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One Last Conversation With Marilyn Burns, the Late Star of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

Anchor Bay

Marilyn Burns, best known for playing the role of Sally in Tobe Hooper’s horror classic ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,’ passed away in her home yesterday. She was 65.

For the better part of a month, I’ve been working on an article about ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ for the film’s 40th anniversary. I travelled to the locations where the film was shot. I spoke to local film experts. I even engineered a brief run-in with Tobe Hooper himself. However, the highlight of the entire journey was a conversation with Marilyn Burns, who graciously agreed to speak with me about her work in the film.

Just a few days after our interview was completed, Marilyn passed away. Because my article deals with the locations where ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ was filmed, many of my questions dealt with that specific subject. However, Marilyn was a genuine raconteur, filled with more anecdotes and stories than I could possible fit in the final article. We agreed to speak later, without a tape recorder, just so I could listen to more incredible tales from the set of the best horror movie ever made.

It’s a second phone call that sadly will never happen.

However, that best way to honor her memory is to share my interview with her, the last she ever participated in. Portions of this conversation will appear in our larger article on the anniversary of ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (which is coming soon), but this format better shows off her wit and graciousness. It’s a peek into the memories of a woman who was a key player in not just horror history, but movie history.

I recently took a road trip where I hit up all of the locations where Texas Chain Saw Massacre was filmed.

You did all of this on your own?

My fiancee and I went together.

Did you go anywhere where I may have seen the movie?

Well, I went to where the old house is now. I know they had a big screening there a few years ago.

Okay! We’re on the same page. I’m ready.

The main thing I’m interested in is ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ as a Texas movie. How the locations represent how Texas looked then compared to now. Were you from Texas originally? You were living here when the movie filmed, right?

Right. I was born in Eerie, Pennsylvania, but I’ve lived in Texas long enough.

(There is an audible voice in the background. She pauses.)

I have a real verbal brother in the background. Bill! Shut up.

(She laughs.) 

Okay. Sorry!

That’s all right! I just wanted to know when you moved to Texas and when you decided you wanted to stay. I’m curious about you as Texan.

My parents moved here when I was five but I was in L.A. for a long time and various other gypsy places. But I’m back in Texas now. Texas is my home.

"It’s crazy what a bunch of kids will do when they want to make a movie."

What was it like when you were first approached about this movie? Was it just “Oh, great! Work!” I take it you never realized it would be something you’d still be talking about.

Not on your life. No. Never. I did want to be in the movie, even if it was called ‘Headcheese’ or ‘Scum of the Earth.’ I wanted to be in the movie because I had gotten to appear in some movies before that and I’d take my friends to the screening and I’d be on the cutting room floor. You know? Or I’d be in there briefly. When this came, I thought oh gosh yes! This is great! You know? I might not get cut in this one! I remember watching it the very first time and saying “I’m not cut yet! I’m not cut yet!” That’s all I could think while watching it. I had to see it again to know what happened.

When I was journeying around Texas for this article, it was crazy how much the areas have changed. It’s all completely different. When you first arrived at the original house and the cemetery and the other places, how isolated did it feel? Did it feel like the middle of nowhere? 

Everywhere we shot was in the middle of nowhere. The cemetery was out in the boonies. The first house was in the weeds. The second house was way out in Round Rock, which no one lived around then. Where are you from? You must be in San Antonio, right?

I’m from San Antonio, but I live in Austin right now.

Okay! I noticed your area code. I don’t know when you moved to Texas, but it’s been 40 years. Things have changed definitely. It’s quite a difference.

Now, when I got out to Round Rock, where the house used to be, you can see highways and apartment complexes. It’s hard to imagine being stranded, let alone the movie happening there. 

There wasn’t anything. Once you left Austin… Round Rock was in the country. It was a country place. I don’t remember anything being there. The same with the cemetery and the gas station in Bastrop. That was on a wee bit of land that was out by itself and you couldn’t figure out who even went there! Now it’s a totally different experience. You have to remember that the cities weren’t exactly packed back then.

