Filmmaker avoids studio system, pushes boundaries

In town to tout his latest pic, Ken Russell promises that “this is the film my fans have been waiting for. After this, they can die happy.”

“The Fall of the Louse of Usher” — yes, “Louse” — is an updated amalgam of six or seven Edgar Allen Poe stories. When someone described it as a horror-drama-musical-comedy, the filmmaker thought a moment, then nodded, “Yes, that’ll cover it.”

Russell is here with U.K.-based the Film Co., which is showing trailers to the pic and helping to set up pre-sales. He expects to wrap the pic this summer, for release late in the year.

Sitting in a suite at the Grand Hotel, the filmmaker told Variety that the pic was originally conceived as 10 10-minute episodes for the Internet, but he decided that venue is not yet developed enough.

So it’s now a feature film that he’s shooting on digital video. He loves the new technology and its vibrant color: “It creates a heightened intensity, which is perfect for the film.”

While the filmmaker is embracing new technology, he’s also returning to his roots.

Early in his career, he made BBC films with only three or four other colleagues, and he’s returning to the concept of a minimal crew, which he loves. Glancing at a co-worker, he confides admiringly, “Alex, the art director, also plays a gorilla in the film.”

Aside from the gorilla, the film stars Russell himself and a group of “sort-of underground actors” like Tulip Junkie and Emma Millions, along with an eight-woman rock group called Medieval Babes.

He doesn’t seem to be going out on a limb when he predicts it will be a cult film.

While always a major talent, Russell has sometimes had run-ins with studio execs as he pushed artistic and moral boundaries on such pics as “Women in Love,” “The Devils” and “Crimes of Passion.” When at UA, “we’d have a chat” about changes, he said.

But the changes have changed. In the 1998 “Dogboys” (which starred Bryan Brown and Dean Cain), he said he was given orders for revisions by “anonymous” execs: “It was change this, alter that — no discussion, ‘just do it.’ There was no one to talk to.”

“It paid the rent,” he sighed about the film, but the experience furthered his resolve to avoid the studio system. “Louse” is the first result of this new philosophy.

The film is evolving as it goes along. “It’s become more bizarre and more me. And less Hollywood.”

Britain’s Channel 4 is interested in a restoration of his “The Devils” and is hunting up footage that was excised from the 1971 release.

Meanwhile, Russell is happy to be working and anxious to remind people that he’s still a filmmaker to be reckoned with.

He laughingly tells the tale of anonymously slipping into a theater a few years ago to see one of his films. When his name came up on the screen, the woman in front of him turned to her companion and gasped, “Ken Russell? I thought he was dead!”

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