Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Victor Salva Interview
Neil Young meets VICTOR SALVA,
writer-director of JEEPERS CREEPERS
WARNING : CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS
NY : Theres been a lot of press attention in advance of Jeepers Creepers release, including the covers of Shivers and Fangoria magazines.
VS : In a way, the coverage the movie has been receiving is unsettling, because it does work better if you know nothing about it beforehand. I wouldn’t care, but on Shivers its not even a good picture of the Creeper! The whole point is that you watch without knowing whats happening and who this figure is. Theres a specific order to events, a series of gradual reveals. I was of course thrilled to get the cover, but they said they’d only put it on the cover if they could choose any image from the movie they wanted. There were plenty of other scary images that didn’t show the Creeper full face.Im worried that expectations are going to be raised so high, and then they see whats really just a little horror movie, when they’ve been led to believe its something really amazing.
NY : How do you think the movie will do?
VS : Id really love JEEPERS CREEPERS to have legs, as we call it. The summers been full of these huge blockbusters that have all opened big then fallen away really quickly. People have said that’s just the way it is with the public and the media blitzkrieg these days, but maybe its because the films aren’t really very good. Nobodys dared to suggest that, but two years ago The Sixth Sense opened and it wasn’t huge but it was a good film and it generated word of mouth, so it had great legs, and people went back to see it again. I kind of hope that something like that might just happen with JEEPERS CREEPERS, that it might have legs that are just that little bit longer.
NY : It seems to have fallen quite well for the film, what with Jay and Silent Bob and Ghosts of Mars underperforming last week, and Mariah Careys film Glitter being put back. The only other new wide release is Tim Blake Nelsons high-school Othello movie O.
VS : Tim is a really good friend, one of the very few Ive made in the business here in LA its a very strange irony, we were sitting about a year ago and saying how funny it would be if O and JEEPERS CREEPERS opened the same weekend, and that’s how its turned out. In a way its put us both in a very awkward position, because we both want to open really big its so weird being up against a buddys movie. To be honest, Im sitting here just nervous as anything at the minute. My grandfather used to say nervous as a cat in a roomful orockin chairs.
NY : What I liked about the film was that you expect these two kids to be killed straight away, then well move on to the main plot. And that isn’t what happens.
VS : When I first sent the script around the criticism was often that it didn’t open with a hook, in which something horrible happens to these characters, then the story really starts. JEEPERS CREEPERS isn’t really like many other horror movies its five whole minutes until the truck shows up. The studio was really worried about this, but I said, well, if the audience can’t wait five lousy goddam minutes, then who needs them? But of course that’s not the way studios think about audiences!
NY : Whats your background?
VS : I grew up in a really small town about 30 miles out of San Francisco called Martinez. Me and my brother would watch the horror movies on a show called the Creature Feature, and each area had its own host. Im still a horror fan but now Im addicted to British sitcoms we get via a 24-hour satellite channel, things like Father Ted, Blackadder, Ab Fab, even Vicar of Dibley, and Im impressed by League of Gentlemen, which is very dark, kind of like a sitcom by Roman Polanski. But I don’t think Fawlty Towers has ever been surpassed. Movies-wise, Ive liked some weird horror movies The Changeling with George C Scott, and more recently The Gift.
NY : Jeepers reminds me of some older types of sleeper movie like Carnival of Souls
VS : I saw it when I was a teenager, it has so many indelible images in it, and they made it for, like a dollar 98. Its so atmospheric, and bits of it are really terrifying, and it isn’t graphic at all. I loved Blair Witch, and that was one of the few horror movies where they never showed the monster. That works as a one-off, but really the lesson is that we have to show the monster. Its one of the criticisms of the movie that the second half isn’t as scary as the first, but, like, doh you have to reveal your monster. I look back on Night of the Demon and there was such a fuss about whether they were going to show the monster or not, but its fantastic.
NY : How did you get involved with Francis Ford Coppola, who’s producing Jeepers is it just a coincidence that he started out with a cheap horror movie, Dementia 13?
