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How 'bout Those Dangling Transparent Carrots?

An Interview With Don May, Jr.
Grand Pooh-Bah of Synapse Films




This is going to be a hellishly long interview, so I'll get the set-up out of the way quickly. I first met Don May Jr. when I began writing reviews of laserdiscs for TNT's Rough Cut site. I was flipping through a Video Business magazine, when I saw an ad for Dawn of the Dead soon to be released from Elite Entertainment. I called over to Elite to discuss covering the disc's release, and first spoke with Vini Bancalari, who immediately sent me over to his partner Don May, Jr.. I guess I sounded like a fan-boy film critic, and he knew that Don would have all the information I needed. Don and I both love movies, horror especially, and we struck up an immediate friendship that has lasted through his falling out with Elite, Don's illness with a lymph node infection, and his prison rape. Well, all right -- he wasn't raped in prison. He's never even been to prison. I am however, quite sure that if he were, we'd talk about it.

Today, Don May, Jr. is considered the premier horror-film fan-boy -- at least when he's not snacking on tofu and fat-free yogurt. He's probably the youngest person doing what he does in this industry (he started at the ripe old age of 26), and his newest venture, Synapse Films, is releasing some of the most cutting-edge genre titles coming out on DVD. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Don, and talked with him about life, DVD distribution and our mutual love of great horror films.

Todd Doogan - The Digital Bits: So, I'm sorry I'm calling so late, but I was at the health food store buying all sorts of shit.

Don May, Jr. (DMJ - no, that doesn't stand for Devil In Miss Jones): Well, that's all right -- what sort of shit at the health food store?

Doogan: Kapha Invigorating Elixir... (Don laughs) Elim/Slim Supreme...

DMJ: (laughing louder) Yeah?

Doogan: And, uh, Camp Coleus Forskohlii Supreme.

DMJ: (calming down from another good laugh at my expense) Yummy.

Doogan: I got a bad metabolism, all right. Leave me alone. Okay, so you ready to do this?

DMJ: As long as you have better questions than what everyone else asks.

Doogan: Well, I'll try and impress you with my conversational skills. How many times are you interviewed a day?

DMJ: Oh, my God. Even when I was at Elite, we'd stare at the wall going, "Here we go again! The same questions." Just go ahead and we'll see.

Doogan: (adopting geeky tone and a braces-inflected lisp) "So what's it like being you?"

DMJ: (equally geeky tone... more effeminate, really) "How did you get started in this business?"

Doogan: Oh, I don't give a shit about that. (Don laughs again) Don't worry, we'll keep this interesting. Okay, so, how'd you get started in this business?

DMJ: (laughs -- he didn't expect it, even though it was SOOOOOOOO obvious) Well, is that a serious question?

Doogan: No, I'm more interested in what you're doing at Synapse, and (because of a "confidentiality agreement" from Elite) we can't really talk about why you left Elite.

DMJ: Oh, I can answer that. I'll answer anything you ask. It's just, sometimes the answer will have to be: "I can't answer that."

Doogan: All right. How'd you end up leaving Elite?

DMJ: Well, Vini and I had some wonderful times together as business partners. As you know, Vini and I started Elite around six years ago. My official answer to that is, there were a load of personal and professional reasons as to why I left, that I really can't get into. The only thing I can say is, I had to sign a piece of paper saying I wouldn't talk about why I left for 5 years.

Doogan: What happened? What could possibly happen that you would have to sign something saying you won't say why you left?

DMJ: No comment.

Doogan: Really?

DMJ: Yeah.

Doogan: That bad, huh?

DMJ: Well. I'm not going to say it was good or bad. I'm going to be very diplomatic and say I can't answer that question.

Doogan: I completely understand. So now you're on your own. Where's Synapse based?

DMJ: Synapse is now based in the very cheap-to-live Bloomington, Illinois. I moved back here, because I lived here up until the point when I worked with Elite. I worked in a laserdisc store here, when I was in college, and that's when I met my former partner Vini. I like the area. I graduated from Illinois State University, and it's about 75% cheaper to live here than it is to live in the New Jersey or New York area. That's not to say I don't like those areas, but I was living in a one bedroom shoebox for $800, close to $900 dollars a month out there. Here, for half that price, I'm living in a two bedroom, two-story condo. It was a no brainer, for me to move back to this area to start Synapse.

Doogan: Did you major in film, or have a film background?

DMJ: I got a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting. I worked on a few commercials that were quite bad. I worked on a couple of short films that were bad too.

