Michael Berryman (The VH Interview)

Questions: Aaron Carruthers

Transcript: Lee Hazell

You might not know Michael Berryman’s name but you will recognise his face. It’s the one staring menacingly at you on the poster of the original ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. You know the one. It has a dull, almost blank level of threat behind it. A fine piece of acting from a very intelligent man.

A staple of the horror genre for decades now, Berryman has a busy few months ahead of him as he has one of the longest list of projects in development I’ve ever seen on IMDB. He’s here to talk about the newly released ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ release on DVD.

Can you tell us about the audition process for the role of Pluto in ‘The Hills Have Eyes’?

I auditioned for Peter Locke and Wes Craven. Wes was very calm and intelligent. The guy’s a professor and just a great, brilliant fella. And he was telling me that the story was about the Bean family, out in the desert. And I said ‘Well, I’m just here to take this job’ and he said ‘Alright. We’re going to film it out in the desert.” That happened to be a place where I had lived prior, so I was very familiar with the area. Most of the actors who were from Los Angeles were city folks and had never been out in that region before. But I was pretty comfortable being out there. It was hot in the day, but cold at night.

But during the interview process, they told me I was hired for my look. My skull has some creases in it from a craniotomy back in ‘49. My father was a brain surgeon; he had been to Nagasaki and Hiroshima on a secret mission to study the effects the bombs dropped there had on the civilians. When he came home he got my mother pregnant and found his DNA had been compromised due to the radioactivity. His chromosomes were pretty much glowing. So, I was born prematurely with a lot of birth defects. So they said to me at the audition, “You look like you’ve been in a nuclear situation,” and I said, “Ironically, I’d have to agree with you.”

We went out with no budget and it was very effective. We had a really good shoot. Us cannibal actors, we were so in character we had to have our lunches separate from the others. We just had a reunion at Monsterpalooza over the weekend, us and the fans. The fans are so intelligent. They’re so familiar with our movies, with other horror movies, and how these films should be put together. We became very good friends. It’s like an extended family. The horror genre is well known for the camaraderie. It’s a lovely experience.

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How was the production in terms of the desert conditions?

The process was pretty straight forward. I really enjoyed the wardrobe – the gal that got picked to do the wardrobe happened to be a friend working on her master’s degree in archaeology… cultural anthropology actually. So my wrist, my bracelet, was actually made from human teeth that she had secured from a dentist. It just all fit. And the fact that we were in such a remote area, meant things like, for instance, the rattlesnake was somebody’s pet from down the road. It was a Mojave Green, which is a rattlesnake that is the deadliest cobra I know. It got loose one day and my sister Ruby actually picked it up gave it back. She could have been killed, but they added filament to its mouth so it couldn’t open its jaw very wide. It was pretty weird.

But there were cacti everywhere, so we were getting bumps and scrapes and bruises. There were scorpions too. But it was fine.

Do you have a favourite sequence from the movie?

In the original, my favourite sequence is when the father bumps into Grandpa Fred, played by John Steadman as he’s getting ready to shut down. They have ‘The Conversation’ y’know?  “Do you always try to stop trespassers by hanging yourself? Get your head outta that noose you Jackass!” It’s funny and it’s scary at the same time. My favourite part is when he goes “My family are fine.” “Like hell they are!” So he then he tells him the story and ends it with, “So I took a tire iron and split his face wide open!” So the father goes, “Well how bad was it?” It’s a little bit of comic relief. Wes was such a clever writer. Then everything all goes to hell. The window breaks and in slow motion he gets pulled out. It’s so fucking effective.

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You worked with Wes Craven three times on ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ one and two, and ‘Deadly Blessing’, what is your fondest memory of collaborating with the much-missed director?

Well, when we were promoting ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, in the San Fernando area they still had a Drive-In movie theatre. And ‘Hills’ was playing one night so Peter Locke, Wes Craven and I agreed that I would dress up like Pluto to go and see the movie. About half way through, they said: “Run around, bang on car windows, and scare people.” He had a quiet, witty sense of humour. And I did it because I was an idiot. The last thing I remember was a girl screaming and a big guy with a baseball bat is chasing me because he’s mad I scared his girlfriend. So, I’m looking for help and I hear Wes laughing and yelling at me at the same time. As they pull the van forward, Wes slides the side door open and the guy’s still right behind me. He’s still right behind me, but I used to be a long distance runner so I was really putting on the fire, y’know? I literally jumped into the van and grabbed Wes’ hand as we drove out the entrance and went into a diner, sat down, scratched our heads and said, “Wow, I think we have a hit!”

