The Movie Waffler Waffling With... HALLOWEEN 3 & IT Director Tommy Lee Wallace (Part 1) | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With... HALLOWEEN 3 & IT Director Tommy Lee Wallace (Part 1)

In the first part of an epic interview, the director of Halloween III and IT talks to TMW about his friendship and professional collaborations with John Carpenter in the '70s, his musical adventures with The Coupe de Villes and how he turned a William Shatner mask into the most iconic image in slasher cinema.

Interview by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Hey Tommy, let's start way back at the beginning. Like director John Carpenter, you grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Were you guys friends back then?

As kids we were aware of each other; we went to the same K-12 (one year apart) a Teacher Training School at Western Kentucky University. We both joined the orchestra early on (John played violin, I played trombone) and separately used different parts of the campus as a personal playground.
As teenagers, we came together and became best buddies, when folk and rock 'n roll music drew us together. Like so many others, we had each picked up guitar, so we started singing together, and with John's girlfriend became the local Peter, Paul and Mary, performing in our fledgling local Bohemian scene.
What really attracted me to John was his creative energy and drive. While I was wrapped up in Boy Scouts and sports and church, John was writing stories and even a novel, drawing superhero comix, writing songs and making 8mm movie shorts. His energy and focus were just phenomenal, and all self- motivated.  It spun my head around and changed my life. Suddenly my own creative world exploded, and I started thinking of myself as an artist-in-the- making, all due to John's example and influence.
Having been in various church choirs forever, I had developed a good ear for harmony, so our voices blended well on some of John's songs. We eventually formed a rock'n'roll cover band and gigged around that area, doing the hits of the day. Curiously, we never tried out John's songs in that band, and some of them were damn good.
John was ambitious from the get-go. He knew what a film director was, and what one did, and wanted to pursue that from an early age. I helped him focus on colleges which had programs in Cinema. I went on to Ohio U. to major in Design, and John chose USC Cinema, way out west in California.
After I graduated, I went west too, for grad work, also at USC Cinema, where John and I reunited.

You worked on Carpenter's feature debut, Dark Star; were you a classmate of Carpenter and O'Bannon at USC?

We overlapped by a semester or two; they were on their way out as I was coming in. John and Dan were undergraduates while I was in the Master's program, taking the same Film Production courses they'd already been through. In the end, I don't think any of us actually got our respective degrees; I was five semesters in before I realised I was already getting work in The Biz, so why stay in grad school, especially when it was so expensive? I must confess I do regret not sticking around long enough to collect that Master's diploma, but it looked different then, and didn't seem important.

How did you guys pull off such a technically impressive student film?

A lot of the credit for that would have to go to Dan O'Bannon. In addition to being a very funny actor (he played one of the astronauts) Dan was gifted in several other areas, certainly writing, editing and production design, later directing, always inventive (he designed a "Monopoly" style board game called "Poverty", very on-target satire, very funny). Dan was a superb draftsman, and one of the funniest conversationalists around - if he liked you. If he didn't, he could be brutally cutting, even cruel. Not a "people" person really, but truly John's equal as a creative dynamo. For the duration of Dark Star, their collaboration was a fine thing to witness, but it couldn't sustain.
In addition to brilliant minds and breathtaking creativity, they each had oversize egos.
Dark Star was more or less a send up of Kubrick's 2001, and that movie, thanks hugely to Douglas Trumbull, re-set the bar for what a movie set in outer space could and should look like. There's no way a no-budget 16mm film could look as good as that, yet John and Dan set their standard very high, way above what anyone would expect of a student film. They employed mostly the basic tricks of the trade: black backgrounds with star fields supered later, and really decent miniatures thanks to Dan's resourcefulness and craftsmanship (off-the-shelf plastic models played a part).
They also used numerous visual tricks with the help of Doug Knapp, their classmate and cinematographer. He used half-silvered mirrors, reflective tape and a pin spot to make safety lights on the model seem to blink.
Dan was very aware of the information contained in the American Cinematographer's Manual, a tiny book with endless charts and references pertinent to the science of cinema. Dan used it like a writer uses a dictionary. A good example is the shot of the spaceship's observation dome, and those astronauts having a meeting in it:  we put actors and camera at opposite ends of the sound stage and then placed “The dome” - a flat semicircle of plexiglass to suggest dimension - near the lens. It utilised the lens to the absolute edge of technical limitation, and wound up looking spectacular.
It must also be said that Dark Star was broad comedy, customised especially for a shoestring budget - if one noticed, for example, that part of each astronaut's flight suit consisted of a muffin tin glued upside-down on their chest, well, haw haw haw, that's really insider-funny. That’s the kind of brashness that invited affection rather than ridicule; it placed the movie on a forgiving, fanciful foundation that engaged its audience with a wink and a smile.
My role was modest, but significant, as a kind of jack-of-all-trades helper guy. I became Dan's right hand man in set-building, set-painting, graphics and props. I also lent a hand in Doug's department, schlepping lights and cable when needed, and even tweaking those lights, under his guidance - an extra pair of hands on set while shooting. I also pitched in on the main musical theme, doing background vocals and slide guitar. Come to think of it, I think I even put in some time on the animation crane, shooting star fields.