Doogan: Put 'em on DVD.

DMJ: There you go. There's an idea. (his tone says, "Yeah, right...")

Doogan: (television broadcaster's voice) "The lost history of Don May, Jr."

DMJ: That ain't gonna happen.

Doogan: Your company; is it independently owned?

DMJ: I started the company with my best friend in the whole world, Jerry Chandler, and an associate of ours, Charles Fiedler. I still wanted to stay in this business after I left Elite. This is what I do. People appreciate what I did over at Elite. I was involved with a company that really changed the way that horror and sci-fi were shown on laserdisc. I wanted to continue in that tradition, and do some of the things that I liked... continue doing the same sort of work.

Jerry is a person I met in a Fangoria ad sixteen years ago as a video trader, believe it or not, back when they had those free personal subscriber ads. I answered an ad for a video trader and it was Jerry. We've been friends ever since. It's great. We started writing back and forth, as horror fans. Fifteen years later, we're business partners. It's a kind of interesting story. Once I got out on my own, he volunteered to help me get started with a new company -- and God bless him. A lot of the work is done by myself, but if it wasn't for Jerry, bringing his constant advice.... You know, he's been a businessman all of his life. He actually works in Detroit. He's the Vice President of a big steel corporation. He knows his Ps and Qs when it comes to business, and I really appreciate everything he's done for me. We're on the phone everyday, and it's like he is the brain behind the business end of what we're doing, and I'm the artist I guess. And since we're not seeing each other eye-to-eye everyday, we don't want to kill each other by the end of the day. That's another nice thing.

Doogan: Is anything coming out from Elite that you had your hands in? Or are you totally purged?

DMJ: You're opening up a nasty can of worms here.

Doogan: (a halo lights above my head) I ask that only because that can't possibly be part of the "can't talk about it" policy. (devilish smirk)

DMJ: The thing is... f**k it, I don't care. Can I cuss?

Doogan: (excited) Sure! Sure! We'll just put little stars in for the "U" and the "C".

DMJ: F**k it then, I'm gonna talk about this. This is the thing about when I left Elite Entertainment -- we were still friends, Vini and I. It was like, "Give me a call some time, blah, blah, blah. Let's get together when I'm in town." No reason to become enemies, or anything. The whole thing was, let's still be friends.

Doogan: So that "no talk" disclosure was done as friends.

DMJ: No, that's just a legal safety-net thing, I guess... (pause) Vini and I were friends, basically like brothers, for years. There are days that I sit here and think about how much fun we used to have together. We used to have a lot of fun together doing this stuff. What a thrill it was, to work on Night of the Living Dead, and what a thrill it was to work with Texas Chainsaw, with all the cast members. You couldn't imagine how exciting it was. We did have some great times.

When I left Elite, there were still some projects that weren't quite finished and ready to go that I worked on. I left the company... and the movies come out and my name doesn't appear on any of this stuff, even though I had a hand in getting some of it done. The big one was Evil Dead II, on which I played a major part in getting a lot of the supplements together. I got the commentary scheduled, I got the elements together, I got the pictures from Sam, I spent three full eight-hour days in NYC, by myself, going through supplements -- even meeting with our graphic artist for preliminary jacket cover designs. Then the disc comes out, and there's no reference to me on the jacket. It was a real sore spot for me. I talked to Sam Raimi not long ago and he actually apologized to me for what happened with it. I don't think he was super happy either... wrong information on the LD jacket, etc. I wasn't credited with Return of the Evil Dead, and I had a hand in that. Mark of the Devil didn't have my name on it. As a matter of fact, neither Vini nor I did the transfer for Mark of the Devil, our audio commentary guy, Armand Petri, did it. He wasn't even credited on the jacket for sitting in on the transfer, and we paid for his stay at the facility and got him down there! Those kinds of things seemed selfish but they hurt a lot. I had a hand in a couple of the Hammer Films that came out after I left and I was uncredited on the discs, but was credited on Anchor Bay's tapes. Even with the Horror Hotel DVD that came out, the credit states, "Transfer Supervised by Vini Bancalari". Hello? It's the same transfer as the laserdisc, and I was there for, and credited for, that. What happened? Where's my credit? I'm surprised the Re-Animator DVD actually had my name on it.

Doogan: Do you guys talk anymore, or is there bad blood?

DMJ: No comment.

Doogan: Okay. So it's over with. What did you do after? Was Synapse going to be "the next coming of Don May, Jr." as a horror fan, or were you thinking of other things?

