An Interview with Don Adams & Harry James Picardi

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The following interview originally appeared at Skullring.org in February, 2007. Since then, Don Adams and Harry James Picardi have shot and are nearing completion on another horror film — this one called Dozers, featuring Dawn Olivieri (True Blood, Heroes), Steven Schub (24), Daniel Roebuck (Lost), Duane Whitaker (Pulp Fiction), R.A. Mihailoff (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3), and Diane Goldner (Feast). After a grueling stretch of post-production, Don and Harry expect to finish the movie soon.

Back in 1998, I was hired as a cheeseburger-fetcher for the post-production department at Charlie Band’s Full Moon Entertainment. It was there I met transplanted Wisconsinites Don Adams and Harry James Picardi, who were editing such epics as Retro Puppetmaster and Cryptz (a movie I wrote in five days) for the company. The boys were indie filmmakers from way back, and are responsible for two very fine, overlooked and under-rated horror films: Sleepwalker (released by Full Moon as Vengeance of the Dead) and Jigsaw. It was tough to wrangle them both into an interview, but I caught ’em when their guards were down.

How did you two meet, and how long ago was that?

HARRY: First off, that sounds gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Secondly, I moved to N.E. Wisconsin from Chicago when I was 10. That summer I joined the Little League team and being the new kid, I didn’t know anyone. I saw Adams and his brother Dan, who looked “different” from the other kids and asked, “Are you guys English?” meaning British because they kinda looked like the Beatles to me. We played catch and talked about Night of the Living Dead. That afternoon I hit 2 doubles, drank a bottle of Ting Cream Soda and became a member of the Traveling Team. It was the Top Gun of Little League. Best of the Best. I played first base and Don was left or right field. Those were some of the best years of my life.

DON: Both of our families had fled the city — his Chicago and mine Milwaukee — to live in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always been thankful for that move. I believe if we had grown up in the crowd we’d just be faces in it. When you’re surrounded by all that nothing, you learn to depend on your imagination. And the television. My dad would tell me, “You know, they’re not going to pay you to watch TV when you grow up.” As Ralph Kramden would say, “AH HAH!” That’s all we do now, editing. Of course, the Old Man could have covered himself by predicting, “They’re not going to pay you on time.” We grew up about forty miles from where Ed Gein lived, and went to high school in Weyauwega, where Robert Bloch wrote Psycho. I’ve always been proud of that, the way some people talk about their apple orchards, or the Kennedys. We were horror guys from day one. Harry used to bring a paperback of The Exorcist to catechism.

Shreck was your first feature, but did you guys do any short films together before that?

DON: Oh yeah, in middle school, high school. Harry was Rambo in one, and all the V.C. looked like me. Spirits — in our buried anthology Red Eyes — is a remake of one of the early ones. Harry was a drunk driver, ran down a little girl, and her doll came back for revenge. I remember the first time we played music over it, syncing a tape of the Alan Parsons Project in time with the Super-8mm projector. I knew right then that something was going on. Still waiting for the planet to catch up with me.

HARRY: Yes we did. I’ll trust Adams went into detail on all these answers. One of them is the award winning The Little Man. It’s about 2 guys who work inside a change machine. We came in like 2nd place out of 800 entries and only won a soft case camcorder bag. We didn’t even know we won until we were contacted by the local paper. They received a letter from the now defunct Video Review Magazine that said something like, “Could the next Steven Spielberg be living in your town?” They did a story about it and we were on the front page of the Weyauwega Chronicle! Somebody fucking shoot me.

What led to the decision to make Shreck, and when was the movie shot?

HARRY: We made Shreck because real men make features. Actually seeing Wood Chipper Massacre on VHS did it. There was a time in this once-great country when people rented videos from anywhere & everywhere; supermarkets, liquor stores, gas stations, laundromats, etc. It was the dawn of the Home Video Market, the early ’80s. Several of our shorts were shot on Super-8 film because video cameras were just becoming a consumer product and no one had one. Can you believe that? There was a small group of people starting to shoot these Homemade Movies and distributing them, finding them was like gold. It fueled our mad fantasy of Filmmaking! We were already pissed that most horror movies sucked and vowed to change it. When you’re vowing anything from the middle of a cornfield, you have nothing to lose. We’re from the school of serious horror. I hate campy horror movies, franchise creatures that crack one-liners, monsters that use martial arts as well as countless other violations that go against my beliefs. Though, if anyone out there would like to make a movie with all these elements combined, let’s talk. Anything is po$$ible.

