TRANSCRIPT Switchblade Sisters Ep. 114: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ with Writer Megan Amram

Writer Megan Amram (The Good Place, Parks and Rec) joins April Wolfe to discuss the monumental classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Podcast: Switchblade Sisters

Episode number: 114

Guests: Megan Amram

Transcript

music

"Switchblade Comb" by Mobius VanChocStraw. A jaunty, jazzy tune reminiscent of the opening theme of a movie. Music continues at a lower volume as April introduces herself and her guest, then fades out.

april wolfe

Welcome to Switchblade Sisters, where women get together to slice and dice our favorite action and genre films. I'm April Wolfe. Every week, I invite a new female filmmaker on—a writer, director, actor, or producer—and we talk in-depth about one of their fave genre films, perhaps one that influenced their own work in some strange way. Today I'm really excited to have writer/comedian Megan Amram with me. Hi!

megan amram

Hi!

april

For those of you who are not familiar with Megan's work, please let me give you an introduction. [Music fades out.] Megan Amram is a native of Portland, Oregon. She was an early adapter of using Twitter to craft and hone jokes, and received a fair bit of attention that helped her get some writing gigs. One of those first jobs had her writing for the 83rd Academy Awards, but the next year she earned a spot in the writers' room of the Amy Poehler series Parks and Rec. After that show's successful run wrapped, Megan went on to Kroll Show, Childrens Hospital, Transparent, and Silicon Valley, before the producers of Parks and Rec came calling for a new comedy series, The Good Place, starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. In 2018, she returned to write for another round of the Academy Awards, and also worked on The Simpsons. But that year also marked one of Megan's most significant achievements: successfully lobbying herself into Emmy nominations for a short form comedy series with her show An Emmy for Megan. Megan has also written a book parodying the ways products are marketed and geared towards women, called Science... For Her! and though the Guinness Book of World Records refuses to recognize her for the achievement, Megan has also Tweeted "This is the day Donald Trump finally became president" every single day since May 2017, thereby ensuring that anyone who ever uttered that phrase in earnest would be sounding, uh... really ridiculous.

megan

Yes! That kinda sums it up, thank you! [Laughs.]

april

Yeah! That's your life. [Megan laughs.] So Megan! The movie that you chose to talk about today is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

megan

Yes. And to set the scene for anyone who's listening to this, which is everybody—

april

Yeah.

megan

—I am draped in a blanket that is the original VHS cover of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre right now, because I'm so obsessed with this movie.

april

It is a beautiful blanket.

megan

Thank you! You really—I wish you could all see it. If you could get into this recording studio, you'd love it.

april

Yeah.

megan

But yeah, I'm obsessed with this movie. I was so excited to come talk with you about it, and it's also very funny to think of how this has influenced my own work. I've never—

april

I want it to have!

crosstalk

April: I really—[laughs]. Megan: Yeah! I—I now am like...

megan

I hadn't thought about it like that, but it has, [laughs] which I can go into. I mean, my chainsawing work, mostly.

crosstalk

April: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Lot of chainsaw bears, but... Megan: But also my comedy. Yeah! That's true! [Both laugh.]

april

Well, can you give us a little explanation though on why this is one of your fave genre films?

megan

Yes. And also just a little background, because I clearly have worked in very silly comedies, and that is my primary profession, but I am obsessed with horror movies. Again, very excited to come on this podcast. And in general, I would say Texas Chain Saw Massacre really represents... my favorite things out of every horror movie. My favorite genre of horror is usually supernatural, so this is a little divergent from that.

april

Yeah.

megan

And I also have to say the first time I ever saw this movie was on a plane. [April laughs.] Which is so funny, 'cause it is so... It is a horrifying movie. It is—it is so much rawer than—[stifles laughter] even most famous horror movies.

april

Oh, yeah! And it's maddening, and it makes you feel like you're trapped. And when you're trapped in a plane—

megan

Yeah!

april

—you're really trapped!

megan

I was watching it like years ago, on a plane, and have never been more embarrassed. I was just—like, "I hope there's no children, or even just immature adults anywhere." [April laughs.] "'Cause this is scary!" But no, I picked this movie because it is so beautifully shot, because it—[stifles laughter] represents... like, a true lack of regard for the human body, which I—I think is a really, uh, "inspiring" is not quite the right word— [April laughs.] —but a theme that I find myself drawn to a lot. And it's also really funny! So I thought it would be kinda fun to talk about the humor in this movie.

april

Oh, yeah!

megan

'Cause it makes it way more scarier when you're laughing at grandpa trying to...

april

Oh my god, yeah.

megan

...gnaw a woman. [Both laugh.]

april

Well, for those of you who haven't seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, today's episode will obviously give you some spoilers, but that shouldn't stop you from listening before you watch. As always, my motto is that it's not what happens but how it happens that makes a movie worth watching. Still, if you would like to pause and watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre first, this is your chance. It's on Netflix right now. You can also rent it from your local video store; please support local video stores, and...

music

"Opening Titles" from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Original Motion Picture Soundtrack By Tobe Hooper & Wayne Bell. Metallic and cacophonous.

