Filmways Pictures' Campaign Manual (which was sent to theatres and press to help promote the film) said, “For years the story of the Cropsy maniac has struck terror in the minds of summer campers. Now, in Filmways Pictures' ultimate horror film, “The Burning,” the terror becomes a reality.”
The Weinstein bothers – Harvey and Bob – may now be famous (or perhaps infamous might be a better term) for Miramax, but back in 1980 they were desperate to break into the movie business. Harvey had heard the stories about Cropsy when he was a young camper in New York State. He said, “It remained so vivid in my mind all these years I knew a film had to be made from it.” One of the film's eventual producers, Michael Cohl, told Variety, “Harvey Weinstein and I kept saying we should be in the film business for two years and we kept swapping horror stories. So, we thought a good way to get our feet wet was to get into a cheap feature.”
Harvey Weinstein claims that the project was initiated before the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH, so therefore it was not a rip-off. There is some truth to his claim. In fact, Harvey Weinstein created a five page treatment in 1979 under the title THE CROPSY MANIAC, and registered it in 1980 a full month before Sean Cunningham's movie came out. Perhaps the success of John Carpenter's seminal slasher HALLOWEEN (1978) was a truer catalyst. However, it seems a safe bet that the eventual film was moulded to fit the emerging graphic slasher movie formula – especially in light of FRIDAY THE 13TH's stellar box office. In fact, according to the eventual director it was still called THE CROPSY MANIAC when he came on board and said that early promotional artwork was prepared under that name before the switch to THE BURNING title (although none has ever surfaced to the best of my knowledge).
Strangely, there does not actually seem to be a copyright record of the film under the title it was to become infamous as. Co-incidentally, director Joseph Ellison also had a film in pre-production under the title THE BURNING as far back as 1979. That film became DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (which was released in 1980). It is believed that Ellison changed the name when he discovered that the Weinstens were now using it; even though his application seems to pre-date theirs.
Michael Cohl, one of the producers of the film, told Variety that he, Harvey Weinstein and Corky Burger took an early version of the script to the Cannes festival in 1980, “... and passed it around to positive reaction.” Cohl says they rejected offers at the time (reportedly in six figures), hoping to make more money on a sale once the film had lensed.
The Weinstein production also almost scuppered another slasher movie. In late summer 1980, during a casting call for what would become MADMAN, one of the actresses commented that her boyfriend was acting in THE BURNING. Both films were based on the Cropsy urban legend. This caused pre-production to halt whilst they worked out if the world could handle two Cropsys. In the end, the story was altered, with Cropsy morphing into Madman Marz. Filming was delayed until October 1980, but this delay appeared to cost them as MADMAN didn't get a theatrical release until 1982 (one of the unfortunate side-effects of the slasher movie boom in the early 1980s was that many subgenre films struggled to get any kind of release in what quickly became an over-saturated market).
Tony Maylam is a British director, who made his name directing some rock music documentaries in the 1970s, as well as the Michael York vehicle RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1979). Harvey Weinstein and the wonderfully named Corky Burger – who became the executive in charge of production on THE BURNING – were both working as rock promoters, which is how they crossed paths with Maylam. Despite Harvey Weinstein now saying that THE BURNING is the worst film he ever worked on (ignoring some of his more deserving turkeys), back then he was determined to make his version of the Cropsy Maniac story. Maylam describes Harvey and his brother as “driven”, and noted their inherent skill at knowing what would work commercially. It is clear that the decision to make what would become THE BURNING was steeped more in this desire to succeed than bringing a cherished campfire tale to the big screen.
During his discussion with film critic Alan Jones on the commentary track of MGM's region 1 disc (MGM inherited most of Orion's back catalogue (which had previously been Filmways Pictures)) Maylam said that once he came on board things moved very quickly. Indeed, he said that the screenplay was written in just six weeks (and confirms that it was written to conform to the emerging subgenre conventions of the time). As it was, the film takes place mostly outside and is set in summer, so there was only a small window of opportunity to make the film or, perhaps, have to wait until the following year (although faking seasons in slasher movies was nothing new, just look at HALLOWEEN). More likely, soon-to-be-astute businessmen, the Weinsteins probably knew that the slasher craze wouldn't last forever and wanted to get in there before it fizzled out (and may have been aware that other similar movies were in pre-production).
Harvey Weinstein rather grandly declared himself the “creator” of THE BURNING, as well as being credited for the story (along with Tony Maylam and Brad Grey). According to the production notes the screenplay was written by Peter Lawrence and Harvey's brother Bob. Again, showing a knowledge of the then in-vogue conventions of the slasher movie, Harvey insisted on a murder every ten minutes, or so, in the script. Maylam claims that he came up with the idea of Cropsy carrying garden shears and using them to trim the teen population down to size (as it had not been utilised before in the slasher movie and gave the film somewhat of a novel edge).
