The Commentary Commentary you are about to read is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths. Okay, not really, but there’s certainly a fair amount of slashing and running and screaming in the woods. This week we’re covering The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and everything director Tobe Hooper had to say about the production along with director of photography Daniel Pearl and Leatherface himself, Gunnar Hansen.
We chose The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, because Total Recall last week left us for something a little more happy-go-lucky, something that isn’t riddled with copious amounts of blood and body parts being ripped off. Shockingly, there’s a ton more of that stuff in the Arnold movie than here, but it’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that makes you want to cleanse yourself after. The movie, for the lack of shown blood it has, does have a way of making you feel dirty after watching.
So grab your popcorn, because this one’s for the whole family. Cue John Larroquette‘s opening narration in 3…2…
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Commentators: Tobe Hooper (director), Daniel Pearl (director of photography), Gunnar Hansen (actor)
- Hooper wanted the opening narration to sound like Orson Welles. He asked Larroquette to do his best Orson Welles while reading it. “It still sounds like John Larroquette,” says the director.
- The film was originally titled Leatherface. Hansen mentions thinking the film, and his shot at superstardom, was ruined when he saw the new title. Pearl also mentions the concern he had when Hooper mentioned to him they were changing the title to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a title which will from here on be referred to as TCSM for brevity. Hooper says it’s still better than the other title they were thinking of going with, Headcheese. Because, apparently, nothing sells worse than a movie with either “Head” or “Cheese” in the title. Slapping them together like that is just a blight on humanity.
- Pearl remembers they toyed with the idea of actually showing Leatherface’s true face in the film. He couldn’t remember if they ever shot the scene, but Hooper notes the closest they got was showing the character making himself up before the classic dinner scene. The director also feels it works better never showing Leatherface’s true self, that it adds to the mystery like, he says, Darth Vader. And he’s exactly right.
- To show the budget, or lack thereof, they were working with, Pearl mentions they had to choose between two vans. One was to be the van used in the film the characters are driving. The other was to be the equipment truck. Obviously, the smaller of the two was chosen to haul the equipment.
- Hansen mentions Paul Partain, who plays the wheelchair-bound Franklin, was so into his character that he would do nothing but complain all day, even off camera. Hansen says he was happy to kill Partain’s character, because it meant that was the end of Partain’s days on set. He might be joking. Might. He also mentions later that Partain and Marilyn Burns didn’t like each other, and much of their bickering in the film is genuine.
- Hooper wanted TCSM to receive a PG rating, and even contacted the MPAA to plead the case for it. His case to them was that the film doesn’t show very much blood. He notes the film has maybe two ounces of blood in its entirety, but recognizes the worldwide belief that it’s a wall-to-wall gorefest. Pearl even gives an example of someone talking to him recently about TCSM, and they were absolutely convinced of the gore. “I don’t mean to be contrary, but I know how much blood was made,” Hooper quips. Needless to say, the movie got hit with an R.
- Hansen went to the set before it was time for his scenes to be shot so he could get a feel for it. He remembers the actors playing the teenagers all referred to each other off camera by their character names. They did this in order to get more into their part, but that also meant they didn’t want to have anything to do with Hansen. “If they were all going to be the people they were as characters, then they didn’t want to know the guy who was gonna kill them,” he explains. “That and because I smelled so bad.”
- As Leatherface, Hansen had to wear the outfit 12-16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 4 weeks. There was only one costume, and the shirt had been dyed. They didn’t want to send it off to be cleaned for fear it would get lost. The boots he wore were Hooper’s, which had been fitted with three-inch heels. You know, for the runway.
- Hooper mentions working on the screenplay with Kim Henkel. The two would get together and write pages separately, and, as Hooper notes, they knew they had what they needed when the script read funny. “There’s dark humor in this,” says the director. “The first eight years after the first release of Chainsaw, people did not see the humor.”
- Hansen has had people come up to him who ask or are certain of the fact that TCSM is fully based on a true story. He mentions people who claim to have known the real Leatherface. As Hansen recollects, Hooper and Henkel described the movie to him as “a whole family full of Ed Geins.” Hooper had had relatives who lived not far from Ed Gein, and they would tell him stories of the murderer as a child. Hooper remembered the stories, but he couldn’t remember the name. It wasn’t until a few years after he made TCSM that he “discovered” it was based, in part, on Ed Gein.
