Florida cult-film director William Grefe’ (‘Gruh-fay’) turned low-budget filmmaking into a sort of folk art in the ‘60s and ‘70s, using man-eating gators, deadly snakes, killer sharks (pre-Jaws), blood & gore, car/boat crashes galore, not to mention William Shatner as a psychopathic gigolo and Rita Hayworth as an aging seductress. Films like The Wild Rebels, Stanley, The Devil’s Sisters, The Psychedelic Priest were staples of the drive-in crowd and are now being rediscovered. Anthony Petkovich had a lively conversation with the 90-year-old Grefe’ about his career for PKM
Sure, William Shatner’s most famous role may be as the galaxy-gallivanting stud-hero Captain Kirk on TV’s original Star Trek way back in the late 60’s. But Shatner’s most infamous role, hands down, is as the leisure-suited, sideburn-flaunting, sweaty, paranoid gigolo psycho-killer in the trashy Florida horror thriller Impulse (1974). Shatner goes all out in this one! His demented, repulsive, yet strangely engrossing character (innocuously named Matt Stone) tears at the flailing hands of his female victims with his teeth (!) as he savagely strangles them… stops at motorcycle accidents to voyeuristically ogle the gore-strewn red asphalt… bizarrely crashes funerals at Tampa mortuaries… heinously snarls at/verbally degrades overweight women in public… and shamelessly seduces wealthy, lonely females, conning them out of their life savings through sham investments, before murdering them in cold blood… Shatner’s homicidal lounge-lizard character frequently exhibiting intense self-loathing to the point of nearly puking on himself.
It’s classic Shat!
A homemade “trailer” for Impulse:
And it’s all thanks to the marvelously twisted mind of Florida film director William Grefe´ (pronounced “Gruh-fay”).
“I was born and raised in Miami—so, as they say, I’m a Florida cracker,” Grefe´ told me with hearty laughter from his native home-base during our extensive phone conversation.
Grefe´directed a slew of amazing grindhouse (or low-budget exploitation) movies during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Starting with the car-racing melodrama The Checkered Flag (1963), the renegade filmmaker covered a wide array of provocative topics/genres in his extensive movie catalog, including scurrilous hustlers (not only with Impulse but also The Naked Zoo (1970), featuring Hollywood legend Rita Hayworth; anarchic motorcycle gangs (The Wild Rebels), female serial killers (The Devil’s Sisters), ‘60s drug counterculture (The Psychedelic Priest, The Hooked Generation), scum-eradicating rattlesnakes (Stanley), vengeful killer sharks (Mako: The Jaws of Death), and good old-fashioned monsters (Sting of Death, Death Curse of Tartu). Additionally, Grefe´ coordinated the most impressive action sequences in the first (and probably best) Roger Moore/James Bond blockbuster Live and Let Die (1973). And, oddly enough, the Floridian filmmaker has worked with just as many animals—snakes, alligators, sharks—as actors.
The director’s last big exploitation entry was the murderous-hillbilly actioner WhiskeyMountain (1977), starring Christopher George, after which Grefe´ began exhaustively helming half-hour promotional reels for Bacardi rum, by this time having successfully ridden the American grindhouse wave for nearly two solid decades, right to the tail-end of the ‘70s.
Like late great Blood Feast auteur Herschel Gordon Lewis, William Grefe´, now 90, is an icon in the world of grunge cult titles, his wildly entertaining movies largely shot all over Florida—Grefe´, however, more sharply focusing on the terror, crime, madness, sadism, and/or sleaze within the darker, murkier vistas of the (in Grefe´s eyes, frequently not-so-sunny) Sunshine State.
Curiously enough, Grefe´s entire career as a film director began as a total fluke…
I said, “Frank, we gotta do this alligator scene (for Tartu) in the morning. Bring me a real docile alligator because it’s gotta work with this (actress).”
PKM: So, Bill, do you miss the drive-in theaters?
William Grefe´: Oh yeah! So many young filmmakers tell me that I was very fortunate—as were all the guys from my era—because we got theatrical releases. When you get a theatrical release, the pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow. To get a theatrical release today, however, is next to impossible. It’s just so expensive for prints and TV advertising.
PKM: Your father was a famous artist, correct?
William Grefe´: Yes—a very well-known illustrator. He did covers and illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, all the majors.
PKM: Did you like movies as a kid?
William Grefe´: I used to live for movies. I wrote my first play when I was 11, and they put it on in school. My aunt lived on Long Island, and I’d visit her in the summer, and 42nd Street at that time would play three features for 25 cents, so I practically lived at the theater.
Then I thought I wanted to be an actor. I won the Florida State Dramatic Contest; did a little one-act play called “Submerged” which has six characters, and I played all six characters. Then after high school I did summer stock in Woodstock, at the Woodstock Maverick Playhouse, and one of my buddies there was a guy named Lee Marvin.
