Berryman is probably best known for his role as Pluto in Wes Craven’s 1977 horror film “The Hills Have Eyes” and the 1985 sequel “The Hills Have Eyes Part II”. He has also made appearances in “Weird Science”(1985), and the Academy Award-winning drama “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). In 2005, he appeared in Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects”. MovieMikes asked Michael a few questions about his career and talked about his favorite genres and his passions besides movies and most importantly his love of craft service on a movie set.
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Mike Gencarelli: “The Hills Have Eyes” was your first major role. Did you have any idea that your were making a film that three decades later still ranks as one of the great horror films of all time?
Michael Berryman: To tell the truth, I didn’t. I was just happy to have another job. When I read the script it was called “Blood Relations,” which was the name of the company. Then it was changed to “The Hills Have Eyes.” And, having talked to Wes (Wes Craven, the writer/director of “The Hills Have Eyes”) about the McBain family and learning that the story was mostly true, I thought “OK, this is not really a monster movie…it’s about two families.” It was hot in the daytime, cold at night. Very physical. A lot of the people in what we called the “White Bread Family”…Dee Wallace….the guy that played Bobby (Robert Houston)….they were a little more citified. Which kind of fit. I mean, everyone on our side, the Hills family, had done Westerns and rough and tumble parts. So it kind of lent itself to a natural selection as far as having the two sides – protagonist and antagonist. No, I had no clue at all that it would be a classic. Wes was just getting going after “Last House on the Left” and, actually, nobody had ever heard of anybody in the cast at all. We all just threw ourselves into it. I wanted to make Pluto as real to life as possible. And we got lucky. It hit. The drive-ins helped. It created some controversy. By today’s standards it’s not very bloody or gory…not a lot of special effects. So I’m very proud that after thirty years it has those other elements to fall back on.
Michael Berryman: Many. Many. I worked 127 days on that masterpiece. We had two weeks of rehearsal with camera on the major scenes. Blocking and just trying to get a feel for it. And during the two weeks all of the main actors, including myself, had to spend time with the real patients on different wards (note: the film was shot on location at the Oregon State Mental Hospital, which was open and operational at the time). We even went to the criminally insane ward which was on the third floor. And with a guard at the door looking through the window there were moments where we spent a half hour…up to an hour with the patients. One fellow had been committed because he had, unfortunately, burned down a church. We looked at his art work. It was a very strange place with these individuals whose lives weren’t like yours and mine. But it gave us a nice insight into what really goes on. My father having been a prominent brain surgeon (Dr. Sloan Berryman was a very distinguished neurosurgeon)…that helped also because I had been around doctors and nurses my whole life. And then Jack Nicholson…this is what made him. It got him his first Oscar. He was still pretty well known. And having filmed at a real hospital was kind of cool. We were all hoping that Ken Kesey (author of the novel) would drop by but he was pretty dissatisfied with the screenplay (the script, by Bo Goldman and Laurence Hauben, won the Academy Award) because it wasn’t through the eyes of the Chief (in the book, the story unfolds through the eyes of Chief Bromden). But all in all it was very impressive to me. The hand picked crew…everybody now has a legacy behind them and I was just proud to be a part of it. The days I had off I was still on the set watching so I could learn my craft. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the lighting and the blocking…how you do coverage.
Mike Gencarelli: What did you think about the recent remake of “The Hills Have Eyes?” Have you seen it?
Michael Berryman: Yes I have. I was at a sneak premiere at a film festival and then I was at the red carpet event in Los Angeles. It was great to see Dee (Wallace) and Wes (Craven) and everybody. I liked the beginning of the film quite a bit. It had a nice feel to it…a nice atmosphere. But after about 20 minutes it became obvious to me that the movie was losing its dramatic impact…the relationship between the two families as individuals dealing with other members of their own family…I thought it fell apart and it turned into a chase film. I thought it basically turned into a video game. And then the second remake…I have no interest in even watching it. I thought they were pretty weak. And I know they were financially successful but I’m an artist first and, while I always want my projects to do well so I can make subsequent films, all in all I was pretty dissatisfied with the remakes. Of course they’re remaking everything these days and some are better than others. I just didn’t care for these remakes. They could have been better.
MG: Your role in “Weird Science” was a change of pace. At first you seem to be your usual villain but, once you’ve been rebuked, you meekly ask “Can we keep this…between us? I’d hate to lose my teaching job.” Was that line in the script or something you and John Hughes came up with on set?
MB: That was actually something John Hughes (writer/director of “Weird Science”) and I came up with on a whim. I was talking to him on set while they were setting up the shot for my close up and he said, “Hey, Michael, I’m going to end with you. What do you think these guys do when they’re not out terrorizing kids on the weekend? So we kind of kicked it around and we thought it would be kind of neat if he was a school teacher. This was sort of his chance, by proxy…because Kelly’s (LeBrock, who plays Lisa, the “doll” the boys create) character zapped us in…it wasn’t our idea…it gave us an opportunity to mess with these kids, which is kind of neat because most school teachers get a lot of razzing…get a lot of grief from high school kids. That’s how that scene came about. And John was just tremendous…tremendous to work with.
