Sunday, 24 November 2013

interview: Marc Hershon

I did an e-mail interview with writer Marc Hershon in September 2003 about a TV movie called Monster Makers, shown a few weeks later on Halloween, which starred Linda Blair (The Exorcist, Hell Night), George Kennedy (The Naked Gun, Demonwarp, The Uninvited) and Adam Baldwin (Predator 2, Independence Day and, um, Mind Breakers). This was Marc’s third holiday-related fantasy comedy after Santa Jr. and Miss Cupid’s Beau. Marc was incredibly generous in his answers and I was only able to use a tiny amount of this in the piece which I wrote for, so here is the full interview.

How did Santa Jr. come to be made, and how instrumental was that in getting Monster Makers made?
“I was introduced to Wendy Winks, an independent producer, who had read Santa Jr. and liked it enough to option it to try to get it set up somewhere. (I had written Santa Jr. about five years before and there had been some interest at the time, but nothing ever happened with it.) Our original intention was to try to get a feature film deal, but when all was said and done, both The Hallmark Channel and Larry Levinson Productions (who produced the film) both liked it - a pretty rare occurence! Once they agreed that they wanted to buy it, the deal moved pretty fast, because they were coming up against the wall in terms of having a Christmas movie ready in time. They bought the script in May of last year (2002) and we were in production by August.

“When the executives at the Hallmark Channel saw a rough cut of Santa Jr. it suddenly struck them that they were missing the boat on an entire range of movies: comedies. Most made-for-TV and cable movies are heavy dramas, ‘disease-of-the-week’, romances, adapted from historic novels, etc. You just don't see a lot of long form comedies being made these days. Based on the excitement of that realization, I pitched them a Valentine's Day comedy with a similar theme, called Miss Cupid's Beau, about the college-age daughter of Cupid.

(Originally, I had pitched the concept as a sequel for Santa Jr., with the son of Santa falling in love with the daughter of Cupid. That was pushing the envelope too far for the folks at Hallmark - they're not keen on mixing their holidays.)

“I wrote Miss Cupid's Beau in about six weeks and then last November (this was still before Santa Jr. had aired), one of the producers at Larry Levinson Productions, Steven Squillante, asked if I had any ideas for a Halloween movie while I was sitting around in his office. This was my chance to put my 20 years of performing improvisational comedy to use and I literally cobbled together the main concept for Monster Makers on the spot: a kid finds an old black and white monster movie that was produced on experimental film stock. When he watches it on Halloween, the monsters in the movie and the hero sheriff from the film get out when there's a power surge. The kid teams up with the sheriff to track down the monsters.

“(Lesson to starting screenwriters: be ready to think on your feet! Sometimes you only get one shot.)”

From what I've seen and read, this seems to be a family movie, aimed at what I would call '14-year-olds of all ages'. Who is your actual target audience?
“The final version of the script ended up losing several layers of richness, mostly due to budgetary considerations. As a result it ended up losing some of the older demographic appeal, I think. Nonetheless, there's still a lot of ‘inside’ jokes and references for those fans of '50s monster movies. While the main character is a 12-year-old kid, it's really the 12-year-old kid that I remember being, who couldn't get enough of monster movies. So, in that regard, I think the movie has tremendous appeal for those who remember those old movies fondly. In fact, my favorite parts of the movie are the glimpses of Monsters on the Loose, the 1951 black and white movie - it was fun to write the really stilted dialogue from back then, where the characters use each other's names every other sentence and so forth.

“I really tried to steer clear of what had gone before - when you sit down and consider the amount of spoofage eaten up by comedy classics like Young Frankenstein and even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, it gets tricky to find the gags that haven't been used.”

You've obviously had fun with the character names, with homages to Lon Chaney Jr., Forry Ackerman, Bram Stoker and others. Are there other in-jokes in the movie that monster fans will spot? And is there a danger of getting too self-indulgent with this sort of thing?
“Good question. I think there's a fine line. While you can go on and do it throughout the movie, it has to be clever and not terribly obvious to any but real aficionados. I think the director at one point named an offscreen character ‘Dr Karloff’, which isn't keeping in the spirit of what I'd established. Slightly more subtle but still spottable was the name of the street that George Kennedy's character lives on: Oarlock Street. Intentionally misspelled, it isn't until you hear it that you realize that Count Orlok was the name of the vampire in Nosferatu. And the Lon Chaney reference you mention is that one of the monsters, Verman, is actually a guy named Creighton Talbot, who turns into a vicious ‘rat-man’ whenever he smells garbage. ‘Creighton’ was Lon Chaney Jr.'s given first name and, of course, Lyle Talbot was the name of the tortured soul he played who turned into The Wolf Man.

