Don’t you mean 180? 360 brings you back to where you started. Screw it, what do I know about math? Where was I? Oh yeah. Having made nothing but comedies for over 30 years, I guess my comedic well started drying up. So rather than fight it and continue struggling with attempting to come up with another funny film, I decided to follow the darker path and see where that would lead me. It led me to Rage of Innocence, the story of a 15 year old sociopath named Raven who will stop at nothing to keep men from dating her single mother.
Oddly enough, with the #metoo and #timesup movements, the movie seems to suddenly be rather timely. I mean, there are many careers that have been lost by accusations of sexual misconduct, without any judge or jury trial. Rage of Innocence kind of takes on that same concept. In that film, Raven, becomes the main antagonist to a man who starts dating her mother, against Raven’s wishes. She knows exactly how to frame our hero, and making it look like he does things that he of course never did. She’s so good at it that he ends up getting his 13 year old daughter taken away from him, and gets sent to jail; all because of Raven’s convincing accusations – with forensic proof to back it up. That’s a pretty terrifying concept, I think. As far as the future goes and will I make any more films like this one? It’s difficult to say. I really never know what’s next. Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve often said that each movie I finish will very likely be my last one. Then another project comes along that tickles my fancy. Right now, at this moment, I’m not all that ticklish.
(Author’s note, he is correct, I meant 180, I will hang my head down in shame now)
Marc: Your latest project is Celluloid Soul, which features comedy legend Judy Tenuta. Can you tell me a little bit about this film and how people can see it?
Mark: Celluloid Soul is about a suicidal writer who has just lost his girlfriend, and is depressed and lonely. He happens to become fascinated with this actress from a couple 1939 movies he watches at a friend’s house. He becomes obsessed with finding out who this unknown actress was and whatever became of her. He eventually finds out that she’s still alive, although about 98 years old. He gets her on the phone and becomes inspired to write a screenplay about her life.
After writing a great script, he convinces her to meet with him. She’s reluctant at first, but eventually agrees. To his surprise, when she shows up on his doorstep, she looks exactly as she did in the 1939 movies; completely in black and white with moving vertical scratches going through her. He, of course, believes he’s losing his mind, as do his friends.
Right now we’re looking into some kind of decent distribution for the film. The distribution game for indie films has changed dramatically over the years. A theatrical release is pretty much out of the question, and DVDs and BluRays are sort of becoming yesterday’s medium. Streaming on demand video seems to be the way these days, although unless it really takes off, there’s not a lot of money in it. Film Festivals are sometimes good exposure, but I’m not a big fan of them. What annoys me about festivals is that one winds up spending more than the budget of the movie just to submit and in many cases, get rejected.
Marc: And can you tell us what it’s like to work with Judy?
Mark The best. I’ve made several short videos with her over the past few years. They’re called “The World Accordion to Judy,” and they cover all kinds of topics. You can find the entire series of videos on Youtube. We also made a bunch of Trump parody videos, where I play the moron and she plays his wife, Malaria. We’ve done a few music videos, etc. She’s a joy to work with. When I asked her if she’d like to appear in Celluloid Soul, she agreed to do it. I’ll always be grateful for her adding a touch of elegance to the film.
Marc: Is there anything else you would like to mention? Are there any other upcoming projects?
Mark: Nothing concrete at the moment. I’ve considered remaking or somehow revisiting Nudist Colony of the Dead, since I was never really all that satisfied with the original film. Technology has come a long way. When we made the original film, back in 1991, we were using the crappiest super 8 equipment imaginable. We were lucky if we even got a decent exposure, and many times we didn’t. We also didn’t have the best singers and dancers, and since it was a musical…well…good singers and dancers could have been a worthy asset. However, if I were to revisit this film, I wouldn’t want to do it again on a micro-budget. There’d be little point. That film needs someone like Tim Burton to get involved.
Marc: Where can people find your movies and connect with you?
Mark: They can always go through my website – www.pirromount.com. I’m also on Facebook, like the rest of the world. In addition, many of my films are on Amazon Prime and Amazon Instant. DVDs are all over Ebay. And, as of this time, my representatives are busily trying to secure other streaming outlets. Also, if your readers would like to have all their prayers answered and possess all the power of God, they can get a Submissive Jesus Prayer Answering Talking Head at www.thesubmissivejesus.com. That is all and God B. Less.