MARK CERULLI EXPLAINS IT ALL! The Veteran Television Writer and Documentary Producer on His Tinseltown Journey!

Mark Cerulli and Sandra Carvalho at the Bahamas International Film Festival where his script Sunburn won in the writing competition. Photo © Eric Rose Photography.

Mark Cerulli has enjoyed a varied and successful career in the entertainment industry. As a television writer, he wrote for some of Nickelodeon’s earliest original programming: Hey Dude (1989-91) and Clarissa Explains It All (1991-94). Mr. Cerulli has also produced documentaries about the James Bond franchise and the Halloween series. But this just scratches the surface of his accomplishments.  In 2018, Mark Cerulli answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his showbiz career.

Brett Homenick: Growing up, what were your favorite movies and TV shows?

Mark Cerulli: Growing up, I never missed an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea! I also loved Batman, Hawaii Five-O, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. All were just great — well written and very imaginative. I also remember watching Spielberg’s first TV movie, Duel, about a driver being chased through the desert by a huge tractor trailer.

When I was a kid, the Universal classic monster movies were playing on TV regularly, so I got to know the Draculas, Frankensteins, etc. Loved them and still do. Bride of Frankenstein is still one of my favorite movies. I saw Italian sword and sandal epics, foreign films, “classics,” obscure horror movies — they all got airtime back then.

In terms of movies, the James Bond films were favorites of mine. And my dad, who I lost in 2012, was a fan, so he would take me. As far as I was concerned, nobody was cooler or tougher than Sean Connery! I also loved the Hammer horror films. I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and there was a movie theater called The New Yorker that would play older films, so I got to see many of those Hammer films on the “big screen.” I’ve been fortunate to have a career where I was able to meet and interview many of the people whose work I loved when I was a kid.

BH: How did you get involved in the entertainment business?

MC: I had always wanted to be in “the business.” My mom wanted me to be a lawyer (!), but I wasn’t interested. My first job in the field was as a summer intern for a movie advertising agency in New York City. I was a messenger and junior copywriter. I got to deliver packages to United Artists and was thrilled that this was the company that made the Bond films! Some of the copywriters would take me to movie screenings, and it was a really fun intro to film. I had always had an interest in writing — my dad had been a reporter for The Boston Globe and was an editor of DownBeat magazine (jazz), and one day the agency was throwing out tons of screenplays, so I took as many as I could carry, and that was my introduction to scriptwriting. I would read them on the commuter train going home.

BH: What led to your involvement with Nickelodeon?

MC: My first job was as a copywriter for MTV, and the creative director there was a pop culture renaissance man named Alan Goodman. He took a chance on me — my “portfolio” at the time consisted of movie and rock concert reviews I had written for my college newspaper, but he gave me a freelance job, and I became “permalance” there for a year or so.

We kept in touch, and years later when I was a senior copywriter at HBO, he was working on shows for Nickelodeon — I think as a producer. He asked if I wanted to write scripts for a new show called Hey Dude, and I jumped at the chance and was assigned an episode. I wrote it, and that led to others.

As I remember, all the writers — there was a small group of us — would pitch ideas, short concepts. The executive in charge of the show, Brown Johnson, and Alan would pick ones they liked, and we’d then expand them into outlines, then go to script on them. Then a writer would work with the show’s story editor — this amazing writer named Graham Yost, who went on to much bigger things in Hollywood!

BH: What approach did you take to the material?

MC: My approach to Hey Dude was to have some fun with it. I remember that I worked in some dialogue from Rocky into one episode: “I’m gonna bust you up.” “Go for it.”  I became known as “Mr. Broad Humor” because I would always work jokes and one-liners into the story.

BH: How much freedom were you given to write the episodes?

MC: There was a lot of freedom. Alan and Brown were there and the story editor, Graham Yost. They provided guidelines and kept each episode in the world of the series, but once you got the formula down, you could write what you wanted. One of my fondest memories was that Nickelodeon sent all of us writers to the set in Tucson, Arizona. They filmed at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, and it was so great to mingle with the actors, be on the set, and watch the process. I remember Christine Taylor was so nice to talk to. Years and years later, I saw her at the Tribeca Film Festival and mentioned Hey Dude, and she just lit up.

A mini Hey Dude reunion: Mark Cerulli with Christine Taylor at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

BH: Which episode was your favorite?

