'The Last Supper'

'Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas': an excerpt

Filmmaker Tobe Hooper on the set of <i>The Texas Chain Saw Massacre</i> (above) and an early marketing concept, sketched by Warren Skaaren (below), from the Warren Skaaren Collection at the Harry Ransom Center. All images courtesy of the University of Texas Press.
Filmmaker Tobe Hooper on the set of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (above) and an early marketing concept, sketched by Warren Skaaren (below), from the Warren Skaaren Collection at the Harry Ransom Center. All images courtesy of the University of Texas Press. (Courtesy of The Austin Film Society)

Chainsaw's cast and crew had been working twelve- to sixteen-hour days for three weeks, with only one day off from week to week. On Saturday, August 18, they were about six or seven days behind as they prepped the dining room of the house for the movie's climactic scene, where Sally is tortured and forced to endure dinner with Leatherface and his family. The scene features the elderly grandfather character played by John Dugan, [screenwriter Kim] Henkel's eighteen-year-old brother-in-law. As the day began, [director Tobe] Hooper, [cinematographer Daniel] Pearl, and the others busied themselves shooting other, shorter scenes while waiting for Dugan's makeup to be finished, a grueling process overseen by Dr. [W.E.] Barnes.

As Pearl changed lenses on one of the Éclairs, he overheard a message come through on the walkie-talkie. Dugan had had it with the effects makeup, and he refused to go through another day of the application. Hooper would have to shoot him out that day. They also had to cope with the fact that Jim Siedow was scheduled to do a play and had to leave Austin the following day.

In the script the dinner scene takes place at the end of the first day, so blackout drapes were used to cover the windows, blocking out the summer sun and intensifying the heat in the close room. Additionally, the Éclair cameras required a 16mm film stock that needed twice as much light as 35mm film. They shot the lengthy dinner sequence mostly in order, reframing for different shots rather than stopping the camera. If someone flubbed a line, Hooper would call for another take. The hours crawled by, and the heat from the lights cooked everything and everyone in the room. [Ed] Neal sat at the wooden table, stifling yawns and trying to stay focused. With the room temperature rising above 100 degrees, the formaldehyde preserving the animal props had evaporated. The heat affected the dead animals' chemical composition, and the props rotted quickly, like a time-lapse photograph. "They'd have to move the props in certain ways and cheat the angle because it looked different than when they had shot it earlier," Neal recalls. Once night fell, someone removed the blackout drapes from the windows, which offered some relief.

Lou Perryman pulled focus on the camera throughout the sequence, which often put him downwind from [actor Gunnar] Hansen. Like the other actors, Hansen had been told not to wash his costume. The noxious combination of sweat and grime, made worse for the towering actor because of the mask and the fact that he was wearing a heavy suit, hit Perryman full force as he crouched in front of the camera. Every time Hansen lunged down the table toward Marilyn [Burns], Perryman quickly pulled focus and then stuck his head out the nearest window.

'The Last Supper'

The decaying head cheese, rotting chicken corpses, and acrid body odor created an unholy stench in the small room. Dottie Pearl hovered just off camera so that she could help Hansen navigate the space and touch up Dugan's and Burns's makeup during breaks. "At one point," says Pearl, "I looked around and thought, 'We are truly living this thing. We aren't making it any more. We're living it.'" The dinner sequence was taking forever, in part because of the long stretches of dialogue. Hooper also wanted to get a lot of coverage – multiple master shots from each end of the table, close-ups simulating character point-of-view shots, etc. – which required extra setups. Lights had to be moved, makeup had to be reapplied, and the prop food, quickly decomposing in the overheated space, had to be replaced.

Shooting continued through the night. In the end, the cast and crew worked on the dinner sequence for more than 26 hours straight. "A director's always looking for his idea of what's perfect in a take. Sometimes it's hard to discern what is. I think Tobe also was insecure and just wanted to get enough material," says [crew member Ted] Nicolaou. Hooper later admitted that perhaps he had been too much of a taskmaster. "Knowing what I wanted and being a cameraman and editor myself, it was easier at times for me to grab the camera. That may have caused friction." In retrospect, [production manager Ronald] Bozman adds, they could have filmed Dugan's scenes first and returned another day to shoot the other actors. "It was a living nightmare," Bozman admits. But perhaps the twenty-six-hour marathon paid off in other ways, he muses nearly three decades later. "It might have had its own crazy dynamic and made it better."

Drug-taking ran rampant on the set throughout production, but on that particular day a batch of enhanced brownies may have added to the mayhem. Throughout the production Sally Nicolaou fortified the cast and crew with homemade chicken casseroles, lasagna, or chicken pot pie and southern-style biscuits. Prior to that Saturday, Nicolaou reportedly had helped herself to a marijuana crop growing in the backyard of the Quick Hill house and added it to her brownie recipe. After lunch, the remaining dessert was left on the snack table. Hansen helped himself as did others. When he wasn't lounging on the porch and chanting "Time has no meaning" between takes, Hansen sat for what seemed like hours at the dining room table waiting for his next shot as Hooper and Pearl discussed the lighting setup.

By early September cast and crew were in their sixth week of production, with the marathon dinner sequence finally behind them. The twenty-six-hour shoot had been rough on everyone involved, but perhaps no one had suffered more than Marilyn. Physically drained and emotionally on edge, she stood glassy-eyed between takes as the crew set up for the film's final sequence. As written in the script, the scene takes place at dawn, after Sally has spent a horrific night in the Leatherface family house. In reality, Hooper and the others began prepping for the scene late in the afternoon on the second day of September, and they rushed to get all the shots before they ran out of light. As they were preparing to shoot the final scene of Leatherface, Hooper suggested to Hansen that he stamp his feet and gesture with the chainsaw to show his frustration over Sally's escape in the back of the pickup. Hansen ad libbed the shot, stomping around and swinging the saw. Then Hooper and Pearl decided to move the camera 360 degrees around Hansen for a dizzying panoramic effect. They cleared the Quick Hill set of all extraneous cast and crew. Pearl guided the camera around Hansen, with Hooper close behind.

Hansen's movements amounted to a kind of awkward pirouette as he sliced through the air with the saw, the setting sun glowing behind him in the western sky. The shot provides an unsettling conclusion to Sally's story. She escapes, but Leatherface's macabre dance, ominously captured in the movie's final freeze-frame, offers an uneasy catharsis at best. Many Chainsaw fans consider it the best moment in the movie.

At the end of the filming of this scene, which essentially marked the end of principal photography, Hansen hurled the chainsaw into a nearby field and walked out of frame.

From the book Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas by Alison Macor. Copyright 2010 by Alison Macor. Reprinted by permission of the University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.

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