Michael Simpson

Back in 1987, Michael A. Simpson directed both "Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers" and "Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland", sequels to the underground cult original, "Sleepaway Camp". This interview was conducted circa 2003, soon after Robert Hiltzik's controversial "Return to Sleepaway Camp" had been announced. At the time, there were issues (and still may be) as to who owned the rights to make sequels, and how fans of Michael's entries to the series were treated by the team behind the original (and the STILL UNRELEASED "Return").

I believe I can safely say that you join a long list of campers in your admiration of her natural endowments.

First, I've got to say that I'm honored you're sitting down to answer my questions. I saw "Unhappy Campers" for the first time a year or so ago, and since then, it's become one of my top five favorite movies.

Glad you like it. It's always great fun to talk with fellow campers. It's amazing how many fans there are of the "Sleepaway Camp" movies.

What type of FX team did you have working on "Sleepaway Camp" 2 & 3?

Splat Johnson was the head of the department and he had one assistant as I recall. It was one of Splat's first jobs as a department head. He went on to do some great work.

During one of the first shots of all of the dead bodies in the cabin in SC2, the camera pans across bodies and then across a conspicuously placed album by the band "Flotsam and Jetsam". Was that intentional?

Yes.

Whose in-joke was that?

The set dresser showed the album to me and I thought it was funny so we featured it in the foreground of the shot.

Were there any other in-jokes in either SC2 or SC3?

There are jokes that work on many levels. I mean, even the basic premise is a joke when you think about it. When you look at the character of Angela, a transsexual serial killer, that's a pretty silly character. I believe that character really sets the tone of the "camp" in Sleepaway Camp. Angela kills guys twice her size. We have scenes in "Sleepaway Camp 2" where Angela appears to be dragging dead bodies of people much larger than herself. We did it by having a grip just off camera helping Pam move the body.

Of course, as most fans know, all the names of the campers in "Sleepaway Camp 2" were from the so-called "Brat pack" of the 80s. For "Sleepaway Camp 3", campers were named for "West Side Story" characters. And then there's the Freddy and Jason fight. That's something that really connected with fans. Campers got to see Freddy and Jason kick it 15 years before they did it officially.

One homage reference that no one picked up on until recently was our salute with Ally's outhouse scene to "Psycho", the first movie ever to show a toilet. I believe John Klyza, the webmaster of sleepawaycampflms.com, was the first to figure that one out. There are two or three other in-jokes that I'm still waiting for fans to catch. I'll autograph and send a SC box set to the first camper that nails the next one.

Were you the main driving force behind the comedic tones of the two films?

There were two factors. I've always had a great love of humor, especially dark humor, which you can find in my movie "Funland" and also "Impure Thoughts", another movie I directed prior to the Sleepaway Camp movies. Also, the writer of the SC sequels, Fritz Gordon, has a wonderful sense of humor. Early on, both of us were drawn to the idea of putting the "camp" in Sleepaway Camp. The dead teenager movie genre had already peaked in the late 80s and we were
looking for a way to have fun with the formula. The idea of adding dark comedy and pop culture humor was what attracted me to the projects. That type of self-referential humor in horror movies was virtually unheard of in 1987 although it's common today. The SC sequels, in my opinion, helped contribute to comedy loaded with pop culture references being in horror films.

You've got to admit that the character of T.C. sported what just might be the most spectacular mullet ever.

Yes, I always thought Brian Patrick Clarke deserved some kind of award for that mullet.

Was there a conscious effort to cast people with mullets in SC2? Was that part of the comedy? Or did it just turn out to be 'unintentional' comedy?

The hairstyle was popular at the time. I always thought it looked kind of goofy so I thought it would be fun to have lots of actors with mullets.

Can you believe people still have that haircut today! Moving on, I don't know about other SC2 fans, but I can never get enough of Valerie Hartman's (Ally's) breasts.

I believe I can safely say that you join a long list of campers in your admiration of her natural endowments.

Was Valerie at all apprehensive about doing all that nudity on screen?

Valerie knew that the role required nudity. She read the script and we discussed it before she was hired. She told me she would be comfortable with it and she was. She was a real trooper about it. Of course, I always try to make it as comfortable as possible for any actor doing nudity. I close the set.

Did you run into any problems with the other actresses who had to do nude scenes?

Not really. There was some slight hesitation with one or two, just nervousness, when it came time to do the scene. But I was able to talk them through it.

I've read that "Unhappy Campers" actually had a short theatrical run. Is that true?

Yes. Both "Teenage Wasteland" and "Unhappy Campers" had limited theatrical releases although "Teenage Wasteland" only played in two or three cities I believe. "Unhappy Campers" got a somewhat wider release.

