'Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives' Director Tom McLoughlin on How Comedy Can Produce Great Horror
One of the best entries in the 'Friday the 13th' franchise was made by one of its most versatile directors.
The most highly spirited, self-referential, all-around-good-time entry in the lucrative 12-film-deep Friday the 13th slasher franchise, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is the crème de la crème of the hockey-masked Jason Voorhees' numerous film acting credits. Released in theaters on August 1st, 1986, the film was heralded as a breath of welcomed fresh air, debuting in the number two slot at the North American box office (behind the prosperous third week of James Cameron's Aliens).
Written and directed by Tom McLoughlin, a 36-year-old musician, mime, stuntman, and yes, filmmaker, not only did the film do what its title stated it would (resurrecting our machete-wielding maniac), but it also infused hearty laughs and a lighter tone upon the typically dead serious franchise. The expectedly large body count would still be amassed, of course (scroll down to see one of the film's highlights: the funniest triple decapitation you'll ever witness), but not without its own touch of irony and grim wit.
As the film screens tonight on 35mm in both Los Angeles and New York (it is Friday the 13th, after all), No Film School spoke with McLoughlin—a director who has worked on projects featuring Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Stephen King—about his multi-faceted background, how he got his first feature off the ground, comedy by way of associative editing, and much more.
No Film School: Your dad was a film student at USC but ultimately never pursued filmmaking as a career. Did your interest in film come from him?
Tom McLoughlin: You know, the only other time I've ever had anybody say to me, “Oh God, you and I have such a similar background" was Eddie Van Halen. I did a lot of movies with his wife at that time, Valerie Bertinelli, and I was telling him about how I was living my father's dream. And he got very excited.
He says, "That's exactly what I was doing. My dad really wanted to be a successful musician, and when things started to happen for me, it was like he was just as excited as I was." And I said, "Yeah, the same thing with my dad.”
When I started getting reviews, my dad would, without thought, say, "Oh, did you see our review?" It really bonded me with him and this came after a period of being rather estranged when I went from practicing magic and wanting to be a magician to rock-and-roll and being thrown out of high schools. My dad could not understand that whole thing, as most of the adult generation couldn't understand what we were doing in the 1960s.”What did the long hair mean and why were these British rock idols so important to you?”
His influence on me went even deeper. During World War II, my dad brought back a whole bunch of 16mm films along with a 16mm projector. A lot of those films were pulled off the streets of France, and when the soldiers went in, they could have whatever they wanted. My dad came back with all of these Charlie Chaplin movies, and on Sunday nights, the bed sheet went up and he would show me these things and talk about the genius of Chaplin. I loved the idea of being able to act and write and direct, to make your own films like that.
My dad also took me to the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, and that was a huge turning point in our relationship too. He loved that kind of movie, as did I. Those influences probably bonded us more than anything else.
"There have been many times where I've used magic tricks [in my films] to, for example, levitate somebody on film, or have some sort of misdirection where the audience looks at the right side of the screen when something is gonna come in from the left and provide them with a jump scare."
NFS: Did your passion for magic and music influence your filmmaking at all? Did it ultimately help complement your directorial style?
McLoughlin: Well, when you really break it down, film is illusion, and you're creating, in a two dimensional way, something that hopefully has three and four dimensions for the viewers so that you find yourself believing whatever’s up there on the screen.
The movies all pretty much happen in our minds, just like magic. You know that thing didn't really disappear, but how the hell is it gone? There's always a trick, and there are so many tricks in editing. There are tricks that we do now with CGI to create an illusion. Magic was kind of a natural thing to have been involved with.
There have been many times where I've used magic tricks [in my films] to, for example, levitate somebody on film, or have some sort of misdirection where the audience looks at the right side of the screen when something is gonna come in from the left and provide them with a jump scare. There are a lot of similarities from that standpoint.
As far as actual magic goes, in the 1960s when I did have a band, I was doing illusional things and visual effects with flash paper and smoke bombs and stuff onstage, which may have been rather unique. And of course, it fit in perfectly with the name of the band I had after The Sloths, which was named TNT.
NFS: I believe your first feature, One Dark Night, was made for $800,000. How did you work to raise that money and how did you assemble your team to help steer production?
McLoughlin: Well, I think it would be helpful to the No Film School readers to know that, I really had no short films to show [at the time]. I had nothing other than the ability to say, "I can do this. I wrote a script. This is how I envision it." I had done storyboards on my own (which weren't particularly great) but I figured out that one of the ways to sell a movie was to get them to see what you’re thinking.
