Interview:: Tucker Johnston Director of Blood Salvage!

If you follow Kindertrauma with any regularity you're sure to know (thanks to posts like THIS) that we're big fans of director/writer Tucker Johnston's excellent yet elusive BLOOD SALVAGE. There's not a lot of information on BLOOD SALVAGE online so it was a great honor and privilege to talk to Tucker Johnston himself about his underrated cult horror treasure...

Q: Can you tell us about the origins of BLOOD SALVAGE? What inspired it and how it came to be?

A: The character of Jake was inspired by a junkman I bought an old Karmann-Ghia engine from. I came up with the idea of this mechanic who was also a homespun surgeon, since there are so many similarities between a car system and the human body, and he keeps his "patients" alive on life support machines made out of car parts in his garage. I pitched the idea to my film school buddy, Ken Sanders, who was a gifted writer and wanted to be a producer. He loved the idea and together we developed the story and wrote the screenplay over a few months. Then, with the help of my cinematographer, Michael Karp, we raised the money to film a "teaser trailer," choosing shots from the script that had visual impact and that we could afford to shoot. We filmed at an old salvage yard in the San Fernando Valley over two weekends and got everybody to work for free. The final promo trailer showed the potential of BLOOD SALVAGE and that we could indeed pull it off. Sander's father, who was Manager for then Junior-Heavyweight Boxing Champion Evander Holyfield, screened the promo and was interested in investing, and he convinced Evander to invest in it, too. Ken and I worked on a second draft of the script and assembled the key production members, including my cinematographer Michael Karp and production designer Rob Sissman, who were both instrumental in the project's undertaking. Shooting commenced the following summer outside of Atlanta.

Q: Did BLOOD SALVAGE get any theatrical showings before hitting VHS? If so, how was the response?

A: Distributor Paragon Arts/Magnum Entertainment had fifteen or so 35mm prints made and it opened in Atlanta with a respectable box office, and then theatrically screened in eight other cities, in second-run movie houses, drive-ins, etc., for the sole purpose of getting quotes from local film reviewers to put on the video packaging. There was no real promotion, except a basic press kit sent to the local newspaper and a small ad that ran the day the film opened. As far as the response we got from film reviewers, it ranged from good to bad, depending on if the reviewer "got it." (Hicksploitation flicks aren't exactly everybody's cup of moonshine). L.A. and New York film critics hated it. Atlanta and other Southern cities liked it.

Q: Was there anything you wanted to do in the film that you were not able to due to budgetary or time restraints. Were there any beloved scenes that had to be cut?

A: One sequence we wrote but cut before filming involved the Evans family stopping at a rural gas station that has a cheesy rundown roadside "Museum of Oddities" next to it that Bobby and April check out. It was a fun scene visually and introduced one of Jake's co-conspirators, but it didn't really advance the story, so it had to go. As far as scenes we shot that didn't end up in the final film, there were two. The first was at the beginning of the scene where April is locked in Helen's bedroom and crawls across the floor to get the hinges off the door. The scene originally started with April on the bed, noticing that she has some slight feeling in her legs after Jake's initial spinal injections. She struggles to her feet and tries to walk -- successfully for a step, then falls to the floor. Too bad that scene got cut. It really needed to be there to set-up the scene where she actually does walk, which is rather abrupt in the final film and gets an unintentional laugh. I just don't know why they cut that part of the scene. The second scene cut had Jake dressing up in his best church clothes and proposing to April. She recoils and viciously scratches him across the face. If you watch in the final film, the scratches are still on Jake's face, but are now unexplained.

Q: You really put together an outstanding cast. How was it working with the legendary John Saxon and Ray Walston? 

A: We had Ray for two days and it was pretty rushed to get all of his scenes shot. He was a really nice guy, a stanch professional and very enjoyable to chat with about Old Hollywood. He was obviously just there for the paycheck, this really wasn't his kind of movie, but he played the role well and it really paid off in the final film. John Saxon came in with a little bit of an attitude and was pretty intimidating to work with at first, but it didn't take long for us to fall into step and we ended up working well together. A couple of years later, I had lunch with John and he told me that he worked on six or seven low budget films a year, mostly with first time directors, so he'd always go in with his guard up. He said BLOOD SALVAGE was the best low budget film he worked on that year and that it was a really good experience for him. That made me pretty proud.  

