An exploitation expert reflects on his long career as a king-hell triple threat producer-director-writer, almost directing a former prez, and digital distribution as the future of indie flix.
Innerview by Dave Coleman
Wisconsin-based flickmaker ‘Wild’ Bill Rebane would be a legend in the indie flick world if for no other reason than his first mini-feature was purchased by H. G. Lewis — the Gore’dfather of Splatter — and re-edited into Monster A-Go Go. And while the resulting feature is nothing Rebane claims as his own (Lewis butchered Bill’s version by combining it with footage shot at a later date with different actors!), it still marked a noteworthy new voice in the exploitation movie making circuit.
Rebane didn’t let the setback stop him. Rather, he was encouraged by the control he saw others wielding over his work to set out to build his own studio… in Wisconsin! And so began construction of what would ultimately become one of the earliest ‘non-coastal’ film production studios in America, complete with soundstages, production and post-production equipment, the works. Like Romero and his Image Ten partners who created the machinery necessary to make their feature Night of the Living Deadby first doing industrial training and local commercials, Rebane set about making countless educational and industrial flix to finance his dream of becoming a drive-in major domo.
Without a doubt, The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) is the best known and most retro-cherished of his long career of fantasy, sf and horror efforts. There are several reasons this giant arachnid flick was seen by so many during its initial release phases. First, it was a big success during its theatrical release, which consisted primarily of drive-in theaters (which in those days still numbered in the thousands in America alone). Secondly, it sold into late night t.v. programming via the CBS Late Night Movie, a dependable staple for good B flix throughout the 70’s. Before cable and v.c.r.s, such lifelines to fantasy flicks were hard to come by, which meant a repeatedly loyal viewing audience for the long-running CBS series. The fact the flix were only shown on Friday and/or Saturday nights after prime time and local news only made the flix more alluring to preteens such as myself (it has to be good if they won’t let you see it until after the weather report, one correctly reasoned). Finally, the flick enjoyed success on home video, gladly rented by folks who remembered it fondly from a few years earlier.
We caught up with “Wild” Bill and forced the normally reticent Wisconsinite to hold forth about his amazingly durable career in the exploitation fields of flickmaking. It’s a testament to endurance in the face of extinction, and knowing when to fold the cards when the game is too rigged to win.
BijouFlix: Your date of birth is listed as 1937 at the Internet Movie Database. Is this correct? If so, can you tell us a bit about your personal background — where you were born, went to school, etc.?
Bill Rebane: I was born in 1937 in Riga, Latvia. My education was in post-war Germany until the age of fifteen. Then I came to the United States and went to high school and followed that by attending Goodman’s Art Institute in Chicago’s theater classes.
Was your love of movies born as a child seeing them, or did you come to appreciate them later in life?
In brief, in order to learn the English language, I saw a lot of movies. That’s actually an understatement. I saw as many as four to five features a day in the days when our theaters had double or triple bills. I never missed a musical, comedy or western. It was then that I became interested in either being an actor, singer, dancer or maybe even director.
Your first credit is Monster A-Go Go. This was a shorter effort completed by you. H.G. Lewis acquired and shot new footage to make it feature-length. Can you tell us a little bit about H.G. Lewis and your experience working with him so early on in your career?
I had known Lewis for some time. I actually worked for his commercial studio as a kid doing part-time sales in 1959. Lewis was the first producer in Chicago to make a feature film called Prime Time. It was a flop at the time, but it gave me ideas about feature production. I was an inquisitive kid who listened and learned from everyone I met, in or out of the business.
As for Monster A-Go Go aka Terror at Halfday — my title — I call it the worst picture ever made. And I mean it. I departed from what I wanted to do. First, I became aware of what was making money in those days in the independent arena. American International Pictures’ Sam Arkoff, Jim Nicholson, and Roger Corman were setting the trend. It was logical to do something that has some exploitation values and was relatively easy to make. After all, all it took was some kind of monster. Right?
Now, it so happened that at that time I knew the tallest man in the world, quite well. Henry Hight, of the vaudeville act “Low Hight and Stanley.” Henry was six feet eight inches tall and made a perfect monster without elaborate special effects or prosthetics.
