Gavin Schmitt Interviews Kenneth T. Hall
If you’re looking for someone who knows the ropes of independent Hollywood, Ken Hall has done it all: written one of the greatest horror masterpieces of the modern era, directed his own feature film, and has made some of the finest visual effects for more projects than you can shake a stick at.
Ken sat down with me and we had a nice little chat about the fun and difficulty of working for Charles Band and Full Moon in their early years. We talked about a few of his other films from the past two decades. And even David Hasselhoff found his way into the conversation.
Want to make your own movie? Ken Hall is a real-life inspiration. He’s been there, he’s done that, and he continues to live the dream.
GS: As a child, you believed that no one could ever become big coming out of Jacksonville, Florida. Has your impression changed? Is there hope for those of us from other second- or third-rate cities?
KH: Actually, what I said was people who live in other parts of the country don’t look at the entertainment industry as a viable career path so they tend to discourage those of us with dreams. Some of it is well-meaning, like parents who want their kids to have something “practical” to fall back on. Some of it simply comes from jealousy from those who don’t want to see others succeed. I think people in show business have always had to contend with this and always will. The secret is to follow your heart and not let the doubts of others stand in your way.
GS: You’ve said your big break was due to Debra Dion, the wife of Charles Band. How did you meet Debra and what did she do to give you the break?
KH: I had been doing some sporadic PA work for Empire Pictures, running errands for productions like SWORD KILL (released as GHOST WARRIOR) and was looking to work my way up. I submitted some spec scripts to Debbie, who told me they weren’t making horror films there. I’m not sure what she thought GHOULIES was. Ironically, one script she rejected was an adaptation of Lovecraft’s THE LURKING FEAR, which they did a version of years later at Full Moon.
In the interim, I met Dave DeCoteau [director of “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama” and various “Puppet Master” sequels] and he recommended me to write I WAS A TEENAGE SEX MUTANT. Debbie loved my treatment and script because it was a comedy, not a science fiction film. Despite her husband’s tastes, she was not a horror/sci-fi fan. After that, she had me lined up to write and direct a number of projects for Empire, but the company did not last long after that. When they formed Band Company (which became Full Moon), she called me in to write their flagship project, which was PUPPET MASTER.
GS: In one interview, you said Charles Band showed Paramount Pictures “Dr. Alien” (which you wrote), and this was the key to his starting up the now legendary Full Moon Entertainment. Would you say that Full Moon indirectly owes its existence to you?
KH: I would never be that egotistical. DR. ALIEN (which was the title TEENAGE SEX MUTANT was changed to) was overall a fun, well-made B movie. The script worked, the cast was great, and Dave did an amazing job producing and directing on a budget that was well under half a million. Charlie promised Paramount that he could deliver unlimited films of that quality. Of course, many wound up costing over twice that amount and sometimes were not of the same quality.
GS: Many people probably think that Charlie wrote “Puppet Master”, but you actually wrote the first few drafts completely alone, with Charlie only providing the title. Why did “they” try to take your name off of “Puppet Master”, and who are “they”?
KH: Charlie came up with a basic concept for the puppets as well as being in on several story meetings with Debbie and I. I wrote the first draft on my own. By the time that I turned it in, David Schoeller was signed to direct and he wanted to do the rewrites himself. No one ever tried to take my name off it. When the Guild arbitrated the credits, it was proposed Charlie and I get the story credit and Schmoeller get the screenplay, for which he chose to use a pseudonym. I was fine with this since it was clear he had made a lot of changes from my original draft.
GS: I have to call you out on your claim that no one tried to take your name off of “Puppet Master”. In one interview you said, “I had to fight for my screen credit” and in another you said, “Later on, they even tried to take my name off the picture but the WGA ruled in my favor, since I was the original writer.” Am I misreading this?
KH: Hmmm, sounds like something I said a long time ago. In both cases, I was probably referring to an instance where my name was omitted from a comic adaptation of the film. The Guild wound up penalizing them for that as well as some other errors and omissions. I was pissed off about it at the time but there really was no way they could have taken my name off the original film.
GS: You had difficulty receiving payments for your work on “Puppet Master”. Was there a dispute, any legal action? As the original writer of one of horror’s big franchises (by low-budget standards), was there any justification for your treatment?
