Fantasia: George Mihalka talks 1985’s The Blue Man
In 1981 Hungarian-Canadian director George Mihalka launched his film career with the low-budget slasher film My Bloody Valentine, which Paramount released to much success (and was eventually remade in 2009). Since then he has had a varied career dabbling in everything from action to comedy to TV work. His second venture into the horror genre was 1985’s The Blue Man (later retitled Eternal Evil for the American home video market), something of a lost gem of a movie that was recently unearthed in the form of an old 35mm print (with French subtitles) by Montreal’s Fantasia Fest. We had the pleasure of watching the rediscovered print, which includes amazing swooping camera operation by future director Christian Duguay (Scanners II & III, Screamers) and a kooky story involving a commercial director (Winston Rekert) whose attempts at astral projection lead to murders guided by a woman (Karen Black) who is more than she/he seems. Afterwards we got to have a fun discussion with Mihalka about The Blue Man, his thoughts after three decades, working with Cirque du Soleil on the camerawork, and the possibility of a proper DVD/Blu-ray release.
ComingSoon.net: So you sat through and watched the movie right?
George Mihalka: For the first time in 30 years.
CS: Wow! So what was your impression? Is it surreal?
Mihalka: It is! I tried to remember what I shot and some of it came back to me quite well and some of it still surprised me. As I was saying at the Q and A, [the film is] an exercise in style and an exercise in camera movement and fluidity. Floating cameras, which nobody was really doing at that time at all.
CS: No, not really. You don’t really get that crazy kind of wild camera movement until Sam Raimi a few years later.
Mihalka: That’s right! So this was fun, and I liked the concept about (what I was saying before) the gender fluidity of the characters. I enjoyed doing that overall
CS: Which is even more relevant now.
Mihalka: It is for all times. You’re a man, you’re a woman, maybe you’re both and maybe you’re neither. It’s about whether you are feeling comfortable in a woman’s body or in a man’s body. So obviously, it wasn’t a film that was meant to examine those things in depth, just on the surface stuff.
CS: Was astral projection something that you looked into deeply or was it just a means to an end storywise?
Mihalka: I was aware that astral projection was something people were starting to experiment with. As a lot of the old hippies from the mid 60’s to the end of the 70’s stopped doing drugs, they were still looking for different ways of experiencing some sort of spiritual quest or adventure, and astral projection was, at the time, quite prevalent as a topic. Some people swore that they could do it, and other people when they got stoned on acid enough could “watch” themselves from 6 feet above. So it’s hard to say, but for me it was a question of trying to find an appropriate visual interpretation of that feeling. At the time we were quite handicapped with the technology. Cameras, for instance, weighed a ton. They were big.
CS: I think they used the same camera you used, the Luma Crane, in “1941.” Steven Spielberg used it on that, and that was a big, cumbersome, long crane.
Mihalka: It was a 35-foot long crane that was on a rolling base, and it was the first one to have a hot head so that you could move the camera 360° on three different axles. So I could tilt, pan and twirl at the same time. You can go upside down and all those kind of things. It was a technical challenge and it was a challenge in some other parameters. Such as how our producers and our financier didn’t want anything gory. So it was a question of trying to find out how to do these things, and insinuate and suggest the gore without seeing the gore. Coming from the gallons and the oceans of blood on “My Bloody Valentine,” it was kind of a different take for me to something that was more of a mystery. It’s more like a ghost mystery. Supernatural, but it really isn’t supernatural. Is it a ghost mystery? It really becomes at one point almost a murder mystery.
CS: So you had done one other horror movie prior with “My Bloody Valentine.” I think you did one movie in between which was not a horror film
Mihalka: I did a satirical comedy in French.
CS: Was going back into the genre something that you were excited about?
Mihalka: I was very excited about it and one of the things over my career, most people can’t pinpoint what I did in a sense that I’m a bit of a butterfly. I like experimenting and I like trying new things.
CS: You’ve done action films, you did comedy, you’ve done stuff for TV.
