chats with William Vernick]
'Lunchmeat has already spoken with TG Finkbinder - the star
of the mid-70s proto-slasher CLASS REUNION MASSACRE (aka
THE REDEEMER). Now he gets the chance to speak to the
screenwriter of this subgenre oddity that has viewers divided, but has
attracted a growing cult reputation ...
As I understand, you're an editor at heart. To be honest, I'm not all
that familiar with the editing process. I always got the notion that it
was probably one of the hardest aspects of the film process. Is this true?
Either way, can you give us a little idea of what goes on during the editing
William: My love of editing dates back to me watching
"The Great Escape" as a kid and being in awe of how those sequences
were cut, like McQueen on the motorcycle. You need to look at the film
again to see what I mean - but it's just so incredibly well put together,
with effects and music dropping in so perfectly. I've always wanted to
do that, or at least figure out how they did it!
Editing is all about figuring out the essence of a scene and then using
your elements to get to that core. In that way, it's really hard, because
you have so many choices of angles, coverage and you have so many tools
you can use - different types of transitions, changing the feel and look
of the shot, music and sound effects. But it always comes down to figuring
out what gets you to the center of what a scene is all about. I guess
this might make editing sound tedious and difficult, but that's also what
makes editing a lot of fun. The great editors - Hal Ashby, Dede Allen,
Craig McKay, to name just a few I admire - have always gotten to that
essence of a scene.
Lunchmeat: Do you go through any rituals before writing
a script or screenplay? If so, spill the beans.
William: I'm not sure if you'd call it ritual, but I
always try to imagine the last scene and how that'll look to an audience.
It's something I learned watching Mickey Spillane, the great detective
writer, talk about how he always wrote the ending first and then figured
out how to get there. (I also remember being at a reading by the great
Saul Bellow, who said he would be too bored to write anything if he knew
what the next word was going to be.)
The main thing I try to do before writing anything, though, is thinking
of the script actually being shot. I think this is kind of key - because
it disciplines me to write things that can actually get shot. I know that
sounds limiting, but producers tend to like being able to imagine actually
shooting something. I've directed a number of things, so I know what it's
like to be standing there with an actor looking at you or the DP looking
at you and waiting for me to figure something out. As a writer, I don't
ever create anything that somebody can't actually act and shoot and then
distribute. If it doesn't work for me as a script, I know very well it
won't work once it's being shot - so I consciously need to imagine it
actually getting done.
Lunchmeat: Class Reunion Massacre was scheduled for a
special edition dvd release to be released by Code Red, but for some reason,
it fell through. Would you had been up for a commentary if it had been
William: Absolutely. I think commentary is kind of interesting,
and a friend recently convinced me it was worth listening to for certain
films. I'm still hoping somebody will turn CRM into a DVD, because I think
it would be fun to talk about what I originally had in mind and what ended
up on screen.
Lunchmeat: Which name do you prefer - 'The Redeemer or
'Class Reunion Massacre'?
William: I actually prefer Class Reunion Massacre, because
as I've said, that's really what the film was about. I was always sort
of puzzled by "The Redeemer" title and never sure if people
even got what that meant.
Lunchmeat: A lot of people compare the film to 'Ten Little
Indians'. Do you think this is an accurate description?
William: It's a very accurate desciption. Dare I say,
most good horror movies (and bad horror movies) derive from Ten Little
Indians. As things go - to derive an idea from a great story from Agatha
Christie isn't too bad!!
Lunchmeat: If you had to pick one genre to write for,
what would it be? What subjects do you like writing about best?
William: I would say horror is a favorite. I have done
rewrites on a number of horror movies, and I always find it interesting
to see if I can make it feel fresh and different. I'm not saying I always
succeed, but my goal is always to do something that would scare me when
I saw it.
Lunchmeat: Is there anything you would have done differently
if you had a chance to undertake the script once more?
William: I'd concentrate on building the scenes and shots
before each killing so the tension would be greatly increased. I think
that's why people go to thesemovies. Secondly, I would eliminate everything
from the script that took away from that tension. Back story is fine if
it makes you care about the characters enough, but I think that can be
done very quickly and with more shorthand. That way, we can concentrate
screen time and resources to the real goal - scaring people.
Lunchmeat: Are the majority of scripts highly compromised
by the time it's all over? Are rewrites an order of the day, or do most
producers or directors stick heavily to their script?
William: All scripts are compromised by the time it's
all over. There are some scripts I've had to rewrite as many as 30 times,
but I'll confess something - since I often worry about being taken off
a film and it being given to another writer, I don't mind doing rewrites.
