Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sideshows, Sharks, and Working in the Valley: An Interview with Fred Olen Ray

This year we have the pleasure of showing Spidora, the first short film made by Fred Olen Ray, who has had an extensive career in film and TV production, with some 135 credits for directing feature-length projects as well as many credits for producing, writing, and acting.   

Fred has worked steadily and proudly in what might be called the trashier genres, including low-budget horror, science fiction, erotic comedy, and crime drama —though lately his credits actually include some mainstream Christmas films that have played on cable TV.  “Suddenly,” he says, “I’ve become Mr. Christmas.”  Consistent with his work in film, Fred also has been a professional wrestler, with the name Fabulous Freddie Valentine.  Maybe these lines of work are not so surprising for someone who grew up in the circus town of Sarasota, Florida; who almost joined the circus as a teenager; who later owned and operated his own carnival sideshow; and who eventually married the Electric Girl.

Some of Fred’s films have been released theatrically, but he is really an expert on independent distribution, from drive-ins to DVD and cable TV.  Fred has his own distribution company, Retromedia, and has written the book The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors.

Also, for much of his colorful career, Fred has worked here in the San Fernando Valley.  Yet another reason I wanted to talk with him.

James Latham:  Spidora is consistent in some ways with your previous work, even perhaps your own youth—as with the sideshow setting.  But the film also is a pretty youthfully earnest and innocent romance.  And it’s a short, following a long list of features.  So my first question is why Spidora, why now?

Fred Olen Ray: I had always wanted to make this film in one form or another, but I never felt that it would survive as a feature film where a profit must be generated or a significant cash loss would occur. I wanted to explore crowd-funding, but felt uncomfortable taking what are basically “donations” to make a feature film that hopes to make money without your funders being able to participate, so it seemed like a great opportunity to make a short film and lose money all at the same time! 

I loved the old Sideshow illusions like the Headless Woman and Spidora, but always felt uncomfortable looking at performers with real deformities because our parents teach us as children not to stare… but here we are, being encouraged to not only stare, but to pay for the privilege.  And he’s not just a guy with a terrible deformity… he’s a “Prince” or she’s a “Penguin Girl”… always something fanciful to help take the curse off it.  Like Tod Browning, I wanted to use real sideshow performers in any role I could and I think they all did very well.

JL:  Watching Spidora reminded me of emotionally powerful classic films like Freaks and The Elephant Man, or even Star Wars—where the freakish or non-human characters tend to be more human, likeable, and memorable than the “normal” ones.  Spidora puts us on the side of the freak, or outsider, rooting for her to find happiness.  With all of your work in exploitation films, as a professional wrestler, as an independent filmmaker and distributor—can you speak to the theme of being eccentric, or an outsider?  What’s scary about being an outsider, and what’s exciting or fun about it?

FOR:  Growing up, I never wanted to be “normal” or ordinary. I figured you only go around once, why not try things that you might otherwise regret having passed on later?  I grew up in Sarasota, Florida where your classmates were aerialists or their dads were clowns (literally). My math teacher was a retired member of the Flying Wallendas.  When the family drove to Tampa to see my grandparents we always passed right through Gibsonton where the carnival people wintered.  People called it Freaktown.  As a kid, I played on a cross-country traveling football team, the Ringling Redskins, sponsored by Ringling Bros.  It all seemed pretty normal at the time.  Everything was just the way it was. It only occurred to me later what “being different” was all about…when I got away from what my “normal” world was. 

JL:  Over the years, you’ve had some experience working with the Hollywood studios.  The upsides of that obviously can be great, but I suspect you see many more downsides.  What are some of the main reasons you haven’t gone that route?

FOR:  The further up you go the further down you go.  But the big money is in the Studios.  As I see more and more in TV, you have little or no say at all about who the cast will be.  Directors are, but not always, viewed as a necessary evil.  Once you’ve done your cut, your services are no longer required.  Obviously, most of us would like to be more involved in the final process, but in order to truly have control over your project you have to risk the money (or raise the money) yourself.  But, it can be worthwhile in keeping your sanity.  I’ve certainly risked a lot of my own money over the years.

