William Grefé is the sort of filmmaker they don’t make anymore: a true-blue maverick who has spent the past 60 years turning out low-budget monster movies, biker flicks, and other exploitation staples from his home state of Florida. Like the best examples of so-called “regional horror,” Grefé’s films overcome their limited production values with a true DIY spirit, and his work has earned him praise from the likes of Quentin Tarantino and lavish reissues from some of the finest genre archivists in the business. Case in point: Grindhouse Releasing has unveiled a brand new remastered blu-ray of Grefé’s 1974 opus Impulse, a tense psychological thriller starring a shockingly against-type William Shatner as an unhinged murderer and con-man. In anticipation of this weekend’s midnight screenings of Impulse at the Coolidge, I spoke to Grefé about his legendary career, working with Shatner, and the peculiar demands of the drive-in movie industry. (This conversation has been lightly edited for flow and clarity).
BOSTON HASSLE: How did you get started in filmmaking?
WILLIAM GREFÉ: Well, I wanted to be an actor. I did summer stock up in Woodstock, New York. A guy that was in summer stock with me was Lee Marvin. He was nobody at that time– he went on to be pretty famous. When the Korean War came along, I think I’d seen too many John Wayne movies, so I joined the military. When I got out and got married, I said, boy, this acting is not secure! [laughs] I went on [to join] the Miami fire department, and I had a lot of time when there’s no fire, so I’d write scripts. I wrote three or four screenplays, and I have the rejection slips to prove it! [laughs]
Finally, I wrote one called The Checkered Flag, which was about automobile racing up at Sebring. The fella that bought it had never made a movie before– he’d done some commercials– so we all went to Sebring, and I took a 30-day vacation from the fire department because he wanted me to be there for rewrites. The first day we were up at the races, he had a nervous breakdown and collapsed! The investors all panicked. There were no crews down here at all, hardly, and they brought this old cameraman out of retirement. We were at the hotel room at one in the morning, and they said, “What are we gonna do? We gotta get a director here.” And the old cameraman said, “Look, first you’d have to go to New York or California and hire a director. By the time he gets here, he’d have to read the script.” And then he said, “What the hell– the writer knows all about it. Make HIM the director!” So they drafted me at one in the morning in a motel room in Sebring.
The next day I started directing the movie. You know, directing a movie is half working with the actors to get the script on screen, and the other half is technical. And I knew nothing technically, so I relied on this old cameraman to help me. So that’s how I started directing. Fortunately, the movie made money. If your movie doesn’t make money you’ll never do another one. It made money, and that got me into directing.
Then, the second one [Racing Fever, 1964] came about. This is something writers and directors should keep in mind. I was at a big boat race with big hydroplanes, and there was an Italian driver named Ezio Selva who had an Alfa Romeo engine in his hydroplane. He was 57 years old, and he made an announcement: “This is going to be my last race. I’m turning the boat over to my son, who’s going to take the boat over and race it.” So he went out and he got going so fast the hydroplane flipped and fell right on top of him and killed him. And his son jumped off the pier and tried to swim out to him. I looked around, and there was a guy with a 16mm camera on top of a truck. I ran up to him and I said, “Did you get that shot?” And he said, “Yeah, I think I did.” So I got his name, and a couple of days later I came by, and he got the shot perfect, with that boat turning over and the guy falling out. So I bought that shot from him, and that’s the way I made Racing Fever, just based on that one shot and the experience of watching that race.