DMJ: Well, when I left, I had different plans for Synapse. I wanted to do titles that I don't think Elite would have tackled. When we were together, there were times that I would show Vini movies, and we couldn't mesh. He liked a certain kind of film, and I liked a certain kind of film. Unfortunately, in this business, you can't let your personal opinion of a particular movie judge whether you think you should do it or not. You should do it for the fans. A good example is Meet the Feebles. I would have loved to do Meet the Feebles. As a matter of fact, we were talking with Peter Jackson about doing it. We sat down, watched 45 minutes of Meet the Feebles, and Vini said, "That's it. I've had enough. I'm going to bed." I'm like, "No, you don't understand. This is Meet the Feebles. This is Peter Jackson. This is amazing." I personally love the movie. It's f**king insane, and I think fans would love it. But he was like, "Nah."

Doogan: And this was before Jackson's mainstream success, so wouldn't it be affordable?

DMJ: It wasn't affordable, and that's ultimately, I think, WHY we didn't do it. But looking back, that sort of thing is what had a hand in the partnership dissolving. He likes his kind of movies and I like mine. I have plans for Synapse. I want to do titles that people request. I want to do titles that are fun and have a reputation of being good. I even remember us having a semi-nasty argument about Gamera. I wanted to do the films, and he wasn't sure about them. Probably because he hadn't seen them, which is a fair concern, I guess. Well, Japanese cinema fans know that Gamera is f**king amazing. Gamera films are known worldwide, and they are a blast to watch. So, I waited until I formed Synapse, and snapped up the laserdisc rights and sold a huge number of units, even during the final days of good laserdisc sales. The entire run sold out in three weeks.

Doogan: Good films, huh? So then, why are you doing Fatal Frames? (giggle)

DMJ: A lot of people like Fatal Frames, Todd. Actually when I was at Fantasia (a huge film festival in Montreal, Canada), it was the one title everyone asked me about. Sure it's not a movie for everyone, but it is one of those titles that has cameos from just about everyone in the industry: David Warbeck, Donald Pleasence, Linnea Quigley, Angus Scrimm. Plus it has special effects by Oscar-winner Steve Johnson. The movie is gory -- a lot of fun, and the extras that I will be including on the disc will make it even more fun. I'm putting on Stefania Stella music videos for christsakes! Those alone are worth the price of this disc. I will say this: it'll be way better than The Car (Don does perfect imitation of the satanic car horn from The Car). To be honest, I used to think I liked The Car, until I watched it recently on disc. It has to be one of the worst films ever made. It certainly hasn't held up well over the years. There's a HUGE stretch of that film that is just totally boring. I mean, when I was younger, I LOVED this movie... UGH! How things change. My DVD player must have thought the same thing -- I had to remove the cover of my DVD player with a screwdriver to get the disc out.

Doogan: What?

DMJ: When I was finished watching The Car, I opened the tray to take it out and the disc wasn't in the tray! It was like my player wanted to save me by eating the disc so that I wouldn't ever have watch it again. "No, Don! This car is NOT possessed by Satan -- I am, dammit! You shall not be fooled by this charlatan car." I had to take the cover off my DVD player and get the disc out with a screwdriver! In The Car's defense, however, it has happened a lot recently with my DVD player. My MiniDisc player turns itself on and off at random intervals, too. Perhaps my whole stereo system is possessed -- so many horror films played on it has corrupted its fragile little mind.

Doogan: You know, as "bad" as some films are, I appreciate companies like yours for releasing cult favorites on DVD. What's your take on cult horror films?

DMJ: There are the little horror films and then there are the big horror films. Horror fans are my bread and butter, and everyone has their likes and dislikes. Personally, I can sit through just about anything once. There are titles that I absolutely LOVE to watch, that others cannot stand, and vice versa. Regardless, these types of films (cult films, horror films, sci-fi, etc.) should all at least be available for viewing on home video, and I want to do my part to help this with the things I release. I'm hoping to introduce people to films that they may not have seen before like Organ, Fatal Frames and A Better Place. And, in doing so, it will expand my audience a little more, too. Sure, you may not like everything I do, but at least I'm giving you the opportunity to check it out, you know? You can't please everyone all the time.

Doogan: You mention big films. What's it like getting your hands on something as important as some of the stuff you've worked on? You're holding Texas Chainsaw Massacre!

