An Interview with B-Movie Filmmaker Jack Perez

jackperez


You might not have heard of Jack Perez, or his many aliases, but you’ve probably heard of his work.  Jack directed Wild Things 2 for TriStar and the pilot for the popular cult TV show Xena: Warrior Princess. His film Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus is a staple of the B-movie resurgence of the last decade.

Jack has one of the rarest jobs on earth—he’s a working director in Hollywood.  The DGA represents just over 14,000 directors.  They say in SAG about 5% of the union is working—I’d probably halve that when talking about the DGA.  And remember, for every one of those 14,000 there is literally thousands upon thousands of people dying to get in.  Directing is an elusive job, everybody knows a director makes a movie but almost nobody—lay people and cinephiles alike—really have any idea about what the job actually entails.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jack and pick his brain about his process and career as a filmmaker:

Q:  One thing I’m always interested in is the path, so let’s start there. Did you always want to be a filmmaker?

A:  Always. Nothing made as big an impression on me as film.  While other kids were heavy into sports or music, I would be home watching 50’s monster flicks and Godzilla movies and anything I could get my eyes on, really.  Also, my dad was a huge movie nut and would wake me up in the middle of the night to watch favorite films of his—mostly old war movies—that were showing on TV (this was the 70s,  before VCRs).  It was logical that I eventually borrow his Super 8 camera and start making my own little monster movies, then started planning on going to film school.  I ended up attending NYU, where I truly started to learn what directing was, and refine my technique.

Q:  What was your big break? It’s a cliché question, but being a working director is a tough job and one that many folks would kill to have. What was your way in? 

A:  I’ve been fortunate to have had a few lucky breaks.  Out of film school, I got the chance to direct a ton of behind-the-scenes documentaries for ZM Productions (who made the great doc on Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness).  I hung around their offices for months, doing stuff for free, but eventually I was filming on the sets of everything from Grumpy Old Men to The Flintstones to Hard Target, John Woo’s first American film. It was after I made a particularly cool doc on that film, championing Woo as a master of action, that the producers—Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert—asked if I would help them promote their new show, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, with Kevin Sorbo.  I wound up making some trailers for the conventions and ended up being asked to direct second unit on one of the Hercules TV movies shooting in New Zealand. That ultimately lead to my getting to direct the pilot for Xena: Warrior Princess.  It’s weird how this business can pinball you around. You start one place and mysteriously land somewhere totally unexpected.

Q:  This is kind of general but what is it like being a working director?  What are some of the ups and downs, hardships, good moments?

A:  I know I’m not alone when I say the good times are those when you are working, and the worst are when you’re not.  There are many aspects to this, but essentially being a director is a calling.  Which means you really have no choice.  You’re a junkie constantly looking for a fix.  Of course, being able to make a living directing is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a constant struggle to make ends meet.  Although I’ve done things for the studios and networks, I’m still essentially a low-budget, independent filmmaker.  Financially, it has always been a hand-to-mouth scenario.  I’ve directed for 25 years, but still I have no savings. I’m still in debt.  You may make a chunk of change on one film, but then not work again for two years and spend that whole time trying to hustle up the next gig—which is never really in your control.  It can get dark sometimes.  But as Lee Strasberg says to Pacino in The Godfather: Part II—“This is the business we have chosen!”

Q:  Can you give some advice to young people who are aspiring filmmakers?

A:  If you can be happy doing anything else, do it.  Cause it’s a very hard business.  But if you have something to say, and can only express it through film, then it’s your duty to yourself to pursue that.  At all costs.  Really, you have to be willing to go through hell and take a lot of serious hits.  And stick it out as long as you can.  That’s why it helps to be obsessed with film, possessed by it.  Again, a junkie.  Cause it’s what keeps you going through all the dark times.  Which will be there.  Also, if you’re a director, direct.  Find a way to make a low budget feature, cause rarely will someone be hired to direct a feature based on a short.

Q:  Talk a little bit a about taking on a project like Wild Things 2.  I assume it’s a director-for-hire gig?  Are you able to bring a vision to the table or are you  more of a cog in the machine? 

