The History of Empire Films Part Two

Charles Band decided to go after the media market in a different way. He was beginning to make a picture called SWORDKILL in 1982, about a samurai who was frozen in ice, when he realized something. “I had watched all these foreign film representatives take my pictures, license my pictures, and basically go to Cannes and Mifed [the two major foreign film markets), rent an office and make sales, and make a huge commission on basically the fruits of my labor. I thought if I was going to have any control at all, I should go to the foreign marketplace and sell my own stuff, especially since over the years my pictures did very well for everyone. They were very commercial.

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“I got many letters from French distributors and Japanese distributors, congratulatory letters saying here’s a copy of our advertising campaign as a momento. So I kind of knew some of the players. I decided to take SWORDKILL, which was just about to shoot, and a couple of other pictures, which I was going to make later that year, and hang my shingle in some hotel room in Cannes and actually begin doing it myself.”

Band came up with the name Empire and the company was formed as Empire International, which, with the aid of Band’s promo reel, was also able to raise funds for upcoming, incomplete projects as well as SWORDKILL. In order to pre-sell domestic rights on an independent picture, one needed to guarantee a certain amount of “p and a” or prints and ads expenditure, so Band figured he ought to set up a modest U.S. theatrical distribution organization and begin to distribute these pictures in order to later sell them to the burgeoning U.S. video market.

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Parasite (1982) Retrospective

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Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983) Retrospective

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Ghoulies (1984) Retrospective

Empire is widely perceived as the new American International Pictures, and you as the new Roger Corman. Is that a fair assessment?
Charles Band: It’s funny, all these categories, independents, mini-majors, B movies, C movies, I don’t know. We can never be like AIP because the times are different. AIP started out making B pictures to fill double bills they were originally the second feature at a drive-in. That whole market is gone, and maybe the analogy here is that much of what we do fits into the video pipeline. Maybe that’s the new market that allows us to cover most of our downside, but I just feel that we’re here to make good movies. There weren’t too many AIP films, or Corman films, that were good movies. There were many of them, and there were some with all sorts of interesting cult appeal . Some launched careers of a few of today’s big stars. But in terms of track record, if you look at both bodies of work of those two distribution-production concerns, there aren’t too many good movies. I hope that by the time we’re into ’87, at least one out of every two or three of our pictures will be considered a well-made film, and that will last 10, 20, 30 years, forever.

Cinefantastique v15n02 -page 7-8 (May 1985)In terms of budgets, Empire seems comparable to AIP.
Charles Band: It ‘snot written anywhere that a good picture must cost a ton of money. You don’t have to spend $20 million on a film. We made a small picture last year called Re-Animator. and not only did it get good reviews , but it did well for us as far as its profitability. It’s a picture that cost just about a million dollars, and it had a lot of talent and quality. As we get better, our pictures will get better, and not necessarily more ex- pensive. Our aim is to make real good movies.

What happened with both AIP and Corman is that after they had discovered a talented director or star, they couldn’t hold on to him once the studios offered him work. Can you keep that from happening at Empire?
Charles Band: Not only can we, we are. You can be real smart and draft a contract that commits people for two or three films, but the only thing that’s going to bring people back is how you work together. With a few exceptions, the other independents and studios have a very repressive atmosphere. It’s very tough to get pictures made there, and when they’re in the process of being made, rarely do you get to sit down with the studio head, or anyone who understands pictures, for that matter. Those people who are running the studios, for better or worse, are not filmmakers.

(1983) The Alchemist (1983)

The Alchemist (1983) In 1955, young waitress Lenora (Lucinda Dooling) finds herself inexplicably driving down the California highway to an unknown destination. This doesn’t bode well for Cam (John Sanderford), the hitchhiker she picked up, because he has to endure her somnambulist driving. The duo eventually end up at a graveside in the woods and meet alchemist Aaron (Robert Ginty), who is just as shocked to see them as Lenora appears to be the reincarnation of his wife who was murdered nearly 100 years earlier.

The Alchemist was your first directorial effort, how did that come about?
Charles Band: Well, I wasn’t the director when that film first started. The guy who was responsible for the trailers on VHS was producing the film at the time and after about three days of production, he called me up and said that the current director wasn’t working out and could I parachute in to help finish the film. The original director had shot about 2-3 days of work and I then finished about 6-7 days of shooting. I have no memory of the director.

