Interview conducted by Paul Bird
Following the London preview screening of Tim Sullivan's latest splatter opus 2001 MANIACS: FIELD OF SCREAMS our very own Paul Bird settled back with Tim in the legendary and notorious Phoenix Club for a little chat about the new movie and his love for the horror community…
SGM: First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Tim Sullivan: No, Thank you! I mean, seriously, I am so grateful to sites like SexGoreMutants. You're cheerleaders of the genre. I really do believe that horror fans are a brotherhood. We all have our stories and that we were told we were outside the box when growing up, so it's nice to be among my own - and to know they do exist in the UK!
SGM: Well, you've taken the film on tour, right around the country. How's it been received?
TS: It's been great! This is the fourth stop. I sort of feel like, when you're an indie film-maker it's sort of like when an indie band puts out a new album, and you put a tour behind it. We kick-started in Glasgow at Frightfest - a festival I'd heard so much about, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Every film was sold out, and there was so much variety. I mean, Frozen could not be more different to Field Of Screams, but horror fans just love their movies in any shape, size they can take. We went on to Dublin and then Sheffield and it's so nice to know there's so many of these horror festivals and groups. I could easily take the rest of the year travelling from place to place to place just showing this, and if I didn't have other films to make I probably would!
SGM: Film festivals, and genre ones in particular, are amazing things - There's an atmosphere you can't get anywhere else. You're seeing the movies in their natural environment with the core audience. It must be a great way, as a filmmaker, to gauge how the film goes down.
TS: Absolutely! It was so funny today when I sat down next to John Landis and he said "You're staying to watch?" and I was like "absolutely!" I learn so much from the audience, you know, in particular seeing the first film with audiences was really helpful in making the second one. I learned it was the humour, the broadness and everything, that did connect, not so much the scary scenes - that's for other types of films. I remember when I was growing up watching all the old horror movies on television, and when I was at NYU Film School I took a course called Classics Of The Horror Film, taught by William K Everson, and it was amazing to me because, even though I had seen these films so many times, seeing them on a big screen with an audience - it was like it breathed life into them. Movies are made to be a communal experience.
For better or worse, a lot of these films now just go straight to DVD - it's just the nature of the market - so it's great to see them on the big screen and that's what's great about these festivals. I mean, horror movies are to film what rock and roll is to music - we're the rebellious sub-genre of a medium. You know - Imagine being at a rock and roll concert by yourself - not as much fun as when there's a whole crowd there!
SGM: I guess the slight difference is, as the concert is live, the band can read the audience reaction and adjust the performance to suit it at the time. Have you ever shown a rough cut, for example, and made changes due to audience reaction?
TS: I've never done that - with my films I've been on such a tight schedule there really isn't the luxury of time! When I was in Glasgow, that was the first time I ever saw the film with an audience, and it was terrifying! But it worked out really well. I look at the film now and I think "oh I could tweak this or that", but it's out of my hands! It is what it is, you know.
SGM: I remember one horror festival I went to (Dead By Dawn) had Herschell Gordon Lewis there, showing an early cut of Blood Feast 2. He was sat right behind me during the screening and kept asking "How's this bit? Is it funny? Does that gore work?" and, from memory, the version that was finally released is quite different to the one he showed that day.
TS: Interesting. Yeah - It's always helpful to get feedback. I'm lucky enough to have a circle of friends whose opinions I really value and I know they aren't going to blow smoke up my butt. I did get a chance to show them bits and pieces. But also, we went through a lot of rewrites on the script, tweaking it, trying to push the envelope and make it funnier - trimming as much fat as possible to make it race by.
Interestingly enough, any criticism I've read of the film so far is stuff that's my choice - Some people have said they felt it was too funny compared to the first, but that was the point, or that the plot was thin, but I always envisaged this as like Monty Python's Meaning of Life. A series of skits more than a solid plot. That's what this was meant to be. Just as the Maniacs put on a variety show for their guests of honour, I want to put one on for my audience. You know - "Here's a little sex scene, and here's a joke, and now there's going to be a sheep fucking moment, now we're going to have a murder, then a crazy dance"! That's how I designed it, for better or worse, so the criticism I've had so far is really describing exactly what I set out to do!
