The Movie Waffler Waffling With... HALLOWEEN 3 & IT Director Tommy Lee Wallace (Part 2) | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With... HALLOWEEN 3 & IT Director Tommy Lee Wallace (Part 2)

In the second part of our epic interview, Tommy Lee Wallace speaks about his screenwriting debut with Amityville II and goes into depth about his directorial debut with Halloween III.

Interview by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

In 1982 you made your screenwriting debut with Amityville II: The Possession. How did that job come about?

The conventional, Hollywood way. My agent was contacted by Dino DeLaurentiis' company, who wanted my take on a sequel to The Amityville Horror. I was at that time just starting to make the rounds, get my writing career off the ground, so this was a major opportunity.

How did you approach writing a sequel?

By proposing a "prequel" instead. The term was still rather new at that time, one of those words invented by one of the trade papers, probably "Variety", but it was relevant to this project, since it pertained to actual, true events that took place in the Amityville house before the events in Amityville Horror supposedly took place.
In 1974, a troubled young man named Ronald DeFeo murdered his parents and his four siblings in that house. I thought the next step for the Amityville franchise should be built around this horrifying, true event.
I proposed a story drawing on the fact that long before the white man, Long Island was populated with many different Indian tribes, including the Massapequas around Amityville. My big idea posited that the house had been built atop an Indian burial ground, and that the angry, restless spirit of an ancient shaman has been waiting around for centuries, and when the DeFeo family moves in, the spirit enters the body of the troubled young man, takes possession of him, and eventually wreaks havoc.
Dino liked this pitch. I got the gig and off I went to New York for some research. The whole "Indian burial ground" plot device has by now become the ultimate cliche, but at that time it was still pretty fresh. My first draft was very reliant on Indian lore and the possession phenomenon, featuring a Reporter character who visits DeFeo in prison. The whole story was told pretty much in flashback, with the eventual chilling reveal that the Indian is still right there, in the jail cell, still in possession of the DeFeo boy's body.
I thought it was brilliant. Dino hated it. It soon became clear that he wanted me to give it another try, a Page 1 rewrite. That left me with a basic conundrum all professional screenwriters encounter, sooner or later: You've done the work as requested, and you can refuse to do the additional work and still get the rest of your money - but, you'll have an unhappy customer, who may spread the word around town that you're "difficult". You don't want that; you want a happy camper who sings your praises far and wide. I swallowed my pride and agreed to try again.
My second pass was more linear, the movie pretty much as you see it now, no Reporter character, the sad saga of the DeFeos, but with a certain amount of Indian lore woven in, and a lot more emphasis on a priest character called in to do an exorcism. Damiano Damiani directed the picture. Like so many Italian directors, he seemed to have all kinds of issues with the Catholic church. He added tons of dialogue pertaining to that, but, fortunately, left most of it on the cutting room floor. I thought the movie came out fine; Damiano and Dino did a good job with it. I was very proud to have done a professional writing gig, custom tailored to someone else's specifications, and have a satisfied customer. That meant a lot to me. 

That movie has grown to be more appreciated over the years. Do you remember how it was received at the time?

Not a smash hit, by any means, but pretty well received, I believe. I don't really remember. I cared in a professional sense, but I had no emotional attachment to the project. I was more interested in nailing down my next gig, which looked for a little while as though it would be an adaptation of a novel called The Fifth Horseman - a political suspense thriller - also for Dino, so I was moving up. However, at that same moment, I got a crucial phone call from an old friend on the west coast, which changed everything.

Speaking of sequels, your directing debut came the same year with Halloween III. It's a brilliantly directed movie, especially for a first timer. How much of an influence was Carpenter on your own style?