That led to Sting of Death. The guy who produced that had never produced a movie– he was a building contractor, and he wanted to be a movie producer! But he knew nothing about movies. Crazy stuff happened on that movie. At that time, all horror movies were released as a double [feature] at the drive-ins, and the distributor of Sting of Death couldn’t find another horror movie. So he said the magic word: he said if I could get another horror movie, [he’d] finance it. So I said, “Oh, yeah, no problem!” But the big problem I had was that you had to get movies [ready for release] for April 15, because that’s when all the drive-ins up north opened up, and they wanted double features. And this was, like, December, and back then editing and final mix and all that were a nightmare compared to today, where you just tap a computer and it’s right there. We had to work on Moviolas and use the actual workprint. So when he said the magic word, I sat down and made a timetable, because I had to get that thing in the theaters by April 15. So I said, “What can I write about?” So I took the age-old [story] of the Egyptian pharaoh: “If anybody disturbs my burial I’ll come back to haunt ’em!” And I made that into an ancient Indian witch doctor in the everglades, and that’s the way Death Curse of Tartu came about. I literally wrote that script in 24 hours, and filmed it in seven days. Have you ever seen Tartu?
BH: I have, actually.
WG: Well, at the end, Tartu drowns and goes under. But Tartu will not die! He keeps coming back! He was on Turner Classic Movies a couple months ago. [laughs] He just keeps living! I can’t get rid of Tartu.
BH: The “Do the Jellyfish” scene in Sting of Death is one of my favorite scenes in any horror movie. I’ve shown that to so many people. I’m curious, how did you get Neil Sedaka involved with that?
WG: Well, he was doing a nightclub act, and we went. Actually, I didn’t go because I was filming. The associate producer went and offered him some big bucks to write the song. So I really had nothing to do with securing him, but they just gave him some big money to write that song! That’s the way that came about.
BH: Where did your career lead you in the ‘70s?
WG: Well, you always try to see when a trend starts. I can’t remember the name of the movie, but it was one of the first animal movies ever made that started the trend [probably the 1971 killer rat film Willard –ed.], so I jumped on making Stanley. If you’re the second guy out on a trend, you’ll make money. If you’re the fifth or sixth guy out, you won’t. I was the second guy out with Stanley.
The way I got Stanley is sort of a funny story. Red Jacobs– I don’t know if you ever heard of Crown International? Crown was a distributor, and Red Jacobs was the head. He was a crusty old guy, with a cigar a foot long. He had released one of my movies. I was out in Los Angeles– I don’t know what I ate for dinner, but I dreamt Stanley. And I said, “Boy, this isn’t bad! Let me go see if I can talk Red into financing this thing.” So I called him up, and he says, “Okay, okay. Bring me the script, and I’ll read it over.” I said, “Uh, Red, let me just say it.” He said, “Come on, give me the script, I’ll read it over the weekend.” And I said, “I don’t have a script!” And he said, “Well, what the hell are you bothering me for? At least give me the outline.” And I said, “I don’t have an outline.” “You son of a bitch! Get the hell out of my office. What are you bothering me for?” And I’ll never forget, he had this whole box of Cuban cigars, and I reached in and grabbed one of his cigars. “Put that back! Those damn things cost me a buck a piece!” Which was a lot of money back then.
So anyway, he copped out, and his head of distribution and his publicity guy were in there, and I told them the whole story, which was in my head. And he said, “How much can you make this movie for?” I said I could make it for $125,000. He said, “I’ll tell you what. If you can deliver it to me by April 15, we got a deal.” As I told you, April 15 was a magic date because of the drive-ins. And I wasn’t about to turn the deal down, so I said, “No problem, Red! No problem!” So he shook hands with me, and back then his handshake was as good as 10 contracts.
So anyway, I said [to myself], “What the hell did I…? How am I gonna…? I gotta start shooting immediately!” Because it was December, and as I told you it was a nightmare to edit and do the final mix and all that. So I thought, “Gary Crutcher! That’s my answer!” Gary Crutcher was a writer I knew, and he was a pill-popper. All he did was live on pills. So I says, “Gary! That’s who I gotta get to write the screenplay.” So I called him up, because I knew he would pop pills and stay up for three days and write the thing. So I called him up and said, “Meet me at the LA airport. I gotta take the red eye back to Miami.” So he met me and I sat down with a yellow pad. I wrote the scenes, and when does this happen, and these are the characters, because I had it all in my head. So I wrote the story how I wanted it. He did the screenplay, and stayed up for like three days. And back then there were no faxes or anything, so I said, “I’ve got to have this in Miami by Monday or Tuesday!” So he stayed up and he wrote the thing in two or three days and put it on a flight, which I picked up at Miami Airport.
