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Interview with J.R. Bookwalter, Director of Witchouse 3

Interview conducted via e-mail by Michael Scrutchin

One can only imagine how cool it would be to honestly say that Sam Raimi helped finance your first feature film, as is the case with J.R. Bookwalter and his magnum zombie opus The Dead Next Door. After completing his first epic, Bookwalter directed a series of zero-budget movies for producer David DeCoteau, including the infamous Robot Ninja. He started Tempe Entertainment in 1991, self-distributing his own movies like Ozone and Polymorph, then later went to work for Full Moon Pictures, which led to a partnership between Full Moon and Tempe that produced such films as HorrorVision and the current release Witchouse 3: Demon Fire, which Bookwalter cowrote, produced, directed, and edited. Yes, this guy wears a lot of hats.

Sam Raimi helped finance your first movie, The Dead Next Door. Tell us a little about that, for those who don't know the story.

Okay, but first I need one dollar. I have said many times that if I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question that I could finance my next movie, so now is the time for you mo-fo's to pay up! (laughs) It's really a boring old story... I attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh right out of high school and at the beginning of my second year there, my apartment got robbed. I was restless at the time anyway, so I used it as an excuse to be lazy and move back to Ohio to mooch off of my parents. After sitting around wallowing in my own sorrow for a month or so, I read in Fangoria that Sam Raimi was going to make Evil Dead 2. Knowing that he was from Detroit -- a mere four hours away from me! -- I figured I could avoid getting a real job a bit longer by being a production assistant.

Well, before you could say, "411 directory assistance, how may we help you?" I had set up a meeting to see Sam and the Renaissance boys, and after showing them some of my Super-8mm short films, they were so dazzled by my genius they insisted on throwing 20-dollar bills at me until I had enough to go away and make them an epic zombie film. Okay, I made that last part up... do I have to continue to answer this question? (smiles)

Sam believed that I had the tenacity -- and maybe the talent -- to do it myself, and put his money where his mouth was. The rest is history... well, at least Tempe history. It will be 17 years this summer since that fateful day, so I guess he had the tenacity part right. (laughs)

I heard that Polymorph (1996) was the first feature film shot on digital video, but you'd been shooting movies on S-VHS and Super-8mm before then as well. How does it feel to be a pioneer in the micro-budget shot-on-video movement, which is still very much alive?

Hmm... well, few pioneers would probably say they felt much like pioneers at the time! I mean, when Ben Franklin got struck by lightning, I doubt he imagined that some day electricity would be wasted to heat up three-day-old pizza in under a minute, right? So I don't look at myself as pioneering anything. I still cry myself to sleep on lonely nights knowing that I brought Humanoids from Atlantis into this cold, cruel world. (laughs)

Today anyone can pick up a camcorder, shoot a movie, edit it on a computer, package it, and try to make money selling it online. Is it a bad thing to have such enabling technology available to just about anyone?

Ouch... should I really be answering this question? Can I plead the 5th? Okay, here goes. I don't think video technology is any worse than Super-8mm or 16mm before it. The bottom line is, there are plenty of bad movies in the world and thankfully, most of them are made by greedy major studios and their talentless hacks who should know better. Whatever some guy in his backyard comes up with will be infinitely more passionate and honest than the crap Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis! I say get out there and do it! Now there is no excuse.

After Witchouse 2: Blood Coven you said you weren't interested in doing another Witchouse sequel. What made you change your mind?

And I meant every word of it! There will be no Witchouse 4, I tell you! Over my dead body! If I make Witchouse 4, may I be cursed with obesity and may my genitals shrink to Tic-Tac proportions. (beat) Oh shit... too late. What was the question?

I think at that exact moment in time I viewed it as an interesting experiment. It was very old-school, if you will -- me and a skeleton crew, trying not to get caught without permits at various places around town. And the simple truth of it is, I didn't really look at it as a Witchouse sequel, much like Blood Coven before it. I didn't set out to top that one. They couldn't be more different so there was no reason to try the same thing twice.

Witchouse 3: Demon Fire is far different in tone and style from the other Witchouse movies. How would you describe the film to someone who's wondering if they should check it out or not?

Three hot babes in a beach house, and in one scene they get in their bathing suits and sit around the hot tub getting drunk -- but not drunk enough to have a tastefully done lesbian scene. Brinke Stevens has a shower scene with Tina Krause... sort of. And, ummm... there's a catfight, 'cause I think it's really cool to have two chicks beating the hell out of each other. Then the credits roll for a few minutes while you remember the list of other titles you could have rented or purchased instead. (laughs) But if you got the DVD, at least you won't feel cheated because I worked hard to pack it full of stuff.

