2009 is winding down and the Dark Lord Bunnykins is busy brewing up new “content” for the forthcoming decade. In the meantime, I’d like to present a series of suitably spooky conversations taken from my day job as editor of Access Magazine (www.accessmag.com).
Today’s installment: Gunnar Hansen, a.k.a. Leatherface from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). This was done in conjunction with Dark Sky Entertainment’s re-issue of the film on DVD. Enjoy.
How do you feel about the film’s longevity and continuing popularity? It must be strange being part of something that means so much to so many people.
It’s actually amazing to me. It’s certainly nothing I ever expected. When the movie came out what my big hope was that the movie would be good enough and well-enough received that five years down the road there would be a few hardcore fans. And I thought, ‘If that’s the case, boy, we will have really succeeded’. So the film, the movie — I want to call it a movie, not a film. You know what a film is? It’s a movie you don’t understand. The movie has been so much more than I ever hoped it would be. So I’m really glad. Certainly, to me, it was really great that I was part of a movie that has had that affect and that people not only remember but that has become part of the culture.
Chain Saw has spawned generations of fans and made you a horror icon. When did you start to realize that Chain Saw was a film that profoundly affected people?
It really wasn’t for a long time. A few months after Chain Saw came out, in the spring of ’75, I moved to Maine. You know, I moved to an island. I didn’t have a television until only a few years ago. I didn’t want that. So I didn’t understand, I didn’t realize how big the movie had become.
And then in 1987 I went to LA to work on a picture. I had been turning down stuff. In fact, I turned down The Hills Have Eyes because I just didn’t want to work in films particularly. Finally, I thought, ‘This is really silly. I’m being asked to be in these movies’. So I went to LA to work on Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, with Fred Ray, who I’ve known for years. And when I was out there was when I realized how big the movie had become. And it was really because of the way the other actors and crew reacted to me on the film. They were really afraid of me, and the first day of filming, nobody talked to me except if there was another actor I had to do a scene with. Everybody stayed away from me. And then they warmed up, and somebody said to me, ‘You’re a lot nicer than we thought you’d be. We thought you’d be a jerk’.
And that’s really what made me understand that while I was off in Maine writing that the movie had just become part of the culture.
There was one single thing that happened that really made it sink in and that was an episode of Cheers when the Kirstie Alley character is lording it over all the people in the bar that she is going to be house-sitting a big estate for the weekend out in the country. And when she gets out there, toward the end of the half-hour, she becomes very frightened because she’s alone in a very big house and it’s getting dark. She runs around and locks all the doors and windows and then sits down in the living room, she hears a noise and says, ‘Oh, Leatherface, I hope that’s not you’. And when she said that, it made me realize she doesn’t have to explain to the audience who Leatherface is.
You’re identified with Leatherface more than any other character you’ve ever played. Understanding that you had ambitions outside of acting, how much did Chain Saw help or hurt your acting career?
Well, actually, it’s helped a lot. You have to remember that I never intended to work as an actor, and that’s why I turned down these films. And I was offered some stuff that wasn’t even horror. When Robert Redford was filming The Great Waldo Pepper in San Marcus, Texas, which is 30 miles away, and I wasn’t offered some big part, but I was told that if I came down, I would have a part. They were small things but I was being offered these things, and I didn’t really want them. I was saying no.
So when I finally decided that I should be accepting these roles, I understood that the only reason people were offering me film roles was because of Chain Saw. I’ve no reason ever to believe that Chain Saw has hurt my acting because it was the only reason people were interested in me for other films. And almost everything I’ve done has been horror.
You’re a regular on the horror festival circuit. How do you enjoy meeting your fans?
I really enjoy it. I think horror fans are great. I can’t imagine horror fans ever doing some of the really bizarre things so-called normal fans do, things like ‘oh, I love that actor. Let’s kill him!’ So I really enjoy meeting horror fans. I’m always pleased when I go to a convention how nice horror fans are. They’re glad I’ll talk to them. I hope that they understand that I’m pleased they want me to talk to them. I’m pleased that horror fans want to meet me and that the movie is that big to them.
