Cult Filmmaker Charles Band on His Wild New Memoir Confessions of a Puppetmaster

Cult Filmmaker Charles Band on His Wild New Memoir Confessions of a Puppetmaster

Fans of cult horror movies will have no trouble recognising the name of producer, writer, and director Charles Band; it pops up in the credits of well-loved classics like Re-Animator, Ghoulies, Pupper Master, and Troll, all of which he made through his various companies over the years (including the now-defunct Empire Pictures and his current company, Full Moon). With a highly enjoyable new memoir releasing this month — the colorfully titled Confessions of a Puppetmaster: A Hollywood Memoir of Ghouls, Guts, and Gonzo Filmmaking — Gizmodo spoke with Band about his life and career so far. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: What was your inspiration for writing your memoirs now, at this stage in your career?

Charles Band: It was sort of fortuitous timing early last summer — we were still shooting movies, but far fewer because of covid — and a literary agent got in touch with me. He’s friendly with the people at HarperCollins, and somehow they had heard about my crazy life so far and thought that they wanted to make some kind of an offer for an autobiography. I said, “OK, that sounds great. I may even have the time to do that, but I’m not a writer.” So [the agent] found a fantastic biographer named Adam Felber, who, among other things, was one of the head writers on Real Time With Bill Maher for 11 years. For me, [compiling my memoirs] was weird because I’m just so forward-thinking, I’ve got so much that I’m doing. We’re going to have probably our most prolific year ever next year — we have 18 movies planned — so I just don’t look back that much. And I know I’ve made a lot of movies and had many adventures, but this was fun [because] he kind of made me slow down and think about things that I usually don’t think about and try to remember stuff going back, like, way too far. [Laughs]

Gizmodo: That’s perfect, because you — as you talk about in your book — cast Bill Maher in one of his earlier acting roles [in 1989’s Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death], right?

Band: There’s [almost always] somebody like that — even ones that are not mentioned [in the book], on every movie — [both in front of] and behind the camera … it kind of started even in the beginning. My first horror movie, which was called Mansion of the Doomed, we had Richard Basehart, we had Gloria Grahame. That was Lance Henriksen’s first movie. My DP was Andrew Davis, who later became a well-known director; he made The Fugitive and other big Hollywood movies. My special effects guy was Stan Winston, who became a close friend and became probably the most celebrated special effects guy, doing movies like Terminator and Aliens and Jurassic Park. So many of these movies are peppered with people that, in many cases, went on and had amazing careers. So that was really great and sort of fortunate that that was part of that.

Gizmodo: How did you decide what stories to include in the book? Did you have to sort of self-edit anything out along the way?

Band: Not really. You know, I didn’t want the book to just be movie-by-movie, behind-the-scenes snippets about what it was like to make all 12 Puppet Master movies. There have been other books that have been written about my body of work and I thought, “I just want to tell the stories that are more human.” I mean, look, this could be any business. It’s a story of an entrepreneur who, without any formal training — I mean, I knew how to make movies, I grew up on a movie set — but, you know, I graduated high school, didn’t waste a minute, jumped into this business. I had no business training. It’s a strange mix of art and finance. You make a gazillion mistakes, which I did, and I thought the book would be more interesting, and that people who would enjoy reading about that, as opposed to just lots of technical stuff about making low-budget movies.

Gizmodo: For anyone who’s reading this interview that might not be totally familiar with your filmography, what would you say are like five or six quintessential Charlie Band movies?

Band: Well, I think these movies have stood the test of time. I never sort of followed the pack, so I never made a slasher movie when Friday, the 13th was happening and all its sequels. Didn’t do any of those, didn’t do Halloween movies or the Freddy Krueger stuff. I just think most of these movies have, you know, a certain originality — albeit, you know, low budget. So you can go back to the ‘70s, a movie like Laserblast, which could be remade with a $US100 (A$137) million budget and be a lot of fun: careless aliens leave a laser-like weapon on Earth, and some kid who’s been treated badly, bullied around, finds it and blows up all his enemies. I made a movie called Tourist Trap, which Stephen King thought was one of the scariest movies of that decade; [it stars] Chuck Connors and is about this strange place people fell into, and mannequins. And then movies like Ghoulies, which I know destroyed [so many] parents efforts’ of trying to get their kids potty trained because the poster had a Ghoulie coming out of the toilet … we got some really, really nasty letters back in the day.

And then, you know, Re-Animator, which I think was pretty unique for the time, and From Beyond and Dolls. And then as we hit the ‘90s, we had a great deal with Paramount and we were making a movie every four weeks. And that’s when we released Puppet Master, and Subspecies, which I think is one of the better vampire series franchises. There’s also movies like Trancers and Troll, which has a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus in there. The landscape is littered with all these sort of movies as I go back and forward in time.

Even more recently, [we’ve found a] successful franchise [with] Evil Bong — the first one is with Tommy Chong — we’ve made nine of them over 16, 17 years. It’s fun, silly, weed-centric escapism, but that kind of has its own audience. And in a similar way, we made another wacky franchise called the Gingerdead Man with Gary Busey playing a super pissed-off cookie. Then, of course, you do the crossover, so we made a movie called Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong, just like I made years before with Dollman vs. Demonic Toys. There’s a sort of universe that keeps expanding and growing, and I love plucking characters from the older movies and then bringing them into a current film without any fanfare. Just, let’s see if people recognise this character and this actor from a movie made in the ‘90s, or a movie we made last year, you know, so kind of having fun with that, too.

