Filmmaker Kevin Connor has redefined “eclectic” when it comes to cinematic resumes. To wit: The same man who made From Beyond the Grave (1974) and Motel Hell (1980), also made documentaries on Mother Theresa and Liz Taylor and Hallmark productions like Love at First Glance. He also combined these extremes with a remake of Frankenstein for Hallmark. Connor learned all aspects of filmmaking as a young man in England, editing for Richard Attenborough, working alongside Peter Sellers on The Magic Christian, then directing his own films, starting with From Beyond the Grave. Kevin Connor sat down to speak with PKM’s Anthony Petkovich about his long and happy career. Happy Halloween!
Prolific British filmmaker Kevin Connor is best known—at least, by many horror/sci-fi fans (including yours truly)—for having helmed several distinctive, sometimes campy, sometimes scary, at times gory, frequently fun entries in both England and America. For one, his very first movie, From Beyond the Grave (1974), is a tightly written, expertly acted, well-executed supernatural anthology from Britain’s Amicus Pictures (which also delivered eerie, atmospheric portmanteaus in the ‘60s and early ‘70s like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House That Dripped Blood, and Tales from the Crypt), based on a quartet of creepy short stories by late English writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and dealing with such entertaining fare as a ghoul-possessed mirror turning its owner (David Warner) into a modern-day Jack the Ripper, as well as a henpecked husband (Ian Bannen) befriending a creepy father and daughter (real-life father and daughter Donald and Angela Pleasance) who suggest murdering his bitter, nagging wife to successfully hitch up the downtrodden hubby with the strange-looking, voodoo-practicing daughter… leading to some nasty results all-around.
Additionally, Connor is well-known for his string of English-produced dinosaur/sci-fi/adventure flicks —most of ‘em based on novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs—like The Land That Time Forgot (1974), At the Earth’s Core (1976), and Warlords of Atlantis (1978), wherein the creatures, like those beloved cheesy aliens and beasts from the original Dr. Who series, are guys dressed up in giant-monster outfits or huge models/puppets operated by sometimes-easy-to-spot wires.
But Connor is probably most infamous for concocting the American-made Motel Hell (1980), a bizarre, pleasantly disturbing mixture of Psycho (1960) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), involving a twisted brother and sister (cowboy star Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons) operating a rundown motel out in the sticks; the perverse pair delighting in kidnapping folks with the bad fortune of staying at their place or just traveling past it; victims, winding up in their repulsive ‘garden’, buried alive, up to their necks, with their vocal cords slashed and hormone fed, until they’re ripe and ready, at which point hack farmer Calhoun breaks their necks and grinds up their bodies, using their soft flesh to make beef jerky, sausages, and other ‘spicy’ meats for the unknowing public—making cannibals of ‘em all! The film has become a cult favorite, boasting the cinema’s first chainsaw duel in a horror picture.
Consequently, with these graphic, pulp-like, highly escapist, sometimes marvelously outrageous titles under Connor’s belt, it’s hard to imagine that the same guy would go on to direct “chick flicks” for the Hallmark Channel. But he did! And he’s enjoyed every minute of it, as Connor sincerely loves his work. Sure, some of that Hallmark stuff is pretty schmaltzy, but there’s some good material, as well, like Love at First Glance (2017), a bit more complicated, circuitous, and creative than just your more formulaic girl-meets-boy-hates-the-boob-but-ultimately-falls-head-over-heels-for-the-big-lug material.
Keep in mind, however, that Hallmark also covers “murder and mystery”, Connor having delivered an excellent, gnarly (complete with gushing blood, amputated body parts, and in-your-face violence) critically-acclaimed version of Frankenstein in 2004, starring William Hurt and Donald Sutherland.
The wide-ranging director, now 84, has also done a plethora of American TV shows (Hart to Hart, Moonlighting, Remington Steele), various mini-series (North and South, The Seventh Scroll), epic bio pics (Marco Polo, Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story, Mother Theresa: In the Name of God’s Poor), as well as provocative TV movies (The Old Curiosity Shop, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and the noirish Sunset Grill).
I recently spoke on the phone with Connor (living close by in the Hollywood Hills), discussing his long, eclectic career—including the editing of such counterculture films as The Magic Christian (1969)—with a spotlight on his more monster-/murder-/maniac-driven movies; the talented, good-natured, modest director attributing (at least some of) his success to sheer good fortune.
PKM: So, Kevin, were you raised in London?
Kevin Connor: I was born in Kings Cross, London, but brought up in the countryside about 25 miles outside of London in Hertfordshire. I suppose I’m a country boy.
