Whatever can go wrong, does go wrong – so the saying goes. It couldn’t be truer whether you have an island of genetically created dinosaurs…or three top-of-the-line robots rolling on the mall security beat. Chaos theory. Murphy’s law. Whatever. It’s a bitch. And director Jim Wynorski, with his working partner Steve Mitchell, took a crack at the latter nuts ‘n bolts premise in 1986’s Chopping Mall. The film follows a small group of 20-somethings whooping it up at the Park Plaza (actually, the Sherman Oaks Galleria before an earthquake leveled it in real life) after hours. Lightning strikes the building’s generator sparking a killer instinct within the mall’s robotic law enforcement trio. Before ya know it the body count is rising and heads are a-poppin’.
Dread Central spoke with Chopping Mall co-writer Steve Mitchell shortly after the film’s release in a special edition DVD (courtesy of Lions Gate) package which Mitchell lent a hand in producing.
Ryan Rotten: One thing I never knew was that this is a Corman production, it was originally at New Concorde, now it’s in Lions Gate’s hands. How’d this come about?
Steve Mitchell: The movie was produced by Julie Corman’s company. Vestron financed the picture and bought the worldwide home video rights. Roger’s company maintained the theatrical rights. What happened was that about two years ago, give or take, Jim Wynorski, Kelli Maroney, Barbara Crampton and myself got together to do a commentary track for Chopping Mall when Roger was originally going to put it out on DVD. What happened was Artisan wound up inheriting the Vestron library and so Artisan got in touch with Roger Corman and put a halt to his plans. The funny thing was that the lawyer at Artisan said “If you’d like to put it out, we’d be happy to license the rights to you.” Roger wasn’t going to pay anybody ten cents for something he thought he owned. Basically, he did not own the home video rights. At the time the movie was made there was only VHS so Roger may have assumed incorrectly that the deal was for home video i.e. VHS rights.
RR: Right, he didn’t realize it was a whole different game when you start talking about laserdisc and DVD release…
SM: To tell you the truth I don’t even know if Chopping Mall ever came out on laserdisc.
RR: You couldn’t get Barbara Crampton and the rest of the team back again for a commentary on this current presentation?
SM: Well, here’s what happened… I had worked on the Combat! TV series and produced the special features along with Steve Ruben for that show and basically put together a 23-minute documentary for Image on the title. We put commentaries together and wound up sort’ve producing, however you want to put it, a retrospective for Combat! We sent out that documentary to a bunch of companies because we were looking to do this kind of work on a regular basis. We said, “Hey, look what we can do with no money” because we had a minuscule, at most, budget for Combat! I thought we did a pretty nice job. The guy we sent it to at Lions Gate was a big Chopping Mall fan so that’s how I sort’ve got the gig with the proviso that it was going to be another down-and-dirty low budget/no budget kind of thing. So that’s why we didn’t get Barbara. We set up the commentary, Jim Wynorski and I did it. Then I digitally recorded interviews with Jim, myself and Bob Short. I had about two weeks to edit the whole thing. I like Barbara and I like Kelli but in that original commentary I felt there were just too many voices in the room.
RR: Were there any deleted scenes? In the theatrical trailer one of the final shots has a Killbot carrying a shopping bag with a hand sticking out of the top. It was one of those great images that, as a kid, got me all worked up to see the film. And the scene’s not in the movie!
SM: When Jim and I wrote the script it was about 110 pages long. Every scene we wrote is in the movie and it’s still only 78-minutes or so long. That’s because it was basically all action. We wound up writing a lot of description of action because we thought it would help sell the picture, but when you’re writing action it takes up page space, but when action is filmed and cut it takes an awful lot less space than you think. So we thought we had written a traditional Corman-like script and wound up getting a shorter picture. I mean, there are probably trims, there are small scene trims but we have no idea where that stuff is. Jim was wondering if there was some way we could’ve gotten a print, I don’t know if Artisan knew where a print or the negative may have been. That’s one of the reasons there aren’t those kinds of extras.
RR: Was there any difficulty getting a print you were happy with?
SM: Artisan had their master and they decided to put it through some digital sweetening.
RR: Did Wynorski shoot the film full frame?
SM: I think it was shot full frame without a hard 1.85 matte. And we always figured it would be projected 1.85:1. I’m aware of the fact that it played theatrically in New York City because I had a couple of friends go see it on Broadway. They took a polaroid of them standing in front of a marquee giving me the Siskel & Ebert thumbs up. But I don’t know how many prints they made up of Chopping Mall, my guess is they all went out full frame but the intention was to be projected in 1.85.
RR: Now the film was initially released under the title Killbots, after a sour box office turn it was re-titled then re-released. How big was its second rollout?
SM: It was filmed with the title Robot because we didn’t want to scare anybody away with a gory or exploitive title. It was then changed to Killbots, so they made up posters with that title. I think at the time one of the problems was, I mean, the original Killbots key art was of one of the robots. At the time of the movie’s release, Transformers was a popular cartoon and my memory tells me there was some room for confusion on the part of the audience when they saw the Killbots poster. Maybe it wasn’t Transformers, but it was like some robot movie thing. Then they changed it to Chopping Mall. When you look at the ad art now there’s no room for misinterpretation, it’s a horror movie. Now this is towards the end of Roger’s theatrical days, I think if a movie didn’t catch fire quickly he would not spend any additional money to promote the picture. Contractually, he may have had to roll it out to a certain amount of theaters and cities but if he didn’t think he was making money, he didn’t spend the money.
