In 1978, director Meir Zarchi unleashed his film ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ to the masses. In the years to follow, the film was banned in several countries after being condemned by critics for its graphic violence. As the years passed, the film experienced a second life in the Mom and Pop video stores that littered the neighborhoods of suburbia during the mid-’80s, elevating it to “cult” status among genre fans. Three decades later, director Steven R. Monroe’s remade the film, which many consider “sacred ground,” and stands ready to bring the film to an entirely new generation of film fans. As he will tell you, this is no easy task! Icon Vs. Icon’s Jason Price recently sat down with the director to discuss the process remaking a cult classic and the challenges that it presents along the way!
Let’s give everyone a little background on you. Where did you grow up and when did you decide to pursue a career as filmmaker as opposed to going in a different direction?
I was born in New York and when I was 5, my family and I landed in Los Angeles. My father was a cameraman and was a theater director and producer. I always wanted to become a director and my sister became an editor. She is an amazing editor. It was basically our whole lives, so we had no choice! [laughs]
It was in the blood!
What were some of your influences, be it other filmmakers or outside influences?
Filmmakers for me were Stanley Kubrick, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen believe it or not! Primarily Kubrick. Films that influenced me were ‘Raging Bull,’ ‘2001,’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘The French Connection.’ It was a lot of those very iconic movies from the ‘70s and early ‘80s for the most part.
Who did you initially get involved in the process of remaking one of the classic cult films of that era,’I Spit on Your Grave?’
I found out that CinTel had gotten the rights to remake the film and I lobbied very hard for the job when I found out that they had it. I knew them from other projects and I really wanted to puut my thumbprint on it. I wanted to make sure that it was done right. Lisa Hansen and Paul Hertzberg where hopefully, knock on wood, smart enough [laughs] to see that and trusted me with the project! I have watched a lot of movies get really ruined when they shouldn’t have been and I didn’t want that to be the case with this film.
Did you have any reservations about remaking ‘I Spit On Your Grave’?
No. The the only reservation I had, and I wouldn’t even say it was a reservation, but in the back of my head I knew that no matter how hard you work on a film or how it turns out that there are going to be people that are going to be pissed off just because the film is being remade. That is one of the three balls that you are juggling when you are doing a remake. The other two are trying to make sure that you are paying a proper tribute to the original and its fans and you are making a film that new fans may come in to and embrace like the original.
How difficult was it for you to find the cast for this project since they are very dark roles?
You know, surprisingly this casting process was probably the easiest that I have ever made on a job. It was mostly because, for some reason, in the first very few rounds of auditions for each role, except for “Annie” and the Sheriff, I found people right off the bat who completely floored me. They were perfect as the characters. Then we put those forward for the producers to OK and luckily for me the producers went with it. As many, many very iconic directors have said, “Eighty percent of your job with the actors is done if you cast properly.” I got very lucky. The role of the Sheriff was put to me as a possible “Andy” character, the actor Andrew Howard. The minute I saw some of his work, I went to the producer, Lisa Hansen, and she thought about it for a couple of days and said, “Yeah, you are right.” “Andy,” who is played by Rodney Eastman, we were really having a hard time casting and then Sarah Butler’s management company, who also work with him, sent me his reel. I knew his work and said, “This is great!” So I wanted to book him immediately. The whole process was pretty painless!
These are very dark roles for all the characters in the film. What can you tell us about the vibe/atmosphere on the set during filming and was it difficult to control?
It wasn’t too difficult for me to control. I made it very clear to the cast, we had many discussions before we got started about what was going to be involved and what it was going to be like. Everybody on the crew knew what we were in for and was very respectful. We did have a lot of closed sets. People knew immediately when to clear out and stay out of eyesight and not to be hiding around a corner during a take and start giggling, which happens so many times. Everyone knew what we were in for from a combination of production meetings where I said, “Look. Here is how we have to act on the set and here is the atmosphere that we need.” You read a script like this and crews are professional they know. When crews read a script where someone cries, they are very respectful let alone what we were dealing with.
Meir Zarchi was the director of the original film and he is along this time as a producer. How involved was he with you and the remake? And what did he bring to the table?