- The discussion of the family and the relation of the different characters in the family comes up. Hansen notes there is some question as to whether the Old Man is grandfather to Leatherface and Hitchhiker or their father. Hooper agrees there is ambiguity there, but the character was written as their brother. Just in case your were wanting to finish that Texas Chain Saw family tree you’ve been working on.
- The production only had about 40 feet of track. Pearl remembers there were moments during filming where crew members had to pull up the track and flip it to the front while they were shooting.
- We all know TCSM is about cannibals, and the implication is that the BBQ the teenagers but early in the film is actually human body parts. That much you probably already know. Hansen jokes, though, about the sausage Franklin has hanging out of his mouth at one point in the film. Hansen bandies about his words, hinting that it might be more than just a “sausage.” He finally just lets loose with “It really is somebodies dick.” “It may have been,” replies Hooper.
- The original conceit for the exterior of the Sawyer house was to have the abandoned cars half-buried, some of them with only their antennas sticking up out of the ground. Hooper notes the design wasn’t able to be pulled off due to budget.
- Hansen notes the first time he appeared on camera and how nervous he was before doing the shot. Even though it was a rubber hammer, he struck actor William Vail really hard over the head then proceeded to throw him head-first against the wall behind him. Again really hard. Don’t worry, Vail had a long and fruitful career that continues to this day. As a set decorator. That is not a joke.
- As Pearl remembers, they were staying as close to storyboards as they could for much of the production. However, the under-the-swing shot, which has become generally believed as the film’s best shot, was one he and Hooper came up with on the set. There was resistance against getting the shot from the producers, and threats were even made. The producers threatened to fire Pearl and Hooper, who threatened to walk off if they couldn’t get it. In the end, compromise fell on the side of them getting it, and history proceeded to be made.
- Hansen could rarely see in the Leatherface mask. He remembers the first take when he is carrying Teri McMinn, who plays Pam, and knocking himself out cold after hitting the doorframe to his workshop. Hooper jokes it made a great sound effect, though.
- The production only had one chainsaw, and, as Hooper and Hansen remember, it always started. “We started having problems, because we started taking the clutch out,” says Hooper. Also the chainsaw was very real, and Hansen had to work with the actors on several occasions to keep them from getting hurt.
- There were lines of gibberish written in the script for Leatherface. Hooper would sit with Hansen and tell him what the lines meant, and the actor had to figure out a way to say that without actually speaking. In the scene where the Old Man comes home and starts yelling at Leatherface about the door, Hansen remembers a take where he communicated a little too verbally. Hooper told him “there was too much intelligence in the character”, and the shot was redone. “My one chance to have a line,” says Hansen.
- When Hansen auditioned, he wasn’t told much about the character he would be playing, but he was called in to meet with Hooper and Pearl. Hooper described the film and Leatherface as a character in great detail. He asked Hansen if he was violent or crazy, to which the actor replied no. He asked Hansen if he could do the part, to which the actor replied with, “Oh, sure. No problem.” As soon as Hansen signed his contract, Hooper told him he wanted to hire him as soon as he met him.
- When Allen Danziger first encountered Leatherface, he was supposed to be yanked backwards from an off-camera crew member. In the first take, Danziger was so terrified of Leatherface coming at him he dove for the door instantly. The blooper reel is not included on this DVD.
- One of Hooper’s techniques for making TCSM even scarier was in cutting a small number of frames off of the shot preceding something violent occurring. This small beat catches the viewer’s attention off guard, as their eye has become accustomed to certain shots being a certain length. Pearl also mentioned a misdirection trick Hooper would use, having something on the left side of the frame and cutting to Leatherface on the right side.
- “Now this chase stuff,” says Hansen, “I gotta talk about this.” He goes on to talk about how slow Marilyn would run and how he would have to find things for Leatherface to do to keep from catching up to her. He also notes one moment in the chase where he has to make a sharp turn. The first take of this shot, he didn’t realize his boots wouldn’t catch, and the actor slipped completely to the ground, chainsaw flying up in the air. When Leatherface makes a quick turn in the film, you can notice him overshooting the turn and coming back. That’s Hansen trying to keep his arms intact.
