01 September 2014

[continued from Part I]

The Terror Trap: Tell us about getting J. Lee Thompson to direct Happy Birthday to Me.

JD: J. Lee...Oh, he was a great man who felt that with this whole horror renaissance going on in movies at that time, he should get his fingers into the blood. A great man, that guy.

TT: Here was a heavy hitting director. He had directed big action flicks like The Guns of Navarone (1961), and classic thrillers like the original Cape Fear (1962). He had also dabbled in the genre, with Eye of the Devil (1966), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)...

JD: Yes. And he also got his roots in editing. He was a film editor in England before he became a director. We got along famously. He was the only real director that we had who was accomplished…because most of our films were done by first time or second time directors. We had to carry them along because they were really the only ones we could afford.

J. Lee was a consummate professional. I saw the dailies every day and I made comments. J. Lee was the only director I ever dealt with that I had NO comments to make. I mean, Happy Birthday to Me all cut like butter!

...Except there was one shot (of I believe it was Melissa Sue) that I told J. Lee, “How come we’re missing a shot of her face in the window looking down at the action?” And he came to me and said, “John, you caught it! I’ll pick up that shot.” In all honesty, that was the only thing I remember that ever happened.

The other thing that was really funny was how we had to hold J. Lee back. With Tom Burman's help, he'd be splashing blood ALL over the place. The cameraman came to me and said, “John, you’ve gotta slow J. Lee down. He’s throwing too much blood around, and the camera lenses are always covered in it!” He’d take a bucket of blood and whip it around.

I had to go to him and tell him to tone it down so we could clean up the crew. (Laughs.) He really put his heart into it. We had some great times together. He paid me a great compliment, I still remember…

TT: What’s that?

JD: Well, we were sitting having lunch in the caravan on the set of Happy Birthday to Me one day. And he said, “John…I came up from cutting. I know cutting. And your scripts that you finally approve, they're pre-cut. The director just has to shoot the scenes and glue them together.”

TT: Wonderful compliment.

JD: Oh, yes. I treasure that thought...it’s editing through a filmmaker’s love for film.

TT: And you saved money at the same time.

JD: (Laughs.) Yes, probably. He didn’t have too many takes to do.

TT: Did you have anyone in mind besides Melissa Sue Anderson for the lead?

JD: No. Melissa was Miss Goody Two Shoes out on Little House on the Prairie…and she wanted to do something with some “meat” on it and get her acting chops. This was a good chance. And she wasn’t charging too much because she really wanted to do it.

Plus, once we landed her, we had all the publicity chances you could find.

TT: Did you feel Anderson delivered the goods?

JD: Yes, she did. She was very good.

TT: Tell us about Glenn Ford. Truly one of the greats. But there were reports that he was, uh, a bit of a loose cannon on the set of Happy Birthday to Me.

JD: Well, as you know, this was towards the end of his career. He was certainly drinking too heavily. And he had just found himself a trophy wife, and so they were still in a blissful mood when they came up together for the filming.

TT: Didn’t Ford get into fisticuffs at one point with a member of the crew?

JD: Yes. He hit our AD who had called a lunch break in the middle of one of Glenn’s scenes. I had to stop the police from arresting him. It was a mess. Glenn wouldn’t come out of his dressing room until the first AD apologized, who said he would never apologize to Glenn.

But I told him that this might be the end of his career as an AD if he didn’t. So, he went and said he was sorry…and Glenn said he was sorry. They kissed and made up. As far as I know, Glenn never hit anybody else.

Theme Song
from Happy Birthday to Me

Music & lyrics by Lance Rubin

I'll have my party alone today.
Who cares anyway?
I don't need them now.
I don't need them now.

Who wants presents with pretty bows?
Who likes party clothes?
I don't need them now.

Can't I dim the lights?
Can't I cut the cake?
A wish is just a wish
What difference does it make?

