Bruce Campbell talks about why he’s happy not to be a part
By Barry Meyer
Ever since the Hollywoodland sign sprang up on the Los Angeles hillsides, millions of starry-eyed hopefuls have swarmed to the sunny coast for a self-entitled shot at fame and fortune. Young ingénues eagerly don their finest mid-drift baring blouses and hunky hopefuls strap on their most indulgent slacks, all in hopes that one day their images will be hung in lights and their faces will be lathered across the pages of the top running gossip rags (preferably the photos would be of them canoodling gap-mouthed and wild-eyed with Tom Cruise – that goes for both ingénue and lad).
And then there is that strange breed of actor who steps earnestly and coolly over the gold-plated sidewalk-stars and cemented handprints, searching the strip for some cheap cigar-chomping B-movie producer who appreciates the… uh… less refined aspects of contemporary moviedom.
Well, okay… there aren’t many of that breed in existence, because, let’s face it – who strives for the Bronze Medal? Who would endeavor to eek out a career filled with relative obscurity? Who would choose B-movie notoriety over a lifetime pass to every Paparazzi encrusted red carpet stretched out across the sunny 31st state (that’s California)? There aren’t many who would willingly schlep all the way to the land of glitz and glamour just to steer clear of the beautiful self-aggrandizing herd of Oscar-clingers playing box-office bingo. That is, unless your name is Bruce Campbell.
If you’re scratching your head and wondering “just who in the hell is this Bruce Campbell?” then I can only suggest that while you were clawing your way through the newsstand shelves for the latest on Britney & Kevin in Us Weekly or OK!, you may have unwittingly clutched onto this little mag instead (in that case, run to the nearest TV set and sanitize yourself with an episode of Access Hollywood). But for those of us, the luckily initiated, the mere mention of Mr. Campbell’s name could send us into foot-stomping squeals of delight as we rush down to the local 2nd run movie house, or set us off blissfully Goggling our laptops for “Ash” “chainsaws” and “Ellen.” For us fans of the oft-canceled television show and humble B-movie fare, Bruce Campbell is a living legend.
Like Vincent Price before him, Campbell embraces the unfettered freedoms of the small cinema. For Campbell, the small cinema is home; a place where studio heads, and other assorted stuffed-shirts, are less likely to intercede; a place where Bruce can do what Bruce wants to do; where he can be the big chin in the small pond. Sure, he enjoys the fresh faces on young directors and producers full of eager imagination. But mostly, the Indie world is one where Campbell knows he can be his most creative. And like B-movie legend Vincent Price, Campbell has become one of the most fascinating and recognizable faces on the Cult movie scene.
No doubt he has the chiseled-jaw looks and the smoothly-toned wit of a classic Hollywood star – which would indubitably qualify him for Harrison Ford-like stardom – but Campbell wants as little to do with big Hollywood as he can possibly get away with. He’s not one for the brand of snobbery that’s bought with a home in Beverly Hills, or the spurious Royalty that’s procured with frequent visits to the Oprah stage. Even though he collects a pretty paycheck from the Hollywood Bank of Suspended Disbelief, Campbell keeps a healthy contempt for Hollywood. And with a reproachful tongue planted firmly in cheek, he’s able to spit out the uproarious fictional autobiography Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way which details the challenges of being a cult artist in a plastic-coated world.
Penny Blood: You've become quite the hyphenate these days: actor-producer-director-writer-documentarian. I can go on.
Bruce Campbell: Well… you know… just trying to keep the wheel in the air. It's just sometimes opportunities come up. The longer I stick around in this business, the more I find that I can do some of that stuff myself – I don't need to have all these other people hanging about. You know, I've worked with plenty of hack directors, so why not be my own hack director? I've read lots of shitty dialogue, so why not write my own shitty dialogue? If I'm staying in that low-budget world, you usually don't have that many people with that much experience. So, I found that "Alright, step aside, I'll do it myself." (laughs)
PB: Might as well cut out the middle-man and take control yourself.
Bruce: Pretty much. The writing thing presented itself. I did the first book (If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a "B" Movie Actor) and that allowed me to do a second book. It's an opportunity that allows me to stay at my home in Oregon more often.
PB: That second book "How To Make Love The Bruce Campbell Way" is out as a book-on-tape (actually a book-on-CD).
Bruce: Yeah, that's a good one for those long commutes.
PB: Six CDs worth of drive time! Is the audio production ver batim from the book?
Bruce: It sure as heck is! That's the one thing we wanted to do is not to give the people some pared down, cheese ball version of the book. This is it! You could sit down and read along in the book - if you really wanted to.