DMJ: It's scary. It's scary every single time. I remember when we were working on Night of the Living Dead, the original negative was sitting in front of us. Karl Hardman (the producer and actor who played Harry Cooper) comes into the facility, slips on his gloves and says, "Well, that's it." We're staring at it, and he starts to unspool it, and he started showing us stuff like, "Here's where we shot 16mm and blew it up to 35mm." It was scary, because the one thing going through my mind was, "This is the thing that started it all, right in front of me. Jesus! I'm gonna freak out any second." I couldn't get it out of my mind.

Doogan: Next time you get something as important as that, you should bring a film crew just to get the expression of everyone's faces.

DMJ: That's something I wanted to do with Chainsaw. There were crates and boxes of just miscellaneous film elements all around. I'd find a little tiny 200 foot piece of film, and then I'd find the mag audio track that was numbered the same. It was all just outtakes. I would've loved to film Gunnar Hansen and myself digging through all the boxes of Chainsaw Massacre crap, but we didn't do it. We were looking at Chainsaw materials right next to shelves that contained all the hundreds of hours of shot footage and outtakes from Gone with the Wind, for cryin' out loud! It was all stored in the same place! In this business, you find some really crazy stuff.

I'll never forget the day Gunnar was looking at some film on a little rewind thing, and he said, "Don! Come here. Wanna see something funny?" I went over and there, and on this little piece of film was a young Farrah Fawcett dancing around a plane's landing gear in a short dress! In college, Tobe (Hooper) knew Farrah, and she was in a college film project he did. He had a class, and for an assignment he made a "promotional" commercial for the local airport. She was the actress in it! She must've been 19 or 20 years old. I wonder how much Hard Copy or The Enquirer would've paid for THAT! (laughs)

Doogan: Man. Okay, from Farrah in a short dress, let's go back to the origins of Synapse. What was the first title you thought about getting for release? What's the film you thought "defined" your company vision?

DMJ: The first title I thought about getting was Vampyros Lesbos, and it ended up being the fifth title. I WANTED to do Vampyros Lesbos. I liked the film -- I think it's a great film. I think the soundtrack is amazing. I want to do these obscure films, and a lot of the time I have to convince my partner Jerry that we should do certain ones. He wasn't always convinced a lot of this stuff would work, but the difference here is he's SEEN a lot of these obscure films. He wasn't just knowledgeable about the "mainstream" Cineplex crap. And you know what? When the preorders came in, Vampyros Lesbos out-sold our first two DVD titles (Dario Argento's World Of Horror and Document of the Dead) together. The preorders are there -- Vampyros Lesbos is doing amazing numbers. So amazing, in fact, that Image Entertainment sent me a list of their top non-exclusive titles recently, and Vampyros Lesbos was outselling Elizabeth!

Doogan: You announced Vampyros Lesbos a long while back -- what's holding it up?

DMJ: The thing is, we're dealing with a company in Germany. They have been extremely helpful, but what has happened is they were scared to ship it to the U.S. The film is over 20 years old, and all they have is the negative. They have prints, but they are all reddish and edited and badly spliced. They don't even have an interpositive. They are scared to give it to me, because they're like, "What if we ship it to you and it gets lost?" Then Vampyros Lesbos doesn't exist anymore. They are concerned, and I can completely agree with that.

So, I'm trying to do a work around. I'm doing the best job I can to make this work. I may have to work with another company in Germany to get it done, or I can insure it for a million Deutchmarks, and ship it over here. Insurance for a million Deutchmarks is, like, a crazy amount of money converted to U.S., and I'm not going pay that for shipping a negative. I completely understand where they are coming from, and they understand where I'm coming from. If something happens to the negative, the movie is destroyed. It'll just take some time. I offered to do a new print from the negative, but they tell me it is in pretty poor shape anyway, too.

The thing that annoys me the most is that, when we licensed the title, we were told there were usable elements... which obviously isn't true. But that's not all -- the licensor had maybe two friggin' pictures from the film! Gee, that's GREAT, huh? No promotional materials at all. So, I made an arrangement with Peter Blumenstock to get some stuff. He's supposedly got a HUGE collection of Vampyros material. He promised me the stuff. I gave him the shipping info, and the stuff was never sent. I sent him e-mail after e-mail, asking where the stuff was, and they remain unanswered to this day. Months went by because of that... doesn't do much good to have a movie and nothing for the cover or insert! I found it very disconcerting, and got really upset. So, to the rescue came Marc Morris from Redemption in England! He was a HUGE help and basically saved my ass with photos, etc. Finally, over a year later, the title is almost done and should be out around Halloween.


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