We shot on 35mm film and did a slideshow of a girl going into a mausoleum and walking through the corridors, trying to get the size and scope of what this film would look like. And then Tom Burman, who was a special effects guy that I'd worked with, gave us some corpses and stuff that we could actually use in the slideshow presentation. We used the main theme from The Amityville Horror film and synced it to the slideshow.
You're literally going to these offices and trying to darken them to put on a slideshow presentation. To back myself up with some sort of credibility, I went after John Carpenter's art director, Craig Stearns, and one of Brian De Palma's cameramen, and obviously Tom Burman, who did Cat People and a lot of other great films.
Each of these people that I got involved with all were reputable in their relationship with somebody else of the genre. What they were basically saying was,”If Tom McLoughlin ever gets this made…..and if I'm available, I would like to be a part of this." But for most people on the outside looking in, it looked like, "Well, wow. Tom has this whole team assembled." They were all great people, and ultimately, those are the people I got to use when we made the movie four long years later.
"If you can't get what you desire, at least you can get what you need."
NFS: What did you take away from the experience of overseeing a set for the first time?
McLoughlin: Well, I was used to being leader, in that when I was a kid I always was the one that said, "Come on, let's go make a movie” and would shoot 8mm things with friends. And then during the 1970s, I headed up the Los Angeles Mime Company and that involved leading people on stuff that I had directed.
But coming onto a set, you're obviously dealing with craftspeople that are very different from the way you normally communicate, and so I just had to learn on the job. You have people that are very open and giving and other people that were like, "How did this punk get this job?" So, you're dealing with those kinds of egos. As time went on, however, you eventually begin to realize, "Look, this is not brain surgery. You just have to have answers,” and you have to solve this thing out.
I'm very big in telling people to always have a B plan, because it's great to go in and say, "I'm gonna do 40 shots in a sequence,” and then come that day, the actress is late, the sun doesn't cooperate, or God forbid, it rains. It could be any number of things. I had snow on the first day of Sometimes They Come Back, and suddenly I thought, “Okay, we don't have any interiors ready.” So it's the kinds of things where you really have to always be a step ahead.
If you can't get what you desire, at least you can get what you need. Get confident in that no matter what happens, you always have some way out of a problem. You can then predict, “This is where this could go bad, so let's just do everything that we can so it's preventative,” but you're going to lose the day.
NFS: How were you chosen to write and direct Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives? It was to be the third Friday the 13th film in three consecutive years, so I imagine the turnaround for choosing a director was tight…
McLoughlin: [Paramount] was really upset about the fans' reaction to Friday the 13th Part V. The idea was, of course, that we've killed off Jason, and so what do we do now? This idea that it wasn't really Jason [committing the murders in Part 5] and then the film ended on this note that the protagonist, Tommy Jarvis, was now going to be the new Jason. That just pissed everybody off.
Instead of waiting the normal amount of time to make the next film, Paramount thought, "We've got to put something into production quick, fast, and in a hurry." So, Frank Mancuso Jr. had seen One Dark Night, and loved that I had this low-budget ability to make something look unique onscreen, and in my case, sort of gothic, which was what I also brought to my Friday the 13th, a feeling that was a little different, visually, than the other films.
First off, I had to write a treatment and have them okay that, and so I wrote this treatment, which, if anybody's interested, can be found in a book that Joseph Maddrey did on me called, “A Strange Idea Of Entertainment: Conversations with Tom McLoughlin.” It’s sort of the perfect by-numbers treatment in that what I wrote was okayed and is pretty much how I wrote the script, off of that particular treatment. I did everything as fast as I could and took this attitude of, “I’m just going to have fun and not take it too seriously.”
I wasn't sure how the fans were going to take to that, but to my total shock….I’m just amazed that after all these 30-something-years, the film tends to be a favorite in the series. I think a lot of it just has to do with it being a movie with an antagonist and a protagonist who both have agendas. I tried, as I said, to have fun and humor with it, and it still works in terms of getting the laughs from people who never even seen it before.
"The toughest thing is trying to get the idea of when the jump scare comes in, 'Should it happen here?' And you delay it two more seconds so that it's a little more of a surprise."
NFS: The film is also hilarious, in part due to its associative editing from scene-to-scene, a joke will be made in one scene and then we cut to the next scene, which turns out to be the unexpected punchline.
McLoughlin: Yeah, absolutely, and I came into this from comedy. I had the band through the 1960s, and then in the 1970s I went to Paris and studied mime. The reason I studied is because I wanted to be a more visual lead singer, feeling like, "All right, I'm just doing what James Brown and Elvis and Mick Jagger and all these other guys are doing. I have to create my own thing."
