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Interview: Bruce Campbell
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Bruce Campbell began making backyard horror movies on Super 8 film with his pals Sam and Ted Raimi, and in the three decades since, he has racked up a long list of credits. Some are cult classics, some are beloved TV shows, and others are mere examples of cheesy "B" movies that you might watch late at night after a few drinks. He has flirted with mainstream movie-star success, but never quite made the leap, with movies like Congo (1995) and McHale's Navy (1997). He has published books and recently moved into directing, first honing his skills on television and then his first feature film, Man with the Screaming Brain (2005). His newest film, My Name Is Bruce, is a mini-masterpiece that fans will no doubt rank with his Evil Dead trilogy and Bubba Ho-Tep (2003). It's a kind of post-modern, meta-film, in which Bruce plays "Bruce Campbell," a B-movie star who is called upon to help battle a real-life monster, though he believes he's just putting on a show. As with his best work, it's a combination of sheer enthusiasm for the horror genre, some clever jokes, and some side-splitting, infectiously stupid jokes. It comes out on DVD this week, complete with the requisite Bruce Campbell commentary track. I had the chance to sit down with Bruce when he was in town last December, to talk about the film.
Q: This movie was a great antidote to most of the awards-season movies I've had to sit through.
Bruce Campbell: We beat Changeling. On Halloween weekend, we were number #1 in per-screen average. We've been slammed by the critics, and it was fun to beat a critical darling, the one with the Oscar buzz. On top of all that, a movie with ass-grabbing jokes can beat Changeling. That gives me my own sense of satisfaction.
Q: What was the decision behind you wearing all the Hawaiian shirts in the movie?
BC: It's perpetuating my own clich. I wear them at conventions and on "Burn Notice." Tommy Bahama shirts. And they're sponsoring it next year, so I don't have to pay for the damn shirts anymore. You know, it's just blurring the lines, intentionally. We could have called him "Dash Riprock, B-Movie Hunter," but we thought we could take it to another strange level if we just called him Bruce Campbell. This is not the Bruce Campbell story, by the way. I have to keep saying that. There's always the one person who thinks I drink cheap whisky out of dog bowls. I have to clarify that. But, low budget movies, we don't have to play the test-marketing game to see who's going to like what particular aspects to a script or a scene. I've seen some really good scenes cut out of movies because of test marketing. This movie can stink all on its own. I don't need help from some unemployed guy at a mall, telling me that a certain scene made him feel uncomfortable, even though maybe the filmmaker wanted you to feel uncomfortable. The reason why they're doing it, is because they're spending so much money on movies. If every movie were under 5 million dollars, you'd see some really interesting movies out there -- 'cause they wouldn't care.
Q: How did the movie's monster come about?
BC: I don't think anyone's done Guan-di yet. We liked it because it's a weird character. He really is the Chinese God of War, and in Chinese lore, the God of War is the protector of the dead and bean curd. We didn't even make up the bean curd thing. It's all there. He was a bean curd seller before he became a deity. So he's got a soft spot for bean curd. So it gave us a monster and a way to defeat the monster, or at least distract him.
Q: I loved his glowing eyes.
BC: They were originally rheostat eyes, they were like doll's eyes that you lit from behind. Then we rotoscoped them to make 'em "glowy." We added a second layer. It was definitely old-fashioned, cheesy effects on top of a guy in a suit.
Q: You're not credited as a writer on this. How did the script come about? Was it always intended as Bruce Campbell?
BC: It was written by Mark Verheiden, but we developed it together. He pitched the original concept. He did the heavy lifting and then I did my version of it. I had to make it my own, as a director I made changes I needed to make, like something's not a tavern anymore, and now it's outside. And then as an actor I want to get my hands in there sometimes. I don't mess with every script, and not every situation will let you. But this is my little world, and if I couldn't have that kind of involvement, I wouldn't want to do it. The lower the budget, the more I want to do, and the less I want to be told what to do. That's the tradeoff for me. Leave me alone and I'll do it for cheap. That's my motto. If you want to pay me a lot of money and give me a bigger budget, then maybe I'll listen to your opinion. If you have a $200 million movie, you're going to get a lot of strong opinions. Some directors are very good at handling it. Sam Raimi's very good at handling that. He's a very good politician. He can dodge around that. I'm lousy, 'cause I would eventually say, 'why don't you go fuck yourself.' Because I didn't get into the creative arts to have a businessman tell me what to do.
Q: I have to ask about Ted Raimi, who plays three parts in this and gets decapitated twice. Do you like to beat him up like Sam does to you?
