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SXSW/Rewind This!

Q&A: Josh Johnson, Rewind This!

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SXSW/Rewind This!

For people of a certain age, there’s a lot of nostalgia around VHS tapes. And though it might seem like a dead format thanks to DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally streaming media, VHS isn't dead yet: Many people have hung on to old tapes, or continue to build collections that they watch with their VHS player. Many of those enthusiasts appear in Josh Johnson’s documentary, Rewind This!, which debuts this week at SXSW Film. The documentary's a fun and fascinating look at the history and impact of videotapes. mental_floss spoke with the director about VHS-related myths, the influence of VHS, and why those tapes were so darn expensive.

mental_floss: What inspired you to make a documentary about VHS?

Josh Johnson: The idea came out of the realization that I had a lot of friends who were still purchasing and acquiring VHS tapes, even though it had been a dead format for a number of years. And the reason that they were doing that is because there were thousands of films that weren’t available any other way—they had yet to be released on newer formats. So if you’re passionate about film, it was the only way to watch certain things. And that was something that struck me as being sort of interesting and not necessarily broad public knowledge. So there was that contemporary relevance of videotape that I hadn’t really thought about very much before.

And then, in thinking about that and starting to work on this as a documentary concept with my partners, we thought about the fact that the home video revolution was something that really changed the world and how people consumed media, but it had never been documented or put on film before, so the idea of being able to trace its history and also show the contemporary relevance of videotape seemed like it had the potential to be a satisfying feature.

m_f: You interviewed a number of people who have pretty incredible VHS collections. How did you find them?

JJ: The first thing that we did was ask people we knew in the local community. The film started in Austin, Texas, and we knew a lot of people who were already involved in this world. And what we found is that every person we talked to had four or five other recommendations of people we should talk to. There was this community of people that were still really passionate about collecting and acquiring this content, so it kind of took care of itself after a certain point. You know, once people were aware of the film, it became very easy to contact them and in a lot of cases they would contact us directly.

m_f: How much did you know about the history of VHS, and the early format war between Sony’s format, Betamax, and JVC’s format, VHS, before you started?

JJ: I knew a lot about it just as a film obsessive and somebody who had read about all aspects of film history throughout my life. The thing that I discovered was certain things that were sort of urban legends or things that were widely reported as facts that weren’t necessarily facts. So there are certain details about the influence of pornography on video and some things like that that turned out to not necessarily line up with the popular accepted story.

For example: A lot of people have argued over the years, or it’s just an accepted fact—quotes around the word “fact”—that Sony refused to license pornographers, and that was one of the determining factors in why VHS won out over Betamax. But there’s actually no historical record to indicate that Sony refused to do that. And there’s evidence that some adult films may have been released on Betamax. So it looks like [what made VHS the winner] was the amount of time that you record on VHS tapes and the affordability of VHS tapes, not that breakdown between who was willing to allow pornography to be accessible.

m_f: You have a ton of clips from old VHS tapes in the movie. What was the process of converting those into digital like?

JJ: We used a device that is essentially a VCR, but it’s also a capture device, so we were able to put in a tape, play it, and then record, via a PC, the moments that we wanted to capture. So the process of actually getting that footage into contemporary technology is fairly easy. The most difficult thing was actually when we wanted to do things like show examples of tape wear or degradation, because we didn’t necessarily have examples that exactly fit what we were looking for—so we had to make them ourselves. And we really wanted everything to be authentic. So what we did is actually find tapes with moments that we wanted to utilize this example and we would actually take the tape out of the cassette and physically manipulate it—I would open the front part of the tape and pull out the tape between two fingers and then I would sort of twist it back and forth between my thumb and forefinger—which would recreate what might happen if you rewound a tape in a certain section over and over again. There was definitely some trial and error [in figuring out the process of warping a tape]. It wasn’t an exact science, but it actually turned out to be fairly easy once you got the hang of doing it.

It's so different from now—if you scratch a DVD, that section just won't play. But video could degrade and degrade and degrade, you could do so much damage to it, but it would still play.  Over time it would slowly decay, and get worse and worse, but it wasn't instant. It was this very slow, organic process.

m_f: What's the average lifespan of a VHS tape?

JJ: The statistics on that seem wildly different, so it's hard to say for sure. When we talked to archivists, they said that tapes that were mass-produced in the '80s are already going to start showing signs of wear, and [would be damaged by] not housing the material the way they're supposed to. But then there are some people that argue that it has a greater lifespan than a lot of digital formats—that there will be some decay, but that these tapes will still be playable years from now. So there's a lot of conflicting information, but they're certainly sturdy enough that they should last 30 years.

m_f: We did a story recently about Nixon meeting Robocop, which was part of an event for the VHS release of the movie. What got the most response from people was not that Nixon met Robocop, but that the price of the Robocop VHS was $99. In the process of making Rewind This! what did you find out about why videotapes were so expensive, especially when they were relatively cheap to produce?

