Prowling around YouTube one day I discovered a couple of clips of Klaus Kinski in David Schmoeller’s film Crawlspace (the “Heil Gunther” scene and the sequence where Klaus rides through the crawlspace on a trolley!) and I wanted to see it immediately. I was not one bit disappointed when I finally got a copy of the film. And then I discovered that David Schmoeller had also made a short, highly amusing film about his experience of working with Klaus on Crawlspace, entitled Please Kill Mr Kinski. You can imagine why – yes, Klaus had been a very naughty boy…
I will review Crawlspace for Du dumme Sau! shortly and, believe you me, you will want to see it if you haven’t already. In the meantime, I managed to track down the director David Schmoeller and asked him for an interview to see if Klaus really was as badly behaved as he said. He was.
I hope I didn’t bring back too many bad memories for David Schmoeller – he has been just wonderful and not only given me this amazing interview but also the photographs to illustrate it. David Schmoeller, Du dumme Sau! salutes you – in a “Hats off” kind of way and not in a crazy “Heil Gunther” kind of way!
You worked with Klaus Kinski on the film CRAWLSPACE, how did the film come about, and how long did the whole process (the writing, the casting, the filming and so on) take? Was Klaus Kinski the first choice for the role or did you have any other actors in mind at that point?
Charlie Band [Du dumme Sau! Note: creator of Empire Pictures] called me in for a meeting and wanted me to write a script for this apartment set he had built for another movie at his studios (Empire International Studios – formerly the old Delaurentiis Studios – in Rome (the other movie was TROLL).
Originally, CRAWLSPACE was an anti-Viet Nam War story (I was a Conscientious Objector during the Viet Nam war and served two years of Alternative Service at the Texas School for the Blind). The first draft of CRAWLSPACE featured an MIA survivor who returned home to discover that his parents had died and his wife had left him. This MIA survivor recreated his Prisoner-of-War camp in his attic and subsequently built bamboo traps to ensnare his enemy.
When I turned in the first draft (and in Rome, they had already started building the Viet Nam attic POW camp), Charlie felt that America was not ready for a Viet Nam story (this was right before “Platoon”). He suggested we make the protagonist a Nazi! (I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!) I said: “You don’t think America is ready for a Viet Nam story – but you DO think they want to see yet another Nazi story?” He said: I’ll get you Klaus Kinski. I said: “You get me Klaus Kinski, and I’ll make it a Nazi story.” ….and he got me Klaus…
Kinski was the only actor ever considered for the role of Gunther. I wrote the second draft for Kinski.
CRAWLSPACE appears to be a combination of serious performances from Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam and Sally Brown, with other cast members playing it for laughs. Was that your intention, in order to provide comic relief and throw the drama into greater perspective?
I’ve always thought horror films were funny – or were supposed to be funny (while also scaring you or disturbing you or horrifying you). So, I always try to make my films at least somewhat funny. So, yes, the other characters can be considered as comic relief.
Typical Kinski-style, in CRAWLSPACE Klaus gets out the eyeliner and makes himself up (rather too expertly, I’d say), but makes a mess of the lipstick. To what extent was this written in to the screenplay, or was it improvisation? And how much of his screen outfits was his choice or wardrobe’s? That’s an amazing selection of cardigans!
It was in the script that the Gunther character put on eye-liner & lipstick. It was not in the script that the character would smear it – that was all Klaus – much to my delight. We only did one take.
Regarding the wardrobe: Since Gunther had to crawl around in the dirty crawlspaces all the time, I originally put him in work clothes. When I arrived in Rome and first met with Kinski for a wardrobe fitting, the costumer had a nice selection of work clothes in Kinski’s size. Kinski took one look at the selections and just threw a fit – and stormed away saying he would go buy his own wardrobe. He had lived in Rome for many years and knew the Italians had great clothes. So, he went out and bought all those cardigans and great slacks and great everything, charged it all to the production company and kept all the clothes when he left. I had absolutely no say in what he wore – from day to day. But then considering all the OTHER problems he caused me, the wardrobe was a small issue.
I really enjoyed CRAWLSPACE. The art direction and set design was very creative, particularly in Gunther’s quarters, and well expressed through great cinematography. Despite everything, I think you coaxed a great performance from Klaus. But Klaus allegedly despised directors, so, knowing that, why did you wish to work with him?
I had seen Kinski in the great Herzog films, but I was not aware of his reputation at all. I only discovered that after I called his agent and asked if I could meet Klaus. The agent kind of laughed, then suggested I read a current issue of Playboy Magazine that had a detailed article about what a monster Klaus was on the set.
