Having worked for years in the soul-sucking Hollywood system, Christopher R. Witherspoon is now working for himself, making the movies he wants to make, and has self-financed two films so far, Middle Man and his most recent, Rage.
His first feature-length foray into horror, Rage takes place over a single day when flawed hero/victim Dennis Twist (Rick Crawford), heads downtown on his day off to break things off with his mistress and meet up with a friend for some life advice. Of course, the idyllic (sort of) afternoon turns to terror when a mysterious black-clad motorcyclist, whose parking spot Dennis steals, takes it upon himself to ruin Twist’s life in only a matter of hours.
This road romp has more than a little in common with Steven Spielberg’s classic debut,Duel, with city streets replacing the back roads and a sporty motorcycle standing in for the deadly tanker truck. Despite being derivative, it’s still a pretty tense ride. The bike makes a stealthy predator in the concrete jungle, especially when up against a clunky mid-sized sedan.
The Duel-doubling is dropped two-thirds of the way through when Rage turns into a brutal home invasion tale and the ever-helmeted biker takes on a horrific Michael Myers-like presence.
With its simple, suspenseful plot and a balls-out bloody climax, this horror-on-wheels will have an indie horror fan head-over-heels in horrific glee.
A great example of a great D.I.Y. filmmaker, I got in touch with Mr. Witherspoon so that he could express his own rage.
Growing up, my mother used to take me to the drive-in a lot. We’d watch everything: blaxploitation, comedies, westerns, and a lot of Hammer horror films.
I watched anything: at home, on television, anything that was coming on I watched, but primarily I cut my teeth on the ’70s horror films and some sci-fi stuff as well.
Was filmmaking always what you wanted to do?
Yeah, that was my escape.
When I was younger, my mother and my dad bought me a Super 8 camera. I grew up in a nice, peaceful little village called Compton, California and not many people were into making movies. I would go around the neighborhood and film anything, you know: people watering their grass, and I’d do little stop-motion animations with my friends.
When I started doing narratives they were always horror films.
I noticed that your first credit on IMDb is for Re-Animator as part of the MMI crew, what was that?
MMI went through several different name changes but it ended up being called Mechanical and Makeup Imageries. John Buechler was the owner. I actually met him at a convention. He was one of the guests there and I remember I had read all about his work on Jason of Star Command and some old stuff, and I happened to have this little puppet I made, so I soon as I could corner him I was in his face like “hey, look at my puppet,” and he was nice.
He invited me to come out to his lab. It was amazing, it was the first professional effects shop I had ever been in. I met the guys there which at the time were Everett Burrell, who does a lot of effects [Trancers, Day of the Dead, Phantasm II], and the KNB boys, Bob Kurtzman and Howard Berger [Army of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, From Dusk Till Dawn].
We all worked at MMI for a couple years and they went off and did their thing and I moved back into production.
What brought you to finally making your own feature, The Middle Man?
We shopped it around and got a deal with The Learning Channel, which was starting a children’s division, but she wanted to push for more money and we just kept pushing them and the deal kind of got called off.
It’s hard to get a deal, you don’t get them everyday, and that was something that felt squandered to me and was the end of my relationship with her.
After that experience I didn’t want to go back to LA, my mother had just passed away, who was my main reason for being there, so I decided to stay where I was [in Portland].
After several years of doing nothing I ended up working in banking, which sucked. I was going to movies all the time and writing scripts and had a couple of projects that fell flat on their faces.
I didn’t have access to any real money, so I just started talking to some of my friends in LA and they said, “Why don’t you just do your own My Dinner with Andre, do something cheap.” So I said “Okay, I’ll just make a film that we can do for pocket change,” and I wrote the script for Middle Man based on things I had access to and shot it for like $8000.
What was the inception of Rage?
I originally wanted to make another film, but after I wrote the screenplay for it, I stepped back and said, “Man, this is gonna cost way too much money.” So I sat around thinking “What do I have that is a smaller budget? Something that I think I can get the money for?” Then I saw Duel on television, late one night, and I’ve always loved Duel, but didn’t think about it much at the time, since I was going through some personal issues with a woman I had children with, and I had to go to court a lot.
I was doing a lot of thinking about what I had done; the reason all this was happening was that I was out messing around and she found out. When you’re going to court you have a lot of time to think, and I had brought a little pad with me and I would put down ideas for a film I wanted to make and Duel kept making its way into them as well as the personal issues I was dealing with.
For me the film is about the decisions that you make, how your life is not your own and other people can be affected by the decisions that you make. The Rick Crawford character, Dennis Twist, makes a decision and as a result of that people get hurt. The wife is totally innocent, but she gets totally devastated because of what he does, and the neighbors are like my children, unintended casualties.
I don’t believe in making remakes because I’ve never seen one I’ve liked. Some people have stated that Rage is a remake of Duel. It’s not: it’s inspired by it. There’s similarities but they’re different. In Duel, the barren highway worked for that film; with Rage, the biker, in some ways, is even scarier than the truck because he can get off that bike and kill you.
The biker does do his fair share of killing, especially in the latter part of the film. What was the purpose of such severe violence?
I don’t believe in violence for the sake of violence. I’ve read some interviews where people said that the killer’s motivation for what he did was over the top.
One thing I did when I was writing the script was set Google alerts for the words “road rage,” and I’d get emails when there was a story that hit the internet about road rage. Everyday I’d get these reports where somebody took somebody’s parking space and they’d go off, and there was violence and there was death, but what you come to find out is that it was not solely that incident that made that person go nuts.
For the biker in Rage, we don’t know what happened to him before the film – he could have been fired from his job, lost his wife, any number of things could have happened to him. In my opinion, the biker’s actions made sense; it was an evolution.
Boy, it’s bad.
Right now, on the internet, I see so many brilliant, talented people and the studios don’t have scouts out there. Hollywood has always had the attitude of “if you make it here, then you deserve to be here,” but not everybody has a rich uncle that can give them money.
Now the playing fields are a little more even, with digital cameras and software for editing being relatively cheap. You see a lot of people making good movies, but there are no talent scouts out there.
I know it’s called show business, but they put too much business ahead of the show and they think that they know what they are doing. I forget what famous producer said this, but, “what you can be sure about Hollywood is it knows nothing,” and that’s true, because if they did they would have hits left and right, but they fall back on “well, Nightmare on Elm Street was a hit, let’s remake it,” and it sucks.
If you’re going to spend the money, make it good.