The late Robert Ginty was the star of The Alchemist and at the time was coming off success with The Exterminator. What was he like to work with and what was his appeal as a leading man?
Charles Band: I had no input in casting Ginty. He was already on board. What I do notice is that with a lot of leading men there is no simpatico in them. Ginty was a very human actor with simpatico and it was sad that he left us so soon. He did come across as an “Everyman” sort of guy.

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Ghost Warrior (1982/1984) a.k.a Swordkill A deep-frozen 400-year-old samurai is shipped to Los Angeles, where he comes back to life. Dazed and confused, he goes on a rampage. Can the female scientist and her colleague who revived him stop him before it’s too late?

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Trancers (1984) Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a police trooper in the year 2247 who has been hunting down Martin Whistler, a criminal mastermind who uses psychic powers to turn people into mindless “trancers” and carry out his orders. Deth can identify a tranced individual by scanning them with a special bracelet. All trancers appear as normal humans at first, but once triggered, they become savage killers with twisted features.

Before he can be caught, Whistler escapes back in time using a drug-induced time-traveling technique. Whistler’s consciousness leaves his body in 2247 and travels down his ancestral bloodline arriving in 1985 and taking over the body of an ancestor, a Los Angeles police detective named Weisling. Once Deth discovers what Whistler has done, he destroys Whistler’s body—effectively leaving him trapped in the past with no vessel to return to—and chases after him through time the same way. Deth ends up in the body of one of his ancestors: a journalist named Phil Dethton.

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With the help of Phil’s girlfriend—a punk rock girl named Leena (Helen Hunt)—Deth goes after Whistler, who has begun to “trance” other victims. Whistler plots to eliminate the future governing council members of Angel City (the future name of Los Angeles), who are being systematically wiped out of existence by Whistler’s murder spree of their own ancestors. Deth arrives too late to prevent most of the murders and can only safeguard Hap Ashby (Biff Manard), a washed-up former pro baseball player, who is the ancestor of the last surviving council member, Chairman Ashe (Anne Seymour).

Deth is given some high-tech equipment, which is sent to him in the past: his sidearm (which contains two hidden vials of time drugs to send him and Whistler back to the future), and a “long-second” wristwatch, which temporarily slows time, stretching one second to ten. The watch has only enough power for one use, but he later receives another watch to pull the same trick again.

During the end fight with Whistler, one of the drug vials in Jack’s gun breaks, leaving only one vial to get home. Jack is forced to make a choice: kill the innocent Weisling (who is possessed by the evil Whistler), or use the vial to send Whistler back to 2247, which would strand Jack in the present. Jack chooses to inject Weisling with the vial, saving the lieutenant’s life but condemning Whistler to an eternity without a body to return to. Jack then decides to remain with Leena in 1985, although observing him from the shadows is McNulty, his boss from the future, who has traveled down his own ancestral line, ending up in the body of a young girl.

Interview with actor Tim Thomerson

ThomersonTell us about this journey of Jack Deth.
Tim Thomerson: I got this role as a character named Rogue in Metalstorm (1983), and we started working, and that was my first time working with Charlie Band. I had a lot of fun with it, Charlie was fun to work with, and kind of left me alone, which I like. I don’t like a lot of direction. We had quite a lot of fun doing it and then this idea for TRANCERS came up. This is still Empire now, so fast forward to late 1984 early 1985. The FUTURE COP was the original title for TRANCERS, so I went to Danny (Bilson) and Paul (De Meo), and we had meetings together. They were fans of these Philip Marlowe type detective guys, so we were all in love with that genre, and I always liked Sam Spade, Humphrey Bogart, just a fan of that particular character. Charlie wanted to do this cop that comes from the future in LA today, meaning from the year, 20-something. So Charlie didn’t really care what we did with the character from what I remember, so Danny and Paul wrote up this guy Jack and so that’s how that was born. When the character transformed into the other body that was named Philip, it’s a tribute to Marlowe. That was Danny and Paul’s idea, to write it up like that, and for there to be some kind of dialogue and kind of the crispy kind of way of saying. You’ve seen that movie right?

Many, many times.
Tim Thomerson: Yeah, so for what it is and for the time that it was shot, it’s a pretty classic B movie I think.

The opening of the film is great, the cross between the future and the past and that noir-like feeling is easy to get on board with.
Tim Thomerson: I think it really had its own feeling about it. I thought that while we were shooting it, even though it’s a silly ass movie. But it just had a feeling, you know? Charlie was great to work with on set, and was funny, had a winning personality, and Helen was just a hilarious girl. She really is a funny chick. The performances were really good too; you can tell they got along.

