Tim Sullivan - Horror Storyteller Interviewed

Following his success of reviving the gory good old hey days of Herschell Gordon Lewis exploitation fun with his '2001 Maniacs' horror filmmaker (and lifelong genre fan) Tim Sullivan is back with some serious genre shocks with his latest opus DRIFTWOOD (out now from Anchor Bay) and to celebrate the occasion Stu Willis persuades Tim to take time out and reflect on his career (from the golden days of the Deadly Spawn right through to his future projects) in our exclusive SGM Spotlight interview�

Stu: Your first "break" in the genre came working on the FX for "Deadly Spawn". How did you get involved in this, and what doors did it open for you?

The Deadly Spawn

Tim: Ever since I was a little kid, I knew I wanted to make monster movies, but how? How does a kid from New Jersey get to be the next George Romero? But when I was in 8th grade, my art teacher introduced me to her brother, a guy named Tom Davis. Tom's best friend was a filmmaker/animator/effects artist named John Dods! Here were these two guys, about ten years older than me, and they were actually making movies! John made these killer stop motion shorts with a character named Grog, and then, he eventually went on to create the monster for THE DEADLY SPAWN. By this point, he took me under his wing and made me a "Production Assistant". Which meant, I got to lie in wet mud under a water hose in the freezing rain manoeuvring the spawn itself for the opening credits. I got pneumonia, but I also got a fever for independent monster making. And I also got to be part of my first "cult" film. You know, films that blow ass at the box office when they're first released, and then years later become fan boy favourites! Man� John Dods�. I'll never forget carting that giant rubber Spawn into New York with Dods to put in the lobby of the Grindhouse on 42nd Street for the day it premiered. I was 16. SPAWN opened the same day as THE EVIL DEAD. Me and Dods went to a screening and met Sam Raimi. We traded movie posters. His film did a little better! Anyway, Dods helped me get into NYU film school, and helped me make my first horror short, A CHRISTMAS TREAT, which went on to win the Fangoria Short Film Search.

Stu: Were you aware of the cult following "Deadly Spawn" was acquiring in the meantime? Especially over here in the UK, where it became a hit with horror video crowds during the "video nasty" era?

Tim: None of us knew at the time. It was only a few years back when Synapse did a 20th anniversary edition that we began to get a clue. But now, it's insane. There are so many DEADLY SPAWN puppets and figures being sold by fanboys. RUE MORGUE magazine just named DEADLY SPAWN one of the top 25 gore films of all time! The very fact that you are asking me about it is proof that it has a life much longer than we expected. I think in this era of cynical, calculated-to-make-money CGI monsters such as AVP and VAN HELSING, fans respond to the purity and organic nature of a passion project like DEADLY SPAWN. They like the fact that the monster was a very real thing on the set with which actors interacted, not something done in front of a green screen that is added in later.

Stu: There's a gap in your film credits on the IMDb following "Deadly Spawn". I assume this was while you were at University perfecting your trade?

Tim: Man, you've done your homework! I feel like "This is Your Life", Tim Sullivan! You have to remember DEADLY SPAWN was done when I was 16. After that came film school, during which I had an internship at MTV writing the music news, as well as writing for Fangoria magazine. That's how I met Gene Simmons, whom I interviewed and forged a friendship that years later led to DETROIT ROCK CITY.

Stu: Your early jobs included gigs as "production assistant" on a number of big productions - "Cocktail", "The Godfather Part 3", "Three Men and a Little Lady" etc. What did the role of "production assistant" actually entail?

Tim: Yes, these were the gigs between DEADLY SPAWN and DETROIT ROCK CITY. Being a Production Assistant or PA. Which basically means being a grunt. Getting coffee for the director. Walking actors to the set. Asking spectators not to cross the street while we were filming. Roping off areas for the production vehicles to park. It was hard, dirty work with long, long hours. But it was glorious, because I was on real movie sets with real movie stars and big directors. And I learned every position from location finder to assistant director to production manager, which came in real handy when I finally got a chance to direct my own films.

Stu: Any anecdotes from these films that you can share? The bigger the names, the better!

