Leatherface Grows Up: Talking With Gunnar Hansen
by Rich Rosell
With Dark Sky's slick new two-disc "ultimate edition" of the Tobe Hooper classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in stores, once and forever Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen, sat down with dOc to not just look back at the world of chainsaws, but to reveal a little of what else has been going on with him in the years since 1974.
The journey hasn't necessarily been what one might have expected, and for a character that has instilled so much raw, primal fear in moviegoers, the man behind the flesh mask is actually a pleasant, soft-spoken guy. dOc picked up some info on the joy of Linnea, the deal with barrier islands and Hansen's thoughts on the future of the franchise.
dOc: Has there ever been a time when you thought back and said 'Man, I wish I never took that role'?
Gunnar Hansen: I think I've never had that thought of "Why in the world did I do this?", but there are times, usually during October...
dOc: The busy time...
GH: During the year I don't do a lot of appearances, I'll do three, maybe four, the occasional film festival or horror fan convention. Except during October. I'm usually on the road all month doing appearances at haunted houses, and by the time I get home it's the beginning of November, and I don't want to hear the words "Texas," "chainsaw" or "massacre" for about two or three weeks.
dOc: Do you own a chainsaw?
dOc: How does it feel to have played what ultimately became one of the most iconic figures in the horror genre?
GH: I'm actually proud of it. To me, I was really lucky that I got to work on a film that turned out to be what the Chainsaw Massacre was. I worked on it, I did the best I could, but I don't think any of us foresaw what the movie would be. I think the movie is more than the elements that we added together, it's more than the sum of its parts.
dOc: So at the time there were was no inkling that it was going to become a veritable horror classic?
GH: I don't know what the other people's expectations were, and I'm sure everyone was hoping it was going to be a good movie, but my feeling was that I was pleased with what we were doing. It was nifty to be working on this movie, and it was very hard work. But if you were to ask me then what's the most you could expect from this movie, I would have said that if five years from now there are few hardcore horror fans who remember this movie, won't that be a thrill. That was my biggest aspiration for the film, that a few people would remember it and it would become as big as 2000 Maniacs.
dOc: I think you have succeeded on that point. When did you realize that the film had really taken hold?
GH: I think it was two events right after it came out. I went up to Quick Hill Road, where we filmed outside of Austin, and I had brought a friend of mine and she and I were standing up on the road looking at the Franklin house, which is across the road from the Leatherface house. This carload of teenage boys pulls up and get out of the car, and they walked over to where we were standing. One of them then told me 'Man, do you know that's where they made THAT movie?" And I thought "This movie is going to do something" when I heard that.
dOc: And that was right after it had been released?
GH: Yes, it had just come out. Then, after Chainsaw I turned down roles and moved to Maine, and I really wasn't involved in the film business. I didn't even own a television, or at least I didn't own one for a long time, and I didn't understand what this movie was in terms of the culture. One night I was watching Cheers, after I got a TV, and the Kirstie Alley character had been lording it over all her friends throughout the whole show that she was spending the weekend housesitting a big estate out in the country. And then when she gets out there, she's scared to death, because now she's alone, out in the country, and so she then runs around the house, locks alls the doors and windows. She sits down in the middle of the living room, hears a noise, and says "Oh Leatherface, I hope that's not you." When I heard her say that, I truly understood that the movie had become part of the culture.
dOc: You've played this iconic character, yet, you're still able to retain, I imagine, a relative level of anonymity when you're out in public. That has to be nice.
GH: Absolutely. I really am pretty private, and I like the fact very much that I can walk down the street and nobody has a clue who I am and nobody cares. I have been able to keep that privacy and that freedom because people don't know what I look like. The limited experience I have with that makes me wonder how people who are genuinely famous, how they survive.
dOc: That has to somewhat liberating for you.
GH: Yes. After the movie came out, I went back to grad school for a year to teach a class. So the movie comes out, and I was a teaching assistant in the English Department, and I remember walking down the street and thinking "this is so cool that I'm just a guy, a teaching assistant, but I made a horror movie." I just remember thinking how amazing that was, that my life was somehow different because of that. Not that I had a better life, but because I had done something so unlike what my life was going to be. It sounds silly to say this 30 years later, but to me, I think that was so delightful that I had that opportunity.
dOc: Post Chainsaw, you gravitated East and sort of put the acting career on hold. Were you anticipating giving up acting for good?
dOc: You pursued a writing career.