april

Now that you're back, let's introduce The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a quick synopsis. Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper, and directed by Hooper for release in 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre stars Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty, a young woman on a road trip with her brother Franklin and three friends, Jerry, Kirk, and Pam. They're in rural Texas checking on Sally and Franklin's grandfather's grave. There have been reports of stolen corpses there. [Music stops.]

clip

Radio Announcer: Subsequent investigation has revealed at least a dozen empty crypts, and it's feared more will turn up as the probe continues. Deputies report that in some instances, only parts of a corpse had been removed. The head or in some cases the extremities removed, the remainder of the corpse left intact.

april

On the way back, they pick up a hitcher, who freaks them out, cutting himself and Franklin before getting kicked out of the van. They run low on gas and stop at a gas station barbecue spot, whose owners plead with them to stay for a while until there's a gas refill.

clip

Old Man: I got some good barbecue here. Why don't you fellas stick around here a while? The transport'll be by in a little while.

april

It's, uh, in the middle of the 1970s kind of gas crisis. Instead they go out to some property Sally and Franklin's father owns, a dilapidated house. There, Kirk and Pam try to find a swimming hole, but they find an old home with a gas generator going instead. Kirk knocks on the door to see if they can buy some of their gas. When he goes inside, he's quickly knocked out by a man in a human skin mask and a butcher's apron. Pam follows Kirk inside the house, but she too is caught, and Leatherface hangs her on a meat hook while he dismembers Kirk. It's getting late, and Jerry goes out to find Kirk and Pam.

clip

Jerry: Listen, I think I'll walk down to the creek before it gets too dark. How do I get there, Franklin? Franklin: Well, there's a trail down there between them two old sheds. Sally: Can I go, too? Jerry: Uh, I think you better stay here.

april

He also enters the house and wanders into the kitchen, where he hears a noise and opens a freezer to find Pam near death inside. Leatherface kills him, too, then looks in the front window trying to figure out where all these damn kids are coming from. Now it's dark. Sally and Franklin are bickering, and Sally's very freaked out. Franklin realizes Jerry took the van keys with him.

clip

Franklin: [Frantic] Sally, they took the keys! We don't have any keys! They took the keys! [Horn honking loudly.] Sally: Stop it!

april

Sally goes on a mission to find them, and Franklin begs to come along. She pushes his wheelchair through dense bramble and rocky terrain, and suddenly Leatherface jumps out with a roaring chainsaw and cuts right through Franklin. Sally goes running and shrieking through the bramble in a tense chase scene. She comes upon the house and begs anyone inside for help.

clip

[Chainsaw revving.] Sally: HELP!

april

But finds an old, corpselike man upstairs. She's forced to jump out the second story window when Leatherface comes roaring through the house again. She's chased all the way back to the gas station, where the man inside says he's going to help her.

clip

Old Man: Take it easy. Take it easy. [Sally takes deep breaths.] Old Man: I'll get the truck. Take it easy.

april

But he knocks her out and ties her up instead. He brings her back to the house, and Sally gets a look at the whole wretched family. Leatherface, his daddy, the hitcher brother, and corpse granddad. They sit down to dinner, and Sally can't stop shrieking, and then they decide that Granddad's gonna have to kill her.

clip

[Sally is screaming/sobbing through the clip.] Hitchhiker: I been thinking about letting Grandpa have some fun! You always said he's the best! Old Man: Oh, he's the best, alright! Let's let him have a whack.

april

So they bring out a washbasin and have Granddad try to knock Sally out. But Granddad's not getting the best swings in. Sally escapes and jumps out another window, and takes off down the drive to the road, with the hitcher brother dancing behind her and Leatherface roaring with his chainsaw. In the road, the brother gets run over by a semi. Sally's able to flag down the semi driver. A Benny Hill type chase around the truck ensues with Sally, the driver, and Leatherface until a pickup truck comes by and Sally jumps in in the nick of time, laughing maniacally at her assailant's chainsaw dance of grief. Okay, so when Tobe Hooper was dreaming this up—it was like 1972, '73—he said, quote: "I was in a department store around the holidays, thinking 'I just can't wait to get out of this department store.'" [Both laugh.] "This must have been in 1972 or 1973. There were thousands of people in there, and I was weaving through them to get out, and I found myself in the hardware department. I looked down and there was a rack of chainsaws in front of me for sale. I said 'If I start the saw, those people would just part. They would get out of my way.'"

megan

Oh my god. That is so relatable. [April laughs.] I've never heard that, and I cannot believe—I can so viscerally understand that feeling.

april

Yeah!

megan

Of like—yeah, like, my life would be easier for five minutes if I just went full psycho. [April laughs, Megan stifles laughter.] It would then be much harder for the rest of my life, but... Yeah, that's amazing. And it's—I don't wanna diverge too much from your talking points, but—

april

Go for it!

megan

It... you know, as you're—as you were running through the synopsis of it, the thing that I—just in terms of how the movie lays itself out, that I think is so amazing—and I just re-watched it with people who'd never seen it.

april

Oh!

megan

Which is a really fun thing to do.

april

Yeah!

megan

Because... the chainsaw doesn't come in until fairly late in the movie. A scary thing has already happened, which is that the hitchhiker is picked up. I kinda find those scenes—or that scene, I guess—scarier than Leatherface almost, because you are like "This definitely could happen to me today."

april

Mm-hm!

