Monday, July 20, 2015

Director Tommy Lee Wallace on FRIGHT NIGHT II (1988) and his new film projects

Tommy Lee Wallace Fright Night (1988) Interview

Director of Stephen King's It (1990) and Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch (1982) talks with TV Store Online about his sequel Fright Night II (1988)...

Tommy Lee Wallace Director
TV STORE ONLINE:   How did the Fright Night 2 project come to you?

WALLACEFright Night 2 came to me via a friend, Miguel Tejada-Flores, who was on staff at Vista Pictures, Herb Jaffe's boutique company.  Having produced Fright Night (1985), Herb wound up with the sequel rights.  Miguel ran Herb's story department.  Looking for a writer/director, Miguel called me in, we kicked around ideas and collaborated on a rewrite of a sequel script which had been originated by Tim Metcalf.    

TV STORE ONLINE:   I was curious to know about the progression of the screenplay...Did you re-write Tim Metcalf's original script for Fright Night 2 and what contributions did you make to the story versus what was already on the page?   Were there things that didn't work in his first draft of the script?


WALLACE: As I recall, the original sequel script was more about the further adventures of 'Evil Ed', with the original girlfriend still around -- I honestly don't remember it that well, because, by the time I came on board, the decision from upstairs was to jettison Evil Ed and the original girlfriend and take a new direction.  Miguel and I kicked around ideas, and out of those sessions sprang 'Regine' and her merry band of evildoers, 'Belle', the androgynous black vampire, 'Louie', the comic werewolf, and 'Boz', the chauffeur -- not sure what label to put on Boz; just a freaky weirdo in a suit.  Anyway, all-new bad guys (with one blood relation -- excuse the pun) but another adventure for Charley and Peter, with a similar arc to the first.  I was behind all that, with Miguel's input.

Fright Night II (1988)
TV STORE ONLINE:  The thing I've always enjoyed about the Fright Night films--in particular in the character of "Charley Brewster" is that he's a horror movie nerd, certainly in an era of horror films that was before the snarky Kevin Williamson Scream films and the too-smart-for-their-own-good horror protagonists of today...Did you see the character in that same manner from the outset?   Was Tom Holland's Fright Night ahead-of-its-time in that respect?

WALLACE: Well, Charley Brewster's film-nerd streak is a holdover from Tom Holland's original screenplay for Fright Night -- I loved that aspect of his character, and with Bill Ragsdale's rich and varied interpretation, that stuff was golden; self-referential, funny and effective, since the character knows it's all just silly fiction -- until it's not.  I don't think any other actor has brought Bill's wit and subtlety to that task since then.  I like that in Part 2 we replayed the phenomenon of Charley's "discovery" by having him emerge from therapy a new man, and a non-believer -- back to square one, in other words -- only to have the old nightmare occur all over again.

As to its being ahead of its time, maybe so, in view of the endless self-referential send-up movies that followed, of which Scream (1996) is prominent, but pretty damn good in my book (didn't really seem snarky to me), but only the tip of the ever-growing iceberg.

Rodney McDowell William Ragsdale Traci Lin Fright Night II
TV STORE ONLINE:  What I appreciate about Fright Night 2 is that it's a proper sequel or a continuation in the story that Tom Holland first created, which is seemingly different in how sequel's are approached today. Sequels today are not so much continuations, but more so another story with the same characters... Do you see things in genre having moved this way as well?

WALLACE:  I don't keep up with all the sequels, so I can't claim to know much about your question, other than my own considerable track record with sequels, both faithful and not-so-much.  I've evolved an attitude that the first audience for a sequel needs to be the group of people who enjoyed the original, so you must at least be aware of their expectations.  I think any story line is OK if you can get an audience to go along, but the best sequels are somehow true to the original, at least in the total experience, the takeaway.  On the other hand, I always try to make certain that any sequel I do can be viewed with enjoyment as a stand-alone.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did you have any interaction with Tom Holland when it came time to shoot Fright Night 2?   Have you and Tom ever spoke about Fright Night all of these years later and I was curious to see if he's ever shared his thoughts with you about the film.

Traci Lin Fright Night 2 (1988)
WALLACE: During pre-production for Fright Night 2, I sought Tom out, mostly just to make sure the torch was passed properly.  He liked the script, had a few helpful thoughts about the cast we had in common, and offered all sorts of words of encouragement.  A couple years ago we had a Fright Night "reunion" at a weekend horror convention -- principle cast of both shows plus Tom and me in a panel discussion.  Tom was complementary about Fright Night 2, and a good time was had by all.

TV STORE ONLINE: Where was Fright Night 2 shot?  The school etc.?

WALLACE: Various locations in and around Los Angeles: School exteriors were Cal State Los Angeles;  Peter's place exterior/interior was an apartment building on Normandy; Regine's interiors were a cleverly-renovated Long Beach Athletic Club, long-since torn down; concert hall and rose garden were at Exposition Park; dorm room, Fright Night TV show, Peter Vincent peril wall and Regine death-shaft were sets; Mustang exterior fly-in was a miniature.

Julie Carmen Fright Night II
TV STORE ONLINE: What I admire about Fright Night 2, is how you aesthetically made it a much for darker and gothic vision than the first film.  The first film is a little grounded and Part 2 is more aesthetically interesting.. It's very dreamy-feeling.  Filmmakers like Kubrick, Bergman, Lynch, Cocteau all considered cinema as a dream, not the literal dream necessarily--but an aesthetic dream... I was wondering if you subscribe along those lines of aesthetics when it comes to the cinema? Was that something you were thinking about while you were making Fright Night 2?   After all, there are almost no kids on the college campus during many of those scenes.  It seems like the principals are left alone in some sort of purgatory...

