20 Questions with Rock Baker: Sam Sherman

[Apologies to Rock for not putting this up earlier; photos to come after I dig some out.]

“WASTE NOT, WANT NOT” An Interview with Samuel M. Sherman.

I have truly been blessed, my friends. I, on a whim, asked Larry Blamire for an interview, and got it. That lead to an interview with Robert Deveau, who led me to Tim Ferrante, who has arranged this interview. This is a real treat for any fan of exploitation movies and their fascinating history, and I feel as if I’ve happened onto a gold mine. This was also educational, as Mr. Sherman set me straight on a misconception I’d always held concerning Dracula vs Frankenstein. Ladies and gentlemen, my interview with Mr. Sam Sherman:

1) First, Mr. Sherman, thank you for taking the time to entertain my game of 20 questions, this is quite a thrill for a B movie fan such as myself! Naturally, I must begin by asking how you became involved in the business and for a bit of an overview of your fascinating career.

  I began as a Media Kid who was interested in Dramatic Radio, Comic Books, and Comic Strips when I was taken to my first movie at age 4. I was fascinated by the large screen experience and my parents then took me to movies on a regular basis. My father was an early developer of Radio Technology in the teens and knew a lot about electronics and photography pointing me in a media tech direction.

   When I was 8 he gave me an old Univex 8MM Camera and Projector and I started making little films and collecting old 8MM movies. Then TV came on the scene and I was fascinated by the old 1930s features, westerns, and Horror films being run. All of that pointed me in a life career direction. At the age of 16, I started college at CCNY (The College of the City of New York) and majored in motion pictures at the Institute of Film Techniques.

While there I made the Horror satire THE WEIRD STRANGER and was criticized in the school paper for running Horror films on campus. I worked in the Audio Visual department as a projectionist and worked at Hunter College teaching instructors how to use audio visual equipment.While attending college I started working for James Warren as a writer and editor of various magazines from FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND to SCREEN THRILLS ILLUSTRATED.

I also started a film project there and worked in advertising and in many other related areas, in the era of 1958-1965. Various parts of may career all took place at once rather than one ended and another started etc.From there I was employed as a film technician repairing old film prints and negatives for restoration. Later I worked as a film editor for a music and sound effects editing service.

When I felt my film career was going nowhere my parents gave me money for a trip to Hollywood where I met lots of classic film people for article interviews, photos and such. Meeting Denver Dixon (Victor Adamson) led to my meeting his son, Al Adamson who was then running a night club. When I came back to New York I represented Denver in distributing his film HALF WAY TO HELL and later I bought the 1934 film THE SCARLET LETTER from Irwin Pizor (head of Hemisphere Pictures) and Denver and I reissued it theatrically through my company Signature Films.

I then started working for Hemisphere Pictures and induced them to go into the Horror film business, not making war films in the Philippines. Prior to this I served some time in the Army and injured my leg, which I am still paying for. With what I learned distributing with Denver and working for Hemisphere, I decided to start my own company, which I did in 1968, Independendent-International Pictures Corp., with partners Dan Kennis and Al Adamson. Eventually Irwin Pizor left Hemisphere and joined our company and we acquired his film library. IIP is still in business today (2011) 43 years after we started it.

2) One of your earliest releases as a producer (and director) was Chaplin’s Art of Comedy (1966), a documentary of the type quite popular during the mid 1960s (with such seminal examples as The World of Abbott and Costello and The Golden Age of Comedy being released about the same time), following the successful format of Ken Murray’s television specials. Chaplin’s Art of Comedysounds like quite a departure from the kinds of films you’d be connected to a decade later. Can you tell us about that project?

  I have always been a student and collector of silent films. Irwin Pizor had some early Chaplin footage and I suggested we make this film for his TV company (Teledynamics Corp.) to handle on TV and me (Signature Films) to release theatrically. My interest and work on films goes far beyond just horror films.

3) Your next directing assignment was the Americanization of an Edgar Wallace film, Creature With the Blue Hand (1971), which was in turn edited again for the 1991 video release as The Bloody Dead. Please fill us in on the production history of that one! Including the 1967 release of the original German film, we’re looking at a film with a 24 year production!