PKM: Were you interested in movies as a kid?
Kevin Connor: Obviously Saturday morning films, which is what every kid goes through. But I was really interested in still photography. I was also interested in not doing school sports. (laughs) So I thought, ‘The only way I can get out of doing school sports is to make a movie about sports.’ Of course, the schoolmaster was all for it. This is 1950-51, somewhere around there. We used a 9.5-millimeter camera, which I borrowed off of a (friend). There was no soundtrack on it, but I had a record player alongside the projector, because I ran it for the class. I think I put a bit of jazz music to it. When I edited it together, I got the kids from all of the other classes to come into the classroom to watch the film. So we ran it about 10 times in one day—and I charged them each thruppence… three pennies. (laughs)
PKM: Hear, hear. (laughs) Can you tell us a bit about your parents?
Kevin Connor: My mum was a homemaker, and father was a deputy surveyor for the Metropolitan Water Board, which in those days was a government entity, state-owned, as opposed to a private one. I was born before World War II, just prior to the D-Day landings.
Anyway, dissolve to a number of years later, when the War is over… to one night when a big glow of light is coming from a former American hospital nearby where we lived. By now, of course, the hospital was deserted and covered in brambles and nettles. But they were making a movie down there!
So we went down on our bicycles and had a look. It was magic. There’s nothing more magical than a film set at night. The film company had turned this derelict American hospital into a (prisoner of war camp). There were all of these people with their belongings trudging across the railway lines into the opening of the camp. And there were police, German Nazis in uniform, Alsatians… It was a feature film out of Elstree Studios called Odette (1950), which was the story of a wonderful English woman, Odette Churchill—no relation to (Winston) Churchill—parachuted into France as a spy, but eventually caught and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. So this was her story.
And it was that film set which really got me going.
So when I left school, I wrote to every film company in the London telephone directory; people like Fox, Paramount, Warners, who all had places there. But there was no work going on. I only got a couple of replies out of the hundred letters I sent. So I went back to school. And two weeks later, one of the people had written back: “We’ve got a job for a young trainee in the editing rooms.” Now, even though I wanted to be working on the cameras—I liked the idea of going up on those cranes and swinging across the set—I thought, ‘Well, let’s get in the door.’ It was a small industry in England at the time.
So, yeah, I went up to London and worked in this documentary company. I was 16… didn’t go to college or anything… this was ’53. I did National Service from ’55 to ’57, and afterwards got a job working at Shepperton Studios, which was a wonderful old studio. At that point I was assistant to both sound editors and editors.
PKM: When did you graduate to becoming a full-on editor?
Kevin Connor: That’s one of the breaks in the film industry; the luck, if you like. I was assistant editor on a film called Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Richard Attenborough; Forbes and Attenborough had formed their own production company. Anyhow, the film was finished, I was in the cutting room at Pinewood at 9 a.m., the phone rings—and it’s Attenborough.
“The distributors want to cut a minute and a half out of the film,” he said. “Is the editor there?”
“No, no,” I said. “He’s at the dentist.” But, in fact, he wasn’t. He was always late, so I covered for him.
“Well,” Attenborough said, “have you got any ideas about what we can do?”
“Yes, actually I do,” having watched the film umpteen times.
“Oh, would you do the alteration then?”
“Can I see it tomorrow?”
“You can see it in half an hour if you’re available,” I said.
“Oh… Oh! Really? Well, I’ll book a theatre.”
I knew exactly—just lucky (laughs)—where to lift this minute and a half out. So I put the reel up, ran it down—snip! snip!—joined it up, and got it down to the theatre. Attenborough came over to me after the screening and said, “What did you cut out? We don’t miss it, do we?” “No, sir,” I said.
And even by that time, the editor still hadn’t come in to work. Now, had he not been late, he would’ve done the job himself. It was just one of those breaks.
Anyway, a year later, I was at Twickenham Studios doing sound editing on a film called Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) for director Tony Richardson (note: of Look Back in Anger and Tom Jones fame). I was in the cutting room, the phone rings, and… it’s Attenborough. “Oh, Kevin, how are you doing?” “Great, thanks.” “Kevin, I want you to edit my upcoming film. It’s the first film I’m going to direct, and I want you to cut it.” “Dick,” I said, “I’ve never edited a film as an editor before.” “Don’t worry about that. I want you to do it. Alright? I’m coming over to see you now.”
