The writer-director behind the extremely unsettling and scary Jeepers Creepers and Jeepers Creepers 2 (just out on DVD), Victor Salva made his big screen debut with well-received kids-in-peril chiller Clownhouse (1988). In the same year he pled guilty to charges relating to the sexual abuse of the film's child star, 12-year-old Nathan Winters, and served 15 months of a three-year jail term. He returned to filmmaking with the striking science fiction flick Powder, before iconic horror creation The Creeper brought him commercial success.
In an honest, engaging interview, he tells BBCi FILMS about regrets, God, Jaws, and being told as a child he was "a worthless piece of ****".
Why did you become a director?
Oh dear. Boy, that's a tough one. When I was about 13 or 14, I had an English teacher who made a deal with me that I could get out of doing all of the year's regular work if I would write a short story a week and on Friday read it to the class. I don't know why he did that and I'm sure that a teacher who did that today would probably be fired, but he saw something of a storyteller in me and when I think of myself as a director I think of myself as a storyteller.
It was the same teacher who, a few months later, suggested that I pick up a camera and shoot one of my short stories. That was really the seed of me becoming a filmmaker. I got to do all the things I loved to do. I got to write, I got to act, and I got to direct. The other answer is that I really enjoy telling a good story, and seeing if there's a way that I can make others resonate my own experiences.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what what you be?
I think I'd be a psychologist. I think I'm very interested in people, in the way our minds work and how we navigate through the experience that is life. Very interested in people's struggles and their choices and their regrets and joys. I'm very interested in the human animal.
What other director would you like to see at work?
God, that's a great question. The only way I know how to answer that is to list the directors whose films I find very interesting. I'd love to watch Scorsese work. And I've had the pleasure of watching Francis [Ford Coppola] work. I'd like to have watched Kubrick work. I'd like to watch Spielberg, because when Spielberg was just coming into his own, he became the young filmmaker I wanted most to pattern myself after, which I'm sure is true of a lot of directors who were coming of age in the 70s.
Jaws was the definitive filmmaking turning point for me. It came out in the summer of '75 and I saw it an obsessive 55 times. They even ran a very embarrassing article about me in the local paper, about the weird kid who's seen Jaws 55 times. That was really my film school. I'd never been to a movie that had such a visceral effect on an audience before. It was like going to a football game, seeing Jaws in a theatre. I learned so much about music and composition and storytelling and performance. I really do believe that was the seminal experience for me, that kind of made me know: This really is what I want to do, forever and a day if I can.
What was the last movie that you paid to see?
The last movie I paid to see (and by the way, I pay to see all my movies, I really like seeing movies with a paying audience) was The Return Of The King. I enjoyed it but it was my least favourite of the three. I still think the first one is the strongest because it has the best characterisation, the best performances. But I have enjoyed all three. I think Peter Jackson did a fabulous job.
What was the last movie you walked out of?
[Laughs] Now that's a very incendiary question. Holy smoly. I really don't even remember. I do walk out a lot, though. The older I get, the less patient I am with a movie that feels that it's just bull****ting me.
Do you believe in God?
Boy, these aren't just tiny questions are they? I would like to believe there is a higher power who is kind of looking over everything, but, um, do I believe in God? Oh, God! I really don't know. I think I'm an agnostic. I believe in the goodness of people. I really believe in good. All of the organised religions and their ideas of God, I think, have done a lot of damage to the world, as opposed to moving it forward and making it a better place. I was raised a Catholic and the God that they taught me about was a very angry, very jealous, very destructive supernatural being, so it's like the older you get, the harder it is to resolve that to your outlook on life.
I have a controversial opinion about evil, because I don't believe evil exists. I believe that actions are dark and destructive but I don't believe evil is a thing. I believe it's a by-product of man's fear and desperation. We need our concepts of good and evil. Evil has to be this thing... but I don't think so. It's kind of like believing in the Boogie Man. I don't think it's helpful and I don't think it's realistic. I think it's fear-based.
I feel like I'm getting up on a soapbox here but that's a very provocative question: do you believe in God? Because God can be so many different things. I wish that people loved each other as much as they say they love God and Jesus. I think that the world would be a much better place. But usually religion is used to enforce whatever agenda a particular person has. It's another attempt at power. And I don't think that that's what religion was ever supposed to be about: power. I think it's supposed to be about finding peace and love. And having a good life and leaving the world a better place than it was when you found it. That's my little mantra.
Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?
Meaning who could you dial a number, pick up the phone and talk to? I guess that would be Francis [Ford Coppola] for me.
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
I think Hal Ashby [The Last Detail, Shampoo]. I think he was really a marvellous storyteller with a wonderful head on his shoulders, and I think his films reflect that. I think Being There is truly his masterpiece. It's such a parable for our times, for any time. Which I think is the mark of a good film.
Which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?
You're not going to get me to say anything bad about my fellow filmmakers, because it's just too much of a horrible struggle to even make it in this business. Believe me, I would have some names for you, but I don't want that spread around in public. It's too incendiary.
What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
It was by someone who came up to me in a restaurant, who recognised me. I was eating a hamburger and they said, "Why are you eating a hamburger?" There's a scene in Powder where Powder sees a deer killed by a hunter and he communicates the deer's dying experience into the hunter, so that he'll know what he's inflicting on other things. And I think this person just naturally assumed that since I put that scene in my movie, I was a vegetarian.
