Friday, October 9, 2020

Interview -- John Amplas (Horror Film and Television Actor)

"People always go away...
so they can forget
where they were."
Martin - (John Amplas)

To have been cast in no less than six of legendary director George Romero films is a nice box of dripping, bloody chocolates.  A wonderful bouquet of dead flowers for the holiday season.  Each one a cult film lover's delight.  But it's for George Romero's lesser-known, but critically acclaimed, vampiric curio “Martin” (1977) that actor John Amplas will forever be tagged and flagged.

With an apple pie innocence and a disturbing out of rhythm naïveté,  John Amplas plays the confused and conflicted title character Martin with relish.  Is he really a bloodthirsty vampire...or just a vampire wannabe serial killing weirdo?  The film is labeled "horror" and blood is as blood does, but Romero changes the rules of what we have come to expect a vampire to be.  Babyfaced John Amplas walks a thin wire between Martin's deadly thirst for blood and the empathy he creates for his character.  And he manages to successfully keep the audience on unsure footing till the very end.  And so the question is he or isn't he?  A vampire, that is?  Only Nosferatu knows for sure. Streaming on Youtube and available on Amazon.  "Happy Halloween, my babies."
John Amplas.  Go get you some.

John Amplas Interview -- October 2020
John Amplas

Casey Chambers:  I recently saw you in the George Romero film, "Martin" and was reminded just how good you portray the title character.  You own every scene.  And what a trippy-strange movie it really is.

John Amplas:  It was my first feature.  I had done a couple of things here in Pittsburgh for PBS.  What was then WQED.  But yes, "Martin" was my first feature.  It's a good one.  I was in my senior year of college.  I graduated in '76.  And I was doing a play at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.  It was the last play of the season and (George) Romero had come to watch the performance and he really liked it.  I got to talk to him a little bit after the play 'cause he had introduced himself and then he went away.  A couple of months later, I got a call from him asking me to do the movie.  He actually had an older character in mind for the lead role of "Martin" initially, but he rewrote the character and cast me.

Casey Chambers:  What was the play you were doing?

John Amplas:  I was doing the play called "Philemon" which was written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.  The same folks that did "The Fantasticks" which was the longest-running Broadway show in history.  I played a slave.  It was set during the period when the Christians were being persecuted.  That was the main theme of the play.  I was a young Christian put into the catacombs and slogged and the like.  Now that was 44 years ago...(laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Did you know who George Romero was before he introduced himself?

John Amplas:  I knew who he was because of..."Night Of The Living Dead." (1968)  Plus, he was a very good friend of Bill Cardille who, in our town was a longtime broadcaster here in Pittsburgh and hosted, "Chiller Theatre" which was quite well known.  "Night Of The Living Dead" had appeared on "Chiller Theatre" by that time.  So yes, I did know George at that point.  By the way, Lori Cardille...that's Bill's daughter... had the lead role in "Day Of The Dead." (1985)

Casey Chambers:  Knowing what side Romero likes to butter his bread, when you were given the script for "Martin," what was your first impression?

John Amplas:  I thought the script was brilliant.  Yeah, absolutely brilliant.  George has always been at his best when he had the opportunity to write and direct.  And he was a fabulous editor.  He did primarily all of the editings for "Martin" and he was writing constantly.  He was a constant writer. However, he didn't change much in the script as I recall.  All I did was follow what was on the page. That's how I handled it.  'Cause it was already there.  The script was ready to go.

Casey Chambers:  You brought a very strange and unique kind of pathos to the title character.  And you never give too much of Martin away.  It's hard to imagine someone else playing that part.

"Martin" Trailer (1977)

John Amplas:  That's what George always said.  Yes, that's a high compliment. Thank you so very much.  It was actually, for obvious reasons, my favorite film that I did with him.  But it was also his favorite film.  He had said that on many occasions.

Casey Chambers:  How very cool.  Tell me a little bit about the shoot.

John Amplas:  I remember it being about six to seven weeks.  We shot it here in Pittsburgh.  In and around Pittsburgh.  Probably 90% of it was shot in a little mill town called Braddock.  And at that time in the 70s, in a lot of industrial towns...the mills were going out of business.  And Braddock was one of those towns that were dying out.  We're on the Three Rivers and most of our mills were along our rivers and Braddock was no different.  It was a small mill town already going downhill.  The majority of the shooting was done at Tony Buba's parent's house.  Tony was our sound guy.  And his grandmother was still living there at the same time.  And we shot in various places around Braddock and various spots in Pittsburgh.

Casey Chambers:  Talking about Braddock and the mills shutting down reminds me a little of that Billy Joel song, "Allentown."  Very much the same goings-on.

