Something Else! Interview: Steve Latshaw, director of Return of the Killer Shrews

For Steve Latshaw, directing Return of the Killer Shrews was a labor of love. Make that a lifetime’s labor of love.

Latshaw had, in fact, long been a fan of the original cult classic, 1959′s The Killer Shrews. And he’d been after James Best, who starred as Thorne Sherman, about doing a sequel for nearly 25 years. Over that time, the Illinois native had directed a string of Roger Corman-esque B movies, including 1991′s Vampire Trailer Park, 1993′s Dark Universe and 1995′s Jack-O, among others. Latshaw has also written screenplays for a number of films, including the 2005 Dean Stockwell vehicle American Black Beauty and 2006′s Stan Lee’s Lightspeed, among others.

He’d even worked with Best on other projects. Finally, in 2012, the stars aligned for Return of the Killer Shrews, not least of whom was the returning Best. Bruce Davison and John Schnieder (who worked with Best on TV’s Dukes of Hazzard) also star. Already out on DVD, the film will see theatrical and drive in showings this spring.

Latshaw sat down with Something Else! contributor Patrick Moran, a writer and producer for the film, to talk about this journey for this exclusive SER Sitdown …

PATRICK MORAN: What compelled you to direct a sequel to a 54-year-old cult film? What was the genesis of this project?
STEVE LATSHAW: James Best, James Best and James Best. I’ve been talking about doing it with Jimmie since 1989. At first, he thought I was crazy. But I wanted to do a sequel with him returning as Thorne Sherman. After about five years, we started exchanging script ideas. About 2008, we started getting serious; by 2009, we were working on an original story. The original film is a minor classic — dark, gritty, intense and brutal, despite the goofy title and sometimes goofy shrew costumes on the dogs. It has the same look and feel as the original Night of the Living Dead. Jimmie was ready to do it again, but this time wanted to have some fun with it.

PATRICK MORAN: What was it like working with James Best?
STEVE LATSHAW: I think everyone on the production will say it was one of the most delightful film experiences of their life. Me, most of all. I’ve never had so much fun on a set. Jimmie entertains everyone with stories and comedy routines, sliding effortlessly from a story or joke right into character when the camera is rolling, never missing a beat. A lot of the cast and crew were childhood fans of the Dukes of Hazzard, so Jimmie would indulge them with a little Sheriff Roscoe from time to time.

PATRICK MORAN: You and James Best go back a ways. Tell us about your relationship with him.
STEVE LATSHAW: Jimmie has been a close friend for 25 years. He and Dorothy have always treated me and my son like family. That’s how they are. Jimmie has a lot of experience as an actor, writer and director. He’s warm and generous but does not suffer fools well. We’ve made two features together over the years and innumerable smaller projects. We are both Type A personalities but we have a good work rhythm. After years on the same projects and same sets, we read each other pretty well — and working together is a real treat. Hell, doing anything with James Best is a treat. I’d clean fish with him and I hate to clean fish.

PATRICK MORAN: Bruce Davison plays the only other character besides Thorn Sherman who returns from the previous movie. Tell us how Bruce came on board and what he contributed to the Return of the Killer Shrews.
STEVE LATSHAW: Bruce loved the script. He said to me, “Everybody else gets to set-up the jokes and I come in and deliver the punch lines.” He immediately got that we were doing — a tongue-in-cheek homage to the classic drive-in movies of the past — and was right there with us. The first thing he said to me on set was, “So, you cast me because of Willard, right?” Well, I’m thinking, no — I cast you because you’re a brilliant frigging actor, an Academy Award nominee and I loved you In Ulzana’s Raid, Deadman’s Curve, Lathe of Heaven, Longtime Companion. He wanted to add the Willard bits like “Tear ‘Em Up!,” and the sucking sounds with his teeth when he called the shrews. Bruce was also in our music video for the end title song, which is an interesting story. Dean Torrence is a featured vocalist in the song. Dean was half of the legendary rock duo Jan and Dean [of "Surf City" and "Little Old Lady From Pasadena" fame]. And Bruce actually played Dean Torrence in a 1978 TV movie about Jan and Dean called Deadman’s Curve. So we reunited Bruce and Dean — the two Deans — in the studio for the recording session and video.