PB: Besides being a straight read from the book, the audio production is done like a radio play, with sound effects and voice actors.
Bruce: Exactly! That's why the tagline of the CDs is "You've read the book. Now hear the movie."
PB: Very clever.
Bruce: Here's what I want to encourage people to do… you know, in this high tech society - where everyone has all this great gear now - sit down and crank it up! That's what I have to say. Like an old radio show, just sit down and get comfortable for a few hours a night… or however you wanna do it. You know, now people just download it. But however you do it; it's all good by me.
PB: Are you a fan of those old time radio programs?
Bruce: Yeah! Sam Raimi and I used to have a show on Friday mornings in high school. We would do recordings at his house, because his dad had a pretty cool cassette deck. Other friends would have little bits of equipment and tape we could use; and we'd buy patch cords and figure out pretty much how to do stuff. So, now these CDs are just a higher version of all that.
PB: You and your friends also did your fair share of Super 8 movie making, too.
BRUCE: Yeah! A bunch of Super 8 amateur movies. That's the stuff that really got us going. We'd just hit the end of high school and we said "Holy shit! We have to do something for a living!"
PB: And you chose film.
BRUCE: Yes. Crazy as it is.
PB: Were you a big movie geek when you were a kid?
BRUCE: I was a movie fan, but I'd have to say that I was more interested in doing it than watching it. I've got friends who are far more interested in watching it, and they're encyclopedic in their film knowledge. But, I couldn't tell you who won what Academy Award and in what year – I don't care about all that. You know, when I saw a movie for the first time, I said "I wanna be doing that - not watching it!" I wanted take a more proactive roll.
PB: In your movies and writing, though, you certainly demonstrate an admiration and an appreciation of those films you grew up watching. Stuff like the action and Sci Fi flicks from the 50s and 60s - your enjoyment of those comes out in The Man with the Screaming Brain (Campbell’s feature film directorial debut).
BRUCE: Yeah, I've been injected with the cheese ball miasma – what ever that means. It's just that I like stuff that's alternative. I don't wanna see anything that I can see on an airplane. [deadpan] But that's just personal taste.
PB: You weren't quit in the Star Wars generation, were you?
BRUCE: No, no. I was a little older. I'm more like mid-1960s kid. I was like ten years older than that generation. Some kids had that as their first "big movie" experience in '77 or when ever that was. My time was the mid-60s seeing the "big" movies in a small downtown Detroit theater.
PB: Star Wars was a very important movie to many, but to some, like myself, it ushered in a new wave of moviemaking that emphasized style over story. I suspect you may have felt the same way.
BRUCE: Yeah, that one did kinda change everything - didn't it? It got us into the blockbuster world. Between – what that and Jaws, you know.? But the great irony is, that all those rebel filmmakers—George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Coppola – all three of them single-handedly created the blockbuster. Between The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars, they basically ruined the business for what they all originally set out to do. It's pretty hilarious how the big wheel of Karma turns. Now these guys couldn't even make an independent movie. Heck, they wouldn't even know one if it bit 'em in the ass! Can you believe that George Lucas - the guy who gave us Jar Jar Binks is the same guy who brought us American Graffiti? I can't believe it's the same guy who did both movies.
PB: That's quite a contrast.
BRUCE: Yeah. Some big changes going on in that life.
PB: Do you like indie movies better?
BRUCE: I like indie movies, but I like the indies with the small eye. I mean, everything these days is an "indie" movie. But, let me tell you this: you're not really an indie movie if you have a release date. If you're financed by a Fortune 500 company - bullshit! You're not an indie. If it's your dad's money, or your family's money, or a relative’s, or an LLC, or limited partnership - great! That's an indie. That means you're whippin' it out and puttin' it right on the line.
PB: How about the no-budget indie stuff that comes out straight-to-video?
BRUCE: [Sighs] My beef with that is that when you get into the low end of moviemaking, there's too much parody. You know, it's like “just show me what kind of movie YOU really wanna make. Don't just make fun of horror films. Don't just make fun of Sci Fi films…” I don't like movies where the filmmaker doesn't respect what they're doing so much that they'll say "Aw, we'll do the stupid stuff, the audience will love it."
PB: Like you said before, that there are people who like to watch movies, and those who want to make them. I find that so many of the no-budget stuff is made by those kinds of people who should -
BRUCE: - who should just be watching. Yeah.
PB: A lot of the stuff turns out to be rip-offs of Evil Dead. Badly lit, terribly mic'd, flustered rip-odes to Evil Dead, where a bunch of kids find and old book and open it, and everything goes bloody. Ever come across any of these?
