The Last Temptation of Bruce Campbell
An interview with the king of cult films
By Devin D. O'Leary
As a teenager growing up in Royal Oak, Michigan, gangly Bruce Lorne Campbell spent his days making Super 8 movies with neighborhood friends, including a fellow he met in his high school drama class named Sam Raimi. According to legend, Campbell and Raimi and their pals (Scott Spiegel, Josh Becker and Robert Tapert among them) made about 50 of these backyard epics--mostly short, slapstick comedies along the lines of “The Blind Waiter” and “Cleveland Smith: Bounty Hunter.”
In 1979, Campbell and his movie-crazed compatriots scared up enough money to shoot a feature-length version of their horror short “Within the Woods.” Shot for an estimated $350,000, the finished film--now wisely retitled The Evil Dead--made something over $10 million worldwide and became a cult sensation when it hit video in the early '80s. The horror comedy was remade on a bigger budget in 1987, and the cult of Bruce Campbell was formed.
Becker and Spiegel went on to careers in the direct-to-video market (Alien Apocalypse, From Dusk Till Dawn 2). Tapert became a big-time producer, overseeing syndicated TV shows like “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Evil Dead director Sam Raimi eventually joined the Hollywood A-list after raking in more than $400 million with Spider-Man.
Campbell, for his part, split his time between expensive Hollywood productions (Congo, McHale's Navy, Serving Sara) and cheaply made B-movies that only served to add to his cult appeal (Maniac Cop, Bubba Ho-Tep, Terminal Invasion). His fan base has grown so large that he even made a short movie about it (“Fanalysis,” available on the Book of the Dead special edition DVD of Evil Dead).
Currently, Campbell is in the midst of a busy summer--one that balances the expensive allure of Hollywood and the gleeful tug of the B-movie genre that nurtured him. He has roles in two major studio films, Sky High and The Woods, and is touring across the country to support his second book. The first was a bestselling autobiography called If Chins Could Kill. His second, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way, is a fictional satire about a B-movie actor named Bruce Campbell who gets cast in an expensive romantic comedy directed by Mike Nichols and starring Richard Gere and Renée Zellwegger. Bruce's presence soon has the film degenerating into a B-movie stew of special effects, kung fu fights and pratfalls.
The Alibi took the opportunity to chat with Mr. Campbell before he races through Albuquerque, where he will be stopping briefly to autograph copies of his new book (at Page One Books) and show off his new writing/directing/acting effort, Man With the Screaming Brain (at the Guild Cinema).
What are you doing, like 40 cities this summer?
Why? Why put yourself through that?
A lot's going on. It's the only way to sell books.
It seems like you work hard making films; and then, on your time off, to do a city a night ...
Well, see there are some actors who I'm astounded at their lack of knowledge of promotion. You could do a film, but if no one sees it, what's the difference? My dad was in advertising for 30 years, so I sort of took that to heart. And his theory is if you're happy about something, let people know. I'm just trying to do that and do something new. I love supporting these alternative cinemas. I've really run into these great old behemoths. Screaming Brain hasn't shown in any multiplexes yet.
Let's talk about the book. What made you want to jump into the literary field?
Being in a whole new ballgame. You know, you don't have the restrictions of [the fact that] the first book had to be an autobiography. So I can go off on some major new directions and still poke fun at Hollywood, let it be a familiar theme to readers. It was a way to step off the dock and still stay close to the dock. Because publishers loathe doing that. It's a big enough step for them to agree to a novel. So this is a way to keep everybody calm.
Is there as much typecasting in the publishing field as in Hollywood?
Of course. Absolutely! And if you say you want to write a novel they say, “Oh really! Let's think about that.” Fortunately, I wore them down.
Did it actually take some work to talk them into it?
Well, yeah! After the first book I marched in and pitched three new ideas and they said, “No, no and no.” OK, I guess my writing career is over, or now it's time to look for a new publisher. I guess the best way to get your publisher's attention is to look for another publisher. In Hollywood, the power you have is to say no! Or the only power you have in negotiation is to walk away. So I went, “Well, I fulfilled my obligations, I guess I'll go find somebody else.” Because I had a successful book that could become my calling card. But the same publisher [St. Martin's Press] sort of woke up a bit, and we worked on a story that we all could agree on.
