“THE LUCKY ONES DIED FIRST”…
That is the sensational tagline for Wes Craven’s 1977 shocker The Hills Have Eyes, and it’s one of the great horror taglines.
For those not in the know, The Hills Have Eyes is the story of the Carter family, who take an ill-advised short-cut through the Nevada desert only to find themselves prey for a family of cannibal mutants, who have made the surrounding hills their home, and their hunting grounds.
In the 35 or so years since, The Hills Have Eyes has become a bona fide cult classic and if you pick up a copy of the film (be sure that it’s the original and not the decidedly weak remake), you will see a sinister face staring out from the front cover.
This is the face of Pluto, the most striking of the cannibal family, played by the great Michael Berryman.
Michael Berryman has has a wide and varied career, appearing in everything from Star Trek to John Hughes’ Weird Science. He has cropped up in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and his upcoming film, The Lords Of Salem.
I recently sat down for a chat with Berryman and found him to be a witty man, with a passion for photography and motorcycles, whose love of acting is absolutely apparent.
Michael Berryman is a man fully deserving of his place in the hearts of horror fans the world over and I would like to thank him for taking the time to chat with us at AndyErupts.
Q – Recently, I saw your name attached to the description, “70’s horror icon”. How does that tag sit with you?
MB – Everyone has a particular look and when you’re doing your work, you have to have a particular style, so to me, to be called “iconic” is a fine compliment and I owe a lot of that to Wes Craven and Peter Locke for The Hills Have Eyes.
We worked really hard for a couple of weeks out in the desert and they were very gracious and put me on the advertising which certainly did not hurt. I have posters from many countries around the world and it’s nice to see how they do their art but also to see the same face and be like, “Hey, I know that guy”.
So, that made me very pleased, but I have done such a wide variety of films and played everything from an angel to a devil and a good guy to a bad guy. I have done everything from comedy, science fiction, horror and drama but I’m happy to say that, after 30 and some odd years, like 35 years I think, that I’m not a one hit pony.
Q – How did you get into acting?
MB – Well, I believe very strongly that we are all connected as individuals and that all of our experiences are shared, whether we realise it or not. I had a friend that had a house which caught fire up in Washington, near the Canadian Border. He didn’t have enough money to hire a company but he had the materials. So I went with another friend from Berkeley, California, actually, he’s a Berkeley professor now, and we drove up to my friend’s house and helped him build his house.
We had about 7 weeks before the rains came, and I planned to go to Alaska and homestead. I wanted to be close to nature and get into nature photography. Habitat preservation is pretty important to me but I got sidetracked and went to Santa Monica, near the beach and near where I grew up and I was going to open up a little gift shop there with a friend and I was thinking that I would be in business for about a year and make a little extra money and then file the paperwork and go homestead, you know, go move up north, but I never got to do that because a producer named George Pal, the producer of the original War Of The Worlds, came into my store and said, “Hey, I noticed that you have a unique look and I think I could use your demeanour, so to speak, in a movie that I’m making, based on the Doc Savage novels (a pulpy, US-published adventure book from the 30’s and 40’s). I told him that I wasn’t really an actor but I had appeared on stage before when i was in a folk duo in the sixties with a friend of mine so “stage fright” wasn’t really in the picture, so I said “Yeah, sure. I’ll do it” and he gave me a guarantee of two days work so that I could get into the Union. So I had a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket and a Union card and I figured “Well, that was a quick career”.
I was going to pack it up when I got another phone call from the casting director on George’s movie Doc Savage, and because I was cast by the producer, I never met George’s casting directors, a very famous duo named Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg and they were casting for another little movie with Jack Nicholson called One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
So I got this phone call from these total strangers and they said “Hey, we got a picture of you from George. Would you like to meet Michael Douglas, Milos Forman and Saul Zaentz? So I did and the next thing I knew, I had worked about 4 months on a movie that I’m in for maybe 7 minutes but I learned an awful lot. I’d go to work 6 days a week and asked a lot of questions and I’m sure I bugged the heck out of a lot of people but if you don’t ask questions, you don’t learn.