KH: Anyone who ever worked for any of Charles Band’s companies can attest to this kind of treatment at one time or another. It had nothing to do with me personally. It was simply the way he did business, which was not in any way justifiable. I was fortunate enough to have the Writers Guild intercede in getting the payments that were owed to me.
GS: You’ve credited David Allen (“Willow”, “Ghostbusters II”, “The Howling”) as the real genius behind “Puppet Master”, though I think most horror fans are unfamiliar with his name. Tell us about David.
KH: I only met him a few times but I’d read about him in Famous Monsters of Filmland when I was growing up. He was an extremely talented stop-motion animator following in the footsteps of Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth. Charlie recognized his talents and utilized them frequently, even allowing him to direct occasionally. Unfortunately, David never lived to complete his dream project, a fantasy film called THE PRIMEVALS. The live-action footage was shot in the 90s but Full Moon closed down before he ever completed the effects work.
GS: From another interview, you pointed out that “the market… is currently being flooded with a lot of independent horror.” As an independent horror reviewer, I can fully appreciate that observation. Do you see this as good or bad for the business?
KH: My greatest fear is that the over-saturation will cause audiences to lose interest in the genre, which will be bad for everyone. For certain, a lot of the independent stuff being made will never find distribution, which will eventually cause that kind of production to taper off. With luck, talented filmmakers who find ways of making something fresh and new in horror will be able to get their product out there. There are so many outlets these days like the internet and festivals to give them exposure. It’s just that the money is spread that much thinner now.
GS: For a while, you had become disillusioned with film-making and had gone on hiatus. Some might say your level of involvement is again rather minimal. How do you feel about the industry today?
KH: I became disillusioned with the business side of film and still have little love for that aspect of it. I re-entered the market a few years ago with my first totally independent film, which I learned a lot from. I’m still looking at just where in the marketplace I want to be and finding a way to do it on my own terms. Making one independent film at a time is a struggle I’m not looking to repeat.
What people don’t realize is I also have a second career as an effects artist and have run my own studio, Total Fabrication, for the last twelve years. We do some work for features and TV, plus a lot of commercial and industrial work. Most of what we do couldn’t be further from horror films, like creating characters for Nickelodeon kids show or dressing people up in goofy food costumes for a TV ad. So, I am very much involved in the industry at large, just not always horror.
GS: Don’t tell my editor, but we’re going to move away from horror for a second. You had a role in one of my favorite comedies, “Fear of a Black Hat” (basically “This is Spinal Tap” with rappers). I don’t even know what to say or ask about that — anything interesting happen on set?
KH: I’m glad you enjoyed it. It still turns up on cable and I get asked about it often. Some friends of mine created that project and told me they had a part for me in it. I asked, “You want me to read for something?” Their reply was “No, we wrote this for you. You’re doing it. You have no choice.” I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or not since it was a very smarmy character and they told me to play it “just like myself.” I guess they were happy with it since they wrote a second scene for me when they got some extra money to shoot some additional material. It also got me into the Screen Actors Guild, which was something I never planned on.
GS: “Carnosaur” (probably the biggest dino-horror film) came out roughly around the same time as “Jurassic Park” (the biggest mainstream dinosaur film). Was there any conscious decision, as a designer for “Carnosaur”, to try to make your dinosaurs different from those in “Jurassic Park”?
KH: CARNOSAUR was made before JURASSIC PARK was released, so all of Stan Winston’s dinosaurs were being kept under wraps. I was not the creature designer on the show. I created the full-size T-rex, which was based on the sculpture used more miniature mechanical puppet. It was probably the last T-rex to be depicted walking upright, like a kangaroo, which is the way they had been done since the silent LOST WORLD. The Spielberg film portrayed their rex walking parallel to the ground, which is something contemporary paleontologists believe to be the way they actually walked.
GS: As someone who has worked, and continues to work, in visual effects, how do you feel about the more traditional effects (foam, stop-motion, etc.) being replaced by CGI? Personally, I’d rather see cheap “old school” effects with heart than newer effects that turn things into cartoons.
KH: Of course, I prefer the traditional types of effects not only because that’s what I do but I feel they’re more organic. However, CGI is here to stay and there is no denying it has its place. It makes certain tasks easy that were virtually impossible before, like compositing elements into a moving shot.