It was also relatively easy to take the AIP/Corman formula and attempt to create a screenplay that would have some timeliness and exploitation values. Besides I was itching to make a feature. I put up ten thousand dollars of the sixty thousandMonster A-Go Go budget myself. I only had two other investors. One was Fred Friedloeb, whose brother Burt was a Hollywood producer and whose wife was June Travis, at that time of fading Hollywood fame. As you know, June starred in Terror akaMonster.
Wow, sounds like a pretty star-studded beginning to your career when you consider you had never even directed a feature before!
Well, the best is yet to come. Now, here is the real story behind Monster A-Go Go, and it involves none other than a former president! And I’ve never told this story to anyone before, no joke!
An exclusive? Let me pour your another, Bill.
No ice, remember?
Now, during pre-production and casting of the picture, I was hanging out on Randolph Street one rainy day in Chicago with my associate and press agent with a lot of guts — Larry Leverett. We were late to some meeting so we were rushing, and practically ran over this other trench-coated man also rushing to get under the marquee and out of the downpour.
The trench coat wearing man happened to be Ronald Reagan.
Larry and I had few inhibitions in those days. Subsequently we blurted out the whole concept of Terror at Halfday to Ronald Reagan, standing there together under the marquee of the Woods Theater. We not only recited a synopsis but made sure to tell Ronald Reagan that June Travis was committed to the picture and that he would be the perfect star for our picture.
Reagan as star of Monster A-Go Go? That’s even more absurd than playing second ‘banana’ to Bonzo in Bedtime. What happened? Did Reagan fail the screen test?
(laughs) You’re a real sweetheart, Dave. No, it just so happened he knew June Travis and the Friedloeb family. This gave us reasonable credibility as a young producer with him.
He wanted to see a script and asked us to work out the deal with his agent whose name he carefully wrote on a pad of paper for us. He said that if we could work it out he might be interested.
What made this such an extraordinary experience, never to be forgotten by myself, is that the man while in the twilight of his acting career but destined to be the president of our country had no problems standing for about ten minutes with total strangers on a Chicago sidewalk to talk about a possible role in yet another B movie.
You moved around a lot thereafter, including doing work in Germany?
That’s right. I was helping my close friend and film mentor A. Baltes, through whom I met half the film industry in Germany at the time. One of those was the owner of Studio Bendestorf Germany, Peter Fink.
I was put in charge of all foreign (namely American) co-production efforts for the studio. Opening offices for them at Goldwyn Studios in L.A., New York and Chicago took me out of the production and into the business end of the picture business for awhile.
Some of these efforts resulted in my studio getting such shoots as How I Won the War with John Lennon, The Odessa File with Jon Voight, and Dollar with Goldie Hawn. At the same time as I was doing this, I was also involved in a number of German domestic feature and t.v. series. It was a busy time.
I’ll say. So, after all this, you chose to move to Wisconsin and build your own studio. Why Wisconsin?
Wisconsin was not on my mind until 1966. I took a vacation there, found a spot I liked, the price was right, so I took it. I just wanted to get away from it all after commuting monthly between Europe, Los Angeles and Chicago for two solid years.
They can never say you didn’t pay your dues.
But they will, trust me. Anyway, the strangest thing happened to me when I came to Wisconsin. I suddenly received more corporate and industrial film business than I knew what to do with.
Also, by that time, I had switched back from the business and into the filmmaker side. I was doing it all — cinematography, production management and editing, to name an obvious few.
In order to avoid constant travel and again being away from home, I started buying all the essential camera, lighting and editing equipment. This was in order to be self-sufficient in the north woods of Wisconsin. It was a good life, going on a week shoot, and then coming home and finishing the post work. It got to the point where only the mixing had to be done in Chicago or at Consolidated in Hollywood.
You made many flix in your studio, such as Rana, Invasion from Inner Earth, Giant Spider Invasion, The Alpha Incident, and Demons of Ludlow, to name but a few. Is there any reason besides obvious commercial prospects you choose to work so often in the horror and fantasy genres?
No disrespect to the fans, but horror and science fiction were not my idea of ultimate success. As I said earlier, I was into the musical and westerns as a kid. I just fell into the sci-fi groove while all the time writing screenplays of different types were my way of justifying all the B movie fare I was producing.
“One more and we’ll have enough to make a major picture,” I’d say.
One problem, however. I soon realized my B movies had typecast me, even as a producer. Once you get into the B movie mode, nobody wants to talk to you about a comedy, a drama, or for that matter any serious effort. •••