Now that everyone's gathered here
Sing out loud and clear
Cheerful as can be
Happy Birthday to Me

Can't I dim the lights?
Can't I cut the cake?
A wish is just a wish
What difference does it make?

Now that everyone's gathered here
Sing out loud and clear
Cheerful as can be

Happy Birthday to Me

TT: Do you feel his drinking affected his work at all on the movie?

JD: He was a thorough professional. He knew his lines and he was on his mark. He never failed.

TT: Now, did Thompson get along with Ford?

JD: Yes, he did. Ford respected J. Lee and vice versa. The trouble really only came with Glenn’s feelings for his trophy wife. He was so overly protective of her.

I remember one time I got called to the set because they had to stop filming. Ford was in his car in front of the set and he had his wife with him. He wouldn’t get out of the car. When I got there, he said, “John, I’m not getting out of this car because that son of a bitch across the street (who was sitting on his own property) waved at my wife.” He said he wouldn’t get out of his car until the guy apologized or went inside!

And we had this motorcycle escort around at the time. Because of the traffic and shooting on location. The cop came over and asked what the problem was. I said he had to get the guy away, or Glenn wouldn’t come out.

So the officer motored over to the man and words were exchanged. The guy went inside. I asked the cop what he said to the man to get him to go in and he said, “I told the son of a bitch if he didn’t go inside, I’d shoot him.” (Laughs.)

Finally, Glenn got out of the car.

TT: If only that damn wife hadn’t been on the set of Happy Birthday to Me, things might have gone more smoothly!

JD: Well. (Laughs, hesitantly). It was "love in bloom," or whatever it's called at that age. She sure was pretty though...

TT: So she wasn’t interfering herself, it was just her presence that caused problems?

JD: Yes, that’s all. And the fact that he wanted to drag her around all the time. We were trying to get people to take her shopping, you know? Spend some of Glenn’s money that he was making from us!

TT: What did you think of Tracey Bregman, who went on to success in the soap opera The Young and the Restless?

JD: She was quite competent. She was just one of an ensemble cast so she didn’t stand out to me, but then again, she didn’t stand down. She was very good.

TT: Thoughts on the rest of the cast?

JD: It's tough when you’re making a film with a group. It’s nice to make a film with two people. To be honest, when you have six or seven people, and you have to kill them all in different ways, all you’re thinking about is the next killing. And with Happy Birthday to Me, that's all I was thinking about: how to make the next kill as interesting or as unique as possible, for a slasher movie.

Other than that, I thought all of the cast worked fine.

TT: Let's talk about the special effects. Why was Stephan Dupuis let go and replaced by Tom Burman for the gore work?

JD: Well, Dupuis was just learning his craft at that time. He'd become famous as a makeup and special effects man eventually too, working on The Fly II (1989), eXistenZ (1999), and Jason X (2001), etc.

But at the time, we felt we needed a more seasoned special effects man. That was all.

Don't get me wrong: Dupuis was very good. But he hadn’t mastered the full technique of some of the special effects that had to be done. We felt that in order to survive this film, we had to get the best we could find.

TT: Were you personally satisfied with Burman’s work?

JD: Oh, yes. Yes. Burman was top quality.

TT: Tell us about Virginia's brain operation. It's funny how one of the most quease-inducing moments of Happy Birthday to Me is actually a bonafide medical operation. Well, sort of.

JD: Yes, that. Well, we had Burman make a full replica of a head. It was complete with a skull. And then he created a fleshy brain which he put inside the head.

Then we hired a neurosurgeon to come in and "perform" a brain operation on the fake head! I can't remember his name...but he was attached to an actual, neurological hospital. Anyway, the brain doctor was doing the operation on the appliances that Burman had made.

TT: So it was an actual brain doctor cutting up gooey gelatin bits on camera? That gets pretty surreal..

JD: Yes. But it turned out to be a helluva simulation.

