June 16, 2005
MARK PIRRO – SUPER-8 SUCCESS
Released on VHS in 1985 and shot between 1981 to 1983, A Polish Vampire in Burbank (APVIB) was the first feature film by writer and director Mark Pirro. Pirro, who released “The Spy Who Did It Better” in 1979 decided to write and direct a horror film about a Vampire who was afraid to bite his first victim. It’s a campy film where the title parodies another popular movie at the time; John Landis’ thriller “An American Werewolf in London”. With many of his friends and associates from work (Pirro was a studio tour guide with Universal), Mark set out with an idea that had never been tried before.
Before getting deep into production (five days to be exact) Eddie Deezen, who played the role of Eugene in Grease and cast as the original Dupah, quit because he felt he was working for free, even though he would receive top billing for this film. Armed with a Super-8 camera in hand and an ultra modest budget of $2,500 Pirro set out to complete what he had started. Mark would don the role of Dupah the Virgin Vampire. Originally titled “Virgin Vampire”, Pirro had to play the part to get the film done. Over the next two years and across various locations in Burbank CA, Pirro created this jewel in the rough.
In today’s terms what Mark Pirro was able to do was take an unknown film that he shot in Super-8 and earn in excess of $1,000,000 during the next twenty or so years without the immediate assistance of the Internet. DEADFLIX.COM was able to catch up to Mark and asked him a few questions about this milestone and its continued cult-like following amongst filmmakers after all of these years.
RG: Looking at this film after 20 years, you must be amazed on the following this film has and how much it has earned even though it was shot on Super-8? What do you think keeps it so popular?
MARK PIRRO : Popular is a relative term. I mean, George Lazenby is popular to maybe 5 percent of James Bond fans. The rest of the world is completely unaware of him. I would say it’s the same with Polish Vampire. There are small audiences who can discover a project and embrace it. It happened with films like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Robot Monster. Ask 100 random people and you’ll probably find maybe 10 who have heard of both those films. Polish Vampire may be popular among cult movie fans, but it has never broken into the mainstream. Now why have fans liked it? I suppose it’s because most people who are into the film are just as into the back story of making it. Here you have this movie made in garages and back yards at a time when very few people were doing this. I am pleased, however, when I do hear of folks who have enjoyed the film over the years.
RG: A lot of the props and locations of this film were given access to you by Universal Studios (which Pirro worked at as a Tour Guide) and friend Steve Dorsch? It’s amazing that you are led to believe that all of these locations flow pretty seamlessly. Would you give credit to creative editing?
MARK PIRRO : Editing is always a creative element in filmmaking. Many times a filmmaker can be saved the time and trouble of moving from place to place by designing a location that can represent several sets. Turn the camera to the north, you have one place. Turn the camera to the East and you have another place. Major studios will do this as well. They take over a soundstage and build several sets in the same building. I did the same thing, only without the luxury of a stage.
RG: The Dorsch’s (Steve and Bobbi) play a major role in your first few films, what are they up to now?
MARK PIRRO : I haven’t spoken to either of them in over 15 years. Bobbi Dorsch and I were friends since the mid 70’s and dated for about two years in the mid 80’s, and when we broke up, it unfortunately ruined our friendship. She’s a wonderful woman and I’ve missed her being a part of my life since then. I’ve always hoped that one day we will get together again.
RG: Eddie Deezen, whom walked out after 5 days on the shoot, is incorporated into the film through flashbacks as well as a spirit that continues to walk the earth until you sink your teeth in your first victim, how much of that parallel was written in from An American Werewolf’s walking dead sequence?
MARK PIRRO : Other than the idea that the skeletal remains pops in now and then, basically with the same personality he had before he died, and the title, not much. In fact, the only reason we changed the title from “Virgin Vampire” to Polish Vampire in Burbank was because of that one issue. But other than that, there really are no parallels I can see.
RG: What comedian inspired you the most?
MARK PIRRO : I was never inspired by any comedians. The inspiration for Polish Vampire was probably Roman Polanski’s “Fearless Vampire Killers” (the American Version – I hate the extended U.K. version). Naturally, John Landis was a big influence. At the time of American Werewolf, I loved every movie he had made.
RG: There is a running gag in this film regarding the line “Dupah – Is that Polish?” It’s reminiscent of Mel Brooks “It’s good to be the King!” is there any homage to his work using that line?
MARK PIRRO : Other than Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, I never found Mel Brooks films all that funny. The only reason we kept saying ‘is that Polish’ was to try and tie in the title more. Other than his name and a few small gags, the fact that he’s Polish is never really an issue.
RG: The DVD commentary talks about one scene as transcending two parts of your career both your past and future at one particular moment, that being the sauna scene. It was interesting that you were talking to a spy who was acting like an actor “The Spy Who Did it Better” and at the same time next to a Queer wolf “Return of the Queer wolf”. Do you consider this film a bridge between two parts of your career?
MARK PIRRO :Only in retrospect can we find that bridge. However, a bit of trivia here. Every film of mine has a reference to a previous film. In the case of Polish Vampire, the spy in the jacuzzi was that reference.
RG: There are many great gags you display including the “Scat Cat”, “Judos for Jesus” and of course “The Prostitutes Bread”. How did you keep your sense of humor about you having one actor walk out and having to reprise a role you had hoped to direct?
MARK PIRRO : Once the film was in production, the only goal was to finish. We worked for over two years on that movie and I would just treat it like a long game of Chess. Whenever an obstacle would get in the way (like Deezen quitting), I would just work out a counter move (like me taking over the role). We all kept a sense of humor because we knew we weren’t doing brain surgery. The worst thing that would happen is that we wasted a couple of years, but had fun doing it. In fact, having never had the notion that this movie would sell, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
RG: You did most of your prop work and a good portion of this film was filmed inside of a garage. How difficult was it to receive permission for Universal to film the castle staircase scenes? Was it difficult to keep continuity and a freshness to the role because it was shot over two years?
