Sean S. Cunningham had a successful career of starting films cheap and fast. Originally from New York, Cunningham had a vast knowledge of directing films and came to Hollywood. He started about the same time Wes Craven did. Cunningham meets Craven and decided to make a comedy-romance film called Together (1971).
Then they both shocked the world with the rape and ultra-violence of The Last House on the Left (1972). Craven directed the flick and Cunningham financed and produced. However Cunningham wanted to get a mix of comedy and horror and made Case of the Full Moon Murders (1973) and then started other comedy films like Manny’s Orphans (1978) and Here Come the Tigers (1978) .
Struggling in Hollywood Cunningham saw John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and wanted to make a follow up type film but would possibly regret it. Cunningham brought Friday the 13th (1980) into the cinema in 1980, a year of many other horror films.
Friday the 13th (1980) was a shocking, gory and violent film about camp counselors being slashed by a killer and had Betsy Palmer in the lead role. Little did Cunningham know that Friday the 13th would have never ending sequels. Cunningham gladly avoided all of them and Friday the 13th remains one of the most popular horror films in history. Instead Cunningham wanted to make it big when he brought a best-selling novel to the screen, A Stranger Is Watching (1982) with Rip Torn, but it was a disappointment. Cunningham went downhill with the over sexed teen comedy Spring Break (1983) and The New Kids (1985). Cunningham then produced House (1985) and several of its sequels. Cunningham next entered the world of underwater terrors after The Abyss (1989) was released. Cunningham did a follow up called DeepStar Six (1989), but it was a flop, however it beat another 1989 underwater thriller Leviathan (1989) at box office receipts.
Cunningham was finished with directing and moved on to producing films and teaching. He produced The Horror Show (1989), My Boyfriend’s Back (1993) and Friday the 13th’s last sequel Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). Cunningham then did yet another follow up to Friday the 13th with Jason X (2001).
Enjoy my conversation with Sean Cunningham.
Sean S. Cunningham 0:00
He told me, he's like, I have a dream speech. But his dream was he wanted to chop somebody's head off on camera. So you could really sell that had never been done before.
Alex Ferrari 0:14
This episode is brought to you by the Best Selling Book Rise of the Filmtrepreneur how to turn your independent film into a money making business. Learn more at filmbizbook.com. I'd like to welcome to the show Sean Cunningham. How you doing Sean?
Sean S. Cunningham 0:28
I'm doing great. How are you?
Alex Ferrari 0:30
I'm doing great, my friend. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I've you know, I've not only been a fan of of that little movie you did back in the 80s. With the person with the get the hacking and the stuff. I'm a fan of that, and what you did there. But I mean, I when I was in a video store, I worked in a video store from pretty much 88 to 93. Many of your movies were on my shelves from deep star six. And, and so many movies, spring break. And many other ones that you that you directed and produced, which you've done a couple of you've done a few things in the business, my friend, you've done a couple for sure.
Sean S. Cunningham 1:09
I've survived since the 80s.
Alex Ferrari 1:12
Exactly, exactly. So my very first question to you is, how did you get in this business? How did you start? Because you started back in the if I'm not mistaken, the early 70s producing?
Sean S. Cunningham 1:25
Yeah, I got well, it's weird. I was working on Broadway, some stage manager and I thought, Oh, maybe I could produce something off Broadway that would be that would be better than just stage managing all the time. And I looked at that. And I said, John, there's no way I would invest a nickel in an Off Broadway show. And let alone you know, recommend it to my friends and family. So I was looking around, do something. And then I guess the long story short was that I said, Well, if I were going to do a play, you get some actors, you get a script, get some costumes, you rehearse that, when you finish, then it's done and you show it to people. So making a movie can be more different than that. Exactly. And so that's how that's really how it started, I made a I made a sort of was the name used to be white coder, you know, an actor or come out in a white coat, and say in the better interests in the interests of better marriages in interpersonal relationships. I'm going to show everybody how to fuck better. Fair enough this week, but we didn't. This was before. Before there were any any overt pornography, but it was a it was a strange way to get started. But it spoke to the fact that I think one of my biggest assets is I didn't know what I didn't know. So therefore, I didn't have these red lights saying, oh, you can't do that. Or that's crazy. Or, you know, what are you doing? And I would just just kept staggering forward. And what happened with this, this little movie is that, oh, I needed to get in a movie theater. So I got the yellow pages, which they had then and when are movie theaters, and near the top of the listings was Brandt theaters. Now bingo Brandt was in his day, a legend his family owned a whole bunch of property in New York and they own theaters and 42nd Street. And he was very kind and he said he looked at your movie, I play a movie kid. And I said, Great. How does that work? And he explained it to me and and you know, a certain amount of money comes into the box office. And then after that we split it 5050 I said, Okay, that's how it works fine. And he ran the damn movie. I think it ran for something like 27 weeks or something on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway. And so the Make no mistake, the movie is terrible. I mean, you know it, I mean, and even looking at it kindly. It was terrible. But I had something that other people didn't have as I was a producer of a hit movie. You know, it had play, you know, it got made for $1 and a half and it played in Times Square. And it made a bunch of money compared to what it costs. And so that was that was basically the beginning for me. And good. No, I was just that I I had a background in theater and then doing Broadway shows and Shakespeare and stuff like that. But what drove me when I first wanted the film business and continued to drive me for a long time was not to not to fulfill, you know, some great creative vision, you know, I just wanted to make something and sell it for more than it costs to make it, you decide a family, and kids and you know, all kinds of things. And so I had to I was in the movie business to make a living. Now, that's not to say I didn't enjoy a whole bunch of different things and, and different kinds of movies and try to, you know, tried to figure it out. But at the end of the day, I think that that was, that was one of my guiding principles is, you know, how can you who's gonna buy this, and, and why.
Alex Ferrari 5:59
And you know what, I'll tell you that's so refreshing, because most filmmakers that go into the business go into it as an artist, and not as a business person. And if you can find that combination of a businessman and an artist, or a business person and an artist, too, that's when you get real success. And it was really interesting that you came out as a producer first, correct. Before you before you started directing. And then you produced another little film with a young up and coming horror director, Wes something or other? Yeah. The last house on the left and 1972 you was that his first film as a director?
