[Lunchmeat chats with Joe Augustyn]
NIGHT OF THE DEMONS may not be a slasher flick as such (although it sure as hell fits into the teeniekill category!), but it happens to be one of the best (and most fun) low budget horror flicks from the late 1980s (a time when the genre had all but gnawed its way through the bottom of the barrel).
Our intrepid interviewer, Lunchmeat, speaks to writer and producer of this splattery and inventive treat, Joe Augustyn.
Q: First of all, I gotta say, NOTD is one of my favorite horror films of all time. The dialouge is hilarious with some of the best one liners I have ever heard. I'm just curious, while writing the screenplay for NOTD, were you sort of visualizing the characters as you concoted the story and were the final actors/actresses that were chosen for the parts what you had in mind?
Thanks. Yes, most of the characters are close to how I pictured them, but a few were changed as a result of logistics and/or the requirements of the director and other producers.
There were four notable changes in the course of development.
I had a gay male teen couple, which got axed. Too radical.
I had Max (dressed in the doctor costume) mouthing off sarcastically to his mother as he filled his medicine kit with real drugs (his dad had been a doctor, his mom was a widow who couldn't control him.) Too socially irresponsible.
In the original draft, Judy's little brother snuck into Hull House and ended up as an integral part of the story. This was deemed too expensive, due to labor laws.
I had Judy and Rodger end up in a romantic clinch, but the producers and director thought a black boy kissing a white girl was too risque for the time.
Now, let me say that I had a bunch of offers on the script, including one from Propaganda Films (which produced David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" among other big movies) and one from producer David Giler, who did "Alien."
I wanted to take the Propaganda deal because they were a young hip company, but they were offering less money up front so my agent talked me out of it. I liked David Giler personally and he offered the most money upfront, but he wanted to set the film in Europe and I conceived the film (originally entitled "The Halloween Party") as an all-American teen horror movie. (Which is why I pushed for the multi-ethnic cast.)
I regret not taking the Propaganda deal because they went on to produce "Candyman" instead and that got a much wider theatrical release than "Night of the Demons" did, simply because they had more money to spend on film prints and advertising. "Night of the Demons" did surprisingly well in its markets (it opened at 70 theatres in the NYC area, took in almost $8,000 a screen, and played from Thanksgiving through the Christmas holidays.)
Sorry to digress, but I think it's important for younger viewers who only know it from video or cable to know that it played in theatres, in about a third of the U.S. and in markets around the world.
Also, they would have allowed the hipper elements to stand, and the film would be more cutting edge.
However, having said that, I also acknowledge that the movie has a charm of its own, largely because of Kevin's input as director, and ultimately it may appeal to more people because it is a bit more "middle of the road" than my original script. Both Kevin and the producrers were from the Midwest or small towns, and I grew up in inner city Philadelphia, so we definitely had disparate viewpoints on the tone of the movie, and I made concessions.
Q: To tell you the truth, I really am not very educated on what goes on behind the scenes during the making of a film. I am sure, as the writer of NOTD, you got to meet the cast and crew of the film. Which actor or actress in your opinion stood out amongst the others? When I say this I mean by their personality and acting ability.
I was not only the writer, but the actual producer of the movie. I had graduated from AFI's producing program and had production experience on dozens of smaller movies and videos there. I also had been production coordinator and location manager (the hardest job in show biz) on two low budget features: "Hard Rock Zombies" and "American Drive-In."
Despite this, I was treated by many members of the crew as a "writer" who grabbed a producing credit and was somehow interfering with the production. The irony is, I was offered a chance to direct it and turned that down, because I had another young director who I wanted to work with. Right before pre-production started he dropped out to direct one of his own scripts, and the executive producers wanted to bring Kevin Tenney back into their fold because they wanted to do a sequel to his first feature "Witchboard."
I let them. But I stayed totally involved, arriving on set every day while the crew was setting up, and leaving after everything was wrapped. I trusted Kevin with getting the scares, but wanted to make sure that the visuals (costumes, sets, etc.) and the pacing were a bit more lively than those in "Witchboard," which I found pretty drab.