Tim: There are so many amazing stories�. I'll never forget sitting on a subway train singing Motown tunes with Eddie Murphy during the making of COMING TO AMERICA (on which I became lifelong friends with my mentor, John Landis)� Tom Cruise let my 12 year old sister interview him for her school paper on COCKTAIL� I shared a bottle of wine with Al Pacino during GODFATHER 3 to help him calm down for the funeral scene because he was freaked out about lying in the coffin, if you can believe it� One of the most embarrassing moments was on SCROOGED when I absentmindedly walked right into a shot and ruined the scene. Bill Murray yelled "CUT" and then said "Whose relative is that? Fire him!" When he saw how mortified I was, he put his arm around me and told the director, Dick Donner, we should do another take with ME as I so obviously wanted to be in the film. And we did. I actually did a take where I sold Bill Murray a hot dog in Times Square.

Stu: Your big return to the horror spotlight came a couple of years back now, directing "2001 Maniacs". What drew you to remaking this HG Lewis classic?

Tim: After producing DETROIT ROCK CITY, I decided it was finally time to realize my goals of writing and directing. I had a production company called New Rebellion Entertainment and one day this guy named Chris Kobin walked in. He told me he had the rights to remake TWO THOUSAND MANIACS. At the time, Dark Castle Productions was systematically remaking the films of William Castle. They had just done HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and were about to do 13 GHOSTS, so remaking Herschell Gordon Lewis seemed like a good idea, both as something that could actually get financed and also as something that would be a fun debut for me as a director. I had always loved Herschell's films, and thought that the ideas and energy of TWO THOUSAND MANIACS were outrageous and timeless. Technically speaking there nonetheless was room for improvement, which made it a perfect candidate for a remake rather than trying to remake something like PSYCHO, which to me is a perfect film and should remain untouched. And so I enthusiastically said YES to Chris Kobin, who became my partner on this crazy journey to honour my love of both Grindhouse Cinema as well as its 'Godfather', HG Lewis!

2001 Maniacs

Stu: Did you run into any censorship problems with "2001 Maniacs"? Anything that had to go, that may appear in a future Director's Cut? I ask because it's not only bloody but also politically incorrect for these times, and obviously Mr Lewis had a few censorship woes of his own in the past ...

Tim: I really tried to be over the top with the splatter. I wasn't interested in scenes of torture or people being killed with your basic knives and machetes. These were murders that were a game to Mayor Buckman and his townspeople. For them, it was all great fun. And so I tried to be as clever and creative as possible, drawing inspiration from both HG Lewis as well as the old EC comic books from the 1950's, you know, stuff like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and the VAULT OF HORROR, where murder and death is a punchline to a morbid joke. It's so extreme and so over the top that it's hard to take seriously. Sort of like the sword fight in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL where the Black Knight gets all his limbs cut off and keeps fighting, insisting 'It's only a flesh wound' as blood gushes everywhere like a waterfall. It's definitely nasty, but also tongue in cheek. While we were making it, we always thought we were gonna get censored, and so I must admit, I held back a bit in my original cut. To my utter shock, the ratings board gave the film an R rating without any problems! I couldn't believe it. I always thought it might be because they believed the gore was more comedic than sadistic. And so the cut of MANIACS that everyone has seen is the cut we delivered. Like I said, however, there is a bit more blood and boobs that I would like to get back in there, and so I am currently working on a new, vastly different cut which will be called 2001 MANIACS REDUX. I also just wrote and released a graphic novel that is the pre-quel to 2001 MANIACS called THE CURSE OF THE CONFEDERACY. It tells the origin of the maniacs and how they became that way. It is extremely hard core would probably have a hard time making it past the censors if it were a film! You can order the comic from AVATAR PRESS here. .

Stu: The staple ingredients of "2001 Maniacs" were gore, laughs and hot women. A winning formula! You gave us even more of these when co-writing "Hood Of Horror". How did you become involved with this project?

Tim: I was approached by Jonathan McHugh, who is the musical supervisor on all my films. McHugh is a record executive at Sony BMG and was developing film projects for their musical acts. As Snoop Dogg is such a big horror fan, McHugh wanted to develop a horror project for him and came to me with the concept. I immediately thought it would be cool to do a modern, urban take on the old EC comics from the 50's. They made a film I really liked called TALES FROM THE HOOD, so I thought why not do one called HOOD OF HORROR (as the original EC comic title was VAULT OF HORROR) and have Snoop serve as the narrator, the Crypt Keeper. I brought in Jake Hair, my storyboard artist on MANIACS, and along with McHugh we came up with three short stories that combined elements of humour, horror and social commentary - like you said, the same formula used on MANAICS. It was trip, to be sure. Snoop was everything you'd expect him to be. He had the whole entourage, all his guards around him. Certain types of, ahem, herbs burning quite a bit. He is Snoop Dogg in every sense of the word. But he is a true professional, and a brilliant songwriter. He wrote the theme song for the film on a complete whim the second to last night of shooting. He just stayed up all night and came in with it the next morning. It was so bad ass, we immediately organized an entire video shoot to film the music video that ends the film. And I must say, it's my favourite song Snoop has ever done.

