RIDING THE DEVIL'S EXPRESS - An interview with Jane Landis
From PA, to sound technician, to mommy! One woman's experience in the world of low budget exploitation films!
Interview by Keith J. Crocker
I was fortunate enough to become aquainted with Jane Landis when she happened to contact me regarding the purchasing of the video for the film Gang Wars (aka The Devils Express). It didn't take long before it all unfolded that Jane had been a production assistant on Gang Wars, and needless to say my interest in an interview was forthright. Upon receiving her answers, I was stunned to see the amount of exploitation cinema this woman has been involved with, as well as the way she elevated her career within the industry, doing work generally monopolized by males. This woman is what I term a "foot soldier". A foot soldier is a crew person who without, the film would not be made. No crew, no film. Now, while Gang Wars is far from a classic, and I mean that even with exploitation film limitations firmly in mind, the film still garners much curiosity, as it's obscurity makes it a movie in demand. We here at Cinefear offer a great quality transfer of the film as well as a thirty second TV trailer for it, so feel free to purchase it right HERE! And now, on to the interview...
KC) How did you become involved with the production known as the Devil's Express? Were you involved in any other independent film projects that have gone on to obtain "cult" status prior to your working on this film?
JL) I was friends with the sound man, and college film club friend, Robert Ghiraldini. He put me on to the film. Steve Reinhardt, his assistant was another college friend and so was Julian Rubenstein. I had recently graduated from school and was looking for production experience. I was "hired" to work for free as a PA , but Robert actually gave me some money out his own pocket, just because he was a nice guy. I think I made $125 total. It was my first feature film experience. I subsequently worked as Boom person on a couple of Larry Cohen films: "God Told Me To," "Q" and "The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover". I also some really bad film called "The Upstate Murders" which I usually left off my resume. That was directed by David Paulsen who wrote soap operas and went on to write the evening soap "Dallas". I also worked on the horror film called "The Children" by Max Kalmanowitz for about two weeks before I quit. That was the only gig I quit but I had to get out of there . The working conditions were terrible (long story).
KC ) What were your exact duties on the film? What are your memories of Director Barry Rosen? Did Rosen have much experience? I ask this because the film seems to have been pieced together, nothing is cohesive, very similar to the work of New York pornographers from around that time. Having just seen the film again recently, what was your opinion of it?
JL) I was a production assistant who did a lot of equipment schlepping, helped run cables, and fetched stuff. Real "grunt" work. I also did the "slate" for each scene. I don't know what kind of feature experience Barry had. He did low budget commercials. I know he did another film in New York after that one but I wasn't involved with it. He and Nikki Patton , the producer, were an "item". Barry had a ton of energy and the budget was really low, (the figure $100,000 comes to mind). Most of the guys in the film were not real actors -they were karate guys and it shows. The film is really badly directed and edited but it may have been due to the break neck schedule we kept (shot in about 2 and a half weeks). There was some other film that some of the production people were involved in called "Force Four" that predated "Gang Wars" which was shot in about a week and used the same fight scene twice. Supposedly the fight scenes were all anyone cared about. I'm guessing the same was true for this one. You never really think what you're working on is going to be that bad, but let's face it, it really is quite lame! I think it looked better originally. The quality has deteriorated, but the cameraman, Paul Glickman, actually shot alot of stuff - Larry Cohen films and tons of commercials. He had a very successful career. He was known for working fast.
KC) What was your memories of the film's star Warhawk Tanzania. Personally, I thought he was awful, mostly because you're supposed to like his character but I found him to be little more than an arrogant idiot. He was very stiff, awful for a so called martial arts expert. What was he like personally? How did he come to be cast in this film? Do you have any clue what happened to him after the picture wrapped?
JL) Yeah, those gold lame pants don't do much for him , do they? I think he was a respected karate pro, not an actor (obviously). He was nicer in person, he must have known the director but I don't know how they came together. Rodan was a nice guy too; a jokster.
