Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Andy Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough talks about 'The Ghastly One ...'

It's no secret that at Plan9Crunch, we are fans of the cult filmmaker Andy Milligan. His no-budget grindhouse films of a generation ago had a unique stamp that defined Milligan's compelling, dysfunctional style. Milligan died of AIDS almost 20 years ago, broke and more or less forgotten. Biographer Jimmy McDonough spent time with Milligan in his final years, and helped with a couple of his later films. His biography of Milligan captures the life Milligan led, from Cafe Cino productions, off-0ff Broadway productions, grindhouse filmmaking and his gay, hustling lifestyle that led to his death. We sent Jimmy several questions about Milligan, and he was kind enough to answer them with candor and insight. McDonough has written several acclaimed biographies that include the lives of Neil Young, Russ Meyer, and his latest, due out in about a week, Tammy Wynette. Here's the interview, unedited, conducted by Doug Gibson and Steve Stones. Thanks again, Jimmy!
1) How much of an influence did Cafe Cino have on the evolution of grindhouse (42nd St.) cinema and eventually on mainstream cinema?

McDonough: I'm not sure it had any influence on 42nd Street. It had a great deal of influence on Andy, though. Freedom. It gave him the license to create. And to make flesh certain fantasies lurking in his mind. Very powerful, that. If I had a time machine that is one place I'd go back to...the Cino, to watch one of Milligan's productions. Better yet, watching Andy watching of his productions. See those beady little eyes dancing as he utters a low, evil chuckle, all while watching a couple of actors beat up on one another. I think the Cino days held great promise for Andy. He had a big framed picture of Joe Cino, an unusually sentimental thing for Milligan. I still have it."

2) Why didn't Andy Milligan, in your opinion, make it out of the grindhouses as a director, given that he had more critical success at Cafe Cino and as an off-Broadway theater director? McDonough: "He was self-destructive. Milligan refused to tailor his act for anybody. He was incapable of it. And Andy could be an angry, angry guy. It scared people. Producer William Mishkin was the only one who could deal with Andy for more than a picture or two, and even that relationship was fraught with tension. Mishkin gave him the opportunity to make movies, but it was never financially rewarding enough to lead anywhere. The limitations were always the same--and primarily it was, "make it for nothing." Bill was a very cautious individual who wanted to see a return for every dollar spent. Andy was caught in a trick bag, stuck on the Mishkin plantation. All he could do was grind out one cheapo film after another. Eventually he burned out and grew very bitter about it all."

3) There seems to be mixed accounts as to whether or not Milligan actually made some of his films in England. One individual told us that he did not make any of his films there. Can you somehow confirm if Milligan did/did not make any of his films in England? What evidence or information do you have to suggest that Milligan did indeed film in England?

McDonough: Didn't make any films in England?!? You can't be serious. What poppycock. Is this the same "individual" who goes around claiming Andy wasn't homosexual? Bloodthirsty Butchers, The Body Beneath, Nightbirds, The Man with Two Heads, The Rats Are Coming... were all shot in England (parts of Rats were shot on Staten Island). The English estate where Milligan shot Body Beneath and Rats--do you think that's a set? Done with CGI? All the overseas actors--Berwick Kaler, Julie Shaw, Annabella Wood, Dennis DeMarne, so many others--did Andy fly them all to Staten Island? He didn't have enough in the budget to buy the crew coffee! You read the book, right? Reliable witnesses like John Borske and John Miranda are quoted about working with Andy overseas. Andy HIMSELF talks about living and working in England. He made films for an English producer, Leslie Elliot, also quoted in the book. Are they liars? Did I make it all up? What would be the point of such a conspiracy, anyway?"

4) What are your thoughts as to whether or not Milligan will ever achieve the cult status of someone like Ed Wood? Could Milligan ever achieve the same status as Wood, and could you envision Hollywood ever making a big budget film of his life, like Tim Burton did of Ed Wood? If Milligan will never achieve the status of Ed Wood, why is this?

McDonough: There was a certain innocence about Ed Wood (however angora-swathed) Milligan never had. Andy comes from a grimier, more recent time. He kind of picks up where Wood left off. Every week I get more and more mail about Andy. So something is happening, however tiny. Much to my amusement, there has been talk of a film of The Ghastly One, but I don't see how that particular environment could ever be replicated. Maybe in England. Don't tell anybody!"

5). In your own view, what is it specifically that makes Milligan films so sought after by cult film fans? What is his appeal to you as a writer?

McDonough: You know how there are these utterly obscure 45s that record fanatics savor? Some nobody--let's call him Herman--cuts a few great records at midnight in the back of a radio station and only 500 copies slip out to the world. Herman doesn't make a dime, works his entire life as a high school custodian, then dies of cirrosis of the liver at his Mom's house. Twenty years later he has a fan club in Sweden and the French are writing books about him. Suddenly Herman's got a cult! It may only be twenty-six people, but they're willing to die for the guy. Why? Who knows. Something in what Herman did struck a chord within these few. And if one person catches the virus, it's a given somebody else will get it, too. That's one of the few things that makes life bearable: sharing a movie or a book or a song with another person. Suddenly you're not alone. Everything's so homogenized these days, it's like it all comes out of the same fast-food vat. Movies are so slick, TV is all the same reality show, the radio's filled with songs that have been AutoTuned free of emotion. There's no use crying about it, that's just the way things work. The Model T turns into the PT Cruiser. You can't escape it. Andy is a refreshing antidote to all that. His is a timeless world, a dirty aquarium swimming with threadbare thespians in outlandish costumery, all of them ranting and raving the Milligan world view. Within seconds you know where you are, and it isn't pretty. There's something so original, so crackpot about the vision. For better and for worse, there's nothing remotely like it. Andy's movies are looking better and better as the years go by. I think I was too hard on his films in the book. That's the only thing I regret about The Ghastly One. What appeals to me most of all is that Milligan did it against all odds. People laughed at him, told him he was no good. He kept right on going. Make no mistake, Andy was an artist. You may think his art is something that should be scraped off the bottom of your shoe, but he was a true artist until the bitter end. One of the many reasons I admired him."

