A Conversation with Filmmaker Tom McLoughlin
The following is an excerpt from Joseph Maddrey's book-length and career-defining interview with director Tom McLoughlin.
In 1990, you adapted Stephen King's short story "Sometimes They Come Back" to the screen. Are you a Stephen King fan?
I'm a huge Stephen King fan. Obviously he saw the same Twilight Zones we all saw, the same Outer Limits, the same Corman movies—he loved that stuff—and because of his writing talent he was able to take those basic ideas and stories and fill them with the thoughts of his characters. That's his brilliance. He shows us our dreams and our nightmares in [his characters'] thoughts, which allows his readers to have a personal relationship with the stories.
In my opinion, most of the Stephen King movies don't work. You can't get that same experience [of the characters' thoughts], so the filmmakers usually substitute something else. The movies that really succeeded were the ones that had stronger characters—Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Stand. But a lot of the other ones didn't quite get there for me, because you're trying to condense something that's so rich in the books into 90 minutes of screen time. You can sell a title and you can sell the idea, but it's got to be fleshed out differently.
I think that's what Sometimes They Come Back suffered from—lit wasn't fleshed out properly. The writers had to expand a short story, so they put a lot of "the best of Stephen King" moments into it. Like the evil car [from Christine]... a lot of things like that were borrowed from other works to flesh out the story.
I have to admit that when I watched Sometimes They Come Back, I was confused about the nature of the monsters. Are they ghosts or are they the living dead? Do they exist in the flesh or only in the main character's imagination? What are the rules?
When Dino DeLaurentiis offered the project to me, I remember saying to him, "This really doesn't work." The writers had moved on because they were not going to do another rewrite without being paid a fortune, so Dino brought in Tim Kring, the future creator of Heroes. Tim is a great guy and very smart, and we saw eye to eye right away. But whenever you deal with Dino, there are a lot of stipulations—"don't lose this, don't lose that, because I like that..." So we were trying to Frankenstein things together.
Eventually the main question was whether or not the audience would accept that we're in this realm where anything can happen. I think if you're a horror aficionado, you know that there needs to be—like you said—rules that are very clear and show an understanding of the genre. For most people it's either creepy because it's surreal, or it just doesn't work.
In the short story, the threat is a group of teenagers who are possessed by the spirits of the dead. In the movie, I wasn't sure if the teenagers were possessed or reincarnated or just ageless monsters. At first, I thought they only existed in the head of the main character, because he's so tormented by his past—but then his wife and son are able to see them too and be hurt by them...
The way I approached it was that these guys have literally come back—they are solid ghosts. They are ghosts walking around in human form, in the same way that I believe angels and demons walk around in totally human form. These guys to me really were flesh and blood and could hurt other people.
I saw a lot of those kinds of teenagers [violent 50s greasers] when I was growing up—they picked on guys like me with the long hair. Those guys in real life were scary enough. Now to say that they can come back from the dead, hurt other people in your life, and do things that nobody else would believe they can do—my God! I mean, they can tear off their own faces!—and if you get into a car crash with them, they're going to walk away and you're not. They were solid when they needed to be solid but they could disappear when they needed to not be there.
So there really were no rules for them as monsters... That's what makes them scary.
Yeah, maybe so. The old cop was the only one that gave Tim's character any kind of explanation. There really was no mythology outside of that.
Maybe that's even what Stephen King was thinking. Maybe he sat down to write the story and asked himself what he was really scared of in his life. He thought of kids like that who acted as if the rules didn't apply to them, and then he took it to the next level—where the scientific laws about life and death and the passage of time—didn't apply to them. How scary would they be then?
It's not a figment of the character's imagination that they are back. They are literally back. Where do they live? Do they eat? You can dismiss all those rational questions because, when you see them, they're back simply to torment you and harm people you know. That's why they exist.
[At this point, our conversation is fortuitously interrupted by the sound of a distant train horn.]
To this day, I can't hear a train horn and not think of Sometimes They Come Back, because that's something that I purposely put in the film. Tim Matheson hears that sound the second he gets back to his hometown, and it has a haunting quality to it. When I was growing up, that was a reassuring sound—it meant somebody was going somewhere and life was going on. My idea was to take that sound and make it part of a dark memory—make it really horrific because it's associated with his brother's death. One of the cool things about movies is to be able to take things like that and turn them into something else.