VS : Francis produced my first movie, Clownhouse, and that was more similar to Dementia 13 than JEEPERS CREEPERS. In Clownhouse three boys are watching the Creature Feature on TV, and the movie they’re watching is Dementia 13. I think there is a kind of total symmetry, though Francis was younger when he did his first movie. He saw a short of mine called Something in the Basement that I made in my own backyard. It did the rounds of the Festivals, and in one of them Francis was a judge. It was only for movies that were made on home video equipment, and Francis gave me the top prize in the fiction category. A few years later Francis set up a company called Commercial Pictures to make ten low-budget movies, and Clownhouse was the first one. Now he’s set up Zoetrope, and he’s got the money for another ten low-budget movies, and JEEPERS CREEPERS is the first, so there’s again a real symmetry. Francis has always been my champion, and he’s stuck with me all the way through the thick and the thin.
To be honest, for a long time I avoided showing Francis the JEEPERS CREEPERS script, because I thought he saw me as more of an intellectual type of moviemaker, and here was this genre horror film. But then my agent said, if youre sending it around all these producers and youre not sending it to Francis. he’s going to be offended, so we sent him the script and he loved it.
NY : What did he make of the finished film?
VS : He saw the rough cut and he e-mailed me, and the first three words of the e-mail were Oh my God, which of course can mean all kinds of different things. But he went on to say that the movie had a powerful vision and that it was a dark work of art. He knew it wasn’t just a piece of trash, that it was in a way a horror version of Powder. He tried to instil in me the idea that there’s no reason to approach a genre movie like this with any less style.
NY : Is it fair to say the movie owes as much to spooky stories by the likes of M R James and Saki, as it does to movies?
VS : Im not especially well read Ive read some stories by H P Lovecraft and Melville, but Ive never even read anything by Poe.
NY : I see the movie as a kind of fireside tale, or perhaps something like what might be told around a campfire.
VS : Ive never mentioned this before, but that’s exactly what both JEEPERS CREEPERS and Clownhouse are supposed to be. Amospheric and macabre, with no happy endings, but not to be taken totally seriously. I spent a long time over it, and I was serious about writing it, but in a way the film is supposed to be a very black joke. At the end when you get the song, and those visuals, you can see its a very dark humour. Theres the license plate he gets made for himself, and when he’s eating the tongue out of the guys head there’s a big ad behind him for a meat-market. I did all those things on purpose they’re not really Wes Craven type asides, when it kind of pokes fun at the horror and somehow tears it down. It was more an attempt to recapture all the things I love about those kinds of scary movies. And the humour is there, and it takes the edge of what are some pretty despicable and monstrous things going on.
NY : A bit like that story John Houseman tells at the start of The Fog.
VS : That sequence captures exactly what I was talking about. I only wish the rest of the movie was like that. Apart from Halloween, which I thought was genius, and The Thing, I must admit Im not a big fan of Carpenters. I remember seeing the British movie Dead of Night when I was in college, and that had the same kind of creepy mood I tried to get in JEEPERS CREEPERS. There are certain movies that people always mention when they talk about JEEPERS CREEPERS, and the funny thing is I haven’t even seen some of them like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, for instance. But of course the openings very like Duel.
Ive always been a horror fan, but I do have very unusual tastes. Im not a big gorehound, for instance, and one of the scariest films Ive seen is Picnic at Hanging Rock, its enough to give me goosepimples because its all so powerful and mysterious. Im a big fan of suspense, and there don’t seem to be many of that kind of movie made any more. I like all those Universal horror movies of the thirties and forties, but me and my brother loved the movies from the 50s, with the giant bugs and things. My all-time favourite monster movie is still The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and there’s a moment in JEEPERS CREEPERS, where the Creepers on one side of the two-way mirror and Gina Phillips is on the other, that’s a nod to the moment in Black Lagoon where the girls swimming and he’s underwater following her movements, and she’s totally unaware. Theyve been talking about doing a remake and I tried to get involved, but they’re taking it in a totally different direction from the original, apparently, and we could never work anything out.
NY : Did shooting go as planned?
