Roger Spottiswoode began his film career working as editor on a number of high profile movies for legendary director Sam Peckinpah, including Straw Dogs (1971), The Getaway (1972) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973).
In 1980, the Canadian born Spottiswoode made his own directoral debut with the superlative college slasher Terror Train, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, and David Copperfield.
Although it would be the only slasher released by 20th Century Fox during the post-Halloween splatter boon, Terror Train remains a beloved fan favorite to this day.
Spottiswoode deboarded Terror Train long ago, moving on to become an über-successful director helming such films as Under Fire (1983), And the Band Played On (1993), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The 6th Day (2000), The Matthew Shepard Story (2002), and Ripley Under Ground (2005), to name a few.
He was generous enough to sit down with us and discuss his memories of working on Terror Train some thirty years ago.
The Terror Trap: You began your film career by editing several films for the one and only Sam Peckinpah, most notably Straw Dogs (1971). Take us back to those years...
Roger Spottiswoode: Yes, I started by editing a few documentaries. Eventually, when I was about twenty-seven, Peckinpah was in England shooting Straw Dogs and he fired one editor.
Then he had hired another one. And then another. Somehow I got hired to cut one scene. Then there were more. Eventually, I stayed through the shooting in England and then they asked me to take the film back to America for a week and hand it over to another editor when I got there.
TT: What happened next?
RS: Well, when I was on the plane with Sam, I discovered I had a one-way ticket. I said to him, “You guys are really cheap. You only bought a ticket one-way.” And he said, “Who’s going back? You won’t be needing a return flight.” (Laughs.)
I asked about the editor I was going to hand the film over to and he responded: “There is no editor. You’re gonna do it, with Bob (Wolf).” Later Tony (Lawson) was promoted and came over to help us.” So we cut the picture and that led to two more films with Sam.
TT: The Getaway (1972) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)?
RS: That’s right. I helped a little bit with Junior Bonner (1972) at the end of Straw Dogs, because the two kind of overlapped. Then there was a gap of a month or two before The Getaway. And then Pat Garrett. I did a film with Walter Hill after that, Hard Times (1975).
TT: Had you studied film editing formally at that point?
RS: In the early 60s, I think there was one film school in England and I’m not sure when film schools got started in the U.S.
My school was in the cutting room, with a very generous editor who allowed me and the other assistant, Lesley Walker, to look over his shoulder. And that editor was John Bloom. He was brilliant. He’d show you footage and then ask, “What’s wrong with that?” or “What’s right with it?” You were expected to come up with really good ideas and he would try them.
Bloom was a young editor when I worked for him. He saw it as his pleasure, as well as his job, to train people. To educate them. So we learned on the job. I learned in the cutting room…and really with one person.
TT: So that was a very good learning experience for you...
RS: Yes. I started in commercials, sort of sweeping floors and making coffee. And after about a year or two, Bloom (who also cut commercials) got his first big break with Georgy Girl (1966), so I went with him as his second assistant. And I became an assistant on a few of his features, such as Funeral in Berlin (1966), and The Lion in Winter (1968).
TT: Did you enjoy editing?
RS: I liked editing. But I didn’t really want to be an editor long term. I really wanted to direct. When I started out, the best way to direct was to first become an editor. Several famous directors had come from editing.
By the time I got to be an editor - although I was very young at the time - the industry had changed quite a bit. People who had started off as writers were getting into directing. Walter Hill, for instance, who had written The Getaway. Also, people who had worked on commercials were moving into directing features.
TT: So you knew while you were editing you wanted that to segue into directing?
RS: Yes, the entire time. I thought editing would be useful. And it was incredibly useful. Invaluable, in fact.
TT: What was Peckinpah like?
RS: (Big laugh.) Well, that’s a much longer - and altogether different - conversation, I think. Sam was a very, very complicated man. Brilliant. Difficult. A very interesting combination of being unusual and fascinating.
When I started on Straw Dogs, Sam’s reputation was that he would often fire about a third of his crew. That would mean a lot of people would not finish a production.
RS: Nowadays of course - nobody gets fired because everyone’s afraid of getting sued.
