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Interview: Gunnar Hansen

10.21.2008by: JimmyO

Itís fair to say that Gunnar Hansen is a man that given the right time, could scare the shite out of you. He is tall and looks as if he could probably do some damage with very little effort. Best known for bringing Leatherface to life in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, he took a little time off from making movies afterwards to write. But over the past few years he has returned to the genre in such films as MURDER SET PIECES, BRUTAL MASSACRE: A COMEDY and the upcoming REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE, which has to be one of the greatest movie titles ever.

Time Out with Horror Legends continues with this amazingly smart fellow, who Iíve been lucky enough to talk to on several occasions. Whether it be a red carpet here or there, or possibly a convention or two. It always fascinates me that many of the guys that play psychos seem to be the nicest gentlemen in the world. Gunnar is no exception. He is the reason why Leatherface is as cool as he isÖ just look at the original Chainsaw, you canít get much scarier than that. So take a gander at what he has to say about not doing the sequels, and what happens when elderly women blame a bunch of murders on a movie.

Was it your intention to become an actor early on? I donít believe it was.

No. I just happened upon the part [of Leatherface] when I was in graduate school. I was in a couple of plays and that sort of, quite accidentally, gave me the opportunity to be in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. And I thought it would be an interesting summer job. My interest always was in writing. And I did Chainsaw and I did one small movie after that and then I turned everything down, including the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Because I just wasnít interested in doing movies. It really was only in 1987 when Fred Ray called me to ask me to come out to L.A. and do HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS that I started thinking I could do both.

Oh man, come on, who could turn down a movie with a name like HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS [Laughing]?

I asked to see the script before I signed the contract [Laughing].

So youíre young, you get this script for what was originally called HEADCHEESE right?

No, it was called LEATHERFACEÖ and HEADCHEESE was a title that they were thinking about that would come up in discussion.

I think they made the right decision with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

What was your initial reaction when you read about Leatherface?

Well Iíd already agreed to do the film. Actually, with the character, we went through a long conversation with Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel the co-writer. Yeah, I thought it was an interesting character. My main concern was, could I do it. And if so, how would I do it. I had a pretty clear idea of what his personality was and what his relationship with the family was. Tobe had spelled that out pretty clearly. So I really just started thinking at the beginning, how am I going to do him, but they asked me if I could do it and I said, oh sure. It was just my way of getting the job.


I thought it would be really interesting to do a film where the character doesnít speak and doesnít have a face. So I had to rely entirely on my body. But when I said, oh sure, it will be easy, I had no idea how I was going to do it.

What was the most difficult - obviously it looked like a pretty tough shoot on a lot of levels - but what was the most difficult part in playing this character with that budget, at that time?

Really the problem was just the physical demands of the role. You know, once I had the character figured out, it was a pretty straight forward process during the filming of itÖ physically stepping into the character on action. Of course I realized right away in looking at the script that Leatherface was going to be doing a lot of running. And this was Texas in August and early September, so the temperature was going to be a hundred degreesÖ So the way I prepared, and I had a couple weeks before the shooting started, so the way I prepared was, I went out every morning really early and started running. I realized it was going to be physically, extremely difficult. And what I did was I found a field and I just, one morning paced off a mile to see how many laps it was, I mean length of the field. And I started walking and jogging. Well, I started walking a mile and then I built it up to walking and jogging a mile, and then jogging a mile. Because I realized if I didnít do this, I would just fall over dead during the filming. So that was really the most difficult part was the fact that it was really, physically demanding. And it was so hot and there was lots of running. And of course while I was doing all the running I was carrying a chainsaw.

Not to mention the costume and all that.


At one point during the final sequence, didnít you actually cut your leg?

Oh no. During the last scene where Leatherface falls and cuts his leg, I kept asking how they were going to do that and Tobe would say, Ďwell, Iím not sure yetÖ but donít worry, itís the last thing to film.í, meaning, if you get hurt, who cares [Laughing]. And when they did the shot, they wrapped a piece of sheet metal around my leg and then taped a steak down with a blood bag over it. So when the saw went into my leg, it cut, it went right through the pant leg, the blood bag and the steak just to almost do something. And it hit the metal, and burned it. Because it heated up the metal so fast that I actually got a burn. So when I yank the saw out and put my hand over the cut, for that instant I thought Iíd been cut. Because I just got this stab of pain. Of course, almost instantly the pain is gone and Iíd realized what had happened. And it looked good, because you know there is that quick jerk, and then the blood spurts up through my fingers. Because when I squeeze down, of course I squeeze the blood pack. But I did get close to getting hurt, I got knocked out one time. I fell during the chase. It was during the night, so you know, I was running with the saw. It was a live saw. I slipped on making a turn. My feet went out from under me and there is no way I can see the saw because of the lights, plus I could only see what was directly in front of me with the mask on. So I couldnít see the saw, so I just rolled over and covered up my head and it landed beside me. I was really lucky there that it didnít land on top of me.