What was your role on 1976's Assault on Precinct 13?

I was there pretty much from the start, right after John wrote the script and lined up two private sources of money. By this point, John and Dan had gone their separate ways, so he quite naturally turned to me. Not only was I a known quantity, but he knew he could have me for pennies, especially because I asked for a modest piece of the action and took a tiny sliver of profit participation rather than anything resembling an actual salary. It was the right idea, but to this day that movie has failed to realise any significant income beyond paying its own way over the years.
I put together a couple of friends for an art department - which in this case was also responsible for firearms, props, graphics, vehicles, locations, even costumes in a limited way, in association with Nancy Loomis, a Carpenter ensemble actor who later became my wife. You name it; if it was something you could see on screen, we were on top of it. That all-purpose, understaffed family-style Art Department became a pattern for two more movies (Halloween and The Fog), a great money-saving secret weapon for low budget filmmaking, but terribly demanding on a very few people working for almost no money. A recent shooting experience tells me that way of production is not extinct, though perhaps it should be. It was a tremendous learning experience, but very hard on the people doing the work.
As Production Designer, I was responsible for the overall visual look of the movie, most crucially through the master set; that is, the police station and a couple of adjoining rooms, as well as the basement set, which amounted to a long hallway. For help in accomplishing this, I was lucky enough to encounter the services of a set-building outfit called Get Set, ensconced on the same studio lot where we had rented stage space. They were between bigger pictures right then, and so took on our show mostly just to keep their doors open. I provided the set plan with the help of my right hand man, a former architecture student, and we got a first-quality set, beautifully detailed and aged down, for pennies. We all learned a great deal about carpentry and painting on that gig, working beside some truly gifted and experienced craftsmen.
We then proceeded to use the hell out of that set, shot it from every angle, and then quite literally shot it to pieces for the climax, bullet hits and squibs on the walls and countertops and windows and every prop in sight, until there wasn't anything left to shoot.
I also got involved in post-production. Every Film Production major learns all-round filmmaking, including Post: Editing, Sound, Music and dozens of sub-categories that help complete a film, from Foley and Looping to Opticals and Color Timing. When shooting was completed on Assault, I found myself suddenly at odds. Unlike a true professional Production Designer/Art Director, who would normally move on to another gig, my interest was in this particular movie and what was going on in the cutting room, a vital piece of the process, and one I already loved dearly.
So it wasn't long before I paid John a visit. He was editing his own footage, a terribly lonely job for a director. You're exhausted from the shoot, you've lost all objectivity since you sweated blood to get every precious angle, and yet, because you're the best the show can get for no money, there you sit. I asked him if he could use some help. He asked me if I could cut Sound FX. I replied, a little too breezily, "Sure."
What followed was several months of the next phase of my education: Nuts and bolts Post Production, generating a lot of our own sound FX, scrounging for gunshot sounds and finding a treasure trove thanks to USC buddy Ben Burtt (later of Star Wars fame) who had been spending the last couple of years in the USC projection booth, dubbing off the sound effects stem of every last movie which came through there. Thanks again, Ben.
John also gave me the opportunity to edit picture on some of the action sequences. My appetite and passion for this was huge, and I like to think I brought something extra to those passages. John was just a great all-round mentor in post-production. As in other pursuits, his counsel was always "keep it simple", but he was also a meticulous technical editor; being a musician, he believed strongly in the heartbeat and rhythm of a scene. We spent many an hour taking mere frames away from a given shot, and sometimes putting mere frames back, until the thing played just right. He taught me the elegance in achieving the absolute best with the footage you've got. When you've done it right, the audience doesn't really notice the cutting from shot to shot, simply the magic of the illusion you've created, and the "rightness" of the scene that unfolds, feeling inevitable, as if that's simply the way it had to be.

You continued your collaboration with Carpenter on 1978's Halloween, and we believe you're responsible for the Michael Myers mask. Can you clarify the origins of the mask; was it really a Captain Kirk mask before you worked your magic?

