John McNaughton directed cult classic Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Ian Johnston interviewed him

John McNaughton directed cult classic Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Ian Johnston interviewed him

With the Blu-ray edition of director John McNaughton’s classic picture Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (based upon the life of the convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas) set for release on October 24th, here is an interview Ian Johnston conducted in 1991 with McNaughton in London, for the NME, when his highly controversial film was about to be finally released in the UK.

Henry Portrait of a serial killer

Ian Johnston paints a portrait of the director of Henry...

“Often in the film industry, as practised in LA, you find people who go to film school, get a job and they’ve made their first film by the time they’re 27. They’ve no experience of life outside the film business,” says John McNaughton, director of one of the most shocking movies of the 1980’s, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, which has at last received national distribution and BBFC certification.
This accusation could not possibly be levelled at the articulate and affable McNaughton. His own diverse past and intimate knowledge of life on the streets of Chicago informs his haunting debut movie and singles him out as a unique talent.

McNaughton was born in 1949 in Chicago. He was raised on the south side, a very industrial, working class area. Putting himself through school, he worked in steel mills and factories making water tanks. After completing a television course, he returned to factory work before entering advertising and getting married. “I learnt a lot but I also learnt that I hated the advertising business,” he admits.
McNaughton quit his job, his wife left him and he joined a travelling carnival in 1975; “It seemed like a good idea. It was a great chance to travel, photograph and meet people.” After the carnival was forcibly ejected from Canada by the police for non-payment of taxes, he returned to Chicago after nearly ten years on the road. McNaughton started making commercials and pop promos for local bands with his own video equipment by day and worked behind his cousin’s bar by night.

In 1985 he was commissioned by MPI Home Video to produce a cheap $100,000 horror film as an experiment which would be released straight on to video. To say that McNaughton produced a very different film (completed in 1986) from the one originally envisaged would be a gross understatement. Loosely based on the confessions of psychopath Henry Lee Lucas (diagnosed as a pathological liar, who claimed to have drifted across America for 20 years indiscriminately killing hundreds of people en route), Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer drags the viewer into a dark urban underworld of poverty, incest and thrill killing.

McNaughton accurately describes Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer as “a character study” rather than a horror movie, and generously praises his co-writer, Richard Fire, for the film’s unflinchingly direct approach to its subject matter. “Richard had spent 15 years in the theatre and probably hadn’t seen ten horror films in his life. We thought ”˜OK, we’re making a horror movie, but what’s really terrifying?’ We just wanted to remove any fantasy element and make the film as real as possible. The most horrible thing about serial killers is that it’s just so random. You’re on your way to the store, it’s the wrong night and here’s Henry”¦”

Despite the wealth of acting talent in Chicago, McNaughton experienced difficulty in finding the right actor for the leading role. “We didn’t have the money to hire a casting agent and I hoped that the magical person would just walk through the door, but his is real life, you know. Then there was a knock on the door”¦. (laughs) and Michael Rooker walks in wearing exactly the clothes he wears in the movie. I sent up a little prayer, ”˜Please God, let this person be able to act!’ The only thing that bothered me was when he read for the part, he was so good that I thought he might really be like that and then we’d have been in trouble!”

McNaughton says that he always knew that Rooker would become a star and, five years on from Henry’s initial release, he has contributed strong supporting roles in movies such as Eight Men Out, Sea Of Love and Music Box.

One of the most unsettling and successful aspects of the film is the absence of any moralising or lengthy psychoanalytical explanation for Henry’s murderous behaviour, and how McNaughton manages to elicit ambiguous feelings for his deranged central character.

“There is something good about everybody and that has to be your starting point for developing character. The amazing thing about the real Henry, seeing him on tape, is that he has this dumb hillbilly charm which enabled him to gain people’s confidence long enough to kill them. You feel for this character because, in a sense, you’re not so different from him.

“You can’t explain another human being. I mean, I saw a TV drama documentary on the serial killer Ted Bundy, the tone of which was ”˜Oh we hate him, oh, he was a bad guy and here’s why he did it’. First of all, how could you ever explain someone as perverse as Ted Bundy? Second, he was an amazingly charming man who captivated all these women. He travelled in middle-class circles, campaigned for the Governor and everybody liked him”¦ it disturbs people.”

From the moment Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer was completed, the movie ran into problems. MPI saw a poor quality rough cut of the movie and were so unimpressed they lost confidence in the project. Vestron expressed an interest in distributing the film but soon became involved in a costly legal wrangle with Hemdale over the rights to Platoon. Atlantic Pictures picked up on the film but soon dropped it when the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating board awarded the movie an ”˜X’ rating for violence and intensity.

For years McNaughton grew increasingly frustrated as his film gathered dust in MPI’s offices, until an enterprising publicist sent a copy of the movie to a New York TV show that screens cult movies. A Village Voice reviewer lavished praise upon the film and independent distributors began clamouring for the picture. Although the MPAA reaffirmed its ”˜X’ rating in 1989, in the States Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is officially an ”˜unrated’ film to avoid any association with pornography.

These days McNaughton’s career would appear to be in the ascendant. Martin Scorsese saw ”˜Henry’ and was deeply impressed. “That was such a thrill,” he enthuses, “and now we’re like old pals (laughs).” McNaughton wanted Scorsese to produce Step Right Up, a film based on his experience of carnival life, but instead Scorsese suggested he direct a script he had acquired called Mad Dog And Glory.

“At first me and my partner Steve Jones were kind of upset. To come all this way to Martin Scorsese, the God of film-making, and to be in the same situation as always: ”˜We don’t like your material but read this’. So I reluctantly started reading this Mad Dog And Glory script (by Richard Price) and it turned out to be the best film script I’ve ever read!” Eventually Robert De Niro entered the project and currently he and McNaughton are looking for a suitable female lead (Uma Thurman was eventually cast in the picture, which was released in 1993).

After completing Mad Dog And Glory, McNaughton hopes to start work on a long planned adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ screenplay The Last Words Of Dutch Schultz. The project has Burroughs’ seal of approval ”“ “He’s seen Henry three times and said it was fascinating.” Schultz was a leading New York gangster who was gunned down by rival hoods. He survived for two days in hospital where a police stenographer recorded his dying words. The film is to be shot in Chicago and produced independently, avoiding the major Hollywood studios. “I don’t want it turned into some crappy gangster picture. I want to stick with the Burroughs vision. For three and a half million dollars, which is peanuts in Hollywood, we can make an incredible film.”

(Unfortunately, twenty years on, McNaughton’s Last Words Of Dutch Schultz has yet to reach the screen. The real Henry Lee Lucas died aged 64 of heart failure in the Texas Ellis I prison unit on 13th March, 2001.)

Copyright © Ian Johnston 1991

HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER is released on Double Play on October 24th.
The release features the following new extras: Commentary with Director John McNaughton / Interview with Director John McNaughton / John McNaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd / Censorship History (The Opening Sequence, Otis and the Broken TV, The Home Invasion Scene) / Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer / The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas / Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with commentary by John McNaughton / Original Storyboards / Trailer

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