megan

Is I could just run into someone that I don't quite know how to handle, that you don't really know what his motives are.

april

Yeah!

megan

He cuts his hand in front of them, which I find really creepy. But so you have this tension building and building and building, and then when it finally is released—which is Leatherface smashing a man in the head and killing him immediately—

april

Quick! Yeah. Not drawn out.

megan

It is, to me, like the biggest punchline—if you could call it that—of like any horror movie.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

I am so obsessed with the scene where you first see Leatherface. I watch it a lot just in terms of... I think masterful filmmaking. The door looks amazing. The, like, set design looks amazing. It is so... just, presented as it is, [stifles laughter] which is someone being killed immediately in front of you.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

And then the door slams shut, and I think it's one of the most amazing scenes of any movie.

april

Well, Hooper himself described the film as a comedy.

megan

Yeah.

april

And it confounded people. It confounded critics. But it was very much a comedy.

megan

Yeah.

april

The writer Jason Zinoman said, quote, "Mr. Hooper baffled many by describing his movie as a comedy, but you can detect its sense of humor in the way the killers come off as fools quibbling in a mundane family comedy, a sensibility that became far more overt in his sequel, an entertaining farce that disappointed fans expecting something as terrifying as the original."

megan

I have seen the sequel, and it is like... a fun addition to the canon, I guess, of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It... is not my favorite movie, but I do like that it—that that is the direction it went, rather than just like, "Another family ran into Leatherface!"

april

Yeah.

megan

In the same exact way. But... yeah, it's—and going back to what I was saying about, you know, has this influen—[stifles laughter] has this comedy, which I totally agree, it's like the darkest comedy I've ever seen... I think that something I'm really obsessed with in my own comedic work is like how dumb the human body is.

april

Mm-hm.

megan

And that's the very silly version of... uh, that people are just meat. Which is what this movie, to me, is about. [Laughs.]

april

I think—even just going back to your Twitter avatar.

megan

Yeah. [Laughs.]

april

For like, one thing, where it's just like, it's your face and the skin is like, wrapped, and it's like—it's—it's meat. Your face skin is like meat.

megan

Oh my god. I've never put this together, but my fa—my avatar, which is a real picture of me just looking very ugly and dumb—and I have a ton of makeup on in it. [Stifling laughter] Uh, it is so similar to Leatherface wearing the makeup!

april

It's—

megan

I'm having a real epiphany moment right now.

crosstalk

Megan: Oh my god! April: It's pretty Leatherface, dude. [Laughs.]

megan

But yeah! And it's—so I write for The Good Place, a show that has—you know, it's very sweet.

april

Yeah. [April continues responding affirmatively as Megan speaks.]

megan

And tonally not very—[chuckles] Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It's a little bit of a supernat—or like a sci-fi show, and one of the characters who is not human... tends to describe how dumb he thinks human bodies are, 'cause he has to live in one. And he—I wrote a joke for Michael, played by Ted Danson, that is something along the lines of like "Humans are so stupid. They're just goo and juice, and if you take all the juice out, they're dead!" [April laughs.] And that to me is exactly the absurdity of life! But it also is why when I see a movie that very explicitly compares... like, young people, I guess—and we can also talk about, you know, the young female body, but like, that compares young people to pigs and cows who are getting slaughtered. I find it, like—it just hits this visceral point in my brain where I just immediately get it. But that's—and this is something that people have talked a lot about with this movie. Which is it—the—Leatherface and his family used to all work at a slaughterhouse. That's how they're introduced, is the group of young people are driving past a slaughterhouse when they pick up the hitchhiker, and he talks about how they used to kill cows with a mallet, and now they use an airgun, and it's taken all the art out of it, and people have lost their jobs because of it. And then they end up killing all these people later. How it is... like, it brings up the themes of meat-eating, and a lot of people say they became vegetarians after watching this movie. [Megan responds affirmatively as April chimes in.]

april

I mean, Tobe Hooper—he was vegetarian for a few years after this 'cause he couldn't stomach it.

megan

I've stopped eating red meat for a variety of reasons, but also... it's not not because of the things in this movie.

april

Mm-hm.

megan

It's not like I watched this movie and immediately was like "No way." But the—

april

Yeah. It's like, more effective than Forks Over Knives for you? [Laughs.]

megan

Yeah. [Laughs.] This is like, original Okja for people. [April laughs.] But it is when... I think it's a movie that makes you confront what it means to kill something. So if you, you know, choose to continue eating meat, that's totally fine. But this is a movie that's like "This is how you got it."

april

Mm-hm!

megan

Someone had to kill a cow, either in a very old-school, really barbaric way, or in what is in some ways an even grosser way, which is super mass-produced, just, killing a million cows all at once.

april

Yeah.

megan

It's like... How would you feel if you're in that position? And I think it's totally fine if you take that journey and you're like "...Okay, I'm still gonna eat meat." But also, it is a movie that makes you feel that way.

april

Well, that's also something that you're doing in The Good Place, too, because you're asking really difficult moral questions that aren't necessarily things that you have an answer for. But you do have to show a little bit, in—even in like a comic way of like "Well, this is what happens."

megan

Yeah! Totally, totally. And we talk about that a lot in the writers' room, which is—and to me it's something I took away from working on The Good Place, which is you should be mindful of every moral choice you make. And that doesn't mean you always make the right choice—

april

Mm-hm.

