Spotlight on Donald G. Jackson
I’ve seen a lot of b movies and watched a lot of bad directors, but very few have inspired the sort of obsessive fascination I have for Jackson.
Donald Jackson was born on April 24, 1943 in the midwest, growing up in Adrian, Michigan. He began collecting comic books at the age of five and this formed his desire to make movies. While working at a factory building speedometers, he met Jerry Younkins. Younkins was involved in an industrial accident at the factory, losing a couple of fingers. The factory paid him off, giving him about $6000. Jerry and Don quickly decided that this should go towards their shared goal of making their first film. Jackson wanted to do a pulpy privet investigator movie with as black lead. Younkins disagreed and pointed to the success of “The Exorcist” and the hype around occult horror movies. He persuaded Jackson that this was the way to go instead and Jackson reluctantly agreed. Don took sick leave from work, claiming that he was under a doctor’s care, they found a camera crew and set to work creating “The Demon Lover”.
The Demon lover was a troubled production, with Don frequently butting heads with his crew. The inexperienced filmmaker never had a firm plan on what was going to be shot or how to accomplish it, but his charisma managed to draw people in and secure actors and sets. They brought in Gunnar Hanson from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ted Nugent lent them his house and penned music for the film. Money dried up quickly, with a $5000 payout to Hanson alone and another $1000 to keep the camera crew working. Jackson was soon forced to mortgage his house, his car, and even his furniture to get the film made. The camera crew ran off at the last minuet after trashing Jackson’s mother’s home where they were staying.
Somehow, the movie got finished. And after two years of post, it was released to moderate success on the drive in circuit. Jackson never saw a penny, and when the factory discovered he’d been off making a movie instead of sick like he had claimed, he lost his job. Hanson was demanding more money – his deal had been $5000 up front, with another $5000 on the back end if Jackson turned a profit. He never did and was therefore unable to make the secondary payment to Hanson – a sore point that Gunnar would still be holding on to when Jackson ran into him at Comic Con in 2000, more than twenty years later.
“I walked up to say, “Hi.” I asked him why he was mad at me and all he could tell me is that I owed him $5,000.00. ”
In the meantime, The camera crew was spreading the word that Jackson wasn’t to be trusted, even going as far as to release a documentary on the making of “The Demon Lover” in an effort to paint Jackson in as crazy a light as possible. Still, he had made enough of an impact that he was getting noticed. Sam Raimi contacted him, telling him that he was one of Raimi’s biggest cinematic influences, and Don was happy to talk with him about what it was like to work on an indie Production like “The Demon Lover”. Other projects were explored. One even involved legendary Cleveland horror host “The Ghoul”, but never materialized. While he never stopped trying, it would be ten years before he would make a return to the film making world with the advent of the VHS market.
This time around, Jackson would play to his strengths, and his own interests. In addition to comics, Jackson was a fan of professional wrestling.
“In the Midwest, were I grew up, Wrestling has always been one of the lifeblood’s of sports.”
Matches would be on television every weekend and at least once a month there would be one big matchup in the city. Jackson was a frequent attendee. It was there that he started to get an idea for his next film.
“What I began doing was to take, first my 8 mm, then my Super 8 Camera, and later my 16 mm Bolex to matches and I began to put a lot of wrestling footage together.”
What Jackson needed was a star. Someone to focus on. Big names like Hulk Hogan were out of the question. Payments would have to be made, and clearances for every shot would be necessary. Jackson didn’t have that kind of cash or time on hand. He found his star in a well known heel named “The Shiek”.
“I went up to him at a match one day, told him what I wanted to do. And, he was the nicest guy. He gave me full access. He also introduced me to many of the other wrestlers, who allowed me to film them, as well.” A real coup would be getting footage of Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes for the nascent film.
