Sean S. Cunningham is most strongly associated with the Friday The 13th franchise. He directed the original movie, which inspired a legion of copycat slasher flicks, and produced or co-produced the last four entries in the series, from Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday to the 2009 reboot. He’s got a lot of interesting stories, and with the Friday The 13th: The Complete Collection Blu-ray set now available, A.D.D. spoke to him about the origin of the franchise, the long road to making Freddy Vs. Jason and how he views the series now. (And yes, a new Friday The 13th movie is in the works. That’s all we can say for now.)
I don’t assume you envisioned Friday The 13th as a franchise when you made the first movie?
Oh no, not at all. What I planned to do was just buy enough time to stay in the game. At the time, I had a little kids movie that I thought was going to be a TV series. They were trying to sign me to do i. In the meantime, I was doing Friday The 13th.
What was the kids movie about?
It was a soccer movie. Soccer was going to be huge. Huge! [laughs] I guess the headline would be the Bad News Bears play soccer. It was a very good movie and had a nice heart. It’s called Manny’s Orphans and was also called Kick. It was while I was doing all that I was trying to figure out how to sell it and merchandise it. During that was when we had the notion for Friday The 13th. “If we call this movie Friday The 13th we could sell it!” [laughs] Of course, it didn’t have anything to do with our soccer movie. If we were only doing an ice hockey movie, maybe.
Writer Victor Miller has said that you wanted to come up with something in the vein of Halloween.
I guess. It wasn’t that we were trying to imitate it is much as we were looking at it as bare-bones. It was an experience unlike others. We only had $500,000, or hoped to, and we didn’t have a lot of time for that talky, chatty, character building stuff. It makes me shudder right now to think, but we didn’t have any time to waste with that. We had to figure out what is scary. What the hell is scary? Because that’s what we’re paying for, and everything else is beside the point. Victor, who had written the soccer movie by the way, had never done a scary movie before and didn’t know what the heck he was going to do. I said we were going to figure it out, and we wound up sitting around my kitchen asking rhetorical questions like, “What’s really scary? What is it that happens that scary?” We tried to figure that part out. I think if we were to verbalize it, it was something like, as a kid you get spooked by something because there’s a monster under the bed or something in the closet, and then your mom comes in and says it’s alright, just go back to sleep, then turns on a nightlight and goes away. But if you were to take those things and say, “Yeah, but there really is a monster under the bed,” even though she said there wasn’t, that was the kind of stuff that we were trying to figure out. Victor got some of his notions for scenes using that.
I got so spooked in Jaws, which came out three years earlier or so, when it had the John Williams score going “ba-dum ba-dum”. You look up from the shark’s point-of-view, and there are old people, young people, children, wives, husbands, all splashing around in the water just being nice and having fun. The shark is down just there saying, “I don’t know, I’m kind of hungry.” And just decides to go up and bite somebody’s legs off without any rhyme or reason.
“My favorite was Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter. A year later you see Friday The 13th: A New Beginning! I want to say that I just thought that was inspired. Of course you can go again! Don’t be silly!”
What was the hardest part about directing the first movie?
Surely the hardest part was staying funded. I never thought about it in those terms. It was all one giant bite, I suppose. I think probably the hardest scene to shoot was Jason coming out of the lake because by the time we finally shot that — I think we shot it three or maybe four times — it was getting well into autumn, and it was cold. They had to get somebody in makeup, underwater, at just the right place with no way of communication — I mean, you had to figure something out — and then he had to jump out of the water, pull the boat down and knock her into the water just at the right time. If it didn’t work, we were out of business. We didn’t have a take two. [laughs] It would have to be the following weekend, and then take three would be the weekend after that.
So how long did it take you to get that shot then?
It was three trips to the lake, and I’m sure when we did the first one we were doing something else, but twice more until we got it. The hardest other thing that I did was create the little epilogue that happens after she was dumped into the lake. Everybody thinks that’s where it ends, but there’s a little hospital scene after that. Without that, I just don’t think the movie would’ve worked right. I knew that you had to have something indicating that the world was in balance, and you also had to have something to justify what you just saw, which didn’t make any sense compared with the rest of the movie. The rest of the movie had to do with the serial killer who is this crazy Betsy Palmer. Then all of a sudden you have a monster coming out of the lake — doing what? What the hell is that thing? That was an elusive thing, but I was really happy that I found a way to nail that scene. “Nail it” sounds so presumptuous because it’s a nothing scene, but in its own way it sort of explains everything, at least in a satisfactory way.