I feel flattered they keep having faith in me to come up with something
they can use. As to producers or directors, they tend to go with what
works for them. The smart ones work that out long before you shoot, because
the set is a really dangerous, expensive place to start trying something
new. Some directors are masters at this, but most like to have everything
worked out in advance.
Lunchmeat: For budding screenwriters out there, do you
have any sage advice you'd like to share? What are the most important
things one needs to know to have a published script?
William: I'm trying to think of something that hasn't
already been said. I do have one little trick I use that I think has always
helped me a great deal. I'll call it "The Trailer Method". Basically,
since I've cut a lot of trailers, I've come to learn the elements of how
movies get sold to the public. What I often do before writing a script
is ask myself if the script has the elements required to make a really
good trailer. I know this sounds like putting the cart way, way before
the horse, but it works very well for me, and I think it can work for
young writers as well.
You need to be honest with yourself as a writer and see if the film has
the dramatic (or comedic) elements that will eventually sell it. So you
basically imagine what a trailer of your script will look like. It's actually
not a bad way to structure a script as well, because trailers are like
"Cinematic Cliff Notes" - all the highlights that get you to
go see a certain movie in the first place. One thing I do know - if you
can't easily imagine what the trailer for your script would look and sound
like - your script probably isn't going to be very easy to write!
Lunchmeat: Ever get cases of writers block?
William: I have another trick for that. I always have
a few different things going at once. If I'm writing a script, I'm also
editing a project or writing something else. So if I get bored, or blocked,
I just switch over to the other thing. It's worked out pretty well for
me over the years.
Lunchmeat: How long does it take you to finish a script?
William: I'm pretty fast, because I like to work when
I have momentum and finish something before I get bored with it. I'm the
only one I know who wasn't amazed when Stallone said he wrote Rocky in
a few weeks. Once you've got the idea and the passion in your head, the
writing of it goes really quickly. If you don't have that stuff all worked
out, it's like walking through quicksand and it takes forever.
Lunchmeat: Is scriptwriting your first love, or was it
something you evolved into as your love for film progressed?
William: My first love was simply making movies. My dad
brought home an 8mm camera from the war - and I used it to make animations
and short films. What I did realize at a young age was that scriptwriting
was the only aspect of filmmaking one could ever hope to have any control
over. Writing your own screenplay was going to always be the perfect representation
of the idea you had in your head. Every thing you did after that was always
downhill - you had less and less control over what the actors did and
what the shot looked like.
I think that's why I've always gravitated towards directors like Ford
and Kubrick and Hitchcock, as these were guys who actually could translate
pages of a script into pretty much exactly what they wanted on film. Anybody
who's ever been through the studio system or ever been on a film set will
know just how difficult that is.
I also have made a point of following the careers of screenwriters such
as Preston Sturges and Richard Brooks, who were great screenwriters and
then became directors to better realize the stories they were writing.
One last point - writing a screenplay lets you be the director, art director,
editor, cameraman -- the works. You can do whatever you want, exactly
the way you want to. I loved that as a kid and I still love it today because,
at least in the first draft, you're doing exactly what you want to do!
What happens after that is a whole other discussion!
Lunchmeat: Some call 'The Redeemer' -aka- 'Class Reunion
Massacre a ''mean spirited film." Some say it's anti Christianity
and some say it's pro Christianity. As the writer of this enigma, can
you finally shed some light on the religious aspects of the film?
William: That's an excellent question. The first draft
of the film had nothing whatsoever to do with religion or Christianity
at all. It was a bunch of people trapped in a high school by a crazy,
who then knocks them off one at a time. If you look at the middle 60 minutes
of the film, that's pretty much what you see. The first and last ten minutes
are where most of the religious and satanic stuff are displayed.
At some point during pre-production, the producer of "The Redeemer"
must have watched "The Omen" (it had just come out ) and he
figured our movie would be better served up as some sort of devil cult
film. Either that or his distribution partner suggested that - I have
heard this as well. The producer actually drew an outline of his hand
on one of my script pages and added in a "sixth" finger. I never
exactly understood what he meant by the sixth finger (and I really don't
to this day), but I suppose it was a visual symbol to get the script more
towards Satan, devil-worship and such. (Every time I've run into Satan
since then, he's had a sixth finger, so I guess the producer knew what
he was talking about.)
As for being anti-Christian, I think you can look at this film both ways.