He lived in nearby Twickenham, and was in the cutting rooms within 15 minutes, and went through the whole script. I mean, not word for word, but he went through some of the songs—I don’t know if you ever seen Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)…
PKM: I have. It’s a huge film, with the biggest stars in England: Lawrence Olivier, John Mills, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave…
Kevin Connor: (laughs) Everybody is in it; all of the Sirs and Knights. It’s a fantastic cast, because they all rallied around Attenborough. Everybody loved Dicky Attenborough because he was a stage actor, as well. He starred in Brighton Rock (1948) and some wonderful movies, and produced some great movies, as well. He knew that whole clique of fellow actors and could get anybody in the film whom he wanted. And, for me, it was a huge break. There was a bit of opposition from some Paramount executives. “Ahhh, this guy—how can he cut a musical?! It’s complicated. Blah, blah, blah.”
But I knew I could do it. I mean, you just do it. What are you going to do?—say no? (laughs) I felt quite capable, and Attenborough stuck by me. He really pushed for me and got me on board. It wasn’t exactly brain surgery. And for a first film, I was lucky in that the director, who was also the producer, was on my side, and the film was relatively easy to edit.
PKM: And you also edited Young Winston (1972) for Attenborough.
Kevin Connor: Right. And after Oh! What a Lovely War, Attenborough and I became great friends, and he was very loyal to his crew and camera people, so it was the same gang. It became like a little family. But, of course, he didn’t go literally from directing one film to another. He did acting jobs in-between. So you had to do other films in-between. I’ve been freelance all of my life; never worked for a company for more than the length of the film. You’re just hired for the job and then move on.
PKM: And you edited The Magic Christian for director Joseph McGrath. Was he very hands-on with your editing?
Kevin Connor: Yes, he came into the editor room an awful lot. But, with someone like (actor Peter) Sellers, it was slightly scattered because Sellers was very inventive and “Let me another take and I’ll do this,” and so on, so you had a lot more to play with and decisions to make. But that was quite (laughs) an adventure. It was the Sixties, and you really had to… Of course, in the middle of the shoot there was that horrible murder here.
PKM: The Tate murders.
Kevin Connor: Yes. And, the writer of The Magic Christian, Terry Southern, had written some wonderful stuff, mind-bending, going in new directions and things. So it was quite (laughs) interesting watching this movie evolve with that kind of writer.
PKM: I can imagine. Did you have much contact with Sellers?
Kevin Connor: Oh, he used to come into the cutting rooms. He wanted his son to get into the cutting rooms, so he used to come over and chat with us. An absolute delight, all of the time, despite the stories that circulated around him. He was absolutely terrific. Have you ever read those telegrams between the Marx Brothers and Warner Brothers about Casablanca (1942)? Warner Brothers sued the Marx Brothers for using A Night in Casablanca (1946). They said, “You can’t use the word ‘Casablanca’!” And the Marx Brothers said, “Oh, of course we can.” So there were a lot of lawyers’ letters going back and forth. I’d read them in a book someplace, but Peter Sellers had them down pat, by memory. And he’d walk up and down the cutting rooms, going up as Groucho Marx accusing Warner Brothers, “You can’t copyright Casablanca because Casablanca is a city!” and then he’d turn around and become a Warner Brothers’ executive spouting off the reply and then—bingo!—back as Groucho Marx. It was really brilliant, and just for my assistant and me, nobody else.
PKM: It was a private Sellers’ show. Fantastic.
Kevin Connor: Yeah! Brilliant. I’d never seen him do it on TV.
PKM: So, how did you land your first film, From Beyond the Grave?
Kevin Connor: I got a bit twitchy about editing… wanted to move on and try something else…. Actually, I thought I’d like to produce (films). Anyway, I came across a book of short stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and bought an option on 12 of his short stories with the idea of making a half-hour TV series in the horror genre, but in modern times, so you didn’t have to have any period cast or anything. It would take place on the underground, or on a bus, or a street, so you would reduce the cost of making these things. And they were lovely stories. All great stories. I got two friends and said, “Tell you what, we’ll each write four of these things,” that’s why it was 12, “and within a month, with a bit of luck, we’ll have a package together, and I’ll give them to my agent and see what happens.” So every week we met up and read each other’s stories and created the 12 short (teleplays). My agent hawked them around, but nobody wanted to know about them for TV. “No, we don’t do horror films for TV,” they said. I mean, how wrong were they.
PKM: (laughs) Totally wrong.