Another buddy and I finished doing the Woodstock plays and hitchhiked over to Cape Cod to do summer stock in Chatham. We were sleeping out on the field because we didn’t have any money, and around seven a.m. we heard these voices; it was Cornel Wilde—who was the star at the Playhouse—and his wife who’d take a walk together in the morning. I never said anything to him then, and years later, when I directed him in a commercial, I didn’t have the guts to tell him I was sleeping out in the field by the Playhouse. (laughs)
Then the Korean War came along, and I’d seen too many John Wayne movies, so I joined the Navy. After the war, I got married and thought, ‘My God, it’s too insecure being an actor,’ so I started writing a lot of screenplays and got plenty of rejection slips to prove it.
Finally I sold one called The Checkered Flag, an automobile-racing movie (shot) up in Sebring (Florida). They had me on the set for rewrites, and the first day the director collapsed from a nervous breakdown. We were in a motel room with investors, and they’re all saying, “God, what are we gonna do?! We gotta get a director!” There were no directors in Florida at that time. And they told the DP—an old retired guy who’d (relocated) from California—“We gotta get a director from New York or California!” “Look,” the DP said, “by the time this guy flies here, the races will be over. You just can’t step off the plane and direct this movie. What the hell, the writer knows all about it—make him the director.” (laughs) So they drafted me in the motel room at one in the morning, and the next day I started directing a movie.
In a way, I’m sort of a mercenary: Checkered Flag made money and it had pretty good distribution, so I thought, ‘Well, racing movies are the key!’
PKM: And your next movie was, indeed, Racing Fever (1964).
William Grefe´: Right. I was at a big Miami hydroplane race, (featuring) an Italian driver named Ezio Selva who had an Alfa Romeo super-charged engine in his hydroplane; only two of them were ever made. Selva was 57 years old and made an announcement that day: “This will be my last race. Afterwards, I’m turning the boat over to my son.” So he gets out there and is beating everybody, but then the darn hydroplane took off like an airplane, flipped over, he fell out, it fell on him, and killed him instantly. Well, I looked around and some guy had shot (the entire accident) with a 16mm camera, and I bought that footage and wrote a whole movie around it.
So I followed a racing movie with another racing movie. Whenever one of my movies made some money, I seemed to follow the trend. Allied Artists picked it up, and it was the first movie ever in the state of Florida to get a major release.
PKM: Which horror film came first, Sting of Death or Death Curse of Tartu (both 1966)?
William Grefe´:Sting of Death. You always made two horror movies that went into the drive-ins or the local theater circuit, and Sting of Death… a jellyfish monster… I mean (laughs), who would make that today, you know? But that was a big trend back then. Anyway, all distributors had to have two horror movies to show at their drive-ins, so at the time this one distributor couldn’t find another horror movie, and he said the magic word: “Boy, if could get another movie, I’d finance it.” That’s all I had to hear. But here was a damn April 15 deadline, so I had to begin shooting immediately (to make sure the movie hit the drive-ins at peak time), and I had no script.
So I sat down and thought, ‘What can I write about?’ I just took the age-old thing where the pharaoh in the Pyramids unleashed a curse if anybody disturbed his burial tomb, and he’d haunt them. So I took that, moved it to the Everglades, had an ancient Indian witchdoctor named Tartu… I stayed up all night and literally wrote that screenplay in 24 hours, shot Death Curse in seven days—and I had a dual feature with Sting of Death.
Now, my animal trainer for Death Curse—for Stanley, too—was Frank Weed, who lived in the Everglades, and I said, “Frank, we gotta do this alligator scene (for Tartu) in the morning. Bring me a real docile alligator because it’s gotta work with this (actress).”
So, at seven in the morning, Frank drives up in his pickup truck, and this damn alligator is so big, Frank had his tail tied up because it would’ve been dragging out of the pickup truck. (laughs) We put a thin piece of piano wire around the gator’s mouth to hold it shut and prevent it from biting. Then we took a posthole digger and dug a hole, cut the actress’ sleeve, put her real arm in the hole to protect it, and had a rubber arm coming out of her cut sleeve that we were gonna put in the alligator’s mouth.
So I told the actress, “This is what we’re gonna do. Here’s this alligator… just lie down.” And she said, “No way! I’m not lying next to that alligator!”
And I said, “Look, there’s nothing to it.” I just laid down, put my arm in the hole… and the damn alligator rolled on top of me and started beating me with his tail! So I grabbed the gator, Frank Weed dives in, and the three of us are wrestling. By now the girl is 100 feet away, running like hell. (laughs)
Anyway, how I ever talked her into doing that scene, I’ll never know.
PKM: How did you get Neil Sedaka to do the musical number for Sting of Death?
William Grefe´: He had a singing engagement at one of the hotels (The Fontainebleau), and we just went over and talked him into it.
