Inside Severin Films: A Conversation with Co-Founder David Gregory

(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson)
Devoted to rescuing and releasing the most controversial and provocative films from around the world, Severin Films was co-founded by today's guest, David Gregory, in 2006 with Carl Daft and John Cregan as an answer to our home entertainment prayers for physical media that would honor the love and admiration we collectors and lovers of cinema have for our cult classics. What a time for cinephiles to be alive, when we can load our checkout carts with Lina Romay pins, Laura Gemser t-shirts, Al Adamson box sets, and Severin nipple pasties - we're not worthy! But how does one find themselves at the epicenter of bringing obscure, rare, forgotten pictures to their fully restored Blu-ray glory for future generations of film fans devour, accompanied by thoughtfully and beautifully produced bonus features such as the brand new feature-length documentary, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson? The director of this and several other wonderful films discusses his journey on the road to co-founding Severin, and what the mouth-watering future of this badass boutique label has in store for us.
Jason Anders:
What initially sparked your interest in pursuing a career in home entertainment, and which aspects of the job have kept you invested after all this time?

David Gregory: Carl Daft and I went to school together and always shared a passion for horror films, much to the chagrin of our mothers, not helped by the fact that horror was considered the source of all society's ills during that period in the U.K. according to the press, the moral do-gooders, and the government. 

Once films started to be banned in the mid-80s and hard to come by through legal channels, we started trading tapes with similarly minded horror fans up and down the country through a network surreptitiously enabled by fanzines like Shock Xpress and Samhain and all-night festivals like Shock Around the Clock and Black Sunday. We would scour video shops for banned films that the owners would often have hidden in the back and buy them. One day this search took me to a small distributor called VPM in Nottingham, where we lived. I got along with the owner, Andrew Clarke, and he saw that I was passionate about movies and how the business side of it worked. I started working there as a summer job. It was there that I learned about rights and labels and such. At the time, there was so much bootlegging going on because all of the labels had gone out of business after the Video Recordings Act 1984 was introduced by Parliament because they couldn't afford to get all of their product rated and make the cuts required, so the old masters were passed around being retitled and repackaged. There were a lot of budget releases at every gas station, every liquor store... wherever you could get tapes. 

Andrew had shitty, cut masters of things like The Beyond (1981), Eaten Alive! (1980), Blood Bath of Dr. Jekyll (1981), and Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972), repackaging and selling them in bulk for cheap. I wanted to give them proper covers with original artwork and market them as the horror classics they were, but Andrew said if I wanted to do that I should actually buy the rights and put them out properly. Before long I was talking to rights holders. Eventually Carl and I pooled our resources and started our company, Blue Underground, and its subsidiary label, Exploited, on which we released 14 titles or so. It was tough going because the U.K. was still very censorious and the BBFC did not see eye to eye with us on the merit of the movies we were putting out. We also started putting extras on our VHS releases such as interviews with filmmakers at the end of the movie. This is what led us to doing our first feature documentary, Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (2000), which in turn led to me being hired by Bill Lustig to do extras for the Anchor Bay special edition DVDs that he was producing in the early 2000s. I moved to the U.S. and Lustig formed Blue Underground US. I was with him there as disc producer for the first four or five years - then Carl, John Cregan and I formed our own label, Severin. 
Walk me through the process of how a Severin Blu-ray is produced once the rights for a film has been secured. 

Once we license a title I'll let the team know that it's in the pipeline. The Severin team is nine people including me, plus a bunch of additional people we work with regularly for editing, design, authoring, and shooting. Between us we come up with who can be approached for interviews and we decide how deep we want to go. If it's an Italian film we consult with our longtime featurette co-producer, Federico Caddeo at Freak-O-Rama Video Productions in Italy, and he will let us know who he can approach. 

The mastering is different for every film. Sometimes we get the raw scan in from the territory where the negative resides. Other times the negative, or best element, will be shipped to the office where we will scan it on our 4K scanner, which we purchased a couple of years ago and has enabled us to do a lot more projects than when we had to rely on outside scanning for cost and time reasons. But it's often not as simple as getting access to the negative. Sometimes the negative is lost or unavailable for some reason. So we then have to go on a hunt for the best possible element in existence. In some cases this might be a release print, but we do try and access a pre-print element, at the very least, where possible. Once we have the raw scan files we send to one of our three colorists and restorationists and the sound goes to a sound professional for clean-up. Were it that simple, though - we have to compare our master to all existing releases because so many of these films were released in different versions around the world. There are a lot of very vocal trolls out there who demand you be hanged in the town square if you dare to be missing a sound effect or seconds of a car driving by, so we try to be as thorough as possible in checking we have everything on there in the feature and give the best presentation we can. 

And of course the extras are particularly important to us. The feature is the main draw, but as we are preserving exploitation cinema history we are passionate about getting firsthand recollections on record while we still can. We treat our featurettes like mini-productions, or sometimes massive productions, because it is thoroughly unacceptable the quality of some of the extras on a lot of labels' otherwise terrific discs. Extras are always essential for us and treated with care. 
Tell me about the conception of the Severin logo. 

John Cregan, our third partner, and I were still working at Blue Underground when we were spitballing for a company name. I had come up with Blue Underground as a combination of Blue Velvet (1986) and Velvet Underground. John and I, both big fans of Velvet Underground, decided to go through their catalog to find inspiration. We got as far as "Venus in Furs" from their debut album and "Severin" was the standout word, it was also the name of the protagonist in the original masochist text, so it seemed ideal. He found a designer, a lady named Wanna Cam Cam, and we told her the name and source of inspiration (and what it is we do), and she came back with a bunch of comps - the Severin lady is immediately the one that grabbed us. Then my good friend Mark Raskin, who scores most the films I make, composed the accompanying jingle and Bob's your uncle. 

