Interview with Jim Sharman

Jim Sharman is best known for directing the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. The film became a midnight screening sensation. 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of “RHPS”. Movie Mikes (and some help from “RHPS” uber-fan Dave Picton) was able to ask Jim a few questions about “RHPS” and reflecting on its success over the years.

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Mike Gencarelli: The endings of the US and UK cuts of “RHPS” differ in that the UK cut includes the “Super Heroes” sequence and end credits roll over the “Science Fiction Double Feature” reprise. US cut omits “Super Heroes” and credits roll over “The Time Warp.” How did these two versions come to be and what are your feelings about each of them?
Jim Sharman: The version with Super Heroes is the original ending and the best one. Somewhere – way back when – I guess it was in between the original release and the initial late night screenings – there was some studio tinkering and Super Heroes was deleted, probably through a desire to give it a more conventional movie ending – which is frankly impossible with a film like “RHPS”. The fans eventually complained and the original ending was restored, for which I’m very grateful. I guess there are a few of these older prints still floating around, but the current DVD version is the full original version. The film begins and ends quietly, reflectively, and in darkness – and that’s how it should be.

Mike Gencarelli: How did you first become aware of the audience participation phenomenon that evolved around “Rocky Horror Picture Show”? Have you ever attended a screening of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in which the audience participation occurred? If so, what did you think of it?
Jim Sharman: After the initial release, I’d returned to Australia – which is where I mostly live and work – and I heard about it on the “Rocky Horror” grapevine. Soon after, I was visiting New York and just dropped by the Waverly Cinema to check it out. It was in the early days of dress-ups and audience-participation and there was great enthusiasm and a sense of anarchic fun in the air – so I really enjoyed it. My strongest memory was that a film which had begun as a celebration of late-night movies had somehow fulfilled its own destiny and entered it’s own mythology. It had become a late-night movie that was being celebrated late-night and I thought that was pretty cool. We had played the original stage show in derelict cinemas and turned them into theatres, and now the film was turning cinemas into theatres – complete with costumes, make-up and audience participation. The fact that the film had become wallpaper for a non-stop party didn’t bother me at all – I thought it was great that the movie was generating so much energy and pleasure. As with most things related to Rocky Horror, there was no sense of what was ahead – for instance, that we’d still be talking about today. Rocky Horror has a life of it’s own – it set out to confound and subvert convention and it’s amazing to think that it’s still doing that, 35 years on.

Mike Gencarelli: What’s your best memory from making “Rocky Horror Picture Show”? Worst memory?
Jim Sharman: It was long ago and far away, so the best and worst tend to blur a little. When Lou Adler and Michael White, the original producers, first invited me to direct the film, they gave me two options. One was a regular movie musical budget and schedule, with the proviso that I cast some established stars – current rock stars, movie stars, whatever; and the other was an essentially B picture budget and a short 6 week schedule, if I stayed with key members of the original cast and creative team. Rocky Horror had flouted conventional wisdom from the get-go and the B picture route seemed truer to its spirit. That spirit was something I wanted to keep alive in the film – more spirit than polish was both the aim and the outcome. There was also a strong sense of camaraderie and like-mindedness amongst the original creative team, so I chose option B and that pretty much governed everything that followed – it created the best and the worst. I’m still grateful that Lou and Michael understood this, and went with it. Maybe that was the best moment? If I’d gone the other path, I don’t think we’d still be talking about Rocky Horror today. You only have to think of all those long vanished films featuring rock stars of the era. The Rocky Horror team had one thing in common, we’d all grown up on late night movies and this had the potential to be the ultimate thank-you note to that tradition. This genuine affection for late-night movies informed every aspect of the filming. The schedule was so tight that the film was mostly edited in the camera and our decision to film it at the old Hammer Horror Studios – which was affordable, but semi-derelict at the time – gave us dire working conditions. I remember everyone freezing in mid-winter and, as we mostly shot in sequence, when we finally got to the underwater filming for “Don’t dream it, be it”, I resorted to encouraging excess by pointing out that the wilder it was, the sooner it would be over! It may look dreamy onscreen, but my only recollection is of chattering teeth and everyone stamping their feet to keep warm while shivering in their underwear. For me, the best was the consistent camaraderie and the fact that everyone understood the spirit of the piece and entered into it fully, which meant a minimum of re-takes. The original cast and creatives brought this with them and it was contagious, so those new to the craziness quickly got on-board. I remember a studio visit from Fox studio execs, who were very pleasant but completely baffled by what was going on. They had no frame of reference for this film and the result was they decided to leave us alone and there was no interference. That was probably the best thing that happened, because the finished film is exactly the one we intended to make – spirit intact.