Q – It must have been interesting for you coming off of a film like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and onto a film like The Hills Have Eyes.
MB – Well, back then, the horror genre wasn’t what it is today or as widely accepted. There were the classics like Karloff’s Frankenstein, vampires, werewolves and things like that. So, for me, doing a horror movie, was just a chance to have some work. It was very different to being on a “four-star” film like Cuckoo’s Nest, so to speak.
We didn’t have trailers to change in or anything like that. We had a van and we had very little equipment. We drove out to the desert, just outside of the studio zone and didn’t have great amenities and it was really rough.
As a matter of fact, the actors that were in the family that we attack, the Carter family, we would actually tease them for complaining about the lack of television and stuff and the Hills family, we were kind of rough and tumble and did more features and Westerns. It really helped in the film, so we would tease them, not maliciously, and it actually worked really well, like when the fellow with the moustache finally stabs Mars, he does a thorough job of it and to add insult to injury, he gives him a swift kick in the ass.
It was a totally different experience. It was my first location shooting and not a studio. Well, on Cuckoo’s Nest our studio was a mental hospital but we were still indoors and down the corridor on the left was the toilet but out there it was like “well there’s a yucca tree over there”, you know?
It was rough and it was fun and challenging and by today’s standards, it’s not a bloody movie at all. It’s not gory but even today, thirty odd years later, it’s still terrifying. I’m pretty proud of it.
Q – It must be quite satisfying to know that people still love The Hills Have Eyes, 35 years later. Why do you think it’s so enduring?
MB – Well, I think one of the reasons is that they didn’t try to do anything over the top. In a lot of movies today, the solutions that people come up with to get out of harm’s way, the devices that they use, and I’ll use the remake as an example. With the remakes, I know a lot of people like them but I found them to be very weak and they’re weak for the following reasons.
They’re remakes. There’s very little character development. For anybody. The civilians. The Hill family and the soldiers in the sequel. In the original, you really feel like you know the family. You really feel like you’re in their situation. With the remake, for the first couple of minutes, I kind of liked the concept of the nuclear town, the atomic testing and all of that but they didn’t explain much in the back story. It just turned into one gimmick to kill and maim one person after another and after a while, I didn’t care that people were getting whacked.
Now, in the original, you can root for the cannibal family just as much as the other family. There’s some validity to their purpose. They’re doing it and you know why they’re doing it. The remake, I don’t think, will be anywhere near as enduring as the original.
I have talked to a lot of parents who, no joke, conceived their children in a station wagon or the back of a van at the drive-in while watching The Hills Have Eyes. You know how it is. You go to a scary movie. You take a blankie and you say, “hey, I’ll protect you”, and so, yeah, I have actually spoken to people who went to The Hills Have Eyes and a few months later they had a kid so I think it holds good memories for a lot of people. Memories of the era and of the seventies.
Also, the film is very strong and the dialogue is clever. Like when old Fred is explaining to the father why he is trying to hang himself? I mean that’s some good smart dialogue, when he says, “I took a tyre iron and split his face wide open”, and the father goes, “well how bad was it?”. It used to make me laugh then I realised it was kind of smart and then Jupiter breaks through the window and splits his face open with a tyre iron. How ironic. It’s just better writing.
Q – Obviously, Wes Craven has gone onto huge things with A Nightmare On Elm Street and the Scream films but how was he to work with back then?
MB – Of course, I didn’t know Wes or Peter (Locke) very well back then. We were meeting each other for the first time. Wes was young and hungry. He was a schoolteacher, I do believe, at one time, so he’s a pretty smart fella and Peter was very happy-go-lucky and light hearted.
Wes and Peter were in the trenches, so to speak. Always helping someone set up a light or going to go and fetch something from a truck. Grabbing some cable or maybe making someone a sandwich.
