Robert Zappia [Interview]

 

Welcome to Day 27 of Trainwreck’d Society’s Annual Month of Horror Showcase! We have a fully loaded month of all things horror for you fine folks! October is our favorite month for this very reason, and we are so excited to share 31 full days of film showcases and interviews with some of the finest folks from the world of horror, just as we have been doing for the last 6 years. What started as a simple 5 day showcase, has now blossomed into a full blown month long event. You’re going to love this! Enjoy!

Hello Folks! Welcome to the final week of our Month of Horror series! It’s hard to believe that it is almost all over…for this year. Today we have some incredible words from an absolutely amazing writer with an incredible story to tell. It’s Robert Zappia, Everyone! Robert is not only a legendary figure in the world of horror, he is also an accomplished television writer and screenwriter outside of the genre as well. As he will discuss below, he was a wonderful driving force behind the writing of one of our most beloved sitcoms, Home Improvement, featuring our near and dear friend Patricia Richardson, and so much more.

In the world of horror, Robert is the man who would bring us the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the Halloween franchise with Halloween: H2O, which is a personal favorite of mine, as it came out right around the perfect age for me to begin enjoying horror films, and seeing an addition to this legendary franchise in theaters was an incredible event to my 13 year old self. I am forever grateful for this film. It featured 100% more LL Cool J than the original film, and for that it was worth the price of admission and more.

We are so excited to have Robert grace our digital pages and share some words with you all today. So Folks, please enjoy some incredible words and beautiful stories from the brilliant Robert Zappia!

What inspired you to get into the world of entertainment and filmmaking? Was it an early aspiration you can always remember having since your youth, or did you just find yourself in this world one day?

My father was an Emmy award winning editor. So I guess you could say I grew up around the industry. He edited all the Norman Lear shows (e.g. All in the Family, Maude, Jeffersons, etc…), in the nineties he edited shows like Roseanne, Boy Meets World, Home Improvement and on and on. He helped develop the Avid multi-camera hardware/software, as well. From an early age I saw literally how a story was put together visually. How it could be changed by changing the order in which you placed scenes or cut scenes and so forth.

But I think the real moment that I saw myself getting into the world of entertainment was when I saw Star Wars at the ripe ol’ age of eight. That was a seminal moment for me. I saw it at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I still get goosebumps when I think of that opening shot of the seamlessly endless Star Destroyer flying overhead.

Initially, I thought I would be a director. Even through my years at U.S.C. I thought that’s where I’d find myself. But for various reasons, I came to the realization that what I enjoyed the most was taking an idea from inception to completion on the page. After that, it seemed just seemed like labor to take it from the page to the screen.

What was your first paid gig for writing? And were there any kind of lessons learned from this project that still affect your work today?

My very first paid gig was an episode of Home Improvement. I was 23 and my first script was writing for the number one show on television. No pressure there. Lol. Let me back up a bit…well, a lot…

When I graduated from U.S.C. I expected there to be a line of studio execs with scripts in hand clamoring for the my talents. Not so much. Not one studio. Not one script. Not one job offer. Well, one…a production assistant gig on a new television show on NBC called Carol & Company. And I think the main reason I was offered the job was because I had a car phone – an absolute rarity in 1986. Carol Burnett was making her return to prime time with a new series created by Matt Williams (who had written for The Cosby Show, A Different World and created the hit sitcom Roseanne). Having no other options that didn’t involve flipping something on a grill, I took the job with a smile. And boy am I glad I did….

I’m not saying being a production assistant was fun. It wasn’t. You’re basically an errand boy with a title that sounds kind of cool to people who don’t really know any better. My first spec I wrote was a half-hour Carol & Company that was 72 pages long (they’re supposed to be about half that – and no, I wasn’t going for a two-parter). I would come in to work after the writers finished working on that week’s script (typically around 3-4 AM to make copies for the cast and crew). So in I come at 4 AM with my 72 page “half-hour” script. I go right into Matt William’s office – who had probably been up for 48 plus hours straight at that point – and I asked, “Matt, I just wrote this spec Carol & Company. Would you read it?” And God bless the man, without skipping a beat, he said, “DId you really? That’s great. I ‘d love to read it.” He asked that I be patient with him because his schedule was pretty heavy (gee, you think?) and that he would definitely read it and get back to me. And that’s exactly what he did – maybe three weeks later he called me into his office…