MG: To what extent do you credit the extended “Rocky Horror Picture Show” scene in the 1980 film “Fame” with “Rocky Horror Picture Show’s” success?
JS: Just as “RHPS” specifically references umpteen late-night classics, there have now been heaps of references to “RHPS” in other movies. I guess, by now, it’s a classic in its own right. The sequence in Alan Parker’s film was, I think, the first. It was very affectionate and suggested that even during the early tentative days of its resurrected life as a late-night movie, there were some film-makers who understood the phenomena and, as it were – got it. From memory, the sequence in Fame features an otherworldly Richard O’Brien and I remember Richard being touched by the context – it emerges from the dream-life of a lonely isolated teenager, if I remember right – which was pretty much on the money. I’m sure it helped, but as to how much? It’s hard for me to quantify, but it was certainly appreciated at the time.

MG: How do you feel that “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is celebrating its 35th anniversary and shows no signs of slowing down in popularity?
JS: As I said before, it has a life of it’s own. I’m sure it will continue, though the party might shift from the cinema to the living room, via DVD, or to somewhere in cyberspace. There are various theories as to why, but best to leave it to its own mythology and simply enjoy it. For what it’s worth, Rocky Horror does play with myth and I was always conscious of directing a dark fairy tale – Hansel and Gretel with sex and rock n’ roll, as it were. Fairy tales are the means by which kids first come to terms with the difficult things in life – fear, sex, death, transience, etc. Fairy tales deal with heavy issues in a light engaging way. Given that the audience for the film tend to be young people stepping into adulthood and confronting some of these complexities, maybe it serves as a useful rite of passage. Far be it for me to suggest that Rocky Horror could have some redeeming and magical transformative value – let’s face it, for most people it’s just a good excuse for a party – but there could be something more at play here.

MG: Can you reflect for me about “Shock Treatment”, why do you think it didn’t take off like “Rocky Horror Picture Show?
JS: As ever, there are many reasons. “Rocky Horror” grew from a tiny stage show into a film with a simpatico cast and creative team and the chance to refine it in front of a live audience. Movie musicals are a notoriously hard genre to crack and “Shock Treatment” was not only served up cold, but it was created in circumstances that took it from something conceived in a realistic context – we were originally going to shoot it on location in Austin, Texas – to an artificial studio film. As such, it was one of the first films to predict a world where we’d all end up as fame-whores and serfs to an out-of-control totalitarian media. There have been others since, and better ones – “To Die For” and “The Truman Show” are two good examples. Both “Rocky Horror” and “Shock Treatment”, which are otherwise unrelated, have an anarchic cartoon surface, but – whereas “Rocky Horror” is hot, “Shock Treatment” is cold. The martini without the olive, so to speak. As you might gather from my other responses, there’s always something subversive going on under the surface in these seemingly slight films. For me, strange as it may seem, what underscored “Shock Treatment” was a kind of cartoon response to the Jonestown Massacre – a famous incident where an out-of-control religious sect mass-suicided on poisoned kool-aid. Shock Treatment wasn’t well received on release and, unlike “Rocky Horror”, has never bounced back. I’ve only read one review that was onto it, from an English critic, Raymond Durgnat, who compared it to the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill opera – “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” – a work that has also eluded general popularity, having been overshadowed by their more popular “The Threepenny Opera”. I don’t think “Shock Treatment” is in the same league as “Mahagonny”, but the late Mr Durgnat was onto something.

MG: Do you think “Rocky Horror Picture Show” will ever be remade and what are your feelings about it?
JS: I’m sure it will happen and is maybe awaiting the right time and chemistry of people and, maybe, a little courage. I think that to replicate the original is impossible, because it was the product of a special moment in time and an extraordinary combination of personalities. However, using the same template, maybe even the same screenplay, it would be possible to approach Rocky Horror from a completely fresh and different angle. That’s where courage comes into it. I keep seeing stage versions of Rocky Horror announced as the NEW Rocky Horror Show but, when I finally saw one, it looked pretty familiar to me. A successful movie remake would require someone, or a highly creative team, with the courage and imagination to say goodbye to the familiar Rocky Horror frippery and completely re-invent it for a new era. I hope it one day happens and, if and when, I look forward to seeing it.

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