TT: Let's talk about the ending of Happy Birthday to Me. Do you feel it comes out of left field? It was reported at the time that three different endings were shot. A marketing ploy?

JD: It was a marketing ploy. Also a Hitchcockian thing. If you look at my films, you might see a lot of Hitchcock touches that went into them. J. Lee and I talked about how we could end this thing with a bang. We came back with the whole mask thing. Pull the mask off a person and reveal the actual killer. It worked.

TT: Do you still feel it works pretty well?

JD: Yes, I do. In the end, we wanted Melissa Sue to be a good girl, and that's what drove the idea for the twist ending.

TT: Although the police may still think Anderson was the killer because of the whole mask thing, and the fact that the police discover her standing there at the end holding a bloody knife…

JD: That’s possible. You have to pick your own ending for that part of the film. It purposefully left it open for a sequel - Happy Birthday to Me 2 - and frankly, we would have liked to make one.

But here again, Columbia were a tough bunch of buggers. They had a lot of tough eggs. They were the salt of the earth – except it was their salt. It was a bitter experience.

TT: Did you spend a lot of time in Los Angeles during that period?

JD: Not too much. I couldn’t stand the implications of everybody having their own axe to grind. When you’re working for The Man, and that’s the boss of the studio, you have to make the people that come in look bad…so you can justify your job. Everything works on condemning people so you can go to your boss and say, “Look, Harry…I handled this. It was really out of control but I took care of it so don’t worry.” That’s how you hold your job.

TT: Is it true you felt the murders in Happy Birthday to Me weren't bizarre enough?

JD: No, I don’t think so...We tried our best to make them original, using the hobbies of the people that were in the group.

TT: If someone came to you with an idea for a sequel to Happy Birthday to Me, and it was a good script, would it be difficult to buy the rights from Columbia?

JD: I wouldn’t go near them. To try and get the sequel rights, you mean? No. If you go into the Columbia building, you’ll see one floor devoted solely to lawyers.

TT: Let’s talk about My Bloody Valentine. Take us back to 1981.

You're trying to get Valentine passed by the MPAA for a rating prior to its release. And the MPAA, led by Jack Valenti, orders severe cuts made to the film in order to get it released.

Now, unlike the case with Happy Birthday to Me, the cuts for Valentine were made by you?

JD: That’s right. So the cuts belonged to us and not to Paramount.

TT: When we spoke to director George Mihalka, he expressed his thoughts that the MPAA was so vicious about cutting Valentine because he felt there was a backlash against gory violence due to the murder of John Lennon. Your feelings?

JD: That could be one of the theories. But my belief is that Paramount didn’t want any more heat after Friday the 13th, because the MPAA were giving them hell and saying they shouldn’t be in the business of making these kinds of movies.

So, when they came down and they saw ours, they said, “Oh my God – YOU get it through because we can’t take the heat.”

TT: And so the MPAA kept demanding more edits during that process?

JD: That was it. Until it was cut to what George called an “anemic” film.

The Ballad of Harry Warden
from My Bloody Valentine

Music & lyrics by Paul Zaza

Once upon a time, on a sad Valentine,
in a place known as Hanniger Mine.
A legend began, every woman and man,
would always remember the time.

And those who remain, were never the same.
You could see the fear in their eyes.
Once every year, as the fourteenth draws near,
there's a hush all over the town.

For the legend they say, on a Valentine's Day,
is a curse that'll live on and on.
And no will know as the years come and go,
Of the horror from long time ago.

Twenty years came and went.
And everyone spent the fourteenth in quiet regret.
And those still alive know the secret survives,
In the darkness, that looms in the night.

For the legend they say, on a Valentine's Day,
is a curse that'll live on and on.
And no one will know as the years come and go,
Of the horror from long time ago.

In this little town, when the fourteenth comes 'round,
there's a silence and fear in the air.
Remember the morn that the legend was born,
All the shock and the horror was there.

