Vampires, Clowns and Low-Budget Filmmaking: Talking With Tommy Lee Wallace (Part 2)
Posted on October 21, 2011
This was first published on Modamag.Com in 2002. My kind thanx to the owner of the site for letting me putting it on my own site now.
Part 1 was posted yesterday.
And now, the exciting conclusion of an interview with director Tommy Lee Wallace:
KG: You mentioned that you felt the film (Vampires: Los Muertos) was thin on action. Going into watching it, I knew that this was direct-to-video, it’s not going to have the kind of budget the first one did, but when you got to action sequences, it seemed you made up for them in other areas. For instance, the eyepiece that Jon Bon Jovi uses to detect if a person is human or a vampire. That was clever.
TLW: Yeah, fun stuff, interesting stuff that created this unique world.
KG: And I thought that helped because when you did get to an action sequence, it was like “oh, this is really cool”. When it was over, everything was leading up to the next one. You spaced it out enough, you kept things moving forward and that worked. Was anything left out?
TLW: There were a couple of real gorefest scenes that were not included. The studio was uneasy about them, not because of the gore, but because of the phony factor, the uneasiness with a rubber head for example or that sort of thing. I didn’t share their uneasiness. I really wanted to go ahead and play a couple of gorier scenes. In both cases, they were designed to underline how ferocious these vampires really were and I think they could have worked out fine. I believe horror audiences, in fact, are quite forgiving if a thing is done with some style. Hey, we all know those are rubber heads even when it’s Alien, even when it’s, you know, Coppola’s Dracula. We still know it’s fake. It’s just how fake does it look? If it’s a major distraction, okay fine, better not put it in the movie. But on a low-budget horror film, I maintain that the audiences are pretty forgiving if it’s pulled off with some panache and style and a sense of fun and that’s where the studio and I really differed dramatically.
KG: If this does well for them on video and DVD, was there anything ever said or mentioned that they might perhaps revisit it and give you a director’s cut of it?
TLW: No. You know, anything is possible, but with the people responsible for getting it out there, I wouldn’t expect so.
KG: Did you ever have your first initial cut of it?
TLW: Oh, yes, and the first cut actually was still too long. It needed trimming and the studio and I collaborated on a lot of trims, which really helped the film and lifted it and gave it a great deal of energy. The disappointing part came really toward the very end of the editing process when I had a cut I was happy with and the powers that be agreed with me that we would preview that cut and try it out and then they reneged on that promise.
KG: Did they give you a reason for that?
TLW: No. In other words, at the 11th hour, they decided to pull rank instead of following through with the more time honored film making process.
KG: Out of curiosity, had Executive Producer John Carpenter seen your cut of the film?
TLW: John saw my cut and was very supportive, really enjoyed it and would, I believe, have gone to bat for my cut over the studio cut, except for the fact that… Well, timing is everything and Ghosts of Mars came out at a critical moment in this drama. When Ghosts of Mars came out and didn’t do well at the box office, the studio was no longer interested in what John had to say. Remember too that Ghosts of Mars was also a Screen Gems film.
KG: I’m glad that he would have gone to bat for you. The fact that he suggested you for directing the film and has the faith in you says a lot about the friendship.
TLW: John and Sandy have both provided me with several opportunities along the way for which I’m deeply grateful.
KG: Going back to your commentary, you state that you and other directors don’t like the word “sequel”.
TLW: Other than the fact a “go” picture is always a good thing for a film director, having a Roman numeral after the title or having some indication that you’re doing a sequel does put some kind of asterisk next to the movie that no director is in a big hurry to embrace. That’s just a fact. Name your favorite sequel. I’d say mine was The Godfather Part II and why was it so great? Well, it was so great because the entire talent pool that created The Godfather went and did a second part. That’s generally not the case with sequels.
Sequels are looked upon most of the time as kind of the stepsister, the stepchild, of the first one. They’re not going to get as big a budget and almost never will they be provided with the same tools that the first filmmaker was given and, as a result, why should it be any surprise that they are usually not that great? There are some notable exceptions of course. I think the Alien series is a place where there were some pretty worthy sequels. There are studios who have understood certain franchises. I guess it wouldn’t be fair to call the James Bond series a bunch of sequels because each one is a title in its own right, but I think there are sequels out there where they’ve gotten the formula down, they’ve figured out how much money they need and they provide it. You get an enthusiastic filmmaker and you can come up big, but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. Generally, studios are out to make a buck and a sequel is generally a guarantee for of a good couple of weekends at the box office.
KG: I think the recent Halloween: Resurrection did $30 million at the box office.
