Deep in the sleepy suburbs of Detroit, around the mid-1970s, something strange started bubbling. It was a weird cinema mania, a mania which so gripped a circle of neighborhood kids coming up in the Birmingham school district that they devoted their weekends to making their own movies.
Eventually, this rag-tag crew, led by director Sam Raimi, cobbled together enough cash to make the audacious, groundbreaking horror cult classic The Evil Dead, which legendary drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs dubbed “The paint-the-room-red, vomit champion of the 1980s." That success launched a host of careers, including that of Josh Becker, who would go on to form Panoramic Pictures and carve out his own slice of Hollywood, directing dozens of his own films and TV episodes for the next three decades. Recently, he’s moved back to Michigan, but that doesn’t mean he’s done making movies: His latest film Morning, Noon & Night is a comedic drama about a group of semi-related, regular people battling their various addictions. It was shot locally, with all local talent.
Metro Times: So you’re a made man in the Wiley E. Groves mafia?
Josh Becker: Hah! If you care to put it that way.
MT: There was a whole collective of talent that formed around Sam Raimi at that time, what was going on over there?
JB: Well Sam and I go much further back than Groves.
MT: So you were like elementary school thugs?
JB: The Raimis lived around the block from me in Franklin and I’ve known Sam since he was 8 and I was 9. I met Bruce Campbell the first day of 7th grade at West Maple Junior High, because our lockers were next to each other alphabetically: “Becker, Campbell.”
MT: Wow, what a neighborhood, to produce all these guys that ended up in the film business.
JB: It’s kind of a lot: There’s Ted Raimi, who I spoke with the other day, and he’s moved back to Michigan, and their other brother Ivan, who co-wrote many of Sam’s movies. He was my best friend for quite a long time. John Cameron, who was part of our group, who produced several of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies and TV series like Fargo, and Scott Spiegel who went on produce and direct the Hostel movies for Quentin Tarantino.
MT: Were you guys all a clique at the time?
JB: Yeah, we all knew each other well. I was close friends with Ivan first.
MT: Did Bruce just have a vision of being an actor then?
JB: Oh yes. Bruce and I were in drama club. We were doing plays together in junior high. He was always a ham. As soon as we could get him into the movies we were making, we did. We had a school project on ancient Greece for history class and I did a Super 8 movie on Oedipus Rex. Bruce played King Creon.
MT: Was it harder trying to make home movies back in the day without digital cameras?
JB: Not really. Super 8 was easy to use. The big thing was having the gumption to go do it. I did a terrible job on Oedipus Rex, but I think I can be forgiven because I was 13 years old.
MT: Of course you went on and had a famously difficult shoot on The Evil Dead, which was shot for next to nothing down in the backwoods of Tennessee.
JB: Bruce Campbell and I talk all the time and we were pleased on a certain level that we got the hardest shoot of our life out of the way first. It's all been easier since that.
MT: A lot of it was at night, and you were running around in the woods…
JB: It was almost all at night! We would shoot for crazy hours, there were 18 of us living in one house. W shot in this cabin with no heat. The reason we shot down there and not in Michigan was so we could avoid the winter, but it turned out to be the worst winter ever in Tennessee — lots of snow and freezing rain. Then six weeks in, most of the crew left and Sam, Bruce, Rob Tapert, I, and one other guy stayed for the next five weeks to finish the movie. Then we had pickup shoots back up here in Gladwin and Brighton and other places. If you add it all up we probably shot film for 20 weeks.
MT: A lot of the movie is just Bruce alone in the cabin fighting with special effects, so that makes sense.
JB: What happened is after everyone left, Sam quickly rewrote the script so that there’s a big long stretch of Bruce just going crazy, which I think is the best part of the movie. I think that was some of my best lighting work, if I do say so myself.
MT: So, you guys all learned on the fly, and really taught yourselves film school?
JB: Yeah. We made many, many Super 8 movies on our own before we started making more professional films.
MT: So you learned D.I.Y filmmaking — how to shoot on the run and work with whatever you’ve got?
JB: By the time you get to my age, you’ve been through so much that none of it is particularly daunting. This new movie Morning, Noon & Night I shot in 15 days, for $100,000, never went into overtime, and never missed a single shot.
MT: You haven’t had giant budgets to throw away, so you’ve learned to work fast and cheap, but in control.
JB: Fast, cheap, good. And you learn working for years in television, where they don’t tolerate overtime, and if you don’t get it they just don’t hire you again.
MT: You worked on Xena: Warrior Princess for a long time, right?
JB: I was the only director to make it through all six seasons.
MT: How was working in New Zealand?
JB: Wonderful. I was probably there 35 times between 1993 and 2001. I started off working on Hercules, writing and directing from the beginning of that.
MT: So you were down there when they were making Lord of the Rings? What was the film business like there?
JB: It was sporadic. They had just done The Piano with Holly Hunter when we got there. Peter Jackson lucked out in a big way, because right when he got the green light on LOTR, Hercules got canceled, and he just took our entire crew and hired them. So many of the effects people I worked with on those shows went on to win Academy Awards for The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, etc. They’re incredibly talented, and nice.
MT: How many Oscar winners worked on Alien Apocalypse?
JB: (Laughs) None!
Josh Becker will host a special screening of Morning, Noon & Night, starring John Manfredi and Frank Ondorf and co-starring Carly Schneider and Alanna Foley. This intense slice-of-life film will premiere at Landmark’s Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak, on Thursday, June 6, at 6 p.m.
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