In the latest chapter of my continuing interview with Rolfe Kanefsky, the writer/director of such indie horror favorites as Nightmare Man, we discuss his detour into the teen comedy genre and the history and production of The Hazing—as well as all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering it takes to get anything made in Hollywood. And, oh, did I mention Tiffany Shepis? I really think this ongoing feature is a “must read” for anyone thinking about a film career. Please check out parts one and two as well.
You followed up Tomorrow By Midnight with a movie in new genre for you: the teen comedy. But Pretty Cool is actually that beloved subgenre of teen comedy in which the lead character accidentally receives psychic powers. I haven’t seen it, but I’m guessing it’s in the tradition of Zapped!, the ‘80s Scott Baio comedy?
Yes, Zapped! was a big inspiration to Pretty Cool as well as Chevy Chase’s Modern Problems. My flick is about a nerdy high school senior named Howard Duckell—cue in-joke to Howard the Duck—who is literally zapped with the power of mind control. He can make anyone do whatever he wants by just thinking about it. And being a horny teen-age virgin, he and his nerdy best friend, Chuck, have fun with the power. I even used some sound effects from Zapped! in the finished film. Growing up in the ‘80s, I was always a fan of the teen sex comedy, like Porky’s, Private School, Screwballs, H.O.T.S., The Party Animal, etc.
I have fond memories of H.O.T.S. and Private School myself, especially Lisa London and Betsy Russell.
I had actually wanted to make a teen comedy like this five years earlier called Hormones…The Movie! We did a poster for it with Julie Strain and Brinke Stevens, but the money fell through. You see, before American Pie, nobody would take a chance on that kind of throwback comedy. After American Pie, it became a lot easier and that’s how Pretty Cool was finally born.
Tell me, Rolfe, did your lead character’s extrasensory gift cause him to learn life lessons, but not before a bit of inappropriate fun?
Oh, yes. Pretty Cool follows the mold pretty tightly. I once heard that there were only three real storylines to a teen comedy: (1) the nerds against the establishment—Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds; (2) the love story where a guy is trying to meet the perfect girl only to find that his best female friend is actually the one he truly loves—The Sure Thing, Overnight Delivery, Love Potion #9; and (3) the teen who tries to be cool by being someone else [and] finds out that he should just learn to be himself—Meatballs Part II, The Nutty Professor, Pretty Cool.
So, Howard Duckell does go through that life lesson. The power starts off as fun, but he soon realizes that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. In Pretty Cool, he models himself after Tom Cruise, which made way for me to send up a lot of Tom Cruise movies, like Risky Business, Mission: Impossible and The Color of Money. Those parodies were a lot of fun to shoot. We built almost an exact duplicate of the living room set from Risky Business, when Tom Cruise first meets Rebecca De Mornay. Luckily, once again, I found a great cast of hot young comedians to star in the movie. It was a very likable cast and actually kind of a wholesome movie in a way. I filmed Pretty Cool back in 2000 when the “shock humor” of There’s Something About Mary and [the] American Pie movies were very popular. But I really wanted to do a throwback to the sweeter sex comedies of the ‘80s—there’s a nice message at the end and a lot of old-fashioned slapstick. My opening sequence is a cross between Risky Business and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr., so I was sort of trying something new and old at the same time. Later, there is also a spoof of the “Werewolves of London” pool table scene from The Color of Money crossed with the classic Peter Sellers pool table scene from A Shot in the Dark.
So, how did Pretty Cool come about? Was a producer looking for a teen comedy and you said “Hey I can do that”?
Okay, the history of Pretty Cool is a little strange. After Tomorrow By Midnight, I was a little upset. I had made a film that I thought would open some doors and put me on the Hollywood map, but it never sold. The following year, Alain Siritzky was about to produce another “soft erotic series” and he wanted one film to be in the vein of American Pie. I knew I could write it but had no interest in directing it after Midnight. When I handed in the first draft, Alain thought it was very funny and I should direct it. I said I was only interested if I could turn it into a real teen comedy and not a soft-core movie. I wanted the same guy, Jerry Whitworth, who cast Tomorrow By Midnight to find my actors and I wanted to shoot on 35mm. Amazingly enough, [Alain] agreed to my demands, so I agreed to it.
