David O’Malley is a screenwriter with one of the most varied careers imaginable. After getting his start with independent science fiction and horror cult classics, such as Alien Zone (a.k.a. The House of the Dead, 1978), Hangar 18 (1980), The Boogens (1981), Mr. O’Malley went on to co-write Michael Spence‘s Edge of Honor (1991), starring Corey Feldman, before penning the Carl Reiner comedy Fatal Instinct (1993). In this January 2022 interview with Brett Homenick, Mr. O’Malley shares his memories of his early sci-fi and horror output, as well as working with director Carl Reiner at MGM.
Brett Homenick: Let’s start at the very beginning. When were you born, and where did you grow up?
David O’Malley: I was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in 1944. My father was a pilot in the South Pacific during the final year of World War II, so my mother was living with her parents — my grandparents — in Rhode Island. So I spent my first year there, since I had no say in the matter, and the only words I knew at that point were unintelligible, anyway. After that, my mother moved us to San Luis Obispo in California where we were reunited with my father when the war ended.
At the age of four, we moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, the home of Kellogg’s cereals. So, naturally, I became a major fan of breakfast cereal. If I could put it in a bowl and pour milk on it, I would eat it.
I had a very idyllic childhood, running free, and exploring the world, as all of us “free range” kids were allowed to do back then. I rode my bike everywhere and let my imagination run wild. I think childhood is absolutely the best time of life, when anything you imagine can become your reality.
BH: In your early years, what were your interests?
DO: In my early years, I was fascinated by everything around me. Cowboys, Indians, trains, boats, dogs, lakes, sleds, frogs, wild beasts, scary movies, fireflies, ice skating, hockey, radio, music, soldiers, mud, fishing …
Realistically, I don’t think there was anything that I wasn’t interested in. We had this great set of World Book Encyclopedias, and I spent many hours devouring every volume, soaking in everything on every page. When I opened up one of those books, it was like opening the door to a world that I didn’t even know existed.
My father was not only a naval officer, military pilot, and former ship’s captain, he was also a railroad engineer. As a pilot, he was even offered a position as the personal pilot for Howard Hughes, which he didn’t accept, because it would have required him to be away from his family most of the time. My mother was a dancer who had performed many years in New York City and with musical shows on tour across the country. So my influences were obviously very diverse, and none of them ever seemed boring or mundane.
BH: How did you become interested in films and entertainment?
DO: I became obsessed with movies at the age of four when my mom took me to see my first motion picture, which was a Roy Rogers Western. The screen was gigantic to me. Much larger than real life, which I already thought was a pretty big thing to grasp. I saw movies as a window on the entire world and beyond — the solar system, the universe, and as far as anyone’s imagination can take them. Growing up, I became immersed in everything — cowboys, baseball, wild animals, science fiction, Invaders from Mars (1953), Superman, the Wild West, boats, pirates, Ray Bradbury, and The Twilight Zone.
When I visited my cousins in New England each summer, we would cut a square window in the side of a big cardboard box and spend many hours putting on “TV shows” on that imaginary screen. Then I got my own 8mm camera and started making my own movies — a war epic, a couple of silly Westerns, and then a sci-fi tale called “The Creature from Zora X,” featuring Robby the Robot as the creature, which we animated by using rudimentary stop-motion photography — arduously filming one frame at a time. I knew then that making motion pictures would be my lifelong career and obsession.
BH: What led to your becoming a professional in the industry?
DO: After high school, I enrolled at Michigan State University, taking a circuitous path to moviemaking. I started by majoring in journalism, and then became an English major, followed by a switch to mass communication, and then finally narrowed my focus to film and television. It was a new area of study at MSU, and the department had only one camera, so we had to start building the program from scratch.
I was also a member of the Naval Reserve, so, after my junior year, I was called up for the surge of troops being sent to Vietnam. This is when fate and lady luck took over the reins. While everyone else in my group awaiting orders was sent to Vietnam, I was singled out to be sent to Iceland to fill a vacancy at Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. I spent two years on active duty — a year in Keflavik, Iceland, as a disc jockey and as on-camera TV news anchor, and then the second year I was transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, where I joined the admiral’s staff of the Second Fleet as a journalist.