What are the three Severin titles you are most proud of?

Santa Sangre (1989)
Combat Shock (1986)
Threads (1984)

How has COVID-19 affected Severin?

The biggest hit we took was the cancelation of conventions. We do a lot of them and they provide a decent chunk of income, but they also allow us to meet likeminded people face to face. We chat about what's coming up, spread the good word, get ideas of titles to go after or merch to do, and they're really the only place where fans of the movies we put out can browse our stuff all in one place, check out the covers, learn about the movies, and then pick up what they want. Other things have slowed down such as manufacturing of boxes, shipping discs from overseas, and getting scans done in Rome... so there's been quite a few hurdles and some delays. But overall we had so much in-house already that we've been able to continue with production. The team has been working harder than ever to keep our products moving towards delivery so that we can continue to release as much as possible. Everyone has been working from home, which many of the team do anyway because we are spread all over. Only Zach and I work out of the Severin office in L.A. on a full-time basis. Nicole is the Production Manager/Coordinator, she ties all the pieces together logistically. Carl in the UK handles contracts and accounts. Andrew is the Post Supervisor, coordinating elements between the various people who edit, quality control, color correct, restore, and author. Josh handles our social media and public relations and also produces some special features. Zach edits and is quality control. 

Kier-La produces special features and is working on a documentary feature on folk horror. Jamie edits. Jason and Amanda, who run the web store (www.Severin-Films.com) and oversee physical packaging and shipping for our direct order customers, have been working nonstop so that we can keep things going, even if the outside world is in turmoil. Jim Kunz authors and handles any technical panics we may have. Johnnie Buell and Marc Morris author, too. Crystal and Earl design. Warren and Lannie color. Everyone has been plowing forth and being more productive than ever. During this time, we released our most ambitious project ever in Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection, as well as a box set of Umberto Lenzi/Carroll Baker gialli and a bunch of single discs which come with merch items and whatnot. I am very proud to be working with all these wonderful and dedicated people. 
Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson is easily, along with Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, one of the most fascinating documentaries I've ever seen on a filmmaker. Do you plan to direct more Severin documentaries moving forward?

Well thank you, my biggest passion is filmmaking and the documentary on filmmaking has turned out to be my thing. Didn't plan it that way, but I've been at it pretty much nonstop since Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (2000). After doing many, many short featurettes I was always looking for a subject which would be worthy of the feature-length treatment. It couldn't just be your common or garden 'making of' story, it had to be something that would stand on its own and justify that length. I'd done The Godfathers of Mondo (2003) for Blue Underground's The Mondo Cane Collection, which I was very happy with but which didn't get any play outside of the set, really. We also should have done The Joe Spinell Story (2001) as its own feature, as he was a fascinating subject. That 50-minute piece for the Anchor Bay Maniac (1980) release is still one of my favorites. Anyway, the point being that there were some warm up projects - Ban the Sadist Videos! (2005) was another that I thought could play separately from the films they were accompanying. 

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) was the first one we took out to festivals as its own documentary feature, the response to it was very positive and it subsequently went far and wide. I was looking for the next subject that could match that in filmmaking insanity, and once Al Adamson came into my orbit it was pretty clear this would be it. So began a three and a half year process of tracking everyone down for interview, finding all the films and scanning them - it was a very rewarding process. One advantage of doing docs like this as opposed to narrative features is that they're not a sprint, they're a long-distance run. You can take the time to get everything you need and, as was the case here, reshoot some elements and make sure you get what you want over time. I was making three documentary features concurrently while shooting Blood & Flesh. I also did Master of Dark Shadows (2019) for MPI Media Group as a work for hire, which was completed first, and I also shot Enter the Clones of Bruce (2020) about the decade of faux Bruce Lee movies which hit the market worldwide after Lee died, starring the likes of Bruce Li, Bruce Le, and Dragon Lee. That one is now deep in post and should be done by the end of this year. 

What are three movies you love to recommend?

Bitter Moon (1992)
Bad Boy Bubby (1993)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

For those interested in working in the world of home entertainment in some capacity, what is your advice on skills and education they should acquire to pursue that career path?

If you want to be in the boutique label world and consider yourself a filmmaker, make a featurette or two, or documentary, on a subject you're passionate about. There's a lot of people out there who are "scholars" or can stick a phone in front of some actor or director and ask them to talk about a given film, but there are very few who can actually deliver a well produced, informative piece on that given film. I'm always looking for filmmakers who can do something with what may seem like a basic assignment. If you're thinking of starting a label, know that it's not a quick way to make a lot of money. We all do it because we can make a living doing what we love, and for the most part fans of the movies we put out get a kick out of what we do. It may seem like there is a lot of negativity, but that's usually because the eunuchs from the harem in forums have very loud voices, a lot of free time, and a whole lot to say on the internet. If you're a self-appointed expert, better to go out and do it rather than moan in a vacuum that you could do better. 
Which upcoming Severin titles are you most excited for?