To me, that's something that a good movie does—or good music, painting, sculpture, whatever. It mixes with life. People say, "I cannot go into the water because every time I try, I think of Jaws." Or, "I can't take a shower when I'm home alone because I think of Psycho." Powerful horror movies really can make a lifelong impression, and it's wonderfully cool to be able to do that.
I have learned, after many years and many films, that I can personalize a lot of things because of my love of the genre or because I have had some experience in my life that connects me to the world in the story. I can take somebody else's material and somehow fuse it with my own thoughts. In fact, I often feel that it's more interesting to take on other people's material and try to find my own way into that universe, as opposed to drawing exclusively from my own experiences and trying to create things that way.
Then of course you need the same level of participation from the actors, the cameraman, the editor... all these other people. You've got to get everybody thinking and feeling in the same direction.
Which seems like it would never work. But there must be something universal about certain patterns and symbols that makes good stories resonate for a lot of different people with different backgrounds and experiences. Like the train horn—maybe the sound is comforting to a lot of people because it's a subconscious cue that life goes on. I feel that way about airports—all the coming and going...
Yeah, airports are a hotbed of emotion. Having spent so much time in them over the years, I can say that I get energized in environments like that. It helps me to focus—just like being on a movie set. I love working in situations where I'm surrounded by a lot of people. For some people it's distracting, but not for me.
You like being in the eye of the hurricane...
I don't like focusing on doing things solely for myself. I love being part of something bigger. Whenever I've gone into states of depression, it's mentally and physically debilitating. That's the worst kind of death—you're alive but you can't do anything. To me, that's scarier than anything else—the idea of being on this planet and not being an active part of the world around you. I really learned this lesson again when I had children. I found I wanted to make sacrifices to see them happy, to see them light up.
It's the same thing when I'm working as a director. When I do something that allows an actor to shine, I stand back and go, "God, I'm so happy that I was able to help make that moment happen." Maybe I was the one who said yes to casting them in the picture. Maybe I was the one who said, "What would happen if you were saying that to your father instead of your boyfriend?" Sometimes I don't even know where the idea came from, but the result is amazing. The other person gets it and runs with it. To have that level participation—to help create something that goes beyond my individual life—is amazing. My greatest dream is that certain films I've worked on in my life might have a lasting effect on people after I'm gone.
It's a Wonderful Life was absolutely life-changing for me. So was Rocky, because it came out during a period in my life when I felt like I was never going to be able to direct, and was never going to achieve any of my dreams. Seeing [Rocky] pull himself up on the ropes—that image stayed in my mind every time I got rejected, every time somebody said, "No, we don't like your idea. No, we're not going to hire you for that." Sometimes I felt so defeated, and then I remembered that image. It's not that it's the greatest movie ever made, but that image of the down-and-out guy trying his best just to get through — and the fact that he is still standing at the end—really was a powerful influence on me. As a filmmaker you can make a difference if you focus your work on the things that not only entertain, but inspire.
Rocky is a story about survival in a tough, gritty, depressing and often debilitating world. In contrast, Stephen King's short story ended on a very dark note—the main character summons the spirit of his dead brother in order to survive, and after that he is forever cursed. The movie, on the other hand, gives the lead character a choice about his future—he can go to heaven with his brother or stay with his wife and son in an imperfect, painful world. How much of that ending was your idea and how much was already in the script? I can't help noting that, when you made that movie, you were a pretty young father...
What was going on in my life was actually very important. In 1990, my dad was dying. We knew he was going to die; it was just a matter of time. My daughter was born during that same time period, so I had this conflict between birth and death going on.
At the same time, I was working on my friend Steven Banks' show, "Home Entertainment Center," which was going to be a pilot for Disney. That was fulfilling a childhood dream for both of us; we both wanted to work at Disney. Then Universal gave me [as producer] an order for twenty episodes of a TV series called They Came from Outer Space and twenty episodes of She-Wolf of London. So I was trying to get directors and writers for those episodes while creating the pilots. (I ended up kind of letting go of both of them, and never was happy with the end results).
And then Dino offered me Sometimes They Come Back, so that was being prepped during the same time period. I've never had that much on my plate at the same time—life, death, two TV series, a four-camera pilot at Disney, and a feature film. The thing that was of primary importance was my wife and unborn daughter—making sure that the pregnancy was okay and that I was a part of that.