Sean S. Cunningham 6:36
Yes, it was. Wes and I met at 56, West 45th Street, and he was working as a cab driver. And he was also syncing up documentary 60 millimeter film down the hall. And, and we needed someone to help in the editing room, and we became friends. And, and there came a time when, when some of these guys that I knew, wanted to make a feature film for their driving theaters. And so they asked if we wanted to do it, I said, Yeah, I think so. Let's I never made them. This is a movie movie. And, and, and West said, you're all writing because he likes to write was one of his one of his things. And, and so we got this script, which is kind of roughly inspired by version spring. And, and, you know, and it had some, you know, dreadful, horrible twists in it. And we just, you know, it was like, I'm being kids sneaking out at night and drawing graffiti on the on the walls, and nobody catches, you go home, dude. And but that was, and that picture was turned into, you know, sort of a cult film. But this time, it was so disturbing to people who saw it. They wanted to close the film down or, or, you know, Lynch the people who made it. And, and it's true, and
Alex Ferrari 8:32
No, I know, it was 1972. I mean, you said,
Sean S. Cunningham 8:36
Was released we made in 71 70 71. And was like, how do you really becomes how do you do this? You know, I remember it was, yeah, it was shortly after, after last house. I went to California to see people in the movies for the first time. And there was a company called American International pictures, and met this guy called Sam arc off and he got me onto a few sets. And I came home with these stories. And it included. Say, Wes, let me tell you about this. There's a jam called script supervisor.
Far as we were concerned, you know, that was somebody that just took a roll of tape, held it up to the camera and gave, you know, clap to sync it up. Or if you had a cigarette to know how long it was on a certain line but but not only was a great idea, but I just didn't know that there was somebody that really did that job, professionally, and how important that job turned out to be. But that's the kind of less The kind of ignorance I was dealing with.
Alex Ferrari 10:02
And then also, I mean, back in the 70s. Look in the 80s. When I was coming up in the early 90s, there was barely any information about the filmmaking process in the public eye. I mean, you had to go to a film school and even in the 70s, I mean, film schools were starting to get off the ground with Coppola and those guys. And Scorsese and, and them coming up. But there was just wasn't a lot of information. Now, everybody knows what the script supervisor, everybody knows what like they, you know, ever you can make a movie with your iPhone. So it's so much more information out there about the process. I can only imagine you guys were just basically bumping around in the dark, essentially. Yeah, yeah.
Sean S. Cunningham 10:39
And you know, and we survived her lucky to get by. And then we went on to whatever the next, whatever the next thing was going to be.
Alex Ferrari 10:48
So then there was a another movie that came out out of California, that about this guy with a mask on, who was killing? Who's killing people. And it was a huge hit. I remember it was called Halloween. It was it was called Halloween, and it was a big hit. And then, was that the inspiration for you to start trying to figure out Friday the 13th?
Sean S. Cunningham 11:12
In some ways, it was I saw Halloween. Oh, gosh, I don't remember six months, maybe before Friday 30s. Before I decided to do phrase searches, maybe nine months, I don't know. But I thought the covers are made a terrific film. But what I really liked about it was that it was so small. And so so personal, you know, seemingly Curtis going around the dark house and some Steadicam stuff outside and, and and it just really worked. And so it's you know, it said, you don't have to have these giant crews and do all this big stuff. We could make a small movie song as so long as there was a market for it. And maybe you can figure out how to make how to make, you know, a scary movie, you know, at this point, last house was in my rearview mirror way back. And I didn't want to make some version of last house again. But and I had been I made two children's films in the late 70s, which a loved one was on baseball, the other side on soccer. And I thought that that was where my career was probably going. And the soccer movie was actually it was okay. But it got optioned by United Artists. And so they wanted to make it into a TV series. That was great. But it's gonna take six to nine months or, you know, to roll around. So how am I going to raise money? What am I going to do to keep the machine going? And when I was working on the kids, soccer roving. One of the things you do is you come up with trying to come up with titles, this movie opens, nobody comes better titles get a different title. And so you make lists of titles. And well, I was one day when making lists of titles. I said on Friday the 30s, huh, man, if I had a movie called Fridays or teeth, I could sell that, you know, that was the that was the entire thought. And so that, you know, cut to six months later, however, however long was the end of nose around the Fourth of July. And I said, Let's try to make let's try to make a scary movie. I want to call it Friday the 13th. And it was a question of, well, can you get the rights and who knows what the rights are? And I said, Well, yeah, I think so. And so I took out a full page ad in variety, you know, Friday, the 13th crashing through mirrors and glass, the most terrifying film ever made in. And I figured if there was somebody that had the rights to that isn't gonna respond. And few weeks passed, I never heard word one from a lawyer. And, and but I didn't hear from distributors said Well, I'd be interested in that. And I'd be interested in that. So we spent the rest of the summer trying to come up with a movie, which was okay, what's scary, what can you do this, like, scary? And, and be kind of fun. And Victor Miller, who I was working with at the time, you know, we said, well, what if it's sort of like, you're a kid and you're in bed and you think that, oh, there's somebody in the closet and the kids holy? All right. Well, well, let's make a catalogue of those things and, and see if we can include them in this sort of structure. So I was trying to Find set pieces that seem like, seem like they would go together and Reyes, roughly I mean, it's, you know, is kind of 10 Little Indians got a bunch of people in the woods dying and being killed. And so you in the audience say, Oh, who's doing that? Oh, not her, she's dead. But he died too. So he gets smaller and smaller. And it wasn't that it wasn't that I had ideas of trying in some way to imitate Johnsville. Halloween, it was just that we had a small budget, we didn't have any stars, we didn't have any distribution or production plans. But figured let's just try to make this thing and see it, see if it works. And, and then we'll come back to the children's film spring.
