Victor Miller is the screenwriter behind the original “Friday the 13th” a classic of the 80’s slasher genre. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Mr. Miller in his home here in Alameda, Ca and speak with him about how he got involved with “Friday” and what kind of effect it’s had on his life.
How did you get involved with Friday the 13th?
Friday the 13th was an absolute mistake of nature. An error in my fate. It was one of those things that you have to be very careful what you pray for. I had set out to be a famous writer, and I forgot to specify comedy, and unfortunately the fates took over. I had done a whole bunch of screenplays for Sean Cunningham, because he lived near by, and we made two, those being family films, Here Come the Tigers – under the name Arch McCoy – and Manny’s Orphans and that you’ll see on cable under my own name. And then around ‘79 Sean called me and said “Halloween is making a lot of money, let’s rip it off,” and I went and saw Halloween and I’m not a fan of horror really, but I figured out what the structure of it was. I think Carpenter and Hill did a wonderful job of putting together the basic tenets of a modern horror film.
The first and most important element for Friday was finding a place where teenagers can’t be helped by the outside world. Even thought the kids in Halloween were in a local town the adults thought it was a prank. The hardest part was selecting a place where adults couldn’t help, and finally, it’s so obvious in retrospect, but I came up with a summer camp and we were off and running.
You said you’re not a horror fan
Not particularly, I’ve seen Psycho and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and I was not your bravest 8 year old in those days.
I was 12 or 13 when I saw Night of the Living Dead and it scared the bejeezus out of me.
And I think that’s why my take on Friday the 13th worked because in spite of me, if I were cool and could handle horror, I wouldn’t have known what was scary. So being a wuss it put me into a better position to terrify people
I understand that, in my own writing, I start writing a short horror story and I think that it doesn’t seem that scary to me, but I pass it along to my friends and they get back to me that it’s quite scary. I wrote a short story about a guy who accidentally watches a snuff film and a couple of my friends said it was disturbing and I read over it and I didn’t think it was that frightening
Well, horror and p*rnography share something in common in that if they don’t elicit a physical reaction, you’ve failed. As a matter of fact when I was a starving artist and I was, right up until the opening of Friday, someone I knew, who shall remain nameless, asked me if I would write a pretend snuff film, and I said absolutely not, I may be starving but I’ve got some honor and morals. Before that, some people said you could make money writing p*rn, and I tried but I never sent them off, and I’ve written novels, and that’s how we survived in the 70’s and I don’t think the love scenes are very good, I get very self conscious, but horror doesn’t bother me. The horror stuff for Friday I just put in everything I was afraid of.
How close to the original script was the finished film?
Very close, except that it’s shorter there’s at least one scene I didn’t write, which was put in on the request of the guy who put up the money, which I’ve made public on more than one occasion, it unfortunately, went against the idea I explained earlier that the kids were out of the realm of help and by putting in a motorcycle cop there’s always a possibility that he can save them. But by him being a dopey cop, it just ends up being awful and the ending with Jason coming out the water was a last minute thing that Sean said we needed a chair jumper.
I wanted to ask you about that, because I’ve seen interviews with Tom Savini where he claims that Jason coming out of the water was his idea for that scene.
Let’s lay this to rest. I don’t know why everyone wants to take credit for the theft of the end of Carrie. Go and watch Carrie and it’s the same ending. My best memory, and I’m not senile, is that Sean called and said we need a chair jumper, and I said like Jason coming out of the water, and he said yes, and I said so you want to rip off the end of Carrie, and he said yea. So I typed it up and took it over to him, and this was before email, and I hand delivered the pages to him, and that’s how we worked. And after that I didn’t have a copy after that
Sean and I were best friends, we were in and out of each others houses and he had the Xerox machine at his house and that’s how we worked. But I guess everyone wants to take credit for the success of that scene even though it’s a shot for shot theft.
Was Mrs. Voorhees crazy or possessed by Jason’s spirit?
Mrs. Voorhees was crazy. But a nice crazy. She is the real rasion d’être for Friday the 13th, Jason was dead, that was the whole point, he was dead from the beginning, he wasn’t lurking under a lily pad he was surely dead. I used to write soap opera and one of the rules was if you’re going to bring a character back, you don’t show him flat line, and so she – Mrs. Voorhees – saw him in the coffin in my own mind that’s what set her off.