I had to do a “page one” rewrite—basically a whole new script—because a late-night cable movie has a very different structure from a mainstream teen comedy. I wanted it to be “R” rated, so there was some skin but not too much. However, Alain was financing Pretty Cool with the investors’ money for an erotic series, so he demanded that I shoot two versions of Pretty Cool—one with enough sex scenes to satisfy his buyers. This made finding the cast very difficult and trying to balance what I wanted versus what he wanted. Pretty Cool turned out exactly how I hoped and I’m very proud of that film, as are the actors, but it was very touch and go at times.
Once again, the politics rise up to screw with you.
Unfortunately, Alain couldn’t sell it for years. His buyers wanted a more extreme version, and I had to fight for five years to stop Alain from releasing the different cut of the film that he insisted on having made. Finally, I was able to convince MTI Video, a Florida-based company who had just released The Hazing and did really well with it, to release my version of Pretty Cool. They did in 2005, with not much attention or fanfare. Some stores took it and some didn’t. There were no names in the movie, so Blockbuster didn’t pick it up. I was happy that, at least, it was released—unlike Tomorrow By Midnight—but disappointed that it didn’t do better. At that point, I assumed that the Pretty Cool story was over.
Well, it’s available on Netflix and it did well enough to inspire a sequel a few years later—
Well, that leads into funny story number two. Six months later, we met with the heads of MTI at the American Film Market and asked how Pretty Cool did. They said it was strange. They didn’t sell a lot of units, but the units that were out there were doing incredibly well. Renting like an “A” list title or a National Lampoon title. Nobody understood why. There was very little advertising, but the fact was that people were renting it because of word of mouth. It worked exactly as I had hoped. My target audience picked up on what I was doing and really enjoyed the movie. So, it kept renting and renting. There still wasn’t a lot of profit but these facts were enough to convince Alain Siritzky to produce a sequel in the hopes that the name value would catch on.
So in November, Alain announced Pretty Cool 2 in the trades and I was writing the script while we were holding auditions, which was weird. I wrote the whole script in the evenings in about nine nights in between seeing lots of actors. Pretty Cool Too as it was finally titled is not a typical sequel. There are no returning characters from the first film but it is in the same universe—hence the “Too.” It’s kind of an I Dream of Jeannie but inside a cell phone instead of a lamp. The plot is bare but mainly there to set up a lot of comedy set pieces, this time inspired by The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, Danny Kayes’ The Court Jester and Abbott and Costello routines. Of course, it also has nudity, a satire on reality shows and a commentary about the evils of technology, and morals that beauty is only skin deep. I went with the second plot device for Pretty Cool Too—boy discovers that best female friend is actually the girl for him and his fantasy girls are just that: fantasies.
Overall, it did wind up selling better than Pretty Cool I. But neither film really made much money. One day, I hope to make Pretty Cool III, which will probably be titled Time Twister because I actually have a good script to that one that stands by itself. It’s not a soft-core movie that was redesigned or a sequel that was put together in less than a month. I recommend listening to the commentary track on Pretty Cool Too, because I really explain how the film was made and why its existence is killing the industry for people hoping to actually make a living in the film business.
Neither Pretty Cool or Pretty Cool Too are masterpieces, but I do think they capture a sort of ‘80s-flavored comedy that rarely exists anymore, so I’m proud of them despite their faults and budget restraints. If you’re looking for a silly, sexy teen comedy, you could do a lot worse than the Pretty Cools.
Hey, at least they were actually produced, right? That’s always a win. Now following Pretty Cool, you made your way back to what you’re best known for: horror. I hear it took several years to get The Hazing off the ground.
