Oh what a damn good feature we have for you good readers today! Today we have an absolute legend joining the TWS family. Michael A. Simpson is a legendary figure in the world of cinema. His work in the Sleepaway Camp series and the campy classic Funland, has earned him a cult like following in the world of horror alone. He has also worked as a producer on several other amazing projects such as the Jeff Bridges fronted drama Crazy Heart. The list goes on and on, and just gets more and more impressive.
We could not be more honored to have him featured in our Month of Horror series. This is one of the greats people, you’re going to love it! So with that, please enjoy some words from the great Michael A. Simpson!
When did you first discover your love for the world of film and television? How far back does this passion go for you?
I enjoyed watching movies even as a child. We had a cinema in the town where I grew up. It was a baby sitting service on Saturday afternoons showing a double feature matinee. My mom would drop me and my brother off and we would watch movies while she cleaned house and bought groceries. Many of the movies were horror films.
When I was seven or eight, over dinner after an afternoon at the cinema, I asked my parents how do you make movies. They said they were made in a place called Hollywood, which sounded to me like some far away place like Neverland. I asked if I could make movies. To their eternal credit, they told me I could do anything I wanted to, and yes, if I wanted to make movies when I grew up I could.
I also watched a lot of classic horror films on television. On Friday nights in Atlanta we had the Big Movie Shocker hosted by Bestoink Dooley, a deliciously warped persona created by local actor George Ellis. George was part of the first wave of late-night TV horror hosts, and for my money, one of the best. He guided me through my first experiences with The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Cat People, and many others. I’d often toss and turn in bed for hours afterward, scared out of my young mind by what I had just watched. As I grew older, that fascination with horror stayed with me.
You were involved with two of my favorite horror sequels of all time, the brilliant Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers & Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland. What was it like jumping on board after the cult success of the first Sleepaway Camp? Was there a bit of pressure when you realized you were building a franchise?
For me, it was more a sense of excitement that pressure. The main goal we had for the sequels was to extend the story arc by developing Angela’s character. I was intrigued by the idea of taking her gender orientation and pushing it out so that by the time of the sequels Angela had gone through a sex change and was now transgendered. For me, that felt very fresh. To my knowledge no one had done that with slasher horror.
We also wanted a different tone than the original. We added self-referential humor to break the tension, which later became sort of the thing to do with slasher horror.
And where some other personal touches that were important for you to have in Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland to truly make it your own? What made this story a Michael A. Simpson visual tale?
The pop culture references became one of the signatures of the sequels. We put “camp” into movies with perverse, dark, campy humor. It’s something you either love or hate, but I liked it.
I was intrigued by the idea of setting a slasher stalking movie in daylight in the woods, instead of at night. It was a challenge in some ways but it was also a great way to set Teenage Wasteland apart from Unhappy Campers.
I also liked the introspective, almost melancholy beat in Wasteland with Angela’s daydream. That was not at all common in slasher horror. It was an idea the editor John Allen came up with. It gave an odd humanity to Angela as a character. John later edited Fast Food for me and then went on to edit for some great directors like Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Bruce Beresford. A very talented guy.
Although we had a very small budget I wanted the best gore and makeup effects we could afford. We found a young man, Bill Johnson, who was literally creating effects in his parents basement and had no film credits, but he was very creative and had great ideas when he read the script.
I was impressed by what he did for the budget we had. He earned the nickname “Splat” on those two films, which stuck.
Splat went on to provide make up effects and prosthetic design for dozens of films through the years, like Pet Sematary II, Boxing Helena, and RoboCop 3. Last I heard he was Make Up Effects Department Head for the remake of Jacob’s Ladder. He’s made quite a name for himself.
Prior to Unhappy Campers, you worked on a little film that was actually the reason I was so eager to do this interview with you. You created the comedy thriller (of sorts) with Bonnie and Terry Turner known as Funland. I have to tell you, it wasn’t Stephen King’s It that put a fear of clowns into me as a youth, it was this god damned movie! Looking back, I realize it is just a brilliant campy masterpiece. So, where in the recesses of yours and the Turners mind did this come from? And what compelled you to tell this story?
I thought up the idea for the film while working for Six Flags Over Georgia. I was recently out of college and had a job in the marketing department.
The park had a promotional tie-in with McDonald’s. The regional Ronald McDonald did an in-park appearance one weekend.
At lunch, RD insisted that he eat alone behind a closed door. He said he didn’t want anyone to see him if his make-up wasn’t perfect, and he didn’t want anyone to see him with his gloves off. Later, walking through the park, I asked if it was difficult walking in such big clown shoes. Without missing a beat, he said they’re not big, they’re the perfect size.