PKM: Tell us about your previously lost movie The Devil’s Sisters (1966).
William Grefe´: It went into the theaters and played really well—in Europe, also. At that time, we only had 30 prints. But they were throwing away prints after theatrical releases because they didn’t know there was gonna be VHS, DVD, and all of that stuff. So, anyway, I looked 20 years for that movie; advertised in Big Reel magazine… but I could not find a print of it.
But through the miracle of the Internet, I found an English print that a German collector had, so I bought the print off of him. See, we used to send prints to foreign countries for them to look at, and if they liked the movie, then they’d buy it for, say, the German rights. Anyway, I bought the print and we transferred it.
The only problem was that the last eight minutes were missing. See, the cans that we used to ship in… We had big reels that were 2,000-foot flats, and there were four (reels) to a can. Well, we had the four reels in, but there was an oddball seven- or eight-minute reel that would go into a smaller can, and somehow that got lost.
So what we’ve done is re-create the whole last eight minutes via storyboards, talking, music, effects, etc., and I think all of the grindhouse fans will really enjoy it. It’s been a lost film for so long. It’s a true story, too. These sisters in Mexico put ads in the paper to get little peasant girls to come into Mexico City, telling them that they were going to be waitresses or maids or whatever, and then they kidnapped them and forced them into prostitution. And they killed a lot of girls and buried them on a Mexican ranch. We got the court papers and transcripts and wrote a screenplay around them and shot the whole thing in (Davie) Florida, which we faked for Mexico. It’s the only film I’ve directed which I call film noir, because of the lighting and the way I directed it. I shot the damn film in 10 days so… (laughs)
PKM: Any interesting behind-the-scenes stories while filming The Hooked Generation (1968)?
William Grefe´: Well, the worst thing was what one of my regular actors (former professional American boxer) Willie Pastrano did. There’s a scene at the end where he charges across the swamp, gets shot, and dies. We were shooting in a state park, and Willie lived three or four blocks away. He used a .45 revolver for the scene; and, afterwards, you always turn in stuff like that to the prop person. So here Willie is, covered in stage blood and mud, and he says to me, “Hey, babe, I did my death scene. Can I go?” “Okay, Willie,” I said, “go.”
So Willie is walking through this park, and he comes to this little lake, on the other side of which is a man, his wife, and two kids. And Willie, who still has this .45 with six blanks in it, yells out to the guy, “Stop where ya’ are or I’ll kill you and your whole family!” And Willie starts shooting blanks at the guy, who rushes his wife and kids into this little boathouse and runs to a payphone. Meanwhile, I’m deep in the swamp filming away, and we hear all of these sirens. Suddenly we’re surrounded by police! Well, by then Willie has traipsed to his house and was safe at home. Such a crazy, crazy guy.
PKM: (laughs) Was Naked Zoo (1970) originally made as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth?
William Grefe´: I wrote the story about a young gigolo-writer and knew Rita would be perfect. So I went out to L.A., and the whole movie had a $250,000 budget, which was damn good for me at the time. I dealt with Rita’s agent and we fought for three days. He wanted $250,000 just for Rita. I said, “No way! I can’t afford that. I’ve got $50,000 in my budget for Rita.” Anyhow, for three days he wouldn’t budge, telling me, “$250,000! Take it or leave it!”
So I eventually called up my investors in Florida and said, “Guys, you gotta trust me on this. Wire me $50,000, and I’ll get a cashier’s check.” So they wired me $50,000, I got a cashier’s check, walked to that agent and said, “You and I have been arguing for three days. I told you all I have is $50,000. There’s 50,000 dollars. I’ll put that in escrow in any bank in California for Rita.” He said, “You got a deal.” End of conversation.
So, what’s the old saying, ‘Money talks, bullshit walks’? (laughs) Anyhow, that’s how I got Rita.
So I told the actress, “This is what we’re gonna do. Here’s this alligator… just lie down.” And she said, “No way! I’m not lying next to that alligator!”
PKM: Good job. What was Hayworth like on the Naked Zoo set?
William Grefe´: Rita was a very shy person, and scared to death of automobiles, because (her third husband Prince) Aly Khan had been killed in a wreck, and she’d been in a big wreck herself. My poor wife once drove her, and when they came to stop signs, Rita practically went under the dashboard, she was so scared of being in a wreck.
But I knew she was from the old school, so I budgeted for eight or nine takes in the beginning. See, I usually do two or three takes—tops. Anyway, the first day I did eight or nine takes. The second day I did five or six takes, until Rita built a confidence in me. Then, after she’d built a confidence, I got her to believe that I could direct a movie (laughs), and we were down to two or three takes.
PKM: You really have to be a psychiatrist when you deal with some of these entertainment people, don’t you?
William Grefe´: That’s all a director is—an amateur psychiatrist! Not only with actors but with crews and everything.
