A true veteran of the movie business and friend of the genre, producer Peter Simpson has more than thirty films to his credit in a career spanning the last three decades.
Founder of Simcom Ltd. in 1971, Simpson boasts a hearty roster of achievements that includes all four Prom Night horrors as well as 1983's ill-fated and underrated Curtains.
Now CEO of Norstar Films, Simpson was gracious enough to sit down with The Terror Trap and provide some insight into the making of 1980's Prom Night and 1983's Curtains, as well as a charming look at his career in general.
The Terror Trap: We thought we'd start off by asking you what your role as producer was back in 1980.
Peter Simpson: Well, I was already a bit neurotic about the difference between the game a director talked and the walk he walked. With Prom Night, we had two or three sets of re-shoots.
TT: How did Prom Night initially come your way?
PS: Director Paul Lynch brought me a piece of art...it was a knife in a heart with blood dripping out of the heart. And it said 'Prom Night.' For Paul, that was thinking it through!
TT: What was the nature of the Prom re-shoots?
PS: There were flaws. We recognized that the story didn't have enough red herrings and it didn't have a subplot. So we had to manufacture one. Lynch was involved in the first re-shoot but by the second, he had used up his patience in the project.
In the final analysis, in studio films (unlike independent films) the director is there until the end. Sometimes, he actually has final cut with the studio or what have you. With independent films, the only lonely guy there at the end is the producer.
PS: The director and everybody else go on to other work. If you've financed the film, it's in your best interest to do what has to be done to get it right...or make it in the most commercial form.
TT: Overall, was Prom Night a pleasant experience...not withstanding the re-shoots?
PS: It was okay. I knew we had a good movie. I knew I would get a good U.S. deal if I did the re-shoots. I felt I couldn't without them.
TT: We believe the original choice for the Jamie Lee Curtis role was a TV actress. Do you remember who that was?
PS: One of the girls we interviewed was Eve Plumb...
TT: Jan! Did she do a test?
PS: No, she just came in and met with us. I mean, I never thought that Jamie Lee was quite right for that part because when you meet her, she's anything but innocent.
We were looking for the ultimate virgin...the ultimate victim. Jamie Lee comes into the office and puts her feet on your desk. It's hard to think of her as this little innocent. Right after Prom Night (released July 1980), she went off to do Terror Train with Roger Spottiswoode (released October 1980).
TT: And so what was it like working with her?
PS: It was good. Jamie Lee was a team player and still very enthusiastic about the business. She came to the set on her days off. That spoke more to her social life than it did to her enthusiasm for the film but she was certainly a team player.
TT: The climax where the killer is revealed to be the brother while the disco music reaches a crescendo is very poignant. The story comes together and Lynch has spoken about how proud he is of that moment in particular. How do you feel about the movie?
PS: I'm very proud of it. It was a fun and profitable experience. They don't always go hand in hand. It was a pretty rushed shoot, I think thirty days...
TT: Your son Brock is in the first scene, right?
PS: Yeah, he's young Nick. Brock is a musician and performer now...he's more into musical theatre. Did you know Casey Stevens (the adult Nick in Prom Night) is dead? I believe he died sometime in the late '80s of AIDS-related illness.
TT: That's truly a shame. Terrible. It's sad when a young life is cut so short, let alone any sort of career. That might be news to some fans of the film...
Let's talk about Curtains.
PS: Writer Bob Guza and I were shooting a film called Melanie. For our next project, we wanted to do a sort of adult horror film...we may have applied teenage principles to adult material.
I loved Richard Ciupka because he had been the DOP on Melanie...
TT: And also on Atlantic City, correct?
PS: Right, he was the DOP and the operator on Atlantic City because Louis Malle would not use an operator separate from the DOP. If you took the gig of doing the cinematography for Louis, you had to also operate the camera.
Anyway, we became very good friends and we started chatting about the genesis of the new film Curtains. He was all into it. Richard wanted to do an "art film."
The model for the director Jonathan Stryker in both Richard Ciupka and Bob Guza's minds was Klaus Kinski. And I said, well...good luck explaining that to the teenage audience.
As so often is the case, everybody was respectful of the material. They say they'll give you the film you need, the film you want...and all that stuff. But in reality, if the director in his brain is making a different movie from the producer - trouble is just down the road.
TT: So is it fair to say at this point that you wanted an adult slasher and Ciupka wanted an art house film?