Stu: "Driftwood" is your most recent directorial endeavour to be released. It feels like a much more personal film than "2001 Maniacs"? Is any of "Driftwood" autobiographical?


Tim: Sadly, yes. I was mentoring a youth group several years back and there was this kid in the class who was just so cool, a little rock and roll rebel in a classroom filled with pop culture clones. I knew he was having trouble relating to his parents, who had him later in life and were in their 50's and just couldn't relate to their 16 year old. One day they were watching some news show talking about the after effects of the Columbine tragedy, and the show was saying how the teen killers listened to Marilyn Manson and wore black and watched horror movies and read monster comics- and some twisted light bulb went on and they went into the kid's room and found a Manson CD and a leather jacket and a bunch of horror comics, and next thing you know, they sent their kid off to an Attitude Adjustment Camp for Troubled Youths. They saw an ad for these places where they were saying stuff like, "You don't want to be the parents of the next Columbine Killer, do ya", and rather then talk with their kid, they just paid their fifty grand and packed their kid off and then patted themselves on the back about what great parents they were. Well, when I found out about this, I went ballistic. The idea of this young, unique soul being incarcerated simply for marching to a different beat- I mean, he had committed no crime! He had done nothing illegal! He was a loner, shy, and kept to himself cuz whenever he tried to talk to his parents, he just couldn't get thru, and yeah, he was morose and melancholy and listening to Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison and intrigued by their early deaths, but he wasn't slitting his wrists or burning his arms with cigarettes, for God's sake. But because he was 16, under the age of 18, he had no legal rights whatsoever, so when Mom and Pop decided to throw him in a place like DRIFTWOOD, it was bon voyage and to hell with anyone who questioned the decision. That became obvious when I started asking them about the kid, and they not-so-subtly implied the trouble they could create for a gay man such as myself simply inquiring about the welfare of a teenage boy. Realizing I was David going up against Goliath, I made a pact with myself to one day tell this kid's story, and in effect, tell the story of every kid, myself included, whoever was imprisoned both literally and figuratively, for simply being who they were as a human being.

Stu: The film seems to me to be influenced by the recent Spanish trend of horror - films by Del Toro and Balaguero in particular. Would you agree?

Tim: Absolutely. DEVIL'S BACKBONE was a huge inspiration.

Stu: What was Dallas Page like to work with? He seems affable enough, but is there a worry as his director that you might piss him off?!

Tim: DDP has become the brother I never had. He plays a maniac in the ring, but he is the nicest, most caring, loyal friend you could ever want to have. Anything he sets his mind to accomplish, he can. When they said he was too old to wrestle, he proved them wrong and won the championship belt. When people told me they didn't buy him as an actor, we both proved them wrong. DDP gives a subtle, restrained performance of nuance and depth. This isn't just some hulk going "bang" and beating on helpless kids like I know a lot of people expect. This is a damaged soul, a troubled youth himself, unloved by his father who grew up to become the very thing he feared as a kid- a commanding, violent brute who uses mental as well as physical methods of intimidation. The guy became the captain. It was actually quite scary. He truly was in the zone. And like I said, we have become best of friends. A fellow Jersey boy like me, he's now my neighbor here in LA. He's also my trainer. He's been guiding me thro his breakthrough health regime Yoga for Regular Guys. YRG. I swear, this program has changed my entire life, body and mind. I've lost 30 pounds since we filmed DRIFTWOOD, and have a Zen about life that I was sorely lacking.

Stu: You're clearly a big fan of music too (having co-produced "Detroit Rock City in 1999), and I noted a lot of rock music punctuating "Driftwood", alongside William Ross's mournful score. It's an effective contrast, and I felt like particular attention had been given to the film's musical arranging. Can you elaborate on this?


