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Mondo Generator: Sheldon Renan On The Killing Of America
Ian Schultz , November 26th, 2016 14:35

Ian Schultz interviews Sheldon Renan, director of the notorious mondo movie, The Killing Of America

The Killing of America is a documentary: every image is real. It looks at violence in the United States: criminal violence, police violence, racial violence, cults, serial killers and assassinations, and makes a case that these have a relationship in the context of American society. The recent election of Donald Trump has made The Killing of America look even more relevant, but until now the film had never had an official release in the US.

The genre of the Mondo film started in the 1960s, mixing exploitation thrills with documentary filmmaking. Most of these were dreadful, however, with only the work of Gualtiero Jacopetti really being of any note (Mondo Cane, Goodbye Uncle Tom, Africa Addio etc.) These films were made on tiny budgets but earned vast amounts of money, so there was an incentive to continue doing them.

The concept of the Mondo film seemed to be all but dead when it was given a rebirth by the American filmmaker John Alan Schwartz with his first Faces of Death film. It was an enormous success theatrically, and also later on the then-burgeoning video market. Afterwards, Leonard Schrader (the brother of Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader) teamed up with the Japanese producer Mataichirô Yamamoto and Sheldon Renan to make a Mondo-type film that could capitalise on the notoriety of Faces of Death. However, they took the project deadly seriously, and except for some added sound effects in the opening sequence, everything you see onscreen in the result—The Killing of America—is real.

The Killing of America reflects the fact that late ‘70s and early ‘80s in the United States was a violent and turbulent time. The homicide rate was through the roof, Watergate was fresh in everyone’s memory, and serial killers were popping up with alarming regularity. What’s changed since the original release? While the homicide rate may have decreased slightly, mass shootings have increased, and the presence of violence-backed power is blatant. With unarmed black men being shot by law officers and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue of violence in America is clearly still very current.

I phoned up Sheldon Renan at his house in the 'liberal' paradise of Oregon, a state with its own dark side in relation to race and violence (Oregon was founded as a racist utopia, with no black people allowed into the state till 1926.) Due to the events of recent years, Sheldon has been asked to talk more often about the film he made back in 1982 than the 30 that preceded it. It’s also finally landed on a newly remastered Blu-Ray, and remains as vital as a plea for Peace, Love and Understanding as it did at the time of its release in 1982.

How did you conceive the project?

I didn't conceive the project; the project really was conceived by Leonard Schrader. It was his vision. He started it and he finished it. He didn't happen to direct it, because he wasn’t a director at the time. And it was a time when being a director was prized—his brother was already a director. They did some projects together but most of the projects they did separately. But he was a writer, so it was his idea, which came as a result of his relationship with a Japanese producer by the name of Mataichirô Yamamoto, who’s called by everybody Mata. He ended up producing Mishima, or executive-producing Mishima. But the people who probably funded Mishima I’m guessing would probably be Toho-Towa, the same people who funded this film. He had a close working relatonship with the head of Toho-Tiwa, Mr Kawakita, and I knew Mr Kawakita’s wife, Madam Kawakita, who was the head of the Japanese film archive at the time. So, it seemed to fit I guess, everybody came together.

Paul… I had known Paul back before he was directing films, when he was writing about Ozu and I had judged a film festival with Paul. And it was through Paul that I met Len. I was working on a film about a kind of amateur, a target-shooting champion, who was forced to become a hitman. And that script was passed around a lot in Hollywood, and that may be another reason that they asked me. I had spent a lot of time learning how to shoot, and a certain amount of time talking to people who, for one reason or another, had killed people. So, doing research for that film fed into this. I had a lot of experience doing what was called in the business “clip shows”—shows where you acquire excerpts and put them together to make sense.

The other thing was that I had started my writing of the first history of experimental film. A lot of those filmmakers used found footage or other people’s footage in montage form to give them a new or ironic meaning. The most important person in that area of course was Bruce Conner. A film he made in 1958 called A MOVIE, which Bruce told me the only thing that he owned in that film was the glue! But it was a film which almost single-handedly, along with his film COSMIC RAY, changed ideas about what film was and what you could do with film to a large extent.

So, early films like Man With A Movie Camera, the whole documentary tradition had all gone away at that time, it had disappeared. And when it came back, it came back as this kind of “Mondo” genre, which were collections of things that were forbidden to show, but were fascinating to people. Usually those things had to do with birth, sex or death. And a film called Faces of Death had done very well in Japan, had been a hit, a breakout hit for the Japanese, and I think the idea was they wanted to do a Faces of Death but about America. But the people that they involved were all serious filmmakers, so it didn’t come out exactly like Faces of Death.

