Michael MacLaverty is a Genie Award-nominated film editor and sound effects technician who worked on a variety of cult favorites including Alfred Sole's Tanya's Island (1980), the espionage thriller Ladybear (1985), the action flick The Kidnapping of the President (1980), as well as numerous episodes of the television anthology series Friday the 13th (1988).
He also pieced together the production-troubled Curtains (1983), which is precisely why we sat down with him.
We wanted to ask MacLaverty what he recalled about working on the editing process for Curtains: what kinds of footage crossed his desk? What unused and deleted sequences does he remember seeing? An alternate ending?
MacLaverty generously agreed to revisit his memories of working on Curtains all those years ago.
The Terror Trap: We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Michael MacLaverty: My pleasure. Glad to be with you.
TT: Can you give us a general idea of what a film editor does?
MM: Generally, a film editor's job is to bring together -- and put together -- all the other people’s work. The writer’s original idea, the producer's vision, the director’s dream of how they envision the movie, of course the creative work from the director of photography, the different performances from all the actors, etc.
It's about bringing all those pieces together and laying it out for the first round of eyes to see. The film editor has to have a sense of what the total concept is, so they can put it together and then everyone involved can see what they have, and we can go from there.
TT: And you’re actually cutting pieces out of the film and merging them together?
MM: Yeah. Absolutely. Somebody once described it as “my job would be to just place little squares together.” In frames. That’s a simplistic way of putting it but it’s true.
TT: So you work with the director, and presumably the producer, to make sure your editing meets their vision of what they want?
MM: That's right.
TT: Did you go to school for that?
MM: Nope. I learned through the school of hard knocks. I was an apprentice for many years.
TT: One of your first credits as film editor is Tanya’s Island (1980). It's an auspicious beginning because it’s an odd little sex fantasy/horror cult film directed by Alfred Sole.
What do you recall about working on it?
MM: Now that was an interesting one.
It was actually my third movie as full editor. It had originally been started by another editor but he couldn’t get into it. It was just too weird for him. He and Alfred were fighting right from day one.
He left and I was brought on to work on it. It was one of those “30 day wonder” films that were so prevalent back in those days. There was a lot of tax money to be invested in Canadian productions. They’d seen it work with the music industry and had great success with that, getting Canadian artists recognized around the world.
Tanya’s Island was a strange little picture. It was produced by Pierre Brousseau from Montreal and starred D.D. Winters. She'd become Prince's protege later on, and start going by the stage name "Vanity."
Anyway, Brousseau was a music producer and it was rumored that the storyline -- which was very short -- was written in one night on the back of a cigarette box. (Laughs.) That’s where it started and frankly, that’s about as much as there was of it.
TT: It does feature some early career work from special effects and makeup gurus Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Videodrome, etc) and Rob Bottin (The Fog, Maniac, etc).
MM: Yes, that’s right.
TT: The movie is almost like a surrealist soft-porn fantasy thing. Where was it shot?
MM: It was mostly shot in Puerto Rico. They had a lot of fun down there.
TT: Was it a good experience for you?
MM: Oh, yeah. We had a ball with it. I even got to go down to Puerto Rico for a few days…not that it worked out very well because they had blackouts. I was supposed to project what we had cut and some of the rushes to everybody but I couldn’t. They eventually saw a little bit of it.
TT: Nothing wrong with a free trip to Puerto Rico. It’s beautiful there.
Tell us how Curtains came your way.
MM: As I recall, Curtains -- like Tanya’s Island -- started out with another editor. His name was Henry Richardson. If I remember correctly, I was going to be his assistant on the film.
But there was a holdup for some reason at a very early stage in production and that might have been when one of the actresses got fired.
TT: Celine Lomez?
So I left work on Curtains temporarily, and I went over to cut the TV version of Prom Night for producer Peter Simpson. Then I guess that things got back on track again with Curtains.
One of the other assistants stayed on to work Curtains, and by the time I got finished with Prom Night, they were well into the routine of the film and I didn’t bother going back.