I had called a director in LA who had recently worked with Kinski, as directors frequently do to check out what it is like to work with a particular star – and this director just flat-out lied and said Kinski was great to work with – only later did I find out he had been just as difficult with that director as he was with me. I never understood why that director was so embarrassed that he had had a hard time with Kinski that he would lie about it.
Why did you make your short film PLEASE KILL MR KINSKI 13 years after CRAWLSPACE?
For years I would tell the Kinski story to actors I was working with on subsequent films – and if I was having problems with any actor – or I wanted to tease them (did not happen very often), I would tell them the part about how the Italian producer was going to kill Kinski for the insurance money. Then one day, many years later, John Pierson, who had a TV show in IFC, offered to pay me to do a video piece reflecting my experience working with Kinski – that is when I made the documentary: “PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI (available on DVD on davidschmoeller.com).
PLEASE KILL MR KINSKI is very entertaining – I particularly enjoyed your performance and delivery. In the film, you say that Klaus misbehaved on set; that there were 6 cases of physical attacks on cast and crew reported; that he refused to respond to the terms “Action” and “Cut”; and that you and the producer tried to get rid of him from the film. To add to that, you say the producer suggested killing Klaus for the insurance money and that there were several requests from cast and crew to “Please Kill Mr Kinski”. Peter Geyer (Klaus’s archivist and biographer) says that when it comes to Klaus people always exaggerate things to make him larger than life (what he refers to as the “Werner Herzog syndrome”). Have you succumbed to the “Werner Herzog syndrome”? How far did Klaus actually go with his behaviour? Is there an element of mythmaking to the stories?
In Herzog’s feature documentary: “My Best Fiend,” you see Kinski going off on one of the crew – with all these Peruvians Indian extras – watching in disbelief. Herzog then tells the story about how two chiefs from the Indian tribes came to him the next day and offered to kill Kinski – “Because a man should not talk to another man like that.”…or something like that. The behind-the-scenes footage of Kinski screaming at the crew member; as well as the interview footage with Kinski in my own PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI – should be enough to document Kinski’s volatile behavior. I didn’t exaggerate ANYTHING in PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI. As far as I am concerned, Kinski is responsible for all his own “myth-making.”
At the end of PLEASE KILL MR KINSKI you say that you wish had been quoted in his obituary as saying what a compelling actor he was and how great he was to watch, rather than saying that he was difficult. This leads to a few questions, so I hope you can follow my train of thought here: What performances of Kinski’s had caught your imagination prior to CRAWLSPACE? Do you think he was a compelling actor and great to watch in CRAWLSPACE? Was the end result actually worth it for you? And if you really wanted to be quoted for saying he was a compelling actor and great to watch, why did you title the film PLEASE KILL MR KINSKI and draw attention to his bad behaviour, rather than arguing the case for him as a compelling and great actor? (I’m not knocking the film at all, by the way, I think it’s a great companion piece to CRAWLSPACE)
As an actor on the set of Crawlspace, Klaus Kinski was an out-of-control monster. That is how I experienced him and how everyone else on the set experienced him. I would go to work every morning with my stomach in a knot dreading the horrible behavior of Kinski.
He had an interesting face and on camera, he could be very compelling to look at. He would occasionally do interesting things as an actor that made him very watchable. That was part of his overall success as an actor. But that quality has nothing to do with his really bad behavior. He probably would have had a much more stellar career if he had been able to control himself – if he wasn’t so prone to such bad antics. But, I suspect he was his own worst enemy and that crippled what could have been a much more promising career.
My prop master was British – and I think he was the one who coined the phrase; “Please kill Mr. Kinski…” – as if to politely request the demise of this tyrant we had on the set. This same prop master had worked with Kinski on David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (I show that clip in the doc) – and he told me the story about that scene – where Kinski is on the train chained to a post – and declares his freedom. My prop master said that after they shot that sequence, they broke for lunch – and the prop master went up to David Lean – and said: “Mr. Kinski is still chained. What do you want to do?” and Lean said: “Leave him.” – because he had caused so much trouble…even as a bit player. My prop master had no reason to make up this incident. He was just telling me that Kinski gave every director trouble. (The same Prop Master also told me: “Kinski is nothing – I worked with Elizabeth Taylor on a movie – now there is a really difficult actor!”).
Going back to Klaus’ on-set antics I read an interview with Tané (see http://www.cinema-nocturna.com/tane_interview.htm ) in which she claims you begged her to remain on set even when not required for filming as Klaus behaved himself only when she was around. Is that true? Did she spend a lot of time dodging his advances?