Sam’s assistant used to carry bus tickets around. And if Sam had had enough of somebody, he would say to the assistant, “Give ‘em a bus ticket.” By the time someone had a run-in with Sam, they’d want to leave.
A couple of times, he tried to do that to me and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m out of here so fast….fuck you!” (Laughs.) I was not the only one who did that. And then of course, you never got to leave because if you would fight back or had a point of view, he was fine with you.
TT: Sounds like a passive aggressive way of working.
RS: Well, Sam was interested in people who would argue with him and want to make films his way, but maybe not completely his way. He would never tell you exactly what to do, but he would goad you until you figured out what you wanted to do - and then you’d show it to him.
He was wonderful to edit for because he never, ever said “change this shot or change that shot.” He’d never do that. He would say a scene didn’t work or didn’t smell or feel right. Or he would say it felt too wimpish, or too silly, or too angry for no reason.
But he wouldn’t tell you what it had to look like at the end. He would just talk about what sort of feelings were buried in there, or what you hadn’t looked at to discover feelings…or parts of the story. He’d push you into finding them for yourself and turning it into film.
He would say, “If I have to tell you exactly what I want, I’ll get your fucking assistant to do it. I’m not interested in having people do what I tell them to do.” He wanted people who would discover new truths in his footage.
TT: Did you spend any time on the Straw Dogs set or was your job completely off the set?
RS: I was always outside the set. We were editing while they were shooting. And then we edited for another forty weeks afterwards. Almost another year. And Sam would never come and watch you editing, for that matter.
When the film moved back to America, he wasn’t there. I moved into a Hollywood cutting room and Sam went and started preparing, and then shooting Junior Bonner in Prescott, Arizona. On Saturday nights, we would fly to Phoenix and then drive to Prescott.
We would run the cut footage from Straw Dogs on his moviola in the Holiday Inn in Prescott, early on Sunday mornings. Sam didn’t have a screening room. We’d run the cut that way for him.
TT: Sandy Howard and Harold Greenberg were the producers of Terror Train. They had just finished producing Death Ship (1980). How did you first come into contact with them?
RS: I had written 48 Hours and something about Los Angeles Chicano gangs. I spent about six months with L.A. gangs in 1973. I sent one of those scripts to Sandy Howard’s production company. They sort of vaguely knew me as a writer. So I was asked to go in and discuss whether I would write Terror Train.
I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I was the right person for it. So I respectfully declined.
TT: You did?
RS: Yes. Then two months later, they asked me back to talk about the script again. And I went in and saw a poster in Sandy’s room. The poster had a train on it. So I looked at the writing credit on the poster and I noticed my name on it! (Laughs.) At which point, the penny drops. I’m Canadian so they needed a Canadian writer. They wanted it to be a Canadian film.
RS: I pointed out to Sandy that this really wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t take someone else’s writing credit. It wouldn’t work. So my name came off it and he said, “Why don’t you direct it?” And I thought, well, this I might do…
TT: Did you see the script at this point?
RS: Yes, Sandy showed it to me.
That reminds me, I had another connection to Sandy. After I finished editing and started writing scripts, I’d become a bit of an “editor doctor.” I started to get asked to come in and fix films. I was in this odd position that I didn’t want to be an editor so I didn’t need a credit. I was offered films and I would fix them without a credit. The pay was good since I wasn’t making much money as a writer.
A couple of times, Sandy had asked me to fix a few films he'd produced, and I’d looked at them. He heard my price, and I guess I hadn’t wanted to do them so I told him a bit of a high figure. He didn’t want to pay me to do it.
And so when he offered me the job to direct Terror Train, it was so that I would be a cheap editor for him!
TT: In essence, he’d get a two-for-one job from you?
RS: Right. So I signed a contract with him…but then I went and hired an editor and he got really upset about that. (Laughs.) So there you have it.
TT: The initial screenplay you read was written by T.Y. Drake. Do you recall if it needed a lot of work?
RS: Yes. It needed quite a bit of work. It needed the magic working out. As well as some of the characters being fleshed out. Particularly when we got David Copperfield.