Oh man, so many - but quite a lot not announced yet. The Andy Milligan box set is finally coming together after a few years of work. The first proper U.S. disc release of the batshit unofficial sequel, Nosferatu in Venice (1988) starring crazy-as-ever Klaus Kinski, accompanied by a documentary on the last years of Kinski. The remasters and first U.S. disc releases of Álex de la Iglesia's Perdita Durango (1997) and The Day of the Beast (1995) are so close now - the nightmare we had on those with elements paid off because Perdita Durango in particular not only looks better than ever, it's also a few seconds longer than any previous disc release anywhere. More Italian classics well overdue for the Blu-ray treatment, some Christopher Lee rarities well overdue for an upgrade, our own movie The Theatre Bizarre (2011) is finally coming home, along with accompanying releases of features made by some of the directors. Some French, Czech, South African, British, Spanish and plenty more U.S. films in the works. 

Follow Severin Films on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and visit www.Severin-Films.com for exciting release announcements and special offers.

Oh My Debut Darling, CLEMENTINE: A Conversation with Writer/Director Lara Jean Gallagher

(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson)
Clementine, the incredible debut feature film from writer/director Lara Jean Gallagher, premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is the newest release from the most intriguing and risk-taking distributor out there, Oscilloscope Laboratories. Gallagher, originally from rural Pennsylvania, describes herself as being "raised on a steady stream of television, polka, processed food, and wooded warfare" with her three sisters. Her first feature immediately became one of my favorite pictures of 2020, even the trailer left me thinking, "how did she do that?" Thankfully, she was kind enough to let me ask her all about the movie and more...

Jason Anders: Do you recall what first inspired you to put pen to paper on Clementine

Lara Jean Gallagher: I really wanted to make a feature film and thought that a way to be able to shoot it no matter what budget we had would be to keep the cast small and limit the locations. I wanted to explore a complicated female relationship - one where the dynamic shifted almost constantly. This is something that I think is true about female relationships (sexual and otherwise) and something that I really hadn't seen on screen very much. That motivated me to start writing and using my personal experiences to anchor the emotions to something otherwise fictional.

You've mentioned before that television and books had more of an influence on you growing up than movies. Did any of these influence your style?

Yes! I watched an incredible amount of television growing up. I wouldn't say that any of the shows I loved inspired my style for this film, but I think they definitely inspired me to pursue creating my own stories. TV with female and kid characters seemed more accessible to me than movies and helped me to believe that I could do it too. One of my favorite shows growing up was The Adventures of Pete & Pete on Nickelodeon. Sometimes I think the show's oddness and dryness inspired much of my humor and way I think and am inspired by  mundane, suburban experiences, though I can't say that that necessarily seeped into Clementine. Maybe on the next one! 
Was there ever a doubt in your mind that this was the first story you wanted to tell as a feature?

I was actually developing another script that I thought was going to be my first feature. It is a feature version of a short film that I made that is semi-autobiographical about two young sisters dealing with the death of a neighborhood bully in tandem with a scary medical diagnosis of their own. I realized that this story was a bit too big to tackle as a first feature for budget reasons, which is the main reason why I challenged myself to write Clementine - something decidedly contained and with way less characters.

What was the biggest challenge of writing Clementine?

Dealing with the aftermath of a breakup that happens entirely offscreen before the movie begins was a definite challenge. I wanted this unseen thing to feel like a giant weight and something that the entire film hinges on, yet I didn't want to get into scenes that tried to explain something that I wanted to feel one-sided and confusing to my main character. Dealing with the emotional aftermath of something is a hard thing to do since showing is way better than telling in movies. 

Are the any directors who you look to for inspiration?

So many! Contemporary directors that I love are Jane Campion, Lucrecia Martel, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Kelly Reichardt. I have also been incredibly saddened to hear of Lynn Shelton's passing last week. She was a huge inspiration as someone who made the movies she wanted to make, where she wanted to make them, but still managed to engage with the industry by directing TV as well. Losing her is a huge loss for the independent film community and especially for female directors always looking for examples of women who have been able to find sustainability in this business.
Once you completed the script, what were your immediate next steps?

I applied for the Venice Biennale College Cinema program with the treatment for the project and was thrilled to be one of twelve projects selected to attend this ten day, rigorous lab for micro-budget films in Venice, Italy. That was a great experience and really solidified my belief that this movie could and should be made. It was for that lab that I completed the first draft of the script. Getting into that program was great for the project in that it validated it, in a sense, and helped to get key members of my team involved. 

What has your experience with Oscilloscope Laboratories been like? They are, in my opinion, distributing the best independent features out there right now.

My thoughts exactly! I am thrilled to be partnering with Oscilloscope Laboratories on the release of this film. They have been incredibly collaborative and respectful to me and my team throughout the process. This has been especially appreciated as we had to pivot from our initial theatrical distribution plan to instead release the film virtually because of COVID-19. I'm really grateful to be working with a small and dedicated team to be able to respond quickly to the situation at hand but still be able to be moving forward with getting this film out into the world. A list of all our virtual theatrical partners can be found here: clementine.oscilloscope.net

How did you go about finding your cast and crew? You also have the greatest trailer I've seen in a long time. 

Thanks! My key crew members were a mix of people that I had worked with before in Portland, Oregon - like my main producer, Aimee Lynn Barneburg and people who I was introduced to from other filmmaker friends, like my DP, Andres Karu. We worked with an amazing casting director in Los Angeles, Nicole Arbusto, to cast the film remotely. We were introduced to her through a filmmaker friend who had previously worked with her as well. The trailer was all O-Scope! They worked on it internally and were able to do it very quickly once we decided to pursue a virtual release. 
List five films that you love.