I never liked animatronics because no matter how complex they were, they never had the range of movement a simple hand puppet had. Now, they can animate a live animal’s mouth to lip-sync dialogue rather than use some phoney-looking puppet.
My biggest problem is when CGI is used to create an entire scene, which winds ups looking like a cartoon, as you said. The the exception of outer space scenes, which were always created artificially, most audiences will buy a shot that has a combination of live elements with CGI. And I’m not talking about shooting a couple of actors in front of a green screen and placing them into an artificial environment either.
GS: In “The Halfway House”, a cult sacrifices topless girls to a tentacled monster. I understand what the viewer enjoys about topless girls, but why do you suppose monsters, demons and gods prefer their sacrifices to be topless (or nude)?
KH: It’s really all about the viewers, isn’t it? Let’s just say it was a monster after my own heart. Since the girls were tied down spread-eagle, we had to leave their panties on or not have any girls willing to do it at all. I considered doing a shot of a pair of bloody underwear being spat onto the dungeon floor, like the monster spits out the clothes in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, but never got around to it.
GS: “Halfway House” was your project in every way — writer, director and producer. How is this level of control compared to being a puppeteer for “Gremlins II”?
KH: There’s really no comparison. Being a puppeteer on a huge movie like GREMLINS II or BATMAN RETURNS is simply a job… albeit a fun one. You spend most of your day chatting with cool people, looking at lots of amazing stuff, and seeing a ridiculous amount of money being spent. There’s really no pressure on you. My movie was very small but a labor of love. As for the level of responsibility, it’s the polar opposite from just showing up at a job. It was mostly my own money so there was a heavy burden of constantly making decisions, from big ones to small ones. I had to arrive at the set with a plan and, due to the limitations of a low budget and short schedule, had to continually modify that plan. It’s an exciting process where you see your concept evolving while finding ways of keeping it true to your original vision, which I somehow managed to do. THE HALFWAY HOUSE may not be for everyone, but it is the movie I set out to make.
GS: Your most recent work in film is as the character Calver Weems in the upcoming “Gimme Skelter” — what is “Gimme Skelter” and who is Calver Weems?
KH: Scott Phillips is an old friend who manages to make really cool films for literally no money. He asked me to come out to New Mexico to do a role in his new project. He sent me my sides but I never read the whole script. From what I gathered, GIMME SKELTER is about a descendant of Charles Manson with a similar group of crazed followers who victimize a small desert town. The character I play is a traveling salesman who stops into a strip club for a drink and a lap dance and winds up dying horribly. I’m the first victim and it was actually the first time I’ve been killed on screen. The character’s name comes from an old Don Knotts comedy, THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, which Scott and I are huge fans of.
GS: What was it like working with indie favorite Trent Haaga and horror icon Gunnar Hansen?
KH: I did not have any scenes with either of them but Trent was on set the day I worked. I hope to work with him someday in the future. Gunnar is a great guy who I met back in the 80s when he was in LA to do HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS. I’ve run into him many times over the years at various conventions.
GS: How much involvement do you believe David Hasselhoff had in ending the Cold War?
KH: I have absolutely no knowledge of that whatsoever. All I can say about the man is when I met him years ago at a party, he was very nice and extremely tall.
GS: What kind of a party does someone run into David Hasselhoff at? And what does one say to The Hoff on this historic occasion?
KH: It was years ago when I was working with the Landers sisters on GHOST WRITER. The party was at their mom’s house. Both Audrey Landers and Hasselhoff had successful singing careers and Germany but not here in the states, so I assume that’s why he was there. As to what I said to the man, it was probably something witty and clever like “hi.”
GS: This is where we part ways. Do you have any last words or want to mention any other projects that I may have overlooked?
KH: This August marks my 25-year anniversary living in Hollywood. There’s been a lot of ups and downs and I look at myself now as a survivor. I do intend to continue making feature films, maybe very soon. In the meantime, I am finishing up a horror short starring Lynn Lowry. I did it to keep my hand in between projects. I’ll be putting it out on the festival circuit soon. It’s called NIGHT VISIT. Keep an eye out for it.