Q: I think Danny Nelson as Jake Pruitt is perfectly cast. He's so effortlessly convincing in every scene. How did he like working on the film?

A: Danny was great to work with. He ate up every scene he was in. What a wonderful actor! We had actually cast another actor in L.A. to be Jake, but when we saw Danny's audition tape from an Atlanta talent agency, we knew right then we had to recast the role. Danny's performance was so captivating. He was Jake! The big irony was that besides being a professional actor, Danny was also an ordained minister. And here he was playing a crazy homespun preacher who steals people's organs! But Danny had no problem with it and really reveled in the role. I'm really glad I got the chance to get to know him. He was a very sweet man and had a wicked sense of humor. Danny passed away a couple of years ago. His last role was as "The General" in THE STRANGE CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON with Brad Pitt. 

Q: Can you tell us a little about Evander Holyfield's involvement?

A:   Mainly just financial, along with the cameo he made in the film. This was pretty early in Evander's career. He was really young and this was the first time he'd ever been "on-camera" outside of the ring or interviews. He was a really nice guy. Very humble at this point. By the time the film was released, two years later, Evander was Heavyweight Champ and we were able to get a little bit of attention in the press with his name attached

Q: I find April Evans to be a highly original horror heroine. Did you intentionally go against audience expectations by making her such a formidable character? I noticed actress Lori Birdsong also appeared in PUMPING IRON 2: THE WOMEN as herself and wonder if she was just as tough in real life.

A: I've always liked strong female characters. They are so much more interesting. We knew when we were writing April that she would have to be strong enough to, excuse the pun, stand up to Jake. It wouldn't have worked if she were a shrinking violet. We were criticized by some folks for making April a bitch, but this was not our intention. She did have a chip on her shoulder after losing her ability to walk a couple of years earlier, but, probably because of that, she was a fighter and had to rise to the occasion to take on Jake and try to get out of this seemingly hopeless situation. The role also called for an actress who could pull off a convincing Southern accent. You'd be amazed how many actresses we auditioned who had laughable fake Southern accents. Lori Birdsong could do both - she was feminine, yet had this inner strength and she had this charming Southern accent. Lori was really believable as April and she was a real trooper for everything we put her through during filming. It was not an easy role to take on, physically or emotionally.    

Q: I don't want to spoil anything for first time viewers but some of the characters meet grim fates. Any worries that you might be taking the violence too far?

A: Since we were presenting everything through a "dark comedy" lens, how could any of it be taken too seriously? That said, (SPOILER ALERT) Bobby's severed head being displayed the way it was in the jar, almost like a trophy, did not fit with anything Jake would do. After all, Jake tries to help the less fortunate, granted it's in his twisted homespun way. He sees what he does as good. That was a cheap shock shot. We broke our own rule on that one and are often called out on it by astute horror fans. 

Q: How was it working with an alligator? As threatening as he is, I thought he brought some nice comic relief at times.

A: We definitely portrayed him as the "junkyard dog" to have some fun with it. I'll tell you though, it's a lot easier to write exciting alligator scenes than to shoot them. I storyboarded all of the alligator scenes and coordinated on-set with the "Gator Wrangler" on what we wanted the alligator to do in each shot. He'd line the gator up and tap him on the tail to make him go. He'd do it a couple of times to try and familiarize the gator on the desired action, as much as you could with a reptile, and we'd shoot it. Obviously, for safety reasons, the actors were never actually on the set with the live gator. We shot them separately and created the scene in editing. If we needed Jake to be in the same shot as the gator, we used the wrangler dressed up in Jake's coveralls. In a couple of shots, you may notice we had to speed up the shot a little to make the gator's "stalking" more menacing.

Q: I have to ask about the boom mic that's prominent in a scene or two. Is that the result of the film being improperly framed? Is there a widescreen version out there that we should be seeing instead?