When I was told about my dad's illness, it was this horrible situation. I was in a hospital, standing in a hallway with a doctor and other family members, hearing that his cancer had spread throughout his brain and that there was nothing that could be done. I'm standing there with the doctor—and I can't even believe I did this—but I said, "No, I've directed this scene. There is something you can do. There is always something that can be done." And he said, "In the movies, maybe... but this is reality. I'm sorry." And I'm still going, "No, we're going to figure out something." He said, "You can get another opinion, but I'm telling you—this is just the way it is." I went home and cried because I couldn't figure out what I could do about it. I wanted to control the situation like a director. I had so much that I was controlling at that time... but how do you save your father from dying?
My father was very quiet and shy and I know he was scared about what might be on the other side, but he wouldn't really talk about it. He wouldn't talk about how much pain he was in. I was trying to do whatever I could, knowing that the clock was ticking. We did a lot together. I took him to see a David Copperfield show... I did anything that I could to make him feel loved. The fact that I was so busy and couldn't spend all of my time with him made me feel very guilty. There was so much I wanted to learn from him about his life. I had so many questions and I knew it was just a matter of time, a very short amount of time, before he'd be gone.
I had to emotionally pull myself away from the two TV shows, because you can't suffer over something that seems meaningless compared to life and death in your own family. But Steven Banks is my best friend and I wanted to be there 200% for him on his show. So that was a challenge.
Then the script for Sometimes They Come Back didn't quite work. Dino didn't think it was emotional enough and I agreed. So he brought in Tim Kring, and we forged these emotional connections between Tim Matheson's character and his son and his brother. We set up the idea that he'd lost his brother when he was the same age that his son is now, and that set up the ending.
Finally, my lovely daughter Hannah was born. I made sure that my dad got a chance to hold her. Then, in the middle of rehearsals for Steven's show, I got the phone call saying that my dad had died. Unfortunately the funeral was on the day we were supposed to tape the show. I was lucky to have a very cool assistant director who did the rehearsal blocking for me so that I could go to the funeral, but then I had to return to the studio for the shoot.
I was feeling guilty the whole time because I wasn't with my family, but thankfully they understood. And I knew that my father would be telling me not to sit there and be miserable over him. "Go to work—you're lucky—you're fortunate." I knew that's exactly what he would say. I somehow managed to get through Steven's show, and I believe it was literally the next day that I had to get on a plane to Kansas, to start shooting Sometimes They Come Back. There was no time to mourn or grieve. So this is a huge, long story to say that all of that baggage is what I walked into this movie with...
Now, if ever a movie was cursed, this was it. I'm not exaggerating. Every day, something went wrong... and not small things. I'm talking about major things—people falling down on set, ambulances showing up, the entire transportation department walking off, leaving all the trucks at the last location... Every lighting setup took two or three hours instead of the hour that was budgeted... And it was one of the coldest winters they'd ever had in Kansas. When we were shooting that scene in the railroad tunnel, it was so cold that we were all in pain.
One day, Tim Matheson was doing a scene in there. He was sitting down on the ground and, just as he got up, a boulder—probably two feet by two feet—fell down from the top of the cave and landed right where his head had been a minute before. It was a miracle he didn't get hit... On another day, Brooke Adams fell and twisted her ankle, so we were shut down because of that... Then we had an actor who had a heart attack—the old cop who says "Sometimes they come back."
He'd had a heart attack in L.A. just before the shoot, but he begged and pleaded with us not to replace him because he hadn't worked in so many years. I couldn't say no. So he came and, sadly, had a really tough time remembering his lines. We had to use huge cue cards and shoot the scene in sections. He was very embarrassed about that, but we kept going. And then when the footage came back the next day, we found out that the camera department had exposed the film for the wrong stock, so the whole thing was purple and grainy. This movie was just one horrible thing after another.
At the end of the production, some local asked, "How's your movie going?" And I said, "Well it's been a little rough—we're eight days over schedule." Which for a low budget movie like that is absurd. Thank God Dino is a producer from the good old days and he would just call me and say, "So are you giving me a goddamn good picture?" I'd say, "Yessir." He just dealt with the overages, because he understood it wasn't anything I was doing [that was causing the problems]. We were victims of one bad circumstance after another. Then this local person says, "You realize you are shooting on Indian burial ground." I said, "Oh bullshit." He said, "You can look it up." So I did, and sure enough that railroad tunnel was not supposed to have been built. They literally dug up an Indian burial ground to create that tunnel.
So was the movie cursed? Who knows? I was willing to accept any explanation at that point because anything that could go wrong had gone wrong—starting on day one, when it snowed six inches during a time of year when it never snows. From that first day, we were way behind schedule...
Did you tell Stephen King about all of this?
Never did. Should have.
