The Arrow interviews Bill Johnson
Actor and all around nice guy Bill Johnson is best known to horror fans as the man being the mask and the pelvic thrusts in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. The dude has been constantly working in films ever since and actually has a role in Jeff Burr's upcoming genre jamboree DEMONS 5 alongside Robert Englund, Gunnar Hansen, Bill Moseley, Cassandra Petersen and more! I recently got a shot at taking Leatherface down and this is how he sawed my head off! BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ!
What’s the last horror film you saw that somewhat got under your skin?
As a film, though it’s maybe not put forth as a horror film, Jacob’s Ladder was fairly freaky. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES really got to me, Bill Moseley’s performance as Otis Driftwood; he is “mui malo”. The upcoming DEVILS REJECTS promises to be light years way more severe.
How was the auditioning process for the Leatherface role? Were “pelvic” thrusts with an “air” chainsaw part of the process?
The ‘pelvic thrust” gesture you saw in the film was created during the filming in concert with Tobe, who had lots of energy, ideas and openness to collaborating. 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 of each shot in progress, so invited improvisation and spontaneity. Tobe makes very personal films and he’s improvisational and utilized the collaborative inspiration manifested on the set which enhances the film making process, creating results that have cinematic qualities that can stand the test of time.
How long and how grueling was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 shoot?
Almost ten weeks of Principal Photography. Grueling chainsaws. Very grueling during Texas drought, 100+ degree-days and the nights were hot too. No sound stage with air conditioning for us. The Sawyer family’s underground home was in an above ground building which once housed the Austin American Stateman newspaper printing presses. The interior was like an open warehouse, “I” beam columns, superstructure overhead, and sheathed in sheet metal. NO INSULATION. NO AIR CONDITIONING.
t 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 finally okayed some mercy and brought in a portable 40 ton air conditioner on wheels. It snakes a hose about 3 feet in diameter into the space around the camera between takes. It helped a little bit.
How would you define the overall on set dynamic between cast and crew?
Cast and Crew were in harmony. Hollywood crews and the local professionals made up the overall crews were professionals with the appropriate deportment that you’d expect. Because of the severe conditions that co-operation was even more appreciated. The Art Direction was Enormous. Prodigious. Art Director, Cary White and Prop Master, Michael “Sully” Sullivan went far “above and beyond” the call to create beautiful results.
Were you at all intimidated by veterans Jim Siedow and Dennis Hopper? How was your relationship with them on set?
I felt welcomed and supported by them. 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 relatively cooler air conditioning of my dressing cubicle until called on set for a scene. 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, a fine actor. All in all, Jim was a wonderful person. He is greatly missed by friends, family and fans.
Dennis was pleasant, easy going, friendly. He liked to have a good time and joke around. He was one of the guys, except he was also, a Hollywood Icon and incredibly busy. Dennis was traveling back and forth to the locations for the upcoming film COLORS he was getting ready to Direct. I only saw him the days he was called for a scene. Dennis Hopper was such a right on casting choice because of his amazing gifts as an actor and his appreciation for the outré, bringing solid believability to the Special World of TCM2.
As an actor what was your internal approach in terms of playing Leatherface? What was the main emotion that drove the character?
There are more emotions than there are 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 relationships with the Sawyer Family under the circumstances which they had to live.
To exist by the Family rules, until one day Bubba starts creating rules for himself in contradiction to the family in order to go from existence to feeling more alive. 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 of Love with the Goddess Stretch, versus an entire life of absolute submission to Clan Sawyer.
Was there a lot of room for improvisation during the shoot or did you mostly stick to what was scripted?
Tobe welcomed actor input and improvisation. Grounded in his artistic vision he welcomed collaboration. He loved what he was doing; he was possessed by a zest and zeal that was inspiring as well as driving and demanding. Tobe provided very specific behaviors when I wanted clarity. With details Tobe put forth, I could get the signature identity profile for Bubba and begin spinning out what he wanted. 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 in the A.C. of our cubicles, playing Gin Rummy. I have a really awesome photo of Bill, Jim and me doing just that.
How was your demeanor between takes? Would you go “method” and do what you have to do to keep in character?
Getting into character was pretty straightforward since everyone in the cast created an excellent ensemble. Getting together with them and then Tobe would push the pedal to the metal to ‘kick it up a notch’ into an even more intensely maniacal level. I couldn’t stay in character all the time without some serious downside consequences. Plus no one could relax around anyone who was behaving like an out of control spree killer. 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 needed to step out of that TCM2 world and take a breather into a more “normal” ordinary reality.
With Bill Moseley and Jim Siedow chewing the scenery around you, did you ever crack a smile behind that mask during scenes?
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. As the “actor” self observed things it would marvel at some of the shenanigans those guys did during a scene. And between takes the usual joking and capering about was a lot of fun to relieve stress and still keep an edge.
When’s the last time you watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2? How do you feel about the film today?
When appearing at the Death Row haunted house in Nashville a few weeks back they had the TCM2 DVD looping at the table I was at so, I saw TCM2 a lot, and it is eminently re-watchable. I find it eerily rich. It is intense, well made, humorous, has strangeness, danger and beauty. Powerful performances, off center humor, beautiful art direction, subtle camera work, zest, flair and mastery in the Directing, super SFX makeup, complexity in the writing with a satirical thread of the “Jonses” striving yet thwarted to be upwardly mobile, and what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?
Of course I’m prejudiced, and I believe TCM2 holds its own in the Horror Genre. I feel very lucky to have had a part in this piece of Film History. Incidentally, last October 2003, when I was at the Return to Haddonfield Convention in Pasadena, CA. I had the great luck to meet veteran Director, Jeff Burr who directed TCM 3. I think he may have been on his way to a panel discussion so it was just a brief chat. And Mr. Burr, with no apples to polish or agenda to pursue, spontaneously complimented that Tobe’s film, TCM2 is a very good film and that many people hadn’t realized what a good movie it was, and also had been under appreciated when it first came out.
Luckily for me, this October 2004, I met Jim O’rear in Nashville at the Death Row House of Horror and Jim wants me to be take a role in his upcoming film THE DEMONS 5, with Gunnar Hansen, R.A. Mihailoff, Kane Hodder, Bill Moseley, Robert Englund, Jim O’rear and as coincidentally, Jeff Burr is directing and Tom Savini with the SFX makeup. Whewww! For those interested in knowing more about THE DEMONS 5
THE HORROR CHANNEL
(Scroll down and click on Jim O’rear’s photo on the left side of the screen to enter the interview.)
THE HORROR ASYLUM
(They are in the process of adding me to their front page, but for now you can find it under the link label Featured Interviews on the left side of the page.)
How have the fans been to you over the years? Did anybody ever gone too far to express their admiration?
No, I just wouldn’t think it likely considering the caliber of the people who generally attend these gatherings. The fans I have met are very nice people with a lot of heart, enthusiasm and zest for having a good time. Aficionados and gurus of their preferred film genre.
What are your thoughts on the existence of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake? Have you seen it?
Tobe Hooper’s original TCM is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, a unique Icon in the Horror genre, so any remake as you might expect will be compared and separated by the differences. The team who made the remake deserves praise for their work and commendation for its financial success.
How is the “Halloween” holiday celebrated at Bill Johnson’s home?
Very quietly hang out at home and I don’t dress up or do anything to frighten the neighborhood kids. Off Camera, I’m pretty much what you’d call a square bear homebody.
I'd like to thank Bill for sawing through the site and would like to wish him all the best in his future cinematic slaughtering. Keep buzzing and we'll keep watching!