Kevin Connor: They were simple stories, too. Not expensive. Anyway, they eventually wound up on the desk of Milton Subotsky, who was one of the producers at Amicus Films. I got called in by Milton, and we had a meeting at Warner Brothers in London with my agent, where Milton said, “I like four of these stories. So I’m going to take four of them, write an interlocking story, and we’ll have Peter Cushing in-between the stories—and you can direct them.” I said, “I was hoping to produce them with you.” “No,” he said, “you can direct them.” “Oh! Alright. But… I’ve never directed you know, Milton.” “Don’t worry. I’ll get good people around you, and you can direct them. Editors make good directors,” he said, because they’re economical and when you shoot you know what you’ve got.
So, that was it. He purchased four of the stories, wrote the interlocking story with Peter Cushing, and I think it was two months later that we were shooting at Shepperton. And he got me one of the greatest cameramen, Alan Hume, a terrific DP; and a wonderful camera operator called Derek Browne, whom I’d work with before. And the sound guy was on this film that I saw being made as a kid locally: Peter Handford, wonderful man.
PKM: From Beyond the Grave, like Tales from the Crypt (1971), seemed like a more lavish production than the other Amicus portmanteau/anthology horror movies. Did it have a fairly big budget?
Kevin Connor: No, I think it must have fitted into their normal budget range. It might have gotten a bit more of a budget because it was Warner Brothers… I’m not sure. The production designer, Maurice Carter, was one of the great art directors of the British film industry who gave it a richness that the other Amicus movies maybe didn’t have; magic that makes it pop. I mean, how lucky can you get? He did Becket (1965), phenomenal pictures like that. His team were also old school and absolutely brilliant. I really had a phenomenal crew. And the cast! I had David Warner, Donald Pleasance and his daughter Angela… Margaret Leighton, Diana Dors, Ian Bannen, Ian Carmichael… and Lesley-Ann Down, who was 16 and absolutely gorgeous, eventually going on to great things. So I was very lucky.
PKM: Tell us about working with Peter Cushing, with whom you’d ultimately make several films.
Kevin Connor: Yes. We also did At the Earth’s Core and Arabian Adventure together. Peter was one of the true English gentlemen; so well-mannered, polite, kind, gentle, and understanding. I mean, I can’t say enough wonderful things about him as a person, even before you got him on set and started directing him. He’d come to the set and had nice ideas and little props which he liked. “Would you mind if I used this particular pencil or this pen,” he’d always ask me, “because it’s something my (late) wife gave me, and I’d like to use it in a film?” Little, tiny things with detail.
And in-between takes, Peter wore white-cotton gloves, which you’d wear in the cutting room, when you wound the film to keep it dust-free and keep your hands (laughs) from getting nicked by broken sprockets. Peter would ask, “Oh, can I have a couple of pairs of those gloves?” And he used to wear these white cotton gloves in-between takes because he smoked. You see, the nicotine would stay in the fingers, and you’d get a very nasty brown stain, which you couldn’t get off. So he always wore these cotton gloves to prevent getting nicotine stains.
But working with him… He’d been at it for a long time, obviously. This was my first film as a director, and he was so understanding. There was no, “This is the way I want it!” or “I want to stand over there!” or “No, no, I’m not going to do that! I’m going to do this!” Whatever I wanted, he would do. There was no question of being, you know, a pain in the ass or tricky for the sake of being tricky with a new director.
PKM: What was Ian Bannen like? He died way too early in a car accident back in 1999.
Kevin Connor: A tragedy. What I did with all of the actors is that I arranged to have dinner with them, so I’d get to know them, because you didn’t get any rehearsal time on that kind of film, as there wasn’t that kind of money. And Bannen was one of them, and we had a very delightful dinner up in London, and chatted and bonded or whatever, and it paid off, because when you then meet them on the morning that you’re gonna shoot—when there are costume fittings and things like that—it makes life easier, because you’ve already sort of broken the ice, as it were, and felt each other really.
PKM: Smart move. What about working with Diana Dors, who was considered Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe?
Kevin Connor: Ah! Yes. (laughs) Nothing like Diana Dors. She was a hoot. A down-to-earth girl. Really lovely. Again, I was so lucky with that cast. I thought, ‘Well, with David Warner it might be a bit tricky because he’s clearly an actor that does off-the-wall parts and things that maybe require on-the-spot invention and playing with them and getting them right and so on’; like that film he was famous for (note: the ‘66 comedy Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment). But he was fantastic, and I worked with him on several films, and whenever we’d meet up, we were good chums. And Donald Pleasance… again what a pro. The whole cast, the crew, and the technicians were just wonderful.