1.) Sweetie (1989, Dir. Jane Campion) 
2.) Morvern Callar (2002, Dir. Lynn Ramsey)
3.) The Holy Girl (2004, Dir. Lucretia Martel)
4.) Persona (1966, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)
5.) Fat Girl (2001, Dir. Catherine Breillat) 

What advice do you have for future filmmakers currently working on their first screenplay?

Try not to let the uncertainty of this time affect what you're writing. We'll never have a crystal ball to predict what kind of stories are going to matter most in the future, but the thing that matters most to you is always going to be the thing that motivates you to get up every day and do the hard work of putting it on the page. Keep going!

Visit the official Clementine website here: ClementineMovie.com

"VOTE!" A Message from John Landis

"Anyone who has watched this corrupt administration and the consistent behavior of President Trump and still supports him is either a fool, or someone not to be trusted. To support such an obvious fascist, racist, criminal and the constant abuse of power and disregard for the law by this narcissistic, cowardly pathological liar reveals extraordinary ignorance and/or some deeply creepy close held beliefs of their own. It is essential to vote these bastards out of power. 

VOTE!"

- John Landis 
6/5/2020 
(Video provided by John Landis from an unknown source)

Fülle Circle's SUPER MARIO MAKER 2 Levels!

(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson)
Hey, paisanos! We're taking a field trip to the Mushroom Kingdom to interview Mario, Luigi, and even Bowser in our very own Super Mario Maker 2 levels! Since you as the player control the characters, you are the ones able to answer the interview questions as you adventure through three Fülle stages, and your answers will remain visible in-game to all future players! I decided to make "three" levels as a tribute to my favorite video game of all time, Super Mario Bros. 3. If you're a fan of that NES classic, check out Alyse Knorr's incredible book about the game's phenomenon. 

Below are the Course IDs for each level. You will need both Super Mario Maker 2 for Nintendo Switch and a Nintendo Switch Online subscription in order to access these levels. So what are you waiting for? Let's-a-go! 

Fülle Circle's Conversation with Mario (Course ID: W03-069-LVG)

Fülle Circle's Conversation with Luigi (Course ID: W0Y-M9H-5KG)

Fülle Circle's Conversation with Bowser (Course ID: F7G-2NH-XXG)

Eat Dirt!: A Conversation with Earthworm Jim Creator Doug TenNapel

(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson)
Animator. Writer. Cartoonist. Video Game Designer. Comic Book Artist. Doug TenNapel is all of these things, and in 1994 his many talents funneled into one project when he created the critically acclaimed video game, Earthworm Jim. Originally released on the Sega Genesis, the story follows Jim, a normal earthworm until a "special suit" falls out of the sky and allows him to operate much like a human, at which point he is tasked to rescue and protect Princess What's-Her-Name. Earthworm Jim stood out in the midst of all other titles as being a unique, wildly rebellious dark comedy that played as a parody of other games. The television commercial, which featured an elderly woman eating live worms, was pulled from multiple networks due to complaints from nauseated viewers. However, that did not stop the game from becoming a hit and earning itself a sequel, toy line, and animated series. Today we take a nostalgic look back with the man who told us to "eat dirt" in the 90s...

Jason Anders: Long before creating Earthworm Jim you worked in television animation. What led to your job as an animator on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and what was your experience on that series like?

Doug TenNapel: That first job was a big one for me. I was like many artists who graduated from college and asked, “How am I going to ever get paid for what I love doing?” I had been a freelance illustrator for just over two years when that opportunity opened up and I lucked out to get it. 
My animation skill was clunky at best, but I figured my workaholism would make up for my lack of skill. 

After a year at that job I learned so much about how television animation worked. I learned how to read an exposure sheet, how to make sure my shots hooked up to the previous and following content, and how to work with others on a large crew. Many of the friends I met on that project in 1991 are still dear friends of mine today and we are dispersed throughout the entertainment industry working for feature, television, and video game animation companies.
Did you meet John Astin while working on that show?

I did not meet John Astin, but our crew was far stranger than his role on The Addams Family! I did get a chance to meet his son, Sean Astin, a few years ago. He's a nice guy.

In 1993 you were an animator on the Sega Genesis adaptation of Jurassic Park. 

After leaving Attack of the Killer Tomatoes I went right back into unemployment despair. I was in San Diego and discovered that many of my co-workers on Killer Tomatoes were getting animation jobs in video games. This was news to me because for some reason I assumed all video games were made in Japan. There were a number of small gaming companies that were alive and well in San Diego. I started contracting on little-known titles and I quickly got a reputation for being able to animate really fast. Due to the limitations of the cartridges at the time, I could do all of the animation for a game in two weeks. That saved the developers a lot of money and I found enough work to keep me busy around the clock. I had a decent amount of animation to show other video game companies that were exploding at the time due to the sheer amount of games being made in the early 90s.

My first real job was at BlueSky Software. They hired me and paid a little extra to not do any side freelance work. I became a company man and got to work as an animator on a number of titles at the same time. Within the first year they landed the Jurassic Park game and I was offered the lead position. I got to visit the Jurassic Park set and meet two of my heroes who were working on the movie, Stan Winston and Phil Tippet. The latter just found out that the movie wouldn’t be using his stop-motion work because they decided to go with computer animation on the dinosaurs.
There are moments were I’m just lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. On the day that I visited Phil Tippet, he was so upset at losing the Jurassic Park gig that he threw a stop-motion puppet of one of the Velociraptors into the chair right next to where I was sitting! I picked up the puppet and it felt absolutely amazing in my hands. This was the most high-end puppet I’ve ever touched. The machining of the armature was the best that money could buy, and the foam work on top of the armature felt like real skin. It moved like a dream. I looked at Phil and asked if I could shoot the puppet and digitize the images for the video game. He put us in contact with the studio lawyers and they agreed to let us use it if we took out a $75,000 insurance policy on the puppet.