Given the diminishing returns of the various Chain Saw sequels in terms of quality, are you glad you didn’t play Leatherface again?
Absolutely. In each case, I was disappointed that we were not able to come to terms. Soon after that, when I’d see the movie, I’d be relieved because I wasn’t part of that. And I’d think, ‘Well, you know, the money’s going to be gone long before my embarrassment’. And so, yeah, I’m glad that having been in only one Chain Saw movie that it was the one that defined the whole phenomenon.
Many people seem to think Chain Saw is a bloody film or that it is actually based on true events. Neither of which is true. What do you find is the biggest misconception people have about it?
You’ve hit on the very thing. I remember a fan coming up to me and saying ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre had the best special effects I’ve ever seen in a movie. Why can’t they do them that well anymore?’ And I said, ‘Because they’re not in there’. And he said, ‘No, no. I saw you cut that guy in the wheelchair in half’. And I said, ‘Actually, you didn’t’. And he insisted. And, I said, finally, ‘Look, why don’t you just go watch the movie again’. And people talk about how bloody this movie is. I mean, it’s referred to as the mother of all splatter movies. It’s not even a splatter movie.
And the other part that is probably the most common misconception is that this is a true story, that this is a film about Ed Gein. Or this is a film about real events that happened in Texas. So many people say that to me. ‘Oh, I remember when it happened, it was awful’. Or they’ll say, ‘How can you show such disrespect to the families of the victims that you’d make a movie about it?’ I’ve met three different people who claimed to be prison guards at Tunstall State Prison in Texas who guarded Leatherface. One of them said, ‘Oh yeah. They figured he had a lead imbalance in his brain, and once they got that straightened out, he was pretty good. In fact, he worked in the kitchen’.
One time I was going to a convention in Niagara Falls… and this staff member picked me up in the airport. And she said, ‘You know, it’s a shame that they arranged for you to come so late. If we’d had more time, you know, the original Leatherface lives in the Niagara Falls area, and wouldn’t it have been great if we could have gotten him at the show along with the actor’. People just absolutely believe that this story happened.
How important was Leatherface’s mask in helping you create the character?
Everything was in the mask. It wasn’t so much that it freed me up is that it became the expression of Leatherface’s character. Because I had the mask on to begin with, what it did for me from the acting point of view was that I realized from the beginning that I was going to have neither voice nor face to act with and I was going to be dependent entirely on body. So I had to work really hard to figure out the character physically because I had nothing else to go by. And I was an inexperienced enough actor that, looking back, it never would have occurred to me. Otherwise the body was part of the character. In other words, if I had been given a role in a film where I could speak and you see my face it wouldn’t have dawned on me that I should still be thinking about who is this guy physically. In a way it was a real blessing because it forced me to create him physically and forced me to have him so that when the director would say ‘action’, I could slouch the physical movement into being Leatherface and I could come out of that as soon as he cut the shot, and I didn’t have to pretend or try to be Leatherface.
There’s nothing under the mask: that was my idea for Leatherface. If you take the mask off, there’s no face. So the mask becomes the expression of Leatherface that day, and that’s why the different faces. If you watch Leatherface, he’s different with each face.
Leatherface is a childlike creature. Do you consider him to be a villain?
Yes. It’s very chic nowadays to have pity for the villain. ‘Poor, misunderstood villain’, but sure he’s a villain. Yes, he’s afraid of his family and they do whatever they tell him to do. That’s one of the first things that [director] Tobe [Hooper] said to me, and he shows that fear of them. But he is killing the people. He’s a willing participant when the Cook comes home and he’s angry at the Hitchhiker because he’s been taking Leatherface out and digging up bodies. Obviously, he’s doing that because the Hitchhiker tells him to, but he’s also very willing to kill these people. He’s not waiting for one of his family members to say ‘kill them’, he kills them right away. So I think he’s very much a villain and a very evil character. At the same time, part of what makes him so frightening is that he is extremely evil and yet there’s something pitiful about him.
