John Hough: “I am happy to say that ‘Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry’ is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films”

John Hough (b. 1941) is a filmmaker, best remembered for the work he did in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the action thriller “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (1974)—which inspired Quentin Tarantino when he made “Death Proof” (2007)—followed by a number of Disney productions and mainstream thrillers. Over the years, Mr. Hough had the distinction of directing actors such as Orson Welles, Peter Fonda, Ray Milland, Bette Davis, John Cassavetes, Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Claire Bloom, and Hugh Grant.

His first assignment as a director was four episodes (in 1968-1969) of the long-running British TV series “The Avengers” (1961-1969) starring Patrick MacNee and Linda Thorson. A few films later, the London-born filmmaker was able to pursue his dream by moving to Los Angeles and make films for Disney.

He was invited as a guest of honor at the 2013 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival where this interview was conducted.

Mr. Hough, who had influenced you in any way when you started directing in the 1960s?

Without question, the biggest influence very early on for me was Ingmar Bergman, before I saw “Dr. Zhivago” and then I was hooked on David Lean. Their films were very important to me, and in a way, so was Robert Wise. I also adore “Don’t Look Now” [1973] by Nicolas Roeg, which is my favorite suspense horror film.

How come you decided to leave Great Britain in the early 1970s and move to Hollywood?

That’s very simple: I wanted to work for Walt Disney because the films they make at Disney studios last for many decades. And that’s very true: even today, people still come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for “Escape to Witch Mountain” [1975] and “Return From Witch Mountain” [1978].’ That’s what I hoped would happen when I worked for Disney, so I was terribly happy when they opened their doors for me.

But before Disney, you first did “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” [1974] which turned out to become one of the year’s biggest box office hits. You made quite an entrance in America, didn’t you?

Yes, but “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” was a totally different film altogether. It was a hard action film, but I am happy to say that it’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films. Do you remember Tarantino’s “Death Proof”? In the end credits, you’ll see, ‘Thanks to John Hough.’ He shot on some of the same locations as I did with “Dirty Mary, Crazy Mary,” and thought it was the first action film he had seen. That’s why he thanked me at the end of it, because he based “Death Proof” [2007] on seeing that film. To this day, I still consider “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” as one of my best films, along with “The Legend of Hell House” [1973] and “Escape to Witch Mountain” [1975]. That was a great era for me.

And in Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” [1997], Bridget Fonda is watching “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” with her father Peter Fonda playing the leading character. The film ended with a bang. Did you plan that way ahead?

No, it was not even in the script. I did that myself without asking or telling anybody. Consequently, we would not be able to make a sequel because the leading characters were all killed. But a statement I really wanted to make was: speed kills. If you’re gonna drive a hundred miles an hour, you’ll get yourself killed, so you’d better not speed. But when shooting the film, there was no CGI back then; we had no special effects or anything, so everything had to be done at the correct, natural speed. But I was familiar with action movies and had a great, experienced, and very skilled stunt team, which was extremely careful. So basically, my messages to the audience were plain and simple: speed kills, and also, considering the nature of the film, crime doesn’t pay. That’s what “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” was really all about.

“Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (1974), about a police pursuit of thieves in rural California

Generally speaking, what crew members are most instrumental to work with, in your opinion?

You start with the producer and the writers; those are very important people. I was very lucky in my early career; I had a wonderful producer called Arnold Fennell. He did a lot of great films, and also “The Avengers” television series, which I also worked on. He was a wonderful man to talk to about ideas and how to collaborate. He had an enormous influence on me back then. He taught me a lot.

How do you work on the set in terms of speed and efficiency?

There are a few filmmakers who direct very quickly, like Clint Eastwood. I’ve watched him, and he doesn’t do a lot of takes—five at the most. Normally I never do more than five myself, and I always save the last one for the actor. So I do three takes, then one for myself, and then a final one just for the actors, when I say, ‘Look, now you just do whatever you want.” It’s very rare for me to go above five takes.

Orson Welles and Bette Davis are two of the best performers ever. What about a totally different kind of acting, such as the method actors like John Cassavetes whom you directed in “Brass Target” [1978] and the horror thriller “Incubus” [1982]?