When I was out there, it was the middle of July and it was so hot. I’ve always heard nightmare stories about how hot the set was on ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.’ Any vivid memories?

I have a hundred. The van was suffocating. Tedious. Hot. Miserable. We were traveling with five actors and the camera guy and sound and director and continuity guy. All of us in this van, going 15 miles an hour, trying not to make any noise. Just crawling along as they kept changing the script. We’d stop to sit on the side of the road when they decided that the lines weren’t working. That was the first couple weeks of shooting. It was real hot and miserable, especially when Ed [Neal, who plays the hitchhiker] came on and gunpowder had to explode and we didn’t know what we were doing. They just put gunpowder on his hand and lit a match. We almost killed ourselves! The second time he did it, we were all scared to death before he did it because we were expecting an explosion. Plus the heat … I don’t even know how we did that. It’s crazy what a bunch of kids will do when they want to make a movie. Crawling along in that heat…when we did stop, there weren’t any chairs for us to sit in. There was no place to go. You just had to stand around. You could just stand around and sweat in the sun. No coolers. No ice. No Cokes coming around! No little happy wagon!

Marilyn Burns
Marilyn Burns in a scene from ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

When you were filming, were you just wishing for it to be over? Did you never want to think about it again?

Of course! But I was just trying to keep the other cast members from quitting. I picked up a couple of them on the way to set just to make sure they’d show! Nobody except me thought it was going to get done. I’m sure Tobe [Hooper] and Kim [Henkel] did. I was determined to see it to the screen. I could always envision that film on screen. I always knew it was going to come to the theaters despite the odds. And despite the producers’ thoughts. They just wanted a tax shelter. Everyone wanted to forget about it after the misery of the whole shoot, listening to that agonizing chainsaw, smelling all of the smells, watching the decay of rotting chicken on the set. It was disgusting. It was miserable. Each different set-up we went to was a different kind of challenge. The reason so much of it looks so real is because it was! We didn’t have the props or the camera set-ups or anything to make it an easy shoot so we worked with what had. When we didn’t have it, we improvised.

One of the things I’ve been talking to people about while writing this article has been the thought of ‘Texas Chain Saw’ as a sort of new American mythology. In 100 years, it’ll be to the United States what werewolves and vampires are to Europe.

That’s interesting. It’s delightful to know. It reminds me of an interview I did the other day where someone asked me “what makes the picture so important?” I wanted so answer “Gee, no one ever told me it was important!” I didn’t know we were that influential, except that I do know that we started a different genre of film. I couldn’t even answer that because that was so foreign to me. I have to go into some old quotes to explain. If you know what [people were saying] when we started this film and what we were faced with and what it ended up being, you’d understand why we never thought we were going into mythology or anything like that! We were lucky to not get shot in the streets for putting on this vile, disgusting trash!

I want to read this to you. I won’t bore you, but I’ve got two trunks of reviews, from Rex Reed to Johnny Carson to the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s amazing what people were saying at the time that it came out. People booed. People threw up. People were screaming. People left the theater in disgust. Rex Reed was good. He wrote “Run, don’t walk. It makes ‘The Exorcist’ look like a nursery rhyme and ‘Psycho’ look like a comedy.” And then Johnny Carson comes on and says “It’s the most vile, despicable bunch of trash.” One Sunday, I went and got my LA Times and there’s a picture of me with the word “sleaze” over my face. I thought, yeah, this is one hell of a way to start your career in Hollywood.

Oh, wow.

And now you’re going to tell me now that I’m important and I’m part of mythology? That’s pretty hard to put together. However, I still have those reviews! If people only knew the pure horror of what people said when we first did this. It does surprise me. It sill does I don’t care how many years we do this, how many countries we go to, where we go… Every time, we always say “can you believe this?” I remember Gunnar [Hansen, who plays Leatherface] went to England for ‘Chain Saw.’ They had just taken the ban off. It had been banned for a billion years. I said, “Gunnar, do you believe this?” Gunnar, John Dugan and I were having a beer when [we were filming our roles in 'Texas Chainsaw 3D']. We were just sitting in this pub, eating sandwiches and drinking beer and looking at each other and saying, “Do you believe this again?” It never ceases to amaze me.