6) Milligan is noted for his "swirl technique" in early films, as well as long shots and facial closeups. Is this all due to the limitations and weight advantages, of an Auricon, or did he have his own style techniques that he deliberately used?

McDonough: "I think it was a combination plate. Andy couldn't be bothered by technical things, even the simplest adjustments that would've made his films a thousand times more bearable. The guy had no patience. Try to show him a different way of doing anything and he went berserk. Yes, he was affected by the limitations of his equipment, but primarily he was driven by emotions that way were beyond his control. Andy was a walking, talking 'swirl camera.' So that seeped out of his fingers and through the 16mm Auricon. His 35mm pictures are more earthbound. You couldn't 'swirl' that tank."

7) I was watching Tom Vazzo on a GURU DVD extra talking about working with Milligan's later films. He has little nice to say about Milligan's film-making. You were there for a couple of films. I'd like you to relate some positives of Milligan's skills that showed up even in a film such as Monstrosity?

McDonough: "You can't judge Andy by Hollywood (or even 'Independent Filmmaker') standards. He existed in a creepy little snowglobe all his own. Milligan made pictures for no money. NO MONEY. Anybody who's worked in the film business knows how hard it is to make a movie, particularly if you're a one man band like Milligan. There was something heroic in the way he did it. And he swept you up in the enthusiasm. It was the best fun ever. I wish you could've been there. I worked on big budget Hollywood pictures and it was a total bore. With Andy it was always total lunacy. Whenever I get together with Charlie Beesley, my primary cohort from those days, we end up doing impressions of Andy--or his much-beloved 'script girl' Frank Echols, who was always rolling his eyes at whatever atrocious faux pas Milligan had just committed. Honestly, I think of those times and I laugh out loud. Some of the happiest days of my life, working for Andy.

8) In The Ghastly One, you describe Milligan as an ill-tempered misanthrope capable of tantrums and vilifications, yet your affection for the man comes through in a genuine manner. Explain this paradox. How could someone who pushed so many people away from him be so well liked by you and others? 

McDonough: Explain? I don't think I can. My job as biographer is to evoke, not explain. Cantankerous, complex characters deserve friends, too. I've spent my life around them, and apparently I am one. Andy could be screaming about shooting drag queens one minute and then turn around and do something so kind and gentle you'd do a double-take. Not many people saw this side of him, but it was there. Not a day goes by that I don't think of Andy. I still wear the cowboy boots he gave me. I still have the cowboy shirts he made for me. And they still reek of his scent, which, I must tell you, is quite unforgettable. Eau d' Milligan!" 

9) Why were Milligan and other grindhouse filmmakers so easily manipulated and exploited by people such as the Mishkins, etc. Did they have any legal recourses they could have used?

McDonough: "I think a loaded gun would've worked much better. Those days were like the wild west. A handful of people held the power on 42nd Street. They controlled what played there. You wanted to play your pitiful little picture there, fine, but bend over first. A handful of distributors were savvy enough to swim in this shark tank and William Mishkin was one of them. He was the filter between Andy and the powers that be. Once Milligan lost Mishkin, it was really over for him. No way was he going to deal with somebody like Bingo Brandt and emerge without his feathers. I have a lot of respect for William Mishkin. Did he treat Andy as good as he could've? Probably not. But they made a lot of pictures together. And those lurid campaigns we all love came from Bill's feverish mind, nowhere else. In terms of exploitations campaigns the guy was a genius. I love the posters and pressbooks for Milligan's pictures as much as the movies themselves. I have a lot of respect for William Mishkin. Did he treat Andy as good as he could've? Probably not. But they made a lot of pictures together. And those lurid campaigns we all love came from Bill's feverish mind, nowhere else. In terms of exploitations campaigns the guy was a genius. I love the posters and pressbooks for Milligan's pictures as much as the movies themselves."

10) Do you think any "lost" Milligan films, such as The Naked Witch and "The Degenerates," might have prints that are still lurking out there somewhere?

McDonough: "You never know. I think I might've just located a 16mm reel that I believe is from "Depraved."

Last question: If you have any box office information on Milligan's films, we'd love to share that info on the blog. Also, any chance of a release of Nightbirds some day? (It took us a long time to find Torture Dungeon, Blood and Legacy of Horror, and I'm not sure the last two were worth it!

McDonough: "(I'm) happy that my collection of Milligan films now resides with the noted Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and he plans on releasing them on DVD. Mr. Refn is just the man for the job. He loves all things Milligan and I know he'll do a great job with it all. A huge relief, that." Editor's Note: "Nightbirds" was released in 2012 by BFI DVD's Flip Side label with "The Body Beneath" and extras.

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