Mihalka: That’s right, I’ve done comedy, I’ve done drama, I’ve done children’s programming. I’ve been very lucky to have almost all of them get nominated for some interesting awards if not won them. For “The Blue Man” we got nominated for a couple of awards in Canada [Genie Nominations for Best Actor, Winston Rekert, and Best Music, Marvin Dolgay]. So you know after this I said “I did this, but what should I do next?” and from that I went on to do a two-year stint on a medieval action-adventure television series – that some of your readers might know – with Anthony Horowitz, who was one of the first guys who wrote the first two episodes of that television series called “Crossbow.” We tried to make medieval times look, in a weird way, dirty and modern. So we always called it the “Mad Max of medieval” at the time. And that was also a challenge because now I’m dealing with horses and knights in armor and there’s no guns, but we decapitate.
CS: Since you were a filmmaker doing the film “Blue Man” about a frustrated filmmaker, were there any sort of autobiographical elements to it?
Mihalka: After that French comedy that I did, I spent close to three years doing television commercials and publicity. I shot everything from from Campbell Soup to American Express, to Proctor and Gamble and Dove soap. And “how it makes a housewife’s hands look so smooth and soft because it’s got moisturizer in it” – so I actually did that and I never had the same, shall we say, outburst that our hero does in this film. But I was awfully close to it a few times.
CS: Was it kind of cathartic to actually poke fun at the industry a little bit?
Mihalka: Oh it was, it was. I think one of the things that attracted me to the screenplay was the idea that I could do parodies of television commercials.
CS: You probably looked at the script and go, “I know this guy.” Your camera operator Christian Duguay went on to have his own career as a director. Do you have any memories of working with him?
Mihalka: Oh God, yeah. Christian and I knew each other from film school. We always used to say that he had the best eye. And he was a great camera operator and also a fabulous athlete. So because Christian could actually spend 12 hours a day on a steadicam…
CS: Yeah. That’s the guy want holding the steadicam.
Mihalka: Exactly, he was a beast. So we had Christian tied for some parts of shooting. I had some friends of mine who starred in Cirque du Soleil just a few years before so we borrowed a few of the rigors. Those scenes where the camera seems to be hanging over people and dropping downstairs and so on? Well that was done by the Cirque du Soleil rigors attaching Christian by ropes and pulleys and dragging him and spinning him and doing all those kinds of things.
CS: I guess nowadays you could do that with a drone.
Mihalka: Absolutely, with a camera that you could fit in the palm of your hand as opposed to ones that weighed a ton. Again, the lightest cameras we used probably weighed between 35 and 45 pounds depending on what lens, what focus device we had stuck on it, and what the size of the magazine was. It took a lot of strength just to carry the damn thing, let alone make it float like a butterfly and frame it in a very aesthetic and precise manner. Christian was a genius at that. I spent two years after with him where we both went on to that show in France, “Crossbow.”
CS: I read that when “My Bloody Valentine” came out a lot of critics praised the Cinematography. What kind of reception did this movie get?
Mihalka: The cinematography was very very very well received. Paul Vanderland who was at the time probably up there with the top if not the top director of photography. And Paul was a fabulous older gentleman, crotchety but a genius, and he loved doing his own camera operating and my biggest challenge on this film was to convince Paul that Christian -who was barely out of film school- was capable of being an operator to his standards. And after couple days obviously Paul and Christian became inseparable. I’m not sure on this, but I believe that Christian ended up operating a few more times for Paul before he went off on his own career as a fabulous director and made some great movies.
CS: This movie got sold to television, but do you think you got a fair amount of play?
Mihalka: No filmmaker will say their movie got a fair amount of play until it wins the Academy Award. But no, for many reasons I still maintain the crassness of the American distributors, who decided for some fucking reason to call it “Eternal Evil.” That’s like calling caviar a hotdog.
CS: It’s very generic, yeah.
Mihalka: And whoever wants to buy a hotdog tastes fish eggs and goes “What the fuck is this?” So it really was the stupidest. And it backfired on them dearly. If they would’ve played it up as “mysterious” as “The Blue Man,” as kind of stylish and sexy as opposed to trying to falsely advertise it. I mean, “Eternal Evil?” What does that bring up? It does not bring up anything to do with “The Blue Man.”
CS: I imagine some sort of demonic things.
Mihalka: And cheesy looking things and people with wrinkled fingers and long fingernails or some weird vampires. Well that was very disappointing and I didn’t make another film for a few years after that because I found that there was more respect and more creative collaboration in television at the time. Until I came back from France then I did this fabulous sort of comedic-drama-art film in France, “Le chemin de Damas,” which got me back into wanting to make movies again.