VS : A week before we were ready to shoot one of the producers came to me and said, Victor, were a million dollars over budget. The completion bond company came in and asked if we could make changes, in order to meet the new budget. So we took 20 pages out of the script, and scaled parts of it way down the ending, and also the second-act climax. There was a whole other reel at the end of the interrogation-room scene, but we ended up with this much more intimate finale. It was the most thinking-on-my-feet thing Ive every had to do. The original ending was much bigger and pyrotechnic, but Francis said that maybe the more personal and intimate way to end the story was better in any case, and he’s right. Originally they escape from the police station in the Creeper van providing a pay-off for the van intro which the movie doesn’t have at all now. The Creeper flies after them and comes down on top of the van the similar scene earlier with the cop car was meant to foreshadow this, but again this doesn’t happen now. The Creeper pulls Trish out of the van, sniffs her, then throws her off the van. A freight train arrives on the scene just as the Creepers trying to reach in and get to Darius, and there’s a huge explosion that Trish sees from the distance. Then we cut to the actual ending, which is exactly the same as the actual version.
The freight train finale was a real aerobic exercise, it was like I was asking myself, Can I do an action sequence? Ive got a very childlike love of movies, and so far Ive been very good on the emotional side, flexing the emotional muscles. With this sequence I wanted to test myself alongside guys like Jim Cameron and Spielberg and see if I could flex my physical muscles as well. But in a way, it might actually turn out for the best that we couldnt just do anything and everything we originally wanted to do. That might have to wait for the sequel, well see.
NY : I hear you’ve already signed for a sequel.
VS : Thats a rather severe exaggeration. There are some very slow negotiations going on right now, they’re taking plenty of time. Francis and the other producers aren’t stupid, they want to see how the movie does before they get anything concrete sorted out. My idea for the sequel is that it starts off the very next day, kind of like Halloween 2, and Ive got some ideas in mind. The funny thing is, to be perfectly honest I thought Id written it to be sequel proof with all that stuff about the Creeper only being active for 23 days every 23 years. Then Francis pointed out that he’s active for 23 days and JEEPERS CREEPERS only covers one day, so there’s still 22 left. I had to admit Id never thought of it like that. Im not sure where the 23 came from, but my room-mate tells me he noticed that on the noticeboard across from my desk when I was writing the script there was a big number 23, kind of like in The Usual Suspects, with a red circle around it, and it was the poster for the 23rd Annual Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, so perhaps that was a subliminal influence. But I think 23 is also a kind of scary number, though Im not sure why.
NY : How do you now feel about the controversy that sprang up while you were making Powder, when your prison time for a child sex offence came to light?
VS : Well, Ive never made any effort to hide this. Making Powder for Disney was, I knew, like throwing gasoline on the fire, and I knew it was going to erupt at some point. It was a very volatile combination, but I didn’t feel as though I had any choice, because they were the only studio who wanted to make the movie. This has followed me around ever since it happened, but once people meet me the phantoms go away and they realise I made a stupid mistake, years ago. Francis knew I made a mistake, but he also knew who I was and what I was capable of doing.
My past is going to follow me around for as long as people want to talk about it. JEEPERS CREEPERS is a high-profile movie but I think therell be less controversy this time because it isn’t Disney who’s made it. It did hamper us a little bit when we had some difficulty with the schools in Florida when we were shooting the movie, but really, everybodys heard the story now and Im not sure how much juice there is left in it. Then again, there are always going to be people who wonder how anyone can make that big a mistake. Its like Einstein said, going back to Powder, people make big mistakes and they make little mistakes, and all we can do is learn from them.
Ill never let it stop my career as a film-maker. Francis said he knew how hard it was for me to get through the hard times, but he told me to try to look for the positives, and that it might even make me a better artist because Id come through the tough parts. I was too upset to listen to him at the time, but I know what he means. I have learned a lot of lessons. It derailed me from my ambition to be Spielberg it made me realise I wanted to know what kind of films Victor Salva was going to make. Im keeping busy, working hard on another genre script that will hopefully be finished by the first week of September, by when well know how JEEPERS CREEPERS has done. Its a ghost story, but Im trying to do something new with it the ghost is a kind of massively destructive force, like a freight train, he’s got so much anger. Ive got a couple of projects ready to go, the most likely one to get made first is something Ive been working on since Powder. Its about fathers and sons, and extraterrestrials among us on the Earth. Its kind of an action thriller drama. After everything that’s happened, Im still going to make movies, to make Victor Salva movies.
2nd September, 2001
by Neil Young