An Exclusive Interview with Return of the Killer Shrews director, Steve Latshaw by Avery Guerra
Steve Latshaw has been around. Most lately he’s been around an enthusiastic cast comprising the likes of James Best, John Schneider, Jennifer Lyons, Rick Hurst, Sean Flynn and special guest Bruce Davison — along with assorted other beauties — to resurrect one of “the worst films of all time”, the 1959 The Killer Shrews, under the straight-up title, Return of the Killer Shrews. (For details see see this update on Undead Brainspasm, as well as these Backbrain articles: First Details; Update 1; Casting Details; yUpdate 2, and the trailer release.)
To quote from his bio:
Prolific is the word that best describes filmmaker Steve Latshaw. With his name on over 40 feature films to date as writer, producer or director (or a combination of all three) he’s found himself in constant demand. As a writer alone, he can claim to be one of the most produced writers in Hollywood, credited with scribing some 25 independent feature films, in a variety of genres, 15 of them in one hectic three year period.
[For Steve’s full bio, see below.]
Recently Avery Guerra, Undead Backbrain’s part-time newshound (who works full-time for no money at all, which is double what I get), caught up with Latshaw and put him through the third degree. It’s interesting stuff, so grab a cup of tea or a stiff drink, settle back and read on!
What have been some of the highs and lows of your career?
SL: Working in radio was a high. I still miss it. Being the youngest (16) professional 16mm news photographer for WAND-TV, ABC-Decatur, in 1976, was cool. It was like Almost Famous meets Anchorman. Running TCI Cablevision Channel 33 was the best job in the World … we did every kind of TV show you could imagine, mostly comedies, plus Classic Movies, a horror night Creature Feature. Working with long-time partner (and Shrews collaborator) Pat Moran, along with Keith Tuxhorn, Brad Moore, Steve Wooldrige Cathy Moran, Kevin Cox and the inimitable Janet Hamilton, we did Generic Video Theater (a Pythonesque 1/2 hour TV series), Bad Home Movie Theater (we pre-dated MST3K but used amateur movies instead of real ones), Creature Features From the Lost Planet (PD horror stuff hosted by me and Keith), and Rude Awakening, a morning talk show which, thanks to one-time guest/later SNL writer Bob Odekirk, became the template for Wayne’s World (I kid you not — I can show you video tape evidence). We also did two feature-length movies … a James Bond spoof called Fishfinger and a Republic Pictures Rocketman send-up called Adventures of Captain Astro. One day I hope to return Channel 33 to the airwaves with a website featuring film clips, video downloads, etc. We still have most of the shows in the vault. My favorite film we did for Fred Olen Ray was Biohazard 2 aka Biohazard The Alien Force, because we did it in the style of a 1960s Italian spy movie except that we had a monster. We broke all the rules for a low budget film … multiple locations, large cast unit, helicopters, ‘copter crashes, aerial footage, car chases and scary monster stuff on the Universal Studios Florida NY Street backlot. We had an original Hawaii 5-0 style zoom across the ocean to the beach shot for our main titles (shot from our chopper) … and also aerial footage of a lab explosion which ended up in two of Fred Ray’s other movies, including Hybrid. We also stole an explosion from Universal … their Miami Vice Stunt Show blew something up every couple of hours … we placed two actors in front of it so we could get that long lens shot of actors reeling back from an explosion. We got a still of it on the original VHS video box … you can see the Universal hand-railing below the actors’ thighs. In general, I think every one of those movies for Fred was a thrill, every time we got a new contract. But my favorite notes from Fred came on Biohazard 2 after he viewed my first cut. They said, simply, “Good job. Lock it.”
Biggest career disappointment?
SL: Stan Lee’s Lightspeed. This was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a series of SciFi Channel movies. I spent a very tough year on the project … trying to incorporate my producer’s notes, the SciFi Channel’s notes and, most importantly, Stan Lee’s notes into a viable script. All three sets of notes were frequently very inconsistent. And then, after a year’s worth of work, the project was turned over to a new writer. I didn’t recognize the final product on screen, other than the design of Python, the villain. The last script Stan and I worked on was spectacular, with a surprise betrayal from the female lead (Nicole Eggert), a Bond-style villain’s lair island complete with volcano and a mano-a-mano final confrontation between Python and Lightspeed as the volcano is erupting and a squadron of Navy bombers are prepping to blow the hell out of the island. Python and Lightspeed both go off a cliff into the ocean far below. I had noted in the script that Lightspeed’s costume was retro Army Air Corps, circa 1942, made up of leather aviation gear he’d found at an Army Surplus store. By the time the film aired, the Python Volcano island had become a two-story mini mansion in Salt Lake City, Lightspeed’s costume was a very metrosexual bicycle suit and Nicole Eggert’s part had been reduced to the girl screaming for rescue … absolute crap! Made no sense. I only recognized one scene in the script … Stan had the brilliant idea to allow Lightspeed to discover his ability to move at the speed of light when he catches a mosquito. A few years later I ran into Stan at Papoo’s restaurant in Toluca Lake. I mentioned Lightspeed and he shook his head sadly, put his arm on my shoulder and said, “Wasn’t your fault, Steve.”
