As the masked man-child Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gunnar Hansen let his homicidal character’s infamous power tool do all the talking. But the Iceland-born, Austin, Tx.-bred actor and writer proves an engaging raconteur in his new book, Chain Saw Confidential which details the making of director Tobe Hooper’s horror classic with assistance from both Chainsaw coworkers and famous fans, including director John Landis and Hellraiser star Doug Bradley.
The still physically imposing, but hugely amiable, Hansen recently stopped by the EW offices to talk about his book and the enduring appeal of Chainsaw.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been more than 40 years since you made Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Why did you decide to write this book now?
GUNNAR HANSEN: I thought about the book on and off for a long time and I never did it because I realized my concept was too small. I thought of it as an account of my experience making the movie and I realized I had to make it bigger than that. The first decision I made was to interview everyone involved with the movie that I could find. That would give it more depth because we would have several perspectives on an event but also make it broader because they could talk about things I was not witness to. And then the second decision I made was I wanted the context of the book to be bigger. I wanted to talk about how elements of the filming were indicative of issues in small budget filmmaking but also I wanted to talk about the critical and popular response to Chainsaw at first, and how it has evolved, and what its place is in horror.
Once I made those decisions, I thought I had what could be a real book. Then I was asked by a publisher if I could do an autobiography that they were going to write for me, which I really didn’t like the idea of. I wanted to write my own. Plus, I wasn’t interested in an autobiography, I was interested in a memoir about Chainsaw. But that made me realize this was the time to do it. I knew what I needed for a book and I knew time was running out. You know, four of the guys had died, two of the actors (Jim Siedow and Paul Partain) and two of the crew (art director Robert A. Burns and assistant cameraman Lou Perryman). So I thought, our members are not getting any stronger.
What was it like using the chainsaw on set? Because even one without teeth can be extremely dangerous.
Very much so. And anytime Leatherface was cutting on anything it had teeth. It was very dangerous. I had no idea how dangerous it was until later, after the movie came out, when I was living in the woods and chopping up wood to heat the house.
That’s one reason I was very nervous to shoot the scene where Leatherface falls. I kept asking Tobe, the director, “How are going to shoot this?” And he kept saying, “Don’t worry, we’re going to shoot it last.” And I would be reassured by that until I realized what he meant was, if I were injured or killed, we had the movie in the can.
The Chainsaw creators got famously screwed financially after the movie was released and you write in the book that you’ve only ever made around $8,000 from the film. Have you ever sat down and worked out how much money you should have made?
No. It’s hard to know. The distributor really under-reported. I mean, they did an ad in Variety that said in the first two weeks in Texas alone it had made $602,000. And yet our first royalty check nine months after was about $48,000.
And your first personal check was for $40, right?
47 dollars and seven cents, I think. We made virtually no money. I mean, some time later there was a fellow who was a former employee of the distributor who said, “In the first two years, the movie made $12 million,” which meant that we should have seen, you know, $2 million or $3 million. My shooting salary worked out to two dollars an hour.
In the early ’90s, you wrote a book called Islands at the Edge of Time: A Journey to America’s Barrier Islands. How many chainsaws are in that?
None. It is a book about the problems we’re facing on the Atlantic coast — it starts in Texas and it goes to the Outer Banks. It looks at the natural history of these islands and how people have lived on these islands. Ultimately the book asks the question, “How do we deal with living on these islands now in the face of sea level rise and global warming?”
There’s a funny story about that book. When it was about to be released, the blurb about me on the inside flap said that I had a large cult following as Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I called my editor up and said, “Why do you think that will sell this book? If someone is reading the blurb to make a decision, they will put the book down. Because this is a serious book about environmental issues.” Not that I’m embarrassed [about Texas Chainsaw] but it’s not a recommendation.
What do you think is the enduring appeal of Texas Chainsaw?
I think its limitations, strangely enough, allowed it to be created in a way that made it feel so visceral and real, even though there’s nothing explicit in the film. So people were drawn to it immediately. At the same time, it seems to have some sort of reverberation which continues. First of all, you can look at the movie and have the family as the bad guy, the family as the monster, the antagonist, and the kids are this all-suffering protagonist. But you can reverse that and say that the family are the protagonists and it’s the kids who in fact destroy the normalcy of their live. So you have a kind of moral ambiguity about who are you supposed to identify with.
Then you have Leatherface, who I think is so interesting because he’s extremely dangerous and deadly but he’s not purely evil. There’s some ambivalence about your feelings. Because the mask is expressionless, you never see the face, so you’re looking at nothing. As Doug Bradley says, “There’s nothing to negotiated with.” I imagined, if you took the mask off, that there would be no face there—in fact, that not only would there be no face, there might be nothing at all. Just an empty black spot.
You can read much more from Gunnar Hansen in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now.