PKM: I thought Margaret Leighton was terrific as the older, somewhat slovenly, rather comical exorcist in the lighter episode “The Elemental”.
Kevin Connor: Yes. See, those stories had a nice range to them: Some were comedy, some tongue-in-cheek, some deadly serious… A nice range. But, sadly, Amicus didn’t make any more of those compilation films.
PKM: Is there one particular From Beyond the Grave episode which you especially liked?
Kevin Connor: I liked the Ian Bannen one with Diana Dors, Donald Pleasance, and Angela Pleasance, because that image of Angela and Donald… They both have those pale, blue eyes and look a really evil pair. (laughs) That was probably my favorite. But I enjoyed making all of them. They were fun things.
PKM: Were the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ dinosaur pictures the next projects you did for Amicus?
Kevin Connor: Yes—The Land That Time Forgot. I don’t think I ever read any Edgar Rice Burroughs, though.
PKM: It almost seemed like a package situation, because the same folks worked on those movies: star Doug McClure, producer John Dark, cinematographer Alan Hume, art director Maurice Carter… you, of course…
Kevin Connor: That’s right—same gang. And I like that sort of family company feeling, which Milton had generated. Milton was a very easy-going, cultured man. They sort of approved of what I did on From Beyond the Grave, and Milton asked me if I’d like to direct the next one, which was going to be a bigger feature. “Yeah, of course. Lovely,” I said. And the script I got was pretty good.
PKM: Did you direct those dinosaur sequences, or were they done by a second-unit crew?
Kevin Connor: That was all done pre-production, like a second unit, because they were puppets, kind of like how they did the Muppets. I did direct a lot of the sequences where (the actors) would fit into the front projection, that sort of stuff. But all of the model work, like with the submarine, you did before starting the main shooting, before the actors arrived.
PKM: The Land That Time Forgot had Derek Meddings from the James Bond movies doing special effects.
Kevin Connor: Meddings! There you are. You can’t get much better than Derek Meddings. One of the greatest.
PKM: Was it a pain in the ass, though, filming that pterodactyl? (laughs)
Kevin Connor: It was a tough one. I think eventually the last bit (with the dinosaurs at the climax of the movie) was done with animation; but literally there was no animation; just a model flying on a way-distant (rig). And it wasn’t easy getting people into the jaws of various monsters. (laughs) I watch it now, and I can still see the wires on the pterodactyl as it got what’s-his-name into his beak or jaws.
PKM: (laughs) What was star Doug McClure like?
Kevin Connor: I wasn’t very knowledgeable about a lot of the American cowboy actors. (Note: McClure was a regular lead on the Western TV series The Virginian from 1962-1971) Anyway, this handsome guy turns up, and dear Doug was really larger-than-life. A big character. Very nice guy and very impressive in terms of the fights we got into with the monsters. He knew exactly where the camera was, how much to push, where he could be, and how to throw the punch. I mean, it took that sort of American way of doing the fights and the stunts and so on. He was so slick at it. And each take was kind of perfect. He never gave a phony hit or stuff like that. That was Doug, who basically played himself in the film.
PKM: Why did they decide to use Patrick Wayne as the male lead for The People That Time Forgot (1977) rather than Doug McClure, who only makes a cameo appearance?
Kevin Connor: I don’t know how that all came about. We had very good casting people again on that picture. Patrick was a really handsome guy but not the greatest actor in the world, but he was very amicable, easy to work with, and you got what you could out of him. We managed to go to this island off Portugal and get some wonderful scenery; and with the model work, again, we had good people on it.
PKM: A video blogger on YouTube showing a boiled-down, 19-minute version of Warlords of Atlantis, which was your final dinosaur movie, said that these Kevin Connor movies have “monsters, babes, and adventure” and, basically, what more do you want? (laughs)
Kevin Connor: What more do you want? Right. (laughs) There’s a sort of innocence to them, as well.
PKM: Absolutely. Do you have a favorite movie amongst those four adventure/prehistoric creature titles?
Kevin Connor: I’m very fond of Land because it’s the first one I did, and I created the idea of making a series. I tried to get the remaining eight Burroughs’ stories made, but Milton didn’t go for them. I don’t know where the scripts are now. I quite liked The Arabian Adventure of that series of films that I did with (producer) John Dark. McClure wanted to be in it, but we said, “No”, as we’d had enough McClure for the moment.
PKM: (laughs) So why did you make your move to America? Was it a career move? A matter of economics?