If the original footage and audio had been available, I would have enjoyed doing a full director's cut of both movies.

"Sleepaway Camp 3" is notorious for having been butchered by the MPAA. Can you give us some details about your fight with the organization?

Dealing with the MPAA was very Kafka-esque. Basically what happens is you submit your movie to the MPAA for a rating and they assign one of their people to watch it. In our case I was told it was some little old lady from Pasadena who was about 60 or so. Not exactly the prime demographic for a SC movie. I was told that when she first saw "Teenage Wasteland" she had to stop watching because she got nauseated at the violence. It was probably the brains splattering during the flagpole scene that did it. I took it as a great compliment.

Ya that was a great scene (or, should have been rather, had it not been cut). So, what is it like as a filmmaker to sit there while you're told that your film has to be cut?

Actually, you don't sit with them. That's one of the things that makes it so bizarre. They just tell you after they view it what the rating is and you're left to guess exactly what they didn't like and how to re-cut it to gain the rating you need. You essentially have to be a mind reader. I was contractually obligated to turn in an "R" rated movie. So I just kept trimming and trimming until I got the "R". The whole MPAA is really a joke. If you look at some movies today, for instance, "Kill Bill", which raises dismemberment to operatic proportions, you realize that the Sleepaway sequels are pretty tame in comparison.

Is there a reason why these cut scenes were included as a special feature on the DVD instead of being reinserted into the actual film?

Unfortunately, the original audio and negative were missing so there was no way to reinsert them in a
seamless way. Those scenes were pulled from a work print video. If the original footage and audio had been available, I would have enjoyed doing a full director's cut of both movies.

Did you have anything to do with the production footage from "SC4: The Survivor" being included with some boxed sets from Best Buy?

The decision to use the footage as a bonus was something worked out between Anchor Bay, the DVD company, and Double Helix Films, the company that has the sequel rights for "Sleepaway Camp 4" and had started production of the movie many years ago. I wasn't even aware there had been an attempt to produce "Sleepaway Camp 4" until I started doing interviews for some of the websites. I believe James Hendsbee was the first to mention it to me, and then John Klyza provided me with lots of the background of the aborted production. The story of how and why "Sleepaway Camp 4" was aborted is probably of more interest than the footage itself.

Ya, personally I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Just a girl jumping over a rock a hundred times.

Yeah, it appears to be just raw footage, unedited. Apparently, the abandoned "Sleepaway Camp 4" is of interest to some in the SC universe. I believe that's way it was included.

Speaking of the DVD release, was it hard to get a large box set released for a fairly obscure 80's horror franchise? Were you directly involved in getting the DVD's to the masses? Who was involved in getting the sequels a DVD release?

I was directly involved in setting up the deal for the sequels between Double Helix Films and Anchor Bay. Jeff Hayes was the first to tell me about Anchor Bay's interest. Anchor Bay had released the original "Sleepaway Camp" on DVD. The company was very interested in releasing the sequels on DVD. There were other companies that also expressed interest in releasing the sequels.

The box set even managed to cause a little controversy when the Red Cross threatened to sue over the use of the Red Cross logo. Had you heard any of that commotion? What do you think of it?

I thought it was pretty funny when I heard about it. I believe it was John Klyza who told me what was going on. It seemed like the perfect cherry on the whipped cream of the sequels to run into problems with the Red Cross.

Speaking of promotional art. I have had this complete obsession with the poster for "Sleepaway Camp 2"... I don't know what it is but the thing is hypnotizing! Do you have any idea who the girl is on the cover or where she came from?

I actually have no idea who the young woman is. She was hired by the domestic distributor (I believe) to do the promotional photo because of her resemblance to Pamela. I wasn't present at the photography session.

Are you aware that there is a purported "Sleepaway Camp" sequel being directed by Robert Hiltzik with the title "Return To Sleepaway Camp".

I have heard that a movie is being produced called "Return To Sleepaway Camp" with the claim that it's a sequel in the SC franchise. I'm not certain if it's an authorized sequel or not, or if RTSC infringes on the rights held by others.

Do you know who has the rights for future sequels for the SC franchise?

My understanding is that Double Helix Films holds rights for additional sequels but that's a question better directed to that company.

Reportedly, Robert's movie is being called a "direct sequel" to the original and ignores the plotlines of your films. How do you feel about that?

If Robert actually has the rights to do a sequel, he can obviously do any story he wants. Having said that, doing one that ignores SC2 & SC3 sounds kind of silly, doesn't it? I would hope that anyone who develops a legitimate SC sequel would have the creative imagination to come up with a story that builds on all three previous movies and moves the series forward in a fresh and original way. From a creative standpoint, it shouldn't be difficult for a good writer to fashion such a story.

