Twice Red! The Michael A. Simpson Interview

Interview by Jeff Hayes and John Klyza

While the online fandom was escalating and before the sequels came out on DVD in 2002...The following is the original 1999 interview with "Sleepaway Camp 2 & 3" director, Michael Simpson...

I contacted Michael A. Simpson, the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker who helmed Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland, to discuss these horror classics. I interviewed him in late May 2000 through an exchange of e-mails from his home in Los Angeles where he's partnered with his wife, Judy Cairo, in a successful movie and television development and production company.

When did you first get involved in the entertainment industry, and what did you do? I graduated from the University of Georgia where I studied film and acting. A piece of trivia for you. Wayne Knight, from Seinfeld and Third Rock, was a student in the drama department at the time. Talk about a guy with huge talent. After spending several years in Atlanta as a commercial and documentary director, my first break came when I helped to develop two television series for Turner Broadcasting. What were those series?? Portrait of America was the first. The series was first developed in house at Turner. Turner canceled the series after they'd spent several million of Ted's hard earned dollars and hadn't managed to end up with anything they could air. He decided to give it one more try but wanted the company to go out of house to find someone to create it. Bill Mills, who later was the director of photography on several of my features including the Sleepaway Camp sequels, was working for Turner Broadcasting at the time. He called me and got me to come in and talk with the Executive Producer of the series. I ended up as a producer and director of Portrait of Georgia which was the one-hour episode which became the template for the 60-episode series. When Portrait of Georgia was televised, it won Emmys and as well as Turner Broadcasting's first Peabody, which some people call "the Pulitzer of broadcast journalism".

After that success, I also helped to create and direct two seasons of another Turner Broadcasting series, World of Audubon. During the time of this television work, I was business partners with William VanDerKloot who's a talented commercial and documentary director in Atlanta.

You were also a feature director before you helmed the Sleepaway Camp sequels, right? Yes. My first feature was a movie called Impure Thoughts which was a small art film that played at Sundance and got a theatrical release. It starred Brad Dourif who horror fans will know from the Chucky series of movies...

You got very good reviews for Impure Thoughts. Ed Blank of The Pittsburgh Press called it "one of the funniest, gutsiest, most thoughtful and lifelike movies of the '80s" when it was released theatrically. You also did another movie, a comedy. Yes. A very dark comedy, Funland, about Bruce Burger, an eccentric hamburger franchise clown who's working the opening of an amusement park where a local radio personality is trying to break the world's record for roller coaster endurance. It was the first movie written by Bonnie and Terry Turner. They went on to great success in Hollywood with the Wayne's World movies and then the TV series Third Rock and That 70's Show. We wrote Funland together. Bonnie and Terry are some of the most talented people I have ever worked with. Fall down funny. I love them. Prior to the Sleepaway Camp sequels, I'd also written and produced Dead Aim, a police thriller starring Corbin Bernsen, Lynn Whitfield, Isaac Hayes and Ed Marinaro.

You were still living in Atlanta at the time? Yes. All those movies were shot in the Atlanta area. Is that why the Sleepaway Camp sequels were shot in Georgia? Yes. At the time, Georgia was a very cost effective location for movie making. Unfortunately, that's changed over the years. How did you get involved as the director and producer of the Sleepaway Camp sequels? I got involved through Double Helix Films. Double Helix optioned the sequel rights from Robert Hiltzik, who all the camper fans know is the creator of the original Sleepaway Camp. Jerry Silva, who was one of the producers of the first Sleepaway Camp, was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Double Helix. Jerry knew Robert and negotiated the deal. So, happy campers, Jerry came up with the idea of doing the sequels. The fans have him to thank.

Mike chats with an executive from Double Helix films about his vision for the sequels

And Double Helix asked you to direct the sequels? Yes. They had previously asked me to serve on the board of directors of their company which was in international distribution. I was the only creative person on the board. The other folks were suits. Guys with ties. What attracted you to the projects? The main thing other than a paycheck was a chance to try to stretch the horror genre a bit and not do just another "dead teenager" movie. I have a pretty dark sense of humor. Funland is a good example of that. I wanted to find a way to express dark humor in a so-called "slasher" movie. It's an idea you either love or hate. But for me, it was the only way to go. The teen horror genre was already in danger of becoming a parody of itself at the time so I figured, what the heck, call attention to it and have some bloody fun. Humor with pop culture references in horror movies were not too common at that time, although it's common today. Yes. The Sleepaway Camp sequels, in my opinion, really contributed to comedy loaded with pop culture references being in horror films. I think that's one of the reasons Kevin Williamson made reference to Angela in I Know What You Did Last Summer. Had you seen the original Sleepaway Camp before doing the sequels? Yes. I watched the original Sleepaway Camp before I made my decision to work on the sequels. What did you think of it? It certainly has an ending people are always shocked by. For me, the most interesting part of the original story was I thought it provided a good set-up for the transsexual aspects of Sleepaway 2 and 3. A lot of fans have always wondered why Angela was the only character from Sleepaway to return in the sequels. Any idea why some of the others were not brought back? The writer, Fritz Gordon, wanted to take the sequels off in a different direction and I agreed with him. Anyway, I always felt that after the events of the original Sleepaway Camp, not too many of those characters would have wanted to come back to camp again. I mean, really, would you? In many cases with films, the writer is overlooked. Tell us a bit about the screenwriter of the sequels, Fritz Gordon. The rumor is Fritz lives on an island these days. I don't know much more about him than that. The leap in terms of tone and character from Sleepaway Camp to Sleepaway Camp 2 was a large one. Successful as it turned out, what was the catalyst for the change? A desire to do something different. At the time, the teen slasher genre was thematically exhausted. It needed something else to keep it going. Fritz Gordon has a warped sense of humor which he brought to writing the sequels. I thought one of his best ideas was to have Angela actually go under the knife and have a little snip, snip of her johnson. That's got to be one of the most unique twists in the Sleepaway franchise.