Yes, The Hazing has a long history, unlike Pretty Cool Too. I wrote The Hazing a good eight years before it was actually produced and came up with the idea years before that. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1994, I met a producer by the name of Joseph Wolf. He produced a few horror films that you might have heard of, namely Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hell Night. I had written a script in college called The Host that I was trying to do as my follow-up to There’s Nothing Out There. The script got to Mr. Wolf and he optioned it for one dollar. He then proceeded to develop it and put together a great package for myself to direct it at a budget of $10,000,000. I was very excited, but unfortunately, the horror market was pretty dead back then. This was before Scream brought it back. So, he couldn’t raise the money, but I met with him a few times and realized that nobody had done a sequel to Hell Night. So, I pitched it and wrote a three-page treatment entitled Hell Night 2: The Hazing. It also never got produced, but a few years later, I started working for Alain Siritzky.
Since Alain was running his company a lot like the early days of Roger Corman, I thought maybe I could convince him to make two movies on the same set. This is something that Corman is famous for.
There’s a story that there was a standing set in a studio and the guy who owned it told Corman that they were going to tear it down in a week. Corman asked them to wait a few days and he would have a script that could be shot on that set in a weekend. The guy bet he couldn’t do it. Corman did and that’s how Little Shop of Horrors was made.
Knowing this, I tried to do the same thing with Alain. He was about to shoot another one of his erotic series, so I suggested we shoot two films on the same set. One could be erotic and one could be horror because now, in 1997 after Scream, horror was back. I pitched Alain The Hazing and he agreed and hired me to write the script based on my initial treatment for Joe Wolf. So, I got rid of the Hell Night 2 part and just called it The Hazing. I got rid of any real connection to the original Linda Blair film and started writing the script.
Now, the problem was that everyone was telling me to do something like Scream or to remake There’s Nothing Out There. However, I didn’t want to make a rip-off of a film that sort of ripped me off or remake a film that I had already done. So, I came up with the idea of doing The Breakfast Club as a horror film.
I wrote the script in a few weeks, we built the set, auditioned actors and even shot some second-unit footage on Hollywood Blvd. during the Halloween parade. Alain produced the erotic script that I wrote entitled Restless Souls, but when it came time to make The Hazing, Alain couldn’t get enough interest from foreign buyers so the money didn’t come through and Alain tore down the sets without making my movie.
So, the script sat there collecting dust for a few years, before Alain met a new producer named Tom Seidman. Tom was looking to produce an expensive science fiction script he had and wanted to find a producing partner to split the cost. Alain was not interested but gave Tom The Hazing script instead, saying that he was about to make it and would Tom be interested in getting involved. Tom read the script and loved it. He came on board.
The problem was that Alain really didn’t have any plans to make The Hazing, nor did he have the money at the time. So, Alain told Tom that if he wanted to run with it, he could. And that’s what happened. I teamed up with Tom and he was able to raise the money through relatives and friends. So, The Hazing was finally produced in 2003, about nine years after I came up with the concept.
It’s a very fun movie, reminiscent of the horror flicks of the ‘80s. Obviously funding was a problem, but was the retro vibe part of the reason it was hard to get made?
Not really. One of the problems was that some investors though the budget would be too high for all the effects in the movie. They thought it would cost millions just for the CGI. I wanted to do almost everything live on set and knew it wouldn’t cost that much, but they didn’t believe me. Also, after Scream, slasher films were popular and The Hazing was most definitely a supernatural flick along the lines of The Evil Dead and Night of the Demons. Again, I argued that it was just a matter of time. Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, everything was slasher films until Wes Craven came along with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which every major company rejected. So, I said to look at the history. After Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, it was time for supernatural again. Then Final Destination came and proved me right once more. After that, it was easier to get The Hazing produced.
So, lessons to learn: horror is cyclical, and there’s a herd mentality at play in Hollywood.
As a note to aspiring filmmakers, I highly suggest watching a wonderful documentary about the Richard Rush film The Stunt Man. It’s called The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man. It will teach you a hell of a lot about the film industry and the business side that goes on. Watch the movie and then the two-hour documentary. It will teach you more than film class could. Hollywood always says they are looking for something fresh and original, but they will never produce it until someone else makes it, proving it to be viable first. This happens time and again. Once it’s already been done, they are happy to do it again, but nobody wants to take that first chance.
