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An Interview with Rod Amateau, director of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie
by Jon Olsen

Rodney Amateau was born in New York in 1923. He began working in the entertainment industry in the 1950s. His many television directing credits include Gilligan's Island, Mr. Ed, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and Dukes of Hazard. He has also directed, produced, and written for films, including 1987's The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. His last film work was in 1989. Mr. Amateau is now retired.
On the morning of October 26th, 2002, I conducted the following phone interview with Rod Amateau, who spoke to me from his home in Southern California.

Jon Olsen: Let's speak about Garbage Pail Kids.

Rod Amateau: I don't.

JO: You don't?

RA: I never thought about it, I didn't think about it when I was doing it. It was a payday, dontcha see? And better than that, um, not just a payday, in the complicated-- I don't know how much of this you wanna tell? In the complicated, uh, structure of guild politics, of director's guild politics, it's important that minor directors like me-- and that's what I was, a minor director-- minor directors like me fill their pension fund, and their health and welfare.

JO: Right...

RA: And many times we don't have the luxury-- any more than a clerical worker has-- we don't have the luxury of picking and choosing. So somebody says "do you wanna do this" and before the man's finished you say "Yes!" And don't think I haven't done that. I mean, there are directors who say "I wouldn't do that no matter what!" and they mean it! And they either starve or are successful subsequently, but I neither had the ability, the talent, the connections to have that kind of luxury, so, uh, I did it. Took a nice payday, everybody around me took a nice payday, and we all went home. That's the way a lot of pictures are made. Believe it or not.

JO: Oh, I believe it. I believe it.

RA: I would rather you didn't quote me on that... just because there's other people still doing it. I mean, I know guys close to my age who have no choice. So it isn't that, uh, cut and dried when you do something of which you are not, uh, absolutely delighted, okay? This was no feature, we knew it was going directly to television.

JO: Garbage Pail Kids never had a theatrical release?

RA: Well, I'm sure it did, I didn't see it, nobody saw it. But we knew it was going right to television, for children's market, you know? And that was the true purpose of it. Many times, you make pictures which you know are not gonna play more than a week. And nervously. Know what I mean?

JO: You make them "nervously"?

RA: Yes, it's a very, very hard-nosed business, it really is. Don't let the film-school assholes kid you. You don't really have much choice... Unless you make it yourself. And some people do and some people don't. I can't tell you how many really talented people, really genuinely gifted people, do not make a living. And eventually leave.

JO: (In The Garbage Pail Kids Movie) you were credited as a producer and a co-writer, as well as director.

RA: Yes. That was all part of the game. In other words, I got a fixed sum, I got a rather large sum. I pay rolled a woman named Linda Palmer (she teaches screenwriting at UCLA now), a fine writer, and Michael Lloyd...

JO: Michael Lloyd did the music, correct?

RA: Yes, and he's still very active and very good. I knew this was a very musical picture, and, and, for the budget we had, and Tony Newly, and I figured that, um, you know, he would take care of Tony Newly, which he did, very well, and Linda would do a lot of the writing, which she did with... and that was it!

JO: Did you get any guidance regarding what the story would be about?

RA: Oh yeah, the story was already given to me, I didn't make it up. I was given a story, and a storyline, and a guideline by a very, very talented executive called Bill Tennent, who was in charge of Atlantic Releasing at the time, hoping to make a company out of that. He didn't, but he went on to score big, big, big as creator and producer of that Michael Flatchley business, the, uh, Riverdance, you know?

JO: Oh yes, I've heard of that.

RA: He's a very, very talented man.

JO: So he came up with the story...

RA: I don't know where he came up with it. He gave it to me on a sheet of paper, we made it a screenplay, and we were shooting in sixty days from the time I walked into his office... It was a very, very, very low budget picture.

JO: You said a sixty day shoot?

RA: A what? A sixty day shoot?

JO: Isn't that what you said?

RA: No, no, no... Sixty days from the time I walked into his office, till the picture was out. In other words there was no sixty day shoot, it was a twenty day shoot.

JO: Oh, so sixty days from being handed the idea, to getting it finished.

RA: To going home!

JO: Do a lot more films than people like myself suspect take short chunks of time like that?

RA: Oh yes. Oh yeah.

JO: And, once you finished, you--

RA: I went home!

JO: Went home, didn't think about it anymore?

RA: No! Why would I think about it? The check cleared. It wasn't-- It's not a picture you think about, it's a picture you shoot.

