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.
In celebration of the upcoming Halloween holiday, I thought I’d dig up this interview about a director who’s responsible for some wonderfully scary ass movies! Welcome back to 2002:
I rented Vampires: Los Muertos the week it premiered on DVD and was in the middle of writing my review when I started listening to the commentary by Director Tommy Lee Wallace. My curiosity grew as several questions came to mind that didn’t get answered, so I did the only thing I could. I dug around on the Internet, found the director’s website and wrote him an e-mail. Now, considering his resume (Halloween III, Fright Night 2, Stephen King’s IT and a number of others) and the fact he would probably be working on a new project, I didn’t expect that he would be particularly accessible, but a response was waiting for me the very next day. A couple of conversations later, Tommy graciously agreed to an interview to discuss his latest release.
It’s important to note here that while Tommy speaks candidly about his experiences during the pre-production, production and post-production of Vampires: Los Muertos, it is in the spirit of his own personal observations and not in any way, shape or form as a disgruntled director criticizing the studio, Screen Gems. He makes sure to point out, in all fairness, that the studio may view events differently than he does.
KA: In your audio commentary on Vampires: Los Muertos, you state that there were things you would have liked to have done in the film, but couldn’t due to budgetary reasons, and I believe there were things you said you did do and would have liked included in the film that were ultimately left out. Screen Gems made the decision to leave that material out, but since you wrote the script and they gave it the green light, what were their expectations for the film versus your own?
TLW: Well, let me give you the brief overview of how this thing works. You’ve got a somewhat successful film in John Carpenter’s Vampires, budget of 20+ million dollars, that went out there and did enough business to warrant a sequel. However, because it wasn’t a blockbuster hit, the way the sequel came about was with a very modest budget of right at 6 million dollars, so whoever is given the job of making that movie is not going to be able to duplicate the effects and the punch of the first one.
You know, the first people who are going to be interested in this movie are those who enjoyed Vampires, so there’s an expectation level at work. I’m going to have to develop a style that somehow, a little slight of hand if you will, allows the audience to get into the spirit of the original movie while not maintaining the same expectations. For me, that meant establishing a rough and tumble style that is fun and interesting with a good yarn and some engaging characters, but which right away is going to have to be somewhat funkier, meaning cheaper, but just as appealing. So this involved the creation of a style. Now, because I come out of really, really low budget horror movies like Halloween, I’m not afraid of that. I understand the audience. They aren’t counting the dollars on the screen. They just want engaging characters and a good story, so I felt like I had a good crack at that.
It seems as though, in the beginning, the studio and I were on the same page. Now that I look back on it, it probably should have been a lot messier because I have the feeling that they weren’t paying as much attention to the script as they might have been. What it seemed like at the time was that they were very enthusiastic about my ideas, my input, my script, my take on the material and they approved the script I wrote without much disagreement.
KA: They didn’t ask for any specific changes at all?
TLW: Not to speak of, really negligible, the kind of things that makes every writer just happy as a lark because what you think you’re being told is “We approve of everything”. So, I got an approved script, which gave a nod or a tip of the hat to the first film, but took off… I started to say took off in a new direction, but in fact direction was very important. When we left the characters of the first film, they were headed south and so I took my entire movie south of the border into Mexico so that we could have an adventure down there. Now this concept was built around filming entirely in Mexico with almost everyone involved coming from the Mexican side. This was a calculated attempt to hold the budget down, but it was also an aesthetic choice to continue John Carpenter’s Western concept. There are just unbelievable locations and geographies of old forts down in Mexico that are pretty fresh to American eyes, that haven’t been explored or exploited yet, and this excited me very much. I felt like that was kind of my ace in the hole. Because Mexico affords all these colorful and wonderful and interesting new possibilities, I felt like I was putting a lot on the screen for not much money.
So, the concept from the get go was make a movie in Mexico. What happened then was that it was a big roll of the dice because that meant the entire crew, special effects, stunts, director of photography, first AD, everybody basically but the producer and myself came from Mexico and that meant we were throwing ourselves on the mercy of many unknown quantities. And, in the end, some of them worked out fine and some of them came up a little short.
KA: Was there a language barrier problem at all?
TLW: No, virtually none. My Spanish is terrible, but so many of the Mexican producers and crew members were fluent in English and they helped us tremendously in that regard. The shortcomings that we encountered were simply issues of experience more than any other thing. You can take people who’ve never gone through the process before and, given sufficient amount of time, you can train them and help them along and things can come out fine. Unfortunately, we found ourselves not only in a situation where we had several inexperienced people in positions of great responsibility, but we were under a time crunch too. It was just that unfortunate fact that something’s got to give somewhere. For me, where it suffered the most was in terms of getting good fun, hard-nosed action up on the screen.
KA: I remember during the commentary that you mentioned you had hoped to do a couple of additional shots here and there, like in the church sequence I believe.