Biggest career thrill?
SL: Making Return of the Killer Shrews with James Best after all these years. The shoot was a complete joy, even though we only had ten days … the most fun I’ve ever had on a set, the happiest crew … everybody was in that “let’s make a movie we love” groove … just like the days back in Florida when we are too young and happy to know any better. And I’ve taken intense pleasure in the post-production process, too. It was nice to be back in the director’s chair after all these years … to know I hadn’t forgotten anything and had learned quite a bit from working as a writer for so long.
How did you come to know James Best? What was he like to work with on set? Would you like to work with him again?
SL: Working as an entertainment reporter for WESH-TV, Orlando, Florida, in 1989, I did a news story on Jimmie. I’d been a fan of him from Shenandoah, though was not, at the time, a Dukes fan. This is the second feature film and about the sixth production (including documentaries, shorts, etc.) that I’ve done with Jimmie, so we’re old pals. We work together well. He loves independent, grass-roots filmmaking and can get it done fast and cheap as any of us — but he brings an old-school, studio-trained sensibility to the process, so he knows many “cheats” that help make actors look good, films look more expensive, etc. On set he’s always prepared, always ready to give you multiple interpretations, depending on what you need, and always ready to improvise. When he does comedy, non-working cast and crew either bite their hands or walk away to keep from laughing … and when he works serious the whole room is crying. This is a guy that held his own or topped Paul Newman, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Jerry Lewis, Burt Reynolds, Randolph Scott, and many other great actors … was Norman Lloyd’s favourite actor on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Jar”) … blew away directors like Arthur Penn, Budd Boetticher and Andrew McLaglin … I’ve learned so much from him. I intend to work with him again… we already have a script he’s written that we’re adapting, about the adventures of a couple of old men back in the 1930s.
How did you become attached to Return of the Killer Shrews?
SL: I first suggested to Jimmie that we do a sequel in 1990. For five years he told me I was nuts. And then we traded script ideas for another ten. About five years ago Pat Moran got on board and two years ago it really started rolling.
Why revisit The Killer Shrews now?
SL: I didn’t pick now. It’s been a dream for a lot of years and it’s taken time to get it off the ground. These things don’t happen overnight. The time and place were right and we jumped.
So why make a sequel to a film that is infamously referred to as one of the worst ‘bad’ films of all time?
SL: I like the idea of older guys coming back and kicking ass one more time. One of my favorite movies is The Wild Geese, with Roger Moore, Richard Burton and Richard Harris, about aging mercenaries. I wanted to do Shrews if Jimmie would play Thorne Sherman again. I didn’t want to do it if he didn’t. As for the rep… it’s not a bad film. Like a lot of excellent albeit low budget 50s and 60s flicks, it got a bad rep when the Medved Brothers put out their entertaining but incredibly inaccurate Golden Turkey Awards books. Those guys shoveled more shit and more misinformation about these movies to the general public. Shrews is a tight, eerie, creepy little thriller … first of the horror films where you have a small group of people trapped in a single locale against raging monsters. Watch it and then watch Night of the Living Dead … Romero had to have seen the original.
Why a sequel instead of the more obvious, more predictable route of doing a 3D remake?
SL: I wanted a sequel, with Jimmie returning as Thorne. That’s what appealed to me. Something you could double bill with the original, which we are planning on doing. As for 3D, really not cost effective at our budget range. 3D is only good if you are guaranteed a theatrical release, which we are not. If HDTV works out the 3D bugs we’ll do a conversion down the road. Right now, the plan was to do the best 2D version we could do. We used the RED Camera system, which was great. We had access to 3D but the process of shooting is lengthy … it would have limited our movement and added four or five days to the shooting schedule, which we could not afford.
Above: James Best, as Thorne, sketching a friend
Why do you think it is that the original has become such a beloved cult classic when so many other films, some arguably better made, have become so forgotten?