GH: Writing was really what I wanted to be doing. I think Alan Danziger, who played Jerry the van driver, and I were the only two people in that cast and crew who didn't have serious intentions of working in the film business. I grabbed the opportunity not because I wanted a career as an actor, but because I wanted the opportunity to work on a movie and see what it was like. I had the chance to be in other films. I was told there was a good chance I could get a part in Robert Redford's The Great Waldo Pepper, but I wasn't interested. There was a docudrama being made about Leadbelly, and I was offered a part in that and I said I wasn't interested. Bob Burns (TCSM art director/production designer) called me up, and said 'I'm in L.A. making a horror movie called The Hills Have Eyes, can you be here in two weeks?' And I said no, I'm not interested. I moved to Maine because I like the climate and the culture up here, and I like the people, and I thought I just want to live here and write. So I really did just walk away from it, and it wasn't until 1987 that I started thinking that people are still calling me, asking me to be in their movies. Why am I saying no?
dOc: Speaking of your writing, in 1993 you wrote Islands at the Edge of Time: A Journey to America's Barrier Islands. How did you decide to base a book on a 2,700 mile journey around the barrier islands from Mexico to North Carolina?
GH: During the winter of '86/'87 I was working as an editor on The Yacht, which was a big, glitzy sailing magazine. I was flying from Boston down to Miami to work on a story about a powerboat down there. I was looking out the window as we took off, and as we were flying over Long Island I was thinking 'Boy, Fire Island and all that are barrier islands.' Then, as we're flying down the coast it dawned on me that so much of the U.S. coast was barrier islands, and I knew nothing about them. I thought about how could I learn what they're like, so I figured that I could write a book about it that would be an excuse. That would give me the opportunity to learn about barrier islands and spend time on them, so that's really how it evolved.
dOc: So it was a learning experience for you.
GH: Yes. I had written a book proposal about these two French flyers who had disappeared while flying from Paris to New York 10 days before Lindbergh made his famous flight. There was this TV show that did stories on big famous mysteries, and I had sent them a copy of the proposal because it gave them all the background information they needed to do an episode about these guys. As a kind of payoff sometime later, they gave my book proposal to a publisher, when out of the blue this guy calls me and says 'I've got your proposal and I love it, but I'm not interested at all in the subject. Do you have anything else in mind?' So I said I want to do a book on the barrier islands, and he asked for a two-page letter explaining what I wanted to do, and then he'd send a contract. So that's how the book came about.
dOc: Do you think many of the readers of the book know you as Leatherface? Do they pick up the book and think 'here's a fascinating history of the barrier islands WRITTEN BY LEATHERFACE'?
GH: No. I know there are horror fans who know I wrote the book, but the general reader doesn't. They had asked me to write the jacket blurb, and when I got a mechanical copy of the cover they had re-written the blurb telling people I was Leatherface in this cult movie. I called up my editor and said 'what in the world are you doing? I'm proud of the movie, but do you think somebody who starts to read the blurb, that that's going to convince them to buy this book? No, it's going to convince them to put the book down.' That blurb disappeared, but if you go to Amazon and look up the book, there's a big review written by a guy who said "Leatherface Goes to the Islands."
dOc: In the late 1980s you go back to movies. Please tell me that working on Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was a good time.
GH: It was great.
dOc: That one is a real guilty pleasure of mine. Not even guilty. It's a pleasure of mine. At the very least there was Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer.
GH: Absolutely. And of course Michelle Bauer likes to take her clothes off and leave them off.
dOc: So that had to be a good time.
GH: You know how Fred [Olen Ray] works. He shot the whole movie in three weekends, so I came down on Memorial Day weekend, about Friday at midnight, and he hands me the script. I read it in bed, I'm up at six, and I'm on the set shooting at seven, and I don't even know what my lines are, much less know who my character is. There was a lot of ad-libbing, and a lot of 'in this scene you walk in and say...' and if you miss your line don't worry because that's your closeup.
dOc: He seems like he would be that type of director. I've seen a lot of his films, and they all have that 'spontaneous' feel.