There's a lot of beautiful ideas in Powder, there's a lot of beautiful ideas in a lot of movies, and it's not that I don't embrace those ideas but that I'm exploring them. I'm not Powder. That's what I finally ended up saying to that person. I put some ideas into that film that I really felt I should explore, or we should explore, but I am not my art. The man and the art are two different things and they always will be.
Do you believe in test screenings?
To a degree, but not for the purposes that studios use them for. I believe that test screenings help show me when I've lost my audience. That is helpful. The studios use it to back up whatever agendas they have. They use it to cover their ass.
I've seen many a test screening dismantle a truly good film, and Powder is one of them. Powder had a lot of moments that were really changed because of an audience or two of teenage kids who were uncomfortable with a few beats in the film that were actually quite beautiful beats and should have been left alone. It happens. It happens a lot. And I'm sure many filmmakers have had much worse experiences than me, where whole films have been totally retooled because the studio is looking for that widest common denominator. So I think there's some good to them and I think there's some bad to them. Like most things in life.
How seriously do you take reviews?
Reviews are a very difficult subject for me to discuss. I think Woody Allen really summed it up best for me when he said, "The bad ones are devastating and the good ones are never good enough," so I don't read them. For two movies now I have not read any reviews of my pictures.
I have a love/hate relationship with reviewers, of course, as I think every filmmaker does. You love the reviewer who gets your movie and thinks that you've done something wonderful, and you despise the one who is absolutely trashing your movie and possibly affecting its ability to be seen. I try and keep those voices out of my head. I used to take reviews, when I read them, too much to heart. Reviews are written by a total stranger. You don't know where he's coming from, you don't know what his position in life is, you don't know why he's a reviewer. He's a complete and total stranger and letting complete and total strangers into your creative process, I think, is a very dangerous thing.
What's your biggest regret?
In life? [Laughs] You know, I have so many of them. And I've come to peace with most of them. But to pick one would be diminishing the others. I've made a couple of very big mistakes in my life that have been made very public. Of course, I deeply regret those. But there's other moments in my life, both emotional and spiritual and romantic, that I regret as well. I'm like any other guy really. I've got all kinds of regrets.
There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?
Well, the first thing that came to mind was plant a big, sloppy kiss on the first person who's willing. After that, I don't know. Five minutes left, eh? I guess, make sure that everyone who you love knows that they are loved, if this really is the end. I think that would be my first impulse.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
To believe in myself. I was given that piece of advice when I didn't know how to believe in myself, and it made all the difference in the universe. Still does. I have to relearn that lesson over and over again, but I think that was the best piece of advice I've ever been given: trust your heart and believe in yourself.
And the worst?
Man, that's a tough question. I've been given a lot of bum advice in my life. I'd have to say the worst piece of advice, the sentiment was, "You're never going to do it, don't even try, save yourself the heartache." I got that advice a lot growing up, as in: "Don't even try to be something, because it never works out." A rougher translation, which I heard a lot as a child - in fact, all my brothers and sisters did - is: "You're a worthless piece of ****." And that is a really, really hard mountain to climb over when you get that message so many times when you're young. And if I could count that as a bad piece of advice, I would say that was probably the most detrimental.
Which performer would you love to work with?
Wow! There's so many I could just give you a list. Let me just rattle off a couple... Oh boy. God. No one's ever asked me these questions. I have to say this to you, without trying to blow smoke up your tush, but these are not dumb questions, any of them. They're really good questions. I'm not used to thinking this deeply when people interview me.
I would love to work with Leonardo DiCaprio, Marlon Brando - yes, even now, Marlon Brando! Oh boy. Sean Penn. Those are all men. There are so many women that I would love to work with: Meryl Streep! These are very uninteresting answers, because everybody wants to work with those people.
I wish I had a wild card for you... I'd like to work with Ian McKellen. He's at such ease, at least he appears to be, in front of the camera that even in something like X-Men 2, he has a couple of moments where he takes just a couple of lines, that I think a lesser actor would not know what to do with, and he makes them so powerful. Whatever he has learned in his long life as an actor has come to this beautiful kind of fruition on film. I just find him absolutely captivating.
What are your three favourite films and why?
Certainly Jaws would be one of them. Because it was exciting and scary and it came into my life at a time when I needed some focus and it showed me: this is what you want to do. Two other films? God, there are so many films that I absolutely love. I'm really going to sound like a tired old queen here, unfortunately, but I think The Wizard Of Oz would have to be in my top three. I've watched it since I was a child. It was always a magical experience. It absolutely transported me. It still does. It's probably one of the greatest studio constructions of all time. I think that films are powerful for us because they resonate our experience and they also play a role in our history. And I think one of the reasons why I would put The Wizard Of Oz and Jaws on my favourite top three film is that they have such a strong place in my history and I have such a strong affection for them.
The third film? Boy. Oh, there are so many. Man. I need one of substance or I'm going to look very shallow here [laughs]. Um. It's very hard to pick three. If you came into my library, here at my house, you would see that I have over 3,000 DVDs and laser discs. I'm a big fan of movies. God, number three, that's a stumper. There's just a whole bunch of 'em trying to crowd in there. Um... lemme off the hook on that one will ya?