Bright Lights Film Journal

Ellen Cabot – no, Victoria Sloan -, no, David DeCoteau Speaks!

The auteur of Petticoat Planet and Retro-Puppetmaster discusses his the kinky leatherboy arthouse epic Leather Jacket Love Story and other things

How much did Leather Jacket Love Story (1998) cost?

It was done for $67,000.

You originally planned on writing it yourself, didn’t you?

I think that a lot of directors realize where their talents are, and I think I’ve got a good story sense. But if I sit down in front of a word processor, I’m not going to get the same kind of quality that I want the picture to be. But Rondo Mieczkowski, who ended up writing the picture, he’s a poet, he really understood the material, he brought a really interesting point of view to the piece, because not only is he a poet, but he lived in that location [Silverlake] in L.A., and he’s just really wonderful. So Jerry Goldberg, the producer, and I wrote the story and Rondo turned it into a screenplay.

Has the festival success of Leather Jacket Love Story had much of an impact on your career?

Well, perception is extremely important in Hollywood. There’s no business other than show business that penalizes somebody for working too much. The thing is, if you haven’t ever done anything, there’s a good chance you could be a genius. Whereas if you’ve made 40 or 50 films, and you’re still working within a small-budget level, you have talent but you’re not a genius. And maybe there might be a seed there that’ll grow and you’ll make something absolutely brilliant. Now, with the Quentin Tarantino thing, people are taking bigger chances with first-time directors, which I think is a good thing, but the reception I’m getting with Leather Jacket Love Story is that the film really hasn’t been seen except in film festivals by gay people, and it hasn’t come out theatrically. By the time it plays in Los Angeles, I think there might be some perception that I’m maybe looking for gay-type projects, which I’m not necessarily looking for. I’m looking for good movies in general.

On a budget like that, I don’t see how it couldn’t make money.

Yeah, and in all fairness to it, Leather Jacket Love Story is not the kind of film where you’re going to leave learning too much about the human condition. It’s not going to change someone’s life. It’s not cutting edge. But what it is, what Jerry and I wanted to make, is a movie that we wanted to see. And we wanted it to be a little bit of everything. We wanted it to be funny, sexy, artistic, we wanted cool music, we wanted a great cast, and we wanted just to have a lot of fun. And we wanted people to feel good at the end. Call us old-fashioned, but in essence, it’s an extremely commercial film. Even, for example, the way we’re promoting the film. We’re promoting it the way Samuel Z. Arkoff would have promoted a gay film if there was a gay audience in the ‘70s like the black exploitation film. He targeted that audience, those theaters, that advertising, those people. And he did so pretty successfully.

How long did it take to get it all together?

It took about two years to get the first draft of the screenplay all together, and then another year to realize that the studios were not going to make this picture, even though the coverage on the script was excellent. Because it’s a very overtly gay film, very honest; it’s not a “crossover picture.” Those kinds of pictures I hope I don’t have to make unless I get a huge paycheck. Then we decided to do it independently and Jerry Goldberg raised the money, and we shot the picture in ten days. The editing took a little longer, and we missed the Sundance deadline, so we decided to go to the gay and lesbian film festival.

How was reaction there?

For the most part, very positive. What’s surprising about it is that people seem to really love it or really hate it. A lot of the negative comments that we’ve been getting is that the film is not about much of anything. And I kind of take offense to that, because I didn’t want to make a movie of the week. I didn’t want to make a film where gay people die. I didn’t want to make a film where gay people are battling with coming out of the closet or battling with gay-bashers or battling with AIDS or what have you. Those are very important issues that have to be dealt with in film, but I only had 82 minutes, and those elements were obviously recognized, but were not the theme of the movie. I was also making my film kind of a fable. The world I tried to create was a world that was ideal for gay people, and I think we succeeded. The film has music that’s very fun and light, and we also shot in black-and-white, so that that fabulous architecture in Silverlake kind of looks like an old-fashioned movie. It really has an old-fashioned sensibility.

Was the casting of Mink Stole a nod to your John Waters influence?

Jerry and I are very big John Waters fans, and we had been for years, and Mink Stole was our initial idea to play that part from the beginning of developing the script, so we were really surprised that she agreed to do it. She loved the script, she came down for two nights and did the work for us. It was like having royalty on the set because we love John Waters. We think he makes the most entertaining movies ever made. To me, Female Trouble is just an amazingly entertaining film.

