Recently, I sat down with Joe Zito to discuss Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which, if you haven’t been paying attention, is the best of the bunch. With a serious approach to themes and storytelling, more well-drawn characters than the earlier films, the magnificent SFX work of Tom Savini and one of the most solid casts in the franchise, it’s a film that was just as equally concerned with being a satisfying horror experience as it was in turning a profit at the box office.
A carefree lakeside vacation is interrupted by the re-emergence of killer Jason Voorhees (Ted White). After he escapes from a morgue, leaving bodies in his wake, Jason travels to Camp Crystal Lake where a group of friends is staying. The teens meet some locals: Tommy (Corey Feldman) and Trish (Kimberly Beck), as well as secretive hiker Rob (Erich Anderson). As the group of teenagers engages in drunken debauchery, their numbers begin to dwindle, and pieces of the past resurface.
Much of the credit for the film’s success goes to Zito, who wanted to make a movie that wasn’t just another entry in the Friday series but also an arthouse meditation on the inevitability of death. While Zito’s interview unveiled some fascinating backstory on the film and answered some long-simmering questions, the writer in me wasn’t satisfied. Zito’s perspective on the movie left me hungry to know more—what went into the writing process behind Final Chapter? Zito has long been open about his positive working relationship with Barney Cohen, who penned the script; what did he have to say?
As it turns out, quite a bit. Quick witted and wry, observational and contemplative, Cohen is a writer’s writer, eager to talk shop and get into the particulars of what it takes to bring a horror movie to life in all the right ways. He was kind enough to grant me an afternoon to reminisce, share some ideas that never made it to the screen, and most importantly, provide the insight and perspective that can only come from a writer with a depth of creative experience beneath his belt, from Madison Avenue to the New York Times. Proving that behind a great horror movie is a great horror story, it’s my pleasure to present Mr. Barney Cohen.
Dread Central: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us. Fangoria hosted a live tweet of Final Chapter in April, and it got a lot of nice fan interaction and got people talking about the movie and asking questions, so I thought it’d be fun to go straight to the people behind it.
Barney Coen: Well, two things first. How come you didn’t include me in your thing? I’m the screenwriter for crying out loud! [Laughs] And two is, I don’t do much anymore, but for a while I was doing a lot of these Friday things, and a lot of these question are Talmudic. I don’t know the answers to a lot of them. You know the thing about right brain/left brain? Some of these things you write with your right brain but you explain with your left brain. Somebody once asked me a really interesting question about Gordon the dog. He said, ‘Was Gordon escaping or was he thrown out the window?’ It was a question about Gordon’s character. Was he helping the family, or was he just escaping?’ And I didn’t write it one way or the other! I wrote ‘he goes out the window!’ [Laughs] I believe in the film he goes out head-first, which indicates he’s escaping. But I didn’t do that! A lot of that shit happens when the director gets involved. Who, by the way, was a great director. Joe Zito should’ve been a giant in our business.
DC: It’s funny you bring it up, because a lot of other people, and even I, thought he was abandoning the family. During the live tweet I think I even wrote, “Gordon is not a good boy.”
BC: If somebody had asked me while I was writing it I would’ve said, ‘let him go out ass-first,’ which means he’s thrown out. But, you know, it’s the rolling reality of film.
DC: I spoke to Joe Zito around the time of the live tweet, and something he said struck me. He said that this Friday has an actual theme, in that it’s a movie about death, and the inevitability and finality of death. What was your approach to depicting this more serious environment and atmosphere, and differentiating it from the earlier films in the series?
BC: Back in the day, when I was going to all these Friday parties—y’know, free booze and what not—I noticed everybody knew everything about the Friday movies before theirs, and nothing about the Friday movies after theirs [Laughs]. Because, you know, it’s one and done and you’re onto other stuff.
