Jeff Leroy was an invaluable player in nearly all of my early Southern California movies. He shot most of them, always with style and aplomb, and always with an eagerness to take artistic risks. He also edited most of those movies, and provided digital and miniature effects as needed. He is one of the few DPs I have ever worked with who was as conversant with the history of film as myself. When I said I wanted Mario Bava-style colors in THE CRAWLING BRAIN, he knew just what I meant and delivered the goods without further explanation necessary.
Jeff is the epitome of the independent, grassroot, microbudget filmmaker guy. He is a one man band who creates over the top, effects laden marvels like nobody else is making. RAT SCRATCH FEVER is part Gerry Anderson, part Bert I. Gordon, part Sam Peckinpah, and all mind-boggling entertainment. Jeff writes, directs, creates effects, shoots and edits his own stuff. It’s a shame he isn’t more known, but kudos, he’s still slugging it out and making a living after 36 years of this.
Jeff cites THE WAGES OF FEAR and THE WILD BUNCH as his two favorite movies. I can’t argue with those choices. But he also lists a diverse assortment of influences, and when you see his movies, they make total sense as the source of his muse.
“The Poseidon Adventure in late ’72 made a huge impression on me,” Leroy said. “I saw all those disaster movies and became interested in the combination of characters you actually care about combined with special effects. Particularly miniature destruction. Late 60’s early 70’s seem to be a really favorite time for me: PATTON, 2001, DEATH WISH, DELIVERANCE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. STRAW DOGS, TAXI DRIVER. Sci fit v shows like STAR TREK, UFO, SPACE: 1999 (Season 1), BUCK ROGERS (season one). SUPERMAN 1978. – Where is all the fun in today’s comic book movies? Only GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY got it right.”
Jeff took those influence and, independent from the start, he raised funds and made his own movie.
“I’ve been making home movies since 1979. My first released film, CRACK UP, was completed in 1996,” Leroy said. “It was my loving homage to Sam Peckinpah. The 16mm film was kind of a mess, but coherent enough to get released. And the check didn’t bounce!”
Jeff did get burned in other ways, however, and that cemented his conviction to do it all himself.
“On my second film, THE SCREAMING (1999), the co-producer promised this prop guy that worked on BABYLON 5 would build this great prop for my movie,” Leroy said. “He kept promising this prop right up to the minute we were shooting. Then. he finally admitted he didn’t even start building the prop while we were shooting. Since then, I’ve had a strong distrust of everyone. If you don’t handle it yourself, it will be screwed up. Since those days I’ve met some DP’s and producers I really like to work with and grown to trust them. And actors, too. Phoebe Dollar. Victoria De Mare. Tasha Tacosa. Rachel Riley to name a few.”
Jeff has a philosophy about filmmaking, and it’s grounded in realistic commerce. That’s probably why he is still doing this, 36 years later.
“Unless you are independently wealthy, you are taking thousands of dollars from someone to make a movie that will hopefully make the money back and turn a profit,” Leroy said. “If you make some artistic masterpiece only you have the brilliance to understand, you won’t be in business long. Not everyone can be David Lynch. I attempt to make fast moving, fun, exploitation films that people will enjoy with some artsy touches. Movies that I enjoy watching and keep the producer in black ink. That’s about it.”
Jeff is staying busy with titles that would make any exploitation hound drool.
“[My 2006 film] WEREWOLF IN A WOMEN’S PRISON has two sequels coming! DRACULA IN A WOMEN’S PRISON and FRANKENSTEIN IN A WOMEN’S PRISON,” Leroy gushed. “I also have a very funny movie or web series called GIANTESS ATTACK that I’m working on. As you know, the market for straight to video movies is in the toilet. I am very grateful I can still do this and scrape out a living.”
Amen Jeff. You’ve done a valiant job of it. Keep it up. You are an inspiration to the rest of us.
I grew up on films with names like Herman Cohen, Bert I. Gordon, Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson and Roger Corman in the main titles. For me, those names were always the harbinger on a fun time. Maybe not a thinking man’s good time, but fun is fun, and some things transcend their own dumbness with sheer entertainment value. Exploitation films can do that.
But think about that word.
Exploitation means to take advantage – advantage of someone or some idea or some value that has enough impact that it can be appropriated as a selling point. So bottom line: somebody is being taken advantage of. It’s unfair. Hey folks, that’s why we don’t have freak shows anymore! Although I must admit that if they did still exist, I’d be tempted to lay down my coin and check out what’s in the tent.
Chances are, in the end, it’s the creative talent who is being exploited.
Even Roger Corman, the most benevolent and most beloved of cinematic exploiteers, told me personally that if I ever worked for him (which, as it turns out, I never did) I would be used, exploited and underpaid. But that I would walk away with professional credits to build upon. And of course he gave that leg-up to so many greats in the industry: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Copolla… the list goes on.
Samuel Z. Arkoff , the co-founder of American International Pictures, the exploitation king of the 50s, 60s and 70s, was probably one of the worst of these artist-eaters. He began his professional life as an entertainment lawyer, making money off the backs of those working in movies. He partnered with entrepreneur James H. Nicholson and formed AIP, a company designed to make exploitation films aimed at the youth market and drive-in theaters. Arkoff was notorious for never giving away a nickel he didn’t have to. He famously edged his partner out of AIP in the 70s and stole it all for himself. Nicholson died, according to Forrest J Ackerman and other authorities, broke and broken-hearted.
Fast forward. Samuel Arkoff was the professional mentor of the man who gave me my first break. I only wish it had been Corman, who is so genteel and upbeat when he screws you. I speak of Greg Sims, owner and founder of Devin Entertainment. Sims hired me in the early 1990s to script a horror film based on his slight idea of a homicidal wooden mannequin. That became “The Fear,” a minor hit on VHS in 1995. It even spawned a hit soundtrack recording and a (terrible) sequel.
Sims, to his credit, took the time to read a script I left in his box when I worked for him as a driver on his film “Red Surf.” I left scripts for a lot of producers in those days. Sims is the only one I know for sure who actually read it. He told me the script – a comedy called “The Graverobbers,” – could be shot without any rewriting, a great rarity, and that he would hire me soon to write another script for him. He made good on that, too, when he hired me to write “The Fear,” less than a year later.
What he neglected to do was to pay me the 30 grand or so he promised to give me in exchange for my efforts. It seems that was his plan all along, a trick he learned from his mentor Arkoff. I successfully sued the owner of record, Morty LLC, the company formed to make a movie out of my script. However, that company had dissolved immediately upon completion of the picture, so there was legally nobody to collect from.
Sims told me all along, sue me if you like, but you will never collect. He was so right. And that’s how they get you.
And that leads us back to the ugly truth that artists always have and probably always will get the shitty end of the stick as long as art is driven by commerce. Yet, how else to reach a mass-audience?
There is some hope as long as the Internet remains free. There are those who have done well using the Internet to distribute their own works. However, doing so takes savvy, drive and probably every waking moment to make it viable. That, in effect, turns the artist into a business person. And often the creative work suffers as it takes a back seat to the sales effort.
So what is the answer? Damned if I know. But I still love watching exploitation films, and I still love making them. So I stumble along.
Have a good day, folks.