By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Incense tugs at my nostrils as I bite into a Danish at the Hollywood apartment of director Jack Hill. Photos of Indian saints and multilimbed Hindu goddesses hang on the walls, and Hill, dressed in chinos and a pale-blue shirt that matches his eyes, is eager to talk about how the late Swami Muktananda, sometimes known as the “Swami to the Stars,” transformed the lives of him and his wife, Elke.
I have to admit, I was originally just interested in interviewing the man responsible for two of the greatest blaxploitation flicks ever, Coffyand Foxy Brown, both starring Pam Grier and her quite often bare, uh, assets. Not only did the films make Grier a star, they influenced a whole generation of directors, including Quentin Tarantino, whose Jackie Brown is an homage to Hill. The Host, Hill’s 30-minute student film, is cited by some as an inspiration for the last third of Apocalypse Now. (Francis Ford Coppola was a classmate of Hill’s at UCLA.) When I found out that the director was going to be speaking at the American Cinematheque’s double bill of his blaxploitation pics on Saturday, I figured this was my excuse to do an interview.
“After we met him in 1980,” Hill is saying of his swami, “it started us both on a spiritual path. We spontaneously became vegetarians and went to India after that. He’s a real guru, a fully realized being.”
I nod and take a sip from my cup — Hill’s wife makes a mean little espresso — wondering how to bring the conversation around to the drive-in auteur’s movies. Instead, Hill tells me about his journey to the swami’s ashram in Ganeshpuri, India. It turns out that the director of such grindhouse classics as Switchblade Sisters, Swinging Cheerleaders, Isle of the Snake Peopleand The Big Doll Housefound himself washing dishes Razor’s Edge–style for the thousands of pilgrims who had converged on the ashram for “Baba” Muktananda’s b-day festivities.
“Service is part of the experience,” he says. “I volunteered to wash dishes because I’d heard that you gain the most from that spiritually. They had these huge pots, and you had to get inside them and scrub them by hand. It was great! I loved it.”
After returning home to Hollywood’s cornucopia of conspicuous consumption and vanity, the Hills dedicated their lives to a path of meditation and dietary strictness. It seems to work for them: Both look like they’ve got a portrait in the attic à la Dorian Gray. But what doesn’t compute is that this erstwhile acolyte of Roger Corman — the man revered for a career that includes the bizarre, camp horror-comedy Spider Baby as well as Pit Stop, a surprisingly profound examination of the world of figure-8 racing — is now so repulsed by violent imagery that he and Elke avoid watching films or TV shows that are needlessly graphic. Here’s some irony: Back when he made Coffy, he was under marching orders from the producers to make a “black-woman revenge” picture beginning with the female protagonist “killing the shit out of” two guys.
“Violence has its place, but gratuitous violence and gruesome visuals, that’s what I object to,” says Hill. “I don’t want that negative input coming in to my senses. Certainly my movies have been accused of being violent. But if you compare them to what’s out there now, the violence is really in the way you perceive it . . . On the other hand it was my job, the studio required a certain amount of violence. I was doing what I was hired to do.”
Hey, we’re talking movies now. Hill says that although he receives offers all the time to direct teenage slasher pics, he’s more content toiling away on romantic comedies and detective stories with his wife. They have one romantic comedy currently being cast in England, and a classic detective yarn they’re still working on.
Nevertheless, at the Egyptian on Saturday night, Hill looked as happy as a kid with a tub of ice cream as he introduced his “children.”
“For some reason,” he told the audience, “my name is much better known now than when I had pictures at the box office. Six weeks after Coffycame out, nobody knew who I was, even though it was the number 12 grosser of the year. Now I’m invited to film festivals all over Europe. I just saw a French-language version of Coffyin Paris. I still don’t know how they translated motherfucker in French.”
Thirty-two-year-old, double-jointed, blond, blue-eyed Kelly Cole is sipping his second iced soy latte of the day on a sunny Wednesday afternoon outside of Lo-Fi Fashions, his 9-month-old Fairfax Avenue shop, which specializes in selling sexy Levi’s and classic rock tees to the likes of Ben Harper, Gina Gershon and Eddie Furlong.