We acquired that film for US rights and Roger Corman and Larry Woolner (New World) needed a film as a co-feature with BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT. I licensed US theatrical rights to them for 7 years and licnsed the TV distribution to AIP-TV.  We were left with the Home Video and other misc. rights. To juice it up for Home Video in the 80s, I re-shot the film as THE BLOODY DEAD. We did not get to release it until years later.

4) I must ask you to tell us about the formation of Independent International, and your relationship with director Al Adamson.(As Mr. Sherman notes, he had earlier discused the formation of IIP, this kind of double questioning is a risk when one is unable to conduct an interview face to face!)   I covered the start of the company earlier. As to the relationship with Al, that evolved over time from first meeting him in 1962 in LA to his coming to New York in early 1965 with ECHO OF TERROR, and revising it to PSYCHO A GO-GO and releasing that through Hemisphere and working on and attempting some failed projects. He was becoming like a brother to me and we realized we needed our own distribution company, which led to forming IIP with Dan Kennis, who provided the funding for SATAN’S SADISTS and funding for IIP both in 1968.

5) You did some work as a “Production Consultant” on some films, including the infamous Satan’s Sadists, as well as promotion work, but your activities as a producer didn’t start again until that most infamous of Independent International releases, Dracula vs Frankenstein (1971). What were you up to between ’66 and ’71? That was the period IIP was releasing the notorious “Blood” movies. How directly were you involved with the release of those films?

   I worked on many scripts, film development, and production during that era. Did much work that I received no credit for, or improper credit. I did not live for credit, but realize that today people can only figure out one’s career through credits. I wrote scripts and did marketing for Doris Wishman, I put Andy Milligan into horror films (THE GHASTLY ONES) and did lots more.

6) Dracula vs Frankenstein remains the best known IIP film, eclipsing even the wildly popular Satan’s Sadists (1969). Word is the monster movie began as a sequel to the earlier biker flick, explaining the presence of Russ Tamblyn (although not how he’s still walking around after his character failed to live out the previous film!), and the production was changed several times. It was known at various times as “Satan’s Bloody Freaks”, “Blood Freaks,” “Blood Seekers,” and “Blood of Frankenstein” before finally becoming Dracula vs Frankenstein! How could you keep straight what film you were working on at any given time? And what were your motivations for the numerous updates?

  I have very linear thinking and it is easy for me to create these various concepts in an orderly sense, not all at once. DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN was never a sequel to SATAN’S SADISTS but a unique film called THE BLOOD SEEKERS, which Dan Kennis backed. When the first cut was poor, I wanted to fix it up and led to adding Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster and over time patched it up to the point it remains. It was all a marketing stunt more than a movie, although it has many fans.

7) Who’s idea was it to work the word “Blood” into the title of so many IIP releases? It obviously sold tickets, why do you think that is?

Irwin Pizor and Kane Lynn of Hemisphere came up with the “Blood” gimmick based on the success of BLOOD FEAST. Everything was Bloody at Hemisphere and I worked on all of those projects for them. Later when we started IIP I copied Hemisphere’s use of “blood” wherever it was appropriate.

8) You obviously enjoyed working with actors who had been major stars in the Golden Age, and an impressive collection of familiar names pop up in the IIP library. As a random example, Brain of Blood (1971) features Kent Taylor, Grant Williams, Reed Hadley, Angelo Rossitto, and B movie figures John Bloom, Regina Carrol, Vickie Volante, and Zandor Vorkov! Was the idea of hiring such impressive casts your idea, or Mr. Adamson’s?

   Al evolved into this from me. He wished to discover new talent and make his own stars. I told him he didn’t have the major studio clout to do so and that we needed established actors who had worked for big studios to give our films some credibility otherwise they were just cheap independent films with nobody in them. The rest is history.

