Producer Steven A. Jones - Wild Things

I spoke by phone to producer Steven A. Jones March 5, 2002.

Steven: "I was an animation director making TV commercials in Chicago. I had a friendship with a guy named John McNaughton. We'd done some small projects together. He got $100,000 from MPI, a video company, to make a horror movie. He got the idea to make a movie about serial killer Henry Lee Lucas."

From Imdb.com: "Henry likes to kill people, in different ways each time. Henry shares an apartment with Otis. When Otis' sister comes to stay, we see both sides of Henry; the "guy-next-door" and the mass murderer."

Bwanef writes on Imdb.com: In 1960, Michael Powell committed professional suicide by directing and producing "Peeping Tom," a thriller in which a psychopathic murderer photographs his victims at the moment of death. Denounced as sick and without redeeming social value, "Peeping Tom" vanished from theaters, while its director, also denounced as sick, went on to make only two more films in the next eight years. Powell's film has gone on to attract an avid cult following and, if it hasn't done so already, so will "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer."

Loosely based on the real life exploits of Henry Lee Lucas, a leering, low IQ sicko who became a media star after claiming to have murdered several dozen people (some believe Henry was bragging), this film takes a gritty, realistic approach that creates the impression that we are watching real life unfold. Director John McNaughton exploits the discomfort the viewer is inclined to feel by presenting a scene in which Henry and his equally vicious former cellmate, Otis, videotape the rape and murder of one of their victims, then play it back for further amusement. This shocking episode effectively makes the point that those who seek second hand thrills through violent "entertainment" are almost as guilty as the perpetrators of such deeds. By casting anonymous non-stars in the leading roles (not that he had a choice considering the budget and the repellent subject matter), and focusing entirely on the exploits of the killers (there are no scenes of police investigating the crimes or peeks into the lives of the victims), McNaughton has created a brutal, amoral horror film that makes the bloodiest gorefest look benign. Although the real Henry was apprehended, his cinematic counterpart is never even suspected of his crimes, and gets off scot-free.

Is "Henry" a film to acclaim or condemn? It's a difficult question to answer, and I, for one cannot make a decision. It is so expertly made that I think McNaughton deserves a round of applause and maybe an Oscar. But, at the end of the video tape of the film that I watched, there was a commercial hawking "Henry" T-shirts ($14.98) and posters ($7.98). Both were available through "Henry Merchandising," and this attempt to turn this all too real murderer into a cult figure deserving of a fan club is despicable.

Steven: "M.P.I. had no faith in "Henry", in fact they shelved it. As soon as it became popular they slapped that ad hawking T-shirts on end of the video. That really shows what they thought of our efforts. They also paid about 1% of what they owed the filmmakers when it came to profits on the film.

"I found a writer-friend of mine [Richard Fire] to write and an editor from the animation business agree to cut Henry. I cast various actors I knew from theater. Since I was also a musician, I put together some people to do the score. Since I worked in commercials all the time, I knew how to do the mixing and supervise the cutting, etc... By the end of the process, I had so many different credits that I thought, 'Well, this makes me a producer.' John said 'Yeah,' and I had my first producing credit.

"MPI didn't even like the picture when we'd finished it. We circulated cassettes all around the country. It was outrageous. It got enough acclaim that it got a small theatrical release.

"In 1988, John and I did a $2 million film for Atlantic Entertainment as the company was going out of business. They borrowed $400,000 out of our budget to keep their offices open. By the time we'd finished the film (under the auspices of the completion bond company), they were out of business. That didn't get released because Atlantic was bankrupt. It finally got bought years later by Cannon [owned by Menahem Golan] and released on video.

"It was a funny silly rock n'roll teen gore fest."

According to Imdb.com: "Aliens punish one of their own by sending him to earth. The alien is very violent, and when the body he occupies is damaged, he is forced to find another."

Steven: "We were offered a chance to produce and direct Mad Dog and Glory [1993]. Martin Scorsese was the executive producer and Robert De Niro was the star. Then they decided they needed to make Cape Fear first. That left John and I in New York, having started pre-production on Mad Dog. We hooked up with Eric Bogosian who said he wanted to do a film of his stage show, 'Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.' So we put it together for another company that went out business before we finished it.

"Maybe we're everybody's last resort. They come to us just before they die, thinking we'll pull it out of the fire. It's been a continuing theme through our filmmmaking history that we get projects made and then we only get released late and under bad circumstances. Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll was supposed to get a 200-theater release and it only opened in 20 theaters."

Luke: "How did you get hooked up with Martin Scorsese?"

Steven: "Someone showed him Henry. He had the script for Mad Dog and Glory, which is sweet. And he thought, 'A crazy thing to do would be to put these insane lunatics who did Henry with the guy who wrote this sweet script.' Martin wanted John to direct and I came along as a co-producer.

"It was an education working for Scorsese. Mad Dog was a $19 million movie working with huge stars like De Niro and Bill Murray. We had an agreement with the writer Richard Price to shoot every single word as it was written. We delivered the movie to Universal. They watched it and said: 'You did exactly what he wrote. You did exactly what we expected you to do. Now let's figure out how to fix it.' We took another a year to get the picture to where they wanted to release it.

"We had to do reshoots based on their testing, mainly a fight sequence that took place outdoors in Chicago at a specific time with Bill Murray and Robert De Niro. It had to be summer. It could not be any other time. Bob had gone off and done a picture and had his hair cut off. Bill had gained 25 pounds. We had to try to piece it back together again a year later.

"That's another education when the studio takes the movie and shows it to people in some shopping malls. And suddenly your movie needs to change to fit their tastes.

"The Robert De Niro is this milquetoast who battles gangster Bill Murray for the girl Uma Thurman. In the script, the gangster beat the hell out of the De Niro character who only got in one little punch, which woke the gangster up. 'Why am I fighting in the street with this guy over a woman? I'm taking a walk.' And the audiences said, 'The Raging Bull would never get beaten up by Bill Murray.' To which we said, 'No. We've just spent 90-minutes establishing that this isn't Raging Bull. This is a little milquetoast.' The studio said no to us. We had to change it to the Raging Bull beating the hell out of Bill Murray."

From Imdb.com: "Wayne Dobie [De Niro] is a shy police photographer who saves the life of crime boss Frank Milo [Murray]. Greatful, Milo insists on being Wayne's friend, offering him the companionship of "Glory" [Thurman], one of his employees. Wayne is thus in a difficult situation: he can't be seen to be fraternising with criminals, and he's unsure about how to deal with Glory."

Steven: "Audiences didn't like the Uma Thurman character because she seemed too manipulative. So we had to shoot some additional footage to make Bill Murray the bad guy who forces her to do bad things. The movie got good reviews but bad box office. It was marketed as a Bill Murray comedy, and then in the first few minutes of the film you have all this violence.

"While we were doing Mad Dog, I read an article about a stakeout of a guy [Jeff Erickson] who was thought to have robbed banks. And when they went to capture him, this woman [wife Jill] started a huge gun battle with the FBI and led them on a chase through 12 different suburbs, hanging a machine gun out the window of her van. She ended up dead, ostensibly taking her own life after she was wounded.

"Then a few weeks, I opened up the New York Times to read that the man involved in this case was killed trying to escape from the federal building in downtown Chicago. I knew who wrote the articles but I couldn't get them to respond to me. It turned out that somebody else had already purchased the rights. One day in the mail, we get a screenplay about the couple from the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Peg Haller and Bob Schneider and producer Richard Maynard. We decided to work together.

"About 18 months later, William Morris [talent agency] said Luke Perry wanted to do it, and if we'd take him, they'd throw in Ashley Judd. They were willing to work for peanuts. We got enough money from Spelling Entertainment to make it. Luke was still on Beverly Hills 90210.

"We finished the movie and the distributor New Line told us, 'This is great. We can make some big money on this.' They took it to a shopping mall and presented it as a Luke Perry movie, which they took to mean 90210. After watching him blow his own brains out, they took offense. The test scores were awful. So they decided not to release it as a feature. [Director] John McNaughton made a big stink in the press and they released it for a week in New York and Los Angeles. And then it went to HBO."

Steven's next film was his first without director John McNaughton. Finding North, 1998, marks the debut of director Tanya Wexler.

"Screwball romance involving a woman (Makkena) who gets fired from her job as a bank teller when her friends arrange for a stripper to appear at the bank for her birthday. She then meets a man (Hickey) whom she had earlier seen jump off a bridge and had assumed had committed suicide. With nothing else to do, she follows him to Texas. Along the way she slowly comes to realize he is gay and is despondent over the AIDS-related death of his former lover." (Imdb.com)

Steven: "It had a gay protagonist who dies of AIDS, which at the time was unusual."

Next film Steven teamed up again with John to make the $30 million 1998 popcorn movie Wild Things. Expected to be a smash, the film did decent box office and John and Steven haven't made anything as big since.

"We've received good reviews on every movie we've made. We just haven't hit one out of the park yet. That's when you're forgiven all your sins and you get to do whatever you want."

Married for nine years, Steven has two kids and lives in Chicago.

"John wanted to do this movie Speaking of Sex for Fox. They refused to greenlight it. Canal Plus purchased the rights and gave us $11 million to make the film in Calgary. It's never been released.

"Speaking of Sex stars James Spader, Bill Murray, Catherine O'Hara, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jay Mohr, Melora Walters, and Meghan Mullaly, is incredibly funny, and we are astonished that there has been no distribution deal made."

"A female marriage counselor and a male depression expert try to solve the marital problems of a troubled couple." (Imdb.com)

Steven: "We're still trying to make a movie with Bill Murray about this baseball owner Bill Veeck. He won the World Series with Cleveland in the 1940s. He owned the Chicago Whitesox a couple of times. He's famous for putting a midget up at bat and breaking the color line (second black player) in the American League. He thought baseball should be as much entertainment as sport. Other owners took offense at his approach and so we has always battling the rest of the league. But he was filling seats. What you see at baseball games today is a direct result of the way he thought people should be treated at a ballgame.

"I want to direct an adaptation of the Nelson Algren book Never Come Morning."

Luke: "Of the movies you've made, the ones you've originated seem mainly about killers."

Steven: "We've always had a dark and cynical attitude."