Absolution (1997) looked like a fun film to work on. How did you get involved with that one?

I was approached to direct a film called The Journey: Absolution, which was about space pirates, and they had a start date and everything, and they had a script, and I read the script, and I really hated it. Hated it. It was an awful script. So I went to the producer, and I told him, “This script really sucks, there’s absolutely nothing about this film that’s going to be interesting to anyone, so is there any way we can just do another story?” He said, “Well, I pre-sold the title The Journey: Absolution, so I have to deliver a film called The Journey: Absolution. Maybe if you feel so negatively about the material, you should just develop another script, but we have to get it done very quickly, because we start shooting in about four weeks.”

So I said, “Well, I happen to have a script on my shelf called Zero Academy, which was a sci-fi action movie,” and he said that we’ve got these sound stages, so it has to be set in the future and all that. So we took this military academy movie, and basically made it the military academy in the future, at the North Pole. And they overhauled the script and the movie was made, and that’s how I got involved. It was interesting going into a job, wanting to work, and then they hired me, and I hated the script. It was a weird situation. Luckily, they did my script.

The script is a military academy movie. The whole set-up is inherently homoerotic. So it’s hard to not at least recognize that. A lot of people thought that the film was a bit too homoerotic, some people thought absolutely not. It’s just the sense of who watches it.

I noticed a lot of the subtext did slip in. And it doesn’t really have anything to do with journeys or absolution.

Exactly. It’s just that they had to sell it under that title. There’s a chance that they will change the title when they sell it domestically. I don’t know what’s going on.

How did you become interested in exploitation films in the first place?

I was raised with these kinds of movies. I went to mall cinemas quite a bit when I was a kid, and I liked these kinds of films. I liked horror films and action films, and I worked on a lot of films like this. These films are made for worldwide audiences, and they have always been popular. That’s what I got stuck with doing. I wanted to do something a little bit meatier, but I got stuck with this kind of movie, because this is the kind of movie that’s made nowadays, and always has been. I love working on this kind of film. Not exclusively – occasionally I’d like to do a little arty movie just to get it out of my system, but I love being a working director.

You’re a big fan of European filmmakers, like Godard and Truffaut.

Yeah. I love all kinds of movies. I love foreign films. I learned to love them early on, because it was Roger Corman who imported a lot of them. Well, I’d see anything that New World Pictures released, and was exposed to films like Truffaut’s Small Change, Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, and other films like that that were just amazingly interesting because of their foreign locales and everything. I love to watch those kinds of films. I don’t think I’d make them.

Do you ever try to slip some foreign-film influences in your direct-to-video work?

Maybe foreign in terms of foreign exploitation films, like the Tombs of the Blind Dead films and stuff like that which have kind of this Eurotrash quality. I try to incorporate that sometimes in the films that I make, especially the films I make in Romania, which are English-language movies, but they’re European because we shoot them in Europe.

Do you think it’s a challenge working as a director when your target audience is primarily hard-core straight males?

No. Again, this is what I do for a living, and I enjoy being a working director. What happens is when that audience dictates the material you work in, they don’t only dictate the material, but they dictate the people who are in the film, the style of the film, and sometimes the pictures can be very misogynistic, and I try to eliminate that element. Some of it can be very sexist, and I try to hopefully eliminate that element and still deliver the goods. I think there’s a recipe for these kinds of films that you have to follow when you work for these people. They leave you alone. Nowadays, they do. In the ‘80s, it was a little different, but nowadays they leave you alone.

In most of your films, you have a lot of stronger female roles.

I try to for the simple fact that I love women, I love being around them, I love working with them, and I love strong female character movies, from All About Eve all the way to Jackie Brown.

How did Ellen Cabot [DeCoteau’s directorial pseudonym on some smaller-budgeted projects] come about?

Well, I told a lie once. Back when I was in the closet, I told an interviewer that Ellen Cabot was actually an old girlfriend of mine. There was never really an old girlfriend; that was just a drag name I came up with a long time ago. When I came out four years ago, I told everybody it was a drag name.

What actually prompted you to come out? Was there some sort of catalyst?

