This week on The Ringer, we celebrate those movies that from humble or overlooked beginnings rose to prominence through the support of their obsessive fan bases. The movies that were too heady for mainstream audiences; the comedies that were before their time; the small indies that changed the direction of Hollywood. Welcome to Cult Movie Week.
When he called a few weeks ago, Ron Perlman was taking a break. He had just finished work on a buzzy studio film, and was set to resume shooting another in short order. But at that moment, on that day, he had been busy chipping away at his second memoir and paused to give me a ring. I felt bad about that. As someone who writes words for a living, I hated to be an interruption. I asked how it was going. “It’s a process,” Perlman told me in his unmistakable baritone, a voice that is somehow simultaneously gravelly and smooth. “I’m grappling with some things.”
He has plenty of material to mine. It’s been a good run for Perlman. The actor’s been making movies since the early 1980s and has been on set with some of the biggest names in the business. These days he finds himself appearing alongside Hollywood’s brightest stars: Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Chris Evans among them—and that’s just on a single forthcoming film.
But long before he was involved in big-budget studio movies like Hellboy and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Perlman spent a good portion of his career shooting what he still lovingly and wistfully refers to as “indies.” Some of those initially less high-profile features are nevertheless adored to this day. The Name of the Rose, The City of Lost Children, and Cronos are movies that Perlman still has a soft spot for and that ultimately helped propel his prolific career, films that might even be described by some as cult classics. Though that last part—defining what is and isn’t a cult film, and why—is up for debate as far as Perlman is concerned. During a long recent conversation, we discussed cult movies, which of his films might qualify, and how directors, actors, budgets, and other variables make it all so tricky to categorize. And bullshit—we talked a lot about bullshit.
Thanks for doing this.
Don’t thank me yet. It could be a disaster.
On my end too. How are you?
I’m better than I deserve. I’m back working—phenomenal, considering what the world is being put through. We got to resume production on Nightmare Alley, which we started earlier in the year and got interrupted in March. So that’s a big accomplishment considering the times in which we live. And then I got invited to do another picture with Adam McKay called Don’t Look Up, which I’m in the middle of shooting.
There’s a great deal of risk involved. There’s so much money and so many people that go into making a movie, and these were two big studio movies. So there’s an inordinate amount of crew members and a lot of moving parts. And a lot to lose if anything went bad. The least you could do was follow every single little protocol that they put into place.
You get tested every other day. Guillermo [del Toro’s] movie, Nightmare Alley, was in Canada. That required a 14-day quarantine during which time you get tested. And then when you get out of it, you have your temperature taken every time you come to work. They ask you a series of questions about the presence or non-presence of symptoms. You wear a mask whenever the cameras aren’t rolling. And you maintain your distance whenever the camera is not rolling. And then when the camera is rolling, all bets are off. You’re back to applying your craft. There was a great deal of care. On Nightmare Alley, there was a crew of upward of 300, 400 people, and there was not one incidence of COVID from mid-September to the beginning of December. Same thing for Don’t Look Up. Same exact protocols. It worked.
That’s great to hear, especially on productions of that size. Which is part of what I wanted to discuss with you. This is for Cult Movie Week, but you gave a recent interview about Fantastic Beasts where you said you’ve done studio movies that feel like indies because they were made for less than $5 million. But then you’ve done big-budget films like Beasts—or maybe even some of the ones you mentioned working on lately—where you said you felt “out of place.” What is it about some of the smaller films that you’ve appeared in that’s more comfortable?
It’s something that I’m actually grappling with as we speak. I just started writing a second memoir. I’m right at the point where I’m grappling with that thing. It’s a very personal reaction on my part—just the ability to get your arms around all facets of the production when you’re doing an indie. You’re very much a part of the pressure that everyone is under. Everybody’s working for a cut-rate salary, if you get any salary at all. There are no tiers of importance. It just triggers something in me that makes me more comfortable, for lack of a better word. It’s not always true: You get onto these productions that are $150 million things with movie stars that are in their own little corner of the base camp, separate and away from the fray. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been around for much longer than I thought I’d be. I probably should have been counted out of the race a gazillion times by now. I don’t know what keeps it going. In the midst of that, there has been more than my fair share of big-studio mainstream pictures, but that has not been the tail that wags the dog in my case. The only time you’ll ever notice me in a big, mainstream studio film is when it was directed by someone I did an indie with at some point, like Guillermo. It’s not as if I don’t do them, but it’s not the grist that moves the mill.