WALLACE: Thank you for the extended compliment.  The motion picture medium does a couple of things better than any other medium to date: First, is its imitation of "reality" -- watching a stage play, one is always aware that you are in a room, watching a "show" of some kind.  In a movie, it is possible to occasionally get so caught up the experience that one "believes" -- so effective can the imitation of our "reality" be sometimes.  Other media, 3-D, or so-called virtual reality, for example, may one day seize the crown, but for now, 2-D cinema is still the queen of the hop, maybe because the phenomenon, the illusion, is so simple, and requires no glasses, goggles or headpieces.

Fright Night II Interview
Conversely, film is a particularly effective medium at imitating the human dream state, that flowing, sixth-dimensional world where the impossible, the absurd, the abstract, the unspooling of the human unconscious can be represented in arresting and astonishing ways.  I grow more and more aware of that the longer I work in film-making.  It's still a thrilling, exciting medium, and its rules are being broken and rewritten all the time.  I'm thrilled to try new ideas and techniques, and any time I can take my audience deeper into mystery, and the realm of the unconscious, I want to go there.

I was not consciously thinking about any of this, back when I made Fright Night 2.  I was focused on doing two things well -- first, tell a story about Charley Brewster, his new girlfriend [Traci Lin] and his old buddy Peter Vincent and their encounter with a vampire seductress and her dangerous entourage -- and second, build this narrative around a set of encounters that are scary as hell, but still fun, and even funny, on occasion.

Fright Night II outtakes
If I got close to that, then I achieved my goals.  I do believe films in general place audiences in something resembling a dream state every time they watch -- isn't this how secret police have been known to brainwash people?  A scary thought -- and a sobering responsibility for all filmmakers.

TV STORE ONLINE:  One of the most impressive sequences in the film is the death sequence of the Asian girl in the school hall with the lockers by the actor/actress/vampire on the roller-skates.  That's a very well-crafted montage, Sergei Eisenstein almost in it's audacity.. Hithcockian too.  I was curious to see if you were a story-boarder as a director, or do you like to work in the cutting room over all?

WALLACE:  Again, thanks for the compliment.  I come out of an art background, so the idea that an art student might paint her last (best?) work on concrete, in her own blood, had a grisly, personal appeal.  Coming out of art school, it was natural, in the beginning of my movie career, to want to storyboard everything, and so I did.

Roddy McDowell Fright Night
To anyone whose budget is limited, meaning all filmmakers everywhere, save a precious, lucky/unlucky few, it's important to know what you want, as specifically as possible, and then, to know when you've captured it, and move on.

The death of the art student struck me as an opportunity to depict a vampire murder as a kind of ballet, darkly beautiful and poetic, at least to the one doing the killing.  Having the graceful and athletic Belle on roller skates, in slow motion, made for an elegantly simple study in motion and suggestion.

Directing a movie is an exercise in knowing when to exert total control, versus learning when to let go completely, and when to utilize all those infinite points in between the two extremes.  It seems to me that virtually all the directors I know start their careers tightly wound and controlling, and, if they're at all successful, spend their later years learning to let go and shoot more from the hip, taking advantage of moments discovered on set, with the actors, and all that camera and lighting know-how at the ready.  It's heady, scary stuff to walk onto a set having a game plan you're willing to jettison if something better presents itself in the moment.  I don't recommend it for beginners, but for those with more experience, if might be the difference between something ordinary and something magical.

William Ragsdale Fright Night II (1988)
Of course, a sequence like the aforementioned one was an example of almost total control, almost all the power of pure, preplanned pictures and the rhythm of montage, and almost no spontaneity on set, or interaction between actors at all.

The final answer to your multi-tiered question is that a well-rounded director must be aware of what that particular moment in the story demands; and then to respond, using actors and camera to best advantage.  What is nagging at me is the nature of your final question: "I was curious to see if you were a story-boarder as a director, or do you like to work in the cutting room over all?" But your question implies that it's either/or, when it's not that way at all.  It's an unwise, lazy (and wasteful) director who simply shoots every angle he can, and then takes all that coverage into the cutting room, to figure it out later.  And only the most extravagant budgets will ever give a director that much time anyway!  Better for a director to know what he wants going in, either with storyboards, or a good solid shot list, or both, shoot well and thoroughly, but commit to that plan and edit accordingly.  Believe me, the cutting room will still always prove to be a playground/torture chamber, where the best laid plans fall apart, and the wonders and artistry of film editing come fully into play, no matter what.

Julie Carmen Jon Gries Fright Night II (1988)
It's never either/or.  I prefer to work with storyboards and shot lists.  I prefer to work in the cutting room.  Both are fully required.  And everything in between.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What are you working on currently?

WALLACE: Thank you for asking. I'm working with my son Win raising money for several features, including The Gate - horror on a college campus in the deep south; Scaryland - high school seniors raise money doing a haunted house;  and White Rabbit - a love letter to the late 60s.  We are also developing a TV series called Midnight Motel, an ensemble comedy, very dark but curiously uplifting, about LA after everything falls apart. I am also writing my first novel, One Christmas Eve, grim and gritty, but ultimately heartwarming. Producers and wannabees with seed money can contact me through my Facebook page, Thomas Wallace.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung