Cult film star William Butler has faced off against Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, Ghoulies, and zombies and has written and directed numerous films over the years. He's just published a book of his exploits entitled Tawdry Tales and Confessions from Horror's Boy Next Door. We caught up with him at Manchester's FAB Café to discuss his career and why he wanted to write his story…
STARBURST: How did you start in the business?
William Butler: Well, my parents worked for Barnum and Bailey Circus and the carnival and fair circuit, so I was around show business. We did catering for all of those companies like The Ice Capades when I was little, so I was around showbiz from a very young age. I was absolutely mesmerised by how important the people seemed. How exhausted they could be, but then when it came time to turn it on, I was always mesmerised when it became showtime how much energy they had. Then I started doing theatre when I was a little kid. When I was around 17, I decided to take the gamble and move to Los Angeles, and my first break was sweeping the floors in John Vulich's Makeup Effects Lab. He did Troll, Re-Animator, and From Beyond, so I worked on all those films as a slime jockey, painting slime on all the hand puppets. Before I knew it, I lived in Rome for five years, working for Empire Pictures. I became friends with Charles Band, and he's like, "What do you want to do with yourself" I said, "I want to become an actor". So Charles and John Buechler shoved me in that direction. Not that I even knew what I was doing, but they, they sort of did and, and that's how I got started and bridged the gap from painting special effects and sliming special effects to performing on camera for about 14 years before I switched to writing and directing.
Just being on the set of things like From Beyond and Army of Darkness must have been incredible.
I just saw Ken Foree at the Texas Frightmare, and we looked at each other like, "We're the luckiest people on the planet". Not only was I working with Stuart Gordon, who ended up being like a mentor and one of my closest friends, but we're working on a film that we can tell was good while we were making it. We still to this day don't think life has ever been that good because when Charlie Band had lots of money, he didn't spare any expense. So we moved to Rome, and he put us in the best hotel and paid for it and paid for the catering, and here we are, these dumb 20-year-olds that love horror films. It was an amazing time. By that time Army of Darkness came along, I was acting. So I agreed to help paint the skeletons because I wanted to see Patty Tallman, who was playing the Witch, and the big pit set, which was a real pit, believe it or not! So yeah, I cheated, and I was like, "Oh yeah, I'll paint skeletons for you". I just wanted to go and hang out on that one. I am the luckiest horror film geek in the world because I watched the first Friday the 13th at the drive-in, and then I ended up being in one! It seems impossible for some farm boy from Fresno to crack the code somehow! I think there's something to be said about the law of attraction - I willed it to happen.
You're probably the only person who's been on-screen with all the significant horror icons: Freddy, Leatherface, Jason, and zombies!
Yeah, and some of the cheaper icons as well, like the Ghoulies and the Watchers! The only thing I'm waiting for is for someone to invite me to have Michael Myers kill me, and then that's it, I'll have the whole collection!
William Butler at FAB Cafe, Manchester
What was it like working on Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead?
It was incredible. Viggo Mortensen and I were roommates at the time, and Viggo was doing Young Guns 2. So I went to New Mexico with Viggo and his little newborn baby - his wife at the time was a rock star, and she was on tour - so he took the baby to New Mexico, and I was going to watch the baby while he was filming and then next thing you know I was also in the movie! So, while we were filming the movie, I got this call from John Vulich. He said, "I just read the script for Night of the Living Dead, and there's a part in it that you're perfect for. I was like, "Oh wow, but I'm going to be here for a couple of months." He asked if I had my camcorder. Tom Savini had seen my picture and saw that I had been in one of the Chainsaw Massacre movies, and he thinks I might be good. So they sent the script through the mail, then Viggo directed me in my audition tape, and we sent it to Tom. Then Tom called me and said, "Actually, I think you're good for this". I just kept thinking I'd never get it. And then, by the time we went back to LA, my agent called me and said, "They want to book you, and they want you to go to Pittsburgh". I was very intimidated by Tom Savini and very, very intimidated by Tony Todd, who is such a great actor. I was just so happy to make it past day two. I thought, "Well, they're going to fire me!" I had to do that six-page monologue that goes on and on, right when I come up from the basement - on my first day. George Romero was sitting close to me, like three and a half feet away on an apple box, watching me and all I was thinking was, "He's going to fire me when I'm done". But he gave me the thumbs up, so I thought, "Okay, I guess I'm doing a good job." You know, the older I get, I appreciate the work that I did when I was younger, there are always things that you think you can do better but the older I get. At the time, I thought it was the ugliest person in the room; well, I wasn't ugly. Why didn't anyone tell me? I also thought I was a horrible actor, but I wasn't. I was just as good as anybody else. I guess it comes with age.
Do you get imposter syndrome then?