Alex Ferrari 15:55
So personal, it seems to me that that you guys were basically creating the template for this kind of horror movie, because I know John's had a high school that was a little bit bigger in scope. Then Friday, the 13th, you, if I'm not mistaken, was the first movie which is like, take a bunch of kids into the woods and kill them off one by one. I don't think that's basically a template for a film now like what?
Sean S. Cunningham 16:21
Yeah, I would hasten to tell you and anybody that happens to be listening to that, I think that there were so many shortcomings in Friday the 13th. And, and the film was grossly successful, not because of those things that we did wrong, but in spite of them. So what happened was, so what happened was that, oh, look at all the money they made, all they did is take a bunch of kids in the woods, chop them off, and, and there, you already have a movie, I think he killed 10, people will kill 20, it'll be so much better. And the thinking isn't far off of that. But I you know, over time, forever and ever. I keep thinking, no most important part of anything you do, like this is the story. And the story that you're going to tell. And it's very, very hard to come up with a good story well told. But that's, that's where the money is. And if you can figure out how to do it, or how to get a story, then you're off to a good start. And I think people who write good screenplays get paid a ton of money. And the biggest reason is that, so few people can do it, you know, and it takes, you know, it takes so long to learn that craft. It's not just getting a copy final draft and start typing. See, you know, it's it's different than that. So I, I think that my advice is, you know, three most important things in a movie or story, story and story.
Alex Ferrari 18:17
Without without, without question. And you know, when you're out there making this, it's again, it sounds like you guys were just literally bumping around that night, no pun intended. While you were making Friday the 13th. And you know, you've got a bunch of young kids, one of them happened to be a young Kevin Bacon, which is I always find fascinating. He'd done a I think he'd done Animal House. He was an animal house prior to that. And I'm sure he was just happy to get a job at that point. He wasn't sure. He wasn't. He wasn't Footloose just yet. Yeah. He wasn't great at you know, a great kill, if you will, if you're gonna say kids in that film. And so you so you decided to make this movie, you're starting to cast? Who gives you money for this kind of film that it is not? Other than Halloween? Been a financial success yet? Because it came up pretty. Pretty soon right after Halloween. So within a year or two, right? Yes, yes, within a couple of years. So Halloween is the only one that's done like, broke that kind of opened the door open about it and said, Hey, there's a market here, who who's crazy enough to give you the money to make this right now?
Sean S. Cunningham 19:28
What happened was that John, John's Halloween was a really good movie, but it was in the days of view used to go to Cincinnati, and you'd have 10 prints in the back of your car. Right and you sneak out some new newspaper ads and put up posters in the lobby and see if people came you might have radio as you know, you're trying to figure out how to do it. And if it works, okay in Cincinnati and you get your 10 prints or then hopefully it's When he prints you go on to the next market and now you've refined your refined your sales strategy, and you go to another market, but you never opened why that nothing was really never done. The first picture to open really wide in I think was 800 theaters at once was drawers. Right? And when it came time to figure out what are we gonna do with Friday 13th A backup and tell you that the money that came the money for Friday this Thirteen's came primarily from owners of theatres and drive ins. And we had we had worked on some other little things before. And I wasn't ever sure if I really wanted to get back into into bed with these guys. But I said what the hell, we'll just we'll make a movie and just do it. And so they have relationships with Frank Mancuso. And paramount. And we took it to Paramount and Paramount, the executives, for reason I can't understand they just loved it. And then what they want us to do is schedule a second screening, and then bring all the secretaries that they could and, and kids if they could enter the screening and wait for the ending and the popcorn go flying. And they laugh. And it was so mad, because at that point was head of distribution of leave at Paramount. And he decided he's going to take this little movie with the name Friday the 13th and no stars, and no apparent, you know, story to you know, to push and open it nationally. And it's like, okay, hold on your seats. I don't, because this could, if this hadn't failed, he might have lost his job. It was one of those. It was one of those like all in moments for him. And as it turned out, he was absolutely right. And he went on to become president of Paramount and do other things.
Alex Ferrari 22:20
But the when I if I remember the release of or studying, going back and studying the release of a Friday the 13th it was it was released widely. But the trailer for it if you just were basically selling the title, and there's some kills. And that was essentially it wasn't a story plot. It wasn't. It was just like it's called Friday the 13th the most terrifying day in the calendar. You know, next to Halloween, if that if that price scarier than Halloween because it's not a it's not a
Sean S. Cunningham 22:55
What I have found is it has universal psychic real estate, you know, people carry around this this thing about Friday 13th And bad luck. And, and it it transcends almost all cultures because every culture, they may not call a Friday the 13th. But they have a day of the year, which is predicated on top ladders and that kind of thing.
Alex Ferrari 23:22
Right! It's all it's all kind of bad luck stuff. Yeah. In Now, going back a little bit, though. When you were you came up with the characters you came up with you were you writing the
Sean S. Cunningham 23:33
Victor Miller, I and and Steve minor and Tom Savini were sort of fixated, I first had this notion of you know, 10 little Indians happening at a summer camp. And and Steve was going to be the line producer. And we're trying to figure out how to get a special effects guy. And we went and that and there's this guy in Pittsburgh, and Savini Gee, can we try to find them track them down and stuff and, and we did and he got in this car was his friend taso and came up to Connecticut. And he was so excited and so psyched to do this. And, and so we're all just working with Yeah, you've got a kid in the woods and he dies. Okay, what happened? And how do you make it scary and how do you shoot it? And and, and, and, and, you know, none of it could have been done? What you know, all four of us really combined to to make it make it happen.
Alex Ferrari 24:46
What a Tom do prior to that, like there wasn't a lot of
Sean S. Cunningham 24:51
Night of the living dead.
Alex Ferrari 24:53
Oh, that's the original?
Sean S. Cunningham 24:54
The original. I think that was that was his only that was his only credit Which, as you may recall, is pretty good credit. Yeah, well now it's a really good credit at the time. You know, what's this? What the hell is this? I want to see sound the music and I am in here.
Alex Ferrari 25:16
So he was just a young kid who's super excited about makeup and Roy, I think that's the movie that essentially launched his career after that he was a very, very busy man in the 80s.
