Ghoul's Night Out (by Chris Nashawaty)


The following article appeared in an Entertainment Weekly special on independent movies.

In the spring of 1978, a longhaired, chain-smoking, 30-year-old director named John Carpenter began shooting a $300,000 slasher movie tentatively titled The Babysitter Murders. By 1980 it had become the most profitable independent film of its time -- and a perennial horror classic, spawning five sequels (so far). Here's an insider's look at the making of Halloween by the people who lived to tell the tale: John Carpenter (director, cowriter, composer), Nick Castle (the Shape, a.k.a. Michael Myers), Dean Cundey (cinematographer), Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode) and Debra Hill (producer, cowriter).

London 1977 -- The Babysitter Murders

Carpenter: I was scurrying around, looking for my next directing gig after Assault on Precinct 13. I was writing screenplays because that's one way of staying alive when no one's pulling a limo up to your door to take you to the soundstage to direct. I was 29, and Debra Hill and I went over to the London Film Festival where they were showing Precinct.

Hill: John's film was really well received there. We met a filmmaker/financier named Moustapha Akkad who liked the movie. He wanted to try to get into the mainstream film market with his American partners, Irwin Yablans, who ran Compass International Pictures, and he proposed doing a low-budget, $300,000 horror picture called The Babysitter Murders. Naturally, we jumped at it because we were kids and here was this guy writing us a check for an enormous amount of money -- well, it seemed like an enormous amount of money.

Carpenter: I was unemployed at the time, so I was thinking $300,000 is a lot of money. The original idea for the movie was a psychopath who stalks babysitters. That's all [Akkad] had, but he figured it would work because a lot of kids are babysitters, and they'd relate to it. Plus he said he wanted to make it real scary. I told him I wanted final cut, and he agreed. I never would've gotten that deal from a studio in a million years.

The Scream Queen's Genes

Carpenter: I was finishing [directing] a TV movie called Someone's Watching Me! when Irwin Yablans called and said, "Why don't we set it on Halloween night -- in fact, why don't we call it Halloween? I have to give him credit. So Debra and I, who were living together in the Hollywood Hills at the time, began writing.

Hill: I wrote most of the girls' dialogue, and John wrote all of [bogeyman hunter] Dr. Loomis' "evil" stuff. We put in all kinds of inside jokes: It takes place in Haddonfield, Ill., and I grew up in Haddonfield, N.J. And the name Laurie Strode was the name of one of John's old girlfriends. We wrote the whole thing in three weeks. Then we just had to find the right actors.

Carpenter: Jamie Lee wasn't the first choice for Laurie. I had no idea who she was. She was 19 and in a TV show at the time, but I didn't watch TV. At first I wanted Annie Lockhart, the daughter of the mother on Lassie [June Lockhart]. I really liked Annie, but she said she didn't want to play that kind of role anymore. So I said, "What the heck, let's meet Jamie."

Hill: I knew casting Jamie Lee would be great publicity for the film because her mother [Janet Leigh] was in Psycho. At least I knew she had the genes to scream well.

Curtis: I don't remember reading any of it. All I remember is seeing the name Laurie with all these lines of dialogue on every page of the script, so I'm thinking this is huge. I'm not thinking, "Oh, this is a teen horror movie." Up till then I had done episodes of Quincy and Columbo, and I had just done Operation Petticoat, which had 13 regulars on a half-hour show. Every week they would literally take the sentence "Captain, when are we getting off the ship?" and split it between five of us. So the idea of having the lead role was amazing. My manager kept dogging Debra and John for an audition. And clearly, if having famous parents ever helped me, it helped on Halloween. But I'll tell you right now, if they told me it was between me and Annie Lockhart, there's no way I would've thought I'd get that gig. Once I got the part I knew I'd get the chance to act because I wasn't playing the smart-alec girl with the nice tits. Or the airheaded cheerleader.

Carpenter: Originally, we wanted one of the old British horror guys like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing to play Dr. Loomis, but they all passed. We knew it had to be someone people would recognize so it wouldn't be all unknowns in the film. Then we thought Donald Pleasence [who died in 1995]. Donald didn't understand the film at all. But his daughter, who was in a rock & roll band, really liked Assault on Precinct 13, so Ithink that made him cool with it. I was in awe and completely terrified of him. I think he thought, "What am Idoing this for?"

Hill: We knew we needed a name actor, but we didn't have the budget. So we got an extra $20,000 to land Donald for a week's work. He came over from England, and we provided him with a Winnebago -- trust me, he was the only one who saw one. But soon he was walking around the set and talking to people. He saw that we were all so into it that I think he got into it too. A couple of years later, after John and I had done The Fog and Escape From New York, Christopher Lee came up to us at a party and said he was really sorry he didn't take that part.

Castle: John and I had gone to film school together in the late '60s, early '70s. I was trying to put together money for a low-budget picture of my own, and John was shooting the movie close to where I was living, so I just went down to the set to check it out. And he said "Well, why don't you just play the Shape?" It was a total lark.

Carpenter: We didn't want someone walking like a zombie or Frankenstein with their arms raised and groaning, you know? Nick and I were in a rock band called the Coupe de Villes, and he wasn't doing anything at the time, so he just did [the film]. I have no idea why we called Michael Myers the Shape -- it was just one of those literary bulls--- things.