As for the actors, all of them were fantastic to work with. The casting director was Tedra Gabriel (widow of NFL star Roman Gabriel if anyone cares for such trivia) who I had worked with on "American Drive-In" and who also worked on a great B movie called "Reform School Girls" with Wendy O. Williams.
Tedra was in synch with my own tastes, and I knew she had a knack for finding young actors who looked good and could really act. One of her discoveries was Emily Longstreth, who went on to play opposite Kevin Bacon in "The Big Picture." I think Emily was about 16 when Tedra cast her in "American Drive-In."
I specifically requested Linnea Quigley after seeing her in "Return of the Living Dead" -- and luckily Kevin was a fan of hers as well, so that was an easy decision. We were both surprised when she showed up with long silky blonde hair. Nothing like her punked out character from "Return."
Q: Sal and Stoodge have got to be 2 of my favorite horror characters of all time. I noticed in the end of the film that Sal's tombstone read 'Sal Romero'...I'm just curious to know if maybe that was a tribute to the maestro..George A. Romero.. or just a coincidence?
That was a touch of Bob Lucas the propmaster, who was a friend of Kevin Tenney's and a great guy. One of the nicest people I've ever worked with.
Q: Where was most of the film shot?
Everything was shot in the Adams district of L.A. which is scary in its own right. I think it's part of "South Central" but I'm not really sure. All the house exteriors were shot there, the interior of Judy's house, the convenience store where Angela shoplifts, etc.
Hull House was a big old abandoned house owned by a supermarket chain which had planned to tear it down. It was tied up by advocates fighting to save it for its historical qualities, and since the supermarket people couldn't destroy it, and it was pretty wrecked up anyway, they rented it to us for a few months for a song.
Credit for that goes to Ed Parmelee, the location manager. He's one of the few people I'm still actively in touch with, even though he dropped out of show biz to work as a teacher, and a social worker.
We shot the exteriors way up in the Valley, and the long shot of Hull House seen from a distance is a painting.
Q: I guess it was kind of obvious that the budget for the film wasn't gonna be all that spectacular. During the writing of the script and especially the gore scenes, where there times that you became worried that some of the scenes of gore wouldn't translate all that well on film?
I deliberately wrote the film to be done on a low budget. As a first time producer, it made sense. At the time, a lot of low budget movies were being bankrolled by video companies, and I figured I'd hedge my bets in case I needed to go that route for financing.
Steve Johnson, the Special EFX maestro, did all our efx for a paltry 65 grand. His next movie was "The Abyss" where he had a budget of over a million to do a single effect (the stingray alien.) We got the deal of the century from him simply because we had the balls to take a chance on him when he ventured out on his own to start his own company.
He was a riot to work with, has a cool sense of humor, and he did win the heart of Linnea Quigley and later married her.
Q: The soundtrack for the film was excellent. The scene where Angela is dancing to the acid light to the Bauhaus tune 'Stigmata Martyr' is horrifying and classic. I was wondering if maybe you could tell us who chose the tunes for the film NOTD?
Great question. I was a huge Bauhaus fan and had picked another song by them (can't remember which) but Mimi Kinkade who played Angela came in with a tape of "Stigmata" which her roommate had suggested would be better. Mimi had worked up a little showpiece to it and as soon as Kevin and I saw her dance to it, we were sold.
More trivia -- Mimi was one of the dancers in the Stray Cats video "Sexy 'n' 17" -- it's an oldie but if you ever get a chance to see it, Mimi is shaking her assets in tiny panties against a jukebox. Pretty steamy stuff for the 80s.
Mimi was quite the little sex kitten, with a very appealing personality. Now she is an author, involved in animal communications or something. Linnea is a big animal rights person as well.
Both were very sweet. All of the actors on that film were.
Q: 'Night of the Demons' has grown pretty quickly to 'Cult Status' since 1988. Did you have any idea in the preliminary stages of production that one day NOTD would be as well loved by horror fans all over the world and ultimatley produce 2 more sequels?