Having a priest mascarade as satan's helper (if we figure on the boy as
satan) can definitely be thought of as anti-christian, although I never
had that in mind when I rewrote the script. When I look back on initial
"satan" draft of the script, I think I was more trying to put
forth that the priest was using this child to further Christianity, and
stamp out the un-Christian behavior of the various victims in the film.
Cindy having her face scrubbed in the bathroom before she is drowned is
an extreme example of pushing a certain view of Christianity. When I think
of waterboarding and other forms of torture and I think of how it's justified
by those who call themselves Christians, well, that starts to point out
how the original teachings of Christianity have been subverted to justify
just about anything.
War, murder - all the lovely things we let ourselves accomplish in the
name of Christianity. I'm not a Christian myself, but I do get the feeling
Jesus would be at least somewhat appalled by things that are being done
in his name.
The finished film was not even remotely like what I had in mind, save
for a few sequences. Like the scene where they have "The Last Supper".
It's exactly what I had in mind and exactly how I wrote it into the script.
I normally don't write ideas for "shots" into my screenplays
as it tends to take up too much page space and directors don't like it,
but this was too obvious not to put in!
I think John Beymer, the DP, did a great job lighting that shot, and actually,
he did some beautiful things on a limited budget. I think he's still shooting
these days, mostly TV shows.
Most of the actors were actually very good, which again, for the budget,
was sort of shocking to me! Jeanetta is terrific and you could see this
early on what a great actress she was going to be, later proven in lots
of good film work. TG was a real find, because he figured out a way to
really inhabit the role and then he gave it all he had. I always pictured
the killer being kind of off-putting and creepy and I think that's the
performance that TG nailed.
Lunchmeat: The 70's was a very creative time for filmmakers and
writers alike. Did any films in particular influence you before you decided
to pen 'The Redeemer'?
William: I love the films of the 70's and spend an inordinate
amount of time watching movies from that period! But, in regards to The
Redeemer, you have to go a little bit further back, to a 1961 film called
"The Innocents". It was directed by Jack Clayton and written
by John Mortimer, adapting the novel "Turn Of The Screw" by
I remember watching it on TV and being utterly drawn to it. My original
idea when I wrote "the Redeemer" was to create a world where
things were not quite what they seemed, which I'll admit is kind of a
lofty goal for a slasher movie. I think the original script has a lot
of references to "The Innocents", but by the time they shot,
all of them had been pretty much filtered out.
Lunchmeat: TG Finkbinder (The Redeemer) answered some
questions for Hysteria-Lives! not too long ago. He seems to be somewhat
baffled at the recent cult following of the film. Did you ever think you
would be answering questions regarding 'The Redeemer' thirty odd years
William: Another excellent question! I'm with TG on this
one. I had no idea anybody would even remember this film. When it first
came out, I drove to Philadelphia (from NY) to see the film in a theatre.
I talked the theatre owner into giving me the original poster, which I
always figured would be the only record that this film ever existed! To
my surprise, about five years later, I was in a store with my niece, who
came running up to me, clutching a VHS box and asking, "Uncle Bill,
isn't this the movie you wrote?" I guess technology (videotapes,
DVD's and the internet) has kept certain things alive much longer than
any of us ever thought possible.
Lunchmeat: Can you give us an idea of how in-depth the
script was in regards to technicals?
William: I was a film editor when I wrote this script,
and I put in ideas for cuts here and there. But otherwise, like I said
in a previous question, I don't like to put anything in screenplays that
implies how to do a shot. There's a little bit of that, like the scene
where they all eat their last meal, as I mentioned. But for the most part,
unless I'm directing something myself and I want to remember a technical
idea, I never put anything like that in scripts.
Lunchmeat: Was the finished script a hard one to sell?
William: This was the easiest film I've ever sold. I
was a 20 year old editor working post production for the producers on
their previous film and I got friendly with one of them over the phone.
As I was in NYC and they were in DC, we never met in person. I asked him
if they were interested in looking at an idea I had for another movie
and he said yes. I then typed up the idea into a 20 page treatment, mailed
it to him and a day or two later, he called me and asked me to drive down
there and talk to them. I did and we made a deal fo rme to write a full
Lunchmeat: You already stated to me that you didn't visit
the set during the shooting of the film. Was this on orders from Producers?
