Behind the Scenes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Conversation with Gunnar Hansen
To critics, the original 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre was either “a degrading, senseless misuse of film and time” or “an intelligent, absorbing and deeply disturbing horror film.” But it was an immediate hit with audiences. Banned and celebrated, showcased at the Cannes Film Festival and included in the MoMA’s collection, it has now come to be recognized widely as one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
A six-foot-four poet fresh out of grad school, Gunnar Hansen played the masked, chain-saw-wielding Leatherface.
In Chain Saw Confidential, Hansen tells the real story of the making of the film, its release, and reception, full of behind-the-scenes detail, adventures in low-budget filmmaking, and insights on the film’s enduring place in the horror genre and our culture.
Author Gunnar Hansen. © Michael Helms.
Can you talk about how you came to be cast in the role? What had been your acting experience up to that point?
My only acting experience, really, was that I had been in a couple of plays in college—a Mark Twain ensemble piece and Of Mice and Men (playing Lenny Small). But the Lenny Small part actually lead me to Chain Saw Massacre. I ran into a friend who had played George to my Lenny, and we decided to do some catching up over a cup of coffee. A friend of his joined the conversation and told me that some guys were in town making a horror movie and that I would have been perfect to play the part of the killer, but the role had already been cast. About a week later I ran into him again, and he said that the actor cast for the Leatherface part was holed up drunk in a motel and wouldn’t come out, so Tobe Hooper, the director, was looking for a new Leatherface. I met with Tobe and with his co-writer, Kim Henkel. Tobe asked me three questions: Are you crazy? (I said no.) Are you violent? (I said no.) Can you play the part? (I said yes.) And that is how I was cast. Later Tobe told me that he had decided to cast me when I came for the interview because I filled the doorway when I walked in.
What did you do to prepare? How does someone prepare for something like this?
Because I had neither voice nor face, I knew I had only my body to create the character. So I spent time at a residential school for what we’d then call retarded persons, walking the grounds, observing the residents, trying to find a set of postures and movements that made sense and could represent Leatherface’s state of mind. When I put together what I thought worked, I walked around the grounds till I met some staff people. They looked at me as if I were a resident there, so I decided I had Leatherface moving the way I wanted.
Did folks in Austin know what you all were up to during the filming? Any raised eyebrows?
Of course we were not anywhere near other people—we were out on a barely used road north of Austin. And most of the time we were either inside the house or away from the road itself. So I doubt anyone really knew what we were doing. We did warn the sheriff ahead of time that we would be filming so he would not get too concerned if he got a complaint. But I think only the sheriff got upset—when we blocked the road for a while one day to shoot a scene.
The film was an independent production and the shoot was legendarily grueling. Were there times when it seemed like it was just going off the rails?
Well, I had nothing to judge it by—I had never worked on a movie before—so I didn’t know whether what we were doing was normal filmmaking. Certainly there were times I wondered whether we would survive the filming conditions, and I learned much later that some of the crew (who had some real experience) was beginning to think that this movie would never be released, that the footage was just too crazy and disjointed to ever hold together.
What was your reaction when you first saw the film in a theater? What did your friends think? Had you seen any footage before then?
I had not seen any footage before seeing the completed movie, though I think some of the other actors did. So when I watched it the first time, I had no idea what to expect. I was thrilled. I thought the movie held together well—it made sense—and the pacing was compelling. Though obviously I knew everything that was about to happen, I was still completely caught up in it.
Set photo of Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, with John Dugan as Grandpa (seated). © Vortex, Inc. Kim Henkel/Tobe Hooper.
What did you do after Chain Saw?
I made one more movie, a small project in Michigan. Then I got out of the business. I had never intended to be an actor—the movie had just been an interesting summer job to me—so I moved to Maine and started working full time writing. I was an editor on a regional magazine for about a year, while I learned the skills I needed, then I jumped ship and started freelancing—first writing for magazines, then moving on to writing and directing documentary films and an occasional book. I did not get involved in movies again for almost two decades. Even now it remains secondary to my “real” working life.
Have you been surprised by the film’s reception and longevity? Film Threat for instance called it the greatest horror movie ever made. Why do you think people are still fascinated by the film?
Yes, I have been surprised by this. When we were making the movie, I felt that the most I could hope for would be that five years down the road a few hard-core horror fans would remember it. When it got big, I was quite surprised. In fact, I was so far away from the movie business that I didn’t know for a long time what had happened. Only when I started acting again did I see how big Chain Saw had become. I think this success has come because, like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead, the film really changed the rules of horror. It is a roller-coaster ride from the beginning, and at no moment does the audience feel safe. It also is a nihilistic film—there is no justice at the end; good does not triumph over evil; the last victim escapes, but the killers are left out there, ready to kill again.
“Makes The Exorcist look like a Comedy”—an ad promoting the film’s MoMA and Cannes connections for a 1975 New York City run.
Why do you think we like to be scared?
First there is the whole notion of catharsis, the idea that we like the safe scares of horror movies and thrillers because we can be very frightened and still come out safe at the end—it’s a way to face a threat without any danger. But I think it is more than that. I think, also, that horror allows people to glimpse the unknowable, to get a tiny sense of the Shadow that follows all of us, to see that life isn’t always so cheery and ordered after all.
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