Sean S. Cunningham 25:27
Oh, yeah, he continues to this day. No, he studied with a guy named I believe. I want to say did Clark, Rick Baker, Rick Becker, thank you. And, and he really knew how to do prosthetics and all that kind of stuff. And he wanted to do it. And he told me, he's like, I Have a Dream speech. But his dream was he wanted to chop somebody's head off on camera. You know, so you could really sell that had never been done before. And that Yeah, and so we figured out that, you know, very carefully the staging the blocking for for how we could chop this up. Well, first of all,
Alex Ferrari 26:11
I mean, you essentially ushered in the slasher, the slasher, as we know it, to a certain extent helped help help it help that along without question, and I think it was after Friday the 13th. That's when there was a couple of copycat just a couple of copycats. Chopping wall, Chuck slaughter, slaughter house,slaughter party ,chopping mall, genius! I was watching I watched the trailer the other day, I was like, what I remembered in the thing I remembered in the video store I used to I used to, I used to rent all this stuff, and people would come in and Friday the 13th we're all up there all 450 versions came out. And then you know, obviously Freddy, and all these kinds of that that decade is where all of the the characters that we you know, horror, horror lovers love like the Freddy's the Jason's the Michael Myers. And then then they started to go from there. But those are the original. The originals that came out of it, that whole thing. Now, look, as a director, we always have a day that we feel like the entire world is coming crashing down around us. And that we're that I mean, that's generally every day. But there's always that one day in the project, that you're like, Oh my God, I don't know if we're gonna make it here. Like I can't catch my get my day done or the camera falls into the lake or prosthetic isn't work. What was that? That? Were you? Did you have any of those days on Friday? The 13th? And how did you
Sean S. Cunningham 27:48
I think every filmmaker has had that day. I mean, there may be worst days, but the oh my god, I'll never work again day. Which, you know, you've you thought this movie was going to be set just going to work so well. And you've got as tight as you can. And then you show it to you show it to an audience. You're sitting in the audience. And they're getting ahead of you. And it's not working for this audience. And oh, why did they leave that in? I should have cut it out on what am I going to do? And and then you know, that's sort of like day one, and then you recon and, and try to come up with a movie that that represents what you were doing. But so for you. There's always that screening a screening doesn't necessarily have to be in front of a paying audience. A could can be first studio, it can be for a focus group, but it's one of the you're sitting there with strangers who have nothing invested in the movie. And they're going and what the hell is that?
Alex Ferrari 28:51
Was that empty? Was that ending? Always there?
Sean S. Cunningham 28:54
No, no, the ending was the ending was something that that one of my investors wanted to he wanted to try. And it just seems so stupid. Me This is a reality based 10 Little Indians thing. And I've said I get it. But I don't know how we can insert it into the movie because as it was conceived is she's just there and the thing that was scripted was everything was her on the lake and the police arriving and everything. And then just I don't know where this creature comes up out of the out of the bottom and grabs.
Alex Ferrari 29:43
It sounds horrible. By the way, it says yes, you're explaining a horrible idea.
Sean S. Cunningham 29:47
And it was and and and I said I wouldn't or wouldn't couldn't shoot it until we figured out what Wouldn't what would follow it? What's the epilogue the coda? You can't you can't just end the movie with a punch in the stomach like that it's, you know, no explanations or anything. And once we got the little there's little epilogue with Allison and hospital bed and, and dreaming about the things that happen. Did it happen? Did it not happen and stuff? Like, once you had that, okay, now we have least a place where it could go it might be understood maybe it was a dream, maybe it wasn't. And Sametime Savini just grabbed a hold of that. And he just, he was, he came up with this deformed creature. And, and, and he just and it had to work underwater and had to do all these different things. And and he, you know, he just, he created that. The that that creature that 12 year old boy or whatever it was, are a limb. I've tell you, sir, my son, Noah was supposed to play that role. It was mostly Jason in the lake until his mother found how you are not taking my son and putting them in the ice cold water. That's crazy. Get somebody else and so that that's how we that's how he lost the part in there. He could have held it.
Alex Ferrari 31:28
I'm sure. And I'm sure he was. I'm sure he's given me some somehow over the years over
Sean S. Cunningham 31:32
Over the years. Yeah. But at the time, it was like, Oh, good. I don't have to do it. Jesus that that water so called.
Alex Ferrari 31:38
I mean, he could be signing in conventions right now. Oh, yeah. Well, so so with the that's what one thing that always it's one of those trivia questions is like, who is the killer in the first Friday the 13th? And the wrong answer is Jason. Because everyone always says Jason is Jason's mom, but it's one of those one of those lovely questions. Now also, you know, I'm sure you've seen scream at this way in your life. It was a scream, and a lot of those rules that he put in the movie or Kevin, Kevin Williamson, who wrote it, put in the movie about don't have sex. You know, don't say I'll be right back.
Sean S. Cunningham 32:18
All the horror tropes and
Alex Ferrari 32:20
All the tropes. Many of those started in Friday the 13th Am I wrong?
