Brian Yuzna’s Society – Exclusive Interview Essay
For the past two years I have been working on a book about the life and movies of the independent filmmaker Brian Yuzna. With over three decades of obscure, fantastical, and groundbreaking features to his name, Yuzna’s got more than a few stories to tell about life on the other side of Hollywood. As part of the extensive and exhaustive process, many interviews were carried out with his cohorts, both past and present.
Like any book, or similar creative project, our collaboration has taken on many forms over the course of its journey, with plenty of stop-offs and sidetracks along the way. One such event was a US BLU RAY release of Society, Yuzna’s directorial debut, which never came together for reasons too banal to enter into. One thing which did spring from that, however, was this neat little essay on the movie, which contains some brand new interviews with Billy Warlock and Special FX legend Screaming Mad George. This is shorter than the chapter in the book turned out to be, but will give a nice teaser as to some of the treats which lie in wait for all of Yuzna’s fans.
I shall post more info on the release of the Yuzna book closer to the time, but here’s a little something to whet your collective appetites.
‘Then we’ll all sing together; society waits for you’
Indeed, society does wait for Billy Whitney (Billy Warlock), a privileged young man who, on the surface has everything going for him. Billy is handsome, has a beautiful girlfriend and lives in one of the most exclusive areas of Los Angeles, yet something doesn’t feel quite right.
The movie, which director Brian Yuzna describes as ‘Fear and paranoia in Beverly Hills’, stemmed from an initial script by Rick Fry and Woody Keith, the latter being a writer who came from a background not too dissimilar to the film’s protagonist. Emphasising the displacement which many young people feel regarding their surroundings and place in life, whilst taking a concurrent jibe at the farcical nature of the Hollywood elite and US class structure, the filmmakers succeeded in creating the most transgressive horror feature of the period; one which bears significant influence and poignancy today.
Throughout 1987, whilst simultaneously shooting Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Brian Yuzna had been working closely with Dan O’Bannon (Alien) on a movie project called The Men. Set in a community in which a young woman discovers that all of the men in the area are not what they appear to be, it was a dark and incredibly paranoid affair. Sadly, the film never came to fruition, due to a complex and unfortunate series of events. Mildly disheartened by the fact that it never saw the light of day, Yuzna was in the process of setting up his next move when he met with a young scriptwriter (Fry), who presented him with a screenplay that he had been working on with Woody Keith. Fry had previously sent through an unsolicited script to Yuzna called Weird Museum, which piqued his interest greatly.
‘I had been so swept up in the universe of The Men up unto that point, which was an incredibly paranoid vision of the world,’ Yuzna explains, ‘It was much darker than The Stepford Wives, and it was even stronger than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When I saw the Society script, and how it related to this incredibly paranoid teenager, and a secret society with this truly horrible blood sacrifice at the end; that atmosphere really clicked with me, as I already had this really paranoid movie in my mind. I just took the tone from Dan’s film and shifted it. Then I really upped the ante with it all. I developed the script, but the only problem I had with it was that it wasn’t fantastical enough.’
Through the Japanese financers, Wild Street, Yuzna was put in contact with a progressive and hugely talented Special Effects artist, musician and painter named Screaming Mad George, who had previously worked on A Nightmare on Elm St Parts 3 and 4, as well as Predator. The pair immediately hit it off, connecting mainly on their shared love of surrealism, especially that of Salvador Dali. This gave Yuzna a tangible way in which he could develop his fantastical desires and aspirations that he had for the film.
‘The one main thing that came from the initial meeting between Brian and I,’ clarifies Screaming Mad George, ‘Is that we were talking and he discovered that my main interest was surrealism. He was really into all of that as well, very much so in fact. As we spoke further, things just went off really well. I liked a lot of stuff that he liked and he liked a lot of stuff that I liked. That’s the reason we were so successful when we started creating Society’s visual concept; he wanted something very different, you know?’
What Yuzna wanted was to shy away from the blood sacrifice element which existed in the initial script, feeling that it just wasn’t what would make the film stand out. Undeterred by the modest budget which the film was being provided with (just over $1m), he aimed to create something the likes of which had never been seen onscreen before. One particular scene will live on in horror lore forever; that of an amalgamation of bodies, entitled the shunting, which remains a benchmark of imaginative body horror.