John Amplas:  Same kind of idea.  Allentown was an industrial town, too.  Exactly.

Casey Chambers:  So when the movie was released, what kind of noise were you guys hearing?

John Amplas:  Well, we got a lot of good feedback.  We had very good press.  However, I think they fell down some...with the distribution.  And I say they because I wasn't part of the business end of things.  At that time, you know, they considered "Martin" a horror movie.  I think it's much more of a psychological thriller.  More of a character study.  But it was put into these midnight shows and did very well.  It played at the Waverly in New York in the Village for about six months.

Casey Chambers:  That's a pretty strong run.  The Waverly...that was a famous "must-go" art theater, wasn't it?

John Amplas:   Yeah, it was famous.  I'm not even sure if it's still there, to be honest.  But it was very famous at the time for showing midnight movies.  "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was playing there around the same time as "Martin."  And "Martin" was getting a lot of good write-ups in papers and Newsweek and things like that.  Shortly after making the movie, I moved to New York.  I was up there in '77 when "Martin" was actually showing on the big screens and I couldn't get arrested.  One of the reasons, I think, was at that time, horror films were not accepted as well.  They wanted Hollywood productions.  It was tough for horror films.  Horror films were like the B side of a record.  You just never hear it. (laughs)  And that's kind of what happened.  But the astonishing it is 44 years later since the movie was shot and there are still new audiences...young audiences coming to see it for the first time.  It's become...and still is...a cult classic.

Casey Chambers:  I have to make mention of a very small scene in the movie that hit me hard...when your character slips into a small parade.  The marching band and parade was very small potatoes. And again, it was just a very, very small scene.  Martin sneaking into this parade.  But it all seemed kind of a metaphor for your character... not just trying to hide...but to simply fit in.  Something he could just never do.  As I said, it was a very brief scene, but I never forgot it.

John Amplas:  It was a real parade.  In fact, that's one thing that was not written in the script.  It was not written into the screenplay.  We had just finished a scene.  I think it was when Arthur (Tom Savini) and Christina (Christine Forrest) were getting in the car to leave.  And my character said something about them leaving.  'People always go they can forget where they were.'   We were just finishing up the scene, getting ready to wrap for the day when we heard the sound of drums and trombones.  The parade was only two blocks away from us.  I forget if it was George (Romero) or maybe it was Mike Gornick, our camera and cinematographer guy who said, 'Why don't we go down and shoot it?  What the hell?'   In those days, we were doing, ya know, pretty much guerrilla filmmaking. (laughs)  We weren't asking too many people for permission.  We'd just go and do it.  So we all ran down there and George told me to just join the parade. So that's what I did.  It was just by happenstance, and it led us directly toward the end of the movie.

Casey Chambers:  Does it surprise you...the longevity that "Martin" has enjoyed?

John Amplas:  Oh, absolutely.  I had been getting involved with the autographs, photos, doing some video presentations.  Now we can't have any conventions, so away it all goes.  COVID, of course.  But, yeah, it does surprise me.  And George asked me to do a few other movies, too.  I got to be in "Dawn Of The Dead" and "Knightriders."  "Creepshow" and "Day Of The Dead."  And a couple of other things.  George always surrounded himself with people that he trusted.  And because of that, I had the opportunity to do six movies with him.  All of them during his heyday, which was the '70s and '80s.  For a long time, I just kind of put all of the Romero work behind me.  But his films just keep getting new audiences.  It was such an interesting time.  That particular time and that particular group of people.  We're all very friendly and we still see one another periodically, as well.

Casey Chambers:  The end of the '70s found you in two back-to-back cult classics.  You were also in the All-You-Can-Eat mall fandango..."Dawn Of The Dead"...both on-camera and behind the scenes.

John Amplas:  Yes, they gave me casting director credit, but that's not entirely true.  I mean...I did do some of the castings, but...  And there was a scene...a night time shoot where a gang was running around and a SWAT team was shooting at them.  They were in a hurry and needed an extra person up on the roof, so (Tom) Savini grabbed me and put rather unPC makeup on me and set me up there.  And so I had a little scene with Scotty (Reiniger) on the roof, and he shot me in the back and I fell off. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Awesome. (laughs)  I love stuff like that.  These are great things to have been a part of.  And Roger Ebert surprisingly gave the film 4 stars, calling it " one of the best horror films ever made."  And you had the opportunity to do a little casting for "Dawn Of The Dead" too.