The thing is, usually the person that comes out of the closet is the last to know; everybody knows they’re gay anyway. With me, my closet was bursting at the seams with feather boas, so there was no surprise on anybody’s face with the exception of my family. My father in particular. What I did was I actually met my birth parents, and I hadn’t done that in 30 years, and I went through this tremendous emotional experience, and suddenly I decided I was not going to live my life for anyone but myself, and when you’re in the closet, you’re really living your life for everyone else. You’re not living your life.

Coming out was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the most gratifying and fulfilling thing as well. It’s really extremely important for people to be out of the closet I think. And it’s easy for me to say that, living in Los Angeles, living in an area where even though we do have prejudices and phobias, it’s a little easier here than, say, Muskegan, Michigan or Broken Arrow, Arkansas.

And even in my business, there’s tremendous homophobia. There’s been opportunities where I think that I know I’ve lost a job because I’m openly gay, and there are also situations that I’ve been in, things that I’m offered because I’m openly gay. It’s good and it’s bad. But it’s so much easier to live your life when you’re out.

Was Skeletons a project that came to you?

It was a very interesting situation. What had happened was I had just finished a film called Prey of the Jaguar (1996), starring Stacy Keach and Maxwell Caulfield and Linda Blair. And I pulled it off – it was a very ambitious action movie, martial arts, kind of a superhero thing. And I delivered it on schedule and it turned out quite good, and the company that was producing the film was also doing a film with Ken Russell called Skeletons (1996), and they were prepping the project when I was doing Prey of the Jaguar, and there was a creative conflict between Ken and one of the producers, Ken stepped aside and went back to the United Kingdom, and they had to make this film because they were already into it a number of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When Ken left, only Ron Silver was attached. So when they let Ken go, they cast Christopher Plummer and James Coburn, and I hand-picked people like Paul Bartel and Dennis Christopher and Carroll Baker, and we went ahead and made the picture. We shot it in 19 days. I only had two weeks of prep. Very difficult film for me to do. It was the best learning experience I’ve had as a director, because it really gave me the confidence to work with people who were, to me, really big movie stars, and I realized that they’re much easier to work with that I thought. I really pumped Christopher Plummer and James Coburn and Ron Silver for information on how to be a good director, because they’ve been working with directors for decades. They really loved the project.

My only concern was that, because we were dealing with issues in the script that were very sensitive and important [the plot concerns small-town homophobia], I did not want to make it campy, so I wanted to shoot the picture very tight, with lots of close-ups. They were all for that. It turned out to be a great project.

It’s very difficult, though, because in the post-production process, a lot of the overtly gay elements of the film were neutered as the producers felt that maybe my point of view went a little too gay, and that I was stressing those issues. Well, they’re making a film about intolerance and I’m an openly gay director, I don’t know what they were thinking, but that’s ultimately what they were going to get. Somebody who’s experienced the bigotry and who was really going to express the issue that these are gay men who are murdered in the town, and that’s what triggers a lot of the plot points in the film. Those things could not be subtle. Considering that both gay men who were in the picture that were lovers never really had a scene together, they couldn’t really display any affection, they just talked about how much they loved each other.

And I really wanted the entire family to feel this phobia and this bigotry, and tried to emphasize some of that with regard to the son, and the guy that was stalking him in high school, and a lot of that was excised from my cut of the picture, and it’s really too bad, because that kind of thing does not ghettoize the movie, but creates something that’s new and different. Making a thriller in 1997, you have to have a movie that’s going to push some buttons that haven’t been pushed before. But they wanted something more homogenized, something that would play on television worldwide. But they had hired Ken Russell, knowing how wild he can get.

And what’s so funny about that whole situation is that I’d actually worked for Ken on Crimes of Passion. I was his craft service guy. I got his coffee for him every morning. It was weird, years later, replacing him as director on a movie.

Was that the biggest budget you’d worked with?

Yeah. The budget on Skeletons was 2.2 million, and right below that was 1.7 million for The Journey: Absolution, and everything else was around a million dollars.

Do you think a market exists for queer-themed exploitation films?

I hope so. I’ve got a project I’m trying to put together that will be the first screenplay I write called The Slave Boy Racket. It’s basically like a juvenile delinquent movie of the ‘50s. It’s about how older women exploit these young men who come to Hollywood to be movie stars. It’s really an extremely campy riff on The Violent Years or Jail Bait. And it’s a comedy. And that’s a gay-themed exploitation film, and that’s probably what I’ll do next as far as a gay project.