I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Perry, production designer for Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Perry has served as production designer on such films as It Follows, Under the Silver Lake, and Promising Young Woman. We discussed the controversy over his newest film, the difficulty of building an entire Texas town from scratch, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Musical. Check out our full interview below!
I’d like to start at the beginning if I can, because the opening scene is one of my favorites. It takes place in a gas station that has quite a bit of true crime memorabilia related to the events of the original film. Can you talk about the idea of turning the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre into kind of a tourist attraction?
Michael Perry: Yeah, well, you know, from the get-go, we were trying to take the original movie, put it into a place where we acknowledge it – it’s there — and then we’re done. (laughs) Because all of us equally believe that none of the sequels ever caught the lightning in the bottle that was the original one, and we weren’t going to try. We just put it up there. It just gives you kind of the setup that, you know, [Leatherface has] been missing for 50 years. This is what happened. John Larroquette gets to say his thing, and then we put these tourist things of chainsaw corkscrews and all those things. So we had a lot of fun making all those little items we put in there. And we actually, there are no — you know this was shot in Bulgaria, right?
MP: Yeah. So there are no North American-style gas stations. So that’s built, completely a built gas station.
MP: Yeah. (laughs) Yeah, it was an undertaking for that. But yeah, so that was the idea, was a quick acknowledgement. You know he’s been missing for 50 years. That was the important point. You get a little bit of back and forth with the girls; you can see they’re a little snipey at each other. And then (claps) we’re off to the races.
So you’re building a gas station, an entire town, the original homestead, all from scratch?
(laughs) I know this is a big question, but can you talk about the design choices that went into that, and any particular difficulties you had?
MP: Well, I mean, I was — look, I took the movie because they said, “In the Texas Chainsaw Massacre title, you need to bring Texas.” And that was a big challenge. Most people don’t get to do, you know, whole towns as a designer, so that’s the challenge. So I took it on. Luckily, I had a supervising art director from Bulgaria – a woman named Kess Bonnet — and she was great. She’s a very good production designer in her own right, but, you know, a lot of that, when you go to — American films, when they go overseas, they bring American designers. So I was just lucky to have her and all the amazing, amazing craftsmen that I got to work with. All those buildings were sculpted in foam on wood, but it was all the brickwork — everything was hand-done. It was amazing. Now there was, on that studio — which is a small studio, so not one of the big ones — it had a layout of buildings that they had used for a backlot, like an Alabama town, at one point, but the way it was done was buildings were more or less just used as background. They weren’t used as a whole continuous thing. And in the end we did all of it.
So it’s 40 buildings, three of them with insides, on that street. Yeah, so the approach for me was to look at a bunch of towns, Texas towns. And having driven through ghost town after ghost town before, one interesting piece of research was, I kept trying to figure out why they’re so ornate, because there’s all the brick fretwork and the friezes and the cornices. I mean, they’re very — you know, you expect to just see a wooden building or things like that, not these beautiful turn-of-the-century storefronts. And in a little bit of research I did, I found that Texas didn’t really have an architectural school ‘til the 1890s. And all those guys went to the Chicago World’s Fair, which was very — it was called the White City — and it was a very flamboyant and very over-the-top presentation, and they took that, and they went home. And that’s the town you get.
That’s amazing. I did not know that. (laughs) I mean, I live in Arkansas. I’ve been in Texas a lot. I’ve got family there. So I know those towns and I know that house, the orphanage, with all the decor and even just the way the drawers open. I wanted to ask about the research that went into that, because that’s very much an old Southern home.
MP: Yes, well, having lived a lot in the South, I know those homes. So the idea — and a lot of some of that furniture and stuff was actually made there with the guys. We would show them or do a quick sketch…because that chest-of-drawers is not something that resonates there. So, you know, we couldn’t find that kind of stuff. So there are little things like that, that I knew would be important that the camera would be on, that I wanted to make that extra effort. But you’re right, a lot of stuff in there is just — you know, my mind sometimes is just a vacuum. I’ll see something and 20 years later, I’ll go, “I’m going to use that.” It’s not a skill. It’s just a thing. So yeah, I mean, traipsing through houses in — well, actually, I shot a movie years ago in Arkansas and went through a lot of homes there. So yeah, I mean, it’s all about — with something like this, it’s about character, making the town into a character so the world can exist. Not making it seem like a set, and paying attention to those little details that you know the camera is going to be on.
Yeah, I wanted to ask: we get the briefest of glimpses of a very macabre chair that Leatherface is sitting in, and then it’s empty. And it’s not on screen very long.
