A personal talk with the legendary director Coffy and Foxy Brown

When I first met Jack Hill, I was taken aback by how gentle and polite he was.  I mean, this is the guy who made girl gang movies like SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, practically invented the modern Women in Prison film with classics like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and its follow up THE BIG BIRD CAGE, and perhaps most of all, he's known for the remarkable "Blaxploitation" flicks like COFFY while introducing the goddess Pam Grier to the world.  As the song says, he's pretty fly for a white guy.

Exploitation films earned their nickname due to the budget constraints that drove them to focus on aspects like sex, violence, Kung-Fu, or all black casts to give their movie a niche market.  Unlike gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis, or other exploitation directors of the time, Jack Hill had quality casting and storytelling to his films that put them leaps and bounds above the others.

Hill went to film school at USC alongside fellow young filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola, and worked on a few movies together before going their separate ways.  Hill's student film, THE HOST, is a clear inspiration for the final act of APOCALYPSE NOW.  And while Coppola went on to bring us classics like THE GODFATHER, Hill made FOXY BROWN, both of which have equal importance to film history.  Just watch any film by Quentin Tarantino, a die-hard Hill fan, and you'll see what I mean.

One of Jack's most remarkable qualities is his ability to use women in powerful roles.  The girls in his prison movies may be behind bars, but it's clear that they're really calling the shots and will eventually get the upper hand.  Particularly Pam Grier, who by any standard needs to be considered the first and greatest female action star of all time.  After her prime, you really didn't see that sort of character again until Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton started kicking Alien and Terminator ass decades later.

So as I sat with Jack and his lovely wife Elke at a Starbucks in town, I was relieved as he seemed more nervous than I was.  We were showing THE BIG BIRDCAGE at The Crest in Sacramento as a part of the TRASH FILM ORGY festival, and we talked about his career over coffee.   

When someone calls you an "exploitation director" how does that make you feel?

Well, I have mixed feelings. At the time it was considered to be not really respectable, but the term got better through the years. Kevin Thomas (LA Time film critic) called me the best exploitation director ever, so I suppose it's good in that context. It's better than "B-Movie Director", that's for sure.

Women showering in prison, is there any greater scene in a movie?  Though there were a couple women in prison films that pre-date it, they were more like the "look what happens to bad girls" sort of stories, far from the lurid skin-flicks that Hill helped pioneer.

Your films have been pretty successful, unlike many exploitation films of the time.

Coffy worked it's way to #1 but nobody cared because it was "a black movie" and it didn't count to most people.  

Was it difficult to work with Roger Corman and those tight budgets?

It wasn't bad.  Working with Corman was a good experience in that he was a director, so he'd leave you alone and let you do your thing. You could really do things you wouldn't be able to do. 

When I made THE SORCERESS for him in 1980, he cut 20 minutes out of the film, and didn't add the special effects he promised to.  Plus the re-dubbing was awful.  There's a scene were a group of monks are chanting, but he stripped that audio out, so they're just standing there moving their lips.  But I understand he would use that film as an example of the right way to make a movie on a budget.

Sid Haig makes his film debut in Hills' student film, THE HOST, which is cited as an inspiration for parts of APOCALYPSE NOW, if you can believe it!  Coppola won't admit it, but the influence is clear, and you can check it out for yourself as it's an extra on the Switchblade Sisters DVD

There's a lot of connections to your work and Apocalypse Now.  Not only does Francis Ford Coppola use the same Philippines locations you did in THE BIG BIRDCAGE, but it's evident that your student film, THE HOST, lays the framework for the Sheen vs. Brando ending.  Did you ever talk with Coppola about this after you saw it?

I wrote him a letter after I saw it, but I never heard back from him, but Steve Burum, the 2nd unit Camera Man on APOCALYPSE NOW (and Hill's DP on THE HOST) once said in an interview that they were re-shooting Jack Hill's student film.

I was amazed at the sound effects in THE HOST, they seem pretty ahead of their time.

That's all new for the DVD.  Quentin did that. All we had was the original audio track, and we even redubbed some of that. In fact, I was able to look up the actress on the internet and get her to do her stuff again, she ended up living pretty close to me.

Was it difficult working in The Philippines when you filmed THE BIG BIRDCAGE?