Kevin Connor: A bit of both. Mid-life crisis. It’s like Everest; you gotta have a go at it. It’s there, and if you fail, at least you had a go. It was in the late Seventies, around ’79. Again, I got lucky. You gotta have those breaks… those moments… the people you meet just at that particular time and you end up where you end up. Of course, when you get the break, you’ve got to be able to step up and do it. But on the other hand, to get in the door is pretty difficult here.
PKM: That’s what I hear. So, was Motel Hell the first American film you did?
Kevin Connor: Yeah. Oh, Rory Calhoun. Wonderful. I mean, what a background he had. He was quite a guy in his day, but by now he was in his sixties and very quiet, married, with a daughter, and a delight to chat to.
PKM: How did you get involved in Motel Hell?
Kevin Connor: Well, Herb Jaffe was an executive at United Artists, and I guess his sons (Steven-Charles and Robert) got the green light to do a movie through their father. So when I arrived in January 1980, I was scratching around and had two contacts; one of them was an agent called Bobby Littman. So I met up with Bobby and gave him my director’s reel on VHS, but he really wasn’t interested in taking me on. Two or three weeks later, I called up his office and said, “I haven’t heard anything from you, so I’m coming down to collect my VHS reel.” “Yeah,” the girl at the front desk said. “It’ll be here. Just pop in anytime.”
So I went down the next day, go into the office, Littman’s office door opens, out he comes, he’s got a cup o’ coffee which he wants to renew, and he says, “Oh! Kevin! How’re you doing? What’s going on?” I said, “Nyaahh… Not much.” “Come in here. I’m gonna get you a job.” “Righto.” And we go into his office, I sit down, he picks up the phone, dials another agency, and begins speaking to this one woman who says, “Oh, we’re looking for a director to do a horror film. Has Kevin directed a horror film?” And I said, (hedging) “Nnnnnn… yeah. I’ve directed a horror film.”
So I go to this new agency, and they send me up to meet the two brothers, Charles and Robert (Jaffe), who wanted to see the horror film that I’d done. I managed to find a copy of From Beyond the Grave in some depot way out in the outskirts of L.A. I had to go out in the pouring rain and get a copy of this movie, and films in those days were in big canisters; and I dragged the canisters all the way back to UA and ran the film for them. Fortunately, they liked it—and they gave me the script.
So back I went to my one-room flat in West Hollywood to read it, and at first it says, EXTERIOR NIGHT, LONG SHOT of (the neon sign reading) MOTEL HELLO. The O is (sputtering out) in the night. Cut to: Inside motel room; a fat woman is in bed with a dildo and a pig. And I said to myself, ‘What the fuck? This is what I’ve come to do? This kind of shit?’ But I didn’t have much money in the bank at the time, you know. So I read the rest of it and thought, ‘Well, it’s got some charm and there’s stuff in there that I like.’ So I met the boys and said, “Look, please, if we take out of this juvenile stuff—dildos and pigs and things… I mean, give me a break. You’re never gonna get a classy horror film with that kind of stuff. Take it out.” They agreed, and we went through and made it darker and more tongue in cheek. But the actors mustn’t play it tongue in cheek. You gotta play it straight, and you gotta believe in it. And that’s exactly how Nancy Parsons and Rory played it, as if this (laughs) is a normal life. You don’t want to take the piss out of the genre, because then it doesn’t work. If you’re gonna do that genre, and you’re gonna spoof it, you have to do it very well.
PKM: Agreed. So how did all of these Yanks treat this British director?
Kevin Connor: I must say, I never had any sort of, “Bloody Brit, comin’ here and takin’ our jobs!” or stuff like that. I was welcomed.
PKM: Where was Motel Hell filmed?
Kevin Connor: We shot it at a ranch in southern California off of Highway 14 (note: at the Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita). I think it was actually a motel at one time, which got burnt down in the last couple of years in the fires. But an absolutely ideal place.
PKM: I believe Motel Hell has the first on-screen chainsaw duel ever filmed in a horror movie.
Kevin Connor: (laughs) I guess so. That was a send-up of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I’d seen in England; and it was so well-done, I must say.
PKM: They, actually, had a chainsaw duel between Leatherface and Dennis Hopper in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986); a scene which, I’m guessing, is a send-up of Motel Hell, or at least it was inspired by your movie.
Kevin Connor: (laughs) Well, it’s a pretty obvious thing to have a duel, especially with Star Wars and stuff.
PKM: How do you feel about Motel Hell today?