Like my work on Killer Tomatoes, I wasn’t the greatest animator to inherit such a great project, but I worked long hours to get my stop-motion skills to some level using that puppet. I had done a lot of stop-motion puppet animation on my dad's 8mm camera starting when I was in 4th grade. The game was finished on time and on budget. While I find the gameplay a little clunky, that project taught me a lot about gaming and opened up an opportunity to work for Virgin Interactive where my career was about to step up far beyond what I could have imagined.

Was it fun to animate Sega's Ren & Stimpy: Stimpy's Invention?

I remember that we had to slam that game out pretty quick. My animation wasn’t great, but I really love Ren & Stimpy. We made the game really silly and just wanted the players to be able to get together and have a good time. That’s back when studios didn’t get too involved in our work because they considered video games voodoo. Games are, of course, voodoo. That may be the first time the studios were right about something.

Let's talk about the origins of Earthworm Jim...

That whole game happened because I met David Perry, Mike Dietz, and Ed Schofield when I got hired at Virgin Games. I didn’t do well when I landed at that company. I inherited the Super Nintendo version of The Jungle Book game, and the crew and I didn’t click very well. Within a few months I felt like I made a big mistake leaving BlueSky, but David Perry and his crew had made so many hits for Virgin Games that they decided to leave the company to start Shiny Entertainment under direct funding of Playmates Toys. They were looking for an animator, and I had become friends with Mike and Ed, so I was begging them to put in a good word for me. I was super desperate and not sure if Virgin Games would ever pan out for me. That unemployment knot in my gut was rearing its ugly head on the horizon.

Mike Dietz was also interviewing Larry Ahern (Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island) and he didn’t get back to Shiny because he was on vacation in Hawaii. Shiny said they knew I could animate, but wanted to know if I could be creative. They asked me to come up with a character that weekend and bring it in. I sat down and came up with Earthworm Jim and most of the bad guys. It was one of the easiest things I’ve created, but I was mostly just terrified of not getting the job. When I presented the characters to them, they hired me.

Once I landed at Shiny we started to goof around with Earthworm Jim as a game idea. We put together a pitch for Playmates, but still weren’t certain they would let us do the game. We were entertaining doing the Beavis and Butt-Head game instead, but once Playmates saw our pitch they agreed to make the game. That’s just another instance of how lucky I am. It’s hard to believe that something like that would happen, especially when life doesn’t seem to go the way I want it to when I really need it. But those first three years in animation took me from Killer Tomatoes to working on my own character who became a smash hit thanks to the Shiny team.

Do you have a favorite element that made its way into the Earthworm Jim games?

My favorite part of the game was that the lead character is just a total idiot who does his best and ends up saving the world. He has become a symbol of my whole career! I like how he is a moron but has just enough competence and heart to be a hero. He’s a vulnerable worm that fell into a super suit that cannot be destroyed.

How did the idea of your sequel, Earthworm Jim 2, come about?

While working at Shiny we always overdeveloped our games, so there would be a lot of ideas that didn’t make it in. We didn’t come up with great stuff, we came up with a lot of stuff and threw out the things that were too stupid or too difficult to make. What’s left over becomes the game! We knew we would make a sequel because the game did so well with the gaming press. They went ape for it. I think we needed to just capitalize on the game engine and see if we could squeak out another one. Some of our ideas were a little too aggressive and the game suffered for it, but most people still respected what we were trying to do. I liked having that kind of support. This was at a time when gamers were more about playing and having fun than being professional critics. It was different back then.

Earthworm Jim was soon brought to life as an animated series...

That was a surreal moment. The Simpsons had only been on the air for three years back then, and Dan Castellaneta was a real catch for us. I remember listening to a lot of people trying out for the voice and his was the clear winner. Having my own television series was an even bigger dream come true because I’d been watching cartoons a lot longer than I’d been playing video games. I went from animating other people’s characters to executive producing my own series. Suddenly, I was tracking Neilson ratings and monitoring a mass audience. I became aware of how a lot of people felt about my work instead of just me looking at an isolated image in my sketchbooks.

The Earthworm Jim series was animated by Universal, so I got to spend a lot of time on the Lot. I remember driving my beat-up pickup truck around the sets, sitting in on the record sessions, and reviewing scripts. I didn’t have a lot of input on the show, I just did approvals and designed any new characters that showed up on the series. I was mostly just watching and learning how to make a show by experiencing it from the front row.

Do you have a favorite episode?

I suppose my favorite episode was "The Anti-Fish". It’s just a really stupid, silly episode that I can’t believe exists!
Is there a medium you most enjoy working in?

I like comics best. No offense to the other mediums I work in, they’re all a wonderful experience, but when I make a graphic novel I get to write and draw the whole story by myself with little collaboration from others. It’s where my storytelling is best, and I think it’s the most powerful medium for my skill set.

Creature Tech is such a wonderful story - do you think Fox will ever move forward on production of a film adaptation since they obtained the rights?