Well, method actors were also so good; they’re so believable. They changed the way of acting entirely. They were also very charismatic performers. My dream would have been to shoot a scene in Hollywood where I had Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Marlon Brando in one and the same scene. I’m sure you wouldn’t know which one to look at. But I think that Bette Davis and Marlon Brando would have been a draw; it would have been equal. No one could overpower her, and at the same time, no one could overpower Marlon Brando. With actors, it’s all about charisma, and you sometimes don’t see it when they’re acting on the stage. It comes out in the cinema; it has to do with the silver screen, it transfers to the screen. And this is what always interests me, I’m always looking for actors and actresses who have this charisma—people call those people a star. They have this star potential, and that’s what makes them stars. You can’t quite define it, but that makes it so wonderful to work with them, even though it may be difficult at times, but it’s worth it.

In the interview book “’I’d Love to Kiss You’: Conversations With Bette Davis” [1990], she says you are a very instinctive director. Would you agree with that?

That’s a very nice thing of her to say. When I worked with her, I knew exactly what I wanted to do on the set. I always come on the set very prepared. In a way, I have always seen the scenes in my mind as finished scenes, and on the set we create what I had already dreamed. So if an actor would say to me, ‘All right, I don’t want to come in this door, I want to come in that door,” I would tell him, “But in my dream, you came in this door.” Whenever I got a script, I could dream it and see it already finished. If an actor wants to do something different, I would have a problem. So I have to be strong. When I was working with Orson Welles, I said something like, “Well, Orson, you come in that door.” And he said, “Oh, I really want to be sitting down.” But I had seen him coming in that door in my mind, and fortunately, he understood that. “Okay,” he would say, he understood it totally. And Bette Davis really appreciated that I was very strong in what she was going to do in any of the scenes. She enjoyed that because it fully made her free to do her own interpretation within that sort of situation.

Were you already a bankable director at that time?

I think I realized that after I went to Hollywood and made four films there, one after the other. They all made big money—millions of dollars. Unfortunately, I then went through a long period when I was contracted to do films that were never made. I spent a year and a half at Columbia studios and a year and a half at Disney—for three years I didn’t make one single film because the studios decided, after all the preparation and all the work, not to make the film. I was employed by the studios; I was getting paid, waiting for them to make the decision to make the film. And in both cases, they never made it. So that was a problem for me. After four big successes, I then had a three-year period when I didn’t make a film. Then I had to sort of rebuild my career again.

When you’re working, do you have total autonomy on the set?

Always. Nobody ever looked over my shoulders with every single thing I’ve done—and I’ve made some pretty big mistakes as well. I’ve made fifteen films, nine of them were successful, and the six others… I got it wrong, and it didn’t work. In some cases, I lost quite a bit of money too. But I always had total autonomy over everything, the script, the direction, in every way you can think. And I’ve never done anything I didn’t want to do, so I can’t blame anybody. My situation was always my own fault because they gave me absolute autonomy. But people make mistakes: sometimes you get the wrong script, you cast the wrong people. It can happen. But I don’t have any regrets. I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve traveled all over the world, I worked with great people, I watched great directors at work. I’ve had a great time.

But it’s by far and large not over yet?

No, it’s not over yet. That particular period is over, and I was very fortunate to work in this great glamorous period in Hollywood. When you walked in the studios in those days, you’d see the big stars walking down the road or have a cup of coffee. Now, most of them don’t do that anymore; they have those big trailers, they don’t come out anymore unless they’re in a scene, and they’re guarded much more than they used to be. But in the meantime, I’m thinking about an idea for a new film to make, I’m still dreaming, and I intend to make one more film.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Brussels (Belgium)
April 12, 2013

“Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (1974, trailer)


THE BARGEE (1964) DIR Duncan Wood ASSIST DIR John Hough PROD W.A. Whittaker SCR Ray Galton, Alan Simpson (original story by Ray Galton, Alan Simpson) CAM Harry Waxman ED Richard Best MUS Frank Cordell CAST Harry H. Corbett, Hugh Griffith, Eric Sykes, Ronnie Baker, Julia Foster, Eric Barker, Derek Nimmo

WOLFSHEAD: THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD (1969) DIR John Hough PROD Bill Anderson SCR David Butler CAM David Holmes ED Robert C. Dearberg MUS Jack Sprague, Bernie Sharp CAST David Warbeck, Kathleen Byron, Dan Meaden, Ciaran Madden, Kenneth Gilbert, Joe Cook