This is why most famous and successful horror films start as independent features. A studio would be too scared to make something that is really disturbing and can offend the audience. And I’m talking after the ‘70s. In the ‘70s, Hollywood didn’t know what to do so they let filmmakers take control, which is why we have The Exorcist and Jaws.
Absolutely. [Editor’s note: For more on this, read Peter Biskind’s excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.]
Producers took over in the 80’s and horror films lost their edge except for when it came to the independents. It is still where most of the interesting films are made because they are not trying to appeal to every demographic at the same time.
[Laughs] But what are independents these days? Sorry, that’s a whole other conversation. Anyway, you were lucky enough to get the amazing Brad Dourif to play a key role in The Hazing. How did you manage that?
Brad Dourif was a lucky miracle. I always had him at the top of my list to play Professor Kapps. Luckily, after a few casting sessions, Tom hired two very good, successful casting agents to find the rest of the cast. They knew Brad Dourif’s manager and gave him the script with an offer. Brad read it and agreed to do the role. He was available and had an open window to fit it in. He had just wrapped years of shooting Lord of the Rings and was about to start HBO’s Deadwood series. We got him in between those projects. So, that’s what I call a miracle. Brad has always said that he’s a whore when it comes to working and will do anything. But, he really liked the script and got into the spirit of the whole movie.
From watching the behind-the-scenes footage, I gather he’s a true collaborator—not at all a lazy, “where’s my mark?” kind of actor.
Exactly! Brad was a collaborator. In the original script, Professor Kapps is the villain. It was a pretty straight-forward role. My interest was with playing with the stereotypes of all the college kids. But Brad had a lot of ideas, and I incorporated many of them into the script. He really was into tarot cards and Jung’s theory. I worked some of that into the story with the alchemist background.
Brad was also a great team player. He rehearsed with the actors and helped Tiffany Shepis with the British accent that he decided to do in The Hazing. He had learned it for Lord of the Rings and, with the mustache that he grew for his upcoming Deadwood series, thought it would be a good idea. I agreed, but had concerns since he possesses two of the college students in the course of the story. Would they be able to pull off the accent? Brad was willing to work with them both and put all of their possessed lines on audio tape for them to study and learn since they only had two weeks to perfect it before we began shooting. Brad came over to Tiffany’s house to work with her. She was in awe of him, and I think working with Brad is still one of the reasons that The Hazing is her favorite film to date. Although, her latest film, The Violent Kind, just got selected into the midnight section of Sundance 2010, so her list of personal favorites could soon be changing.
Yes, now that you mention it, The Hazing was your first major project with the wonderful Tiffany Shepis—the Dietrich to your von Sternberg, if I may. How did you meet her?
Tiffany and I met at the American Film Market in 2000. I was walking around, like I do every year, and Tiffany had just started her own distribution company called Prescription Films. Tiffany had come from Troma and learned a lot from Lloyd Kaufman, so she had a bunch of beautiful girls running around the lobby of the hotel wearing tight clothes and lab coats that advertised “Prescription Films.” This was pure Troma-inspired marketing. I was curious and went to her room to see what they were doing. At the time, I was actually trying to raise money for The Hazing. So, I talked to Tiffany and gave her the script. She read it and loved it. Tiffany was and still is an actress first and foremost. She tried to raise money because she really wanted to play the role of Marsha.
Unfortunately as I said, money for that kind of horror film was hard to come by. But I stayed in touch with Tiffany and later that year when I went to Cannes with Tomrrow By Midnight, Tiffany was there as well with her company and we hung out. I tagged along because wherever Tiffany is, there is sure to be good times ahead.
So I’ve heard.
I actually tried to work with her a few times before The Hazing. She was supposed to be in Pretty Cool but a photo shoot for Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor got in the way. Another time, she got sick. So, we were friendly, but it didn’t seem like we were ever going to work together…until The Hazing became a reality. I immediately thought Tiffany would be great for the role of Marsha, and she came in to audition seven times. Tom, the producer, liked her but wasn’t sure so we kept bringing her back again and again. I remember her agents told her not to come anymore, but she knew me and really wanted the role so she fought hard for it and won! It was the first real role where she could prove herself as an actress and not just as a hottie. I was very happy and proud to have been able to give her that opportunity.