‘This was back when I thought I could do anything in the movies,’ says Yuzna, ‘I had such boundless energy and enthusiasm. I had this idea that in Society, that I wanted the shunting and when Billy was going about the house he’d start seeing things that would look like one thing, but when they moved, they’d look like something else altogether.’ The reason for this was that it was intended to represent the internal breakdown of the protagonist; ‘That’s real paranoia,’ continues Yuzna, ‘because when you’re paranoid, you’ll see threats there that don’t really exist. Depending on lighting too, when you start seeing something in the shadows, that’s real fear. That’s also surrealism; what’s in your own mind.’
Coining the term ‘Psychofiction’ to describe the ethos and feel of the film, the pair began to construct a solid visual aesthetic which supplemented their grandiose ideas for character and FX creations.
‘We were discussing these elements a lot,’ says Screaming Mad George, ‘and I drew a bunch of sketches. One of the main things that Brian wanted was the shunting. The concept for the shunting in the original script was more of a bloodbath. He told me that he wanted something that was very fantastical instead. That’s when I asked him, ‘Why don’t we do Dali?’ We agreed on that direction straight away, to go into deep into the surrealism. Once we started heading that way, and we started working on it, everything fell into place really well. So it’s totally different to the gory ending that was planned, and much better for it.’
It is worthy of note that there is little to no blood in Society. The body morphing scenes of the ‘shunting’ sequence, which remains the film’s central talking point, are all accompanied by layers and layers of translucent goo. Yuzna was aware that the film would cause problems with the MPAA, as he had experienced difficulties with them in the past, after the release of his earlier film Re-Animator, on which he served as a producer. ‘It was intentional that we left the blood out of the shunting sequence,’ adds Yuzna, ‘it would have been far more violent that way, and that wasn’t what we were going for. We wanted to make the audience feel like they were losing their equilibrium throughout the film.’ The MPAA were still unimpressed, and ordered that four minutes of footage was to be removed (predominantly from the final act), if the film was to acquire the all-important R Rating, which is essential for any American movie to become in any way lucrative.
It is very easy to speak about Society and get caught up in the final act, and with good reason, for once it has been seen it is not the type of imagery which will ever dissipate with time. The fact remains, however, that without the inquisitive tension that is created in the preceding sequences, the finale would be far less effective. Billy’s descent into madness was superbly portrayed by the stunningly handsome Billy Warlock, an actor who had, at that stage, already won an Emmy Award for his television work. Frantically edging his way through scenes like a fish out of water, Warlock’s bewilderment and panic carry the feature for the most part, adding a perfect juxtaposition to the more outlandish and complex visual and thematic ideas within the film.
‘Honestly, when I read the script, I had no idea what these guys were planning,’ Warlock remembers of when he first started working on Society ‘Even when we had finished, it took me so long after I saw the completed movie until I figured out what the whole thing was about!’ Warlock goes on to explain why the film was so bizarre to shoot; ‘Movies are piecemeal; we don’t shoot them in chronological order, so if it wasn’t for Brian keeping me in check, and telling me what was going on all the time, I would have been completely lost. From an acting perspective, that movie was really hard to track. That’s one of the main things that I recall, was trying to stay consistent. Even knowing what you wanted from a scene, or where you were going, was tricky to do. It’s a very, very odd movie.’
The fact that Warlock felt somewhat bemused really assisted with his character’s development, for he was, at times, as lost and paranoid in real life as his role was deemed to portray. Billy Whitney confides in a psychiatrist, Dr. Cleveland, played by Ben Slack (another component added by Yuzna during production). He shares his woes, his problems and concerns with the doctor, predominantly relaying his thoughts pertaining to his family. When asked about them at one point in the movie, Whitney proclaims; ‘I don’t think about them. They don’t think about me. We’re just one big happy family, except for a little incest and psychosis.’ Dr. Cleveland tried to put his mind at rest; ‘You’re just a little paranoid Bill,’ he says in the hope of placating him, ‘within normal ranges. You’re going to make a fine contribution to society.’
Incestual undertones were also brought into the narrative via the imagination of Brian Yuzna, who believes that it is a theme which resides below the surface of a lot of horror stories. The combination of sex and family was handled in a matter of fact way which made it even more shocking when it was combined with the stark and otherworldly creature FX of Screaming Mad George. Patrice Jennings, also a staple of early ‘90s TV Shows, played Billy’s sister Jenny, who takes an altogether unhealthy interest in the rest of her family. She appears later in the film, physically click here merged as one with her mother, and temptingly proclaims: ‘If you’ve ever had any oedipal fantasies you’d like to indulge in Billy, now’s the time.’
