Gavin Schmitt Interviews Rolfe Kanefsky
Anyone who has been a horror fan over the past decade has caught a Rolfe Kanefsky film. His early film, “There’s Nothing Out There”, is now considered the precursor to Wes Craven’s “Scream”. Many of you have seen “Corpses” and his film “Nightmare Man” is receiving rave reviews. If nothing else, Rolfe is probably still best known for “The Hazing”.
Rolfe was kind enough to share more than a few minutes with Killer Reviews, giving us insight into: what it’s like to work with modern legends Brad Dourif and Tiffany Shepis; what goes on behind the scenes of a no-budget Troma film; what projects can we expect from Rolfe in the future (more horror, certainly)?
Rolfe Kanefsky is not only a prolific writer and talented director, but he is a man who knows and loves horror films inside and out. His knowledge and expertise shine through, and it’s an honor to present his thoughts to you now…
GS: I’ve been talking with a lot of Troma veterans lately (Doug Sakmann, Tiffany Shepis, Joe Lynch, Debbie Rochon). I honestly didn’t know you were involved with Troma — a great film they made called “Troma’s War” — until I started researching these questions. What’s your awesome getting-started-with-Troma story? Why do I suspect your father, who was involved with “Bloodsucking Freaks”, may have played a part in this?
RK: Well, you’re right. My short time with Troma did start with my father. Once I decided to be a film director at the age of 14, I wanted to get on real movie sets. Growing up in New York, the independent route was the easiest. My father, who was a film editor, made some calls and got me some P.A. work during the summer in between school. I worked on my first professional film when I was 16. Chief Zabu retitled Rich Boys shot upstate New York at Bard College. To this day, the film was never released. Then I worked on a low budget slasher entitled Posed for Murder directed by Brian Thomas Jones the following summer. Then, just before I started college, I got on to Troma’s War. My previous P.A. work kinda prepared me for what would happen but not really. I started as a P.A. and worked for about three weeks in pre-production, doing errands as they cast and prepped the film. I was then assigned to be a P.A. in the grip department and we were all shipped up to a National Guard park to shoot the film. It was the biggest budget Troma ever had at the time.
The schedule and conditions were horrible. We were sleeping in the National Guard quarters with five or six people in every room and had to get up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to load the equipment into the surrounding woods and hills for filming. Lunch consisted of cheese sandwiches. We worked until 9:00 or 10:00 every night and then had to load the lighting equipment back into the trucks which would keep us there until about midnight. Get to sleep at 1:00 a.m. if we were lucky and have to be back on the set at 5:00 a.m. The grip department started with about 8 people and half of them quit by the end of the first week so we were doing the jobs of two or three people. Carrying dolly tracks and sandbags up these steep dirt hills all day long. A small riot occurred on the set by the end of the first week because of the food or rather, lack of it. So, most of the crew decided to not show up until 8:00 a.m. the next day even though call was for 5:30 a.m. Many thought that we would all be fired and replaced with a new crew which Troma had done in the past. This did not happen and meat was added to the lunch food.
However, that is also when the rain started. So, the dirt hills became mud and we were trying to carry this heavy camera and lighting equipment up mud-sliding hills without falling and breaking our necks. This was also a concern for the stunt performers. There were a lot of stunts in the film but the budget was still too low to afford all professional stunt people so New York cab drivers and others who were willing (aka stupid enough) to agree to try a stunt were brought up to the location. I remember one guy was 40 feet up in a tree and was supposed to be shot and fall into the pile of mattresses down below. Well, it took him almost a half hour to build up the courage to do the fall and he just hit the corner of the mats. Another foot and he would have missed it completely. I asked him what the highest fall he ever did was and he said, Oh, that was it. I’m usually a cab driver. Well, I was on the production for about three weeks before all the rain and poor food and poor sleeping conditions got to me. Since I was about to start college in two weeks, I thought I should leave before I get really sick. Also, I was working entirely for free. But since so many people quit and we were doing all of their work, I did receive a two hundred dollar check for my month of work on Troma’s War and got my name in the end credits. It is misspelled. In short, that is my Troma story. As for my father and Bloodsucking Freaks. Yes, he did edit the film but that was way before Troma was involved. They bought the rights years later. But my father did cut a few trailers for them and I kept in touch with Lloyd over the years. He has made a few acting cameos in my films, TOMORROW BY MIDNIGHT and PRETTY COOL. He also helped us find an actress for PRETTY COOL and gave us permission to use posters and trailers for the video store set in TOMORROW BY MIDNIGHT. He also said some wonderful things about NIGHTMARE MAN and is on the special features section of the DVD.
