Keith Payson [Interview]

Hello Folks! Welcome to the 2020 edition of our Month of Horror. It’s almost humorous that we are showcasing the motion pictured displays of horror when it seems as though we simply have to look around us to see the natural horror that is enveloping our daily lives. But nevertheless, a quick escape from the surrealism of our daily lives is often appreciated. In this vein, we honor these wonderful folks who seek to only entertain us with a good scare and a break from the actual horror that is all around us. We have assembled a wonderful batch of actors, writers, directors & beyond, who have worked on so many different projects that you know and love. I am beyond excited to share them with you all throughout the month of October. Enjoy!

Today we have legendary producer & writer Keith Payson. Keith has worked on plethora of projects you know and love alongside quite a few folks we have spoken with in the past. His work includes Puppet Master 4 & 5, Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, & Trancers III.

Please enjoy some wonderful words from the great Keith Payson!


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

When I was a small boy, maybe four or five years old riding in my mother’s Chevy Bel-Air coupe  we would frequently drive from West L.A. where we lived, to Beverly Hills or some other mid-city  address and use either Pico or Olympic Boulevard as the common route of travel.

In those days when you drove on Pico or Olympic you were driving along the edge of the 20th Century Fox back-lot and at certain sections I could see the tops of western street sets popping up  above the chain link fence which was about 16 ft. high. I was enthralled because I recognized  that these wooden flats were related to what I was seeing on TV and I was so hungry to get on that  back lot that I would ask everyone I met, the grocery clerk, the bank teller, our family doctor if  they know how I could get on the other side of that fence.

The next year, having just completed the first grade, I was beginning my first summer vacation  from school and I was determined to use my three months well so I recruited a few neighborhood  kids to help me build our own western town in an empty lot up the road. My mother was a  prolific filmmaker of family documentaries and I planned to use her 8mm Bell & Howell camera  for shooting. She also had an editing table permanently staged in a corner of the dining room  where she regular sat cutting and splicing her most recent projects, so post production was  covered as well.

Between us we were certain we had everything we needed, props and wardrobe included so we  loaded our little red wagons with all the scrap wood our father’s were hoarding in the garage  along with any tools that weren’t locked up and marched the two blocks up Grandview Boulevard  to a huge empty lot where we used to build forts and play games (it’s now a collection of Little  League baseball diamonds and soccer fields) and we proceeded to lay out the design of a western  town set. Of course we didn’t even have enough wood to build half the boardwalk in front of the  entrance to the saloon, but we started nailing pieces together anyway. Then, one by one the  recruits either got hungry or bored and I was left alone with a wagon full of my Dad’s tools that I  had get back in place before he returned home from work, so we didn’t even complete a flat 8  hr./day and the show was over. I realized that day that my dream and my success would be  directly linked not just to other people, but to other people who shared the same dream I was  dreaming.

What was your first paid gig in the world of entertainment? And were there any kind of  lessons learned from this project that still affect your work today? 

Actually the first gig was while I was still attending high school. I was so far ahead in earned  credits because I had a habit of taking every summer school class I could that I was slated to  graduate early leaving open the possibility of an off campus apprenticeship. My photography  instructor, who was very well connected in L.A. held a photo salon at the end of each academic  year and the judge’s were very established fashion, editorial and commercial photographers in the  Los Angeles area. One of them liked the images I submitted and offered me a position as his  assistant on specific photo shoots. His name was Mario Casilli. He was one of the original  Playboy Magazine photographers. I began assisting him shooting 8×10 still images for Playboy test  shots to be submitted each month in the selection process for the monthly centerfold finalist. I was  certainly elated with the opportunity I was presented at just seventeen years old and although it  was, at times, difficult to stay focused on my work, I did learn quite a bit about large format  camerawork and masterful lighting techniques.

But my real first paid gig was after I graduated high school while I was waiting for the scholarship I  had received to Rochester Institute of Technology to begin, I went to work for a TV commercial  production company as an office runner (errand boy) as well as their projectionist and from time to  time they would have me perform tasks on or around the set as well.

I was told one day to report to a particular soundstage in L.A. where the company was completing  a Schlitz Beer commercial – this was in 1973. The scene was a group of people socializing and  partying, many of them drinking, and suddenly a live bull comes crashing through the wall and the  brand name Schlitz comes up on screen in big letters?