When I returned to civilian life, I completed my senior year at MSU while working at a radio station as a DJ, and then news director, then as a news reporter at WJIM-TV. After college graduation, my wife Karen and I moved to Santa Barbara, California, where through a series of wacky circumstances and unexpected coincidences I ended up being hired — along with Thomas Chapman, my close friend from college — to be a producer on a musical comedy TV special that went on to win an Emmy Award for Best Entertainment Special. A week later, I was hired as the news director at KTMS Radio in Santa Barbara, where I covered the student riots against the Vietnam War and the burning of the Bank of America. My life had become incredibly exciting, and I hadn’t even entered the film production arena yet.
BH: How did you get hired to write the movie that became Alien Zone (1978)?
DO: Now that is a crazy story. My college pal and writing partner, Tom Chapman, had taken a job in public relations for General Telephone in Florida, primarily because it afforded access to a dozen IBM Selectric typewriters and spare time to write screenplays. I joined him in Florida and stopped by one day for lunch, and the next day was also offered a job at General Telephone as community relations director.
On weekends, we would slip into the office and work around the clock typing a horror comedy script called “Crud Creature,” which we had hoped to interest John Landis of Animal House (1978) fame into directing. I quickly realized that working as a suit-and-tie office drone was not my cup of tea and quit before they could fire me. Tom and I spent a few weeks vainly attempting to become a stand-up comedy team at local comedy clubs, failing quite miserably at it.
Then my wife Karen, who was working at the University of South Florida, was presented with an opportunity that we couldn’t refuse. The professor she worked for was going on sabbatical overseas and asked if we wanted to use his motorhome for the summer. We jumped at the chance and set out to drive around the perimeter of the United States. I decided I would use this extended opportunity to write a spec screenplay while we were traveling. I had five different story ideas, all in the style of Twilight Zone episodes.
None were elaborate enough to be an entire feature, but I imagined they could easily be combined into an anthology of four stories tied together, with the fifth story being the wraparound. Somewhere between Montana and Idaho, I came up with the title Five Faces of Terror. So I spent a couple months scribbling the screenplay onto yellow pads, working out the details and dialog in my head while behind the wheel of the motorhome or fishing in the rivers of the Northwest or riding bikes in Washington and Oregon. When we arrived back in Florida, I typed a draft of the script.
Then, having no idea what to do with it next, I stuck it in a drawer of my desk. Three years later, after my wife and I had moved to Evergreen, Colorado, I got a phone call from a friend of mine named Sharron Miller. She was a film editor from Oklahoma whom I had worked with on a film I wrote called “Beyond the Wind River,” retitled The Adventures of Frontier Fremont (1976) when it was released. She had managed to raise funding for a movie about the assassination of President John Kennedy that she would direct. But the JFK script turned out to be a mess.
However, the funding was still available to her. She asked me if I might, by chance, have any scripts in my drawer that she could direct. I told her, “Sorry, no, I don’t.” Then I suddenly remembered. “Wait!” I pulled the desk drawer open, and there it was — Five Faces of Terror, right where I had left it years before. I sent it to her. She loved it. And, before I knew it, the film was in production in Oklahoma with Sharron Miller directing.
BH: Could you describe your talks with John Landis? What do you recall about him?
DO: When we initially conceived of writing “Crud Creature,” we were inspired by the surprising success and brazen hutzpah of a low-budget film called Putney Swope. It was a 1969 low-budget — nearly “no-budget” — satire written and directed by Robert Downey, Sr., the radical filmmaking father of Robert Downey, Jr., that lampooned the Manhattan advertising world, the portrayal of race in Hollywood films, the white power structure, and the very nature of corporate corruption.
What fascinated us even more about the film was its reputation for having been filmed on a shoestring budget over one weekend in a corporate office in a Manhattan high rise. The radical filmmakers toiled for more than fifty hours straight, from Friday night to Monday morning, to shoot the entire movie. Since we worked in a similar location — the corporate offices of the GTE public relations department on the 13th floor of a high rise — we aspired to pull off the same type of gambit. But first we needed to write the script. So, as a trial run of our crazy master plan, we decided to stick around the office on a Friday night and then, after everyone had left for the weekend, take over the conference room to bang out the screenplay on their impressive collection of IBM Selectric typewriters. Tom Chapman, my wife Karen, and I set up our covert operation, with blackboards to track characters and ideas, and dozens of 3-by-5 cards taped all over the walls to organize scenes.