PATRICK MORGAN: Return of the Killer Shrews is an unofficial Dukes of Hazzard reunion. Was that always the plan?
STEVE LATSHAW: It sort of happened that way, yes. John Schneider was the first actor to say yes — and his participation and star value meant that we had a movie. We knew we wanted Rick Hurst for Jimmie’s first mate because they have incredible chemistry together. Rick’s done so much comedy, but this is more of a serious role for him. We had written a little conversational bit between John, Jimmie and Rick Hurst during a tiki party scene that sort of referenced their Dukes days. We weren’t sure if they’d be into it — but they loved the idea, and we have a cute little moment in the film. Incidentally, the Dukes-style music cue was some slide guitar performed by Ethan Wolfe, an up-and-coming musician. His father, Jeff Wolfe, and his band the Horse Soldiers, also contributed a song to the film, called “Fifty Years.”

PATRICK MORAN: How long was the shooting schedule? What was the budget?
STEVE LATSHAW: We shot the film in ten days. We had one additional day of second unit pickups and inserts after principal photography was completed. Budget was — let’s just say: less than a million. Considerably less.

PATRICK MORAN: Any great moments from behind the scenes?
STEVE LATSHAW: All great moments. The happiest set, as I said, I’ve ever been on. It was a party. And for all the Dukes fans in the cast and crew, the chance to hang around with John and Jimmie and Rick was a thrill. For me, shooting at Bronson was a kick, as I’ve been watching movies made there since childhood. Jimmie was a bit overcome the first day at Bronson He’d made so many westerns there — and he’d just heard that his friend James Arness had passed away. Major déjà vu for Jimmie when he first saw the exterior and interior Shrew compound sets at Soledad Canyon. Our production designer Billy Jett had faultlessly created the look of the original sets from the first film. John Schneider was a hoot, doing imitations — many of which are in the film — and keeping the cast and crew entertained. His scenes with Chris Goodman, who played the director, are priceless. I enjoyed hanging with Sean Flynn, the grandson of Errol Flynn. Sean is a fine actor and I gave him a first edition of his grandfather’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Sean doing the comic “Goat Scene” with the entire cast had crew members leaving the set, they were laughing so hard. And my wife contributed my favorite line in the movie: As we do a Spielberg “hero push” in on John Schneider, he delivers the line. You’ll have to see the film.

PATRICK MORAN: The original shrews were dogs in mangy fur coats The new shrews are CGI plus a practical puppet for close-ups. Why did you go that route?
STEVE LATSHAW: We didn’t have the time or money to work with animals. We did the practical puppet as an homage to the original. Jeff Farley was so excited about being a part of the project he volunteered to create a shrew puppet at a fraction of his normal price. How can you turn down Jeff Farley? As for the CGI, we knew we didn’t have the time or budget for the sort of CGI you see in a 200 million dollar Godzilla movie – so we went creaky and retro, as part of the drive-in schlock feel of the movie.

PATRICK MORAN: The soundtrack has a beach party, tiki torch feel. How did the soundtrack come together, and who worked on it?
STEVE LATSHAW: Two answers: The original score is by Jeff Walton, a long-time film composer who I’ve worked with on three other features. I can’t say enough about how brilliant he is. I wanted a retro, early-sixties feel to the score and he delivered, as always, in fine fashion. It’s a great score and I’d love to see it out on CD. The songs originated with music legend Gary Griffin, who has played and recorded with the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and just about everyone else you can imagine. He was the musical director for the ABC Beach Boys mini-series and for the ABC series Full House — and keyboard player for Jesse and the Rippers!. Dave Beard, a music journalist and composer in his own right, had some great song ideas and brought me together with Gary The three of us wanted a 1960s tiki/surf/retro feel for original songs in the movie, with a heavy dose of Jan and Dean-style satire. Jan and Dean were satirists: One of their biggest hits is a drag racing song, but the drag strip is sedate Colorado boulevard in Pasadena and the drag racer is a grandma called the Little Old Lady From Pasadena. Their hit “Deadman’s Curve” was a full-on send-up of all those dead teenager/car crash songs like “Last Kiss” and “Johnny Angel.” Dean himself calls it their “Fargo.” So that was our film. Satirical, and we wanted the music to reflect it. And we were lucky enough to get Dean Torrence, as well as musicians who’ve played with the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. The songs from our film later ended up on an album project put together by Dave Beard and Gary Griffin, called The Bamboo Trading Company — BTC, for short. The BTC is sort of a West Coast Traveling Wilburys, featuring Gary along with surf music vets Matt Jardine, Phil Bardowell, Randell Kirsch, plus Chris English and Daniel Yoe.

