You may or may not know it, but chances are that you've seen a Charles Band film or twenty. Besides the franchises he is most known for, such as Gingerdead Man, Evil Bong, Trancers, and, of course, Puppet Master, his Full Moon Features and previous incarnations are also behind such films as ReAnimator, Ghoulies, Laserblast, Tourist Trap, The Dungeonmaster, Troll, and more movies than you can possibly see in a lifetime (but, it shouldn't stop you from trying). I've personally been a fan for over twenty years and I know that when I new Full Moon film comes out (which is usually about once every two months), I am in for a good time. I recently caught up with Charles and had a very interesting discussion about the past, present, and future of Full Moon Features.
Jason Howard: I suppose I should start by asking - do you have a deep-seeded fear of puppets and toys? I think I might have one and I'm pretty sure that it's your fault.
Charles Band: (laughs) Well, actually... I don't. I know I'm the "puppet and doll guy." I mean, I'm fascinated by them and I was fascinated by the concept of small, inanimate objects coming to life. I'm also a huge stop-motion animation fan and felt the ones that existed before I started making these movies was a thrill to watch. Some of the puppet movies from the 50s and even the Ray Harryhausen material, even though they weren't puppets, there were often small objects or giant metal creatures that came to life, like The Seven Voyages of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. I always thought it was fascinating with things that would normally not move coming to life. So, it was more of a fascination than something that creeped me out. However, also when I came back to the U.S. from living in Italy, in the 70s, I was, like most people who were alive at the time, the episode of Trilogy of Terror with the African doll and Karen Black couldn't have been more awesome. I thought, "Oh, my God, I gotta make movies with creatures like that"
JH: Your brother (Richard Band) does a lot of the music for your films. Does he normally work concurrently with you or does he get to see a rough cut before he starts on the music?
CB: Usually, not even a rough cut. We've done this on and off for many, many years, but he really can't begin his work until there's a lot cut. Sometimes, if there is material early, I can send him what we've assembled, just so he can see what the project is about. But, mainly when he gets a long cut, he can start working.
JH: Was the creation of Empire and ultimately Full Moon a decision that you made in order to maintain complete creative control, without the outside influence that would come with a major studio?
CB: Well, that was the hope for Empire. Fortunately, I immediately had partners and a bank that was very involved with many independents at the time. So, the vision that you described quickly became something that I didn't just have control. I had a lot of control in the fact that I was green-lighting the movies. But, there was a point, a few years into it, where, you know, this business morphs into something different every few years, or every few months, right now there seems to be a new shift. And as things got trickier for the way I was set up, the edict was you gotta pick up movies from other filmmakers and distribute those and help pay some overhead. We did that, so what started off as a pure blend of movies that I wanted to see made and released, became watered down with other people's films. Then, eventually, the business changed so radically that it made sense for me to step away, which I did. When I started Full Moon, I was hell-bent on not letting that happen again. There were a couple of moments here and there where some movies came into the Full Moon fold that I'm not super excited about, but they are few and far between. For the most part, Full Moon is a label that releases new movies that I cook up somehow.
JH: So, am I right in assuming that, even if you don't direct them all, most of the movies start with ideas that you've come up with?
CB: Yeah, all of them actually. There are only a couple that we acquired, looking for outside films. Now, ironically, I wouldn't have been able to give you this answer even a few months ago, but we're launching, on August 21st, a streaming site which I'm very excited about. It not only will have pretty much the entire Full Moon library, but it's also a place where we can experiment with things I've always wanted to do that you can't really do unless you have even modest control of the airspace. We'll have feature-length releases and material that no one will have seen before.
Not initially with its launch, but probably as early as September or early October, will be a sublabel - I may even call it Wizard. Wizard sort of harkens back to things I did in the late 70s and early 80s where I acquired and brought in other filmmakers. So, this other label underneath Full Moon Streaming will be just that - a label for young filmmakers. Filmmakers that have great projects but no distribution home. A sort of incubator thing. What's happened today, which is really ironic, is there's never been a time when there's been more movies being made by aspiring filmmakers and, at the same time, less chance for distribution, just because of how tricky it is today.
JH: What is the thought process behind why you direct some of your projects, but not others? How do you choose?
CB: A lot of what motivates and drives a small independent company for decades is the business itself and finances. So, they've been many times where it would make sense for me to direct because we have a very limited budget. Even though I've given shots to all sorts of first time directors, some successful and some not so successful, it's always a gamble and you can invariably end up spending more. One of the ironies of the business is that it's a first time director that gets a shot on a small, independent film, but it's the small, independent film that should be made very cautiously on a budget. But, that really requires a director who's very seasoned. Someone who knows how to get in there and get out and is not taking his first shot, no matter how talented he or she is. Without the body of work and without having made 10 or 15 movies, they don't know the ropes. Someone's gotta pay for that education.