MARK PIRRO : The Universal staircase became a bit of a hassle because when we originally got permission to use it, we thought we would be able to use it a lot. Therefore, a good portion of the script was written with that in mind. Once we actually got into it, they were not too crazy about us spending too much time there, nor would they let us set up any artistic lights there, which is why we built the garage set. Our castle became limited to just a few walking bits here and there. In the garage we had more control of the situation.
The main continuity problem we had was matching hair styles, primarily with Lori Sutton. Bobbi Dorsch wore a wig, so that was no problem, but Lori would have her hair permed, shagged, fluffed, straightened, etc. The most obvious spot is when she enters the castle. Outside the castle it’s straight, walking down the stairs of the castle it’s permed, opening Dupah’s coffin, it’s straight again. I’m pretty good as a script supervisor, so other than that, there aren’t too many other continuity flaws. I think there’s a sign in the weight room that disappears and re-appears. That’s probably about it.
RG: One of the finest shot sequences revolves Dupah and his love interest during a dream. It emulates a scene out of an old Bogart film by effectively using smoke and lighting to display Dupah’s prominence over his to be victim, how was that setup?
MARK PIRRO : We shot that in the lobby of the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. I used to work there and the assistant manager (who was also assistant director on the movie) allowed me to shoot there in the middle of the night. There wasn’t much more to that set up than anything else in the movie. Same lights, same camera, etc. Just used black and white film and filled the place with smoke. Of course, it was a bitch to get the black and white footage processed, as there weren’t many labs that handled black and white super 8 film, so that was a bit expensive…relatively speaking.
RG: Another quirk in making your films is that you provide most of the voiceovers for some of the prominent characters, was it the equipment or lack of budget that caused you to do most of your own reloops?
MARK PIRRO : Super 8 camera motors run very loud. Unless the camera is far far away from the subject, getting usable sound is impossible. We looped for that reason. The reason I did many of the voices was just out of convenience. It was easier for me to do them than to have to bring in actors. I would let the principals do their own voices, but sometimes they would have trouble getting the looping process down (like Hugh Fields), so I would just do the voice in those cases.
RG: You have since moved on to other feature films including Deathrow Gameshow and now Rectuma. Can you give us an idea of what’s in store with Mark Pirro for the future?
MARK PIRRO : I never plan too far ahead. I know in the past I would announce my next film only to find out that something changes and I go into a different project. When I do a film, I’m going to be spending at least two years with it and then probably another two years marketing it and then another two years dealing with the corrupt distributors who try to steal it, so I want to be involved in something I’m really passionate about. As one gets older, it’s tough to focus the passion sometimes. In any event, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
RG: Is a 20th Anniversary Edition repackage of this film in the works?
MARK PIRRO : It’d be too late as the film is ‘officially’ 22 years old. The movie premiered October 30th, 1983. It was copyrighted in 1984 and sold to home video in 1985. Maybe we’ll be ready for a 25 year anniversary. I hope to one day create a new remastering of it. I wasn’t satisfied with the job MTI Video did when they released it briefly in 2002. Although it’s better than the VHS version that’s been out for years, the DVD is still not as good looking as the film is capable of being. I don’t know, but something went wrong in the encoding on MTI’s end. That’s one of the reasons they no longer have the right to sell it. I’m currently looking for another distributor for several of my films (maybe we’ll do a boxed set of three or four of my movies).
RG: I know you take great pride in the rights to the films you have created, APVIB was shot on less than a shoe-string budget and has gone on to make over $1,000,000 in revenue (mostly to the distributors), any advice to budding directors whom are looking to make their first feature film?
MARK PIRRO : Actually with television releases and video re-releases, I venture to guess that the price has risen to over a million or two. But you’re right. The distributors make the lion’s share. Advice? Do it for the passion. Don’t do it to expect a financial return. Polish Vampire was a bit lucky because of the time it came out. Home video was a new thing and the movie was available when distributors needed product. Today, everyone with a camcorder is a filmmaker and the market is over saturated with movies that will never get a release. One has less chance of selling a film today than when Polish Vampire was new. On top of that, add the fact that all distributors will try to steal the film from you (successfully), so if you have the desire to make a film, do it because you love doing it, not because you want to be the next Blair Witch Project. If you’re fortunate enough to find an honest distributor (as rare as finding a black man at a KKK rally or an intelligent politician), maybe you’ll make a few bucks.
RG: It appears that there is a growing issue surrounding distribution rights and b-movies in general. One might think that when they sell the rights to a major distributor that their problems are over, but in all actuality these rights and/or licenses expire and resume the original property rights of the directors and/or writers. How does anyone starting out even know about these issues?
MARK PIRRO : Go into this knowing that you WILL get screwed by a distributor at some point. Most (read ALL) distributors are dishonest and will do whatever they can to avoid paying filmmakers their due. I personally have NEVER dealt with a distributor I would call honest. It is very easy for them to tell the filmmaker that the movie isn’t making any money for them, even though the filmmaker may see his film in every Blockbuster store from Los Angeles to New York. A filmmaker’s best bet is to have an entertainment attorney involved from the beginning. He should draw up the contracts and approve all elements. Even that doesn’t guarantee results.
RG: Thank you for your time and candid responses Mark and I hope that your films continue with great success in the future! Please feel free to keep us informed when new projects arise.
MARK PIRRO : My pleasure.
You can visit Mark on the web at his aptly titled website www.pirromount.com.
His films including A Polish Vampire In Burbank is available on Amazon.com and off of his website as well.