The world of horror cinema has been littered with some pretty ingenious folks. And while some names ring louder than others (Craven, Barker, Carpenter, etc.) there are several others involved in this world who have done just as well as to scare the shit of you over the years as the big dogs have. Especially a man like Tommy Lee Wallace. This is the man who has not only teamed up with his life long friend John Carpenter on damn near every project John has ever been a part of, but he has brought you several legendary films that more than likely still haunt your dreams. I know that his visual adaptation of Stephen King’s It has given me a lifelong fear of clowns (thanks a bunch, Tom). His continuation of the Halloween series on the third installment was by far the finest sequel that series has had to date. And he is showing no signs of slowing up as he is releasing the highly anticipated Helliversity in the near future. We were awarded the chance to talk to Tommy about his up coming project, working with John Carpenter, and much more. Enjoy!
The 1989 film Far From Home in which you were the screenwriter for was quite the departure from you usual body of work. What inspired to you to tell this tail? Was it personal?
Far From Home came from an original script by Ted Gershuny — my rewrite steered the story more into Pinky’s psychosis — and the notion that young people imitate what they see on television — a popular idea at that time. Hardly a departure for me, in my opinion; look at the themes around Halloween 3 – Season of the Witch. TV is one of the most important influences on our culture in the last hundred years. Note I didn’t say “positive”. I was also drawn to the setting — coming from Kentucky, I find the vast expanses of the western deserts sometimes grim, often beautiful, and always absolutely fascinating — a potential breeding ground for all sorts of mysteries and secrets, big and small. Area 51 comes to mind. I also loved the childhood romance and rites of passage — that’s certainly what attracted me to IT, as well.
Your extremely impressive catalog of work includes a great abundance of sequels including Fright Night 2, which was based on our dear friend Tom Holland’s original story, as well as several others. Is there much pressure in carrying on someone else’s story?
Of course there’s pressure, if you do it well. Sequels are strange animals. They can be crass exercises in pure exploitation of a successful title, or they can move an interesting and popular story along, expand it and offer new chapters, in a novelistic, expansive way. Speaking of Tom Holland, when Fright Night 2 popped up, I went to Tom to pick his brain a little, just tease out his thoughts, because I thought it might help me give the sequel a sense of veracity and continuity. I don’t remember what got said, really, but I was glad for the exchange. It gave me a sense of confidence about the whole thing — a passing of the torch, I guess. I’m really proud of Fright Night 2 — we’re trying to get something going in the way of a new DVD — it’s a gorgeous wide-screen movie, and should be seen that way.
You have also been the mastermind several made for television movies and mini-series, notably the film that ruined the appeal of clowns to generations past and generations to come, the adaptation to Stephen King’s IT. Tell us, how is making films directly for television different from creating for cinema? How are the similar? And do you have a preference?
Television MOWs, pilots and minis are not much different from movies, as long as the producers understand what a director needs, and give proper support. Series, episodics, sitcoms, three- and four-camera shows — that kind of television is a different animal, and a film director is generally less central to the process there, in favor of a producer or two, or seven, or twelve. It’s all an issue of control and vision. In movies, the director is usually the person to whom falls the central and most crucial task of bringing a script to visual life. In order to fully achieve that, he or she must be in a position of ultimate authority. In TV, that same role often falls to the Writer/Producer, with the Director acting more as a traffic cop for the actors, and perhaps a supplier of clever and exciting shots.
I have enjoyed some real high points in TV, including, of course, IT, and another mini-series that followed that one, And the Sea Will Tell, a true-crime drama starring Rachel Ward and Richard Crenna. It’s worth watching, and was a great TV experience. I love TV, and think some incredible stuff has been happening there for the past several years, in a kind of new Golden Age — The Wire, Mad Men, Dexter, Breaking Bad, the list goes on and on — but in the end, I prefer feature films.
Of all the sets you have been on over the years, which has had the best crafts services? Why, and was there any correlation with the film/show itself?
The most recent one, “HELLIVERSITY”. Someone near and dear to me is running craft service — my daughter India. It’s the best — and so is she.
How did you come to work on so many projects with John Carpenter? And what do you think it is that has made you guys such a great team for almost thirty years?
John and I go all the way back to childhood in the same grade school. We became close as teenagers, when our lives were built around making music — first in our own folk group, then in a couple of different rock and roll bands. We shared interests in comic books, horror, sci-fi and western movies, Beatles and Stones, basketball, girls, drinking beer, all that stuff. John was focused like a laser beam on film directing from a very early age; I wandered into it through art and design. He found his way to southern California, and I followed three years later. Making movies together was a natural process. He used his friends to help him realize his vision, and I was right there in support. He’s always been a bit more the mentor, and me more the student, but we’ve learned a lot together. We partner well because we have a huge common background and share a deep friendship, but are very different people.
What is the set dynamic usually like when shooting a horror film? Is it always dark? Is there ever a chance for laughter?
It’s almost never dark. Any well-run movie set is a friendly and businesslike, if sometimes frantic, endeavor, in which a group of people carry out a series of tasks to achieve an effect, that being the visual telling of a story. In the case of horror, there’s often something grim and scary going on in front of the camera, but numerous funny situations develop behind the camera to achieve that effect. There are frequent laughs. A bucket of fake blood and a Mole fogger aren’t scary on set — they’re funny, in some quintessential way, and the essence of horror movies.
The opening sequence of Halloween is, by now, pretty well known, a big, bravura single shot which goes all around the Myers house, upstairs and down outdoors and in, telling the story of young Michael’s beginnings as a psycho killer. It took us all day to prepare that shot. There was the usual team around camera: Focus-puller, D.P. with hand-held fill light, guy with flag to fight light flares — then there was another lineup of people trailing along behind: Debra Hill the Producer, wearing the clown suit (childlike hands reach into drawer, pull out knife), there was me with that bucket of blood and a paint brush, ready to zap Michael’s sister from behind camera as she’s getting fake-stabbed, there was the sound guy with his boom, there were guys guiding and spotting the camera operator, so he didn’t stumble and didn’t run into stuff, there were guys and gals jumping through windows to re-light the set for when we came back through the room in a reverse angle — when we finally ran the whole thing, it was like the Keystone Kops, and if you could have heard the production track you would have heard gallumping footsteps like a herd of elephants, people crashing around doing their work and then hiding from the lens, whispering, even suppressing laughter — does this sound grim or somber to you? It was a ridiculous circus caravan of a shot — once we had it up and running, and working, it was a thrill to be a part of, but it was also absurd-looking, and very funny.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming film Helliversity?
Small town in the south, small college that was once all African-American. A mixed group of students decides to stay on campus for Thanksgiving break. Meanwhile, while researching a project, one of the students finds an artifact from Jim Crow days, an execution hood said to be the one in which notorious racist Sheriff Ewing “Killer” Kane was electrocuted back in 1936, for spree-killing a group of students one grisly night. A lightning storm releases Kane’s dark spirit from the hood, it finds a new host in a young campus cop, and Thanksgiving turns a bit grisly for this group, and this campus. Trapped in a security-minded environment with high walls and electrified fences, our students fight for their survival against an unspeakably evil and supernatural force.
What was the last thing that made you smile?