SGM: I guess part of that was because 2001 Maniacs took so many people by surprise when it came out. Horror fans sort of groan every time a new franchise or remake comes out, and then you come along and bring one out that's actually incredibly entertaining which made it feel quite fresh and original in a way. How did you manage to keep that up in the second one?
TS: The energy I got from showing the first film - going out there, meeting the fans and interacting with them on the internet - it pumps you up, man! Everyone was saying they wanted it and, quite honestly, I have a very twisted mind. I'm constantly going through my day looking at stuff thinking "That would make an interesting way to get someone murdered in my next film" and I really do have a passion for my maniacs. The first one was about 85% my vision, and a lot of the stuff I was passionate about ended up in the deleted scenes, so I wanted to make it my mission to make a film that was 100% the slapstick that I wanted it to be.
I'm surrounded by people that support that vision, from my co-writer Chris Kobin to my producer Chris Tuffin to my actors. Everybody took this sadistic glee in the project! I mean, if you look at Herschell's films, old Tales From The Crypt comics, there is a glee and joy in the mayhem. It seems to be infectious among the people I work with on these films, and it's very hard not to have a good time and come up with fun, twisted, stuff that hopefully the audience will feel the same about.
SGM: Some of it is pretty twisted! I do wonder if the censors will take issue with a couple of things...
TS: Yeah, I know. But then, I've been pretty amazed at some of the stuff I've seen get R ratings in the States - especially films where the violence is more drawn out sadistic scenes of torture. The violence in Maniacs is purposely cartoonish - almost Looney Tunes - so I'm hoping the censors will be smart enough to see that and give us a break! I should say, I felt the same way about the first one, and to my shock we got an R and didn't have to cut anything out.
SGM: You're right - the violence is so OTT it's like Tom and Jerry, and part of that comes through, in the original, in Robert Englund's performance. He's got such energy and a wicked glint in his eye, so you can't help but know you're along for a fairground ride. What's really nice with the second is that Bill Moseley and Lin Shaye are so fantastic that you don't miss Robert.
TS: Oh yes, Lin is a jewel. Let me state, Robert Englund is my friend, he wishes this film well and I can't wait to show it to him, but it just didn't work out. Bill stepped up to the plate - I didn't envy him stepping into such "tall shoes" - but I was honoured he was willing to help me out, cos if he had said no the film wouldn't have got made as he was the only substitute for Robert the financiers would have accepted. Bill was determined to bring his own approach to the role. Where Robert had played him very manic and broad, Bill wanted to be more of a Jimmy Stewart, Western type. He played more of a straight man and let the other Maniacs do all the stuff - Lin and the others go nuts - and I think he was very smart to do that. He's almost like a talk show host, you know, "Coming up next!" I was really pleased with it and we both said up front we weren't interested in imitating Robert. I wasn't really sure what he was going to do, and then when we had our first table reading we were all like "wow!" It was really cool.
Not that she and Robert didn't get along, but Lin and Bill had a very interesting chemistry that allowed us to really explore the relationship. The sexuality of Granny. Lin and I always saw Granny as this aging madam who still wants to get her rocks off but, you know, it's like everyone else is but her! That's why she's always smiling through the tension. She smiles, but she's gritting her teeth cos she wants to get pounded! She and I decided we were really going to go for that in this one - she said "How come everyone else in the first movie got laid but Granny?" and she was the one who came up with that idea at the very end in the birth scene - that little "bonus".
SGM: It's interesting you chose 2000 Maniacs to remake. While it's respected in the community, it's not so well known by the general movie-going public. Was this, in part, a way of getting mainstream audiences interested in seeing something they wouldn't normally take the risk with?
