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HALLOWEEN: Cast and Crew Reunion at American Cinematheque

A Friday the 13th screening and Q&A session for the 1978 horror classic.

By Steve Ryfle     October 19, 2000

It's been 22 years since Michael Myers broke out of the loony bin, commandeered a government vehicle and then terrorized his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, but the trail of dead bodies left in his wake is pretty easy to follow. Without John Carpenter's low-budget, low-tech, low-gore and generally low-key masterpiece Halloween, would horror be what it is today? Would there have ever been a Freddy Krueger? A Jason? The Scream flicks? Chucky? Probably not.

With that in mind, Anchor Bay Entertainment and the American Cinemateque threw a Halloween reunion bash last Friday the 13th in Hollywood, the highlight of which was the screening of a brand-spankin' new 35mm print (struck from the original negative) at the great Egyptian Theater, followed by a question-and-answer session with star Jamie Lee Curtis (who, you know, made her film debut in this flick); actresses P.J. Soles and Nancy Kyes (nee Loomis, who's now a sculptor), who played the slashed-up baby-sitter chicks; producer-writer Debra Hill, Carpenter's longtime collaborator; producer Irwin Yablans; cinematographer Dean Cundey; art director-editor Tommy Lee Wallace; and stuntman Nick Castle (who played The Shapea moniker which, I guess, is supposed to imply that the killer is some sort of faceless, mysterious terror; really, he's just a guy with a William Shatner mask).

And, oh yeah, John Carpenter didn't show up (busy directing Ghosts of Mars and all).

But it almost didn't matter, because there were so many other genre celebs in attendance. At the cocktail reception before the show (held across the street at Blue, one of those hollowed-out brick buildings turned into a trendoid night club), we spotted Kevin Williamson, Steve Miner (he of Friday the 13th Part 3-D and Halloween: H20 fame), George Romero, Bruce Campbell, and somebody who looked like Sam Raimi but wasn't. Of course, the Anchor Bay folks were there, including director William Lustig (Maniac, Vigilante) and the genre press was well represented, including Fandom's own Smilin' Jack Ruby.

And there was Dr. Donald Reed, prez of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, who handed out 10 Golden Scroll of Merit Awards to Carpenter (in absentia, natch) and the other Halloween alums. But the big deal of the evening was when they all got up in front of the crowd and reminisced together about making the little horror film that could. So, here's a recap of the discussion, moderated by the Cinemateque's Dennis Bartok, beginning with a question directed to producer Yablans, who originally conceived of a high-concept film tentatively titled The Baby-Sitter Murders, which eventually became Halloween.

Question: Irwin, you had come up with the original concept for the film on a plane, coming back from Europe. Describe how it came into your head, and how you got in touch with John Carpenter.

IRWIN YABLANS: This was a project born of inspiration and desperation. I had formed a company with Joe Wolf and Moustapha Akkad, called Compass International Pictures. We were a distribution company, but there was a fatal flaw in our plan. We didn't have a film to distribute. We had seen a film called Siege, by a young film student named John Carpenter. I thought it was brilliant. We agreed to distribute it, but it didn't do as well as we'd hoped. So I took it to Europe, with the hope of making some foreign sales. It was not very successful there, as well. And on the way home, I stopped in London and stayed at the Hilton hotel one evening. I got a phone call from the lobby, from a man I'd never heard of, and he said to me, [adopts English accent] 'Hello, my name is Michael Myers, and I'd like to talk to you about Siege.' He thought the picture was brilliant, and he wanted to enter it into the London Film Festival. By that time, we were calling it Assault on Precinct 13. It was an instant smash, and I felt vindicated.

And as I flew home from London, I thought to myself, there must be a way to make a film with this young man. And I thought about a horror film, about a baby-sitter murder. It germinated during the long flight. The thought of Halloween came to my mind, because it could be done in one night, and it was a night that synthesized all horror. I called John Carpenter that night, as soon as I got my bags unpacked. I said to John, 'What do you think about this horror film called Halloween? We'll do it all in one night.' He sparked to it; he understood it immediately. We met the next day, and he talked about this young talented person that he collaborated with, called Debra Hill, who would write the script and who would work with him to produce the film. I said 'John, whatever you like, as long as you make this picture in four weeks!' We didn't have the money, though. The bottom line is, we got it from a man named Moustapha Akkad, and that's a long story. And the rest is history. I can tell you only this: we gave John and Debra very severe parameters. Four weeks, $300,000, which we stretched to $325,000 to get Donald Pleasance, to class the film up a bit. And they went out, and they did that and more.

Question: Debra, what was your approach to writing Halloween, because you had to do it so quickly?

DEBRA HILL: It wasn't until after we returned home from the London Film Festival, and we were talking about Baby-Sitter Murders. I had been a baby-sitter, so I knew a lot about that. And it was the night that Irwin called our home and talked about the concept of Halloweenit really jelled. Because we could go back, take this really, truly scary night that we had all grown up with, and we could figure out what the scares were. So Irwin's idea was just brilliant. I grew up with movies like The Beast with Five Fingers and The Thingall these kinds of movies that I just loved as a kidand we wanted to incorporate those kinds of scares, the Alfred Hitchcock scares like from Psycho, et cetera. I wrote much of the girls' dialogue, the 'totally' ... [audience laughs] Thank you. And John wrote the Donald Pleasance dialogue; he really wrote the voice of evil. And of course we named the Shape after our distributor of Assault on Precinct 13, Michael Myers, who has since passed away, but has just been really an inspiration.