PATRICK MORAN: Was there anything left on the cutting room floor you wish that could have made it in?
STEVE LATSHAW: Nothing we could have put in the movie. There are some out-takes and quite a bit of ad-lib Dukes business from Jimmie, John and Rick shot during the tiki party sequence. There are some scenes I would have liked to shoot for the film — but you only have so much time.

PATRICK MORAN: What has reaction been from classic horror film fans?
STEVE LATSHAW: DVD sales are strong, and the reviews we’ve been getting have been excellent. Everyone seems to get the retro/comic spin we’ve given to the movie. It is gentle satire – and still very much a horror film, with a high body count. It’s not obvious camp. The humor is situational and character driven. And I think the feel of the film makes it very obvious that we love the original and love revisiting these characters. You can see that during the opening titles, which feature a montage of images from the original. That’s what it was really all about — seeing what Thorne Sherman would be like all these years later. And Jimmie’s not a cameo in the film. He’s the star, on screen for the entire thing. That was the point. If we couldn’t do it with James Best, I didn’t want to do it.

PATRICK MORAN: What has the reaction been from Dukes of Hazzard fans?
STEVE LATSHAW: Dukes fans love it. We’ve had theatrical showings and the fans are very enthusiastic. They’ve grown up with these actors, invited them into their homes for seven years, first run, and ever since then in reruns and on DVD. The fans consider them family. I was on the set for much of the 1997 and 2000 Dukes of Hazzard reunion movies — and they are family. The nicest folks you’d ever want to meet. And that’s how they treat their fans. The Dukes of Hazzard is Americana, the modern-day equivalent of the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies America used to watch on Saturday afternoons at the bijou. And the children of Dukes fans now watch it on TV with their parents. So to see three Dukes cast members working together in a movie — actually four, because the lovely and talented Jennifer Lyons appeared in one of the Dukes films — is a good thing for the fans.

PATRICK MORAN: What horror films and which directors have influenced your approach to Return of the Killer Shrews?
STEVE LATSHAW: Well, a couple of answers — the first thing is the schedule. And Fred Olen Ray taught me how to direct a movie in 10 days (or less) and still make it good. Vibe-wise — most certainly Roger Corman, particularly his late fifties sci-fi stuff like Attack of the Crab Monsters, It Conquered The World, etc. And specifically, his blend of horror and humor in Bucket of Blood and Creature of the Haunted Sea. For horror films and their influence on this movie, I’d definitely say the Eddie Romero/John Ashley/Blood Island films — most notably Mad Doctor of Blood Island. Voodoo Woman was part of the equation. The Slime People figures in there somewhere. Horror of Party Beach. And The Flesh Eaters. Joe Dante’s Piranha. Tremors. We knew we couldn’t do the dark, black-and-white look or feel of the original. So even though the film takes place in the present, we imagined that AIP had done a sequel in the mid-sixties, in Pathecolor and Panavision. We went for a garish, bright, colorful look. When Billy Jett was designing a secret lab in the Bronson caves, he asked me what look I wanted. I said, “Man from UNCLE, 1965.” And he knew exactly what I was talking about. That retro vibe went right down to costumes. Jimmie, essentially, wears the same costume he wore in the original. And Bruce Davison’s costume was based on a beach outfit Sean Connery wore as James Bond in Thunderball.

PATRICK MORAN: Where can people see Return of the Killer Shrews?
STEVE LATSHAW: A deluxe DVD is currently available on DVD from Retromedia. It features our film plus a brand new widescreen transfer of the original 1959 feature, behind the scenes documentaries, music video and commentary by myself with Fred Olen Ray. Order through our site (www.killershrewsmovie.com) and you’ll get a free poster autographed by James Best. This spring we are going theatrical around the country, in a retro double feature — Return of the Killer Shrews and the original Killer Shrews. We played this combo in three test markets last October, one week runs in Texas and New York, and a two week run in Kentucky. It did very well, so we are going full bore this year — coming soon to an independent or drive-in theater.

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Patrick Moran

Chicago native Pat Moran is a filmmaker who has produced and written five feature films, and served as producer and editor for Western Classics, a film series hosted by actor James Best. He also writes about music for Creative Loafing Charlotte. The best job title he ever had was "part-time vampire." Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.