Wes very intelligent; a very big-hearted guy and such a delightful friend.

What was your family and friends’ reaction to you appearing ‘The Hills Have Eyes’?

Friends have seen it. My brothers went to see it. Actually, one of my brothers was in the Philippians down in the Marine Corps, and it was playing down there at the drive in. So he took a bunch of dudes down there in a six wheel drive truck. So he took a bunch of drunk marines, a couple of cases of beer and took ‘em to see ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. And they loved it.

My dad had passed away by the time it came out. But he saw me in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. That was a big dream for him. But overall, big support from my family. Everybody likes ‘The Hills Have Eyes’.

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Do you keep in touch with any of the cast and crew?

Yeah. The makeup artist has been a curator of the Hollywood Wax museum for years. I moved away from L.A. decades and decades ago. I don’t like the big cities, and L.A. doesn’t do anything for me. But I would stop by the museum now and again. Suze Lanier-Bramlett, who played Brenda, her and I are very good friends. I keep in touch with her. Janice, occasionally. I worked again with Wes on Movie of the Week, and also ‘The Hills Have Eyes Part II’ and on ‘Deadly Blessing’.

We see each other at conventions. We’re always happy to see each other and have a drink, something like that, and catch up on how everybody’s doing. It is a family; an extended family.

Are there any movies that you’ve made that audiences should revisit?

Sure. ‘Deadly Blessing’ is a good one. ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ obviously. ‘Weird Science’ absolutely. I was in Mötley Crüe’s ‘Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room’ video as the Principal. Star Trek IV. And my favourite scene of anything I’ve ever done up to this point… well, there’s two. One is, of course, ‘The X-Files’ season three, ‘Revelations’. I got to play a guardian angel. It’s a lovely, lovely episode. They were wonderful to work with. It was near and dear to my heart. The other, of course, is The Crow with Brandon Lee. Unfortunately, the final footage will never be seen. We could never finish the three confrontations between Eric Draven and The Skull Cowboy. I only knew Brandon for a couple of weeks, and we were both happy to make those scenes and help make the film the way it was supposed to be. The way it was written. But after he was shot things just couldn’t come together in that manner. I know there have been other Crows, and there is talk of a remake. But all the purists I know that appreciate Brandon and his father [Bruce Lee], and James O’Barr’s original story – I don’t know if James signed off on it or not – but all I know is that there is only one Crow and I have no interest in seeing any of the others.

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Anything you’ve been working on at the moment that we should be looking out for?

Yes, of course. ‘Death House’ is coming out soon, that’s a Gunnar Hansen original story that’s been altered slightly. Harrison Smith is the director. We’re going to get a release in the next couple of months. I recommend that. I also recommend ‘The Storyteller’. It’s spent ten years in post-production. My dear friend, Andrew Getty, passed away last February, about the same time Wes Craven did. Actually, we’re looking for distribution now. It stars myself, Sean Patrick Flanery and Dina Meyer, it’s Andrew’s only movie. It’s absolutely brilliant and beautiful. It’s based on a dream and a dreamscape. It’s very intelligent. ‘The Storyteller’. I hope we can advertise it soon.

Then, in about three weeks, I’ll be at the Idaho Film Festival, talking to fans; but, especially promoting a little short called ‘Cured’. Which is Jesse Burks, who is an orthopaedic surgeon, and he makes little short, silent films. Kind of like Rod Sterling in the Twilight Zone. The first one is called ‘One Please’, about an ice cream man who comes to suburbia. I played him and it was very well received. Cured is his second, and that’s the one in the film festival. I recommend film festivals a lot because a lot of these filmmakers will not go mainstream. However, their efforts are really worth checking out.  There is such a more varied range of good writing, imagination, and creativity. You can get so much more from them than going to a box-office smash. I think film festivals are something that your readers should investigate if they haven’t done so already. It’s very rich, very rewarding.

The Hills Have Eyes is out on DVD now.