GS: Many people, including yourself, have observed that “There’s Nothing Out There” predates “Scream” and may have influenced Craven’s film. Were there any horror-comedies that inspired you to make one, such as one of my favorites, “Student Bodies”?
RK: Well, the first film I remember watching was Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when I was four years old. I then watched them every Sunday morning for the next 12 or so years. I loved all of their horror/comedies and of course, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is still one of the best. I loved the blend of humor and scares. Yes, I am a fan of Student Bodies and Evil Dead 2, Fright Night, Night of the Creeps, American Werewolf in London and House are all good examples of walking that thin line between laughs and shocks. I love these movies. When I was around 10 years old I wrote a 109 page story/script called Kill Here, Kill There, Kill Almost Anywhere which was a slasher mystery and a send-up of slasher films. When I got a video camera at age 13, the first short I made was a comedy/horror flick entitled Breaking and Entering. So, I was always attracted to this blend of genres. I wrote the script for THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE when I was a senior in high school as an experiment to see how long it would take me to write one of these teen exploitation horror films. I had started really watching and studying horror films when I was 14 because at the time most first time filmmakers made horror films. But as I was writing TNOT I couldn’t do the same old clichés so I decided to add a character who was like me. He had seen every horror film on video and knew the warning signs, counting the mistakes everyone makes. At that point, I had never seen it done. I thought he would be the audience, saying and doing everything the audience yells at the screen like Don’t drop the knife! Don’t go skinny dipping! Don’t wander into the basement by yourself! Where did that cat come from? Since I had written a slasher comedy when I was twelve, I decided to make TNOT a monster/alien movie and homage to the 50’s as well as classics like Humanoids from the Deep. It was a parody but not quite like an Airplane movie or a Troma film. But I did throw in a big homage to the Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther movies and broke the fourth wall twice with a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was very happy with the final film and am still proud of it today. As for the Scream franchise, I think they are very different but if you compare Mike from TNOT and Randy from SCREAM, I think you can see a connection.
GS: Both fans and critics have called “The Hazing” a knockoff of “Evil Dead”, with the similar plots revolving around spirits, an ancient book and a chainsaw. Your film even blatantly mentions “Evil Dead” and features Bruce Campbell’s biography. Defend yourself: is “The Hazing” a knock off, homage, or something else?
RK: Okay, let’s talk about THE HAZING. It started as an attempt to make HELL NIGHT 2. I was working with producer Joe Wolf who had been one of the producers on Hell Night and wrote a treatment for a sequel. It never happened but a few years later, I convinced another producer I was working with, Alain Siritzky, to pay me to write it. This was during the whole Scream craze and people were telling me to write something like that or remake TNOT. I didn’t want to remake my movie or rip-off Scream. Around this time, everyone was doing slasher films so I thought it would be fun to do a supernatural thing. So, the basic idea was Hell Night meets Evil Dead but with a twist that neither film had done. I thought it would be great to introduce a group of college kids pledging a frat and they start as one-dimensional clichés. You’ve got the jock, the blonde bimbo, the computer geek and so one. However, once the real horror starts, the kids drop the facades and become real people. Breakfast Club as a horror film. That’s what made the film different. The plot and situations were pure 80’s. Evil Dead, Night of the Demons 1 & 2 with a touch of Patrick thrown in for good measure.