A: The answer to both questions is yes. We shot for 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, which has less on the top and bottom and more on the sides then the 4:3 version that's out there, which is from the original 1990 VHS/Laserdisc release. That said, our boom guy did ride the frame too close and the mic bobs in a couple of times, even in the theatrical format. You gotta love low budget filmmaking! Oh, also, beware the "widescreen" version currently available on Amazon Prime is just the VHS 4:3 format version stretched to 16:9 size.

Q: It breaks my heart that there's a generation of horror fans that might miss this gem just because it's never been put out on DVD or Blu-ray. Is there any hope that rights issues can be resolved? I know of a few distributors who'd be proud to have this on their list of upcoming releases.

A: Honestly I don't know why Ken Sanders, who owns the rights, hasn't put it out. I have my theories, but it wouldn't be fair to Ken to speculate here. I had to sell any rights I had to get the film made, so, unfortunately, I have no say in the matter. I have been contacted by a couple of distributors who were interested in putting BLOOD SALVAGE out on Blu-ray and I sent them Ken's way, but from what I understand, he never got back to them. I encourage anyone who wants to see the film released on Blu-ray, or even DVD, to contact Ken on Facebook and tell him (nicely, please) that you want to see it released. 1,100 followers on the BLOOD SALVAGE facebook page can't all be wrong.

Q: I'm curious about foreign distribution, too. BLOOD SALVAGE was released as MAD JAKE in some territories. In general, do you think there were many mistakes made as far as advertising and publicity go?

A: At the time, horror films were not popular internationally. For whatever hair-brained reason, the foreign distributor thought marketing the film like a MAD MAX movie would be the way to go, even though the film-goer would figure out pretty damn quick that they'd been duped. The Egyptian poster for MAD JAKE is just hilarious! It has April in mortal combat with an evil smiling alligator! I guess since they have alligators in Egypt, they wanted to play that part up. As far as the domestic marketing, I really liked the original poster art, but as far as the actual marketing is concerned, it was almost non-existent, as I spoke about earlier. As far as video sales, Magnum was selling the VHS of BLOOD SALVAGE for $98.00 a copy! I mean, WTF! No one was going to pay that outrageous price for a low budget indy horror film they'd never heard of! As a result, they didn't sell many copies, except to video rental stores who knew their customers would rent it.

Q: What is your favorite memory of writing and directing BLOOD SALVAGE?

A: Creating Jake's world and figuring out how to make it a reality so we could film it. We found this great old junkyard outside of Atlanta that had all of these old rusted-out cars from the 40s and 50s in the middle of this forest that had actually grown up, as well as through the old vehicles. The only problem was the property didn't have an old house on it. In fact, we discovered during location hunting, that there were no junkyards around Atlanta that still had houses on them. So we used the junkyard for the shots driving into Jake's property and for the gator chase scene. Then we edited it together with this other rural location we found that had an old Civil War-era house on it that we set-dressed with 50 junk cars around it so it looked like it was part of the junkyard. We also had to build Jake's barn on that location, since one didn't exist. Our innovative production designer, Rob Sissman, found this old abandoned lumber mill and bought it. He then dismantled it to use the old wood and rusted corrugated steel roofing to construct Jake's barn and make it look like it had been there for years. It was so advantageous to be able to actually custom design the layout of the barn to facilitate what we wanted to do shot-wise, as well as orientate the barn itself for the camera angles we wanted to get from the house and specifically from April's bedroom window.

Q: What is your least favorite memory of writing and directing BLOOD SALVAGE?

A: About three weeks into filming, Christian Hestler, who was playing Hiram, collapsed in his dressing room. At that point, we learned that he was in the final stages of a terminal illness that he had not previously disclosed to us. The 100 degree plus temperatures and physical acting demands had caught up with him. That night, the producers and I had an emergency meeting to discuss what to do. We briefly discussed trying to recast the role and reshoot the scenes Christian had been in, but that really wasn't feasible on our low budget. Instead, we rearranged the shooting schedule to give Christian a week off to rest and upon his return, because of his weakened physical state, we used a body double anytime we didn't see his face. A young guy from the art department who had Christian's build and was a wannabe actor filled in as body double and did a pretty good job matching Christian's mannerisms. It was far from ideal and the final film definitely suffers because of it, but you do what you have to do in a bad situation. Hiram is still a fan favorite, and there are a couple of scenes where you see Christian's full potential in the role, but sadly, most of the time, it's just not up to what it could have been

Q: What would you change if you could go back and do it again? 

A: I would change the soundtrack. Some of it's okay, but most of it is so annoying and redundant that it gets in the way of the scene instead of enhancing it like a good score does. I've edited a "Director's Cut" with a new soundtrack, and it works a lot better, but obviously I can't show it because of rights issues.

Q: What is the first film you remember being scared of as a child?

A: That would also be the first TV image I ever remember seeing when I was 3 or 4. It was Roger Corman's original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, where the giant carnivorous plant is being fed one of it's human victims. Growing up, I didn't know where this image was from or if I had made it up in my imagination. All I knew was that it was burned in my brain! Years later, in my teens, I saw the scene on late night TV and had an "Aha!" moment when I realized that I had, in fact, actually seen this image as a toddler. 

Q: What was the last film that scared you?

A: Most recent horror films don't do anything for me, although I hear Jordan Peele's movies are quite terrifying. I'd have to say, even though it's not a horror film, that the last movie that was really unsettling for me on an intellectual, as well as emotional level was EX MACHINA. Oscar Issac is sincerely frightening as the brilliant/crazy search engine creator who has made an Artificial Intelligence breakthrough that will change everything. But everything is not what it seems. Very chilling.

Q: One last question, I feel BLOOD SALVAGE left itself open for a possible sequel. Did you have any ideas where the story could go if that was possible?

A: I actually did have an idea for a sequel. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of BLOOD SALVAGE, Hiram has been seemingly decapitated and Jake has been badly burned from head-to-toe and run over by an RV. Roy vows to fix them up. In the sequel, since both Jake and Hiram are in such bad condition, Roy has to surgically combine what's left of both of them into one patchworked being. Kind of a "Two-Headed Transplant" monstrosity, although Hiram only has half a head remaining. The two heads of the Jake/Hiram hybrid are constantly bickering with each other and struggling for control of the body, but one thing that they both can agree on, although for very different reasons, is they want to get April back! Meanwhile, two years have passed and April, who can now walk, thanks to Jake, is a Sorority girl at the local university. She's very popular on campus and dating a Frat boy named Caleb. But behind her picture-perfect smile, April struggles with her past and has become obsessed with working out and self-defense. She won't allow herself to be a victim again! Then late one night, the Jake/Hiram monstrosity and Roy stakeout the campus and kidnap April from outside her Sorority House. Caleb and his frat brothers find out what's happened and set out to get April back! Out at the junkyard, April has been locked up, but she hasn't been sitting idly by. She lures Roy into her room and overpowers him, using her self-defense skills. She ties Roy up and holds him hostage to keep Jake/Hiram at bay and negotiate her release. Just then, Caleb and his Frat Boy buddies arrive at the junkyard, having tracked April down via her cell phone. Now it's Rednecks vs. Frat Boys in a battle to the death! Jake/Hiram have set up all sorts of booby traps around the junkyard and Jake's gator, who was seeming killed in the scrap crusher at the end of BLOOD SALVAGE, is back -- now half-mechanical. Roy put him back together using old motorcycle parts. Anyway, that's as far as I got.

Q: Sounds like a very intriguing story! It's a shame it never got made. Well, thanks again for your time, Tucker. I hope with the help of horror fans out there we can get BLOOD SALVAGE released on Blu-ray someday soon.  

A: I hope so, too. And thanks for your interest, Unk. It's nice to know there are folks out there who still remember the film. I encourage anyone who is interested to check out the BLOOD SALVAGE page on Facebook.

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3 years ago

Such a good call on Ex Machina. I find that to be an unappreciated gem that, sadly, most people just didn't get. And that's a shame because the implication of what it was eluding to was a warning of real terror that could be unleashed on the world.

2 years ago

As luck would have it, I've worked with Ken Sanders on a handful of low-budget movies and have a direct line to him… so I just sent him an email asking about a potential release. Hopefully he replies.

2 years ago

Ha! I was Bobby Evans. We filmed this movie over the summer before my 7th grade year. It was a BLAST!! I actually got choked up after we wrapped my last scene and I said good-bye to all those wonderful, creative lunatics.