About the tail wagging and the mill moving, a good portion of your early career was powered by the indies that in turn became cult classics. I’m wondering what you think makes a good cult film.
It’s one of those designations that has blurry lines. [Nightmare Alley] is a huge, very mainstream revisitation of a movie that was made in 1947 for a very small amount of money. It was noirish in nature. Black and white. I’m sure they shot it real fast. The studio didn’t want to do it. They did it as a favor to Tyrone Power because he was obsessed with it. I would call that cult. I would call that noir, which is cult-like.
It’s interesting you mentioned the blurry lines when defining what “cult” is. For this exercise, the editors put in these artificial definitions for a cult classic so the theme week would have some guidelines. Here’s the criteria they came up with: movies that were not super successful at the box office, were not widely and initially praised by critics, and that gained popularity after leaving theaters. I want to know what you think of our criteria.
I think it’s bullshit.
We give things names and categories because we’re lazy and we need to feel as though we have our arms around things. You’re in the land of un-categorability. You categorize something after the fact. I’ve been in a lot of movies that didn’t make a peep when they were initially put out into the marketplace, and then became more popular with the passage of time. I think that’s part of what your parameters are for a cult classic. Some of them suck. And some of them were just victimized by horrible marketing. And some of them were ahead of their time and got a bad shake from the critics, and people were not attracted to plunking down their money and celebrating those projects. There’s too many reasons for why things succeed and fail to ever really do a study of what it is that makes a cult classic. I’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life, which is a holiday perennial. It doesn’t get any more mainstream than that—we watch it every single year and celebrate it as one of the greatest pieces of Americana. But it did no business when it opened. See what I’m driving at here?
I do. I’m with you that the definition is nebulous and hard to wrap your arms around. But let’s do this. Let’s run through some of the films that you’ve been in and we can decide if they qualify as cult.
I can’t wait. I’m really enjoying this. It’s getting to the heart of things. Whether I accept the parameters of your editors’ approach or not, it’s a valuable conversation. You see a script and you go, “I’ve got to make this,” and all the rest of it is stuff that happens way after the fact. I just watched Nomadland. What the fuck was that? It won the Venice Film Festival, which is as distinguished an honor as you can get. But I dare anyone to tell me what category that falls into or whether it’s a cult classic. It’s beautiful filmmaking is what it is, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Which immediately makes it uncategorizable. But I digress. It’s your interview. Go ahead.
I’m just excited to tell my editors that Ron Perlman thinks they’re bullshit. What about Cronos? You did it with del Toro. It played in 28 theaters and did a little more than half a million domestic box office. Do you think it qualifies, and when did you realize people were really sort of digging it?
I realized people were digging it when Guillermo got invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Cronos got invited to the critics portion of the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 and he won. I didn’t know what to make of the script. I just knew it was something that would never in a million years get green-lit in the United States by any entity worth its salt because it was too unique. In one breath it was a vampire movie. In another breath it was something that was completely not a vampire movie. It had this kind of gothic patina to it that made you think it was this thing, but it was way more universal.
But yeah it’s a cult classic. It made a half a million dollars. Nobody saw it. Even the people who consider themselves the great arbiters of the oeuvre of Guillermo del Toro didn’t fucking see Cronos. These things come and they go and there’s nothing guaranteed. There’s no pattern for why they succeed or fail, or why they resonate or why they don’t. I’ve been in things that I thought were the best things I ever did and no one saw them. Including Cronos.
The conceit in the film is that, and I’ll quote here, “a mysterious device designed to provide its owner with eternal life resurfaces after 400 years, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.” In theory, not dying sounds great, but the world is a hellscape and living in it forever doesn’t sound super fun.
We’re fascinated with beating the reaper. The genius of Guillermo’s treatment is that Señor Gris, played by the incomparable Federico Luppi, has this ability within his grasp and ultimately comes around to the idea that this is going against the natural order of things. And the destruction that comes along with it is devastating, and it’s told through this relationship he has with this 8-year-old granddaughter of his. It’s this pristine, innocent, beautiful, pure love that reveals to him the true meaning of life rather than being around forever. If that’s not a cult classic, I don’t know what is. That to me is cult. It has to do with originality. There’s nothing derivative. I can’t defend that theory in a court of law. But for the purposes of this interview, that’s as close as I can come to addressing the notion of the “cult classic” category.
For not being a lawyer, you made a great case for it.
The defense rests.