When Billy’s best friend Milo (Evan Richards) disappears after supposedly uncovering evidence of nefarious, orgiastic goings on, he finds himself alone, save for Clarissa Carlyn, the girlfriend of a high school nemesis named Ferguson (Ben Meyerson). Carlyn, played by Penthouse Pet Devin DeVasquez (who was dating Sylvester Stallone at the time), sees something in Billy with which she empathises. She too is on the fringes of Society, not quite fitting in with the fiercely aspirational and competitive nature of her peers. They form a tentative relationship, but Billy soon realises that she may be more involved than he is willing to accept. In a love scene, he witnesses her contort and malform before his very eyes; a sequence which required two actresses to achieve the desired effect.
‘I had two naked girls on a sofa, and as they were contorting around each other, I thought ‘Wow, being a director is a great job.’’ says Yuzna.
Carlyn’s mother is a creature which certainly wouldn’t feel out of place in a John Waters movie. She lumbers through scenes, with an unusual penchant for eating human hair. This is one of the elements of the film which Yuzna self-deprecatingly feels didn’t quite work as well as it could have. ‘We had great ambition with Society,’ he says, ‘and that’s why some of it is really clunky and some of it doesn’t work, because I never got to develop it fully; like the hair eating, however, I wasn’t afraid by not having any sense to it.’
It’s probably best that Yuzna ran with his ambitions, for the final feature is a standout of its era. Socio-political messages permeate every scene, as the hyper-capitalist drive which existed in late ‘80s America is taken apart piece by piece. Social climbing, corruption, cover ups and the ‘old boys’ club’ are all facets which are acerbically scrutinised in Yuzna’s world. This subversive commentary accentuates the physically bizarre occurrences, by highlighting the farcical and often surrealistic nature of real life.
It is also no coincidence that Screaming Mad George is credited with ‘Surrealistic Makeup Effects’ on the movie. With giant hands replacing heads, apples full of worms and contorted siblings, there was certainly plenty of obscure and fantastical imagery to play around with. One of the most memorable transformations is that of Billy’s father Jim (Charles Lucia). After being called a ‘butthead’ by his son earlier in the movie, he appears as a literal one later on, with his face protruding from his anus.
‘Some images in the film are overt; like the ‘butthead’,’ says Yuzna, ‘which is used in the script as well. That’s like in Re-Animator when the head gives head. It’s a pun. In Re-Animator we also put the Talking Heads poster on the bedroom wall. That’s all in that same range. I don’t really like to mix straight humour with my horror, but if something is ironic, or a little odd, I enjoy adding elements of that.’
It was concepts like this which Screaming Mad George still holds dear. ‘It was so exciting.’ He recalls, ‘Especially having the freedom to design something that was completely in my own vision, from my own eye. I’m a Dalinian surrealist and I really wanted to go in that direction. Not so much into the main areas of surrealism; literary surrealism, for example, wasn’t what I wanted because then it becomes more abstract. I wanted to make an abstract concept, but it has to be rendered in a way that is very realistic.’ This sense of realism is, undoubtedly what allows the FX in Society to become so resonant and effective.
Even journalists who visited the set (which was located on a Christian company’s sound stage) would become embroiled in the madness. The late, great Chas Balun wrote about his experiences for Fangoria (Issue #87, October 1989). ‘The rumours proved to be true. Thankfully.’ wrote Balun, going on to speak of the whispers that were circulating of; ‘Maddened tales of unholy couplings, wanton lasciviousness, sexual perversion and bizarre monsters who were into polymorphous gang bangs and connoisseur hairballs. Creatures whose idea of foreplay was to suck all the hair off your body before invading your most private orifices with unspeakable tubular things that could, quite literally, screw you to death.’
Balun was asked to ‘Suck up some slime’ and sportingly stripped down to become one of the seething mass of bodies in the shunting sequence, making his first on screen appearance. He wrote of a woman in her sixties, happily crawling around on the floor, whilst others passed eyeballs to each other by means of their mouths. The scene was loosely based on Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), but from all accounts, the goings on wouldn’t be out of place in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
‘I remember the orgy scene quite well.’ adds Warlock, ‘To this day I have never seen a group of people, from background artists who were filling in, to random extras, where everyone melded into everyone else with so much gusto. They were all just so into it and digging what they were doing. Mr Slack and those guys were having so much fun during that last sequence.’