BC: I'm much nicer on Ted than his brother is on me. I should be more of a dick. But Ted is great, because we can speak in shorthand and I've known him since he was nine, and I have to have him in everything I'm in to make me look more subtle. It's performance protection. 'Cause they go, 'Wow, Ted, what a ham!' And they look at me and they go, 'Hey! That guy's smooth!' Ted is just horribly underused in the film industry, because I can use him for anything! I can have Ted play a psycho killer or a clown! He can do it all! And people just consider him Sam's younger brother, but Ted made it on his own. He's been in all the Spider-Man movies, too, but that's 'cause we all know each other. But I love Ted. I'm a fan.
Q: This movie has so many great, stupid jokes, like the angel/devil consciences sitting on your shoulder...
BC: It thought it would be amusing to have the angel and the devil trash-talking each other a little bit. The angel flips the devil off. The devil grabs his crotch, 'I got something for ya right here, angel!' It's everything I've always wanted a devil and an angel to say to each other! I mean, if you're going to have those stupid scenes...
Q: Where did the movie-within-the-movie come from?
BC: Cave Alien is a direct homage to Alien Apocalypse, that movie I did for the sci-fi channel. You should see it in context because it has the worst fake beards in the history of cinema. Like the memo they've got turned upside down so the beards are on the head and the wigs are on the faces? I gave a special close-up to one of the guys just so you could see his awful beard. And reviewers have been going, 'And it's got these cheesy special effects!' When the cave alien comes out, we made sure to light the strings. Normally you're trying to hide it. You're taking a Sharpie and you're going along the monofilament to hide it. But we were lighting it specifically to see! And we were shooting the same direction the entire time. I was editing over the wrong shoulder, I messed all that up on purpose. There's a microphone that dips into the frame at least twice. There's a crew member ducking out of the way at one point. We were trying to come up with every bad filmmaking thing. She was filtered and I wasn't. I should have filtered me! Had we had more time to make the actual movie, we could have spent more time on the shitty movie. It always bothered me in low-budget movies on the sci-fi channel in the background, would just be crates with military netting over them. So we just did that. We would just move crates around. The critics didn't take it in the spirit in which it was intended. Which is maybe my fault. Who knows? But that's OK. It's not for critics.
Q: How long did it take to prepare and choreograph the slapstick dancing scene with you and Grace Thorsen?
BC: Not long, because I wouldn't rehearse. I tortured Grace, my leading lady, 'cause she came from the theater. She was a babe! It tormented her because she was used to doing things over and over. We went to some back room and we were like, 'OK what do we want to do?' And we worked out the basic moves and then I went, 'That's fine. Let's not over-rehearse it.' And she went, 'Over-rehearse it? We haven't even rehearsed it!' I'm like, 'Come on! Let's go!' I slammed into only humans that I knew. They were all good friends of mine. She's going to run into a guy, and I knew my friend wouldn't mind having Grace slam her voluptuous body all over his. So he was fine with it. And then I ran into two idiots that I knew at the bar. So it's fine. You put in big sound effects and you're ready to go. It's nothing too fancy. With comedies I think you gotta leave it a little open-ended, to be able to fool around.
Q: What about the gay cowboys?
BC: The gay ranchers came out of the first day of shooting, unfortunately for those actors. They were these rough, grizzled guys that I knew. One was in Evil Dead II and one was in Army of Darkness, Tim Quill and Danny Hicks. They had these grizzled faces. And I thought, 'You guys are watching a slide show, so you should just hold hands.' And so we just did that as a gag on the first day of shooting and then they both realized after that day that, 'We're gay now, aren't we?' So we did a few more gags throughout the rest of the movie. So things just happen. We had no intention of making fun of gay ranchers.
Q: You make fun of a lot of your own bad movies in this one. Since I last talked with you, I caught up with Congo, though I was a bit miffed that you're killed off after 7 minutes!
BC: I use Congo as a great example of "some things look great on paper." I read that Crichton book, and I thought it would make a great movie. And Spielberg tried to make it, De Palma dried to make it. And I heard they were finally making it, and I thought I gotta get in on that movie. So I really lobbied to be in it. I wanted to be the lead guy. So Frank Marshall gave me a consolation prize as the guy who leads the first expedition in. But it's a great movie to be killed out of. They got the wrong monkey guy, to begin with. They got Stan Winston, but they really needed Rick Baker. But anyway, monkeys don't make a movie. But John Patrick Shanley wrote the screenplay, off a Michael Crichton book, edited by Anne V. Coates, who edited Lawrence of Arabia, Allen Daviau, who shot E.T., produced by Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy. I usually make an audience member stand up. And I ask them, would you greenlight this movie, yes or no? And I don't say the name yet. And they go, 'yes!' And I go, 'Congratulations! You just made Congo.' McHale's Navy looked good on paper. The guy who directed the pilot of "Brisco," a bunch of comedians in the movie, it was a show I watched as a kid. And then plbbbt! So, you know, this movie's good to get my cheap shots in.
December 17, 2008
Partial Bruce Campbell Filmography: