Jeff Lieberman first appeared on the horror scene in 1976 with the release of his movie Squirm. The film was well-received when it debuted, garnering praise for its special effects and pervasive atmosphere of dread. Aside from these two notable aspects, Squirm also accomplished something else that was incredibly difficult—a feat that one would have otherwise thought to be nearly impossible—it actually made worms scary. It has since gone on to become a cult classic, forever cementing Lieberman’s name into the lexicon of genre cinema.
Over the years, Lieberman would make several more films that would also draw acclaim from both fans and critics alike. With titles like Just Before Dawn, Blue Sunshine, Remote Control, and Satan’s Little Helper, he would further establish himself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of genre filmmaking.
One of Lieberman’s greatest strengths is his ability to write. We see this demonstrated, time and again, in the plots of his movies. They are nothing if not clever—an adjective used so often to describe his work that he has even come to develop a slight distaste for it. Be that as it may, it doesn’t change the fact that it is the perfect word to use when describing his knack for penning exceptional storylines. The man truly is a master of his craft.
This aptitude for concocting brilliant narratives has, once again, been illustrated with the release of a new book. Day of the Living Me is a professional memoir, recounting the details of Lieberman’s riveting life spent working in the industry. I caught up with him recently to ask a few questions about it. Here is what he had to say.
Hello, Mr. Lieberman and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions today. Let's begin by addressing the fact that you've just released a new book, Day of the Living Me: Adventures of a Subversive Cult Filmmaker from the Golden Age. Can you tell us a bit about the project and what made you decide to take it on?
Jeff Lieberman: Over the course of my career, I’ve relayed many of my more unique experiences to friends and family and eventually to total strangers among numerous film festival audiences and got great reactions from them. I jotted down many of these stories years ago, figuring I could use them in some way in the future, and decided to assemble them in chronological order. Once I did that it started reading like a book.
I've recently obtained a copy of your book and, I must say, it is a very entertaining read. Kudos to you on a job well done! I particularly like the way that it's formatted, in that it’s broken up into a series of short stories rather than presented as one long, singular piece. Was this an intentional stylistic choice made on your part, or did it just happen to work out that way by chance?
Jeff Lieberman: Each story was so different than one another that the short story format just came organically. All I had to do was put them in chronological order and also weave them together with revelations of how one story led to the next.
Day of the Living Me is full of incredible anecdotes about the industry, but there are a few stories that stand out above the rest as being downright mind-blowing. For example, the part about how you almost made a Broadway musical version of King Kong. In the book, you even claim that John Lennon had expressed interest in doing the music with Stevie Wonder. This is a crazy revelation! Would you mind telling us more about this?
Jeff Lieberman: To be clear, that wasn’t John’s suggestion. It was mine. But the story is all true and there’s no point in my recounting it here because I want all your readers to buy the book!
In the book, you cover a lot of the details surrounding your writing process. Not only do you describe how each one of your movies came to fruition from a production standpoint, but you also explain the various inspirations that were behind them. As a fellow writer, this is something that I found to be particularly fascinating. When you were compiling the information for Day of the Living Me and doing the necessary examination of your career in hindsight, did you notice that this process had evolved in any significant way over time? If yes, then how so?
Jeff Lieberman: Actually, my process of developing ideas hasn’t evolved at all over the years. But the development process has, for sure. I’ve taught myself to boil ideas down to their basic essence, which will reveal an inherent story structure. I spent an enormous amount of time on this development process trying to get it to the point that, when I get down to writing the script, it practically writes itself.
While Squirm is, without a doubt, your most popular film, my earliest introduction to your catalog was through Satan's Little Helper. As such, I absolutely loved the story about the gorilla-gram gone awry—even though it had been such a profoundly nerve-wracking experience for you. Can you explain the situation that occurred on that day for those of us who haven't read your book yet? Did you ever end up telling your friends about how their gift had indirectly brought about one of your latest cinematic creations?
Jeff Lieberman: Again, I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t read the book, but suffice it to say, it’s based on a true story of thinking someone at a Halloween party in costume is an invited guest and turns out to be an uninvited stranger. I told my friends all about it the following day and they completely forgot it was to be a costume party and sent the gorilla-gram just to wish me a happy birthday. So, it was a very fortunate accident that served as a great inspiration for me, resulting in Satan’s Little Helper.
Another great thing about Day of the Living Me is the pictures that are included with every chapter. They serve as excellent punctuation for all of the stories that you tell, providing us with the undeniable proof for every one of your astounding claims. Did you have any difficulty in drumming these photos up? Were they something that you had available on-hand, or did you have to hunt them down using various sources?
Jeff Lieberman: No, I had all those photos digitally stored years ago, so they were easy to access.