MC: There were two episodes with the ranchers next door called the Vlecks. They were a lot of fun to write because I could come up with gags for them. I remember doing a riff on The Waltons — each episode would end with the characters saying goodnight to each other. In my episode, there was a series of “Good nights” ended by the father character saying, “Shut up, son.”  People seemed to like those episodes, and I was asked to create a pitch for a spinoff series about the Vlecks. I submitted it, but unfortunately nothing happened with it.

BH: Was there anything difficult about working on Hey Dude?

The only “difficult” thing about writing Hey Dude was that I was working for a competing network at the time! I was a senior copywriter at HBO, which was marketing, but I had wanted to get into scriptwriting, and this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I thought about doing it under an assumed name, but then felt, “You want to be a writer — this is your work. Use your name.” Luckily for me, there were no repercussions! I should point out that HBO also was a great company to work for.

It’s amazing how many people still remember Hey Dude. I remember at a wedding, a friend told some young people I had written for the show, and they told me how much they loved it, which was very nice to hear.

On the Arizona set with the aliens from the “Take Me To Your Leader” episode of Hey Dude in 1990. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

BH: Could you tell us more about being on set for the “Take Me to Your Leader” episode of Hey Dude?

MC: Being on the Hey Dude set when they were shooting “Take Me to Your Leader” was fun. As writers in New York, we were a bit removed from the “action,” and it was very nice of Nickelodeon to send us all out to Arizona. I remember walking around the Bar None set while they were shooting in another part of the ranch and just looking at things. Then there was a night shoot, and I remember the director getting annoyed that cast members were snapping photos of each other, so he said, “When we’re all here at midnight, you can take photos of that!” I also remember the crew as being quite friendly and happy to answer any questions we had.

I forgot to mention when Nickelodeon cancelled the show, they sent all us writers a genuine Stetson hat, which I don’t think I’ve ever worn, but it’s nice to have!

BH: You wrote one episode of Clarissa Explains It All. Which episode was it?

MC: Alan Goodman was the producer on Clarissa Explains It All, and he asked me to write an episode. I remember there was a lot of back and forth on it, and everything had to go by the show’s creator, Mitchell Kriegman, so it was tougher than Hey Dude! The episode I wrote was called “Football Fever,” and the ironic thing is I know nothing about football! I watch the Super Bowl every year, but that’s it. I don’t really follow sports, so I had to ask some of my sports junkie friends for research!

BH: Why was it just one episode? Why not more?

MC: Clarissa was a bigger deal than Hey Dude, and I think they tried me out but didn’t want to give me more episodes. Like I said, there was a lot of back and forth, and maybe that was the reason. I also didn’t pursue more episodes — probably should have, as they were nice credits and great experience.

BH: Overall, how would you summarize your work with Nickelodeon?

Nickelodeon was an absolute blast. I loved the vibe, and the people were very smart and very good to work with. Alan had a very successful career in TV and advertising, Brown Johnson is still big in children’s TV, and Graham Yost wrote great films like Speed, Mission to Mars, and Broken Arrow, then created a number of hit TV shows like Justified. One of my fondest Nickelodeon memories was they invited me to a “SuburbaParty,” It was held in a giant hall, set up to resemble a suburban neighborhood with AstroTurf lawns, people playing frisbee, raking fake leaves, and at the end of the hall was KC and the Sunshine Band playing their hits! You can’t get any cooler than that!

BH: Let’s switch gears and talk about the James Bond series. You’ve had a lot of involvement with the franchise, including short documentaries. Please tell us about your work here.

MC: The Bond films had always been a big influence on me. Once I realized I couldn’t “be” Sean Connery, I wanted to work behind the scenes in some way, so they really inspired me. I’ve had a longtime friendship with Cubby Broccoli’s former head of publicity on 14 Bond films, a wonderful man named Jerry Juroe. I first met him when I spent a semester in London and wrote to Eon, and he invited me to have lunch at Pinewood Studios, which was a pretty heady experience for a Bond fan!

I was very happy to have been involved with helping Jerry get his memoirs published. The book is called Bond, the Beatles and My Year with Marilyn, and it’s out now from McFarland Publishing. (Jerry had also been Marilyn Monroe’s publicist when she was making The Prince and the Showgirl in London and worked with The Beatles when they made their movies for United Artists.) Talk about having a career in the arts!