Kevin Connor: I watched it not so long ago, and it’s amazing how I get a lot of calls about it and interviews and questions like, “Have (you) got any of the props like the beef jerky that was on the counter in the film? Have you got any of that stuff which you want to sell?” (laughs) If only I’d known, I’d have kept everything from the set.
I was also on a film set about 10 years ago, and the clapper boy or camera assistant turned to me and said, “You directed Motel Hell, didn’t you?” and I said, “Yes… yeah, yeah.” And he said, “I did that at film school.” “You what?” “Yeah, it was one of the films which we studied.” I said, “I can’t believe it.” (laughs)
PKM: After Motel Hell, you worked on a lot of TV shows, including Moonlighting, Remington Steele and quite a few episodes of Hart to Hart.
Kevin Connor: Quite a bit, yes. Then I got a break doing North and South (1986) which was a big mini-series in its day. So I got sidetracked, really, into big mini-series and four-hour TV things, and filling in like a lot of directors; doing Remington Steele or Hotel or Hart to Hart, which was your bread and butter.
But these mini-series used to take me all over the place: Africa, Japan, France… So, in a way, it was much better than the world of feature films, which can be very treacherous. They’re very hard to get in to. You’re trying to push your own projects and nobody wants to know about them—and you want to keep working, because you gotta live.
So I got sidetracked really into doing these big mini-series, and I had a pretty good 20-odd-year run. So, come 2000 or whatever, and everything seemed to change. I don’t know what it was. Also, another generation comes up from behind you and starts pushing at the top and so on. So I settled down doing a lot of Hallmark things for Larry Levinson (Productions); but I was still trying to get done my own material that I wanted to make. But you still gotta keep earning.
PKM: Have you made some of those more personal projects?
Kevin Connor: Never got any of them off the ground.
PKM: Can you tell us about some of them? I believe you’re working on one called Connemara.
Kevin Connor: Right. It’s about the making of The Quiet Man (1952), which made a great impression on me. I’m a great John Ford fan. Anyhow, a friend of mine wrote the script about the film unit coming to this little village in Ireland and making (the film) with John Ford and John Wayne and the rest, and the impact that it has on a family in the village, with the first AD falling in love with the local girl and so forth; and you have scenes from The Quiet Man. You don’t reenact the scenes, but you have them from one of the village kid’s point of view, because he became an extra on the film. So it’s a very charming nod to this iconic film. And for five million dollars or so, you could really have quite a good cast lined up… Stacy Keach to play John Ford… Every year I try to have a go at getting it done, and (laughs) I’m not giving up yet.
I’ve also got a Halloween/thriller script that I’ve been trying to push for a couple of years, and another one called Cemetary Girl.
PKM: That title alone sounds great! What about your Elizabeth Taylor bio pic Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story (1995)? Did Miss Taylor ever comment on your movie?
Kevin Connor: I never heard of any comments, but she was suing the producer all of the time, because she didn’t want it made, and he wasn’t going to pay her anything, because it’s historical fact, I suppose. I think she probably wanted so much money anyway (laughs), which, again, he wasn’t gonna pay. Maybe if he’d been prepared to pay her something… But she brought up a lot of these cases to try and stop him from making the film, and he eventually sued her or got a judgment against her. When you harass someone with court cases and inundate people with pointless charges, then it becomes a nuisance. You’re doing it on purpose. I think it’s called a nuisance. Anyway, it’s something which you can stop people from doing if they keep doing it to you.
But the actress who played Liz Taylor tried to get in touch with Taylor herself, wanting to talk to her about it, but (laughs) Taylor wasn’t having any of that.
Also, one of the things we had to agree about was that Liz Taylor couldn’t be seen in bed with any of her so-called lovers; even the ones whom she did marry, like Michael Todd. You couldn’t have a scene with him in bed with her; I mean, just in bed, having a chat or whatever. That was interesting.
PKM: Very. In terms of your scores of Hallmark movies, I really enjoyed Love at First Glance.
Kevin Connor: I believe that was one of the last Hallmark films I did. Yes. The lead actress is great. That was a good one, somewhat different, very good cast… Some of those Hallmark movies were better than others, some were copycat. I did about six Christmas movies for them, as well. They’d always shoot the Christmas movies in August in Simi Valley which is (laughs)… I don’t know if you’ve been out to Simi Valley on an August’s day. It’s bloody hot out there.
PKM: I have—and you’re right, it’s boiling.
Kevin Connor: The Hallmark things were quite fun. But, mind you, they’ve changed now because of the way things have changed—the diversification. Today in a Hallmark film, you can have a lesbian or gay couple as the leads. I mean, they really had to open up a lot in terms of being diverse. And the directors also had to be very diverse, as well, which is good, and I’m all for it.