DON: The Little Man was based on our working in a bag factory that had a big orange crowbar on the wall that was labeled IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. If that’s not an incentive to get something else going, nothing is. And one day in ’90 or so, our buddy Jocko — who still works in that factory — called up and said, “There are movies shot with camcorders for rent at the liquor store.” We went and got Woodchipper Massacre and were so excited by how far the bar had dropped. Then we saw Zombie Cop, discovered J.R. Bookwalter and his Ohio kingdom. He was way out there running a compound like Brando in Apocalypse Now with a group of crazed followers. Harry charged a VHS camcorder at Sears, and we were off to the races. The twenty-year races. The actors didn’t show up on Shreck, and we had to turn the camera on, step into shots, do the scene, and step back out. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Everything seems easy after that. Harry said he had a day or two at the foundry that was worse. And I believe him. That place looked like Mordor. My mom always said that Harry was “a worker.” My first boss — and one of my last ever — at the pizza place we worked at in high school saw me and said, “He’s a thinker.” I always quote In Cold Blood: “Neither one of them would have done it alone. But together, they made a third personality. That’s the one that did it.”

What equipment did you use to shoot and edit Shreck?

HARRY: Since I had a job, I bought an RCA Pro-Edit with my Discover Card from Sears for $1,500. It was the biggest move of my life. I was scared out of my mind, like I knocked up a chick or something. It was my introduction to debt. Member Since 1987.

DON: We roughcut it on that camera, with my finger on the PAUSE button. Eventually I conned my way into a local tech school, cut it on super VHS decks. They thought I was a student, and the day they discovered I wasn’t and booted me, I was doing the end credit crawl.

It’s been my experience that some people have a hard time seeing past the lack of production value in low-budget movies to see what’s really going on — and there are more good ideas happening in Shreck than in any dozen recent mainstream horror movies. Have you ever considered remaking it?

DON: That’d be great, but that Nazi subject matter would be a tough sell in today’s Hollywood. Unless Mel Gibson financed it. The thing that really strikes me about that script is how much the Dogs of Gore — that central club of gorehound loners — predicts the Trenchcoat Mafia. I knew of what I spoke, because I was a very angry, anti-social guy in high school. I’ve since mellowed into a very angry, social guy.

HARRY: Shreck? What’s that? No, Shreck will not be resurrected. Next question.

What was the fate of your next project, the anthology Red Eyes?

DON: You always have this idea that an anthology will be cheaper and easier to do — shooting one story at a time — than a feature. And let me tell you, it never is. But you know, you have to make movies to learn how, and it can get messy, like any learning process. We were doing this stuff just at the tail end of that odd era where you could get anything distributed. So nobody wanted to put this thing out and Sleepwalker happened. When I moved out here, there was a screener copy of Red Eyes for rent at the 20/20 Video in Hollywood, with my mom’s home phone number on the label! People still ask to see it, but if you have a deformed monster baby, you lock it up in the basement, and you trot the pretty kid out in public. All that stuff you do, starting out — people laugh at you and the whole ridiculous dream of making movies — but it’s cumulative. It’s how you know how to do what you do once somebody finally gives you the chance to do it. There’s something you hear from people all the time, when you work on any indie project — ” What are you going to do with this when it’s done?” And I always answer, “What are we going to do with it if it’s not done?” I always say if you paid attention to the odds, you’d never make a movie in the first place.

HARRY: We never sought distribution. We chalked it up as filmmaking. That’s the nice way of saying it sucks! Though it’s interesting, it’s also disjointed and ugly.

A lot of the best stuff in your movies is very understated — even when there’s a killer mannequin wandering around taking peoples’ heads off. Do you think the subtle stuff tends to be lost on the average gorehound?

