A Witchboard sequel, a Roddy Piper movie and a slice of Rutger Hauer greatness. Any director with that titanic trilogy on his resume should really be better known, but the name Peter Svatek remains elusive to most genre fans. Dave caught up with the filmmaker to find out about his career, and discuss the challenges of working on horror and sci-fi pictures.
“I have to admit, it’s very flattering to be interviewed. To think that anyone out there has even thought about my films in the decades since I made them…”
Self-effacing and humble. Not usually the characteristics of anyone with an acclaimed film career in their wake, but then Peter Svatek doesn’t really fit the template of your archetypal filmmaker. His effusive nature underlines the ignorance with which we look back at such journeyman directors within the frenzied hive of film production that encapsulated the ’90s; but, having shot a Dan O’Bannon script, an impressive entry in a beloved franchise, and with his movies littered with luminaries like Rutger Hauer, Roddy Piper and Billy Drago, it’s time to give a little credit where it’s due.
“I was born in Prague but moved to Canada with my parents as a baby and grew up in Montreal,” remembers Svatek of his early life. “I started making movies because my Dad had an 8mm movie camera and I began to experiment with it in High School. I got a job as a summer student at the National Film Board getting some work as an assistant cameraman and an assistant director, and as time went by I started working as an AD on features for Cinepix; John Dunning who ran Cinepix was the Canadian equivalent of Roger Corman.”
Svatek’s directorial breakthrough came shortly after with a film he describes as “A Disney-type kids adventure story” called The Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck (1975). Though successful, it failed to kick-start the directing career that he’d hoped for; “It opened theatrically in Canada, but it just didn’t make as much money as Cinepix had hoped. After that, I ventured into commercials as well as a little second unit work for people like my great friend Jean LaFleur. One picture I helped him with was a film he wrote as Adventures in the Creep Zone, a big sci-fi movie that he sold to Ivan Reitman at Columbia. Jean was assigned to be the director, and it began filming under its new title Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983). After a few weeks of shooting I got drafted in to help out on a few action sequences out in the Utah, close to where Red River (1948) was shot, but soon after that Jean was struggling to get on with either Reitman or Peter Strauss, the lead actor, so they brought in some Hollywood hack to finish the picture. In the interim they did ask me to keep my unit work going, but out of loyalty to Jean, I said no.”
As the ’80s trundled into the ’90s, Svatek had become more accomplished in the field of advertising, which in turn led to another feature film opportunity that spawned a real purple patch in the director’s career. “Witchboard III (1995) landed on the desk of Robin Spry, who at the time was running the company where I’d been shooting commercials, and he asked me if I’d be interested in directing this horror movie that he was producing. It had come to him via Water Josten and his company Blue Rider who had produced the previous two films in the franchise, but had come to Canada to take advantage of the tax breaks – much to my good fortune.”
The Witchboard franchise began life in 1986 as the brainchild of horror icon Kevin S. Tenney, and although the Ouija board had been a frequent prop in genre movies in the years prior to Tenney’s classic, in films like Alison’s Birthday (1981) and Amityville 3-D (1983), it was a novel idea to feature it as the core antagonist. It’s an awesome fright-flick, and although it hasn’t perhaps aged as well as some of its contemporaries, it still retains the ability to leave you cowering behind a cushion. Tenney remained in charge of the megaphone for the less well-received sequel, Witchboard 2: The Devil’s Doorway (1993), but by the time the third movie came around and shooting switched to north of the border, he vacated the hot seat for Svatek, albeit retaining scripting duties.
Svatek immediately turned to his long-time collaborator LaFleur to come aboard the movie as the special effects coordinator, while as his director of photography he began a fruitful working relationship with Barry Gravelle that would endure the three major motion pictures of this era of his career. “Peter and I did go back and watch the earlier films, but we went with our own style regardless” remembers Gravelle. “I was really happy with the way it turned out, although with it being one of my first movies, I do tend to be overly critical with some aspects of it, mainly regarding consistent ratios. I think perhaps we took a little liberty with odd angles and wide lenses, particularly on close-ups. Having said that, it was such a dark and foreboding story and I was content in the way that the lighting and framing fed the tension. Peter had most of the blocking worked out in advance, so all I really did was make his ideas work. Part of the success of the look of Witchboard III was due to the late Harry Lake CSC, who was the second unit DP. He taught me most of what I know, and near the end of my focus pulling days I started making lighting diagrams of Harry’s work which I studied and memorised, and I carried this knowledge through my films, so the lighting and lenses we used on Witchboard III went on to Sci-Fighters (1996)”.
I’d be lying if I said that Witchboard III – or, to give it its full title, Witchboard III: The Possession – didn’t miss the rabid auteurism of Tenney, but Svatek still manages to craft an effective, workmanlike second sequel in the Ouija-themed franchise. Sequences such as the balcony fall still making me audibly gasp every time, while David Nerman and Elizabeth Lambert are well cast as the married couple that the plot centres on. It’s certainly worth seeking out the average-looking, princely-priced budget disc of it.
If Witchboard III represents a mid-morning stretch and leisurely stroll for the Canadian-based helmsman, his follow up, Sci-Fighters, saw Svatek edging into more of a canter. It was certainly a picture that engaged him right from the off. “There are two parts of me as a filmmaker,” he mused during our series of chats. “One part loves the mythological; my definition of that is the externalization of the human struggle. The other part loves the psychological, or internalisation of that struggle. I almost equally love both sides of the equation, and I think my horror and sci-fi work gave me the chance to explore the outer visual world.”
The script originally came from the prolific Mark Sevi who spent much of the ’90s providing scripts for a legion of straight-to-video sequels: Class of 1999 II: The Substitute (1994), Fast Getaway II (1994), Ghoulies IV (1994) and Scanner Cop II (1995) to name only a few. “I must admit I didn’t know the work of Sevi,” confided Svatek. “But when I read the script it seemed a little ordinary and tailor-made for a low budget production. It began with a couple of really visual ideas – the moon as a prison and the alien virus, but soon got bogged down in the world of an ordinary police drama. What appealed to me was the possibility of doing something visual despite the bland script, so I did an uncredited rewrite. I don’t remember the specifics of what I changed, but what I do remember was coming up with the idea of the eco disaster that had blotted out the sun and plunged the Earth into eternal night.”
“That became the film’s visual anchor and helped to root it in the sci-fi genre. My idea was that people cannot live without circadian rhythm, so the world had to come up with a solution to reinvent day and night; hence the idea of rigging tall buildings with lights, and laying fluorescent tubes along the gutters of the streets to create artificial daylight. It got kicked around a lot in pre-production by me, Barry and Luc Campeau who was my AD, as it was so ambitious for this low budget feature to shoot a film entirely at night, but we did it!”
Shooting on a tight schedule and for a budget of under two million Canadian dollars, the challenge of making a slice of original science-fiction must have been a tall order; “No, the sci-fi didn’t daunt me. Au contraire, I wrote most of it in! Besides, the idea of an alien virus always felt more horror-themed to me, but then I never paid any attention to the blending of genres. I just wanted to tell a coherent, visual story about a good cop with a personal grudge against a former friend who betrayed him.”
A simple story indeed, yet one that with Svatek’s fine-tuning and latent ambition, transcends the occasionally mediocre glut of DTV sci-fi movies that were very much the genre du jour during the mid-’90s. Yes, his wild-eyed desire to doctor Sevi’s script and also elevate the visual style of the picture is central to this, but without the addition of the dependable badass Billy Drago to the cast along with his penchant for oversized raincoats it may not have succeeded so well, while such an endorsement is also necessary for the movie’s star, the late, great Roddy Piper.
“Despite his background in wrestling, Roddy really took to acting like a duck to water”, Svatek says of the late icon. “His claim to fame was already John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), and back in ’96 he was still a big B-movie star, so we cast him pretty much from the get-go. We clicked from day one, and he just had a real desire to be a good actor and he put everything he had into it. Both him and Billy were great in the movie, the latter being such a trooper. The contact lenses I made Billy wear were hideously uncomfortable, but not only was he not a complainer, he was great in every scene. One of the great screen villains of all time.”
“Looking back it was a great experience. The writing (despite my best efforts) remained pretty ordinary, but Roddy’s enthusiasm for the tale of betrayal shines through. I’d say it’s a cut above most of its contemporaries from that era, and when it came out there was a fair few plaudits at just how visually impressive it was, which in turn got me to my next movie and a slightly bigger budget.”
A bigger budget, and also a broader canvas from which to work as the prologue to Hemoglobin (1997) transports us back to 1652, where we’re told that the King of Holland forbade inter-marriage inside aristocratic families when his doctors discovered that anemia, haemophilia and other genetic weaknesses were seeping into his bloodline. For Eva Van Daam though, no lover was good enough to quench her narcissism, so she settled for the closest substitute to herself, her own twin brother. On hearing the King’s decree, she took flight to the New World along with her sibling, cousins, nieces and nephews, building a great mansion in the process. However, the doors remained closed to outsiders, and over time the Van Daam family disappeared entirely from the public eye… Almost.
From the relatively small scale nature of Witchboard III to the claustrophobic darkness of Sci-Fighters, the first thing that hits you about Hemoglobin is its scale. A sweeping aerial shot over Grand Manan (doubling for Maine) captures the weary figures of the Strauss’, as Kathleen (Kristen Lehman) gazes mournfully over her sickly husband, John (Roy Dupuis), who has made the desperate pilgrimage back to his homeland in the equally desperate search for a cure to a strange degenerative illness.