First of all, Joe said a really smart thing to me. Joe hired me because he’d seen a CBS After School Special I wrote, and he said ‘you write the most interesting kids. So don’t try to find any really exotic ways to kill ‘em, just make them real kids and people will feel horrified that bad things happen to them.’ So I focused on that. I was not a horror fan at the time. But when I got the gig, I was living in Manhattan, and there was a triple featuring playing in a theater on Lexington Avenue, and it was Friday, Friday 2, and Friday III. I said, ‘oh, I better go see these movies.’ So I got in a cab, went across town, sat down and watched these movies. Got back in the cab, came back, and halfway through Central I said to the driver ‘When you get to Central Park West, turn around and go back, I gotta go see these movies again.’ Because I realized I’d closed my eyes at all the hits, so I didn’t know how people actually got killed and how horrible it was. The whole idea for me was to make real people who wander into a really bad place and get killed.
DC: Was there any sort of themes or concepts that you put into the script yourself?
BC: I don’t work like that. I do have turns of a phrase, interesting things to say, that happen in conversation spontaneously and they stay in my head and I always want to stick them into subsequent writing. My only real theme that I consciously apply time after time is teamwork. That a bunch of people get together, fall apart, come back together—in this case Trish and Tommy—and together they solve the problem. I also tell people horror movies are ‘what the hell is it, how do we get rid of it?’ Really two acts. But it’s teamwork that gets to the conclusion of the second act.
DC: Something fans have debated about The Final Chapter, and I suppose the first few Friday films as whole, is whether Jason is meant to be human or a zombie or what…
BC: He’s not a real person. He’s a figment of our imaginations, but he can kill. I had this one conversation with Joe, and it had to do with taking his mask off. I said, “Joe, with his mask on, he’s a figment of the imagination. He’s just this crazy thing. But if you can get his mask off, then he’s human, and then you can kill him.” Now, I had been told in the beginning this was really gonna be the final chapter. That’s why it was called The Final Chapter! And it would have been the final chapter if it hadn’t have grossed so well. It did incredibly well at the box office. So I was told to find a way to kill him that he’s really dead. I said, ‘take his mask off, and then you can kill him.’ So we did and we killed him, but then the grosses went through the roof and they had to make ten more of them.
DC: But to you he wasn’t any kind of supernatural force, a zombie or anything.
BC: No. I’m really not into the supernatural. I mean I know what zombies are, I had a television series called Forever Night about a vampire, I’m aware of folklore, but I didn’t see Jason as anything but an imaginary figure that became real when you took his mask off.
DC: Is there anything you wrote that you wish had made it into the final movie but didn’t?
BC: [Laughs] If you’d have asked me that thirty years ago, I’d probably have given you a list! Who the hell remembers? You know, one of the things about watching the rough cut from a writer’s perspective is there’s things in there you didn’t do. Ways of turning your words into visuals that’re completely surprising and wonderful and then there’s things that’re left out… I know there were some things I complained about. I had just come out of journalism I was working for the New York Times, I was a journalist, and I was arguing with my editor, the late Jerry Walker, who was the Culture Editor of the New York Times, about something I had left out. He said “nobody knows what you left out, they only know what you put in.” So after that, my whole movie career, I have been more relaxed than most writers about what’s been left out, because I really believe what Jerry Walker said. Nobody knows what’s been left out. They only know what’s left in. But if you’d asked me at the time I’d given you a list- Oh! I remember one!
So, remember, the kids dance a lot. They do their little dances, and Crispin Glover is better than anybody. And I had fallen in love at the time with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and I wanted one of the kids to be similarly in love with the Kweskin Jug Band, which included Maria Muldaur, who went on to record Midnight at the Oasis. It was a really cool band, an actual jug band, a 70s folk thing. That’s in the script.
DC: You mention having been a reporter—did you apply anything you learned or experienced at the New York Times to your screenwriting career?