The script called for a mask which had a kind of blank face. As Production Designer, in a perfect world I would've started from scratch, created a sculpture, made a mold, the whole deal, but we were, once again on a shoestring, such elaborate measures were simply beyond us, so I hustled off to Hollywood Boulevard, where there was this large novelty shop featuring costumes, props and masks of all sorts.
What I saw, mostly, were cartoonish likenesses of prominent people like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. These might've worked except that their features, like Nixon's nose, were so exaggerated they'd have to be modified to be usable. Then, at the end of the row, just past Mr. Spock from Star Trek, I saw an ordinary face, with no exaggeration whatsoever. It was a Captain Kirk mask, presumably taken from a mold or sculpture of William Shatner's face, though I didn't really see much of a resemblance. What I saw was the face of a regular-looking guy, and that was just what the doctor ordered.
I grabbed one of those, and also an Emmett Kelly mask, you know, the classic sad-sack clown. Back at the production office, we tried out the clown mask first; a guy modeled it, and it was evident right away that it could work. That eerie clown thing, which I enjoyed playing with later on IT, was definitely unnerving, so we were happy with the possibility. I had, meanwhile, modified the Kirk mask a little - painted it dead white, yanked off the sideburns, opened up the eyeholes more, mussed the hair and darkened it. When the guy came out wearing it, no one was prepared for the effect. It was like "Whoa, fuck me..." and chills went up our spines. It was so damn scary just to look at, never mind any story or action, just the pure visceral effect of the thing itself.
We knew, right then and there, that we had ourselves a horror movie. I have never, before or since, had that experience to that degree, that a mere prop or costume, held that kind of magic, but it happened that day, and it continues still, with the cult of the mask still going strong, that iconic image, at horror conventions, on T-shirts, and tattoos everywhere. I wish I had a penny for every time that image is used, or another mask is sold.

Apparently you actually played Myers yourself in some scenes. Can you tell us exactly which scenes are yours?

When the scene involved breaking through some part of the set (windows, doors) or close up hand-work (knife-cut on Jamie Lee Curtis's arm), it was me. I was the set guy, so I knew the best exact place to hit it to have maximum success on Take One. We were on a very tight budget, remember, so time was precious, and so were breakaway doors and windows and closet inserts. The closet climax was undoubtedly my biggest on-screen performance. I like to think I lived up to the high standard Nick Castle had been setting during the shoot, for grooved and fluid-but-forceful movement.
Incidentally, we never referred to the character as "Michael Myers". The script referred to him as The Shape, and so did we.

You worked as an editor on Halloween and The Fog, so over the course of those early Carpenter movies you must have learned practically every element of film-making. How educational was that experience?

You've framed it very well. I went in a beginner, and, thanks to John, and the numerous and varied situations themselves, I came out an all-around filmmaking professional. It was a great education, and a major confidence-builder, and - if it's not tooting my own horn too much - I delivered the goods for John and Debra big-time, again and again, wearing 10 different hats.
John set a great example of a low-budget premise I deeply believe in: Hire your friends whenever you can, because they'll work harder for you than anyone else. If you give people the opportunity to step up, beyond their "station," so to speak, do so, because, if you've an eye for it, much like casting, and if they're ready to make that leap, they will rise to the occasion and out-perform more experienced people. For pennies, of course.

Speaking of Carpenter collaborations, you're a member of rock group The Coupe de Villes with Carpenter and Michael Myers himself, Nick Castle. Tell us how the band came about.

By the time I arrived at USC Cinema in the Fall of 1971, John was well along in his course of study, and had participated in numerous student film projects in various capacities, including that of composer. If a student could talk a music guy like John into doing a title track or a little source music for his/her movie, then you could get out of the syndrome of using "found" music you'd never be able to get the rights to, etc. etc.
John was very busy in this realm. He had made friends with Nick in school, and on the crew of The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (a student film that won an Academy Award), and he often enlisted Nick for musical help. Nick had this great high tenor, an original sound, yet he could turn it into Elvis if he wanted to. It was a natural thing for John to enlist me as well, so Nick and I made friends and soon we were doing three-part harmony and having a great time.
We all wrote songs, John and Nick most prolifically. Their best numbers were kind of satirical, nostalgic send up songs that also managed to be solid musically, so we spent many an hour just singing for the pleasure of it, and sometimes entertaining our friends.

Any chance of a Coupe de Villes comeback?

John told us his voice is shot, so we might not be able to do our old three-part harmonies, but still, far as I know we all continue to write funny songs, so anything is possible. Since I moved to northern California we're kinda scattered, but we get together for dinner and laughs on occasion, mostly at the odd weekend horror convention in one town or another.
In the meantime, I know John is musically active with his two sons, doing synth-and-guitar stuff. I believe they have an album out, and a tour's coming up.

Click here for Part Two where Tommy Lee Wallace discusses his screenwriting debut with Amitville II, and we have an in depth discussion on Halloween III.

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