By Rich Osmond
Writer/director Jack Hill blazed the trail for every exploitation genre he ever worked in. What his films THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE did for women-in-prison movies, THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS and COFFY did for teen sex comedies and kick-ass blaxploitation, respectively: made the rules and set the standards for countless imitators to try and follow. These films have rightly been considered drive-in classics for years, but Jack Hill has perhaps had his greatest cult success with a pair of harder-to-classify efforts, the 1964 comedy/horror shocker SPIDER BABY and, my personal favorite, the 1975 girl gang epic SWITCHBLADE SISTERS.
SWITCHBLADE SISTERS stars Robbie Lee as Lace, president of the all-girl Dagger Debs street gang, who fears that the new girl in town, Maggie (Joanne Nail), is plotting to steal both Lace's boyfriend and the leadership of the Dagger Debs. After shooting it out with rival gangs in a roller rink and on the street (with back-up courtesy of an all-female team of black revolutionaries in a home-made tank), Lace and Maggie finally have to settle their differences with a switchblade fight to the death. And, as the trailer says, "one of them had to go... the hard way!"
Along with SPIDER BABY, THE SWINGING CHEER-LEADERS, THE BIG BIRD CAGE and Mr. Hill's previously unavailable mid-sixties road race epic PIT STOP, SWITCH-BLADE SISTERS was completely remastered and reissued on the Johnny Legend video label a few months prior to being picked up by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder distribution company.
Although Hill's films cut across different genres, they all have his trademark elements: fast-paced, high-energy storytelling, bigger-than-life characters (always given a surprising amount of motivation for what they do) and a truly twisted, unique sense of humor. Unlike most so-called "cult" directors, Jack Hill is a talented, professional, one-of-a-kind filmmaker who is finally getting his due at film festivals and art theaters around the globe.
Rich Osmond: How did the new video releases come about?
Jack Hill: I happened to meet Johnny Legend over the phone one day. He was asking about SPIDER BABY, he was looking for a print to run in theaters. I had never heard of him or knew who he was. I didn't know about the cult movie business.
I discovered that there were a lot of poor, pirated copies (of SPIDER BABY) floating around. I bought one and it was such poor quality. I made up my mind that I was going to find a way to make a good one for people to have.
That took quite a long time, a couple of years, as a matter of fact, to make a master directly off the original negative. When I had that done, I got ahold of Johnny Legend and we became partners in this enterprise. And it turned out there was a lot of word of mouth going around about SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, also. So, I located the original negative, acquired that, and made a new tape from it. Then we did some interviews, with the players and so forth. Then we had the other titles that I had original prints on, and we went into a little business on it, mostly just so fans of the pictures can get them in good quality.
RO: Did you have to reacquire the rights to these or did you already own them?
JH: I acquired the rights to the ones that weren't in the public domain. I had the original copyright to PIT STOP in my name and SPIDER BABY was in the public domain but nobody had a good, quality copy, so I copyrighted my version from the negative. Nobody else has it.
RO: Will any of your other movies, like COFFY or FOXY BROWN, be coming out through this, or are those still tied up with other people?
JH: Those belong to Orion, and I don't know the last time they issued them, not very long ago. Some other titles belong to Concorde, Roger Corman's company. I'm working on it.
RO: Are you still in touch with Pam Grier? I think the movies she did with you were her best.
JH: Yeah, I think there's no question about that. I wrote the scripts specifically for her, I got to know her very well. I wrote the character for her. Unfortunately, like many actors, they always want to be something different. She wanted to be glamourous and play glamorous roles, which she wasn't really suited for, instead of the kick-ass type, which was the character I created. So she went off doing those kinds of pictures and each one did worse than the previous one. But she's still working.
RO: Going back to the very beginning of SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, how did the project originate?
JH: It originated in a way a lot of pictures I did originated. I made a picture for an independent distributor called SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, and had done very, very well with it. And the distributor of that had an idea to do a street gang movie with girls.
So he had a poster made up, and a title, THE JEZEBELS. And he showed it to me, and when I saw the poster I said, "Yeah, I can do that." That was the original title, which I think was a better title.
So, my producer partner, John Prizer, came up with a writer (F.X. Maier), and we worked with the writer and developed a script, and we shot it. It did not do well.