TLW: I just wanted lots more vampire burns and lots more fancy stunts and lots more fighting and blood, guts and gore, thrills and chills and, in the end, the budget just didn’t allow it. We did the best we could and I think, in fact, my producer, Jack Lorenz, said on many occasions that the studio got more than they had any right to expect. We were very clever and we used the money wisely. There just wasn’t enough of it. The ambition outstripped what we could finally come up with, so that was a disappointment. That’s no one’s fault, really. To me, there was a very critical point when the studio could have gotten a surefire feature release just by coughing up a very modest additional amount of money. By that point, their faith in the film was zero, so they didn’t choose to do anything like that.
KA: When you say that their faith in the film was zero, was that because they weren’t happy with what you’d done or they weren’t paying attention to what you’d done? Where did that come from?
TLW: During the shooting of the film, I believe they had faith in the script and I’m sure they had their fingers crossed that Jack and I were working miracles down in Mexico and I believe, for the most part, they liked the dailies they were seeing. What happened was when they saw the rough cut, because I broke my own personal rule and allowed them to see cut material early, and lost all faith in the film and believed that they were sitting on a turkey.
Also, because we were in Mexico, we enjoyed a level of autonomy during shooting that many, many films don’t get. That has a good side and that has a bad side. It means that Jack and I were able to make our decisions on the fly that allowed us to get what we got, which I’m very proud of, without a lot of committee discussions and second guessing from upstairs. On the other hand, that means that commitments we made to the film’s style and the film’s way of presenting itself were deeply ingrained by the time the studio had any notion of what we were doing.
In truth, though, I don’t think the studio would look at it in those terms at all. I believe their reaction was that although it was a beautiful movie and moved along pretty well, that in the end there were several key performances that didn’t come up to snuff. I want to hasten to add that they were very happy with Jon Bon Jovi. I thought he did just great and I’m very proud of him and I think that he carried the film extremely well. Like I said, the studio felt some disappointment in certain other performances and I’m not going to mention names.
KA: I would think that with your background as a director that they would have had faith in the film based on your past and previous history as well.
TLW: They didn’t know who I was. I got the gig because of John Carpenter and Sandy King, his wife.
KA: I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
TLW: It wasn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It was just a thing. I was kind of surprised that they apparently didn’t know me from Adam even though I have done several things in the horror field worthy of note, but I was happy to get the gig and it didn’t bother me too much. It was just a hard cold fact. Now that same reaction and that same lack of understanding of my film making, turned out to be my undoing later on.
KA: How so?
TLW: The fact that the people in charge of the studio had no special regard for my film making history, for the work I’d done, meant that I don’t think they really got the kind of film I was trying to make. They certainly didn’t get my quirky approach to horror films, my insistence that a horror film be fun, my insistence that a horror film bring with it some kind of twisted sense of humor. They didn’t get any of that.
KA: They were looking for more of a straight up piece?
TLW: When I mentioned that I thought it was important that the film be fun, the response was: “This film is not supposed to be fun. This film is just supposed to be scary.” I knew I was in trouble right then. Real horror fans know that the two work together. Even very serious films, I mean films that are deadly, deadly serious, have comic relief. The thing that they apparently did not understand was that it helps to have a thread of humor to help set up the scary stuff. You see, in the end, I was on very thin ice with a film that had several shortcomings in terms of performance, we were very thin in terms of the action we had to work with and action scenes we had to work with. What we had going for us was a powerful leader, a good solid story, a wonderful villain and a fantastic setting with several interesting gimmicks, including the whole idea of vampirism as a blood disease. These were the elements we had to work with and I needed complete freedom to present my little patched together creation with all its strengths in the forefront and all its weaknesses pulled to the rear. The people I was answering to hated the film, hated the performances, hated everything about it and therefore their strategies for presenting it were very different than mine were.
KA: Which is a shame to hear. I think I ended up watching the film three times while writing my review and I couldn’t pinpoint any one absolutely terrible performance in it. You had the strong leader you were talking about and you had the female vampire lead (Arly Jover) who I though carried her weight very well. She was very physical, she had the walk down and she had the act down. As far as his crew went, I thought Diego Luna was very watchable too.
TLW: What you’re telling me is encouraging because it means not only did my efforts pay off, but the studio’s efforts paid off. Their greatest concerns were to protect the performances and make all the characters come off okay. I’ve seen many films which were fine, which parts of might have even been excellent, but I’ve seen many films marred by insecure post-production, where someone in charge feels uneasy and doesn’t have the patience or the confidence in the film to let it find its own natural rhythms and to stand out there on its own. As a result, you frequently get lots of hard cutting and bombastic music that’s inappropriate in places. Now, I’m speaking in generalities here about lots of film that strike me that way and when I see it, I point at the screen and say “That’s insecure film making.” Someone wasn’t sure or wasn’t confident enough to just let the film play and I think there was some element of that here. How much of it, only the audience can say. I would be the worst critic, naturally. Perhaps it plays okay for an audience.
Part 2 can be found here!
Kage Alan is the Castle (Season 3) watching, Winger listening author of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Sexual Orientation,” “Andy Stevenson Vs. the Lord of the Loins” and the first book in a separate series, “Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell.” Just for the record, Nathan Fillion is exactly like his character on Castle in real life. Well, almost. He doesn’t write books or solve murders, but he’s a total ham. Cheap, too. He won’t spring for a meal because it might make him appear less a playboy. Grr…