We worked straight through, writing and re-writing, until Sunday morning, when one of the public relations executives unexpectedly walked in on us. He had come in to pick up the golf clubs he had left in his office. When he saw our chaotic operation, he just stared in puzzled silence, eyes scanning the disorderly scene of empty coffee cups, crumpled papers, scribbles, and notecards all over the walls and blackboards — and then silently, with an apologetic shrug of confusion, backed out of the room.
We finished the screenplay that exhausting weekend, and on Monday we related the tale of our nutty adventure to Joe Sweeney, a close friend who was also one of our co-workers in the public relations office. He was delighted by our goofy escapade and wanted to join in. He worked with us on a revision and polish of the script, adding even more satiric silliness. The next step was to create a foolproof strategy to somehow film the movie over a long weekend in the GTE headquarters. That resulted in some serious roadblocks and numerous distractions along the way. Meanwhile, I quit the corporate job and signed on with a documentary production company to write a script for Rod Serling to narrate, which was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse since Serling was an idol of mine since the advent [of The] Twilight Zone.
So … you’re probably wondering, when the heck does John Landis come into this tale? No problem. He’s next.
In 1973, a young, would-be filmmaker named John Landis released his first feature film, a low-budget comedy/satire/parody romp titled Schlock, about the Schlockthropus, a prehistoric ape-man who terrorizes Southern California. We loved it, roaring with laughter at the ridiculous antics. And we were inspired that it had the same cinematic style of comedy as we envisioned for “Crud Creature.”
When both Tom and I, along with our new writing partner, April Kelly, were summoned to California to write for humorist and singer Jim Stafford — Spiders and Snakes, Wildwood Weed, My Girl Bill, Swamp Witch –on his ABC-TV series, we were given free rein to come up with all kinds of wacky comedy for the show. Still enthralled by the goofy Landis film Schlock, we thought having the Schlockthropus as a running guest on the show might be a funny bit. We gave John Landis a call and set up a lunch meeting.
When [we] described our idea, he thought it was hilarious and was all for it. But the executives at ABC had no idea who or what Schlock was, even though they deal with “schlock” every day — pun intended. So we set up a screening at the MGM lot so the “suits” could see John’s movie. They laughed during the film, but just couldn’t visualize how it could be used on a comedy/variety show. Having a serious lack of vision, they passed on the idea. But we remained close to Landis, and, when we told him about our “Crud Creature” script, he asked to read it. Since it was right down his comedy alley, he loved it. But getting the funding for a film is always the fly in the ointment.
John was still bouncing around, trying to get some traction for his career. He told us a funny story about how he was working at a large office building on Sunset Boulevard. His job was to replace the company names on the doors of the offices when clients moved in or out. That was it. Just that. So it left him plenty of time to write. His office was literally a broom closet in the building. One day, he set up a lunch meeting with Julie Christie, hoping to talk her into doing his script for An American Werewolf in London (1981). He knew that Christie had recently finished shooting Don’t Look Now (1973) with Donald Sutherland, so he held out the carrot of getting Sutherland to co-star with her in Werewolf. He had met Sutherland previously on the set of Kelly’s Heroes (1970) while working a production assistant.
So here is John Landis, working out of a broom closet. When his one-hour lunch break comes, he changes out of his jeans and sweatshirt, slips on a decent pair of pants, an old sport coat and a tie, races out to catch a bus down Sunset Boulevard to the Beverly Hills Hotel, hustles into the Polo Lounge, sits down for lunch with Julie Christie, does his best to convince her to make his movie, she agrees to read the script, he eats hurriedly, and then excuses himself, races back to the office building, strips off the jacket, pants, and tie, puts on his sweatshirt and jeans. Then goes up and changes the lettering on some door on the sixth floor. And that … is the real glamour of Hollywood.