JL:  When I look at your film career, the person who most comes to mind is Roger Corman, though he is primarily a producer.  I notice that both of you have worked in the recent monster shark genre, in your case with Super Shark.  How do you explain the popularity of those particular films?  

FOR:  A producer friend of mine once told me “Sharks always work”.  People just have a rooted fear of them.  We did SUPER SHARK because we wanted to produce our own Syfy Channel type film and this was the model we chose.  We raised the money ourselves so we could have creative control over the project.  Obviously, I had made this kind of film before with SEA SNAKES and JERSEY SHORE SHARK ATTACK.  The trick was how to do it on a budget.

JL:  The cartoonish violence in these films is similar to that of professional wrestling.  I bet you could tell a lot of stories about your experiences in that world.  What are some things you can tell about wrestling that we amateurs may not know?

FOR:  Wrestling reminds me a lot of theater in the round.  You wait in the wings and every night you have butterflies in your stomach.  It’s like performing in some kind of free flowing play.  No one hangs their head in depression backstage waiting for an envelope with fifty bucks in it like in the movie THE WRESTLER.  The workers are excited.  It’s their time to shine.  Everybody goes out of their way to try to not injure their opponent, but it’s understood that there are those moments where you simply HAVE to lay it in there…the audience is too close to you not to.  A steel chair to the head is exactly what it looks like.  In that, there’s no holding back.  You just have to hit the guy…the one thing you WILL see, though—every time—is that you’ll only get hit with the “seat” side of the chair…if a guy’s not holding it right you’ll see him flip the chair over before he hits his opponent.   

JL:  You’ve done a lot of your filmmaking work in the San Fernando Valley.  As you say, “I live in Studio City and hate traffic, so I generally try to force all locations to be filmed in the 818.”  Besides an easy commute, can you discuss what aspects of the Valley make it appealing to filmmakers?

FOR:  I love the Valley because you can get around in it from so many ways… if you don’t want to take the Freeway you don’t have to.  Its layout is pretty uncomplicated and there aren’t many areas that I would be nervous about filming in late at night.  It also features a wide variety of looks from city streets to the rocky expanse of the old Iverson Movie Ranch that plays for Africa or Mars, or beyond.

JL:  As I understand it, the recent condom law has caused much of the porn industry’s production to relocate from the Valley to Las Vegas or elsewhere.  Though this may be the underside of the entertainment industry, it also is a huge moneymaker, and I assume was generating a lot of money and jobs for people in the Valley.  Can you comment on that?

FOR:  I’m not involved in that arena, but I do know that it caused a drop off in Studio and site location rentals.  Kind of the same way the over abundance of Reality Shows vs. Scripted TV killed the big prop houses…and soon the costume houses too, I think.

JL:  A film we screened many years ago at VFF, Boogie Nights, is partly about how new technologies in the 1970s and 80s would change the business and culture of porn film, from tacky theaters to the home.  From what you’ve seen, how have more recent technological developments—Internet, social media, etc.—further changed this part of the entertainment industry, for better or worse?

FOR:  I think VHS killed the Drive-In theaters for sure.  As we’ve seen, the viewer suddenly became the programmer.  Able to select what films would play, at what time the films would start (or pause) and they could kill the movie completely and move on to the next one when it suited them.  I think the Internet has caused a huge up shift in film piracy.  As soon as a film becomes legally available, someone will start stealing it.  My movie, AFTER MIDNIGHT, premiered on PPV and VOD on October 28th. Within six hours there were illegal uploads all over the internet. It’s maddening.

JL:  Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

FOR:  Well, when people think of me they think of the horror films I’ve made.  People expect SPIDORA to be a horror film, and the poster, which I love, might foster that notion. They are equally surprised to discover that the movie is a love story with an uplifting message.  I needed to condense everything I wanted to do into a few short minutes. My goal, ultimately, was to try to move people.  I wanted the audience to feel the incredible sadness and then the incredible happiness of the characters.  That’s what it’s all about.  It’s about being different and finding love.

JL:  OK, thanks for your time, and for sending us your film.  


The 14th annual Valley Film Festival takes place December 10-14, 2014, at the all-digital Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.  For more info, visit our website or Facebook page.  Spidora screens as part of our “Flights of Fantasy” short film program, at 10:00 pm on Saturday, December 13.

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