DON: Oh yeah. I think sadly most things are lost on most people now. And there’s almost this bizarre pride in their own ignorance. And I’m not just talking about executive producers! Why would somebody have to know who Rod Serling or Gene Roddenberry was, right? We’ve got McG and Eli Roth now. It’s a goldfish culture we’re living in. It only remembers what happened in the last ten seconds. I constantly hear that nothing happens in the first half of Jigsaw, and I watch it and there’s domestic abuse, a killer suicide flashback… Hell, if your definition of ‘nothing’ includes Aimee Bravo dancing, you’re not a better man than me. But it’s all budgetary, you know. It’s not like we would mind crashing a helicopter or two. I dig Jigsaw as a movie, but as a measly $35,000 movie, I really dig it.

HARRY: If you get it — you get it. If you don’t — you don’t! Comprende?

When was Sleepwalker made, and how long did the entire process take from script through post-production?

DON: Early ’90s. The script was one of the first we ever wrote, at age 19 or so. So it sat awhile, as they tend to do — we insulate the house with unmade scripts. Took about two and a half years to actually do, like most first features.

HARRY: That was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. I think we shot it in 1995 but it sat awhile, unprocessed, until we got the money to finish it. We cut it at Bookwalter’s NoHo Apt for nearly a month and stayed at a horrible motel in Panorama City, which was cheaper than the car rental. It had a porn channel that was like Videodrome. I’m still thinking about it today. So, after the edit, we declined an offer from Troma and for unknown reasons, shelved it for nearly 4 years. It wasn’t until after we were all given the axe from Full Moon that anyone knew we had a feature. Our friend, Jen Kessler, continued to work there and became part of the acquisitions department. One night while hanging out, having a couple cocktails, she mentioned Full Moon was looking for features. The rest is history.

Was the “Vengeance of the Dead” DVD the first official release of Sleepwalker?

DON: Yeah, Charlie Band thought that was a better title for a movie about a guy who sleepwalks. We always get shit for that title. People think it’s a zombie movie. That crappy artwork didn’t help any.

HARRY: Yep. Upon its release, I considered putting one on a bigass dope rope and wearing it and I don’t mean the DVD, I mean the box!

I think Sleepwalker is one of the best horror flicks I’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years, largely because of that understated quality I mentioned earlier — there are some genuinely creepy scenes in there. Tell me a little about your approach to the movie, and some of your influences going in.

DON: It’s very ’70s. So are we. Obviously Phantasm, my favorite movie, seen it over a hundred times. Martin, The Changeling and Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. And there’s an old black and white movie, where this nutty guy runs a motel, I can’t think of the name… I don’t think we steal entire movies, the way a lot of guys do, what we do is borrow lots of moments from lots of movies, and toss them into the blender with our very personalized world view. And I think Harry is a lot less influenced by specific films. He seems to just dream things up, pull them from the ether. It’s a little frightening to witness, honestly.

HARRY: It wasn’t until this question that I realized the handle had been removed from the inside of the passenger side door of the car I just got into. Thanks for the Sleepwalker props, though.

How did you manage to avoid burning Don’s Mom’s house down while shooting that final sequence?

DON: It was a close call, seriously. We did some things on that movie — young and crazy and with no insurance — I would never do now. If it had gone wrong, we could be in Oz right now.

HARRY: I’m glad I wasn’t there for that, but I’ve heard the stories. All I can say is, “productions are filled with lunatics who are tired, overworked, stressed out, fucked with, moody and sometimes you gotta burn down someone’s house to prove that.” Simple as that!

Another great thing about Sleepwalker is that it isn’t about a bunch of goddamn teenagers — the cast is largely made up of old guys with great faces. Did that give you any trouble when it came to finding distribution?

DON: There is an urge in people to want to make every movie into every goddamn other movie that ever got made, or made a dollar. It comes from not having any ideas of their own, and just wanting to hear their own voice, even though they don’t have one of their own. Anyone who uses the word “creative” or “vision” or asks about a character’s “back story” makes me want to chew glass. I do remember some distributor watching it and asking, “Where’s the horror?” I thought that was a pretty odd question for a movie where a guy digs up a corpse and lights it on fire early on. I would say Sleepwalker was more hampered by some truly ugly telecine and muddy audio. But I’ll tell you, I feel like it’s not a good movie, yet if I sit and watch it, I like it. It’s got some true extra-mile effort in it, especially the night exteriors, and I love the perv Grandpa scene. But I’m like Steve Earle, I ain’t ever satisfied.