Mime was like something that I thought, "Well, if I could utilize that somehow in my performing….” But what I found out when I got over there is that I had a comedy gift in terms of physical comedy, and Marcel Marceau and the other students there kept telling me, “You have to do more humorous stuff!”
When I came back to the States, I began working on the streets as a performer and got very involved with writing comedy things. This eventually led to my relationship with meeting Dick Van Dyke and writing and directing sketches for him for his TV show. The more I got involved with it, the more I studied Buster Keaton and of course, Chaplin—who was already in my DNA thanks to my Dad—and went to see as many comedies as possible.
There's obviously a timing that needs to happen for comedy to work, just as there is with jump scares or anything else; there’s a musicality that has to happen. For Friday the 13th, I wrote a lot of stuff in for that. It's like the scene where the old man asks, “What do they think I am, a farthead?” [immediately cut to a different scene where the children yell “Yeah!”]
It was a question of getting the line and the beat and then….bang. There's this one-two-three approach to it, which is very, very basic Comedy 101. The toughest thing is trying to get the idea of when the jump scare comes in, "Should it happen here?" And you delay it two more seconds so that it's a little more of a surprise, or you think it's gonna happen at this particular beat, but it happens a beat before, which catches you off guard. It gets down to something that's pretty musical.
NFS: Did your work as a mime and stuntman help you to identify with C.J. Graham and direct his performance as Jason?
McLoughlin: Well, we had Dan Bradley, who we started production with, playing Jason, and he was terrific. He was a much bigger, larger force, moving through the forest and lumping along in an aggressive manner.
For a number of reasons, the studio decided that it wasn't the way it wanted Jason to look. Instead of talking to me, Paramount immediately said, "We're going after somebody else." And I was like, "Wait, wait, Dan's doing all the stunt work and stunt coordination with all of this." And Paramount was like, "Well, he can still do that. We're just bringing another Jason." But Dan wanted to play Jason, so it was really heartbreaking to me.
NFS: This happened during the production itself?
McLoughlin: Yeah, this was one week into production! For anybody who revisits the film, all of the daytime stuff that you see with the paintballers and that stuff was all Dan [as Jason]. His physicality is a little different, but most people don't catch it because I think you establish Jason at the top of the movie in a particular look and movement and then by the time you get to that stuff, you somehow just accept, "Oh, that's Jason. There’s the mask, there are his shoulders…”and you're not looking as much for the other details.
So when C.J. appeared, I found out that he really had no background in stunts or acting or anything like that, other than he was a bouncer and one day came in dressed as Jason for a party. I guess it was a Halloween party. Paramount said, "Yeah, you'd make a great Jason."
C.J. was a marine and and was one of those people that you could give direction to and he would be like, ”Yes, sir" and would execute it perfectly. From there I went, "This actually is much cooler. I can get a more Terminator-type Jason once he’s resurrected,” where it really was like he was moving like a machine at times.
And then there would be the head tilts and the stuff that obviously started back with Michael Myers in Halloween. I always had to go back and make a nod to that movie because it had such an influence on everybody, literally changing the business in terms of the slasher film as a bonafide genre.
"C.J. was terrific in terms of being around the children so that there wouldn’t be any traumatizing experiences. I always worried that they wouldn't be afraid of him."
NFS: The film is the first to feature actual campers; the series is typically about camp counselors who get hacked before the kiddies arrive. Did you have to be extra cautious working with children on a film of this subject matter?
McLoughlin: Kids are always great. I’ve worked with kids quite a bit since that time and the kids in my Friday the 13th were so excited to be on a movie set. Their parents were the people that you really had to talk to: "Now, you're okay with this?" It's like, "Oh, yeah."
C.J. was terrific in terms of being around them so that there wouldn’t be any traumatizing experiences. I always worried that they wouldn't be afraid of him, but when it came time to shout, “Action! Now run,” they would scream and run and give you the believability.
I needed a little girl to play the part of Nancy (who lays in the bed and prays as Jason comes in) and she, Courtney Vickery, was terrific. She had the right blend of terror and that "I'm not gonna be scared, I'm not gonna be scared" look, which I think is one of the key directions in people looking really afraid, that thing of them trying to not look afraid. “This is going to go away,” they reassure themselves and it's a conflict within the person as opposed to just like, flat-out screaming. It's so much more interesting when there's a little drama of trying not to feel that way.
We had pretty late nights on set and would go to the parents and ask, "You're sure you're okay?" And they’d respond, ”Oh, no. Go ahead. That's fine, that's fine. They're not tired!” It was a very happy set and I think people felt safe and that we weren't out there trying to exploit anybody. We were just out there making a monster movie.