Were there any elements of the first film you would have liked to play up? The Aunt Martha character comes to mind, an especially John Waters-esque creepy/funny character. Aunt Martha was a great, creepy character in the original. However, I was pleased with what Fritz Gordon did with the sequel stories, especially SC2. Doing any sequel is a tricky experience. It's sort of like sleeping with another guy's wife or girlfriend. I know the sequels have a large number of fans while some people love the original but not the sequels. Some horror fans don't understand that the sequels are as much a parody of the horror genre itself as a continuation of the original Sleepaway Camp. On the other hand, many fans do get it and really like the sequels as a result. So, if you're a horror fan, you either love or hate SC2 and SC3. I think it comes down to the humor and whether you want some laughs with your body count. Felissa Rose decided not to get involved at the time because she was in her early years of college. So tell us, How did Pamela Springsteen become Angela? An agent I knew suggested Pamela for the role. When she read for me, she infused this wonderfully bent quality into the character that I was looking for. It just came to life right in front of me. I knew immediately she was the one I wanted to play Angela. I stopped casting after that and offered her the role the same day. Pamela is immensely talented. I really liked working with her. Were there other contenders for the role of Angela? We did casting in Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles. There were twenty or more other actresses I looked at before I read Pam. I remember Tracy Griffith originally tried out for the part of Angela in New York, but I felt she didn't have the right look. Of course, I ended up using her in Sleepaway Camp 3 for the role of Marcia which was her feature film debut. I liked Tracy's performance so much in Sleepaway Camp 3 that I used her as a starring lead for my next film, Fast Food.

Michael with Pam on the first day of her FAST FOOD role.

We've heard that Pamela has become a professional photographer. Yes, Pamela is a professional still photographer in Los Angeles, much in demand. She did the stills for Price of a Broken Heart, a movie our company, Cairo/Simpson Entertainment, produced in '99 for Lifetime which my wife Judy executive produced. I had a chance to see Pam then and she was still her same sweet self. Her still photography is amazing. I have a print of hers she gave me as a gift back in the 80's. I still have it hanging in my home. Did Pamela give up acting? I hope not because her performance as Angela shows that she has a great talent for acting. Regrettably, I don't believe Pamela pursues acting any longer. It's a shame. She had a very natural way with her work. A transsexual, psychopathic killer...boy, talk about going boldly where no one has gone before. There aren't too many actresses who could have played that part as well as she did. It would have been easy to be over-the-top and too broad or worse, too dark and somber. She found the perfect balance. Which of the two sequels did you enjoy filming most? I had a great crew and cast on both movies so, overall, the production of both movies was fun. The last few days of production of SC3 were pretty tough. It turned very cold for Georgia in October and we were doing mostly night scenes so we were all bundled up trying to stay warm. The budget was wafer thin by that point also. Bob Phillips, the Unit Production Manager, did a great job of helping to keep the train on the track. I also had a great Director of Photography, Bill Mills, who knew how to shoot quickly. All that helped. The hardest part for me was that I was the only producer on the movies that actually knew how to produce one. Stan Wakefield and Jerry Silva, the guys from Double Helix, were producers and executive producers because their company was distributing the movie. But neither of them understood or could contribute in any meaningful way to the production process. So most of the line producing fell on my shoulders. That's tough on such a low budget movie. Bob Phillips was a big help. I couldn't have done them without his support. Which of the two sequels do you think came out the best? SC2: Unhappy Campers works the best for me, both story wise and cinematically. The fans seem to respond to Unhappy Campers the best also. SC3: Teenage Wasteland was a bit rushed. We had very little preproduction time, essentially one weekend, so it did not turn out as well. Also, I don't think the script was as polished as Unhappy Campers was. The budget for both films together was about $1 million, right? Yes, approximately, and that included insurance, completion bond and overhead for Double Helix. For such a low budget, the Sleepaway sequels turned out phenomenal... especially part 2! Thanks.

