Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview: Friday The 13th screenwriter Victor Miller talks with TV STORE ONLINE


Screenwriter of the original FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) Victor Miller talks about a F13 prequel, his relationship with Sean Cunningham, lost scripts, SPRING BREAK, A STRANGER IS WATCHING as well as his work writing for the campiest soap operas of the mid 1980's.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Certainly any fan of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) knows the whole back story by now in regards to how you came to write the script....But fans might not know about your impressive backlog of screenplays that you've written that haven't been "realized" for the screen yet...

MILLER:  That's the nicest way I've ever heard that said...laughing    You mean the screenplays that no-one wanted to buy from me or those that ended up in turnaround?

TV STORE ONLINE:  Right...I wanted to ask you about your script that you wrote about the notorious bank robber Willie "The Actor" Sutton...

MILLER:  There was a guy I was working with on that named Brad Talbot and he was very good at finding money and he had struck a deal with Reg Haines who I think was the heir to the Haines underwear company and they bought the rights to the book 'Where The Money Was'.  The screenplay that I wrote was based on that book.   I had worked with Brad before and he knew that I worked cheaply.  So we went down to Florida and I spent a weekend talking with Willie Sutton.   I think I spent about fifteen hours talking to him.  He had just got out of prison at this time.   I wrote a number of drafts of the screenplay and at one point Dustin Hoffman was interested in the project but it never panned out.   

Ultimately, I think that the script was unsellable for several reasons.   Willie invented all of the incredible ways that you can rob a bank.  He was a genius at it.  He once had his wife sleep with one of the guys at a lock company in New Haven, CT. to get a key that would unlock his prison cell.  No one should've been able to get that key.  She succeeded and went to see him in prison, put the key in her mouth, kissed Willie, spit the key into his mouth, and Willie used the key to escape.   So unless you lie, it's very difficult to make this guy even at his best an anti-hero.      He was though ever inventive and very creative.  When he got out of jail he was eventually hired by Chase-Manhattan Bank or some company like that as a security specialist.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Is that script still out there somewhere?

MILLER:  Yeah, every once in a while I hear that someone just acquired the rights to it.  I think that it would make a great TV movie.   I've heard people talk about making it but I think it's problem is that Willie Sutton just wasn't a nice guy and there were never any cops that ever got hot on his trail.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I've seen you mention in some other interviews over the years in passing about another screenplay that fell through the cracks called ASYLUM?

MILLER:  Right, ASYLUM was one of my favorite experiences.   I wrote it not long after FRIDAY THE 13TH.    When F13 came out and it became a major success, I was famous for about twenty minutes.   I went out to California and I had a meeting with an executive at Columbia Pictures.    This executive's boss was Frank Price, who was the head of Columbia.    Frank Price sent word to the office that I was in that he wanted to meet with me.  You don't turn down the head of a studio.  I went to his office and  I sat down after being offered about four different kinds of bottled water and Price asked me, "What do you got kid?"    I told him that I wanted to do a horror movie set in a hospital.   Price picked up the phone and said, "Get this kid's agent on the phone."  The next thing I knew I had a contract for $120,000 dollars to write a movie on that one sentence.    That was what you could do with the success of a movie like  FRIDAY THE 13TH.

I went back to Connecticut with the first installment payment in hand of my new contract and start typing away trying to figure out what the plot would be for this new horror movie set in a hospital.   After three days, I got a call from Frank Price's office.   It was one of his assistants.  He said, "Frank has been doing some research and horror movies set in hospitals don't make any money.  Can you change the setting to an all women's college?"    It was at that point that I knew I was a prostitute because without a hesitation I said, "Sure".    I wrote the script and it was put into turnaround.  It was never made and I went on with my business.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I'm surprised they didn't ask you to set it in a summer camp....

MILLER:  Laughing...I think they figured I had used that up!   After I finished that script, the next thing I knew I was doing a re-write for A STRANGER IS WATCHING (1982) for Sean Cunningham which was based on a great book by author Mary Higgins Clark.   I totally re-structured and re-wrote the script that he had for it.     That didn't do well as a film because it was marketed as a horror film and it wasn't.  They were marketing it with the tagline "From the people that brought you FRIDAY THE 13TH..."   So all of the horror fans went to see it and said, "That's not a horror movie."   Rip Torn is really great in it though.

TV STORE ONLINE:
  Absolutely.  Torn is amazing in A STRANGER IS WATCHING...That character he plays is so nasty.  How much of that character do you think was from your script and Higgins Clark's book versus what Torn brought to the role?