Gizmodo: It’s clear in the book, and also from talking to you, that you’re proud to be known as a B-movie or a cult movie filmmaker. What does that mean to you both personally and professionally?

Band: It’s true I never took the time to — nor did I want to — sit around and try to get a big movie approved and made at a major studio. You know, some $US100 (A$137) million dollar film. I have friends who make those movies and it’s great when they’re greenlit and they’re in action. But sometimes it takes literally years to get these movies off the ground and approved and funded. I’m spoiled in that, yes, I’m making small films with super budgetary limitations. But I can dream them up and have a script in 30 days and then shoot them — and 60 days, 90 days later, it’s out on our streaming site. Or years ago, it was out on limited theatrical [release] and out on video. So I’ve been working in this bubble now for a long time.

And yeah, sometimes you go “I wish I had just a little more money. It would help the movie be more fun,” but we still managed to make, I think, generally pretty clever films. I mean, they’re very character-driven. We don’t have the big effects budgets, but nor does that really, I think, help that much. I am a huge movie fan and back in the day when movie theatres were all happening, it was a rare weekend that we didn’t go to the movies, especially any sci-fi, fantasy, or horror film. I would be there.

But the movies now seem to be, with exceptions, like 90% CGI explosions, [and] effects — how many times can we see cities blow up and tidal waves and lasers? You lose track of the human side. The old sci-fi, fantasy, horror movies, the classics from the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘40s, and a few in the ‘70s, they have people you sort of cared about. And when the effects started or the fantasy began there, it was just sprinkled in and it was so great to see those few stop-motion animation shots in it … it was a seasoning that was magical. Now it’s the other way around. You kind of long for a few people in a quiet moment, in a room just talking. Luckily for Full Moon, that’s kind of what we can afford to do. So most of these movies, you know, they’re not super effects-laden, they just hopefully tell good stories with interesting characters.

Gizmodo: What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker who admires all that you’ve accomplished?

Band: Well, there’s nothing new in this advice, but first it’s great to do something that you love or you know you’re interested in. It turns you on. It inspires you. It’s really hard to sell something to get motivated if it’s not what you’re really excited about. Try to do and make a business out of what you love doing because then it’s a different vibe. And believe me, there are days that are really difficult. I mean, I’ve done this forever and there are really difficult days, and it’s not like, it’s all awesome, but it’s great when it goes well. But at least you’re creating a body of work. If you’re an artist, whatever you do, you’re a painter, a sculptor, making movies, short videos. Then the only other sort of age-old advice is just, you have to get up every morning like a good soldier and just do your thing. It’s like the writer who has that regimen of sitting down at a certain hour every day, come hell or high water, and writes, even though they may not write what they like at the moment or the page stares at them blank, you got to get up and do it. You gotta soldier through. I mean, it’s 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. Is that what it is? Something like that.

Gizmodo: Can you tease some of those 18 new movies that you’re working on now? What are you most looking forward to having people see?

Band: They’re all my children, so I don’t want to make any movie or moviemaker feel bad. But you know, we’ve been trying now for years to make a fifth chapter for Subspecies, which is one of our well-known franchises. We were solidly in pre-production early last year in Croatia. We were set, we were going, we’d advanced money, we were ready to roll and then covid kind of whacked us out of the ballpark. So that didn’t happen. Now it’s going to happen again. It’s going to be probably March, April, but we will — short of any other natural disaster — finally be making a fifth Subspecies which is really ambitious. It’s sort of the thousand-year history of [the vampire character] Radu. And I know a lot of fans are excited about that.

We’re going to make another movie that was planned for last year that will be basically the 13th Puppet Master film, called Doktor Death. We were ready to go last year, and we had to also push that back — that’s a character from Retro Puppet Master, a pretty cool-looking little character. Then, because we’ve had such a nice success on a smaller level with Baby Oopsie, which is a spin-off of Demonic Toys — they’ve done super well on our streaming site — we’ve made, I think, a very clever movie casting two leads who would normally not be the leads in this kind of a movie. We’re making four more of those chapters, so it’s essentially two more sequels, but we’ll be shooting those up in Cleveland, where I purchased a — I call it a haunted house but it’s really not haunted, but it’s a big, 110-year-old house, the perfect house to shoot movies and kind of make into a home base.

Cleveland turns out to be a great place for all sorts of reasons to make movies, kind of a home away from home, incredible architecture, very enthusiastic people. Locations are almost free. So, yeah, it’s unlike LA, which probably was all of that 140 years ago. Now it’s like, you know, “Get off my lawn.” Cleveland is a whole different story, so we’ll be shooting more chapters of Baby Oopsie, and making more chapters of another show we did called The Resonator: Miskatonic U. Kind of a Lovecraft thing, harkening back to movies I made in the ‘80s like Re-Animator and From Beyond. What else is exciting? Well, there’s a lot, but that’s that’s enough. That’s a bunch!

Image: William Morrow/HarperCollins
Image: William Morrow/HarperCollins

Confessions of a Puppetmaster: A Hollywood Memoir of Ghouls, Guts, and Gonzo Filmmaking by Charles Band with Adam Felber is out November 16; you can pre-order a copy here.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.