TS: We set about getting the first one made in 2000, thinking it would come out in 2001, hence the name, but little did we know! I'd just produced Detroit Rock City and at the time Bob Zemeckis was remaking all the William Castle films. All these remakes were on the horizon, and Chris Kobin came to me and told me he had the rights to remake some of Heschell's films. That was interesting to me - I felt like I'd never want to remake something like The Exorcist - but Herchell's films were a perfect example of splatter before it's time, but I felt he had the limitations of his budget and schedule and I thought "wouldn't it be fun to take one of his films and remake it for an audience that wasn't aware of Herschell". At the same time not doing it like, you know, Michael Bay would, but with the spirit true to how Herschell made the original.
Of all his films, 2000 Maniacs was always my favourite. The storyline was so frickin' cool! He'd been inspired by the story of Brigadoon, and I liked mixing in the idea of the town making sport of the murders at the carnival. I thought at the same time we could be smart and have some clever satire about the state of America and I'm not a big fan of George Bush, so we put as much in as possible without making it a polemic. What was really cool was that people got all that other stuff and I tried to pack it with so much stuff there's things to discover on repeated viewings. The greatest compliment I had was from David Friedman, the producer of the first film, who said "Tim, you made a modern film but you kept the joke intact".
SGM: Of course, with the making of the sequel you've emulated Lewis even more, with a very tight schedule.....
TS: Yes! A VERY tight schedule and budget, and it really forces you to be on your toes and to really bring it in terms of creativity. When we left Ottawa, whatever we'd shot, that's what we had. We shot with two cameras. I had a great producer, who was also a director, named Mike Greene, so we'd often have two units shooting at the same time. I'd go back and forth between what I was shooting and a lot of the gory stuff - if it involved special effects he would shoot. As soon as they said the effect was ready I'd run in and direct that. It was fun! I was like a kid in a candy store. I was like "OK - Run in this tent and see the girl get cut in half. Run in that tent and see the guy's eye pop out. Run here and see the Abraham Lincoln assassination." It was so much fun. In America we have these things called Spook Houses or Fun Houses - people dress up as monsters and you go in and they leap out. It's kind of how I designed the film. I mean, over here you have the London Dungeon. I did go to that last year and adored it but I don't think you'd get away with it in America. You'd never have a nice little boat ride all about, say, slavery in the south! Only the Brits could take tragedy and turn it into a tourist attraction. But then again, we do have visits to the White House.
SGM: You're also well known as an avid collector of memorabilia. Do you have anything from the original 2000 Maniacs?
TS: Oh no, I don't. I wish I did! I don't know if anything even exists from that movie any more. I do have Robert's eye patch from the first and Bill's from the second, and the pig nose. The other actors were fighting over the props - I told them they could all have their costumes. When the film opens in Texas, we're going to have them all arrive in character in Hearses. We'll have a BBQ and a ho-down and the audience is encouraged to come dressed as Maniacs so we'll see what happens!
SGM: I know with Driftwood you put some of the memorabilia out into the community. Will you do the same thing here?
TS: Yeah! The reason I did that is not because I was so hard up! I was very good friends with Forrest J Ackerman who really is the reason why John Landis and I bonded. I saw how much it means to people to own a piece of a movie they love. We'll probably do that with some of the costumes from Maniacs after we do the tour.... and maybe Jezebel - the sheep! She's actually going on tour too. They'll do a drinking game in Texas where every time she appears on stage you have to take a drink. Everyone wants to know why she's stuffed in this film - quite simply it's because I had such a hard time with the sheep on the first that the producers said "no Jezebel in this movie!" and I thought I had to have Jezebel, so I got to thinking that the dog was stuffed, so why don't we just have a taxidermy sheep. She's dead and Lester can't get over her. It's actually funnier now she's stuffed - we can do so much more we couldn't do with a live sheep!
SGM: In your own collection, what are most happy with?
