A chill is in the air, and the campfire is burning bright. Around it sit four figures swapping stories while the fire crackles softly in the background. There’s room for one more. Pull up a rock and learn all about what goes into making a great horror anthology film. What goes into telling — Campfire Tales.
Uncle Creepy: First off, how about having everyone introduce themselves.
Martin Kunert: Hi, I’m Martin Kunert. I co-wrote and co-directed Campfire Tales and after that created Fear for MTV with Eric Manes.
Eric Manes: I co-wrote and produced Campfire Tales with these guys. I did Fear with Martin Kunert and have done a lot of television shows and pilots for CBS and various networks. I produced 3000 Miles to Graceland, and we are currently writing a script for Warner Brothers and Silver Pictures called Dodging Bullets, which is a cool action movie. Last year we did a really scary film; we sent 150 cameras to Iraq and distributed them out among the people. We made a documentary out of that called Voices of Iraq. It’s pretty much the first time that anybody’s sent a large number of cameras into a population and had people film their own experiences to deliver an understanding of what’s going on that you can’t get otherwise. That film came out in 16 cities in the United States theatrically and is now in festivals and being released all over the world. It really stirred up a new genre of filmmaking.
UC: I’ve read about that. It sounds very, very cool.
Matt Cooper: I write and direct and produce. The first movie I produced was called The Last Supper. It’s kind of a cult movie. And of course we did Campfire Tales, which we co-wrote and co-directed. Then there was a movie called Panic, which had William H. Macy and Donald Sutherland, that we produced. I also wrote and directed a movie called Perfect Opposites that came out last year or a couple of years ago.
UC: Great! So, the topic at hand today is obviously Campfire Tales. What was the genesis of the project?
MK: I spent a lot of summers in camp hearing these stories and then telling them to other people to scare the shit out of them.
EM: So basically Martin and I pooled together all of our experiences in camp and hearing these stories. We thought those stories were classic horror tales that have scared people for generations and had never really been put into a film in that way. So we did some research on the stories and found what were the scariest ones and developed them. We wrote a first draft of the script and then brought it to Matt Cooper, who joined in and helped us improve the script and realize its full potential, and then we all produced it and made it together.
UC: Now, did you guys actually know each other from childhood? You mentioned going to camp; was it with each other?
EM: Martin and I met at NYU in our first year. The funny thing is that Matt and I knew each other when we were younger. His best friend in high school dated my sister, so Matt and I knew each other.
MC: I think Eric was in like 8th grade, and I was a senior. Something like that.
EM: By the way, the funny thing about it is in Campfire Tales, you know the four people sitting by the fire? The older one is named Cliff for Matt’s friend, and the young kid is named Eric. The girl is named Lauren for my sister. The beauty of filmmaking in general, of creating the stories and seeing them realized – and this one in particular . . . The most joyful moment of the whole process for me was when we were on the set and it was three o’clock in the morning, there’s 100 people standing around but it’s completely silent and we’re getting ready to shoot, the lights are up and the actors start saying their words and having a conversation that my sister and I had when I was seven or eight years old. It’s a beautiful part of filmmaking to be able to take your real life experiences and put them into films so that other people can experience them. That’s the great thing about Campfire Tales. Everyone can relate to it. Most people have heard these stories in one form or another and can flash back to that time in their lives when hearing these stories for the first time really scared the hell out of them.
MC: Or when your older brother asked you if you had hair on your balls yet.
UC: There’s definitely a genuine feel to the stories. You guys really managed to capture the essence of each. How many stories were you originally looking at? Did some not make the cut?
MK: There were four stories originally. The only that didn’t make the cut was the one with “I want my arm back. I want my golden arm.” Have you heard that one?
UC: Yes, I have. This is like sitting in a time warp. Actually, that was the beauty of the film. It starts off with the 50’s thing and the hook in the car door, and it sets a tone and keeps it. It’s brilliantly done!
EM: Thank you!
MC: Yes, thank you very much. We appreciate your saying that. It was one of the challenges of the film because they are separate stories and separate segments. To make them feel like parts of a whole and have it all work together to transport the watcher to a place where they would be able to enjoy these stories and feel like they had experienced something that wasn’t disjointed.
MK: And the trick of it is that you’re dealing with stories that, five minutes into them, people are going, “Oh, yeah, I know that story!” But how do you make it in such a way that they’re still entertained and getting a kick out of it as they did the fifth time they heard it around the campfire?
