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

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

In the final part of our interview, Tommy Lee Wallace dishes out on his experience of working in TV, including adapting Stephen King's IT, and tells us his thoughts on the state of modern cinema and the horror genre.

Interview by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

You worked as second unit director on Big Trouble in Little China. What exactly did this entail?

The fight sequences were not part of my assignment. My job was mostly about the big truck, approaching San Francisco, several bits getting the truck into and around the City, especially Chinatown, and one particularly narrow alleyway, a car stunt into the Bay, stuff like that.

That's another movie that was poorly received at the time. Now it's considered one of the best genre movies of the '80s. Why do you think it took so long for audiences to appreciate it?

I didn't realise Big Trouble had gained in stature over the years. That's surely a sweet feeling for John, kinda like what happened with The Thing. Maybe it has something to do with John's droll sense of humor (not to mention his love of martial arts.) He doesn't beat you over the head with what's funny, you have to do some of the work. And it seems as though martial arts, like horror movies, come to think of it, only seem to grow more popular with each passing year.
The beauty of cinema is that, unlike a great production of a stage play, films stick around. A small cult may keep them alive, or they may sit on the shelf for years, only to be re-discovered later.

How was your experience of working as director on two of the cult shows of the '80s with Max Headroom and The Twilight Zone revival?

Back then I was kind of a snob about television; I wouldn't consider anything but cutting edge, and both Twilight Zone and especially Max Headroom were certainly cutting edge. I doubt either one would be considered today on network television. Cable fare all the way. 
Both shows were peak experiences, working with top-notch people, twice on Max, three times on Zone. To this day it gives me hope that meaningful stuff can be done on TV.

You left the world of genre cinema in 1988 to direct the teen comedy Aloha Summer. Was this a conscious decision to branch out?

Aloha Summer was actually shot in the summer of 1984, in and around Honolulu and other spots on Oahu. Its release was delayed a while for many reasons, not the least of which was that the Producer had to keep digging up more money to finish. I never fancied myself a horror specialist, so Aloha was a golden opportunity early on to branch out, with a coming-of-age period comedy in paradise.
The situation couldn't have been more ideal. I am at heart more of a comedy guy by nature, and - I mean, Hawaii? Getting paid to hang out in Hawaii and make a movie? Are you kidding? A dream come true!
Unfortunately, in addition to being a love letter to 1959 Hawaii, it was also an intimate bio pic about the producer, who was a first-timer in both the writing and producing chairs, and very possessive of his story. The final result was flawed at best, with some really charming bits, one of those "if only" projects most filmmakers have somewhere on their resume. If you track it down, you'll see: It was almost a good movie.

That year you returned to horror sequels with Fright Night 2. It must have been an experience to direct Roddy McDowell?

An ideal situation, a boutique producer (Vista Pictures) who respected and supported film directors. Roddy was a joy to work with. So was Bill Ragsdale, Julie Carmen and all the other actors. God bless Herb Jaffe, Mort Engelberg and Jeffrey Sudzin. Those men knew how to run a mini-studio.
Roddy was the consummate pro. Although he was Hollywood royalty, he never lorded it over anyone, or made you feel like he was above this seemingly lowly sequel. He was always well-prepared and humble, he took his part seriously, and was assertive in a very constructive way, which invariably resulted in a better scene, or a better line reading. He had a great sense of humor.
Fright Night Part 2 hit upon a terrible piece of bad luck, when the designated distributor of the film, Jose Menendez, who, along with his wife, was shotgunned in his home the night before our supposed release. Turned out the murderers were their sons, the infamous Menendez Brothers.
Roddy and I had had a rather unpleasant lunch with the man, just the day before. Roddy asserted himself, was almost combative, because he didn't like or trust the guy to come through for us. The lunch had ended curtly, with a kind of frosty feeling all around.
The morning of the murders, my phone rings. It's Roddy: "Well, I didn't do it. Did you?"
Terrible tragedy for that family, but what the boys didn't know was they also murdered FN2 in the bargain. A good picture that never got that proper release. You simply can’t make this shit up.

