Interview with 2001 Maniacs director Tim Sullivan
Sullivan began his career working on movies such as Coming to America, Cocktail and The Godfather Part III as a production assistant. As well as being the producer of titles such as Hood of Horror and the writer of the likes of Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, Sullivan has also worked in front of the camera too, starring in low budget thriller If Looks Could Kill, as well as sporting cameo roles in his own directorial efforts. The filmmaker can soon be seen playing a serial-slaying transvestite nun in the forthcoming Bloody Bloody Bible Camp.
Since his directorial debut 2001 Maniacs back in 2005, he’s also directed the dark and gritty juvenile delinquent horror, Driftwood and has just gone into pre-production on his dream project, the sensual vampire horror Brothers of the Blood. I was lucky enough recently to be able to chat to Tim about the release of Field of Screams, the current state of horror and the long lasting appeal of gory ‘splatstick’ movies. Read on, dear reader. And be offended. Be very offended.
What ingredients did Two Thousand Maniacs! possess that made it so ripe for a modern make-over?
It's one of those things where I didn't choose it; it chose me. Chris Kobin literally walked off the street into my production office and said he had the rights to remake the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. At the time Bob Zemeckis was remaking the films of William Castle. It was kind of in vogue, but those films were being done on a studio level. HG Lewis remakes should not be studio films because in order to be true to the spirit of Herschell - what I call 'splatstick' - there's no way you're going to make these in a studio system. So I said to Chris, "let's be as perverse and subversive as possible, and let's do it independent." And he agreed and next thing you know we became producing partners.
We were going to write it and get Tobe Hooper or someone like that. Finally Chris said to me, "Tim, you should fucking do this, you should direct this." And so it just all fell together. Of all Herschell's movies, I'd always felt Two Thousand Maniacs! had the best story, and I felt setting it in modern times could really spawn some political and social commentary about racism and stereotypes. And the amazing thing was, no sooner did we start writing it than 9/11 happened, and then we had the Bush era and the Obama era, and in the ten years since we first started to remake Maniacs, America itself has become a metaphor for the themes of the film. In the Maniacs movies, you have this little Southern town that is the victim of a terrorist attack, and in their quest for blood vengeance, they become like the very maniacs who attacked them. Basically, as we went along, American politics just sort of gave me more and more fodder to satirize.
I think that horror is to film what rock ‘n’ roll is to music: the rebellious bastard offshoot of a genre. When I first saw Herschell’s movies – I was in high school – and they had no grindhouse cinemas in New Jersey, they were in New York, and I used to take the train to New York and tell my mom I was going to see Disney on Ice or something like that, then go to the grindhouses and see the Herschell Gordon Lewis films and the Russ Myers films, and films like Two Thousand Maniacs! just blew my mind. I mean these were not great films, let’s just face it: they’re not really well-made; there are a lot of things to criticise about them. But, they had an attraction.
What was it about the story that made you decide it needed a sequel?
It’s not that it particularly needed one, it’s just that I had a lot of really cool ideas I thought my audience would love to see played out. I also think fans of the original film want to see the “further adventures” of their beloved characters. I’m happy to provide that.
What was the writing process of 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams, and did the story change much as it moved from page to screen?
In the years that went by between the first and the second, the whole marketplace changed. Just like America itself, there's no longer a middle class in Hollywood. It's either hundred million dollar films or hundred thousand dollar films. When it finally came down to making the movie, we knew that we would not have the financial resources we had initially budgeted.
The original concept for Beverly Hellbillys (as it was originally called) was: the Sheriff ploughs over the 'detour' road, and since the North's not coming to the South, the South has to go to the North. We were going to have the Maniacs land in L.A., hanging out on Rodeo Drive, Melrose Place, Hollywood High and all that fun stuff. But there was just no fiscal way that that was going to happen. Mike Greene, my invaluable producer and partner in crime on this one, helms from Iowa, and told us about this amazing tax break for out of town film production. It seemed like every horror movie was being made in Iowa, from The Crazies to Lucky. So we went there and found this amazing spot of land alongside the Missouri River, and it all sort of came together.