I don’t know if they will, but they should if they want to make a lot of money and entertain the masses! Last time I checked that was Fox’s job, so let’s hope they get to it. That graphic novel is one where I just made something very personal and I thought I was the only one who would like it. Come to find out a lot of us are on the same page. It’s a broadly American sci-fi comedy with mile-long flying space eels, so how could it not work?

What is the last thing you drew?

This.

What are you working on now that you are excited about?

I’m finishing up our last season of VeggieTales in the City for Netflix/Dreamworks and I’m excited about that. I’ve got a few pitches in the hopper I’m getting ready to take around to the studios this spring, and I am writing two graphic novels. I’m always excited about what’s next because that’s where I live.

What originally inspired you to get into animation?

When a drawing moves, it seems alive. It’s a study of life. I love life and it's a great magic trick to pull off. I like drawing, but the drawing sits there and someone needs to make that thing come to life!

What inspires you now?

All things that are true, good and beautiful. I find little patience in media that’s ugly, dark, or false… and there’s a lot of that.

How has working in the industry changed since you first started?

Well, the Internet happened. That changed a lot of problems that artists used to have with accessing a mass audience. The audience has a lot more power than when I started, as we are all digitally connected and we all consume a lot more media, so there is a bigger workforce required to create that media. Unfortunately, the quality of storytelling hasn’t progressed much. If anything, I’d say we’re moving backwards culturally.
(The creation of the cover art for THE MAKING OF EARTHWORM JIM book)

What advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Turn around and run away! Seriously, I think someone who works harder than the next guy and gets a few lucky breaks can do what I do. It’s not easy, and I still feel that unemployment knot in my gut, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m an artist, no matter if I’m successful or not. I can’t change that.

If you had to sum up your art in three words, what would they be?

Fun, odd, and thoughtful. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyways.

I Put a Spell on You: A Conversation with Eszter Balint

(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson)
In 2012 I was living in Orlando, Florida watching Hulu's SPOILERS WITH KEVIN SMITH, a movie talk show which featured a segment called "Criterion Corner." On the first episode he recommended a movie from 1984 called STRANGER THAN PARADISE by Jim Jarmusch. I quote what Smith had to say about it in the interview below, but I'll never forget rushing to the nearest Barnes & Noble to purchase the disc, described by Criterion as "Americana at its most offbeat. A nonchalant masterpiece of deadpan comedy and perfectly calibrated minimalism." My favorite part of the movie, however, was one of its three leads, the character of Eva played to perfection by Eszter Balint. 

Born in Budapest in July of 1966, Eszter is a Hungarian singer, songwriter, violinist, and actress. She first emerged as a child member of the avant-garde Squat Theatre troupe before making her cinematic debut in the aforementioned film. She's been directed in pictures by Woody Allen and Steve Buscemi, and her television credits range from MIAMI VICE (1985) to LOUIE (2014). She is an accomplished musician described by several critics as having a "film noir sensibility." She has released several beautiful albums, most recently 2015's critically acclaimed AIRLESS MIDNIGHT


What follows is an archival interview recorded in 2012 when Eszter so kindly agreed to let me ask her all about her life and career after I had fallen down the rabbit hole of her work. When I originally posted the audio conversation on iTunes, I was criticized by listeners for gushing over her work. Well, here we are eight years later, and I'm still gushing. 

Jason Anders: In last week's episode of Hulu's Spoilers with Kevin Smith there was a very cool shoutout of your film in which he proclaims, "Stranger Than Paradise empowers the hell out of you.  It's the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker. It makes great use out of nothing. It's a masterpiece of minimalism. It is "indie film" defined. Even just holding the DVD, you feel some sort of power - there's something kinetic about it. If you watch this movie and then don't want to make a movie yourself, something may be very, very wrong with you. It's THAT empowering a document." It was this recommendation that sent me immediately to Barnes & Noble to buy the movie and every word he says about it is accurate.

Eszter Balint: I think that's actually kind of cool because the people who want to interview me, that's the defining thing that they've known for so long. There's a kind of innocence to you just becoming acquainted with it now, that's refreshing and nice.

Has Criterion's release of the film brought any new fans to your live shows?

Mostly, I think the kind of people who would buy the DVD are already familiar with it. Over the years I've definitely had a lot of people comment on that movie - there seems to be something sort of pivotal about it. I don't know if it's the timing of when it came out, but apparently people were very affected by it, which is cool. I still love the movie. I haven't seen it in so long, but it's a wonderful thing.

It took me a while to get past the initial success of this amazing gift that after a while became a defining thing for me that I had to deal with always being labeled "the girl from that movie." That was a little bit difficult. Now I think so much time has gone by that it's easier to be objectively appreciative of the whole experience.

It's so timeless. Definitely not something I associate with other 80s movies.

That's cool to hear that it doesn't have a dated quality. I like that.

You were 15 when asked by Jim Jarmusch to be in the film. Tell me about the theatre shows that you were doing in New York before being approached for the role of Eva.

My father was a founding member of a theatre group, Squat Theatre, that started out in Budapest, Hungary. The authorities back in the Iron Curtain days weren't fans, so they made it very difficult to do the work. The theatre group eventually decided to leave - which on its own was a difficult thing, but we managed to get out.