Jackson’s idea was to make a horror film based in the wrestling world. “Ringside in Hell” however, failed to get traction and Don decided to change direction, cutting the horror scenes and instead, taking inspiration from Robert Altman’s “Nashville”, began to create something following the people in this world – the stars, the up-and-comers, and the never-will-bes, diving into their own personal stories as they orbit the bigger narrative. Slowly he put together a feature that was half documentary and half narrative. After running out of resources with a film that was too short for a VHS release, Jackson added an entire new subplot revolving around a movement against his main character the “Stop the Shiek” drive. The film would become “I like to Hurt People”, and it would finally garner him the attention of Hollywood. Jackson would take matters into his own hands and sent out copies to various film studios, and New World pictures showed some interest, agreeing to pick it up and distribute it. They paid Jackson $50,000. It was enough to finance his move out to Hollywood.
Now settled in out west, Jackson needed work. He leveraged his contacts at New World to get work there as a camera operator and started to make contacts out there like Fred Olen Ray, who would loan him out both his son Christopher and his girlfriend Michelle Baur to be in his next project. One of Don’s early jobs was assistant camera on effects for the sci-fi foray, “Galaxy of Terror”. It was n this film that he’d make another Hollywood up-and-comer. James Cameron was working on FX where Jackson was shooting and Cameron would become a contact that would lead to more work on future films, not the least of which was “Terminator”.
Cameron was almost finished with the film, but wasn’t happy with everything and needed some additional scenes filmed. The problem was, he was out of money. It was at this point that he called up Don for help shooting things like the opening where Schwarzenegger arrives at the L.A. Observatory. Time drew short. Cameron was on his own dime and the shoot was about to go into overtime for Schwarzenegger, even as the crew decided to break for lunch. Cameron looked to Don for a solution.
“We got a small portable light, known as a “Mini Cool,” out of the truck of my car and I had Jim hold it and pan it as Arnold walked through the scene. We got the shot, Arnold got to go home without being paid overtime, and the movie was completed.”
Still, Jackson wasn’t content to just run film on other people’s productions. he came to Hollywood to make his own films. He was working on his next project – a post apocalyptic roller skating battle called “Roller Blade”, which he was financing using his credit cards. Around this time, the returns were coming in for “I Like To Hurt People”, making half a million dollars for New World Pictures. He was $5000 in debt when New World came to him and asked if he had any other projects in the works. Jackson grabbed the footage he had and cut it into a trailer. It didn’t take long for them to work out that a $5000 movie gave them ample room for profit and New World immediately snatched it up.
I’ve written about Roller Blade elsewhere. It was screened for us at the Cedar Lee theater and left me gobsmacked and unable to move half of my body for several minuets. Yet despite the abject lunacy of a sci-fi epic about roller skating nuns in a dystopian future, the combination of creativity and the unique promotion of Roller Blade as the first film marketed direct to video, made the film a success. After raking in a million dollars in sales, New World was ready to give Jackson a shot at a film with a big budget, stars and support. That film would be arguably Jackson’s most well known film; “Hell Comes to Frogtown”.
The problem with increased budgets from a legitimate hollywood studio, is that they come with increased scrutiny. Jackson suddenly found himself surrounded by handlers. He would constantly butt heads with the script supervisor who insisted on word for word line readings when Jackson was more interested in getting the jist of the dialogue. The strict adherence to structure and process that the studio imposed constantly rubbed Jackson the wrong way and by the time Frogtown was finished, Jackson’s relationship with New World was also finished. Donald Jackson departed the studio system, never to return. Leaving the studio however didn’t mean leaving film. Long time collaborator Scott Shaw once said of him; “Don was an obsessional filmmaker. He loved making movies. But, he was willing to make them at any cost.”. Jackson would spend the rest of his career making films independently, raising the money in any way he could. At one point Jackson even found himself in the middle of a ponzi scheme with investors raising money using his name and reputation. The financiers managed to get their hands on over five million dollars before the bottom fell out. Jackson received a mere $500,000 of that. He managed to get three films in the can before the scheme was revealed and the investors went to court. Jackson emerged with his films as well as footage shot for future movies as well. He began to leverage the name recognition behind films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” and “Roller Blade” producing sequels to each. The modest budgets in these productions is evident, but there is still a sense of linear storytelling and structure to them. They are commercial rather than strictly abstract and artistic as Jackson’s output would later increasingly become.
More money could be found in the family video market. Shaw recalls the era.