For the legend they say, on a Valentine's Day,
is a curse that'll live on and on.
And no one will know as the years come and go,
Of the horror from long time ago.

And no one will know, as the years come and go,
Of the horror, from long time ago.

TT: Do you feel Jack Valenti was vindictive?

JD: He certainly was! He was determined to give us a hard time.

TT: Do you feel he wanted to teach you a lesson, and that My Bloody Valentine was his leverage?

JD: Yes, I think so. I think he wanted to suppress the horror movies that were slipping through into the major studios. He didn’t want to see the majors in it.

TT: It seems hypocritical. After all, Paramount was already making tons of money off Friday the 13th.

JD: Sure. But he wanted to repress it. It was vindictive and that’s the way it went down.

TT: Ironically, Valenti ultimately lost that battle because movies just became bloodier and gorier.

JD: Yes, he certainly did. Because you can’t fight community standards. We went to court and our lawyer, Don Seal, never lost a case with the censor bureaus across Canada. We would fight on community standards. And you get twelve people on a jury who felt they were being robbed of the right to see what they wanted, of their freedom – and that overcame the strength of the censor boards. It was based on freedom.

TT: When you say community standards, you mean people who would stand up and say, “I want to see this, I have the right to see this”?

JD: Yes. We fought for freedom in Canada to see what we wanted to see. We fought for the right to make our own decisions about what entertainment we wanted. Quebec went with a classification system. Adult, Refused etc. We had to precut the film before we got it to the Quebec censors. We had an idea of what would pass. But they wouldn’t cut it. You submitted it and they passed it or they didn’t pass it.

There was a famous court case involving Pile ou face (1971), the French film that Gerald Tasse produced with us. A priest in Quebec City initiated a case and the police seized the film from a theater owner and charged him with obscenity. Gerald was an intellectual in the Quebec artistic community and he went down to defend his film. It had no sex in it. But there was nudity. Total nudity. All the actors took off their clothes. It was a nudist film.

Gerald made an impassioned plea and we were absolved. Next door, there was a film that showed screwing with people that were skiing…and it was deemed obscene and the filmmaker was found guilty. It was a strange thing. We were able to crack them most of the time on community standards.

TT: George Mihalka said that you and André Link were like surrogate uncles to him when he filmed Valentine. What do you remember about him?

JD: First of all, George was a trooper. He worked his ass off and there’s another guy who was passionate about his film. He wasn’t working for the wages. He was working because he wanted to make a really good movie.

André and I didn’t really have much to do on that set, except I was on the dailies and getting the film in a cut form. George was a good man. I’d go to the floor for him anytime.

TT: While Happy Birthday has a Hollywood gloss to it, by contrast Valentine has a distinctly Canadian feel. The Moosehead beer, the accents, the mine in Nova Scotia...

JD: Yes, well it was certainly a Canadian effort. It showed that you can make films in Canada. If you strike the right cord.

TT: You were involved with the 2009 remake…

JD: When there were talks to revisit My Bloody Valentine, I had written a sequel, which they bought…only to shelve it. When we sold it to Paramount, I insisted that if they didn’t make the film, the gore cuts from the original would return to me. So I still own all the gore.

But we’re working on a film now that would incorporate them. My sequel...and I’m not going to boast here...but the sequel that I co-wrote was ten times better than the remake. And that's because it has the spirit of the original, with the survivors from the original back in play.

Once you get into the hierarchy, every guy has his own view on the thing.

Some guy at Lionsgate decided the remake should be a “date movie.” Now, we didn’t even understand what a date movie is. So they canned my script. They bought me out. We had thought they were gonna make it, but to our surprise, they shelved it. The damn thing that bothered me about the remake is that everyone is running around being killed with an axe. The same axe. It gets boring. Absolutely boring.

If you look at the original, we didn’t use the pickaxe for everything. The rest were all tools of the mining trade. Nail guns. Cross saws. All kinds of different weapons were utilized.

