Kelly and his cast are amateurs in the truest sense of the word, doing it for the love of making films, of dressing up and performing. They clearly had a great time doing it and thought nothing of what would be considered by many as unprofessional or ridiculous. They relished the opportunity of giving free reign to their creativity and it often took them to unexpected and illuminating places. As another collaborator says: "From the gutter we learn more about ourselves."
Hughes has recently completed HEART ATTACK! The Early Pulse Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes, a documentary looking back at the making of these early films, featuring interviews with the key cast who take us through their memories of the mad days and frenetic creativity of Heart Attack Theatre.
Heart Attack Theatre debuted in May of 1991. The whole Seattle grunge rock scene was starting to explode. But I was working a shitty day job. And in the previous two years I had written and directed two musicals for the Playwright’s Festival at Seattle’s New City Theater. That was my main creative outlet at the time. The first piece was called Lucky Charm: A Musical. And that later became the name that I produced Heart Attack Theatre under--Lucky Charm Studio.
But nine months later, I’m sitting answering phones. Working at this shitty office job to pay the rent. And I’m at a point where I think, “I’ve got to create something. I’ve got to do something. Or else I’ll die at this shitty job. And I’ll never leave a mark on the world.” So on my lunch break, I took the bus to the Public Access TV studio, filled out the forms, and said I wanted to create a weekly half-hour suspense anthology called Heart Attack Theatre.
33 episodes total. It ran for five seasons (2 ½ years.)
During the first season, I created a new episode every week. During the second season, it was part reruns, part new episodes. And by the third season they were all reruns. I was actually a replacement series. The season started at the beginning of April. But someone dropped out. So I was at the right place at the right time. And ready to roll into production immediately. But it was only because I had access to the video equipment from the bike documentary that I could do any of this.
It must have been a wonderful moment when the first episode aired, can you remember how that felt to be watching something you had made playing on TV?
It was exciting knowing the first episode was airing. But I didn’t have cable TV. So I didn’t actually watch it when it was first shown.
But back then, way before YouTube, it seemed like a big deal to have your video broadcast on TV. There was a feeling that people would be channel surfing, looking for something on regular TV. And then they’d see your footage, and be stopped in their tracks, and say, “Wow. This is way better than the crap on network TV.” Of course, there was a lot of crap on Public Access TV too. But it had a lot of charm because it was competing against the Big Boys. Unlike YouTube, which is more of an even playing field because there’s lots of homemade stuff on there. It was exciting to think your show was playing at the same time as a show from one of the big TV networks. And that maybe, just maybe, you were pulling viewers away from them.
As for the content and execution…I think I was aware of my limitations. I was a one-man crew: directing, lighting, audio, costumes, props, sets, location scouting. And of course, writing. And this was all in addition to a full-time job. So I learned that the top priority was getting actors to commit. Scheduling them. And getting them to show up, on-time, ready to work. Then all the other details… we just dealt with them as they came up.
The actors were recognized by strangers in public. “Hey! Didn’t you give birth to a snake on that TV show?” But I had no way to gauge how many people were actually watching. They didn’t have Nielson Ratings for Public Access. The best reaction was from the playback operators down at the station. And they said they liked my stuff. And started putting more and more of it in their permanent archive to show when they had gaps in their schedule. Also, an actor from New York, who saw the show while on vacation in Seattle, contacted me. He said he liked my show, and wanted to work with me. So I wrote La Cage Aux Zombies for him. And we shot that initial footage during his summer vacation in August of 1993.
Talk us through the process of creating an episode of Heart Attack Theatre, how long did it take to write, shoot and edit an episode?
After a few episodes, I hit my stride. And started doing my casting first. And wrote almost all of my scripts knowing those specific actors would be playing those characters I created for them. So I’d contact them during the week. And by the end of the week, I’d usually have that episode cast. And during my lunch on Friday, I’d start writing the script. And sometimes, I’d actually write the script that Saturday morning, a few hours before the actors would arrive. I worked well under pressure. And for about 90% of the episodes, we did all the shooting that Saturday and Sunday. And I started the editing that Sunday night. Then would edit the rest on Monday and Tuesday night when I got home from work. Then I’d turn in the master tape to the Public Access station on Wednesday. And they would show it that Friday night. It was an extremely tight schedule. But without those deadlines, I don’t think I would have had such a big output.