We continued to talk about doing “Crud Creature” for several years. He always mistakenly called it “Crud Man.” When he went to Paris to actually sit down with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland together, still trying to convince them to do his Werewolf movie,he sent me a postcard that said something like, “Hey, Dave! I’m in Paris with Sutherland and Christie. What’s new with ‘Crud Man’? ~ John.”
As you know, ultimately Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie didn’t do An American Werewolf in London. It was another seven or eight years before John could even get the film made, starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne.
I ran into John a few years ago in Hollywood at a special screening of Sam Raimi’s [The] Evil Dead (1981). He spotted me coming into the theater lobby and shouted, “Hey, David! Where’s ‘Crud Man’?” Some projects never die. They just keep running continually in our imagination.
What do I recall about John Landis? He’s a truly nice guy. Brilliant. Funny. Creative. A genuine human being who loves motion pictures. What more can you say about someone who could create such gems as The Blues Brothers (1980), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), An American Werewolf in London, The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Trading Places (1983) … and Schlock?
It’s why we go to movies. It’s also why we make them.
BH: Let’s discuss the title, Alien Zone, also known as [The] House of the Dead. What was the original title, and where did the other ones come from?
DO: Ah, yes. The carnival of titles. Well, when we started shooting, it was still called Five Faces of Terror. It was much more satirical at that time, with a lot of dark humor and references that slyly commented on various political and cultural touchstones of the period. Sharron is generally a very serious and intellectual filmmaker, so she pushed for cutting out some of the humor and giving it a more solemn and earnest feel. To help give it a more distinguished Ingmar Bergman vibe and less of a B-movie feel, I suggested we title it simply Five Faces. So, during post-production and editing, that’s what it was called.
But then a distributor picked it up and released it as [The] House of the Dead. When the film migrated to another distributor, it was re-titled once more, this time as Alien Zone, stealing the “Alien” from the hit sci-fi flick Alien (1979) and “Zone” from Twilight Zone. But, when audiences grumpily noted that there were no aliens in the movie, the title was changed yet again to Zone of the Dead. It now exists in various formats under all of the titles, with House of the Dead being the most appropriate, since the mortician/undertaker is, after all, surrounded by dead bodies.
But it’s startling to imagine the great variety of really terrible movie poster art that was created to match this oddly ridiculous parade of ever-changing titles. Some of the movie poster artwork is beyond hilariously bad, with the worst being the poster created for Alien Zone, with weird caricatures of deranged killer children who have horribly awful teeth.
BH: In terms of writing the screenplay, how much freedom did you have?
DO: I basically had total freedom. The script I gave to Sharron was exactly what I had first written. The only changes that were made were minor adjustments that Sharron suggested and also some strange re-editing and re-structuring that occurred later when a couple of the distributors got their hands on it.
BH: Were you told to include certain elements?
DO: No. The only changes we made before shooting were to downplay certain elements of humor or satire. And those were choices that were appropriately made by Sharron. No one else had any involvement with the script.
BH: According to the Internet Movie Database, the original screenplay included a Richard Nixon satire. Is there anything truth to this? If so, what could you tell us?
DO: Ah, yes. That is very true. We had just gone through the Watergate scandal, which led to President Nixon’s resignation to avoid impeachment. One major factor in his downfall was a twisted hubris that led him to audiotape all of his conversations while in office. This led me to write the segment about the guy who murders female victims in his apartment and films the murders, thereby providing evidence of his own guilt, just like Nixon did with his own incrimination in the Watergate fiasco. This is the one segment of the film that was hurt the most by the re-editing done by a distributor.
As originally written and filmed and edited, we see the strange young man with the camera as he films several encounters with his victims, leading to their shocking deaths, and ultimately two police officers break into the apartment. But they find no victims. Then, one of them sees the camera that he has set up to look like a glass covered sculpture — and realize it is running. At this point, the film runs out, flutters, and the screen goes white. We cut to the two police detectives back at the station, having just watched the footage that we have just seen of the lethal misdeeds. One of the detectives comments to the other, “What kind of idiot would do that? Record his own crimes, proving the case against him. Didn’t he watch the Watergate hearings? Didn’t he learn anything?”
