An Interview With William Winckler – By Duane L. Martin

First off, I have to say that I was highly impressed at how much you love and appreciate classic B-movies. Running a classic B-movie review site myself, I’m always heartened to find people who appreciate the classics and work to keep some of that spirit alive in their modern works. How much influence have the classics had over your approach to filmmaking and the way you look at storylines, acting styles, etc…?

I absolutely love classic horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and cult films, especially from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and up until the mid-1970s. I especially love the older black-and-white films. Black-and-white film, especially for horror, is the greatest thing in the world! I am a huge fan of Vincent Price, too! The traditional methods of story telling in Hollywood enabled films to have a fun, entertaining, “escapist” feel … like a trip to Disneyland ! When you try to depict real life in films, if you do so too successfully you bore audiences to death, and the material is no longer entertaining. This is the problem today with most genre films and TV series: ask any fan out there and most will confirm what I’m saying. I am incredibly influenced by old genre films … they’re the reason that I formed William Winckler Productions, so I could attempt to recreate the look, feel, and entertainment of the classics today. My goal is to create a mini-AIP, Arkoff/Nicholson-type studio today, and so far, it’s working.

Your father was actually a classic film actor, and you basically grew up being taught and mentored by some of the greats from that era. Who were some of the people that taught you the most about the industry and left the most lasting impressions on you?

My father, Robert “Bobby” Winckler, was a well-known child actor in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and ’40s. He had a great influence on me. In over 80 films and over 200 radio shows, he worked with most of the stars of the “golden age” of Hollywood . In fact, Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Mildred Harris Chaplin, got my father into show business. Dad played W. C. Field’s son, worked in the Our Gang / Little Rascals comedies, did tons of westerns, played Pat O’Brien as a boy, had a great role in “Sullivan’s Travels” with Joel McCrea, worked opposite Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, etc., etc.! As an adult, he became a successful entertainment attorney representing many people in front of and behind the cameras. My dad and I had a wonderful relationship … he was my best friend, my business partner, my lawyer and, of course, my loving Pop … and it nearly killed me when he died of cancer in 1989.

The other person who greatly influenced me was the late Jonathan Harris, who is best know as Dr. Smith from the classic “Lost in Space” TV series. Jonathan and I met years ago, and actually were neighbors. After my father died, Jonathan and I often got together for incredibly long lunches, and he taught me a great deal about the industry and how to avoid some of the sharks out there. He truly was a mentor for me … and sort of filled a void after my father had died. Jonathan wanted me to write down all of his advice, which I did in a journal. Jonathan was an incredibly wise man, full of hilarious off-color stories and great information on the business of showbiz. And in real life, he sounded just like Dr. Smith! His misadventures of how he was hired to teach Chuck Norris to act were priceless!

The other person I must mention who also influenced my work was my UCLA acting/directing teacher, Don Richardson. Don was a very successful television director, who taught stars like Ann Bancroft, Grace Kelly, Zero Mostel, John Cassavetes, Elizabeth Montgomery, and tons of others. Don felt that method acting was total bullshit, and he was old enough to actually know the people who brought the method over from Russia . He believed strongly that they got it all wrong. Don taught an alternative to the method, and it works like magic! I learned a great deal from him, both in terms of acting and directing. Thanks to Don, I think I’m more of an “actors” director than a “camera pusher”-type director. Surprisingly, many directors in film and TV have never directed actors in the theater! One of the things I recall Don saying was, “if the behavior is correct, even a deaf audience will understand it.” Acting is 80 percent emotion, and if the actor can correctly summon the right emotion for the scene, it will work. I’ve done this many times with actors, and the difference between takes is remarkable.

You’re a bit of collector of classic film memorabilia. What are some of the more prized pieces in your collection?

Yes, over the years I’ve collected a ton of related toys and model kits from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films and TV shows. My favorites have to be my die-cast toys from Japan , dating back to the very early 1970s. I have many Godzilla die-cast figures, which are worth a small fortune today, however, I’m not the type of collector to hide everything away in boxes and collect for investment purposes. I have everything out of boxes, and invite people to handle the collectables. I have a mini-museum of this stuff, although it’s not anything like Forrest J Ackerman’s great old collection. It’s a great escape from reality to just enjoy collections like these. I can spend hours and hours just examining all the pieces.

Back in 1989 you created a television comedy sketch series called “Short Ribbs” that featured an all-midget cast, including the late, great Billy Barty. How did all of that come about? Also, what are your feelings on how little people are treated by the film industry as far as casting and the roles they get?

Billy Barty was one of my father’s clients, and when Billy planned to produce his own TV series he needed help and asked me to come on board. Billy knew I was in the business and, besides my acting work, had previously produced an animated TV series [Tekkaman]. The show Billy created was called “Short Ribbs,” and it was like “Saturday Night Live” with little people. Truly bizarre! I was the main writer and producer of the show, and Billy was the executive producer and star. 7-Up sponsored it. Frankly, I found Billy very difficult to deal with … he seemed to want a show like “Lawrence Welk” and I wanted a show like “Monty Python.” We just couldn’t agree creatively. Billy ultimately won all the battles, and the show lasted 13 weeks. It was a very sad, since the show could have been a big success, because there was nothing like it on the air. Then, a year later, Fox came out with “In Living Color,” which was the exact same format except with African-American actors instead of little people.

How was the show received? Were there people back then that criticized it for making fun of little people, or had the whole stupid political correctness thing not yet kicked in at that point?

I believed that the show worked best when Billy was not on-set or in a sketch, as terrible as that sounds. There were some other very talented little people, and when the scripts weren’t “censored” by Billy, and he wasn’t in them, they worked and were hilarious. Unfortunately, this was only 10 percent of the time! The show did receive some fan mail, and for some reason lots of rock bands performing in Los Angeles loved it. The station where we shot the show also had another show featuring rock bands, and these musicians were always coming on to our sets saying they watched “Short Ribbs” and thought it was a gas! I also recall that, at the time, bars in town always had “Short Ribbs” on every Saturday night, since it was so bizarre … I think with a few drinks in you, it was even funnier!

“Short Ribbs” did go into syndication, but I never received a penny. It supposedly became a hit in Australia , the home of midget bowling! In fact, to add insult to injury, I was owed a bit of money from Billy, and after the show was cancelled I had no choice but to sue him in, of all places, small claims court! The mainstream press had a field day with this, with headlines saying “Billy Barty in Small Claims Court!” It seemed every major newspaper in the country, along with national TV shows like “Entertainment Tonight,” covered the story. At the time it was a bigger news item than when Zsa Zsa Gabor slapped that Beverly Hills cop! Billy claimed it was the most publicity he ever had in his entire career. Well, I won the case, got my money, and never saw Billy again.

A bizarre but true story happened years and years later. One night, I awoke from a terrible nightmare! I dreamed a little screaming devil tried to kill me … and then the little creature fell into a fiery pit! The next morning, I awoke and told my wife about the dream. A few hours later, I saw on the news that Billy Barty had died. I was shocked and almost died myself! Talk about a Twilight Zone experience. Even my wife was shocked and couldn’t figure it out. Coincidence? Who knows!

Just as a little side question here. How did you end up in the “H.R. Pufnstuf” costume at that comic book convention in Los Angeles?

My friend, Bruce Schwartz, who runs the famous L.A. Comic Book & Sci-Fi Conventions, called me one day saying it was an emergency! He was doing a big promotion for Sid and Marty Krofft, and they needed someone my height and build to play H.R. Pufnstuff. At first I said, “No way, Schwartz,” but then he begged, and I agreed, as he had done a lot of favors for me in the past. So there I was in the costume working opposite Jack Wild, the original star of the show, taking photos with hundreds of people. The most bizarre thing then occurred—a sexy girl in her early 20s took a photo with Jack and me. To my shock, this girl immediately slipped her entire arm up the back of Pufnstuff’s head (up inside the costume), and began to sensuously massage the back of my bare neck! I didn’t know what to do … tell her to stop … let Jack Wild know … Still, at the same time, I was kind of getting turned on by it! So yes, I admit it, a horny “Pufnstuff” groupie molested me! As she left, she looked into Pufnstuff’s mouth (where you can see out the orange mesh) and she winked at me, teasing “bye bye, Puffy!” Now I know how rock stars feel!

Moving to your more modern work, in 2001 you made a film called “The Double D Avenger,” starring some of the great classic actresses from Russ Meyers’ era. You were originally planning on using younger actresses to play the lead roles, but then you got the chance to use these greats from a bygone era instead. How do you think this affected or changed the overall feel of the film, and were you happy with how it all came out, or are there some things in the script or the shooting process that you would do differently if you had it to do over again?