BRUCE: [Knowing laugh] Horror goes in all directions. It's changed a lot, too. In the Evil Dead days, there were lots of chainsaws and monsters running around. Beheadings and stuff like that. Now we're doing this Japanese obtuse shit that's just… You know, a PG-13 horror film is NOT a horror film. You can actually only make a horror film, in my opinion, as an R-rated movie. That means, "Kids beware! This movie is so scary that you can't go see it." To me (an R-rating) just makes that movie ten times better, 'cause, "Hey! Guess what? We're not screwing around little kid! You can only come see this when you're ready!!" It just makes it better for the movie. You know, if you make a comedy, it should be funny. If you make a Sci Fi film, it should be, you know, Harlan Ellison. Just go for it! So, that's my beef with the low low budget stuff. With the big budget stuff - here's what kills me… I used to apologize for being in the B-Movies because they're low budget and people usually don't have that much experience, and usually they're not as good as the A-Movies; but now all the A-Movies are trying to be the B-Movies! If you're gonna dress up like a bat and fly around Gotham City - you're a B-Movie! Batman Begins? I mean, who are they kidding? Batman begins again and again… It's obtuse. You know, you have the Japanese style horror where you have a strange sequence, followed by a creepy shot, followed by a weird, you know…
PB: … a weird long black-haired, creepy little girl…
BRUCE: … and then the credit roll. And, you're like, "What?" There's no point in something like The Grudge where someone picks up a chainsaw and says "Let's Go!" They miss the entire point of it, that they never let the hero do shit. It's like, why am I following this mousy chick around for no reason? Give me something. Give me something! Unfortunately, that stuff is doing well now. But, that too shall pass. And it's because they can do that stuff PG-13. A producer explained it to me very succinctly. He said "If you can go PG-13 instead of R, then you've just made 10 to 20 million more at the box office." And I'm like "Okay. You're a pussy!" Whatever…
PB: Then they turn around and finance their next big PG-13 drag.
BRUCE: Yeah! They're already working on a sequel. You know, when movies become about the numbers, I lose all interest. The higher the budget, the less I'm interested. It's more formulaic, more marketed, more tied in. They won't put in certain material because it might offend people. Movies need to be outrageous.
PB: Like Bubba Ho Tep.
BRUCE: Now, to me, that's the kinda thing I'm drawn to.
PB: "Cause, first off, it's a story. Not only a good one, but a real bona fide story.
BRUCE: Movies like Bubba could also fail horribly if you don't get the tone right, as well. That could've been a winky winky Roger Corman thing, like, [Elvis voice] "C'mon baby! C'mon Mummy! Let's go." You know that kinda messing around the whole movie. It could've gone Troma, real easy.
PB: Yeah, but you had a great director.
BRUCE: Don (Coscarelli) is an interesting, meticulous kinda guy. He's great, because there are so few meticulous people in the low budget world. In the low budget world it's like "C'mon, c'mon, let's shoot it already!"
PB: And how many horror movies can give you a lump in the throat at the end?
BRUCE: Exactly. Well, it's not really a horror film. It's a story about two old guys – and oh! There's a Mummy.
PB: Another good director you've worked with is Lucky McKee in The Woods. What's going on with that film?
BRUCE: That film is done. It's way done. In fact it's too done. It's so done it's just been sitting on the shelf - I don't even know when it's coming out. I think they've done all they can with it.
PB: Is it gonna be a good one?
BRUCE: I haven't seen the final version. I've seen a version, but not the final. It's really adult, very creepy. I can't say that a monster goes running around for the whole last act, but with Lucky - he's a very bizarre director. So, the movie is gonna turn out to be very disturbing. And it's in that classic 60s style. It even takes place in the 60s. I love that! You get the Cary Grant haircuts and the horn-rimmed glasses and the big cars. It's great. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I was sitting there ready to shoot a scene, and all the controls in the vehicle looked familiar to me, from when I used to ride in those things as a kid. The shapes of the buttons and - man, if you hit your head on that dashboard, you'd be dead!
PB: Is there still talk of an Evil Dead sequel, or remake, or whatever it is?
BRUCE: We don't really talk about the sequel too much, 'cause Sam (Raimi) is too busy right now. It would all be kinda moot. But I think we're gonna do a remake. It'll be a whole new story, though. It won't be with Ash (Campbell’s character), though. It'll be the evil book, and it'll affect a whole new group of people in a different situation. More like a reinvention. A lot of people, they got really crabby on the Internet when they first heard that type of stuff. But, we would never do anything to insult them. The trick is to take that premise - and we think it's a scary premise - and use some cool modern day FX… so we won't have green garden hoses in the shots. We wanna make a flat out, scary-ass, un-rated horror film.