Yes! Trust me; I'm having it right now and having it on this tour. I just said it last night! The older you get, when it comes to appreciating how much I starved myself and how much I worked out and changed my whole life to try to fit into that category of the boy next door, and that was not an easy task for me. I'm very proud of all the work that I do. Now I'm happy to be a lazy, fat, old writer, director. You know, you're a writer, it's like, "Yeah well, I'm a writer; I'm fucking brilliant, you can't take that away from me, it's the one thing I absolutely love". Seriously, when I was an actor, I was starving for 14 years because you have to. Even then, they tell you to lose more weight. I love being a writer and filmmaker because they can't take your writing ability away from you. They can take your career away if you're an actor; if you get fat and don't think you should be fat, you can be a 100-year-old man as long as you're still writing; you get better and better.
How did you move into writing and directing?
I had been starring in movies like one after the other as the lead. And then I started to realise that I had been in all the horror franchises, which I loved and was very proud of, but Hollywood did not know what to do with me because they were like, "Well, he's the horror guy". So I thought what I'd do was shift gears. I will have these roles in TV shows and movies called under five, which is you do five lines and under. And I said I would do under-fives in anything but horror films. So I got a lot of auditions for TV shows and sitcoms, where there were five or fewer lines. I loved acting so much, and I worked very, very hard to become an actor. But my whole life, I'd been a writer. I've been writing for National Lampoon magazine before it started sucking. So I thought I was willing to bet somebody would let me direct a horror film because I know at the very, very least what not to do. I remember I was auditioning for Murphy Brown, and the casting director was horrible, and she cut me off in the middle of an audition; she snapped her fingers and took a phone call. And then she slammed the phone down and was like, "go ahead". And I said, "I think I'm done with this whole thing". So I walked across the Warner Brothers lot and called my parents, and I said, "Would you be terribly upset if I started writing and directing instead of acting?", My parents were like, "We've been waiting 15 years for you to say that!"
How did you come to write a book?
Well, I do a lot of comedy shows in Los Angeles - or I did before the plague hit. All I was doing was reading from my diaries, and they were pathetic. I was talking about being in love, talking about being addicted to drugs, all sorts. One day I was sitting at home, and the company behind Alamo Drafthouse instant messaged me: "Hi, we were at your show on Wednesday night, and we were wondering if you would be interested in writing a book". I said, "Who in the hell wants to read a book by William Butler?" They're like, "We think your stories are hilarious". Well, they are hilarious, but I don't think enough people in my middle-shelf-of-fame that I achieved will care. They said, "We've already done the numbers, and we know that every bookstore in America - at least in their genre section - will carry three or four books, and that's enough to sell 20,000 books, and that's what we need to do". So okay! They gave me an advance, and I think that initially, they wanted it to be very fluff, just for each movie that I did, but as I started writing, I just loved it. I love it more than anything I've ever done. I purged every horrible, awful truth about myself, about the career, about some of the people I've worked with, and I have to say out of my 35 years in entertainment, it's by far the most satisfying thing that I ever did. So then my book went to number one in the category of Film and Television when it came out. I can't believe it. It's insane.
What have you got lined up next?
I'm so excited. Well, I just did Baby Oopsie Parts One and Two for Charlie Band under protest. I did not want to do it! But he made it part of my deal for this new thing I will tell you about. I tried every trick in the book to get him not to let me do it. I said, "I want the lead leading lady to be 500 pounds", and he's like, "Okay", "I want a whole new, fully-articulated puppet that's like nothing that you've ever seen". "Okay, we'll pay for it" "Goddammit!" So then I wrote this crazy movie inspired by a TV movie called, The Girl Most Likely To with Stockard Channing.
We know it, yeah.
When she was fat, and everyone was mean to her. Then she's in an accident and gets plastic surgery and gets pretty. Then she kills every one. I thought if we get some housewife type who everyone's picking on, she's a doll hoarder, and she restores one doll, and then the doll starts killing everyone and eventually, she starts liking it. Well, it turned out really funny I'm incredibly proud of it, which is hilarious because I did not want to be doing it while I was doing it. So, it turned out great, and now we're doing four more of them. That allowed me to do this other thing that I'm doing right now, which I'm so proud of. So, as you know, I worked on From Beyond. Charlie asked, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I want to do something that's from the Empire days. It's pretty ballsy, but can we do something that's inspired by the Resonator, the machine in From Beyond?" He cried, "You are asking for it! The fans are going to kill you!" So I wrote this TV series called The Resonator Miskatonic U. We did two episodes, and it was the highest rating thing that Full Moon Features have ever done. We made a beautiful Resonator. At the beginning of the episode, we made it very clear that Stuart Gordon inspired it; it's not trying to rip him off. So while I'm here in England, I'm going to write four more episodes, and in writer language you as you know, that means a one half of one episode, and they'll have a lot of coffee when they get home and write four episodes in a weekend.
I'm also on tour promoting this book, which is the proudest thing ever; I'm so happy that when I die, this book will be left behind because if anyone reads it, it will tell you, number one: that absolutely anything can happen. I am the last person on earth who should have gone around the world three times, star in movies, been skinny, been rich, been fat, been poor, slept in his car, slept in a $3 million house. I have tasted it all, and I'm so glad to have left that in the book to inspire anybody else that has just thought, "Well, could I try it? I don't know?" The answer is yes; you should absolutely try it. Yeah, and all you have to do is know that it's possible and make it possible.