One person who wasn’t having much fun was Warlock himself. He is dragged into the proceedings by means of a noose, the type of which is used to restrain unruly dogs; yet more symbolism as the breeding and purebred analogies run strong within the narrative. ‘You can really see that Billy is suffering in that scene.’ confirms Yuzna.
‘I was terrified of it to be honest with you,’ adds Warlock, ‘I found myself not enjoying it as much as everybody else was and I couldn’t figure out why. The answer was simple; it’s because I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t know this at the time though. It was gross; there was so much of that gooey stuff everywhere. George wanted to slather me in it and I didn’t like it at all. It all worked out in the end, because everything that I was experiencing personally was supposed to be going on anyway. I remember feeling a bit separate to everyone else. I couldn’t understand why they were enjoying it so much, I mean, they had this disgusting goo all over them; they were cold and those were long days. Shooting that sequence was one of the longest days of my life. It was like a 17 hour day or something like that; completely insane.’
An abundance of red and orange hues were used while shooting the infamous final sequence, adding to the sickly nature of it all. It was co-producer Keith Walley who pushed for the ultimate battle, which results in what Yuzna refers to as ‘Quite an upbeat ending.’
The film was not a huge success in the USA upon release, which was over two years after the film first played at the Cannes Film Festival. The American reception of confusion and dismissal was largely due to the unwillingness of the masses to accept that there was any social divide in America at the time. The response in theatres was uproarious, with Yuzna attending many of the test screenings personally, but America just wasn’t ready to take such a close and painful look at its own construct via the medium of a genre film. The ideal that all men are created equal rang true at the time, however, in this post-Occupy environment, in which everyone is talking about the 1%, it may herald a well needed re-examination of the subject matter.
Society was a massive success in Europe, with huge audiences in the UK, France and Germany in particular, lapping up the scandalous depravity. When Roger Corman, Simon Pegg and a number of other genre aficionados were asked to compile a list of the 100 greatest horror movies for Total Film magazine in the UK, Society was, of course, included. ‘There’s no country in the world where Society means more than here in the UK.’ wrote Total Film’s Tom Huddleson, further stating that there has been ‘no era in living memory when it has been more painfully relevant.’ Here, he cites the political resonance of the feature, and it serves as a testament to the skill in which the narrative was put together. Additionally, he alludes to the development of these ideals into the surrealistic mastery of the shunt. ‘Yuzna’s slow reveal of information is wonderfully sly and subversive.’ Huddleson notes, ‘With an epic finale that is still one of the most shocking in cinema; a kind of ‘Le Grande Bouffe’ for SFX nerds, with added fart gags and death by fisting,’
Empire Magazine echoed the praise bestowed on it by Total Film, claiming that the movie was ‘Way ahead of its time!’ and calling it ‘The anti-Ferris Bueller and fiendishly funny.’ Top BBC critic Mark Kermode called it ‘A gore film with intellectual guts.’, in his Production Notes for the 2002 DVD release, adding that it was ‘A pseudo-Marxist assault on the inequities of the class system which depicts the privileged few feeding hungrily on the downtrodden masses.’, perfectly surmising the ethos of the feature.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic, with a critic at the Cannes film festival branding the film as ‘Sodomy gore’, and Variety describing it as ‘Rough trade porno’ It was, however, those who championed the film won out, as it became a massive hit on home video throughout the 1990s.
Billy Warlock admits that it was only afterward that he could really appreciate the film for what it was; ‘I found myself trying to be true and real to the situation while filming,’ he explains, ‘That’s what you have to do to be a good actor, but how do you do that in a movie like Society? I wanted to be sure that I was doing the movie justice and also that I was doing Brian justice.’
Screaming Mad George was equally pleased with final result. ‘I didn’t know how Brian was going to approach it all, as it was his first time directing.’ he says, ‘but opportunities to make a film like this don’t come around very often, so we just went for it.’ It was this approach, in which a group of visionary artists, writers, directors and actors assembled to create a film completely on their own terms that something as unique as Society was able to be given life. Free of studio interference and people looking over his shoulder, Yuzna was able to orchestrate a modern genre classic and, in doing so, set the standard for socially aware horror films.
Yuzna has often spoken of a sequel, and with a great number of the original team expressing interested in a return to the world of Society, it certainly makes for an appealing prospect. With any luck it won’t be too long before it happens because one thing is for certain, and that is that more films like this are needed if our beloved genre is to evolve, adapt and develop.