On the eve of the re-release of one of the most infamous shock documentaries The Killing of America, a film that hasn’t been available domestically in the US since it as first released in 1982, Mass Movement caught up with its director Sheldon Renan to talk about the film’s history, reputation, subject matter and why it’s more relevant today than when it was originally released…
Interview by Tim Cundle
MM: Let’s talk about The Killing of America. How did you become involved with, and end up directing, the film?
Sheldon: Well, the executive producer was Mataichiro Yamamoto was a very young, very edgy producer who came out of the comic book industry and went on to produce some distinguished films and he got to know Len Schrader the screenwriter who lived in Japan, spoke Japanese and more importantly, understood Japanese audiences. And I met Len through his brother Paul at a party celebrating the greenlight for Taxi Driver. I had done a TV show introducing Japanese films to American television and some clip shows and I had done a lot of research on homicide and people who committed homicide for a script that I was writing that Len liked and one of the big wins in Japan happens when people make inexpensive films or buy inexpensive films from the West that break through with Japanese audiences and Mata was looking for one of those. Faces of Death had been a huge hit in Japan and so he and Len decided that they wanted to make a film about homicide and violence in America, something that Len and Paul, although Paul was not involved in this project, had shown a considerable interest in and they wanted it to include clips, but they were having difficulty find them. So, I got some clips together to show them and said “This is probably what you want”, they said “Yeah” and then bit by bit, I became the director and my company provided a lot of the services, we did payroll, we acquired the clips, we shot the action footage and we housed the editor.
But it was largely Len’s baby. He conceived it with Mata, he wrote it and also became the producer. His wife also has a credit as a writer, because Len liked to talk things through. He had a darker view of things than I did and in the end that, of course, led to some disagreements. Even though I was the director, he was the producer and he had the say over the final edit because it was his project.
MM: The Killing… is often referred to as being a ‘Mondo’ film. So, what is a ‘Mondo’ film?
Sheldon: A Mondo film is one that basically exploits taboos. It emerged from the old tradition of the four wall films in the United States which were mostly films that were beyond what was considered the boundaries of good taste. The most successful, historically, was a film called Ma and Pa which showed a child being born on camera, and they were just basically films that showed things that people could not normally see but had a natural curiosity toward. Mostly life, death, birth and sex and in this case it was about death. The thing is, the people who made Mondo films were usually bottom feeders and Len recruited people who had a background in, or a huge appetite for, making good films. I think we had three or four people on the project who went on to be nominated for academy awards, and two that won academy awards. It was made by young people, all of whom were ambitious about making good films and wanted to do a good job. In the end it has a different texture, a different intent; it only wanted to show things that were mostly true whereas I think Mondo films were quite liberal in how they told the truth and would show fake footage. But we only showed real footage and real issues and it shocked the hell out of people when we tried showing it in 1982 when it was finished. At a film festival this year it was shown for the first time in the United States and the audience loved it. It was a big hit at the festival and it looks like it was made last week.
MM: It’s got this infamous reputation as being one of the greatest shock docs of all time. So do you think its reputation is partly due to the fact that it was un-released and unavailable in the United States when it was made?
Sheldon: No I don’t think so, because people have been able to see bits of it on YouTube and it was a big sleeper overseas. There were these Australians who asked me to be in a documentary about Canon because of the terrible music I was involved with there. But the real reason they wanted to fly me down there is because in Australia, The Killing of America is a huge sleeper and every college student has seen a copy legal or illegal that they mostly show at night whilst drinking beer. The proof is in the pudding, and when you see the film you come away with a feeling that it has real substance; and part of that is Len’s vision, the purity of the writing and the narration that he wrote for it. We found a really good narrator – Chuck Reilly – who hadn’t done anything like this before and wasn’t certain if he could do it, but we spent a lot of time in his home with him rehearsing it. And it came out so well that they had me direct the Japanese narration as well.
MM: I wanted to ask you about that because the Japanese version is slightly different to the US cut of the film isn’t it?
Sheldon: Yes, because they had very different goals. The Japanese were very curious about America and the film was re-edited to cater to their beliefs. I never saw the Japanese version even though I shot things for it. The original opening that I wanted and filmed for the US version, is in fact the Japanese opening which we filmed in helicopters flying over the Grand Canyon.
MM: It’s still a haunting, powerful film, despite the fact that it’s been 35 years since it was filmed. Was it your intent, by holding up a magnifying glass to violence and showing it in all its horror, to change people’s perception of it through showing its real consequences?