- During the chase, when they come upon the Old Man’s station, Hooper told Hansen he wanted a shot of Leatherface going absolutely insane with the chainsaw. Hansen began dancing and swinging the chainsaw around, a “dance” that they would reuse for the ending of the film. The dance in the parking lot was cut.
- Hooper mentions the film was inspired by the Watergate events, that period of time in the country, and a song “Dead Dog in the Middle of the Road.” “It said nothing,” says the director, “but, then again, I think it says everything.”
- Hansen reveals Leatherface has three, different masks he wears in different parts of the movie. “He changes faces depending on what he’s trying to do,” the actor says. He also mentions he moved differently for the different personae.
- “Now Grandpa,” says Hansen, “he was a guy who really understood that not only putting a mask on does it free for you, but when the mask takes 8 or 10 hours to put on, and you do something unpleasant, no one can touch you.” Hansen recollects them carrying John Dugan, who played Grandfather, down the stairs in the chair. The actor would often go limp in the chair and slide out between Hansen’s legs. Dugan was 18-years-old in the film. Grandpa was 108.
- The three all agree on how bad the smell was during the dinner scene. The food, much of it meat products, had been sitting out for days in the Texas heat. Hansen, who clearly got the worst of all of it, was told he could only take his mask off during 15-minute breaks or longer, but every break they took was only ever announced as 5-minute breaks. He never got to take the mask off while filming.
- Hansen recalls shooting the sequence where they cut Sally’s finger and try feeding the blood to Grandpa. The tube that shot the fake blood kept clogging, and, finally, after several takes without the tube working right, Hansen simply sliced Marilyn Burns’ finger open. “And the reason was,” he explains, “at this point, we were insane.” He proceeds to explain his only desire at that point in shooting was to get the film done. He didn’t care about his fellow actor’s well-being, and this sequence was shot in the back-end of a 27-hour work day. He also notes there isn’t much acting going on in the dinner scene.
- The animal corpses strewn throughout the Sawyer house were borrowed from a local veterinarian. Near the end of production, the question of how to get rid of the corpses came up. Hooper remembers someone piling them behind the house and setting them on fire. That “someone” isn’t revealed to be Hooper himself, but you can see where he could be the person to make that decision on set.
- All through production, Hansen would ask Hooper how he was going to get the shot of Leatherface getting hit in the head with a wrench and slicing into his own leg. Hooper would respond that they would figure it out, since it was one of the last shots of the movie. “I realized what he meant was, ‘If you’re killed, we’ve got the movie in the can.’,” says Hansen. For the shot, Hansen did have a metal plate on his leg, but the heat of the chainsaw hitting it and the piece of brisket caused him to think he had gotten hit.
- Pearl remembers the original take of Leatherface’s “dance” on the road was much longer. Hansen notes that, due to him not being able to see well in the mask, he only caught glimpses of the cinematographer and anyone else around him. He mentions one glimpse he got of Pearl, Hooper, and one of the producers fleeing away from him to keep from getting hit.
Best in Commentary
“So you mean this film is really not about the breakdown of the American family?” – Gunnar Hansen
“I always imagined the sausages as being Jerry, because of the hair.” – Gunnar Hansen, ladies and gentlemen.
There’s a lot to take from with this commentary for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. All three commentators provide insight, anecdotes, and even a bit about technique in an extremely low budget film. The commentary really is something any would-be film maker needs to sit down and listen to. From the stories about lighting to working with only 40 feet of track to battling having to work in such intense heat, there’s plenty of knowledge here for anyone who wants to step behind the camera to soak up.
But there’s also a vibrant sense of humor between the three, all people in the film making industry who were at the very beginning of their careers and who went through the battle of getting The Texas Chain Saw Massacre finished. Even with the apparent Hell he was put through, Hansen has a very jovial attitude about it all, making light of the fact that he very nearly killed Marilyn Burns for real when Edwin Neal as the Hitchhiker told him to. But where’s the harm in a little spilt blood?