TT: Why is that?
RS: Well, live stage magic is very hard to capture properly on film. And here was this young magician who wanted to be in the picture and he wanted some good magic in it. We had to figure out stuff that would work for the film and also would work ON film.
TT: Would you say magic doesn’t often work in movies because people expect films to have effects anyway - so they’re not fooled?
RS: Yeah, even before CGI, it was hard to do. There’s a lovely magic sequence in the Sydney Pollack film with Al Pacino as a racecar driver, Bobby Deerfield. They go to a nightclub and somebody does a quite well known illusion with a woman’s scarf and a violin that plays itself. It’s rather beautiful. It’s an amazing thing to see in real-life, but on film it somehow doesn’t work as well.
TT: Let’s talk about John Alcott, the cinematographer for Terror Train.
Alcott was truly established in the industry at that point, and had just finished Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. He really was Kubrick's chosen photography man, having also worked on A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon.
How did he get on board Terror Train?
RS: John came with Sandy, thank goodness. It was a wonderful thing. Sandy said, “I want you to meet John Alcott.” I was proud to meet him but frankly, I wondered why he would want to do Terror Train.
So I met with John and I asked him. I said, “Look, I’ve got twenty-five days to shoot this. I’m going have to shoot thirty set-ups a day. I’m gonna have to go like the wind.”
And he responded, “Well, Roger, if you can shoot thirty set-ups a day, you’ll make me a very happy man. I’m not used to that. On The Shining, I did ONE set-up a day.” It was the same with Barry Lyndon. It was often one or two set-ups a day and he thought it was boring! “I adore Stanley," he said, "but thirty set-ups a day means a lot of fun for me.” (Laughs.)
TT: That’s great.
RS: He was so brilliant. I had him on two films. Terror Train and later, Under Fire. We became friends and he was just the most fascinating person. As I’m sure you know, he had been hired on 2001: A Space Odyssey and was promoted from focus puller straight to DP.
Whether it’s true that he didn’t know how to use a light meter when he was promoted, or whether he just said that, I was never sure. But he didn’t use a light meter. He didn’t have one.
On Terror Train, when we were on the train, we didn’t have many candles. We certainly didn’t have candles like [Alcott used] on Barry Lyndon.
In a number of scenes, there would be complaints from visiting stills photographers: “When are you gonna turn on the lights and start shooting?”
Alcott had his little f/1 lens that he brought with him from Barry Lyndon. We’d shoot wide open at 1:2 or 1:4 and the stills photographers couldn’t shoot with so little light. We were shooting in almost complete darkness.
TT: It’s been said that Alcott used his hand to see how the reflections and light worked instead of a light meter.
RS: Yes. And he did it on all films, as far as I know. He’d look at the back of his hand and say to Lou Bogue and the focus puller in his very London accent, “It’s a solid 1.8. Well, fairly solid…what do you think? Make it a 1.4/1.8 split, gentle on it! But not too gentle.” He’d talk about it like that.
TT: What did you think when you would see the dailies?
RS: The dailies for Terror Train were extraordinary. Everything was perfect.
All the dailies were one-light dailies. That means they all go through on the same bath, the same exposure. No treatment. Not like nowadays when people fiddle with it. Ours were all perfectly matched.
John had a safety backup, so to speak. He would light with the back of his hand and his amazing eye of course. He never looked through a camera. He’d know what it was and what we were looking at. And when it was lit, he’d put his hand out and the gaffer (Lou Bogue) would put his Polaroid into it. He had an old bellows Land Polaroid. They fold out. You can still buy them on Ebay.
He would take a shot and then unpeel the back and peel off the Polaroid. And then we’d wait forty seconds while he had the black & white picture under his arm, warming and processing.
He would unwrap it once more, taking off the last layer - and look at it…never showing it to anyone. He’d put it in his pocket and say, “All right, we can shoot!” That was really a double check for contrast values, I think. The model of the Polaroid camera he used, was already ten or fifteen years out of production. They still made film for it and I think they probably made it just for Alcott. Because by then, he was so well known.