GH: It really was. We really had a great time making that movie.
dOc: And of course, in some circles, that film's 'Dance of the Double Chainsaw' sequence is another semi-iconic moment in its own right. But that shows you where my head's at...
dOc: Let's jump ahead to 2005, and It Came from Trafalgar. There's you, Edwin Neal, Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley, Rudy Ray Moore, Butch Patrick, and Hank Williams III, among others. Now that's a cast. When can we see this and what's it about?
GH: I'm going out to Indianapolis in September to finish it. It was about two and a half years ago Solomon Mortamur starting shooting the film, and he shot a bunch of people but he suddenly stopped because he was feeling so unhappy with what he was getting that he decided to wait until he could raise some more money and make the movie a little bigger than it originally was.
dOc: You just have to look at that cast list and think 'this is going to be a great movie.'
GH: I play a character called the Texas Ghoul who travels around killing people. How it came about is kind of funny, because I was at a convention down in Florida and Mortamur comes up to me and says 'I'm working on this movie with Linnea, I've got this character, it would be great if you play him, it's just one scene.' I said sure, I'll do it for Linnea, I know her, she's great, so we shot my scene in a couple of hours in the hotel. But when he decided to wait until he could raise more money, he decided he wanted to make my character bigger. And that's why I'm going to Indianapolis.
dOc: So how does that work? He just keeps shooting footage until he feels like it's done?
GH: I don't know. It will be a direct-to-video film, and he's not going to finish the movie for at least another six months, so I think we're talking a year to a year-and-a-half before it comes out on video.
dOc: You're working on a new Tom Savini-directed film called The Forest that also includes Kane Hodder (Jason Vorhees) and recent Leatherface Andrew Bryniarski, as well as a Playboy playmate or two.
GH: You can't beat that.
dOc: You know how to pick the casts.
GH: The thing is you never know if you're going to actually meet them. I worked on a small movie with Veronica Carlson (Freakshow) and someone asked me how it was to work with her, and I said, 'I don't know, I never met her.' Likewise with Chainsaw Sally, though it hasn't been released yet. Herschell Gordon Lewis is in the movie, as am I, and I was in St. Louis working on a picture called Apocalypse and the Beauty Queen. Somebody was reading an interview with Herschell, and they're talking about Chainsaw Sally, and they ask 'What was Gunnar like to work with?' Herschell says 'Oh, he's a great guy, he's a dream to work with.' I started laughing because I never met Herschell, we were in entirely different parts of the movie.
dOc: What kind of advice would you offer to the next guy who is asked to wear the Leatherface flesh mask and bloody apron?
GH: Don't take the mask off. Don't let them make you take the mask off.
dOc: Did you see any of the remakes, particularly the Marcus Nispel version?
GH: I've seen them all, and that's the only I've seen twice. ESPN had asked me to come onto their Cold Pizza show on Halloween morning to talk about it, so I went to see it on opening weekend. Then, when I got to New York the night before I went to see it again.
dOc: Did you like it?
GH: No, actually I didn't like it much at all. I really think they missed the point. I was very disappointed that they unmasked Leatherface, because I think when you try to explain Leatherface you've reduced him to something less than what he is as a mysterious character.
dOc: And that is why I'm a little apprehensive about the new The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, that very same reason.
GH: Yes, me too. I'm afraid they may have basically killed the franchise.
dOc: Was it weird when you saw an action figure based on Leatherface?
GH: I was really surprised, but I thought it was nifty. My brother calls me up one night, howling with laughter, because he had just found out about it. He was an engineer at IBM, and he went out and bought one and put it on his desk next to his computer. I laugh about it because I realize that there is this joke in my life, and it is this: I used to think that one day my gravestone might say 'Gunnar Hansen: Nobel Prize For Literature', but it dawned on me that it's not going to say that. It's going to say 'Gunnar Hansen: He Had His Own Action Figure.' dOc: That's a pretty cool thing, if you ask me.
GH: It may not be as respectable, but it's a lot cooler.