Interview by Tony Brown - June 10, 2009
Q: What do you remember filming for the prologue opening that got you the job of directing SPM?
A: The opening I shot and gave as a reel to Corman, which got me the job, had a Ouija scene in it. I don't have a copy. He probably tossed it out. We couldn't use it in the film because I'd done it with non-SAG actors. The same actor was the killer, however. It looked far fancier than the final film because my husband, a famous cinematographer [Michael Chapman], shot it. He didn't shoot Slumber Party, so it was a good deal more primitive.
Shooting the opening was great fun. We had a tiny crew including myself, my husband and our neighbor Howard Chesley who took sound. We shot it in the house we were renting in the Venice canals. As I now remember, it was a tarot reading among hippies with a bad outcome, (probably the death card), suspense as you sensed someone was in the yard, a series of deaths in the house. I remember creating the special effect ourselves of a knife or hatchet going into a head using a styrofoam head and wig. It worked surprisingly well. We did it in two or three nights and it was about 8 minutes long. I cut it on Joe Dante's flatbed as he was doing The Howling and he lent me some cues for the temp dub, also done on the KEM. All this would be easy today with HD. The cast were students, non SAG, which doomed the thing to never be used.
Q: So, the opening you shot was originally intended to be a completely different movie? If so, what was the original title and plot if it was something different from SPM?
A: The opening was a rewritten version of the opening of the Rita Mae Brown script, Don't Open the Door, which I did a huge rewrite on later to make SPM. It was a "prologue" establishing the killer years earlier. I don't really remember Rita's draft. The bones of it were similar but it was a big rewrite. I didn't take screenplay credit and it was the first thing I ever wrote.
Q: Was there anything scripted, but not shot, or anything you wanted to do but weren’t able to? Also, any deleted footage that’s collecting dust anywhere? I know Corman likes his movies short and sweet.
A: There is little missing footage. We had to stretch to make the 90 minutes as I recall [the movie only runs 76 minutes long]. There was a different ending. We reshot to punch it up. It must have been lame because I can't remember it. I think it was the same but without the pool. We ruined that pool with the reshoot but it was fun.
Q: What recollections do you have about Robin Stille (Valerie)? As you may know, she tragically committed suicide in 1996, leaving behind her two sons – and it remains a mystery to many exactly why she had such a troubled life.
A: Robin was calm, easy and hard working. She was delightful. It's incomprehensible to me that she ended up taking her own life. Something must have happened after I knew her. She had beauty and talent and was decent and kind.
Q: What was it like working with Michelle Michaels (Trish), Jennifer Meyers (Courtney), and Gina Mari (Diane) – and do you know what they’re doing today or keep in touch with anyone from the movie? I’ve been in touch with Debra DeLiso before, and Andree Honore has her own YouTube Channel!
A: I didn't keep in touch with any of the girls. None of them were terribly good actresses, I'm afraid, but they were all sweet as could be. Hilarious that Andree has her own YouTube channel. I don't think any of them had careers. The red headed tall boy who dies in the garage [Jim Boyce] had a long career in commercials. Michael Villela, the killer, went back to his day job as a hairdresser. You could probably find him and I bet he'd love to talk about the film.
Q: My friend Devon recently took a trip to many of the filming locations for SPM, but can you recall where Coach Jana’s house was located (exterior and interior)? Also, can you recall any interiors that were shot separate from the exteriors?
A: I don't know where the coach's house was, but probably nearby. We tried not to move much as it ate up time. The film was shot in 20 days and moving an entire company is a waste. The grade school was in Venice and is still there [Mark Twain Middle School]. I believe it's on Beethoven.
Q: To the best of my knowledge, SPM was either one of the last films released by New World Pictures or one of the first films released by a different company of Roger Corman’s. Who distributed the movie, and do you have any clue as to why the Paramount logo opened and closed the movie when it appeared on IFC in 2005? That print, by the way, is the best looking I’ve seen and also says “1981” at the end – maybe an early print?
A: Roger distributed it. I thought it was New World. He sold it all over the world. Someone told me they saw the poster in Egypt. I once asked him how he did with it and he told me he made a great deal of money. It was mainly a drive in movie at the time and became a cult film later.
Q: A few years back, I got in touch with one of the actors who did the knockoff film, The Last Slumber Party. They claimed there were legal troubles between their film and your film, but The Last Slumber Party (from my understanding) started out as a student film around 1981 and was finally finished and released straight-to-video in 1987. The actor ignored my future questions, but is there any truth to this? We all know which movie is superior…
A: I never heard of the film. Many times things come into existence simultaneously and it seems like one stole from the other but it's just chance. Among my own films, Indecent Proposal and Honeymoon in Vegas were like that. This film, however, sounds like a knock off. I don't think it did any business so who cares? Especially since Corman specialized in knock offs.
Q: Were you ever approached to do the sequel or had any knowledge of it, before or during its conception?
A: I had moved on before they did the sequel, I think. I wouldn't have done it. One exploitation film was enough. I was probably doing or had done Love Letters, going to festivals with it etc. by then. Love Letters only got a small release but did well on video and TV considering what it cost ($400,000).
Q: How much involvement did Roger Corman have, if any, in the actual filming of SPM?
A: Corman watched the first day's dailies, decided I knew what I was doing and left me completely alone. He also had very few notes on the final film, which he loved from the start. It had, he told me, the best preview in New World history up to that time. It was a wild one on Hollywood Blvd. The guy behind me kept making a sound like a drill. But overall, people went nuts. Roger spoiled me as later in my career it was a total shock when I realized I would never have that kind of control again.