In 2001 I produced “The Double-D Avenger,” which was a spoof of “Wonder Woman,” about a costumed superwoman who fights crime using her gigantic boobs! It was a total campy farce … we intentionally made an Ed Wood type comedy … and it worked! I wrote, produced, and directed it, and even played a major role. When I was head of talent and development at a company called Galaxy Online, I had met Kitten Natividad and when it came time a few years later to finally cast “The Double-D Avenger” I thought it would be fun to turn it into a Russ Meyer movie star reunion film, and that’s what happened. “The Double-D Avenger” is essentially the 20-something-year reunion of the famous Russ Meyer stars—Kitten Natividad, Haji, and Raven De La Croix. It is most likely the swan song or the final goodbye of these famous cult actresses all working together as leads in a film. It’s also a film starring the world’s only costumed superwoman over the age of 50! Ha, ha, ha!

I am very happy with how the finished movie came out. It worked as a campy, Ed Wood-style farce about a superwoman with superboobs! I successfully sold and distributed the finished film all over the world … throughout America , in Europe, in Japan , etc. The film became a top cult movie bestseller on, too. The French language version is a riot … the French did an excellent job! Even Variety, the top industry newspaper in Hollywood , gave the film a positive review, referring to it as a “cheerfully silly ode to larger than life femininity.” Overall, the film worked as I had hoped. It’s a fun, silly, little comedy … and it’s special in the world of cult films, because it’s the one and only Russ Meyer star reunion. Each year, the movie seems to get more and more popular … like a bottle of fine wine! We also have lots of theatrical screenings at various cult film events.

“The Double D Avenger” was your first full-length film. What kind of reactions and feedback did you get from the regular folks and reviewers who commented on it?

Many of the movie’s reviews were very good, like the Variety review. Certainly most customers loved it … not liked it, loved it! We received a ton of fan letters to boot. However, you can’t please all the people all the time, and I’m not about to try. We did get some negative reviews, but I must honestly say that 99 percent of the negative comments came from people with absolutely no sense of humor! If you don’t like camp comedy, or spoofs, or Ed Wood-style films, you won’t like “The Double-D Avenger.” Unlike drama, horror, or action, comedy is very tricky, in that everyone’s taste in humor is slightly different. Overall, the positives outnumbered the negatives, and our sales and profits are concrete proof of this. As the late Liberace used to say, “I cried all the way to my bank.”

When it came to doing stunts in the film, you actually put on Kitten Natividad’s superhero costume and did the stunts yourself. Had you had any previous stunt work experience before doing this, and how hard was it to work in a costume that obviously had to be well stuffed in the upper half? Did it give you a new appreciation for what well-endowed women have to deal with in doing certain things?

We had a stunt guy who was supposed to handle all the stunts, but when he didn’t show, I wound up doing some of the trampoline stuff. The rest of the cast and crew found this hilarious, with my being dressed up in the full Double-D Avenger costume, complete with giant foam breasts, wig, and cape. I used to do a lot of gymnastics in school, so doing the flips was no problem. Fortunately, the giant foam breasts were very lightweight. Actually, Kitten Natividad was supposed to do a lot of her own stunts, but she was in such poor physical shape we had to have doubles for her for practically everything. My then-girlfriend, who is now my wife, also wore the costume to double all of Kitten’s running, since Kitten literally could not run! The success of “The Double-D Avenger” has enabled us to make more films. Walt Disney once said, “We must never forget that it all started with a mouse.” Well, for William Winckler Productions, I say, “We must never forget that it all started with a giant pair of foam rubber tits!”

Your new film, “Frankenstein Vs. The Creature From Blood Cove” is a whole different thing than what you did with “The Double D Avenger.” What’s the film about and are you working to give it a classic B-movie feel, more of a modern feel, or a combination of the two?

Our next film is entirely different from “The Double-D Avenger”…like day and night, or comparing apples and oranges. It’s a true homage to the classic black-and-white monster movies and creature features of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The full title is “William Winckler’s Frankenstein Vs. The Creature From Blood Cove,” and it’s a totally serious, straight film combining classic-style monsters with Atomic Age monsters! The look is that of a multimillion-dollar, widescreen, Panavision-style film shot in black and white. We just wrapped principal photography the end of February, and the film will be ready to show to potential distributors in June. I’m incredibly excited about it, and selected people who have seen bits of the film are excited, too. Nobody has really tried to replicate the old-style monster movies in a serious way until now. I am not aware of any other contemporary horror film that looks and feels this way. We’ve really been able to duplicate the magic of the old creature features—I think genre fans will be shocked and immediately fall in love with it.

How did the idea come about for this film and how long did it take to bring it from idea to production?