TS: Well, I would say.... I have Ace Frehley's guitar. He gave me his Les Paul he played in Detroit Rock City. As a Kiss fan, that's very symbolic to me - it was my first big film, and being a Kiss fan and getting to produce a Kiss fan movie. That's not horror related, but it is my favourite. As far as horror goes, I have a ring that Robert Quarry wore in Count Yorga, Vampire. I befriended Robert in the last years of his life and we became quite close. He gave me this ring towards the end, which was a real emotional experience. So many of these actors, they made these movies and they became icons and legends, but they really only got paid the money to play the role. After that a lot of them get forgotten and everybody assumes they're living in a big house and doing well, but that wasn't true with Robert Quarry. I was very sad - I mean, here's this guy who was Count Yorga. He's legendary, it's one of my favourite vampire movies ever. So Robert was not doing so well and was living in a very unpleasant place and needed to go into a living place but didn't have the means to do it. I heard about this and put the word out on the horror websites and the outpouring of love and affection from across the world was amazing, from fans, for Robert Quarry. Within a month, he had a fully furnished place - and not just the necessities but the luxuries too. Frank Darabont, of all people, heard about this and sent an entire collection of music for Robert and a boom box and furniture and clothes and, you know, it was so heart-warming to see the fans take care of one of their own. And the beautiful news is Robert had thought he was forgotten, but in that last year and a half of his life he was able to know that he was loved and his performances in the horror genre really meant something to not just the regular fans but also the film-makers like Frank. It was a really wonderful thing - one of the best things in the last few years that I've been able to be a part of. He gave me the ring that he wore as Yorga - it has a lot of symbolic meaning for me.
SGM: That's an amazing story, and a perfect example of why people call it the horror community.
TS: Yeah. I don't see this in any other genre. I mean, I have stories, I'm sure you do too and others reading this - You grow up loving horror movies, wearing black, you know, people just assume you're sick and twisted and evil and worship the devil, and that because you'd rather watch a video on a Saturday rather than kick a ball in a net - not to knock sports - you get considered quirky or weird or odd and someone you don't really want to date or hang out with. And it was really cool, because when I came to California and started making these films, all of us outsiders and misfits found each other and now there's this brotherhood where the people who others thought were the sickest are actually the nicest and kindest and coolest, and take care of each other and respect each other. I don't sense, at all, a rivalry among horror filmmakers. Everybody is kinda cheering each other on, whereas in every other genre there's amazing rivalry.
I meet people like Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper and James Wong and, arguably, they put on screen some the most sadistic, twisted, visions but in person they are teddy bears - kind, gentle people - and then you meet some comedians and they're the meanest, nastiest, angriest people I've ever met! Maybe we get it out on screen! I don't care.... everybody has dark thoughts, you can't deny it, and we get it out so it's gone, but maybe some of these others keep it within which is why they can be so uptight. You know, it is a brotherhood, my friend, it is a brotherhood. I mean - I could come to London knowing nobody, and see someone wearing a Beyond T-Shirt and I feel I can just go up to them and we'd be having a beer in a minute. Today at the screening, it was insane how many people came that I consider friends but I'd never met before - it's just we'd been talking on Facebook. I recognise that, and it's absolutely wonderful.
SGM: And going back to the icons of horror, you've now got the opportunity to add to the legends by your involvement with Scream Queens.
TS: Yeah! That was really wonderful - I was never expecting that. I was editing Field of Screams when I got the call. It was so weird having to go in to audition, as I'm normally the guy who holds auditions, and they had some actresses. They filmed me directing them and the actresses purposely did stupid things and I had to redirect them and I got the part! I got the part of Tim Sullivan!! I was so proud! I auditioned for myself and won! It's great that they'd even have a show called Scream Queens and have it on something as widely seen as MTV is, to me, a real acknowledgement that the genre is here to stay. It's mainstream, but not sold out, if that makes sense. I was really pleased as the producers want the show accepted by the horror community so I was able to bring horror websites to do set visits and they let me co-write all the challenges. I got to do things I've never done before, like shoot on the Universal back lot where they shot Frankenstein, and use giant cameras and snakes and maggots and wire work. It was absolutely wonderful. I'm very excited about the show and I promise anyone who's like "oh, it's a reality thing" it's not cheesy. We went to great lengths to make this cool.
