An Interview with John Huff – By Brian Morton

 At the end of August, I had the great pleasure of attending the first annual B Movie Celebration. Not only did I get to see some great movies, but also I got to meet a bunch of very nice people in the indie film business. But, through all of that, one guy really made an impression on me, John Huff, the writer/director of Cyxork 7, a very cool movie that’s part sci-fi movie and part behind the scenes craziness, and one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in quite some time. Well, after hearing Mr. Huff speak before and after the movie, he fascinated me. Here’s a man who’s written for classic TV shows, like CHiPS and Kolchak The Night Stalker and now has moved (after some personal adversity) to being a writer/director of his first feature film. I thought, if I’m this interested, surely every one of you would love to hear from this renaissance man of the industry, so I sat down with John Huff to talk about his career, Cyxork 7 and what’s next for this ‘new’ filmmaker.

BM – How did you get started in the business?

JH – The first movie I ever saw was “Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein” at age two and still not completely house trained. When I ran away from home, I always went west. The series “Route 66” made me aware of writing for the first time. (See the pilot episode) That is to say, Stirling Silliphant made me aware of what a writer does. I had already read Bradbury, Matheson, Poe, Welles and Bierce but had never found the writing link between the written prose page and the visualization of film. I lived in corn country thirty miles from the forbidden Centron Studios where “Carnival of Souls” would be filmed in 1962— but I didn’t know what a screenplay was. They may have printed an actual Stirling Silliphant script-excerpt in TV Guide or something; anyhow, I read how Silliphant himself never typed for “Route 66” but kept four secretaries busy on four separate electric typewriters. He strolled and dictated, strolled and dictated, like a master chess player doing multiple games at once. What can I say? That’s a writer.

I ran the film festival at my college. I discovered I had a ruthless sense when it came to politicking more student fund money to rent more and more and more films. My film series became the plutocracy of student government finance and I was resented for this. (There was a war, there was anti-war, there was love in the park, the Beatles or the Stones, man? assassinations, political action, ROTC-list-makers on campus, civil rights, human rights but not yet animal rights—and— women were starting not to shave; there were many serious issues at hand and here I come, with film reels falling out of my ass, this geek, with sudden spinal pride because I get to show you “Yojimbo.”) The hatred was mutual. These people didn’t love movies as much as I did. Not nearly as much. They weren’t even film-buffs. I did have good audiences though, always. The people liked me. My college later failed and closed its doors in the boom period of the nineties. I always thought this was cinematic karma: a result of it being a cold place for film. Being a totally useless Liberal Arts major, I attended a totally useless graduate seminary but one that redeemed itself with a strong interest in film and film history. I was able to watch Hitchcock, Hawks, Griffith, Chaplin and Flaherty along with Warhol, The Canyon Cinema Cooperative and Riefenstahl (when you still had to sign for her with the Museum of Modern Art) and watch them over and over. I learned the exquisite uniqueness of Robert Flaherty’s work. I watched the airplane attack in “North By Northwest” backwards and forwards on a Moviola; I met Arthur Knight whose work I’d read for years, especially “The History of Sex in the Cinema” for Playboy. I worked on my first film. I was door-watcher-butthole while actor Lew Ayers paid Housten Smith (of M.I.T.) to talk with Krishnamurti. Most importantly in all this, I met my first writing partner, L. Ford Neale. He and I shared a love of film and managed to borrow school projectors for our own off-the-record film festivals. We owned a bootleg print of “Lost Continent” starring Cesar Romero. It had subtitles for the hearing-impaired. I had an ancient black and white Mickey Mouse cartoon that had serious racial and alimentary implications. Ford and I began to write together. Through circuitous pathing, a script came to the attention of Darren McGavin and he gave us the chance to try and write a “Nightstalker” episode. We ended up writing three. It was our ticket to the barbecue.

BM – What are the differences between writing for TV and writing for film?

