Known by many as the co-writer of Night of the Living Dead, John Russo is also a director and novelist. And a writer of how-to manuals for aspiring filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino gives credit to Russo’s book Scare Tactics for guiding him to his first finished film. And low-budget zombie filmmakers and the creators of The Walking Dead TV series alike feature zombies as eaters of human flesh. “Which,” says Russo, “was originally my idea.”
His other film books include Making Movies: The Inside Guide to Independent Movie Production, How to Make Your Own Feature Movie for $10,000 or Less, and Writing Movies: A Learn by Example Guide from Concept to Finished Script. Plus the just-released How to Write, Produce & Direct Exciting Money-Making Movies.
So, in honor of his 45+ years in the biz, as well as the enduring legacy of Night of the Living Dead, I asked Russo to share his well-earned wisdom and motivation...
Kelly Hughes: How have you managed to maintain such a long career?
John Russo: Remaining interested and deeply involved. Staying interested in everything that is going on in the world. That's where good ideas come from. Not from copying or imitating other people's work. There is too much of that kind of thing, especially in Hollywood. I always want my books and screenplays to be unique, and to deal with important themes and concepts. The continuum of art, politics, science, religion -- all social and cultural matters. And I never wanted to retire. I wake up each day with lots of plans and goals. I've been that way ever since childhood. And I've worked hard to maintain the quality of my work. And keep making it better.
KH: One of your filmmaking books influenced Quentin Tarantino to finish his first movie. Another featured interviews with Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi, George Romero, and other notable filmmakers. Now, twenty-five years later, and with the publication of your new book on making movies, what has changed most in the film industry?
JR: Probably the biggest change in the film industry that really matters is the digital revolution. Now everybody can afford to make a film. That has produced a glut of bad films. But also a lot of very good ones. And has provided an enormous opportunity for unknown, aspiring filmmakers. The biggest drawback for actors, writers, directors, etc. is the demise of the old studio system. And the massive departure of the old movie palaces which have evolved into multiplexes that make most of their money on candy, popcorn, and soft drinks. Hollywood used to turn out 500-plus movies every year. Now it has narrowed down production to a few blockbusters costing millions and millions of dollars, with lavish budgets for big-name stars, producers, and writers. So they can each make 20 million dollars per picture. Some of these movies could be made for five million dollars if the lucky above-the-line people weren't costing 60 million. In the old days, once you cracked into the studio system, you were groomed, trained, publicized, etc. And you were on salary. Lots of people got constant work. Now only a few people get all the work. And all the money. And it is harder to make it into that top echelon.
KH: If you made Night of the Living Dead today, do you think you could get it into theaters, or would it do a direct-to-video release?
JR: Night of the Living Dead is, frankly, such a phenomenon, that I think it would succeed in any time and place. That's why it has played constantly somewhere in the world ever since it was made. So as long as there are theaters, it would probably get a theatrical distribution. And would also be played in any format that still exists or has been discovered.
KH: Scare Tactics is one of the few filmmaking books geared toward horror/thrillers. How has that book influenced horror writers/directors over the last two decades? And what's some of the best feedback you've received from those people?
JR: Scare Tactics received an award for Superior Nonfiction from the Horror Writers of America when it was first published. But the lessons in Scare Tactics don't just apply to chillers and thrillers, even though it was promoted that way. Besides Tarantino, it helped Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier, and many, many aspiring filmmakers who weren't so well known at the time. Many young filmmakers, as well as seasoned professionals, still come up to me at conventions and tell me how much my books have meant to them. This is greatly gratifying to me.
KH: You promote both your books and your movies. What is the key to successful promotion?
JR: Promotion is easy if you have a lot of money behind you. Whether it's your own money, or promotion money from your publisher or producer. It's a lot harder if your funds are limited. Or nonexistent. You have to use every outlet that is available at low cost or no cost. Twitter, LinkedIn, websites, all the social media. And you have to get out into the real world by going to conventions and other gatherings where you can meet fans and network with them. And with other professionals: actors, writers, producers. People who are trying to do the same things you're doing. Lots of times that's where important connections are made and deals are put together. But the most important thing is to have good ideas. And excellent execution of those ideas. In other words, if you don't fully develop your talent, you won't attract notice from anyone who counts.
KH: What are the most surprising things you have learned while teaching filmmaking?
JR: It's no longer a surprise to me that there is enormous talent everywhere. And you can't pre-judge anyone. Many young people are shy about their abilities, or haven't developed them very much. But once they are guided in the right direction, they will blossom. I teach young students to be intellectually curious. To foster and develop their own ideas. And many of them do this in amazing ways. When my movie making program was at a business college in a small town in Pennsylvania, our students won prizes in the 48-hour Film Project every year for seven years, competing with 30 or more filmmaking teams from the big cities.
KH: Going back to Night of the Living Dead...when it was first finished, what were some of the strangest venues it played at? Did you screen it in any non-traditional places?
JR: At the time that Night of the Living Dead was released, it could not play in mainstream theaters in England because it was deemed too violent and upsetting. It had to be seen in "movie clubs" and you had to be a member. Just like you had to be a member of a private club in this country to drink alcohol after hours. In the U.S. it played in the normal distribution venues, including the major theaters, the drive-ins, and the neighborhood theaters. It has been in constant play for over forty years in every format conceivable. Now, entering festivals and getting your movie screened at conventions are some of the standard, but vital outlets. I know a successful filmmaker and marketer who does Brew-and-View parties. He provides beer and hot dogs at any place he can rent or get for free, and charges $20 per ticket. Bars, clubs, American Legion halls. He says he always recoups his investment that way. Selling DVDs anywhere and everywhere is always good, too.
KH: You're about to remake some of your previous movies. Please explain how your approach will be different this time.
JR: It is not so much that my approach will be different in remaking some of my movies, such as Midnight. But that I will be able to afford to do more of the things I wanted to do originally, but couldn’t. When I first made Midnight in 35mm it was on a budget of only $71,000. We had a basic crew of me and three other guys. And most of the actors were unknowns, students from the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The novel is much more sophisticated. It’s one of the spookiest novels I have ever written. In paring down the story to make an extremely low-budget movie, I had to strip out some very striking scenes and characters. The new script is already written, and is even more spooky and involving. And more fully explores the theme of religion versus superstition. A theme that has always deeply interested me. The story worked then, and it still works now. That's why the original movie still gets thousands of views on YouTube and is still in release.
KH: Zombies are still hot in film right now. Do you think it's about to run its course? Or is there room for new zombie movies, TV shows, novels, and comics?
JR: I think that when we made zombies into eaters of human flesh, we tapped into an atavistic fear in the human psyche -- the fear of being devoured. And anytime that someone comes up with a new, exciting slant on this phenomenon, and executes it well—whether it’s in books, comic books or movies—that person will have a good chance of launching a career, getting famous, and/or making a lot of money.
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