They weren’t serious about it, but we were—and we kind of had a reason to be. The world was strange at that time. New York was a dangerous place to walk around in, and Los Angeles was kind of out of control. Detroit had a homicide rate that was possibly ten times that of the city that was across the border in Canada. Houston, the year we made the film had the highest rate, it didn't seem to have any, like, zoning laws where you would find… the borders were not well put up. And more than that, it was a time in which people were really rebelling against the government, and we were still living with the effects of that. The first really big conflicts, during the Second World War, everybody was together, and then after that it was the advent of the Vietnam War, everything kind of came apart.

You had Vietnam, you had Watergate, and you had punk rock happen.

And punk rock had a kind of hidden influence in this, because the person who cut the film was a person who made punk rock films. We used to call him “The Night Cutter” because he used to stay up all night cutting sound. And so punk was definitely an influence on the soundtrack [999’s song 'Homicide' is used prominently] and on the way the sound effects were used. One of the things that I think was different about the film was that it had a much more sophisticated use of sound than the other exploitation films.

So this was produced at that time as art of that genre, but it lifted itself out because, first thing is, we didn't fake anything, it was all real—with one exception. And the one exception is actually in the first shot you see is a man in San Diego who had a gun and the police said that they were shouting at him, “drop the gun,” and he didn't, and he shifted position and they shot him. But the only footage we had was silent. So I went into a studio in Burbank with a voiceover guy and laid the sound in sync with the motion. So when you hear the police say “drop the gun, drop the gun!” that was under my direction in the studio. And that shot is used actually twice in the film. But the interesting thing is when I watch the film, my mind tells me that I’m hearing it, hearing and seeing the real thing, even though I directed the sound for it.

I did a lot of directing voiceover and I had dubbed, for example, Mephisto, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, I did the English track. And I also did the first version of Akira, the animated film, into English. And I had done a series with Miyazaki called Sherlock Hound, I did the English. They would send me the footage and I would do an English version of it. That was for Japan and for Italian television. So I had a lot of experience—I had more experience directing sound than I did picture, really.

What was the most upsetting aspect of the film?

It begins when you’re just dealing with violence on the surface. You could say that the film begins as a long shot as you’re coming into the city, and you come into the city you get closer an closer to the violence. We had a sound man working on it— Courtney Goodin —who was a kind of an audio voyeur, he always had police scanners on in his apartment. And I asked him to just record 24 hours of police activity and then we used that to cut in over the helicopter footage and some of the other introductory footage that took us in, matching calls that were coming in over the radio to appropriate footage, and that’s the way we got people into it. But initially, you’re looking at violence as a physical phenomenon, and as a psychological phenomenon, and then you get closer to it and different kinds of violence begin to come in and you begin to get into kind of perversion and some of the mass murderers.

And then just when you think you’re well defended, you meet Ed Kemper, who was at the times when he was talking to me positively boyish in his enthusiasm. When he took the glasses out of his pocket at the end that he always wore when he was killing women, I nearly fell out of my chair.

It’s a very powerful segment of the film.

But the most exciting and interesting part of the meeting with Ed didn't happen on camera, and that was when we were shooting the interview. It was very tight in the cell, just me and the cameraman, and Len and the other people were in there but behind us. But at one point when we stopped to change film, and I stepped out to get a breath of air, Len was talking to Ed and it turned out that Ed was familiar with Taxi Driver, with Paul’s films, was familiar with the fact that Paul was Len’s brother And he suddenly said to Len—the two of them were alone in the cell—he said to Len, “I’ve killed you.” And then Len tensed up, he told me later, and then Kemper said “I’ve killed everybody I ever met, in my mind.” And that moment, I think Len thought he was going to be strangled, because this was a guy who was 6’8” and weighed 260 pounds, no other prisoner ever messed with him, you can be sure of that! But he also was not completely grown up, and wanted to be liked. And in prison everything hangs out and at the same time everything is guarded, but suffice it to say that the interview he gives is interesting, one of the most interesting things in the film, because I don't think you’ll see anything like that in any other film.

You have all the Manson stuff as well, which is captivating.

The Charles Manson interview was stock. Charlie was at Vacaville, where Ed was, so we asked Ed about Manson—if he knew him, if they ever talked. Ed said, “Charlie only talks to the lizards” [laughs].

Was there any footage you wanted to use that was too upsetting to use?