KC) Where were the scenes supposedly set in China filmed? At first I thought Central Park, but my wife said the mountains in the background suggest upstate New York. Also, you guys did some extensive shooting in the New York subway, actually the only really impressive thing about the film. I noticed a lot was shot at the 135 St. Station. Now, New York is really permit crazy, they will confiscate film equipment if the paper work isn't in order. Was this film shot on the up and up, and if not, how did you guys get around the permit issues?
JL) We shot the scenes in the cave in Harriman State park, upstate. There's an old horizontal mine that looks like a cave which is where the opening scenes were shot. I remember cleaning up the garbage in the water down there, old bottles and such , so they wouldn't be in the shot. The other scenes were shot in Brooklyn at the Botanical Gardens and Prospect Park. I'm the one sitting behind "Luke" and the Chinese master in the China scene (the out of place looking redhead). Also in that scene are the two camera assistants, Dominick Paris and Stefan Czapsky. We shot the subway scenes in the old Livingston Street station also in Brooklyn. It was a non working station. It is now the New York Transit Museum. They shot the "Wiz" with Michael Jackson down there too. All legal. We had permits and the cooperation of the city -maybe that's where the budget went! I remember breaking for dinner and eating the pizza they brought in while sitting on the tracks. Obviously we didn't dare do that when they turned on the power and had a working train.
KC) Do you have any memories of Brother Theodor, German character actor who passed away not all that long ago? How did they (the producers) get him involved? And who was the lady who played the bag woman making crude comments to folks in the subway? She struck me as a borscht belt failure who we we're supposed to know but thank God we didn't.
JL) We all thought Brother Theodore was weird and really didn't know how he came to be in the film. I'm guessing that Barry was a fan of his. He really would go on rants and none of his stuff was scripted. He never seemed to be "out of character." The bag lady was cameraman Paul Glickman's mother! She was a professional actress I think her name was Sylvia Mann. She did a lot of Yiddish theater in her day so maybe she was famous in certain circles.
KC) The special make-up effects were extremely crude, do you recall who did those "popping eye" effects... also, perhaps you can clear something up... the demon took possession of a guy in China, took a boat to the USA, burst out of the guy, and took to the subways, is this correct? If it is, then why is the next question? Was this film actually written or improvised? Did you meet writer Niki Patton? Is writer Ceotis Robinson a pseudonym for Warhawk (or visa versa), because the stiff writing and stiff acting seem to go together?!
JL) Yeah, the special effects really sucked! The guys eyelids were painted white and then black circles were painted inside that so he had weird eyes and looked possesed. Yes, you're right: the guy was possessed (and I guess no one on the boat noticed). Then he splits apart and the Demon comes out. That "arrival" scene was shot on Manhattan's west side by what used to be a ship used for a high school. There was a real script. The so called "black dialogue" was specially added (eg: "A dude in a duece was flashing a roll up on St Nick's"..etc). CeOtis probably wrote that line. He was a real guy. Really sweet would-be film maker who I stayed in touch with for a little while after the film. I recently did a google search on him and sad to say, I think he recently passed away. Nice guy though - agentle giant. Nikki Patton also wrote those awful songs. I think she sang them.
KC) This film gives me anxiety attacks, but not because it scary or suspenseful, but rather it's so inept that it knocks the neurological center of my brain out of orbit. Being a filmmaker myself, this film actually makes my films look really good, and I'd be willing to guarantee that this film had more money behind it than mine have. Do you recall the budget, was everybody paid, or was it a differed salary thing? Also, you guys must have had a blast making it, was it a fun set or a high pressure type of thing? Do movies like this get a wrap party, or is it no frills all the way? Did you get to see a premier of the film, or was it out of sight, out of mind for you when all was said and done?