I myself grew up as horror fan. Both of my parents worked full-time, including Saturdays. Double feature matinees were my babysitter. In fact, my friends and I would go on saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes to see the same flicks two days in a row if they were good. A lot of genre flicks, but all sorts of movies, from sleazy imports to big Hollywood productions making their final rounds.
Also, my mother ran a beauty shop and I loved reading the gossip mags, most of it Hollywood-oriented. I guess I was hopelessly warped by the time I was a teenager. The combination of tabloid glamour and hairspray residue must've done a number on me.
Q: Out of all the characters in NOTD, which is your personal favorite and why?
Probably Suzanne, in that little pink dress. Which I now own. It's been packed away for years. I should probably send it to Linnea; I believe it would still fit her.
Q: Alot of screenwriters and writers alike start off young. I guess it is safe to say that you are a horror fan yourself. I am just curious to know, just what are some of YOUR favorite horror films and horror actors?
All the Hammer films rocked. But my favorite sub-genre is zombie movies. I loved Lucio Fulci's "Zombie" with Tisa Farrow, which is strictly for diehard horror fiends.
But my favorites list would be topped by the classics "Night of the LIving Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," "Evil Dead," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Black Sabbath" (trilogy with Boris Karloff as a vampire), "Nightmare on Elm Street," and "The Hills Have Eyes." Original versions, of course. Some of the remakes were okay, but the originals were untoppable.
Plus classier productions like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist," "The Omen" and the original release version of "The Sentinel" (not the bloated director's cut.) "Wolfen," "The Howling," "The Hunger" and "Cat People" are also great movies.
I could go on into related genres, but won't. I will recommend one non-horror movie that everyone should see: "Performance" with James Fox and Mick Jagger.
Q: I am sure that during the making of a film one makes friends with some members of the cast and crew. I was wondering, do you still remain in contact with any of the cast or crew members?
Unfortunately most of the cast and crew people have fled Hollywood, myself included. Most American films are now shot in Canada where the cast and crew unions come a lot cheaper, and by law need to be Canadian citizens.
The powers that be who reign in Hollywood today are generally not friendly
towards hardcore horror folk. They're uptight ivy league types who think
that "Scream" is about as scary as you should get. They have
a social agenda, and maybe they're right. In any case, they hold the keys
to the kingdom, for better or worse. And they keep the door shut pretty
tightly these days.
Q: Would you have any advice for budding writers or screenwriters who are interested in writing for the horror genre?
Think really hard about whether that's all you want to do with your life. I'm not putting down horror films in any way, but once you sell a horror script, you'll pretty much be pegged as a "horror writer" -- and the genre goes up and down in popularity, so be prepared to suffer long periods of famine. Also, since it's considered a young person's market, you'll find it harder and harder to sell material with each new cycle.
I won't embarrass anyone, but even some of the directors of some of the top movies on my lists above are finding it impossible to get movies made these days. These are people who can still out-direct most newcomers blindfolded, yet they're considered "passe" by arrogant no-nothing executives. I hear stories which make me furious, but it's a sad fact of life, and hopefully these dolts will reap the rewards of karma in a special hell all their own.
If I were a young writer starting out, I'd shoot for a broader target. It's not as easy getting horror movies made as it used to be. Most of the development execs who will stand in your way (or help pass you up the ladder) are women -- young, literary-minded women from ivy league schools. They are not horror fans.
If, however, you are a nihilistic freak (God bless you) intent on scaring the pants off anyone lucky enough to watch whatever you manage to get made, your best bet is to write something with a half-dozen characters, set in one or two locations, and try to write the best story you can within those limitations.
Find a DV camera and someone who knows great lighting, round up the best actors you can find in your area, and direct your own movie. Aim for suspense rather than efx. Do a story about a serial killer or a haunted house rather than try to do "Terminator" on a budget.
If you have zero desire to direct, gather all your pieces and find some wannabe director with talent.
Otherwise, you can write the best screenplay possible and try to get it out there in the market, but from what I've seen lately, you stand a better chance of having your ideas pillaged and ripped off, than of someone calling up excited to do your movie.
I write this not just from my own experience, but from observing the careers of writers I know, and young writers I've tried to help.