So, to answer your question, sometimes the material just appeals to me. Aside from puppets and dolls - something that has a sense of humor. You know, I'm personally bored by these pretentious movies or ones that have 500 predecessors. I'm not a big fan of almost all of the recent tent pole movies that promise so much and deliver so little, other than endless CGI and cartoony effects. So, my choice of materials sometimes appeals to me and sometimes it's that if I don't make this movie on time and on budget, I'll have a problem. And, I don't really have anyone out there that I can trust to do that. And, the few who can do that are now working for a major studio making 10 times what I can afford to pay them.
JH: Sure. Like most movies that I love, you tend to stick to practical effects over CG. Is that a personal choice or is it a budgetary decision?
CB: It's 100% personal. In many cases, CG would be less expensive. But, I'm not a fan of CG. No matter how wonderful the actors are that are making these movies, they're not performing against a living, breathing thing in front of them. It's usually a stick or pole and a green screen. It isn't organic and doesn't resonate for me. As best as we can, I try to put objects that are real in front of actors and capture it in the camera. And then later, you can add little CGI tricks; a little window dressing. That, I think, is what CGI is good for. If you're making a puppet movie and the puppets have rods, you gotta take those rods out with CGI. Many years ago, we just had to hide the rods because it was very expensive to get rid of them in the composite. So, CGI has its place and there are tricks that I think are amazing. But, specifically, I think the creation of creatures and monsters all look like a cartoon, including what I thought was just awful work in Pacific Rim.
JH: I mentioned in my recent review of your latest movie, Unlucky Charms, that one of the things that I feel that Full Moon really shines at and stands out from the rest of the pack in, is that when you have a movie with a group of, let's say, creatures, you don't just have an anonymous pack of monsters. Each one has its own name, personality, abilities. Is that something important to you that you always set out to do?
CB: It is. I like to hope that soon, when the business improves a bit, because it's been a pretty difficult 10 - 15 years for anybody involved in independent filmmaking, we can have a Full Moon universe of characters, creatures, puppets, dolls, that I can pull from and move them around and team up. You know, do things that would be harder to do with anonymous monsters that blend together.
And, there's also the merchandise and marketing side, which I love. I do it for a lot of reasons. There's a little money in it, although it's usually a loss later, because we're not a mainstream merchandise line. We've created several hundred items and sell them to fans. Sometimes we lose money, sometimes we make a few dollars. But, I think it adds a little magic to the whole enterprise, which other people aren't doing. If you take a step back and look at other independents, there aren't many out there, they make movies and there may be some vision, but no one is doing this merchandise thing we're doing. We're having fun with it and obviously these movies lend themselves to that.
JH: Speaking of the merchandising, how much input do you personally have into the creation of the figures and toy line that you sell?
CB: I'm 100% into it. I don't farm it out. I mean, I'm not the sculptor, but I'll bring the reference material or look at concept sketches and approve the sculpture. The way it's painted, the way it's packaged - it's a lot of fun. I'm totally into that.
JH: With your earlier films, like Puppet Master, Trancers, or Subspecies, did you always have it in mind for them to have multiple sequels, or were they originally going to be standalones? And, did the success of those follow ups cause you to go into new projects like The Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong knowing that they would become franchises?
CB: None of them were really conceived as vehicles for sequels. Now, we're more aware of how that can work and can be a good thing and a lot of fun for the fans, especially in those earlier days. You know, Puppet Master just felt like a great idea and it did so well. Had I planned it more carefully, which I didn't, we would not have had so many bizarre early sequels that made it hard to stitch together and make any sense. We've had World War 2, modern-day - we fumbled a bit here and there with the early Puppet Masters just because it wasn't really set up for that. When we were shooting Puppet Master 2, I didn't really think there'd be a Puppet Master 3, although I was hopeful. It was more like we were focused on Puppet Master 2, and it was so different and plays in a different timeline than the first one. If I could go back, I'd keep them all in the early to mid 40s. That's kind of where they belong.
Trancers was another example. I enjoyed making the movie itself - we had something cool and different. But, the idea of the time travel guy in the various sequels that came out was never in my mind.
Now, more recently, the philosophy is that all of the films have sequel potential, with rare exception. It's fun to go back and make sequels. The teamup idea - Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong is about as silly as they come. If someone looks at my entire body of work they'll think that one is REALLY out there. But, you know, each of those franchises have had two sequels - three Gingerdead Man movies and three Evil Bongs and so the teamup is a lot of fun. We've shot it and we're in post now. So, for the people who are into those movies, there from the same cut of cloth. They're equally different and fun. They're not really scary, but they belong together in this teamup film. Plus, there's a huge smattering of merchandise and silliness in there. And, it's also going to be the first interactive project on Full Moon Streaming in November. It's going to have a traditional release in October. It'll premiere on a Time Warner channel called Utopia and of course, video and the usual stuff. But, in November, we're going to have a sort of gonzo version that will live only on Full Moon Streaming. It's been fun to plan for because there will be tricks in there and treasure hunts and silly things that people will enjoy.