JL) Yeah, lol, it was pretty inept, but I loved working on every minute of it! I was just so excited about being in the film business and watching how things were done. I thought "wow, I really made it to the big time" (lol). It was shot in 35mmm Panavision and again , I think the budget was about $100,00. Everyone but me was paid, I believe (although Robert paid me out of his budget). I was willing to work for free for the experience. The schedule was grueling! - 14-16 - 18 hour days and we only had one day off for the whole movie. Scarcely time to do one's laundry. We ate cold pizza most days. Paul the cameraman was very funny and energetic a bit of a hustler, but he made things entertaining. He almost passed out while we were in Harriman park due to the heat and the relentless shooting schedule. We never had decent turnarounds and we all felt exhausted. Having friends on the crew made it fun. I don't remember a wrap party but we did have a screening in a theater on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. We all got a kick out of seeing it up on screen but it was quite obvious from the start that this was not "Citizen Kane."
KC) Were there any real gang members used in this film? They weren't particularly threatening, nor were they skilled in fighting, but in a sense this added a sense of realism to this gritty, hastily shot film. Do you have any funny behind the scene stories to recount? New York was really going through major urban decay at the time, were you guys shooting in some scary areas, and did you run into any trouble during the shooting?
JL) No real gang members as far as I know. We shot in Harlem and in the lower East side, alphabet city. The drug deal scene was shot near Thompkins Square Park which was a known drug haven at the time. They were pretty scary places at the time and I didn't like traveling by train to those early calls (on set by 6:30 meant I had to be on the subway by 5:30). I don't recall any real problems but you can bet that the crew kept a close eye on the equipment all the time. One creepy story I can share: When we shot in Prospect Park some cops came over to us and asked if anyone on the crew had seen or heard anything unusual. No one had, but the reason they asked was that they had found a body about 100 feet from where we were shooting. Some one was raped and killed! The city has definitely improved since those days. I actually now live near Prospect Park and it's one of the safest Parks in the city.
KC) Do you ever run into anyone who was connected with this film? Barry Rosen has two additional credits to his resume, but he seems to have vanished. Do you know if anyone went onto anything big after this film?
JL) I had heard that Barry moved to the West Coast. I don't know what became of him. Maybe he changed his name after directing that opus! Paul Glickman shot lots of other movies, (a lot for Larry Cohen) and TV work then abruptly quit the business . He moved to Santa Fe where he does still photography. Paul was a bit of a showman who still does magic shows and puppetry as well . He now lives in Santa Fe. Just a bit of trivia: His daughter Jennifer Glickman is a prolific TV comedy writer who's married to a guy who wrote for "Friends". I get a Christmas card from Paul once a year. Steve Reinhardt (boom) decided he didn't want to live the precarious life of a film technician and now lives in San Francisco where he remains a film buff but earns his living as a systems analyst. Robert Ghiraldini lives in Monticello NY. He worked on tons of low budget features with Paul Glickman as a sound man/gaffer. Last I heard he was doing sound for "Entertainment Tonight" in New York. Stefan Czapsky went on to bigger and better things - he became a Director of Photography who shot the First Batman Movie and "Edward Scissorhands" among others. I used to occasionally run into Dominick Paris in the old days. He became a cameraman too about 25 years ago. I don't know whether he's still in the business. Fred Berner became a hot shot producer, working on "Law and Order" among other things. He's the guy in the drug deal scene who's walking by with a briefcase and gets knocked over by the chinese gang members who are running away.
KC) What is Jane Landis up to these days? Do you enjoy your work in the industry? Do you like horror/exploitation films, or is there other genres that appeal to you more? By the way, what was the shooting title of this film? Some folks think Gang Wars and Devil's Express are two separate films, but they're not, would you care to explain about the different titles?
JL) The working title was "The Phantom of the Subway" but
it was first released as "The Devil's Express" . I don't know
why they changed it. It could be that there was another film with a similar
title. I'm not a huge horror fan - I'm too squeamish for slasher films.
I much prefer stuff like "The Sixth Sense" or "The Others".
I also like some early horror movies that are probably not so great to
see now but scared the s**t out of me as a child, such as the original
"House on Haunted Hill" or "Carnival of Souls". I
have really eclectic taste in fims.
FOR PART TWO OF THIS INTERVIEW, CLICK THE LINK BELOW