Even Michael's civilized attempts couldn't change the minds of the MPAA

In comparing the two films, you can see that part 3 has a lot less gore. Is that because of the budget or MPAA? The MPAA. We ran into a problem with the Moral Police American A**wipes on SC3. They got a fly up their nose about the Cindy death scene and also the way Lilly, one of the camp counselors, died. Daryl "Riff" Wilcher and Fangoria magazine both have described Cindy's Flag pole death in part 3 as being much more gruesome! What happened? As filmed, Cindy's death was really gory. When Cindy got dropped from the flagpole and her head smashed on the concrete, her brains splattered everywhere. We used pig's brains and, believe me, it looked very real. The MPAA gave us an "X" rating because of that scene so it had to be cut. Those folks have no sense of humor or adventure. I heard some of Lilly's death was cut also. Yes. That was another scene that contributed to the "X" rating. We had this great shot of the lawn mover actually running over Lilly's head. It had to be taken out. I was told it made one of the little old ladies at the MPAA feel sick. Remember Angela's body-filled cabin in part 2? All the bodies were shown in their rigor-mortis laden glory! How come at the end of part 3, we can hardly see most of the dead bodies in the cabins? That scene was one of the last scenes we shot. It was at night. We were rushed trying to stay on budget and on schedule. So it did not turn out as well as we had hoped. Anyway, I think sometimes it's scarier to have deep shadows with only glimpses of the gore anyway. I mean, the reality was we already had so much gore we were getting an "X" rating. The shadows just helped to tone it down a bit.

Michael hangs out with the lovely Tracy Griffith on-set

How did you gather the mix of seasoned veterans (the late Walter Gotell, Michael J. Pollard etc.) and fresh up-and-comers (Renée Estevez, Tracy Griffith etc.)? We did casting in New York and Los Angeles for the leads. The other actors were local to Atlanta. Shay Griffin did the Atlanta market casting. She 's absolutely one of the top casting directors around. She'd handled casting on Impure Thoughts and Funland, and I knew she could find the right young actors for the roles. I knew I wanted Renée for Molly the first day I met her. I had lunch with her and her manager at a restaurant in Westwood, close to the UCLA campus in LA. There's a sweet quality about Renée that I thought would work for the character of Molly. What are some of your favorite scenes in the two films and why? One of my favorite scenes was in SC2. The abandoned cabin scene where Molly finds Angela and they talk. I thought it was a bizarre little oasis of intimacy in the midst of all the carnage. I felt you actually learned something about Angela's character in that scene. In terms of gore, I like the Brooke and Jodi barbecue scene in SC2. I thought that was tasty. The power drill death for Mare was a nice one also. For SC3, Peter's firecracker up the nose was pretty funny I thought. A great visual was Maria being hit by the garbage truck. That was my favorite scene to film. I've also always had a very warm spot in my heart for the drain cleaner down the throat of the news reporter in SC3. It just seemed fitting somehow considering all the things that had come out of and been put in her mouth. What ever happened to the originally proposed Sleepaway 4 from back in the early 90's? It was announced in Fangoria magazine...but never happened! Also, your name did not seem to be attached to the project. What do you know about this? That's SC4: The Survivor? I wasn't involved with it so I don't know what happened. Tell us about an interesting or funny experience that you had on the set. In SC2, remember when the happy campers are swimming in the pool? There's a great shot of Valerie Hartman's very nubile character getting out from the pool. As planned, you clearly see her nipples through her wet tee. In the script there was a line which went something like, "Hey Emilio, check out those nips." But the Georgia Department of Labor guys who were on the set decided in their infinite wisdom that we couldn't have a kid under the age of eighteen say the word "nips" so we changed it to "Hey Emilio, party hats at two o'clock," or something like that. The DOL boys didn't have a problem with that. For me it was like, pardon my dust here folks, I'm just trying to get a movie made on a budget. "Nips" to "party hats" ... these two DOL guys were on the set for the entire shoot and that was their only concern ... it's always great to see your tax dollars at work. Can you recall any other trivia that the SC fans would be interested in? The last day of production of SC3 was actually on Halloween that year. It was a spooky, great why to end production of two horror movies. We had a great wrap party. For our technical purists out there, were the films shot in 1.85:1 widescreen or 1.33:1 full frame? If memory serves me, they were shot 1.85:1. Bill Mills, the director of photography for the sequels, would probably remember for sure. Tell us about what you do now and some of your recent projects. My wife, Judy Cairo, and I have a development and production company based in Los Angeles. We produce movies and television series. Jude's a well-regarded and very talented television producer and executive producer. Beauty, brains and talent... it's a hard package to resist. She's done a number of movies for network and cable television. I enjoy writing scripts the most these days. How would you feel about being involved in future Sleepaways? I haven't given it much thought. Teen horror has changed so much in the last 20 years. All the great horror franchises have either adapted or wilted. If you were going to do another one, what kind of story would you write? Good question. For me I think the most important thing would be to do something off beat, something that isn't derivative. More than anything, some fresh talent and blood would help the franchise get in touch with today's audience I think. In terms of story, "coloring outside the box" as they say in LA would be a great way to go. I receive e-mails from fans all over the world! How does it feel to know that you have touched so many people with these movies? It's all a little strange isn't it? These movies have taken on a life of their own. I just hope the fans have as much fun watching them as we did making them. We Thank Michael for sharing his very informative and fun-filled recollections of his involvement with the Sleepaway sequels!!