The distributors decided to recut the sequence to start with the arrest of the man and then all the press taking his photo as the police lead him into the station, which gave away the ending of the story to the audience before they even knew what had happened or what it was about, thereby removing any suspense from the tale. They also shifted the order of the victims around, which disrupted the intended ratcheting-up of suspense and tension. And, finally, they cut the deleted the scene with the two police detectives watching the perpetrator’s crimes unfold and commenting on the similarity to the Nixon screw-up of recording evidence of his own guilt.
So this is the one story in the film that I felt was damaged and diminished. Sharron directed it well, and the actors were fine. But the crazy re-editing demonstrated that the film’s distributors had no understanding of how to construct a story, build tension, and then provide a clever button at the end to provide greater meaning.
BH: What was your working relationship with director Sharron Miller like?
DO: Sharron was terrific. She is a real “actor’s director,” meaning that she spends time working carefully and creatively to bring the best out of their performances. Plus, she has a good sense of the rhythm and pace of a scene. I believe her experience as an editor has provided her with an excellent insight into the movement and flow of the images and emotions. She also works well with writers, knowing how to explain what she senses about the characters, their motivations, and the validity of their dialog.
She taught me one very simple, but unbreakable, rule of filmmaking. She gave me a cameo role as Detective #2 who, with his partner, comes crashing into the apartment of the guy who is murdering people with his camera running. On the third take, I accidentally pulled the trigger on my prop pistol, and it “clicked.” I stopped cold, hung my head, and shouted, “Aw, cut! Cut! My gun just clicked.” Sharron took me aside and, with a calm but brittle tone, told me, “I’m the director. I call cut. Actors do not call cut.” When I tried to tell her, “But it clicked. I ruined the take.” She said, “We could have cut the sound of the ‘click’ out. That didn’t ruin the take. What ruined the take was that you called ‘cut’ instead of continuing as you should have. Now we have to do it again.”
I have been working as a director for many years, and, every time I announce “Action” and “Cut,” I always remember what she said that day. Fortunately, I have never had to remind anyone that the director is in charge. And Sharron has also wisely never hired me as an actor again.
We have been the best of friends for several decades now.
BH: Were any changes made to the script after you finished writing it?
DO: Only the minor dialog polishes that I did when preparing the shooting script with Sharron.
BH: How long did the process of writing the screenplay for this film take?
DO: I don’t recall precisely, but I would estimate it took about four to six weeks. But I was also driving, fishing, bike riding, sailing, and hiking during our long trip around the country. But I firmly believe that it was a lot of that down time — just relaxing and doing non-writing things — that allowed the creative side of my brain to work its magic.
BH: How many drafts did you write?
DO: Just one draft. And a minor polish with Sharron while sleeping on her couch in Oklahoma. Actually, I think I was sleeping on the floor on an air mattress, the glamorous life of a screenwriter.
BH: Did you draw any inspiration from other sources, such as The Twilight Zone?
DO: Oh, yes. Twilight Zone, Thriller, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Way Out hosted by Roald Dahl, plus every Hammer horror film and Roger Corman flick.
BH: The story line with the mortician and the unfaithful husband connects the movie’s four stories together. What can you tell us about writing these sequences?
DO: That bookend and linking story was the one that originally had the least validity as a stand-alone story, but it was perfect as a tale that ties everything together and by doing so it becomes a complete story itself. It reveals the story of a man who is made witness to the many flaws and sins that can direct a person to his ultimate fate, which then leads him to his own undoing and demise at the hands of a jealous husband.
In a way, I guess you could say there are actually six stories here — the sixth and final one being the story of the mortician whose miserable job is to guide people along the dark path toward their death, revealing the weaknesses and flaws of their existence on the way. He does have the final moment at the end, riding away in the “hearse” with a crooked smile on his face. I guess you could say that he is the personification of death.
BH: The first segment concerns the misanthropic teacher who gets attacked by evil children at her home. Could you talk about this story?
DO: That is probably a child’s twisted delight. If you have ever had a particular grouchy, irritable teacher who makes your time in school feel abysmal, you may have daydreamed about what horrible fate they might meet if the world was fair. But, to flip the coin, we also see how miserable her life is: an empty house, a boring existence, lack of motivation to even eat. She finally gives up and goes to take a shower, hoping to wash off all the dull misery of her day at school. And then the yucky little rascals appear. Still, she curses them, looking at them as an irritant, kids pulling an annoying prank. Until she realizes this is no prank. It’s all her hate and disgust manifesting itself and coming for her.