Sean S. Cunningham 32:27
Yeah. Some of them did. I mean, it's, you know, you got 10 Kids in the woods, and you're going to chop them up. Okay. If they could do, yeah, and, but I think one of the things that happened is that people started to impose a morality on top of it, like, you know, the, the loose girl and, and the, and the pod has, well, they've gotta go, you know, because they're obviously the bad people who are not behaving well. It's a cautionary tale. So we're going to really be rooting for this one girl, but we're going to kill the others, because they're so irresponsible. And that just made makes a bad situation just that much worse. It's just, it's just a bad idea. And, and I think that the, the underlying, scary part of, of Friday, 30s, and things that followed it. I think it came from Jaws, that there's a shot in Jaws, about halfway through the movie, and they've opened the beaches, and it's sunny out, it's Fourth of July or something. And, and there's a shot of the shark going down, and he's looking up and, and he sees nothing but legs, and they're all people and young people and women and men and, and the and he's going to just eat somebody, and it really depends how hungry is it has nothing to do with, oh, I'm going to eat, you know, I'm going to eat that dope, dope smoking jerk, or I'm going to get the tramp or some, no, it can happen to anybody at any time, for reasons which are completely beyond our control. And knowing that I mean, I think that's a core beliefs that we all have. And we need to we have this cognitive dissonance because what we do on a daily basis is deny that anything really bad could happen to us. And on the other hand, there's a part of us that knows it could happen at any moment, the rational versus the irrational, you know, and we're hardwired to ignore it. But nevertheless, it's it's in there. And it's this the dynamic effect fairytales where you look at something that you know, is true, or could be true, and it's really scary. So you've freeze up, but when you see it in the safety of a movie theater, or you know somebody telling you a story about once upon a time You know, you get to be exposed to your father dying or, you know, being abandoned by your parents or whatever it is, that might happen. And, and you see it so many times, and as you see it, you get a little bit numb or a little bit numb, or to the thing that was really so scary to you in the first place. And, and in a way, it's sort of it's establishing value systems. And it's it's a way of teaching you to deal with or saying that there are tough things you have to deal with in life. And you can do it, then you know, and I think that that's, that's my understanding about how how horror films have, you know, a lot of them were at their core, they were fairy tales, that were
Alex Ferrari 35:57
It's cathartic. It's cathartic,
Sean S. Cunningham 35:59
And catharsis. And there's a book by a guy named Bruno Bettelheim, which called the uses of enchantment which really opened my eyes to this. And it's, you know, I, anyway, that's
Alex Ferrari 36:15
You actually answered a question that I hadn't I was about to ask, which was, why do you think these films have lasted the test of time? Characters like Jason and Freddy and Michael, that that we just keep coming back to these these monsters, even jaws? And those kinds of what was about them? What are about these films that people keep watching them, not only again, and again, but keep, like, I mean, obviously, from Friday the 13th there was maybe 234 You know, five big horror movies and obviously, the exorcist and all those kind of movies, which were different. But then the slasher genre, it just kept growing and growing. What is it about that genre of horror that people just kept going back to? And in many ways having fun with because originally, if I remember, Freddy, Friday was terrifying. But then Friday turned into a comedy routine with some more adventure and Jason
Sean S. Cunningham 37:17
I think what I don't think people keep going back to horror films. Because of their horror films, they go back to experience. You know, why does the kid say no, no, read me the readme of the story again from the beginning. And, and don't change it because oh, he doesn't like it when you change it. But you know, from the beginning. I think that some strange strange things happened to Jason and to Freddy and Michael Myers, I think, but he started particularly with Jason and flirty, his you went you went to the movie, for whatever reasons. He's going on a roller coaster. It's like, oh my gosh, oh, my God. Yeah, I went, Oh my God, and you know, and it becomes kind of a fun, crazy event. And then there's another and then you start saying, Okay, let's we're gonna have a softball game. Friday. searchings we're gonna have a softball game. We're gonna choose up sighs Okay, I got the big guy with a mask. Who do you got?
Alex Ferrari 38:27
The big guy with the mask that doesn't die. That guy.
Sean S. Cunningham 38:30
He'll be on my side. Yeah, you can have those for football players no problem. And the I think that I think that there's something in in the transformation of this called JSON pretty JSON, slash or flatten you kind of and that is that it's, it's it's, it's kind of Revenge of the Nerds on steroids. You know, so much of the audience feels like, you know, they did they were allowed to sit at the cool kids lunch table.
Alex Ferrari 39:15
Oh, and all the cool kids are the ones dying leader son.
Sean S. Cunningham 39:18
And the same thing happens in living dead, where you can shoot the principal of the school, if he's got that look in his eye, you know, and, and I, there's just kind of I think nobody's ever said that one for one. But I think that that's the, that's the thing that happens. And so if you're gonna go out and experience that now, it's sort of predictable, like a roller coaster ride where they're gonna be things that are scary and bloody and gory. But you can't scare me know that because I got the big guy on my side. People that you know, you go to a roller coaster ride In six flags or someplace, there's gonna be a lot of people get on a roller coaster. There's a whole bunch of people sitting on the bench. They don't want to get on the roller coaster and they're never going to get on the roller coaster. And and so that this experience is not for everyone. You can't make it for everyone. You're crazy if you think you can, because she can't. There are people that like the roller coasters on people that don't. And liking the roller coaster has to do with those moments where you have no control, you think that you're enormous Jeopardy, but at the same time, you're strapped in and in their bars and harnesses and stuff. But still, there's that moment and you know, and then if you're like a fan, you start, you know, putting your arms up in the air. I'm not afraid of anything. But no,
Alex Ferrari 40:51
I understand. No, but I understand where you're coming from. Completely. You're absolutely right. I've never thought of it that way. But that makes so much sense. Because in a lot of those movies, I don't remember it might have happened, but I don't remember them killing the nerds. It's always you know, the beautiful girl that the big jock. Those people that the cool kids are the ones that go that go first. I remember and I don't remember, many nerds getting knocked out? Because he's like, Well, yeah, it's equivalent of kicking the dog. Like you don't do that. You can get a dog, you can't kick a dog in the movie, because that's the villain. No, I didn't ask you. I do want to ask you, Shawn, after the movie comes out. It's a huge, huge hit. It is one of these, you know, biggest independent films of its day? I'm assuming you get a few phone calls. And how did the town treat you? And why didn't you keep going down that road? You know, as as a filmmaker, because you didn't do the second or third or fourth? Or any other Jason movie? Why didn't you go down that road? Where others have just curious?
Sean S. Cunningham 42:03
Well, if it were to happen again, tomorrow, you know, I I would definitely, you know, ordered my business life differently. But I didn't you know, Friday searching Susie took a bunch of kids in the woods and chopped them up. I didn't want to do that every year. And you know, find, you know, better machetes, and I wasn't what I wanted to do. Friday searching I was, I was naive enough. Like I said, my education took all time to think that, you know, they say, oh, Shawn, you made a really, really terrific hit movie, and we'd love to meet with you. And, and then it would always come around to so what do you want to do next? Now me? I thought Eric comes out. Yeah, I thought that the guy sitting behind the desk, has got a whole filing cabinet full of great scripts. He just hasn't found the right director. And and he's What do you want to do next? And my answer was kind of, I don't know, what do you got? The only thing that the guy sitting behind the desk will see here's, I'd like to do Friday the 13th every year until I die, you know, and oh, and I could have signed up at that point. I had no idea that that was you know, I thought I think I sound a phrase searching this is a sample real kind of she I can drag. You got anything.
