By • Dec 24th, 2009 •

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Graeme Whifler’s Backlash Against The Film Version Of His Script Sonny Boy.

Screenwriter and director Graeme Whifler and I met a few years ago at the New York City Horror Film Festival as he was screening Neighborhood Watch. This is the very film in which a person next to me fainted. Yes, it is true. The irony? The person was a special effects artist.

Since then, Graeme and I have remained friends and I am attracted to his very dark vision, riveting storytelling, and sense of humor. Graeme’s scripts do speak the language of horror and he does write to unnerve. Essentially, he is true to the genre. The horror genre is so adulterated with comedy that the genre itself seems to have died. What remains today is a bastard child, deficient in its parent’s pure cruelty.

Enter Robert Carroll. A few months ago, Films In Review printed my interview with Robert. Sonny Boy aired on TCM Underground and I was delighted to finally see it. Robert agreed to an interview, and it was sad and such an outrage to learn that a witch-hunt would find Robert at the stake for his directorial efforts on Sonny Boy. Speaking with Robert and keeping an ongoing friendship, I find him to be a kind, talented and very articulate soul. All the more reason to loathe those at play who found it necessary to guillotine the career of such a warm person.

I asked Graeme his opinions on the film, and below is his sounding board. However, after reading the Robert Carroll interview, Graeme was upset and asked to preface the interview with an open letter to Robert. Such is the rift between screenwriter and director.


Dear Robert,

Please accept my deepest condolences and most heart felt apology for any and all suffering, humiliation, and ostracism you have endured as result of your directing my script SONNY BOY. I just read your interview in FILMS IN REVIEW and I now feel inclined to put a bullet in my brain as a trifling act of atonement. Those years ago when I wrote SONNY BOY, I gave no heed to the harm this script could inflict upon the innocent. No, I was just selfishly scraping rancid detritus from my psyche and recklessly pasting it to paper without regard for the safety of others. I may as well have been manufacturing pipe bombs in my basement, then scattering them about in children’s playgrounds. Well, at least you didn’t lose any body parts directing the movie, but being excommunicated in Hollywood, being turned into a film leper, then run out of town on a rail, not to mention the horrors of editing in Rome with a cigar smoker; OMG, I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. Like my mother always warned, if you don’t have something nice to write, then don’t write anything at all. Too bad I never listened to her.

Graeme Whifler

P.S. You’ll be happy to know my newest script is all about hippies and purple rainbows, so that’s nice, except for the naughty parts which are not very nice at all.

Interview with Graeme Whifler about SONNY BOY

What inspired you to write SONNY BOY?

SONNY BOY was born five stories up on rickety scaffolding overlooking the city of San Francisco. I was a housepainter at the time, we were taking a cigarette break up there with the smell of oil paints, sweat, and the sea breeze, when one of my fellow paint slingers told me the following story. – Back in this painter’s small heartland hometown there was this young outcast, a monster of sorts, who’d show up from time to time walking the streets. Everybody in town was deathly afraid of him. His face was a scarred and mangled mess and he’d always wear a loose fitting overcoat to conceal the sawed off shotgun he carried. The bad news was he was always in a rage, and worse, he was always looking for someone to hurt. Rumor around town had it that this monster had come as a pristine baby to a notorious bad man’s compound out near the state line, a clearing house where all the stolen cars for the tri-state area were brought so they could be fenced off to used car lots hundreds of miles away. The man that ran this operation was one mean and ruthless son-of-a-bitch. Anyway, somehow he’d gotten hold of a baby, free and clear, and decided to raise it up into something that would be useful to his criminal operation. To that end, the baby was tortured and deprived its entire childhood. He was dragged behind cars, beaten, his flesh constantly burned, and every terrible cruelty inflected upon this child was to one end, to create a monstrous human killing machine.

The story stuck with me. A few years later I made a career change and upgraded from housepainter to rock video director, and moved to Los Angeles. Then one day in the early eighties I got a call from this guy who wanted to know if I had any ideas for movie scripts. Well, sure, I had ideas. I met with this guy who claimed to be a big shot Hollywood producer but looked more like an escapee from a mental ward. He bit on the story I’d heard up on the scaffolding about the bad man and the baby, and offered to pay me a weekly writing fee and split the profits if he sold the script. So I wrote SONNY BOY.

