Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Enter the American: John Saxon Talks Bava, Argento, and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night

John Saxon's career in Hollywood dates back to 1954, when he appeared in the George Cukor double feature A STAR IS BORN and IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU. From those uncredited performances Saxon would go on to spend the next five decades in front of the camera, starring alongside such Hollywood heavyweights as Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn (THE UNFORGIVEN), Marlon Brando (THE APPALOOSA), and most memorably, alongside Bruce Lee as the wily gambler Roper in ENTER THE DRAGON. In 1963, Saxon would be among the first to inject an American presence into Italian Cinema by appearing in Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Besides GIRL, Saxon would occasionally return to the giallo in such classics as Dario Argento's TENEBRE (1982), Sergio Martino's THE SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS (1982), and the mind-bending giallo/poliziotteschi hybrid, BLAZING MAGNUMS (1976), directed by Alberto De Martino. Giallo is the Color of Death recently had the pleasure to briefly meet with the legendary Hollywood actor, who was generous enough to take some time out of a schedule with no signs of slowing down and talk to us about making movies in postwar Italy, inventing a genre with Bava and Dario Argento, and how that genre compares to the North American slasher flicks he starred in during the '70s and '80s.

Giallo is the Color of Death: What was it like being an American making films in Italy in the early '60s?
John Saxon: For an American actor to go there work, back in 1962, it seemed like a picnic. If any one day the director finished at 3pm, everyone went home. I'd been working for the [Hollywood] studio system and if at three they finished, they would have another set ready for you to work until six or 6:30, or whatever it was. Working in Italy was kind of playful and very interesting because it was the development of what they called "La Dolce Vita." People were enjoying themselves, it was after the war, things were going well. The movie business in Italy at that time was making more movies than the United States. In the U.S., there was a crisis of production because television had come in and taken over.

GCD: What was it like working with Mario Bava on THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH?
JS: Well, he didn't speak any English and his son's [Italian Director Lamberto Bava] was slightly better, so we didn't get to talk too much on the set. But there was a scene, in particular, where they had placed a mat, and as I walked over it, I accidentally slipped and fell, and I remember [Mario] saying, "Oh, he has to come over here and show off!" (Laughter).

GCD: Did you know you were making a giallo? Was the term being used at the time?

[Spoiler ahead!!]

JS: No, as far as the production was concerned, we were making a lighthearted, playful "detective story," one that was interesting because it's a story within a story since it's all happening in the girl's head.

GCD: How did you end up working on the film?

JS: The lead actress [Leticia Roman] called me from Italy and said, "John, do you want to make an 'art film' in Italy?!" And of course, that was exactly what I wanted to make! So, I jumped on a plane, landed in Italy, read the script, and realized it wasn't that at all!

GCD: It wasn't Fellini. (Laughter)

JS: No, it wasn't Fellini! (Laughter). But I didn't know anything about Bava until many years later, and then I found out what an important director he was.

GCD: What was it like working with Argento two decades later in TENEBRE?

JS: And I just worked with him again recently on "Pelts" [Masters of Horror episode]. Working with Argento is great. He likes actors very much. I remember him being an intense guy on the set of TENEBRE. He would come over and say something like, "You know, you were great!" and then he'd leave you alone and go to a corner by himself and think intensely.
GCD: Speaking of recent work, a few years back, you filmed an episode of CSI directed by Quentin Tarantino. These series hold their viewers' attention due largely in part by the fact that the viewer, along with the characters, is trying to solve a case or figure out the identity of the killer, much like in a giallo. To me, there's a whole other level to these shows that resembles the giallo: the medical/scientific way in which the mystery is solved. It is not uncommon for a giallo to have a "cutting-edge," convoluted, far-fetched medical or scientific explanation for the killings, or to use such nonsense to solve the crime and figure out the killer's identity. I recall, in particular, Argento's early gialli. What was it like working with Tarantino, a professed admirer of the gialli, and did it feel at all like working on a one of those Italian murder mysteries?

JS: Working with Tarantino was great. He's obviously a very knowledgeable person. He knew more about the stuff I have done than I do. We talked a little bit about those giallos [sic], and it did feel like we were making something very similar with that CSI episode.

GCD: In 1974, you starred in what many consider one of the first North American modern slashers, BLACK CHRISTMAS. Did you see any similarites between it and the giallo?

JS: BLACK CHRISTMAS was a great movie and a great script that did remind me a lot of those early giallos [sic]. The problem was that the studio didn't like the title. They said, "People are going to think that it's about black people celebrating Christmas--it's not gonna sell!"

It's true!
GCD: I know, that's why I'm laughing. . .

How would you compare a later horror classic like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which you also starred in, to the giallo?

JS: I liked the script for NIGHTMARE a lot, and I said to the director, whom I'd never met before, "You know, what I really like is the fact that this takes place in a dream world!" I think in the end, they became too enamored with the whole special effects aspect of the movie (what with the tongue coming out of the phone and all), and its suspense thriller essence was lost.
2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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