He spent close to an hour with me going through the script, giving me notes, etc… It was fantastic. I was getting paid to learn from one of the most talented creative forces I’ve worked with in my career. It suddenly made making a writers’ room full of cappucinos (no Starbucks in those days, kids) worth every froth job gone bad. Matt told me what books to read (The Art of Dramatic Writing, Write That Play, Screenplay by Syd Field, etc…). I read them all. Twice. Then wrote another script, then another and another. Each time giving them to Matt to read and getting his notes. I remember on one of my scripts Matt telling me to rewrite it without the jokes. I remember thinking, “Huh? It’s a sitcom – situation-COMEDY. No jokes?” Matt’s point was that I was writing to the joke rather than letting the character and situation create the humor. That was such a great exercise and a valuable lesson that I’ve never forgotten when writing comedy.

Matt was about to create a new show and he told me he wanted to promote me to a writer’s assistant so I would be in the room with the other writers and could learn even more seeing the “inner workings” of the writing process. That new show was Home Improvement. What an incredible experience it was seeing that show created from the ground up. Being in the writers’ room was an invaluable experience for me. It was my job to take notes as the writers pitched out the show. It was great to get into their minds and see how the process worked…how they broke a story…how they rewrote an episode…etc… It really demystified the process for me.

I continued to write specs and turn them in to Matt. At the end of the first season Matt told me he felt I was ready to tackle a script for the show. My own episode! That was definitely one of the high points in my career.

In 1998, you left your mark in the extremely popular and beloved Halloween franchise with the wonderful Halloween H20. I am curious to know how it feels to be a part of this legacy? And what made you want to become a part of this world?

I’d say being a part of the Halloween legacy was a dream come true, but truthfully, I never even thought it was a possibility. The original Halloween was one of the first horror films I ever saw. I had seen the original as a teen and it scared the wits out of me. I couldn’t look out a window without imagining the Shape standing there in the yard. And the iconic theme song was one of the first I learned to play on the piano. The thought of one day actually writing an installment of the franchise just hadn’t entered my mind. The job actually came about in a circuitous way…

I was working in television at the time writing for sitcoms. I had written for Home Improvement and had finished work on a short-lived sitcom starring David Chapelle called Buddies. During that hiatus, I wrote a spec sci-fi feature called Population Zero. Writing feature films was always my ultimate goal, so every hiatus I would write a new spec with hopes of selling it. And while Population Zero didn’t sell, it did catch the attention of an executive at Dimension Films named Richard Potter.

My agent arranged for a general interview with Richard. We talked about the spec script and such. I clicked with Richard from the minute we started chatting. Just a really good, down-to- earth exec. Richard said they’d really like to work with me but the only writing assignment they had open was a direct-to-home video release of Halloween 7, would I be interested? WOULD I BE INTERESTED?! Uh, yes….yes, I would.

ANY chance to be a part of the Halloween franchise was such an exciting thought (whether it was released theatrically or not)! But as you know, once Jamie Lee Curtis signed on it became a whole other level of awesome.

 

 

Beyond the world of horror, you also wrote for a number of years on a brilliant television series, which features our dear friend Patricia Richardson, entitled Home Improvement. So how was your experience working on this legendary show?

In a word…AMAZING.

In a few words…the cast and crew were like family. It really was a special group of people; many of whom I’m still close friends with today.

