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INT: Bill Johnson

03.26.2004by: The Arrow

The Arrow interviews Bill Johnson

Although Bill Johnson has acted in such fare as Future Kill, Talk Radio and Crosswalk, it's his role as the chainsaw-thrusting Looney Tune Leatherface in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" for which genre fans will always remember him. I had the opportunity to exchange saw-slashes with Mr. Johnson and here's what he buzzed back at me!

ARROW: What’s the last horror film you saw that somewhat got under your skin?

BILL: As a film, though it's maybe not put forth as a horror film, "Jacob’s Ladder" was pretty freaky. As a performance, Bill Moseley in "House of 1000 Corpses" really bothered me much more so than the film itself.

ARROW: How was the auditioning process for the Leatherface role?  Were “pelvic” thrusts with an “air” chainsaw part of the process?

BILL: Auditioning process was loose and low key and simple. The physical gestures you’re remarking about, what you saw in the film was created during the filming in concert with Tobe, who always had lots of energy and ideas and openness to collaborating. Of TCM2 Tobe was very solid in his vision and such an excellent storyteller that he knew  the individual elements that made up each cinematic moment, the essence each shot in progress. Tobe makes very personal films and he’s improvisational and in my opinion utilizes the collaborative inspiration that manifests on the set which enhances the film making process creating results that has cinematic qualities that stand the test of time.

ARROW: How long and grueling was the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part 2" shoot?

BILL: Ten weeks of Principal Photography.  Texas drought, 100+ degree-days and nights were hot too.  No sound stage with air conditioning. The Sawyer family’s underground home was in an above ground building which once housed newspaper printing presses. It was like an open warehouse, “I” beam columns, superstructure overhead, and sheathed in sheet metal. NO INSULATION. NO AIR CONDITIONING.

It was a giant version of “THE BOX” from COOL HAND LUKE.  It got to be 120+ degrees Fahrenheit in there, Eventually after people were dropping left and right the producers okayed a portable 40 ton air conditioner on wheels. It snakes a hose about 3 feet in diameter into the space around the camera before shooting and between takes. It helped a little bit. 

ARROW: How would you define the overall on set dynamic between cast and crew?

BILL: My personal observation was Cast and Crew got along famously. Hollywood crews and the local professionals who also made up the overall crews are and were total professionals with proper deportment you’d expect. And I’m thankful. I’ve been on other sets where this was not the case.

ARROW: Were you at all intimidated by veterans Jim Siedow and Dennis Hopper? How was your relationship with them on set?

BILL: I was a “local hire’ so I went to my home in Austin every day, not to the hotel with the others. My only time with them was on set when I was in a scene, otherwise I’d been ordered to stay sequestered in the air conditioning of my dressing room till called on set for a scene I was in. I spent much more time with Jim on set than Dennis.  Jim was open hearted and friendly, fun to be with, humble and a little shy perhaps. A fine actor and a wonderful person. Dennis was traveling back and forth to the locations for the upcoming film "Colors" he was getting ready to direct.  If he wasn’t in a scene with me, I didn’t see him. When I was in a scene with him, Dennis was pleasant, easy going, friendly. He liked to have a good time and joke around.  He was like one of the guys, except he was, a Hollywood Icon and incredibly busy.  Dennis Hopper was an fabulous casting choice because of his amazing gifts as an actor and his appreciation for the outré that lends the solid believability to the  Special World of TCM2.

ARROW: As an actor, what was your internal approach in terms of playing Leatherface?  What was the main emotion that drove the character?

BILL: There are more emotions than words to adequately describe emotions  in all their complexity. So I don’t try to affix words to them  which will abstract them and throw them onto an intellectual plane. I did my best to be in the appropriate relationship with the Sawyer Family under the circumstances which they had to live. To exist by the Family rules and then one day Bubba starts creating rules for himself in contradiction to the family. Bubba finds out first hand what the love songs on the radio meant. And becomes a conscripted card carrying member of the Legion of the Brotherhood of Heartbreak Hotel. Torn between Love and Loyalty. Torn between the Brave new world in Love with the goddess Stretch versus an entire life of absolute Loyalty to Clan Sawyer.

RROW: Was there a lot of room for improvisation during the shoot or did you stick mostly to what was scripted?