megan

—and sometimes you actively don't want to make the quote-unquote "right choice." But it does help you realize that you are making those choices—

april

Mm-hm.

megan

—every time you do something. And I think that it's really easy to go on autopilot in the world in general. And so it's nice to be confronted by... [laughing] terrible, scary things! [April laughs.] That's how I feel about horror movies in general. Like, I'm a very neurotic, nervous person. But horror movies soothe me a little bit.

april

Oh, yeah.

megan

Because I'm, like... I—I'm looking at the bad thing.

april

Yeah!

megan

It's not worse than I imagined.

music

"Switchblade Comb" starts fading in.

megan

It just is... right there.

april

It's okay!

megan

Yeah.

april

We're gonna take a quick break. When we come back we're gonna talk a little bit more about finding inspiration for your work, and a little bit about Edwin Neal and some of the actors in this movie. So we'll be right back. [Music continues at full volume until the promo.]

promo

Music: “War” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong with lead vocals by Edwin Starr plays in the background. John Roderick: Friendly Fire is a podcast about war movies, but it’s so much more than that. Adam Pranica: It’s history! Speaker 1 (Film clip): Was just supposed to be another assignment. Ben Harrison: It’s comedy. Speaker 2 (Film clip): Under no circumstances are you to engage the enemy. Adam: It’s... cinema studies. Murdock (Rambo: First Blood Part II): That's a hell of a combination. John: So, subscribe and download Friendly Fire on your podcatcher of choice. Ben: Or at MaximumFun.org. Adam: And also, come see us at San Francisco Sketchfest on January 16th. Ben: You can get tickets at SFSketchfest.com. Speaker 3 (Film clip): [A strained whisper] Mission… accomplished. [Music fades out.]

music

"Switchblade Comb" fades back in, dropping to play quietly as April speaks.

april

Welcome back to Switchblade Sisters! I'm April Wolfe, and I'm joined today by Megan Amram, and we're talking about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. [Music fades out.] I wanted to read another quote about something that had inspired Tobe Hooper when making this. Quote: "I'd been working on this idea of young people—college students—in isolation. We were going through a gasoline shortage in the country at the time. People had to queue up in their automobiles at gas stations, sometimes for miles. There was gas rationing. And I was hearing a lot of lies on television. Politically, the times were interesting. They were kind of amplified. So the idea came to me in the car of how to pull all these elements together. It came really quickly. The whole configuration of the characters and the loop, the way the story loops in itself, all came to me." And it's a—it's a interesting quote. First he's saying that he's inspired by these political times. He's driving in his car, and he's literally saying—as he clarifies later on—that as he's driving in his car, the entire story came to him. The entire—all the characters, everything. He's driving along, seeing these lines, and he wrote it essentially in his head in the car.

megan

I, first of all, as a writer, am so in awe of stories like that. That are just from... truly like a very emotional place.

april

Mm-hm. [April continues responding affirmatively as Megan speaks.]

megan

Like, that's—that you just said about, you know, gas rationing, but also him wanting to escape from a crowded store with a chainsaw. That to me is where really great stories come from, which is "I felt really strongly about this thing. How can I turn that into a story?" And my job as a comedy writer, but also on the sitcoms I've specifically written for I—I feel like sometimes ends up being a little bit of logic puzzles? And I try to read about directors and writers like Tobe Hooper to inspire me to just get in touch with "What makes you feel really bad?" Like, at the time it's happening. But you can see in the movie how there are bad things in every single setting, and every single moment, even if it's not the actual horror scenes. Like, it already is gross and scary when they're driving in that van. And by which I mean it's dirty. It's—the—I love the way this movie is shot, because it is so... yellow, and you can—you viscerally know the feeling of the movie before anyone says anything. The camera's always really low, and is often in the grass. And obviously there's a very iconic shot of, you know, a girl in cutoff shorts that are like super tiny and you are just looking up at her butt. I love that! [Stifles laughter.] And I'm sure this is a much longer conversation. My feeling mostly about—I—it's hard to generalize, but like, that type of objectification in a movie like this, I'm like "She is meat. That is what the movie's about." Staring up at her butt is... just going along with the theme that she's nothing but a body, really.

april

The DP of this film is Daniel Pearl, and it was his first feature, I believe. Him and Tobe Hooper were doing commercial stuff before this.

megan

Mm-hm.

april

And then, you know, they went on to make this feature. But he said, quote: "After one week of shooting, we were moving too slow, and the producers shut us down. 'We're gonna shut you down for a week,' they said. 'You have to have a shot list prepared so you know what you're going to be doing every scene, and it becomes finite.'" [Megan laughs quietly.] "It's the conflict between the art and the business. Tobe made a shot list. We came back the following Monday. I began to set up the first shot on the list. Tobe arrived a half an hour later and changed it all. Then we went through the day as we had before, without a shot list. Second day, Tobe shows up and changes it again. He says 'Oh, I forgot to tell you! We're not shooting that shot list.'" [Megan laughs.] "'I just had to write something down. I need to be in the mood in the environment and see how it all happens for me.'" And that was one of the things where the producers came in when they were doing that shot of Pam, who was walking to the house.