You directed an early episode of Baywatch in 1989. That sounds like the sort of job most men would take on for free. Was there a downside to shooting on a Californian beach surrounded by girls in bikinis?

Well, the quick answer is Hey, it was great fun! Only it wasn't, for the most part, not really. What I mean is, pretty girls in bikinis aside, everything depends on the working situation. I'm proud to say I helped Erika Eleniak into a nice performance, something my predecessors on the show had apparently failed to do. That was satisfying, I suppose, but really just all in a day's work. In the end, I believe episodic television is best left to directors who grow organically out of episodic TV - Assistant Directors, or Cinematographers, for example. For them, that directing gig is a major step up, and they already know how to fit in as a cog in a big machine run by a handful of producers. That's simply how episodic TV works.
For a feature film director, especially one coming from the John Carpenter school where the Director is in total control, doing an episodic is oftentimes a step down, a demotion, if you will, in which you must completely defer to the producers, who have all the power. Hell, in practice, an episodic Director generally ranks a little below the Cinematographer, the putative leader of the standing crew, after all. You're something of a guest on your own set, placed there mostly to work with the actors, and little else. Unless you're doing the pilot, the actors have already pretty much established their characters, so that leaves you to direct traffic, that is, to work up the blocking, maybe dream up a couple of sporty shots, turn in your cut ASAP, and get out of the way.
I did a brief string of episodics, all in a row, to pick up experience: Baywatch, Tour of Duty, A Peaceable Kingdom (a short-lived Lindsay Wagner vehicle.) It was not then, and is not now, my cup of tea. John Carpenter taught me that the most efficient way to make a movie is to have one guy in charge, preferably the guy who wears the Director's hat. This approach cuts down on bureaucracy and CommitteeThink, and puts the bottom line decision-making right there on set where it belongs.
The point, after all, is to bring a script to life, and the most positive outcome you can expect from that situation is to have one wise person in charge, someone who knows how to funnel the talents of many people into his singular vision, his interpretation. It's not the only possible interpretation, not even the best, necessarily, but somebody's got to be in that position, or you get group filmmaking, the worst possible outcome of a film project.
I must say, in episodic TV, so much depends on the producers themselves, what kind of people they are, how visionary, how egotistical, how much class, how insecure, how much they understand filmmaking. Some Producers know how to properly support their Directors; some do not.
Your question brings up another topic I'd like to touch on: Sex and nudity on camera. On several occasions I've needed to audition people, mostly women, to show their bare bodies on camera. I know it's counterintuitive, but the process of auditioning nude actor/models is completely weird, even awkward if you let it be, and not sexy at all.
The same goes for sex scenes. Most actors will tell you that's the hardest work, to depict raw passion, nude or semi-clad, under hot lights and before a camera and crew. It's a false situation, the falsest of all, really. A director must set the tone, not be embarrassed, make sure the actors and crew are comfortable, and keep personnel to a minimum.
In a nude audition, though wags would scoff, there really is no way such a session can be erotic or titillating. Quite the opposite. Best thing a director can do is be respectful and straightforward, look the actor/model in the eye, and after the brief shmooze say, "all right, whenever you're ready, please disrobe and let us have a good look at you". You talk them through what you want them to do, how you want them to stand or pose, ask questions about the routine or regimen that got them in such good shape; then you hand them their robe and thank them for their time.

Did you have any idea at the time of what a global phenomenon Baywatch would become?

No, of course not. I mean, Baywatch? Really?! On Halloween, those of us on the show had no idea it would break out, but we knew it was a good, competent, clever piece of work, and we knew it was damn scary. Beyond that, who could've predicted? Likewise, Baywatch was a winning formula, beautiful people with beautiful bodies doing something vital, useful, wholesome and heroic in the warm California sun - what's not to like about that? But, like Halloween, could anyone have predicted its global success? Maybe somebody, somewhere, but certainly not me.