PS: He wanted a still painting. I didn't even mind that the material was adult. As a matter of fact, I not only wrote half of John Vernon's lines...I directed half of the fucking movie.
For example, Richard did one dolly shot...it was two minutes around the table, lingering on each of the actresses' faces. Well, you can't do that in the opening bit of the film. People just nod off.
TT: You mean, the scene in which all the actresses first gather at Stryker's house?
PS: Yes. At least we cured Ciupka. (Laughs.) He didn't direct for about another fourteen years other than commercials. He's a terrific guy. He just didn't know where to go with the movie.
TT: In regard to you taking control...how much did he actually film?
PS: I don't think Richard shot more than half the movie.
TT: You came in and you took a much larger role than usual with Curtains. Would it be an understatement to call it a troubled production?
PS: Yeah, I think it was a troubled production! (Laughs.) Anytime you have basically the director and producer making different movies...
TT: So you feel that fifty percent is what Ciupka shot...and the rest was you?
PS: Yeah, about half. I'm a good traffic cop. If you're not looking for a Spielberg kind of storytelling...I know how to run a crew. I've not been tempted to direct very often. It's a very hard job.
TT: How did you get the bigger names such as Samantha Eggar, Linda Thorson and Vernon to sign on? Was that due to your clout at the time?
PS: I had known John [Vernon] because I had lived in L.A. during the latter part of the seventies and I had met him at cocktail parties and all that. I think the role for Eggar was just a well-written part for what she was...an older woman, you know?
TT: She's a terrific actress. One of our faves.
PS: She's great. Thorson was cast at the last minute after we bounced Celine Lomez.
TT: Lomez was bounced because she refused to do a nude scene?
PS: Oh, no...she couldn't fucking act! It had nothing to do with a nude scene. As a matter of fact, Celine was one of those actresses who'd do a nude scene with the producer at lunch if she were asked.
The biggest problem with Celine, who's French Canadian, is I had seen a movie that was done in Montreal that she was in and I thought she sounded terrific. But the filmmaker must have done a hell of a job looping her because when she got on the Curtains set and she started yapping away, you had a choice. She could either act or she could speak English. Which one do you want? It was a terrible situation and after two or three days of rushes, I thought "Oh, please!"
TT: So fragments were filmed with Lomez?
PS: Oh, yeah...a couple of days.
TT: Did Ciupka direct her footage?
PS: He did all of the house stuff.
TT: Which means he directed the scene in which Vernon and Thorson are shot and fall out of the second story window?
PS: He did. However, what originally happened is that the character of Matthew, which is the part played by Michael Wincott, is killed on a snow mobile. And he drives THROUGH the living room window. But it was so ridiculous...
TT: You mean the dead body is on the snow mobile and it comes through the front window as Sandra Warren screams?
PS: Right. What we decided to do instead is have Vernon start to fall back and into the other window below. So we used that to make him come back in and we filmed a separate shot of Matthew floating in the jacuzzi...which we thought was poetic justice for him 'cause he had gotten his jollies in it.
TT: Yeah, there's an ice pick sticking out of his side. Did you ever film an actual death sequence for Matthew or does that happen completely off screen?
PS: No, we never filmed anything.
TT: There's a moment where the hag is looking out a window and it's the last time you see Matthew. He's going off on the snow mobile into the woods...
PS: Yeah, that's the snow mobile that was to have later come in through the window.
TT: Did you actually go in and re-shoot any of the house scenes?
PS: No. Ciupka shot all that. It was obvious that there were no back stories to the women so we created a lot of them and whole new locations. For example, the prop shed. We just created that whole thing so we could have a good chase sequence.
TT: So you directed the extended prop house sequence?
PS: I directed that, yes.
TT: Whose idea was the hag mask?
PS: I think that was Sandy Desperation. (Laughs.) We had to cover up the killer and we just thought it was a suitable theatrical prop.
We told the prop department to come up with twenty things and that was one of the things they came up with. Which of course, proved a nice dovetail in the dramatic scene with Eggar.
TT: It's a very effective device. People seem to remember that damn mask...
PS: It's horrifically human, you know?
PS: It seems to have its own pathos. It's beyond life-like or a facsimile of a face. It has a humanity to it...I don't know why that is. Something in the design, I guess.
TT: It's got a little Greek in it. Maybe a bit like the classical theatre masks the tragedians used to evoke catharsis.
So props just went out and brought it back to you?
PS: Well, it was a version of that and then it was dollied up by the props department.