The hardest footage for us to acquire was the footage of people attacking Black people. That came out of a station in the South, maybe Tennessee or Florida. And they turned us down the first time. They turned us down the second time. We really needed that footage, because there was no other footage like that. I asked Lynn Jackson, who was the person handling all the phone negotiations, to go call them again as if it was our first time asking. And they said yes that time. She also cleared The Beatles music for us, she was amazing. It was her first job!

All the music clearance alone now would make up what you had to make the entire film.

We certainly did not have a large budget. We didn't stay on budget, because production lasted a lot longer. The executive producer went back to Japan, and I think he had appendicitis and he had a burst appendix. And he was too ill to come back and it was hard for us to make final decisions, because he was the person who understood the Japanese audience. It was being made originally for a Japanese audience. It later became very popular throughout the world. It was assumed that people in America would like it too, but whoever it was who made the contract and bought the American rights, once they saw it, and saw what they had purchased, it was too upsetting for them and they stopped plans for releasing it.

The only person who really was nuts about it was Joe Papp, the director of the Public Theatre in New York. And he showed the film every Sunday afternoon at the Public Theatre in New York for a year—but that was the only release that it had in the United States until now.

It was really upsetting. People are used to seeing things like this on television nowadays, but they see them on a small screen, or they see them with television sound, not movie sound. We cut the sound for the film, did Foley, did full sound treatment—the guy who cut the sound [Val Kuklowsky], did the sound for it, for example, later did Independence Day, to give you a sense.

Almost everybody in the film went on to a pretty interesting career. Lee Percy, for example, who was the editor and I would say was the MVP on the team, he was the person when there was a dispute between one side and the other side, between anybody, it would be Lee who would have to kind of listen to both sides and do a cut, do a sequence that would please both sides. We were trying to meet a deadline. There was a point where we were trying to finish the film where Lee was cutting between 14- and 16-hour days on weekdays and weekends we'd let him cut only 8 hours. But I literally hired somebody who put gas in their cars, who saw that they had food in their refrigerator when they went home, we did their laundry and we cleaned their houses, all the post-production crew, to keep everybody going. Because it was… everyday you sat down and it was about people actually being killed. It wasn’t people pretending to be killed, it was people actually being killed. And sometimes you saw lives being ripped apart.

The most difficult sequence from one standpoint was one in, I think, Houston, where we finally got some footage which showed the person who brought all his friends to the mass murderer to be sodomised and killed, talking to his brother, confessing he had done it. That sequence, that whole thing was very hard. It was just day after day dealing with all the violence.

The reason the film was important was to make clear that violence is endemic to society. When I was doing the research prior to beginning shooting, I read a book by somebody at the UCLA medical school that said that everybody thinks about murder at least once a day, it’s only societal norms which kind of keep people in. And when people get kicked over or let loose or it’s made OK, like has happened in the Philippines recently, that people finally go ahead and do it. And people who do it sometimes are people who either are going to kill themselves, or kill somebody else, and there’s a switch, that it goes one way or the other. Sometimes it goes one way, they kill somebody and then they kill themselves.

Even the people who kill people professionally—a lot of this didn't go into the film. But for example, I spent some time with the chief psychologist of the Los Angeles Police Department. He said that whenever a policeman actually shot somebody, and killed them, he said they would retire within four years, they would either retire because of physiological problems, or ulcers or something like that which was driven by stress. But he knew that they would always leave the police department. There of course were exceptions to that—there was a team which would purposely track career killers, career criminals, where they could predict where they were going to strike. And they would stake the place out, like a liquor store, they would hide in the cooler for days on end until the robbers came in. And when the robbers came in, the police would step out and simply kill them. So there were a few people on the police who did that, and there were people who—I had no evidence, but in talking to them I suspect that they did what I call “summer vacation work” overseas, where they crossed the line. Anybody I talked to that had killed people professionally, either legally or illegally, almost all of them had been trained at some level by the government, every single one of them. There was nobody that I met that had started as kind of a punk and became a killer, etc.

How difficult was working with the LAPD at the time?

I met with them several times and explained the project to them. I got the Coroner’s office to agree to cooperate. They let us go along on ridealongs, they gave a helicopter and a pilot for a day and night. They let us shoot at police headquarters, they let us shoot police processing and things like that. At one point we were pinned by gunfire with the police in Watts, and after that the crew came to me and said they would only go out if we got them bullet-proof vests, so I had to go out and get Kevlar for my crew.

