AV Maniacs formerly DVD maniacs

15 Questions with Norm Hill and Subversive Cinema

Can you tell us how you started in the business?

I was a film festival programmer for a small film festival in Olympia, Washington where I went to college at the Evergreen State College.  I helped create a program back in 1991 called All Freakin’ Night, which is still running today (and is the most successful event year after year at the festival—selling out 800 seats every year!).  We ran movies from Midnight till Noon.  My background and education is in cinema studies, centered around the history of art and classic films as well as film production.  But I have always loved horror movies--ever since I was kid.  I grew up on Disney cartoons, Hammer films and Ray Harryhausen movies on TV.  My first real fearful memory was watching late one night (I must have been about 6)  a terrifying Hammer film where a young priest walks into a church, sees blood dripping from a bell tower, climbs up the stairs, and finds a young maiden, dressed all in white, and hanging from the bell with her throat pierced and blood dripping down the rope.    For years, I could not get that image out of my head.  I only found out a few years ago that film was DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (which had been rated G when it was released here in the States!!!!)

So, while I was in college I got involved with the Olympia Film society and was programming films like the US premieres of several Derek Jarman films from England, the US premiere of Sam Fuller’s STREET OF NO RETURN, the first screening of Robert Altman’s SHORT CUTS,  with Raymond Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher in attendance.  But my all time favorite event was the all night horror films. I would start programming that event a year before it happened, searching for prints of things hard to see at that time.  This was ’90-’94 so there was no internet, and I did not have a computer.  So I had to rely on books, magazines and the telephone to locate my rare gems.

I loved 3-D, but wanted to see “real” polarized 3-D films, not the red and green crap which does not create real 3-d imagery, so I got the film society to build a setup with a silver screen,  and we got the proper lenses, and then ran HOUSE OF WAX, FRIDAY THE 13th, PART 3, JAWS 3, AMITYVILLE 3-D, DIAL M FOR MURDER.  Every year we had a 3-D movie as part of All Freakin’ Night.  It was a huge success.  Little did I know we were the only theater in Northwest that could play real 3-D and people came from miles away to see the awesome 3-D effects. 

The other important part of All Freakin’ Night was to have a guest introduce the series.  The first year we brought Hark Harvey with his print of CARNIVAL OF SOULS.  (Sadly, he died a year later).  The next year, William K. Everson came and introduced STRANGLER IN THE SWAMP.  We also brought Paul Morrissey and Udo Kier for FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (in 3-D, of course) and DRACULA. Curtis Harrington with GAMES and WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN.  Kenneth Anger with his MAGIC LANTERN CYCLE.   Alejandro Jodorowsky with SANTA SANGRE, EL TOPO, and HOLY MOUTAIN.  Ulli Lommel with THE BOOGEYMAN.  The late Russ Meyer with BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, SUPERVIXEN, and FASTER PUSSYCAT.

One year, I wanted to screen an all night program of Dario Argento and Mario Bava films (none of the Italian horror films were properly available on video at that time.)  I had contacted Dario and he was suppose to come to the event, but he ditched out at the last minute.  A friend gave me the phone number for a horror director he thought could fit the bill to replace Dario, a guy named William Lustig.   I had known of Bill because as a child a babysitter of mine had taken me to each new horror movie that opened up throughout the early 80’s slasher period.  Her younger brother subscribed to Fangoria Magazine and every week we would look through it and pick out what we were going to see.    I remember seeing HALLOWEEN, NIGHT OF LIVING DEAD with DAWN OF THE DEAD (as a Halloween double feature), FRIDAY THE 13th,  and, of course, MANIAC.  I was not suppose to go see MANIAC because it was restricted to anyone under 18, but I believe we bought tickets for THE RESCUERS and she slipped me into MANIAC in the theater upstairs (we always went to the only multiplex in our small military town so we could sneak into as many horror movies as possible).  MANIAC traumatized me much like the Hammer film had years before.  To this day, I will never forget that gunshot through the window!!!!  So, many years later I was very eager to meet the man behind such a sick and frightening film.   (We played MANIAC a few years later in All Freakin’ Night)   When Bill and I met, we clicked right off and remained friends after the festival.  Bill, by the way, gave an excellent intro to the Aregento/Bava night.  I had not known at the time that Bill had worked second unit on INFERNO a film we screened at All Freakin’, and one which Bava had also worked on as well.  So, Bill had some excellent stories to tell about both directors.   Later, when Anchor Bay contacted him to release the Hammer films on DVD, he called and asked for my help.

When you were working at Anchor Bay what were some of the projects that you were involved with?