William Shatner and the Fear-o-Meter

Cundey: I was 32, and I was probably the oldest person there other than Donald Pleasence. Everyone had something to prove with Halloween. We were all struggling because it was a very hard time to break into mainstream Hollywood. I had worked with Debra on a few low-budget films, like Satan's Cheerleaders, so she recommended to John that we meet. Our mind-set was to try to make a classic horror film even though it was this little babysitter slasher film -- we didn't see why it couldn't be Hitchcock. For the opening shot we used a Steadicam, which was a pretty new thing at the time. John's idea was to make the opening this really long intricate shot like [the one in] Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Most people would've thought he was completely nuts, but we didn't know any better.

Hill: We rehearsed the opening shot over and over. We only had the time and money to shoot it twice, plus there was a little kid in the scene who played the young Michael Myers, and we couldn't keep him on the set after 10 at night. We couldn't afford another kid to hold the knife later that night, so that's my hand holding the knife that stabs Michael Myers' sister. I had the littlest hands.

Cundey: We knew we had to get the most bang for our buck because bucks were scarce. We used whatever we could find -- that's something we've all lost as we've gone on to bigger movies where people just throw money at problems instead of being creative and coming up with guerrilla filmmaking solutions.

Carpenter: We began shooting in this abandoned house in South Pasadena in spring of '78, and it's supposed to look like a cold Halloween night in Illinois. That wasn't easy. The tough part was finding pumpkins and autumn leaves. Our production designer, Tommly Lee Wallace [also the film's editor], went scouring for pumpkins up north of L.A., and the ones he came back with weren't exactly in the best condition, but they worked. Tommy also came up with Michael Myers' mask. It was actually a Captain Kirk Star Trek mask that he bought at Burt Wheeler's Magic Shop on Hollywood Boulevard. He widened the eye holes and spray-painted the flesh a bluish white. In the script it said Michael Myers' mask had "the pale features of a human face" and it truly was spooky looking. It didn't look anything like William Shatner after Tommy got through with it, which is probably for the best.

Curtis: We bought an entire wardrobe at JCPenney for probably a hundred bucks. I got paid $8,000 for the entire movie: $2,000 a week for four weeks. We shot the film completely out of sequence, so John and I came up with what I call "the Fear-o-Meter" -- that's how I could tell how scared to be in each scene. He'd say,"All right Jamie, this is a nine." I remember going home after the first day and thinking I was going to be fired. John called that night and I figured that was it, but he said, "I just wanted to tell you how happy I am." That's never happened to me again with a director. There was a great camaraderie because it was such a young crew. In TV at the time, it was all those old union guys who had been in the lighting union forever, and they couldn't care less. But on Halloween, everyone had the fire in the belly, and they rode motorcycles and had tattoos and long hair. It was way cool.

Carpenter: One of the great things was that everyone participated in making the illusion. We used my old Cadillac because we needed a car in one shot, we used [the caterer's] pickup in another, and crew members stood in as extras. When we needed kids walking down the street, anyone who had a family rounded up their kids. Everyone helped out -- it was just the joy of making movies. That only happened for me once in my career.

Carpenter: Halloween opened in mid-October to terrible reviews. They said, "This is turkey for Thanksgiving," and that it wasn't frightening. Pauline Kael said it had no pacing at all. So we just figured, oh, well, we didn't do it on this one. Later, a review in The Village Voice made critics reevaluate it, but at first it was brutal.

Hill: One review said the most notable thing about the movie was that it was produced by a woman, because it shows she has the tacky taste of a male chauvinist pig. I just laughed.

Carpenter: Right after Halloween, I started Elvis, and I wasn't paying attention to how Halloween was doing. Then, around Christmas, people started treating me nice. All of my friends were look at me like I was keeping some secret, and studio people wanted to meet with me. I had no idea Halloween was going so well. All I knew was that the critics hated us. To be honest, I was just happy I had another gig. I had to go to New York, and I went to see Halloween in a theater full of college students, and they were screaming and going ape-s---.

Curtis: I remember going to see the film and this woman in the front just stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs, "DON'T GO IN THERE!"

$55 Million Later....

Hill: I was astonished that this film went on to make $55 million. I was also astonished to realize I didn't have a very good contract. Over the years, we've seen a lot of money from all the Halloween movies. But if I knew then what I know now, I'd be rolling in it. I really resented it when Irwin Yablans drove up in a yellow Rolls-Royce and bought a yacht.

Carpenter: I didn't take a dime up front, but I didn't care. I figured later in my career the money would come. After it took off, I did see some of it, though. I can't remember exactly how much money I made off of the film. I do remember getting one check for over a million dollars -- that wasn't a bad.

Castle: I just made my $25 a day while shooting. Fifty-five million? I didn't see any of it. Nor did I sue for it [laughs]. Being there from beginning to end was really important for me when I started directing my own films [such as The Last Starfighter and Mr. Wrong] That's more thatn I ever expected to get out of it.

Curtis: It may have been the most profitable independent film of all time -- but it wasn't the most profitable film for Jamie Lee Curtis [laughs] Even the idea of pre-negotiating a back-end deal when you're 19 -- please. Did I get more for the first sequel? Sure. I got $100,000 -- which is still not that much. But Halloween gave everyone involved with it a career. I'd say that's good enough.

Copyright, Entertainment Weekly and Chris Nashawatay, 1997.

Thanks to Te for the information.


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