My favorite episode is Sisters. It’s the story of a psychic nun and her lascivious twin sister. I love the Evil Twin sub-genre in horror. It can be a cliché if it’s used as an implausible plot twist. But it’s also a fun filmmaking challenge to shoot scenes where a single actress plays both sisters. And, with the use of a stand-in, if we can make the viewer believe it’s actually two different people playing those parts, it’s quite a triumph. I used one of my most talented regulars, Barbara, to play both twins. So I enjoyed creating this acting challenge for her. And I think we avoided cliché by establishing the twin relationship immediately. It wasn’t used as a surprise element.
But at its heart, Sisters turned out to be about sibling rivalry. And unfinished childhood business. And retribution. In the story, the lascivious sister has had an affair. And her husband catches her in the act, threatening to divorce her and cut off her lavish lifestyle. Her sister, the nun, has the psychic ability to erase memories from people’s minds. And yes, this was twenty years before Inception. But a similar concept (but with a zero budget.) And to persuade her psychic twin, the lascivious sister lays on the ultimate guilt trip, reminding her of the time that the nun, out of spite, removed the memories of their dead mother from the lascivious sister’s mind. This was also the act that led to the psychic sister joining the convent. Thinking she could do no further harm there. But she is still tormented with guilt. And even though she doesn’t want to cover up her sister’s adulterous behaviour, she agrees to mess with her brother-in-law’s mind to gain absolution from her sister. So they exchange clothing, and trade places. But the twist is, once the nun is back in the civilian world, we discover she has always been in love with her brother-in-law. And can’t bear the thought that her sister will return, and continue to cheat on him. So instead of erasing his memories, she goes back to the convent, erases the memories of the lascivious sister, turning her into a vegetable, leaving her there to live out the rest of her life as a nun, and goes back to live her life as the wife of her brother-in-law. So it has everything I love in a horror movie: psychic power, an evil twin, the Catholic Church, sexual wantonness, catty dialogue, and even a reference to a Bette Davis movie (Dead Ringer.)
The short answer is: I wrote fun parts for them to play. And actors appreciate having something interesting to act in. But even more so, the people who did the outrageous stuff got noticed. And are still remembered today. I used to joke that I would cast anyone at least once. That their first time on Heart Attack Theatre was their actual audition. If they were easy to work with, and if I liked their performance, chances are I would work with them again. And if they had few limits on-camera, they were even more employable. But looking back, I don’t think I made them do anything too extreme. Some tasteful nudity a few times. Jumping into cold water. Demonic orgasms.
The one time I think I actually put someone in physical danger was when I was doing a photo shoot at night. On top of my apartment building. And my model had finished two bottles of champagne. And I had her stand near the edge of the roof to pose. So, in retrospect, I’m glad she didn’t fall and splat on the cement below. But if she had, she would have died happy. People enjoy being the focus of my lens. I give them strong direction. And my full attention. It’s addictive.
Our number one resource was showing up at locations without permission or permits. I call it hit-and-run filmmaking. You show up with your actors. They get into position. I’m off to the side with my jacket covering my camcorder. So basically, no one else around knows we’re doing a shoot. And we get the scene done so quickly, that by the time we arouse suspicion, we’re already getting the hell out of there.
I remember a shoot I did at The Seattle Center. That’s where The Space Needle is. They used to have a children’s amusement park there. It had a carnival atmosphere. And it was either Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. And I had this guy dressed up in full drag. He was in a short orange mini-dress and blond wig. He looked like a cross between Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, and that serial killer in Silence of the Lambs. And I stayed pretty far away from him, keeping my camcorder hidden. And as he walked down the midway, parents would literally grab their kids, yanking them out of his radius. I thought he was going to get beat up. But I wanted a shot of him riding the kiddie choo choo train. And the ride operator refused to let him on. But my actor persisted, and got on anyway (he did buy a ticket after all.) But in the final footage, you see all these parents and children crammed into these little cars. But my actor is all alone in his. No one would dare sit near him.