Oh God, it was a lot of movies. Remember, Anchor Bay was formed from Video Treasures, a sell through video company that had collected together mammoth film libraries of B titles, such as the MEDIA HOME ENTERTAINMENT and THE NEW WORLD collection  When I went down to LA to work for Anchor Bay,  we worked on at least 10 to 15 films at any single time.  You have to understand, when we started at Anchor Bay in ‘96, very few companies knew how to create DVDs.  The technology was terribly expensive and there were no real “experts.”   Big companies like Disney and Universal were at the time dumping their old VHS masters onto DVDs and they looked horrible.   Criterion had not taken the big plunge yet as laserdiscs were still around, though they had released a few of their excellent titles.   It took the vision of a company like Anchor Bay and it’s movie fan staff to show the real potential of DVD technology.

The movies I most closely worked on were as follows: TWO LANE BLACKTOP with Monte Hellman.  I had been behind trying to get this released on video for years, and Monte was a good friend of mine so when Anchor Bay got the Universal contract we went for it.    

Re-constructing ARMY OF DARKNESS for Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. Army was a total nightmare.  Sam was busy doing Spiderman.  He refused to record a commentary unless we completely reassembled his original cut.  Even today, in “conservative” America, it is very hard for me to believe ARMY received an x-rating for it’s first cut.  It seems more like a PG -13.  But it did indeed get an X, the kiss of death for a theatrical release.    And as the truncated R-rated version of the film was not a success on it’s original release,  Universal had not kept the outtakes.   So, Bruce Campbell was literally digging up every VHS, ¾ inch tape, anything and everything that could be found.  I had been working in Seattle at the video wonderland, Scarecrow Video as a PR guy, and had known about a Japanese laserdisc of a 90 minute version of the film.  I got in contact with the company in Japan and luckily they allowed us access to their version.  We then had to rebuild Sam’s cut, under Bruce Campbell’s guidance, using the elements from the Universal 86 minute cut, the 90 minute Japanese cut, and the various tapes that Bruce had dug out with clips and pieces of scenes.  We did it, and Sam was very happy about it, so he agreed to do the commentary track. 

I also worked on the 20th Anniversary edition of HALLOWEEN.   You can thank Bill Lustig for saving HALLOWEEN.  At the time, the original sound elements had been lost.  To  HALLOWEEN…can you believe it?  He was smart enough to remember Warner Brothers had released the film overseas and Bill got in contact with a friend at Warner’s that was able to locate the sound elements.  Hard to image that a movie that has now 8 sequels and one of the most

The WERNER HERZOG COLLECTION: I had also been a good friend of Werner’s,  which is why my boss at Anchor Bay, Jay Douglas, had assigned me the Herzog films to handle.  I feel Werner is most likely our greatest living director, and one of his films that was very important to me was a movie called FATA MORGANA/The Mirage.  Anchor Bay had very little interest in it as it was more of a metaphysical art film about the earth the strange ways life has evolved over time.  But the film had never really had any commercial appeal and the elements for were in terrible shape.  I convinced Jay to put it out with another sister film, LESSONS OF DARKNESS, a beautifully frightening film that Werner had made about the fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War, which had been a big success on the Discovery Channel.  Werner had always considered it a companion to FATA MORGANA.  In addition, I promised Jay to get actor Crispin Glover (another friend whom I knew also worshipped Werner’s work)  to do an audio commentary on FATA and EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL, as long as Jay would agree to release FATA MORGANA. I knew Crispin loved both films.  Jay oked my ideas and we did it, and it worked well, and I got to clean up FATA MORGANA and get it out on DVD.  The Herzog films in general did very well. FITZCARRALDO was my other baby.  I oversaw everything on that disc.  The transfer.  The subtitles.  The bio notes on Herzog are really written by me.  The 5.1 mix.  That film will always be very important to me (as is FATA MORGANA).  My biggest disappointment was Les Blank refusing to put BURDEN OF DREAMS out with FITZCARRALDO …imagine what a great set that would have been! (Oh well, at least BURDEN is now getting the Criterion treatment).

I also tracked down Gena Rowlands  for MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ.   William Friedkin for THE GUARDIAN   Sidney J. Fury for THE IPCRESS FILE (what a great movie! I had never seen IPCRESS before I worked at Anchor Bay.) I lined up Paul Schrader for BLUE COLLAR.  Jonathan Demme for MELVIN and HOWARD.  Jose Larraz for VAMPIRES. 

I also set up the licensing deals on several films for Anchor Bay, including the uncut version of POSSESSION, which then through a friend at the time I located director Andrzej Zulawski in Paris to do a commentary.  I also located the rights to FANTASTIC PLANET and got my friend, the sadly recently departed director René Laloux to supply us with materials for the DVD.  As well, I located BLOOD SPLATTERED BRIDE and ANGUISH from Spain .