I finished the book last week and I thought it was a scream. One of the things I like about it is how much you compare and contrast Hollywood with the lower echelon B-films you grew up in. Do you really see a major difference between Hollywood and the rest of the film industry?
Yeah. Major! Classic example is this summer. There are a couple of ironies going on that B-movies are now A-movies. If you're bitten by a radioactive spider, I got news for you: B-movie! If you dress up like a bat and fly around the city, that's a B-movie. Even more so the movie that's opening tonight [War of the Worlds]. If you're invaded by aliens, hello! You're a B-movie. I don't know what everybody's talking about these days. People make fun of B-movies, but guess what? You're choking on them right now.
One of the things I wonder, though, is what about for an actor? Do you notice a vast difference--besides the time and money spent, of course?
When you're in an A-movie, you're more concerned about your persona. I did this film called Bubba Ho-Tep years ago, and I don't think that would even get into Tom Cruise's hands. I don't think his representatives would even show it to him. He might even want to play a 60-year-old geriatric Elvis, but they wouldn't let him be buried under all that makeup. “Tom, this isn't you. We need to see you. We're investing $20 million in you.” So I think it creates decisions that are not necessarily good for the craft. It's good for business. I have no doubt that War of the Worlds will make a bag full of dollars. But it has too. Man with a Screaming Brain only has to have a $5,000 opening instead of a $50 million opening. So [in mainstream Hollywood] the pressure is to make a movie that everybody likes. That's the difference. [Hollywood's] making movies that are attempting to please everybody.
Here's a fun little fact: If your movie's a PG-13 instead of R, your chances of making $10 or $20 million go up substantially. So you'll get horror films like my buddy's [producer Sam Raimi's] film The Grudge. [Which was rated PG-13.] It's watered down as a result. It becomes sort of a weird creepy movie instead of a real blow-your-face-off horror flick.
That seems like an odd choice, but you see more and more of it these days.
Absolutely! And it's because of economics. But if they wouldn't spend as much on these movies, then you could kill your lead character, you could be morally ambiguous, you could have wacked-out characters and crazy scenarios which an element of the population demands. It's a free country and not all of us want to watch Bewitched. And I got news for you: I hope that these guys suck eggs all summer long because they deserve it.
Well, they're starting to. The box office has been down for a long time.
I love the fact that they're confused and that Hollywood attributes this to piracy and to DVDs. I'm looking at these guys going, “You guys aren't facing the music.” I'm a sequelaholic: You need to admit that, so you can start the healing process.
Do you think that there's a business model in low-budget films that Hollywood could one day emulate?
It's weird. Hollywood has taken such a specific turn towards getting the money, that I really think [movies] should be recategorized. In the Academy Awards, I think they should just have a category called “The Hollywood Movie.” Because I don't think they should call those “movies.” Those aren't movies, they're marketing tools that happen to be directed by somebody.
It's really getting weird. I don't think they have the ability to [change voluntarily]. Greatness will be thrust upon them. When their stock dips, they'll make some changes. And that's the best way for people to get change: Don't support it. I mean, this “small cult following” I have put my second book on the New York Times Bestseller list. I didn't put it there, [the fans] put it there. And I want them to see what they've done. It's important. To me, it just shows that the counterculture is alive and well. As evidenced by, well, Salt Lake City was a really good example. My first book couldn't get into the regular book stores 'cause of the whole Mormon thing. And I had been in all those horror movies. But we just looked for another bookstore and we sold out. So, for every Donny and Marie Osmond, there's an Evil Dead.
Having written the book and poking fun at some pretty big people is there any chance that you've heard from Richard Gere or Renée Zelwegger?
Honestly, I treat him the way every one else does. He's a peace-loving Buddhist. The book doesn't reveal some secret drug habit. I'm the biggest jerk in the book. So the lawyers were completely unconcerned.