I thought that the lesson I took from Halloween was there has to be a significant prior evil and I think I did it better with Jason’s death than killing the baby sitter. Because there was absolute justification if you’re insane, for what Mrs. Voorhees did, because the camp counselors were f*cking and while they were f*cking, Jason drowned. He needed extra help because as she said, he wasn’t a very strong swimmer. And so she said I’m never going to let this happen to another child and if anyone tries to open up another camp, I will kill them all, I admit that’s a bit over the top, but I liked it because in a way only me and my shrink understand it was the mother I never had, it was the mother who said these people were mean to my kid and I’m going to punish them.
I remember in a documentary I watched, someone was talking about Friday and said that Mrs. Voorhees is the perfect mother because she will kill for her son
She’s the uber mom. She’s not the mother I had, which of course was the therapeutic part of writing Friday the 13th, as much as much as I and the rest of the world would like to denigrate it, it did help me unloosen some of the things locked in my head.
Who was Jason’s father?
Who was Jason’s father? I have no clue; I didn’t think that far into it, I wrote it all in 2 weeks. Though I did think that Mrs. Voorhees had met someone who had just hosed her, he was slick and she was naïve and she thought he was her match and so she put everything into raising this child, who if the picture that Savini imagined for him, was that grotesque as opposed to just being slightly retarded, then she was already on her way to madness.
Jason’s appearance was not in the script that was Savini’s idea, and that’s why it makes so much sense that she’s over the top.
The class ring on the killers hand, was that in the script?
Yes, most of what was in the film was dictated from having no money, and trying to follow the format of Halloween, using a major star very sparingly, so it was a cheat to have this figure constantly seen and not revealed until the end is it seen to be Betsy Palmer. I put a ring on the hand so it would just be the same hand.
It helps to throw off the viewer so that when Mrs. Voorhees is revealed you’re confused.
That misdirection was certainly intended from the beginning, but got a bit lost in the filming. But it’s a total cheat. Now if I were trying to do that in day time TV with union actors, I would get sued for trying to use a non-union hand to pretend to be a union hand. You can’t let producers run anything.
Have you seen the sequels?
No, I understand why they are why they are, but I don’t have to participate, as I’ve said on more than one occasion I’m not interested in someone who’s retarded in a hockey mask being a killing machine.
What’s it like knowing you had a hand creating a cultural icon?
It’s bittersweet, in a lot of ways, there’s incredible pride of authorship and there’s also being able to live a comfortable life after, because I remember the time before and we were poor for a long time. So I remember going around people asking what I did, and I would say I’m a writer, and so I know what it’s like being on both sides of that. I’ve been an unpublished writer and published and it’s more fun being published. It’s weird, I gained that and I lost a good friend, that was Sean. And that was the greatest regret I have, that whatever we shared up until Friday was lost.
How did that happen?
I don’t know, it wasn’t me, Sean went off in whatever direction he went and that was it. We ceased to be. It was a huge loss, not a year goes by that I don’t mourn that.
Have you talked to him the 29 years since?
Twice. And I’ve expressed to him exactly what I’ve expressed to you. That’s the bittersweet part, life can give you one thing and take away another.
I admit, I saw the remake
That’s quite alright
Honestly, it was less a remake and more a sequel
I could have told you that. When it came up, because I’m in the Screen Writers Guild, they sent me a note that said if you wish to contest this, even though they are billing it as a remake, they are telling us the guild that it’s a sequel, so they sent me a copy of the script, and I said well, I’d like to contest that, as the whole format of the movie is the same of the original, just 12 years later. It’s like saying your going to do a remake of Moby Dick, but instead of a whale it’s a porpoise and instead of Ahab it’s his daughter. But they said it qualifies as a sequel so I was paid for a sequel which is less than a remake.
How can I put this, its disingenuous to fans to call it a remake.
I went in expecting nothing great
It’s Michael Bay for god’s sake[Laughs.]
I enjoyed it but I felt it more of a sequel than a remake and if they had called it Friday Part 12…
If they had called it Part 12 would they have made as much money opening weekend?
Well, that’s true. Of course the fans who love Friday were pissed about this remake.
Bravo for the horror fans, there is some loyalty somewhere and thank you.
I think that we as fans would be less angry with a sequel than a remake.
Well that’s marketing. One of the films Sean and I did after Friday for MGM was called A Stranger is Watching and they marketed it as “From the people who made Friday the 13th” and it wasn’t, it was a thriller and so the people who came to see a horror film were not happy about it.
I remember seeing the trailers for “the remake” and they’ve dropped a lot of money and it looks slick, but it’s a guy in hockey mask running around underground. I read the screen play and I know what’s in it, and it’s as if they put up a white board and said “What haven’t we done yet?”