PKM: How did Hayworth feel about her Naked Zoo co-star Stephen Oliver?
William Grefe´: They got along fairly well. But Oliver was on drugs during a lot of that movie. He was also a little over-bearing. But Rita was a pro. She put up with some of his stuff. At the time, Oliver was one of the co-stars on TV’s Peyton Place. He never did much after that.
PKM: Tell us about your involvement with Ivan Tors Studios.
William Grefe´: I screened The Devil’s Sisters for Ivan one time, and he loved it. He offered me some TV-directing things, but I was always into independent features, so I never did any of those TV things. Anyway, he knew who I was and the days of independent filmmaking and all, and he just called me up and interviewed me out in L.A., and I became head of the studio (laughs) in Florida. It was the biggest studio on the East Coast.
But I didn’t like being deskbound, so when I agreed to run the studio, I put in my contract that I could do one independent film a year, and I offered the idea of Stanley (1972) to Ivan, but Ivan wasn’t into violent films. He was into family-oriented stuff. Anyhow, I ran the studio for two years, then Ivan’s wife died and he really became a recluse and moved to Germany to make animal films. So that’s when I decided to leave—when Ivan left.
She was from the old school, so I budgeted for eight or nine takes in the beginning. See, I usually do two or three takes—tops. Anyway, the first day I did eight or nine takes. The second day I did five or six takes, until Rita built a confidence in me. Then, after she’d built a confidence, I got her to believe that I could direct a movie
PKM: Death Curse of Tartu, Stanley and Mako are all horror films prominently featuring animals. Are alligators, snakes, and sharks easier to direct than humans? (laughs)
William Grefe´: Oh, are you kidding? (laughs) The snake in Stanley should’ve gotten a Screen Actor’s Guild card! In the little funeral scene where that snake dragged the canteen to Chris Robinson… That snake almost had mental telepathy with the stuff he did. I had a trainer to direct the snake, but Chris Robinson was such a trooper. Guy was unbelievable the way he worked with snakes. I mean, outside the nightclub in the car, the way Chris was talkin’ to that snake and how it was lookin’ back at him… (laughs) That snake was unbelievable.
Stanley, the original trailer:
PKM: How did Stanley come about?
William Grefe´: While I was president of Ivan Tors Studios—where we did Flipper, Gentle Ben, all of that stuff—my contract, again, allowed me to do one movie a year on my own, but I had to give the first choice to Ivan. Anyway, I was out in L.A. doing some business for Ivan, and Variety came out with the story, “WILLARD—Biggest Independent Grosser!” So I thought, ‘Wow! Animal pictures are gonna be the next horror trend!’ So I went to bed that night and dreamt Stanley, just as if I’d been at the movies. I woke up in the morning and thought, ‘You know, that’s not bad.’
Red Jacobs was head of Crown International Pictures, and they had bought my movie The Wild Rebels (1967). So I went by to see Red, a crusty old distributor with a foot-long cigar hanging from his mouth.
“Red,” I said, “I got a good idea for a movie.”
“Well, fine,” he said. “Leave me the screenplay, and I’ll read it over the weekend.”
“I don’t have a screenplay.”
“Well, at least leave me a synopsis.”
“I don’t have a synopsis.”
“Get the hell outta my office, you son of a bitch!”
“Red, calm down,” I said. “I’ll get Mark Tenser and Joseph in here”—who were the distributors—“and let me tell all of you the story.”
So we sat down, I told them the whole story, and afterwards Red said, “How much will you make this for?” I said, “$125,000.” “I’ll only put one monkey on your back if I decide to do this,” he said. “You gotta have it in theaters by May 15,” because that was the golden time for independents, seeing as all of the drive-ins up north opened on May 15. And here it was November. Back then, we had to shoot with big, heavy cameras, the editing process was super slow, and the final mix was a nightmare that took weeks and weeks.
But I said, “No problem. I’ll guarantee delivery.”
“Okay,” Red said, and we shook hands.
So I thought to myself, ‘What am I gonna do?! I gotta have a screenplay immediately!’ This was a Friday afternoon, and I was taking a red-eye back to Miami. Then I thought, ‘Ah! Gary Crutcher!’
The first time I met Gary Crutcher, he was all dressed up in polyester clothing in the early ‘70s and came up to my agent to recommend himself as a writer; opened up his briefcase to show me his scripts and he’s got a .45 automatic, a big dagger, and a bunch of pills in there. He’s a pill popper. So now I’m thinking, ‘Jesus, Gary can write this script for Stanley because he won’t sleep for a couple days!’
So I phoned Crutcher up. “Gary, meet me at the LAX airport. I gotta take the red-eye back to Miami.” So we met at LAX, and I sat there with a yellow pad, wrote down the characters… wrote down Scene One, Scene Two, Scene Three… wrote down everything… a whole story. “Gary,” I said, “I’ve got to have a screenplay Tuesday in Miami.” Well, back then there were no emails or faxes. So Gary stayed up for three days, and Monday afternoon he overnighted it to Miami, and I had a screenplay on Tuesday.