BILL: Tobe welcomed actor input and improvisation.  He was well grounded in his artistic vision and welcomed collaboration. He loved what he was doing; he possessed a zest and zeal that was inspiring as well as driving and demanding. Tobe directed action for me and since I have no dialogue, no need to improv that. Tobe provided very specific behaviors when I wanted clarity, which I really appreciated. With details Tobe put forth I could get the signature identity profile for Bubba and begin spinning out variations. Bill Moseley was excellent at improvising and he came up with a lot of Chop Top live on set.  I spent most of my time with Bill. When he wasn’t onset we were together playing Gin Rummy either in his or my dressing room.

ARROW: How was your demeanor between takes? Would you go “method” and do what you have to do to keep in character?

BILL: Getting into character was not a problem since everyone in the cast had created such an excellent ensemble. Getting together with them and Tobe pushed the pedal to the metal of that Special World to ‘kick it up a notch’ into a more intensely maniacal level of expression. It could be safely construed that Bubba was a homicidal maniac and was having an especially twitchy time lately with an already tentative hair trigger impulse control. I couldn’t stay in character all the time without some serious downside consequences. It was nice to step out of that TCM2 world and take a breather into my “normal” ordinary reality.

ARROW: With Bill Moseley and Jim Siedow chewing the scenery around you, did you ever crack a smile behind that mask during scenes?

BILL: Well, sure I’d laugh if Bubba felt what Drayton or Chop Top were doing was funny to him. And if Bubba felt they would punish him for laughing, he’d hide it from them. 

ARROW: When’s the last time you watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2? How do you feel about the film today?

BILL: I reviewed it again last week, and this movie stands tall on its own with any film in the Horror Genre. It's intense, well made, humorous, has strangeness and beauty. I find it rich and full. Powerful performances, off center humor, beautiful art direction, zest, flair and mastery in the Direction, super sfx makeup, complexity in the writing with a delicious satirical thread of the “jonses” striving yet thwarted to be upwardly mobile, and what family doesn’t have its ups and downs? When attending the Return to Haddonfield Convention in Pasadena, CA. I met veteran Director Jeff Burr who directed TCM 3, and Mr. Burr spontaneously remarked about how Tobe’s  film TCM2 is a very good film and many hadn’t realized that fact, what a good movie it was, that it had been under appreciated when it first came out. I felt that was high praise from a seasoned expert and from someone who might be considered a rival and had no apples to polish.

ARROW: How have the fans been to you over the years? Did anybody ever go too far to express their admiration?

BILL: I don’t know what you mean by “too far”, but no one I’ve seen at any convention I’ve attended has done anything dangerous or too far out that could be considered unacceptable social behavior.  And I don’t expect it will, not that it couldn’t happen, I just wouldn’t think it likely considering the caliber of the people who attend those gatherings. The fans of TCM2 have are super freaking far out folks. Aficionados and gurus of their preferred film Genre.  They are really nice people with a lot of heart and enthusiasm and zest for having a good time. I'm deeply appreciative and honored by all you far out fans!

I thank you for your continuing interest and participation in the "Bill Johnson Online" group at Yahoo.com. I can’t wait to meeting you awesome folks when I’m at conventions.  Feel free to drop by my website www.leatherface2.com  and leave a message in my Guestbook  and/or add your email to my mailing list. For you who pursue deeper history of TCM, www.titanbooks.com has published a fine book the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, which covers up to #4 and briefly opines on the most recent one.  Lots of interviews, inside behind the scenes news and info, lots of pictures, a very nice forward to the book by Gunnar.

ARROW: What are your thoughts on the existence of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake? Have you seen it?

BILL: I was very busy, so I didn’t get a chance to see it in theatrical exhibition so I must wait till video release.

ARROW:  How is the “Halloween” holiday celebrated at Bill Johnson’s home?

BILL: Very quietly hang out at home with my wife. We keep treats by the door for the neighborhood kids who are Trick or Treating. And I don’t dress up or do anything to frighten them Off Camera,  I’m pretty much what you’d call a square bear homebody.

I'd like to thank Bill for dropping by the site and would like to wish him the best in all of his future endeavors. Now I have to give TCM2 another chance, I hated it on my first watch, but have a feeling I'll appreciate it more today now that I'm a more mature horror fan. Let's rev that saw! Round 2 with The Face!

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