Working in the Philippines was great. The only problem was the weather. Typhoons stripped a shooting area twice.

Sid Haig in THE BIG DOLLHOUSE, just one of many of the Hill's films Haig has starred in.  You can look for Sid in the upcoming HOUSE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES directed by Rob Zombie.  You might also remember Sid as the villain on the cheezy Saturday Morning live action series, "Jason of Star Command."

Sid Haig is fantastic, and you've used him in nearly ever film you've made.  How did you first meet him?

Sid Haig is a wonderful actor, he can do anything. He's great in PIT-STOP especially.  Dorothy Arzner was my adviser at school, and she recommended Sid. He was playing Othello and she sent him over, thinking I could use him.  

This crazy racetrack wasn't just a creation for his film PIT-STOP, but was actually used in weekend races in Southern California in the 60s.  And we modern day pussies are worried about airbags!

PIT-STOP is amazing.  That figure 8 race-track with the intersection is insane.  How did you film that stuff without killing the drivers?

All those race scenes were real races, I only had 1 shot done with a stuntman. We filmed 6 weekends worth of races and cut it all together. It was a monstrous editing job. It was Ellen Burstyn's first film, as well.

What other exploitation movies do you enjoy?

I don't really watch many movies. I used to like watching films by Yasujiro Ozu who makes these very slow penetrating stories that they'd show at The Kabuki Theater.  You have to be really esoteric to know about them, though.  You should look him up.

Jack Hill in 1975 with some of the cast from Switchblade Sisters.  Kitty Bruce on the left, is the daughter of the legendary comedian, Lenny Bruce, while Janice Karman (far right), became the voice of Theodore on "Alvin & The Chipmunks".

How did Quentin Tarantino approach you to re-release SWITCHBLADE SISTERS under his Rolling Thunder imprint?

I just got a call from Miramax, and only found out later that Quentin was behind it. The test screenings were great, but theatrically, it just didn't do very well. It was a 20 year old movie that was already out on video.

Switchblade Sisters also features the first, an perhaps only shootout in a Disco roller rink!  Just think of how fun ICE CASTLES would have been had only the added a bit of gunplay.

The DVD commentary with you and Quentin for Switchblade is a lot of fun.  He just doesn't shut up, does he?

Quentin's very enthusiastic. He can recite pages and pages of dialogue from my movies that I couldn't do myself.

Robbie Lee (right), who plays "Lace" in SWITCHBLADE SISTERS went on to do cartoon voice work as well, in the Rainbow Brite and Q*Bert cartoons!

You've got commentaries for every DVD of your movies.  Is it as easy as just watching the movie and recording it in one take when you do those?

Oh yeah, it's pretty much just recording the thoughts while you watch the movie, sometimes I'll have it stopped if I get my words jumbled up, but it's pretty cut and dry.

Pam Grier threatens her boyfriend in THE BIG BIRDCAGE with a machete, to which he responds by attacking her with a dead chicken.  It's all settled with a mud-wrestling bout in a pig-sty, and some serious shack-shaking sex, while the Filipino revolutionaries look on in admiration.

Was it bittersweet to see Pam Grier star in JACKIE BROWN after so much time past since she starred in COFFY and FOXY BROWN?

I was happy to see Pam get a good role. Quentin called the film an homage to my work. It's charming that he thinks that.

You did work with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff, at the end of their lives.  What were those experiences like?

Chaney was on the Wagon during the filming Spider-Baby, and Boris Karloff had an oxygen tank to breathe with. He'd take a deep breath and then do his scene. Both were really wonderful to work with, no arguments or complaints. I learned a lot from Chaney, as he had made so many movies. It was great casting.

Lon Chaney, Jr., in the Jack Hill comedy classic, Spider-Baby.  Chaney was a raging alcoholic at the time, and wanted to do such a good job that he accepted the role of Bruno the limo driver for $2500, and stayed off the sauce during the entire schedule.  

How on earth did you come up with the idea to have Chaney sing the theme song to Spider-Baby?  It's so crazy (CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO IT)

We thought it was a great idea to have Chaney sing it. He sort of rapped it.  