JH: Can you tell us a little bit about your latest film, Unlucky Charms?
CB: I wanted to make a movie that was a little more fantasy oriented and a little more gentle. Not that any of my movies are super hard anyway. For years, I've wanted to do something in the framework of Troll, a movie I made 20,000 years ago. I also wanted to do a send up of these vacuous, stupid beauty contests that you can't help but watch sometimes on television and you just think, "Oh my God, where did these people come from?" So, the original premise, which pretty much remained, is this beauty contest with a bunch of pretty awful women, run by a really bad chick. Mythical creatures from another world come and disrupt and judge. It kind of works on several levels. Again, it's a small movie, but I think it's a little different from all the fare out there. Sometimes to my own detriment, I like to do things that are different. If I wanted to make cookie-cutter movies, I'd make rip-off of things like The Conjuring, which is pretty much The Exorcist. Those are clearly more profitable when you make a cheaper version of any of the movies that are currently in vogue, which is what most independents do. Endless rip-off or movies like Saw that are torture horror - I've never done any of those. Unlucky Charms seems to be pretty well received - it's a fun little fantasy horror film that I could have easily made in the 80s. Of course, you always have less money today to make these films, which is another crazy irony. We usually had 5 - 10 times the money to make pictures in the 80s and early 90s, because that's when video was exploding and there was just more money. A lot of the times, we get critiques or fans will write in saying, "why don't you do this or why don't you do that? Why wasn't the ending more awesome with more explosions?" Well, we don't have the money. We're trying to make the movies more unique and character driven in concept, but at the end of the day, our budgets are so small that I still look at them and think, "you know, for very little money, for the cappuccino budget on Pacific Rim, we did a pretty good job."
JH: Speaking of budgets, does having a smaller amount of money spark your creativity and ingenuity by having to solve issues that would not be a problem with a larger budget?
CB: It does. I think that people set out to make movies, at any budget level, with all the same enthusiasm. Obviously, if you have a massive sandbox, tons of dough, you can do a lot of things. But, that also can hurt because you lose sight of what we all grew up loving about these movies. There's a magic sometimes between the notes. It's not the pounding on the head of massive effects and endings that seem to never end. There are some exceptions, of course. I thought The Wolverine was very, very good. It was one of the rare big tent-pole, expensive effects films that I thought had a lot going for it. it wasn't just endless battle from start to finish.
JH: Is there a particular franchise or character that you hold closer to your heart than the others?
CB: There's so many at this point. It's a terrible analogy, but I feel like they're all my weird children and I don't want to insult or make any of these characters feel bad. Not really, I mean there's 10 or 15 that are all probably all in the top-tier - I'd love to make a sequel to Head of the Family one day soon.
JH: One of my personal favorites of your standalones...
CB: It's an odd movie. But, it's not easily done. The effect is not a cheap effect to do well. And, to bring back the people isn't always easy. I've got a great script, so one day I'd like to do that. Movies like that are a little off-center are ones that I love. And there are other wonderful projects - I'm 10, 15, or 20 scripts ahead of myself. So, when things get a little better, hopefully with Full Moon Streaming, we can do it. I'm going to beg the fans when the streaming gets going - firstly, it's about as cheap as it gets. I think everyone can afford seven bucks a month - it's like 20 cents a day. We're just going to do things that no one's done before. It's not just going to be a place where you can go to see old Full Moon movies. I mean, that will be there, but it's also material that will compliment the older films. People will be able to see a lot of stuff way before it officially comes out with the new movies. And, then we have some interactive tricks up our sleeve which I'm excited about. You know, I think, if not in the next few years, but the next 5 - 10 years, things will shift and change enough that the experience that we know of sitting down and watching a linear 90 minute movie will always be there, but there will also be experiments with different running times and different mediums that the experience becomes a little more interactive and more fun. Especially for the younger generation that are watching different anyway. I mean, I would never watch a movie on a cell phone or computer, but that's what streaming is all about. In a heartbeat, everyone's gonna have some kind of smart tv and it'll be easy enough to just go to Full Moon Streaming on your tv and watch a movie. Habits are changing and I want to be there on that horizon.
JH: Lastly, when you do finally retire, are you going to go out by giving the Full Moon fans that final battle royal between the entire Full Moon universe?
CB: I have zero interest in retiring. I feel like I'm just getting started. I'll make movies until I'm just a head in a jar and have to be carried around.
JH: That's the answer we wanted to hear.
For more details on what sounds like a fascinating new approach to streaming movies, and of course to get your Full Moon fix, head over to fullmoonstreaming.com beginning August 21st and get signed up.