talks to Michael O Sajbel the writer/producer of SUPERSTITION (1982)]
In a vastly entertaining and fascinating interview, Michael recalls what it was like to make a low budget horror/slasher film in the early 1980s. How the film differed from intitial plans and how they had to sneak around behind the preying eyes of other producers to try and make the film they wanted to make ...
How did you get involved with SUPERSTITION?
It was a rainy day in my apartment in Beverly Hills. I had the apartment from about 1979 to 1984, so on the early side of that. And here were 5 guys sitting around doing nothing (these were the days before video games; the dark ages) and we said, “There’s enough talent in this room right now to make a film. Why aren’t we making a film? Let’s make a film!” So we divided up what we would do. I would be the producer and a writer, as it was my story, and Brad White was my writing partner. We had written a film for Charles B. Pierce called “Greyeagle” (Pierce is best known for “Legend of Boggy Creek”). James Roberson, who shot Greyeagle, would be the Director. Bret Plate was also there and he said, “My dad is really rich and if I star in the film he’ll finance it.” He could also type really fast, with all fingers, so he would also be a writer. There’s a lot more to this story, but we went up to Bret’s dad in San Francisco and he said no, he wouldn’t finance it. We were asking for $150,000. His dad later died and left millions to his nurse. But we did end up with a script that I loved. From there we found a couple of guys our age, we were all in our early 20’s, who had some of their Bar Mitzvah money left over, and we did a 10 minute teaser, really the first 10 minutes of what would become Superstition, and sent it to MIFED (Milan Film Festival) and that’s where the eventual Producers picked it up. It was financed through foreign presales, I believe.
Incidentally, Bret Plate ended up being in the film and had a single line. He plays a construction worker and is walking down the steps in front of the house with a board or something in his hand and says something like “Have you seen (insert name)?” Olivier could not have done better.
Some promotional materials say that the film was based on a novela of yours called 'the Witch', is that correct? If so, can you tell me more about it?
I heard that myself, but no, I never wrote a novella, whatever that is I wrote the original script with Brad White and Bret Plate from an original story by me. Then the writing for the film took a very weird turn. Even though we had a completed script and actually produced the first 10 minutes ourselves, with NO outside interference, or what we called “parental supervision,”and the first 10 minutes kicked ass, someone over 30 insisted on a rewrite of the script. Which was unnecessary and completely ridiculous. Line Producer Ed Carlin hired a guy who now has the sole screenwriting credit, which was very upsetting to us (at the time, in a Writer’s Guild arbitration for screen credit, a new writer had to change over 2/3 of a script in order for the original writer’s names to be removed. Today that almost never happens). I remember going to a script meeting somewhere up in the Hollywood Hills to talk about the “new” script and remember screaming at everyone (without appearing deranged, of course) that, “You’ve taken my consummate battle between good and evil and turned it into an episode of “Police Woman”, which was a very lame TV show at the time.
The film appears to be a mixture of slasher and supernatural genres, was that your intention?
Very observant question. Director James Roberson and I were huge fans of “Suspiria,” Dario Argento’s consummate mix of slasher and supernatural. I suppose that for both films you would say the base story or theme is supernatural with strong slasher elements.
Here’s a story I think you’ll love. One day no producers were on the set, other than me. So we shot the scene where Stacy Keach, Sr., playing a minister, comes to bless the house. He opens his Bible and a workers’ saw blade leaves the tool, bounces across the room, and cuts Stacy and the Bible in half! So we covered the camera and the lights with plastic wrap and had a great time shooting the scene the way we would do it. Later on a producer over 50, maybe even over 60, came to the set and saw blood on the camera, blood on the crew, blood on the ceiling, Stacy cut in half, blood everywhere! And he said to me, in all seriousness with a scolding tone, “I knew this would happen if I left you in charge!” And I said, “Yeah, well, why don’t you leave us alone more often!”
Do recall what year the film was shot? It is dated 1982, but some sources say it was lensed in 1981?
I don’t recall. Back in LA (I live in two places now) I have all my original call sheets; that would settle the issue if it really mattered. I have an issue of the Hollywood Reporter from March 20, 1981 where Carolco is selling “Superstition” along with “First Blood” a/k/a “Rambo 1” at the American Film Market but the screen credits are still mine, so it had to be before the film was started. But I don’t think there was a lot of time after that before we shot it.