The franchise was shot in a number of different states: New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia, California, New York, Alabama, plus British Columbia…
The truth is that the back stories consistently trip over each other, and it seems to be okay. But some of the fans are like, “It can’t be that. He did that in part four, he couldn’t possibly do it in part six…” I haven’t a clue how to reconcile that stuff, and today I don’t think it makes any difference.
The ’80s is when a lot of horror franchises really started up, and in the beginning many didn’t plan to do any sequels. It just turned out that way.
My favorite was Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter. A year later you see Friday The 13th: A New Beginning! I want to say that I just thought that was inspired, just from a marketing [perspective]. Of course you can go again! Don’t be silly!
You returned to produce The Final Friday, Jason X, Freddy Vs. Jason and the Friday reboot in 2009. What brought you back to the franchise, and what do you think about it in retrospect?
The franchise has become kind of a cash cow for Paramount but certainly not to the extent that it ever had any gloss attached to it. It had become almost a [bastard] stepchild. Also, the Nightmare series had pretty much run its course. I caught myself thinking one day, because I was friends with people at New Line [Cinema], if we were to combine them like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or Godzilla Vs. fill in the blank… Freddy Vs. Jason! I started thinking about that, and all I could think about was that title, like a heavyweight wrestling match. “I don’t know what the movie is, but you do it like a boxing match. Pick your guy and see how it works out.” It just felt like it would be a fun way to make a movie so they wouldn’t be telling all the same old stories. That’s what drew me to it. I went to New Line Cinema, and they said they’d love to develop it. They had the Nightmare franchise, so I was able to go to Paramount and Warner Bros., who had both lost interest [with Jason] and said I could go do it. They didn’t care anymore. So I brought it back to New Line, and just about the time I got the rights all tied up, they said Wes [Craven] would like to do one more Nightmare, so we were going to have to wait. I then went away for two more years, so by way of treading water we did Friday The 13th part nine, and kind of the same thing happened a few years later when we couldn’t agree on a Freddy Vs. Jason script. Then I had the idea: “Jason in space. We’ve never seen that before. Wouldn’t that be great!” It became, if you don’t want to do Freddy Vs. Jason, let’s do Jason in space, one or the other. It became about Jason in space, and we are going to work on the Freddy Vs. Jason script. I think it took eight years to find a script that they would like and I would like.
“The truth is that the back stories consistently trip over each other… I haven’t a clue how to reconcile that stuff, and today I don’t think it makes any difference.”
It’s just amazing that it took that long.
It’s just full of landmines you don’t think of. The biggest landmine was that New Line had a much more proprietary interest in Freddy than they thought. When you came down to it, they just weren’t willing to have Freddy do certain things. I think [former New Line Cinema president of production Michael] De Luca and I were both correct, but we had different points-of-view. I felt that the Friday movies and the Freddy movies weren’t movies anymore. They never were. They were always a certain kind of theater, and you had to have everything of Freddy and Jason, whatever the scenes were, but they had to be incorporated into a story story as if it had never existed. You had to drink from the action paradigms. It was 20 years after I did the original Friday, so I really knew a lot more about how stories worked, and I think that I was really strongly lobbying for more of a conventional action format with a hero at school and problems along the way. Mike felt it was more of an action movie than a horror movie, and he was right. I said, but if you just do a horror movie, it’s going to be dull, and I was right. We couldn’t find a middle ground that we agreed on. I think we would have, but Mike wound up leaving and Toby Emmerich took over. That became a brand new deal, and that’s when it got made.
What are your thoughts on the reboot?
I think what you might’ve discovered in the reboot, and I certainly agree with, is that you wind up with a prologue that’s 25 minutes long that touched virtually all the bases of a Friday The 13th movie. And just before it ended, they said, “Okay, now we’ve got to get this girl back.” The upside of that is they saw a brand-new movie that only had to be 60 minutes long instead of 90, and that just made it a lot better.