In 1995, the DVD market was just getting going, and there was a huge appetite for bonus material. Today, the studios only work with full-service production companies, but back then they were open to pitches from independent contractors. One of my partners on the Bond docs, Lee Pfeiffer, got us in the door at MGM Home Video, and they gave us the opportunity to tell the back story of Goldfinger and Thunderball — two of my favorite films. Eon was very gracious and let us use their offices at Pinewood. So imagine that — we were in Cubby Broccoli’s office! And we did all the interviews out of there, and it was just a fantastic experience. You’re sitting down with people who made the classic Bonds, and you could ask them whatever you’d like! I remember bumping into Eunice Gayson in the hallway at Pinewood and just chatting with her in Cubby’s office. (Eunice was in Dr. No and From Russia with Love.) At that time, they were still serving lunch in Pinewood’s beautiful, wood-paneled dining room. We were there with director Guy Hamilton and others, and I looked over, and there was Dave Prowse — Darth Vader himself!

Another favorite memory was talking with Bert Luxford. He was a special effects technician at Pinewood, and he told me about sitting underneath the laser table that Connery was tied to as they were shooting the famous “laser beam” sequence in Goldfinger. It was his job to move an acetylene torch under the table to create the illusion of the laser beam cutting through the metal. There was a mark on the table where he had to stop because that’s where Connery’s body was! I was like a sponge, just soaking up stories like that.

BH: Were there any challenges in terms of making these documentaries?

MC: There were just logistical things like getting our interviewees in and out of the studio and finding people. For the Goldfinger documentary, I tried to find Shirley Bassey’s manager to get an interview with her. This was before the Internet/IMDb, so it was just making calls to people who invariably weren’t the right person. That was frustrating. I remember desperately trying to get Connery to give us an interview. I had a friend at CAA who spoke to Connery’s agent for us, and word came back he just didn’t want to do it. We wound up licensing an interview he did with a BBC reporter on the set of Rising Sun where he went movie-by-movie with what sounded like crickets in the background.

I only did two Bond documentaries. I would have loved to do more, but that didn’t happen for reasons I’d rather not get into. The business is full of ups and downs, and you just have to shrug it off and move on. I suppose my favorite was Goldfinger because that was the one I did many of the interviews for and got to ride in a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 along the same route the car took in Goldfinger at Pinewood Studios. If you watch the chase where Bond uses the ejection seat, that was all filmed in Pinewood. When we were there, the same shipping pallets you see in the movie were still piled up against the walls. They hadn’t moved in 30 years!

BH: Please talk about interviewing another Bond, Pierce Brosnan.

MC: As I mentioned, my partners and I spent a week at Pinewood Studios shooting interviews for the first ever Bond DVD documentaries — Goldfinger and Thunderball. We were invited to Leavesden (Studios), which was where GoldenEye was being filmed. We set up outside the main building and waited. At one point, this wonderful publicist named Geoff Freeman came out and said, “His Bondship will be with you shortly,” and sure enough out comes Pierce, dressed in that tux. He truly looked like 007! I remember he answered our questions, then let us each take a photo with him. He was a total class act. One answer I still remember was about how big an impression Goldfinger made on him as a kid in Ireland — and now he had that coveted role! Pierce is also very active in cancer charity work (he lost his first wife and daughter to ovarian cancer), and since we had a U.S. video camera, he taped a short address for a charity event, which we sent to them.

With Pierce Brosnan during the making of the Goldfinger documentary at Leavesden Studios in 1995. © Mark Cerulli.

A few months later, I covered the GoldenEye premiere at Radio City Music Hall for HBO. It was a madhouse — camera crews competing against each other, a lot of screaming and yelling. Brosnan was being whisked inside, so I screamed, “Mr. Brosnan!” at the top of my lungs. Somehow he heard me, saw that I had an HBO mic cube and came over to answer a couple of questions. I was ecstatic because as a producer, you really needed to have a comment from the (then) new James Bond. Funnily enough, last year I was at the American Airlines lounge at LAX when I heard his voice. He was at the bar, getting his wallet out. I ran over and handed him a couple of free drink vouchers and made a joke, “Your money is no good here.” Turned out he was on our flight, and as he walked by me he said, “Thanks for the drinks.” Really made me smile! When we landed, the pilot came out of the cockpit just to shake his hand. Everybody’s a Bond fan!

BH: Who’s your favorite Bond?

MC: That’s an easy question — Sir Sean Connery! Not to take anything away from the other actors — they all brought something unique to the role, and Daniel Craig has, in my opinion, reinvigorated the franchise and was closest to the literary version, but Connery was Bond for me. Sir Roger was a bit lighthearted, and it worked, but Connery played it for real. A reviewer once called him “the school bully” as Bond, and he was. He could fight and charm and use the gadgets, and nobody looked better in a tuxedo! And the fact that he did it all so effortlessly shows what a fantastic actor he really was.