Turned out the big Hollywood producer was in fact a small time gigolo who was screwing a big fat and horribly ugly woman for a place to live and cash advances that he used for paying me. She got tired of his services, threw him out and the last half of the pages I delivered to him were at his new flophouse room/office. Somehow he sold the script, but I didn’t get to direct. The project ended up being butchered by an Italian producer famous for making the lowest, schlockiest movies. I mean this guy could take CITIZEN KANE and turn it into PLAN 9 in a flash. After a while, the relationship between me and my gigolo producer pal who sold SONNY BOY soured, and the last time I saw him I offered to throw him off a third story balcony to see how he’d fly. He’s dead now.

What in the script is a reflection of you?

I cannot speak for the movie as it ended up because I bear no responsibility for that mess, but the original script welled up from the deepest and most depraved part of my soul. But I just write this shit and prefer never to look back and analyze any of it, probably for the same reason I’d never ever talk to a psychiatrist or go into therapy. I love my bad dreams dearly and will let nobody get close enough to kill them. Besides I don’t put much stake in all that psychological mumbo-jumbo.

The skeleton of the story came from my housepainter pal, the flesh, the names and the characters I drew from my days in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, from the Sons of Hawaii motor cycle gang who had a club house across from me on Anderson Street, and from things I witnessed while drinking at the local dyke bar, The Wild Side West.

SONNY BOY was the first script I wrote and I was so proud, I mailed a copy off to my mom for her to read. – This was many years before I put her down as they say. – Anyway, after she got my SONNY BOY script in the mail, she suddenly stopped calling. When I finally was able to get a hold of her on the phone, she was quite distraught, she kept saying over and over how she must have failed as a mother, how she had no idea what she could have done so wrong to raise a child who could have thoughts like mine. She confessed that reading my SONNY BOY script was so traumatic and unpleasant for her, the only way she could get through it was to watch TV to cleanse her mind, then read a page or two of the script during the commercials. You ask if writing a script is a reflection, hell everything, talking, driving, dreaming, writing, taking a dump, it’s all a reflection, it’s all crime scene evidence of one’s psychic DNA.

As a screenwriter/director, what was the film that you saw rather than what ended up on the screen?

I had built up a rather notorious body of works as a director prior to my first outing as a writer penning SONNY BOY. I wrote it to direct it. But being naïve to Hollywood, I soon found that I’d been separated from directing SONNY BOY in return for lots of money. Losing SONNY BOY hurt bad, I’d never lost control of any of my creations. It went into production and nobody associated with the film would talk to me. It was finished and released, and still nobody at the studio was allowed to talk to me. Months after the film had come and gone, a pal at the studio figured it was safe to let me come in for a screening so I could finally get to see my film. From the first few feet on the first reel, I knew I was watching a horribly botched, late-term movie abortion. Sitting in the screening room with friends and a few of the studio folks, I kept saying, “I’m going to kill the God Damn director”. But later I was to learn he was an innocent, there was another dirty hand to blame for the incoherent mess that hit the screen.

All I can say is I wrote a monster movie, a movie about pain, disfigurement, ostracism, dissociation and torment. Basically it’s the story of Frankenstein, but instead of recycled body parts and electricity, my monster was created in a more backyard manner involving hellacious child abuse. But still it was the Frankenstein story about a HIDEOUS MONSTER. We’re talking serious special effects makeup so that every cruelty, torture, cut and disfigurement shows horribly, so that when the monster does finally try and befriend the cute little girl at edge of the lake… well most are familiar with the dynamic of the Frankenstein story.

And this is where it got stupid, very stupid. When making the movie SONNY BOY, some very bright person decided, hey lets make the monster more audience friendly, let’s make him like some fresh-faced surfer boy, let’s have him look like Justin Timberlake straight from a skin care treatment at the day spa. Talk about disastrous movie abortions! And if that weren’t enough desecration, they crow-barred into the movie a love interest for the “monster lite”. And why? Not because it made one twit of narrative sense. No, the Italian producer wanted to give his barely-able-to-speak-English, bad-acting sex-bomb girlfriend a part in a Hollywood movie. And it was straight down from there.