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The Dungeonmaster (1984) Paul Bradford (Jeffrey Byron) is a skilled computer programmer who lives with his girlfriend, Gwen (Leslie Wing), and “X-CaliBR8,” a quasi-sentient personal computer that Paul programmed and which he interacts with via a neural interface. Gwen is jealous of Paul’s unusually close relationship with X-CaliBR8, to whom Paul has given a female voice, and fears that their relationship will be destroyed by Paul’s reliance on X-CaliBR8 for his various day-to-day activities. One night, Paul and Gwen are both transported to a Hellish realm presided over by Mestema (Richard Moll), an ancient, demonic sorcerer who has spent millennia seeking a worthy opponent with whom to do battle. Having long defeated his enemies with magic, Mestema has become intrigued with technology, and wishes to pit his skills against Paul’s, with the winner claiming Gwen. Arming Paul with a portable version of X-CaliBR8 (which takes the form of a computerized wrist band), Mestema begins transporting Paul into a variety of scenarios in which he must defeat various opponents. Most of the challenges involve Paul using his X-CaliBR8 wristband to shoot people, monsters, and objects with laser beams. After Paul completes Mestema’s various challenges, the two engage in a final battle, which takes the form of a fist fight in which Paul kills Mestema by throwing him into a pit of lava. After Mestema dies, Paul and Gwen are transported back to their house, where Gwen expresses her acceptance of X-CaliBR8 and suggests that she and Paul get married.

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David Allen on the stop-motion for the “Stone Canyon Giant”
David Allen first became involved in directing an episode of Charles Band’s DUNGEONMASTER almost two years ago, as a test for working with Band on THE PRIMEVALS, a property they have in development together. Although Band had already directed his segment of the film, no clear story had been worked out. The film had been sold on the basis of its premise-a showcase of effects sequences-and it had to be delivered quickly. Band suggested doing a sequence which featured a large statue brought to life (as in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS), and Allen agreed.

Allen spent two days on location, shooting mostly in continuity without storyboards, then three weeks, off-and-on, in the studio to do the effects. According to Allen, the finished segment is “heavily footnoted with explanations for why it didn’t turn out better. We’d do something and think it was okay and then get the shot back from the lab-but we’d already be working on a new shot. A couple of shots are okay, but there are so many below-par scenes. I wanted to go back on location almost a year after the original shooting and redo the first shot of the statue in Dynamation-a split-screen effect all on the original negative. A good first shot would have better set the stage.”

Allen would also have liked a chance to introduce the statue “more poetically, with music,” but he never had an opportunity to speak with the film’s composer, Richard Band. “A pause for mood and atmosphere would have given the sequence some intelligence, but in the time allotted I didn’t think of it.”

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Besides doing animation for his own segment, Allen provided two effects for other sequences of the film: for an exploding car, Allen took an explosion he had photographed years ago and superimposed it on the shot, for the conclusion of the film he provided a shot of the evil magician falling into a lava pit. “Band came up with that at the last minute–the film was written as it went along. I did it for a few hundred dollars, using a six-inch doll, some old cliffs I’d used long ago, and oatmeal. I didn’t think it would work, but with all the fire and smoke I put in there it came out, maybe not wonderful, but credible.”

Although dissatisfied with the final result, Allen nevertheless enjoyed the experience. “I learned a lot,” he said. “I got the camera where it needed to be. I enjoyed getting everything done in two days. I was scouting locations sometimes only twenty minutes ahead of the camera crew.”

Jeffrey Byron in The Dungeonmaster (1984)

Interview with Jeffrey (Paul) Byron

This was your second adventure with Band’s band; were you excited to be back in the B-movie saddle?
Jeffrey Byron: Sure! I had a great time on METALSTORM and every actor likes to work. So doing a second movie right afterwards was great.

Seven chapters and seven directors
Jeffrey Byron: Indeed. It was il fun and unique experience and was ahead of its time. It was a clever idea. It was like doing se ven separate films, which was very cool.

What was your favorite segment and why?
Jeffrey Byron: That’s easy! The one that I wrote (SLASHER) about the serial killer. My older brother Steve Stafford directed it, and I was able to hire some close actor friends to be in it. It was a blast!  Being directed by my brother Steve was a great experience. He is a talented filmmaker and in some respects this segment inspired him to get more and more directing jobs Plus I got to hire some great actor friends to be in the segment I wrote. That was gratifying as well.