You mentioned in the book that your wife, Joanne, was not entirely on board with the plot of Squirm when she was initially told about it. In fact, you quoted her as having said that it was "the stupidest thing that she's ever heard." After the film was released, did she at all change her tune about the subject, or does she still think that it's a silly premise?
Jeff Lieberman: Ha ha. The truth is that it is a stupid idea, an outrageous idea, and I’m sure many people who love the movie would agree. You can say the same thing about The Blob or The Birds. It’s all in the way you handle an outrageous idea, using everything in your arsenal to make it seem real enough to the audience that they suspend disbelief for 90 minutes and relate to the character’s plight.
A good portion of Day of the Living Me covers your early years working in commercials and advertising. It is this experience that would ultimately provide you with the opportunity to move forward on to the project that arguably got it all started for you. I'm talking, of course, about The Ringer. Can you tell us a little bit about what The Ringer was and also if you know whatever ended up happening to it? How long was it in use? Is it still available anywhere for fans to view today?
Jeff Lieberman: The Ringer was an “anti-drug” film I made for King Features that was sponsored by Pepsi in the early ’70s. My assignment was to do something completely different than the many films of this sort circulating to public schools around the country and in that sense, I hit a home run with it. Nothing like it then or since. It was very successful on the school circuit; won top prize in every film festival it was entered in and made a lot of money for King Features. I have no idea how long it played, but have met many genre fans who’ve told me they actually saw it in public school! It is on YouTube, but coincidentally I recently dug out the original negative with the help of King Features and will be doing a 4K transfer in the coming weeks so I can show it at festivals along with my movies.
You have worked with some pretty influential people over the course of your career. Understandably, a lot of these legendary names make cameo appearances in your book. One such example is Rod Serling, who was responsible for giving us the timeless Twilight Zone TV series. Can you provide us with a bit of background on that? It must have been amazing to have worked so closely with such a remarkable personality.
Jeff Lieberman: I wouldn’t call Rod’s appearance a cameo, as I do devote an entire chapter to him. While writing that chapter it struck me what balls I had at such a young age. There I was at the age of 24, directing one of my childhood idols! It was for a series I wrote and produced for Janus Films along with Janus president Saul J. Turell. It was called The Art of Film and was aimed at the college market. Rod’s authoritative voice was perfect for it.
Near the end of the book, you mention something called Cinemuerte. What is this? I've never heard of it and after looking it up was unable to find any information relating to it. Is this a new project that is currently in the works? Do we have another Jeff Lieberman film to look forward to sometime soon? If so, that's very exciting news!
Jeff Lieberman: In the book, I describe the circumstances that sparked the idea for Cinemuerte. I wrote the script in five weeks and in no time got John Turturro and Gael Garcia Bernal about to play two of the leads. But alas, the financing fell through at the last minute. But I do retain all the rights, so maybe it’ll emerge in the future. Who knows.
One of the things I learned from reading Day of the Living Me is that you have quite the appreciation for comedy. Stand-up comedy, in particular, you seem to have a notable affinity for. You even mentioned having an interest in pursuing a career in the field during the book's closing chapter. I'm not entirely sure if this was humor in and of itself, or a serious statement of intent. If it was genuine, then is stand-up comedy something that you're still interested in doing? Can fans expect to see a Jeff Lieberman Netflix special making the rounds someday?
Jeff Lieberman: I think you misread that chapter or didn’t read the chapter heading, which was called “Regrets.” It was something I regretted not perusing back when I was starting out, not now! I think one of the great things about writing the book for me was being able to at least channel a lot of my personal comedy stylings into the stories.
In the book, you talk about the time you spent on the horror convention circuit. You claim that it felt almost surreal, at first, to suddenly be so well-known within the community and to be the recipient of so much fanfare and recognition. Does it still feel strange to attend these conventions or have they come to grow on you since then? What would you say are some of your favorite moments from the past events that you've been to?
Jeff Lieberman: It did feel almost surreal at first, people asking for my autograph like I was Tom Cruise or something. Gradually, I realized that it was just a token of their recognition of my works, their way of thanking me. Now to me, they are the celebrities. At least to me, they are. It’s like we instantly have something in common, not me, but my work.
As far as favorite moments at conventions go, there were so many of them, but I’ll give you just one. I’ve attended the Chiller convention in New Jersey three times now, but one time stands out, when my table was right beside that of Tonya Harding. Not only did I get to meet and chat with her over the course of the weekend, but got a front-row seat to something very funny and also very sad. When the fans started flooding in, dozens lined up for Tonya—so many that they blocked any view or access to my table. But what caught my eye was every one of them were carrying pipes, baseball bats, clubs, you name it, for Tonya to sign when she was there to sell photos of her ice skating days and also her autographed ice skates. When it became clear nobody was interested in any of that, Tonya’s manager made an announcement that she would only sign her photos and skates and within seconds, the entire line vanished, and she sat there without any business for the rest of the festival.