JJ: When home video first started, the idea that you could own a movie and watch it whenever you wanted was revolutionary. So, since for a few dollars people could see it at the theater one time, to own it was such a privilege I think they just placed a higher premium on it. They thought, you know, this is allowing someone to permanently own something that ordinarily we’ve had control over, so it had that higher price tag. That continued for quite a while. What really changed it was this sell-through concept that started in the porn world, but then carried over into the more legitimate film business. The idea was that if you marked the price lower, you could move more units and it would still become more profitable for you.

m_f: When Betamax first came out, and later VHS, people at movie-making studios in Hollywood were not happy. In fact, at congressional hearings about the technology in 1982, Jack Valenti—who was the head of the MPAA at the time—said "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." That seems a little extreme. Why did Hollywood flip out so much?

JJ: There was this intense fear on the part of major motion picture studios that home video was going to devalue their product. They had this entire industry that was based on publically exhibiting motion pictures and then returning them to a vault, and they maintained ownership every step of the way. So the fear was, that by allowing people to have access to [technology], they would stop going to the movie theater or it would no longer be something that was as prized. And their fear was that it would destroy the theatrical market. But what ended up happening is it created a whole new market—there was new money being put into it, and box office continued to grow and thrive. So far from being something worthy of demonizing, it actually doubled their profits once they committed to it. But the fear was that their entire industry was built on an infrastructure that might get completely destroyed by the new technology.

And I think for a lot of major studios, one of the appealing things about living in a space where we’re returning to streaming from a corporate source, is that they now have ownership again. They can distribute it to you into your home, but ownership is still theirs—you don’t have anything physical that you can keep. They can give and take away at will. It’s interesting to see how, with all of this new technology, it’s kind of going back to the exact same way that the film industry worked in the '30s.

m_f: This technology has been around for so long that a lot of us probably forget what it was like before you could just pop a tape in the VCR at home. Can you paint a picture of what life was like before VHS?

JJ: Prior to the advent of home video, the only way that you could see films would be in a theater or on television, and you were really at the mercy of the schedule that was determined by the television networks and the motion picture studios. So a film would play, often for a very long time, at a theater, and then it would be gone. Unless the film had been so successful that it would warrant bringing it back out and rereleasing it years later to capitalize on that interest, it was entirely possible that you might never see it again. Your best option would be to hope that it would play on television, and that it would be at a time that was convenient enough for you that you could be home to sit and watch it.

Once home video came out and made movies so accessible to us and gave us ownership over them, that immediately changed the way that we perceive movies. Now there’s a sense of entitlement in regards to our media: We want to have ownership, we want to be able to watch things whenever we want. But as recently as the late 70s, that entire concept was inconceivable. Nobody had even fathomed the idea that you could have a film in your house or watch it whenever you wanted. Home video really is as major a revolution in film as sound or color or any of these things—potentially, it’s even more significant than that, because those were just technological developments that alter the way that the films are created. But home video revolutionized the way that films are absorbed and distributed, and the way that audiences see and perceive them. I would argue that it’s probably the most significant revolution in the entire history of film from its starting point.

m_f: What do you think is the lasting impact or legacy of VHS?

JJ: The legacy of VHS is that it made film domestic for the first time. It allowed people to consume things on their own schedule the way they wanted to. That’s something we’ll never be able to go back to again. There will never a time again, I believe, where we don’t feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over how we consume our media. So I think that’s the lasting impact, more than anything else. But I think the other impact of home video is that it’s made people so much more knowledgeable about the totality of film, because it made film accessible to people who otherwise would never have been able to see certain things. If you didn't live in a major metropolitan area, you weren’t going to have repertory cinemas or art houses or access to foreign films. Now you can really live almost anywhere in the world, and home video has made that accessible.

m_f: And the fact that people could actually make movies with a camcorder and a VHS tape—even my friends and I made a series of really bad music videos. It was fun!

JJ: That’s how I started as well—it was just making things on a camcorder when I was 7 years old. There was a whole movement of shot-on-video filmmaking that got launched in the early '80s that continued for a long time. Now, with digital video, it’s not really quite the same thing—it’s more and more getting closer to professional cinematography. More and more films are shooting digitally, but in those early days, video had such a limited look, and it was immediately a stigma, because it looked so inferior, but it did allow really ambitious people to make work that they never would have been able to afford to otherwise, and that’s a huge part of the legacy—the way it leveled the playing field. It was a great equalizer in filmmaking.

m_f: What kind of creative solutions or DIY filmmaking did you have to use to make this film happen?