At that time, John was inventing Super-35. It’s still in use now. Super-35 uses spherical lenses to shoot a widescreen 2.35:1 format.
Nowadays, many of the big special effects films are still shot with Alcott's system and not with anamorphic lenses, because anamorphic lenses make CGI work much more complicated.
TT: What's the reason for that?
RS: When you shoot widescreen, that’s 2.35:1 - the very wide, wide screen - when you shoot that ratio, you can do it two ways.
You can shoot with spherical lenses, which means that it doesn’t distort the image at all, but the image has to be recorded onto a smaller part of the negative. Imagine something that shape, it goes onto a smaller part of a 35mm negative because it doesn’t use the top or the bottom. And the whole thing has to be very reduced to go from one side to the other.
An anamorphic lens squeezes the image so it completely uses the old 1.85 frame…it uses all the space on the negative. When you project that, you have to project it back out through the same lens and that unsqueezes it and makes it wide again.
During post-production, if images are to be altered digitally (CGI), altering a squeezed image will be more complex than altering an image which is not squeezed.
TT: Let's talk a bit about pre-production. Is it true you leased actual train carriages from a town in Vermont, renumbered the train from "1293" to "1881," repainted the exteriors, and had everything transported up to Canada?
RS: Yes, that's right. They were driven up on the rails. The train cars were put together and they got a pass and sent them up. I think we had five weeks prep time and it took us about two weeks to find those trains and select the carriages and get permission. The train took about three or four days to get to us. It’s not very far but it had to get through customs…this and that.
As I remember, there was a crew working on it as it travelled to Montreal.
TT: Tell us about the work that went into lighting the train.
RS: Alcott decided to rewire the entire train and so he hired a company that did home installations. They weren’t an expensive movie crew. They were a bunch of electricians.
Working under Lou Bogue, they changed all the wiring on every carriage and had it fed outside onto long, long wooden boards to which you could attach dimmers.
Then they got boxes and boxes of bulbs, 20 watts, 40 watts, 60 watts, 100 watts. So every light on the train could be changed in a moment. You didn’t have to get up on ladders. We were in a real train. You couldn’t cut a hole in the train and it was very difficult to shoot in, but this way you could change the lights real easy because you could reach all of them.
And you had a dimmer outside so you could raise or lower them. If you could handle the change in color temperatures, which he could, you could light something very, very fast. Because you couldn’t move the lights but they were all there.
RS: I also remember how he would light people’s eyes with little medical lights, little pen torches. He’d stand behind the camera and hold a pen light in each hand and pick out people’s eyes. And remember, we were shooting at very, very low light levels.
I mean, it was dark in there. John was always very careful about reflected light...light bouncing off walls. He’d say that he didn’t need the Art Department using their walls to light his set. So the walls were painted dark, and we kept them dark.
TT: It’s masterful for a horror film.
RS: The heart of it was that the grips, electricians, and the camera were all run by Alcott in almost complete silence because he hardly spoke to Lou. They could read each other's minds. I was also very quiet. So the place was very quiet and things went incredibly fast. The set was very conducive to young actors getting on with things.
They knew they were there to work…it was fun and not stressful. It was so well done by Alcott, that it was easy. We knew what we were doing and we’d stage the scenes and take a lot of time to get them right. And then shoot them incredibly quickly.
TT: You earlier mentioned a twenty-five day shooting schedule. How would you describe the actual shoot: hectic, organized?
RS: Well, Terror Train was my first film as a director and I had a lot of kids who were not actors. My cast was not only Jamie Lee Curtis. I had a number of people who were not actors at all, for instance, David Copperfield.
And the magician’s assistant really wasn’t an actor.
The shoot went well because John was incredibly fast. He'd say, “I’ll be fast if you’re fast. Each day, I want half. You have half.” He was quite strict. But he was very nice and we became friends.
TT: How did the scheduling of the shooting work?
RS: We had twelve hours a day (actually, eleven without meals). I’d get five and a half hours, and if I had thirty set-ups to do, you work it out. He would spend half the time lighting and I would spend half the time shooting…but of course, if you do four or five takes, you end up with not very much time at all.