9) Pure profit doesn’t seem to be the motive for this as much as a very tangible respect and admiration for these stars. I’m sure you could fill an entire book with anecdotes of working with these legends, but which of those Golden Age stars did you most enjoy getting to work with?

My favorite actor has always been Robert Livingston. I wished to meet him and bring him back onscreen to leading roles in films.

I contacted him, got to know him, was his agent, did many magazine articles on him and brought him back onscreen in 3 films. His son, Addison Randall is still my good friend and worked with me recently on a new film I am a producer on – NIGHT CLUB (2011) starring Ernest Borgnine, Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman, Natasha Lyonne, Rance Howard (Ron Howard’s father) and many more well known actors. You can look this up onIMDB.COM.

10) You produced a lot of IIP films, as well as occasionally wearing the hats of writer and director and assorted other jobs, including at least one instance of stepping in front of the camera. Did you set out to be a producer or director, etc, or was your approach to just do whatever job came your way?

I started out to be a director, but quickly learned it was tough to be in that job unless you were also a Producer and knew the business end of the industry. When I met Al, and learned how tough it was to direct independent films on 18 hour days, I decided I did not wish to direct under those conditions and would rather work with Al and have him direct. Instead I forced myself to learn the business end of the industry from producing to marketing, distribution and so forth.

11) On Dracula vs Frankenstein, you acted as producer, writer, and production supervisor. What all was involved in those tasks? Did you like one task over the other, or were the jobs melded together like one assignment?

I did whatever was needed from raising money, to writing, set design, working with casting, special makeup, props, editing, music scoring, special effects, titles and lots more. Al and I divided up our jobs as needed. Al told me that whenever we were together (on either coast) that we made things happen in a positive sense and he would rather make a picture together with me there with him than not.

12) When you moved into direction, was that a goal in itself, or just something you did to get movies made?

Any direction I have done was as needed and where required. I would always have rather had Al Adamson direct than myself, but if it was too costly for him to come to the east coast on a project I did it myself.

As far as my own goal to direct I have always been more interested in making comedies and small cast romantic films, but have never done them.

13) Presumably you drew upon your history with Al Adamson, famous for severely revamping his films as they were shot, in making Raiders of the Living Dead. What practical application did you make of this background?

Al Adamson and I learned about doctoring films from his father Denver Dixon who had done this since the silent era. The idea was always to make a finished film with a strong concept that would sell in a marketing sense than making a great film which we did not have the budget to afford.

14) What do you think of where the industry has gone, especially regarding independent movies? Does you see technology allowing for a reemergence of smaller scale filmmakers?

It is so easy and cheap to make films on video or digital video that anybody with a little talent and tech skils can make a small feature. The only thing that person requires is some imagination!

15) What would your advice be to people who want to get into the business today? Obviously the business practices have changed greatly from when you were churning out exploitation pictures for IIP, so I wonder if the same kind of film could be produced and marketed today.

  One has to be aware of current audience tastes, marketing and business and have some film skills. The rest is determination, hard work and luck.

16) You worked more or less steadily into the 80s before seemingly going into retirement. Suddenly, you’re named as producer of a 2011 film called Night Club (which features a simply incredible cast filled with vets like Ernest Borgnine, Mickey Rooney, and Sally Kellerman!). What drew you out of apparent retirement from film-making? How active is your participation on the film?

I have never been retired. Al and I worked on my big project (still unfinished) – BEYOND THIS EARTH. I have spent most of the years since the 1980s in Film Distribution and marketing, including our own Home Video company, Super Video Inc., Television syndication, developing new TV networks and lots more. I have not been without work to do. NIGHT CLUB is a project of my buddy Sam Borowski, who started as a writer, then producer, now director. I am called his “mentor”. I have also worked on several other projects with him. And new upcoming ones.

17) In recent years, you’ve been providing commentary tracks for various IIP films that have been re-issued on DVD. What is involved in recording one of these tracks? And which track would you say is your favorite?

That started when Cary Roan of the Roan Group asked me to do a commentary track for the Laser Disk release of DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. I had no idea if my track was any good or not but stumbled on a website listing the best 100 laser disk commentary tracks. Coppola’s track for APOCALYPSE NOW was number one and mine for DVF was number two. I guessed somebody liked my work.

From there I was asked to do more such tracks. I did a few in outside studios and all of the others in my own video studio figuring out how I could do them quickly and very cheaply and from the good reaction, I guess that worked well.

18) You worked on many movies over various genres. Which do feel is your best film? Which did you enjoy working on most?

   The word ‘enjoy’ does not apply, it is all hard work. I have good and bad feelings about all films I work on. Al and I were most upset about getting paid nothing for BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE which he directed and I co-wrote (uncredited) and my supplying Dracula and the Blood title for. That helped push us forward to start our own company, as did the disaster of the big picture in Spain (which was never made) which we were doing for ABC Network and Cinerama – THE UNAVENGED – to star Robert Taylor, Dana Wynter, George Montgomery and Keenan Wynn. We worked with Barry Diller at ABC on that failed project. There were also other such failures along the line.

19) If you could remake one of your earlier films, with a full-sized budget, is there one you’d try? Or, do you feel the IIP pictures were of a different, by which I mean a mentality of their era that we’ve lost track of, time?

   I think DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN properly made would be quite good. We also own most of the world rights to THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS) along with Fox and Hammer Films – that would be a great remake.

20) You certainly have your fans, Mr. Sherman, though the IIP films have plenty of detractors as well for their often crude construction. You obviously knew what you were doing to take films that couldn’t be sold, and with a little manipulation, turn them into drive-in standards. The instincts of IIP are incredibly canny in this respect, despite what many might feel to be aesthetic damage to the source films. I’d like very much to have your thoughts on this process, and how you feel to know that there is still an eager audience for these films. Also, I’m curious of how your feel about those who find such fare more ‘bad’ than fun. Are there any IIP films you feel might be too technically amiss, even if they proved themselves at the box office?

  One comment – people who know little about our films and their market and have never seen them in 35MM on the big screen, have no idea about the millions of dollars these films have grossed in the US Theatrical market alone.

I have always lived by the Waste Not, Want Not philosophy that anything could be released. And, worse junk has been released by major studios in the past few years.

I wish to encourage all upcoming filmmakers to never give up, never lose faith, push and work hard to make things happen.

You’ll be surprised what miracles are possible.

                                                             -Sam Sherman

Mr. Sherman, I can’t thank you enough for this interview.

   My sincere thanks to Mr. Samuel M. Sherman, and to Mr. Tim Ferrante for making this interview possible.
  • The Rev.

    These Rock interviews are fast becoming a favorite piece of this site’s content. Excellent work!

  • Rock Baker

    Thanks, Rev! Ken has one more that I’ve done, thought I can’t say when it’ll be posted.

  • Rock Baker

    Obviously, I meant ‘though’ not ‘thought.’

  • Gamera

    Thanks for another great interview Rock. These guys have some fantastic stories to tell.

  • Reed

    I bet Mr. Sherman would be absolutely fascinating to sit down with over a six pack and just talk about “the biz”. Good interview, Rock.

    I really doubt that seeing his movies in glorious 35 mm on the big screen would have made me appreciate them more, though. I can absolutely believe that seeing them at the drive-in while I was making out with a pretty girl might have made me appreciate them more, but that’s not really the same thing, is it?

  • Rock Baker

    Well, you can only hide so much, but I can sort of see what he’s saying. Movies look different on a big screen than they do on television. Many a lavish studio production looks a bit cheaper when screened electronically. I remember (and I admit I was very young at the time) seeing King Kong Lives in the theater, and it looked much more impressive than the version I recently re-watched on YouTube (Ken’s right, that movie stinks!). More concrete memories are that Jurassic Park looked much more impressive on the big screen than it does on television, so did The Lost World, which explains why I have a laserdisc of such a stupid movie (The Lost World, not Jurassic Park, at least the earlier movie isn’t insultingly stupid like the sequel).

  • Rock Baker

    For those interested, I just started a blog: http://rock-baker.blogspot.com/