Yesterday, I posted an article about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion that ended up, during the process of writing, more concerned about Polanski’s abhorrent crime and subsequent escape from justice than the film itself. During the piece, I also talked briefly about another equally shocking incident committed by another director, Victor Salva.
During production of Salva’s full-length debut, Clownhouse, the director accosted one of the film’s young stars, 12-year-old Nathan Winters, and subjected him to terrible sexual abuse for which he was arrested, charged and served 15 months of a three-year sentence.
In any other industry, Salva’s career would have suffered greatly as a result of his actions, and yet he went on to considerable success as a director, not least with the Jeepers Creepers trilogy. Was this a case of a man paying his debt to society and moving on with his life, or an all too familiar case (recent events, notwithstanding) of fame and connections blithely excusing impropriety?
Let’s take a look at Clownhouse. Do bear in mind, I have not seen the film and make no moral judgement upon the content, save to say that the Wikipedia entry for the film’s synopsis states: ‘The plot concerns three young brothers home alone who fall under attack from three escaped mental patients disguised as clowns.‘
According to a 2006 LA Times article, it was none other than Francis Ford Coppola who gave Salva $250,000 to make Clownhouse after being impressed by his short film, Something in the Basement.
While on set, Salva subjected young Winters to sexual abuse, even going as far as filming the acts. Accordingly, Winters’ mother had grown suspicious when Salva refused to allow her on the set, explaining that her son wouldn’t be able to work with her there. When she finally confronted her son, he told her the horrible truth and Salva was arrested. A police raid revealed two home videos featuring the director and Winters engaging in oral sex.
During Salva’s incarceration, Clownhouse premiered at the Sundance Festival. This seems odd given that stories about the director would have been widely known, but there are two lines of questioning here: 1) Would it have been unfair for the numerous other actors and crew, who would have worked extremely hard to make the film, to see the fruits of their labour languish? 2) Should the film have stayed unreleased regardless?
The simple answer would have been to deny the film a release, and certainly not a premiere. After all, Clownhouse would have been, and undoubtedly is, a constant, glaring reminder of an intensely traumatic period in Nathan Winters’ life. It seems especially curious that, despite everything, Clownhouse was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the festival. A true case of separating the art from the artist.
A check on the Rotten Tomatoes website throws up some interesting reviews of Clownhouse, not least from efilmcritic.com, whose review suggests: ‘Clownhouse plays like Salva’s self-loathing mirror on himself.‘ The reviewer goes on to write that during the scenes of horror: ‘Winters’ terror is all too real, and becomes unbearably dismaying to watch. The other two boys in the film are acting; Winters isn’t, quite.’ It’s horrifying to think that the duty of care from adult to child and the trust that Winters would have placed in his elder was betrayed in such an appalling way.
When Salva was paroled, having served less than half of his sentence, he finally returned to work in 1995 with the direct-to-video Nature of the Beast, before Disney came calling and Salva went to work on Powder, a film about a boy with telekinetic powers. Nathan Winters and five friends picketed the preview, holding aloft signs that read: ”Writer, Director, Child Molester” and ”Disney Supports Child Molestation.”
Disney denied knowledge of Salva’s past, and the director continued to work (though not with Disney, it has to be said). In 2001, despite MGM being nervous about hiring a convicted sex offender, Jeepers Creepers entered the public consciousness, though it fell upon Francis Ford Coppola to vouch for the director. In the aforementioned LA Times article Coppola stated: “I was criticized for it, but my attitude is, he has a talent, and that talent in itself is good. We don’t have to embrace the person in believing that their art is a contribution to society.” This was followed in 2003 by a sequel.
A review of Jeepers Creepers 2 demonstrates one rather depressing opinion about how the horror film is viewed and the sort of n’er-do-wells that the reviewer supposes frequents its grubby reaches, with the following incredibly offensive remark: ‘He must certainly see himself as above this material, but this is all that Hollywood will let convicted child molesters do.’ As horror fans, we’ve been subjected to snobbery from film critics for years, but this is certainly one of the lowest blows I’ve encountered.
Three years later, following the release of his film Peaceful Warrior, Salva spoke about his past: “I pled guilty to a terrible crime, and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to make up for it. For almost 20 years, I’ve been involved with helping others, I’ve been in therapy, and I’ve made movies. But I paid my debt to society and apologized to the young man. And all I can hope is that people will give me a chance to redeem myself.”
Victor Salva continues to make films, his latest the third in the Jeepers Creepers series, which suffered a fair amount of backlash as the director’s past continues to haunt him.
The abiding questions, though, are as follows: should a convicted felon, who has paid their debt to society be given a second chance (bearing in mind, of course, that his victim continues to suffer to this day)? And is Coppola right? I admit I am playing devil’s advocate here, and conversation on Twitter has been interesting, to say the least, especially on the subject of whether one can separate art from artist. So, over to you.