Based on the way you describe things in Day of the Living Me, it almost seems like you used to hold certain apprehensions about working within the horror genre. Despite how you may have felt back then, you now seem to embrace the work that you’ve done in horror, as well as the many fans that admire your contributions to the genre. Can you tell us about your opinions on horror as a style of filmmaking, and how writing and directing these films have changed over the decades?
Jeff Lieberman: One of the reasons I was only apprehensive about horror was because I wanted to make a living and up until 2000 it was a very marginal and even shunned form in Hollywood. The other thing was I thought I had a lot of other things to offer, so I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into one thing. Nobody’s going to hire a horror movie director to do a comedy.
As for today’s movies, way, way too much of it is just derivative to the formulas “we” laid down in the ’70s and ’80s, (not realizing what we were doing would later morph into formulas). Way too many “bows” to earlier works, or “homages,” and way too little originality. And the biggest thing to me is that really good horror is realistic. The more real you make the characters and situations, the better, no matter what the premise is. CGI goes against that every step of the way. Suddenly you’re watching a video game, which emotionally takes you out of the action and makes you an observer. And even more important is the wanton use of ridiculous electronic stings and musical effects. Every movie is now punctuated with an electronic blare that actually has the opposite effect from what is intended. This crap is so overused that I often wonder why the characters in today’s horror don’t hear it also.
There are a lot of great moments peppered throughout Day of the Living Me, but there is obviously so much more to the story than what was actually put down on paper. I mean, how could you possibly do justice to such a long and illustrious career in less than 300 pages? Is there anything that you would have liked to expand upon more in the book, but couldn't?
Jeff Lieberman: No, I had no restrictions other than what I put on myself. I wanted to avoid my personal life as much as possible and keep focused only on my professional life, which is why I insist it’s not an autobiography, but a career journal. I could easily write another entire book addressing what it was like being born at the exact right time to come of age and experience firsthand so many touchstone moments in our history, and maybe someday I will!
Although I am aware that it’s likely going to be difficult for you to pick just one person—if you had to, who would you say has left the biggest impression on you in terms of those that you've collaborated with? I know there is a formidable list of names to choose from, so I imagine that it might not be the easiest question to answer. If you could pick one or two, though, who would they be?
Jeff Lieberman: One of the people isn’t even discussed in the book and that’s Fred Silverman, probably the most influential man in the development of prime-time television. I had the good fortune to work with him on a project that never made it to the small screen, but he taught me the professional craft and forms for that medium along the way. If you and your readers do a search on him, you’ll find he ran all three major networks at one time or another and literally laid out the modern formats for broadcast TV. The list of shows he was responsible for will make your head spin.
Now, I probably don't need to tell you that the horror genre has a history that is rife with controversy. The very nature of it alone is bound to ruffle a few feathers, here and there. As such, I would think that you've gotten some rather interesting feedback over the years for some of the films that you've made. Are there any specific reactions that you’ve gotten that stand out to you as being more memorable or extreme than others?
Jeff Lieberman: Well, back around the time Squirm was released, an uncle of mine came up to me at his granddaughter’s wedding and told me I should be ashamed of myself for making such a disgusting, outrageous piece of junk. I was only 26 and it was my first feature, but that’s when I knew I was on the right track!
Since the holiday season is now upon us, I feel like this would be the appropriate time to ask if you've gotten your annual Christmas card from John Waters yet? He is such a delightfully unique character, so it must be pretty great to receive a little nod from him every December. Are you expecting it to arrive soon, or is it already sitting proudly on your mantle?
Jeff Lieberman: You’re not gonna believe this, but I received it the very day you sent me this list of questions! It’s one of his funniest ones yet.
Well, thank you again for taking the time to chat with me today. I am a huge fan, so this has definitely been one of the few highlights of an otherwise dreary year. Do you have any parting statements that you would like to close on? Any words of wisdom to pass along to the people reading this?
Jeff Lieberman: There is a phrase that a disc jockey named Herb Oscar Anderson used as his sign-off line back in the 1960s that has resonated with me for my entire adult life and has guided me both personally and creatively. The line is, “To the other guy, you’re the other guy.” More than half the people I tell it to don’t even get the meaning, let alone see the import in it. But to me, it has given me a valuable perspective in both dealing with people, keeping a level head, and also in my creative endeavors to always keep the audience’s perspective in mind.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this interview and want to learn more, you can order your own copy of Lieberman’s book, here: https://www.amazon.com/Day-Living-Adventures-Subversive-Filmmaker/dp/0578813408/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=day+of+the+living+me&qid=1608395551&sr=8-1