In 1990 you directed the two-part TV adaptation of Stephen King's IT, which you also worked on as a writer. Tell us about the process of taking such a large novel and fitting it into a three hour running time.

The story of the IT miniseries is the story of reducing and reducing and then reducing some more. In earlier incarnations before I came on board, it was going to be in three parts, and possibly even longer before that. IT is a thousand page novel, so of course cutting it to what was essentially two MOWs back-to-back was a towering challenge.
Long story short, you leave out absolutely everything that is not essential to the main plot - and then you brutally edit whatever's left. And then cut some more.
I was shown scripts for Night 1 and Night 2, both written by Larry Cohen. Night 1 was masterfully done, focusing on the "alarm" being sounded - It's come back! - and then filling in by flashback the seven stories of the seven characters. Larry's script was the finest piece of work I'd ever read for TV, especially considering the fact that the commercial demands of a two-hour TV slot arbitrarily insists on seven acts, not for any dramatic purpose, but to squeeze in as many commercials as the audience will tolerate. Seven acts. Hmmm. A nice coincidence, and most likely the only time that such strictures had a positive effect on the structure of a script. Commercial breaks are usually just an annoying distraction, but in this case they nicely framed seven character portraits.
The script for Night 2, on the other hand, was a train wreck. It bore little resemblance to the novel itself, choosing to focus on the machinations of the adult characters in and around the Derry library, and making Beverly's nasty husband the villain of the piece. I felt that the first audience for IT would be those who loved the novel, and therefore we needed to at least take a stab at a proper climax pulled from the book, which meant a confrontation with IT underground in its configuration as a giant spider.
I asked Larry to come to Vancouver and help me figure it out, but he passed. Too busy, or, more likely, not that interested in helping the director impose questionable new ideas on his work. I think by that point he'd gotten all the money he was going to get, so maybe no motivation there, either. That left me as the only logical writer - I was on site, I was willing, and I came cheap, as in free. Like it or hate it, I thought the final script for Night 2 succeeded in at least representing some semblance of the book's structure and its intent.

Like the Michael Myers mask, Tim Curry's makeup is iconic. Did you have any input into its design?

A lot. As you already know, I'm a Designer by trade, so that aspect of Film Production is always going to be in my wheelhouse. The original look bubbled up as a by-product of storyboard sessions with my sketch artist, and the Production Designer, Doug Higgins. Later, Bart Mixon, head of SFX Makeup, got involved. What evolved was based on the classic Bozo look, with exaggerated forehead, cheekbones and chin, all latex prosthetics. When Tim Curry came on board, he objected to all the extra rubber, feeling it unnecessary and distracting. It should be said that Tim had been labouring, in recent pictures such as Legend, under tons and tons of special makeup, and I think he wanted to show his face for a change.
He was right, of course. I rightly insisted we keep the bulbous forehead, but otherwise that's just Tim's wonderful face - well, except for the big red nose.

How was your experience of directing Vampires: Los Muertos, another sequel to a Carpenter movie?

Writing and shooting was a dream. I got high praise all around on the script I wrote, and I spent a meaningful and enjoyable winter in and around Mexico City with a nice cast and crew. We got some good stuff, and brought it home to Los Angeles.
The nightmare came in post-production, when the head of Screen Gems decided he didn't like what I was doing. In truth, he didn't understand it, and he wasn't capable of listening, or adjusting his preconceived notions to align with mine. He didn't think humour had a place in horror, not even comic relief.
I came out of the John Carpenter school, where humour is a given, in service of better scares and more of a roller-coaster ride. I failed to convince this guy, and I didn't have creative control, so he won. The final outcome had its shortcomings, and the whole thing was very painful to me. To be fair, we had some issues to cut around, and I think his disappointment about specifics clouded his judgment in general.