I don’t remember specifically asking Tane to remain on the set – but I could have because Kinski would not go off on women – just the men. Kinski could be a flirt – so, I would not be surprised if he pursued Tane.
Klaus’s delivery is often in whispers. Was this part of his difficult behaviour (he apparently did this with another director, Ulli Lommel, whom he was causing problems for) and did this cause any problems, both technically and creatively?
I had very little control over Kinski’s performance. But, I think the reason he whispers in his performances – and also cuts many of his lines – is because he doesn’t feel comfortable speaking English. Kinski cutting lines was a REAL problem for me. Scenes were starting not to make sense because he would NOT say this or that line. I had to resort to real child’s play with him. I would go up and say: “You know what, Klaus, I don’t think you need to say this next line…” and he was so contrary that he would say: “Yes, I do. It’s an important line…” Again, you may say this is myth-making – but this is what it was like working with Klaus Kinski.
In the Playboy article about Kinski, it said that he was known to try to sell his lines to other actors. I read that and thought it was funny. Amusing. And not possible. Then, one day one of my actors [Du dumme Sau! Note: Kenneth Robert Shippy] – who played Steiner (who was Gunther’s antagonist), came up to me and said that when he rode with Kinski to the set earlier in the morning, Kinski was trying to sell him some of his lines. Go figure.
[Du dumme Sau! Note: David Schmoeller has a special skill which he uses when directing films: http://web.me.com/dschmoeller/davidschmoeller.com/Learn_Special.html]
And why didn’t you spin a beer bottle on your fingertips to get Klaus to pay attention?!!
I only learned to spin the beer-bottle on my fingertip after Kinski had died…otherwise, I would have used that unique skill I have… That for sure would have gotten him to straighten out!
CRAWLSPACE has themes in common with some of your other films. In particular, the themes of confined spaces, stalking, entrapment, obsession and endangerment. THE SEDUCTION features voyeurism and stalking, while TOURIST TRAP contains stalking and issues of control. Characters control either puppets (PUPPETMASTER, TOURIST TRAP) or people. Is this something you feel a director is doing?
I certainly wasn’t doing it with Kinski during the making of Crawlspace. And I really don’t think a director – if he is any good – tries to manipulate an actor. Not in the sense you describe above.
[Du dumme Sau Note: I think David Schmoeller misunderstood this question as I actually meant did he believe directors manipulate an audience, but I probably didn’t phrase the question very well]
I understand you studied theatre with Jodorowsky and Bunuel. Jodorowsky in interview stated, “I want to devote myself to marionettes, to puppets. And I start to make circus puppets, and theatre puppets”, while Bunuel used the theme of entrapment in many of his movies. Do you think that working with these people created an interest in these ideas, or was this a theme that you shared in common with them?
I don’t think these directors had any kind of influence on me in these terms. I didn’t get into film until years after I met them. I DO like “magic-realism’ – which, in part, comes from my time spent in Mexico. I think this is what you see in my movies. But more than this, I was a hired-gun on most of the movies I wrote and directed. That is to say, I was given an assignment – a genre, a set, something – so, I was not writing from my heart and soul in terms of expressing something personal. If you want to talk about “myth-making,” I think the notion that Hollywood writers are writing anything personal – is mostly myth. For most of us, it’s a job.
You are currently working for the University of Nevada Short Film Archive, and have made a number of short films yourself. Is short film your preferred format now, or do you have plans for a feature-length film in the future? Is there anything in the pipeline now?
I recently produced a feature film called THOR AT THE BUS STOP (see: http://thoratthebusstop.com/ ). So, I am still eager to make feature films. It’s just easier to afford making a short film. I DO enjoy making short films. But it is mostly an economic factor, not one of choice.
Well, I hope anyone reading this enjoyed the interview as much as I did. I can’t thank David Schmoeller enough for giving me his time and I hope he gets to make many, many more films in the future. You can buy some of his films at very affordable prices, including autographed copies of the Please Kill Mr Kinski film here: http://web.me.com/dschmoeller/davidschmoeller.com/For_Sale.html
The Playboy interview David Schmoeller refers to is in the November 1985 issue and is entitled “KLAUS KINSKI & THE THING: Is this man of strange and explosive power really the world’s greatest actor?” (interview by Marcelle Clements). It’s available to read on the great www.klaus-kinski.de website: http://www.klaus-kinski.de/veroef/playboy85-1.htm
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF DAVID SCHMOELLER