Jason Goes to Hell director Adam Marcus on Texas Chainsaw 3-D, My Boyfriend's Back, and more
As Friday the 13th fans will note, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. This was the ninth entry in the horror series and the first to be distributed by New Line Cinema after Paramount made a fortune off the franchise during the previous decade. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the movie’s director, Adam Marcus. He discussed Jason Goes to Hell as well as his other projects.
Adam, what inspired you to enter the filmmaking business?
[laughs] My whole family is in the business, actually. My uncle, Ned Eisenberg, is a brilliant actor who has had an amazing career that spans over thirty years. He’s a “that guy”, and he even has a place in the horror pantheon, as he was one of the leads in the film The Burning. My other uncle is Joe Ellison, who wrote and directed the horror classic Don’t Go into the House. My brother Kipp is an actor and writer who was one of the leads in Jason Goes to Hell. In fact, most of my family is or has been in the entertainment business. And when I was a kid, Noel Cunningham, the son of Sean S. Cunningham was my best friend. So I was always with the Cunninghams, especially during the time when they were making Friday the 13th, Spring Break, House, and a bunch of other projects. I did a lot of readings with Sean and Wes Craven when I was a teenager. I actually used to do a lot of readings for the Cunninghams, of scripts they were developing. I was always somehow involved. Then Sean became incredibly instrumental in helping fund my first theater company back in Connecticut, which I ran for many years before I went to NYU, where I made a student film that won best picture. That movie ostensibly got me the job to do Jason Goes to Hell.
I was a huge Friday the 13th geek by that point. I knew the movies chapter and verse. My writing partner at the time, Dean Lorey, was also a huge horror fan. So when I graduated, Sean told me I should come to LA, be his slave for a year, and he would give me my shot to direct something.
While I was in LA, I set up my first feature as a producer: a little movie called Johnny Zombie, which ended up becoming My Boyfriend’s Back. Disney made the film from my writing partner Dean’s script. I was supposed to direct that film, but I wasn’t crazy about the direction the movie was taking, so I asked Sean to assign me to something else. He told me that New Line was acquiring the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise. He then told me if I could figure a way to get the hockey mask out of the film, he would let me write and direct the movie. Two days later, I had written a treatment that ended up as the basis for what would become Jason Goes to Hell. I was 21 when I got the job. I was 23 when we shot the film.
Jason Goes to Hell was the first entry in the Friday the 13th series distributed by New Line, after it had been in Paramount’s hands for nearly a decade. Was it daunting to take the directing reins of a beloved property that now had different management?
New Line was great. It was the House that Freddy Built, so they understood and embraced horror. It was exciting. Paramount wasn’t really proud of the franchise, even though it made them a ton of money. New Line was thrilled to have the series, and they were supportive of Sean and me. It was also made for far less than Paramount was making those films, so we had more freedom in that way. Sean is a brilliant producer. He can take every single dollar and put it on the screen. Our executives on that movie were Mark Ordesky and Mike DeLuca, and they were both amazing support. They were young and creative and up for making an edgy, out-there movie. It was exciting to have producers with me that were so energetic. It was like being a kid in a candy store. I was young enough and dumb enough to not put any limits on anything.
You’ve obviously made your mark in the horror genre. Are there other genres that have made an impression on you?
Absolutely! My favorite films tend to be horror movies or thrillers, but I’m a huge fan of comedy as well. My student thesis at NYU, “…so you like this girl”, and my second feature film, Let It Snow, which was a hit at Sundance, are both comedies. Comedy and horror are so closely related. They’re movies that live off of audiences; big crowds, where terror and laughter are contagious. Screams and laughter both roll through an audience infectiously. My latest film Secret Santa is what I call a “horroromedy”. It’s the best of both worlds. Hitchcock was so good at making you laugh just before you scream! A lot of modern horror films have lost that, because they’re so dark and heavy. But if you lighten things up a bit, the horror is that much scarier. There’s a bit of sunshine before the darkness. But I love seeing movies with an audience and seeing them laugh and scream at a work you’ve made. More people are watching stuff at home, which I understand, but nothing compares to going to a theater. It’s just the best!
