No-one expects the Roman centurions
Everybody loves a good B-movie. Kelly Greene loves them so much that he wrote his Master's thesis on post-war Universal science fiction films, demonstrating a particular fondness for the work of Roger Corman. In 1999 he made Attack Of The Bat Monsters, an affection comedic tribute to the classic supporting features of the Fifties. It's getting a special screening as part of the Frightfest programme at the Glasgow Film Festival, so Kelly agreed to answer some questions and let fans know a little more about it.
Jennie Kermode: What inspired you to go from studying films to making one?
Kelly Greene: Actually, I went straight from getting my MA and graduation into corporate video production in Austin, Texas, working for a company called Horizon Film and Video. So I spent over a decade as a 'company man,' in the trenches making promotional videos for corporations, state agencies and non-profits before resigning in order to get Bat Monsters made. Working at Horizon was like another film school, where I met the shooter, Tom Hennig, and the lead actor, Michael Dalmon. Along with Mark Spacek, they formed the core group who eventually who eventually helped me make Bat Monsters.
A boy and his creature
JK: Did you intend Attack Of The Bat Monsters primarily as comedy or did you want to pay tribute to the determination and craft involved in making very low budget films?
KG: Good question – in all honesty, the latter. There are a lot of opportunities for cheap laughs in a movie about exploitation film-making that I passed on because I wanted the humor to mostly emerge from the intrinsic difficulty of shooting a film in three days. Many of the events in the film are loosely re-imagined from anecdotes from actors, directors and technicians that worked on Fifties exploitation films.
JK: How many of the incidents we see in Attack Of The Bat Monsters are based on events from real films?
KG: Well over a dozen – some in passing and some as crucial scenes in the film. I had to cut out a favorite of mine, which we shot as part of a fundraising strategy for prospective investors. The scene was based on a story involving a famous effects artist, Paul Blaisdell, who built a giant 'Venusian' cucumber creature in his studio, but had to tear it apart to get it to the set. A character in Bat Monsters, Paul Bednorz, is loosely based on Blaisdell, and many of the other characters are composites of people involved in Fifties exploitation cinema. For instance, I derived the director, Francis Gordon, played by Fred Ballard, from a combination of Roger Corman and Bert Gordon. Ryan Wickerham's character, Jack Haroldson, is clearly modeled after Jack Nicholson and Dick Miller. You don't have to look too hard to see Beverly Garland in Casie Waller's character, Beverly Carver. I'm just scratching the surface here.
A man and a woman
JK: The film this brought to mind for me was Lobster Man From Mars, especially when it comes to the death of the monster. Was that something you had in mind.
KG: I've seen Lobster Man From Mars – any film with Patrick Macnee is worth the price of admission as far as I'm concerned; however, the Bat Monster's demise came about through a consolidation of two incidents from the exploits of Roger Corman. The first was from Teenage Caveman, where Beach Dickerson was severely beaten by extras while trapped in a bear suit. The second was Susan Cabot almost getting asphyxiated in the climax of Wasp Woman when someone poured liquid smoke into her sealed mask and they couldn't undo her collar, since it was sealed with glue.
JK: How did you approach finding a balance between the in-jokes and reaching out to a wider audience?
KG: I thought that telling a funny and compelling story would be enough. I realize this may be heretical to say, but I feel that as a filmmaker I need to focus on making movies that I would want to see, and not try to anticipate a market or audience trend. Really the exact opposite of the exploitation model! That being said, I honestly think that the comic qualities and the critical success of Bat Monsters will enable it to find an audience now that the film has been upgraded to 2K by Mark Rance.
JK: How did you go about casting the film?
A man and his Geiger counter
KG: A combination of strategies. I worked with Michael Dalmon on commercial projects, so the lead was set from the start. Marco Perella, the brilliant actor from Boyhood, used sides of the script in his acting class, and I recruited several actors that way, like Fred Ballard, Rob Bassetti, Patsy Goldwater and Ryan Wickerham. Mark Spacek recommended a few others, like Robert Graham, Douglas Taylor, Bill Wise and Casie Waller. Most of them had a combination of film and theatre experience. I think the rate was something like 50 dollars a day. Texas is a right-to-work state, so we didn't need any SAG accreditation.
JK: Given your low budget, did you find yourself having to cut corners like your characters did?
KG: Absolutely! We had far less money than Corman ever did for his low budget films. He usually had sixty to seventy thousand dollars, even for his cheapest projects, while we had barely half that, before you factor in inflation. Allison Wait, the costume designer, went to thrift stores and bought two dollar sweaters for Beverly. Paul Belcher scrounged up a geiger counter, WWII surplus gear out of his garage and other props for next to nothing. Our crew would be extras when needed. My coverage of the script was spartan and limited - I think my shooting ratio was 5 to 1, which is absurdly low - and that's why some of the critics notice that the film has some of the same qualities as the black-and-white science fiction film being shot.
JK: What challenges did you face in marketing the film and getting it to the right audience?
Gaffer's tape lingerie
KG: The only strategy was festivals, and it worked perfectly at first. Due to reviews and awards, we got requests for screeners and initial offers that, in hindsight, I should have accepted – one from Corman, one from Troma and one from a little company I had never heard of, called Arrow Entertainment. It would have meant complete loss of every dime we put into the film, but by 2001 you could have gone to Blockbuster and rented Attack Of The Bat Monsters on VHS.
JK: How do you feel about the film screening at Frightfest?
KG: This is literally the first time the film has ever been screened in 2K; also, it's in front of a horror-centric audience, so the deck is stacked in our favor. My wife, Sandra and my youngest daughter, Nora will be there, as will my sister, Ginny. So this is a once-in-a-lifetime event for me. I feel honored. I'm so appreciative that FrightFilm and the Glasgow Film Festival are screening it, supporting it and even promoting it. I couldn't ask for more.
JK: Do you hope for make further ventures into genre filmmaking in the future?
KG: Yes. The production and distribution landscape has opened up immensely since we made Bat Monsters. Films can be made better and less expensively and there is more demand for new product in horror and fantasy now than in the history of movie-making. I'm a good film-maker, monsters are in my blood, monsters are marketable and I've got a low-budget franchise ready to go!
Attack Of The Bat Monsters is screening in Glasgow on Friday 2 March