The remake was made the way they wanted. It did respectable business, I'll give them that. Over 50-60 million during its release. But it could have been so much better. And it certainly would have satisfied me more to see the sequel because I wouldn’t have gotten so bored.

TT: Your sequel would have used characters from the original film?

JD: Yes. In the sequel, the girl that survived (Lori Hallier) married the boy survivor (Paul Kelman) and she became the town’s Chief of Police. And he became a drunk. They would have been the two main characters that maintained the action.

TT: And then someone starts killing everybody.

JD: Absolutely. (Laughs.) Yes.

TT: Did Lionsgate just want an excuse to use a completely young cast in the remake?

JD: Well, yeah but the thing is…there WERE young actors in my script too, because this couple had sons. And the sons were the same age as the kids in the first one. They were typical young guys, hooking up with girls of their own age and going into the mines for sex, etc.

TT: So Lionsgate still could have gotten their "teenpocalypse" on, by making your sequel rather than a remake riding on the name of the original.

You're saying that one of your main objections was that the murders were bland compared to the original?

JD: I told them that at the script stage. They sent me the script and I made a few comments. My basic thing was...my God, it’s boring.

TT: Yet, you were credited as Executive Producer on the remake and you weren’t happy with the film. What does that credit mean if you don’t have final say on the end product?

JD: "Executive Producer" can simply be a courtesy title in some cases. You could be a lawyer or an agent who delivered a “name” actor and you might get that title. Executive Producers are usually associated with who’s handling the money or who is finding the money.

The title can mean that you have no pull, but it can also be powerful for somebody who is putting up all the money.

TT: Looking back on your career, what is your favorite horror film that you worked on?

JD: That’s hard to answer. It takes nine months to make a film, from the script phase to the shooting to the final cut. It’s almost like the gestation of a baby. Nobody sets out to make a bad film, except when it got into all the tax dodges and all the suits got involved.

The trouble with us is that it took a long time to turn a film around because we were under financed. We didn’t have the money. That’s why I always envied the studio heads like Zanuck and Mayer and the Warner Brothers. They had the power to make what they wanted to make...and they didn’t give a damn about anybody. They didn’t have to GO to anybody. Now today, you’ve got a green light committee.

TT: Cronenberg called you the “Roger Corman of Canada.” What do you think of that?

JD: It’s a true quote! We made low budget exploitation films and that’s what we were noted for…André and I.

TT: It’s been said that André was the money guy and you were the creative guy. Is that an oversimplification?

JD: Yes it is. We were like brothers. We were dancing to the same tune on everything. André made a valuable contribution to every film we made.

TT: Were you a little more involved than him in terms of reading the scripts?

JD: Yes. He made some comments that were valid but scripting was sort of in my milieu.

TT: When you would watch dailies, was he there or was it pretty much just you?

JD: Pretty much me. He left it to me because he was busy with the financing and other things that were cropping up. Every day, there were lawyers on your ass. He did come in and look at them, however. As far as memoing, I used to send a memo to every production about the day’s filming, regarding my thoughts on the shoot or any problems. It was something I did.

TT: What do you think of the horror genre today?

JD: It’s fractured now. Any kid can go in a drugstore and buy a camera and make a horror picture. It’s an inundation of any kind of film.

TT: Would you say that modern movies have less heart because they’ve become so corporatized?

JD: Definitely. If you go to a studio and say, “I have this script, would you please read it and put some money up?," their response would be to come back when the film is made and they’ll decide. You’ve got to show what you’ve got. You can’t get the money up front. So that whole part of the business has changed throughout the years.

TT: It’s been rumored that you’re writing your memoirs. Is that true?

JD: Yeah, I’ve got eleven chapters done. I’ve got two or three more to write.

TT: We look forward to reading that. John, thanks so much for talking to us.

JD: Thanks, guys.

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