Well, it took almost eight years to finally get the film produced. But during all this time, still nobody had done The Breakfast Club horror idea so I thought horror fans would get a kick out of it. It sets up the standard rules and then breaks them. Because of the book and the staff, I knew people were going to see the Evil Dead connection so I insisted that we mention Evil Dead in the script and got permission from Bruce Campbell to use his headshot. I felt you had to have his or Sam Raimi’s blessing to make this movie. My producer, Tom Seidman at one point tried to cut a lot of the humor out of the script. I fought with him about that because without the characters and the humor, this was just a rip-off and I would get attacked for stealing from Evil Dead. I wanted this to be a knowing nod to the audience and say, Yes, this film is not original but enjoy a trip through memory lane of 80s horror. It’s not too scary but it is a fun ride if you enjoy horror/comedies. I believe Tarantino has used a similar approach with the homages in his movies as well.
Also, if you compare it to THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE, you’ll see I was purposely twisting a lot of things around. Mike, the comic lead with all the one-liners is similar to Roy in The Hazing and guess who dies first? I flipped it all around. So, yes, THE HAZING is a blatant wink to Evil Dead and Night of the Demons but with a major character twist that allows it to stand by itself while still being retro.
GS: You’ve said Brad Dourif added much to his character of Professor Kapps, such as the accent and occult knowledge. Can you explain how this scenario comes up: Brad walking in and saying, “Hey, I happen to know a lot about tarot cards and ancient alchemy and I’d love to use it”? I would think that would come off as rather odd or creepy.
RK: Brad Dourif got a hold of the script from our casting people who knew his manager. He was on our short list for Professor Kapps and getting him to agree to do it between Lord of the Rings and just before he started Deadwood was amazing. He did not audition. We offered him the role and he liked the script and said yes. When I met him for the first time, he started discussing his character and got very involved. He didn’t treat this as just a quick payday. He really wanted to explore his character and I had no objection. In truth, his role was the weakest in the original script. I focused on the kids and he was the villain of the piece. So, I went to Brad’s house and he showed me all these books on Jung and Tarot cards. He used to be into these things a long time ago so I borrowed some of his books and happily incorporated the ideas into the script. He also suggested doing an English accent. Once again, I thought it was a great idea and would help make his character distinct. He was then very kind to work with Philip Andrew and Tiffany Shepis to help them do the accent as well. Brad’s a complete professional, a very dedicated actor and it was an honor to work with him.
GS: Of course, one can’t help but notice you seem to have an addiction to casting Tiffany Shepis. I suppose the obvious reason is that she’s a very talented and beautiful actress. Is there anything more we should know?
RK: Well, I’ve known Tiffany Shepis for eight years now and we’ve worked together seven times so far. Yes, she’s beautiful, talented and also a hell of a lot of fun to be around. Making movies can be very stressful and difficult but Tiffany makes everyone feel good. She is a force of nature, a wonderful human being, and a great mom. At this point, she is also my muse. We have a great working relationship together and are close friends. I know how to write for her and she brings my scripts to life. It also just so happens that she is perfect for the women characters I like to write. If you ever see TOMORROW BY MIDNIGHT, the character of Tori is Tiffany in so many ways. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet her until a year later. If I had known her earlier, I’m sure she would have gotten that role although Jennifer Lambert did a fantastic job. I think Tiffany and I complement each other well.
GS: I’ve heard a rumor you’re single and looking to date. Let Killer Reviews work our magic for you: what kind of woman is Rolfe Kanefsky looking for?
RK: What kind of woman am I looking for? Well, since Tiffany Shepis is taken I guess I have to find someone else. Obviously someone who loves movies, all kinds and it would help if they enjoyed horror flicks, older classics, and musicals as well. Since I’m fairly shy, I think she would have to be outgoing and aggressive. Sexual is always a plus. Basically, someone cool, independent, with a sense of humor, and likes cats. I have two cats. Also, she should probably not be offended by my movies. If my short Mood Boobs, the tongue scene from The Hazing, and my flick Rod Steele 0014 rubs her the wrong way, we might not see eye to eye.
GS: You and I are both fans of a lesser-known film called “The Stepfather”, starring TV’s Terry O’Quinn. What is it about this film that really caught your attention (besides Terry’s full frontal scene)?