TT: Who do you think has the mask now?
PS: You know, when we were scouring to take inventory for Alliance when I was doing the sale...
TT: In 1997?
PS: Right. We found that in our storage facility, I had three bikes from the three kids in Prom Night. I was absolutely paying for storage for eighteen years for three cycles from that movie! I remember I had the tombstone for Robin Hammond from Prom Night and my kids used it for Halloween for about three or four years.
But where the hag mask is? Honestly, most people on film sets are basic thieves too. If you don't lock things down on the last day of shooting... it's a good keepsake.
TT: How about that doll?
PS: I love the doll.
TT: Nice touch.
PS: (Laughs.) Wasn't it? It's a very scary doll with a creepy looking face.
TT: Let's talk about the ice-skating scene. You shot that?
TT: It's very well regarded by those in the know. Visitors come to The Terror Trap and frequently mention that sequence, regardless of whether they remember the title of the movie or can recall anything else. It's extremely memorable to them...we think that speaks to the power of mood there...you know, a stark simplicity.
PS: It actually violates a lot of rules of horror films. You don't kill people in sunshine, right?
TT: Almost never...at least not in straightforward stalk n' slash fashion.
PS: And the slow motion seemed to help, even give greater humanity to the mask. The whole thing became sort of very surreal.
TT: Not to mention the pop song Lesleh is playing [Save My Soul] makes the whole setup both disarming and foreboding at the same time.
Was the scene and the fact that it would take place in broad daylight in Guza's original script?
PS: Yes it was. I have a copy of the original script.
TT: You do?
PS: Yes. I've also got a copy of the box office on Curtains. We actually did some box office on it.
TT: How much. Do you know?
PS: Unfortunately, no. We had a troubled distributor.
TT: You were heading up Simcom at that point?
PS: Yes. Jensen Farley, the distributor, had done Private Lessons (1981). Do you remember Michael Nesmith?
TT: Sure, one of the Monkees.
PS: Well, Mike was a very good friend of mine at the time and I bought a picture of his and I represented it called Timerider (1982). A great little science fiction piece that Jensen Farley brought out.
TT: Yes, Jensen also distributed 1982's Madman among others.
PS: Well, I did a joint venture with Farley for a couple of years and so I gave them the picture and overlooked their deficiencies. At the time, it was the last gasp of the seventies' independent distributors.
TT: Did you read our interview with Lesleh Donaldson?
PS: Yes I did. Lesleh had a pretty good recall...although she never remembered my fucking name! (Laughs.)
TT: What do you recall about shooting her death scene?
PS: First of all, one of the problems that becomes fairly obvious if you look at the slo-mo is that the ice is so bumpy...bumps that always surface unless you hose it down. We had the grips out there hosing, trying to get a decent ice surface.
TT: Maybe that's what caused Lesleh's fall.
PS: (Laughs.) Is Lesleh still claiming she can skate?
TT: She told us you sent her to get lessons and she thought she could do the basic stuff. But she got out there and she fell down and twisted her ankle...
PS: I brought in a real figure skater. I don't remember the girl's name.
TT: Jo-anne Hannah?
PS: Yes...I believe so. But it was actually one of the few times I was ever embarrassed in interviewing someone. We brought her in to do the stunt double. She was the right height and everything. But she had this big parka on because it was the wintertime.
So she came into my office at Simcom and she sat down. And she had the parka off her shoulders. I said, "I can't look at you with that parka on, would you take it off so we could see what you look like and what the camera's gonna see?" I assumed she had something on underneath it...but she just had fucking panties on. I'm standing there saying, "You'll look good on camera, you can put that parka back on!"
TT: Maybe she didn't have time to get dressed?
PS: I guess. I don't know.
TT: The skating cuts are quite seamless in the scene. You can't really see a double.
PS: She was very good. We had that little hat. Jo-Anne was blonde but by the time you put the brunette wig and that little pink hat on, you couldn't spot it.
TT: Who is in the hag mask skating after Lesleh?
PS: If I recall correctly, it's the same figure skater.
TT: You used her for both parts?
PS: I think so.
Did you notice how the end credits used Curtains: Act I and Act II?
TT: Sure. Why was that?
PS: Because there were quite different crews. There were different assistant directors. Tony Thatcher was the first AD on the Ciupka shoot. And then Steve Wright did AD work for me. Freddie Guthe, who was the operator for Ciupka, did the DOP work on my shoot.