Tim Sullivan is a modern success story in the world of film, particularly among the horror community. Starting out on “Deadly Spawn” (which has since achieved cult status) and working his way up the ladder (with some very impressive rungs along the way)… he directed the remake “2001 Maniacs”. Love it or hate it, this film catapulted him to the top ranks of horror notoriety and lead to a sequel and his latest release “I Was a Teenage Werebear” (as seen in the anthology “Chillerama”).
I caught up with Tim at Flashback Weekend in August 2012 and chatted with him for a few minutes about his early days as a production assistant… if you want the latest news, this is not the interview for you. But if you want to know how to get a start in the business, read on!
GS: So, we’re talking about your career as a PA. And you started out with “The Deadly Spawn”…
TS: Yeah, when I was 16 years old in New Jersey.
GS: Did you answer an ad or how did you land the job?
TS: No, it was very interesting, because where I am today can be traced back to my 8th grade teacher. They had a brother named Tom Davis who was making animated films in film school. He was making a film with an animated character named Grog, and Grog was created by John Dods. These guys were in their 20s, a little bit older than me, and they were making 16mm films. To me, they may as well have been George Lucas and Steven Spielberg because they were the first people I met who were actually making movies.
So, John got involved with special effects and producing “Deadly Spawn”. He was my friend and mentor, so he basically said, “As much as you want to help, you can.” And that was a very interesting film because it was very low budget and was made over the course of a year and half on the weekends. Whoever was available on weekends would help out, so that’s how my weekends in high school were spent. I helped out where help was needed, picking up garbage or whatever needed to be done. I was just so grateful and thrilled to be on the set of a monster movie, pouring the blood and moving the spawn’s arms.
And I wanted to be a writer, so when the movie was ready to come out, Kerry O’Quinn of Starlog and Fangoria took me into the city and I was able to start writing articles for the magazines. I started out as a PA at 16 and 17, and from there became a journalist for Fangoria during my college years. So literally everything I’ve done came from “Deadly Spawn” — it lead to my time at Fangoria, which lead me to interviewing Gene Simmons which lead me to “Detroit Rock City”. Interviewing Robert Englund lead to my casting him in “Maniacs”…
GS: And “Deadly Spawn” has really come into its own over the last year or two.
TS: It’s insane! At the time, it came out at the same time as “Return of the Jedi” and was playing on 42nd Street with “Evil Dead”. And over time it has acquired such a fan base, because it’s a pure film with no CGI. It may be the last great monster movie where the monster wasn’t a CGI effect. I think people today, saturated with CGI, get nostalgic for monsters made with rubber and karo syrup.
GS: You worked as a parking coordinator for “Coming to America”. What does that job entail?
TS: My first actual credit on a film was additional dialogue for “Deadly Spawn”, but my first credit on a Hollywood film was parking coordinator. What that means is that I was a production assistant working for the location department. My job was to clear the streets and determine where all the equipment was going to go. It sounds like I was the valet, but I assure you it was a lot more intricate than that. Strangely enough, the parking coordinator position was considered the head of a department, so at the age of 24 I got to sit in on all the meetings. And there I met and befriended John Landis; we bonded over our love of Famous Monsters magazine and Forry Ackerman. We became lifelong friends. So, again, working my ass off for little pay just to be on set lead to a lifelong friendship with John Landis. At the time, he said if I ever wanted to move to LA, look him up. And I did, and he helped me get going.
So the theme here is that you have to start somewhere. I feel today like there are a lot of people — and I’m generalizing — that think if they make a film, put it on YouTube, they should immediately be getting a three picture deal with Warner Brothers. But i really feel it’s important to work through the levels to get to the top. It gives you a working knowledge of the different aspects of film, but it also gives you humility. I think as a former production assistant I am now as a director better able to convey to my crew what I need and understand what they need. And I wouldn’t change it for anything.
GS: You worked on “Cocktail”, so I have to ask… did you interact with Tom Cruise?
TS: Absolutely. That was 1987, and it was exciting because he was one of the top movie stars at the time. I’d say he still is. This was before Scientology, and regardless of what his personal beliefs might be, he is one of the coolest, kindest guys I’ve ever met.One of my jobs on that film was being Tom’s personal PA, so when he was needed on set I would be the one to fetch him. We would chat and had some good conversations. When the guy does something, he does it all the way. He had to learn to be a bartender and by the time he was done training he was better than the guy who trained him. Now he’s a rock star in “Rock of Ages” and took lessons from Axl Rose’s vocal coach. And I would say Tom did a better job than a lot of heavy metal singers I know.
But Tom was so cool. It was the 80s, he was a teen idol, and my sister was 16 and in love with him. I asked him if she could interview him for her school newspaper. He said yes. One night I brought her to the set, he was tired as hell, but he honored his promise and from that point on my sister was queen of the high school.
GS: Any good stories from “Godfather Part III”?
TS: That was the last film I worked on as a PA before I moved to California to work as a director. It was 1989. The things I remember include shooting the New York portion of the film, the Rio de Janeiro festival and the scene where Andy Garcia shoots the guy down, Al Pacino’s funeral. It was weird because everyone, from Francis Ford Coppola down to the Italian PAs, all wore silk suits and ties even though it was hot as fuck. I thought it just showed a real respect for the filmmaking process. John Landis also always wears a suit and tie.
When we were shooting the funeral scene of Al Pacino — of Michael Corleone — they had prosthetics, and they had a dummy, but Pacino wanted to do it himself. So they put him in the makeup, he laid down in the coffin, and he fell asleep. Coppola thought it would be funny to have everyone leave the set. So we did, and when Pacino woke up he just fuckin’ freaked out.
GS: You did two of the “Three Men and Baby” films…
TS: Yeah. I had such a good time. I’m the only one who worked on both New York portions of the film and got along with Tom Selleck really well. I was assigned to him and he requested me. Leonard Nimoy directed “3 Men and a Baby” and it was great to see Mr. Spock in action. When I think of all the directors I worked with — from Brian DePalma to Mike Nichols — so many of these films have now become classics. “Scrooged” with Richard Donner? I worked on that. Looking back now, it’s a haze and it’s so weird to watch these movies and remember actually standing there on the set. But everything I did lead to where I am.
Let me also tell you, you’re only as good as your weakest link or the lowest person on the totem pole. So I cherish my PAs, because I know how hard they’re working and how much they’re generally not respected by directors. I always said that if I got to be a director, I would treat my PAs how I wanted to be treated. And the best director I ever worked for was John Landis because he just treated everyone like they were equally important.
GS: Very cool. Today’s lesson: respect the PA.
TS: Damn right. Thanks, Gavin!