But I did do a few good ones for Hallmark, including Frankenstein; one of my most satisfying films. We shot that in Czechoslovakia and Bratislava. Again, a great crew. A lot of them, like the folks in the art department, were Czechoslovakian and had made their movies under the Russian occupation. The Russians built studios in these countries that they’d taken over, and there was this old Russian studio. Ugly, bloody thing… concrete… But it had everything in it for modern-day; like a tank was buried inside the stages, which weren’t wooden, they were earth floors, so you could dig holes and put the camera down low and all that kind of stuff. There were dressing rooms there… all of the facilities. So, all of these art department guys who’d made these Russian propaganda films and so on, who drank and loved their vodka (laughs), they were brilliant art directors and set decorators. They really did a fantastic job. Again, they made the film really pop. They gave it that look.
PKM: How did you want your rendition of Frankenstein to be different from other versions?
Kevin Connor: I wanted to make the monster more sympathetic, but it was still inherent in the screenplay. I’d give credit really to the writer. I didn’t change it very much. He did a really good adaptation, because the last third of the book is an impossible thing to shoot. I mean, (laughs) it just goes all over the place. And we had phenomenal locations. For instance, we went to Norway… were up on these glacier things with these crevices and the huskies…
PKM: Did you have much input regarding the actual look of the creature?
Kevin Connor: Yeah. I think we did tests here before we went out on location.
PKM: He had more of a long-haired, ghoulish, Goth look.
Kevin Connor: Yes. We shot a couple of things, then changed it slightly. There might have been too many stitches, so I think we did a few adjustments, just to make it more simpatico.
PKM: What was it like working with Donald Sutherland on Frankenstein?
Kevin Connor: He knows his stuff. Very amiable. Again, he likes to wear bits of stuff that he’s particularly fond of. And I got a bit of flak for that.
Kevin Connor: In Frankenstein, he wears a wind (breaker) type of thing, and he said, “Oh, I’d like to wear this because it was given to me by an Indian tribe,” or something like that and, “I love this garment, and I think it’s period.” The costume designer didn’t object, and it looked period to me. But I got a bit of flak from head office saying it looked very modern. But who knows? Jesus Christ.
But Donald was fine—and he loves his wine. We went out for a nice dinner, and (laughs) he must have bought the most expensive wine possible in Bratislava. And he was, again, word perfect, listened to everything I had to say or offer or whatever. I mean, when you get those sorts of fine actors who’ve been doing it… In North and South, for example, I had Olivia de Havilland and Jimmy Stewart. Now, what am I gonna tell Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland? You give them things about the character and so on, but when you get the Donald Pleasances of this world and the David Warners, they’re just superb. They bring their craft, and that’s what they should be doing. Everybody brings their craft to a movie. Of course, as a director, you’re still manipulating… you have the overall picture, and you push, and tweak, and pull, and get what you need.
PKM: Which sounds like a blast in itself. So, do you have a favorite film that you’ve directed or a movie that stands out as being one which you had the most fun working on?
Kevin Connor: I certainly had a lot of fun on Oh! What A Lovely War. But most of the films I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed, because I make it that way. What’s the point of being miserable on a film? Most people who work on films love doing what they do. And if you get those same kinds of people around you, then you enjoy it. You’re happy to go to work every morning. I mean, why not? Bloody hell. And to go all over the world to make these movies… to go to places where you wouldn’t go as a tourist… to go into palaces and extraordinary buildings and meet people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet… It’s really the best job in the world.
PKM: Sounds fantastic. Well, good luck with Connemara Days, Cemetary Girl, and your other projects. And… last question, Kevin: What was it like working with Christopher Lee on Arabian Adventure and Goliath Awaits (1981).
Kevin Connor: Christopher Lee. (laughs) I mean, he was brilliant. This man spoke eight different languages, was an opera singer, very accomplished… a very cultured man. At the end of the Second World War, when there were so many people moving about, and the Nazis were disguising themselves, he was an interviewer for all of these various refugees as they came through checkpoints, because he could speak so many different languages. Christopher was one of the guys searching out for these runaway Nazis who were trying to escape the country. He was well-read, a great linguist, a great cricketer… Yes, he was a little bit pompous and so on, and he obviously hated being known as Dracula. But he was actually a very nice man. I got on great with him!
Special thanks: Barbara Vetter, Alexx Van Dyne, and Robert Tilem