“I really enjoy burying those little things in the script. I did the same thing in Santa Jr. At one point when the son of Santa isn't sure what he wants to do with his life, he laments that maybe he ought to just become a dentist, which was reference to Hermy the elf in the animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And we found a street sign on the block we were shooting at where someone had spray-painted a black circle and a slash over the ‘L’ in ‘L Street’, making it ‘No L'. I pointed it out to Kevin and it ended up in the final cut of the movie.

“Then there's a whole realm of audience members who have no idea what the nods are all about. The actors playing our two main kids generally had no clue about most of the references and had no idea why Linda Blair was such a great casting decision - until they got to see The Exorcist while we were filming! Again, it was very cool, in that Linda was about the same age as our kids when she made that movie!

“There's more little hidden references (or there should be - I haven't seen the final edit yet ) but I'd prefer to let the fans of the genre pick them out.”

I'm guessing you're a big monster fan yourself. What movies inspired you when you were young, and what are your favourites now?
“I was a huge monster movie fan. All the classics, of course, were inspirational with this project, along with all of the really terrible ones. Back when I was a kid, the monsters were often people who had unleashed some horrible hidden side of themselves or else creatures exposed to radiation, the big mystery catalyst. (I use that hoary old device in Monster Makers, as we learn the original print of Monsters on the Loose was developed on something called ‘Radium Acetate’.)

“Nowadays I'd be hard pressed to point at monster movies per se and choose a favorite. Part of the problem is what constitutes a monster these days? Alien is a terrific monster movie with science fiction trappings. So is the Terminator series. But what about the Nightmare on Elm Street movies? Are Freddy and Jason monsters? I guess so, but the principles that guide those movies feel different to me. The monster in Frankenstein is this poor soul who is truly not responsible for his predicament. Freddy, on the other hand, seems to delight in the pain and torment he brings people.”

Your three monsters are all completely original. Was any thought given to using generic monsters like Dracula or the Mummy?
“Well, I steered away from the ‘classic’ monsters for two practical reasons: one is that most are trademarked characters, with Universal Studios holding the rights to them. The second reason is that they've been used to death. But even in coming up with the idea, the fun challenge to me was to create three completely new monsters that still had to feel as if they could have come from the ‘50s. And each of the monsters is, in and of itself, both an homage to some the greats and a reflection of the main character in the movie (a technique they used on Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the time.

“For example, Manikin, being made up of mismatched mannequin parts, was my attempt to get into the mindset of a ‘50s movie-maker who wanted to create his own Frankenstein's monster. I was able to shortcut a lot of detail in that the trailer for Monsters on the Loose explains that Manikin was created by ‘an accident of science.’ In addition, Manikin is trying to replace his mannequin parts with human parts, kind of a hideous take on Pinocchio. Regarding the main character of Tim, Manikin represents the awkwardness of the physicality of entering one's teen years - gawky, awkward, etc. This wasn't played up as much as I'd like in the execution, so I'm glad I got a chance to talk about it!

“Verman, of course, is an analog for the Wolfman, while Revenant, ‘The Living Ghost’ is part nod to both Dracula and the Invisible Man. He's also a nod to a low budget - the producers were delighted that I could deliver a ‘three-monster’ movie with only two monsters we actually see on screen. Revenant possesses the bodies of the living, so it's all through acting, camera angles, a special lens and a voice harmonizer that he appears.”

How did you approach writing the scenes from the 1950s movie Monsters on the Loose? Are you spoofing 1950s monster flicks or paying homage to them? And where does Monsters on the Loose fit on a scale from, say, Them! to The Giant Claw?
“I mentioned this earlier but these were my favorite scenes to write. They are both spoof and homage. From the cliches that the characters spout to the wooden acting (most of it intentional), these play really well. The first two days of production is when we shot these scenes, because we needed the footage during the course of the rest of the movie. When the footage came back to the set, everyone kept watching it over and over because it was so funny. In particular, Larry Minetti (Magnum PI) who plays ‘Spats’ Lonnegan, a gangster; and great character actor Tracy Walters as Morley Todd, an undertaker, were terrific.

“As far as where on the scale Monsters on the Loose falls, I'd have to say somewhere between Dracula vs Billy the Kid and The Crawling Eye.”

How close is the finished movie to what you originally envisioned? Is there anything that you wanted to include but couldn't because of budget, schedule, or family viewing considerations?
“I think I may have mentioned some elements earlier. I lost a lot of locations because of the budget, as well as a big fire scene I wanted to do. There were also a bunch of sight gags with the monsters that had to be cut, mainly for time. Since I was purposely aiming this at the Hallmark Channel audience and it was my third script for them, I don't think I ever had anything objectionable from a ‘family viewing’ perspective. The monsters are too inept to create anything grotesque, visually - Manikin, for instance, keeps tugging on people's arms in his ongoing attempt to replace his mannequin parts. Only problem is that he was never actually given the facility to accomplish this. And since Verman was never alive until the moment he stepped out of the movie, he's not used to the fact he has a 12-foot long tail - it keeps getting caught in everything. The scary parts that I hope will linger will be things like Manikin's grinning head and the neck and knuckle cracking that Revenant does whenever he steps into a new host.”

