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Shopping trip that inspired Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Tobe Hooper talks about the making of his seminal genre classic.

Ahead of the 4k restored Texas Chain Saw Massacre premiere tonight [May 22] in Directors’ Fortnight, Tobe Hooper revealed to Cannes’ American Pavilion audiences some of his more memorable moments when writing, directing and producing the cult classic, which initially premiered in Directors’ Fortnight in 1975. 

While he was filming documentaries and teaching film to radio, television and film students at University of Texas, he began working on the film’s script. Contrary to what was publicised at the time, the screenplay was fictional, not based on serial killer Ed Gein, infamous for covering furniture with human skin.

The mask-wearing chainsaw-torturing brother, Leatherface, was based on his doctor who, while in medical school, had skinned and dried the face of a cadaver and subsequently wore it to a Halloween party.

Franklin, the paraplegic brother to the film’s hero Sally, was influenced by Texas artist Jim Franklin, who created the state’s armadillo motif and who was also the epitome of the counter-culture hippie movement.

Above all, the director wanted to create dysfunctional families on both sides to help create a back-story for each one of the characters.

“It was important for me to have back stories so you understood where these characters’ motives came from. Both families were rough and rugged – so audiences could better understand why it wasn’t just a film about slaughter.”

Following on with a discussion about his disdain for Christmas shopping, Hooper recalled standing at an overly crowded Montgomery Ward (today’s version of Wal-Mart). When clamouring to escape the maddening crowds, his eyes fell upon a chainsaw stand.

“I thought – ‘This is a no-brainer. What a way to get out of this store!’ But rather than go to jail, I decided to instead incorporate the hedge-cutting weapon into the script.”

The director remembers getting home that day, listening to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and within a short period, locking down the story. 

Once shooting, the tight budget meant long, hot days and cheap reincarnations of blood and dead animals – something that led several cast members to getting sick.

“It just happened that real bones (received from a nearby medical school) were less expensive than plastic versions. It also happened that the production team found a delivery load of recently deceased chickens at animal rights’ organisation RSPCA.

“While the carcasses ultimately proved unusable to the scene (after formaldehyde could not reinstate any sense of vitality to the birds) – unbeknownst to my knowledge, the crew went behind the house and proceeded to burn the animals.”

It was this day that Hooper filmed the demanding dinner scene where Sally is repeatedly taunted and tormented. Between the sweltering heat, the difficult material and the over-riding smell of burning gas – cast members one-by-one became sick outside the house. 

When production ended, the mayhem did not end there. Hooper recalls the preview screenings in the wake of the film’s release where audiences members, too, became ill.

“It was at an interesting time in history – there was Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, a gas shortage. As a result, audiences were hyped, and screenings in San Francisco, and other US cities, stirred violent protests.”

He also recalled the overcrowded Directors’ Fortnight screening, where fans were forced to leave the theatre because of a bomb threat. When later on board a yacht, Hooper found out the threat had been called because certain fans had not been let into the theatre.

Now known for instigating a stream of other slasher films including Halloween and Evil Dead, the director still insists story should be at the heart of any film, mentioning Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting as an example that was a major influence for the film.

Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, who considers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre one of the best films of all time, will introduce the screening tonight at 10pm.

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