In order to have the bull crash through the wall on queue, (no CGI in those days), the set was built  with one stunt wall up against an opening to the stage next door where the bull was kept until they  were ready to roll camera. At that point the bull would be guided by an animal wrangler to a  chute leading to the back of the stunt wall. Upon hearing action called the wrangler would count  down a prescribed number of beats the use an electric cattle prod on the bulls balls setting him  moving violently forward at full speed and crashing through the break-away wall onto the set next  door where cameras were rolling as stunt actors scattered out of the way of a really pissed off bull.

By the time I arrived at the stage the filming was completed most of the crew was gone and the set  was being dismantled by the art department. I was told promptly handed a broom and a dust pan  and instructed to report to the set next door. As a walked away I heard the entire art department  break into laughter. The stage where the bull was kept was one of the smaller soundstages at  about seventy-five feet square. For some reason the wranglers determined it was a good idea to let  the bull have the complete run of the entire stage rather than section off fifteen or twenty square  feet. The entire soundstage was littered with straw and of course, bullshit. It took four and a half  hours to sweep the entire stage clean and to this day I have a distinct ability to discern the  difference between the fragrance of horseshit and bullshit.

In 1993, you jumped into one of our favorite horror franchises, which would be the Puppet  Master franchise. I am curious to know what drew you to this world? What intrigued you most  about working on this one? 

Well I must admit this was an opportunity of proximity and happenstance. I was already head of  production of Full Moon Entertainment when this franchise was put on the slate for production.  A year or so earlier I had reluctantly agreed to help a friend who desperately wanted to get out of a  contractual obligation to continue line producing films for Charlie Band, the owner of Full Moon.  She had been engaged for a while and was anxious to get married, take a one-year honeymoon in  Ireland rent a small country cottage and write the screenplay she believed would launch her  writing and directing career. It’s not that I didn’t want to help her out, but for various reasons I  didn’t want that particular gig. In the end I relented and just couldn’t say no to helping her so I  took the job as a single project deal and as it turned out my instincts were right and it was a truly  painful experience for me. However, before that film was through editing I was asked to do  another film for the company, only this time the script was better and I had developed a better  idea how to approach the production, this time with the freedom to start from scratch rather than  an entirely inherited cast and crew.

I also had come to realize that I could use this new opportunity as a private master degree program  to learn everything about film production, writing, acting, producing, directing, running a small  film studio, even designing sound stages and related studio facilities that the world of commercial  production had not provided me.

By the end of the second film at Full Moon I was Head Of Production with a ten-picture deal at  Paramount Studios and Puppet Master IV and V soon came to me to produce. In actuality I was  supervising and running the studio, line-producing, 2nd unit directing every film, on occasion ghost  directing as well as supervising post production. I completed twelve films during my tenure at Full  Moon and Moonbeam Entertainment, the family film division I helped create.

So, while I grew up watching every genre I could get my hands on and as a young boy horror was  certainly among them, at the time I was working on Puppet Master I must be honest it was not  because I was enthralled with the horror genre it was more that I was enthralled with the process  of filmmaking as a collective mechanism. The idea that a group of creative people could come  together for a prescribed period of time around a script, agree on an interpretation of that script  and then mobilize and choose to behave each day as a synchronized mechanism, a machine that  would produce a singular piece of art yielding the highest production value possible within the  budget and schedule constraints we had all agreed to abide by – this to me was fascinating!





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? 

The great horror films divulge an aspect of the human condition that is generally inaccessible in its  pure form or at least not easily available in many other genres. Because these other genres exist in  a landscape where the actions unfolding are more or less commonplace to our daily experience of  the world and by contrast not uniquely extraordinary therefore we frequently are not able to fully

pull the curtain back and witness our individual existence for what it really is – a testament that all  life has meaning and all death is justified.

This is not to say that other genres do not deal with many of the same concepts, but they tend to  rely quite heavily on varying definitions of justice that are based on social, religious and moral  precepts, all of which complicate rather than clarify the art of grappling with death as it relates to  justice and seeing one’s own death as the key to a meaningful existence. As represented in a great  horror film the instinct to cling to life regardless of how monumental and incomprehensible the  attack is upon us brings us to an edge of self-awareness most other genres find difficult to  accomplish in ninety-minutes.

