I reached out to cult filmmaker Nick Millard AKA Nick Philips back in September for an interview and he graciously agreed to partake in one, stating that he always tells the truth in his interviews, “unlike a lot of people in Hollywood”. Mr. Millard is best known to his fans for the string of outrageously campy, low-budget comedy-slashers he produced from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s, including those pictured below. During the course of our correspondence, we discussed a few of his more obscure titles, as well as some that were never even released! Check it out.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: Let me start by saying I’m a huge fan of your work. I’ve probably seen Satan’s Black Wedding, Criminally Insane 1 & 2, Death Nurse 1 & 2, Butcher Knife, and The Cemetery Sisters five to ten times each. They’re wonderfully strange and unique. I’ve never seen anything like them before or since. There are so many quirky moments within those movies I’d love to pick your brain about, but first I should probably ask you how you got started in horror. What were your influences, if any?
NICK MILLARD: Horror films are a genre that have a built-in audience. The old German horror film Nosferatu was one influence. The vampire with his ugly, long fingers is still a powerful, frightening image to this day. The Hammer films of the 1950s with Christopher Lee were very well made. British actors are always well trained. They have the repertory system. One week an actor will appear as the butler in a play, the next week he will appear as the lord of the manor. The stage is the best place to learn to act, not the soundstage.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: As I’ve already mentioned, I enjoyed the action/horror phase of your career the most. Did you produce any movies during this time that were never distributed, i.e. released to home video? Copyrightencyclopedia.com shows that your company I.R.M.I. Films Corporation filed copyrights for movies called Alcatraz Breakout (1979), One-armed Warrior (1984), Mac-10 (1986), Street Race (1986), A Divorce in Venice (1988), and Gun Father (1988). They’re not listed on your IMDb page. Do these movies exist?
NICK MILLARD: Alcatraz Breakout had a theatrical release. We shot exteriors at Alcatraz. The interiors, the row of cells, were built. It is a set. They are the exact dimensions of a real cell at Alcatraz. The paint on the walls, a sickly pale green color and white color, are the same. The film premiered at the St. Francis Theatre in San Francisco in 1979. The other films were of a lower budget, shot on video, and most went direct to video. The VHS video format was in use back in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. DVD had yet to be invented. I had the great, good fortune to meet the man who invented the home video business, a business that exists to this day (only the format has changed to DVD) and employs thousands of people. His name is George Atkinson, his company was World Video Pictures. He bought a package of five films from me. He was a gentleman, something rare in Hollywood. A pleasure to do business with. We shot A Divorce in Venice in Venice. It is the story of a crazy Italian film director, a personal friend of the great Federico Fellini. Because of his numerous infidelities, his wife wants a divorce. He always finds an excuse not to sign the divorce papers. It is a nice, light comedy. Made cheap. It did not sell. Same for Gunfather, which really surprised me because of Americans’ love for guns.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: That’s all extremely fascinating. I’d love to see those movies released to DVD one day! There’s almost zero information available on your 1999 movie Dracula in Vegas. What can you tell me about the plot or production? I know there are lots of collectors out there looking for it.
NICK MILLARD: Dracula in Vegas is a black comedy. My wife’s nephew came from Munich for a visit. I took the kid out to State Line/Primm, Nevada to see the Bonnie and Clyde death car. It is on display in one of the gambling casinos out there. The car is full of bullet holes. The kid got all excited when he saw it. “Onkle, Onkle, can we make a film where I play a young Clyde?” It is August, and the temperature is 105 or 106 nearly every day. I tell the kid that it is impossible to shoot in that kind of heat. I came up with a film idea that could be shot mostly at night. A vampire film. The kid, Maximillian, would play young Dracula. He has been accepted at three universities: Harvard, Yale, and University of Nevada Las Vegas. The kid wants to go to Harvard. His dad tells him that he is going to UNLV. It’s in an all-night town that has beautiful showgirls and sexy cocktail waitresses’ necks to bite. During the filming, Maximillian… fell in love with the beautiful blonde leading lady. An easy shoot, but it was still warm at night. A fun shoot. Made it cheap.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: I’ve also been dying to see your adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw starring Priscilla Alden. Was that one ever released to home video? What can you tell me about it?
NICK MILLARD: Priscilla was in the film. She played the part of the housekeeper, Mrs. Gross. The star was Elaine Corral Kendall, a three time Emmy award winner. Elaine played the leading role, that of the governess. The film had a theatrical release. I did not produce it. I wrote and directed the film. I am not sure about a DVD release. Henry James was an American, but is considered to be a British writer. His story is ambiguous. Are the children really evil and under the influence of a supernatural force, or is it only in the governess’ mind? I stayed true to James’ idea. I modernized the story, set it in Northern California, a town not far from San Francisco, and made the children more evil. They kill, and laugh about it. Priscilla was quite good in the film. It was a good shoot, with a good cast. San Francisco has very good actors and actresses, because they have a lot of little theatres in the Bay area. Best training ground for an actor. [My wife] Irmi and I lived in the Bay area for almost half our lives. San Francisco is a great city.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: In your movie Death Nurse, Edith repeats herself two different times. Were these editing snafus, or intentional decisions for comedic effect?