I had interviewed close to 100 stars and filmmakers for HBO and Cinemax, and the only interview I ever was nervous about was when I interviewed Connery for Playing by Heart (1998). I had a wonderful friend at The New York Times (who sadly has passed away), but she knew what a fan I was, so she got my wife and I into the green room at Lincoln Center when Connery was getting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Film Society. I remember I had a short window when he was standing by himself, so I went over and gushed about how much I loved his work, and he just smiled was very gracious. I asked if my wife could take a photo, but she was blocked by this row of photographers. Connery picked up on this, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and they parted like the Red Sea! She snapped a photo, but the flash didn’t work, and Connery said, “Your flaaash didn’t go off,” in that magnificent voice. To this day when we take a photo, we say, “Your flaaash didn’t go off.”

Meeting Sean Connery backstage at Lincoln Center in 1997. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

BH: What’s your favorite 007 film?

MC: That would be You Only Live Twice. There’s just something magical about that film, and Ken Adam’s volcano set was truly spectacular. What an achievement in imagination and engineering! It has one of John Barry’s most haunting scores. Who can forget the soaring music accompanying the helicopter shot of Connery running across the Kobe dock rooftops, laying people out in his path? I’ve been to Tokyo several times and have a wonderful friend there named Makoto who has shown me some of the filming locations. There’s an alley that Connery walks down when Bond arrives in the Ginza. It’s still there, and I was taking tons of photos of it and people were walking by, wondering why this guy was photographing an alley. The first time we went there, we discovered a wonderful little yakitori restaurant at the end of it. My wife and I were the only Western people in there, but they were so friendly to us. We love Tokyo and want to go back. I’d also love to see Akime someday.

Another favorite is Diamonds Are Forever. It has several of the best fight sequences of any Bond film (the elevator fight, and Bambi and Thumper), and of course Las Vegas, which we love. Perhaps what’s most special is that it was the first Bond film I saw when it came out. My dad took me to it, and he passed away, so that kind of memory becomes even more special.

Holding one of the Michael Myers masks during production of the Halloween: Unmasked documentary in 2000. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

BH: You’ve also done many short documentaries on the Halloween series. Please talk about your involvement.

MC: The Halloween documentaries literally dropped into my lap. I was covering a horror convention for Cinemax, back when they would do that kind of thing. What was great about Cinemax in the 1990s, early 2000s, was that it was kind of under the radar. The suits were focused on building HBO into a brand powerhouse, so they pretty much ignored Cinemax, and we could really do what we wanted. Scheduling would group movies by director or actor, etc. and if we had an idea, we could run with it. I remember they had a bunch of Sidney Lumet movies (including The Anderson Tapes, one of my favorites), so I scheduled an interview with Lumet to talk about them. When you call from HBO, it makes things a lot easier!

So I was at this convention with a camera crew, and a video company named Anchor Bay was there. Their executive, a great guy named Jay Douglas, asked if I knew of Halloween. Of course, I loved it! He asked if I could do a short documentary for their upcoming release, and that’s how I got the job. I wrote, produced and directed it. I hired Dee Snider from Twisted Sister to do the VO, and he was very effective. Funnily enough, I had a friend who was good friends with Debra Hill, so getting an interview with her was quite easy. But I was having a very hard time getting through to Jamie Lee Curtis, and I remember Debra just picked up her phone and called her, told her it was a fun experience, and — voila! — I got the interview on the set of H20!  I was always very grateful to Debra Hill for that. Halloween: Unmasked was, I think, the only project out of all the ones I’ve done where there were no changes. I turned it in, they loved it, and that was it. That’s the mark of a confident executive, and Jay definitely was.

Posing with Halloween 4 and 5 star Danielle Harris during production of the Inside Halloween 5 documentary. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

I also did the documentary on Halloween 4 and 5. I should point out a year after I did the first Halloween documentary, Anchor Bay asked if I could add to it with more interviews, so I worked with Bill Lustig (who made a number of cult horror films) on expanding it. We went and shot some of the locations, including the original (Michael) Myers House in Pasadena. The series’ executive producer, Moustapha Akkad, was so wonderful — very old-school, charming, and generous. I worked with his son Malek, who is now a very successful producer. I’m very proud of those documentaries.

With Halloween: Unmasked associate producer Chris Svoboda and the original Michael Myers actor, Nick Castle, during the documentary shoot. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

BH: What was it like to interview director George A. Romero for Cinemax at the Night of the Living Dead cemetery in 1999?