SL: Because it’s a really good, scary movie. It moves fast and it delivers. It’s like a quick jazz piece. The plot is simple: people on island, stalked and eaten by the shrews. Have to get away. Same plot as our movie. Everything else in the film is just characters boozing and yelling and riffing off of each other. No bullshit, no long-winded explanations, just fun. Again, same as our movie. We played with it a little bit … added some comedy for a sort of Shaun of the Dead feel. Plus MST3K rediscovered the movie in the 90s and made it a huge TV hit… and by then, James Best had his Dukes of Hazard fame to go along with it. So Killer Shrews is as much a 1990s phenomenon as it is a 1960s drive-in hit.
SL: Harry and Michael Medved wrote The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time in 1978 and The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980. That’s what did it. The good thing is, they made all these movies famous again — gave Ed Wood’s stock company, Vampira, Paul Marco, Conrad Brooks, all those folks, new careers. Would have made Ed a star, too, had he lived. Trouble was, the books were all filled with bad information and mistakes. Fun reads/lousy research. And they nailed a lot of films as bad when in fact, like Killer Shrews, they weren’t so much bad as they were low budget. Weird. And creepy.
You mentioned that this new follow-up was in development for several years. When did things really start to get off of the ground for it and why do you think it took so long?
SL: I would say we made a brief, aborted push in 2005. Got nowhere. Went back to drawing board. Pat Moran got involved. Pat is a genius at story construction. As it was, the story was all over the place. With Pat on board we started moving back to the simplicity of the original film — riffing on top of that. Summer of 2010 things started moving very rapidly. We got a commitment from John Schneider, who is still a huge TV name… a name like his really opens the tired, jaded eyes and pocketbooks of distributors. We finished a script. Fred Olen Ray and Kim Ray at American Independent Productions helped us with some initial budgeting, then hooked us up with Line Producer Dan Golden, who was a godsend. Dan got us to our first budget and we began shopping the project, with an eye toward shooting in North Carolina. Roger Corman loved the script and was immediately interested, but at a budget much lower than we anticipated. We shopped it around, trying to gauge foreign potential. One distributor even offered to back the whole project provided we re-cast the entire film with actors under 25, and preferably at least some of the folks from the Disney High School Musical films. Not our movie, naturally, so we passed. In January, we went back to Corman, who decided to pass. I think he did Piranhaconda instead. Shortly thereafter, Sean Hart, who runs Silo, Inc, our effects company, came up with an idea for indie financing and we were off, with the budget slightly altered to fit California. Sean and his partner Devyn Reggio, became our executive producers, along with Rustin Brewer of Advent Clothing.
Above: John Schneider, acting out
The film has an incredible cast and looks to be full of some colorful characters. How did you go about casting the different roles in the film?
SL: Some of the parts we pre-cast. We read a lot of people, took a lot of meetings, held cattle call auditions.
What sort of initial reactions did you receive after approaching the actors to take part in a sequel being made over 50 years later to such a infamous film?
SL: We had a tough time casting the main heavy. We wanted a veteran name actor who could hold his own with James Best. I took a lot of meetings with a lot of very famous actors… some who would surprise you. Made some friends along the way — people who certainly surprised me. But we didn’t end up casting the part until the night before we began shooting. Bruce Davison read it, loved it, and pressed his manager to finalize the deal. He told me, “…everyone else does the set-ups… I walk in and deliver the punch line.”
Above: Bruce Davison, looking… unstable
Is the film completed yet or at what stage is it?
SL: The film is locked, completed. Scored, F/X, everything. Ready to foist on slobbering, shrew-obsessive audiences.
What are your current plans for the film?
