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Inside the “Mind of Mora”: Director Philippe Mora visits Portland for his first-ever American retrospective

Ahead of appearances at Portland's Cinemagic theater, the French-Australian filmmaker discusses aliens, Dennis Hopper, and World War II.

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Filmmaker Philippe Mora
Filmmaker Philippe Mora

At first, it seems a bizarre, almost random concept: the French-born, Australia-reared director Philippe Mora is coming to Portland for a weeklong series of screenings of his work at the Southeast Portland theater Cinemagic. Mora doesn’t have any particular connection to Oregon or the Northwest. He doesn’t have a brand-new American release to promote, nor is this retrospective a touring event. And while Mora has a decades-long career with several genre highlights, he doesn’t necessarily have the name recognition of some other auteurs.

So what happened? Well, Cinemagic holds VHS Night every Friday, screening cultish films from the 1980s in the format in which they were meant to be seen. One of VHS Night’s biggest hits was Mora’s 1987 sequel The Howling III. (He also directed its predecessor, the brilliantly titled The Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf.). One of Cinemagic’s owners, Ryan Frakes, reached out to Mora in Los Angeles and proposed the idea of what’s being billed as “The Mind of Mora.” The director will attend each of the week’s screenings and participate in Q&A sessions, while hopefully also having time to explore the Rose City in autumn.

From L.A., Mora took the time to talk with Oregon ArtsWatch by phone. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Oregon ArtsWatch: You have amassed an extensive filmography over a nearly 60-year career. Was it a challenge to narrow it down to seven films, one each night? What was that process like?

Philippe: It was easy for me because I left it to Ryan. I thought it’d be better just to let him curate it and I think he’s done a good job. I’ve done 40 movies, so I think he’s picked some highlights for sure.

OAW: I remember watching [the 1982 horror flick] The Beast Within when it was on HBO and I was way too young for that movie. It should be interesting to revisit.

Philippe: Good, I’m glad. That’s when you should see movies—when you’re too young for them. My wife says, only half-jokingly, “Philippe, I think you marked a generation.”

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OAW: [laughs] I guess I’m part of that generation, so thank you and I accept your apology. Other films 2023 audiences may remember are Mad Dog Morgan, starring Dennis Hopper, and Communion with Christopher Walken, and of course The Howling movies. But I’m really interested in some of your documentaries, especially Swastika, which was a relatively early project for you and something that contrasts with a lot of the rest of your filmography. Can you speak about how that came about and what the idea was about?

Philippe: Sure. My parents were Holocaust survivors and they never wanted to talk about it. Of course, what your parents don’t talk about, you really want to know. As a kid, I got more and more interested in why were we in Australia and why did my parents have funny accents? [Mora moved with his parents from France to Australia at the age of two in 1951.]

Then I had the extraordinary piece of luck to come across Eva Braun’s home movies. I saw a photo of Eva Braun in a book with a camera filming Hitler. As a budding filmmaker I thought, “I wonder where that film is?” I rang up the Pentagon and said, “I’m from Australia. I’m making a film about Hitler. Did you capture any film in Hitler’s house?” (This is the short version.) The colonel who I spoke to was very friendly said, “I don’t know, we’ll get back to you.” It was the PR department of the Pentagon. He called me back three months later and said, “Look, we captured 16 cans of 16-millimeter film in Eva Braun’s bedroom and her private garden. Is that what you’re looking for?”

OAW: Oh, my goodness. You must have been like, “Yes, that’ll do.”

Philippe: That’ll do, yes. Look, it was a sensation. The film was shown in Cannes in ’73 and literally was a sensation. No one had ever seen Hitler in color close-up like that, let alone filmed by his mistress. It was controversial because of the shock of seeing him like this, playing with kids and so forth. Now of course it’s in every single documentary you ever see about Hitler, endlessly.

OAW: The controversy was that some people felt that it humanized him in a way that was inappropriate.

Philippe: Yes. Of course, I thought it was not just appropriate, but essential! If you don’t understand that he was just another guy, albeit an extraordinarily evil one, you won’t see the next Hitler coming.

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OAW: After that film and another assemblage-type documentary called Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, about the Great Depression, your next project was Mad Dog Morgan with Dennis Hopper at his most Dennis Hopperiest. How challenging was it to work with him at that stage in his life and career?

Philippe: Firstly, that was the first Australian film to get a release in the U.S., any wide release. It broke the ice for Aussie movies. I’m proud of that aspect.

OAW: Absolutely.

Philippe: As far as Dennis goes, I didn’t know that he had been blacklisted. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know much about Hollywood except from reading books. I didn’t know that Lew Wasserman said he wouldn’t distribute The Last Movie. Dennis told him to go and have sex with himself. Of course, that was forbidden and unheard of in Hollywood. He was basically exiled.

Anyway, I ring up his agent from Melbourne, Australia, and say, “Is Dennis Hopper available?’ His agent, Robert Raison, almost came through the telephone like in a Tim Burton movie. “He’s available! He’s available!” I flew to Taos, New Mexico and met Dennis. I climbed out of a single-engine plane and there at the end of the runway was Dennis holding a rifle looking just like Mad Dog Morgan. Then I looked at all the bullet holes in his truck. I said, “What’s with all the bullet holes?” He said, “Oh, the Indians have been shooting at me. That reminds me, get into your hotel by midnight because the shooting starts at midnight.” I thought, “God, Jesus Christ. This is Mad Dog.”

OAW: Well, it really sounds like something of a tale from the Outback too.