Jason Goes to Hell is one of a number of films you’ve written as well. Do you prefer writing or directing?
They are completely different processes. I’m lucky and cursed in that I wear different hats. On my latest film, I’m also a producer and editor. I love the entire process. I enjoy every part of it, even though they are very different. You actually see the movie happen. You get to actually craft the entire film. My first love will always be working with actors on set, seeing them work the material, and seeing where they take the material. Steven Williams’ performance as Creighton Duke in Jason Goes to Hell is a perfect example. What he and I created on set was totally different than what was written on the page. A performer working material you’ve written into something more expressive and complicated is so great, because it can be better than how you envisioned it to begin with.
One film you wrote is Texas Chainsaw 3-D, an installment of another beloved horror series. Was writing that different from writing for the Friday series?
In a lot of ways. With Jason Goes to Hell, because Sean and New Line didn’t want to follow the previous Friday film (Jason Takes Manhattan), they wanted to start fresh. For Texas Chainsaw, the studio wanted a direct sequel to the original film, so my lifelong writing partner Debra Sullivan and I started from that idea. We wanted to adhere more to the first movie. I love the first movie. Tobe Hooper loved our script, which was exciting. There was a certain reverence to what came before. I also loved the Jason character and the hockey mask, but there was no real mythology for Leatherface, and we wanted to create a mythology. With Leatherface, there was a really broken psychology there, like Frankenstein’s monster. For Debra and me, we wanted to tell the story of Leatherface’s imprisonment and his reverence for family. Shooting in 3-D added another challenge, in that how the killings could be more in your face. It was more figuring out all the mechanics before we wrote the kills. And although we enjoyed the end product, we wrote a $20 million movie, but they shot it for less than half that budget. There are a lot of cool sequences they couldn’t afford to shoot. Our draft took place in the early 1990s, but the finished film took place now, which makes no sense. The original film was in the 1970s, and the main character is in her twenties, which is why the script took place in the ’90s. It didn’t make any logical sense, and it’s frustrating. I was also trying to make the date in the script coincide with the release of Jason Goes to Hell.
Your most recent film is Secret Santa. How did that one come about?
I love the dynamics of family relationships. Everybody is on opposite sides of the political fence in this day and age. This film was meant to show what might happen if we said the things to the people that are closest to us that we aren’t supposed to say. What would it be like if your family all said what they really thought of you?
The film is set during the Pope family’s Christmas dinner. Usually a time for backstabbing and silent, annihilating judgment. For the Popes, the time-honored tradition of passive aggressive snark is always masked with a smile. But not this year; April Pope, the family’s golden child, is clean and sober and working her 12 steps. She has a new life and an amazing new boyfriend and she’s ready to make amends with her family. April figures her mother Shari’s Christmas Eve party, complete with Secret Santa game, will be the perfect moment for forgiveness. Her gift and act of confession will help heal the tensions of all her loved ones. But someone else has other ideas. And that someone has decided to give them all a taste of their own medicine. Literally. Chaos ensues as almost everyone loses their mask of civility and starts saying everything they’ve always wanted to say. But no one knows how or why. Before you know it, saying what you want turns into doing what you want. And the holiday table soon runs red. It’s a Christmas massacre, as those who haven’t been affected try to control and deal with the ones who have.
It’s the first movie from Skeleton Crew, the new company I founded with my wife Debra and our closest friend Bryan Sexton, who’s the best producer I’ve ever known. We started this company to make genre material that would be more biting and have more comedy, but would also have more on its mind. My heroes are people like George Romero and Tobe Hooper. Night of the Living Dead is not so much about zombies as it is about Vietnam. It’s about people at odds. It’s about something deeper. Skeleton Crew is all about discovering new talent and telling new stories.