That was the moment Bruce Burger was born, a character who had no self-awareness that he was a clown. He was Bruce Burger, not a clown.
I wrote a detailed treatment for the film based on that premise and beat out the scenes and other characters. Bruce Mahler’s character Mike Spencer was based on me. In the movie, Mahler even looks a bit like how I looked when I worked for the park.
I met Bonnie and Terry when they were working for Turner Broadcasting, writing for the Bill Tush Show. This was very early in their careers. So many people referred to them collectively as “Bonnie and Terry Turner” that the first line of their resume read “Bonnie and Terry Turner are not the same person.” That made me laugh.
Along with Jim Varney, they’re two of the funniest people I’ve ever known. I thought they would be perfect for Funland, and my belief was justified. They were amazing to work with.
Their draft of the script was done at a fevered pace, almost like stream of consciousness over the course of just two weeks or so. We had agreed that the three of us would write the script and share credit together, but the draft they turned in was so good I had very little work to do, mostly editing and tweaking a line here and there.
Some of the lines in the movie still make me laugh, like Terry Beaver’s character Carl Dimauro chiding his brother Larry for “coming to work without your tools” when Larry forgets to bring his gun. And Robert Sacchi is still mesmerizing as Bogie.
Funny story. When we finished the script I sent it to the financier of the film, who read it on a beach while on vacation in the Bahamas. He goes back to his hotel room and calls me and the first words out of his mouth were: “Where are the tits?”
He thought he was financing a teen comedy and we had turned in a very dark comedy. Since he was the money bags, we had to go back in and insert some typical teen comedy, which I believe ultimately hurt the film by taking it away from it’s more inventive premise: a deranged clown who takes revenge when the mob takes over the amusement park.
Over the years, I’ve thought about doing a director’s cut of Funland and re-editing it to focus more clearly on Bruce Burger. That’s the movie I wanted to make then and it’s the one that I think fans of the film would want to see. I’ve been encouraged to do and it’s on my to do list if I ever have the time.
The Turners knew Jan Hooks, who had also been on Tush’s show, and I hired Jan for the role of Shelly Willingham in the film. When Jan went to SNL right after Funland, she got Bonnie and Terry hired as staff writers for the show. The rest is history.
The Turners helped create the SNL “Wayne’s World” skits with Mike Myers and then the Wayne’s World movie, which was the Turners’ next film after Funland, then they wrote Coneheads and Tommy Boy. They also created several series including 3rd Rock from the Sun and That ’70s Show, which they created with Mark Brazill, another remarkable comic talent.
Bonnie and Terry walked away from the business around 2006 or so. They are missed. Good humans.
What is it about the horror genre specifically that appeals to you? What do you personally believe sets it apart from so many other genres?
There’s something very primal and visceral about great horror. Cary Jung believed horror taps into primordial archetypes buried in our collective subconscious. Because of that, I think the emotions of horror are amplified when presented visually. We are literally creating and presenting nightmares for us to confront that are buried deep in all of us.
Also, horror often starts from a point of shared experience that the audience can relate to, like going to a summer camp. So there’s this intrinsic paradox, in that a great horror films are both relatable, yet unrealistic.
And let’s face it, there’s a great release in being scared out of our wits while on the journey we take when watching a movie.
Fans of horror are very loyal. In that way, they remind me of country music fans. I love to hear from the happy campers. I’ve received emails from people who first saw the Sleepaway sequels when they were in their teens and then years later shared them with their own teenage children.
What is your favorite scary movie?
Probably depends on my mood. I love Phantasm (1979). I first saw it with my brother; we were both stoned in a theater in downtown Atlanta that had gone to seed. The place reeked of alcohol and piss. Street people were sleeping around us. So much crime was happening in the theater that the manager refused to dim the lights while the movie played. All of that just added to the weird, other worldly quality of the film.
Also, the remake of The Thing with Kurt Russell holds up well for me. The original Hellraiser also comes to mind.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a favorite. I had the pleasure of working with Kevin McCarthy on Fast Food. He shared some great stories about the making of Snatchers. And the film still seems like a very timely and astute social commentary. Given what’s going on in our country’s current political climate, I sometimes wonder if millions of us have been replaced by pod people.
Do you have any plans for this coming Halloween? Any sort of traditions you try to uphold each year?
No plans. I’m pretty spontaneous when it comes to Halloween.
What does the future hold for you? Any upcoming projects you would like to tell our readers about?
My producer partner Judy Cairo and I are just finishing a film, Candy Jar, which is a comedy directed by Ben Shelton, who is someone who is going to be on everyone’s radar. It will be available for your eyeballs in 2018.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
My wife came in and kissed my while I was doing this interview.