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MOVIES : The Horrors of Filmmaking : The creators of 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' survive distribution nightmares--again--to get another quirky project on screen

September 01, 1991|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer.

And, again, it didn't come easy. McNaughton's agents had tried unsuccessfully to get a cassette of "Henry" to Scorsese when he was producing "The Grifters"--a project in which McNaughton was interested. Because Scorsese's assistant hated "Henry," she never passed it on. A couple of years later, McNaughton tried again, this time with more success. Scorsese evidently liked what he saw, because he gave the director a call.

"Mad Dog and Glory," written by Richard Price ("The Color of Money," "Sea of Love"), features De Niro as a timid bachelor cop--ironically dubbed "Mad Dog"--who saves the life of a loan shark (Murray). As a gift, Murray, who moonlights as a stand-up comedian in his own nightclub, "gives" him Glory (Thurman), who's tending bar in the club to pay off a debt her brother rang up.

"It's a love story," Jones observes, "and a character study of a friendship that goes bad. It's probably our most palatable film yet for a mature, wide audience, but it's not a total departure. The action takes place in a world that is definitely not a happy one."

The Chicago-born McNaughton (an introspective, irreverent only child) and the Brooklyn-reared Jones (son of a Communist interracial couple) met seven years ago through mutual acquaintances who attended the Illinois Institute of Technology. Jones had majored in design and animation at the school; McNaughton was a 1972 graduate of Chicago's Columbia College, where he had studied still photography and TV production.

When their friends went on to form MPI Home Video, McNaughton (whose post-college jobs included factory worker, shipbuilder, silversmith and traveling carnival employee) was brought in to design an animated logo; Jones (a musician who paid the rent by directing animated commercials for McDonald's and Cap'n Crunch cereal) was hired for the animated credits.

In 1984, low-budget horror films were selling well and MPI commissioned the two to make "Henry" for the home video market. McNaughton, as director and co-writer, was to handle the actors and the words. Jones, as producer, co-wrote the music and concentrated on the visual end. "Since John is the designated director--the auteur --I often get overlooked," Jones says. "But it's not as though one has the directorial vision and one picks up the money. In fact, we're a creative team --much along the lines of the Coen brothers."

Jones recalls that the two decided that "Henry" would be no ordinary slasher movie. What they were after was an art-house film. "It was a nervy thing to say," he admits. "But, as it turned out, that's just what happened. 'Henry' was the most artistically realized thing we could do . . . but it was also a dark, brutal experience. I figured they'd either flock to our door or put us in jail."

"Henry," a documentary-style feature based on the life of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, was shot in 1986. Vestron Pictures was interested, but bowed out in the face of legal action from Lucas. Atlantic Entertainment then came aboard, only to jump ship when the MPAA awarded the movie an X rating--the death knell at the box office. The breakthrough came when filmmaker Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line"), guest director at the 1989 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, selected "Henry" as one of his two picks at the event. The film generated controversy, garnered critical attention and was finally distributed by tiny Greycat Films.

"Without doubt, Henry was a very damaged person," McNaughton says. "But I wanted the viewers to explore how different he is--or isn't--from the rest of us. It's healthy to poke around in ourselves, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Human beings are capable of horrific violence."

"Henry" went on to become a cause celebre in Hollywood, deemed "brilliant" by one school, "garbage" by another. Every sleazy horror script was channeled to McNaughton and Jones but--economic hardship notwithstanding--they "passed." Without a job or a paycheck (and still owed 25% of his fee for "The Borrower"), McNaughton was forced to move in with his cousin and float a couple of loans. Jones, last October, was down to his last $500. Though a host of top-of-the-line film offers have come along since then, the duo is approaching Hollywood with extreme caution.

"I hope we always see ourselves as outsiders," Jones says. "I don't want to get complacent and settle for manufacturing films instead of creating them. We're backing into the mainstream--swimming in an ocean of people with different agendas. Trying to keep the business end as low-key as possible in a town in which content is not necessarily related to success."

McNaughton too identifies with the fringe. "I want to keep the road bumpy," he says, "going for the best story, not necessarily the biggest picture. Though I'm open to studio financing, our ideas are fairly controversial--not the broad-based, happy-ending stuff the studios look to for a 'return.' "

On the horizon: a film based on William S. Burroughs' "The Last Words of Dutch Schultz," to which they own the rights, and an amusement park noir murder mystery called "Neverland" that they have optioned.

Jones has recently chucked his job directing commercials to focus on filmmaking full time, which, as he is the first to acknowledge, is a small leap of faith.

"After 'Henry,' nothing astounds me," he says. "First, we couldn't get the movie shown to save our lives. It comes out and we're wined and dined by every agent and studio in town. Our $112,000 film gets nominated for six different Independent Spirit Awards alongside films like 'To Sleep With Anger' and 'The Grifters.'

"Luck always plays into it to some degree, but where, you ask, are the rules?"

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