megan

Yeah.

april

And they had thought fully that he was doing a shot list, and then they came up and they were like "What the fuck are you doing?" because what Daniel Pearl had suggested was just like, "You know what? I think that if I was on this dolly, I would be low enough where I could like, swing through." Like, he was just there imagining it, and then Tobe was like "Yeah, set it up!" And apparently they said, quote, "You cannot shoot the shot. You have to stick to the shot list." [Megan gasps quietly.] "We forbid it, right now." And then Tobe Hooper said "I'm the director and he's the DP, and you can fire us, but we're shooting this shot."

megan

I'm like more scared of that story than I am of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. [April laughs.] At the idea that they would not have gotten the shots! [Stifles laughter.] I mean, that is—it's so funny to hear almost any story from a movie shoot where you're like "Oh my god. It was so tenuous that they made the movie they did."

april

Yeah!

megan

And as far as I understand, it also was a low-budget shoot, and like...

april

Very.

megan

I mean, obviously there was budgeting issues. And you're just like—this is always my feeling, which is the fact that anything turns out good ever is truly a miracle.

april

Mm-hm.

megan

But I am also very in awe of directors like Tobe Hooper. I've—you know, not heard him speak in person, but... [Chuckles.]

crosstalk

Megan: I have seen— April: RIP, you know. Megan: RIP.

megan

But, uh, have listened to him talk, and it's like... that ability to be in the moment and just look at the house you have, the set you have, and say like "I think this kind of shot would make this kind of feeling—"

april

Mm-hm.

megan

—is really an amazing talent. But yeah, there are so ma—and it's also, I wanted to add to this classic shot of Pam—there's also a shot of... I don't remember if it's Jerry or... Kent I guess his name is?

april

Kirk!

megan

Kirk, that's it. But there is also this like, low-angle shot of—I think it is Kirk, walking towards the house when he—like, all the people just sort of start walking towards the house.

april

Mm-hm.

megan

As if they're flies about to go into a spider's web.

crosstalk

April: Or as they're like cows, like, entering the weird—you know. Megan: Yes! Exactly!

megan

And I was like—I don't know what the intention that they set out to do, but to me I see at—I see both a woman walking, being objectified by the camera, and also a man walking into the house being objectified by the camera. And to me what I take from that is... it's for everyone. [Laughs.] Like, this is a trap and a slaughterhouse for everyone who's going towards it.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

And I found that to be really compelling.

april

Well, also, like—it's almost like gender has no meaning in this because there—it's all meat.

megan

It—

april

And you see that when, like, Leatherface is like, well, now he's female now!

megan

Yeah—

april

Now he's not!

megan

I—

april

Like, it's just not about that.

megan

I think that's such an important part of this movie, and I—[laughs] hate to even bring it up, but it's also like... the people who go on this podcast, the people listening to this, it is a—there is a gendered look at horror. I, as a woman, watching every horror movie, there is so much sexual violence in horror movies. Which I don't think necessarily means that it's bad. That can be discussing what sexual violence is.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

This movie does not feel sexual to me. It in some ways removes... the body from the sexual, if that makes sense?

april

Yeah!

megan

And—[laughs] that is again, something that really... surprises me. Like, they capture Sally. And they are torturing her. Like, it's horrifying. But... it is just about hurting her. It's not about, like, sexual torture.

april

Mm-hm.

megan

Which I think is an important distinction. Because again, horror movies often with female main characters get into a lot of like, sexual violence. But—

april

You know, you're talking about her performance, too, and I think that we should bring up, you know, how Tobe Hooper approached that with his actors. Because it's... kind of abuse. Um—[laughs]. He said, quote—and this is about him doing an immersive set—

megan

Mm-hm.

april

"It's from the working conditions I established."

megan

Mm.

april

"Like separating the actors. We wouldn't let Franklin, Sally's brother—played by Paul Partain—have lunch with the other actors, and we wouldn't let him bathe."

megan

[Laughing] Oh!

april

"There were all these little techniques and devices that I found to create some kind of sensory impulse to help get to the truth. It was also the repetition of scenes." And then this—he talks about the window. "For instance, when Sally breaks through the door of the service station, she had to do that 17 times."

megan

Oh my god.

april

"And I'm not sure that we had kneepads or could afford them. But Marilyn was totally into it. She gave it everything. And in a traditional film, no one would jump through a glass window twice in the same movie. It just wasn't done because of some convention." [Megan laughs quietly.] "I wanted to be outrageous and break the rules, and also involve you and make those characters real for you."

megan

I... I have strong feelings about directors, especially like auteurs, running their sets like this.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

And as a film dork growing up idolizing these sorts of people, like Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin, and whatever... I think I, when I was younger, was like "Oh, that makes you a good director. That means that you got the performance out of—" I mean, clearly he got the performance out of his cast for Texas—Tobe Hooper did, for Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

april

He got them to take it seriously, you know? Like, you—

megan

Yes!

april

You can see the tonal friction of them taking things really seriously, and—

megan

Yeah! And I think that is why the movie feels so visceral. That being said... I also—again, as a woman working in the industry—am—have a very, like, knee-jerk reaction to the fact that... Well, if you fostered a sense of safety and communication, do you also get that sort of performance out of people? And we can't go back and remake Texas Chain Saw Massacre with kneepads, but it frustrates me because it sets the bar to be like "You have to really feel pain to be able to portray pain." And it's like you hear about William Friedkin pulling a gun on people on set, or whatever—

april

Yeah!

