Pleased to ‘meat’ you! Tobe Hooper at FrightFest, 27 August 2010

Tobe Hooper signing for fans at FrightFest, 27 August 2010Tobe or not Tobe? That is the question – and that is also a gag that only works if you pronounce it correctly.

While Bill Shakespeare’s bones are groaning for a thousandth time, Mr Tobe ‘call me Toby’ Hooper, the director, producer and co-writer of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is facing the cameras of the press at this year’s FrightFest, Film4’s annual five-day festival of horror cinema, and word gets around that he’ll only be signing autographs for 15 or 20 minutes.

The queue to meet him, of which I’m part, snakes around barriers in the foyer and back up into the cinema auditorium, where those near the back are considering the notion that the posters, prints and DVD sleeves they’re clutching might not actually get to connect with the tip of Hooper’s Sharpie.

The director, whose work also takes in the likes of Salem’s Lot, The Funhouse, Poltergeist and Lifeforce, is in the UK for the first time in 18 years. His schedule nearly brought him to Milton Keynes in 2007, for a signing at Collectormania, but his appearance was cancelled with just over a week to go. Talk about a power-tool to the guts.

FrightFest, it seems, has pulled off something of a coup, bringing Hooper to London for a chat at the Empire, Leicester Square, following a screening of his nerve- and eardrum-shredding 1974 classic.

Tobe Hooper being interviewed at FrightFest, 27 August 2010Watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on the huge Empire screen (purported to be the biggest in the capital), I’m struck by just how good it looks. Projected from Blu-ray, its 16mm roots barely show, yet the film retains its sweaty, grimy ambience, as if it’s been left for too long by the side of a desert road in high summer. During the opening credits, someone applauds cinematographer Daniel Pearl. It’s a good point.

After his film has assaulted the senses, Tobe Hooper – the man, in the flesh, in a chair, on the stage – almost feels like a support act. His voice is deep, his demeanour laidback, and some of his answers are a little too succinct.

FrightFest 2010 at the Empire, Leicester SquareUnlike last year’s big guest, the motormouthed John Landis (in town to promote the then-forthcoming Blu-Ray release of An American Werewolf In London), Hooper doesn’t come across as a born raconteur, and ideally interviewer Jamie Graham should throw him some more open-ended questions. But he doesn’t, and the end result is quite a dry interview. The conversation doesn’t flow naturally.

The 40-minute Q&A is also much too short – a brief hop, skip and jump through the director’s career, really just touching base with the highlights – and doesn’t take many tangents. Something a little less scripted might have played better. Kudos to Graham, though, for pressing Hooper on the subject of Poltergeist’s authorship, a source of discussion and speculation for decades.

The director doesn’t flinch from the topic, explaining that the film’s writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, shot second-unit, a fact that was picked up by the LA Times during a visit to the set, which put rumours in motion that two people were directing the film. In summary, says Hooper after Graham has pushed for a definitive statement, Spielberg was a “presence” on Poltergeist, describing what is essentially a hands-on producer’s role.

His response is matter-of-fact, and he appears to grind no axe, despite acknowledging that the controversy damaged his career. Perhaps being “still the best of friends” with Spielberg has taken some of the sting out of this thing over the years. Or perhaps Tobe is just a laidback guy who takes it as it comes. The debate over Poltergeist is unlikely to end here, but it’s good to get Hooper’s side of the story, live and unedited.

Tobe Hooper autographed 8x10After his interview, the director hits the ‘press wall’ in the cinema’s foyer for some one-on-one pieces to camera, before taking his seat at the signing desk to start work on the lengthy queue of autograph seekers.

Posed photos are a no-no, due to the amount of people queuing, but the quoted “15 or 20 minutes” turns out to be a false alarm, as Hooper ploughs through the whole line, seemingly happy to meet fans and scribble his name on whatever he’s presented with.

I opt for an 8×10 print of something I knocked up in Photoshop, which stops him in his tracks for a moment as he looks it over. “That’s a good one,” he says.

As memorable moments go, it’s not quite Ed Neal in the back of the van in Chain Saw, hustling his Polaroid, but the man makes a very similar point. It is a nice picture.

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