What are your thoughts on the cast and director?
“I wish we'd had more time for casting. One of the pitfalls of the speed at which these projects get done is that the cart is frequently ahead of the horse. The production team was assembled and locations were being scouted without a single casting choice being made, nor with a director onboard. (Actually, Kevin Connor was slated to direct then got pulled off my project and put on directing Just Desserts, a romantic comedy which has just knocked my Miss Cupid's Beau out of the 2004 Valentine's slot.)

“I love the fact we got Linda Blair. (Ironically, she's one of the only characters in the movie not to get possessed by Revenant!) And George Kennedy, a real last minute pick to play Dexter Brisbane, the director of the Monsters on the Loose movie-within-the-movie, was a joy to hang around. I thought one of the best casting choices was Adam Baldwin as Sheriff Jay Forrest. I've always loved his work, from My Bodyguard and Full Metal Jacket to last TV season's Firefly. The guy has never played a comedic role, always getting cast as heavies and thugs. But Adam is hilarious, and completely nails both the confusion and stereotype movie hero persona of the hero from the black and white film.”

Were you on set for a reason or just hanging around to see your movie made? Did you get to play a cameo like you did in Santa Jr.?
“The producers, with Kevin Connor's permission, let me be on the set of Santa Jr. the whole time, although I had to pay my own way. It was worth it - to me there's nothing as exciting as watching your words on paper come to life.

“I really did lend some help, in terms of offering opinions about characters and scenes when asked and so when Monster Makers came up, the folks at Larry Levinson Productions offered to foot the bill this time. Because of last-minute location changes and such, I ended up tweaking the script a bit as we went. One of the problems with the timetable the movie was on was that I had to rush my first and final drafts so I was glad for the time to fix some things. The last three days of shooting, we discovered we might be a little short, time-wise, so I had to write four additional scenes utilizing just the sets we still had up and the actors we still had on call. A couple of those scenes might be some of the funniest in the film, from what I've seen so far.

“I got to play an alarm technician in Santa Jr., who installs the alarm system in the house where Santa's son is under arrest. I sort of finagled my way into it, but then they discovered I actually knew how to act. So when I made a bid for a role in Monster Makers, it was just a matter of choosing which role. I almost ended up with a pretty beefy part, thanks to director David Cass Sr., but instead I still have fun as a bank janitor who gets possessed by Revenant and robs a bank. Now I'm in the Screen Actors Guild in addition to the Writers Guild of America! (Playing service roles seems to be my lot in life - I just shot a small scene as an electrician in a feature film, The Californians, starring Noah ‘ER’ Wyle and Ileana Douglas.)”

What was your involvement with Frankenstein: The College Years? And how pleased were you with it?
“While my involvement was fun - I was doing ‘speed rewrites’ with director Tom Shadyac (pre Ace Ventura), which meant I was rewriting the script based on notes we'd do together, then I'd shunt the pages over to his computer for polishing while I stayed about 10 pages ahead of him - it was ultimately aggravating. We had managed to craft a fairly decent spoof of Frankenstein movies while avoiding all of the jokes that Mel Brooks had used in Young Frankenstein - no easy task. But the executives at Fox TV didn't appreciate it and Tom ended up pretty much doing the lame script he'd been handed when the project was still My Friend Frank, about two college kids who inherit a dead professor's belongings, including a freezer containing the body of Frankenstein's monster.”

Just as a personal aside: F:TCY has a superficially similar plot to Encino Man (which we called California Man over here) which would have been in production around the same time. I know sometimes TV movies are made to take advantage of similarly themed theatrical movies. Was this any sort of consideration, or am I misjudging the situation?
“Sometimes it works the other way - I just read in the trades yesterday that David Spade is slated to start in a Christmas movie about Santa's son in a movie that Adam Sandler's comedy is producing. But in terms of F:TCY, I don't recall having any sense of that. You might be correct, but it certainly wasn't part of the directives we had in doing the rewrite we embarked on.”

What are you working on at the moment, and what is likely to be the next script of yours that gets made?
“ I am collaborating on a feature film comedy with Dana Carvey which we are hoping to take out soon. In addition, I have two features I wrote solo, both high concept comedies. One already has keen interest from a major production company and the other is just starting to make the rounds. As far as what gets made next, your guess is as good as mine!”

interview originally posted 11th January 2005

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