That’s the way we made Stanley (laughs), and I started shooting a couple of weeks later; took three weeks to shoot.
The snake in Stanley should’ve gotten a Screen Actor’s Guild card! In the little funeral scene where that snake dragged the canteen to Chris Robinson… That snake almost had mental telepathy with the stuff he did.
PKM: Any fun behind-the-scenes Stanley stories?
William Grefe´: Well, when we were ready to do that scene in the pool with Alex Rocco, where all of the snakes attack him in the water, he came over to me and said, “Bill, I’ve been an actor for 12 years, and I’ve never refused to do what a director tells me. But there’s no way I’m gonna go into that pool with real snakes. I’m deathly afraid.” So I said, “No problem, Alex. I’ll use a couple of rubber snakes, do a bunch of fancy cuts, and make it look good.” “Oh, thank you,” he said. Anyway, I had five handlers standing behind the barn there; each had two snakes apiece. (laughs) And when Alex came off that diving board, we hit him with real snakes. It’s supposed to be a panicked scene—well, it was real panic. (laughs) When we were editing the movie, there’s so much panic during that scene when Alex is fighting the snakes to get to the side of the pool, we listened to the soundtrack, and Alex came to the top of the water and was yelling, “Grefe´, you son of a bitch!” We had to erase it from the soundtrack. (laughs)
PKM: How many snakes did you put into the pool?
William Grefe´: At least ten.
PKM: Whoa! Poor guy. (laughs) You’ve pretty much stayed away from Hollywood. Has that been a conscious decision?
William Grefe´: Well, I had three little kids and goin’ to California… It was crazy times. I mean, the drugs and the whole thing were so insane. But that’s what was happening at the time; so, to make commercial movies, especially low-budget movies, you gotta more or less deal with what the trend is. In the film business at that time, a lot of people were on drugs and fortunately I didn’t get hooked into that, basically because of my family. But I do study characters.
PKM: So tell us about The Psychedelic Priest (1971).
Something Weird Video’s trailer for The Psychedelic Priest:
William Grefe´: The producer out in L.A. called me up: “Bill! I want you to jump on a plane and get out here and direct this movie!” “Well,” I said, “send me a screenplay.” “No, no, no! We don’t have time.” His basic thought was that a young Catholic priest in the church travels with long-hairs, because at that time Sunset (Blvd.) was full of hippies, sleeping in doorways… And I said, “No, it doesn’t quite work that way. I want x number of dollars and a roundtrip ticket.”
A week later, a ticket drops in and a check clears—so I went out to California. “Let me see the screenplay,” I said when I got there. “Ah, Bill,” he said, “I’m in serious trouble: I don’t have a screenplay.” “You don’t have a screenplay?! What the hell did you bring me out here for?” “Well, I raised one hundred thousand dollars in trading stamps.” See, there was an organization in L.A. that figured a way to beat the IRS by trading rather than buying and selling stuff. So, hypothetically, if you owned a TV store and I owned a car-repair garage, and we took your car’s transmission out, you’d give me $300 worth of trading stamps instead of cash for fixing your car’s transmission, and I could go to your TV store and buy a TV with the trading stamps.
Anyway, he’d raised $100,000 in trading stamps, and I shot that movie with no script whatsoever. We winged the whole damn thing. But right before we edited it, I became president of Ivan Tors Studios, so I couldn’t associate myself as a director with a drug-oriented hippie movie (laughs). That’s why I just took a cameraman credit on it.
But, considering that it had no script and no professional actors, it turned out fairly good. It was originally called The Jesus Freak, then The Electric Shades of Grey. The priest starts taking LSD and so forth in the film, and we used all real hippies. There were no professional actors in it, other than the guy who played the priest, but he’d never made a movie, though he considered himself an actor.
I said, “No problem, Alex. I’ll use a couple of rubber snakes, do a bunch of fancy cuts, and make it look good.” “Oh, thank you,” he said. Anyway, I had five handlers standing behind the barn there; each had two snakes apiece. (laughs) And when Alex came off that diving board, we hit him with real snakes. It’s supposed to be a panicked scene—well, it was real panic.
PKM: How did you get involved in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die?
William Grefe´: I met (Bond producers) Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman at the Cannes Film Festival, and Harry knew that I was with Ivan Tors, and he and I made a deal at Cannes for me to do all of the underwater shark stuff for Live and Let Die.
PKM: I also heard that you oversaw some of the boat-racing sequences and the amazing scene with Bond jumping from the head of one crocodile to another.
William Grefe´: Right. I more or less coordinated a lot of that stuff. In fact, I oughta send you a promo reel on some of the stuff I did on that. We did (the crocodile scene) in Jamaica. A lot of takes.
