‘It’s just a lot of hard, sweaty work. And I love it.’
Director Russ Meyer is blunt and vocal about what it’s like on the set of his movies. The controversial visionary behind such films as Mondo Topless, Supervixens, and his classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer is just as straightforward when discussing the Hollywood power game, censorship, modern cinema, and even his love life. At the age of 73, the filmmaker makes no apologies for his past, embracing the success of his films as he basks in the fortunes they have earned him.
Quite proliferate in feature ‘skin flicks’ from roughly 1959 to 1979, Meyer’s 1966 film, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, considered by many to be his best work, is now in theatrical rerelease.
‘I made a ton of money,’ he tells me. ‘I’m sitting here, looking out at the marvelous hills of Palm Desert, overlooking an azure blue pool that’s heated to the temperature I want. I have my editing facilities here. Tall, tall ceilings…. I own a lot of water under Palm Desert…millions of gallons. So if people get mean to me, I can turn their water off.’
Meyer started down the road to success while working in film and photography at the tender age of 12. Since then he has directed, written, produced, edited, and/or photographed over 20 motion pictures, often collaborating with long-time friend Roger Ebert, whom he likens to W.C. Fields. One of his first big successes was the film Vixen, made for $47,000 and grossing over $25 million. Meyer adds, ‘That’s when tickets were only 80 cents…. And I got all the money.’
Meyer may be a legend of a filmmaker, but he’s an even better businessman. Not only does he have the ability to create a sharp-looking, pure-profit film on a shoestring, but he also has what he describes as ‘a kind-of shrine in Los Angeles,’ where he has three people hawking t-shirts, soundtracks, and videos.
Meyer himself considers his masterpiece to be the sex-and-violence-fest Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Much of the world does, too. As Russ says, ‘It plays resoundingly, with loud noises and a big box office.’ Co-written with Ebert, Meyer describes the film as a labor of love. ‘We went to the mountain and made the film at [20th Century] Fox. It was a big success. That’s the important thing: how many asses you get on the seats in theaters. That’s it. Money talks. That’s the acceptance of a film.’
I may not be an expert on the films and philosophy of Russ Meyer. I don’t think anyone really can be. But, the more Meyer flicks you watch, the more you start to believe that each film is part of a grand design–one hilarious running joke inside Russ’s head. Every now and then you can catch a glimpse of the punchline: that Meyer’s art is in giving people what they really want to see. Russ has the cash to prove that, by now, he knows what that is. In his own words: ‘Tits.’ Case in point:
Meyer recently completed a few videos of two of his ‘big girls…hugely breasted women,’ Pandora Peaks and his fiancé Melissa Mounds. As he describes them, they’re ‘videos to get you through the night.’ Not porn, mind you. ‘Documentaries.’ Girlfriend Melissa was apparently quite the rage at the Moscow Film Festival. After screening her films, Russ says, ‘I had to caution her all the time when she’d get up on stage, [telling her] you can’t take any rags off because Siberia’s not too far away.’ God bless America.
The mention of Siberia is something Meyer can relate to, having suffered through years of censorship and persecution from his critics in the Bible Belt. He says, ‘The Baptists and the sheriffs in the underbelly of the United States were getting on films that had nudity in them. So that’s where I changed over and did Motorpsycho — no nudity whatsoever, just action — and it played in the drive-ins. And in fact, Texas was at the top of the heap of busting films.’ To this day, the city of Long, Texas, still has a copy of Mudhoney in a depository. For Russ to get it back, they insisted he declare it pornographic and obscene. He refused.
Faster, Pussycat! was the follow-up to Motorpsycho. Surprisingly, it was one of his few flops. Now, the film has been ‘discovered by the feminist ladies around the United States’ and has a devout cult following. Obviously this was unplanned. Asked about his vision for the film, Meyer tells me, ‘I just figured I wanted to make a lot of bucks. I wasn’t beating any drum. I made a movie with three bad boys [Motorpsycho]. It did real well. And I did one with three bad girls, and it thumped….’ His explanation: ‘People didn’t understand the lesbian aspect, as subtle as it is.’
Right now, Russ is working on a new project, involving still photography of some 16 of his ‘big girls’ in fashion magazine-style poses, wearing (as best they can) ‘the Godzilla sizes’ of designer clothing. It’s Russ’s version of the fashion world, mocking its traditional use of women ‘built like hoe handles.’ The idea is to film the photo shoot and then intercut the action with scenes from his best films in a chaotic, Pulp Fiction style. The title? Well, today, he’s calling it Beyond the Valley of Pulp A Go-Go, and Russ smells success all over it. ‘I think it might make a very good film…we’ve got about 90 pairs of tits.’
And don’t think Russ is just some callous exploiter of women. All this is coming from a guy who can’t stop talking about the most important woman in his life: his mother, Lydia. ‘I owe everything to her. She was a very special lady.’ Russ goes on to tell me that after her husband ran off, she was the one that took care of him and brought him up. He speaks of Melissa as if she’s a jewel. It’s very touching, and just when you think he has the sensitivity of a prison warden, you see that at heart, he just really, really loves women.
I asked Russ what he thinks about modern cinema. The answer: not much. He likes Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson, but otherwise he’s pretty non-plussed. He puts it simply and plainly, ‘I don’t go to films. I just expect people to go to mine.’ You’d better. The way things are going, he may control your water supply next.
Meyer died on September 21, 2004. He was 82.
Buy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on VHS from Amazon.com
Buy Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! on VHS from Amazon.com
Buy Mondo Topless on VHS from Amazon.com
Buy Mudhoney on VHS from Amazon.com
Buy Motorpsycho on VHS from Amazon.com