But then things fell apart again and there was a big hiatus. I got a call from either Peter or his wife Alana asking me to come and cut the balance of the show.
Peter wanted to take over the shooting himself. The original director, Richard Ciupka, was long gone at that point.
TT: Do you recall the specific editing work you did on the TV version of Prom Night - i.e. what was cut or put in to make it appropriate for television?
MM: Yes. We took some stuff out, but we also had to add things that were not in the original theatrical production in order to make up time for television. I remember that. There were about six short scenes that had been dropped. Or parts of scenes that had been removed but they decided to stick them back in.
TT: Would you say you might have taken out a boob from the theatrical version, for example, and put in a dance moment for TV?
MM: Right. Remember, there was a lot of nudity in the washroom scene with the girls. The director, Paul Lynch, was bringing in marvelous production values. They had 30 days to shoot it and he was just zipping through material.
He had those poor girls running around naked for a week. (Laughs.) That scene probably should have taken a day and a half at best.
TT: So you didn’t begin editing Curtains until after Ciupka had already left?
TT: But you had already worked with Peter Simpson (on Prom Night) before Curtains…
MM: A little bit. I don’t think I met Peter on the actual original theatrical version, although I had helped out in the sound department at that time. I assisted the editors. It might have been a couple of days’ work. But the TV version is where I got to meet him. In fact, I mostly worked with his wife Alana.
TT: When you got the call to work on Curtains, would you say you had had a positive working relationship with Simpson?
MM: Oh yeah. Peter was a great guy.
TT: And you had no dealings with Richard Ciupka?
MM: No. I wouldn’t know him from sight at all.
TT: When you came onto the picture, did you know what had been shot so far?
MM: Yes. We sat down and screened it. It was me, Peter, and the writer.
TT: Bob Guza?
MM: Yes. Bob was a great guy. Anyway, they were changing the script, I don’t remember how much. But there was some re-writing going on.
We sat down and screened the footage and discussed what Peter wanted to do and where he was going with it...or wanted to go with it. He asked me if I had any problems with what was going on. I said no.
TT: Do you recall in general what you saw at that point in terms of footage?
MM: Mostly the interiors. The sets were quite elaborate, at least for this kind of film. There was a joke going around that the budget had been blown on plywood to build the sets. The amount of time that was taken to light and shoot, was considerable.
But for the most part, Curtains was pretty well cut at that point and we didn’t mess with it an awful lot. We changed some of it to go along the lines of the direction Peter wanted rather than Richard.
TT: From what you watched, did it not feel like a horror film?
MM: Correct. It certainly wasn’t like a slasher-type movie, which is the direction that Peter wanted to go. It was more of a psychological drama, with mind games and stuff sort of happening.
TT: Not a lot of suspense or action?
MM: Not very much action.
TT: Did Simpson discuss with you his displeasure with Ciupka’s work?
MM: He said something along the lines of “What we’ve got here is a dog’s breakfast.” Meaning we’ve got one thing and we’re going to try and make something else out of it. He told me, “Let’s have some fun. Do the best you can.” He also said he didn’t have a lot of time or money.
He asked, “Can you live with that?”
TT: And so the script was being changed when you came on board to make it more of a horror movie?
MM: Yeah, Bob Guza and Simpson were working on that. I remember Guza being around for the initial part of the first couple of weeks of production. Then he went back to Los Angeles because he had a full-time gig with the daytime soap General Hospital. I think he took the Curtains job to help it get back on track as a sort of vacation.
TT: At that point, Simpson began to shoot additional footage…
MM: Yes. A lot of the exterior stuff. Some of the stuff up in Muskoka, he did. The ice skating sequence, the prop house.
TT: How about the exterior scenes of some of the actresses coming to Jonathan Stryker’s house?
MM: I’m not sure about that.
TT: Do you recall scenes that Simpson shot that were not ultimately used in the final released version?
MM: No, almost everything he shot was in there. We were rather tight for time. I do remember that.
TT: The credits allude to the stop in production with “Act I” and “Act II.” There were two halves: the Ciupka arthouse film and Simpson’s horror stuff. You had to put that together?
