Interview with "Switchblade Sisters" director Jack Hill
Twenty years ago, an unassuming exploitation flick called Switchblade Sisters opened in drive-ins across America. It quickly bombed. The story of a girl gang that commits murder and mayhem was a bit too much even for exploitation fans and it was soon forgotten. Not that there would have been much difference if the film was successful. These were B-grade pictures after all, with a shelf life that lasted as long as the summer drive-in season. And afterwards? They'd be soon forgotten.But thanks to Quentin Tarantino, Switchblade Sisters has been reborn, resurrecting the career of its director, Jack Hill, in the process. This past year, the film has shown in festivals around the world, while a retrospective of Hill's work will take place this July at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. "It's a shock to me," says Hill of his newly acquired fame. "After many years of being virtually out of the business, I'm suddenly a legendary cult movie director! And finally, after 20 years, it looks like we're going to make some money on this film."Jack Hill's name is not unknown to fans of cult films. He's the man responsible for the psychotronic horror classic Spider Baby; The Big Doll House, a women-in-prison feature, and the blaxploitation epics Coffy and Foxy Brown. Hill's career is all the more unusual because he had no plans of becoming a film director at all. Initially a musician, Hill enrolled in UCLA's film school in the '60s, ostensibly to learn about scoring music for films. Instead, he wound up with a new career. "I just fell in to it by accident," he explains. "I took a writing course and it encouraged me to do more. And I ended up writing and directing a student film. And then I just left music behind."Hill took classes from the legendary director Dorothy Arzner whom he credits with teaching him how to work with nervous actresses ("The way Dorothy put it was, actresses are like a fine race horse. You have to pet them and brush them and coddle them and make them feel secure and then they run a great race for you!"). After graduation he worked for an altogether different kind of film legend; drive-in king Roger Corman, whose signature AIP (American International Pictures) logo at the beginning of a film was your guarantee that high quality, low budget fare was soon to follow.Corman's methods of film production had their limitations. "The downside of working with Roger Corman was that he was so cheap you really couldn't do anything," Hill recalls. "But the nicest thing was that since he was a director himself, he knew that the way to get the best results from you was to leave you alone and not try to interfere with what you were doing. He thrust people into a situation and let them sink or swim. And you found that you could do it."Corman also encouraged his directors to let their imaginations make up for the lack of funding. "In those days, when you made a picture on a very low budget, the only way you could compete with major studios was having subject matter that was really outrageous, something really strong that they couldn't see in a major picture," says Hill. "So I would try to come up with the most crazy ideas I could. Where do you get ideas? Out of desperation! You think, I've gotta do something here that's going to be interesting, that's going to give the audience something they haven't seen be fore. And that's what I got a reputation for fortunately or unfortunately, depending how you look at it!"Hill's penchant for conceiving off-the-wall ideas served him well when he worked on Coffy and Foxy Brown (as director and screenwriter), though he was initially intimidated about working in the blaxploitation genre "I went in for an interview with Laurie Gordon, who was in charge of production at AIP," he says. "I didn't know what he had in mind. And when he said he wanted a black picture [Coffy], my first thought was, 'Oh no, I don't know anything about this!' But when he told me it was about a woman's revenge, with a woman, Pam Grier, as a major character, I said, ' Ah!' Then I knew, because I'd done two pictures with Pam Grier. I knew her personality and I immediately started thinking what I could do with her as a character."Coffy ("She's got a body men would die for and lately a lot of them have!), made for half a million dollars, went on to be one of the top grossing films of the year (1973). But despite this commercial viability, Hill's career did not enjoy a similar level of success. "People didn't really understand black films," he says. "There was a lot of racism in the business. And even though I made black films that an enormous white audience and were very successful commercially, it was 'Well, it's a black film, it doesn't count.'"So I didn't really get the benefit of it as having accomplished anything," Hill continues. "They had this strange feeling that black films were something anybody could do and they shouldn't be very good. And that wasn't really true. The ones that were not good have been forgotten, and the good ones have been brought back and are still very much watched on home video today."Switchblade Sisters was another assignment, born from a ready-made film poster with the film's original title, "The Jezebels." "The poster looked kind of like Patty Hearst, a girl with a machine gun in her hands," Hill remembers. "And I said, 'Yeah, I can make that movie!' And I always had this idea to do a story based on Othello, with the sexes reversed. So it's based very loosely on Othello."The film's Othello is Lace (Robbie Lee, reading every line as if through clenched teeth), leader of the Dagger Debs. A new girl, Maggie (Joanne Nail), wins Lace's friendship, arousing jealousy in Lace's heretofore second-in-command, Patch (Monica Gale). The stakes escalate when Maggie fills in for an ailing Lace, kicking out the men, and renaming the gang. "Do you know what a jezebel is?" she asks her new supporters, enthusing, "I found it last night in the dictionary!""It was not ever intended to be a realistic street gang picture," Hill says. "It just wouldn't work. I thought of it as a futuristic Clockwork Orange kind of movie. But unfortunately the distributor advertised it as a '50s street gang movie, which it wasn't. And it drew the wrong audience , so the picture did not do well. It was the first picture I made that actually did not make money. It was such a disappointment. It was more than a disappointment. I couldn't work after that for a long time."Switchblade Sisters was filmed over 20 days for a cost of $225,000. It s lurid blend of sex and violence is still disturbing today; a recent screening at the Seattle International Film Festival was disrupted by a woman who felt the female characters weren't empowered enough (as evidenced by a rape scene). Ironically, in the '70s, the Dagger Debs/Jezebels were seen as too domineering; "They made men nervous!" says Hill.Objections were also raised at the time about a subplot in which the Jezebels join forces with a gang of black female communists. "I thought the idea of having these revolutionary Maoist women was great," Hill says. "Unfortunately, it caused the picture to be banned in many countries. They did not want to see women taking over and being tough and they did not want to see them waving Mao's 'Little Red Book'! Oh no! Forget it! Fortunately, today we're making sales in those countries because they can look at it differently."The exploitation genre faltered with the rise of home video though video also rekindled interest in Hill. "Films I thought had been lost and forgotten were now available on video," he says. "And then it turned out I was one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite directors. He's responsible for bringing this one back for which I'm very grateful. Now I'm with an agency, I've got interviews with studios, I'm reading scripts and I'm looking to do something again soon." It's unknown how Hill's outrageous, over-the-top style will mesh with the jaded been there/done that sensibility of the '90s. But Switchblade Sisters will give you a rollicking, no holds barred look into his past.