We became very close. It’s funny, when he first met me he watched another film that I did called ‘House of Nine’ and we all sat down in the first script meeting and he made it very clear to the producers that he wasn’t really happy with me and that he had some concerns. It was really interesting. As the process went along and we had more script discussions, he started warming up a lot. When we started shooting dailies, I started getting e-mails from him and by the time he got to the set he walked up to me and he kissed me and said, “I was wrong about you my friend!” We became very close! [laughs] We very much bonded from that point on. You know, it is a very hard process for someone who made a film that he did, the way he did, and to turn over a remake to somebody else. So, he had his concerns initially but completely backtracked on those.
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
I think that the biggest challenge, like I mentioned before, is trying to walk that line of making sure the original fans are happy with it and that the potential new fans out there can embrace the new film. It is really hard because horror fans are without a doubt the most passionate and outspoken fans in film. You don’t see a lot of blogs and websites dedicated to romantic comedies where they are screaming, “This film’s great!” or “This film is all wrong!” [laughs] It was mostly trying to make sure that the film is done correctly for the audience that it is intended. It is an even harder one to juggle with this film because the original film and this new version, isn’t really a horror film. It got adopted by the horror fans when it got banished and banned. That was the hardest task, to make sure that the film came out properly for all of these audiences.
Ultimately you arrived at the point of bringing the film to theaters in an Unrated form. Can you tell us a little bit about that process?
It is exactly what I wanted. What happened was that we did the cut that was submitted to the MPAA, which had everything in it that we wanted as far as things that could be potentially cut out by the MPPA. They came back surprisingly and said “that we feel the film is very impactful, the version that you showed us, and if you cut out what we need you to cut out, we feel that the film is going to lose a lot.” That was a total shock to us to hear that from the MPAA. That is when the discussion started of whether it would be rated NC-17 through the MPAA or do we just go Unrated? Unrated we would be able to get more theaters. That is not a box office comment, that is more theaters to reach the audiences that want to see the film. Any way you look at it, if the distributors only really gave a crap about making money, then they would have released the R rated cut, but then the fans wouldn’t have been happy. It just came down to “Let’s go for it! Let’s give the fans the movie that they want to see! Not the R Rated version that the MPAA or the censors want them to see.” Like I said, horror fans are very passionate. It goes from, “They are going to wimp out and release a watered down version so it gets in more theaters,” and now they are saying that it sucks because we are releasing it Unrated and it won’t be in enough theaters! [laughs] That is kinda how that whole process came about but we just felt it was best to go Unrated for the audience the film was intended for.
I know that Meir Zarchi had originally envisioned a sequel to his original film. Do you think we will see a sequel to yours in the future?
It was discussed literally right after the first screening for the producers and the distributors and everyone was really happy. It is something that is out there but I think that it is going to come down to how the film does and how can we do something that will hold up. If I were part of it, that would be my biggest concern. What do we do for a story that holds up and also isn’t just a rehash of what happened in the first one with different people.
What advice would you give to someone who might be considering to pursue a career as a director?
I have said this a lot to film students and other people, if you truly and passionately want to do this, be ready to never give up and to never care what anyone says about anything and just know that this is what you should be doing. You get your ass kicked every single day out there by everybody. So, until you are really cool or your last name is Tarantino, you will be kicked all over the place and be told that you will never make it but if you are ready to be totally relentless and are that passionate about it, do it. If it is something that you just want to try, I suggest just getting out of the way because there are a lot of people that really, really, passionately want to do it.
What other projects are on the horizon for you?
I am looking forward to getting another project that pushes the envelope and raises questions. Those are the type of movies that I really feel that I can dig my claws into emotionally, visually and storyline wise. It is just a rough genre as you and horror or thriller fans know, there are a lot of crap scripts out there. That is what I have been looking at lately and I am looking forward to getting one with an offer that makes me go “Wow! I really want to do this!” [laughs]
Thanks for your time, Steven! We will be spreading the word and look forward to seeing where your journey takes you!
Thanks, man! I really appreciate it!