RK: Well, don’t forget Jill Schoelen’s nudity either. Another highlight. Seriously, I saw The Stepfather in the theaters when it first came out. I knew nothing about the movie, thought the poster was interesting, and gave it a shot. I had no idea what it was about and it surprised the hell out of me. I thought Terry O’Quinn’s performance blew Jack Nicolson’s The Shining away. He was likable and terrifying. The scene when he freaks out in the basement and Jill sees him and then he sees her, still gives me chills every time I watch it. It wasn’t in theaters long but I managed to catch it four times and dragged everyone to see it. There were only like twenty people in the theater but the audience went crazy every time. It’s a smart, scary thriller with a great dark sense of humor. Beautifully directed by Joseph Ruben who I loved since I first saw Dreamscape. I had lunch with him once and we talked a lot about The Stepfather. He had just directed Sleeping with the Enemy which was about to break 100 million at the box office. It was a lot like The Stepfather but with a movie star in the lead. Same tricks but a lot better theatrical exposure even if it’s not as good a movie. But The Stepfather holds up wonderfully. It all works!
GS: My editor, Gregg, loved “Nightmare Man” and my good friend Trixie turned me on to “The Hazing”. As the father of your films, I am asking you to choose between your children: which one is your favorite child and which is the red-headed stepchild you’d love to beat with a croquet mallet?
RK: Well, neither my favorite nor my most hated are horror films. TOMORROW BY MIDNIGHT is still my favorite film and it is still unavailable in the states. It’s a dark comedy thriller about four college kids that take a video store hostage for the night. It stars Alexis Arquette in one of his best roles, an early performance by Jorge Garcia (of Lost fame) and the wonderful Carol Kane. Made for almost a million, shot at 2:35:1 ratio on 35 mm with a great 5.1 Dolby digital mix, it is my most personal and most mature film of my career. One day I hope people get a chance to see it.
As for my least favorite, if I have to pick one that I wrote and directed, I would choose the one I also removed my name from; The Ultimate Attraction. This was the first erotic film I did for Alain Siritzky. A 90 minute film shot on 16mm in 6 days. It was a terrible experience except for being able to work with some cool actors, namely Robert Donavan, who has since been in almost every single film I’ve made in L.A. and Gabriella Hall. I wrote a thirty page script as a writing sample and Alain liked it so much that he asked me to stretch it out to a feature to start off the series. I did but it is still a thirty page idea stretched out to 90 minutes. My A.D. made my life hell on the shoot and during post, they took it away from me and I hated the music and the mix which is why I finally decided to remove my name as the director. The film did make money and as a late night erotic Cinemax flick, it is sexy but it’s not really a good example of my work. My follow up Rod Steele 0014, a sexy James Bond spoof, was much, much better.
GS: You’ve called “Corpses” a “bad version” of “Shaun of the Dead”… I don’t know if I’ve heard a film’s creator openly call his film bad since Bill Cosby’s “Leonard Part 6”.
RK: Corpses is up there with Ultimate Attraction in many ways. It was the worst experience I ever had on a film set. Everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. However I was allowed to finish the film the way I wanted to so I don’t disown this movie. I’ve also said if you know it’s a comedy and have had enough to drink, it is kinda fun. Again, the actors saved this movie from being a total wash. A good twenty-five pages got cut during production and I’m amazed that I actually pulled off a feature film with the time and budget we had. I’ve said that I could write a book about what it was like making this movie and one day, I just might. The stories are amazing. It seems that many people hate this movie and I can’t argue with them but Tiffany Shepis likes the movie and I like what I was able to do under the circumstances. So, it’s still A Rolfe Kanefsky Flick but I recommend you check out all the other films that my name is on first.
GS: Who would be your dream actors to work with? I know you love Bruce Campbell (who doesn’t?), and if I were to take a lucky guess I’d say you’re a fan of Linda Blair (because of your fondness for the often-overlooked “Hell Night”). Who else, living or dead, would you like to command?
RK: I’ve always had trouble with the dream actors question. There are a lot of actors I admire but I also like actors without big egos. I want to work with people who want to make the movie. I’ve been lucky so far. All the “names” I’ve worked with over the years — Dee Wallace, Alexis Arquette, Carol Kane, Brad Dourif, Jeff Fahey, and Richard Moll have been really cool. At the moment I have scripts that I think would be great vehicles for possibly — Tilda Swenson, Emily Watson, Toni Collette, Seth Green, Christopher Lee, Ken Foree, Jessica Biel, Jeffrey Combs, and many others.