“Don knew that if he attempted to sell these investors on making the kind of films he actually wanted to make; i.e. more exploitation based films, they would never invest. So, what he did was to take his own unique vision of comic book based characters and create films, which he felt could be viewed by the younger audience. He did this, while siphoning money from those films, so that he could create the kind of movies that he actually wanted to make.”
Don himself would put it simply; “What I did, was give them the Donald G. Jackson version of a Children’s film — weird.”
The children’s films were never among Don’s favorites. He used to refer to them as “Just another piece of shit on the crap pile.”, but it was becoming evident that he was building his own style and collection of stock players including people like Joe Estevez and Robert Z’Dar
This was the era where Jackson would frequently collaborate with scriptwriter and actor Mark Williams, possibly best known as the artist who designed the album cover for the band Poison’s “Open Up and Say…Ahh!” record. Jackson met Mark via Steven Wang, the artist that created the creature effects and masks for Hell Comes to Frogtown back in Don’s New World days. Mark had moved to L.A. to pursue a career in movies. Much like Steve, Mark was also an FX artist, pursing a career path in the field when he met Don. Also being heavily influenced by comic books, Mark and Don meshed well. According to Scott Shaw
“Mark became an essential element in the filmmaking of Donald G. Jackson, beyond simply the SFX. Don would provide Mark with the concept for a film and Mark would go home and write the entire script in one evening.”
William’s enthusiasm however didn’t match Jackson’s. Don would go hour after hour, even day after day perusing his cinematic vision. He’d constantly be working on set and it wouldn’t be unusual to see him spending hours doing an insanely excessive amount of takes on a single scene in order to get things just right. Williams on the other hand might show up and just hang out puffing on a cigar while he occasionally handed out story direction or acted in a supporting role here and there. Jackson’s work ethic was fanatical. William’s was not. The relationship burnt out in a quick four years with Don eventually exploding at Williams in anger and furiously firing him. They would never speak again, though Jackson would attend William’s funeral at Dark Delicacies in Burbank after the creator’s untimely death from cancer in 1998.
Williams wasn’t the only victem of Jackson’s temper. Outburst on set were common. Scott Shaw remembers one particular incident “we had brought on this one guy who was the godson of actor William Smith. Good guy. I really like him. But, he pissed Don off for some nondescript reason and Don just went off. I was driving in the car behind them and for nearly an hour I could hear Don screaming at the top of his lungs at this guy”
During the filming of “Rock ‘n Roll Cops”, Jackson started screaming at Robert Z’Dar.
“I wish we could get a decent fucking actor on this set!”
Z’Dar, as huge and intimidating as he was, gave a soft and simple response. “I take exception with that, Donny.” He’d put up with it most days, but at one point on the set wher he and Jackson were filming the sequel to “Hell Comes to Frogtown”, the abuse just became too much. Z’Dar, decked out in leather and a jet pack, ripped off his Texas Rocket Ranger helmet and flung it at Jackson who lept up to doge the large chrome colored projectile.
By far, the worst victem of Jackson’s outbursts was Ed Wood alumni Conrad Brooks. Like Z’Dar, Brooks fell in to Jackson’s regular rotation and the two were fast friends. But Jackson was also abusive. Shaw recalled the way Jackson would treat Brooks.
“I believe this abusive mindset was one of the key downfalls to the overall career of Donald G. Jackson. He would test people and if he would find them venerable, he would go after them nonstop. Conrad was often on the wrong side of this abuse. ”
“I guess I shouldn’t have been so hard on him,” Jackson once admitted, but he never apologized.
Scott Shaw met Donald Jackson when he was called in for The Roller Blade Seven, the third film in Jackson’s post apocalyptic roller skating series. That partnership emerged with mixed results and Shaw parted ways with Jackson for a time under bad terms. Jackson went off and made his kids films and Shaw went off to shoot “Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell” and other films of his own. Shaw would find himself drawn back into Jackson’s orbit in 1995, shortly after Jackson was diagnosed with leukemia. Jackson was given six months to a year to live.
“He found out he only had a few more years to live as he was dying from leukemia. He remembered how well we worked together and that I was one of those people who gets things done. I think he wanted to leave a legacy and without someone like me that wasn’t going to happen.”