It opened in the first territory under the title THE JEZEBELS. Some of the theaters were say-ing they thought people confused it with the Bette Davis movie. I didn't think that was true, myself. You see the ads, you'd have to be crazy to think that. The campaign was very poor. It didn't really give you an idea of what the picture was like. I wish I had had something to do with the campaign, I think I could have done better, because I had done campaigns with Roger Corman. So the producer and everybody got into a panic so they came up with the title SWITCHBLADE SISTERS and gave it a new campaign.
Meanwhile, the producer had gone off to the Cannes Film Festival and kind of left everything sitting, and the artist didn't know what to do. But it had been to late to retitle it in the second territory, and it did pretty well under the title THE JEZEBELS. And in the third territory they had already changed it, and it did very poorly and never did well in any territory after that. That happens quite a bit, distributors will panic a little too soon and not give a picture a chance.
I think the picture would have done a lot better with the original campaign and title. It's supposed to be kind of a futuristic fantasy, CLOCKWORK ORANGE type of movie, and it was distributed as kind of a fifties gang movie, which it wasn't, really. I always thought that was the reason it didn't do well. But now it's a cult classic.
RO: Just takes time for everybody to catch on, I guess.
JH: Maybe it was ahead of its time, I don't know. But when the picture was finished and I saw it, all I could see was everything wrong with it. I thought, "Oh, my God, how could I do such a thing? Everything's just terrible!" But after twenty years, I looked at it again and it looked pretty good.
RO: What have Robbie Lee and Joanne Nail been doing since SWITCHBLADE SISTERS?
JH: Joanne's been working through the years, she still works. And Robbie Lee does voice-overs for some cartoon characters, I don't know which one.
RO: Robbie Lee had done BIG BAD MAMA earlier for Roger Corman. Had you seen her in that and wanted her for the lead?
JH: No, I had never seen that. She had done some TV, I know. I liked her as a persona, I thought she would bekind of a female James Cagney. But afterward, I thought that was a big mistake in casting. I thought she had a really grating voice, and a lot of people said that they couldn't stand her. But now when I see it, I can't imagine anyone else doing it.
RO: I think it really works, her saying all these sneering lines in that little-girlish kind of voice.
JH: Well, that's what I liked about her when I cast her. But I got so many comments from people who saw the picture, they found her irritating. But you get all kinds of opinions, no matter what you do.
RO: Was SWITCH-BLADE SISTERS shot on a very short schedule?
JH: Yeah, all of those pictures were very short. I think we shot in 18 days on that one, which was pretty standard. I did SPIDER BABY and SWINGING CHEERLEADERS in 12 days, which I would never want to do again. 18 for a picture like that was okay. We mostly shot on a sound stage.
RO: Anything unusual happen during the shoot?
JH: Anything unusual? No. I mean, everything's unusual that happens on every picture. Things always screw up, but generally, most of the pictures that I've done had been very, very tightly planned. You pretty much have to do that with a short schedule like that, or you don't get much. So we planned them very carefully.
RO: Did you ever use storyboards?
JH: No, I've never storyboarded anything. I would if I was going to do a very complicated sequence and had lots of time to do it, but there's no point in storyboarding a scene that you simply won't have time to shoot. You have to shoot what you can shoot, because you make all these plans, and then something isn't ready that was supposed to be there, or a certain actress is sick and doesn't show up. Then you have to change everything anyway. You pretty much have to bend with conditions when you're shooting on a low budget.
RO: Was there any particular sequence that stands out in your memory as being hardest to shoot?
JH: The roller rink scene. Oddly enough, I've heard so many comments from people who thought that was just a great scene, and I thought it was pasted together from the best we could do. We simply didn't have the time to get the proper coverage on it, and I was kind of in a panic, figuring I had a scene that really didn't work. That's a scene people think of as this classic scene, and when I see it, I just think of all the things we didn't have time to shoot.
RO: This is kind of a goofy question, but I've noticed that in both SWITCHBLADE SISTERS and FOXY BROWN the heroine goes and gets these militant Black Panther types to help fight the bad guys. Were you going for some kind of political statement with that?