NFS: Was Georgia always the first choice for production?
McLoughlin: No. Like each of these Friday the 13th films, you were on the run from the unions. Paramount never wanted to admit that they were making these films—the films would always have false titles from David Bowie songs and ours was Aladdin Sane.
We scouted Mississippi and we scouted Louisiana, looking for someplace that had forests and was far enough away from Hollywood for this particular one. We basically found this camp, and that was the most important thing, a campground next to a lake that we could build a dock onto.
From there, everything else had to fall into place, with the cemetery (which actually was a wonderful bonus, the multi-tiered cemetery) and actually, the cemetery in the first sequence of the film, where they dig up Jason's grave, was something that the art department made out in a field, so we could have old tombstones and create a layered thing to match the real graveyard.
The people were great. It was a great environment and the “red dirt of Georgia” also looked very nice on film.
"Because film is plastic and chemicals, there’s something about the feel of it (and looking at it) that has a history."
NFS: You still regularly attend 35mm screenings and post-screening Q&As for anniversary screenings of the movie. What does it mean to you to still have the opportunity to view your work on celluloid?
McLoughlin: Well, there's no getting away from the fact that somehow film always feels better. Somebody, some years ago, said something to me that rang true. I don't know if it rings true for everybody, but there is something….because film is plastic and chemicals, there’s something about the feel of it (and looking at it) that has a history. There's something that connects with us, whereas now, in the digital age, it's dots and it's electric.
Now, with all of this new technology, filmmakers could make it look so close to film that you really have to be a full-on expert to know, "Okay, that actually wasn't film, that was some sort of digital thing." Because of this, it gets hard to always make that argument if your mind is somehow believing that what you’re seeing feels like film. But there's the whole thing of just handling film, the physicality of it, the [positive] limitations of it…
When I work with film students, it’s like you've only got this amount of time and then that thing runs out and it's expensive, and you've got processing costs and all that. You can't just let the camera roll like you can with video and do take after take and not even have to cut. There are certain advantages to video that, as a filmmaker, I've found useful over the years, because you can get the actors to be a lot faster and not overthink; just get in there and do it.
There’s also the thing of planning things out and going, "All right, I've got 10 minutes of film on this reel. I'm going to have to figure this out and make sure I can get it all within this period,” especially if you're doing a longer scene. There are pros and cons.
I find that there's just something I love knowing that this Friday the 13th is going to be shown in a theater with an audience and it's going to be on 35mm and will feel like, "Okay, that's a movie." We're going back to the way it was.
NFS: As a film professor at Chapman University's Dodge College, what are the most recurring roadblocks you find student filmmakers coming up against today?
McLoughlin: It's interesting because, yeah, I work part-time teaching at Chapman, and what's cool about the university is that most everybody there of the professorial type are people in the industry, either still working in the industry or were certainly a name to be reckoned with, like John Badham. I'm constantly telling my students that there aren't many films that actually changed the world like Saturday Night Fever (which John Badham directed) did. There's still no place on the planet you can do that John Travolta pose and people don't know what that is.
There are those kinds of things that I preach about, to make the work personal. Students today have so many advantages that we didn't have, but at the same time, all of these new choices are overwhelming! There's something to be said for when you're told, "Okay, this is all the money you've got and this is all the time you've got." You have be creative in that limiting amount of time and space. Some people manage to do that very well. For others, it can be a little overwhelming. It's like in a candy store where there are too many candies to choose from. You try to do too much and it gets overambitious.
I believe in the old theory of, "Give everyone a pencil and a piece of paper and [tell them to] draw something." Anybody can own a pencil and paper, but not everyone is going to be an artist and make something happen with that. I try, at least in my process, to limit them down to, "Look, if you can't get out of the school's supply room a decent camera, use your phone because there is such a great thing that you can do." I've had students turn in stuff and I'd go, "How the hell did you shoot that?" "I don't know," they'd respond, "on my iPhone." It looks like what David Fincher did on a number of his movies, but it's all natural light, it's what was actually picked up, and it's incredible.
The students trip into greatness not realizing that sometimes there is a great advantage to the limitations of not having all that equipment to lug around. I keep saying, "Just try something. Allow yourself to fail. Take a risk." This is the time for them to do it.
If you happen to do something that's really great and you upload it to YouTube or Vimeo, great, but for now, just take chances. Learn what it's like to work with a crew. Learn what it's like to collaborate, as this is an art of collaboration, and that's the one thing that, whether in film school or doing this on your own, you will still need a number of people to be with, to do it, and that's what's really cool. It's our film that way, not just my film.