The movie then really rewrote itself based on the resources we had. So now, the storyline became the Maniacs getting in a bus and setting up a travelling road show in the middle of Iowa, and since they can't just come right out with knives and guns and kill people - it goes against honour and tradition, and besides it just isn’t fun - they have to put on a show and seduce their new victims, and sing and dance and do all that kind of stuff. As far as the title… Well, Field of Dreams was made in Iowa, and so Field of Screams became obvious. Ya know, if they kill ya, they will cum…. Ahem.
Why do you think remakes have become so popular recently - particularly remakes of older horror flicks such as this one?
I think you have to consider remakes on a case by case basis. I have absolutely no tolerance for what I call the “sausage factory” remakes - insults like the Elm Street remake. The folks who just churn out remake after remake with no passion or unique voice – it’s just about the financial return. But then you get something really quite good ones like The Crazies. So I can’t say I am against remakes in a broad statement; just remakes that are made only with commerce in mind. Great stories will always be retold in the language of the current generation.
What can this sequel offer audiences other current horror movies cannot – what can audiences expect?
They can expect a real willingness, nay desire, from this film to ravage all pretences of good taste in its quest to entertain and amuse. I don’t care who you are; gay, black, Jewish, whatever… You WILL be offended by something in this film. But it’s okay. I’m allowed to do that because I’m really a gay, black, Jewish man in disguise.
The balance is what you make of it. Obviously Maniacs isn’t tonally in line with something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s much lighter than that, more like an issue of EC Comics, where the gore and violence was taken so over the top that it becomes funny.
What do you think of contemporary horror and how do you see your latest film in terms of it?
I like to think Field of Screams stands out from the gamut of horror stuff out there by virtue of its attitude. It’s has a defiant, rock and roll vibe sadly lacking in a lot of this impotent, mass-produced garbage that is foisted upon the public these days. It’s also funny and sexy rather than morbid and sadistic. It’s easy to be off-putting but try being charming sometime; that’s a whole hell of a lot harder to do.
2001 Maniacs and Driftwood have strong ‘queer’ subtexts. What compelled you to include these aspects within the films?
I just got fucking sick of seeing the comic relief gay guy be the first one to die in all those 80s horror movies. It’s a different time now and I’m well aware of who largely comprises my audience. The gay audience is very loyal and will back you to the hilt. Gay people live, love and die like everyone else; they’re human beings who are too often treated as caricatures by the world at large. That conviction informs my films.
Yes, well rounded gay characters whose sexuality is not their defining characteristic are rare in horror. Why do you think this is, and do you feel it is something that filmmakers are beginning to address?
In the old days I think there was a certain reactionary sensibility. I think it was on the basis of believing that a horror film audience would never accept gay characters. The audiences for these types of movies are different now, more diverse than they used to be. Filmmakers are aware of this still largely untapped market and are beginning to jump onboard. I sure as hell am!
How would you describe your own particular brand of horror? What is it about horror that appeals to you as a filmmaker?
My horror sensibilities are drawn largely from the flesh-rotted tableaux of EC Comics, which I was always a fan of. What I call 'splatstick', where murder is the punch-line of a morbid joke. But I also am fond of more subtle types of horror. Horror with heart, such as my film Driftwood, and my upcoming queer-fear passion project, Brothers of the Blood.
Besides the Republican party and our current American President’s inability to follow through with that audacious and intoxicating hope for a better world he sold us all on? That’s hard to say because horror is a deeply personal thing. What scares one person will leave another unfazed. What’s a filmmaker to do? Look at the final segment of Trilogy of Terror with Karen Black. It’s about this little shitty African doll that probably cost the effects department all of $5 and it’s more terrifying than anything Hollywood is churning out currently. It’s all in how effective your approach to the material is. And what scares me? The fact that a god-awful travesty like Avatar was catapulted into a multi-billion dollar phenomenon makes me fear for the future of the human race.
Ouch. You mentioned your dream project Brothers of the Blood. What can you tell me about it? Why is it your dream project?
Brothers of the Blood is unlike anything I’ve ever made before. It’s a supernatural romance using the vampire Mythos as a metaphor for the older/younger dynamic of many gay relationships, as well as gay culture’s (and straight culture for that matter), obsession with youth and beauty. It’s my dream project because so many of my own experiences and obsessions coalesce in it. Making this film will be a deeply personal odyssey for me and I can’t wait to get to work on it.
Field of Screams is out now on DVD. Keep up to date with Tim on Facebook.