Brothers Shawn and Jonathan Lewis are bringing some much-needed controversy back to the horror scene
Warning: The following article may contain subject matter that is not suitable for children under the age of 18.
The water cooler trailer of the moment is Black Devil Doll. The film, which is still in post-production and won't be completed until later this year, has already kicked up quite a bit of controversy. With a lead character based on a real Black Panther party member accused of raping and killing a number of white women and a relentless orgy of graphic sex and violence the likes of which have never before been preformed on screen by a puppet, you can bet that the film has been targeted by a number of advocacy groups. It seems that creators Shawn and Jonathan Lewis are indeed bringing some much-needed controversy back to the horror scene.
Like any good follower of William Castle, the two brothers have used any and all bad press to their advantage. They happily glorify the fact that director Jonathan has been labeled a "self-hating negro", and are using this self-deprecating barrage of indecency to sell what could be the funniest blaxploitation film of the past decade. With the film still a ways away from getting a proper release, we decided to catch up with the Lewis brothers to find out what they are really up to.
Here is our conversation:
Does the actual full-length feature live up to the trailer?
Shawn Lewis: Yes, it does. We didn't put any of our good stuff in the trailer. There is just so much more going on in the film that isn't even hinted at in that trailer. I think it is safe to say that the film itself will blow the trailer away. I hate films that put all of the cool stuff in the trailer. You go see the movie, and you're bummed. You already saw all of the good stuff, and it's just a waist of time. So I made a conscious effort not to do that with our film. There is a ton of stuff that you aren't even aware of right now. Some good stuff happens, its definitely cool.
Jonathan, what's it like to still be in film school and have a project like this already on your resume?
Jonathan Lewis: (Laughs) It is funny. To have this movie coming out and to still be in school is pretty cool. But it is weird. Amongst certain groups at school, this film is looked down upon. There is the core group that gets it. And they really appreciate it.
Why do some of the students look down on it?
Jonathan Lewis: I don't know. It is the weirdest thing. I think this particular group of film students, and even some of the professors, who are all industry professionals, look down on horror in general. They don't like that kind of stuff. I don't really know what the deal is. They had a mandatory seminar the other night, and the speaker says, "I know horror films and slasher films make a lot of money, but you should look further than that. You should try to bring something to the people that would inspire them." He just went on and on. Hey, I am all for that. But you don't have to knock horror. There are good movies in every type of genre.
Now, Shawn, you run the apparel company Rotten Cotton. Did seeing those iconic horror film images constantly come through your offices at all inspire this film's inception?
Shawn Lewis: I was raised on Grindhouse films and Italian horror films. I love exploitation films. I've always wanted to make one. I did attend film school. I ended up dropping out and started this T-shirt Company instead. I was disillusioned with the kids in film school. Like Jonathan said, they looked down on me for being into exploitation movies. They were more interested in making these self-indulgent documentaries. I simply wasn't happy there, and the T-shirt thing fell into my lap. I started doing that. When Jonathan went to film school, we decided that we should do something together. We ended up doing this. Besides being a fan of exploitation, I am also a huge fan of those cheesy Puppetmaster films. And Child's Play. That kind of stuff. I wanted to make something that was a doll exploitation movie. I combined those two subgenres to create what we have here.
How did Jonathan become involved in this as the director?
Shawn Lewis: We basically decided to do this as a collaborative thing. It was me and Mitch Mayes, who works with me on the T-shirts. He wrote and produced Brawlin' Broads, which was a hillbilly, white trash, cat fighting video. If you go to brawlinbroads.com, you can look it up. As you can see, Mitch has had some experience writing and producing. We got together and wrote this script. Then I called my brother, and he went over the script. He added some stuff and changed some stuff. We all collaborated on it. Then we went from there.
What was it like having to actually direct the doll?