When you look at the film, the way it’s cut together, you really can’t tell what we shot and what we acquired sometimes. And other times we took footage that other people knew and used, but we treated it differently. In the case of the Zapruder film, we rented the Zapruder film from the Zapruder family for $20,000. It arrived at my house one day in a package, in a cardboard box.

That must have been a big chunk of the budget—I know the Zapruder film is not the easiest thing to get the rights to.

It cost $20,000, and the film budget as a whole was I think slightly over $1,000,000, but we worked on it for over a year. And I opened up this box which had come in from Federal Express, a little cardboard box, and there was the film: there was the original little 8mm. And it had mould growing on it, and it had two splices in it. And we called the people who provided this and asked “why did it have splices in it?” And they said, well, we had to cut out a section of it to give to Life magazine to do blow-ups. So we cleaned it, and then we got permission to blow it up to 35mm and to Rotoscope it and to take all the shake out of it. So for the first time you could actually see detail—you could see the top of the President’s head come off, which you can’t see in the original very well. You can see him move, you can see her go back to get it, but his hands were shaking, his body was shaking, and it was just 8mm. We did the best kind of blow-up you could do at that time, and then we took all the motion out of it. We showed it both full frame and then, I think we showed it three times. And the third time we showed it, we showed it 35mm with all the extraneous motion taken out of it, so you could focus on what was actually happening. Nobody had done that before. And we went to Texas, and they allowed me in the Texas [Book] Depository, and I was able to film out of the window where Oswald shot the President.

Maybe shot the President…

I must say, J.G. Ballard has my favourite line about the Zapruder film, he called The Warren Report the novelisation of the Zapruder film. That’s a nice quote.

So how did you get the Jim Jones footage?

All of these things were just—we knew about the most famous incidents, but there were a lot of local incidents that were happening all over the United States. Someone would tell us what the stories were and then we would begin working the local TV stations, working with the houses that specialise in stock footage. But usually we were getting it directly from a TV station or somebody that had shot it. So that’s how we came up with a lot of stories that have faded away and really been forgotten.

After we finished the first version, they did a modified version for Japan with more footage of America at play and things like that, because the Japanese were curious, and they retold the stories in a way that Japanese audiences could understand better. Curiously, I had found a narrator, Chuck Riley. And Chuck had never done anything like this before. So I spent a lot of time at his house in the San Fernando Valley—he mostly was doing television announcing at that time—going over it with him, telling him the stories, telling him the meaning. Chuck was a person who had come out of drive-time radio in Oklahoma, he knew Jack Ruby. He was a drive-time shock-jock.

Yes, it definitely has that drive-time radio vibe to it, which works really well.

He had a voice which could cut through steel practically. After that, as a result of doing our film he developed a career doing movie trailers. So his voice became very well known, it wasn’t so well known then.

Yeah, that makes sense.

But that went so well, they were so pleased with the narration, because I was a lot more experienced directing audio than I was directing video, they had me direct the Japanese version. So they flew the Japanese narrator over and I directed him as well, even though I don’t really speak Japanese. That was probably one of the more unique experiences.

Was he anyone well-known, the Japanese guy?

No, he was not. He was not… I normally do not ever use professional narrators to do films that I work on, because I don’t want a normal read, I want an emotional read. So I have worked a lot with different actors. I used to use Peter Donat, who used to work with Francis Coppola a lot - Peter’s very smart and very compassionate, and so I can get a really good read from him. I’ve worked with Leonard Nimoy, I’ve worked with a lot of different people. But sound is very important, and was very important to this film.

What do you think the reaction to the film would be now? It’s even more relevant now than it was back then, with Black Lives Matter and all the rest…

I think that if it were given a regular release, a quality arthouse release, that it would do very well. And I think the reason to that doesn't have anything to do with my directing, it has to do with Leonard’s writing. I think that Leonard’s narration and his perspectives are really compelling and really hold up very well. His writing is so direct, rough, poetic and beautiful. It reminds me of Studs Terkel, you know, In Chicago, writing about the lives of working people, and that kind of tough poetry is what elevates the film I think. And Len of course is dead, and Len quarrelled with me towards the end of the film, or I quarrelled with him—I’m not certain which. So he did the final cut himself. He did it at my place, with people who were under my salary, but I still let him take the steering wheel. He never directed any of the live action, but what we're doing on the Blu-Ray release is we’re saying a film by Sheldon not Leonard. Directed by Sheldon Renan, written and produced by Leonard.

The Killing Of America is out now on Severin Films