MM: That’s right.
TT: There’s a production still showing Lynne Griffin on a stage surrounded by the corpses. Have you seen that still?
MM: Yes. I vaguely remember the footage of it. I'm pretty sure Patti delivered the same monologue she does in the asylum scene (without the dead bodies).
The thing with the alternate ending was that Alana Simpson couldn’t accept the fact that all these corpses were somehow dragged together and put on a stage somewhere. She felt it was just too improbable and was rather vocal at some point about the two slightly different endings. So they went with the asylum one. But they were both shot simultaneously.
TT: Were those dummies used or the actual actresses?
MM: My impression is that it was the real people.
TT: When the snowmobile comes through the window, the original idea was for Michael Winner’s body to be on it, right?
MM: The character had gone off on the snowmobile and sort of disappeared and somehow out of the blue, his body came crashing through the window. There was no real story about it and we dropped it.
They filmed the scene where Stryker and Brooke are shot (by Samantha Eggar) and have fallen out of the second story window. I was looking at this sequence on the moviola and I slowed things down a bit. And it occurred to me that it looked like they had fallen down and rolled back into the house on the ground floor…which would allow for them to complete the motion and come crashing in and land on the couch. (Laughs.)
I cut it that way and I played it for my assistants and asked, “What do you think of this? Will this work?”
TT: What did they say?
MM: They said, “Well...aw, what the hell. It’s a horror movie. Anything will work.”
I called Peter. He was in the middle of shooting the prop house scene, and I asked him when he’d be back downtown so he could have a look at this stuff. He said he was really busy and that he would send someone down with a truck to bring a moviola out so we could run it for him. Which is what we did.
I sat around half the day waiting for him and then finally he came along and had a look at it and said, “Yeah. Yeah! That’ll do it. We’ll get them back on the set and we’ll cut them on the couch.”
TT: He liked your idea.
MM: Yeah, he liked it. When I looked at the film again recently, I thought...oh, I’m not sure it really works. But what the hell.
TT: So what would have been the snowmobile crashing through the window ended up being two bodies.
MM: Correct. You don’t see that it’s a snowmobile in the final version. Currie sees the bodies and runs off into the prop house.
TT: Simpson told us that prop house scene was difficult for him.
MM: It was very tight quarters. It WAS an actual prop house in a very small studio. They stored things there for other productions. And when the studio was needed, they had to clear that stuff out and then put it all back again.
A lot of the props you see onscreen were already there. So it was just a matter of trying to make a passageway for the characters to run through and jump out of.
They spent about three days shooting in there. It was slow going, because they had to get the camera in and out of some very tight spaces. And I remember Peter was getting very frustrated. He didn’t like to sit around and wait. That's not the kind of man he was. He wanted stuff to happen. He liked action, and he would be like, “C'mon, I'm ready! Let’s do it!”
TT: The prop house sequence is great because of the chase and suspense of course, but also because of the editing. You see mannequins, drapes, fake doors, costumes, road signs, etc.
All of those shots are you editing Simpson’s work into a montage of cuts, correct?
MM: Yes, that's me.
TT: Including that scary moment when you see a two-jump shot to the killer in the back seat of that gutted-out taxicab?
MM: Yeah, that was my work.
TT: It’s terrific.
Did you know Sandee Currie had passed away?
MM: I didn’t until I heard it from you guys. I was sorry to hear that. So unfortunate.
TT: Were you involved at all with the cast and crew or was your job on Curtains completely behind-the-scenes and off the set?
MM: Very rarely did the editors get to go on the set. We’re stuck in our little darkrooms cutting their little pictures. (Laughs.) We do get to meet them sometimes during rushes. It depends on the movies. Sometimes the actors watch them, sometimes they don’t. Some of the crew watch rushes to see what they shot the day before.
You get your instructions from the director and you discuss how the scene’s gonna go and how he imagines it going. Then you go away, cut it and run it for him at a later date.
TT: Let’s talk about the ice-skating scene with Lesleh Donaldson. Do you recall putting it together once it was shot?