Like Kevin Smith's Clerks, Witchouse 3 could be a textbook example of how to make a movie on a limited budget ($26,000) with a minimal number of cast members (five) and a short (nine-day) shooting schedule. Why the short production schedule and how did you pull it off?

Hahahaha... wow, that will be one of the few times I'll ever hear Witch 3 compared to Clerks! Well, it's a simple movie so I'll give you the simple answer. Full Moon commissioned this at the last minute when an acquisition they were going to call Witch 3 was deemed not up to snuff. So, I was asked to pull a rabbit out of my hat and literally it was about a month from writing the script to wrapping the shoot.

After so many disappointing experiences where my reach exceeded my grasp, I decided to design something very basic as an experiment and see what would happen. I also never planned to use my name on the movie as director. In fact, I wasn't even going to direct it at all in the beginning! So I think that mentally I was in a different place than I usually am when I make these things. Maybe I took some chances I wouldn't normally have, or I just got damn lucky and didn't fall completely on my face. Only time will tell.

Some fans might be disappointed that Ariauna Albright didn't return as Lilith. Why no Ariauna this time around?

My psychologist tells me I shouldn't answer this question until after the first year of therapy! (laughs) Honestly, it was as simple as she was offered the role and didn't want to do it. She didn't like the direction we had taken Lilith in this script and I wasn't willing to change it, mainly because I knew we didn't have the money to do anything fancy. Her biggest gripe about the previous films was that Lilith never killed anyone... her minions did the dirty work. Unfortunately, with the story I was trying to tell, it wasn't a body count kind of movie.

You and Witchouse 3 star Debbie Rochon were rumored to be working together again on Sandy Hook Robot Ninja Lingerie Party Massacre. What's the deal with that?

The producers got into a fistfight with Mr. Creepo over where Burt Ward and Linnea Quigley would fit into the sequel. Things got ugly. And they were only willing to fly me to Sandy Hook, NJ with a coach seat, not first class. I mean, I can see sitting coach going to Romania for Full Moon, but come on, this is a sequel to two of the greatest underground classics ever made! I was insulted.

You recently announced that you will not produce any further movies for Full Moon Pictures under the Tempe Entertainment banner. Does this mean you'll be getting back to making the movies you're truly passionate about? Possibly that much-rumored Dead Next Door sequel?

Hey, does that question imply I wasn't passionate about Killjoy 2? (laughs)

For the immediate future, it means I'm putting the fast-track on some long-delayed plans in the DVD world. I started remastering Skinned Alive for DVD in 1999 and wound up being so busy that we could never finish it. Well, finally we have and it will be the first old-school Tempe movie to debut mass-market in May of this year. You'll also get a glimpse at an old local TV sitcom I helped on called Roommates. I shot it for some of the folks who would later work on Skinned and also do a cameo as the asshole father of the gay character, and Barbara Katz-Norrod (The Sandman) plays my wife. It's embarrassing, but in a fun kinda way.

I'm also very excited to announce that I am halfway through remastering Ozone, which we recently sold to Germany along with Skinned. Ozone has long been a personal fave of mine, and it was quite cool to go back and tweak the edits that used to drive me crazy and fix obvious mistakes that archaic technology prevented me from doing right in 1992-93. There are also plans for Bloodletting, which is almost done, and toward the end of the year I'll rip into some of the others.

Now, as far as new stuff... I've just come off nine features for Full Moon in less than two years. That may not sound like much to some, but it placed incredible pressure on me with extremely insane deadlines. And in the end, few of those movies were very gratifying considering all the emotional effort. So I'm purging myself of that era by going back into the vaults on this old stuff, and meanwhile trying to firm up some details on a few projects that I've put off for too long -- including Dead Future, that DND sequel.

And, finally, what can we look forward to from J.R. Bookwalter and Tempe Entertainment in the near future?

In the next few months we'll be releasing Limited Special Edition DVDs of our last two Full Moon productions, Danny Draven's Hell Asylum and David P. Barton's Dead & Rotting. In addition to the usual extras, these discs will also feature short films from Chris Seaver, both horror-comedies -- Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker!, which is a riot, and also his latest, Filthy McNasty. It's kind of an experiment to see what the fans want to see from our discs... so be sure and let us know!

On the filmmaking front, Tempe has a pending deal for some DV flicks with a new company and believe it or not, I'm also still slated to direct Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys for Full Moon. However, that one is a bit different in that they want to shoot it in Italy on 35mm and it's being made as a Sci-Fi Channel premiere. So nothing like a little pressure! (laughs) I'm actually content right now to not make any movies, strange as that may sound. But you can bet that won't last for long and we'll be back soon enough, with a vengeance!

Article published 01.23.2002.

Read our interview with Debbie Rochon.



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