Well watching the film today, after seeing it several times throughout the years, you really do feel like you are watching something real taking place. Itís so raw and so visceral without being bloody.


When is the last time you watched it?

Well I donít know when the last time I actually sat through it. I watched parts of it about three years ago. I havenít sat through the film in quite a number of years. Iíve seen it maybe, fifteen, twenty times.

You played this role years before these types of characters became instant celebrities, like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Did you ever get a negative reaction for playing him?

Well I get that every once in a while, not from people I know, but Iíve gotten itÖ years ago, back in about Ninety, it was about 75 I guess when I moved to Maine, and I was at a concert. And during intermission, an elderly woman said to me, ĎGunnar, you know, sixteen people were murdered this week in New York. Itís your fault.í And I think she was speaking figuratively in regards to the sixteen people, but people do have that attitude sometimes.

One time I was out to talk to a class at a college in North Carolina. And when I got there it was just a trap in that it turned out to be a law class, and what they really wanted was to confront me with the idea that horror movies are irresponsible because they propagate violence. It was great because I just tell them that it was a real example of shallow thinking if they really believe that. And I just laid it out, I said first of all there is no evidence to say that watching violence creates violence. And I said, second of all, the problem you got is horror movies if fact, show the consequence of violence. So in a sense, theyíre more responsible because at least you understand what the results of violence is.

If you want to complain, why donít you complain about shows like ďThe A-TeamĒ which were extremely violent but no one ever got hurt. Because there, the lesson of it seems to be there are no consequences to violence. I said, I think whatís going on is basically horror movies are an easy target. Because theyíre counter-cultural, small budget, you know and people rant and rave about Chainsaw Massacre but they say nothing against, say RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, a movie aimed at young people. Which is much more graphically explicit than Chainsaw Massacre ever was. And when did you ever hear about someone complaining about exploding heads and melting faces in that movie? Never.

Well even Tobe Hoopersís POLTERGEIST is more bloody and violent. But Steven Spielbergís name was attached.

Oh, absolutely.

It is funny how he was able to run the gamut between Chainsaw and Poltergeist. Both of those films hold up so well, and I tend to wonder how the latest crop will hold up. Especially some of the made for DVD or the Sci Fi Originals and such which donít seem to hold up AT ALL.

Oh no. And you look at something on the Sci Fi channel, I mean all those made for Sci Fi Channel movies are all the same movie, just with a different set. Letís paint the 23rd Century paint job on the set. This time letís make it late 19th CenturyÖ change the paint. And it seems to be pretty much the same movie over and over again. Itís likeÖ what movie did I just watch? AVP: REQUIEM? Now I was kind of looking forward to it because I like the original PREDATOR movies you know, and ALIEN. And it was just a teenagers movie. Itís just another teenagers in trouble movie where the pretty girl has the jock boyfriend whoís a jerk. And sheís kinda sweet on the nerdy guy whoís a good-looking nerdy guy, but heís the nerdy guy. So the jock boyfriend beats him upÖ itís like, ĎOh please!í That was a tired idea the first time they made it.

I miss the older films, especially the Ridley Scott ALIEN. I really donít think that any of the sequels have been as beautifully shot as that one was.

Oh yeah. It was just a brilliant horror movie. And you know, the funny part is, it is sort of a teenagers trapped in a building. And somehow they get away with, weíre in grave danger, weíd better stick togetherÖ good idea, letís split up [Laughing]. They get away with it. Just because of the plotting of the story and I think just the character of the creature. Just because youíve got something thatís unknown in the building, you know in the ship. And it seems to be unstoppable. Itís a terrific horror movie. Itís a good science fiction movie too, but itís a terrific horror movie. And none of the sequels have lived up to it.

Yeah, I mean, donít get me wrong, I loved Cameronís ALIENS, it was a great action movie.

Exactly. I mean, I watched it and was terribly disappointed in it because I was waiting for a horror movie. And finally I watched it again, knowing it was an action picture and at that level it was great fun.

Now lately it seems that you have been working quite a bit in the genre. But for awhile, you took a lot of time off to write, did they ever come back to you and ask you to return for Leatherface for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2?

Oh sure, I was asked to play Leatheface in Chainsaw 2, 3 and 4. And in the remake, they approached me, not about playing Leatherface, but about having a cameo where Iím the truck driver at the end. Which was fine with me. I mean I had no problem with that. I was glad I was asked to be in the sequels and I was glad to be asked to be in the remake in the cameo part. The problem always just came down to money. The attitude of all the producers was, itís a guy in a rubber mask. We can hire somebody off the street to play him. So letís be generous and offer Gunnar the role for the same rate weíd have to pay some guy off the street. So thatís why I didnít do it. I mean, in every case they asked for union minimum with the exception being Chainsaw 4 which was Kim Henkelís take on it. Where he offered me six-hundred dollars a week which is less then the union day minimum. And which I found pretty insulting. And in no case did I ever tell them what I wanted, I just told them that it should at least be more than union minimum. In fact, the makers of the remake, when the movie came out, were quoted in Fango saying that the problem was that I demanded twenty-thousand dollars a day.