A:  Wild Things 2 was definitely a job for hire.  But it had also been a long time since I had directed, so I was actually dying to do it.  I tried to put my own spin on the thing and shoot it in a way that was interesting to me, more visually expressive.  But overall, it was about making a sequel look as big as the first movie, which had seven times the budget!  That was the practical problem, and my job to solve.  Also, finding a unique way to stage a three-way sex scene, which I had never done!

Q:  You’ve done some really cool movies like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and they seem to be, for lack of a better term, the modern day B movies. However, what I find interesting is that nowadays the B movies are aware of themselves, they’re made in celebration of a type of movie that is actually beloved for being kinda goofy by virtue of being unaware of itself.  It’s a little ironic in a way and I was wondering if you could speak on it. Whether you agree or disagree.

A:  I totally agree.  A good b-movie, like any movie, is made with real love for the material.  If you love something, know it inside and out, you’re in a proper position to comment on it, poke fun at it.  Mega Shark vsGiant Octopus was my goofy take on everything from It Came from Beneath the Sea to King Kong vs Godzilla to Plan 9 From Outer Space.  There’s a big difference between commenting on Ed Wood and being Ed Wood. And as much as I love Wood, I prefer to be the former.

Q:  What has inspired your visual style?  How do you like to shoot, edit? Tell me about your process and how that process relates to the final vision you want to put on screen.

A:  Like all directors, I’ve been visually inspired by hosts of great filmmakers like Peckinpah and Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Welles, Scorsese and Frankenheimer, etc.  But specifically, my own visual style comes out of a love of wider lenses (over long) and the philosophy of ‘shooting to cut’; that is, knowing what the final piece is going to look like, editorially, shot for shot, before you go out and shoot it.  This was born out of never having enough time to shoot scenes a variety of ways.  But I soon learned that I prefer being very precise about where the camera is for each moment in a film.  Never over-covering, trying (in a Ford-ian, Huston-ian way) to find the ideal place for the camera to be for each important moment of a scene.  And knowing as well as you can how those pieces connect.  There’s something very exciting about committing to a shot and saying “that’s it.”  It forces a thoughtfulness and creates a distinctive look.  Anybody can ‘hose down’ a scene with multiple shots and camera angles.  And back to wider lenses—sometimes I shoot a whole movie on a 25mm or 32mm (my two favorite focal lengths) and rarely at eye-level.  That slightly-distorted view of the world appeals to me.  I loved it in Welles’s stuff, Frankenheimer’s, the Coen brothers’—that look speaks to me.

Q:  And lastly, what is your favorite movie?

A:  I have two.  A western by Robert Aldrich, Vera Cruz (which made Peckinpah and Leoni possible).  And Hitchcock’s Notorious.

Q:  What is your least favorite movie? 

A:  Too many to name. Although I would include 666: The Child, a film I made ‘from hunger’ years ago among them.

Q:  Oh, and lastly, what’s with all the alternate names?

A:  Well, some movies are made by producers who you know are gonna mess with your edit.  Given my shoot-to-cut method, if my editorial control is so compromised that the film starts to become more ‘theirs’ than mine, then I’ll try to use a pseudonym.  Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (as silly as it is) was a much different movie in my cut that what wound up on the screen!

I liked what Jack said about shooting for the edit.  If there’s one signifying mark of a truly visual director, it’s that: visualizing the sequences in their totality and designing shots that are dependent on one another.  Guys like Kevin Smith, Penny Marshall and Rob Reiner don’t do that.  They aren’t bad directors, just different.

From Welles to Scorsese to Bay to Perez, it’s the guys that cut their teeth making their own shorts with their dads Super 8 in their backyards, dreaming of being directors in Hollywood one day that tend to care a great deal about each and every individual shot.   And only one percent of them ever will get the chance, and Jack is one of them.  And that’s pretty fucking cool. 

Right now Jack is wrapping up a Frankie Muniz movie called Blast Vegas for SyFy.  It’s a supernatural disaster flick that will premiere this July.  Keep a look out for it!

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