Have you considered doing another horror film?
After Friday, I wrote a script called Asylum and it was in turn around, still is somewhere with Colombia, but you have to remember, major studios don’t make horror films, they sell them. And I enjoyed writing it and Sean and I worked on a film for American International based on my novel called Hide the Children and I worked on the screenplay with Sean and then AI dropped it.
If New Line asked you would you be willing to do a sequel?
Sure. It would be tricky as hell but sure.
Would you go back and watch the others to see what other directors did?
No, I would ask you to help me with that. It’s like when I worked for One Life to Live, there were 20 years of history before me, but they had a list of who Erica Caine had f*cked.
If they wanted you to do a sequel to a remake
There would have to be a lot of preconditions with that
What would you do, just off the top of your head?
Its as simple as Me and Betsy Palmer, and it would be Mrs. Voorhees coming back from the dead. When I was at Columbia pitching Asylum I was outside the executives door, and he said “This kids taking mom, and apple pie and the Pepsi generation and turning it on its head” and it really is, it’s taking the American dream of the Betty Crocker mother who makes cookies, and now she’s running around with an ax and killing people. My first horror convention, I don’t know why, maybe I was black listed, but I had a ball, and it was the first time I’d seen Betsy Palmer since we interviewed her for the part in ‘79 and she started talking about how she was a startlet in the 50’s and how the fans of Friday would go out of their way to believe in her coming back, no matter how crazy it might be though New Line probably wouldn’t pay for it. They – New Line – are just horrible people.
I can see it now, Dai’s going to call me and scream at me for that quote.
I didn’t say that, just take it out. [Laughs.]
Is it ever odd around Halloween seeing Friday costumes and decorations?
It’s not odd, it’s wonderful. It was something I literally tossed off, and I was just working fast and furious and we had to shoot it before the fall, but the fact that I am Jason’s father, I’m the one who dumped Betsy Palmer, its nice and terrific for all the bitter sweetness, as I said I’ve been known and unknown and its more fun being known and hated. There was a whole thing about how Sean and I should be arrested for this film. And what’s so funny about it, I’ve been married 46 years and I’ve got two daughters-in-law and I’m not misogynistic and when the film came out, my sons would be asked “how can you live with him?” Horror and Sex, I don’t know why, but they go together. Remember it was Mary Shelly who wrote Frankenstein.
Did you ever think that nearly 30 years later Friday would endure the way it did?
No, never. Sean and I had done two family films that were released in drive ins back when they were in number, and they barely made any money, and this was supposed to be another drive in and then Paramount bought it and Sean told me, and it wasn’t ever something I expected to last as long as it did. Suddenly I’m a bankable real person.
Horror films are not about what you think; they are a way of exorcising your demons. Whenever a serial killer is caught and they find Friday, I laugh because someone always points and says “Hahah! You did it again Miller!” Friday the 13th did a lot for me, it really helped me to get a lot of crap out of my system, and getting to see Bing Crosby’s son stuck to a door was pretty cool.
Did you write up all the deaths?
Yes, I was with Sean, and Savini came in with a binder and all these questions about the deaths, and I just wrote this stuff up, and now suddenly someone’s talking about how to make this whole thing work!
What was it like working with Savini?
That was the only time I sat down with him, other than the convention, though I was on set for Kevin Bacon’s death, so I got to watch that. But at that point Tom was just emerging after being Romero’s assistant, and I’ve watched with disbelief and repulsion at the CGI stuff compared to what Savini can do in real time, and sure its not as classy looking but compared to Gladiator which I thought was boring, it just seemed painted and fake.
You said you love Betsy.
Yes, even though she said some horrible things about my script. Betsy was quoted a few years ago as saying “I read the script and thought it was a piece of sh*t” but when we interviewed her, she was effusive of how great the script was. The lesson is never trust an actor or actress who hasn’t gotten the role yet.
What’s the difference between writing for soap operas and films?
Soap operas are more fun, it’s a group activity, my training is improvisational theater and I love group creation. We would sit around with a head writer and five or six other writers just sparking off each other, whereas writing alone is much more boring. My best talent is that I may not be the most original person, but I’m good at seeing what the structure that someone else created and making it new and fresh in my own way.
Thank you for your time Mr. Miller, it was an honor and if you ever have the time, we’d love to have you on our podcast.
Sure, I’d love to do it.
Interview: Victor Miller (Friday the 13th)