We all lived in France for a year and a half, I was ten at the time, and we performed at a lot of festivals, traveled all over Europe, and then settled in New York in the summer of 1977 - which was a pretty crazy, interesting, amazing year to be an eleven year old kid moving to NYC. Looking back, it was an insane time of adventure, but when you're young you think it is normal - no matter what the circumstances are. You do all these shows, people come, it gets written about, everything is at stake when we perform, and it's a matter of life or death. We all lived together in this building next to the Chelsea Hotel and it was a really exciting time to be alive and in the arts. I still have trouble adjusting to the fact that that's not what normal life is like.
I totally relate to that because I grew up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee where my dad was a musician at several theatre shows where I would run the spotlight, my mom would work the concessions, and my sister would dance onstage. 

I know Pigeon Forge! Dollywood!

I grew up thinking Dolly Parton was our mayor. It was a bizarre place to grow up, but I'd give anything to go back to that time of putting on shows every day. 

That's the magic of childhood, you just sort of live what comes your way as the norm. Sometimes that can be terrible, but sometimes it can be amazing.

I wasn't so much performing my music onstage back then, but I had studied music as a kid. I studied classical violin. Pretty early on I started getting substantial roles in the plays, life just happened me into it. It was not a conscious decision to pursue a career. I later became more involved in helping pick out music for the shows. There was also a period when the theatre group functioned as a night club for bands, which was also incredibly exciting because the early 80s were a pretty amazing time for music in New York. I became the DJ at the theatre. I was just really into music, and it was later that I would start pursing my own non-classical music as a so-called "career." I have a lot of problems with that word.

Who were originally your influences in classical music?


My father was a really big influence, as were his partners in the theatre group. My grandfather as well - he was a visual artist, a great painter and incredibly prolific, and very well known in Hungary. His father had been an intellectual and journalist in the arts, so it's a long lineage of artists on my father's side. These people were all a huge influence on me because they were taking their art very seriously, which is not to say humorlessly, but they just lived for their art. That shaped my world view at a very early age to some extent.

In the later years, when Squat Theatre became a center at the time for other artists to come perform and be in the audience, it became sort of a cultural hangout. That sounds pretentious. It was filmmakers, artists, writers, and musicians gathering there and it was pretty exciting.

At what point in all of this are you approached about Stranger Than Paradise

Jim saw me in a featured role in a play at Squat Theatre - we used a lot of film in the plays and I was in those as well. That played a role. John Lurie, who was in one of our house bands, The Lounge Lizards, may have suggested me for the role. I knew Jim casually, who was also in a band at the time that I saw at other clubs. I don't remember the exact moment of being approached, but it all seemed natural. Everybody was doing stuff back then, amazingly.
(Stranger Than Paradise, 1984)
Was the idea of starring in a movie overwhelming, or did it seem natural since you were already onstage and in films?

I was already in a few student films as well, so it all seemed very organic. That's not to say that I wasn't scared shitless. Of course I was. I was when we performed plays as well. It was a combination of on one hand taking it for granted that this is what I'm asked to do, what I'm supposed to do, and what's expected of me, and on the other hand a tremendous amount of insecurity. It went hand in hand.

Was your family supportive of the idea?

It was a combination of things. Of course, my father was incredibly proud of me. I really idolize the theatre for its values, but there was a lot of snobby judgment coming from people in general - not about the movie per say, my father was friends with Jim and he loved the movie. But being supportive and nurturing wasn't one of the main agendas of the theatre. I was very precocious and probably acted pretty cocky and self-confident, so maybe people saw that and didn't feel I needed their support.

Did it ever cross your mind while on set that you were making something that would have such a huge cultural impact? 

Absolutely not. It was really just one more project of many. No one had any idea what that movie would become, so it was kind of a shock to us all. We were making it casually on a shoestring budget,  fleshing out the script in rehearsals at Jim's house, which served as his office at the time. It was a modest effort that turned out to just hit at the right time. We didn't anticipate that.

It's beautiful for me personally now that I am old enough and wise enough, and enough time has passed, that I can actually appreciate it. At the time I didn't want to be put in that box as being known for this one thing that I was a part of, now I've graduated from that phase.

You were also directed by Woody Allen in Shadows and Fog


A really funny story, actually. My meeting with him was one of the more hilarious moments of my acting career. My agent called and said that Woody Allen wanted me to audition for his next movie and I was really nervous. It was this really dark room in the catacombs of the basement in this hotel in Central Park West where I am waiting for Woody to come in. When he arrived I couldn't even see him because is was so dark in there. He extended these nervous, slightly clammy hands and said, "Thank you very much," and left. I got a call an hour later from my manager at the time saying, "Woody loved you!" I just thought, "Wow, that guy is really intuitive." His instincts function on a plane higher than I can ever understand.

It was a very tiny role and I had no communication with him. There was no hang, no getting to know him. He was very secretive about the script. I don't know if he still works like that, but at the time no one was allowed to read the script before you showed up on the set. It was an abstract experience.

I was also in a Steve Buscemi movie that I'm really proud of.
(Trees Lounge, 1996)
Trees Lounge (1996) is such a wonderful film, one that I have read is very close to your heart. The song you wrote for it is beautiful. 

Aww, thank you. That film has such a great pace that you don't see in movies so much anymore. I did another independent movie during that time which only got a very limited release, but I'm happy with Trees Lounge having been the last film I really did that was of any importance before I moved away from acting altogether.

You've explained it as a "self-imposed exile from a Hollywood that managed to extinguish whatever small flames of passion I ever held for the film industry." 

That sentence has definite validities to it. Living in Los Angeles and really giving it a try to do it for a living was so not suited to me and my personality. If things came easier my way then maybe it would have taken a lot longer to feel like this isn't really, truly me.