I had the idea for “Frankenstein Vs. The Creature From Blood Cove” for many years. After I successfully distributed and sold “The Double-D Avenger,” there were plans to perhaps shoot a “Double-D” sequel, but for various reasons—creative and marketing-wise—I decided to move on with my horror film idea. It took a year to write the script, and about a year for me to get the necessary budget in place. I actually finance my own films from the profits of my previous work. So this new film was over two years in the making.

Who are some of the people starring in it, and did you have any problems casting any of the roles? Also, did any of the people you cast for the film end up being different than the types of people that you had originally envisioned in these roles during the writing process?

G. Larry Butler, Gary Canavello, Mimma Mariucci—all working Hollywood character actors who starred in “The Double-D Avenger” and have developed cult followings of their own (thanks to “Double-D”)—are back in different roles in the new film. I also cast some other wonderful new talent, and there are many celebrity cameo roles in the movie, with “ Munsters “ star Butch Patrick, Russ Meyer queen Raven De La Croix, classic Star Trek’s David Gerrold, and others … including a fun little cameo by Ron Jeremy! Most of the characters came across exactly as I had envisioned them in my script. My wife, Dezzirae Ascalon, who was a musical theater star in the Philippines , has a role in the film, and I also play a lead part, exercising my acting skills once again.

What kind of problems, technical or otherwise, have you run into during the production of this film, and how did you deal with them? Was there anything that happened that caused any major delays in the shooting schedule?

Audiences will be amazed at the special-effects make-up for the various monsters, creatures, and ghost characters. Some of our effects artists worked on big productions like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Spider-Man,” “ Babylon 5,” etc., and their designs look spectacular on camera. However, the make-up did take much longer than expected, and I was often worried if we’d stay on schedule. We also had a great amount of rain in southern California during February, which caused us to shuffle the schedule a bit in our last week. In fact, on the last day of shooting, while we were filming an exterior graveyard scene, we were suddenly hit with a freak thunderstorm and it hailed! Hail—actual solidified rain/ice—fell in the San Fernando Valley for the first time in something like 20 years!! Our soundman, Sam Hamer, recorded all of it. And it looked spectacular—better than CGI, because it was really Mother Nature conducting the special effects! Lighting bolts flashing, thunder echoing across the valley, nightmarish clouds…what more could you ask for in a horror movie?

How close is the actual production coming to the way you originally envisioned it? Have you changed much along the way or are you sticking real close to the original script?

I would say that 85 percent of the movie is shot the way I had written it. Still, sometimes a location offers something unique, and so you quickly do a rewrite and incorporate that thing—whatever it is—into the script. For example, during a chase scene in the woods, we came across a field of incredible flowers. Well, I immediately had a brainstorm! I directed the actor playing the Frankenstein monster, Lawrence Furbish, to pause for a moment at the flowers and admire their beauty … then he hears scientists off in the distance chasing him, and he immediately continues to flee from the scene. These flowers looked great on camera, and it gave me a chance to further develop the monster, giving him a child like quality, where the flowers fascinate him, which adds some sympathy to the character. This is an example of how sometimes you can improvise on a movie set depending on what “things” present themselves to you.

At our exterior beach set, a dead seal washed up on shore. It was obviously half eaten by a shark or something. I thought about incorporating it into the film, by having our half-man, half-fish creature pretend to eat the seal on the beach…as if it had caught the animal…but then I realized we’d all probably receive a lot of hell for doing this by animal rights groups, etc…, so I abandoned the idea. Political correctness won out that time around.

When are you planning on having the film actually done and released? Are there any estimates on that or are you just playing it by ear at the moment?

Again, the film is planned to be completely ready in June. Several distributors are interested, and I’ll make the final decisions regarding whom we’ll sign with then. Certainly, we have distribution around the world ready to go; it’s now a question of which distributor William Winckler Productions will ultimately work/sign with to get the widest distribution possible.

What’s next for you? Do you have any plans in the works or are you going to take a break once this film is finished so you can recover from this one before you move on to the next one?

I will probably take a break for a while, and then follow up with more classic-style horror films. I love the old monster movies and creature features, and they are definitely my favorite films to produce!

Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap this up?

If you’re a fan of classic monster movies and creature features, be on the lookout this fall for “William Winckler’s Frankenstein Vs. The Creature From Blood Cove.” I promise you’ll enjoy a film that will feel and look like a classic. You won’t be disappointed! This will be a film you’ll want to add to your horror/monster movie DVD collection, and a movie you can watch again and again. It’s pure escapism.

— Photos Copyright 2005 William Winckler Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved. —