MILLER:  I think it was all a match.  Torn is a gifted actor.  I don't think he took that character any darker that how he was portrayed in Mary Higgins Clark book.  He was just a horrible guy and Katie Mulgrew is great in A STRANGER IS WATCHING  too.

TV STORE ONLINE:   You have a shared credit on the screenplay for A STRANGER IS WATCHING...

MILLER:  Yes...And I suffered greatly from the "Moby Dick" theory on it.   If you're hired to write the screenplay for MOBY DICK the first writer gets the credit every time the whale appears...laughing    Getting a shared credit was fine with me but I actually did an entire re-write on that script.   

TV STORE ONLINE:   There are some great things in A STRANGER IS WATCHING... Like Rip Torn's costume for example...He's wearing that BDSM leather outfit, there's that scene where he gets beat up by that Latino gang in that men's room....There's that great confrontation between Torn and that old homeless guy who tells Torn, "I bet you've got no pecker!  Let me see your pecker!" That couldn't have been in the Mary Higgins Clark book....

MILLER:  That was all Victor Miller...laughing

TV STORE ONLINE:  One more screenplay question...I know there was another screenplay that you wrote that got put into turnaround that was looking like it was going to be produced by Martha Coolidge....

MILLER:   She was a wonderful lady.   I had written a screenplay called ON THE EDGE for her. She had bought the rights to the novel of the same name and this was back when we were both just starting out. It was my first paying assignment.  I wrote the screenplay but she couldn't find a buyer for it and that was that.

 
TV STORE ONLINE:   Prior to talking to you...I read a couple other interviews that you've given over the years and I've seen you mention a couple times that you have a real interest in writing comedy...

MILLER:   Yeah, my interest in comedy comes from just the insane childhood I had.   I guess, at one point I wanted to write comedy because I had taken an eight week course at Yale in stand-up comedy.   Part of the course was that I was supposed to write and deliver a stand-up routine for myself.   So I did that but I realized that it probably wasn't the best profession for me because I  needed to have four or five dry martinis before I could get up onto the stage.   

The guy who taught the class had invited Larry David when he was first starting out in New York to come and critique us at graduation time.   I was so drunk that I can't remember now what Larry said about my performance...laughing    I see the world as just an insane place to live.  And as I mentioned, my childhood was just insane and when I was younger I was sent off to a prep school too.  None of it made any sense to me.    When I was writing for All My Children [1970-2011] during the mid '80s...We were allowed to be right on the edge of camp.   Those years were magic.   I really like writing for the actors Tad Martin and Michael Knight.  Tad could be as funny as you wanted him to be, so I really gravitated to writing for him.   I tried to write some real funny stuff for him while I was at All My Children.

TV STORE ONLINE:
   Right, and you wrote for "Erica Kane" on All My Children too...

MILLER:  That's right.  She was a comedy onto her own...

Susan Lucci as "Erica Kane"
TV STORE ONLINE:  Why do you think that Erica Kane became one of the most beloved and well known characters in the history of the soap opera?

MILLER:  I don't know.  Part of me thinks that it was just because it was a simpler time.  As a character she had everything and she lost it all.   There was nothing that she wouldn't do either.   I mean, she got away with murder several times on the show.    She was just a fun character.   It was really the glory years of All My Children.   You never knew if we were being serious or being funny, but we never made fun of the medium itself.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What about Another World [1964-99] on NBC?  You wrote for that as well....

MILLER:   Right, I did.    All My Children was actually beating Another World in the ratings when I got there.   Another World was going downhill by the time I arrived.     Prior to the O.J. Simpson trial, the ratings for soaps were huge and when the O.J. trial happened we lost half of our audience to that and they never came back.   It was the beginning of reality television really.   He really put the knife into daytime television.  As far as Another World....I'll go to my grave blaming Proctor & Gamble for anything that caused Another World to go off the air.   They were so cautious and so afraid to do anything that would be fun or  be edgy.  They were terrified of alienating anyone watching at home or someone who was out buying their diapers or hand lotions.    We once tried to write an storyline where one of the female characters on the show slept with two different men in the same night and then got pregnant.    She was to have twins and one of the babies would belong to one man while the other baby belonged to the other man.   That would have been something that would have been a first for daytime television but Proctor & Gamble wouldn't let us do it.  

TV STORE ONLINE:  Was it a point of interest to always push the envelope on a soap for you?  Or did you try to maintain a balance between pushing the envelope and keeping things as they had been?