Jonathan Lewis: Sometimes, it was like a nightmare. Because you can't tell a puppet what to do. (Laughs) That kind of got to me. The fun part was when we had the ventriloquist behind him. It was fun to see that guy working the puppet. To see this thing come to life. When you are looking at it through the camera, it's as if he is alive. He is moving around and talking. I'm like, "Wow! This really looks cool." Those were the cool parts. But there were so many times where his arm wasn't working right, or his dick wasn't working right. We couldn't get him to look right in certain shots, even when the shot was cool. We had all of these storyboards, and we ended up having to cut some of them because we couldn't get the puppet in the position we wanted without getting something in the shot that we couldn't take out in post. We were working with a pretty limited budget. So, it was interesting.
After watching the trailer, I need to know what the casting sessions were like? How did you describe this to these girls and convince them to get naked with this puppet?
Shawn Lewis: We were honest with them. We had the script ready, and we had a few girls in mind that were Rotten Cotton costumers. They are kind of crazy. I sent the script to them, so they knew exactly what they were getting into. They knew that there was going to be nudity. They knew that there would be simulated sex, and that a puppet would be involved. They knew that there was violence. We made it clear that this was a gutter film. Most of the girls were into it. They were fans of this kind of stuff and wanted to do it. We had a few girls that read the script and ran for the hills. We had to replace them. Overall, I found girls that were into this kind of stuff. They might be a rare breed, but we found them. (Laughs)
Once you got on set, how did you convince these girls to get intimate with this puppet? Especially if one of them was having a bad day?
Shawn Lewis: Well, I don't know. We didn't really have a problem with that. There were a few issues. Let me see. I'm trying to think of any specific problems we had without giving away too much. It was really strange. The star of the film, Heather Murphy, had never acted before. When she got the script, she was just a bagger at Safeway. And she went for it, no problem. But some of the other girls, besides being aspiring actresses, they were also strippers. You would think it would be easier to get a stripper to do these kinds of things. So we went for girls that were used to being involved with adult entertainment. They didn't have a problem with it. But some weird stuff started to happen. Our film is not porn. It is not XXX rated. There is no penetration. There isn't anything that explicit. There is full frontal nudity, but there aren't any hardcore sex scenes. The closet we get to that is the fact that the puppet does have a dick. And there are a few scenes were the puppet ejaculates. This one actress has no problem with that. She gets raped. She gets killed. Then she gets raped again after she is dead. And then the puppet jizzes in her face. She had no problem with all of that. But she had a problem with the puppet hands touching her breasts. Which was really strange. (Laughs) I don't know what the deal is with that. We had to talk her into letting the puppet hands fondle her breasts. She didn't have any problem getting hit in the face with fake sperm, though.
Jonathan Lewis: I remember one of the actress' had a hard time saying the line, "You're a nigger puppet." She didn't want to say that. I had to tell her, with this type of film, you have to go all the way. If you hold back, it's just going to ruin it. You can't go up to that line and then stop. I think of American Psycho when I think of a film that did that. The book was outrageous. When they did the film, its like they went up to the line and then they decided they didn't want to go beyond it. And it ruined it. That movie could have been so much better if they had gone all the way. A lot of that has to do with the producers and the studios. We were lucky enough to have actresses that were very open-minded. They wanted their chance to be in a full-length feature film. And they knew about Rotten Cotton. They knew we were going to go somewhere with this. So, it wasn't that difficult to get these girls on board. We did go through a couple of chicks that read the script and said, "No way." But we could always find another girl that was willing to do it. To have them run away wasn't that bad of a thing. Our actress all knew what was in the script. They signed their release forms. They knew what was going on, and when it came time for the money shot, they were good for it. Though, our main actress? Yeah, she was a little difficult. Like my brother said, the puppet is doing all of these sexual things to her. These were some pretty graphic acts. So we got this idea. We thought the puppet should be rubbing her nipples with his hand. And she goes, "No. I want to be able to show this to my mom. I don't want her to see the puppet's hand rubbing my nipple." I didn't get the logic behind it. Fake sperm on the face is okay, but puppet hands on the nipples are going to freak mom out.
What were you using for the fake sperm?