There are a lot of good actresses out there who have yet to be given the chance to prove what they can really do. The rushed schedule and lack of funds for many of these low-budget movies does not allow an actress to show her skills. They get one take, have no rehearsal and are forced to work with filmmakers that sadly just aren’t that talented sometimes, and then they get blamed for being a bad actor. I felt Tiffany was one of those undiscovered talents that just needed the right vehicle to show what she could do.
She’s definitely one of the most underrated actresses out there. She can do so much with so much with so little. What is it that draws you two together? Do y’all share a similar sensibility regarding film?
Tiffany and I share a mutual respect for each others’ talent, a similar sense of humor and just really get along well together. Tiffany grew up in New Rochelle. I grew up in Westchester. These places in New York are very close to each other. I worked with Troma and, years later, so did Tiffany. So, even though our backgrounds are different, they are also very much the same.
I was making movies when I was 16 and so was Tiffany. We grew up loving horror and cheesy horror films. If it wasn’t for the age difference, Tiffany and I probably would have been making films together when we were teenagers.
The funny thing is, if you see Tomorrow By Midnight, the character of Tori is really Tiffany Shepis, but I made it before I met or even knew who Tiffany was. I have always been attracted to tomboy characters: spunky, independent women who light up a room. Tiffany is all that and a whole lot more.
I knew it! I meant to ask you if you wrote Tori with Tiffany in mind.
We became good friends on The Hazing. She fit perfectly into the mold of my favorite female character, so it was only natural that Tiffany became my muse over time. I wrote Corpses with her in mind to play Rhonda and, of course, Mia in Nightmare Man. Tiffany’s first role after she had her baby, Mia, was Nightmare Man—I named the character after her baby; she did not name Mia after the role. But obviously, we’ve been very close over the years and have worked together seven times so far.
We have almost never had a fight on or off a film set, which, considering the pressure and working conditions that we’ve both had to deal with, is pretty amazing. I have a lot of unproduced scripts that were written with Tiffany in mind. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some of them someday. If it takes too long, then I guess Tiffany’s daughter will just have to star in them instead.
You and Tiffany started a production company not long ago, right?
Yes and no. We tried to with my producing partner, Esther Goodstein. I thought the three of us could get a slate of low-budget horror and comedy flicks off the ground. Tiffany was supposed to direct one that I wrote entitled The Devil’s Pies. The response was great, but we have not been able to secure the funding. We came close many times, but it keeps slipping through the cracks. Our company was called ScreamWorks, but with no capital, it never really launched. A lot of people seem to think it’s a good idea, but we can’t find the money, so at this point it is just that: a good idea with a smart business package behind it. Scripts are written, budgets have been made. Shooting schedules have been created. Bios, reviews and proof of our track record is all in place. Artwork was also created. Now, we just need to find the money man or woman. Still looking. Any suggestions are always welcomed.
Yes, lack of funding seems to be the major problem for you and every other indie filmmaker these days.
The only thing that we did film was introductions and wrap-arounds for a series/anthology movie called Once Upon A Horror, hosted by Tiffany as a sexy Elvira-type of character. It’s pretty funny, but we haven’t been able to film any of the four stories yet. There’s been a lot of talk over the years about it. Maybe one day it will finally happen. It’s got a real Tales From the Crypt vibe with definite “R” levels of sex and violence. But until then, Tiffany has kept very, very busy and I have been able to make a few more films as well with my producing partner, Esther. Esther and I met on Corpses, but that’s another story.
In general, it’s a crazy business and you never know where it’s going to lead. Many, many people have come and gone in my life in this industry, but Tiffany and I have a special bond. I believe she feels the same way. It’s a professional chemistry that just works, and our finished films together, especially The Hazing, are proof of that.