Jackson would defy the odds, and live another eight years, producing over a dozen films with Shaw. This was the era he truly embraced Zen filmmaking.
“Many people believe that Zen Filmmaking is simply based upon the fact that no screenplay is used in the creation of a Zen Film. Though this is the basis for Zen Filmmaking, in reality it is much more than this.” says Shaw, who describes how the idea of Zen Filmmaking came to being on the set of The Roller Blade Seven;
“Don and I were very disappointed with the performances of the massive cast we had hired to take part in the film. We looked at each other and realized that the majority of them did not have the talent to truly pull-off the roll of the character they had been assigned. With this, we came to a realization to just go out and film the movie, not expect anything from our cast and crew, and make up the story as we went along. After a few days of this style of production, I had a realization, based in my lifelong involvement with eastern mysticism. I looked at Don and said, “This is Zen. This is Zen Filmmaking.” And, that was it”
Shaw returned in time for Jackson to begin the final installment of his Frogtown series, though that was far from the only collabration.
“It is essential to note that the moment Don and I began working together again, we did not wholly focus on Toad Warrior. We, almost immediately began to formulate, come up with other projects, and begin filming them, as well. Most notable filmed around this same period of time were the films that became Shotgun Blvd. and Ghost Taxi. Though none of these first, “Next Generation Zen Films,” rose to the cult status of Max Hell Frog Warrior, at least in my opinion, they were all better films than Toad Warrior.”
For the rest of his career, in addition to Jackson’s own curious directorial signatures like Swords, roller skates and L.A.s 170 overpass bridge, you can see the specific methods of Zen filmmaking present.
Scott Shaw’s Six Tenets of Zen Filmmaking
1. Make all unforeseen situations work to your advantage.
2. Don’t waste time, money, and energy attempting to create your sets when you don’t have to. Instead, travel to them and allow their natural aesthetics to become a part of your film.
3. Just do it! Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get away with it.
4. Never let your story line dominate your artistic vision. Too many would be filmmakers attempt to write what they believe is a, “Good Script,” and then try to film it. Without an unlimited budget it is virtually impossible to get what is on the page on the stage.
5. Zen Filmmaking is a spontaneous process. If you acutely plan your productions, with screenplays, storyboards, and locations, there is no room for the spontaneity of Cinematic Enlightenment to occur and you will always be lost between the way your mind desired a scene to be and the way it actually turns out.
6. Ultimately, in Zen Filmmaking nothing is desired and, thus, all outcomes are perfect.
If that sounds terrible…it frequently is. And that’s fine by Shaw. ““We did not set out to make Gone with the Wind… It’s not intended to be good.” It’s a quick way of creating movies though. Jackson would always have several movies in varying stages of completion, a valuable thing given the uncertainty of his future. Sometimes things work out. I think “Ride with the Devil” is one of the better efforts. But the films frequently fall short of the artistic heights that this format presumes. Writer Michael Adams, author of “Showgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies” is perhaps the only person on earth who has watched as many of these films as I have. Here’s how he describes it.
“It’s 1:05 a.m. I’m staring blankly at the blank plasma screen. She (my wife) looks at me, looks at the TV.
“What are you doing, bubble?” she asks, a flicker of concern mixed in with amusement.
“I’ve cracked,” I say. “I can’t watch any more of this dude’s movies. I think this guy has broken my brain.”
“They’re that bad, huh?”
I nod. “And they’re all the same.”
“How much can you say? He tried, mostly failed, and died” Ted Newsome once wrote of Ed Wood.
The term “The next Ed Wood” has been entirely overused since the Medved brother’s golden Turkey awards in 1980 declared “Plan Nine From Outer Space” to be the worst movie of all time (It isn’t. It isn’t even the worst movie Ed Wood ever made). Since then, this mantel has been directed at any and every low -budget filmmaker in Hollywood. Artist Johnny Em even directed the term towards me in my student film days. With most filmmakers it’s mere hyperbole. If any filmmaker ever deserved this sobriquet however, it was Jackson. When looking at Jackson’s life and career in overview, he parallels Wood more than any other director I can think of.