PKM: Was it difficult to shoot the sharks?
William Grefe´: It was a piece o’ cake for me because I had all kinds of money. (laughs) It was nothing for me because it was a huge budget, whereas when you’re doing low-budget pictures, you don’t have the money to do so many things, and you gotta move super-fast and worry about everything.
They built the underwater (tank) with the sharks in Pinewood Studios in London, but I didn’t shoot anything at Pinewood. I just went there to see the underwater tank and how they’d it set up; then I did a match-up in Bimini, which is where we did footage (of that nature) because of the clear water.
PKM: Did you work with Roger Moore at all?
William Grefe´: No. Moore worked with first unit. We were basically doing all of the second unit stuff, with doubles and stuntmen. So, when you do second unit, you very seldom work with the actual name actors.
PKM: The initial murder scene in Impulse—where Shatner’s gigolo/serial-killer character strangles a jilted female then submerges her dead body, still behind the wheel of a car, in a river—is amazingly shot.
William Grefe´: Well, this is a good lesson for young filmmakers. I call it guerilla filmmaking because, on independent films, you don’t have any money. Hollywood throws money at problems. And in independent movies, you have to throw your brain at problems. If Hollywood had shot that scene, they’d have had three cameras on it, bought a brand-new car, hired a stunt person, had the stunt person drive the car into the water, had a wide shot of the car sinking, et cetera, et cetera.
It was originally called The Jesus Freak, then The Electric Shades of Grey. The priest starts taking LSD and so forth in the film, and we used all real hippies. There were no professional actors in it, other than the guy who played the priest, but he’d never made a movie, though he considered himself an actor.
We didn’t have the money to do that.
So in pre-production, I went to Hertz Rent-a-Cars and said, “We’re making this movie in Tampa. Can you get this brand-new car in this color and save it for me? We’re going to be shooting July 18th” or whatever the date was. Well, they were in awe over the fact that we were doing a film with William Shatner. So they said, “Oh! No problem! No problem!” (laughs)
So they saved that brand-new car for me, and I told some of my crew, “Go out to a junk yard and find me a car. It doesn’t have to have an engine or anything. It can be hit in the back. I don’t care what it looks like, as long as it’ll roll. And paint the hood the same color as the (rental) car.”
So the way I shot that scene is, I had the brand-new car, Shatner’s character kills the woman, then Shatner puts the gear shift in. I mounted an underwater camera in the old beat-up car, and it goes down the hill, crashes, and the hood comes up and—glug! glug! glug!—water comes in, and it goes down. And I sent a diver down to get the camera. Afterwards, we got the car out of the river, and I put it in the swimming pool of the motel we were staying at. Then I went under with my underwater camera, and did the underwater scene where she’s dead in the car.
Anyway, I did the scene for a couple hundred bucks, while Hollywood would’ve spent a minimum of 100,000 bucks on the scene.
Hollywood throws money at problems. And in independent movies, you have to throw your brain at problems.
PKM: Was Shatner your first choice as the gigolo psycho?
William Grefe´: No. In The Hooked Generation, Socrates Ballis is the guy who gets shot with the spear gun, so he was basically an actor, and he’d worked with me on several movies. Impulse was the first film he produced, so he went over to Tampa, raised the money, and hired me to direct the movie. And when Socrates and I were at the Miami Airport, about to fly to L.A. to look at various actors… here comes Shatner walking through the airport! And I said to Socrates, “There’s Shatner! He’d be perfect!” So we grabbed Shatner in the airport, gave him a script, and made a deal. We never even got on the plane.
PKM: Tony Crechales is credited with writing the script. Did he originally approach you with the idea?
William Grefe´: Tony, who was friends with Socrates, wrote this script originally called Wanna Ride, Little Girl? But the script needed, I thought, a lotta work. And I came up with the idea of turning the killer into a gigolo. I’d actually met guys like that—where they preyed on wealthy women. But the key was that they never came out and asked them for money. They were more or less like Ponzi-scheme-type guys (laughs) who’d BS these wealthy women into wanting them to invest with them; like they were doing these women such a favor to take their money. So I came up with that concept and we rewrote the whole thing.
An interesting thing on Impulse… Ruth Roman worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train (1951), did The Champion (1949) with Kirk Douglas, some big movies, and she was a Hollywood pro—and a tough cookie. Anyhow, in this one scene, where we’re by this fish tank, Shatner said to me, “Bill, this guy is such a psycho, what if he reaches into the fish tank and grabs one of those goldfish?” I said, “Geez, that’s terrific! That’s part of his character.” So Ruth Roman (laughs)… This is the very first scene we shot on the first day, and she knew that was gonna steal the scene right out from under her. “That’s not in the script!” she said. “I’m not gonna do that!” And she storms off and goes into her dressing room.