“Why didn’t you go through it,” I said, when we all met up.
“I have a gun on me.”
I knew this guy was an ex-cop. But I didn’t know he was packing heat that day.
“Oh,” I said. “Then it’s a good thing you didn’t go through the metal detector.”
So that’s how I upped my production value. But it could be stressful at times.
I grew up in Seattle, and have lived there most of my life, including the time Twin Peaks first aired on network TV. But I never actually watched it at the time. Strange, huh? In the early ‘80s I had seen Eraserhead in the theatre. And it freaked me out. And I saw Blue Velvet when it came out. But I wasn’t a hardcore Lynch fan back then. I first warmed up to his work when I saw Wild At Heart. That had a big influence on me. The over-the-top acting. And that scene where Diane Ladd smears lipstick all over her face. Just seeing how crazy you could make a movie. But what really won me over was the movie Fire Walk With Me. And even without knowing all about Twin Peaks, I totally got into the Laura Palmer story, and her double life, and the evil menace that was tormenting her. With just enough of a supernatural twist. I not only watched that movie over and over at the tail end of my Heart Attack Theatre days. But I listened to the soundtrack extensively while shooting Twin Cheeks. It was my soundtrack to 1993. And maybe not uncoincidentally, it was by the end of that year that my ex-lover died. Was my work from this time a reaction to that? I don’t know. But I was certainly receptive to stories about death, destiny, tragedy, and release. And certainly letting go of self-imposed boundaries.
Kitten is a total peach to work with. And that scene where the zombie boys suck milk out of her tits was shot in the street right in front of her house in Hollywood. She lives just down the block from Paramount Studios. And I was afraid her neighbors would object. But they didn’t bat an eyelash. I guess they’ve seen it all on that block. And besides the milk scene, there’s also the part where she kills a guy with her breasts, and another scene where a zombie rolls her giant tits up in a car window, then starts driving, dragging her down the street. So working with Kitten is an adventure.
When I worked with Llana, we shot her scene in the hotel she was staying at near the University of Washington. And a TV crew from Evening Magazine was following us around for a segment they were putting together on us. So I have great memories of Llana’s beautiful, girly pink hotel room, and the great lighting set-ups we appropriated from the TV crew. She recently had a 20 year anniversary DVD release of her movie Glitter Goddess: Queen of the Sunset Strip. So I did an interview with her last year for that. You can read it on my website. She’s a real historian of L.A.’s Glam Rock scene in the ‘70s. She has stories about everyone. And she really needs to sit down and just write a big book about it.
It's called I Walked With A Zombie Drag Queen. And beyond talking about the actual making of Heart Attack Theatre, and other creative projects, I think my book is really about the absurd things people do for recognition. And about the colorful people you meet along the way. I’m a firm believer that truth is stranger than fiction. And that our biggest accomplishments are our experiences and memories. We’re lucky if we can look back and smile at them. And smile at ourselves. Looking back, I’m most proud of my resourcefulness. And my eye for unique talent. I hope that comes across in the book. And I hope that younger people who read it get a glimpse into what it was like to create projects in a pre-YouTube, pre-digital world. It’s a bit of a time capsule .
Any plans to release Heart Attack Theatre, La Cage Aux Zombies and Twin Cheeks on DVD?
I’m concentrating on the DVD release of my documentary Heart Attack! later this year. So no immediate plans for a DVD release of those other projects. I don’t know. I kind of like the fact that they’re still only available on VHS.
An early cut of Heart Attack! debuted at the NW Film Forum in Seattle. It has since been featured at The Thin Line Film Fest in Texas, The London Underground Film Festival, and in Portugal at Cine-Rebus.