John Amplas:  I was able to hook them up with David Emge who played the lead character...Flyboy.  David and I knew each other from the Playhouse in Pittsburgh way back in '72.  Later, when we were in New York, we both worked at one of the most decadent restaurants in the city.  It was across from The Public Theater on Lafayette Street called Lady Astor's.  And a lot of people came through there.  George's now ex-wife Christine Forrest worked there and knew a lot of the people.  Scotty Reiniger, who was in "Dawn Of The Dead" worked there.  A lot of us came out of that place.  So I got a job for Emge. When they started casting for "Dawn Of The Dead" I put Emge in front of them and he got the lead role.

Casey Chambers:  It's a world of small proportion.

John Amplas:  It is a small world.  Everybody that I had the pleasure to work with are friends to this day.  We still see each other.  And I think that's a pretty remarkable thing.  We had formed almost a little repertory company.  A lot of the actors have been in a few of George's movies.  Certainly, the same crew I worked with in "Martin" continued to work with George throughout all of his films.

Casey Chambers:  Another Romero film you did was the great horror anthology..."Creepshow" (1982) and you had the opportunity to offer up a few graveyard shenanigans as the wicked corpse of Nathan Grantham.

"Creepshow" with John Amplas (1982)

John Amplas:  In this movie, I was in the very first episode.  I was the creature that came out of the grave.  I played Nathan Grantham...only dead! (laughs)  I had to sit under plaster and all that kind of stuff while Savini made the masks and costumes and the gloves and the eviscerated body.  Everything worked like a suit.  Like putting on a suit.  And so I did that for a week and then it took Savini about a month to get the character made and ready to go.  And then I went back and shot for another week.  And I got a chance to kill people. (laughs)  Stephen King wrote the screenplay.  And I've met him a few times since.  Not like we became close pals and email each other, you know, but we did become friends.  He was very easy to get along with.

He also had a small part in "Knightriders." (1981)  He played some kind of vendor in the crowd.  "Knightriders" is all about the death of chivalry.  The concept was knights on bikes.  They were a touring Renaissance festival and the knights all rode motorcycles.  We had big crowds for these festivals and Stephen King and all of our friends were invited to be part of the crowd scenes. (laughs)  "Knightriders" was an interesting movie.  Ed Harris was in it.  And later, when Ed had a role in "Creepshow" was then that I was able to kill him. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Jumping back to "Martin"...I read somewhere that the film was very close to receiving an X rating.  The kiss of death.

John Amplas:  Yeah, that is true.  In fact, I think it played in some places with an X rating.  There were initially about two and a half hours of footage for "Martin"...and it was whittled down to about 93 minutes.

Casey Chambers:  So what ever happened to all that extra bean footage?

John Amplas:  That's the curious thing.  It's lost.

Casey Chambers:  So it was whittled down and edited and...

John Amplas:  It was edited before it was lost.  Some ne'er-do-well picked it up and nobody seems to know where it is.  The truth though for me is that I don't think the film is missing anything.  I don't think it would make it a better film.  Just a longer film.  I think George's final edit really works well and tells the story specifically and succinctly.

Casey Chambers:  Well, if that footage ever turns up, that would make for some interesting bonus features on Blu-ray.

John Amplas:  Oh, my God, yes.  Oh, my goodness.

Casey Chambers:  Before I let you go, I want to ask about some music you like listening to.  Can you recommend an album or artist?

John Amplas:  Oh boy.  Oh boy.  That's so hard.  You know what?  You should listen to the album soundtrack of "Martin." (1979 - and reissued in 2015)  It's very good.

"Martin Soundtrack" (1979)

Casey Chambers:  I didn't even know there was a "Martin" soundtrack available.  Excellent!

John Amplas:  Oh, yes.  I have it on CD.  And I have a couple of vinyl.  The music was all orchestrated and composed by Donald Rubinstein.  Donald's a musician and an artist and he's just tremendous.  In fact, he scored several of George's movies.  And I also like jazz.  Old and new.  I like ColtraneDizzy Gillespie.  People like that.  I just added some Etta James to my Pandora. (laughs)  I'm fond of Clapton, too.  Someone, I really enjoy is...what's the name of that one guy?  His father and mother are both famous musicians.  Rufus Wainwright.  I especially like him.  I like almost any version of "Hallelujah" out there.  I like Sam Smith.  I like Norah Jones.  I go back and forth.

Casey Chambers:  It's been a real pleasure speaking with you this evening.  This is a great time of year for horror film buffs to pull up some sofa and enjoy watching the trippy and mysterious vampire film..."Martin."  And being George Romero's favorite film is a solid gold coin in the pocket.  Thank you so much.

John Amplas:  You are more than welcome. Thank you so much, Casey.

"The Calling" - Donald Rubinstein / "Martin Soundtrack" (1977)

John Amplas Official Website

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

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