Do you have insight or back story as to the name change?
Jeffrey Byron: I don’t recall how that happened. That was up to Charlie Band. He was a wiz at that kind of stuff. He came up with all the rates. I assume he changed the title because he got more traction with THE DUNGEONMASTER, because of the popularity of DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS

As in METALSTORM, you had to square off against Richard Moll, but this time as an ancient demon. Was he a more worthy nemesis this time round?
Jeffrey Byron: Richard and I got to know each other on METALSTORM, so we had a warmer rapport on the second film. We had a perfectly good relationship on the first film, but we knew each other better by the time we did this film and he was a pro so it was a great experience

Any RAGEWAR trivia or lesser known facts you can share with us?
Jeffrey Byron: All the scenes that were shot in my characters apartment..were actually shot in any actual apartment!

What was next for you after THE DUNGEON MASTER?
Jeffrey Byron: Quite soon after I jumped into the soap opera world. They had been chasing me down for awhile and I finally agreed to do ONE LIFE TO LIVE. After I left that show. I went on to do ALL MY CHILDREN, THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and finally PORT CHARLES. I did other work in between but the soaps were my bread and butter.

The Dungeonmaster was a try-out of several different directors.
Charles Band: “It was a fun idea. I’ve always done things a little differently and we had a number of directors at the time who all wanted to direct features. We were getting pretty prolific and it was exactly that. I think there were seven directors, if I’m not mistaken. There were more that we were actually looking at but seven wound up directing seven little chapters in this Dungeonmaster film. I would have to think real hard to remember who directed what, but that’s what happens. We made a strange little film.

“It’s actually a fun film to watch. Part of what low-budget films suffer from is you usually are relegated to one location because that’s all you can afford. Unless you are really adept at story-telling and casting, you need to make these movies much more character-driven. Dungeonmaster’s one of those films which diverts you with seven or eight different environments. If nothing else, it certainly looks colorful! It made a great trailer, that’s for sure.”

Savage Island (1985) Women who have been captured and sold as slave labor to a South American emerald mine hatch a plan for revolution and revenge.

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Empire seems very loyal to its people  given a few pictures, everybody gets to direct. Is that a deliberate policy?
Charles Band: Definitely. It’s rare that talent is Just born overnight. It takes time and it’s crazy for a big company to gamble with its resources on a new director. If it turns out wrong, it makes no sense going and spending the time. It makes more sense to educate people here and pay for the tuition, so to speak. Some turn out to be wonderful and some take more time. I can’t think of one that we’ve worked with so far that hasn’t picked up the Empire banner and shown promise.

People like Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon, and other directors who have had good experiences with us and are now making their second or third film with us this year, find that our whole directive here is making movies. That’s where all our energy goes. We’re passionate about making movies. That makes their lives much easier because we can work well together. David Schmoeller just finished a picture for us called Crawlspace that turned out very well, and he has had several offers to go elsewhere to make pictures. Well, he has turned them down to make two more pictures back to back for us. I don’t know if the offers were for substantially more than what we’re paying him, I Just know that the experience on Crawlspace was real good for all of us. and good for him creatively. Once a script is approved and we know what we’re spending on a picture, we give the directors total free reign to make their movie.

Empire Re-Animator poster promocional 1985

Re-Animator (1985) Retrospective

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Zone Troopers (1985) In Italy in World War II, four members, led by their grizzled sergeant (Tim Thomerson), of an American military patrol are lost behind enemy lines. They discovers an alien spaceship that has crash-landed in the woods, along with its crew. The alien pilot is dead, and one of the aliens has been captured by the Nazis, hampering efforts of the aliens to return home. A larger Nazi unit, with scientific and medical personnel, also investigate the crash and seek to capture the alien’s technology and use that to win the war. However, the aliens side with the Americans after the Nazi’s actions to their crewmember.

Another popular title was Zone Troopers. How did that come about and where did the concept come up?
Charles Band: Well, I had Danny Bilson and Paul Le Meo, who wrote Trancers and the stars of that film Tim Thomerson and Art La Fleur on board. I also had a wonderful Production Designer and Art Director and it also gave me an opportunity to go back to Italy as I grew up there. Some people don’t realize that the likes of Crawlspace and Troll were, along with Zone Troopers, filmed in Italy rather than the USA. It was a great set-up for about three years as we got some good films made, but then things changed and the dollar and lira value changed, so it became difficult to continue to film there, but we are very proud of those films.