When I wrote this segment of the script, I described the children surrounding and then engulfing the teacher. She slithers down, raising one helpless arm straight up, reaching for help but there is none, as they devour her. The image is one I stole directly from a 1959 movie titled Suddenly Last Summer that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift, based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams. In the movie, a mob of starving children engulf and devour their victim, an arm reaching skyward helplessly.
I described the scene to Sharron, but unfortunately she had never seen the film, so she didn’t quite grasp what I was going for. I wasn’t on location the night they filmed the children in the house, so I wasn’t around to help demonstrate to Sharron what I meant. From what I understand, there were other difficulties that night that prevented her from taking all the time she needed — she could only use the children for a limited time, it was a school night, herding young kids who aren’t seasoned actors is like trying to herd cats. These are the usual roadblocks you inevitably run into while shooting a film. It was sufficiently creepy, but not as classically strange as I hoped it could be.
BH: How about the second segment? It’s drawn a lot of comparisons to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Was that an inspiration? This segment also seems to stop short rather than come to a conclusion. Why was that?
DO: Yep. That’s the segment that was mangled so badly by the distributor and his editor. As I mentioned earlier, they chopped it up and put the conclusion right at the top, giving away the end of the story. And they also dumped the final scene with the two detectives who have watched all the footage the killer has shot, ignorantly sealing his own fate by creating a visual record of his crimes, just like disgraced President Richard Nixon did with his Watergate tapes. At the time I wrote the screenplay, I wasn’t familiar with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and I had never seen it. So it couldn’t have had an influence on the script or inspired it. I have since seen Powell’s film, and, while there are some similarities, I believe we were going for some very different themes.
BH: The segment that tends to get the highest praise is the third one with the dueling detectives.
DO: Ah, yes. That is my favorite. I think it owes more to Alfred Hitchcock Presents than to any other influences.
BH: I’m sure you had a lot of fun writing the dialogue for this one. Please take us back to when you wrote it and tell us what it was like.
DO: It was a delightful experience. I was writing for two characters with massive egos who constantly held their rampant egomania in check by expressing themselves with overbearing sophistication and snarky sarcasm. It was fun listening to them politely slam and cut each other with clever syllogisms and bogus logic. Like two verbal swordsmen slicing and piercing one another, drawing invisible blood with each bitter swipe. And the two climactic twists were also fun. I felt the only weakness was near the end. The sound and image of the sharp dagger snapping out of the chair and piercing Inspector McDowal felt inadequate.
The dagger blade was barely visible against the darkened chair and the sound was too soft and not at as startling as it could have been. But that is really a minor quibble and clearly the normal result of a limited budget, tight schedule, and no video playback to check the shot. But the wonderful performances of both Charles Aidman and Bernard Fox totally made up for any momentary weaknesses. Both were highly regarded and very successful character actors with outstanding careers. Charles Aidman’s many roles even included two appearances on The Twilight Zone.
And Bernard Fox was a Welsh actor with an extensive career in American television. Even Elizabeth MacRea, who played one of the victims of the errant killer with a camera, had a prestigious career that included a pivotal role in Francis Coppola’s Oscar-nominated drama The Conversation (1974).
Sharron Miller possesses an exceptional instinct for casting the best actors for the roles they will play. She is one of the few pioneering women directors who worked regularly in mainstream Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984, she was the first woman ever to win the coveted Director’s Guild of America Award for directing a narrative film. She has gone on to a distinguished career that has won her numerous awards, including two Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, the Christopher Award, a Humanitas Prize, and another DGA Award for outstanding directing of the hit TV series Cagney & Lacey. She was clearly a dynamic force behind her first feature film, Five Faces of Terror,a.k.a. Five Faces, House of the Dead, Alien Zone, Zone of the Dead. The film of many titles.
BH: The final segment is quite reminiscent of the first, in which an irascible young man who looks down on others gets his just deserts. Please discuss this segment.