JH – If you are a David Chase and that kind of creative team, there is little difference in writing for TV and film. The good TV shows all aspire to and achieve cinematic integrity. Look at any “Sopranos” episode. It’s cinema. I’m going to break balls here but what I’m going to say is true. Most episodic television is radio with pictures. As film, it’s tepid puke. TV “coverage” is anti-cinematic. People can’t understand why I don’t watch episodic television. It’s because it’s so dull. Most television commercials are pictures with radio, therefore they are more cinematically communicative and visually interesting. Commercials and M-TV are my most continuous visual cinematic experiences in non-movie-viewing. Any good cinema can play silent and tell you most of the story. But we’re talking about episodic here. One of the most visual of all television series in history was the original “Mission: Impossible.” It could actually play silent, tell the story, sell the clock, cross-cut the story-lines, bring in new jeopardy and do it all without discursive explanation: dialogue. Most of today’s TV is radio with pimp photography. Try this experiment. Turn off the picture and see if you don’t still get most of the story information. Even the token “visual” introductions soon become voice-recognition radio characters. This limiting of visual imagination in television is what is known as “TV coverage.” There are rather anal rules for this cinematography and after awhile all TV looks the same… because it is. Its visual is a mere subordinate to the straight-line-prose on the sound track. Radio with an occasional visual flash and then back to normal. Predictability is the mother of dull children whose looks and moves hint of inbreeding. Writing for film can be more liberating, especially indy film, because you have the chance, the opportunity, the blessing, to think outside TV sensibility. You can trade on that TV sensibility, pimp it, satirize it, tile it into your visual mosaic but your visual sense is as limited or unlimited as you make it. Look at Lloyd Kaufman’s “Poultrygeist”. There are some set-ups in his picture that some wig, or suit or haircut—in a studio setting, you understand—would have said, “Lloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd, that’s outrageous and it’s a lot of trouble for a single little shot.” But Lloyd– not being in that fucked up studio environment– says, “I want that shot. I shall have it. Put that toilet seat there, horizontally, against that man’s huge ass and shoot it! Now!!” Perhaps I’m just channeling Otto Preminger in “Stalag 17,” but I think not. Lloyd knows what he wants to see and he gets it. Lloyd Kaufman is an auteur, a visual auteur. Scholars redacting Jerry Lewis in France may soon stumble onto Lloyd. Remember, you heard from me first. Writing for film can be visually gutsy and wonderfully filmic. Writing for TV can be too. Every once and awhile, for a few seconds.

BM – Are any of the characters or situations in Cyxork 7 based on anything from you real experiences?

JH – I moved to the desert to die of leukemia but that failing, just like my TV career, an indy movie came to my little town (historic Pioneertown, California) and I was asked to join in. It was “The Howling VII: New Moon Rising,” and it has garnered a singular reputation in the world of sequels. On that set I met Andreas Kossak and we began a writing conversation which led to writing projects and finally “Cyxork 7.” Andreas has had much experience in the belly of this animal, indy film, so between the two of us we wanted to include the kitchen sink. We wanted to try and capture the experience of working on such a film; the irony, the fuckups, the compost heap of emotions and yet, the very good experience of camaraderie. You have to have some attraction that makes you want to stay up eighteen hours and shoot this movie. It must be because you like it. To share that like of film is good community. We wanted to capture all of that.

 BM – Your writing partner, Andreas Kossak, has more credits as a cinematographer than a writer. How did he get involved and was there ever any thought to him being cinematographer on Cyxork 7?