SL: We are currently working on the distribution side of things. Apart from the usual television and video and video-on-demand sales, I’d also like to do some festivals, and some limited theatrical. It’s a fast-paced, delightful film with cross-over appeal to many different fan bases. We have the horror/sci-fi fans, and the MST3K fans of the original film. We have the Dukes of Hazzard fan base, with John, Jimmie and Rick Hurst in the film (and a couple of nods to the Dukes in our movie that were done for the fans). John’s got his own fan base for all the great recent stuff he’s been doing, and Bruce Davison, apart from being one of the film business’s great character actors (one producer recently called him a “national treasure”), has that Willard thing going. Willard was a big hit on video in the ’80s and ’90s … and Bruce included some nods to that classic in his own performance. Plus the music. Apart from a great orchestral score by genre vet Jeff Walton, which touches on everything from John Barry to Jerry Goldsmith to Bernsteins’ score for the Sons of Katie Elder , we have the Kings of Surf Music. 2012 is the 50th Anniversary of The Beach Boys. We’re able to take advantage of that … Beach Boys and Jan & Dean vet Gary Griffin wrote and produced some great original songs for us. He did the music for the 2000 ABC TV mini series The Beach Boys: An American Family, and has toured with The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson and Jan & Dean, as well as serving as John Stamos’ musical director on Full House. Gary assembled a team of vocalists and musicians including Beach Boy vets Matt Jardine and Phil Bardowell, Brian Wilson multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, original Beach Boy David Marks and Dean Torrence of the legendary Jan & Dean. In fact, Dean, along with his talented daughters Katie and Jillian, recorded our ’60s retro theme song, the Gary Griffin/Dave Beard original “Shrewd Awakening”, which mixes the delightfully sick Jan & Dean humor (ever hear Deadman’s Curve — it’s Jan & Dean’s Fargo – a comedy song about a fatal car wreck) with a 1960s Matt Helm/Hugo Montengro beat and the sweetest vocals this side of the Supremes. And rounding out the whole thing, Bruce Davison actually portrayed Dean Torrence in the 1978 TV movie about Jan & Dean, called Deadman’s Curve. We reunited Bruce and Dean in the recording studio — a video snippet of which appears in our closing credits.
Above: Steve Latshaw (on right) with Dean Torrence and daughters Katie and Jillian
What would you like viewers to take from your film? Do you think fans of the original will be able to appreciate it too?
SL: I hope viewers have fun with it. We took a genre-blend approach to the film, mixing both comedy and horror and character development. Shaun of the Dead paved the way for that kind of blend. We hope audiences enjoy ours in a similar vein. As for fans of the original, I am the world’s biggest fan of the original and I wanted to make a sequel I’d like to see, rather than a heartless, faceless remake with no connection to the original other than the title.
Other than the legendary James Best reprising his classic role of Capt. Thorne Sherman from the original I notice actor John Anthony Williams is playing a Harold Rook Sr., which is obviously in some way related to the late great Judge Henry Dupree’s character ‘Rook’ Griswald.
SL: Yes. Without giving anything away, our film re-stages the original Rook’s death scene from 1959, using our modern monsters. It’s all John Anthony Williams on screen — we had him running all morning. He was such a serious, focused actor that he’d studied Judge Henry Dupree’s actual running style before we shot. On the first take with John, after I called cut, I said, “Amazing, you’ve got Judge’s run down.” He nodded. He’d studied. I was very impressed.
Are there other such homages to the original cult classic for fans to look forward to in this new film? What sort of things were kept the same and what were changed? How does this film vary from the original?
SL: There are lots of homages to the original: a couple of flashback scenes, Jimmie wears a variation of Thorne’s original wardrobe, the sort of the thing a charter boat Captain might wear over 50 years, always sticking to the same style. The outside of the compound is almost identical to the one in the original film, right down to the barrels. Fans will be shocked at how close we got — although it’s supposed to be the same place, 50 years later. The interior of the living room is a perfect match to the original, right down to the flimsy bar and the mirror on the wall. Our Designer, Billy Jett, was a genius. He matched the original perfectly. Billy also built a great lab set in Bronson canyon. He asked me about a look; I said “Man From U.N.C.L.E. — 1965 / 2nd season.” He got it. The black-and-white original was shot on six cold and cloudy days in Texas. We worked in the sunlight in Hollywood, in June. And we were using the gorgeous RED system. And the market will not support a B&W movie of this nature. So I said, instead of the grungy, gritty dark feel of the original, let’s make it look pretty and garish, rich primary colors, like if A.I.P. had decided to shoot this sequel in 1963, in Pathecolor and Panavision. And to enhance that theatrical scope look, we shot a lot of it long lens. Makes the movie look big and theatrical.
Where will the film have its premiere? Does the film have distribution yet?
SL: We’re working on the premiere … and distribution. Hopefully by summer it will be out in some fashion. Depends on the needs and windows of the buyers.
Now that you’ve done a sequel to The Killer Shrews, would you ever consider revisiting any other classic films?
SL: Shrews was a special occasion … the right movie and the right cast. In fact, however, we’re talking about Revenge of the Killer Shrews, which we will do if this one is a hit. I have an idea for the sequel that would allow us to work with much of the same cast — which I would love to do. Our cast was great. But to be honest, everyone has movies they’d like to remake or revisit. I’m more interest in stories as yet untold, books I’ve read that I’d like to make into movies, stories about real people that haven’t been heard.
