21 June 2024

[continued from Part I]

The Terror Trap: Let's talk a bit about Jamie Lee Curtis.

She was just coming off filming Prom Night, which was shot in Toronto and had wrapped in September of 1979.

And boom, here she was filming Terror Train just a month and a half later in November.

Roger Spottiswoode: Yes, that's right.

TT: Of course, her career was still in high gear because of Halloween. What was she like?

RS: She was great. Very nice, very grounded. Jamie was kind of a star at the time in this world. By that, I mean the teenage horror world. Those movies were making a lot of money for a lot of people.

Jamie was that perfect combination of having grown up in the business and learning all the right lessons from it. She was talented, grounded, thoughtful, professional and generous to the other cast members. She wasnít that much older than anyoneÖbut she had far more film experience.

And I remember how very sweet she was with the rest of the cast. How she treated them. I would have understood how good she was if Iíd had more to compare it to at the time. I thought she was great back then. But now, I look back and realize she was even...better. (Laughs.)

She knew what she could pull off and also the difficulties in that some people she was playing with didnít really have any experience at all. She understood that you need patience. So she was wise well beyond her years.

TT: The score for Terror Train was composed by John Mills-Cockell.

After starting out by composing for several other low budget horrors such as Humongous (1982) and The Clown Murders (1976), Mills-Cockell would go on to an established career in music over the past thirty years.

We think his score for Terror Train is quite good. Moody and chilling during just the right moments and appropriately jarring at others. What did you think of the music?

RS: Yes, I remember liking John. And I liked his work on the film very much.

TT: It was nominated for a prestigious Genie Award for Best Film Score. John was gracious enough to provide us with a few audio clips from the score which we're featuring here. [We also conducted a separate interview with Mills-Cockell.]

Earlier, you touched upon Derek MacKinnon [who played the killer]. He was a successful drag performer you discovered in Montreal. Is it true you had originally hired someone else first for the role of Kenny?

RS: I think I had met someone else I considered for the part. But I donít recall hiring that person.

TT: Whatís your memory of working with MacKinnon?

RS: He did very well. I seem to remember everyone was a little concerned because when you have somebody whoís from a different world, itís a little scary as to whether theyíll even show up every day.

At that time, his world was very much performing late at night, and ours was being on the set at five in the morning. We had a couple of scary mornings but I think he was fine. It was a big adjustment for him and we were aware of that, but he really tried very hard.

TT: Do you think it helped that he was filmed mostly in far shots, not very close, as a necessity of the plotline?

RS: Yes. I donít think he was enormously skilled. And he seemed like he was quite nervous about the whole thing, but in general he did well.

TT: Thereís a rumor that a subplot was filmed involving Ben Johnsonís character Carne romancing the magicianís assistant. You know, with Carne not knowing that "she" was a "he." (Or that "he" was a psychotic killer, for that matter.) Do you recall anything like that?

RS: (Laughs.) No. I donít think that was ever written or filmed.

TT: Was the idea that he was a cross-dresser in the original script?

RS: Yes.

TT: Your thoughts on Sandee Currie who played Mitchy, the attractive blonde and Alanaís best friend?

Currie also starred in another Canadian slasher, Curtains (1983), where she was likewise chased by a killer in a hag maskÖ

RS: Sandee was good. I remember she always seemed confident and relaxed.

TT: We donít know if youíre aware, but unfortunately Sandee passed away back in November 1996.

RS: Oh noÖI had no idea. Iím so very sorry to hear that.

TT: Any random thoughts on the rest of the cast?

RS: They were all very nice. Young, enthusiastic. Hart Bochner was very supportive as well. Ben Johnson was terrific, as we discussed earlier.

Somehow, because of the way Terror Train was made, with the pressure before Christmas and the speed of it all, having such an incredibly good camera crew and a very nice art department, all the pressure ended up working for us - in our favor.

TT: What do you recall about D.D Winters, who would go on to a career as a pop singer known as Vanity?

RS: Very pretty. And she was very nice. But I felt she was clearly in some other world. The music worldÖ

TT: Of her own admittance, she was under substance abuse during those yearsÖ

RS: Oh, was she? I wouldnít have known. Iím usually the last person to know when someoneís using drugs. Iím afraid Iím not very smart about that. I missed it.

When I was working for Peckinpah, I didnít have time for drugs. Film was my drug! Working long hours, editing at night, all of that.