TLW: The Halloween franchise will never die as long as Moustapha Akkad is around. I was talking to him on the phone some time back and I said “My God, haven’t you had enough of Michael Myers?” and he just chortled and said “Hell no! The Shape will never die. It’s a goldmine.” I think those were his exact words. “It’s a goldmine.” You know, it’s a funny thing, but I think there will always be an audience of some kind out there for movies in which the point is to scare the hell out of you.
KG: Yes, but at that point, though, with 10 in the Friday the 13th series and 8 in Halloween, is it really still scary anymore?
TLW: Maybe not to you, but, I don’t know, who’s going to see these movies? Maybe it’s a new audience? I mean, after all, there are rock n’ roll groups that might as well be called sequels because the personnel have changed so much and they’re playing to brand new audiences, people who are sixteen, eighteen-years-old who weren’t there for the first go round.
KG: Do you think Screen Gems is hoping to make a franchise out of the Vampires series?
TLW: I don’t know how to answer that. I think the ideal was that it would be a sort of anthology series with a vampire hunting team that you could spin out for years and years and years. Vampires: Los Muertos was supposed to be a feature film and it was supposed to go out there and do at least a couple of weekends of decent box office. Now that this is the way it turned out, I don’t know what their plans are. I would imagine that there’s not a great deal of enthusiasm now. Maybe later.
KG: I would even think that the studio would approach a channel like Sci-Fi that thrives on these kinds of movies and do a premier of your film at some point.
TLW: Of course. I don’t really understand how it all works or how it all fits together, but definitely the 500 channel universe has a huge impact on decision making these days.
KG: And aren’t you working on a new project for the Sci-Fi Channel?
TLW: Yes, indeed. I am adapting a wonderful novel that would be familiar to Science Fiction fans. It’s called The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and I’m just thrilled to be involved in this project. For anyone who hasn’t read the novel, it’s a complete world that Ms. Le Guin creates off in outer space and everyone who lives there is a hermaphrodite, meaning a person of both sexes, and it’s just amazing and quite intriguing and very special and I hope I can do it justice. It’s going to be a 2-night mini-series and I don’t want to say too much more. I am being considered to direct, but no guarantees. We’ll see.
KG: You’ve had good luck with mini-series so far. Stephen King’s IT scared the hell out of me, even for a TV movie, which is pretty rare.
TLW: Good! My daughter says I helped to ruin clowns for a whole generation.
KG: And the Sci-Fi Channel has really been getting into the mini-series format lately, especially with Frank Herbert’s Dune.
TLW: It’s very difficult to make television, even if it’s present day just ordinary sets and ordinary exteriors. To try and do something special with creative effects and futuristic ideas is just an extraordinarily difficult effort and I know Ian Valentine and all the people at Sci-Fi are working very hard to pull all these things off and more power to them.
KG: Do you find that working in television is a little easier than doing a film? I noticed you have a number of television credits.
TLW: It’s faster. Decisions are made quicker and it’s more satisfying from a point of view of someone who’s impatient and who wants to get a movie started and get underway. It’s much faster, but easier? No. It’s all very difficult. Generally, a feature film gives you more time, what every director wants, more time and perhaps a few more toys to play with, more tools. More time both in shooting and planning and, of course, in the cutting room, so it’s a trade off.
KG: Wrapping up the conversation about Vampires: Los Muertos, at the very end of your commentary, you say somebody would have to be crazy to want to get into the film business. You’ve been doing it for 20 years now. What keeps you going?
TLW: Well, when everything is working, when everything is firing on all cylinders, it’s just the greatest thing in the world to make a movie. Many are the times I’ve leaned over to a colleague on the set and smiled and said “Do you realize they’re paying us for this?” because it’s something most of the people I know who are involved, if they could afford to, would do for free because. It’s fun and it’s exciting and it’s creatively challenging. It’s all the wonderful things. Having said that, those moments I’m describing are exceedingly rare and so much of the rest of the time you’re dealing with colossal mountains of bullshit and that truly is what they’re paying us for.
I’m staying in it because I don’t think I’ve done my best work yet. I’m hoping fervently to keep going and get two or three of my favorite projects, my most heartfelt projects, before the public.
If Tommy Lee Wallace maintains the same kind of persistence and quality of work that audiences have seen from him so far, there’s no doubt that he will continue to succeed and eventually see his favorite projects given life on the big screen. I would like to extend a sincere thank you to him for taking time out of his busy schedule to indulge my questions and shed some light on a side of film making that many of us may never be lucky enough to experience ourselves.
Kristoffer Gair (who formerly wrote under the pseudonym Kage Alan) is the Detroit-based author of Honor Unbound, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To My Sexual Orientation, Andy Stevenson Vs. The Lord Of The Loins, Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell, several short stories featured in anthologies (to be combined in a forthcoming book), the recently re-published novella Falling Awake, its sequel, Falling Awake II: Revenant and Falling Awake III: Requiem.