Shawn Lewis: We tried a number of different things. Ultimately, we didn't want it to look too realistic. Because, even though the subject matter of the film is a train wreck, it is just in the gutter, in case we did get a distributor interested, we wanted it to be more comical. At least as far as when he does that on screen. So the sperm is a lot whiter than it would normally be if it were real. It didn't look all that real. I think we used lotion, and water, and milk for the consistency. So, we weren't going for authenticity. It is an outrageous amount when he does it. When he hits the girl, it just covers her whole face. It is really crazy. I don't think any body is going to see it for the realism. It is along the lines of Meet the Feebles, early Peter Jackson.
It seems like you got a Russ Meyer vibe going on here too.
Shawn Lewis: Definitely. We owe a lot to Russ Meyer.
From what I understand, the puppet is based on a real person?
Jonathan Lewis: Yeah. Kind of. In a way. The whole idea was that we wanted to do a puppet movie and we wanted it to be a black puppet. Because we wanted this to be hardcore and in your face, we put a lot of thought into whom this puppet was going to be. We tried to develop the character by looking at different people in history. We tried to use what we could find. What we stumbled upon was this Black Panther. We changed the name from Black Panther to Black Power due to legal issues. This real guy was on death row for murder and rape. We elaborated on that, and changed his name around. I forget his actual name. But we changed it around. We named him Nubia. So, it is loosely based on this real person. We took from his background. Other than that, it is totally original. We were just sitting around, thinking of ideas. At first I was thinking we should have him in black face. But that got shot down. It could have gone a lot of different ways. But the militant type of guy works the best. We looked into that, and we saw this real guy that was imprisoned for raping and killing white women. Wikipedia says that he was falsely accused. But there are a lot of sources that say he did it. The evidence is overwhelming. You never know with our justice system sometimes.
Now, Shawn, are you the voice of the puppet?
Shawn Lewis: We are trying to keep that a secret. We want to keep it ambiguous. On the DVD, the doll does his own audio commentary for the film. We are going to do the doll one like Mystery Science Theater 3000. He'll be seen in silhouette. It wont be a movie screen though. We have it set up to look like his apartment, and he is sitting in front of this old TV set in some ghetto neighborhood. It will be very funny.
Well, I think you just sold me on the DVD right there. Lets talk about Reverend Al Sharpton. He has spoken out against your film. Do you think he even knows what it is that you have made?
Shawn Lewis: When he originally quoted us, he was just speaking without having seen the film. Since that time, we have gotten the trailer into his hands. Since that time, he hasn't commented. But he has seen it. I think its one of those cases where it would be stupid for him to come out and bitch about our movie. Because it would just give us so much publicity. Even though he is an opportunist, he is aware of that. But you never know. He could come out and be on Fox News complaining about it. And that would be beautiful. That's what we want. I don't think he would do that, though.
Why do you think it is so easy to target these sorts of films when the central character is black, yet when the killer is white, no one really comments on it?
Shawn Lewis: It is a double standard. If it was called White Devil Doll, no one would be saying anything. I am used to that. It's like David Chappelle. He can get away with all kinds of shit on Comedy Central. No one says anything to him because he is black. We sort of went with that in a way. I'm white, but my brother Jonathan, who directed the film, is black. We have the same mother, different fathers. We have already been accused of, "Oh, Jon's just getting away with this because he is black." But that's not the case.
Jonathan Lewis: Everybody seems to forget that Freddy Krueger is a pedophile. He goes after kids. And he is basically raping them, and molesting them. Now he is going after them in his dreams. I don't see how our character is worse than that. Maybe its because our character is presented in a more straightforward way. Then again, it does have that supernatural element. His soul is trapped inside this doll, and he is acting out through the doll. The double standard is very interesting. I don't know what I can tell you about that, except that we have run into that time and time again. That's Hollywood. I think it has a lot to do with this country. Racism has been a stain on this country since it got up and got started. I don't know if we will ever be able to get past that. It seems like other countries have no problem with it. But we are always hung up on it. Even in our elections today. People are hung up on stupid stereotypical shit. It is a pain in the ass. I have come to the point where I don't let it bother me. I understand where people are coming from, and you can't change it. What are you going to do?