MM: Yeah, that was a lot of fun because we had to stretch it out. Peter wanted it to go on, partly because of time. He felt it was a good area where we could make up some time.
I’m sure we reprinted some of the shots, especially of the killer skating towards Lesleh. We stretched that one out quite a ways.
TT: Is that why it’s in slow motion?
MM: Right. Because that was a very small pond it was filmed on. Near or at the beginning of the scene, you sort of see the scope of the area and that was essentially it. We had to make the thing look bigger. Fortunately, we had some of those low angle shots.
TT: The low angles where you see the legs and feet of the killer skating…they make the pond appear longer and wider, correct?
MM: Yeah, you can stretch it out and make it seem as if the person is coming from half a mile away instead of two hundred feet.
TT: That’s interesting.
From a genre standpoint, the ice skating scene is fantastic. When we started The Terror Trap, people would always mention it even if they couldn’t remember the name of the film.
When you were editing, did you think that particular sequence had a little more “oomph” that the rest of the picture?
MM: No, actually. I thought it was one of the worst scenes in the movie. (Laughs.)
TT: Why is that?
MM: It’s probably because I had to cheat so much to drag it out. By the end of it, I couldn’t believe it.
But people like it and that's great. It’s strange. Sometimes you can work on a scene and you say, “Oh, that’s really great!” And then the producer or director will come in and say, “My God, that’s the biggest load of crap. What the hell were you thinking? Go back and start over.”
TT: It sounds like your issue is that you see all the technical seams that we don’t.
MM: Yeah, that’s right. Mind you, the Burton Cummings song and Paul Zaza’s music help make it memorable.
TT: Particularly during the initial chase when Zaza’s music swells.
MM: Paul is great. He’s an interesting guy. He’s a good “producer’s composer.” He’ll give you what you want...not necessarily what he wants. You say you want this, that or the other thing and he’ll say, “Okay.” And he delivers it without argument.
TT: That’s probably why Simpson liked working with him.
MM: Sure. They did a number of pictures together.
TT: Do you recall gore or blood effects that you cut out? For example, when Donaldson is killed at the tree?
MM: I don’t. We used pretty much everything we could get.
TT: There’s been a rumor floating around that there was footage shot with Klaus Kinski. True or false?
MM: I don’t think that’s true. I never saw anything with him.
TT: When you think back over thirty years ago and having watched the DVD, can you recall anything else that was filmed and not used?
MM: Well, one thing comes to mind is that scene with Anne Ditchburn and Sandee Currie in Stryker's dance studio. The touching the breast moment. Stryker, the director, uses the word “timidity.” And there was some other stuff there that seems to have been cut out. In fact, that whole scene got shortened somewhat, I recall.
TT: What’s your opinion of this troubled film all these years later, having seen it recently?
MM: Honestly, I didn’t find it very suspenseful. There’s not a lot of what I call “tension and release” in it. Maybe it’s because of the two different styles being crammed together. But I was looking at it from a technical standpoint.
TT: Did the skating scene play the same way for you as when you finished working on the film?
MM: Yes. After I worked on it, I was never really satisfied with it. There are some movies that you get to work on that you can’t be a prima donna about. They are what they are. They’re low budget, they’re whatever. And you just have to go with that.
You do the best you can with the amount of time and money the producers give you. You do it and then you move on to the next scene and ultimately to the next picture.
TT: If you could do that scene over, what would you do differently?
MM: I think I would shoot it in a larger location. My biggest problem was I could never really believe that the girl wouldn’t hear someone coming up behind her for that period of time.
I know what it’s like to be out in that kind of country. It’s very quiet. If someone is 200 or even 1,000 feet away, you’re gonna know about it. I always have problems with that kind of stuff, not only on this film, but on other pictures. Maybe it’s just me.
TT: Well, horror films, almost more than any other genre, are pure fantasy. You don’t stick to the same rules as a drama. They’re in their own unique world.
MM: That’s true.
TT: Do you recall any kind of party after Curtains was completed?