Currently, there are plans to remake Big Trouble in Little China and IT, along with a big screen Baywatch movie. Another Amityville is also on the way this year. Does all this nostalgia give you a warm glow or do you think Hollywood needs to get behind original concepts once again?

It's a business, and producers and studios will focus on what they think will make money. Unfortunately, the movie business is now overwhelmed by CorporateThink, where so many decisions are made by committees, or by people with both eyes on demographics and algorithmic projections.
The best movies still get made by people who love movies and aren't afraid to take a chance, fly by the seat of their pants, and go with their gut. Such mavericks are, I'm afraid, few and far between, especially in the executive offices. A lot of filmmakers are bailing on features and throwing in with series television, which is enjoying something of a second Golden Age right now.
I hadn't heard about Big Trouble - did you know it was originally written as a period Western? I'd love to see that! I dunno though. It’s true martial arts remain hugely popular on screen, but somehow Big Trouble feels like a movie whose time already came and went, so a remake? Unless they do the western (claymation, perhaps?) its odds for success are iffy, at best.
Amityville is a peculiar sort of uber-franchise of its own. There's magic in the word no matter what the movie might be about, so I think people will keep trying any and all Amity angles until doomsday. Other titles - Halloween, Saw - may play out eventually, but that one will just go on and on. Coming soon: Amityville: Zombie Pizza Party. Amityville: Skateboard Vampires, on and on and on.
Of course, it mystifies me why Hollywood seems always to want to remake movies that were successful the first time around! But maybe I'm being naive. Someone else might say "Well duh, you don't remake a failure!" I understand remaking something that didn't quite work, but COULD work with a little tweaking, or a different cast. Yet it happens, over and over again. Finally, it's always going to trace back to the money, and the gamble.
I believe Hollywood is in serious trouble because they have hollowed out the great middle class of filmmaking. Big Studios have abandoned modest budget "idea" films, and focused on huge-budget cartoon concepts, "B" movies writ large based on remakes, reboots, TV revivals - anything that has a past track record of success. They're feverishly chasing something while risking as little as possible. In other words, execs and producers have gotten lazy and timid, reluctant to trust their gut, scared to go out on a limb for something fresh and original - what we're left with is an all-time low period for feature films.
It makes me furious, because it's destroying the business for everyone.
Quality script writers, and directors, for lack of support, are abandoning ship in droves, because the people who can say "yes" have been saying "no" for too long. Those writers and directors, for the most part, aren't coming back. As a result, the talent pool shrinks, and the movies get worse.
As to Baywatch: Any movie with voluptuous babes on the beach will probably make money if the budget is low enough - the bar for Baywatch isn't very high, their audience not terribly demanding, and it's just as appealing in any language you pick. Then again, today people can view all the naked women and men they want to on the Internet frolicking on the beach, or actually having sex. Perhaps the Baywatch era has come and gone as well. Maybe if you give them all guns, or whips and chains...

What do you think of the current state of the horror genre? Are there any recent movies that caught your attention?

The only horror movie that jumped out at me in recent years is Insidious - I thought it was outstanding, solid, imaginative script and material well directed and well acted. Haven't caught the sequels yet.
Many horror movies these days seem to confuse "scary" with "gory" - there's lots of torture porn, or buckets'o'blood, or big-ass CGI. Scary movies are hard to pull off in any event, but the first mistake most people make is they forget to start with a rock-solid script. Truth is, you can't just go out there and wing it with directorial flair and improv; you just can't. Come to think of it, that goes for any genre, including comedy.

You've currently working on a project called Helliversity. What can you tell us about it and when can we expect to see it?

Helliversity is a feature film script still in the planning stages. We have serious interest from a financier, so we hope to go into production in 2016. What you probably saw was an announcement, or a random clip, from the demo reel we shot a couple years ago. Since that was designed to attract attention and get us a backer, we may have succeeded on both fronts.
Also watch for two other projects from our camp - Scaryland, a feature film, and Midnight Motel, a TV series. 

Thanks a lot for your time Tommy!

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