GS: What is happening with “Twisted”, a film you’ve described as “if Hitchcock made a film inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft”? Also, where did the film you were connected to, “Mutant”, disappear to?
RK: Twisted is one of many projects I’d like to do. It was written as the ultimate vehicle for Tiffany Shepis. I really hope we can do it together some day. I just gave the script to someone looking to make a million dollar horror film. I think Twisted would be perfect. In short, it’s about a young woman living in an apartment building and having an affair with a creature from another dimension who needs fresh victims to stay alive. However, this woman may or may not have a twin sister. So, think Vertigo crossed with Possession and They Came From Within with Tiffany acting up a storm in this very sexy and very gory horror thriller.
Mutant and House On Sorority Row turned out to be a waste of time. The producer that was trying to remake them actually didn’t have the rights to the original films. We did hold auditions for Sorority Row but it turned out to be pointless. I wasn’t too disappointed because I rather make original films than remakes. But I think I could have done something interesting with both movies. Some of my ideas for Sorority Row went into NIGHTMARE MAN so at least something good came from it.
GS: What are you digging lately outside of your own work — be it books, TV, movies, Broadway, McDonald’s value meals, etc.? What’s burrowing into Rolfe’s subconscious only to rear its ugly head a decade from now?
RK: Well, I just read [Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel] What Makes Sammy Run? — a wonderful book about the film industry that everyone in this business should read. I also read the Peter Falk book Just One More Thing. It was fun. At the moment, I just bought the first seasons of The Fall Guy and The Odd Couple on DVD. Got into Supernatural as well. Thinking about checking out Hex. Still watch 24 but last season really fell apart. Currently watching On The Lot but it’s lousy. Listen to Jerry Goldsmith soundtracks and Broadway musicals all the time. Currently Wicked, Movin’ Out, Little Shop of Horrors, Buffy’s Once More With Feeling, and always The Blues Brothers are in my car CD player.
I would still love to make a musical one day. If I could, I would try to turn the off-Broadway show Weird Romance into a movie. Very non-commercial but I don’t care. All a comedy/drama musical show Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down. It is what that Tom Hanks film, Punchline should have been.
GS: I’ve asked more questions than I said I would — what an ass I am! Thanks so much for putting up with this asinine line of questioning. What can you leave us with that I failed to cover about things on the horizon?
RK: Well, I have no idea what exactly is coming next. My teen comedy PRETTY COOL TOO just got released on DVD in most Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores. Once again, Tiffany Shepis is in it. We’re still trying to lock down a domestic deal for NIGHTMARE MAN which is a good horror thriller with a fantastic performance by Tiffany. She has won three awards for acting in the film so far. Tiffany and I, along with Esther Goodstein, my producer, are trying to launch a television show entitled Tiffany Shepis Presents ONCE UPON A HORROR. Sort of a Tales From The Crypt series with Tiffany as the Elvira-like hostess and would act in some episodes as well. Currently I am also attached to a cool thriller entitled HITCHCOCK, NEBRASKA that a college friend of mine, Paul Carro wrote. There is also a producer in Louisiana trying to set two of my favorite scripts up down there that I may direct in the fall. NEVERMORE my horror thriller based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe and DEMONS SUCK! a supernatural comedy. Think Ghostbusters meets Dumb and Dumber or Buffy with stoners.
My most recent credit is as screenwriter on the upcoming comedy BLONDE AND BLONDER starring Pamela Anderson and Denise Richards. It was the last film directed by Bob Clark. I wrote the script ten years ago and last October/November it finally went in production up in Canada. There have been talks about giving it a theatrical release but at this point, we don’t know. At the moment, I’m about to start writing another comedy script but I’m open to anything that comes along. My dream project is a thriller I wrote entitled EXIT based on a French graphic novel. Basically, horror, comedy, and thrillers are what I’m focusing on right now. Thanks for interviewing me Gavin, and I hope you enjoy THE HAZING a little bit more the next time you watch it.
Note: This interview was originally posted on KillerReviews.com