Well, fortunately, I’d made several movies and knew actors pretty well, so I didn’t chase her and beg her and all that.
Instead, I let Ruth Roman stew for five or 10 minutes, then I grabbed the first AD, went outside of Roman’s dressing room door and said, “Gale, I’m sick and tired of these damn temperamental actresses! Get the producer out here immediately!” And Ruth Roman’s in there listening and thinking, ‘My God! This crazy son of a bitch is gonna fire me!’ (laughs)
Anyway, she comes out of her dressing room and says, “Well, I thought about it. Yeah, I’m ready to do the scene.”
And I said (calmly), “Well, Miss Roman, you might be ready, but I’m not ready.”
And she said, “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, if Mr. Shatner comes up with an idea for his character and I like it, we’ll use it. If I don’t like it, we won’t use it. And if you come up with a suggestion for your character and I like it, we’ll use it. If I don’t like it, we won’t use it. And I’m the director, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir!” she said. (laughs) And we were buddies from then on.
See, these actors try to run all over you. The old pros will test you to see if you got any balls. (laughs)
When Socrates and I were at the Miami Airport, about to fly to L.A. to look at various actors… here comes Shatner walking through the airport! And I said to Socrates, “There’s Shatner! He’d be perfect!” So we grabbed Shatner in the airport, gave him a script, and made a deal. We never even got on the plane.
PKM: Did Shatner display any similar “star temperament”?
William Grefe´: Well… (laughs) What happens is, if you have a two-shot—(where you and another actor are facing one another and we have side profiles of both of you)—but you lean downstage, well, then the other actor will adjust to the eyesight and wind up having the back of his head to the camera; and the camera will then feature you. You follow me? And we had this one guy in IMPULSE who wasn’t a pro, and every time we’d film this two-shot featuring him, Shatner would lean on one foot, and the other actor would adjust himself so that the shot featured Shatner.
I wouldn’t say anything about it in front of everybody; instead I said, “Bill, come over here,” and in private I said, “Bill, give this kid a break.” And Shatner said (defensively), “What’re you talking about!” “Bill, give him a break.” (Imitates Shatner heatedly clicking tongue) “Alright!” (laughs) I didn’t have to tell Bill what he was doing—he knew what he was doing.
Otherwise? I got along great with Shatner. More people ask me, “Good night! How did you ever deal with Shatner?!” But, for some reason, our personalities hit it off together.
PKM: The clothes Shatner wears in Impulse are so wonderfully tacky, John Waters couldn’t have come up with better threads for him.
William Grefe´: (laughs) Well, there was a time factor. Socrates made a deal with some clothing outfit in Tampa, and we got all of the clothes free, so they dressed Shatner that way. I was too busy on other stuff to have any input on how he was dressed. But when they interviewed me at the New Beverly Cinema about Impulse, I think the first thing I said was, “I’m not responsible for the wardrobe.”
PKM: (laughs) Do you have a favorite scene in Impulse?
William Grefe´: The car wash (murder) scene, which was my idea. We originally had that in a water tower with a winding staircase. I said to Socrates, “Water towers and high towers have been done so much, let’s try and figure out something else.”
The interesting thing is, when Shatner climbed down the rope in that scene, there was a knot on the rope, and he literally broke his finger. So, to this day, Shatner’s finger is all twisted. And every time I see Bill, I ask him, “How’s your finger?” “Grefe´,” he says, “you son of a bitch!” (laughs)
Now, when Harold Sakata was literally hanging in that scene, the rig slipped and Shatner saw that Sakata was dying and grabbed him. Well, hell, Sakata weighed like 250 pounds, so Shatner yelled, “Cut the rope! He’s chokin’ to death!” So we all ran in, grabbed him, and they cut the rope.
Well, unbeknownst to me, one of the crew members was shooting home movies with a 16mm camera, and he’d filmed that! So right before I went out to the New Beverly Cinema, the guy gave me that footage. I made a DVD of it, called up Shatner, and told him about it. “I gotta see this!” he said. So I went by his office, we looked at it, and he said, “Wow! This is terrific! But why isn’t there any sound?” “Bill,” I said,” the guy was shootin’ a home movie. He didn’t have sound.” And Shatner said, “Oh, man. I’d narrate this thing.”
Anyway, Shatner’s office is about four or five blocks from Jerry’s Deli (on Ventura Blvd in Studio City), so he narrated that whole thing. And in-person, Shatner is a funny, funny guy.
PKM: I’ve read that you’d written a killer-shark movie before Jaws (1975), but nobody wanted to finance it.
William Grefe´: Yes. That’s the truth. I dreamt up Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976) way before Jaws, but nobody was interested. Anyway, I put it in the drawer, forgot about it, and moved onto something else. Then when Jaws came out… the biggest grosser in film history… all of the distributors and money people who’d read my story called me up, “Bill, buddy, how the hell are ya?” (laughs) because they knew that I could shoot it immediately and capitalize on it.