The Chain Saw prequel includes details about Leatherface’s upbringing. Did you give any thought to Leatherface’s past when imagining the character?
No, I really didn’t. I really thought of him in terms of how am I going to represent him physically. Because what I had on him was a long discussion with Tobe and Kim [Henkel], the writer, over the character’s personality. And my feeling looking back is that I viewed him in a vacuum. I mean, that’s part of why people were so horrified with the movie was there was no attempt in this movie to justify or explain. There was no attempt to judge these characters.
And at the end I think part of the reason there was a lot of anger about Chain Saw was that there was no judgment or retribution at the end. One of them was dead, the others were not. And, to me, that’s part of the power of the film, and to me, working on the character, it didn’t dawn on me that I needed to understand why Leatherface had become what he was. It just seemed to me that these people existed and that’s what I had to start with, that there is a person like this somewhere. I don’t care how he got there, because the kids that he killed don’t care how he got that way. They’re worried about the fact that he is there.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an iconic title, so much so that Michael Bay has produced two Chain Saw films, the 2003 remake and the prequel. Have you seen the remake? What do you think of it?
Yeah, I have seen it. In fact, it’s the only one of the sequels that I’ve seen more than once. I did that because ESPN asked me to come on on Halloween for their Cold Pizza show to talk about the movie.
So I saw it on opening weekend, and then when I got to New York for the show I went the night before to see it again — I wanted to be clear about why I disliked the movie. And I really did not like the movie. The big thing to me was explaining Leatherface. What are these people thinking? Let’s make him nothing more than a kid with a skin condition, let’s make him be a kid from Columbine. Let’s reduce him from this unknown and unknowable mystery, something that’s almost human, to the very knowable guy with the missing nose.
Andrew Byniarski as Leatherface in the 2003 remake
What did you think of Andrew Byniarski’s performance as Leatherface?
Well, he was fine. I mean, my complaint is the same complaint I had with all the sequels which is I think the producers treat Leatherface as a guy in a mask. So they don’t see him as a specific personality, they don’t care who plays the part. So what that means for Andrew is he’s given a script and that character’s defined, but the Leatherface as written in the new Chainsaw movie isn’t the Leatherface from Chainsaw 4, 3, 2 or 1. Every one of those films the writer has a different conception of Leatherface, if he has any conception at all.
And so when Andrew comes in and is given this script… He did a fine job, but his job was to play an entirely different conception of Leatherface than any of the others. Just as Bill Johnson, terrifically good actor, who played Leatherface in Chainsaw 2, I really liked the job he did, but he wasn’t playing the same Leatherface that I played. In that film, [writer] Kit Carson has him wondering if he’s going to have sex with the girl. If that had been the original Leatherface, he’d be thinking, ‘When do I eat?’ He’s not thinking about stroking her thigh with his chainsaw. He’s already killed her and he’s thinking about getting the fire started for the barbeque.
Why do you think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has endured?
I think the primary thing about Chain Saw is that it’s a really disturbing movie, and I think that’s what gives it its longevity. It doesn’t rely on gore and shock effects. It really relies on being a film that disturbs the audience, that gives them a real, unnerving glimpse at the dark side of human nature. And I think that’s sustainable more than getting into the competition of ‘can I make this gorier than the last one’, and I think that’s really the heart of what’s made Chain Saw survive 32 years.
Do you think you’re going to see the prequel?
Oh, I’m sure I will, if for no other reason than I’ve seen all the others. I’ll probably wait to see it on disc. But, yeah, I’m curious to know what they’ve done. And I can only hope. I say all this and I grouse about it, but I would have loved it if the remake had been brilliant. I wouldn’t have been jealous, I would have loved it for him to have made a brilliant film.