megan

And it's like like "Yes! You got these crazy—" Like, Linda Blair broke her back or whatever in The Exorcist, but... could you have made as good of a movie if she hadn't? I want to think you could have.

crosstalk

April: Oh, yeah, I want to think that you just try something else as a director to get them into the space. Megan: Yes! Exactly!

megan

And so it is—it's like, there's a lot of these types of stories. And I can tell you in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you can see that they all feel horrible. Like, I do believe that that radiates out of the movie. That there is... yeah! That they're feeling dirty and tired and...

april

Yeah.

megan

Scared, or whatever.

music

"Switchblade Comb" is fading in.

april

We're gonna take another quick break. When we come back, we'll get a—into some of the moral ambiguity of Leatherface and his character. And also some of the—more of the comedy of the family, and the relative bloodlessness of this movie. We'll be right back. [Music continues at full volume until the promo.]

promo

Music: Upbeat, cheerful music plays in the background. Allie Goertz: Hi, I'm Allie Goertz! Julia Prescott: And I'm Julia Prescott. And we host— Both:Round Springfield! Julia: Round Springfield is a new Simpsons podcast that is Simpsons-adjacent— Allie: Mm-hm. Julia: —um, in its topic. We talk to Simpsons writers, directors, voiceover actors, you name it, about non-Simpsons things that they've done. Because, surprise! They're all extremely talented. Allie: Absolutely. For example, David X. Cohen worked on The Simpsons, but then created a little show called Futurama! Julia: Mm-hm! Allie: That's our very first episode. Julia: Yeah! Allie: So tune in for stuff like that with Yeardly Smith, with Tim Long, with different writers and voice actors. It's gonna be so much fun, and we are every other week on MaximumFun.org or wherever you get your podcasts! [Music fades out.]

music

"Switchblade Comb" fades back in, dropping to play quietly as April speaks.

april

Welcome back to Switchblade Sisters. I'm April Wolfe, and I'm joined today by Megan Amram, and we're talking about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. [Music fades out.] So I wanted to talk a little bit about Leatherface. This is another quote from Tobe Hooper. He said "What Leatherface does scares the hell out of him, actually. And by the time he's killed Jerry—played by Allen Danziger—he knows he's in trouble. Not trouble with the law so much as trouble with his older brother. There's a scene after he hits Jerry and throws Pam back into the freezer where he runs to the window. He sits down and looks out the window, and you can see what's going through his mind. 'Where do they keep coming from?' And 'Am I in deep, deep trouble?'" [Megan laughs quietly.] "You know, there’s an interview with Gunnar—who played Leatherface—"

megan

Yeah.

april

"—on television where he talks about the chainsaw dance that he does at the end of the film. He says that what was going through his mind during that dance is that it was his last chance to kill me. So that’s how worked up he was."

megan

It's so crazy the rollercoaster you go on with Leatherface as a character, or at least that I do.

april

Oh, yeah.

megan

Which is that when you first see him, he is taking up an entire doorway. He's a huge man.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

Wearing skin, and murders someone immediately, and you're like "This is the scariest, most evil person."

april

Mm-hm!

megan

Then you get to know that there—he doesn't really talk. He, you know, has his own sorts of verbalizing. He clearly is like the... baby of the family, if that's fair to say?

april

Mm-hm.

megan

And yeah, and as you said, he really cares about his family... being proud of him.

april

Yeah!

megan

And this is where, again, the comedy really comes into play, to me. That you're like "Oh my god. How have you made us feel even .5% sympathy for Leatherface?"

april

Yeah!

megan

Like, the way that his family all bullies him?

april

I don't think many directors would have had a scene of their main villain just sit and ponder things— [Megan laughs.] —and look out the window.

megan

It—yeah! [Laughs.]

april

But that—it was like—but that is a revelational scene, where you're like, you kind of see that it's taking a toll on him.

megan

Yes.

crosstalk

April: And that's—that's a twist. Megan: And I think— April: That's not what I was expecting.

megan

Totally. And I think part of the twist also is you—it is implied that Leatherface is not, like, fully aware even of the... of what he's doing. Like, he knows he's killing something. But it seems to be that he's trying to like, do his family proud. His motiv—

april

That's scarier to me.

crosstalk

Megan: Oh my god, it so much scarier! April: Because that is a motivation of just like, you're not evil.

april

There's a motivation of trying to make someone feel—that—or trying to feel like a whole person? And you—you have to validate that!

megan

Yes.

april

[Laughing] You know?

megan

And it's also like if I were Sally locked up, you can't... yeah, you can't reason with Leatherface if he's doing this for his own reasons that you can't empathize with.

april

Yeah.

megan

Like, you couldn't talk him down. You're just like "Oh no. This is... some other—"

april

"This is it."

megan

Yeah. "World."

april

The thing with Marilyn Burns, too, is what—something that we should mention, you know, going back to also Tobe Hooper working with his actors. One of the reasons why she was insane during that house scene is because there's a lot of things going on for her personally, Marilyn Burns the actor, as this is going. She—you know, she heard a few years ago, for instance, that, you know, they cut her finger so that Grandpa can suck on her blood?