EYEWITNESS, retitled SUDDEN TERROR (1970) DIR John Hough PROD Paul Maslansky SCR Ronald Harwood (novel by John Harris) CAM David Holmes ED Geoffrey Foot CAST Mark Lester, Lionel Jeffries, Susan George, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Vaughan, Tony Bonner, Betty Marsden

TWINS OF EVIL (1971) DIR John Hough PROD Harry Fine, Michael Style SCR Tudor Gates (characters created by Sheridan Le Fanu) CAM Dick Bush ED Spencer Reeve MUS Harry Robertson CAST Peter Cushing, Dennis Price, Mary Collinson, Madeleine Collinson, Isobel Black, Kathleen Byron, Shelagh Wilcocks, David Warbeck

TREASURE ISLAND (1972) DIR John Hough [English-language version], Andrea Bianchi PROD Arthur Brauner, Harry Alan Towers, Anacleto Fontini, François de Lannurien SCR Hubert Frank, Bautista de la Calle, Antonio Margherti (novel by Robert Louis Stevenson) CAM Cecilio Paniagua ED Otello Colangeli, Renate Engelmann, Nicholas Wentworth MUS Natale Massara CAST Orson Welles, Kim Burfield, Lionel Stander, Walter Slezak, Angel del Pozo, Rik Battaglia, Maria Rohm, Paul Muller

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) DIR John Hough PROD Albert Fennell, Norman T. Herman SCR Richard Matheson (also novel) CAM Alan Hume ED Geoffrey Foot MUS Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson CAST Roddy McDowall, Gayle Hunnicutt, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974) DIR John Hough PROD Norman T. Herman SCR Antonio Santean, Leigh Chapman (story by James M. Nicholson; novel by Richard Unekis) CAM Michael D. Margulies ED Christopher Holmes MUS Jimmie Haskell CAST Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke, Kenneth Tobey, Eugene Daniels, Lynn Borden, Janear Hines, Elizabeth James, Vic Morrow, Roddy McDowall

ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975) DIR John Hough PROD Jerome Courtland SCR Robert M. Young (book by Alexander Key) CAM Frank V. Phillips ED Robert Stafford MUS Johnny Mandel CAST Eddie Albert, Ray Milland, Donald Pleasence, Kim Richards, Ike Eisenmann, Walter Barnes, Reta Shaw, Denver Pyle

RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1978) DIR John Hough PROD Jerome Courtland, Ron Miller SCR Malcolm Marmostein (characters created by Alexander Key) CAM Frank V. Phillips ED Bob Bring MUS Lalo Schifrin CAST Bette Davis, Christopher Lee, Kim Richards, Ike Eisenmann, Jack Soo, Anthony James, Richard Bakalyan, Adam Roarke

BRASS TARGET (1978) DIR John Hough PROD Arthur Lewis SCR Alvin Boretz (novel by Frederick Nolan) CAM Tony Imi ED David Lane MUS Laurence Rosenthal CAST Sophia Loren, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy, Peter Vaughn, Patrick McGoohan, Bruce Davison, Edward Herrmann, Max von Sydow, Ed Bishop

WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980) DIR John Hough PROD Ron Miller SCR Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding, Rosemary Anne Sisson (novel by Florence Engel Randall) CAM Alan Hume ED Geoffrey Foot MUS Stanley Myers CAST Bette Davis, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Kyle Richards, Carroll Baker, David McCallum, Benedict Taylor, Frances Cuka, Richard Pasco, Ian Bannen, Dominic Guard

INCUBUS (1982) DIR John Hough PROD Marc Boyman, John M. Eckert SCR George Franklin (novel by Ray Russell) CAM Albert J. Dunk ED George Appleby MUS Stanley Myers CAST John Cassavetes, John Ireland, Kerrie Keane, Helen Hughes, Erin Noble, Duncan McIntosh, Harvey Atkin

TRIUMPHS OF A MAN CALLED HORSE (1983) DIR John Hough PROD Derek Gibson SCR Ken Blackwell, Carlos Aured (story by Jack DeWitt; characters created by Jack DeWitt; character of ‘A Man Called Horse’ created by Dorothy M. Johnson) CAM John Alcott, John Cabrera ED Roy Watts MUS Georges Garvarentz CAST Richard Harris, Michael Beck, Ana De Sade, Vaughn Armstrong, Anne Seymour, Buck Taylor, Lautaro Murúa