SGM: Well, the first series was a fun watch. It sounds like you'll have had as much of a learning experience through it as the girls will!
TS: Absolutely! I mean, to get a script on a Monday night to film on Tuesday morning - that was a bit of a learning experience! Each episode I had a different crew, so I had to learn how to adapt to them. But also, the most interesting thing of all was, you know - we start off with ten ladies and end up with one, but in the beginning when we had ten, to do the same scene ten times over with a different actress was an incredible experience as every actress brought their own interpretation and many of them were valid, so who's the best? It's very subjective. I think that will be very interesting to the audience. It's the same set, the same cinematography, but a different actress.
SGM: Going back to Field of Screams, you've taken the guys out on the road and they've embarked on a journey. At the end they say "The South's gonna rise again", so where are you taking them next? Or are you going to take them anywhere?
TS: No, I want to! I don't know, umm, it's up in the air and I don't want to give away too much of the film for people who haven't seen it but I think the surprise ending indicates a trip to the 'hood. I'm kinda thinking Maniacs In The Hood. Taking them into the inner cities and ghettos and seeing what happens there because so much of the humour in this one deals with poking fun at the stereotyping of racism, which is horrible that it exists to this day. I find that one of the best ways to shine a light on it is to make fun of it. I think that we'd embrace socio-political aspects of America in the third one and really take it that way. We will see. I would also be very interested in taking it backwards, going to 1969 and having a bunch of hippies on the way to Woodstock whose magical mystery bus takes them into Pleasant Valley, or even Mayor Buckman vs. the Taliban. One thing we won't do is we won't go into outer space. It didn't work for Leprechaun, Hellraiser, Jason and I just don't think it's going to work for Maniacs.
SGM: It's interesting to hear about using humour to highlight serious topics, as you've also proved you can deal with dark concepts in a more serious film with Driftwood.
TS: What the film depicts - the attitude adjustment camps - is very controversial because in America to this day there are these privately run camps where parents can send their kids for anything from being a horror fan to liking the boy next door instead of the girl to having piercings, smoking pot, you know - stuff a lot of kids grow up doing - but parents send their kids to their places and their childhood is robbed from them. That's very controversial to me and I needed to shine a light on it. You know, I'm not afraid of Freddy Krueger and Maniacs, but what terrifies me is physically and psychologically being restricted from being true to yourself. To me, that's the greatest horror - not being able to express yourself, whether it be as a filmmaker or who you love or whatever. Censorship to me, it's the worst, and this is censorship of the soul. The worst horror of all.
After I did Maniacs I didn't want to be labelled as just a slapstick guy and this theme was engrained in me as I knew some young people who'd been sent to such camps. I just needed to tell that story. You know, if Maniacs is my Rock and Roll anthem then Driftwood is my power ballad. I'll probably always do a slapstick followed by a more character driven film. So Brothers of the Blood, which is the vampire thriller romance, is something I've been working on for a long time. I have some other themes too - I actually have a non-horror film in the works called Shell-shocked that is sort of like a gay Death Wish. An action film about a victim of homophobia extracting revenge. It's never been done! You know, I really adored Inglourious Basterds. One of the reasons that struck a chord was you got to see a bunch of cool Jewish guys kick Nazi ass! And I thought "Ohhhhh! Inglourious Poofs!" which started as a joke but then, every time I've seen a gay movie it's somebody dying of aids like Philadelphia or someone coming out or some big old joke like Birdcage or Priscilla and, you know, that's not the whole gay experience. Wouldn't it be cool to do an action film where it just happens to be a gay person avenging the gay-bashing murder of their soul mate? Trevor Wright who plays Falcon in Field of Screams and was also in Shelter which was a hugely popular gay themed film in America came up with this and we're working on it, so we shall see what happens. It would still be horrific in tone, but no monsters as such. This is the first time I've mentioned it, so you heard it first on SexGoreMutants!
SGM: Tim Sullivan, thank you very much!
TS: It's been a pleasure!
Special thanks to Tim Sullivan and the team at MarketMe