Alongside making movies all these years, I’ve been teaching screen acting, writing, and direction for over two decades here in LA, and I’ve got over 60 acting students that I work with every week. They’re some of the best actors in Los Angeles. They’re unbelievably talented. A lot of them you would know the minute you saw their faces. But they’re people who do a lot of guest spots on TV, or do small parts in movies. They don’t get to break into those huge roles that their talent is deserving of. So one of the things that we do is when we bring a director into the micro-budget side of Skeleton Crew, the first thing I say is, “you’ve got 65 actors at your disposal. Take a look, this is the troupe.” Not unlike Christopher Guest. I’ve got this amazing group of people who range from 14 to 75 years old. You’ve got this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural group of brilliant performers who can do pretty much anything. To see these amazing talents get a chance like this has been totally gratifying.
Secret Santa has been a dream for a long time. I have a friend, Timothy Eilers, who’s a brilliant sculptor who creates huge props and sets for movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Jurassic World 2, but he’s always wanted to be a composer, so I asked him to score Secret Santa, and he killed it. It’s one of the best scores I’ve heard. Tim is now our company composer. Robert Kurtzman has been one of my best friends for 25 years. He’s an amazing makeup artist and f/x creature creator. He’s also directed a bunch of movies. But on this movie, he not only created the insane makeup and extreme gore, but he shot second camera. Bob will also be directing one of our upcoming projects. The company is about giving people their shot at what they really want to do.
Of the films you’ve done, is there any one that stands out for you?
Secret Santa is the one I’m most proud of, because I made it the way I wanted to make it. Debra and I wrote the film in 21 days and I shot it in 12 days. I’m super-proud of it, and we’ve gotten nothing but rave reviews. We were an official selection of the Sitges Film Fantastique Festival, the Portland Film Festival, Houston Horrorthon, and we’re just about to head out to Glasgow Frightfest at the beginning of March.
But I have to tell you the movie that really stands out for me is the one I haven’t gotten to make yet. I’m always wondering about what the one I’m going to tell next is. I’m proud of my work, but I’m always excited about what’s coming and what new stories I’m going to tell.
You’ve worked with many great actors and actresses. Are there any that you still hope to direct?
There are so many brilliant talents that I would love to collaborate with: Streep, Day-Lewis, Kingsley, Oldman, Keaton, Reeves, Cruise… so many! But I have to say, my first choice would be Michelle Monaghan. She’s always been quite brilliant, but I feel she’s never been given a chance to show her full range. She did a film years ago called Trucker, and ever since I’ve really wanted to work with her, because I think she could be one of the all-time greats. But there are so many I adore that are masters of their craft. I want to work with actors that I can learn from and that can challenge me to be a better director. The great news is that the actors I work with every day are the best I’ve ever known.
Can you tell us anything about your future projects?
You bet! Up next, I’m going to be directing a film called Dread, a thriller. It’s inspired by movies like The Raid: Redemption and is a high power thriller. Dread is about three women trapped in a hotel run by a human trafficking ring. Another I’m going to do is The Harvest, which is another thriller about a young woman trying to go to college only to find her mother, who left her as a child, has stolen her identity and destroyed her chances at a better life. She goes on a journey to find her mother and falls down a rabbit hole of evil she never expected to find. We are also producing a film called Fat Camp Massacre. It brings me back to my Friday the 13th days. It tackles the issues of body shaming and body dysmorphia. It’s very empowering. We love telling stories about strong women. I’m committed to making those kinds of movies. To that end, we have a web series we’re producing called NerdGirls which is about a group of comic book creators who happen to be women. But they’re never taken seriously, so they decide to take matters into their own hands and create the careers they deserve.
We also have several projects with comedian Drew Lynch, who’s one of the leads of Secret Santa. Drew came in second on America’s Got Talent a couple years back. He’s a great comedian but also an incredible actor. We’ve just produced his first comedy special Did I Stutter, and we have a television show we’re developing with him as well.
There is so much coming down the road from Skeleton Crew. Can’t wait to share it all with the world!