PB: So, you're not doing the Lucas thing and just adding upgraded CG FX to the original film?
BRUCE: If we went back to Evil Dead and got rid of all the wires and the pipes and the tubes - what fun would that be?
PB: Right. It would just destroy the magic of it all.
BRUCE: I agree.
PB: It seems to me that the more CG FX there are, the less magic there is in the movies?
BRUCE: Right. You know, my feeling on that is that we're just in a masturbatory stage. And because we can do it, we do it. I think that will eventually settle down and we'll figure out what we can really use this stuff for. I mean, Forrest Gump was, I think, some of the best use of special FX.
PB: Right, 'Cause the stuff was used in support of the story.
BRUCE: There are some people in America today who still believe that Gary Sinise has no legs! To me, that's using FX to help tell a story. You get this cool effect where you can follow this feather as it floats from the sky all the way down to this guy’s feet. You, know, I love that!! It works because it makes things seamless. It's not just there because it can be.
PB: Some movies seem to have the FX as their central premise. As if to say, "Forget story or characters. Take a look at this!"
BRUCE: Which is why I think that things like that Polar Express movie didn't do too well. The characters in that just looked too creepy.
PB: They looked downright disturbing.
BRUCE: The children looked like they had those dead shark eyes. Like "Yiieeeee."
PB: That movie reminded me of those Coke commercials from a few years ago, with the creepy looking polar bears. The ads were supposed to be for Christmas, but jeesh! It looked like Halloween.
BRUCE: That's funny.
PB: Speaking of creepy... Sam Raimi was a silent producer on The Dead Next Door [which is purported to be the most expensive super 8 flick ever made]. Where you involved in that movie at all?
BRUCE: Oh yeah! I did all the sound for it. Yeah, I think I owed Sam some money, so he said "You have to go finish the sound for this movie."
PB: Now, that flick is a good example of a no-budget movie that works.
BRUCE: When that movie was done... that movie was shot in super 8, and that is what fascinated Sam, I think. He wanted to see if you could really make a feature in super 8. I mean, 'cause we never made one to sell one. We always did super 8 to just make a movie. We knew that we'd always have to go to 16mm, or 35mm to make a real movie. But, in this case, I think he saw that "Hey, this kid [director/writer/star JR Bookwalter] really wants to do this. He's got a high-budget idea, and he's got all these people ready in Akron, Ohio." So (Sam) really thought they could do it. It turned out to be his Heaven's Gate though. It was the most expensive super 8 ever made.
PB: It sorta went out of control after a while, you mean?
BRUCE: Yeah. When they shot it, it turned out that their sound was so shitty, that they could not use a single bit of original production sound. That entire movie had to have every voice looped; every footstep redone... everything. It's like, when Sam gave it to me, he gave me a silent movie. Really, we had such low budget editing facilities that we couldn't even edit dialogue. So, when you looped it, you had to get it just right. It was a very strange, strange scenario.
PB: So, you had all the actors in to redo it?
BRUCE: I knew a bunch of actors, and we just all got together and we redid it. It was actually a really fun experiment, 'cause it wasn't my movie, and I couldn't give a shit one way or the other. But it was like: how can we pull this off when we have no money, and we have no sound whatsoever? Normally with a movie you get decent production sound, and you're just enhancing it; adding cars and crickets and stuff, and the dialogue is in pretty good shape. This production had zero. Yeah, I re-voiced that whole movie with the main character.
PB: That sounds like a lot of work.
BRUCE: It was horrible! Especially when it's not in your cadence. I can voice myself, because I know how I talk, but someone else...
PB: Bookwalter has recently re-mastered that movie for release from Anchor Bay -- did you know that?
BRUCE: Really! For Anchor Bay? Jeezus.
PB: As a big change of pace, you did a role on Homicide, which was a straight up piece of acting. Any chance you'd want to tackle more dramatic roles like that? That was some piece of work, that role.
BRUCE: That was just an oddity, only because I had a deal with NBC, and they had to kinda use me...
PB: Yeah, and they really used you in a good way.