Philippe: There’s a lot of stories about Dennis, but he was incredibly professional. We filmed no matter in what condition he was in. We finished on schedule and that, in a way, resurrected his career because Dennis went straight from my movie to Apocalypse Now.

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OAW: I want to move on and talk a little bit about Communion, which also had some controversy attached to it relating to whether Whitley Striber’s book describing his alien abduction, and the film it’s based on, should be taken as fiction or non-fiction. Where did you stand on that, and how did you approach that in the making of the film?

Philippe: Let me come at this another way. After the film came out, I went to see Whitley in San Antonio for some reason. On the flight back from San Antonio to L.A., a guy who looked like Robert Redford in a CIA movie sat down next to me as the plane was taking off. He introduced himself and then showed his jacket.

He said, “Hello, I’m such and such from the Defense Intelligence Agency.” He showed me this huge badge, defense intelligence. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it’s the Pentagon’s, CIA. He said, “Oh, Communion, that’s the best film ever made about alien abduction. Have you met Whitley Strieber many times?” Then he said, “Have you met any aliens?” I said, “No, sir.” But I started thinking, “Jesus Christ, maybe there’s something to this…”

I believed Whitley believed it. I had no personal knowledge of whether he’d been abducted by aliens or not, but he certainly was sincere with me.

OAW: The most recent film that’s being shown during this week is from 1996, but a quick glimpse at IMDb shows that you’ve continued to be quite busy. It doesn’t look like a lot of these films have had wide American distribution, but what topics and what styles have you been exploring in these last couple decades?

Philippe: They’ve been very low budget, even no-budget films because the subjects that I’m interested in are not big, overtly commercial subjects. It’s very hard to raise money in Hollywood for any really serious subject. I retreated in a sense from corporate Hollywood, Marvel comics, et cetera. Don’t get me wrong, I love comics, but how many men in tights movies can you deal with?

To answer your question more directly, I’m working on a history of art. You can imagine pitching that to a Hollywood studio. I’m really enjoying it. I’ve nearly completed the shooting on a film called The Man Who Thought He Was Salvador Dalí. I love the Dalí stories and I’m very interested in surrealism.

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OAW: I notice also that, just judging from the titles, there seems to be a thread of continuing to explore the Nazi era. There’s a movie called Three Days in Auschwitz, there’s Custer at Nuremberg, there’s Dracula: Nazi Hunter. Is that something that you’re consciously also continuing to be interested in?

Philippe: Yes. Look, that’s a good observation. I’m glad you mentioned it. My continuing interest in Hitler and the Nazis and fascism, sadly has become very relevant worldwide. It hasn’t gone away. The rise of fascism is something that I think is terrifying if you’ve studied history.

OAW: Yes, or if you just read the newspaper.

Philippe: Yes. If you just read the paper, exactly. The thing is, it’s an enduring historical mystery as to how that came about, how Hitler came about. There’s more books written on this than most subjects, but there’s still no answer. It really is incredible and I keep finding out more and more about it.

The Nazis did an incredibly good job of covering their tracks. They were very aware, when they were killing mainly the Jews in this deliberate industrial killing method, that it was a really, really bad thing to do. Why do I say that? Because they made every effort to cover it up and it was a state secret. It makes it worse that they knew what they were doing and they knew they had to cover it up. You can’t cover up killing 6 million people. It doesn’t work.

OAW: Not for long.

Philippe: I also have an enduring interest in this because it’s still a mystery to me personally. I had a lot of family that died in the Holocaust. My father was involved in smuggling kids out of occupied Nazi France to the U.S., by the way. I met a distinguished psychiatrist, Henri Parens in Philadelphia, who was one of the kids my dad smuggled out. That was very moving.

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OAW: Yes. I can imagine.

Philippe: I guess I’m just keen on the subject because there’s so many unanswered questions.

OAW: Yes. The reason I ask is because I have a similar fascination. I’ve got a World War II section on my bookshelves and when people come over sometimes they’ll see all these swastikas on the spines of books on the bookshelf and I have to explain that.

Philippe: As my kids say, “Dad, not another Nazi book.”

OAW: [laughs] Yes, right.

Philippe: Someone who had an equal interest in this as you and I obviously do is Christopher Lee. He worked for British intelligence and he was involved in tracking down Nazis at the end of the war. The one extraordinary part of that story is that he was very close friends with the official Nuremberg hangman, Albert Pierrepoint.

OAW: Oh, my goodness.

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Philippe: They would have afternoon tea together. Christopher told me how he actually assisted Pierrepoint in the hanging of Ernst Kaltenbrunner. I thought he may be exaggerating until I went to his apartment in London. He had a room full of memorabilia from the Nazis he’d been involved in arresting. When they arrest them, they rip off their insignia and Christopher collected those. He was an amazing guy. [NOTE: numerous sources indicate that it was in fact a U.S. serviceman named John C. Woods who won the job of Nuremberg hangman rather than the more experienced Brit Pierrepoint. War stories and all that…]

OAW: It’s surprising there hasn’t been a film made about his extraordinary life.

Philippe: Well, his cousin had been Ian Fleming, who was on record as saying that Christopher Lee was one of his inspirations for James Bond. It just sounds so incredible you don’t believe it. I believe, just as an observation as a director, that his life experience and being involved with all this murder and mayhem did give a gravitas to his Dracula portrayals that you couldn’t really fake.

OAW: That’s a fascinating point. This has been a bit of a tangent, but any tangent involving Christopher Lee is always worthwhile. I hope you enjoy your visit to Portland and look forward to the opportunity to further explore The Mind of Mora.

Philippe: Thanks very much. I enjoyed talking with you.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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