I know of one writing team who have been struggling in poverty for over a decade, ducking creditors, living like fugitives -- despite the fact that they are really great writers who come up with some of the most original ideas and the most interesting screenplays I've read. In the last five years, there have been three huge-budget movies nearly identical to screenplays they had written and tried to sell within a year or two prior to those movies getting made. If I told you the titles you'd recognize them instantly.
I'm not suggesting the movie-makers stole their ideas. There is a theory about ideas being shared on a quantum level in our collective sub-consciousness, which I believe is probably true. But that doesn't take the sting out when a movie comes out, almost identical to a script you've been slaving over for months.
If you really want to learn about screenwriting and Hollywood in general, you should scour the web for sites put up by people in the know. And I'm not talking about the ones put up by "screenwriting experts" and "analysts" promising to get your script ready for the big sale. I mean the down and dirty advice sites put up by experienced writers, many of whom are openly sharing their experiences online.
And if you still want to try your hand at Hollywood, then you need to move there, and make connections with young upcoming players. Don't worry about scraping up the big bucks for film school, but go to AFI or USC campus, hit the bulletin boards in the film schools, and sign up to work on the crew of a student production. Do it again and again; you'll be working like a dog for free, but you will make contacts with at least a few people who will definitely move into power slots.
Or get a job as a script reader. Take the first job you get, to get the experience. Then try to get in at a bigger company. You'll learn the system, and how to beat it. You'll make the contacts. Just don't blow it by being too forward and open. Lay low until you're really set to move, with a great script or two and a bunch of solid contacts who really like you.
Go to ifilmpro.com and convince the online gatekeeper that you're a real (local) producer with a real company in your area. (If you're not smart enough to pull off this ruse, you're probably never going to get anywhere in Hollywood anyway.) Check out the chat boards there -- you'll get a true ideaof the cesspool that is Hollywood, and the kind of people you'll be dealing with. Twisted, warped, frustrated, cut throat, occasionally gifted.
Whatever you do, keep your ego in deep check, and never reveal too much
of your personal life details to ANYONE in Hollywood. The town is built
on gossip -- most of it false and malicious -- but a casual remark to
a new "friend" in Tinseltown could easily sink your ship forever.
And even great friends might turn on you -- the wheel spins in weird ways.
Q: Any behind the scenes gossip you would like to share with us?
Sorry. The actors were all very professional and I wish they all had much bigger careers, they deserved them. There was a lot of sordid shit going on crew-wise, but crew people aren't fair game for gossip -- they're strictly "behind the scenes" personalities.
Q: Just curious to know if Mr. Joe Augustyn has any upcoming projects he would like to inform us about?
I'm currently working on a writing assignment -- an adaptation of a true crime story which I am bound contractually to keep secret (so some sleazy producers don't rip off the story.) I'm really excited about it. It will definitely appeal to "NOTD" fans but I can't say any more than that.
Also, I recently wrote a script for an outlaw biker movie which I am trying to get going. I may actually return to producing; it's the first thing I've written in years that I feel so strongly about. It's a script that I think will appeal to real bikers as much as action and crime fans. Sort of "Sopranos" on Harleys.
I doubt if it will ever get made in the Hollywood system -- bikers are more alien than space aliens to the people running the show. But if it ever gets made, I think it will be a classic.
Q: Well Mr. Augustyn, it has been an extreme pleasure to interview you. You have gave me many hours of enjoyment from watching 'Night of the Demons' over and over and just eating up the hilarious yet realistic dialouge. Some of the things that were said remind me of the world of some of the things me and my friends have said. Again, thanks for your time Joe. Good luck on future projects and may your life reap happiness.
The pleasure was mine. I hope I haven't discouraged anyone with my upfront revelations about the movie biz, and wish the best to anyone seriously considering a career in that direction.
p.s. -- You didn't ask, but I'd like to add that I come from a family with a somewhat psychic (no, not psychotic!) history. I have posted a true ghost story based on one of my own experiences at obiwan.com. It was called "Killer's Ghost" and I think "Night of the Demons" fans might enjoy it.I posted it anonymously but it is mine, and it is true.