Sheldon: We wanted people to understand it. People love violence in films and they love shoot-em-ups and similar themes, but violence in films is always romanticised. For example, in one of Burt Lancaster’s famous death scenes he comes in, looks in the mirror, straightens his tie and then collapses, but in real life you’re shot, you collapse. There is no poetry, no ballet and it doesn’t happen in slow motion…
MM: Death is ugly.
Sheldon: It is. It’s especially ugly. It was the ugly parts of it that we had the hardest time getting the shots for, because people didn’t want us to acquire them. In the end we managed to get everything we needed – including some stuff that surprised even me. The interview with Ed Kemper….
MM: That is haunting…
Sheldon: I’m sitting across from him in his cell and he fishes into his pocket and pulls out the glasses that he always wore when he wanted to kill somebody and puts them on, tells us about it and smiles.
MM: There is almost a sense of normality to him. He appears calm, collected and rational despite the fact that he’s talking about these horrific crimes.
Sheldon: Not only that, he’s almost likeable. But he’s also incredibly scary, and what you can’t get from the film is that he’s 6’8” and weighs about 250lbs. He was huge and strong. And when we took a break and I stepped out to get some fresh air and change film, Len was talking to him and he suddenly said to Len: “I killed you” and Len thought he was going to die because he was alone with Ed. Then Ed said “I’ve killed everybody I’ve ever met in my mind.”
MM: Another part of the film’s focus is the availability of guns in society. Are you an advocate of gun control, or a firm believer in the Second Amendment?
Sheldon: I’m an advocate of gun control and believe that people should only have guns if they have had serious safety checks and been trained in their use. And then they should only have guns for either self-defence or sport.
MM: Another chapter in the film covers the phenomena of mass shootings. Do you think that this is something that is particularly ingrained in the American psyche?
Sheldon: Yes but only because of the ease of access to guns. And kids can get guns. For instance in Australia, politicians bit the bullet, made guns a lot harder to get hold of and nearly completely wiped out mass shootings. Every human being thinks about homicide every day; that’s what the research I did before the film showed me. But if they don’t have the opportunity to commit it, it’s harder to kick over the social norms and do it. Homicide is not a simple subject and sometimes in American prisons they’ll put trustees in the guard towers with a rifle. And these are people that have killed someone but it was an act of passion and they’ll never kill again, and the prisons know they’ll never kill again.
MM: Why do you think the 20th Century became known as “The Age of Mass Murder”? Do you think humanity became more violent as we became more civilised or do you think we just became more aware of a penchant for violence?
Sheldon: No, I think the opposite is true as technology helps reduce homicide, and statistics show that fewer people are dying in modern wars. One of the hidden premises of the film is that the Kennedy Assassination turned the American dream into the American nightmare. Every American alive then knew exactly where he/she was when they heard Kennedy was killed.
MM: Do you think there is a parallel between the time you shot the film and society as it stands today?
Sheldon: Yes because the country was de-stabilised and there were holes in the safety net. And what you find out is that the people who kill people are the people who have not been properly cared for, and people who have been bullied, and that all gets passed along. If you want to stop violence take better care of people. Take better care of everybody because people are being fucked to death. Their salaries have dropped, they’ve lost their jobs, opportunities and social mobility have dried up and until you return all those things people are going to want to vote for people who give them easy answers to those problems and are quick to objectify others and blame it on them.
MM: The floor is yours Sheldon… Why should people watch The Killing of America?
Sheldon: Because it’s a way of making sense of a history that refuses to go away and continues to affect us. Naiveté is a terrible self-defence mechanism and we need to be aware of everything around us and what we’re capable of, and that’s what I think Len wanted to achieve with the film. He wanted to take off the guard rails. Most documentaries are safe and they allow you to be slightly voyeuristic about violence – or whatever they are about – but the narration in this film is inflammatory and really takes you into the minds of murderers, which is not a very comfortable place to be. By the time we had finished with the film I was severely depressed and didn’t even want to go out. And I know that the editor – Lee Percy – who was one of the two editors on Snowdon said that he had flashbacks for years afterwards. It’s not an easy film to watch and when we screened it in Los Angeles in the fall of 1982, a third of the audience walked out. It’s not an easy film to watch but it’s a film you have to see through to the end. I think the film is a lot more successful and meaningful today than when I was originally working on it. There is a certain amount of voyeurism to the film, but it does make you think.
The Killing of America is released by Severin Films on October 31st.