Q: SPM was originally intended as a parody of horror movies. What and how much changed from the original script, and was Rita Mae Brown the original writer?
A: Rita Mae Brown wrote the original script called Don't Open the Door. It was not really a parody. I put the humor in there. It was changed enormously. I did a page one rewrite. The architecture was her's. The idea of a slumber party, a driller killer etc. and it could be argued she is responsible for the subtext, which I think is about a virgin's fear of sex. IE, who is that guy and what is he going to do to me with that big drill? Basically, anything that is funny is mine. Every death was also created by me and all details like the bodies in the trunk, refrigerator, etc. plus every single set piece death. I am particularly proud of the death in the gym at school, the garage stuff, the comedy lines like "he's so cold" "is the pizza?" and the intercut scene with Robin watching television and the boy killed outside. I wish I had a copy of the original script. Rita might have it.
Q: Was nudity a big issue while filming? I understand some actresses taped over their breasts during the shower scene, and Michelle Michaels had to step in when Gina Mari refused to do nudity.
A: Nudity was required by Roger. The girls were good about it as I recall. I told them the first time I saw each one in casting what the deal was and all agreed. No one backed out. Roger was always more interested in nudity than sex scenes.
Q: What aspect of the movie are you most proud of?
A: I am proud of the film despite the way I was lambasted in the press at the time. It is the only slasher film directed by a woman. I did extensive interviews in a film doc on slasher films that you might like [yes, I did like it!] called Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. I directed four features and it was the most fun to make. I believe it is feminist in that the underlying fear is a female one, the fear of sex with a guy. And I think it's genuinely funny. I hate the primitive lighting but we did the best we could with what we had. The total budget was $200,000. The score, done by my brother Ralph Jones, works wonderfully and was done on a hundred dollar casio synthesizer. To this day, if you put it in front of an audience, I swear they are entertained. The only preview that was half as fun was for Beethoven, which I massively rewrote. It is a comedy also and making people laugh is the best.
Q: What was your favorite scene to film and favorite to watch?
A: My favorite scenes to film and watch were the death in the gym and the one mentioned above, with Robin watching TV. I also like the girl's eating the pizza over the body and the end with Robin trying to find a big drill bit, then nailing poor Michael V.
Q: I’m sure this was just a marketing decision, but girls that aren’t even in the movie are featured on the poster artwork. Do you have any interesting stories about that?
A: I shot the poster myself long after we were done shooting. During production the picture was called Sleepless Nights. Roger had me put a classy title on the script for casting and getting locations, but he named the film himself. He told me he wanted this kind of poster, described it and I got the girls and shot it. The original actresses either weren't available or weren't free. No one cares. The poster is considered a classic.
Q: How successful was SPM theatrically and on video, and did it ever play on TV besides IFC? Do you feel it paved the way for you?
A: SPM did nothing for my career. At that time, all the studios wanted were middle aged male directors. The only women directing were related to men in the business or stars themselves. And critically, slasher movies were looked down on as trash. I got not one job offer, so I sat down and wrote Love Letters specifically to be an "art film", thinking that might get me work. Read a lot of Pinter scripts before doing it and ran the story by Roger whose only note was to make sure it had the commercial hook of nudity. He loved that film, too and it remains the only one he ever directly financed. Love Letters didn't get me work either. Not one call. I sat down and wrote Mystic Pizza to be my Diner. Sam Goldwyn Jr. was the first person I worked for as a director after Roger an he treated me like dirt, lied to me, tried to steal the script, sued me to sign a contract that gave him the film forever for five thousand dollars. The Writer's Guild ultimately got him to pay me, but he chose a man who had never directed before to direct it and I lost it. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. The finished film, however, gave me a career as a writer. That was all anyone would hire me to do, so that is what I became. Eventually I got used to that life and no longer tried to direct. I think The Rich Man's Wife is my weakest film because my heart wasn't in it any more. I preferred writing.
Q: You directed three movies after SPM and also wrote such movies as Maid to Order, Mystic Pizza, Beethoven, and The Relic. What facet of the film industry do you most enjoy – writing or directing? And I also noticed you started out as an editor on Roger Corman movies – what was that experience like?
A: I worked as an editor on Joe Dante and Alan Arkush's first film Hollywood Boulevard and that was a blast. I was payed dirt, however. But I learned a lot. My next big editing teacher was Hal Ashby. I cut a horrible film he directed called Second Hand Hearts, but he taught me every editing trick in the book in an effort to save it. As they say in that field, however, you can shine and shine, but you can't shine shit.
Q: What is it like being married to famous cinematographer, Michael Chapman? He’s worked on such classics as Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Lost Boys, and Ghostbusters 2.
A: Michael and I have been together 35 years. We're very well suited to each other. I regret that he didn't shoot any of my movies. It was impossible at the time because if he had, people would have said he also directed them. I couldn't have lived with that. It was unfair as they never said that when he shot films for male first time directors. I knew this would happen because the only thing he shot for me was the prologue I used to get SPM. It looked great. But I know for a fact several people who saw it implied Michael had directed it. He did not. But the writing was on the wall.
Q: Anything you’d like to add about SPM or anything at all?
A: I don't believe I have any stills from Slumber Party, which is a shame. We had no still photographer on set. That was an unnecessary expense. I have a DVD of the film, but I fear it will soon be lost forever to time. Roger isn't good about preserving prints. He is approachable and you might be able to get him to agree to an interview request. Good luck and keep in touch.
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