Thanks for the compliment. That phone call, then, was from Debra Hill, calling to see if I'd be interested in directing Halloween III which, she assured me, would have nothing to do with the first two, and was headed in a whole new direction.
It was an offer I couldn't pass up. Say "no" to somebody in Hollywood, they may stop returning your phone calls altogether, and I had already passed on directing Halloween II. To have John and Debra invite me to rejoin the team, with a new, original script - well, there was only one answer. Dino wanted me to pass it up, promising me that he'd make sure I got a directing gig with him soon enough - after completing that adaptation for him - but I couldn't say no to my buds, not this time.
As to being influenced by John's style? You already know the answer to that. How could I not be? Besides, the assignment was going to be to a particular audience, that audience being fans of John's pictures, a world I knew very well by then, so even if my natural style were very different from his, I'd have wanted to adapt my approach to his look and feel. Since I'd been so intimately involved in that string of pictures, I knew exactly what to do.
John's visual style, as in all of his pursuits, was and is all about simplicity. He took his cues from Howard Hawks, John Ford, a little Hitchcock, maybe a little Sergio Leone. I became immersed in the work of these directors in film school, along with several other obvious ones, Welles, Wilder, the obvious Europeans. What I noticed about John's style was that he was content to be invisible for the most part, just let the actors and the script tell the story with obvious, natural angles and then, when appropriate, he'd allow the camera to make its own statement, for emphasis, say, a radical high angle, or a rapid, sudden push-in to a huge closeup, signaling alarm, or shock, that sort of thing.
Shot selection is a very subjective thing for a director, reflective of their own personality, as well as the needs of the scene, but there's a vocabulary, especially in a horror movie, which is time-honoured. What John added to that, thanks to a fortuitous piece of timing, was the development of what has come to be known as the Steadicam, or PanaGlide camera, a cantilevered device that allows one camera operator to hand-hold the camera. Instead of a nervous, shaky, unstable effect, the result is a rock-steady glide, which any Halloween fan would recognise as The Shape's Point of View, and one of the trademarks of the picture.
By the time H3 came along, the glide camera was in common use, and I employed it copiously for convenience and speed as well as style. It simply gave me choices that would otherwise have been impossible, such as the big reveal shot in Conal Cochran's factory. That shot started on a crane, which moved from high to low, at which point the operator stepped off the crane and followed the group with the glide camera. In truth it was just a bravado shot, but it delivered the scene in a forceful way. You find these one-shot wonders in lots of movies; I guess directors just like pulling off a scene with one roll of the camera.
I have to say H3 was a dream experience for a first-time director. Debra gave impeccable support, the crew consisted pretty much of my teammates from earlier shows rooting for me to succeed, and John, bless him, stayed in the shadows for the most part, giving me full autonomy. He was there when I needed him, but he made it clear it was my show, and I got to run it, pretty much the way he did when he was in the director's chair.
In the end, I'm doubly proud of Halloween III. It had to endure a long season of misunderstanding and disrespect before coming into its own.

You also wrote the script for that movie. We believe Nigel Kneale wrote a first draft. How much of Kneale carried over, and which elements did you add yourself?

I'd say Nigel accounted for at least 60% of the general story and script content. John did a rewrite, and then I rewrote John. Nigel removed his name from the picture and John never applied for credit so I wound up as the sole writer of record. An absurd situation, and as inaccurate as it gets, but that's sometimes how things work in the Writer's Guild. 
When Nigel turned in his draft, reaction from all corners was mixed. His story was very dark, moody and grim, and though it was original, and had a peculiar and twisted sense of humor, and started well, with energy, it kind of petered out, took on a bitter tone, and ended not with a bang but a whimper. General consensus was that it needed "punching up", with more consciousness of what had been happening in the world of horror movies since we gave the genre a big shot in the arm with Halloween a few years before - twists and turns, popup scares, and smarter, hipper American people saying smarter, hipper American things. (And for some obscure reason, Nigel seemed to have a particular bone to pick with the Irish!?)
Anyway, what we requested of Nigel was a fairly standard set of revisions meant to energise the whole thing, but, much to our surprise, Nigel just bolted, in a kind of huff. I have since learned that as a writer he'd been mistreated on several occasions, and had a chip on his shoulder; but hey, what writer hasn't been, and what writer doesn't?
Don't know that my finished script was any great brilliant thing, but it got the job done, and I stand by it, as the basic blueprint for a fun and scary movie. It has a weakness or two, but I was a desperate man, labouring under a hard deadline, mostly just trying for something I could put in front of the cameras without embarrassing myself.
Incidentally, this same sort of thing happened on Night 2 of the IT miniseries, but that's a story for another time, maybe later in this very interview.

It's easy to read a political subtext into the film; was this intentional or are we reading too much into it?