It was a struggle. I didn't fit easily into any sort of mold. I was trying so hard for something that I didn't truly want. I found myself auditioning for things that I was dreading to get, things I wouldn't have been proud of. I grew up in a different way where people were very creative and doing their own thing and not just told what to do by others. I guess I was a little bit spoiled because I was privileged by having grown up in this extraordinary theatre group that did really exceptional work, and then having been in a few exceptional films, it was hard for me to just become part of the grind. Just the whole system of living out there and trying to get work by hustling and promoting yourself, trying to get script breakdowns and finding out what's out there, having agents and managers... it just wasn't my world. I know this sounds snobby, and I don't mean for it to.

When you see someone on the cover of a Criterion Blu-ray, it's easy to assume they are able to pick what they want to do as working actors. 

Oh no, that's a Kodak moment - which is an old fashioned analogy now. After this film, it was a lot of struggle, coming down to earth, and trying to make ends meet. It wasn't easy and it wasn't like I automatically got offered all these great roles in great movies. Nothing like that.

It's all for the better. I'm not even sure that the highest level of actors get to do what they really want. Stranger Than Paradise's reception as a film was way beyond anyone's hopes and expectations, but for me personally, as a ticket to stardom - no, it was a real struggle.

Is music your main focus now?

Yes, it has been slowly simmering over the years more and more. I never quite parted ways with music, it was always somehow a big part of my life. For a while I actually studied classical singing, thinking that I might want to do something with that. While living in Los Angeles I took some music courses again, which I hadn't done since I was a youngster. As a kid I took music theory, choir, sight reading, ear training, piano - and then I realized that classical music was definitely not where I'd be going with this, but I was still interested in the basic foundations of music.

It was a really good time living in Los Angeles in the 90s when I turned around to commit myself to music fully. It's where my heart was. Songwriting especially. Words have always played an important role, I've been writing, scribbling, and journaling my whole life. I like to think of myself as a reader. So the combination of words and music just clicked for me and made sense.

Now I'm not sure it makes so much sense because it's so hard! Talk about a difficult way to function in today's world with all the changes. It's always been difficult to be a musician, with the digital age changing the rules of the game completely (plus a recession) it's now ten times as hard. You've got to be really crazy to be trying to do this today.
Do you feel with today's technology it is easier to succeed as a musician, or more difficult?

It depends on the person, but for me it's harder. I drown in the sea because skills that I have not acquired are competing and promoting, it's just not where my interests lie. Being a mother I have limited time, and writing and being a musician for me is very time consuming. I don't just roll out of bed with the confidence to grab my guitar and write a new song every day. There's a lot of time that goes into practicing my instruments, singing, and writing my lyrics. My lowest priority is being a self-promoter.

How many children do you have?

I have one, he's eight and half. You give up your life but there's an incredible reward. I've been very unproductive for my standards since I had a kid, and that's okay. I have had a lot of other issues in a pretty tumultuous eight years. Without going into too many details, I am bringing up my kid. That's the kind of time commitment that spills over in these invisible ways into every minute of your life. You're not necessarily shoveling coal for twelve hours a day, but even when you're doing nothing you're still standing by. It's a very large chunk of time.

Where do you see yourself looking ahead to the near future? 

I've had an incredible amount of disruptions and distractions - just real heavy life stuff that we all have to deal with sooner or later (as I like to say, "no one escapes") - but I've had a concentration of it the last few years. Right now I'm coming out of a personal health issue, too.

I would like to see if I can get my next album out in the next six months to a year. I have a lot of the material done, but not all of it. I'd like to get back into performing. I feel like I have a little more air to breathe now after the last few years of intensity. I want to alternate good work habits, which haven't been my forte with having a child, and all this other stuff that constantly distracts me. I do always have this little exit strategy, which is if it becomes too hard I will still keep doing it for my friends and channel my energy towards writing. Writing is something I am passionate about and is a lot simpler in terms of not needing to organize rehearsals with and depending on other musicians, and also finding the money to pay them. I've been incredibly fortunate to work with my favorite musicians, but in this day and age it's very difficult to be a musician and thrive. I'm going to really give it a shot for the next two years, but if it becomes too exhausting to make it work then writing short stories and prose is my exit strategy.

... I may miss music to much to do that.

What are your favorite things to read?

I read a lot when I was younger. Being a mom cuts down on your reading time a great deal. I love poetry, short stories, and novels. I go through phases of non-fiction, like books about how the brain works. I'm also interested in Buddhism.

What do you love most about making music?


I think it's performing live with someone else. When you're in sync with someone else, in the zone and communicating something to an audience, it's a beautiful, wonderful feeling. Music has often transformed pain and struggle into a glimpse of something transcendent that matters more than those little tunnels we can get ourselves into.
What I love most about your music is that it is so authentic, you feel that direct connection...

Authentic, that's a great word! That's what I strive for. If that comes through, even a little bit, then I feel like something's working. It's my little guidepost, even though it's not always easy to know where authenticity is. It's just a thing that I'm chasing. That's something I feel that I got from my incredibly fortunate upbringing. My family strove away from artifice, which maybe explains why the world of "trying to make it" as an actor in Hollywood didn't quite click for me, I don't know that authenticity is the highest value in that universe. "Direct connection" is another good one, thank you for coming up with all these words! I hope I translate in a way that resonates. You are totally making me not worry about the exit door.

Vist Eszter at EszterBalint.com.