DO: This was pure Twilight Zone material. In fact, I dreamed this one up in college and intended to write it as an episode for the series and march it directly into the office of Rod Serling. Needless to say, I was very innocent and naïve in those days. I was a rabid fan of Twilight Zone, and I idolized Rod Serling. One of the first books I ever bought as a teenager was his autobiography. Ironically, when I was still kicking around Florida trying to take a side-door entry into the film business by working for a documentary film company in Tampa, I unexpectedly got the opportunity to write a documentary script about atomic bomb testing in the South Pacific that Rod Serling was going to narrate.
When he came to Tampa for us to record his narration, I not only got to meet him, I also was assigned to escort him around and hang out with him listening to all his fascinating stories. I found it hard to believe that I was writing a script for Rod Serling! I made no mention of the story I had concocted back in college. But, later, when I was setting out to write my spec script anthology, I was sure to include it.
Sharron was severely limited by the film’s small budget, but still managed to pull off the frightening FX, like the compressing walls with sharp spikes, while also exploring the brutal terrors of alcoholism and prejudice. This was one of the segments that I would have liked to explore more thoroughly. With better FX and a bigger budget and more time, which every filmmaker wants, it could have been developed into truly terrifying and effective sequence.
BH: Were you involved in any other aspect of the production?
DO: As I mentioned earlier, I had a small role as Detective #2. And I was on the set for much of the production in case Sharron wanted to make any script changes while shooting. It was a great experience, and it solidified a long friendship with Sharron Miller. She visits often, and we continue to talk about new projects that we would like to do together.
BH: Were you satisfied with the finished product? Is there anything else you could share about Alien Zone?
DO: I was very pleased with Sharron’s first cut of the film — she was also the editor. But I was not very happy with the distributor’s hatchet job on the released version. While it still is very effective, it could have been much better if they had left it as originally edited. A few years ago, the copyright expired on the film, and Sharron and I discussed the idea of remaking it. But, before we could give that a shot, another distributor picked it up. It has subsequently been released by Vinegar Syndrome in a nifty box of both a DVD and Blu-ray version that was newly scanned and restored in 2K from the 35mm camera negative. It also includes audio interviews with Sharron and me, as well as reversible Alien Zone artwork. They did a really nice job on it. I just wish it was the original director’s cut.
BH: You’re an uncredited screenwriter on Hangar 18 (1980). What was your involvement?
DO: Tom Chapman and I were hired to do a pass on the screenplay to rewrite all the scenes involving the political and military characters and also to add some humor at various points — so we were doing the full gamut, from very serious to funny. I also created all the NASA background chatter and tech talk, plus they requested that I come up with a unique language for the aliens. So I called a university linguistic professor and asked him to read some dialog I created in a native South African Bantu “click” language called IsiXhosa. It’s very exotic and strange-sounding.
But then I went a step further and took what he recorded and reversed the tape to play it backward, which made it sound even stranger yet, and seemingly not of this world. It worked very well for the film. I also spent time on location in Big Spring, Texas, directing a promotional trailer for the film. While there, the director, Jim Conway, asked me to do a small part as one of the bystanders at the scene of a truck crash following a chase scene. Fortunately, I didn’t have to carry a gun or risk offending the director by calling, “Cut!”
The reason Tom and I are not credited on the film is because they had so many writers — I think a total of six — involved in the scripting. One of them demanded sole credit, and he took it to [the] Writers Guild for credit arbitration. A settlement resulted in all six writers being lumped under one pseudonym, Stephen Thornley.
Another oddity about the genesis of Hangar 18 is that ironically Tom and I had come up with the UFO story several years before and pitched it to Chuck Sellier, who would ultimately produce Hangar 18. He didn’t really care for our story very much and turned it down.
But then, after taking the reins at Taft International, he decided he wanted to do a UFO movie and cobbled together the very story we had told him. He claimed he didn’t recall us telling him anything about UFOs. We could have taken legal action, but we were fortunate enough to be making movies with him, so we just decided to take our lumps and remember to get everything in writing from that time forward. Lesson learned. Besides, we had a good time making the movie.
BH: After that, you were also involved in writing The Boogens (1981). Please tell us about this production.