TT: Itís been said the final fight scenes between Alana and the killer (MacKinnon) actually got rough...with Jamie and the fighting turning a little too realistic.

RS: I think Jamie was very good at making it look real. And I think Derek was probably not quite as good at holding back as he should have been.

Iíd worked with Sam by then, and I knew you didnít do anything real. You made it look real. We also had to show a spike in the eye and I donít think we made a proper retracting spike. We had to be incredibly careful. But no, I donít think we really had a proper fight in that sequence.

TT: Now, Terror Train was released during the post-Halloween slasher boon. And yet in terms of onscreen gore, itís relatively low-key. Was that conscious on your part when shooting? Or something that happened in the cutting room?

RS: That was me, I think.

In this sense, I was probably not the ideal person to make Terror Train, because Iím not a great believer in overt violence onscreen. To be honest, I donít see a lot of horror films. I hadnít before Terror Train, and I havenít since. It was rather a coincidence that I made one of the more violent pictures, Straw Dogs, which was considered incredibly violent at the time. Although it doesnít look so now.

I had lots of arguments with Sam about onscreen violence with which I did not personally agree very much. I think you can make a film exciting without being graphic. I feel rather strongly and extensively about thisÖthat onscreen violence is not a particularly good thing. You can create an exciting film without doing that. It wasnít political. It was just in my nature to do it that way.

The James Bond film I did, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), has fewer people killed in it than any previous Bond picture. You see almost no one get killed until the very end. Everything happens offscreen or itís left to the imagination. You see a lot of action and chasing around, and hopefully itís an exciting film, but is not actually a blood fest.

TT: So gore wasnít filmed for Terror Train and then cut out prior to its release?

RS: No. And perhaps that's not what audiences wanted. Maybe it might have worked better to have been something else. But I was not the person to do the other kind. I couldnít. Neither then or now would I have the appetite to do that. Other people do it incredibly well, and have a great time doing it. But I couldnít.

TT: We ask because just as the victims are about to meet their ends in Terror Train, there seem to be quick cutaways from the action. Such as Docís death scene just before heís decapitatedÖ

RS: They were purposely edited that way.

We donít need to see that. The mind fills in very well for all sorts of things. Just as you can do it on the stage, you can do it in movies. This desire to show everything is uninteresting and doesnít exercise the deeper parts of oneís imagination at all. Iím not very interested in what you can put onscreen graphically now. I donít think thereís much effect to it.

TT: These editing tricks in Terror Train actually prove quite effective, because the viewer is shown post-kill shots which make you feel like you saw more than you actually did. The image of Mitchy with her neck slit, for example. Or Carne discovering Jackson's bloody body on the bathroom floor.

RS: Well, I spent a year in the cutting room with Sam on Straw Dogs and we had been through this enough times. Heíd shot a couple of things that we simply wouldnít edit. He ended up having to edit them himself if he wanted them in the film. (Laughs.) I thought they were gratuitous and unnecessary.

TT: As far as horror and thrillers go, were you influenced by anyone or any film in particular?

RS: I guess Hitchcock more than anyone else. Which to me is really not horror. Except what you have in your mind.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of violence being compelling and striking. But it doesn't have to be seen, necessarily. Sam, for all his reputation of making violent films, constantly had you play violence off onto other peopleís faces and things.

His films were violent. But if you actually take the scenes apart frame by frameÖI mean we constructed them frame by frame, with 2 frame and 3 frame cuts in long sequencesÖoften, you didnít see everything.

Other times, you saw too much and we would argue with him about that. But he wasnít always about making things graphic. It was making things emotionally powerful and finding ways to do that. Not just to shock people, but to make the audience absorb it. That's an intriguing process.

TT: We wanted to draw your attention to one minor detail we noticed in the screenplay for Terror Train. In the filmed version, during the scene where Alana finds herself trapped in the cage, she defends herself by jabbing a letter spike into Kenny's head.

But in a draft of the screenplay dated '11-2-79,' the letter spike rolls under the table, where Alana can't reach it. (That would've been a terrific suspense moment!)

Instead, she picks up a propane lamp nearby, aims it like a flamethrower at Kenny, and bashes it over his head. This causes his head to burst into flames. Quote from the screenplay: "As he screams, tearing at the burning mask, Alana shoves past him and out the cage door..."

Do you remember this bit in the screenplay and if so, do you recall why it wasn't filmed?

RS: I don't recall this being in the screenplay!