We wrote the script in three weeks. I would start with a blank page, write the baby-sitting stuff, and put scenes where Sam Loomis would talk, and John would fill all that in. He's a brilliant editor; we did Escape from L.A. the same way. We wrote it for three weeks; we brought it to Irwin and Moustapha, who immediately started cash-flowing the picture. Chuck Bender brought Jamie Lee Curtis and P.J. Soles to my attention. Jamie's auditionI remember so very clearly meeting her, and her energy. She was absolutely the perfect girl to play Laurie Strode; she was just brilliant. One of the first auditions Jamie did was when she was on the phone. She did something that most actresses don't. They usually hide their face with the phone, but she didn't. She revealed herself; she screamed; she did all the right things. And then we hired P.J., and we wrote the role called Annie for Nancy. So, we had our three girls; we had our script; we had Irwin and Moustapha and Joe supporting us as young filmmakers to go and make the movie. That's how it came about.

Question: Jamie Lee, what was your first impression when you read the script and met with John Carpenter and Debra Hill?

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: You have to understand, this was a tiny little movie, and it was a complete audition process.... The production offices were tiny; John's office was minuscule. It was on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. It was not glamorous. All I remember was being terrified and nervous, obviously. It was a big thing for memy character's name was on every page of the script. At the time, I had been fighting for one line on a TV show called Operation Petticoat, where there were army nurses trapped on a navy sub, where every week we had to go, 'Captain, when are we getting off the ship?' The problem is, they would break up that line into five parts, so I was used to sticking my tits out and wearing this kind of like, navy uniform, and going, 'Captain, when are we...' and then someone else would finish the line. So, for me to see a script [with] 'Laurie, Laurie, Laurie, Laurie...' was a huge opportunity for me. I was 19 years old. What I remember is being terrified, seeing that character's name a lot.

Question: All three of you actresses here had to draw on some primal terrors in the film. One of the big challenges of acting in a horror film is, in fact, to look scared. How did you work out that with John Carpenter?

P.J. SOLES: Actually, I remember when I was being strangled with the phone that I was laughing a lot. I kept saying, 'Come on, you have to do it a little harder, or it's not going to work!' I mean, when you imagine you're being killed, and you're vulnerable, and your blouse is hanging open and all kinds of thingsit's not hard to imagine that. You're an actress, and that's what you do.

Question: Nancy, you had worked before with John Carpenter in Assault on Precinct 13...

NANCY LOOMIS KYES: And I did a lot of screaming in that movie, as I recall.

Question:...Which is a tremendous film, if you haven't seen it. Did you have any sense at the time, of just how big a phenomenon Halloween would become?

NANCY LOOMIS KYES: No. I had no idea. [Audience laughs]

TOMMY LEE WALLACE: Nancy had the distinction of becoming what everybody wound up referring to as the 'Nancy Loomis character' in basically all of John's early movies.

Question: Now Tommy Lee, you actually went back a ways with John Carpenter.

TOMMY LEE WALLACE: John and I grew up in the same town, went to same [grammar] school. He was a year older, and as everyone knows, when you're that age, [that's a big gap]. You know, for second, third, fourth, fifth grade, nothing. But then we started making friends, and then we found out we both loved music and got into a rock-and-roll band together, and we've stayed friends ever since.

Question: You double duty on the film.

TOMMY LEE WALLACE: Well, don't try this at home, because production designer and editor aren't compatible, so therefore you get no sleep. I had kind of appeared on the scene with John on Dark Star (1973). I was still in film school; John had already gotten out. I had come out of art school, so I could handle art department assignments. And then as Assault on Precinct 13 came along, sound effects and editor came into play. After the movie [had finished shooting], I was used to being around, and [I'd say], 'John, give me something to do.' [He asked] 'Can you cut sound effects?' [And I said] 'Yeah.' So, faking it got me a long way, and John was kind enough to give me those opportunities. And when Halloween came along, I was production designer and editor.

DEBRA HILL: Just so you know some of the early relationships, Nick Castle, Tommy Lee Wallace and John Carpenter were film school students together. And when John went back and shot some more footage on Dark Star, in order to release it as a feature film, Nick Castle was the alien, the beach ball. Nancy Loomis also did costumes as well as acting chores. So I really feel this was like a company of performers who did both chores behind the camera and in front of the camera, over a number of movies. We were a familymany of us [lived] with each other, so it was really a wonderful early beginning for all of us, in terms of our careers.

Question: Nick, how do you feel about getting the chance to play two amorphous entities in two of John Carpenter's early films, the beach ball and the Shape?