See, at that time, everything was sharks… Life magazine, Time, Newsweek… everything was sharks, sharks, sharks. So I got the money immediately and started shooting. When I finished that film, we made a seven-minute promo reel before I’d even edited the movie, and we released it in Europe before Jaws was released because we capitalized on Universal’s publicity, so we had our money back from advances before I’d even edited Mako.
Everybody accuses me of ripping off Jaws. I did rip off Universal’s publicity on it. But I didn’t rip off their script. (laughs)
PKM: Well, the script is like Stanley but with a shark instead of a snake.
William Grefe´: Yeah, right.
PKM: Was Richard Jaeckel your first choice for the male lead in Mako?
William Grefe´: No. Actually, my first choice was a big muscular guy named Clint Walker (co-star of 1967’s Dirty Dozen). But when I met with Clint, I just didn’t feel he could pull it off as an actor. Then I was gonna use Henry Silva (co-star of 1962’s Manchurian Candidate). And this is a funny story. Henry was very big in Europe, so I wanted him in Mako. Anyway, I met with Henry out in L.A. He read the script, I took him out to lunch, and Henry said, “Bill, I’m a New York kid, and I just wanna level with you—I can’t swim a stroke. I don’t know how to swim. Can we fake this?” “Henry,” I said, “I’d love to use you, but I wanna be honest with you, I can’t fake this movie. You gotta be able to swim.” (laughs)
Then there was Richard Jaeckel (also of Dirty Dozen fame), and Richard is such a good actor. Of all the actors whom I’ve ever work with, Richard is the pro of pros. In Mako, he’s in almost every scene, and he only blew one line in the whole damn movie. Afterwards I said, “Richard, I just wanna thank you for being a super, super pro,” “Bill,” he said, “whenever I walk onto a movie or a TV set, the first thing I say is, ‘Thank you, dear Lord, for letting me work today,’” and Richard was really a terrific guy, too.
And the shark scenes… Have you ever seen a film where people grab the dorsal fin of a tiger shark and are towed by it? (laughs) In that movie, we did incredible stuff! We had amazing stunt guys. We didn’t shoot any of the shark footage until we got to Bimini, which, again, is where we do all of that kind of footage because of the clear water.
I dreamt up Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976) way before Jaws, but nobody was interested. Anyway, I put it in the drawer, forgot about it, and moved onto something else. Then when Jaws came out… the biggest grosser in film history… all of the distributors and money people who’d read my story called me up, “Bill, buddy, how the hell are ya?”
PKM: What was Mako’s female-lead Jennifer Bishop like to work with?
William Grefe´: Real cooperative and a real nice lady. When we did Impulse, she was engaged to Socrates Ballis, and that’s how I met her. But she was a beautiful gal and a good actress.
PKM: Do you have a favorite William Grefe´ movie?
William Grefe´: I think The Hooked Generation turned out pretty good. And Stanley turned out good. When you look at the blocking in Hooked Generation… What drives me nuts today about fight scenes is that they do such fast cuts, sometimes you don’t even know who’s fighting whom. But if you look at The Hooked Generation, especially when the actors are in the cabin, and you look at some of the blocking, where the actors move and the camera moves… I did close-ups, over-shoulder shots, all combined in one… Then when Willie Pastrano and Steve Alaimo get into that fight, you knew what was goin’ on. It was a pretty good fight scene.
But Stanley is the biggest grosser I ever did. It did fantastic in the theaters. I don’t know if you knew this, but we opened in Los Angeles the same day as the original Godfather (1972), which was the biggest, most expensive film of the year. The Godfather grossed $181,000 the first weekend in L.A. and Stanley grossed $175,000. It’s documented. It’s in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. I’ve got the actual printout on that.
The Godfather grossed $181,000 the first weekend in L.A. and Stanley grossed $175,000.
PKM: Awesome. Can you tell us about these 30-minute Bacardi promo films you did, some of which featured William Shatner, Barbara Rush and your old friend Cornel Wilde?
William Grefe´: (laughs) See, Bacardi’s big distillery is in Puerto Rico… and we used to do these half-hour things which Bacardi would use for inner promo films for the sales personnel. Some women’s groups, for example, would say, “Oh, we’re having a party with 300 frozen daiquiris,” and Bacardi would say “Fine, no problem” and the ladies would watch one of these promo films. I made 25 of those little movies,
Shatner’s a funny guy. When I called him up in L.A. and told him what we’re doing with Bacardi, he said, “Well, how much do I get for wardrobe?” All he really needed was a shirt, so I said, “All you need is a nice shirt, Bill. I got about 100 bucks.” There was silence. Then Shatner said, “Well, maybe I can go to K-Mart and find something.” (laughs)