Alex Ferrari 43:41
Now let me go back real movies. Yeah.
Sean S. Cunningham 43:44
And I'm gonna have a script supervisor this time.
Alex Ferrari 43:48
I hear they're important. It it's fascinating, because I've had a lot of people on my show over the years, who had these kind of like, lottery ticket moments. I mean, you were one of the you and John and Wes, you had these kinds of lottery ticket moments where you had extremely massive hits. And how you, you know, I've seen a lot of them just go go a different direction. Because like, I don't want to do that for the rest of my life. And every one of them said, If I would have known now, if I would have known then what I know now. Yeah, I would have done at least three or four more. Just just and then retire.
Sean S. Cunningham 44:37
Yeah. Well, yeah,
Alex Ferrari 44:40
But you had it but you had a hell of I mean, you had a hell of a run in the 80s as well. Yeah,
Sean S. Cunningham 44:43
I had I mean, I got a lot I got to make a lot of movies and and, and, you know, the challenge of making any movies you know, it's an it's like climbing a mountain you just get together with a bunch of people you know, Try to do this thing, it's really hard to separate from the content, it's just making movies is really hard. It's really hard work and you and you meet and bond with a bunch of people making movies is making room movies is the fun part of whatever, whatever we do, the rest of the time is spent trying to get the movies made, and that gets sold or sold. Yeah. I would. I know that I know that a number of your viewers are probably film students are people relatively new to relatively new to the business. And he talked about going to film school and so on. What nobody ever tells a film student is you go and you learn about the cameras, and you'd learn up and now you'd learn about certain kinds of media and, and you learn how to make and do all this great stuff. But there are no jobs for you, none, none, nobody's going to hire you to do that. If you really want to do that, what you have to do is along with everything else you've been doing, is learn how to raise money. And, and if and it's very difficult, and until you get a handle on that you're going around you know the script in your under your arm trying to get somebody to give you enough money or to make it for you, and it doesn't happen. It only happens if you find a way and yet being a type A personalities critically think you got to go out and find find a way to get enough money to make it. And if it's $5,000 Do you take your iPhone, you go out or your iPad and you go out and and and shoot it and do the best you can come back and make another one next week. And the week after that we got through that. Because that's the only way you're going to learn learn how to do it. And and nobody's going to give you the money to do it. You have to find and by the way, everybody gets money, different ways, different places, different times. Oh, but that's, that's one of the things that they don't teach in film school. And it's, you know, it's a critical lesson. And you know, you probably more than I but see a lot of people that are talented and they've got great footage and they can't get hired. They can't, you know, they can't break in. And but there isn't a way to break it. There isn't an apprenticeship.
Alex Ferrari 47:40
You know, for for directors is tough for other parts. Yeah. camera department art department.
Sean S. Cunningham 47:46
Yeah, but those yeah, that's, that's a completely other thing. Yeah. And, you know, if you have the, if you have the right bloodlines, for the right genes, you gauge that you can be, you know, a dolly grip, too. But I'm talking about the the, the people that you go to film school, you don't go to film school via grip, you go to be filmmaker, a storyteller and stuff like that. And that's what you have to keep doing. But you're going to be on your own for a long time trying to do that. And if you know that going in, it's it's better than if you don't.
Alex Ferrari 48:22
It's really and I appreciate that, because that's a very wise piece of information there. Because I've come to understand, I heard this the other day, and I thought this was fantastic. And so it's so perfectly defines our industry, which is, it is possible for anyone to direct the movie, but it's not probable. Okay? Because he's like, there's so much work that goes because at the beginning, everyone can make a movie like, oh, it's possible. Yeah. And now more than ever more than in your day, your day to day that was much harder to get a movie off the ground. Now, you could go make a movie for three or five grand, and you can. But the probability of that happening is very small. Because the amount of work, things have to line up, things have to fall into place. You have to be persistent. The perseverance years, like you said, to get things done. And you know, I've been in the business now closing in on 30 years. And that is really the definition of our business because it's possible. Yes, that's what Hollywood sells. Anyone can be a star. Anyone can be a director. Anyone can write a million dollar script.
Sean S. Cunningham 49:36
Oh, forget and nobody knows anything.
Alex Ferrari 49:39
And nobody knows anything. But you you can win. But the probability of you selling a script for a million dollars. How many scripts get sold for a million dollars? Right? A handful. How many filmmakers make a studio movie now? None. Very few young filmmakers make them is very small. So at just thought that was such an interesting and it's a raw, it's a tough pill to swallow, but it is the truth of our business. Would you agree?
Sean S. Cunningham 50:07
Absolutely. It's it's. Yeah, anyone can, but most people, you know, could could get it together to get a movie made somehow. Not likely, like you said, this is not probable, but it's a lot of work. And it has nothing to do with what you learned when you studied making movies. It's, it's an integral part of making movies, that's just ignore him. Thinking about a few things that that, you know, when I, when I talk to people, about the movies, my, I stay away from the technical, technical issues, because I don't know him as well as all the people that do them every day. But it seems to me that there are a few really important things. One is, I'm going to refer to something called your ad, the poster, or, back in the day, we call this the one sheet. But today, it might be the billboard on Sunset Boulevard, or the thumbnail in Netflix or the thumbnail. So what is the thumbnail for your movie? And because what is contained in there? If it's done, right, is the promise of what the movie is, you know, and you. So from day one, you know, what you promise the audience and then you have to deliver on that. But you have to keep coming back to it. You don't think about it later. If you think about this, I read the script and the pages did they just, you know, took all my emotional energy. I just couldn't couldn't stop reading it. Okay, what's the poster? How, you know, how are you going to? How are you going to get people in it? Because what you what you're doing for all intents and purposes is you're you're making this thing, and then you're stopping strangers on the street saying, wait, wait, wait, wait, come with me, please, I want to show you something. And it's a movie and you're really going to, I promise, you're really going to like it, please come with me. And you try to get him to your point and you put them in the seat. And that'll be 15 bucks. And then the guy has to sit there for the next two hours of his life, and leave happy. And that's what we do. And if he doesn't leave happy, you don't get a chance to do it again, or not very soon. And so I think that that's knowing what the poster is, and embracing the fact that you have an audience that is vital to what we do for a living. The other thing that I think gets lost and and that's who do you make a movie for? Who's your audience. And I think the way to approach it is you're creating a gift for somebody. And it's not for you to find yourself, and to work out your anxieties and work out.