Sounds like something he would have written into the story...
And I'm just giving you the tip of the iceberg. There were personality conflicts... The production crew had been pulled from places across the United States and everybody hated each other. The [working] climate was like: "Can we just get this fucking thing done and over with?" Departments were sabotaging each other.
I have this unbelievable story from the cemetery shoot. We had a soundman who was overly intense about his job. If anything messed up the sound, he really took it into his own hands to get into people's faces—because to him, sound was everything. We had these huge lights that had these balustrade things that were buzzing, and he thought it was a problem. It's three o'clock in the morning in a cemetery, so even the crickets are quiet, and these things had a buzz that only the soundman could hear, but he kept asking for the gaffers to move the balustrades. And they wouldn't do it. I don't know if they were just being difficult or if it really wasn't possible. But this guy decided he was going to do it on his own. He started moving things, a cord came loose and hit something, and [simulates the sound of an electrical shock] all the lights in the entire cemetery went out.
We were moments away from doing a huge emotional scene with Tim, and then we had to wait for someone to fix the generator. I don't remember how long it took, but I remember we were chasing the dark. I was terrified that the sun was going to come up before we could finish the scene. We just barely made it... All because some sound guy was pissed off about hearing a buzz that we could have easily been fixed in post. That just epitomizes the experience of making this movie. We were lucky to get this thing finished at all. I'm amazed that the film works on any level.
One thing that I'm incredibly proud of is the score by Terry Plumeri. He hadn't done a lot of movies, but I took a chance on him because he had such passion. We had very little money and he was going to find a way to make this score work. And he created a fabulous orchestral score that was much better than the usual synth score you have to do on a film like this. I remember that [the editor] Charles Bornstein and I were temping our early cut with a very haunting music by Georges Delerue from The Escape Artist. I didn't want Terry to rip that off but I wanted something that was like that. I spent a lot of time with him, plucking out notes—making him keep rewriting. I was obsessed. He finally came up with two wonderful themes that we kept repeating throughout the film. I felt like he really gave the movie its soul.
And Tim [Matheson] did an amazing job. That was one of the best casting choices in my life. I was so blessed to have him. He's the kid of person I would like to be, in an ideal world. I was just really impressed with his manner, the way he handled things, how charismatic and funny—he just has all the qualities I wish I had. And because I identified with him so closely, that movie did become much more of a personal journey for me.
I was also very fortunate to get Brooke Adams, who I've admired since Days of Heaven. And the boy, Robert Gorman [who plays Matheson's son in the film], was amazing. He came in for the casting session and was the only one who played the scene as if all the props were in the room with him. Most child actors will just read the lines of the character, but he acted it out with imaginary props—as if he had a real belief that he was looking at those things or looking at someone else in the room who wasn't there.
So I was really lucky in these ways, but it was still very difficult to put all the pieces together and make that movie. I always say there are two kinds of movies. There are the movies that you make and there are movies that you survive. Thank God I do the second kind very, very seldom. But that was a survival movie. I just tied myself to the helm and said, "I'm going to get to shore or go down with the ship."
I assumed that you must have had much more creative control over that film because the ending seems so personal. In the final scene, Tim's character chooses the future over the past—he lets go of his brother and chooses his wife and son—and at the same time you were letting go of your father and embracing your new daughter. That final scene also seems to be about choosing reality over fantasy... and, as it turned out, this was your last fantasy-oriented film for a while...
It's about love—losing somebody that you really love. And now that I think about it, the older brother really was like a father-figure to the young Tim Matheson character. I wasn't conscious of that at all at the time, but maybe because of all the emotional stuff that was going on, I had some sort of personal connection to the end of the movie.
In most ghost stories, you've got to somehow resolve the spirit's conflicts so that they can move on. Once they move on, you know you're never going to see them again. I was choosing life over death.
Anytime I've had dreams of my father or my mother, I'm aware in the dream that they are dead and I'm dreaming. I don't want the dream to end because I've got an opportunity to be with them in that realm for a certain amount of time and it's wonderful. It's such a bizarre thing to sit here and talk about it or intellectualize it, because in a dream you're not supposed to be aware that you're dreaming. How does that work? I really do feel the same emotions that I would in life if I saw them again. If they suddenly walk through the door, I'm like, "Don't leave yet... I have so much that I want to ask you." It's interesting how the mind works.
I guess I think of my dreams as "movies." Some of them have a great ending and some of them have a horrible ending. Sometimes the film breaks and you don't get to the end...