I would have to work out how few set-ups I needed, and guess at how many takes each one would need to be filmed. Looking back, it’s surprising it worked as well as it did.
I’d tell Alcott exactly what the shots were and we’d agree on the order and be very quick. We got through the days really very, very fast….despite having a completion bond company breathing down our necks, a first-time director, and Sandy Howard being terminally cheap.
TT: Did you stay on schedule?
RS: Actually, for some reason, we got half a day behind. We had some weather problems and late starting, and some things took longer than we thought. By about day fifteen, we were five hours behind we reckoned. And Sandy said we needed to take out five pages - just to be sure we could catch up. (Laughs.)
TT: That’s a lot of script!
RS: He had read somewhere about a producer tearing out pages. (Laughs.) I said, “Sandy, that can’t work! I don’t know which five pages you mean, but it just can’t work.” It was too late to start taking out that many pages of script, and have the story make any sense.
TT: What was his reaction?
RS: He said, “Well, that’s tough!”
He said there was no money and he couldn’t afford to go a day over. And he added that the last day of shooting was the day before Christmas (1979). That’s it. He said we weren’t going over the schedule.
The other producer was Harold Greenberg from Montreal. I didn’t really know Harold. But I called him up and I asked him to come down. This was happening on a day when we had had a large snowfall. We had a snow scene in the film. And that was when we were shooting it. It was a nightmare day.
Anyway, I was shooting basically about six pages a day. And I’m having this disagreement with Sandy. Harold showed up. Harold weighed 300 pounds or more and had serious medical conditions, so it was not easy for him to rush out to the set. But he was just a terribly nice man. And he sort of heard Sandy out and then he heard me out.
I remember Harold said, “Sandy, I completely understand and it’s frustrating. You don’t want to put the money in. I don’t want you to be fretting about this.” At the same time, he said he understood my point of view and couldn’t see how it would work by simply taking out five pages.
And then he fished in his pocket and got out his checkbook and wrote out a check for $25,000, which at that time was our daily shooting cost.
RS: He handed the check to Sandy and said, “Now Sandy, you and I are partners on this, but I want to pay for this day myself. Even though it’s half a day, I’m gonna pay you for a whole one. I think you want to just go home and take it easy and let Roger have his time."
He said, "Roger is gonna finish this the way he says he will, and it’s gonna be all right, and I don’t want you to worry about the money ‘cause you’ve got it in your pocket now. I want you to cash that check and I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas. And by the way, it’s very cold in here. I don’t know how you’re doing this shooting anyway!”
And off Harold went. (Laughs). He was one of the nicest men you could come across.
TT: Did that alleviate some stress on your part?
RS: Absolutely! The pages went back in. Sandy was satisfied. We went on shooting and I had just met one of the nicest people in the business. Harold was really great. We finished on time and it was all good.
TT: Let’s talk about the cast. It’s rumored you were able to get Ben Johnson because of your history with Peckinpah. Is that right?
RS: Yes, that’s true. I got to him through Sam or someone connected to Sam. He had been in The Getaway.
TT: He adds a real gravitas to Terror Train in this kind of authoritative role. What did you think of his performance?
RS: He was just what the film needed.
I remember when Ben arrived in Montreal. I met him at the airport, drove him to his hotel, and we went in and had a drink. He said to me, “Now Roger. I’m sure I’ve told you this before but on my first day working with John Ford, he took me aside and said 'Ben, when you’re in front of the camera, you’re not going to need too many words...you just won’t need them. They can get in the way.'
'So Roger,' Ben says, 'you go through and take out all the extra dialogue you can.' He told me that was sound advice from Mr. Ford and he wanted me to take it. He wanted me to go through the script and get rid of all the extra words he didn’t need! He said, 'I know most of your actors want more words and more scenes but that’s not me. I listened to Mr. Ford and he was pretty right about things. You can just take most of the words away.'
TT: A great story. And a resonant one, because Johnson delivers the few lines he has with force and directness. He becomes the father of the college students, in a way.