Alex Ferrari 53:32
That's an art film, that's an art.
Sean S. Cunningham 53:35
But even when you're not feeling, you know, you you're making it for somebody else, and you want it to be good and you want to be able to give, give it to this other person, or people and they're going to be glad that they got it. And they'll they'll react to the fact that you really did the best you could to create this gift for them. And that is those are that's what you're doing if you're doing it right. And those aren't words you hear very often. But I think they're I think they're really critical.
Alex Ferrari 54:10
Those offensive I mean, those those words, I mean, I've been yelling both of those things from the top of the mountain for quite some time. Now, Shawn, it is something that's so important and filmmakers, they don't they don't think about it. They don't think about the poster. They don't think about the marketing. They don't think how they're going to sell it. And they definitely don't think about the audience. They just think about I want to make this movie I want to put this out there. But if you don't think of who this is for, it's just an expensive art man. It's just not a this is not paint on canvas. This is not writing a book. You know, this is this is expensive art that takes a lot of time, a lot of collaboration, a lot of things to fall into place for it to be done. Period, let alone well because there's a lot of movies made. And then there's this many that are really good and and stand the test of time, for whatever reason is and it is I appreciate you saying that and it coming out of your mouth. Hopefully, people listening will listen,
Sean S. Cunningham 55:07
They hear and wants to anyway.
Alex Ferrari 55:09
But it's interesting, but it's something that needs to be, especially for younger filmmakers or first time filmmakers, they don't understand that I wrote a whole book about that about like, understand your niche audience, understand your audience, and build a product for that audience, build that thing that serve them, and really connect with them. And it's it is something that is not talked about very often. So I do appreciate you saying that. There is one question I always have to ask this.
Sean S. Cunningham 55:38
I need you to go. No offense.
Alex Ferrari 55:40
No, no, no, no, it's not done on us that that kind of answer that that question. But I've always wanted to ask this question. Because you do go to cons. And you go and you sign a cons and, and I've been to MIT, I've signed up some, some cons. I've I've experienced it myself. And I've, I've gone to horror conventions. Earlier, when I had one of my first films and I met a lot of your contemporaries and all that stuff. When you first got called. They say, hey, Shawn, we know when they bring you over to a comic book convention or horror convention to sign what did you think your wedding?
Sean S. Cunningham 56:21
I'd say exactly what I saw. Are you out of your fucking mind?
Alex Ferrari 56:26
You are me.
Sean S. Cunningham 56:27
And when I'm one night was like, that's, you know, if, if you hit 62, homeruns, and a baseball, she's, okay, go sign up baseball. I but I'm just a guy. And, you know, to, to charge somebody for signing something seems crazy. And so I didn't do it. And, and I still I still do. Not many. But I really enjoy it because I get to I get to better understand people that are fans of the genre. And you get it, it's really, it's really kind of good for your it's good to be reminded of the people that are out there. And, and that they're often really nice people.
Comic book and horror that they're such sweet people, most of them I've ever met.
And Wes refer to themselves as wearing urban camouflage. Paint don't, you know, they don't want to stick out and they want to be with their be with people that share their values and their sense of fun and entertainment. But there's kind of a uniform, so that if you are one of them, you Oh, he's our he's our kind of people. And you learn that and I, I like I like interacting with the fans. And it's just, it means so much more to them than it has to be.
Alex Ferrari 58:22
Right. I understand. I understand that completely.
Sean S. Cunningham 58:25
And so I you know, I the notion of selling your signature traits still strikes me as goofy.
Alex Ferrari 58:36
It is a little goofy. And I remember I was at a I was at I think the San Diego Comic Con and I wanted to talk to an actor. And I won't say the name because I'm still a fan. But uh, but I he was just sitting at a booth by himself. There wasn't even an autograph scenario. And I had a statue of one of the characters he played this years ago. And I go, Hey, you know, can you sign this? And he's like, if you want to dedicate it is 275 bucks, if you want it non dedicated is 450 bucks. And I'm like, I'm just a fair match. I just if I'm not selling this, I'm just a fan. He's like, Yeah, that's the price. I'm like, wow. Okay, so there's a dark side to this is what? slumped, but it wasn't even he was just sitting in the corner by himself, like even in an autograph scenario. But it's interesting. It's such an interesting there's a bit there's been documentaries on cones and, and that whole subculture and stuff but I always wanted to ask someone like yourself, what did you think when they first asked you to sign something again?
Sean S. Cunningham 59:40
Yeah, it just seemed
Alex Ferrari 59:42
Looney! Yeah. My name is Mickey Mantle or Tom Cruise.
Sean S. Cunningham 59:46
Right. Right. You know, it's like, do you remember those? There's a TV show East Hollywood Squares. Yeah, I remember. Exactly. Right. And there are individual personalities in each of the boxes right and most of them were famous for being famous not because they didn't need anything you know what was a OJ Simpson's house boy Kato Kaelin he became famous for almost everything in the guest now.
Alex Ferrari 1:00:24
You want to you want to hear a funny side note when I moved to LA my second home was a townhome in Toluca Lake. And I lived across the way from Kate, okay. First, very sweet guy,
Sean S. Cunningham 1:00:39
You went straight to the top.
Alex Ferrari 1:00:41
I mean, I was there, but I arrived right in the middle of now I'm gonna ask you a few questions asked all my guests. Sean, what advice would you give a filmmaker trying to break into the business today?