Both men started out working behind the scenes in film doing whatever jobs the studio had available. It was an attempt to break into the business in whatever way they could. They both seized whatever opportunities came their way and bent those films into their own vision whether it was “Bride of the Monster” or “I Like to Hurt People”. Films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” or “Glen and Glenda” would deliver the studio a far stranger production than they had bargained for.
Both had to fight for creative control of their films. As far back as “Glen or Glenda” Wood had to put up with things like producer George Weiss inserting a short B&D lesbian scene in to the film without Wood’s knowledge or consent. It’s a move that feels very reminiscent of the way Jackson’s financer Tanya York, would recut the footage from both The Roller Blade Seven and Return of the roller Blade Seven into one unauthorized feature she titled “Legend of the Roller Blade Seven”. Wood ended up changing the name and ending of “Bride of the Atom” to appease investors. Still, he fared better than Jackson on “Hell Comes to Frogtown” where control was largely wrested away from him by the studio assigned co-director.
Both men had an unstoppable desire to make films, and yet both lacked resources, time, and patience. They both were masters of the one take scenes and would race through their productions with little regard for traditional film structure. What they lacked in traditional resources, they made up for in their synchronicity with their stock casts. Both had their reliable B-listers; Wood with Bela Lugosi and Jackson with Robert Z’Dar. They would back that star power up with fringe b-listers, Wood with Tor Johnson and Jackson with Joe Estevez and Scott Shaw.
There was a surprising prudishness to both Wood and Jackson as well. In his book “The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood”, Andrew J. Raush writes of Wood’s film “The Violent Years” ” After watching this, one must conclude that Wood was somewhat of a conservative man (startling considering the number of pornographic films Wood would later make or be associated with)”
“His simplistic assertion in the film that leading children “Back to God” would ultimately put an end to juvenile delinquency”
It’s interesting to note a similar conservative message in “The Sinister Urge”, Wood’s cautionary tale warning of the perils inherent in pornography (and sadly foreshadowing his own descent into that genre).
Jackson likewise had his own reservations, particularly when he was still under the influence of his community in Michigan. He was never comfortable with the occult subject matter in “The Demon Lover”, and frequently would express his regret in making it. When he returned home to his native Michigan around the turn of the century, he was welcomed back with open arms and considered the hometown boy made good. At one point Scott Shaw recalled Jackson asking him for a reedit on “the Guns of The Chupacabra” to eliminate the nudity, so he could show it to his friends. That edit would go on to be know as “Crimes of the Chupacabra”.
These old-fashioned values also came through in a certain degree of patriotism. You can frequently see it displayed by wood in places like “The Sinister Urge” where he hints that porn may be a strange foreign plot to wipe out the American way of life. It’s a motif that would pop up from time to time in Wood’s work, not the least of which is “Plan 9 From Outer Space” which can be boiled down to America vs. the Flying Saucers! For Jackson, the best example is simply the names of the scientists in Hell Comes to Frogtown; Star, Spangle, and Banner.
Both Jackson and Wood had one notable film and a lesser known one or two before their careers would be drug down into smut. It’s interesting to note that they were both incompetent flesh peddlers, delivering some of the least arousing nookie films ever made. It’s obvious that their hearts were never in it. Both kept up a good front at first, at least trying to infuse these blue features with some sort of plot before giving up and just delivering the requisite boobs.
To be fair, both Wood and Jackson manage a few legitimate films mixed in with the smut. in 1970 we got one of Wood’s movie scripts made into “The Revenge of Dr. X”, a blatant Frankenstein rip-off. There’s also 1974’s “Fugitive Girls”, a reimagining of the girl-gang theme from “The Violent Years”. Jackson would fire off Toad Warrior, and Shotgun Boulevard along with a handful of other Zen films that Scott Shaw would finish for him.
Neither ever gave up. Neither ever stopped working.
I’m grateful that Scott Shaw was there for Jackson at the end. He helped him keep going, keep filming, keep making movies. Wood should have been so lucky. After all, it’s what he had done for Bela Lugosi. Upon his death in 2003, Jackson transferred all rights to all of his films to Shaw, who has been a fine custodian of his legacy.
It’s a legacy of lunatic guerrilla filmmaking and insane story ideas that absolutely fascinates me and is very much a life that is worth exploring.