Now, because it’s our fortieth year, I’m starting to get used to it. For the first 30 years, I just couldn’t believe it. They just said on the internet the other day that there’s a new sequel coming out now. This time, they’re going to explore Leatherface’s family! Jesus. In 3D, they gave him feelings and now they’re going to explore his family? Pretty soon it’s going to be like the damn Waltons! It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.

As a fan, I’ve always enjoyed the mystery of the original. How you and the other characters just walk into something horrible and don’t quite know what’s happening. I have mixed feelings on all of the prequels and sequels. 

It keeps it alive and interesting. I always get to hear about it from all of the fans. The other day, I was talking to someone who said, “whoever did the 3D should be shot.” And I thought “My goodness!” I never knew we had such aggression. People get super sensitive over this. It’s always amusing to me.

To bring things back to Texas for a minute…do you see the movie as being a badge of honor for Texas?

Sure I do! We were one of the first independent movies to film out here. People in California wouldn’t even recognize us. They didn’t like anyone who wasn’t part of their studio. We weren’t even recognized for years. A couple of years ago, I’m watching the Academy Awards and I couldn’t believe it: my character, Sally, is running in one of the montages! I know AFI always recognized us and we were featured in MOMA in New York, but for a long time, Hollywood wasn’t going to acknowledge that independent trash. Now they’ve put it on the Academy Awards. There’s me, running from Leatherface! I’m watching it and I thought “I didn’t see that.” People had to call me the next day and ask me if I saw it. It was amazing. They definitely recognize us now!

A friend of mine that I spoke with about the movie talked about how Texans love to exaggerate and tell Tall Tales and how this movie is the ultimate Texas Tall Tale. People still think it’s real. 

I encounter people like that all the time. I do conventions and people come up to me and they’ll say “My brother just got out of prison and he knew Leatherface!” I stopped telling people that’s impossible years ago. I just say “Great, I’m glad he got out of there.” And I just drop it. I just change it to “What was he in for?” and I get to hear all about his brother. There’s no point in correcting people. If they believe it was real, by golly, then they believe it’s real! We took inspiration from Ed Gein, the ‘Psycho’ guy, one of the famous serial killers, and added a family and a chainsaw. It helped that that movie opens with John Larroquette saying “The story you’re about to see is true.” That’s why people believe it’s true! Because by golly, the movie said so!

When I was up where the house used to be, you could see the construction closing in. The old house location and the country road you escape on are going to be gone within a decade. I feel like there should be a plaque or something.

First of all, I’m pretty amazed that they moved the house to Kingsland and made a restaurant out of it. When the restaurant first opened, they didn’t want to acknowledge where the house came from, but they became so damn popular that it become their trademark. I’ve been to two events there and it was really nice. The one thing I wish I had done… There’s something that I always see being sold at conventions. Can you guess what it is?

What?

I should have done what some guy is doing. He’s got dirt from around the house in a little cylinders! And little pieces of wood that he claims are from the farmhouse door. Gosh, if I had been keeping dirt for a million years… You know he just got it from someone’s backyard, but it sure sells at conventions! I’m amazed that people want to preserve this, but they’re selling dirt! It’s kind of funny. Who would have thought that? What locations have you visited?

The relocated house. The old location for the house. The cemetery. The gas station. It’s in really bad shape.

It was in bad shape when we shot there!

It was still operational when you shot there, right? 

That’s why we had to get out of there every morning. The light was coming up and [Jim Siedow] wouldn’t hit me for the scene. Tobe said “Jim, you’ve got to hit the woman!” and he said “I cannot hit the woman.” I realized we were going to have to spend a whole other night there. So finally, I said “Jim, just go ahead and hit me.” And he did. That’s when I got the real black eye I have in the movie. When I laid on the floor and camera gets close to my face and there’s a nice black eye starting to show…that was for real.

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