Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Interview with Victor Salva


When the US box office figures are tallied on Sunday night, three-week champ American Pie 2 will, barring accidents, surrender its crown to a new movie that’s neither a big-budget blockbuster, a remake, nor a sequel. Jeepers Creepers is a cheap horror movie starring Gina Phillips and Justin Long as a sister and brother pursued by an unstoppable psychopath. Hardly big names : while Phillips has popped up in Ally McBeal and Long in GalaxyQuest, writer-director Victor Salva has been, until now, better known in the US for his off-camera activities

In 1989 he pleaded guilty to having oral sex with the 12-year-old star of his debut film, Clownhouse an act he recorded on videotape. Sentenced to three years in prison, he served 15 months and was paroled in 1992. Certain family-values groups view Salva is one of American films most notorious figures in the Washington Posts phrase, he poses an interesting moral question over the right of artists with criminal records to work.

Details of Salvas past became big news with the release of Powder in 1995, a project produced by a Disney Organisation, and again caused problems during Jeepers Florida shoot, when local school officials prohibited students from visiting the set or appearing as extras on learning of Salvas record. Early rave review on internet websites ignited a ferocious flame war between those outraged that a convicted padeophile should be allowed to work and have his films distributed, and calmer voices who argued that Salva had discharged his debt to society, had attempted to make amends, and was entitled to make a living. And if Salvas films were to be boycotted, what about Roman Polanski, who fled the US rather than face trial on underage-sex charges?

Speaking from his Los Angeles home, the 43-year-old Salva remains philosophical: Ive never made any effort to hide what happened. I served my time, Ive tried to learn and move on. I knew making Powder for Disney was like throwing gasoline on the fire a very volatile combination that was going to erupt at some point. This has followed me around ever since it all happened, but once people meet me the phantoms kind of go away, and they realise I just made a stupid mistake, years ago.

Salva is grateful to industry figures whove given him a second chance especially Francis Ford Coppola, producer of both Clownhouse and Jeepers Creepers, the first release under Coppola distribution deal with United Artists. According to Salva, Francis has always been my champion. He knew I made a terrible mistake, but he also knew who I really was, and I was capable of doing. Hes stuck with me all the way, through all the thick and all the thin, sinced he saw my short Something in the Basement that I made in my own backyard. I entered it for this competition for movies made only with home-video equipment, and Francis was one of the judges. He gave it first prize in the fiction category, and he asked me if I had any feature ideas.

I showed him the Clownhouse script and he was setting up a company called Commercial Pictures to make ten low-budget movies for $10m each, and he wanted mine to be the fist one. Commercial Pictures didn’t work out, but now its over a decade later and he’s got a similar operation called Zoetrope, which is another ten $10m movies, and again mines the first. Thats pretty flattering, and there’s a real symmetry about it. Providing further symmetry and perhaps explaining the Godfather auteurs enthusiasm for Salvas movies is the fact that his own directorial debut was itself a horror cheapie, Dementia 13, shot in Ireland in 1963 under the auspices of legendary producer Roger Corman.

But Salva was, nevertheless, initially wary of showing Coppola the Jeepers script: I thought he saw me potentially as more of an intellectual type of film-maker, and here was this genre picture. But eventually I sent him the script and he said he wanted it to be the first movie for the Zoetrope deal. When he saw a rough cut, he said it was a dark work of art, and not just some piece of trash.

Coppolas enthusiasm has been shared by critics and preview audiences alike one German commentator raved about what he called Salvas Horrorkompetenz – but the mounting hype has its downside: It does work better if you know nothing about it beforehand, says Salva, Im worried that expectations are going to be raised so high, and then they see whats really just a little horror movie, and they’ve been led to believe its something really amazing. Not that there’s anything wrong with little horror movies, of course – growing up in a small town outside San Francisco, Salva and his brother would watch fright movies every Saturday on the TV Creature Feature, absorbing themselves in sleeper classics such as Carnival of Souls: they made it for, like, a dollar ninety-eight, and its so atmospheric, bits of it are really terrifying, and it isn’t really graphic at all.

My favourites were fifties monster movies, especially Creature From the Black Lagoon, but we also loved all the Universal classics and things like Dead of Night and Night of the Demon. Im a fan of suspense, and I see Jeepers as really a kind of a campfire tale I was very serious about writing it, but the movie itself isn’t supposed to be totally straight faced. But not like the Scream films they poke fun at the horror and somehow tear it down. This was more an attempt to recapture all the things I love about real scary movies, but also to have some very black humour to take the edge off some of the despicable, monstrous things that are going on.

Its a winning formula, and while Salva says he’s as nervous as a cat in a room fullo rockin chairs in anticipation of the big national release, he’s also ready if success leads to the re-opening of old wounds. There are always going to be people who wonder how anyone can make that big a mistake, he says. But Ill never let it stop my career as a film-maker. Francis told me to look for the positives, that getting through the tough times might even make me a better artist. I was too upset to listen to him at the time, but now I know what he means. In a way, it derailed me from my ambition to be Spielberg. It made me realise that I wanted to know what kind of films I was going to make. After everything that’s happened, Im still going to make movies to make Victor Salva movies.”

For the full transcript of this interview click here
For our review of Jeepers Creepers click here

29th August, 2001

by Neil Young