Everyone kind of helped out in doing everything. It was a real group effort. Like a little extended family.
I found Wes to be very easy going. No yelling and screaming. He thought everything through thoroughly while he made it. It was just a lot of fun to work with Wes and Peter. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Wes a couple more times and he’s a real cerebral guy. He’s very sharp and easy to get along with. We’re good friends and I even went to his wedding. It’s nice over time to see how people move along in life.
Q – You have worked a couple of times now with Rob Zombie on both The Devil’s Rejects and his upcoming film, The Lords Of Salem. How was it to work with Rob again?
MB – Rob and Sheri are very down to Earth. They’re very open and approachable. Rob really knows what he wants. I actually asked him how he got so good at directing films because he seemed to be in touch with every department and everybody who has to make a decision, when in fact, he already knows exactly what it is that they might need. I never saw anyone sitting about looking at their shoes or staring at their watch and sometimes on set you have to wait to get a shot because someone didn’t do this or didn’t grab that. We didn’t have those issues at all.
Rob told me that, with his band, he wouldn’t go out and party it up but that he would go back to his hotel and go over the next day’s work and making sure that everybody was on the same page and so I tip my hat to him as a writer, director and producer because he doesn’t leave anything to chance.
For an actor, for me, I find that pretty re-assuring as I know that I can trust what he tells me. He thinks on his feet and he looks at every take very, very thoroughly.
Q – Can you tell me anything about your role in The Lords of Salem?
MB – Well, Sid Haig and I play two brothers. We are butchers. You know, we are meat cutters. So in the opening sequence, during the main titles, these gentlemen show up with a proclamation that it’s time to go burn some witches because witches just have to be burned and tortured and all that stuff.
It’s not just “let’s burn some witches” though. I think there is some social commentary to everything that Rob does, which makes it a little more layered and a little more interesting. If you’re going to go out and just slash and kill then I just call that brutality made to shock with no story.
I’m very grateful because the roles that I have played, even when it’s some hideous bad guy, there are some layers to them and that’s important, especially when your director feels the same way. It’s more enjoyable.
Q – You also recently worked on Below Zero with Edward Furlong. Can you our readers a little bit about that and your character?
MB – Oh, absolutely. In Below Zero, I play Gunnar. Gunner is also a butcher and I’m actually not the bad guy. It stars Eddie Furlong, myself and Kristin Booth and Eddie plays a writer who has writer’s block and he just can’t quite put his screenplay together.
So his agent has him flown out to the woods and he has a little office made from a meat freezer and he has books, a computer and everything that he needs to write and he has five days to finish this script.
It’s pretty smart. I like the movie very, very much. I think it’s some of my best work. If your readers go to www.belowzeromovie.com, you can see the trailer and some other stuff. It’s been at a lot of festivals and I hope that it gets a release soon because it’s some great work from new filmmakers, Bob Schultz and Signe Olynyk. They’re Canadian and I got to film in Canada. I love Canada.
We shot all of our stuff in fifteen days and Eddie did a great job. The cinematography is excellent and the film has great dialogue and again, well defined characters.
Put that all together and you’ve got yourself a hit.
Q – What was it specifically that attracted you to Below Zero?
MB – I had a chance to have some emotions and do some things that I hadn’t done in the past. It’s always nice to stretch yourself and dig down deep and claw your way through all of your own personal issues and get down to the core of the story. I like nice, tight shots where you can emote and the camera can read your feelings. To me, that’s the beauty of film.
I’m a filmy guy. I love the camera. The first advice I got from Milos Forman on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was when I said, “Milos, I don’t know how this all works so, what should I do to get really good at this?” He walked me over to the camera, pointed to the lens and he said, “You see the glass?” I said, “Yes sir”, and he said, “I want you to have a love affair with the lens.” He told me to talk to his cinematographer and so I did.
I asked camera questions because it is a visual medium and it’s really an asset when an actor understands how a lens works and how it captures you. I’m a still photographer so I understand composition. I like to put all of those elements into my work so that it’s more than just “hit your mark, deliver your lines and pick up your pay cheque”.
