An Interview with Robert Fiveson, Director of Parts: The Clonus Horror
Parts: The Clonus Horror, a low budget sci-fi film from 1979, tells the tale of a secret colony where clones are born and bred to be the personal organ banks for the rich and elite. In this movie, clones are told that when they’re “ready”, they get to go to “America”, which they believe to be a “happy place”. But as it turns out, “America” is really a codeword for “being put into deep freeze until your organs are harvested”.
A cult favorite thanks to its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during the Sci-Fi Channel years, Parts: The Clonus Horror also happens to be one of the films recapped in-depth on this very site. Roughly a year ago, I received an email from a reader saying I had kept him laughing deep into the night with my recap of Parts. Imagine my astonishment when that reader turned out to be Robert S. Fiveson, director and co-producer of Parts: The Clonus Horror.
Fiveson hasn’t directed a feature film since, but don’t let that fool you. He’s been active in the nonfiction industry ever since, directing award-winning documentaries for networks like A&E, the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the History Channel, Tech TV, and the National Geographic Channel. He won a ton of awards for a series of documentaries called Communication: The Human Imperative, produced by the Library of Congress and hosted by Lt. Worf himself, Michael Dorn. He wrote, produced, and directed six episodes of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of… series, and also co-wrote a high-rated 1982 NBC special where Johnny Carson visited his childhood hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska (Johnny Goes Home, currently available on The Ultimate Carson Collection, Vol. 2).
Around the same time I heard from Robert, Parts: The Clonus Horror was officially released on DVD for the very first time by Mondo Macabro under Fiveson’s original title of Clonus. This inspired me to invite Robert to answer a few questions about Clonus, “America”, the “clone blink”, and the strange similarities between this movie and Michael Bay’s (then) upcoming film The Island. Here’s what he had to say.
[UPDATED! I finally watched The Island, and as far as being a ripoff of Clonus goes, it’s even worse than anybody could have imagined. You can read all about it in my review of The Island, now in the Agonizer!]
The first thing I noticed about the new DVD release is that the title of the movie is now Clonus (at least, according to the packaging), which is what you wanted to call the movie all along. Whose idea was it to add “Parts” to the title?
The film was originally called Clonus. The distrib, a freaking genius, wanted to call it Parts. I begged him not to. He said he would make a campaign with each name and use whatever tested higher. He never did—he simply combined the two and released it as Parts: The Clonus Horror. The one-sheet he used was so ugly that for years I wouldn’t even look at it, much less hang it. Now I think it’s camp.
I’ve always wondered, why “America”? As far as the clones were concerned, this was just some magical place somewhere far away, where they hoped to eventually live someday. The administrators of Clonus could have just as easily told them they were going to Shangri-La, Never-Never Land, or the Emerald City. So whose idea was it to use “America”, and what were the motivations behind that?
This was post-’60s fuck you-ism. The ultimate in cynical. I don’t recall who actually suggested it be called “America”, but I know as the guy who developed and nurtured the movie, I must have said okay!
Even though I’ve watched the movie several times, I must admit to never really noticing the “clone blink” until it was pointed out on the DVD. [Fiveson instructed all the actors playing clones not to blink normally, but to hold their eyes shut for a beat to indicate that the clones were bred to be mentally deficient.] But now that I know about it, it’s almost impossible to miss. Was it your intention for the “clone blink” to be obvious to viewers, or did you want it to be one of those subliminal type of things that the audience sees, but they don’t really know that they’ve seen?
I suspected it would be subliminal. It’s like when someone doesn’t blink at all; you don’t notice it, but you quickly become uncomfortable because it’s an unnatural body language signal. I just figured that by blinking that way they would “give off” dummy signals, whether conscious or not. We really had a hell of a time keeping everybody on that one because it is unnatural. We actually had like, mass practice sessions with the extras.
Well, the world now knows about your director’s cameo in Clonus [as a guard who gets into a brief scuffle with the movie’s hero]. In the commentary, you say you appeared in that scene because there were no extras on hand to do the bit. But secretly, wasn’t there some part of you that really wanted to do the Hitchcock thing?
Secretly, yes—and I have had a lot of fun with it over the years, challenging friends to spot where I appear—but the fact is it was done for one reason only: We had no one to do the “stunt”, so I said screw this stuntman nonsense, give me a damn costume!
Sadly, no deleted scenes on the DVD. I assume this means that pretty much every scene you filmed ended up in the finished movie. Were there any major (or not so major) scenes or plot points in the original screenplay that went unfilmed?
No, but there was a lot of footage where certain actors were too drunk to remember lines! And as I recall we really overshot the underwater stuff in the pool [There’s a brief moment in Clonus where a floating corpse was shot underwater, requiring special equipment.], simply because the cameraman was being a whiny dick. So we made him stay in the freezing pool longer than was required.
I’ve heard a totally unsubstantiated rumor that one of the reasons Clonus achieved the popularity it enjoys today is because it was one of the very first movies ever released on home video. There weren’t a whole lot of options in the early days of VCRs, and as a result, a lot of people bought or rented Clonus. Is there any truth to this?
I think there is. It came out at the same time as Coma (and generally got better reviews!). At that time, Photomat had these little drive-up booths everywhere, where you could drop off your film to be developed (Wow, what an archaic concept now!). They decided to offer VHS films as rentals, and ours was one of the first. I was told we out-rented Coma by a wide margin—but of course, we never saw squat financially!
On the commentary track, you said the movie probably would have fared better if it had been more violent. Did you ever have any specific ideas of where you would have added more violence or gore?
Everywhere. This was in the time when “slasher” films were the vogue. I have often said that our mistake with the film was that we tried to make a good story well told.
I have to admit, the stories of Clonus and The Island are eerily similar. Especially the part about going to “the island”. I immediately said to myself, that sounds just like “America”! Some have even gone so far as to claim this movie is officially “based on” Clonus. I don’t see any mention of this from any reliable source, so maybe you could clear up the confusion for us. Is The Island officially based on your movie? If not, how do you feel about the movie having such a similar plot line?The Island is not in any way sanctioned by me. In fact, Jeff Katzenberg saw [Clonus] in ’78 as a possible pick up by Paramount, and commented at that time that if this was what I could do with a million, he would love to see what I could do with ten. The budget was $257,000… 1/400th of The Island. I saw a trailer for it a couple of days ago and nearly soiled myself. There were so many similarities—not just in theme, but actual shots! I hope it does a lot of business; But more than anything else, I hope it gets publicly outed.
And on that note, I’d like ask on behalf of Robert Fiveson that every reader out there visit this page that details the similarities between Clonus and The Island, and pass it along to anyone else who enjoys movies. Let the world know that The Island is not an official remake of Clonus, but an obvious rip-off!
And don’t forget to check out my review of The Island, now in the Agonizer!