John – Portrait of a Film Director : Interview with John McNaughton


Editing a TV show in LA (on “a very brutal schedule”) and about to fly to the UK for the theatrical rerelease and uncut DVD/VHS release of his 1986 classic Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer, writer-director John McNaughton (also responsible for Mad Dog and Glory [1992] and the terrific Wild Things [1998], among others) found time to talk exclusively to Jigsaw Lounge.

What is the extra footage that has been restored for this “uncut” version?

I don’t think I ever actually saw the cut that was put forth in Britain. Certain critics who championed the film at the time spoke to me and tried to explain what was in and what was out, but it’s been so long now that I can only approximate my remembrance of it. I think mainly it was the ‘home invasion’ sequence. The idea of that scene is somewhat tricky: you see them pull up to the house, then we cut inside and what we see is through the video-camera that Henry is using. Then the camera drops to the ground and the rest is seen from the video-camera’s point of view on the floor.

We know they’ve broken in and tied up the mother and father of this family, we’ve seen that from the “director’s point-of-view”, but once we cut to the camera on the ground we’re then watching the playback. You’re led to believe you’re seeing just what the camera is seeing at the time, but then when we cut to Henry and Ottis sitting on the couch you realise it’s the playback they’re watching, reliving their glories, so to speak. There’s been this random slaughter and the way it’s presented implicates the viewers and film-makers, and makes the audience think about how they’re watching violence as entertainment. The context makes it worse. I think the British censors recut it so you don’t get that sense of identification with the killers watching the playback from their couch.

Henry isn’t entirely unsympathetic, is he?

I think of Henry as being a monster, but Ottis is the beast. Henry’s a bit like Frankenstein’s monster – there might just be that little bit of goodness somewhere deep inside that might come out. But once Ottis starts following Henry’s “teachings”, so to speak, he just gives way to his worst impulses and he becomes the beast. Henry is the “better” of the two, if you can make that comparison. It’s not like in most serial-killer films, where what they normally do is present the killer as some evil creature who will not be redeemed, so the audience doesn’t have to bother thinking any deeper thoughts. With Henry, no moral judgement is provided, so you have to think for yourself. Now that’s always been a tough sell in Hollywood.

And there’s also a surprising amount of humour in the movie, albeit mostly very black humour.

If you watch it often enough, you realise that in a way it’s like an extremely bizarre comedy. Tom Towles, who plays Ottis, his training was with the Second City group – improvisational comedy. He’s great at playing buffoons, and I’ve used him several times since. The relationship between Henry and Ottis is, at certain points, a little like a bickering couple – like when Ottis smashes the TV in, or when the video-camera breaks and they have their little argument in the car. The way they played those scenes makes me laugh – but of course there’s a lot about the film that’s so shocking that if somebody saw it just once they might think you were crazy to even think of laughing at it.

Do you think the film still has the same power to shock, 18 years after you made it?

I think it does, yes, though not quite as much as when it first came out – because this kind of thing really hadn’t been seen before. And we were trying to do something different with the presentation of the violent scenes. If you take the early scene where they kill the TV man – he’s this repulsive man who goads them until they attack him. It’s a quite traditional setup of introducing a distasteful character, and you’re rooting for the hero to dispatch him. And of course he gets the TV smashed over his head – it’s a kind of gratifying use of violence. Then later we have the ‘home invasion’ sequence, and that’s very different – it’s like a home movie of the massacre of a completely innocent family, chosen at random. We watch them slaughtered, and hopefully people will ask themselves – how entertaining is violence, really?

Because in the mid-80s when the film came out, there were many violent films – the Rambos and Terminators and the like.

Well, normally the hero goes and shoots a thousand people, and that’s the kind of violence that was shown in movies at the time. We didn’t exactly have those specific films in mind when we made Henry, but when trying to tell the story, we realised it was a lot to do with violence, so we tried to dig a little deeper.

To what extent is the film a reaction against the prevailing Reaganite politics of mid-80s America, in the same way as Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather?

The characters that interest me are the unglamorous ones, the not particularly successful ones. I’ve come from a working-class background, and I’ve worked in factories and steel-mills. These people have interesting lives, and nobody’s there to sing their song. Even in a movie like Mad Dog and Glory, Bill Murray may be a mobster but he’s not a successful one. Cinema does tend to ignore the unglamorous people, and those are the stories I’m drawn to.

Wild Things is very much about that class divide – you have the rich girl from the good side of the tracks and the lower-class girl from the wrong side.

That’s right, and my heart is always with the one from the wrong side of the tracks.

But surely couldn’t you read Henry as being a kind of Republican-type warning about how violent and scary the underclass are? Who’d stop to help somebody with their car bonnet up after seeing this movie?!