NICK MILLARD: For effect. I think you are talking about the scene she had with my mom — “Get back in bed, you nosy old bitch.” I don’t make mistakes of that kind in editing. I was trained by an excellent editor, Elliot Schick. On my first film, made in 1961, I knew that I could not find a distributor in San Francisco, and probably not an editor who’d edited a feature film, a narrative film. Documentary, yes, but not cutting dialogue. So I went to Hollywood, and hired Elliot to edit the film. He charged me five hundred dollars. Probably, like, $3,000.00 in today’s money. Five hundred dollars well spent. I learned how to edit, and never hired an editor since Elliot. He taught me to cut on motion and overlap some dialogue over a shot of the other person who was listening. Here is the good part — Elliot worked for me and went on to become an A-list feature film producer.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: I love that scene. I was pretty sure it wasn’t an editing error. I have another oddly specific question. In Butcher Knife, the actress who plays Mrs. Rogers (the one who’s killed with a hammer) has unnaturally dark skin. I have to ask, was she overly tan, or was she wearing blackface?
NICK MILLARD: I have not seen the film for some time. Trying to remember the character of Mrs. Rogers, but drawing a blank. Don’t remember the hammer. Butcher Knife is the only film I ever made that has a man doing the killings. In most of my films, it is women who do the killings. The answer to your question could possibly be technical, perhaps the color balance was off on the copy that you saw. It would have to be a VHS video cassette, and VHS is the absolute worst of all formats.
The color balance is off, way off. Back in the mid-sixties, when television threw film aesthetics out the window and insisted that all films be shot in color because of color television, top directors all over the world were not happy. The great films, and to this day it’s still true, were shot in black and white. Citizen Kane, Casablanca… The rule back then was that drama, war, and detective films were shot in black and white. Musicals and comedies were shot in color. Aside from this important aesthetic consideration, directors and cinematographers were afraid they would be left open to decisions made by laboratory technicians. Black and white film requires no color correction, only density correction (lighter or darker). Color requires much color correction. If you shoot at eight in the morning, and continue the same scene until late afternoon, the color will look quite different on the negative. Far more yellowish in late afternoon, the way a sunset looks.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: Thank you for divulging that. It’s my understanding that you never stop making movies. What are you working on now?
NICK MILLARD: I am finishing up The Old Mafia Guy, the story of an old guy who has been out of the rackets for years. He is told that a hit has been put out on him. He doesn’t know why. He finds out that the contract on his life has been given to a woman. She calls herself Geronimo when cruising L.A. lesbian bars on the make for beautiful Hollywood starlets. He is also warned that she completed U.S. Army Ranger training, and beat out several men in doing so. She is very dangerous because she’s been trained to kill by the best. He must find her, and do what he must do. I’m hoping that we will get older men to buy tickets or rent or buy DVDs. When Mafia Guy is finished I want to shoot a film in Monterey, California (John Steinbeck country). An older couple meet on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. They have just lost their spouses. They are not happy. They talk. They have dinner together, and little by little, with the beauty of Monterey and Carmel, California all around them, they fall in love.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: I would watch both of those. It sounds like you’re having fun making dramas. Would you ever return to horror?
NICK MILLARD: No. Drama is the top of the line. The human condition. No gunfights to help you, as in action films. No killings to help you, as in horror films. Most Oscars for Best Picture have gone to dramas. Great directors like Ingmar Bergman, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, Orson Welles, explore the human condition. It is much easier to get an effect in action and horror films than in drama. Woody [Allen] once said, “When you do comedy, you are sitting at the children’s table.” I agree with him aesthetically, but I must state that I consider comedy films to be a very, very important genre. On my list it comes right after drama because it is important to make people laugh. Maybe someone you love passes away. You go see a film, it is a comedy. You laugh a little, the laugh relieves your pain a little. Maybe not much, but a little. My career is in three parts — erotic, genre, drama. I worked hard to move from each part to the next step up the ladder. When I stopped doing erotic films, I lost my house on the French Riviera. There is always a price tag on everything, and I have always been willing to pay the price. Woody should do more dramas, not play it safe with so many comedies. He, like myself, admires Ingmar Bergman’s films. Top of the line. You have to be like the old fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. You have to row far, far out. Woody plays it safe. Same with John Grisham. A good writer, but afraid to row far, far out. Hemingway was not afraid. He created a masterpiece of literature.
THE DEVIL’S DVD BIN: Thank you for indulging my questions. I won’t eat up any more of your time. I know you’re a busy man, so I’ll let you get back to what it is that you do. Thank you for your time and for all the entertainment your movies have provided me.
NICK MILLARD: It was my pleasure. I think that it is important to remember the past, and set it down in writing. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you need more. It is too hot to shoot right now. Best regards, Nick.