MC: That was another “gift” of working at Cinemax during that time period (1990s to early 2000s) when HBO Corporate was focused on the HBO brand, giving us producers more leeway in coming up with content. As I recall, Cinemax was airing a set of George’s movies — Martin, Creepshow, NOTLD, Dawn of the Dead, and (I think) Knightriders. Getting an interview with him was easy — he was living in Pennsylvania at the time, so I flew into Pittsburgh and hired a local crew.

Interviewing director George Romero for Cinemax in the Night of the Living Dead graveyard in 1999. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

What was great about working at HBO was they took care of all that. They had a database of camera crews all over the country, and we could tap into it. We had a location scout identify the graveyard from NOTLD, and I also wanted to shoot the farmhouse and the mall from Dawn of the Dead. I think we started off at the Monroeville Mall. We walked around with George as he reminisced about the film being made there — something about they shot all night, but had to be out by 7:00 a.m. when mall walkers used it for exercise.

As we walked around, he ducked into a Halloween store and came out holding a skeleton, which I used in our featurette! I remember being in the production van with George, and as we rolled into the graveyard, he leaned over and said, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” which I just loved. I had my questions and went through them with George, and he was great. We then took a ride over to the farmhouse and walked around with the crew filming him. When our location scout was looking for the graveyard, she stopped at a local gas station, and the owner said his parents had been zombies in NOTLD, so we arranged to interview them at their house with George — a mini NOTLD reunion! They still had their original invite to the Pittsburgh premiere! They loved seeing George again, and it was just a wonderful moment with them. Cinemax has become a much bigger deal now, with original series, etc. so these kinds of projects don’t happen anymore.

Interviewing director George Romero in 1999. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

BH: As a longtime fan of American International Pictures, I have to ask you about interviewing Samuel Z. Arkoff. What are your memories of him?

MC: Around Cinemax, I was known as “the horror guy,” so when they commissioned a series of horror movies called Creature Features, based on old AIP movies, I was sent to L.A. to do the interviews and produce the featurette. I remember we went to Stan Winston Studios, which was an incredible place. Everywhere you looked were bits of movie magic — giant dinosaur feet, props, etc. There was a beautiful fresco of Michelangelo’s The Creation (of Adam) on the wall! Arkoff was in a wheelchair, but still very sharp, very feisty, dressed in a suit and tie.

We shot the interview right in the middle of their studio. I remember I asked what he thought of filmmaking today, and he got all fired up. He hated the excesses of Hollywood — huge salaries, all the perks, etc. He said when he made films, they broke for lunch and went to a burger stand, then went back to work. The director we had hired was smiling. Mr. Arkoff passed away soon after that; we may have been his last video interview. I remember his son Lou Arkoff was also very smart and articulate.

Posing with two dinosaur feet from Jurassic Park at Stan Winston Studios in 2001 to interview movie legend Samuel Z. Arkoff for Cinemax’s Creature Features series. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

BH: Stan Winston’s legacy in the entertainment world is still unmatched. You had the privilege of interviewing him. What can you share with us about this cinematic legend?

MC: Stan Winston was a true artist and visionary. He had such a passion for the work he was doing. I remember chatting with him in his office, and he had these amazing renderings of T-rex dinosaurs framed behind him. He took me into the screening room, and there was an armature of the Terminator (endo)skeleton! It really was like another world, and I felt very privileged to be spending the day there.

BH: What projects are you working on now?

MC: I’m out of Promo-land, but I love doing long-form projects, so several years ago I did Technicolor’s 100th anniversary promotional video, which was a unique experience, in that I got to work with the legendary Olivia de Havilland from Gone with the Wind, who was 99 at the time! She was stunning in every sense of the word — a real old-school movie star, very regal in her own way. That was a true privilege, and I still keep in touch with her!

Mark Cerulli and Technicolor chief marketing officer Sandra Carvalho with screen legend Olivia de Havilland during production of the Technicolor 100 video in Paris in 2015. Photo © Mark Cerulli.

These days, I’m focused on writing. I’ve written a number of spec scripts, one came achingly close to getting made by HBO back when they were doing their own in-house action movies, but the producer was working on another project for a famous director at the same time, so he basically back-burnered mine, which still ticks me off! He just didn’t want to make an effort. That was a true heartbreaker. Now I’m working with a great producer named Judy Fox who is trying to set up two of my scripts — a horror one and an action-thriller. She also represents actors, so we have a number of actors in place, as well as a hot directing team. Anything can happen, of course, but at least it’s progress!

I’m also working on a documentary about a graphic designer of a number of iconic movie logos. It’s over an hour long, the longest project I’ve ever done, but his story is a real journey.

For more information about Mark Cerulli, please visit his official website.

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