megan

Ugh.

april

Here's the deal. That was supposed to be fake blood, and there was supposed to be tape on the knife.

megan

Yeah.

april

And—

megan

Oh, god.

april

—they didn't do that, and she was told it was an accident, and they just need to use that. [Megan gasps/groans.] But the thing is that they would—lied to her.

megan

I hate that.

april

And—

megan

I did not know that. I mean, it doesn't surprise me.

april

No.

megan

But I truly hate that.

april

Also—and here's another really insane thing that happened—because... Okay, so the family—this is Tobe Hooper. "This family was into death art. It was a hobby, and we needed animals. The city pound had done their due for the month, and they came out with a dump truck about 20 meters from the house and dumped about 500 pounds of dead animals out front."

megan

[Whispering] Oh my god.

april

"I came out and looked at it and realized it was over the line. That a domestic animal is like a child, so seeing all those dead cats and dogs would ruin the movie. So I said 'Get rid of these.' And then I went back inside the house and was shooting. Someone got five gallons of gasoline, poured it over all those dead animals, and set fire to them." [Megan gasps quietly.] "I guess they were thinking that they were going to disappear or go up into ashes. The house was bad enough—" [Megan gasps more loudly.] Come on. [Megan laughs/exhales.] "The house was bad enough with the bones cooking—" and I'll explain that—"and everyone throwing up, but then all of this smoke from the burning fur and flesh started coming in through the house. That's when everyone really started losing it." Those—because the skeletons, it's cheaper for them to buy real skeletons from India.

megan

Yeah.

april

But that also means that they're not cleaned completely.

megan

Right.

april

So the skeletons' meat was cooking.

crosstalk

April: So there was like, corpse meat cooking in the heat. Megan: I mean, it looks real. That's—this—it—[sighs].

megan

It's like a—it—this is truly a nightmare.

april

Yeah.

megan

And again... I'm very conflicted. Because you're like—okay, so this whole movie was imbued with like, real terror.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

And real death. And it made something that I... really love. That being said, [stifles laughter] I think that is like such an irresponsible way of trying to—I mean, obviously that story makes it sound like it possibly was a real miscalculation.

april

Yeah.

megan

But, um...

april

I mean, also the mallet that they were using on her with Grandpa, like—that's a real mallet. It had foam around it, but it was hard enough that it hurt her.

megan

Yeah.

april

Very badly. And so she was like—she was freaked out.

megan

Yeah. And I—

april

She was in character. She freaked out.

megan

It—that—you can tell. And it is something that to this day is a very big topic of conversation in the industry, which is... are you treating, let's say actresses, as a commodity? [Laughs.] Or an object to get your art? Or are you treating them like a person—

april

Yeah.

megan

—who's doing their job?

april

Meat or people? What are they?

megan

Yeah.

crosstalk

Megan: It's—[laughs] yeah. April: Uh, in this movie, maybe a little bit of meat.

april

Tobe Hooper said—you know, he admitted that he lost quite a few friends through making this movie.

megan

Ugh.

crosstalk

Megan: Worth it. April: And it took like a decade or more.

april

And, uh—[laughs].

megan

Friends are over right now.

crosstalk

April: Yeah. That's— Megan: I think you lost them 'cause they're dead. [April laughs.] Megan: Friends?! What the fuck? [Laughs.]

april

I'm—you know. I'm curious, we were talking about, you know, Leatherface and these characters that you kind of feel sympathy for. I mean, in your own work, are you thinking about, like... if you have to write a bad character—the characters that you write in The Good Place, for instance, or that you were writing in Parks and Rec. There are clear villains.

megan

Right.

april

Right? Even though it's comedy, there's clear villains.

megan

Yeah.

april

But there's also a kind of having to develop sympathy for them. And I was wondering if you could talk about that kind of process for any of these people that you've done with it. [April responds affirmatively several times as Megan speaks.]

megan

Yeah! It's funny because the shows that I've mostly worked on—namely The Good Place and Parks and Rec—are like really moral shows. The Good Place is literally about morality, and we talk about philosophy, and the show if it's about anything is what it means to be a good person. So a lot of the bad characters on that show—some of whom are literal demons from Hell, and some of whom are just like, humans who... are mostly thoughtless. They're not supervillains. They tend to have arcs in which they learn that they've done things wrong. It doesn't mean that they are perfect going forward, but it's about being sort of... revelatory about your own morality. And then Parks and Rec, too, the—even someone like Jeremy Jamm, who is a evil-ish character on the show—[stifles laughter] he—we show him having some real insecurity, and he sort of tries to be friends with Amy Poehler's character. Like, there's always these moments of humanity.

april

And is that—so that's a conscious thing.

megan

Yes.

april

Is there like a formula for you guys when you're developing this? Or...

megan

You know, it... The Good Place is very much a show that is supposed to make you feel good. Like, you at home—and a lot of families watch the show—it's really funny talking about The Good Place while having been in Texas Chain Saw Land in my head—[laughs].

april

Yeah!

crosstalk

April: Same thing. Megan: So—yeah! And so— April: You can't escape.