HARRY: I think it helped because it seems more like a “movie” with them. If I have to choose between old & young non-actors, the elderly win. To me, they have more character. Reverse this if there’s nudity, of course.

How did Jigsaw come about?

HARRY: One afternoon about 6 years ago JR Bookwalter said, “If you guys can come up with a movie idea in the next 15 minutes & Charlie (Band) likes it, you’ll have $30K to complete it in 90 days.” WHOOPIE! Later that afternoon we were in pre-production and we met our deadline. Concept to finished product in 3 months.

DON: J.R. had moved back out to L.A., and we came out and cut Sleepwalker at his place. This was practically the first time Harry or I had even turned on a computer. I don’t think in the years of knowing J.R., we ever came up with a tech question he couldn’t answer, and trust me, we asked a lot of questions. Still do. David DeCoteau saw us cutting the film in J.R.’s kitchen, hired J.R. to do so on Shrieker, and that led to J.R. starting up the post department at Full Moon for Charlie Band. We were doing the Warwolf teaser in Wisconsin with Amber Newman. I still talk to her every day, and that movie still screams to be made. J.R. called and three days later, I got off the plane and was foleying Curse of the Puppetmaster with David. I had a roundtrip ticket, and I never took the return flight. That was almost ten years ago. I wonder if it’s still valid? You never know when I might need it. So for a time we all slaved away on as many as four epics per month — homoerotic puppet shows and Skinemax flicks, mostly. Full Moon was an absolute madhouse of a company to work at. There were some really good people and some really bad movies there. And some really bad checks. Eventually Speck came along, and I rewrote it. They made it without us, with no style and god-awful narration. J.R. started producing an economical slate of shows for Charlie, and we did Jigsaw.

Again, you guys delivered some great stuff — Aimee Bravo being a prime example. Not only is she easy on the eyes, but her flashback sequence (the incest/shotgun story) is terrific on every level — scripting, performance, direction, editing. It’s probably the most disturbing, horrifying thing you could have put in a movie about a giant killer puppet — you really subverted the “Charlie Band formula” with Jigsaw, something that rarely happens. How did you pull it off?

DON: We were very pleased to have snuck some of those darker elements into the Full Moon canon (fodder). There was no time for anybody to mess with it. I remember cutting it, just staying up for like 35 hours at a time. The first time we saw Harry’s half and mine together was also the last time we saw the movie before it was delivered. J.R. came in about six at night, telling me we would watch it the next morning at 10 am, and when he came back then, I was still in the chair, saying, “I need another hour.”

HARRY: Usually, you get what you pay for so when you’re spending next to nothing on a feature, it shows. We tried to maximize and exploit everyone and everything along the way. The opportunity to make a movie doesn’t come along everyday so you’d better make the most of it. Put your ego aside and your nose to the grindstone. Too many people, cast and crew, spend too much time playing a role and acting in stereotypical ways. If there’s ever a time to put up and shut up, it’s during production. All behavior is contagious.

Where did you find Arthur Simone? It’s like watching Dick York play Don Adams.

DON: We cast both movies in Chicago. There’s always that Don-ish character in the scripts, because I’m just so goddamn interesting in real life. I continue to have problems finding somebody to get it right — the showmanship, and the conceited self-loathing. Eric Bogosians or Denis Learys are hard to come by. People always say nobody talks like that, but I actually do. I always say I am a stand-up comedian, I just do it sitting down. I always say I’m an asshole, too.

HARRY: We held auditions and a couple hundred people showed up. For safety’s sake, we had 2-3 people picked out for each role. Lucky for us our first choices were able to do it.

Tell me a little about your crew — you use the same guys on every feature, don’t you?

HARRY: Yep. There’s Messner, Ortega, Coletta, Jorgensen, Danforth, Berry and Krakauer. Oh, I’m sorry, that’s Baker Team from First Blood. It’s easy to confuse one group of great guys with another. Actually, The Milwaukee Film Corps has been down with us since Sleepwalker and hopefully we’ll work together again in the near future. They’re the guys you want on a shoot.