Which wasnít true.

Which was absolutely not true. I mean, I never said a number. I just said more than six-hundred and fifty-eight dollars. Itís a slanderous statement. But you know, what do you expect from them.

Well what brought you back aside from Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, what kept you in the genre?

Well, I mean there is nothing mysterious. I always liked working in movies, I really enjoyed it. You know, as hard as it was to do Chainsaw, I loved doing it. But I really wanted to pursue writing. And to me, stupidly, I thought Iíd have to choose between struggling to survive while trying to get an acting career going. Or struggling to survive while trying to get a writing career going. And that seemed like it was an easy choice because I could do whatever it took to support myself while I was writing. Again, I rode on the garbage truck when I needed to. But I didnít want to do that while working in films. The stupid part was, I wasnít being asked to do thatÖ for instance, an example of THE HILLS HAVE EYEíS, I was just being asked to fly out to L.A. to be in the movie. And so I was turning down movies when I couldíve been doing them. And thatís what happened. When I did Hookers, I was thinking, why am I turning this down and so I took the job. And I thought, well I can do both because Iím not out here working as a waiter out in L.A. Iím living in New England, doing the work I want to do and I came when people called me. So thatís really the change is that I just made the decision that I would accept the offers. And as time has gone by, and people realize that I am available to work in film, I get more and more calls.

And youíve appeared in films including CHAINSAW SALLY, MURDER SET PIECESÖ what has been the most interesting experience for you aside from Chainsaw?

I think actuallyÖ itís funny because it is the most recent movie thatís just coming out, BRUTAL MASSACRE. Theyíve been doing some screenings, showing some clips at horror conventions and we hope itís going to be released in theatres here in the next few weeks. And then it is going to be out on DVD in late July [Available now]. And that was the most interesting one becauseÖ well for two reasons. I get a lot of these requests to come in for, you know, we only need you for two hours. And those sort of things, all theyíre doing is using my name to put on the poster. But in a movie like this, you know, even though it was a cameo role, it wasnít a real big role, it was fun because I was there for a few days. I really felt like I was participating in the process of the film rather than just sort of flying in and flying out. Plus it was a great role. It was something I hadnít done much of. Iíd done one other one like this but it wasnít a comic role. And other than a short stint in a film called NEXT VICTIM, which is an anthology film, and I play a character in the wrap around story, I really had never had a chance to do comedy. So to me, this is the most interesting film Iíve had since Chainsaw.

Itís a good cast too. David Naughton is a wonderful actor, itís good to see him back. And obviously Ken Foree and Ellen Sandweiss. Brian OíHallorenÖ a really good cast.

And they were all great, you know. I think that Ken stole the show. Just because he plays this really sympathetic character, one of the crew guys, and he underplays him. You know, itís almost like you have to lean forward and then youíre hooked. You have to kind of lean forward to pay attention to him. You know, heís a great character in the movie. And I just thought he did a great job. Everybody was really good. And it was fun when I was in L.A. at the Fango show last week, to watch the clips again because they hold up so well every time I watch them. Iíve seen a rough cut which was really good, and Iím looking forward to seeing the final cut version.

5 Questions for Gunnar Hansen

Whatís your favorite novel, horror or other wise?

ďMoby DickĒ.

Youíre stranded on an island, and you can only bring three DVDís, what would they be?

I might not bring any, because I donít feel that there are movies particularly that I canít live without. Three movies would be difficult because there are so many, you know, this weeks favorites are not next weeks favorites. Iíd probably list CHINATOWN, which has remained consistently my favorite movie. THE FISHER KINGÖ

Great movie.

A movie that when I watched it back in the theatre I thought, I wish I had written this. [After a moment] This is a hard choiceÖ it might even be ALIENÖ oh no, it would be BLADE RUNNER.

If you could play any historical figure, whether it be factual or fictional, who would it be?

DamnÖ Iíve always wanted to play in a Viking movieÖ well, you know, Iím too old to play the part, but I wouldíve loved to have played Beowulf.

Now it is always a strange idea to think of a horror legend sitting around watching T.V., but if you do, what do you watch?

I like to watch ďAnimal PrecinctĒ on Animal Plannet Channel. Itís a strange sort of thing, itís one of those things where you can tell where my sympathy lies, I feel bad for the dogs that are injured and come in. And when itís a horse, I think, well I guess you gotta save it. When itís a cat, I think, eh you can just leave it [Laughing]. Iíve [also] been watching ďDexterĒ. I donít have Showtime or any of that stuff, so Iíve seen only the broadcast version [on CBS].

And now for the last question, out of all the young filmmakers in Hollywood, who would you like to work with?

Wow. Well the old filmmaker Iíd like to work with is Herschell Gordon Lewis. Which I think is a possibility because he and I are friends and heís been talking about a couple of projects that might happenÖ which would be wonderful for me. I mean, what an opportunity to work with him.

AhÖ Tim Burton. What a sense he has.

Let me know what you think. Send questions and/or comments to [email protected]



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