MP: Yeah, his space — what we decided, as the orphanage emptied out, he took the space across from her room. And there’s a lot of childish drawings on the wall and things. And the one we — listen, we have a lot of little Easter eggs in this. And at one point, they were pushing me to do the bone furniture. And I said, “I will do one piece of bone furniture. That’s it.” And they were like, “Okay,” and then they didn’t really shoot it. (laughs) It didn’t end up in much of the film; it’s a brief glimpse, but there is one full-on piece of that.
Why did you not want to do more of that? Was it just too much, too many Easter eggs?
MP: Well, the reality is…the bone furniture was stuff [Leatherface] did before the movie. That was his artwork. So that is such a heavy influence on the first movie. I wanted to pay homage, but I didn’t want to, you know — the other thing is, he’s kind of been asleep, you know. He doesn’t know that there’s an Internet, he doesn’t know — he probably, until [Ginny] dies, doesn’t remember he’s Leatherface. So that was the goal there, was to [do] a little bit of homages — not go crazy, not be an Easter egg movie. And at the same time, you know, make a real departure from the original. I mean, there’s some great criticism of this movie. Which is very — I mean, first of all, I love that it’s so controversial. But some of the things are like, “Oh, well, you know, the characters weren’t well defined, or had no background. No one tells you what’s going on.” Yeah, that’s the first movie. Nobody told you anything. You know? I mean, that movie is definitely lightning in a bottle.
(laughs) And somehow, I mean, everybody talks about what a great director Tobe was. And I have actually worked with him, when I started out as a scenic on commercials and painting. But no one ever gives him the credit for the editing, because that’s what that movie is, is editing. And you walk out just like, “Oh my God, I’ve seen a snuff film.” Yeah, when I first saw it, it was like, “Jesus.” Well, when I went back to it for doing this, it’s like, “That chainsaw never touches anybody!” That’s the brilliance of that movie. So we were never going to recapture that, so we went to have fun with a slasher movie. You know? That’s what we did. That’s all it, you know…we kept saying, “Texas. Yep. Chainsaw. Uh-huh. Massacre. Okay.”
Check them all off. (laughs)
MP: Exactly! Just check them all off. And you know, to make it look — [director of photography] Rick Diaz and the director David Blue Garcia are pretty badass, because they came in four days into our original shoot, where we had to restructure some of it. It’s not that far away from the original script, but visually, it’s different from where we were going down the road originally. So I mean, it’s lit beautifully. I mean, it’s gorgeous what Rick did. And David, you know, David’s also a DP, so the way they worked was so — and they went to film school together in Texas. They were kind of a great team. And, you know, eventually I got into that team…we clicked very well. And then we made a lot of — Rick likes a lot of top light for this film. So we added a lot more lights overhead and things like that. That was not the biggest change.
Yeah, there are a couple of things I want to get into, but you mentioned that you enjoy the controversy over it. What is it you enjoy about that?
MP: Well, I just, I enjoy that — first of all, people are passionate enough to see the movie, right? I mean, it’s [doing] ridiculous numbers on Netflix. You know, in hindsight, it probably should have been released in the theatre. But I love that there are people like…”This is great. It delivers all this stuff. It’s a compact thing. It’s not three hours long. It’s short, it’s to the point, and it’s not actually scary, but it’s intense.” But then there are other people who are like, “Oh, this is terrible. This is the worst sequel…” And I’m like, “I don’t know where you’re really coming from, because it’s a sequel to [The] Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What did you guys expect?” The first one is not brilliant. It has a visceral feel that we all go away with, but it’s not like it was — it was teenagers in a van that stumble upon cannibals. That’s it, there’s nothing more to it.
You know, so everybody gets bent out of shape. I find it funny. I find, you know — it’s like, you like it or you don’t, but it’s like, character development in a chainsaw movie? That’s ridiculous. You’re focusing on the wrong thing. (laughs) So I kind of, yeah, I enjoy it. It’s not usual that my work…you learn very early on not to read stuff, good or bad. But in this particular case, the first one I saw was, you know, “There was no character development.” And I was like, “Oh boy, this is great. I’m going to read all of these.” And there is a temptation on my part to correct things. But I don’t. (laughs) But I really, really, really want to go, “Really?” Now, there’s a part of it that’s very gratifying to me, because it’s almost never brought up that that wasn’t Texas. So I did my job. You know, they can argue about this and this and this, but nobody goes, “That town didn’t look like Texas.” So I did my job.