Incidentally, Stanley opened in Los Angeles against The Godfather— the biggest, most expensive movie of the year. And in LA, The Godfather grossed $181,000 the first weekend. Stanley grossed $179,000. Only $2000 less! And Stanley cost $125,000– god knows how much The Godfather cost!
BH: I was familiar with your stuff from the ’60s, but I was surprised in a lot of ways by Impulse when I saw it for the first time. Is it safe to say that you were working with something of a higher budget than you had been before?
WG: Well, Socrates Ballis, who had worked with me as an associate, wanted to produce his own movie. He went over to Tampa and he was able to raise some money, and when he raised the money he hired me to direct the thing. The interesting thing is the way we got Shatner. Socrates and I were going to California to try to get some name actor, and we were walking through the Miami Airport, and I looked and said, “Hey, look! It’s William Shatner! There’s Shatner!” And we stopped him and gave him our pitch, and he sat down and glanced through the script, and we made a deal right in the Miami Airport. We never went to California! That’s the way we got Shatner.
BH: What was it like working with Shatner to create this character? This seems like sort of a departure from some of his other roles.
WG: I got along really good with Shatner. I’ve heard more people say he gives directors a lot of hassle. In fact, there’s something on YouTube where some director tried to tell him how to read a line and he drives the guy crazy. [But] Shatner and I always stayed real close. I just had a big birthday party, and Shatner sent me a nice thing on Facebook– he filmed it and said happy birthday. And I got a really nice note from Quentin Tarantino. I’ve got a big poster that Quentin Tarantino sent me. He said, “To the man who put Stanley on Whiskey Mountain! Your fan, Quentin Tarantino.”
BH: That’s amazing!
WG: He knows all my films. He’s really a historian of film.
BH: In addition to Shatner, you also have Harold Sakata, who played Oddjob in Goldfinger. How did he come to be involved?
WG: He was a professional wrestler, and he was wrestling in Tampa. So we just said, “Goodness, if we can only get him!” So we got him and wrote a part for him. He got his fame from Goldfinger, but we just got him from wrestling in Tampa, and just talked him into doing it. But I used him in another movie, Mako: The Jaws of Death.
BH: Another name that I recognized is William Kerwin, who was in Blood Feast by Herschell Gordon Lewis. In addition to playing the boyfriend at the beginning of the film I also noticed his name in some behind the scenes roles in the credits. Is that correct?
WG: Yeah. We called him the Rooney, because he had what you’d call a Rooney bag, and he had everything in the world [in that bag]. I could be shooting in the middle of the Everglades, and some actress loses a purple button, and he’d go in his Rooney bag and find a purple button. The Rooney, he worked with me on a lot of movies because he was a good, all-around crew member. We got so close, I’d say to him, “Rooney, go get a Rooney and let’s do a Rooney shot.” And he’d say, “Okay guys, get the dolly, set it up to a dolly shot.” He was an all-around filmmaker. He was not only an actor, but an all-around filmmaker.
BH: What was the release like for the film? Did this also play the drive-in circuit?
WG: Oh yeah. The Everglade theaters and the drive-in circuit. That’s what most independent films did back then.
BH: With the new re-release on blu-ray, and these midnight movie screenings, what do you hope people take away from the film this time around?
WG: I just hope they enjoy Shatner in a different kind of role. I hope they love it. The blu-ray has a lot of extras. People love extras. [Grindhouse Releasing founder] Bob Murawski is an editor– he won the Academy Award for The Hurt Locker– and his hobby is to release stuff he likes on blu-ray. He said when he was ten years old he begged his mother to drive him 20 miles to see Impulse. So he’s loved Impulse ever since he was ten years old!
dir. William Grefé
New restoration screens 9/8-9/9 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre – click here for ticket info
Available on special-edition blu-ray from Grindhouse Releasing