William: Oh yeah. They were being very protective of
Connie Gochis, the director I think it was mostly because Connie was another
film editor who was directing his first film and he didn't want me interfering
with things. There was, as I recall, a certain amount of ugly behavior
regarding this, but, as I was to learn eventually, it was nothing out
of the ordinary. Screenwriters tend to be treated badly after they turn
a final draft in - that is, unless they know enough to stay away from
the shoot. It's a strange thing - they're all over you for a year or two
while you're rewriting and then they want you to vanish into thin air.
Lunchmeat: When you first watched the finished theatrical
version of 'The Redeemer', what were your first thoughts? Were you generally
William: My first thoughts on seeing it in a theatre
were, well, this isn't so bad, because parts of this movie work pretty
well. I think the middle 60 minutes or so is very nicely shot, acted and
cut together. The unsettling part of being able to watch this movie for
me is that the opening sequences are utterly baffling and strange and
the end of the film is the same way. This wasn't just me. The audience
I watched this movie with was utterly silent for the first 10 minutes
or so, but then got into the movie in a big way, once the victims show
up at the high school - there was lots of screaming and yelling in the
audience during the high school sequences. (I found that very gratifying
to listen to!)
Then, it was as if the screen had gone blank - utter silence in the movie
theatre after the last victim is done in. Nobody seemed to know what was
going on and they weren't really sure what the ending had to do with what
they just saw. Of course, this is all subjective, but most people I know
who have seen the film tend to. Over all, I'd say it's a sort of shame
because it could have been a really interesting film if they had kept
it as simple as it started out.
Lunchmeat: What is your take on the modern day horror
industry? Remakes, in general. I actually like a few modern remakes. I
wouldn't doubt if one day in the future, 'The Redeemer' didn't get another
try at the box office. (laughs)
William: Remakes of horror films are not always such
a hot idea. I recently watched the remake of "The Omen" on HBO,
and although it's a handsome, well-made movie, I really wasn't sure why
they remade the film. I don't think it can give us the same thrill the
original did. Also, making it on a huge budget I think is a little risky!
I think the modern horror film industry is great, that is, when they don't
forget what they're meant to do. I think films like Saw are just what
people want and that's reflected in box office and DVD sales. People who
do successful horror films today are respectful of what the genre is really
all about - capture a simple, scary idea, keep to a low budget and figure
out new, creative ways to scare the hell out of people. I think this attitude
goes all the way back to the great pros of the 40's and 50's who simply
made scary movies - and didn't try to turn them into something they weren't.
As for The Redeemer, you're being very perceptive - and I have laughed
myself about this: some people have talked to me about doing a remake
of The Redeemer, but it's never gotten past the talking stage. Which leads
to your next question .....
Lunchmeat: If someone came up to you tomorrow and asked
you to pen the script for the remake, would you do it?
William: Absolutely. I think remaking The Redeemer is
a great idea and I'd love to participate in a project like that. I think
a minimal budget, a remake would actually do very well. My feeling is
that we would go back to the original idea and concentrate on keeping
it simple and focused on what a film like this should do: scare people
as much as humanly possible. But the concept itself (people trapped inside
a high school for a fake class reunion) is easy to update and no doubt
would appeal to the same audiences that flock to movies like "Saw".
Lunchmeat: Ever worked on anything else that we would
like to know about? What's been spouting from the pen as of late?
William: I have one script that has been in development
forever that I still would love to see made. It's called "She Kills
Me" and it's a love story and comedy about a female hit woman from
Brooklyn who falls in love with one of her intended victims (without knowing
who he is), a guy who writes jingles for TV commercials. It's a very sweet
story and definitely the best thing I've done. All kinds of good actors
and directors have been attached to it over the years - but obviously
not enough to get it green-lit.
It was just optioned again, but it's been optioned so many times, I'm
trained not to get too excited about it.
Another script I just put out there is one I wrote with a friend called
"Gottem Gottem Needem", set in 1963 in the world of 10 year
old boys collecting and gambling baseball trading cards. It's very close
to my heart - one of those scripts that was just fun to write and would
be fun to shoot.
Lunchmeat: Name three favorite horror films.
William: Tough one, as I think I have more than three,
2. The Innocents
3. Carnival of Souls
Lunchmeat: Lastly, thanks again for taking time out of
your schedule to answer our questions. Class Reunion Massacre is something
of an enigma against some of the horror films of yesterday, and your answers
really shed all the light needed to finally see why The Redeemer turned
out the way it did. We wish you the best in all endeavors can't wait for
any future projects you have in store.
William: Thanks for thinking of me.
review of CLASS REUNION MASSACRE
and the interview with TG Finkbinder.