JJ: The entire production was entirely DIY. We started shooting without any funding, several years ago, just because we were passionate and wanted to do it. And when it got to the point where we needed to start traveling outside of our immediate area, we needed to start finding creative ways to finance those trips. The first thing we did was an art show here in Austin, where we had local artists produce home video-inspired artwork, and the sales from that art show funded the first leg of our travel, which was mostly to the East Coast, to New York, and then partly to the West Coast. And then we hosted a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse that funded the rest of our West Coast travel. And that brought us back, and we were able to edit together a teaser trailer based on what we had shot, and launch a Kickstarter campaign for the remainder of our travel, which was to Canada and Japan. So the whole project has been three people working in isolation, figuring out various ways to fund different portions of the production.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

Warner Bros.

Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

Warner Bros.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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12 Sharp Facts About Hellraiser
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Thirty years ago, on September 18, 1987, New World Pictures released Hellraiser, a horror film about a family who opens a puzzle box and invites hell in their lives in the form of pleasure-pain creatures known as Cenobites, who are lead by Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley). Unlike many other horror films at the time, Hellraiser wasn’t a slasher film, and Pinhead wasn’t a boogeyman.

British novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Clive Barker wanted to direct a feature film, so he adapted his 1986 horror novella, The Hellbound Heart, into Hellraiser. Despite the graphic nature of the film, it’s really a love story between Julia Cotton and her demented—and skinless—lover Frank ... whose relationship just so happens to revolve around sadistic torture.

Hellraiser was produced for around $1 million and grossed $14 million, making it lucrative enough to spawn nine sequels, including this year’s Hellraiser: Judgment. (Bradley hasn’t starred in a Hellraiser film since 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, and Barker didn’t direct or write any of the sequels, most of which were direct-to-DVD releases.) On the 30th anniversary of its release, let's take a look back at this horror classic.

1. THE ORIGINS OF PINHEAD CAME FROM A 1973 PLAY.

Before Doug Bradley uttered the catchphrase “We’ll tear your soul apart,” Clive Barker directed him in a 1973 play called Hunters in the Snow, in which Bradley played the Dutchman, a torturer who would become the basis for Pinhead.

“The character I played in Hunters, the Dutchman, I can see echoes of later... Pinhead in Hellraiser," Bradley said. "This strange, strange character whose head was kind of empty but who conveyed all kinds of things.”

Barker’s mid-1980s short story “The Forbidden”—which was adapted into Candyman—from his "Books of Blood" series, featured the first incarnation of Pinhead’s nails. “One image I remember very strongly from 'The Forbidden' was that Clive had built what he called his nail-board, which was basically a block of wood which he’d squared off and then he’d banged six-inch nails in at the intersections of the squares,” Bradley said. “Of course, when I saw the first illustrations for [Pinhead], it rang a bell with me that here was Clive putting the ideas that he’d been playing around with the nail-board in 'The Forbidden,' now 10, 15 years later. He’d now put the image all over a human being’s face.”

2. CLIVE BARKER CAST “REAL ACTORS.”

Unlike many other horror movies of the time, which were more concerned with gore than great acting, Barker insisted that they look for real talent in the casting. “I’m not just taking the 12 most beautiful youths in California and murdering them,” Barker told The Washington Post in 1987. “I’ve got real actors, real performers—and then I’m murdering them.” The “real” refers to British theater actors like Bradley, Clare Higgins, and Andrew Robinson.

3. PINHEAD WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE ON THE POSTER.

New World Pictures

Bradley said the filmmakers wanted skinned Frank to be on the poster, but the studio said no to the grotesque imagery, so Pinhead was used on the poster instead. “Maybe that came from Clive, because what we get in that image of Pinhead with the box is the heart of the Hellraiser mythology,” Bradley said. “If you put The Engineer or the skinned man on the poster, it’s an amazing image but it’s just an image, and it could come from any movie.” Bradley thought using Pinhead’s face made more sense. “The big success of Pinhead is because the image is so original, so startling. It is just an incredible image to look at, and that made a big difference in terms of the public's perception of the movie.”

4. NO ONE KNEW THAT DOUG BRADLEY WAS PINHEAD.

Bradley’s Pinhead mug was everywhere—on the cover of magazines and on the movie’s poster—but no one mentioned his name. “It was great to be so heavily featured, but there was no way to prove to anyone that it was actually me,” Bradley said. “Those who were following Hellraiser at the time were wondering where the guy with the pins was! Well I can tell you where I was—I was sitting at home in England, watching it all happen from the sidelines.”