Tim: We all were going for something different. A pro-wrestler proving he was more than just a glitz and glitter warrior (Diamond Dallas Page). A reality star showing he could act (Talan Torriero). A Disney kid making the transition to adulthood (Ricky Ullman). For me, it was a chance to explore true horror. This was not a traditional horror film. This was a drama with supernatural overtones. A story of haunted, beaten people crying out for help. None were more haunted than Jonathan, the tragic spirit still roaming the halls of DRIFTWOOD, searching not only for justice, but for that loving acceptance and protection denied him in life. His essence was the essence of the story, and my gut told me it needed to be the essence of the score. When my editor Bud Smith told me his dear friend, William Ross, had agreed to provide that score, I was flabbergasted. Was this the same Bill Ross who was the orchestrator on films such as "Harry Potter", "Matrix", Star Trek" and "Forrest Gump"? Musical director for the Academy Awards? Composer for "Young Black Stallion" and "Ladder 49"? The thought occurred that Ross' fee would probably be the entire budget for our film. How could we afford such a maestro? Well, we couldn't. And we didn't need to. For Bud had shown William the film, and William had responded quite positively. Like us all, he was looking to spread his wings under an umbrella of creative freedom. And that was Ross' price tag. He was not interested in doing the traditional horror score. No "Friday the 13th" clich�d clues. He wanted to capture the tragedy. The melancholia. The pain. And that's when I first fell in love with William Ross- for that was exactly what I wanted. Due to time and budget constraints, we would only have one meeting. One three hour session where we watched the film together with Bud and "spotted" the sections we all felt needed score. After that, I would not see William again- nor hear his score till the actual day we mixed it into the final cut. In a nutshell- whether I liked it or not- this was to be my film's score�To say that score exceeded my expectations is an understatement the same magnitude of William's uncanny talent. This score IS the heart and soul of DRIFTWOOD. As far as the rock songs, Tad Jacobs and Bobby Alt are old friends from New Jersey, and have provided music for every one of my projects. They used to be in a band called THE DEVIL ROOSEVELT that was the actually band that played the music tracks for the band Mystery in DETROIT ROCK CITY, which I produced. In 2001 MANIACS, the Devil Roosevelt song 2 WAY RADIO is playing on the radio during the scene where Nelson is driving at night right before he gets his head whacked by Travis Tritt. That song also plays during the flashback scene with Ricky and his brother in DRIFTWOOD. Now, Tad is a solo artist and Bobby is in the Street Drum Corps and currently on tour with 30 Seconds to Mars. But I got Tad and Bobby to reunite as Split Window to write a song exclusively for DRIFTWOOD- a song called SET ME FREE which plays over the montage as well as the end credits. I showed the film to Tad, told him what the themes of the film were, and in one day, he wrote lyrics that completely blew me away� "Wake to find your soul in front or me� Lost control, at least my heart can see� They want to save me from myself, so I turn to you cuz there's no one else�" Man. I got chills the first time Tad sang them for me.

Stu: Is the soundtrack available?

Tim: Yes. BSX put it out. You can get it here.

Stu: You filmed Driftwood in 15 days. What are the pros and cons to operating within such a short time frame?

Tim: The cons will always be that you never have enough time to rehearse or get what you want, and often you have to compromise- but the key is to look at limitations and compromise as challenges to your skills, whether you are the director, writer, actor, cinematographer, what have you. A short shooting schedule keeps you on your toes. You really have to bring you're a game and be ready to think fast and make quick decisions in order to make sure you have all the pieces that you need to put the puzzle together that makes up your film. You have to be open to adapting your story to the situation, changing as you go, but always staying true to the vision. For my money, films that have endless budgets and check books tend to feel like corporate fodder made by committee. Studio films that feel over thought and second guessed. On the other hand, films made with the edge of a time clock running out tend to feel more organic, and have a true energy and soul. That's why I will always prefer the Indie spirited films such as TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and HALLOWEEN over commercial Hollywood product.

Stu: What was the budget for the movie?

Tim: Not enough! But seriously, folks-I always have mixed emotions about giving away the budgets of the movie. On the one hand, I am damn proud that my films have the production values that they have for what they cost, but I also am nervous of letting people know for fear that producers will never give me larger budgets to make my films having seen how much I can do with so little- But what the fuck- DRIFTWOOD was shot in 15 days for only one million dollars. That's what they probably spend on the catering budget of THE GRUDGE and how long they take to shoot one major effects sequence!

Stu: Where did you film it?