RR: Setting the obvious choices aside, was there anything else you would’ve like to have done with the disc that you were not given the opportunity to do?
SM: I was prepared, and was thinking about, putting together a lengthier documentary called Back to the Mall and I was going to try and hunt down as many cast and crew members as possible. It would have cost money and taken more time. When I was told what my deadline was at Artisan I knew I had time to do a featurette about the robot. At the end of the day that’s what the fans are interested in anyway. What I wanted to do with that is tell the story of sort’ve blind and somewhat naive enthusiasm. Because we said, “Here’s the movie, we gotta find a guy who can do the robots, we think he can do it, it looks like he can do it, so let’s do it.” Then the story became, “Hey the robots work!” If they didn’t we wouldn’t have a movie. The real event was when they didn’t work, and we were so lucky to have little or no problems.
RR: What was the budget? You guys don’t drop any mention of a price tag in your commentary…
SM: I don’t know if this is the exact dollar-for-dollar budget, but I heard it cost somewhere around $765,000. And we had twenty-two days. Most low budget movies today, most Wynorski directs, are made in eighteen days or less. We didn’t have a lot of time and we certainly didn’t have a lot of money – if there were any screw-ups we would’ve been dead in the water and the robots were ultimately the least of our problems.
RR: And as I understand it you had a few robots to spare but they all served different means…
SM: Yeah, we were really lucky to have Bob Short. When we met him in a restaurant around the corner from Corman’s office it was fate. Bob’s very smart and a talented FX guy – he had really good people working for him at his shop. When we wrote the script we didn’t have the foggiest idea how we were going to do the robot. We didn’t have a clue, we really didn’t. Bumping into Bob literally solved all of our problems.
RR: Was Bob limited to just the robot effects or did he do everything else like, say, Suzee Slater’s head explosion?
SM: Bob’s company was responsible for the head blow-up which I will say for the record that it is the second best head explosion since David Cronenberg’s Scanners.
RR: You guys weren’t afraid of showing that money shot in the trailer either.
SM: Roger was not one of those guys who was going to hide the big moments, but the thing that scene was that it was so simple to do. We had Suzee Slater who was such and incredible trouper. She allowed them to make a mould of her face, then they put a wig on the mould and of course they stuffed it with explosives. For the scene she basically stood on her mark, she screamed and we essentially had the camera tied down when she did it. We marked off where she was, replaced her with the exploding head and pulled it off with a simple cut. Bob and the guys did a special job with that. One thing that obviously was not done live were the laser beams that came from the robots. Those were done with traditional animation. There’s some stuff that looks good and I think there’s some stuff that doesn’t look good, like when Dick Miller is getting zapped and you see those little electronic lightning bolt effects.
RR: Regardless, given the budget everything’s impressive.
SM: Well, one of the reasons why the movie as a whole looks good is because of the Sherman Oaks Galleria.
RR: Did shooting there pose any major difficulties? You probably had to abide by the same rules Romero faced shooting in the Monroeville Mall during Dawn of the Dead: get in after closing and be gone before anyone shows up the next morning.
SM: We owned that place basically from eight or nine at night until eight or nine the next morning. Our contract was that we couldn’t put anything out into the mall until one minute after eight or nine at night, by the next morning we had to be invisible. There had to be no evidence of our being there. I believe we spent about twenty grand renting that mall. Even back in the ’80s, for that set, it would cost millions to build now. And we shot every nook and cranny in that mall. I don’t think there was a square foot we didn’t cover in some way shape or form. It was creepy and neat owning that place in a sense. We didn’t do anything ridiculous or wild, we didn’t have time. Every single minute of shooting there was precious.
RR: You also shot off location for some external stuff as well.
SM: That was in North Hollywood and then I shot the scene with Rick and Linda in their car outside of the mall. It was on an entrance driveway which still exists. And I could only have them for a certain amount of time – twelve hours ’cause they have to be wrapped in twelve hours because then it goes into overtime. I was very lucky because the actors gave me a few extra takes, they went into overtime but they didn’t charge us for it.
RR: When I finished watching the disc I got the impression that you were more of a co-director than anything.
SM: Jim and I were there from the very beginning to the end – we wrote the movie and we cast it. There is no casting credit in the movie. We had help from some of the Corman staff but we didn’t spend any money on an actual casting director. So my input was there in that aspect. I was involved in all the pre-production, I knew I was going to shoot nine days of second unit. After the movie was shot, I didn’t sit in the editing room but I was around for all of the sound work, the mix, a little of the scoring – and I still think Chuck Cirino did a fantastic score. I have a fondness for ‘80s music and he did a fun, bouncy, imaginative score. But anyway, yeah, I was around for most of the show, it was in a weird kind of way going to graduate school.
RR: Had you had the directing experience prior?
SM: I had gone to film school in New York, but I didn’t have the kind of experience at this level when I was there.
RR: So this was a crash course of sorts for you.
SM: Certainly in the post-production side of it. I had some experience but not to this level. I’m not taking any credit. I was just happy to be there, it was an incredible opportunity to start something and go all the way of it. To this day I’m still thankful I had the opportunity and I’m thankful for Jim for being so generous.
Screen stills courtesy of Bad Movies.