“Republican” is the most painful label anyone could stick on me or my films! I’m from Chicago myself, and I never even met a Republican until I went to college. Chicago is a working-class town and thankfully people retain their allegiance to the Democrat party – if somebody says they’re going to run for mayor as a Republican, their next stop would be at the psychiatrist’s.

I work in LA but I really live in Chicago, and I was proud – if a little surprised – to see the city council vote 46-1 against the war recently, and that council is not a hotbed of liberal or progressive thinking! But I wouldn’t analyse Henry as being any kind of attack on the underclass – and even if it was, Wild Things is even more savage about the rich, who are all portrayed as horrid.

Would you see Henry as a ‘blue collar’ movie?

It’s about the blue-collar underclass – people with no hope, and if you allow that to happen, if you prevent people from finding any path to fulfilment in their lives, if their prospects are so bleak. then some of them are going to become more anti-social, more destructive to society as a whole. This kind of violence is a failure to deal with the world in all but the most primitive and beastly of ways – for inarticulate people like Henry, violence becomes the most viable method of getting by, because he’s so excluded from everything in society.

Is that why he snarls “Fuck the Bears” when the shopkeeper tries to make small-talk about the Chicago Bears American-Football team?

Yes, to make any kind of negative comment about the Bears in Chicago would put you on the outside.

So in a way this is an appropriate time for this film to return to prominence – the poor seem set to suffer even more than before thanks to George Bush’s planned cutbacks in education and welfare.

I know a teacher who works in the public [i.e. state] school system here in California, and she says they just have no money for anything. Bush is pushing through massive tax cuts, and yet he’s increasing spending with this war. I’m not a mathematician or an economist, but if I spend more than I earn then I know I’m going to be in trouble.

Do you think things are now worse than during the Reagan years when Henry was made?

To my mind this is the bleakest period of world history that I’ve experienced – with the possible exception of the Vietnam war. I see Bush as a man who’s seized power, was not freely elected, then took the country in this direction. And I expect more warfare to come up just before the next elections.

But the real war in the US is against.

The poor, but not just the poor – the whole underclass, right from the dismantling of the unions on up. I see it in the motion picture business, things we thought couldn’t happen are happening. If you are in business to make money in this country, then there are no restrictions put on you at all.

So hopefully Henry might make people reflect a little on these issues?

Well, we tried to do something a little different in a lot of ways. When you are introduced to Henry, very quickly you know that he’s a murderer. In films, when you watch them, you’re always waiting for the sympathetic or empathetic characters to come along. According to my dictionary, empathy means “to understand and share the feelings of another.”

You’re even put into that position with Henry – certainly in contrast with Ottis, who has many fewer redeeming qualities. The question you must face is, I’m maybe not so different from Henry, despite all the awful things he does – it’s like in a book I read after I finished the movie, Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. That’s based on a similar idea – how far can somebody go and still keep our sympathy, our empathy?

What are you working on now?

Well, the film business is very strange – I’m working on a few projects, but all they’re interested in now is stuff that costs over $80m or below $3m. And I find that by and large the standard of writing in TV is better than in film. I did a show last year called Push, Nevada that I liked, but was maybe a little strange for some people.

Right now I’m working on a show called Expert Witness with Matthew Modine, which is about three forensic psychiatrists, and their job is to examine people who’ve committed monstrous deeds and decide whether or not they’re insane. I’m always interested in stuff that delves into the criminal mind and tries to understand what makes them act in a certain way. I asked one of the psychiatrists who’s a consultant for the show ‘What is evil’ – his definition was ‘A lack of empathy,’ so it all comes back to the same thing.

Did you have any involvement on Mask of Sanity, the sequel to Henry?

None at all, but the director Perello is a good friend of mine, and I can’t say anything bad about him or the movie. We worked together before at MIP [the production company behind Henry] where he was head of publicity. He also did the Ed Gein movie which was pretty good. My idea for a sequel never quite took off – it was to go into Henry’s story after he was captured. The ‘real’ Henry, Henry Lee Lucas, he became kind of a superstar.

The way it works, if you’re from the underclass it’s very unlikely you’re going to rise to become the chairman of a corporation – the main routes out are if you have enough raw talent for sports or entertainment. The other path is crime – and Henry did become a superstar, the police flew him around the country to crime scenes where he would give them info, and they would be able to close many cases because of this. And so Henry started making these demands – “I don’t want any more hamburgers, I want steak. I want a VCR in my cell.” So my idea was that the sequel would be called Henry 2 – Superstar of Crime.

But it never happened.

We parted ways on that one.

So do you feel like a trailblazer for those serial-killer movies like Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and the forthcoming Monster, about Aileen Wuornos?

We tried to aim for the kind of thing that movies like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Last House on the Left did, which was pushing back the boundaries into territory that hadn’t been covered before, more extreme. but as for all the stuff that came after, I take no credit, and no blame either.

16th April 2003

To read the review of Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer click here

by Neil Young