It wasn’t all fun, I also had the fine pleasure of sitting through hours of reels of SUPERGIRL trying to locate the missing footage at a lab in London.  I did chapter stops.  Proofed biographies.  Wrote biographies.  Supervised sound and visual clean up.  Located stills and trailers.  It was a lot of work.

Can you tell us some of the funny anecdotes about something you were working on?

I remember a film, I won’t tell you which one, which I had (mistakenly) thought had not yet gotten the THX stamp of approval for the transfer. I was in the lab on a Friday night (we often worked 7 days a week and long hours) and looking at the opening to the film and I felt it looked dirty.  I tried to call Bill, could not find him, so I told the lab to redo it.  Little did I know the film had already gotten it’s THX stamp of approval, and if the lab redid the transfer it would cost 10s of thousands of dollars and would have lost it’s THX stamp.  Lucky for me, Bill found out what I had done and stopped them. However, today when I look at the film, I think to myself, yup, it’s still dirty.

What lead to the decision to branch out on your own and the subsequent creation of your new label, Subversive Cinema?

Well, for various reasons, I left Anchor Bay officially in 2000.  But, after I left I started to miss the insanity of making DVDs.  I would read online about how successful Anchor Bay was doing and how many of the people who had worked with me at Anchor Bay went on to create very successful DVD labels, like Jay and Bill creating Blue Underground, where they are now doing there what we used to do at Anchor Bay .  I got depressed about leaving.  After some prodding from friends who wanted to get into the field, I decided to join forces and dive back in, and we created Subversive Cinema. 

Is it hard for you to get your titles onto the shelf as you are an independent label and how dependant are you on traditional brick and mortar sales as opposed to online sales?

Sure it is hard.  The most difficult thing in the world is to try and convince a business community that there is a world of fans out there for what is termed in the business “catalog” or “genre” titles. The video community still is looking for the latest blockbuster hit that is not controlled by a big studio.   Pick up any industry magazine and look through the ads.  They all look the same.  Many retailers have no clue what “fan” genre films are.   Nor do they understand these fans want to seen their films in the same shape and same quality treatment as the new Tom Cruise movies are going to receive on DVD.    Now this is not always possible, given the shape and condition many of these genre films and their elements are in today, but there is quite a bit that can be done now in the world of digital technology. Sometimes, when things work right, at the end you can produce results that look even better then they did when the films were originally released.  Matt Cimber will tell you that is certainly the case with THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA.  I was just at festival in San Francisco that was screening WITCH, and Matt will no longer allow the 35mm print to be screened.  He prefers the digital projection of the DVD, as the 35mm has turned red and the sound is scratchy and terrible.  I fully agree with Matt.  I am sure WITCH looks better now on DVD then it did originally on 35mm 25 years ago.  

With all the effort that was put into The Witch Who Came From The Sea, are there any more plans to release any of Matt Cimber's films in the future?

HA!  You bet. Throw out those bootlegs of LADY COCOA, THE BLACK SIX, and CANDY TANGERINE MAN!!! They are coming next year and they will look great.  And HUNDRA will finally see the light of day it her full ‘scope glory.  You will also see GEMINI AFFAIR and possibly a few other more well known films by Matt coming out from Subversive next year.

Can you tell us what is involved in the process of acquiring a title and getting on the shelves?

It is tough. We have been cherry picking most of our films.  We certainly don’t have the library or budget that I had at Anchor Bay, but between Michael Basden and his partner Chris Viers at Poker Industries, Carl Tostevin, owner of Scarecrow Video and myself (the four of us make up Subversive Cinema) we do have a pretty amazing knowledge of cinema that is both broad across genres (and countries of the world) and yet specific enough to know how to pick out THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA or BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL.

Can you give us a sneak peek at your upcoming line-up of titles? What supplements can we hope to see on upcoming releases such as The Candy Snatchers and The Freakmaker?

Ah, well, after months of hassling her, we finally got Susan Sennet Nash to agree to join Tiffany Boilling for a really wonderful commentary and interviews for THE CANDY SNATCHERS.  Marc Hueck, from Comedy Central's "Beat the Geeks" and one of the Midnight programmer for Landmark Theaters is the world’s foremost Candy Snatchers fanatic.  He moderated the commentary with myself. We got also Joe Dallesandro to record his first ever commentary for THE GARDNER, and are now working director Jim H. Kay for more materials.  For FREAKMAKER, we got screenwriter/producer Robert Wienbach and star Brad Harris to record a commentary and interviews for a featurette.    For METALSKIN, we have supplements with all the key talent.  And for BLUE MURDER, we have a great collection of supplements produced for us “down under” by brilliant filmmaker Mark Savage, a really talented Australian filmmaker.  Next week, I will be recording a commentary and interview with Joel Reed for BLOODBATH in LA.