The overall tone of the film is utter meanness. It is something that I believe horror films strive for and most always miss the mark. Would you consider this work a horror film?

I suppose the film does have a rather bleak view of humanity, but in the original script this brutality was augmented by the lead character’s struggle to make sense of his rage, his animal sexual compulsions, and a dim twinkling of human compassion and spirituality. But then again, I squeezed my brain hard and like a giant pimple, out squirted a mess of festering meanness. And as to it being a horror movie, heavens no, it was intended to be more like a so weird Japanese fable, sort of a Tarantinoish monster biker movie, with a smidgen of redemption thrown in for good measure.

What is your personal view of the producers and the way distribution was not handled at all, and the film being pulled from the Mann chain of theaters?

I have not the slightest knowledge about how the distribution was handled, nor do I care. I do know the nice censors at the MPAA had a real hard time figuring out where the bad stuff was, because even though there was no graphic sex or violence, there was something disturbingly dirty that needed to be cut somewhere. So they ended up cutting some really cool, and really harmless goodies. If you can, find the uncut version, it is so much more fun. For example, they cut the scene of the baby suckling from a black rubber bondage breast. Now what is so bad about that, isn’t nursing natural and beautiful?

If this film wasn’t a fable, what is it?

As I said, SONNY BOY is a retelling of the Frankenstein story, with the addition of rubber clad transsexuals, biker ethos, child abuse, a little Grimm old word German, and more than a touch of Miyazaki.

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One Response »

  1. As the director of the film SONNY BOY, I am saddened that Graeme still feels so much hurt and animosity toward me. I feel for him. As the writer he should have been given a chance to direct the film. I agree but that wasn’t my choice. I wanted to get his input on my ideas but as I think I had stated in the interview, the producer said if I tried to contact him they’d fire me. It was my first film and I wasn’t in a position to insist, but I did tell the producer a number of times that it wasn’t right. Graeme’s anger at what I did with the film is unjustified in my opinion. Part of being a director is bringing your sensibility to anything you direct. If they hired me to make Graeme’s film exactly as it was written they could have hired lots of directors who are no more than traffic cops, just moving people around. But we all know that is not how it works. Or they could have hired him, but they didn’t. It’s true that his version played more as a straight Frankenstein movie but I wanted to make something different… something about someone who felt like a Frankenstein monster but wasn’t. Something about the good and evil that is inherent in all of us. I”s specious to say that the changes were to make it more audience friendly. Not true at all. Actually I felt that as written it was more of a standard scary horror movie and I admit I didn’t want to just make a horror film. This is where we creatively disagree. I felt that my interpretation was making it less commercial. It really fits no genre and no one could figure out how to market it. I made it to fit my persona. I was influenced by Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Like that film, I thought there was more horror in someone who was actually nice looking and who did monstrous things because he thought he was monstrous looking and different. He became someone who’s mind had been tortured into believing he was a monster. Having seen the film with audiences and having read things people have written about it, I know people were horrified and repulsed by the characters. It was not ‘audience friendly’. It still isn’t. Yes I made it into a fable but that’s what my style and his script morphed into. I respect Graeme. He’s a talented guy. Very intense. He should have gotten first shot at making his movie but the industry is rotten that way. Why he would want to make fun of the problems I had afterward is beyond me..All the tales about what happened afterward are true. Sitting in a very small attic with a chain smoking cheap cigar smoker is not a trifle as Graeme implies. It was nauseating. I don’t know why Graeme wants to take his hatred of the way he was treated out on another director. My wife is a writer and who had had many movies produced and I can say that every one had small to major changes made to them. She hated most of the changes, but that how’s movies are made. I fought to make my version honest and true to ‘me’ as I could, even fighting on a regular basis with the producer. I was intensely involved with the characters and the story. I am sorry it is not satisfying even after all these years to Graeme. He’s a good writer with his own style, and I had hoped he would be happy that at least it has been praised by some. He should save his lashes for the suits who control the artists and have the real control and power over our creative lives.


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