JO: How did you do the puppets in Garbage Pail Kids, what was the deal with that?

RA: How what?

JO: The puppets. The Garbage Pail Kids themselves.

RA: Well, the way they should have been done is in animation. But animation is damnably expensive. It's enormously expensive. And instead of animation, or animatronics, which was just developing then, which are marvelous, we did the, um, economic expedient. We got dwarves-- there's plenty of them-- we got dwarves and, you know, put heads on 'em, and found out how long they could survive in there without breathing, and it turned out to be about five, seven minutes. So you had to rehearse everything without the heads on, put the heads on, have the, uh, humane guy, you know...

JO: Making sure no one passed out?

RA: Yeah... Not "the humane guy", what do I call it? Worked with animals so much... The, the, the um... The um... Aid-man! What do you call it, the, uh, paramedic! Paramedic's got, you know, a stop watch, (chuckles) little sons o' bitches go in there (more chuckling), and you say "Action!", and you shoot until they can't breathe!

JO: Must have been difficult to see and hear in those things...

RA: Well, I think they couldn't see, 'cause those things kept sliding around away from their eye sockets. And also, they sweatin' in there like, you know, like, like a Pollock writin' a letter! So, so, you know, it wasn't good, there was sweat in their eyes, and you couldn't hear, they were muffled. It was all dubbed later, you know.

JO: It looks like, for some shots, you used puppets.

RA: No!

JO: It was always people in costumes?

RA: Yeah!

JO: Never puppets?

RA: I don't remember puppets. We didn't have the budget for puppeteers, puppeteers are enormously expensive, they're very talented and enormously expensive. There was no money! That simple.

JO: How big was the budget on that picture?

RA: I don't think it was a million dollars.

JO: It was under a million dollars?

RA: I think so. I say "I think so" because, I dunno-- I mean, I know what they told me, but, you know, lying comes with the job! Maybe they were just lying to hold me down in spending, 'cause the spending was up to me. They gave me the money and told me, "Go make it."

JO: So, if you had had the budget for animation, would you have done it as a cartoon?

RA: Not a cartoon... I would have done it with a mixture of live and cartoon.

JO: Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

RA: Yes! That's a perfect example. That's a better example than I could have thought of. That's exactly the way it should have been done. Like Scooby Doo is being done now, or, was done now. That's the way it should have been done. But in those days I don't think the technique was refined, I don't think (there was any) computerized animation. That's twenty-some years ago. It's not cheap now, and it was certainly more expensive then. I mean proportionately.

JO: Was there any hope that a sequel would be made?

RA: Yes. Not only hope, it was planned. Not with me, I said no, no, no, I've gone this far, I go no further. Right? But I will be happy to advise and help, and even help with the writing and choice of director, there's plenty of young guys around who'd love to do it, but I'm too old for this shit. And, uh, they understood. They wrote a script, not I, they wrote a script and they sent it to me. "What did I think?" And I critiqued the script and sent it back to them, and in the fullness of time that place (Atlantic Releasing) closed, because it was in debt to banks. They made nothing but tracks. They got out of there (laughs).

JO: So a sequel was planned but there wasn't enough money?

RA: Well, no... The company went belly up.

JO: Was the movie successful at all, financially?

RA: Financially? Yes. But I don't think anyone over the age of five saw it. Unless their parents were accompanying them. It was designed for that, because that is a tremendous market, and, done properly, can be of huge-- It's an evergreen, do you know what an evergreen is?

JO: A tree?

RA: No, not really. Used in my context, think about it. A new generation of children grow up every couple o' years. You can keep re-releasing that picture. That's what Disney's whole approach was. In other words, the whole reason you can put out Snow White and Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast is because there's new children every year. And the great thing is-- when a child goes to see a picture-- you're talkin' about four people. Mom, and Dad, and he's gotta friend he wants to take along, and that's got a mom and dad. So maybe, six, five...

JO: Exponential returns...

RA: Kids don't go alone. Little kids don't go alone. See my point? And you get those big ticket prices. I mean, the kid is a kid price, but you get the adults, that's seven and a half, ten dollars, see my point?

JO: You get the chaperone fee.

RA: Well sure, and the concessions and the snack bar and all, I mean enormous business, it's great business.

JO: Yeah, concessions are where the theatre makes all their money, that's why popcorn is so important...

RA: That's exactly right, and they don't share that money.

JO: Did you interact with the Garbage Pail Kids creators at all?