“You can never accuse me, Barry and Luc of lacking ambition”, says Svatek with a hint of righteous pride over his magnum opus. “There were so many challenges on Hemoglobin, especially with the location. We were using the old fishing village at Grand Manan, as the Government had built a NEW fishing village, thus leaving the former one abandoned. It was so gorgeous! The Bay of Fundy has the biggest tides in the world, so every location had to be scheduled to the minute, because often where we were filming was only good at high or low tide. It was tough, but we had Hollywood-sized ambition for mooding up certain scenes, like laying fog through a whole forest or making it rain during large exterior scenes. There was no CGI either; even the collapse of the lighthouse floor was shot live on a soundstage in Montreal.”
With the energy and passion of the director seemingly in full flow, this was a project that surely saw Svatek working in tandem with his producers, right? “No, they didn’t want me. Pieter Kroonenberg and Julie Allen had another director in mind, but the distributor forced me on them!”
It was a complex relationship that threw up continual headaches for the director as shooting progressed. “Pieter was a pretty easy going guy, but Julie, who was his girlfriend, was quite intense. I remember one day shooting a scene with Rutger, who plays an alcoholic doctor in the film, and we both thought it was a pretty dumb sequence so we set about rewriting it together, then tried it again. Once it was in the can, I noticed Julie heading towards me. “That’s not in the script!” she said, “You can’t change that!” So I asked her why not and just carried on shooting, at which point she approached me a second time, thrusting the screenplay in my face and saying “THAT is what is in the script.” At this point I simply ripped the page out of the script in front of her, and calmly stated it wasn’t anymore. Later that day we wrapped, but soon after I had a phone call from Pieter enforcing Julie’s desire to stick to the script. I explained to him that we had finishing filming for the day, but if he insisted I could call Rutger back as well as the crew to reshoot, at a cost of approximately ten thousand dollars. “You prick” came the response on the phone, and Pieter hung up.”
For the genre aficionado though, the lure of Hemoglobin was clear from the outset, and that was the name on the script itself: Dan O’Bannon. With a career that began in the mid-’70s working with John Carpenter on the comedic sci-fi Dark Star (1974), through to his career-defining Alien (1979) screenplay and credits behind the type writer on such iconic shockers as Lifeforce (1985) and The Return of the Living Dead (1985) (which he also directed), O’Bannon was genre screenwriting royalty.
“I never heard from him, and I never talked to him,” admits Svatek. “Because it was an O’Bannon script, it got attention all over Hollywood. But because the script was so-so, it had been in turnaround for ten years or so before Pieter got his hands on it. Again, I did an uncredited rewrite on the script, but felt there was little that I could change. I did hear that O’Bannon hated the finished film, but I felt he was a little harsh, especially on the films visual qualities. After he died, his biographer got in touch with me for a quote, but never got back to me to actually get one. All I can say is that Alien is a masterpiece, while Total Recall is a classic.”
O’Bannon may have expressed his disdain for Svatek’s adaptation of his work, but for a discerning horror fan like you and I, Hemoglobin is a well-crafted and relatively unique fright flick. With O’Bannon and his co-writer Ronald Shusett clearly using H.P. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear as a source of (uncredited) inspiration, Svatek manages to inject a healthy dose of the Lovecraftian into proceedings. Titled Bleeders for its American release, the film came sporting a DVD cover that frustratingly shows far too much of the direction in which the movie goes, though if you check Amazon Prime you can also see it listed for streaming as The Descendant..
Following Hemoglobin, Svatek hooked up with Hauer again for the excellent Jack London adaptation, The Call of the Wild (1997), something he regards as a personal favourite, before drifting out the genre following the collapse of a project. “I got offered a version of The Lost World, working with a good FX team out of Pinewood. The budget was $4 million, a bit tight, and I rewrote the terrible script with Jean, while my son Dan, a comic book artist, did the storyboards. Just prior to shooting they cut the budget by a quarter, to which I said the only way I can do the movie now is by cutting one of the major dinosaurs out. The producers refused, so I just walked away, ending my particular association with that world of filmmaking.”
These days, though, Svatek is just as happy working in the field of documentaries. “My wife produces documentaries, so I went into partnership with her. Over the last ten years we’ve done some great work like Stolen Babies, Stolen Lives (2008) about kids born in Argentinian concentration camps in the ’70s, Takedown: The DNA of GSP (2014) which is about UFC champion Georges St-Pierre, and Theater of Life (2016) which looks at a soup kitchen created from the waste of the World’s Fair in Milan in 2015.”
A stark departure, then, from demonic Ouija boards and genetically mutated, incestuous hermaphrodites. But in a multi-decade career, Svatek has genuinely sampled all facets of filmmaking, and now seems more contented than ever in his new vocation. “I think I may have the most eclectic film career in Canada! It’s all been great though.”
It has. And all he’s due now is a little recognition for such a life less ordinary.
Portions of this essay are taken from the forthcoming Budrewicz / Wain book:
‘Schlock & Awe: The Forgotten Genre Films of the ’90s Rental Realm’
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