Any other good/bad stories from filming that you’d like to share?
SL: Lots of great moments: running Vegas comedy routines from Jimmie Best and David Browning on the set, Jimmie’s serious déjà vu moment when we got to Bronson Canyon and he remembered all the westerns he shot there; James Arness of Gunsmoke died the day before Jimmie’s first day on set at Bronson — it was an emotional day for him. Discussing philosophy with Sean Flynn — and making him a present of a first edition of his grandfather Errol Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, along with two of Errol’s novels. Bruce Davison singing “Surf City”, “Barbara Ann”, “Linda” and other Jan & Dean songs on the set and at the reunion recording session with Dean Torrence… a happy, happy crew and cast. All great memories, no bad ones. Working side by side with Dorothy Best, which we hadn’t done since Death Mask. Last-minute rewrites with Pat Moran — as the cast got better and better with their parts we rewrote, elevating the script. One of the great days with the cast and crew was the second to last day. Michael and Janeen Damian (Jimmie’s TV star/Broadway star and top movie director son-in-law and his daughter) and the rest of Jimmie’s family came out to the set. Seeing them all as we were finishing this movie that had been a dream for 20 years gave a powerful sense of accomplishment. The last shot of the entire shoot was an insert of a flute going into a rushing river — and then it was over. Cast and crew were crying as we wrapped. No one wanted to leave.
Above: Jennifer Lyons
Above: Jeneta St. Clair and Jason Shane Scott
What’s next for you? Any prospective film projects you care to share with us?
SL: I have various projects in development, as does everyone. You have to juggle lots of balls. I have a project with Jimmie Best in the front burner … and a sci-fi project on a larger scale. We are negotiating a Hollywood biopic right now with a major indie company … and I have a script out on the streets, based on a true story about superstar entertainer Al Jolson’s trip to entertain the troops in Korea, in 1950. A dangerous trip — ultimately tragic. It’s sort of a cross between My Favorite Year and M.A.S.H. And finally, Pat Moran and I are looking for something again like Shrews … something retro-hip, psychotronic, again combining horror with comedy and the whole Tiki/drive-in thing.
In closing, is there anything you’d like to add to address the fans?
SL: I can’t wait for the fans to see it. This is a movie made for fans, the ones like me who grew up watching this stuff on late night TV and reading about them in Famous Monsters of Filmland … the ones who loved Killer Shrews on MST3K and these new download kids just discovering the movie for the first time. And also for the original theatrical fans who predated me — the Mark McGees and Bill Warrens of this world who first caught The Killer Shrews in the theater. I hope you all enjoy it.
Steve Latshaw Biography
Born and raised in the prairie winds and farm country of Decatur, Illinois (soy bean capitol of the world), Steve Latshaw spent the first part of his career working in local radio and television, as a news photographer, DJ, news reporter and radio news anchor and commercial voice-over artist. A move to Florida in the late ’80s continued his on-air work and jump-started his feature film career, landing him a featured extra bit on the set of Ron Howard’s Parenthood.
Speaking parts followed, including a recurring role on the Ilya Salkind/Viacom series Superboy. But Steve’s focus and interest was increasingly on behind-the-camera duties and he soon found himself working in a distinctly Roger Corman-esque fashion, producing and directing a string of successful B movies in the swamps in and around Orlando, Florida. These included the home video/cable hits Dark Universe (1993) and Jack-O (1995), as well as the cult classic Vampire Trailer Park (1991). Relocating to Los Angeles in 1995, Steve continued his career as both writer and director, though on markedly larger budgeted projects. With a filmography well into the double digits, Steve’s recent screenwriting credits have included the SciFi Channel superhero adventure Stan Lee’s Lightspeed (2007), Planet Raptor (2007), featuring starring Steven Bauer, Ted Raimi and Vanessa Angel and Command Performance (2009), an action-packed throwback to classic ’90s adventure movies. A collaboration with action star Dolph Lundgren, who also served as co-writer and director, Command Performance went on to garner rave reviews and great numbers on TV and home video, and helped lead to Dolph’s return to the big screen in The Expendables.
As Writer/Producer/Director, Steve has just completed Return of the Killer Shrews. A 50-years-later sequel to the 1959 cult classic (and massive 1990s MST3K hit), Killer Shrews, this go-for-the-throat CGI SciFi epic combines sly humor and state-of-the-art effects as the title creatures rip through the cast of an ill-fated reality show.