Yeah! Well, it's fiction for one and satire for two. Mike Nichols is portrayed as a completely sharp, enthusiastic, go-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy. Not some boozy asshole. Fiction gives you a lot of latitude, and satire clears the rest of the deck.
Let's talk a little bit about Man With the Screaming Brain. This is a project that you've been working on for a while, isn't it?
I'm embarrassed to say it's a project that took me 19 years to get running.
That's what I thought. So how did it start for you?
The original idea was pitched to a friend of mine in a rowboat in 1986. That was the little germ of the idea. First it was written and developed into a story and then further into a screenplay. And then, as we tried to get it financed, we made changes on what we thought would affect the budget. And then we made changes on what companies wanted. It followed this very fortuitous, very strange path. Until it finally got finance between Sci-Fi Channel and a German tax fund.
That's an odd combination.
It sure is! But I don't care where the money comes from.
Was this a film that you had to write and direct, star and do everything in or is that how everything worked out?
In order to direct, it's easier to put myself in it. So it gave me some leeway. But I've directed television before, so it wasn't like someone was taking a huge gamble. TV directors are some of the most reliable men and women on the planet. 'Cause they work under strange circumstances.
At the same time, you've got some pretty big budget films coming up: Sky High and The Woods. It's a pretty good summer for you.
Yeah! It's a big summer. And the audio book is coming out, too.
Are you going to be reading the audio version of your book?
We're not even reading it, we're acting it out. The tag line is, “You've read the book, now hear the movie.” We've got characters playing Richard Gere and all that stuff.
When is that coming out?
Later this summer. We don't have a date yet. We're all done on our end. It's all recorded--six hours--done unabridged.
What can you tease us with on Sky High and The Woods?
Sky High is for kids. There's no big mystery there. It's a family Disney movie. It's really fun. It's a sweet little movie.
You play the coach at a super hero high school. That's pretty great casting.
It was fun to do. I don't know how they found me. The Woods is cool. It's filmmaker Lucky McKee.
He's fantastic. His first film, May, is an amazing piece of directing.
Yeah. He's bizarre. And he brought that same sensibility to this. It really should be called The Creepy Evil Women. It's just bad. It's a schoolgirl's nightmare come true: Being dropped off at a remote girls' school run by freakish women in the '60s. And that time period's real cool too. It's a little bit like an old Robert Wise movie. You know what I mean? It just has that feel. So, I'm looking forward to it.
I'm sure you talk about this all the time; but it seems like, for you, most of the Evil Dead sequel talk has gone away. But we still have videogames to look forward to, right?
Yeah [Evil Dead: Regeneration] is coming out from THQ this fall. And this should be fun cause it's the third game and it's a whole new technology. My son played it and he gave it the thumbs up. He's 17.
That's a pretty solid endorsement.
Yeah, that's a very good endorsement.
And what can you tell us about the game?
It's a continuing series. Ash finally gets a little Deadite sidekick. It's like a little Joe Pesci guy who annoys Ash to no end. He helps him out.
So are you looking at this as your next sequel to Evil Dead?
Yeah, as far as I'm concerned. It's good enough for now.
Are you physically attached as producer on this big budget Evil Dead remake thing they're talking about, or is that just how it worked out on paper?
Yeah, I'm involved somewhere, but it's ridiculous. There's not much to talk about, because we don't even have a story or an approach or a director or anything.
So is this definitely going to happen?
I think it will down the road, but probably not for a year or so. See, I'm kind busy right now.
Does that mean you're going to be back for a third Spider-Man?
Heck, yeah! I'm there to annoy Tobey Maguire in some way.
Seems like he needs that.
I don't know, but I'd be up to do it.
I appreciate you talking to us. And I look forward to the big show when you get into Albuquerque.
Right on. Thank you.
Bruce Campbell will be in Albuquerque on Tuesday, July 12. He will be at Page One Books beginning at 6 p.m. Bruce will screen Man With the Screaming Brain at the Guild Cinema beginning at 10 p.m. This screening is already sold-out. Additional screenings of the film will be held before Bruce gets to town on Friday, July 8, and Saturday, July 9, at 10 and midnight.
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