I was wondering about The Island of Dr. Moreau for a different reason ...
It did $27 million at the box office, but you’re in it with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The caliber of the cast makes it harder for me to call it cult, and yet it has this devoted following and there’s all the intrigue and rumors surrounding the production. Where do you fall on that one?
I think you just put your finger on why I call the attempt to put things in silos bullshit. Richard Stanley was the guy who persuaded Marlon Brando to come on board. Richard Stanley had made two very weird, very low-budget quasi-horror films prior to going to Marlon. They had made enough noise and enough of a stir that Marlon took the meeting and thought, “I might be in the presence of greatness.” He’s presenting him with the rake of an H.G. Wells cult classic if there ever was one. If he didn’t go to Marlon Brando, if he went to Brian Dennehy, or some middle-of-the-road character actor, and made the film for a million and a half bucks—and he would have finished it instead of getting fired on the fourth day of production—he would have had a cult classic. But you throw in Brando, and then once you have Brando you can go to anyone else in the world. I was done putting on makeup at that point, but I would have walked on hot coals to be in the presence of Marlon. At its heart, it was a cult movie, but you and I can’t call it that because it has Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in it. Do you see what I’m saying here? Designations are bullshit.
I agree that this entire enterprise is bullshit. But I’m enjoying it.
Listen, I’m an actor. Bullshit is the way I put my kids through school. I’m a big fan of bullshit. I’m not giving a value judgment to it.
So let’s talk about bullshit. Because you say you would have walked on hot coals to be in the presence of Marlon Brando, but you gave this interview where you said you sort of avoided him because you were afraid of, and these are your words, becoming a “flailing ball of inarticulate pus” in his presence. I’m surprised to hear Ron Perlman say he’s afraid to be around anyone. So which was it?
I did avoid him. I actually only had one sequence with him. If it had been shot with any modicum of sanity, it was scheduled to take a day and a half. But because of the particular proceedings that characterized that experience, it took six days to shoot this sequence. It’s the only sequence I’m in with Marlon, but for six days we’re shooting the scene. I was forced to be in his presence. I was forced to interact with him. But I never felt—and this is why I’m writing the second book—worthy around a guy like Marlon. That’s my own personal nightmare that I should probably go to therapy for, but it is a fact. When I admire someone to the degree I admire Marlon Brando, I don’t even know what I’m doing there. He’s in a certain class and I’m grappling with the demons that I have to grapple with. When it comes to someone like that, I become a flailing ball of … what was the phrase?
Inarticulate pus. I managed to have a couple of really cool moments with Marlon, though.
You’ve been in movies that have a cult feel, but are decidedly not cult films considering the acclaim. Drive and Hellboy come to mind. They were commercially and critically successful, but they have that cult sensibility in a way.
It goes back to the original sin of who’s directing and who’s starring and how much money is being spent. Hellboy having a cult feel can only be assigned to the treatment it got and the cast that ended up on the screen. It was a franchise. It was a comic book movie. It was meant to be three films. It was a studio film. It was the furthest thing away from what you intend when you set out to make a cult film. And yet it was Guillermo del Toro inventing his own rules of what a comic book movie looks like with sprinkles of ingredients that you never see in a comic book movie with a rather obscure actor in the lead.
And you mention Drive. You’ve got as mainstream a movie star doing it as you possibly can. However, the director is Nicolas Winding Refn, who has only made one other movie in English, which was the one with Tom Hardy, Bronson. All his other stuff was Danish, very obscure, only film buffs knew about his work or his presence in the industry. He was going to apply all those same parameters to this American debut. And even though it had Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan and a lot of other big mainstream actors, you could still talk about it in cult terms. But if you change the circumstances of those films, if you put a different director in there, a different cast, a different point of view in the storytelling, they’re no longer cult films. Which is what I’m trying to say: It’s kind of fool’s gold. They turned out to be cult films. Nobody wrote the check to make Hellboy and said, “Let’s go make a cult film that 30 people are gonna go see.” It just turned out that way. This is why it’s an important discussion for you and me—we’re grappling with a populist view of things as opposed to the nuances that go under the radar.
See? You were worried about this, but as bullshit goes, this is good bullshit.
I’m worried now, now that I’ve exposed my underbelly of ... what was the phrase again?
Inarticulate ball of pus.
Yeah. I obviously said it before so you’re not exactly getting a scoop. But the fact that I’m still fucking on it is disturbing.
This interview was edited and condensed.