MC: I think another challenge was that back in the day when we made this, special effects were so expensive. We have a very, very small budget, and I think we’re all pretty proud of how the film came out production value-wise with so little money at a time where you really didn’t have access to things like special effects. It was very challenging to pull that stuff off.
MK: I think a lot of that had to do with John Peters, who was the DP. He’s a very talented DP. He’s now actually a director on some TV shows like Without a Trace.
UC: Interestingly enough, the minimalist approach, even if it was because of the budget constraints, really worked for the film in the sense that nothing was every over-exposed. You weren’t getting smacked in the face with special effects and gore. Most of the time the viewer was able to just sit there and watch everything unfold, and then when it came to the punch line, you guys gave just enough.
MK: I think that comes from the book that Truffaut did on Hitchcock. Truffaut asked Hitchcock, “What’s the difference between shock and suspense?” And Hitchcock gave a classic example of the ticking bomb underneath the table. He said that shock is having two people sitting there talking, the bomb goes off – BOOM! – and there’s blood and gore, and you go, “Oh, my God!” and you’re in shock. Suspense is when you see the two people talking and then you show the bomb or you hint at the bomb so you know it’s there. As the clock is ticking down, one of the people gets up to leave and then turns around and comes back. And then you see the bomb again, and then just when it’s about to blow up, they get up leave, but then – Oh, my God! – something pulls them back in. That’s suspense.
And in Campfire Tales all the stories were really modeled after that hinting at the ticking clock and having your characters go back and forth, leaving the table and coming back, and that’s how you build the tension. At the end, let the bomb go off a little bit.
MC: We did also have a lot of extended conversations internally about how much gore to have. Suspense versus gore. That came up a lot, and we didn’t always agree on that either. I think there were a few of us who thought it should be more suspenseful versus there should be more gore and things like that. And it’s really hard to know. Even looking at it now, I think we probably could have done some things . . . pushed the envelope a little bit more. But, you know, I’m pretty happy with the suspenseful element of it.
UC: Out of all the anthologies I’ve seen, Campfire Tales is my favorite since Creepshow. It holds up every bit as well today. You know, I saw Campfire Tales when it first came out on cable, and I loved it. Then, I think the next time I got to see it was about four or five years later when I managed to track down a Japanese bootleg DVD on eBay.
EM: I think it’s because we really endeavored to make a quality film, you know? We weren’t going for sort of cheap thrills or cheap scares. We wanted to build good characters, and we picked good actors. These people at the time were not known at all. We’ve got Amy Smart, Ron Livingston, Christine Taylor, and James Marsden in the film. We were lucky, and we also took our time to really pick quality people. Also, we took a lot of time in the writing of it and making sure we had a good cast, and we endeavored to make the best quality film we could.
MK: I also think that Campfire Tales is classic suspense filmmaking. And that is really timeless. I think when people try to become too wild, too experimental, too “hip” of the moment, you end up dating yourself. I think a perfect example of it is when The Hunger came out by Tony Scott. It’s a brilliant film; everybody was blown away by how cool and visual it was for its time. Now, if you watch the film, you look at it and go, “Oh, my god! It is so dated and so 80’s.”
EM: Really? I haven’t seen it in a while. I loved that movie, and now I’ll have to watch it because of this conversation. I hope you’re wrong!
MC: I’d like to add something. I think also that the three of us all have different strengths, but they are very complementary. So what will happen is that Martin has these amazing ideas, and some of them are really kind of “out there” and a little twisted, and I’m like the logic police, and Eric’s got a great sense of humor. When you put it all together, we’ll throw ideas out, and then it has to kind of make sense in its own world – at least that’s the way I feel – so that there’s a sense that even though they’re these crazy horror stories, somehow they’re rooted in reality.
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So even though these kids are out talking around a campfire – and it turns out that three of them are dead and one of them is about to die – again, it’s rooted in reality because all of these images are in this guy’s head right before he’s about to lose consciousness. So all these glints that you keep seeing are the glints of the sirens, and the sounds they hear are the defibrillator machine.
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This illustrates that we took so much time and put so much energy and care into the crafting of these stories and the wrap-around story and the characters. I think both great comedy and great horror come from characters.
EM: It does. It’s all about the characters ultimately because if you don’t care about them, then you’re not going to be scared when they’re put in jeopardy. So even though the segments themselves were each pretty short, most of the time is spent building up and developing these characters and having the audience try to fall in love with them so that when we put them in jeopardy, you really care.
UC: Exactly. Characters needs to have a certain sense of likeability, or else you’re just not going to care about them.
MK: I think also what helps is that each of the characters has a hope or a goal which you can associate with or can understand. Like the two people in the RV, they just got married so you have all the hope of a marriage and a honeymoon, etc., and that really hooks you into them.
UC: And they just had “great sex”!
MK: Right! And the little girl . . . it’s not just any day; it’s her birthday. So she’s hoping to get the bicycle from her father. It’s these little human things that I believe really hooks the audience into liking these people.
UC: Another really good thing too is that none of the characters in the movie do anything overtly stupid.
EM: That would drive us crazy! Because then you don’t respect them.
MK: And you want them to die.
EM: And they deserve what they get. And you’re not scared by it. You just think, “Oh, jeez.” And you know what? That happens a lot because people take the easy way out. It’s just easier not to have to think of a better reason why. But we’re all friends here, and we would sit for 15 hours and battle over one of those points because until the three of us with our different sensibilities agreed that something made sense, was entertaining, and would really scare the audience, we wouldn’t move on. We just cared.
UC: Good stuff! Now, speaking of the wrap-around story a little bit, the movie had a helluva twist ending. But what was unique about it is that Campfire Tales is a movie with a twist ending before twist endings were in vogue like they are now. I mean every movie nowadays has some ridiculous ending to it.
MC: I think the only one I had seen before this was Jacob’s Ladder. It was before The Sixth Sense.
MK: I think genre filmmaking does have a tradition of the twist ending; the Hammer films had a lot of them. But what was unique for Campfire Tales was the emotional content of the twist ending.
EM: And the reason for having that ending was not just to have a twist. That’s the problem with a lot of films today; you’re running along in the film, and then it just twists at the end like “oh, that’s neat,” but it really doesn’t mean anything. Or it doesn’t build with the characters. For us, this whole film and the stories in it were building toward this ending, which really says something within the genre. It’s not just a twist; it’s a twist that makes sense in the world that we set up in the film. And that’s cool, and that frames the movie in the context of a horror/suspense film.
MC: And one last point which was very important to the investors in the movie was that at first, this was a very cool horror film and these kids were in the situation they were in, but we really wanted to try to come up with a social message too. And we kind of really struggled with that – how can we make this different for the kids watching this and enjoying the genre? In the end we have the little zinger, and it’s about drunk driving. It’s like a little PSA.
MK: The funny thing is that there are actually two twist endings in the movie. It depends on how far you watch the credits.
MC: Somebody mentioned that on IMDB. There’s a little tag at the very end.
UC: That’s right! Interestingly enough, I know you mentioned the glints they would see and the sounds they were hearing. I’ve watched the movie with a lot of people and actually had arguments about that. One of my friends insisted that the glints were from the hook from the very beginning of the film, but that never made much sense to me.
MC: We argued about that one too!
MK: That is the fake out. You think you’re heading toward the ending where the guy with the hook is going to grab and kill them all.
MC: I think that was basically a fatigued one that we gave Martin.
MK: I don’t. I thought that was cool because it’s the flashing in his eye.
EM: It’s the light being flashed in his eye as they’re trying to figure out what his status is.
MK: I grew up watching scary films like Carpenter’s The Fog, etc., and when you’re watching a film, you always know there’s going to be a punch line at the end with some type of horrific thing going down. So as a horror audience, you’re sitting there waiting and waiting for it to happen; you’re just trying to figure out what it is. So, to trick the audience, you really have to give them a fake-out. So the glints of the hook was a fake-out because everybody who was really into horror would be thinking, “Oh, that’s good. The guy’s going to come back at the end and kill them.” And if you had nothing there like that, they would have been looking in other places and for other types of tricks and might have caught onto the real thing going down.
MC: And it also might have been something for a sequel.
UC: Speaking of which, you know the $64,000 question is have you guys ever thought about revisiting some campfire tales?
EM: Yeah, we have.
MK: We talk about that every once in a while, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we did at some point.
UC: That would be awesome!
MK: Yeah, we’d be very psyched to do it.
MC: There are a lot of stories out there that we’d be happy to tell.
Big thanks to Matt, Eric, and Martin for their time. Also, big thanks to my girlfriend Debi, who reminded me to extinguish the fire after everyone left. “You could have burned the whole fucking house down! Building a fire in the back office! Honestly!” Hey! Had to get into the spirit of things, ya know?
*Shrugs and begins mopping up excess water*