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By Rachel Galvin
King of the Double Feature, independent director William Grefe was the featured guest at a special event held on Nov. 19 at Studione 1. Before speaking to the audience who had gathered there, he showed a lengthy film of his work, encompassing many of his 37 film projects which began in the 1960s. Known for coming in under budget, Grefe learned a thing or two but mostly seemed to have a lot of luck as he fell into success while working as a writer for the movie “Checkered Flag.” The director on set collapsed the first day and the investors panicked. Thinking the writer would know most about the film, they turned to him to save the project. But he knew nothing technically. After that point, he joined the school of Hard Knox.
In the beginning, filming wasn't as simple as it is today, he explained. After all, cameras weighed 300 pounds and editing took forever. He shot all his films on 35 mm or 16 mm. Because of his low budget, he had to make due with what he had.
One script he wrote called "Mako: Jaws of Death" seemed unsellable until the movie “Jaws” came out. Suddenly, it was a hot commodity. For that film, he said, “We couldn't afford a mechanical shark.” Instead, he used a real shark, one that had been found up on the beach, seemingly lifeless. When someone asked if they could pull that shark's teeth since they were valuable, he agreed. In the scene, a shark was in a tank with a woman, who was revealed when a curtain was opened. Unfortunately, the shark was not dead. It started “gumming the woman to death” in the middle of the scene.
Mechanical alligators were used in “Live and Let Die,” which he worked on. His expertise with not only sharks, but also the Everglades seemed to be his calling card. One of his movies “Death Curse of Tartu” took the story of an ancient mummy come to life and put it in the location of the Everglades. He still is getting mail from fans in Japan and Germany now. That film he wrote in 24 hours and shot in 7 days.
Grefe had plenty of anecdotes about his adventures in filmmaking and the tricks he learned along the way to circumvent the Hollywood system. His accomplishments gained the kudos of the head of Allied Artists who even offered him a chance to work with Elvis on a picture. Pre-production took six months. But the shoot never happened. That head of Allied was kicked out of his position and the whole deal was off – just another example of what Grefe calls “the revolving chairs of Hollywood.”
Grefe was able to work with plenty of mainstream actors, including Rita Hayworth, which was no easy feat. He offered her $50,000 for the part, but the agent wanted $250,000, which was the entire budget for the film (“The Naked Zoo”). But when Grefe came with “money in hand upfront,” the agent budged and Rita Hayworth was in his film for 1/5 of what the agent originally proposed. He also worked with actors like Don Johnson, William Shatner and Mickey Rooney. In addition, he worked with uber producer Ivan Tours and headed his studio here in Florida.
Sometimes, low-budget filmmaking comes down to working with what you have in front of you. He was asked by someone to film a project about a priest who leaves the church and goes off to travel with hippies. He flew in to meet with the other person only to find there was no money, only trading stamps, and he knew he couldn't make a movie with that. But, he ended up putting the project together on a shoestring as usual using non-actors he picked up off the street practically, a girl who looked like a hippy, a man who could be a priest, etc. This film was called the “Psychadelic Priest” and can be found as a double feature with another film “The Hooked Generation.”
Grefe finished his dialogue with the audience after an informative Q&A and a raffle was drawn giving away that film as well as other merchandise. Rose Warner and Nelson Perez of the FMPTA spoke, giving some additional insight into pre-production and the industry in general. They also announced that they will be rebranding and that their group is leaving FMPTA to be a new group which will include a series of classes on pre-production. (Stay tuned for details).
A big thanks to Peter Langone and his partners for hosting the event at Studioone1, a beautiful 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art space often used for photo shoots, but also accessible for those who want to create films. Langone is in process of creating a feature film right now (in development). For more information on Studione1, visit http://studione1.com/.