But I can easily imagine that if it had been in the script, we wouldn't have been able to achieve this level of complexity in terms of visual effects. There was no CGI back then. Remember our limited budget, and of course our very fast shooting schedule.

We wouldn't have been able to pull this fire thing off, at least not safely. I remember we had some difficulty just making sure the letter spike in the face would be safe enough.

TT: Some thirty years after its release, Terror Train remains a beloved fan favorite. A lot of films from that era canít make the same claim - let alone horror films. Why do you think it's remembered so fondly all these years later?

RS: (Pause). I think itís actually quite a good story. I think the final script we ended up with is rather good. And I think the characters were well drawn, and played well. I think itís interesting that David Copperfield is in it. And at the center of it all, we had Jamie.

Jamie, in all her different ages, has been wonderfulÖand I was very lucky to have her on Terror Train. Sheís quite good in it. That makes the film much more memorable. She has a lovely quality to her.

Recently, I happened to catch for the seventh time, A Fish Called Wanda. She is so funny and so wonderful in it, and watching it tends to remind me so much of her back then.

Not that it was the same thing at all, but sheís one of those people who you can see again and again. Sheís awfully good. We were lucky she made Terror Train. And honestly, I think sheís the main reason it holds up thirty years on.

TT: Were you asked to do another horror film after Terror Train?

RS: No, I donít think so. Iíve never gone anywhere near one again, to be honest. I came to the conclusion that maybe I was not the right person to do them.

When we finished it, the producers showed it to Fox who thought it was going to be HUGE. And I thought they were crazy. It wasnít going to be huge. I thought itís a nice, small film. But itís certainly not going to be like Jamieís first big one, Halloween. Fox had such high expectations for the first weekend, something ridiculous.

TT: Fox originally scheduled it for a Halloween release, but moved it up several weeks earlier hoping it would do better if it had more screen time before the end of the month. It was released on October 3, 1980 and went on to gross a little over $8 million US, having cost about $3.5 million to make.

RS: Okay, so it did make its money back and a little bit more. But Fox still thought it was a disaster. And I feel the lack of excess gore did matter. If they had had a director who was more into it and could have made the whole thing much gorier, that would have given it a better chance.

If I had been offered another film in the genre, I would not have taken it. I donít have the right instincts for it. I sort of thought that before I did Terror Train, but I so wanted to direct a film. And once I did that, I did manage to get Under Fire, which was the kind of project I wanted to make.

TT: You went on to such a long and established career in directing. You did the James Bond film, the Schwarzenegger blockbuster, several riveting documentaries, and in particular two movies that we personally give you big props for: And the Band Played On (1993) and The Matthew Shepard Story (2002).

Looking back, are you thankful that Terror Train gave you your start in directing?

RS: Enormously. One can never tell whatís going to do well and whatís not, and I was not really the right person to do it. On the other hand, it was as wonderful an opportunity to get started as you can imagine.

It had a good enough script and I had such a great cast and such a nice crew. It was a wonderful place to learn and a good experience.

It would have been nice if Terror Train had done better, but there you go. I suppose I was lucky that it lead pretty soon into Under Fire. And then I was able to make some interesting docudramas such as And the Band Played On and Hiroshima (1995). They were about interesting, complicated subjects and I had a great time with them.

TT: What kind of film would excite you to make these days?

RS: I have a film that Iíve been trying to get made for some years about an Indian mathematician. (Laughs.) Itís a strange premise, but a very beautiful film about a real person in England who was found to be self-taught in India.

Nobody knew whether he was a fool or a genius. And he turned out to be an extraordinary genius. Thatís a film Iíd like to do. Also, one about the Holocaust. These are both different stories, radically different and far apart.

In total, Iíve got about six very different films that are close or reasonably close to getting made. Who knows? Itís very hard to do independent films that arenít obvious big box office.

I made the Rwanda film a few years ago in 2007 (Shake Hands with the Devil) and it was an extraordinary experience. That got a really crazy small release here after a two-year wait. But itís something Iím exceptionally proud of.

TT: In terms of your films that youíre most pleased with, would that be one of them?

RS: Yes. I'd say And the Band Played On and Hiroshima as well. And also Mesmer (1994), I think. Iíve got about four or five that are my favorites of my own films.

TT: Roger, your work in film has been terrific. We wish you nothing but continued success. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Weíre honored.

RS: Thanks to you both as well. You clearly did your homework. There were some really interesting questions today.

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