Chaney clowns with the legendary Mantan Moreland on the set of Spider-Baby.  Moreland, who had been making comedies since 1933, had a tough time getting work after the civil rights movement made the stereotype portrayals of blacks in films "taboo" and unshowable in modern days.  This pissed Moreland off to now end, as he was a slapstick comedian in the realm of Jerry Lewis and Don Knotts, and avoided degrading roles, but PC sensibilities of Hollywood made it hard for him to find good work.

Was it fun working with Mantan Moreland?

Mantan was bitter that the civil rights movement put an end to his career. He was unfairly lumped in with the Steppin Fetchit type actors who played degrading servant type characters, but he never really did that. He was just a great slapstick actor. I wanted him to get murdered early in the movie, as symbolic end to the stereotype. 

Pam Grier, goes undercover as a hooker in Foxy Brown.  Never before has a blue bra and underwear looked so good.

Seems like all your films have always benefited from good casting. How did you get so lucky?

Pam Grier came in on a cattle call. I needed 5 actresses.  Groups were reading together to see how they played off each other. I was really struck by her presence. The part didn't specify a black girl, but she was a hard worker and very professional, she learned fast. Sid worked with her a lot.

The trailer for FOXY BROWN says she's "A chick with drive, who don't take no jive!"

Was there any challenges as a white director making Blaxploitation films?

Ever film I did was a challenge. I approached black lifestyle subject matter the same way as I did anything else. Themes of drama are universal, the dialogue is the only difference. 

With the character "Foxy Cleopatra" in the latest Austin Powers film, and Halle Berry to take on the role of Foxy Brown in an upcoming remake, Hill and Grier's influence lives on.  Berry should do well with the pedestrian hitting driving scenes made famous in the flick.

Halle Berry is going to remake Foxy Brown.  Would you direct that if you were offered it?

No.  A black director should do that.  There's plenty out there that would do it well.  I heard the writer of MENACE II SOCIETY, Tyger Williams, is going to script it.

Ever have a weird fan experience?

At a showing of Switchblade sisters, I had some feminist snatch the microphone and lay in to me about the rape scene. If you ever see The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper, you'll see where I got that from.

Shot in just 12 days for $65,000, SPIDER-BABY is a great film, who's macabre family humor rivaled The Addams Family, and was released before the show first aired, to boot!  Spider-Baby also boasts a sickening severed ear scene before BLUE VELVET gave it a try, and had the whole crazy zombies under trapdoors in the cellar 20 years before Sam Raimi did it in THE EVIL DEAD! 

I love meeting fans. I think it's great that so many 14-15 year old girls love Spider-Baby. It's about unconditional love.

Yeah, you really did the whole dysfunctional morbid family thing before The Addams Family with that.


The enormous "Bird Cage" prop, a human powered sugar cane mill, was designed by Jack Hill's father, who also created Sleeping Beauty's Castle and Tom Sawyer's Island in Disneyland.

You mention in your commentary on THE BIG BIRD CAGE DVD that there was a few lines that make you wince when you hear them again like the crack about the Filipino girl referred to as "Chop Suey."  Or when the lady says she can't be raped, because she loves sex.

I got an email from someone who was Asian that said that comment wasn't offensive to him. And it played in a LA Theater in a gay neighborhood for a longtime, so they weren't offended by that stuff, either.

Unafraid to use the risky "N" word, Hill's THE BIG BIRDCAGE boasts one of it's greatest uses ever, when a white prisoner shouts it at Grier, who ends up wrestling her to the ground, and with her foot on her neck, shouts back, "That's MISS Nigger to you!"

The "non PC" stuff in your films isn't really hateful, that's what makes it work so well. Like when Pam Grier says, "That's MISS NIGGER! To you!" 

Right, and she created that line herself.

We could have gone on longer, but after an hour I fumbled for my mostly empty cup of Starbucks and spilled some coffee on Jack's pants.  

It seemed a fitting way to end the interview.

You might (haven't seen it yet to verify) be able to check out the work of Jack Hill in the new documentary BaadAsssss Cinema that's making the rounds.  THE CREST will be showing it on August 2nd in Sacramento, so check it out!

And thanks again to Jack Hill for all the incredible films he's brought to the world.  Do yourself a favor and see them all when you get a chance.  You'll be better off for it!

CLICK HERE TO VISIT JACK HILL'S SITE, and watch trailers from most of his films.


-Robert Berry