My mistrust of corporate America, and commercial television, and all advertising, especially TV ads, knows no bounds. Look at where the American corporation has taken itself since H3 came out in 1982, mostly via Wall Street and control of Congress; look at the corrosive impact of television on people, especially our young; look at the lies advertisers foist on the public, especially children, every day of every year. We should all be afraid, very afraid, of what is happening here.
Halloween III could be interpreted as an early wake-up call to alert viewers to the takeover of our democracy by the 1%. That message was imbedded, and hopefully not preachy, but there, nonetheless.
We've allowed the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Corporate Complex to "educate" us and define us, and now, in this most demented of Presidential campaign years, we are reaping what we sow, with an ill-informed and uneducated public preparing to conduct another beauty contest, and, very possibly, put a fascist in the White House.
So, political subtext? Yeah, kinda.

Whose idea was it to remove Michael Myers from the franchise?

An interesting way to put it. It all started with Halloween II, which didn't happen right after the first one, but later. You see, "Sequel-itis" hadn't yet swept over the movie business. I can tell you that when John and Debra and I heard H2 was going to be a reality, none of us were all that thrilled about it. Our first take was along the lines of "hey, we did a GREAT movie; what else is there to say?"
Still, that train was leaving the station, with or without us on board. John and Debra stood to make a lot of money on the deal, and, since I was the obvious choice to direct, it was a huge opportunity for me as well.
When John and Debra did the sequel script, I think they joined the arms race of violence and gore which ensued after Halloween's release, with copycats like Friday the 13th constantly upping the ante. Whatever the reason, H2 turned out to be a gorefest of a script, and I hated it, comparing it to the elegant bloodlessness of the original. I couldn't, in good conscience, saddle John and Debra with a director whose heart wasn't in it, so instead of faking it I held my breath and dropped out, fully aware of the chance I was passing up.
Anyway, when talk popped up of H3, yet another sequel, I think John and Debra were completely sick of the Michael Myers mythology, yet here was more money to be made, on a project that would move forward with or without them. Thanks to H2's box office performance, John and Debra had enough power to say OK, we'll play, but we want to take the franchise in a new direction, let The Shape take a break, and branch off into new territory. What a great idea! A new film on the subject of Halloween, year in and year out, each one possibly generating its own franchise, why not? It's a great idea, now as then, and should've succeeded, would've succeeded if H3 had been a smash hit, and, since it's been proven over the years that H3 was a perfectly decent movie, it could've been a bigger hit had it been promoted with even a modicum of intelligence, yet Universal went to sleep, and so did we.
We were naive, to be sure. If you have an adoring fan base, you'd better recognise who they are, and make some attempt to meet their expectations. 
A simple ad campaign explaining what we were trying to do - "This year, for Halloween, something completely different..." It wouldn't have been that hard, yet none of us thought to go there, and that was just plain stupid. The ad campaign, handsome though it was, had nothing more than a tiny banner up in the corner, saying "all new", which meant nothing, and that was that.
Lovers of H1 and H2 felt ripped off - "Where's Michael? Where's Jamie Lee?" - and I don't blame them. Had we properly set the table for them, let them know in no uncertain terms what we were trying to do, I think they would have come in with different expectations, and come away happy, but instead, we took them for granted, and their disappointment and resentment were palpable.
Also - and I know there's some truth here - by the time of release, I believe Universal lost faith in the picture. They were very concerned about the "downer ending" (Tommy Atkins shouting doom directly into camera) and they asked John to consider changing it. John called me, told me about this, but he left it up to me, the filmmaker. Imagine that! All through the making of H3 he and Debra treated me like a king, with maximum support, affording me the same kind of autonomy he demanded for himself on his pictures! Unbelievable for a first-timer, a real privilege, and here, at the eleventh hour, he was standing by that principle, and giving the final decision over to me. I decided not to change the movie. After that I think Universal stopped believing, and merely went through the motions.
By the way, that ending was meant, not only as the correct one for the story, but also as a tribute to Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. H3 is, after all, a "pod" movie, and not a "knife" movie at all. “Santa Mira”, for example, is a direct reference to Body Snatchers.
Those who love Body Snatchers should know that it was originally meant to end with that closeup of Kevin McCarthy shouting "You're next!" into camera, a great, terrifying way to finish. The studio decided to let the audience off the hook with a drippy little coda in the cop shop that tells us help's on the way, or some nonsense like that, so I guess you could say that, in addition to being true to my story, I was trying to right an old wrong, as a tribute to Don Siegel.
Anyway, to finally answer your question, you'd have to say overall that the new direction on H3 was per John and Debra. I think Debra was the primary force behind the notion of "Witchcraft meets the computer age", and that notion turned into a good movie - which, by the way, is far more about the actual season of Halloween than the original. Halloween, was, after all, first known as The Baby Sitter Murders. 
The eternal riddle is this: If we had released it as just plain "Season of the Witch", we would've had a quality picture without the backlash, but without the H3 imprimatur, it would never have gotten made. Go figure.