RA: Yeah, I made the obligatory trip to Brooklyn, New York, and uh, got their blessing and showed them sketches and tried to put them into the process. They were really far more interested in the advertising. And I talked to the advertising guys at Atlantic Releasing about that, and after, you know, a couple of obligatory dinners, I drifted back to the West Coast and left the advertising there.

JO: So they just worked on advertising...

RA: Yeah, the little pictures they were gonna put inside the gum, you know? That's what they wanted to do. They wanted new cartoons, they dramatized my script into a thing, and I said fine, fine, fine.

JO: There was also a Garbage Pail Kids TV show, wasn't there?

RA: I think there was. I think it was animated. I don't really know, memory does not serve in this matter.

JO: Garbage Pail Kids Movie is the sort of thing one rents, and you wonder, you know, who made this thing? Who were the people working on it?

RA: Well, I worked on pictures that you had no idea I worked on, and nobody will, because in those days they didn't-- I'll give you one example: you've seen Kiss of Death?

JO: Uh, that rings a bell.

RA: Rings a bell? Well, uh, it was my first movie job! Richard Widmark pushed an old lady down the stairs in a wheelchair. Remember that?

JO: Uh, no.

RA: Alright. Anyways, I was the old lady.

JO: Oh, you did the stunt!

RA: Yeah, I did it, and from then on I did stunts for a lot of people, I doubled Bogart for years, all the dwarves, I doubled Bogart, and Robinson, and Jimmy Cagney, all the little guys.

JO: All the short stars.

RA: Well, yeah, and the Allan Ladds, you know. I doubled them for years, and, in those days, a lot of women, there weren't a lot of stuntwomen. And I directed a lot of the action sequences, you know? You get, you know, some fucking director out of New York who can't step off a curb. Somebody gotta shoot it, they'd bring you in. This guy, you know, he's great in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, with a cocktail in his hand, but... Somebody's gotta do the horse chases, the car chases, you understand?

JO: Somebody who understands action sequences from the inside and the outside.

RA: Exactly!

JO: So that's how you came to be a film and television director?

RA: I was a stuntman for many years. I brought up my family, my rather considerable family, by doing stunts. And doubling people, etc. I was very athletic and very good at it. Very much in demand. Much more so than a director is. That's how you become a director by the way, in all kinds of ways, that's the way action directors become directors.

JO: Doing stunts.

RA: A stuntman becomes a coordinator. A stunt coordinator. And then he becomes a second unit director. I did a lot of Sam Peckinpah's films. I did the second units. I did a lot of second unit for Henry Hathaway... but those (jobs) are recently credited. Used to be, you didn't get credit. You came in, did it, and got the hell outta there.

JO: Nothing on screen, but you get the paycheck.

RA: Get a nice paycheck. And you built up your pension fund at the guild, which is all important. If you wanna have some kind of a dignified retirement.

JO: Is there any film or television work that you're proud of?

RA: Yeah. But that's in prehistoric times. Dobie Gillis. I created that, and got the writer, who was a great writer, Max Schullman, to write it, and it was his writing, and I put the whole thing together. I was young, and I was very ambitious, and I-- and I did that. That's fifty years ago! I did the whole thing, I produced and directed it, I wrote, I did everything and then I realized that I was not cut out for that kind of business. Because it, you know, it impacted too much on my personal life. I didn't wanna live like that. It took so much outta me, and I don't have that much to give. It wasn't worth it. The game was not worth the candle.

JO: I see...

RA: I just saw a film yesterday that is so bad, I mean, not badly made, that is bad in terms of its concept and in terms of its execution, but it doesn't matter-- it is so funny, you scream aloud. Don't take your wife, or anybody high-minded. Don't take anyone with a serious purpose in life-- Don't take anybody earnest!

JO: Don't take anybody who will take it seriously, in other words?

RA: Who is earnest! Earnest! It's called Jackass.

JO: Jackass the Movie?

RA: It is so funny. It's stupid, it's sophomoric, it's hysterical. It's hysterical. You gotta go with a bunch of guys, drink some beers, and see this picture, and you will laugh!

JO: I have exactly the right sort of friends to go see this movie with...

RA: If you have that sort of friends, your wife isn't happy with them. Believe me, she cannot be happy with them, maybe she's stringing you along and tolerating your desires, but believe me... women-- this is the enemy of women, this is the most misogynistic thing I've seen in years. But never mind all that, it's terribly bad taste, horrible, and it's-- you scream aloud, it's so funny! I haven't laughed that loud in years and years and years.