JH: I never put those two together, but I guess that's true. A lot of people ask me about these things, political statements, and I can't really answer that. I can just tell you it seemed like a good idea for a story. It seemed like an interesting idea, kind of a surprising thing. You just get an image in your mind, and you either like it or don't like it. If you like it, you work with it and develop it. I don't sit down and say, "I'm going to make a political statement." Sometimes poli-tical statements in themselves make good stories, sometimes they don't. Basically, that's my approach.
RO: I really like Joanne Nail's big "We'll be back!" speech at the end. Were there plans for a sequel?
JH: Of course, that's obvious. We assumed that if the picture was a big hit, we'd do a follow-up to it. But it just seemed like a nice way to end the movie, anyhow. You just go with what appears to be a good idea without analyzing it too much.
We always felt that the pictures could do well overseas and we had a lot of good offers overseas. But it turned out the picture was banned in many territories overseas.
RO: Because of the violence?
JH: No, because of the political business. You've got women taking action, and a lot of countries don't want to influence their women to behave like that. And that was something totally unpredictable. They had territories that advanced money, and they had to give it back because the censors would not allow it.
Same thing happened with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. MGM released it overseas and it was banned in a third of the world territories. A lot of countries, they don't want women seeing things like that.
RO: Have there been any current movies that you've liked?
JH: I don't go to movies much, to tell the truth. The only movie I've really liked a lot that I've seen recently was QUEEN MARGOT.
The only other thing I can tell you (about SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) that might be interesting... the opening scene of the picture, when the bill collector comes to pick up the TV, those two little girls in the room, those are my daughters. My car's in there too, my '56 Volvo station wagon. That's the car they use to carry the guns in; same model car that Igmar Bergman used in SHAME. I had that car for a long time. I let my son use it for a surf wagon and he crashed it.
RO: I rewatched SWITCHBLADE SISTERS last night and I was really impressed with how tightly structured the story was. There's not any scenes you could cut. Everything builds on the things that happened in the previous scenes. It's got that kind of lean storytelling that I really like.
JH: Yeah, I would agree with that. you either buy into the style of that kind of movie or you don't. Some people don't (laughs).
Education: BA in music, UCLA, 1960, major in composition. Composed, orchestrated and conducted recording of 20-min. score for student film. Two years post-graduate studies in cinema. Wrote and directed THE HOST, 30 min. student film.
1960-1962: Worked as free lance cameraman, film editor, sound recordist and screenwriter. Edited and photographed parts of TONIGHT FOR SURE. Edited THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE BELLBOY.
1963: Wrote, directed & edited additional scenes for THE WASP WOMAN and other theatrical features that were unfinished or needed additional running time for TV release, for Roger Corman organization. 2nd unit writer/director on DEMENTIA 13; split screenplay on THE TERROR. Wrote and directed parts of BLOOD BATH (aka TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE).
1964: Wrote, directed & edited SPIDER BABY.
1965-1966: Worked as cameraman, writer & director of short documentary films for independent companies. Photographed and edited THE RAW ONES (the first film to show complete frontal nudity of both sexes in a commercial theater) Wrote, directed, photographed and edited MONDO KEYHOLE (aka THE WORST CRIME OF ALL).
1967: Wrote, directed & edited PIT STOP.
1968: Six months under contract to Universal Pictures as writer-director. Also wrote screenplays and directed parts of four theatrical features starring Boris Karloff for a Mexican company. (The original titles were: HOUSE OF EVIL, THE FEAR CHAMBER, ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE, THE INCREDIBLE INVASION. The Mexicans and God knows who else used various other titles) 1969: Wrote and directed most of ICH, EIN GROUPIE (I, A GROUPIE), Swiss-German production.
1969-1970: Directed THE BIG DOLL HOUSE.
1970-1971: Wrote and directed THE BIG BIRD CAGE.
1971-1972: Wrote and directed COFFY.
1972-1973: Wrote and directed FOXY BROWN
1974: Directed and co-wrote THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS.
1975-1976: Directed THE JEZEBELS (released as SWITCHBLADE SISTERS).
1978: Co-wrote screenplay, CITY ON FIRE. Wrote screenplay for THE BEES (under phony name); New World.
1979: Co-story credit on DEATH SHIP.
1982: Wrote, directed & produced SORCERESS (removed credits for writing and directing).
Reprinted from Teenager Rampage #2