JH – I wanted Andreas involved as early as possible for the simple fact that he is also a de-facto producer and writer and director. In some indy films, when you hit the ground running, the director craps out, seizures up and can’t function. Andreas, as DP, has been in those situations numerous times and simply taken over—with everyone’s consent. When the project is done then the director magically remembers this project as his/her best work. Andreas has that reputation among producers. No matter what fuckup happens, he will make sure the film gets done. He will not let a crew and cast sit in directorial paralysis. I, knowing this about Andreas, felt very secure. My shot ratio averaged 1- 5. He trusted me enough to know that when I said I had it, we could go on. And when we didn’t, we had to stay. He trusted my sense of the emotional continuity in our script, his script too. There were many times when he took my word for it, that I could have been bullshitting myself. Luckily not. My spirit-guides Abbot & Costello were with me. Because Andreas co-wrote the script and because he was producing the movie, we asked our friend Michael Negrin to carry the DP burden. (Negrin is a dynastic name in the world of cinematography. Michael Negrin, son of Saul Negrin, is a perfectionist. I have never yet been less than proud of the look and surface of our film. The leading film-exposure-expert in Germany, the man they simply call, “The Eye of Germany,” called our exposure, “Good. The Exposure is good.” The room went hush and the Sony-Nord-Media associates told me that this gentleman is very sparing with his praise—as in “never”– and even though I’d come all the way from California, if he’d thought our movie looked like a toilet bowl, he would have said that too. I am so proud of the surface and exposure Michael Negrin gave us.) I had great trouble with our financing producers when they referred to “shooting film” and I said, “We’re not shooting on film. There is no film.” “There is no film?” they murmured again and again. That’s a hard sell to a traditionalist producer. And a burden it was for Michael. We were shooting in HD-24p on the Sony F-900. There were questions of how that equipment would function in our high-desert altitude and climate. Negrin and his team devoted themselves to that vexing problem. Andreas devoted himself to advising me, guiding production, contractual obligations with SAG and dealing with us getting shot at by a Coors-Lite cowboy. Andreas’ plate was full. And, yes, Andreas is an award-winning cinematographer and his work is viewed regularly on the Discovery Channel and Disney. He’s broadened his reputation with this picture.

BM – Cyxork 7 is the first film you’ve directed. Is directing something you wanted to get into, or was this a different situation?

JH – Every writer has delusions he could do it better than the director to whom he hands off his work. I had directed, considerably actually, but only commercials and small films, and doing this was the next logical step. I’ve had conversations with actors to the point that I think I know what they need and don’t need. They need support, affirmation and protection. They don’t need ego games on the set. They need to be in a chrysalis of a relationship with the director and carry on a conversation with him through the camera as well as behind it. Sometimes the best direction is, “Um-hmm!” Very “Glasserian.” Less is always more— when you’ve done your homework with the actor.

BM – You have Ray Wise playing the stereotypical diva, was it hard to get him to commit to a low budget movie?

JH – When Ray drove up in his muscle car, we were star struck. I’ve met two Presidents and many celebrities but certain celebrities make me ga-ga. Ray Wise was that way with both Andreas Kossak and me. This was Laura Palmer’s father— Leon Nash from “RoboCop,” and on and on. We didn’t ask Ray to read. He had already read the script and liked it. He agreed to work for SAG minimum, a grace note of major importance for us. You too can get a name actor to come and work on your movie if he likes your script. It’s that simple. How do you get the script to him/her? A thousand answers to that.

Ray’s remark about the character of Rex Anderson/Kommander 88: “I know this guy.” He was referring to his many acting colleagues who wait tables, drive cabs and work night desks while they toil to become “working” actors. Ray, an actor who is rarely out of work, still felt the fear of never working again. Many very successful people often express this fear. People around them don’t believe they mean it but they do. Kommander88’s “prima donna” attitude is borne out of his fear; the shred of reputation he has as a faded superhero is ALL he has so he guards it like a miser clutching his gold.

Ray Wise on the “Cyxork 7” set, was the opposite of a diva. He was punctual, prepared and unflappable. Other actors modeled after him. Divas begat divas. Professionals begat professionals. It is an irony to see one of the most successful working actors of our time playing the opposite end of the spectrum. Ray’s study of vapidity, vanity and ego in an actor on the skids is done with piquant observation, wit and delicate art. His dinner table conversation with Beata Pozniak and Sonya Smith is a stiletto to the heart of vanity.

 BM – I have to ask, you wrote three episodes of Kolchak The Night Stalker (one of my favorite shows growing up), what was it like to be involved in TV at that time, and that series in particular?