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Zone Troopers was also directed by Danny Bilson, who had an interesting time of it. “We had a German army of Italian-speaking extras,” Bilson recalls. “We had to have these Nazi SS troops come across a meadow, and they looked like Girl Scouts. Trying to be Mr. Director, I went to show them how to do it. We’ve all played army when we were little kids, and you know how to do it, but when I was right in the middle of showing them, I slipped into this big pile of cow slop. Paul (De Meo) cried out helpfully, ‘But do you want them to fall in the cow shit?”’

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“We had a lot of fun with the Italian prop men,” De Meo chimes in, “One of them came up to us and asked where he should put these two bottles of gin. We wondered what the bottles of gin were for and started looking through the script, thinking that maybe we forgot something. It turned out that somewhere in the script was a description that said two GIs are playing gin. Another time, a prop man bought a pineapple because he didn’t know that was a‘40’s term for a grenade.”

Bilson is very happy working for Empire. He calls it a secure environment that constantly provides an opportunity to work. He feels that the experience he and others are gaining will build confidence and lead to better-made films. Paul De Meo compares the working atmosphere with “almost being like working at Warner’s in the ’50’s. There are lots of people making lots of movies In all kinds of genres.” Bilson Is particularly proud of the fact that he’s been able to work in low-budget, exploitation films without “ever having to do a women-in-prison film or a slasher movie nothing I would find morally objectionable. That’s just not our meat-and-potatoes.”

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Eliminators (1986) Retrospective

Do your writers come up with concepts?
Charles Band: Most, if not all. of our projects come from my titles and concepts. That’s a reward for me, to get to dream things up and then assign various projects and concepts to writers and see the picture get made and distributed. So, it’s a little different than the way other people work where they have 200 script submissions a week and they hope to find one and develop it. We’re lucky enough not to be looking for any projects. If anything good comes along, we’re here to read it. We still have our hundred script submissions, but basically, we’re Just looking for good writers. Very few of our projects Just walk in the door perhaps one in the last year. We have hundreds of concepts we’ve been developing over the last few years, and those are the ideas that will become movies.

It sometimes seems that the lack of control works out well when you have a Stuart Gordon around, but there are some films Eliminators comes immediately to mind  that needed somebody to step in and say, “This isn’t working.” That script Just didn’t seem ready.
Charles Band: True, but that’s the script’s fault, not the director’s. It’s impossible to predict how a project is going to turn out. You can do all the right things and it Just doesn’t work. On the other hand, you can make 500 mistakes and suddenly the picture works. You want to make sure you have the best script possible, but sometimes things are rushed, and that shows. It always comes down to the script. Sometimes the script reads real well but it Just doesn’t play that way. Eliminators was one of the best scripts we’ve ever had here. It reads great. Why the script reads so well and the picture isn’t so good to some, the picture is fun and works; to others, it’s disjointed if you read the script, you’ll find a really well-written, fun script, very cohesive, very weird. I have no defense, or no explanation for why some pictures work and some don’t. The best we can do is to make certain we start off with a good script and that the talent we assemble is right, then hope for the best. You just don’t know. You don’t even know when you see the dailies. There are some times when you see the dailies and you’re in love with every shot, and it gets put together and it just doesn’t work.

Trancers was one of the best things Empire has done and I was surprised it didn’t do better.
Charles Band: So was I. It was one I directed, so I was anxious to see it work. But it was the least effective of all the first year’s pictures. That’s another sad thing: There’s no telling which picture is going to work.

Was it supposed to be the first in a series?
Charles Band: Yes. I always wanted to make an inexpensive series, not something that would cost tons of money and be hard to get off the ground. We could have made two of those movies a year. I love the character of Jack Deth and the whole thing would have been fun to do. We were even close to doing another one in spite of the first’s failure, just because ‘why not?’ But we’ll come up with something else someday. Tim Thomerson’s a major talent and no one’s used him right except us in Trancers .

Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson have written another film that will begin production soon, Journeys Through The Darkzone (1986). Bilson will direct. “It’s about these guys who work on a dumping fishing station where people get their anxieties out through recreation,” Bilson reveals. Then people start disappearing from this colony on this water planet. It’s a little like Outland. An investigation leads to this attraction, which is an alien machine which can project you into an alternate reality to satisfy your fantasies. But it has hidden dangers.”

The pair are currently scripting Arena (1989), which they describe as Body and Soul in space. Arena is based around a fantasy sport and involves a bid for a new champion, racketeering and space gangsters.

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