MILLER:  Well, you were asking yourself what the audience was talking about in the check out line at the grocery store.   Then you also always knew where your heart and soul was in the show too.  The audience was shrinking so there was a thought that you needed to do something that would be new and different to win the audience back that left but we were always told no.   

TV STORE ONLINE:   Going back to your interest in comedy again...What are some of your favorite comedy films?

MILLER:  I've always said that I wanted to be a Zucker Brother.   I think that I'd really like to be a Coen Brother too.   I love the Coen Brothers and their sense of humor really appeals to me.    I just don't think though that I have the right genetic make-up for comedy.   Some of the comics that I'm a fan of, just get up on the stage and let it rip.  I have to be drunk before I can get up on the stage. 

TV STORE ONLINE:   I know that after FRIDAY THE 13TH you wrote the screenplay for SPRING BREAK (1983) for Sean S. Cunningham but the two of you had a falling out over it.   What was the story behind that whole fiasco?

MILLER:   What happened?  Well, Sean and I had met down in Florida on vacation after FRIDAY THE 13TH became the big success that it was.     It was Sean's idea to call the movie FRIDAY THE  13TH and that was about sixty-percent of the success of that film.   Sean and I went to dinner one night and he told me that he wanted to make a movie called SPRING BREAK and that he wanted me to write the script.   So I wrote a couple drafts and gave them to him.  One morning I got a call from him and he told me that he was going to go another way with the screenplay.   Sean and I had been best friends since we had both started out  and I don't know if there was an outside influence on him from the investors for the movie  or if he was just plain sick of me but when he called me and told me that, it really just stabbed me in the heart.  I didn't think a phone call was the right way to go for something like that.
 
TV STORE ONLINE:   If the script for SPRING BREAK wasn't yours....What was your original script for SPRING BREAK about then?

MILLER:   I had taken a similar approach as PORKY'S (1982).    Because PORKY'S was a huge hit by that time.  That was my model.  Hijinks and large breasted women everywhere.    One of the things that shocked me was that there was a plot point in my script about the kids needing to find a hundred dollars and Sean didn't understand that.   He said, "A hundred dollars?  Why so little?"   I said, "I beg your pardon?"   By that time Sean was so rich that he couldn't get behind my idea that these kids had to scrap together a hundred dollars.   Maybe that had something to do with why he didn't like my script.  I'll never know I guess.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You mentioned once that the movies you made with Sean Cunningham never had anything to do with art, but only money.    Surely you had an artistic intention when you first started out with him though, no?

MILLER:  I would hesitate to use the word artistic, but I would say that I did and do consider myself a craftsman.    I wanted to entertain.  Before F13 came out, I was so broke that I was trying to sell my blood.  So I really wanted to entertain people but I wanted to be paid to do that.   I wanted to be paid because at the time my wife was working as a para-legal for an attorney that represented mobsters.  

TV STORE ONLINE:  But if I told you that us fans see wonderful artistry in films like F13 or A STRANGER IS WATCHING what would say about that?

MILLER:  It always sneaks in somehow...laughing   I'm not totally conscious of everything.  Sean and I agreed when we first started working together on F13 that we were constructing a film that was like a roller coaster.  I'm sure roller coaster fans see artistry in every loop but we were trying to build up to scaring the piss out of the audience before we took them to another place.   I had a shrink that once told me years later, "I can't believe that you don't know why you made Mrs. Voorhees a killer."   We had talked about my mother for many sessions.   He said, "She was the mother that you always wanted. The one that would've fought for you."    Things do sneak into your work always.

Betsy Palmer as "Mrs. Voorhees"
TV STORE ONLINE:  Artistically...One of the things that we find fascinating in both F13 and A STRANGER IS WATCHING is that both of those films feature a voyeuristic aesthetic in their visuals and story.  Was that something that you consciously wanted to contribute do you think?

MILLER:  The screenplay for F13 with the exception of the scene with the motorcycle cop was completely my structure.   Once I was hired to write it, I spent a good two weeks just coming up with the venue of the summer camp.   Sean liked that and told me to run with it.   Part of the voyeuristic approach came from the fact that we had Betsy Palmer for five days only.  I couldn't have Mrs. Voorhees running around in the script.  I really cheated.  I think we violated SAG and AFTRA rules too because even with that hand with the ring on it in the scenes were you didn't see her, she should've gotten paid for that even though it wasn't her.   Overall, I was happy with how it turned out because it made it even more spooky.  I think we parked the film on the corner of commerce and art streets.

TV STORE ONLINE:   I've also seen you mention in various other interviews over the years that you're a fan of the book 'Blue Pages'  by Eleanor Perry.   I was wondering if you were also a fan of her screenplay work in collaboration with her husband / filmmaker Frank Perry?