BC: Absolutely! Absolutely. My career started on Madison Avenue. I did movie ads for Diener Hauser Greenthal. It was an advertising agency that specialized in movie ads. I did the M*A*S*H fingers, stuff like that. I titled The Omen—it was originally called The Antichrist. So when I thought that was an insufficient career to have, I switched to being a journalist. And everything you do is a lens to everything you do next. What I got from advertising was how to do a single organizing principle that everything can fit into.
When I started writing movies, I couldn’t really do anything until I could see a poster in my mind. That was my single organizing principle. In journalism, you become adept—hopefully—at hearing how other people speak. And I don’t mean dialogue. People have different patterns to how they speak, some people work by induction, some people work by deduction, and you get this sense how different, real people speak. I talked before that Joe wanted real kids; well, real kids speak in slightly different patterns. The easiest one to notice is the one that Crispin Glover plays– he’s a crazy guy. But the other ones all have subtle differences in the way they speak. And you’re asking me, why did I put such effort into a horror movie? The answer is something Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist once said, ‘No matter what you’re doing, you’re working at the top of your craft.’
DC: Aside from the dialogue, when you were conceptualizing these characters, what did you put into them? Some writers come up with broader archetypes, others develop more detailed ideas and histories for their characters. What was your approach?
BC: Back to journalism. I did a profile of the guy who won the Oscar for the movie Breaking Away, Steve Tesich. He told me something that I later applied to film: “You can think about who your characters are, but as soon as you start writing, they take on a life of their own.” And they change subtly, or maybe not so subtly. So everything I’ve ever written, I get to about page thirty, and I know who my characters are. So I continue writing, but I also go back to page one and rewrite page 1-30 based on the characters that I understood, finally, on page thirty. I find my characters as I write them, and then I go back to smooth them out from the beginning, since I know them. I rewrite the parts where I was struggling to find them.
DC: I know that experience, having a character, starting with an idea of them and then something will occur to you, and then you understand all these things about them and who they are.
BC: Yeah! And the erring thought that characters create themselves is really not true. But they do help create themselves. They do things you didn’t think they would do, and then you have to incorporate that. And when characters surprise you, you have to incorporate it at the moment, of course, but you also have to go back to before they surprised you to lay in the groundwork for the surprise. It’s a combination of things. It always feels to me like my brain is writing but my fingers are also writing. They’re working together but also not so together and you gotta put it all together at the end of the day.
DC: Joe and I talked about the cabin, and the idea that it belongs to someone’s grandparents, and he talked about how it’s this sort of eerie reflection of a dead time to dovetail with the script’s overall ideas of death. Did any of that come from the script?
BC: This is part of the idea that writers build blueprints, for directors to use to make houses. It certainly wasn’t designed in the screenplay. But the blueprint for the house, what it felt like, the very thing you’re talking about, was there. It starts in the script, but everything in a script, in the narrative portion—the “action” portion according to Final Draft—is really there to seduce the director. You write it there, and there are things you hope the director will pick up on and do… I would have to go back and look at the script and look at the movie and answer that question, but Zito—the thing I like most about Joe- is he has a terrific sense of place. Place is important to him. It’s not just where actors go to jaw at each other, he has a sense of place, and place becomes a character. And I work in much the same way, so it was a nice marriage.
DC: Anything you want to add that we maybe haven’t touched on or brought up, or that no one’s noticed, or that you’re just particularly proud of?
BC: I gave you the Kweskin thing, for goodness sake! [Laughs] I’ll tell you this: I didn’t have much to do with the movie because I’m a New Yorker. I wrote this script and I had nothing to do with it, I was never on set, never met any of the people that were in it until the Friday parties that happened later. But my wife and I decided to go out and watch it the night it premiered. We went to a theater in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and we couldn’t get into it. It was packed, sold out, there was a line. So we went to another theater—same thing. So we went across town, I said, ‘Lets go back to the place where I originally saw the Friday the 13th movies to prep for writing this movie.’ And that was sold out. So we came back home, cracked open a bottle of wine, and had a good time. And that was one of the most wonderful nights of my career.