There you go. (laughs) I did want to ask: one of my favorite details is in the theatre near the end. There was a standee for a movie called Werewolves of the Alamo 2. (laughs) I wanted to ask about the genesis of that title, and those little details in the theatre.
MP: That was my set decorator. We needed things and he’s very good at that kind of stuff, like movie posters. And it’s just, it’s Werewolf in London, you know, Do the Alamo 2. I mean…we were there a long time making this movie because of COVID, and there were only so many people you could speak English to. So my set decorator, who’s a friend of mine, he worked on It Follows with me and was doing this. And then we were trying to come up with, “What would the sequels be?” “Oh, Leatherface Meets the Werewolf.” My personal favorite is Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Musical. And we could just reclaim, you know, the Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight showings. So yeah, so that’s where it came from, us just making ourselves laugh.
I also wanted to ask about the party bus. Can you tell me about designing that with the whole, you know, ‘Gen Z accosts Harlow’?
MP: So, it was always written — that was always going to be the massacre. But it was such a non-specific thing. It was left up to me to visually deal with it. So I tracked down that bus in Germany, and it’s a 1949…a Greyhound bus. Scenicruiser. That’s what it was. And it was lifted in the back. So you sat and you had panoramic views. So I found — actually, I found two, which was crazy. And then we got it, and It wasn’t a bus anymore. Somebody had outfitted it, solidly early ‘70s, into some kind of — there was shag carpet. It had seen its day. (laughs) But it’s a beautiful shape. It’s, you know, it’s all that beautiful sort of streamlined deco stuff. So as a bus, it’s unique. It’s very American. And so we were very happy with that. And I gave it to the transpo guys and they got it running and the whole nine yards.
But for the interior shoots, we built a set of that. And I’ll be totally honest with you, those guys basically reproduced that bus perfectly, but in wood — even the handle-moving things, the slope of the dash; there’s so many compound angles that they did. You know, I think I had something like 18 sculptors on that. It was way beyond anything I could have expected, and it split and it did things and it was like, “Man, if I ever do a submarine movie, here’s where I’m coming, because this is unbelievable.” Yeah, there are certain things we had to — we had planned a certain amount of, you know, if we had to do retakes, and we shot in such a way that — I think there was only one retake up front before blood was just everywhere, and we went through four days of shooting. We would use 50 gallons of blood a day. We had a little pool thing under the bottom, and there were tap holes inside the bus, so it would just fill up with blood and then was pumped out from there. And the only thing I will absolutely claim as my own is the white leather roof. I wanted there to be no doubt.
I did like that touch.
MP: Yeah, you know, it was a padded leather top. White. So when the blood splatters, the blood splatters.
Is there any particular memory that stands out to you, or anything that surprised you on set when you were working on it?
MP: Oh, gosh, there’s things that always surprise me on set. Which is great, because I think that’s where the magic happens. The scene when the bus is moved. And he’s holding this — it’s a silhouette piece. And he’s in this little alleyway, and the bus comes around the corner. And as it comes around the corner it reveals him. That’s one of the first shots that David Garcia did. And what that did was sort of put in my head that this is how we’re presenting. You know, he’s a Marvel villain. This is how we’re going to, you know, silhouettes, those sorts of things, the reveals. That surprised me a lot, because that wasn’t the way we were going before. But looking on the monitor and seeing how beautiful that silhouette was, you know, I went through and tried to make as many opportunities for silhouettes as possible, because I just, that was my big surprise seeing that. Yeah, that was the best one.
There are horrible ones, too, that surprised me. That bloody basement where she’s under — that thing was just, it was my personal bane. Because the way we built it is up on platforms. So then there’s a box where the dirt all went in, and then we built the rest of it for real. Originally, I wanted the floorboards to be able to go up and down and put them on chain hoists. But they didn’t want to do that, so we built it. The level of dirt — what was close enough, what wasn’t? Every day there was some poor kid with a shovel, because they’re taking it out or putting it in. It was one of the last things we shot (laughs), and it was one of the first things we built. And it just went on. I’d go downstairs and it’s like, “Ugh, you’re taking the dirt out now.” So yeah, that was my surprise.
And you do know the chainsaw is the original chainsaw.
I did not know that!
MP: Yeah, Kim [Henkel], the original writer, who’s like the only guy left from it — he gave us the chainsaw for this movie.
MP: That was his blessing. Yeah. And it was cantankerous. It’s a 40-year-old chainsaw. (laughs) It was a bit hard to get going.