You got a lot of people involved with your special edition of The Candy Snatchers, however, does it irk you when someone complains that they didn't get every single person for an interview or commentary? I saw that a someone post on a message board with dissatisfaction.

Does it's bother me? No, it is a simple lack of insight from those who are not working on the sometimes near impossible task of trying to get these films released properly on DVD. I know to what extent we have had to go to to make sure THE CANDY SNATCHERS is as definitive an edition as possible. And while most of the fans of these films have come to know them via Late Night TV and bootleg copies (since truth be known a lot of these films were not successful during their first release), many of them don't realize that most of these independent films did not make their talent famous or earn them a lot of money. This can leave a strong feeling of bitterness 20-30 years later and the reason why a lot of talent does not want to get involved with something that was not an initial boost to their career. I remember when we were working on the Hammer Films at Anchor Bay and Chris Lee said he gets paid nothing on the back-end of all those Hammer films he acted in. He was paid a simple flat fee...and yet he is known all over the world as Count Dracula, his face is in books, on t-shirts, magazines, etc.

When working on a title, how do you decide on what kind of and how many extra features will be included on the DVD. Is it strictly related to how much material is available for any given film or do you gage it on how you think it will affect sales of a specific title?

It is mostly geared around what can be done within a reasonable time limit and budget, but also shaped around what we, as movie fans, would want to hear and see about the history of our favorite films.  We licensed the film THE GARDNER because I wanted to do a special edition disc with Joe and the Gardener was his first none Warhol film.  Same with BLOODBATH.  I want to hear what these guys have to say about working in genre films, and so in creating the DVDS the supplements are as important to us as the film is itself.   In the case of BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL, we had to shut down literally thousands of bootlegs off Ebay when we licensed the film.  So, naturally we wanted to make sure our version had all the supplements the bootlegger had and more.  Hence, you are about to see a new improved transfer with grain reduction, a new 5.1 mix., all extras fully subtitled,  etc.  We are fans as much as business men and so the discs have to pass the worst critics in the world, which is the four of us.

With your release of A Living Hell, you offered fans the chance to purchase a limited edition that was signed and numbered by the director. Do you intend to cater to the collector's audience more by offering exclusives like this in the future?

Any time we can offer something to the fans that will make the DVDs more valuable or collectable to them we will.  Both Millie Perkins and Matt Cimber were kind enough to sign many copies of WITCH, as Shugo had done for us on THE LIVING HELL.    As long as the talent agrees to it, we will go for it.

With as many varied kinds of releases as Subversive is putting out, how do you decide which titles to go after? Is it purely a financial decision or do you go after films that you enjoy as a fan yourself or is it a combination of the two?

Again, Subversive is made of fans.  One of us, Carl, produced SATAN'S LITTLE HELPER for Jeff Lieberman and owns Scarecrow Video.  I worked at Anchor Bay and Scarecrow Video and was a film festival programmer for many years.  Michael owns and runs Poker Industries.  Chris runs the comic book store end of Poker.   It’s the histories and knowledge of cinema that make up the core of Subversive Cinema and we have an excellent team of super talented artists who work with us designing the artwork and the DVDs.

Your partners are fellow movie junkies. How does this help you in selecting titles and in business matters in general?

It is extremely helpful. Carl, besides his love for horror films in general, he also has contacts with entertainment attorneys and experience reviewing legal documents and so he is my sounding board for when we make deals. Michael and Chris have a wealth of knowledge from owing Poker Industries, especially in the Asian DVD market. They are also big movie fans and they know what does and does not belong on a DVD, and so once again, Michael and I work together closely on the look of Subversive. We really are a team. I would say the same for the guys who work internally with me laying out the DVDs, design work, and producing the supplements. We are all friends and can bounce ideas off each other without stepping on each other's egos. Poker has been an additional resource because they have an excellent reputation at the fan shows and so Subversive has a direct channel to the fans via Poker's presence at these shows.

If you had a choice of any title to release for Subversive, what would it be and why?

The extended cut of David Lynch's version of DUNE. Why, because I started working on this with a friend who works on DVDs for Universal and Lynch turned us down. Do you know that I have heard via a friend from someone who worked on the makeup for DUNE and saw a four hour workprint cut in Mexico! She said it was amazing...several passages with no dialog! The things I would have done with DUNE...

Check out the website, we just updated it with our upcoming releases, www.subversivecinema.com

Have any comments? Then post in the forum