Just going back to the trailer, Johnathon is labeled a "self-hating negro". You seem to be using that to dust up some publicity.
Shawn Lewis: I think part of the problem is that people nowadays are just into today's horror films. And they are unaware of horror's past. You have kids kicking around that have seen the Dawn of the Dead remake, yet they have no idea there was an original. I could go on like that forever. The kids that went to see The Hitcher remake didn't know there was an original. Those kids aren't aware of exploitation films or what they were like, or about. They will see our trailer and automatically go off screaming, "Racists! Misogynists!" They don't know that the reason for the exploitation genre was to exploit stereotypes. They don't know what those films were about. They see our trailer, and they don't get were the homage is. Or what we are winking and nodding at. They don't get it. That is the film culture. A lot of kids just don't get it. They don't look this stuff up. The hard-core horror fans do. They look up and buy every single film they can get their hands on. I have been experiencing a lot of younger people that see the trailer, and they simply have no idea what a blaxploitation movie is. Or what a Grindhouse movie is.
You also run into the old people that have no basis in fact for anything. They just want to complain about something.
Shawn Lewis: People like to bitch and complain. The internet is just full of people that want to bitch and cry about everything. But that is good for us. We knew that was going to happen when we cut the trailer. And we made the film we made. We knew we were going to get a lot of flack. But negativity? There is nothing better than free publicity.
Jonathan, what is it like being labeled "a self-hating negro" in relation to this film?
Jonathan Lewis: I thought it was cool. At first I was like, "Really?" It came from this venomous hate mail. This guy just decided to call me that. At first it sort of took me back, but then I thought it was cool. If someone is going to take time out of their day to go and write something about me, and how much they hate me, it means I must be doing something right. (Laughs) I was blown away. I took it, and I owned. I wanted to shove it right back in their face. I wanted to see what would happen with that.
I understand that this is a potential franchise. That you guys are working on a second one already.
Shawn Lewis: Yeah. Originally, the second one was going to be Black in the Hood, but we changed it up. We are going more ambitious with it. We purchased a Red Camera. It is an amazing fucking camera. Peter Jackson is pushing it. It is this new camera that is all digital. It is the closet thing to film that you can get without actually being film. We dropped thirty grand on this camera. It is going to make the sequel look so amazing. The sequel has him in space. We are renting a warehouse, and we are having the entire interior of the spaceship built in this warehouse. It is going to be a combination of Alien and Black Devil Doll. It is going to be pretty crazy.
Jonathan Lewis: We are going to have a bigger budget. We are going to go off of the first one. I'm not sure exactly what we have lined up for it.
Do you have any special guest stars lined up for the second one?
Shawn Lewis: We don't like doing that. We had a chance to have David Hess in the first one. And we could have had Ken Foree and Bill Mosley. We just decided not to do that. That is one thing I hate about these genre films. When I went and saw Rob Zombie's Halloween, and every five seconds there was some cameo of some washed up old actor, it took me out of the film and ruined it for me. It got annoying. I have grown to hate that shit. I lot of people do that because they think, "If we get Ken Foree, we will get a better distribution deal." But to me, our movie stands alone. So we don't need David Hess, or whoever, to be in our film. We don't need that to sell tickets. The doll is the star, and I think that's why people are going to go see it. I have about eight or nine DVD companies waiting for our movie. I am going to pick our best offer and go for it. We didn't need a guest star to get that. So, there you go.
I'm not even sure who David Hess is, actually.
Shawn Lewis: He is an exploitation star from the 70s. And he is trying to make a little comeback. The reason I thought of him was because he wanted to be in our film. The first one. We were also going to have Ken Foree in it. But we decided against that. It just wasn't worth it.
So, Black Devil Doll will be coming out on DVD around Halloween?
Shawn Lewis: That is our plan. If we miss Halloween, it will be out by Christmas. No later than that. But I am 99.9% sure that it will hit that Halloween release date. That's what we are shooting for.
Look for more on Black Devil Doll in the near future!