megan

It's very overt that it's like, "Do you feel like a bad person? Do you think someone at your job or school, do you think they're a bad person? They might not always be a bad person."

april

Mm-hm.

megan

So that is explicitly what we are trying to do on at least those two shows.

april

I mean, are you testing things? Or just like, making sure that what you're writing is like, "This is gonna make people feel good." You know, [laughs] or...

megan

I think that we try—and again, I'll just talk mostly about The Good Place 'cause it's very like, of a moment, I think. We are not trying to sugarcoat anything. So like, we wouldn't want the show to be treacly or whatever.

april

Yeah.

megan

We want it to be realistic. So there's a character this season named Brent. [April laughs quietly.] Who is sort of about toxic masculinity and privile—he's a way in which to talk about privilege, and white male privilege, and that kind of stuff.

april

Mm-hm.

megan

And we're not—we have never—I don't wanna like, give... talk too much about this season of the show, but like, he is a pretty bad dude! Like he says things that are racist and sexist, and he's not getting—he's not like, having an epiphany that "Oh my god, I've lived my life in a completely wrong way and I'm a villain."

april

Mm-hm.

megan

He might learn, you know, one tiny step of how to be a little better. But I think it would be disingenuous to our audience, and to the world right now, to pretend like everyone can get better all the time.

april

Mm-hm!

megan

Um—[laughs]. But—it's funny 'cause like, me personally—so those are shows I write with other people, and I sometimes have that kind of sensibility, but I personally am really drawn to stuff that is like, so... unrelentingly—is that? Relentlessly. [Laughs.] I'm a writer. [April laughs.] Relentlessly dark and cynical. And—

april

An Emmy for Megan!

megan

An Emmy for Megan, which is just so dark... No. [April laughs.] It is pretty—I mean, you could say it's cynical that I made a web series in order to win an Emmy. [April laughs.] But yeah, so the things that I find... [chuckles] very exciting when I'm watching them—

april

Mm-hm.

megan

—are things that are pretty sadistic. And I also have a lot of feelings of... You can be a really good person and really like watching dark, mean stuff.

april

Well, it's like exorcizing those things.

megan

Exactly! I've had this—like, people who aren't—

crosstalk

April: Not exercising but exorcizing, I should—yeah. Megan: Yeah, exorcizing. Yeah. Yeah.

megan

I think people who aren't horror movie people sometimes don't understand—I mean, clearly they don't like it.

april

Yeah. [Laughs.]

megan

So there's not—[laughs]. There's not like a reason for them to understand it. But I think of myself as a... like, kind person who cares about treating people really fairly and kindly. And I like learning about other people. That being said, I also love movies where... the human body is brutalized. [Laughs.] And I'm like, those are two different things! One is a fantasy world in which I'm watching stuff that I would never do in real life.

april

Mm-hm.

megan

And it, as you said, is like a cathartic way to live out the worst versions of human life. And then to turn off your movie and be like "Okay, now I'm gonna go to bed in my nice little... in bed."

crosstalk

April: Yeah. "I'm gonna go to Trader Joe's and get some cookies, and everything's gonna be fiiine." [Laughs.] Megan: Yeah. Yeah! [Laughs.] Yeah! [Laughs.] I get it!

music

"Switchblade Comb" starts fading in.

april

That's a great place for us to wrap up.

megan

Yeah.

crosstalk

April: Thank you so much for coming to talk with me today about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Megan: This was so fun. This was just a fun little jaunt! [April laughs.]

megan

Thank you! [Laughs.]

april

And is there anything that we can tell listeners to watch of yours?

megan

Just please watch the last season of The Good Place airing Thursday nights on NBC, and imagine me watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre while you're watching The Good Place.

april

Great. Oh, and they can also maybe go online and watch An Emmy for Megan, right?

megan

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Go to AnEmmyForMegan.com and watch both seasons, and just be so angry on my behalf that I didn't win one.

april

Next year?

megan

I mean... it better. [April laughs.] Yes! [Laughs.]

april

Thank you for listening to Switchblade Sisters! If you like what you're hearing, please leave us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. If you do, I'll read it on air. TheOtherTimLynch says: "As a born-again screenwriter, Switchblade Sisters is the welcoming crash course in the filmmaker's perspective I need. April's work has introduced me to so many intelligent women filmmakers, and I love learning from all their work as well. Thanks!" So thank you, TheOtherTimLynch! If you want to let us know what you think of the show, you can Tweet at us @SwitchbladePod or email us at switchbladesisters@maximumfun.org. And please check out our Facebook group, that's Facebook.com/groups/switchbladesisters. Our producer is Casey O'Brien, our senior producer is Laura Swisher, and this is a production of MaximumFun.org. [Music finishes.]

clip

Franklin: Sally, they took the keys!

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A cheerful guitar chord.

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About the show

Switchblade Sisters is a podcast providing deep cuts on genre flicks from a female perspective. Every week, film critic April Wolfe sits down with a phenomenal female film-maker to slice-and-dice a classic genre movie – horror, exploitation, sci-fi and many others! Along the way, they cover craft, the state of the industry, how films get made, and more. Mothers, lock up your sons, the Switchblade Sisters are coming!

Follow @SwitchbladePod on Twitter and join the Switchblade Sisters Facebook group. Email them at switchbladesisters@maximumfun.org.

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