DON: We were shooting Sleepwalker with Pete Biagi (Stolen Summer) and he called his pal and fellow shooter Carlo Besasie. This car pulls up and all these guys get out, dozens of them, like when the Feds come in E.T. And they turned out to be this team of film production fanatics called the Milwaukee Film Corps. Super guys, and they love movies. You’d let them marry your sister. The Stones wrote Salt of the Earth about them. I have yet to see a crew on the low budget stuff out here come near them. I always laugh when people call us all movie geeks. Do you go in the bakery and call the chef a pastry geek?

You guys keep the lights on primarily by editing — what are some of the features you’ve cut?

DON: Hold on, the lights are flickering… Full Moon stuff, DeCoteau and Draven stuff, tons of “erotics” for Pat Siciliano. Harry edited The Hillz for our friend Saran, and we just cut a tropical slasher movie called Paradise Lost, with the incredible Dawn Olivieri. She’s also in Devil’s Den, which we did for Jeff Burr. Best. Gig. Ever. If our lives were Scarface, that job would be the upbeat montage with that Push It To the Limit song over it. Until they took the movie away and recut it like an episode of Matlock, anyway. I bury those cock-a-roaches. I’m just haunted by the fact that we didn’t cut Jeff’s Straight Into Darkness, which I always say is put-it-on-your-tombstone great. Somehow, that review always seems to make Jeff uneasy… If I could just cut music and trailers all day, I could be happy and live in a double-wide with a big fat blond. Woman.

HARRY: “The most important thing is work.”- Andy Warhol

Here’s my short list:

Urban Decay (2007) *** Dean Cain, Meatloaf, Brooke Burns
Devil’s Den (2007) **Devon Sawa, Kelly Hu, Ken Foree
Paradise Lost (2006)
Can You Be A Pornstar? (2005) (8 Episodes)
The Hillz (2004) *Paris Hilton
Dark Walker (2003) (V)
Jigsaw (2002) (V)
Cryptz (2002)
Final Stab (2001) (V)
Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy (2000)
Pleasurecraft (1999) (as H.J. Picardi)
Veronica 2030 (1999) (as H.J. Picardi)
Witchouse (1999) (V)
Frankenstein Reborn! (1998)

I’ve also edited projects under these fakes: H.J. Toutatis, Danny Ganymede, Cleo August, Torrey Hess, Al Toyd & Tracy Glass to name a few. I know I’m forgetting some.

How did Urban Decay, which you guys scripted, come about?

DON: Harry had this idea about a homeless zombie that came to him from walking the streets of Hollywood. I specifically love living here. Amoeba and the Egyptian Theater are my local houses of worship. You can pry Hollywood from my dead cold hand. It’s a piss-stained, have-and-have-not wonderland. Pat Siciliano had some guys who wanted to do a horror movie, so I picked this off my bedroom floor, blew the dust off of it. It’s a bigger budget — bigger than all the old stuff combined, probably. Harry Basil directed it, Dean Cain and Brooke Burns star in it, and Meat Loaf steals it. He plays a Rush Limbaugh-style shock jock whose rants sound a lot like yours truly. Chris Williams and Ryan Francis are hilarious as a pair of wannabe rappers. I got to write a rap track with Peter Karr, who is kicking some serious ass on the score. Our buddy Duane Whitaker is in it. We always try to write him in. We were saying it’s the new Eddie Presley, because of all the real Hollywood location shooting. We set it here, but we didn’t think they’d actually shoot it here, out in the street. It was great, I could walk over every day and eat.

HARRY: I have been advised by my lawyer not to discuss this matter until it’s resolved. Look for it in the future.

(Note: Urban Decay — a very entertaining movie — has been held up in all sorts of unfortunate legal trouble)

Any other projects going on that you’d like to talk about?

HARRY: Nothing to speak of at the moment.

DON: I just went on the road with Angry Johnny and the Killbillies. I’m cutting a tour doc from that. I love that band, and anybody who’s into murder, heartbreak, zombies, or songwriting would, too. People lump them in with psychobilly or whatever, but I say Angry’s the mean Springsteen. He’s like a brother to me. Beyond that, there’s just stuff that’s up in the air. You try to take everything with a gallon of salt. We just keep writing, cutting stuff, whatever we can get going. It’s all a crapshoot; you just have to keep yourself available for opportunity. You’ve got to keep your head in the clouds and out of the oven.

Sleepwalker (aka Vengeance of the Dead) at Amazon
Jigsaw at Amazon

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