The movie was poorly received on its release but now many fans consider it the best of the Halloween sequels.

In the end, the box office returns indicate a pretty decent return on the investment, perceived as a failure only because expectations were so damn high. I do want to say that the rise of Halloween III over the years, climaxing, perhaps, with the new Blu-Ray release a couple years back, has been sweet redemption for me. Since it's really about the season itself, more and more people keep discovering it and making it part of their yearly ritual.

At what later point did you begin to notice the film was gaining a cult following?

Way later, at festivals. H3 has always had some loyal die hard fans, but it wasn't until a few years ago, after noticing all the T-shirts, and the people who wanted their posters autographed, that I was able to finally tell people "You don't have to defend it any more, its fan base has reached critical mass."
For me, it was an old wound that finally had a chance to heal. Thank you to all loyal H3 fans everywhere! Rave on.

They're very contrasting actors, but both Tom Atkins and Dan O'Herlihy give outstanding performances in that movie. How was the experience of working with them?

They did make for a great contrast, Dan so sleek and elegant, Tommy a little rough around the edges, a textbook antihero.
Both were thoroughly professional, show up, know your lines, help block the scene, do the thing. Not a lot of fol de rol, just workmanlike, with no games.
Dan was the Irishman through and through who loved nothing batter than dinner at home around his big table, surrounded by friends and family. No background music, just the sweet buzz of artful conversation. I miss him. 
Tommy Atkins, by the way, is still working, something of a cult figure these days, making the festivals. He was solid then, and he's solid now. I'll put him in something else, if I get the chance.
There are several reasons H3 holds up; Dan and Tommy are two of the best ones, along with the rest of the cast, starting with Stacy Nelkin.

Have you seen the Rob Zombie Halloween movies, and what's your opinion of the direction he took the story?

Haven't seen the movies, so no opinions there.
I will say, however, that from what I've learned in various conversations with those who were paying attention, Rob wanted to explore Michael Myers' past, the reasons this kid went psycho, what made him tick, or something along those lines. Since John and Debra's original intent was the polar opposite philosophy to that - once you know the bare bones of the boy's story, and know he is the embodiment of evil, then the less you know, the better - I can imagine that Rob's movies work the other end of the street.
And yet, in Rob's movies, the fascination with the Michael Myers legend continued, with, apparently, some noteworthy success, both critically and financially. It mystifies me to this day, the public's fascination with the Myers monster - and yes, some of it can be credited to the original mask itself. We knew that thing had power from Day 1.
By the way, two things I learned from John's disciplined practice of certain time-honored old-school rules: 1) Keep it simple, and 2) Don't get too familiar with the monster.

A new Halloween movie was announced last year but seems to have collapsed once again. Do you think the franchise should be left alone, or are there more worthwhile stories to be told in this universe?

The Michael Myers legend has been beaten to death and yet, it keeps reviving itself, like The Shape does in the original.
Since I personally thought the Myers story had played out after H1, or, to be charitable, after H2, you can imagine what I thought of all that followed.
However, there are dozens of worthwhile stories yet to be told within the universe of Halloween. Note I'm talking about the yearly event, not the movie. 

If you were offered the chance, would you direct another Halloween movie?

New stories on the subject of All Hallow's Eve? The anthology concept was a good idea then, and it's a good idea now. If there were a powerful force (read: Money) driving that endeavour, it could be really interesting, make a few people rich, and yes, I'd most enthusiastically participate, as a writer, director, producer or all three. Get out your bankroll and let's get started.
Would I direct a re-do of Halloween? Not on your life. Rob Zombie already did that, and, remarkably, he found an audience. Hats off to him. Someone might try it again I suppose, but not me.

In Part Three, Tommy Lee Wallace discusses his forays into '80s TV, taking on another horror sequel in Fright Night 2, and adapting Stephen King's mammoth novel IT for the TV mini-series.

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