MM: Yes, I remember the wrap party for Curtains. The cast and crew came. Burton Cummings came and played. He and Peter were great friends. I remember a stage. I’m thinking it was the same theatre where the alternate closing scene was shot.
TT: Are you surprised Curtains has such a following?
MM: Yes, I am! (Laughs.)
TT: We don’t know if it’s lost on Canadians but the movie was played on American cable stations like HBO constantly beginning in ’83. A lot of people remember seeing it when they were younger.
MM: Sure. I do realize the appeal to a certain age group. It’s sort of like the early Sesame Street kids. (Laughs.)
TT: You were nominated for a Genie Award for one of the films you worked on?
MM: Yeah, I was nominated for The Kidnapping of the President. That came out before Curtains, in 1980.
TT: With William Shatner.
MM: Right, and Ava Gardner. Also, Maury Chaykin, who played Monty in Curtains.
MM: Yes. And your readers might like to know that Maury was married to Alana Simpson before she wed Peter.
TT: Wow, didn’t know that.
Did you save anything from your work on Curtains?
MM: I still have the poster. It’s the only poster I have from all the pictures I worked on. I have it framed and it’s hanging in my cottage.
I just thought of something you might find interesting. Do you know that sound effect that you hear in the opening credits when you see the title flash on the screen?
TT: You hear what sounds like a knife and then a tearing sound...
MM: Right. We added that. Peter Burgess, the sound editor, was responsible for that. He fought pretty hard for it. Alana Simpson didn’t want it. She thought it would sound too comedic.
TT: Oh, we don’t think it does.
You’ve mentioned Alana a few times. Did she have a big hand with her husband in the way things were going?
MM: I think she was his sounding board. Alana had some production background before they met, so she would come to the editing rooms, or she’d come to the mix or be on set. Especially if he wasn’t around.
As I mentioned earlier, when I worked on the TV version of Prom Night, I dealt exclusively with her. Peter was often in his office, taking care of the financial side of the business.
TT: You worked on the Friday the 13th television series. Maybe a dozen episodes?
MM: Something like that. Oh, they were horrible. I was doing the sound effects on that show. We mixed it at Paul Zaza’s studio. George Applebee was the mixer. A lovely guy but he would crank the sound up so loud, the walls would shake.
Fortunately, the studio was separate from any other buildings. You couldn’t hear yourself think in there.
The first year, we were at a different studio. The composer, Fred Mollin, and Frank Mancuso Jr., the producer, were very tight. Fred would come to the mix and try and control it, which was not the way I was taught to do it. The sound guy runs the mix if anything. We had a big punch up about it but he soon realized we had the same ideas and were doing the same thing.
Once Fred realized I was going to be doing certain things, he cooled his jets and we got along famously.
TT: In retrospect, which did you like working on more: the actual editing or sound?
MM: I used to like editing but when I started to work on sound, I really got into it. We were using 2” multi-track to lay our sound effects down, rather than the old-fashioned way of cutting a sound effect into 35mm rolls. I found that rather intriguing. I was having a lot of fun with all sorts of new technology.
I spent the last approximately ten years of my career doing sound, and the previous ten to fifteen years editing pictures.
TT: What are you doing these days?
MM: I’m into photography. I just snap what I feel like photographing. I don’t have a studio as such and I don’t do assignments but it’s something I enjoy. I go to shows and sell. I also hang my work in restaurants…that sort of stuff.
MM: Hey, just as a total aside...I should mention that my grandfather was in Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951).
MM: Yeah, he was an actor and it was one of the last pictures he did. His name was Edmond Breon. He played the part of Dr. Ambrose. A very old gentleman sort of wandering around in the background with a white labcoat on.
TT: That’s cool.
MM: I don’t even think he had a speaking part in that movie. (Laughs.) He started out at the turn of the century doing silent pictures in France. Vampire movies.
TT: You have a family link to horror! That’s great.
MM: I do!
We've enjoyed talking to you, Michael. Thank you for your time.
MM: You're welcome. It’s been good fun.