5. THE CENOBITES' DESIGN WAS INSPIRED BY S&M CLUBS.

In the box set’s liner notes, Barker wrote that the Cenobites' “design was influenced amongst other things by punk, by Catholicism, and by the visits I would take to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam.” Costume designer Jane Wildgoose created the costumes, based on Barker’s instruction of “repulsive glamour.”

“The other notes that I made about what he wanted was that they should be ‘magnificent super-butchers,’” Wildgoose said.

As for Pinhead, Barker said he “had seen a book containing photographs of African fetishes: sculptures of human heads crudely carved from wood and then pierced with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of nails and spikes. They were images of rage, the text instructed.”

6. IT'S REALLY A LOVE STORY.

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Julia is forced to bring men back to her house and murder them for Frank so that he can replenish his flesh. Barker looked at Hellraiser as more of a love story, with Julia committing these heinous acts in the name of love, not just to be brutal for no reason.

“She’s not committing murder in the way that Jason in the Friday the 13th films commits murder—just for the sake of blood-letting —she’s doing it for love,” Barker told Samhain. “So there is a sympathetic quality about her, enhanced hugely in my estimation by the fact that Clare Higgins does it so well.”

7. BARKER’S GRANDFATHER INSPIRED THE PUZZLE BOX.

When a person twists the box, known as the Lament Configuration, it summons the Cenobites from the gates of hell into the individual's world. “I wanted to have access to hell in the book and in the first movie, explored by something rather different than drawing a circle on the floor with magical symbols around it,” Barker told WIRED. “That seemed rather stale and rather old.”

Barker explained his grandfather was a cook on a ship and brought back a puzzle box from the Far East. “So when I went back to the problem of how to open the doors of hell, the idea of [using] a puzzle box seemed interesting to me. You know, the image of a cube is everywhere in world culture, whether it’s the Rubik’s Cube or the idea of the [Tesseract] in The Avengers movies. There’s a lot of places where the image of a cube as a thing of power is pertinent. I don’t know why that is, I don’t have any mythic explanation for it, but it seems to work for people.”

8. ROGER EBERT WASN'T A FAN OF THE FILM.

Roger Ebert gave Hellraiser just a half star when he reviewed it in 1987. “Who goes to see movies like this? This is a movie without wit, style, or reason,” he wrote, adding that, “I have seen the future of implausible plotting, and his name is Clive Barker.”

9. SOMEONE HAD THE JOB OF MAGGOT AND COCKROACH WRANGLER.

In England, there was a law in which cockroaches of both sexes weren’t allowed on set, because they could have mated and caused an infestation. So Barker had to hire someone to oversee the situation. “The wrangler, this is the honest truth, had to sex the roaches,” Barker told an audience at a Hellraiser screening. “They were all male. And we had a fridge. They move very fast, so the only way to slow them down was to chill them. We chilled the maggots and the roaches. We'd open it up and it was all reassuring. It was fun.”

10. BARKER PREFERS "HELL PRIEST" TO "PINHEAD."

In The Hellbound Heart, the Cenobite with pins sticking out of his head is called The Hell Priest. One of the special effects guys who worked on the movie gave the character his nickname. “I thought it was a rather undignified thing to call the monster, but once it stuck, it stuck,” Barker told Grantland.

In 2015, Barker published a sequel to The Hellbound Heart, The Scarlet Gospels, which features Pinhead getting annoyed when people call him that—as well as Pinhead’s demise. “He will not be coming back, by the way," Barker said. "That I promise you."

11. A HELLRAISER VS. HALLOWEEN MOVIE ALMOST HAPPENED.

In an interview with Game Radar, Bradley said the success of Freddy vs. Jason led Hellraiser distributor Dimension Films to flirt with a Hellraiser vs. Halloween film. “I was actually getting excited by the prospect of this because Clive said he would write it and John Carpenter said he would direct it,” Bradley said. “I actually spoke to Clive about it a couple of times and he was interested in finding the places where the Halloween and Hellraiser worlds intermeshed.” But Moustapha Akkad, who owned the rights to Halloween, extinguished the idea.

12. THE BRITISH BOARD OF FILM CLASSIFICATION HAD TO CHECK THAT NO RATS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THE MOVIE.

While the MPAA requested that a spanking scene be cut for its American release, England's BBFC agreed to release the movie as it was, if they were assured that the rats used in the film weren’t hurt. “I had to bring three remote-control rats into the censor’s office and make them wriggle about on the floor,” producer Christopher Figg told The Telegraph. “They wanted to be sure we hadn’t been cruel to them.”

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