BRUCE: They did. You know, I got this call... It was one of those classic cases where the producer calls and – you know, as an actor you're sorta told what is gonna happen – so this producer calls up and says "Hey, what story do you want to do?" "Whattaya mean, what story do you wanna do?" He goes, "You ever thought of something you might want to play?" or that type a deal. I went "Cripes! I never thought of it. Let me call you back." So, I called him back in a week and I pitched this sorta Simpson-esque scenario where this guy got away with -- I mean, you know this guy's fuckin' guilty of murder, and he gets off. And then this cop takes it into his own hands and whacks the guy – and he gets caught. (The producer) was like "Great! We'll do it." I was like, "What!" Next thing I know, there was a full script for a two-parter. It was great. That's not the way it's supposed to happen, you know? That's how you'd imagine it to work out for you in the film world, that you'd have this great report with producers and directors, where it's all free flowing. But, usually it's so regimented.
PB: Well, that sorta brings us right back to you "How to Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way,” doesn’t it?
BRUCE: Oh, that thing! Yeah.
PB: It's obvious in there that you like to skewer Hollywood.
BRUCE: I do. It needs it. Needs it desperately.
PB: Yeah. But you do it in such a clever way. You're not outright sadistic, and you don’t do it in an angsty, call-you-nasty-names type of way. It doesn't seem as though you don't like Hollywood, but rather you have this friendly disposition towards it.
BRUCE: Yeah... I liken it to an uneasy association. Because I still have to venture out there, every so often, to get money. But then I can go away again. I don't know... there's a lot about it that if average people knew more about it, they just wouldn't be all that impressed. It's a group of people, where in it you have a lot of hard working, capable people, and then you have this fringe element of like twenty-five percent of them who are just wannabes. It's just an industry that attracts wannabes; gold diggers. Like "I'm gonna go be rich!" With Hollywood, you can be rich and famous – you get both, so it draws this certain percentage of the population that are really just morons. Because there is money to be made, you have this group of people who are the money-managers of Hollywood – which represents the studio folks, agents, people who really control where the money comes and goes, the distributors, getting into the business side of it. So, it's a really freaky clash of talented people, hard-working people, and... morons. And there’s a bigger clash between art versus commerce, because all filmmakers are trying to make a cool movie, and the producers are trying to make something that makes them money. It's just that they sometimes have different agendas. And you have to reconcile that. That makes Hollywood a horrible, almost irreconcilable situation. Whenever a good movie makes it out, I'm like "Wow! That one actually got through." And if it makes money -!
PB: That would be a double-whammy. Was there any point where you just got fed up with it?
BRUCE: I only got real fed up with it when I was on the verge of my first divorce. I was thinking about how do I keep the marriage together? Let me do something else if this is part of the problem, because, I was traveling a lot –you know, a lot of the usual clichés. Other than that, I've just felt that now it's changing so quickly that people in the film business, they kinda got to stay loose these days. Remember how feature film actors used to laugh at television? Now look at who's the star of every show.
PB: And it's not just TV. Look at Broadway.
BRUCE: (laughing) Yeah! Broadway's hysterical, because, by god, you’re gonna have either a film or TV star in everything now.
PB: It used to be that the actors would clamor to get off the stage and onto the screen. Now it's the other way around. Now movie stars can get a nice long cushy gig, and get pampered and score a stay in a posh New York City hotel suite.
BRUCE: They know they'll get taken care of for two months. It's an easy eight week gig, and they know things can only get so bad. It's just typical! When things get more expensive, (the producers) need more of a guarantee. They're gonna do the big shows with the well-known actors – granted. The best Petri dishes are always the Off-Broadway, the funky theaters, the weirdo movies that play in Art Houses. To me, if you're really gonna look for originality, those are the places to go. If you look towards the mainstream entertainment, it's not gonna be all that original. It's gonna be derivative. They're looking to do something that's similar to something that already worked. They're just gonna keep doing Damn Yankees with a different guy. It'll never leave Broadway.
PB: Or you can do what Mel Brooks did. Make a movie and then turn it into a major Broadway production, and then turn around and make a movie of the play.
BRUCE: He's the most brilliant of all! He's got everybody fooled. But, I actually think it'll work, in some weird way, because not enough people have seen the original movie. Even though I think (the original) is kind of a brilliant movie, and it's one movie I wouldn't mess with, it's just gonna be so different. Look at the casting. You've got [in a flamboyant manner] Nathan Lane, of all the big Hollywood goofballs. Oh! But Uma Thurman has to be in the movie, though. Was she ever on Broadway, before?
PB: Don't think so.
BRUCE: Yeah, funny how that works, huh? "Yeah, that Broadway chick was funny. But we need someone bigger."
PB: I guess that sorta sums up the career of a B-Movie star.
BRUCE: That’s right.
PB: Thanks for talking with us, and good luck with the book-on-CD.
BRUCE: Right. In parting I guess I'd tell everyone to "Listen up!"
Bruce Campbell’s audio production of his second book How to Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way is available in bookstores and on the Internet now.