Sean S. Cunningham 1:00:53
The smart answer is Don't quit your day job. But I think that, I think then what this has become, is something that you love to do. And this has to do with acting or directing or any number of different things. And it's quite possible, as you say, to do this with the very limited resources that we have at our at our fingertips. And do it and do it and do it and enjoy it. But and do that in the same way that you might enjoy. I don't know, playing softball with the guys over the weekend. You know, it's something that you can love and enjoy and and be fine. How you can do this thing that would then allow you to support yourself doing it is just, it's, it's possible, but it's not probable. Now, there are going to be people say yeah, yeah, whatever. Alright, what else?
Alex Ferrari 1:01:53
That's not me. That's not me.
Sean S. Cunningham 1:01:55
Right! What What else you got, and I say, well, story story story. And, you know, if you can either write or find somebody that really knows how to write well, and, and then tell stories. And don't think that what you're going to do is get it the first time out, or the second or the third. So what you have to do is, you have to keep making mistakes. And that's how you learn anything is you go out, you try something seems like a good idea, the time you fall down doesn't work, you get up and do it again. And the the amount of time it takes they throw around 10,000 hours. And that's not very long. But to convert the 10,000 hours that I think it takes the even heavier ante in the game, as I say, a writer. You can't go to, you know, Robert McKee over the seminar weekend, and then come home and write a great screenplay. You just can't, you get good guidance, but you just can't do that. When you have to, if 10,000 hours is let's just say you don't know anything about carpentry. You know, you've looked at cabinets your whole life, you know exactly what cabinets look like, but you don't know how to make them. So you apprentice yourself to a master carpenter. And he teaches you and you work really hard, five days a week, and Christmas off. And after four to five years, depending you will have put in your 10,000 hours. And at that point, maybe you can make one of those finely fitted cabinets and know how to stain it. Because that's all you've been doing for the last five years. And it's only five years. I mean, if you did that when you were 17 or 18 years old, you come out at the age of 23 as a filing cabinet maker, and then you then you keep building on that. But there's a great deal of I think there's a great deal of time and effort that has to be put into learning the craft. The art comes at the art comes at the end. And you know 90% of what we do is is a craft and it's like any other craft it has to be studied and learned and you have to do the heavy list lifting and you can't you you can't start as a star.
Alex Ferrari 1:04:30
But that's what the film schools teach you your star kid, right? Yeah, and that's that's the afford. Did you ever see the documentary? Jiro Dreams of Sushi? It was a it was an award winning documentary about this master sushi maker and in Japan like he's a he's the only sushi maker to ever win a Michelin star ever. And when you apprentice with him it's a 10 year commitment. The first four years If you don't touch fish, it's all rice. All you do is cook rice for four years. So you learn how to cook rice properly. And then you begin to start touching fish. After four years. Can you imagine?
Sean S. Cunningham 1:05:18
Yeah, it's Oh, god,
Alex Ferrari 1:05:22
There's such a brilliant, but it's such a great thing. It's like, you know, if you want to be a cinematographer, you just want to get on set and start moving lights around and start moving the camera. But no, you've got to learn so much technical knowledge,
Sean S. Cunningham 1:05:34
And and you only learn it by doing it.
Alex Ferrari 1:05:37
Absolutely can't read about it, you can't watch about it. And
Sean S. Cunningham 1:05:41
I think that, yeah, it's, if you want to make a career out of it, what you must do is sell a movie for more than it costs you to make.
Alex Ferrari 1:05:55
Every time Roger Corman style
Sean S. Cunningham 1:05:56
That way, that way, you get to make another movie. And, and that seems overly simplified. But that's got to be at the core of what you're doing if you're trying to make a career out of it. But you don't have to, you can, you can get yourself a camera and microphone and go, shoot whatever you want, and play with it and come up with all kinds of things, show it to your friends, go to film festivals, all that stuff. And you can let you you know, certain people will come up with, I don't know if it's gonna be great art, but it could be really good stuff. But they're not trying to make a living doing that. You've got to have your day job, or married very well.
Alex Ferrari 1:06:40
That's amazing. Great advice. I've had that. That's some advice I've had on that. Like, I talked to one director. And he was advice you give them like rosemary. Well, that's what I that's what I did. And my wife helps me pay for all my movies. So now what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?
Sean S. Cunningham 1:07:01
For me, it's not learning, but it's one of those things you you tried to do? He tried to do the right thing. Don't always do the right thing. And you nobody goes through life without making mistakes and having regrets. But you stay on the road and you do the next right thing. Everything you did yesterday was yesterday. So and that's I mean, that's that's a lesson to be learned every day. But that's, you know, let's try to do
Alex Ferrari 1:07:33
And last question three of your favorite films of all time.
Sean S. Cunningham 1:07:38
Oh, so they go all over the place but I would say love actually saw the Lion King and maize in jars. He just I remember. I remember seeing the alien. The really Scott original. And that was just so good at what he did. He was trying you know, and he just the all all those were for me homeruns
Alex Ferrari 1:08:13
I can't I can't disagree with any of those choices, sir. They're all excellent choices. John, I appreciate your time. My friend. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It has been such a pleasure and honor talking to you about.
Sean S. Cunningham 1:08:25
Very nice of you to say that I hope I hope you got some we got some time I think we got a couple of you can probably trim this down to a nice tight seven or eight minutes. Appreciate it's really gonna, you know, add some music, a few sound effects
Alex Ferrari 1:08:44
And, and a good kill and then we're good that we then I could sell it.
Sean S. Cunningham 1:08:48
And you can sell it.
Alex Ferrari 1:08:50
Sean, I appreciate you my friend. Thank you for everything.
Sean S. Cunningham 1:08:52
Thank you very much. And we'll talk again I'm sure.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
- Sean S. Cunningham – IMDB
- Watch: Friday the 13th
- Need Distribution for Your Film? – Check This Out!
- Bulletproof Script Coverage– Get Your Screenplay Read by Hollywood Professionals
- Audible – Get a Free Filmmaking or Screenwriting Audiobook