Having researched my book, I found that - because of the huge wave of movies that followed FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN - many smaller genre pictures struggled to get distribution in the early 1980s. SUPERSTITION did get a belated release to US screens in 1985. Can you elaborate on the delay?
Put it this way, in my opinion it certainly didn’t live up to what I thought its potential was. Literally, I thought we were going to create a third horror franchise, right after Halloween and Friday the 13th, and still strongly believe we could have if the adults hadn’t stepped in. Maybe that was why the film experienced a delay in its release? Who knows? The film was eventually released on the East Coast at the exact same time as Beverly Hills Cop and did extremely well in East Coast urban markets. It was never released domestically West of the Mississippi - we always thought because then we would really see how well the film was doing and demand our back end (residuals).
The film was hugely popular on video in the UK - so much so that it got a subsequent cinematic release under the title 'The Witch' in 1984. It also narrowly escaped being prosecuted as a video nasty. Were you aware of this?
No, I wasn’t aware of any issue with the film in the UK or elsewhere. My wife is from the UK, still has family there, so that would have been interesting. Here’s a little more history. I was down in Mexico City a few years after the film was released and some people said to me, "Superstition, are you kidding?! That film played down here for 99 weeks! Almost 2 years the theaters were packed! It was a HUGE hit. Set records!"
The title of my original story and co-written screenplay was “WITCH”- not “The Witch” or “Superstition.” I think they said at the time that Witch didn’t translate well, language-wise, in certain cultures. So to learn that it was released under that name, well, I could go on about this but I might burst a blood vessel.
Years later when the Hollywood Reporter or Variety came out with a special issue honoring the Producers, they listed all these other films they had produced that made a gazillion dollars along with the figures and when it mentioned Superstition it said, right in print, something ridiculous like “Sales Figures not Available.”
Is there anything else that you think might be of interest about the film?
Two things off the top of my head.
You said you talked to the person who played the Witch? In our first 10 minute promo the guy who dressed up in black was Gary Maxwell, who said he tested for the role of Chewbacca (and obviously lost to the talented Peter Mayhew). Max was very tall and trained as an actor. I recall on the film our stunt man Bud Davis probably suited up a few times for the role. I’m sure there were others. We had some very talented and dedicated stunt people on the film. But what might interest you the most is that as Associate Producer I got bored on the set and so I became the Witch’s hand. So whenever you see a close up of her hand, that was usually me.
The other thing is that after it was all said and done and the film was out, we joked that we could take the original script and do it word for word and the guys who bought the script from us and changed it wouldn’t even know it was the same film.
What do you think of the film now - and what are your plans for the future?
I honestly cannot tell you what I think of “Supestition” now. I haven’t seen it in years. I don’t think I even have a copy. It never made it past VHS and Beta!, did it? But thank you for your questions - this has been a very enjoyable trip back in time. Doing the film - in some ways it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but you learn from that and move on. So there is some positive, if you choose to look at it that way.
Incidentally, I have the latest anniversary edition of Suspiria and looked at it recently. You have to look at these films in the context of their times, just like you’d have to look again at “Lady in Black” or any other piece. Does it hold up now? Maybe not. But at the time, did it thrill you and take your breath away? Absolutely!
If I do have a regret, it is that the original 10 minutes we did on our own to finance the film, just the 5 guys sitting around an apartment on a rainy day, doesn’t exist anymore. It was such a minor masterpiece. When Jim was cutting the feature film he thought it needed punch, so he took some of our original negative and cut it into the film. So our original doesn’t exist in positive print or negative. Beside the one 35mm print, we made 2 3/4” video copies of it. My girlfriend at the time accidentally erased it while trying to make duplicates. If you met her you’d know why.
Oddly enough, my plans for the future include another horror offering, “Dresden.” Sounds pretty gothic, doesn’t it? Like a typical haunted house story, we follow the Glotzer family as they move from the East Coast to an idyllic town in Wisconsin. The father, an unemployed University religion professor who basically doesn’t believe in anything, begins to hear, sense and ultimately confront an evil that dwells in the house. This film will have all the thrills, chills and heart pounding suspense of an old fashioned Hitchcock horror film, along with modern elements that contemporary teen and post teen audiences crave. In the tradition of The Sixth Sense, The Others and Paranormal Activity. Maybe even with a little Dario Argento thrown in.
review of SUPERSTITION.
Visit Michael's IMDB page.
Listen to the Hysteria Continues podcast dedicated to SUPERSTITION, which features an audio interview with sfx supremo Steve LaPorte.