I think it's important to care enough about the fans, many of who enjoyed SC2 & SC3, to give them a movie that incorporates the mythos as created over the entire franchise. To do otherwise could be viewed as disrespecting the fans. Because the SC franchise is comparatively small, I don't believe anyone can risk alienating any part of the fan base.

There seems to be a split among fans over which SC movie they like best. Some people have very strong opinions one way or the other. What's your take on that?

I'm aware that some fans like the first movie and don't care for the sequels. Others absolutely hate the original but love the tone and humor of SC2 or SC3 . Then there are fans that like all three and enjoy the way the narrative evolved in them. A sequel that builds on all three previous movies would be a good way to bridge those differences.

A single movie, by definition, can't be a franchise, it's just a movie, and in the case of SC1, a pretty obscure one at that.

If you were asked to come back to the franchise tomorrow in one way or another, would you?

It's hard to say. My work schedule is pretty full these days. However, if I was available, my interest would depend on what the sequel's premise is and whether you could move the story forward in a compelling way that is different and not just have another tale about slow-witted people in the woods making silly mistakes as they're sliced and diced. I understand that Double Helix Films holds the rights for additional sequels so it will ultimately be up to them.

I'm sure that fans of the franchise (including me!) would love to have you back at Camp again. "Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers" seems to be the fans' favorite. I know it's mine.

I read a marketing study during the time that the SC2 and SC3 DVD rights were being offered to distribution companies. The survey indicated that among the three movies, SC2 was the fans' favorite with SC1 ranked a fairly close second and SC3 coming in third.

That same ranking seems to hold for critics. DVD Maniacs named SC2 "one of the better horror movies" of the 80s, for its mix of humor, nudity and its "very stylish and imaginative deaths, which are among some the most memorable of any horror film." Another reviewer even called Unhappy Campers "The The Godfather 2 of horror movies."

Likewise, on the business side, SC2's domestic and international video sales were the highest of the series, which is why several companies were so interested in acquiring the DVD sequel rights. Sleepaway Camp 2 was also the movie that literally created the SC franchise. A single movie, by definition, can't be a franchise, it's just a movie, and in the case of SC1, a pretty obscure one at that. You need more than one movie to be considered a franchise, and for the SC franchise, that movie is of course Unhappy Campers.

I completely agree, no one would know about Sleepaway Camp if it weren't for your sequels. Were you a big horror fan before working on the sequels?

Yes, I've always had a great affection for horror films. I've seen virtually every great horror movie ever made. I remember getting scared silly as a kid watching the original "The Fly" with Vincent Price.

What kind of horror films have influenced you the most?

Some of my personal favorites include "Alien", "The Shining", and more recently, "The Sixth Sense". I have a great love of some of the old school stuff also, like "The Mummy" with Boris Karloff and the 1931 version of "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi. I think one of the greatest horror films ever was the original German version of "Nosferatu" from 1929, directed by F. W. Murnau.

Do you still keep in contact with anyone from either of the Sleepaway sequels?

Renée and I stayed in touch a bit over the years. She can be seen in a recurring role on NBC'S WEST WING, which stars her father, Martin Sheen. That's a great show, by the way. Incredible writing and acting. Pamela is now a professional photographer, much in demand, and has shot several CD covers, including some for her brother. I don't believe she is acting anymore. She did the stills for Price of a Broken Heart, a movie our company, Cairo/Simpson Entertainment, produced a few years ago. I had a chance to see her then and she was still her same sweet self. She recently had a baby. Tracy is still acting. I ran into her at an AIDS benefit hosted by Matthew Perry a year or so ago. She looked great. Occasionally, I run into Michael J. around town.

And finally, here's your chance for shameless self-promotion. Is there anything that you and Cairo/Simpson Entertainment have coming up, or already out, that people should check out?

Our company is very busy. We produce about two to three movies a year, primarily for television, which my wife Judy produces or executive produces. We also develop television series. We've developed series for USA Network, ABC and HBO Independent Productions.Right now, I'm writing a book that deals with my family's history from the American Civil War through Vietnam. I'm also working on a music project with Ravenstone, the rock band I played with during my college years in Athens, Georgia. Campers will know Ravenstone from the bonus track included on the Unhappy Campers DVD. We had such a strong response to the song we decided to produce a full-length CD with the original band members. The CD should be out next year. You can get more information by visiting our website, ravenstoneband.com.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. And from a huge fan, thank you for bringing UNHAPPY CAMPERS into the world of horror. It wouldn't be the same without it.

Thank you. And keep on camping!

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