NICK CASTLE: Damn proud, really. [Audience applauds] I get about six letters a year from strange people congratulating me on being the Shape, and that was the best Shape. Since then, I've directed my own movies, but they don't care about those. [Audience laughs] They're just happy I was the Shape. I think the beach ball monster, which is what I call it because it was a giant beach ball that we painted to be a tomato, was my better role. If you look at that, I did some fascinating things.... Go back and get it. It's on DVD now, so you can look at my work.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: I was just remembering the art department, which was like in a little truck. It reminded me of the last thing in the movie, and it ties in Dean [Cundey] in a really great way. Obviously, this was my first film, and...I wanted a memento of the movie, so I asked Dean if I could have the slate from Halloweenyou know, the clapper-board, which was Dean's personal slate from all the pornos he had done. [Audience laughs] Nowadays they use that digital thing, but this was an old, beaten-up slate, with the bottom left corner broken off and little piece of tape for the take numbers, et cetera. And over the name of the movie was a stack of tape...where, obviously, the third assistant cameraman kept putting a new piece of tape for each film.... Dean said, 'You can have this slate,' [but] the problem was that I had finished my work on the movie before the last shot of the movie. And so, it meant waiting. The reason I bring this up is, you have to understand about how little the budget was, and how hard this was. The house in Halloween is really old. You know the one, at the beginning of the movie, where the little boy and I go up to the scary house? That's how the house really looked the day we got there. And for the last shot of the movie, the last day of the movie...everybody on the crew, led of course by Tommy, re-made that house to look like the house you see at the beginning of the movie.

TOMMY LEE WALLACE: Not an inch outside of camera range.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: Literally, window dressings and paint only where you would see it. And this was this major one-shot, steadicam.... You have to remember, we all put that house together. We all painted; we all hung drapes, as a group. And then, that night, once it got dark, it was this scene, this one shot. Debra had the clown outfit on, and when you see the camera go into the kitchen and open the drawer, [it's] Debra's hands, because she has tiny little hands. You also have to understand that we had very few lights, and very few crew people, and so each light had to be moved once the camera passed. I waited outside all night long to watch this final shot. And I remember watching it, and you'd see them start moving in the kitchen, and then all of a sudden they'd go up the stairs and they'd be in that bedroom and you'd hear, 'Cut!' And, 'Aaaawww!' And then they'd start it over.... It was really rough to make, and when you talk about sort of a family feeling on that movie, it was never more evident to me than that night when we all literally painted and dressed this house, and then watched this funny little dance go on, and then finally end up with the scene as it is, which at its time was a big deal. That, to me, is probably my favorite memory of this whole movie.... And at the end of that, Dean gave me that slate.

Question: Dean Cundey, you shot Halloween in widescreen, on a very limited budget. Can you tell us about overcoming some of those challenges?

DEAN CUNDEY: For me, Halloween was this great breath of fresh air, because if you did go into those layers of tape and found out the various films [I had worked on], I've often described it as low-budget, non-union, action-adventure films. Essentially, they were girls with machine guns...Satan's Cheerleaders, but anyway, working with John was such an interesting and unusual experience because most of the time, the director's I'd worked with used the camera to kind of record actors talking and things blowing up. And John was such a visual storyteller that I said, 'Wow, this is why I got into this business, to be able to use the camera in this way.' And that was a lot of the great experience I got out of it. That opening shot with the steadicam was one of those groundbreaking things. The steadicam had just been invented, and had been used I think on Bound for Glory for kind of a showy shot, but for the most part, people were still figuring out what to do with it...they were thinking of it in old terms, and John thought of it in a new kind of way, and we did a shot that was, for the time, quite amazing. And you can still look at it and say it's a pretty interesting shot.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: There was an article in the L.A. Times [today]. I'm sure many of you saw it, and there was a picture of me. Well, when you get home tonight, look at that picture.... We obviously had an arduous shooting schedule, and at one point, during a lighting setup...I fell asleep on the couch. And it turned out to be a corduroy couch. And I went into one of those sick, deep, snoring sleeps, and then was woken up to do the scene. And when you watch the movie, I have a corduroy impression. And the picture in the L.A. Times todayyou can see the impression of the corduroy couch on my cheek. And at that time, of course, nobody airbrushed the pictures of the stars of their movie. It's just another one of those weird little things to let you know how tired we all were, how hard it was, and, you know, what babies we were.

IRWIN YABLANS: I'd like to talk about the first time this film was ever shown to a paying audience, because that was quite an experience. We showed this picture to 1,000 people in Westwood, and we were warned not to do it because there were a lot of kids from UCLA, a lot of sophisticated, wise-ass kids. And we knew we were taking a risk, but I believed in this movie implicitly. So, the movie started, and it was quiet for a while, then the laughs started, and they kept coming. And I thought, 'My God, what did we do? What's wrong with this picture?' I couldn't understand it. Finally, the last time that Jamie Lee Curtis dropped down, somebody yelled out, 'You dumb bitch, you deserve to die!' [Audience laughs] Then I knew we had a hit. We found out later on that it was nervous laughter, total involvement, and we had done something very special, reached an audience in a visceral way that I think had not been done before. And I took the film all over the country and found that same reaction everywhere, and it was the most fun to watch audiences respond.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: By the way, my autobiography is called You Dumb Bitch, You Deserve to Die. [Laughs]


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