Last week, Canadian film critic Richard Crouse dropped by Biff Bam Pop’s 31 Days Of Horror with a piece on the classic 80’s flick The Monster Squad. Today, Richard returns to talk about his own work of art, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking Of The Devils, a look at the controversial film from famed British director Ken Russell. A labour of love, Richard’s book traces the history of the film, from conception to filming to the huge uproar upon its release some 40 years ago. Richard was kind enough to answer some questions about the book, Ken Russell and more via email. Check out the trailer for The Devils and then dive into our interview.
Andy Burns: Congrats on Raising Hell! It’s a compelling read for someone like myself, who was completely unfamiliar about The Devils – for people unfamiliar with the film, can you give a little bit of background on why it’s so notorious?
Richard Crouse: It’s controversial because it was the first big budget studio movie, with huge stars, to blend sex, religion and violence. It was the early seventies, so sexual taboos were being broken almost daily and religion had been a topic of movies since they first started spooling film through projectors. Ditto violence. But never before had one film so effectively mixed and matched these elements.
The interesting thing is that this isn’t a flight of Ken Russell’s fancy. It’s a rigorously researched story based on the alleged demonic possessions of a group of nuns in seventeenth Loudun, France. Russell adapted the story from a book by Aldous Huxley and a play (which starred Jason Robards, Anne Bancroft and James Coco on Broadway) but, of course, brought his own spin to it, visualizing wild church orgies and torture scenes which censors considered too hot for audiences.
Richard Crouse: In August 2010 I hosted a screening of The Devils, with a Q&A with Ken Russell, at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto. It sold out very quickly and the audience was beyond enthusiastic. Ken wasn’t very mobile at the time so it took him a long time to get down the aisle as I did my intro, but the audience stood and cheered for him the whole way. As I waited for him to reach the stage the idea for the book hit me. If we could get a thousand people to the Bloor to see a forty-year old movie, and then give the director an extended standing ovation, then perhaps there was a story here for me to tell.
Andy Burns: At Biff Bam Pop, we’re always interested in the process a writer goes through to get to the finished product – could you take us through your steps from start to end?
Richard Crouse: This book was really a case of playing Movie Detective. I knew I needed to track down as many of the key players as possible, trouble was many of them were middle-aged when the movie was made and now are retired or don’t have agents any more. So it was a slow process of playing Columbo to find these people.
To reach Murray Melvin, for instance, I found out that he was retired but volunteered at a theatre in London, so I called the place everyday for a month until I finally caught him. I got very friendly with the theatre’s receptionist who really pointed the way to Murray. It also took months to arrange the interview with Sir Peter Maxwell, who did the score. He’s the Master of the Queen’s Music, so there was protocol involved, but he also lives in the remote Orkney Islands.
There are dozens of interviews in the book, many of which were hours long. Once they were all done it felt like a giant jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered all over the place that needed to be put together. But once I figured out the structure of the book, the interviews fell into place to help tell the story.
Andy Burns: Did you come upon any particular challenges while working on the book that you didn’t anticipate?
Richard Crouse: Not really. There were frustrating moments. Vanessa Redgrave turned down my interview requests, which was a disappointment. Apparently she doesn’t like to dwell on the past, and even though I tried everything I could think of to convince her, she wouldn’t budge.
Also sad was Ken’s passing in November 2011. He supported the book, and I would have loved to present him with a copy, but that didn’t happen. His wife Lisi, however, has been amazing, and tells me that Ken “blesses this book from his movie set in the sky.”
Andy Burns: One of the things I found interesting while reading Raising Hell was being able to learn more about Oliver Reed, who I mainly knew from Ken Russell’s Tommy – what sort of impact did being involved with The Devils have on Reed’s career in the long run?
Richard Crouse: I don’t think it had any impact on his career. Not enough people saw it. The pressure of making the movie certainly put a little wedge in his relationship with Ken, which they eventually resolved, and I get the sense that he was disappointed his work wasn’t appreciated, but overall the movie was a blip on his radar.