MG: Which do you prefer doing, horror films or more mainstream ones?
MB: I don’t really have a preference, honestly. I like it all. I just finished the last couple scenes for the new “Scooby Doo” movie playing a zombie, but I got to sing and dance. So there’s a mixture of comedy – slash – pseudo horror and making it all work. I don’t have a particular preference but I do have to say in my library growing up as a kid, being a big fan of films, I loved the monster films. I loved the Universal Horror classics. I loved the “Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” Especially because of their content. They were social commentary about situations that you could hide under the guise of…protagonist – antagonist…situations where your average person has to figure out what choices are most important for them. At an earlier age, of course, I loved Superman. I wanted to have super powers like every other kid. But I really appreciated the misunderstanding of the monsters. Now when you have a monster that pretty much just capitulates, like the one in the Korean film “The Host”. The monster wasn’t one you could have a dialogue with or get a lot of back story. I consider that a monster film in the classic sense. I thought it was a beautiful film, I really liked it. But I don’t have a preference. If somebody waved a magic wand and said you can only do one kind of film…gosh…I’d have to say sci-fi because it embraces all the other elements. But if it’s a good script and its well put together and we have a good crew… as long as there are good craft services catering I’m happy. That’s true. They say an army runs on it’s belly but a production company runs on craft service.
MG: What are your passions besides acting?
MB: My biggest passions? The first one is humanity. I’m huge on the basic theme…if you look at the back of the jacket that I wear all the time. And I wear it for a reason. It’s a Hard Rock Café jacket and the back reads “Love all. Serve all. All is one.” That’s kind of my philosophy of life. That is the most important. And that gives us room for civility to do continued good work. For instance Paul Newman, who I met while I was doing “The Crow,” invited me to get involved with his camp for kids that have their faces and skulls reconstructed and it’s all paid for through his philanthropic organization. I’ve been to his camp a number of times. I also lived at the Wolf Mountain Sanctuary for a number of years. The website is wolfmountainsanctuary.org. There’s also a woman whose been saving the Santa Cruz Island horses off the coast of California. It’s called Sunshine Sanctuary and they work with troubled kids. They let them come up and interact with the horses and they have an opportunity to make a difference. (www.sunshinesanctuary.org) I work with local charities. I’m a reader for blind college students. I’ve volunteered at many drug and alcohol programs through my friends in law enforcement. I think it’s important for the artists in the community to make a difference, especially if you have a recognizable face and/or name. People follow your career and there’s so much more to it than just making a paycheck and telling stories and buying expensive toys. I would love to be a gazillionaire. I would set my family up but I would also take a lot of the money and set it aside. I would be a philanthropist. That would be my ultimate goal. I have horses at home, I’m an avid gardener, I love to cook. I’ll sum it up by saying I can’t live in a world without garlic and chocolate.
MG: Do you enjoy attending conventions and meeting your fans?
MB: Absolutely. I think they’re really cool events. I’ve been splitting it up 50/50 pretty much. Half of the events I go to are film festivals where I do the meet and greet…well, I’m usually out meeting and greeting so I don’t get to see all of the films I would like to. If there were two of me, one would be out at the table (greeting fans) and the other one would be watching every movie being shown. I’ve talked to a couple of people who put the events together and I’ve told them it would be great if they put all of the film submissions in a collectors set so they could be available for the fans. I’ve been to festivals in Indianapolis…Texas…Canada…all over. It’s really exciting to meet people who are just getting their feet wet. The themes and subject matter are usually a lot more varied than what you see from the studios. I really enjoy my fans and I appreciate them very much. And they know that. I also get to meet actors that I’m really keen on…people whose work I’ve watched over the years. I may have never gotten to work with them but it’s nice to meet them…hang out at the hotel and maybe have a drink or a bite to eat. I think the conventions are wonderful. If anyone reading this hasn’t gone to one, I highly recommend it. Get out of the house and go…you’ll have a lot of fun.
MG: What can you tell me about your upcoming role in “Below Zero 3D?” Are you excited to be in 3D?
MB: I’m totally stoked. I just finished up the paperwork. I have a son who’s a serial killer. It’s sort of a “Fargo” esque story where a screenwriter gets locked into a meat locker so he can get into the mood to write his screenplay. It’s a three part story with a couple of nice twists to it. I’ve noticed that 3D is becoming pretty popular and they’re doing it different then before so maybe it will really be fantastic. I like the script a lot. It should be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to going to Canada and shooting it.
MG: Any other projects you have coming up?
MB: A movie called “Stingy Jack.” We’re hoping the project gets green lit soon. I’ll play the title role. I can’t say too much about it…it’s kind of top secret! But it’s a really, really, really cool script. I’m just very grateful to make new contacts. People who are trying to put together their companies and create a library of good work so we can continue doing what we love to do, and that’s entertain…tell stories. It’s one of the oldest art forms in the world and I’m proud to be a part of it. Thanks to (legendary filmmaker) George Pal who gave me my first role. I’m really excited. I just want to pack my bags, head up to Canada and have a great time doing “Below Zero.”
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