BIGGLES (1986) DIR John Hough PROD Kent Walwin, Pom Oliver SCR Kent Walwin, John Groves (characters created by W.E. Johns) CAM Ernest Vincze ED Richard Trevor MUS Stanislas Syrewicz CAST Neil Dickson, Alex Hyde-White, Fiona Hutchison, Peter Cushing, Marcus Gilbert, William Hootkins, Alan Polonsky

AMERICAN GOTHIC (1988) DIR John Hough PROD John Quested, Christopher Harrop SCR Burt Wetanson, Michael Vines CAM Harvey Harrison ED John Victor-Smith MUS Alan Parker CAST Sarah Torgov, Terence Kelly, Mark Erickson, Caroline Barclay, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Fiona Hutchison, Stephen Shellen, Rod Steiger, Yvonne De Carlo, Michael J. Pollard

SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN (1998) DIR John Hough PROD John Hough, Lew Grade SCR John Hough, John Goldsmith CAM Tony Pierce-Roberts ED Peter Tanner MUS Lalo Schifrin CAST William McNamara, Maria Piyillo, Tom Conti, Maria Schneider, Ian Bannen, Robert Wagner, Roddy McDowall, William Hootkins, Jill St. John

BAD KARMA (2001) DIR John Hough PROD Dana Dubovsky, Jeff Sackman, Brian R. Etting SCR Randall Frakes (novel by Douglas Clegg) CAM Jacques Haitkin ED Richard Trevor MUS Harry Mandredini CAST Patsy Kensit, Patrick Muldoon, Amy Locane, Amy Huberman, Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Aimee O’Sullivan, Vinnie McCabe

CARL (2011) DIR – SCR Harvey Benschoter PROD – MUS – ED Harvey Benschoter, Loren Boyer CAM Kevin Martin CAST Ken Avery, Kyle Bickley, L. Rhian Bickley, David Block, Loren Boyer, Christopher Boylan, John Hough (Factory Worker)

THE HUMAN RACE (2013) DIR – SCR Paul Hough PROD John Hough, Paul Hough, Jamie Hough, Bryan Coyne CAM Matt Fore MUS Marinho Nobre CAST Paul McCarthy-Boyington, Eddie McGee, Trista Robinson, T. Arthur Cottam, Brianna Lauren Jackson, Fred Coury, B. Anthony Cohen


THE MAN IN A LOOKING GLASS (1965) DIR Cyril Frankel ASSIST DIR John Hough PROD Monty Berman SCR Terry Nation, Dennis Spooner (characters created by / novel by John Creasey) CAM Gilbert Taylor ED Peter Pitt MUS Edwin Astley CAST Steve Forrest, Sue Lloyd, Bernard Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, John Carson

A HAZARD OF HEARTS (1987) DIR John Hough PROD John Hough, Albert Fennell SCR Terence Feely CAM Frank Watts ED Robert C. Dearberg MUS Laurie Johnson CAST Diana Rigg, Edward Fox, Helena Bonham Carter, Fiona Fullerton, Neil Dickson, Christopher Plummer, Stewart Granger, Anna Massey, Eileen Atkins

THE LADY AND THE HIGHWAYMAN (1989) DIR John Hough PROD John Hough, Albert Fennell SCR Terence Feely (novel by Barbara Cartland) CAM Terry Cole ED Peter Weatherley MUS Laurie Johnson CAST Emma Samms, Oliver Reed, Claire Bloom, Christopher Cazenove, Lysette Anthony, Michael York, Hugh Grant, John Mills, Ian Bannen, Robert Morley

A GHOST IN MONTE CARLO (1990) DIR – PROD John Hough SCR Terence Feely (novel by Barbara Cartalnd) CAM Terry Cole ED Peter Weatherley MUS Laurie Johnson CAST Sarah Miles, Oliver Reed, Christopher Plummer, Samantha Eggar, Fiona Fullerton, Lysette Anthony, Marcus Gilbert, Jolyon Baker, Joanna Lumley, Ron Moody

DUEL OF HEARTS (1991) DIR – PROD John Hough SCR Terence Feely (novel by Barbara Cartland) CAM Terry Cole ED Peter Weatherley MUS Laurie Johnson CAST Alison Doody, Michael York, Geraldine Chaplin, Benedict Taylor, Billie Whitelaw, Virginia McKenna, Richard Johnson, Jeremy Kemp, Beryl Reid