Tim: At this one hundred year old abandoned Juvenile Detention Center in Whittier, California. It was an unbelievable location. It was perfect for getting everyone into the mood of the story, and it sure looks great on film, but just the whole idea that this place was built for the sole purpose of imprisoning kids. Fuck� There is no doubt in my mind that this place was haunted by the restless spirits of the 30 or 40 teen souls who died, committed suicide or were killed over the last 100 years. There was a real palpable energy there, an energy of sadness and rage. Everybody felt it. In particular, the chapel was extremely discomforting. A 16 year old kid hung himself from the rafters, and his spirit is said to linger there. In fact, the guards would unlock the chapel for us to film, but would refuse to enter. They say evil has a foul stench, and that stench attracts flies (you've all seen AMITYVILLE HORROR). Well, there were thousands of dead flies lining the floor of this place. Thousands everywhere. Just walking into it gave me chills. Well, we were shooting this scene where Talan Torriero is about to burn the chapel down with all the kids still inside it, and just as I called "Action", a wind blew and the crucifix hanging over the rafters where the boy hung himself suddenly turned itself completely upside down. The entire cast and crew just watched dumbfounded. That surely was one time we made our day and finished early.

Stu: There's a definite sense of maturing in style and storytelling in "Driftwood". What did you learn from "2001 Maniacs" that benefited you most when filming "Driftwood"?

Tim: On DRIFTWOOD, I had the deep fortune of being surrounded by some top notch Hollywood veterans serving as producers on the film. I had Bob Engelman, who had produced THE MASK and SCOOBY DOO and Bud Smith who was Billy Freidkin's editor and cut THE EXORCIST. I learned more from these guys in the two months of production that I did in four years of film school. Bud particularly helped me to let go of preconceived notions of what I thought the film should be, and metaphorically held my hand as the film revealed itself. Movies are written three times- On the page, on the set and in the editing room. So on DRIFTWOOD, I really allowed to "serve the song", so to speak, and make my directorial choices based on what was best for the film, not so much on outside influences and personal preferences. This especially into play in the editing room, where I think my style evolved the most. I learned to go. There was an entire five minute coda to the film that was brilliantly shot, acted and edited, but it just felt like the film had reached a pinnacle, an exclamation point, and this coda, as well executed as it was, changed the ending of the film into an ellipsis. I knew it, and Bud knew it, but I didn't want to admit it out loud because we had spent nearly an entire day shooting the scene and I just couldn't dream of tossing a whole day's shoot down the trash. But as Bud puts it, the day comes when that white light comes on over your head, and you must speak the truth, and the hard truth was, it wasn't working. So- I let it go. It's on the DVD for those interested, but I know we made the right decision, and we made it quickly. On 2001 MANIACS, I wouldn't have been able to let go.

Xmas treat

Stu: I note that you're scheduled to make a sequel to "2001 Maniacs". Can you give us any early news on this?

Tim: Let's just say that things are not going so well for the fine folk of Pleasant Valley. You see, Sheriff Friedman's done plowed down the Detour sign, and so no guests show up for this year's Festival, leading Buckman and Granny to figure that if the guests ain't coming to them, they best be coming to the guests! And so they gather up a dozen kinsfolk, hop on an old left behind school bus, and head to California where they set up the Pleasant Valley Travelling Road Show, a sort of carnival which lures the unsuspecting cast and crew of "Road Rascals", a mock reality show totally busting on Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie and all those vapid Hollywood types. Yes, folks. The South will rise again�. Again. And I promise more boobs, more laughs, and more blood! Time to get politically incorrect again and make some mayhem!

Stu: Beyond that, what else do you have on the horizon?

Tim: After the MANIACS sequel, it's back to the more subtle horror of DRIFTWOOD with BROTHERS OF THE BLOOD, a very sexy and bloody romantic thriller dealing with a love triangle between two vampires and a human. My HUNGER, so to speak. I am hoping to film in Dublin, and actually release the film in Europe before hitting America, as the film will have a very European flavour. SKINS with "fangs", you might say. In fact, I have even been in talks with Mitch Hewer about coming aboard to star in the film, so we will shall see. This has been a passion project I've wanted to do for a very long time, and, thanks to the success of DRIFTWOOD, the time finally looks to be now.

Stu: Finally, you're no doubt frequently at film festivals promoting projects - as an obvious hardcore horror fan, can you recommend any films you've seen at these events over the last couple of years?

Tim: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN blew me away and made me forget any other horror film of the last two years.

Stu: Cheers!

Tim: And you, too, Stu.

For more info on DRIFTWOOD check out the site here and to keep up to speed with Tim Sullivan's work visit his site here.

Special thanks to Tim, Anchor Bay/Starz and Lisa at The Associates. All images copyright Tim Sullivan

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