CS: I just rewatched “My Bloody Valentine” and almost every actor in that movie has a thick Nova Scotia accent, but this movie was different where I didn’t feel the Canadian-ness of it. Was it by design?
Mihalka: No, I mean, I don’t have a Nova Scotia accent. Most people who live in Montreal and Canadian actors do not. As a matter fact I’m from Hungary and I was 10 years old when I came to Canada, so I had to learn English and French over here. I remember watching American television back then and I found that American television had accents and our television broadcasters, our anchors all went to the states and all of a sudden 10 or 15 years later everyone sounds like a Canadian, unless you go to small towns in the south. But I would say that was the accent of most Canadians and most English Montrealers. If anything, English Montrealers tend to be closer to a New England accent, there is a little bit of that twang.
CS: I went to school in Boston so I can verify that.
Mihalka: It’s because growing up at the time, we all watched the local US television stations and we spent all our summers traveling down in the states. Our English was kind of influenced by that. And we learned more English down there than up here in Canada. We’d have to go 400 miles to go to Toronto to hear Canadian-English, while we had to travel 45 miles to hear American.
CS: I know you had an American star, Karen Black, but was it intended that “The Blue Man” setting be more generic, like any town USA?
Mihalka: Actually, we didn’t hide Montreal at all. I mean, Montreal is shot exactly for Montreal; there’s no fake license plates. We didn’t say we are in Montreal and pretend to be New York. We just thought that the subject was interesting enough that no one would really give a shit where it happens. It’s going to be a big enough town where it has a television commercial industry. And someone who looks rich enough to have a very cool office.
CS: It is a very cool office! It’s like if Scarface had an ad agency! Now I was told that the 35mm print we saw today is the last known print and it was unearthed and covered in rust. How has this discovery impacted you?
Mihalka: It was a very pleasant surprise because I know Marc [Marc Lamothe, Co-General Director of the Fantasia Film Festival] and I’m kind of family here at Fantasia. I think it’s the finest genre festival in the world, and I will maintain and fight to the death anyone who disagrees with me. But anyway, Marc and I have known each other for a long long time and we kept talking about what other genre of movies I made and which ones I would want to see again. I always thought that I did some cool shit with “Blue Man,” but I haven’t seen in 30 years. I don’t have a copy of it. Because obviously back in those days, you didn’t get a copy of it and I didn’t want a 35mm copy. As the director, you could ask for one but what am I gonna do with that? So I said if I ever need to order one, I would know where to find one. But then I got busy and forgot about it but it was a surprise, it was a wonderful surprise to be able to find out that there is one. And not only that, but to find out that such an incredible, respectful institution as the Cinematheque Quebecoise, one of the finest film repositories and museums in North America, happens to have a copy of my own little film. So that was great.
CS: So this has never been released on a proper DVD or Blu-ray?
Mihalka: No. I mean, it was just at the cusp. It was released on VHS but it kind of disappeared and somebody released it recently on some weird thing, I’m not even sure that they had the rights to it or not.
CS: Was it just a dub of the VHS?
Mihalka: No, I think someone filmed it off of a television screen and that ended up on some DVD you could buy. Yeah, it’s something horrible.
CS: But the fact that this print has the French subtitles, does that preclude it being used to master a new version?
Mihalka: I’m not sure it would, it would certainly cost a lot more, but honestly I don’t know. But then again I think for the rest of the world, having French subtitles wouldn’t disturb anyone but I don’t know. Funnily enough, the producer Pieter Kroonenburg -who I haven’t spoken to in 15 years- found out and he’s excited about it so I might just tell him to see if he could re-release it or something.
CS: There is definitely a resurgence in interest in these ephemeral horror movies of the 80’s, and you have labels like Scream Factory and Arrow and Severin Films and Synapse. I feel like any of those labels would be interested in putting this out, especially if it’s starring Karen Black and “from the director of ‘My Bloody Valentine.'”
Mihalka: I think so. I have got to call him because he wanted a report. So I guess let me ask you a question: am I incorrect in saying to him “I think people liked it so I think you should see about if you could release it”?
CS: Absolutely. Any fan of weird cinema needs to seek out “The Blue Man.”