An earthquake, a fire, a car accident, a stray bullet – these are all things we ascribe to the will of  God and we may grieve their occurrence and forever ponder their specific meaning in our lives,  but we do not doubt the origin or the characteristic of their being born out of benign intent.  Nature is worth loving and revering even when she is cruel and relentless and deadly. To attempt  to rescue oneself from an unjustified death is the necessary struggle portrayed in the best horror  films. The seemingly meaningless or random attack is misconstrued as an act of pure evil when in  fact whether the life in jeopardy has meaning is not up to the attacker but rather it is in the  behavior and choices of the victim. Whether the life of the victim will overpower the attacker, not  necessarily by stopping the killing, although possibly, but instead from rendering the victim’s life  meaningless. To explicitly show an audience a character in the midst of discovering the meaning  of her or his life under incomprehensible circumstances gives us hope we may discover the  meaning of our life within our mundane and less critical conditions.

What is your favorite scary movie? Why? 

Let The Right One In, is a film that captures the essence of a character becoming more self-aware,  realizing that they possess the capability for expressing and manifesting both good and what they  perceive or have been taught to understand as evil. Yet upon further self-reflection they discover  that evil does not in actuality exist at all, but rather what people have come to understand as evil is  quite simply the absence of goodness or said somewhat differently what many understand as, “the  privation of goodness.”

I know this year may be a bit different, but I am curious to know if you have any sort of  Halloween traditions? Anything you would normally do each year? 

The occasional costume party is the most fun, but they are not as frequent as they used to be. The  allure of giving out candy to kids vaporized a long, long, time ago. And decorating the house has  never been my thing… I much prefer watching the neighbors get creative. So that leaves a dimly  lit room, a big bowl of ice cream, a glass of single malt scotch and a horror film I haven’t seen yet.

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

I have two films in development, each in line to produce and also direct. One is a investigative  crime drama, suspense/horror/thriller and the other a true story, bio-pic, survival drama about four  men on a thirty-five foot sail boat caught in a hurricane while transiting the Gulf of Mexico. These  two films will be full DGA productions. The first one funded will be my DGA directorial debut  and I will happily hand the line-producing responsibilities off to someone else… whew!

I have been a consultant for many years as a specialist in physical production so during the  development phase on my own projects I also work with other screenwriters, directors and  producers as a consultant and production planner preparing complete business plans and singular  components of business plans, i.e. budgets, schedules script and production analysis, etc.  []

A few years ago I launched a specialized consulting program for new screenwriters or anyone  really who needs help navigating through the minefield that surrounds Hollywood. There is a lot  of mythology about what can and cannot be accomplished by unknown or uncredited  screenwriters, those who have not yet sold a script or gotten something produced. So I established  a six-week program at heavily reduced consulting rates to coach them through what is and what  isn’t true about landing a literary manager or agent or about pitching and selling their scripts. My  interest is in allowing these artists to shed the burden of false assumption, gossip and mythology so  instead of wasting all that energy fighting negativity and a collection of urban legends they can  strategize a more secure path toward success, whatever that looks like to them.

The reality is that after a writer or writer/producer figures out how to write a good or great  screenplay they then face the daunting challenge of having to learn how to sell it. Well as we all  know, selling a script is easier said than done and it’s a pretty competitive and confusing  landscape you have to travel through to accomplish that task. All too many talented young writers  actually fail and walk away from writing not because they weren’t good writers but because the  business side of screenwriting became an impediment that they just couldn’t overcome in time  and felt compelled to bail out.

And lastly, I continue to pursue my oldest and original artistic passion – photography, by shooting  my own fine art and by teaching the fundamentals of photography and image capture as well as  portrait lighting to more advanced students.

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

The possibility of Donald Trump, William Barr and Mitch McConnell getting four more years in  office rather than prison or in the later two cases impeachment and forced retirement.

What was the last thing that made you smile? 

My wife and I have two pet Holland lop bunnies who are a constant reservoir of behavioral and  emotional insight and delight. The sight of either one of them approaching and then standing on  their hind legs begging to be picked-up and cuddled is precious.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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