Q – Which of the roles that you have played are you most proud of?
MB – I’m actually going to jump straight to a television guest appearance on The X-Files. That one meant an awful lot to me for personal reasons but basically, my character is considered to be someone who might have kidnapped and done harm to a young boy but actually, I’m his guardian angel.
I got to work one-on-one with David (Duchovny) and Gillian (Anderson) and in that episode, “Revelations” from Series 3, David and Gillian’s characters actually change their roles, to the point where she is the believer and he is the doubtful one. There was some really good dramatic scenes in that and I really appreciated that role a lot.
I knew I had audition against 99 other actors. They pick one out of 100 roughly but when I went to 20th Century Fox, I walked right in with a Silver Surfer tie on because I knew that (creator of The X-Files) Chris Carter was a Silver Surfer comic book fan so I noticed that he picked up on that right away and that gave me something to open the conversation with. I wasn’t nervous, just excited. It was the first time that I ever did this but I walked in and said to everyone, “This is a really good scene”. They only gave you like one scene or five pages to look at. So I said “Can you tell me a little more?”
So they told me a little more about the character and I just looked them in the eye and said, “You’re going to see a lot of talented actors today and some of them out there in the lobby are my friends but I’m the guy you want to take to Vancouver. I’m the guy you want and I’m going to show you why”. They kind of laid back in their chair, we did the scene and they all looked and nodded in agreement and Chris said, “We will see you in Vancouver but I have one request; don’t let anybody know that you got the part”.
I have to say that I barely made it out of that office without exploding and I called my wife and I said, “Well, the audition went OK. Long story short, I’m going to be in The X-Files”.
I also got to work on Star Trek: The Voyage Home. You know the one with the whales? I got to be directed by Leonard Nimoy. Boy, there’s a solid, cerebral guy. Right on the money with everything. That was terrific. I’m a big environmentalist. This is our home and you’re not supposed to trash your backyard.
I’m also going to have to say The Crow. That is probably my most endearing role because the world will never get to see what Brandon Lee and myself actually accomplished on set. The three scenes that James O’Barr had written where the Skull Cowboy confronts Eric Draven and gives him the three opportunities to keep the vengeance contained to those that had caused him harm.
It’s a very, very sweet film. Very endearing for all of those reasons, plus the fact that we lost Brandon. I’m a big advocate of safety on the set. I’m very, very particular about fight scenes and especially anything with firearms. I’m not an expert but when I was 14, I had an NRA (National Rifle Association) card.
Q – The chicken scene from The Devil’s Rejects is a personal favourite.
MB – Oh man. The chicken fucker scene will just never go away. That guy selling the chickens was just in his element. He just started making stuff up. Ken (Foree) and I were just kind of standing there waiting to say our lines while this guy is just going on and on and I look out of the corner of my eye and Rob is just looking at the monitor, having a good time. So I guess when it came time for me to do my lines, I was happily motivated to be angry. A very powerful film and that scene is very popular. You just have to roll with it.
Q – What’s next for you?
MB – Next month, I will be working on a movie called Self Storage. It’s the story of two Vietnam vets who have a self-storage unit and there’s a certain area where nobody goes, and it’s kind of isolate and there’s some sinister activity, I can say that much. Our night-watchman decides to throw a big party and things get out of hand and they discover some things and then the next thing you know, UH OH!
It stars Eric Roberts and myself as the Vietnam vets and we have almost all of our scenes together. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a bit of a thriller. It’s a young writer/director and it’s well written. What motivates our actions and the decisions that my character and Eric’s make comes clear in some back story that comes out in the dialogue that explains things. There’s actually a little bit of an anti-war theme in the subplot of the film.
Q – Thank you Michael for taking the time to talk to me. It’s really appreciated. I want to wish you all the best for your current projects.
MB – Oh thank you. Have a great day.