MILLER:   I read that book almost thirty years ago.  I still quote it today.  The women get it, the men wait for the punch line when I mention that book.   I don't think I've seen any other film that she wrote past DAVID & LISA (1961).   If there would have been a Sundance Film Festival back then she would've ruled it.   The fact that she could come up with something like DAVID & LISA in that world of Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies was incredible.

Ralphie "The Ratboy" "You're All Doomed!!!!"

TV STORE ONLINE:   Do you see FRIDAY THE 13TH as a modern morality tale in any way?

MILLER:  Yes I do.  I've always thought that it was.   I realize that it is a Victorian morality tale though.  The horror genre is pretty well delineated today.  The horror film is about managing your appetites.  If you don't manage your appetites you will die or pay the price.  That applies to the kids in F13.    It's very clear in the movie.  Ralphie "The Ratboy" as he was named in my first draft tells the kids that they're all doomed.    There is that idea that teenagers have no desire to listen to their elders too.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I really appreciate that set-up in F13 too.  I love how you emphasize that disconnect between the generations in FRIDAY THE 13TH.

MILLER:  Right...That worked well.   Look at John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1979) too...There's that scene where Jamie Lee Curtis tells the others that the banging on the door is just "The Kids."

TV STORE ONLINE:   FRIDAY THE 13TH....As a vision.... Is it close to how you imagined it would turn out when you were writing it?

The motorcycle cop that shouldn't have been...
MILLER:  Pretty much.   As I mentioned, the scene with the motorcycle cop was something that I didn't write.  That was added and it goes against my better judgement too.  Because there should be no outside force that could possibly help those kids.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you watch much reality television?

MILLER:  My wife and I watch everything, but we try to watch as little of reality television as possible.   The closest we get to reality television is when we watch Judge Judy.  We love it.  You can't watch Judge Judy without feeling better about your own life.   There are things that you can learn from watching Judge Judy too.   Never co-sign on a loan.  Never get a dog with someone who you're just dating.  Don't lend money to anyone.  Don't buy someone's cell phone.  Get married or don't do it.   I love Judge Judy.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You've been very vocal over the years about not having ever seen any of the FRIDAY THE 13th sequels...Because Jason Voorhees is your baby in the sense that you created him...Do you ever have any regrets that you didn't get involved in any of the sequels, just so you could have more control over the legacy of the character?

MILLER:  No I don't.  The only thing that would interest me now, and it really interests me actually,  would be if Paramount asked me to write a prequel.  I would be on that like flies on shit.   I would love to do that and there is no one more qualified to write a prequel than myself.  I created those characters and I would do that in a heartbeat.   I really like how it all worked out.  It worked out the way that it was supposed to work out.  It makes me sad that I lost Sean Cunningham as my friend though.   I don't resent any of the sequels that have come out.  The idea of Jason as a killing machine with or without a hockey mask on doesn't interest me though.   I'm glad that those films have a fan base.  I wanted them to be successful.   I guess not being part of those was like going through a good divorce.  My wife got the house though...laughing

Just a dream?  Jason Voorhees rises from Crystal Lake
TV STORE ONLINE:  Why do you think that the F13 films have gained such a fan base over the years.  Why has Jason engrained himself into the popular culture?

MILLER:   I think the timing was right.  Tom Savini  was right.  Harry Manfredini was right.  By luck, by chance, by karma...Sean really assembled the right people.  There isn't a CGI effect that can be done that can rival anything that Tom Savini can do.    It just worked.  It was perfect.   My contribution to that was giving them the most unlikely villain in the medium up to that point.   Instead of Tony Perkins in PSYCHO (1960) killing people...He's in the water and his mother is killing the people.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I love the Hitchcockian homages in the original F13...There's the ax that hits the light bulb hanging from the ceiling that swings, the voyeurism....

MILLER:  Right.  I have to credit Sean with this...In the first act when "Annie" hitches a ride out to Crystal Lake with that truck driver...That wasn't in my first draft.  Sean told me that he wanted to do what Hitchcock did in PSYCHO where he killed off his heroine Janet Leigh in the first few minutes.   Annie got killed in that first act because he wanted everyone to know that the villain meant business.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Is FRIDAY THE 13TH a perfect film?   Looking back on it now as the writer would you tinker with anything if you could go back to make it better?

MILLER:    I think the only changes I would make would be to my contract...laughing    It's not a perfect movie but going back and changing something would be like fixing something that isn't broken.

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