 JH – If my memory serves me well, and it may not, a Kolchak episode cost something like $134,000. That can’t be right but that is the figure that latches in my mind. The series rode in on the fan base for the most successful TV movie up to that time: Dan Curtis’ “The Nightstalker.” The character of Kolchak stuck with us. He was the only port in the storm for horror fans in those years. The series was a dark horse from the start for ABC. Not much marketing and they gave it a deat
crib across from Telly Savalas in “Kojak.” Because Darren McGavin liked L. Ford Neale and me, we were “invited” (commanded) to come to the office or his home and take notes while he reworked, rewrote and basically fixed our ideas. Darren was our writing teacher. I remember him with a big snifter of something, acting out all the parts to “Mr. R.I.N.G.” and then daring us to tell him the real name of Mary Shelley’s monster in “Frankenstein.” It’s a trick question literati always use on horror trolls. “It’s ‘Adam,’” I fucking said. He practically dropped his drink. “You’re the first person in twenty years…” I was, in reality, the first person he’d met who had read such things in Forrest J. Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” Ahhh, the finer points of the liberal arts education. We wrote the last episode, “The Sentry.” It is often maligned by editors and anthologists. A form-critical analysis of that episode, on its face, is very instructive as an all purpose autopsy exercise. The superficialists who malign that episode display only that they are on the outside of the franchise window looking in. A franchise has a birth, mid-life, old age and a death. “The Nightstalker” went through that whole cycle in less than a season. When a television series comes down around you, it is hard. On that “Sentry” set one crew member drank vodka from the bottle. Nobody cared. He addressed us all in French. Style. To have Darren McGavin read your lines is an electrifying experience. The monologues for “Bad Medicine” (Richard Kiel as the Diablero) are some of the best writing and realization of it that I’ve ever participated in. Everybody liked Darren. He was tough and could handle himself anywhere. He was a writer’s actor.

 BM – What’s next?

JH – We’re shopping an original script. I really don’t want to say much more than that.

BM – What advice would you give someone who wanted to begin making movies?

JH – Find the money and make one. It can be done with a garage-band budget and someone who is computer-friendly. Write a script. That only takes three tab-insets, three macros: dialogue, parenthetical character notes and character names. There is no mystique. Have actor friends read your script dialogue out loud and see how it plays. Re-write it to make the dialogue more friendly to your ear. Don’t beat yourself up over this process. It’s called editing and it’s necessary. Sit around a table with your actor friends and go over and over the script. Just like Coppola did with “The Godfather” or Howard Hawks did with “The Thing.” Get your script the way you like it, then get your actors and crew together and shoot. You will learn more in the first day(s) of that experience than anything a film course will teach you. You will fuck up and you will make great discoveries. Don’t wait for permission. You will never get it. The advice I give to someone who wants to make movies: do it. Oh yes, and one more note, on writing. You do not write with your hands, you write with your ears.

BM – Thanks alot, I really appreciate your time, and I’m sure that we all appreciate your advice.

JH – No, thank you.

I can’t tell you how star struck I was when talking to John Huff, not only was this a guy who had been through the Hollywood system and come through it with flying colors, but he actually worked on one of my all time favorite shows (Kolchak The Night Stalker), the ga-ga feeling he described with Ray Wise was exactly how I felt talking to him. And, on top of all that, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, he was more than willing to take the time to talk to anyone and everyone who wanted to chat and his thoughts and insights on film making are amazing to say the least. It may sound like I was a bit star struck myself, but I have to tell you, I’d rather meet a thousand men like Mr. Huff than one huge ‘Hollywood star’, he’s the kind of guy who keeps the industry going, you can have actors and producers and all those people you like, but without a great script, you’ve got nothing! You can find out more about John’s movie, Cyxork 7, by heading over to Cyxork, if you’re a fan of sci-fi, then you’ll get a huge laugh out of this movie, I can’t say enough good things about it, it’s really that good. We here at Rogue Cinema wish John all the luck in the world and can’t wait to see what project he’s involved with next…and we can’t wait to run into him at another convention!