In quite a few more words…

My first spec I ever wrote was when I was production assistant on a half-hour show called Carol & Company (starring Carol Burnett). The show was created by Matt Williams (at the time he had just come off the hit show Roseanne that he created). The spec for the show I wrote was 72 pages long (they’re supposed to be about half that – and no, I wasn’t going for a two-parter). I would come in to work after the writers finished working on that week’s script (typically around 3-4 AM to make copies for the cast and crew). So in I come at 4 AM with my 72 page “half- hour” script. I go right into Matt William’s office – who had probably been up for 48 plus hours straight at that point – and I asked, “Matt, I just wrote this spec Carol & Company. Would you read it?” And God bless the man, without skipping a beat, he said, “DId you really? That’s great. I ‘d love to read it.” He asked that I be patient with him because his schedule was pretty heavy (gee, you think?) and that he would definitely read it and get back to me. And that’s exactly what he did – maybe three weeks later he called me into his office…

He spent close to an hour with me going through the script, giving me notes, etc… It was fantastic. I was getting paid to learn from one of the most talented creative forces I’ve worked

with in my career. It suddenly made making a writers’ room full of cappuccinos (no Starbucks in those days, kids) worth every froth job gone bad. Matt told me what books to read (The Art of Dramatic Writing, Write That Play, Screenplay by Syd Field, etc…). I read them all. Twice. Then wrote another script, then another and another. Each time giving them to Matt to read and getting his notes. I remember on one of my scripts Matt telling me to rewrite it without the jokes. I remember thinking, “Huh? It’s a sitcom – situation-COMEDY. No jokes?” Matt’s point was that I was writing to the joke rather than letting the character and situation create the humor. That was such a great exercise and a valuable lesson that I’ve never forgotten when writing comedy.

Matt was about to create a new show and he told me he wanted to promote me to a writer’s assistant so I would be in the room with the other writers and could learn even more seeing the “inner workings” of the writing process. That new show was Home Improvement. What an incredible experience it was seeing that show created from the ground up. Being in the writers’ room was an invaluable experience for me. It was my job to take notes as the writers pitched out the show. It was great to get into their minds and see how the process worked…how they broke a story…how they rewrote an episode…etc… It really demystified the process for me.

I continued to write specs and turn them in to Matt. At the end of the first season Matt told me he felt I was ready to tackle a script for the show. My own episode! That was definitely one of the high points in my career. What a thrill it was to be 23 years old and writing for the #1 show on television viewed by more than 20 million people each week. It was surreal and I’ll be forever grateful to Matt for the opportunity.

In your own personal opinion, what do you believe it is that makes the horror genre special? What sets it apart from other genres you have worked in?

For me, fear is such a primal human emotion. The whole “fight or flight” response that’s been baked into our DNA. The horror genre taps into that fear. And if done well, can generate that same adrenaline rush we feel from a terrifying experience – all from the safety of a darkened movie theater. There’s no other genre that can emulate that adrenaline like horror. That’s what makes it special to me.

You have an absolutely massive body of work, according to IMDb, in just about every job available in the world of film! So with that, what would you say is your favorite part of the filmmaking process? If you were strapped to only work in one gig, which would it be?

I have a love-hate relationship with writing. I LOVE having written. It’s the writing part, that can be torture at times. From FADE IN to FADE OUT it’s a constant wrestling match – wrestling with words, wrestling with characters, wrestling with story…and on and on. With that said, there’s NOTHING like taking a blank page and filling it with characters and story.

So, when you ask if I were strapped to only work in one gig, it’d be writing. Creating something from nothing. It’s intoxicating (and probably speaks to my need for “control”). And if I could ONLY write in one genre, it would definitely be the thriller/horror genre. I love films where the stakes are high. And there are no bigger stakes than life and death.

What is your favorite scary movie?

If I had to pick one favorite I’d say Halloween. And If I had to pick the scariest scary movie, I’d say The Exorcist.

Do you have any plans for this coming Halloween? And fun traditions that you try to stick to every year?

Now that our kids are grown, our Halloween tradition has changed from taking them from door-to-door collecting candy to staying home and handing out candy. Of course, I always sit down an

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

We’re slated to start filming a supernatural thriller I wrote called The Devil’s Flame early next year. I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but am excited for the fans of the genre to see this one. Here’s the logline: Based on true events. In response to this “astonishing” increase in demand for exorcisms, the Vatican opens a secret exorcism training academy where a young, gifted nun defies the church leadership to join her colleagues in the battle of good versus ultimate evil. If you’re a fan of exorcism films, I believe this is going to deliver the goods (and the evil)!

What was the last thing that scared the hell out of you?

My son’s college tuition statement.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Typing FADE OUT. Makes me smile Every. Single. Damn. Time.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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