Back then, the fledgling Miramax was so small that the Weinstein's mother helped out in the office (the name of the company was an amalgamation of her name (Mira) and their father's (Max)). Jean Ubaud raised the needed finances, with half of the investment coming from the Far East and the other half from investors local to Buffalo (all of whom made money on the project according to Michael Cohl). The budget is variously reported to have been between $500,000 and $1.5 million (although the latter is more often cited). Cohl admits that the fact that most of the people behind the production were relatively new to the movie business did cause some problems, and the film did go over budget – with them underestimating how much money would have to be spent on behind-the-scenes elements.
Joy Todd did most of the casting in New York in the spring (including casting her own daughter, Amy Segull, as Rhoda), and Maylam met most of the cast. There was a remarkably quick turnaround, as the start date for filming was 18th August, 1980 (although some shooting may have taken place prior to this date).
“Todd is described as 19, Michelle and Eddy 18, Karen is late teens. Here's what it says about my character: Marnie is 15 and very aware for her age. It is clear she can take care of herself. (3 speeches, 7 lines, 10 scenes). Holly Hunter's role is slated for 1 speech and 3 scenes. Not sure if that's how it ended up in the final.”
They chose Brian Matthews and Leah Ayres partly because they fitted the roles of the clean-cut camp counsellors, who were not that much older than their charges. Ayres already had a successful small screen career. Maylam reportedly insisted that Matthews dyed his hair brown, as he didn't think he would look macho enough with sandy blonde locks!
Larry Joshua got a part as one of the kids at the camp, even though he was actually older in real life than either Matthews or Ayres; he told me: “I didn't know it at the time or think of it, but I guess I was.” Like many of the cast, it was his first role – but led to a long and successful career mostly on the small screen.
Joy Todd also gathered the rest of the young cast during a series of auditions. Shelley Bruce had just come off a successful stint as Annie on Broadway. Brian Backer had appeared briefly in the teen comedy MEATBALLS (1979), which also starred Jack Blum who also went on to play an odd-ball character in a slasher called Alfred (in that case HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981)). Ned Eisenberg, who said, Joy Todd had encouraged him early in his career, had already appeared in cult film THE EXTERMINATOR (1980) and Bonnie Deroski had been in the Alan Arkin comedy SIMON (1980). For some of the soon-to-be-stars, such as Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, and Fisher Stevens this was their first big screen appearance – if certainly not their last. Bonnie Deroski reflected on this film, “I remember that Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens put a lot of work into making the comedy work. The script as written was really not funny at all. They basically rewrote most of those scenes; the whole Abbott and Costello bit, etc. It was obvious that Jason was extremely talented.” She went on to say, “I think this film was a remarkable on-camera starting point for so many people. Because the director was British and the producers had never worked in film before, I think they took risks in casting inexperienced actors. But clearly someone had a very good eye for talent. This movie may not have ended up with a sequel, but it birthed Tony and Oscar Award winning talent.”
The Weinsteins and Tony Maylam also secured the services of make-up supremo Tom Savini, who they flew to Pittsburgh to meet; who had worked such magic on FRIDAY THE 13TH earlier in the year. Maylam said that the Weinsteins wanted to go as far as they could with the cinematic violence in the film. This slasher movie one-upmanship was popular in the genre until MPAA put an end to the fun. Savini famously turned down the chance to work on FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981), ostensibly because he couldn’t understand the logic that Jason was fully grown and was now the killer (as well as what he described as “miscommunications” with the film's backers). He also said that he liked the script for THE BURNING more. Whether this was true, or whether the pay check offered by the Weinsteins was bigger is open conjecture. Regardless, Savini contributed, once again, some still remarkable gore effects; which would turn out to be both the film’s blessing – and its curse.
Interestingly, the film originally had a different ending – or at least a variation of the one that was shot. A script that was handed to the cast (and thank you to Bonnie Deroski for letting me see some of it) shifts the location to one much more in setting with a summer camp slasher. Originally, the showdown was to take place in a boathouse. The other big change is that Todd ends up as the Final Boy and Alfred is killed by Cropsy. The script (which was dated from 6 July, 1980) reads:
“He recoils in absolute fear and horror, for there tangled in a net sling, is ALFRED's corpse, its face split open by CROPSY's shears and bulging through the net meshing. As it swings, suspended from the overhead block, one bloody arm dangles to the floor. TODD backs away hesitantly from the body, gazing at it with horror and disbelief.”
Other changes included an excised character named Alan, who was to be the love interest for Tiger (although this came as news to Shelley Bruce!).
This version also ends with a campfire scene, but the last line is different:
“...And every year he seeks revenge for the terrible things those kids did to him ... every year he kills!