Andy Burns: On the subject of Russell, he was quite an elusive character as he got older, but you managed to actually interview him not long before his passing! What was that experience like for you and can you explain how it shaped your experience working on Raising Hell?
Richard Crouse: He was an eccentric but playful man. I think the main thing I took away from my interaction with him was how genuine he was about his work. Critics often remarked on his ability to shock, and in the case of The Devils even suggested that he was a sick degenerate, but I think those remarks miss the point. I came to understand that the things he put on the screen were simply manifestations of the way he saw things. He wasn’t trying to be a provocateur, it was simply part of his DNA.
I think he shaped not just the experience of writing the book, but my whole outlook on my work. Russell only did work that meant something to him. Being in his orbit in the time I was lucky enough to spend there taught me to take more chances, and to look at taking risks as something not to be afraid of, but to be embraced.
Andy Burns: For readers who may not be familiar with Russell’s work, I’m wondering if you think The Devils is the right place to start, or would you suggest working your way up to that film (I’ve read your book and now I know what to expect)?
Richard Crouse: I think the world would be a better place if everyone watched all of Ken Russell’s films. Having said that, The Devils is a masterpiece, but it is also a challenging movie. If you are a fan of extreme cinema then dive right in, but if not, perhaps it would be best to work your way up through the films, starting with Women in Love and Savage Messiah. Once warmed up, you should be ready to scream and blaspheme with The Devils.
Andy Burns: Along with the contents within your book, the cover to Raising Hell is very striking – could you tell me a little bit about that? Who worked on it, and what sort of input you as author had?
Richard Crouse: Gary Pullin, the fabulously talented artist who designed Rue Morgue magazine for years, was my only choice to do the cover art. I love his style and knew he would nail the gothic feel I wanted. My only suggestion was that I wanted the cover to look like movie poster with Oliver Reed front and center. Other than that I left it in Gary’s capable hands and he exceeded my expectations.
Andy Burns: For people who haven’t experience The Devils, there are a few versions floating around the web – which version should they watch (before or after they read your book, of course)?
Richard Crouse: The BFI has a beautifully restored, but incomplete, version for sale on their website. It looks great, has cool extras and a great booklet. There is also a version on iTunes. To see an uncut version, or as close to the director’s cut you have to go to the deep dark corners of the net. I do not condone pirating, but it is out there… but be careful, when you start searching anything about devils on line you can end up in some pretty strange places.
Andy Burns: Even with a new book out, you don’t seem to sit still at all! What else are you working on?
Richard Crouse: I don’t relax very well. I always have something going on. Apart from the usual stuff I’m also part way through a novel (which may or may not get finished), have a new TV show in development and am considering starting on a book on The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Andy Burns: Finally, is there anything you’re reading or have watched lately that you think BBP readers should check out?
Richard Crouse: I really liked Sinister. It’s a good old-fashioned spooky movie where it is misty at night, things go bump in the night, and very door in the house needs to be oiled. It mostly makes do without any special effects, which helps add some authentic atmosphere. As we see here you don’t need CGI to make a horror movie, just some stylish camera work, an anxiety inducing soundtrack and weird looking kids with lots of dark eye make-up.
Also, I’d recommend Antiviral. It works both as speculative fiction and satire. Director Brandon Cronenberg creates a strange world that looks much like ours, but exists only in his imagination… for now. It’s a fame-obsessed world where celebrity operations are top news stories and people know the intimate details of their favorite star’s lives. It’s taken to extremes, but just to the other side of extreme. “Celebrities are not people,” the movie tells us, “they are mass hallucinations.” Tellingly we’re never told why the movie’s celebrities are famous, we’re just meant to accept that they are; that the hallucination of fame is enough. Rings true today. Just ask Kim Kardashian.
Thanks to Richard Crouse for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop, and to Jenna Illies at ECW Press. You can find Richard online at RichardCrouse.ca and on Twitter at @richardcrouse. His new book, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils is available now at Amazon.ca, ECWPress.com and Indigo.ca.