DO: While I was living in Evergreen, Colorado, Tom Chapman and I were working on a spec comedy script. We took a lunch break and sat around reflecting on all the horror movies we liked and how much fun it would be to do one. I was a big fan of Sam Raimi’s [The] Evil Dead, and we both loved Ridley Scott’s Alien. We started brainstorming crazy ideas, and before long we had forgotten all about the comedy we were working on.
The next morning, we were on a Western Airlines flight to Salt Lake City, kicking around vague ideas for a combo horror/monster/suspense flick that sort of merged the “trapped in a cabin by an evil force” notion of Evil Dead with the “trapped in a spaceship by an evil monster” concept of Alien. But we didn’t know what to call it.
I took a break to use the restroom and returned to my seat with, “How about The Boogens?” Tom thought I was just kidding at first. But then I laid out the connection to the Bogeyman, the mythical creature used by adults to frighten children into good behavior. A related creature can be found in nearly every culture. Plus, it had the added playful feature of saying, “Boo!” to the audience in the title. When we landed in Salt Lake City, we hustled up to Park City where Taft International was headquartered and pitched the idea to Chuck Sellier. He liked it, and a deal was struck.
Tom and I brainstormed the basic story beats. Then, over the next five days, I wrote the plot outline/story treatment and delivered it to Chuck. I was then contracted to write the screenplay for The Boogens, based on the story line that Tom and I had created. Tom was already working on a different project for Taft, so he took a co-story credit.
I returned to my Colorado home where I frantically banged away on the typewriter – yep, one of those old things — and delivered the first draft screenplay to Taft International Pictures eight days later. I originally had the action unfold in a Colorado mountain mining town that resembled Park City, Utah. But it was set in the summer. Since it looked like shooting would now be scheduled during the coming winter, I was asked to change the season to a “snow-covered” mountain mining town. That was no problem. Also, Chuck was fascinated with the mining history of Park City, so he asked me to enhance that element of the story in the next draft. As plans for pre-production moved forward, I worked on writing my final draft of the screenplay.
I had emphasized in a foreword to the screenplay that fear in a horror film is best generated by what the audience “doesn’t” see, not what it is clearly visible. An audience member’s fertile imagination will always conjure up something much more terrible and frightening — and personal — than we can create with special effects or makeup. In other words, if you can see your attacker or opponent, your mind can calculate how to respond — escape, fight, deceive, dodge, weave, faint, etc.
But, if you face an empty street at night, or enter a darkened room, hear a creepy sound emanating from the corner of a murky cellar, or glimpse the strange shadow and movement under the bed, you have no idea what to do, because you don’t know what you are up against. That is true fear. Fear of the unknown. Director James Conway agreed with me about this and did his best to keep the Boogens in the shadows and out of sight for most of the film, using cleverly stylish direction, creative lighting, unnerving camera movement, and tense editing to ratchet up the terror.
As I mentioned earlier, Chuck Sellier had a fascination with mining and the old mining operation around Park City. It was actually more of an obsession. As the pre-production continued, Chuck decided that the climax of the film should take place down in the dark mine tunnels. So he hired screenwriter Jim Kouf — working under the pseudonym of Bob Hunt — to do some revisions. In my screenplay, I had the climax occur in the cabin/house — a la Evil Dead — with Trish and Mark making a terrifying last stand as the mad crush of Boogens emerge from a breach in the underground mining tunnels beneath the cellar and overrun the house.
In a heroic attempt to save Trish, Mark is brutally slaughtered. But Trish valiantly battles on during the night and manages to survive the bloody incursion. When the local police find her outside the following morning, blood-soaked and in silent shock, they secure her in the back seat of their patrol car, then enter the house to investigate. Trish numbly turns to see them enter the house. She struggles to speak, terror in her eyes, aware of what they face within. But, before she can warn them, the door slams shut behind them. Cut to black.
However, Chuck was determined to place the climactic action down in the labyrinth of mine tunnels and, in Hollywood tradition, have both Trish and Mark heroically survive. So Jim Kouf changed it to the ending that was ultimately shot.
Another important change was the deletion of the Boogen’s origin story and the explanation of what they actually were. In my screenplay, near the end, Mark goes to the old abandoned mining operation to seek out Bartholomew MacPherson, an 80-year-old Scottish miner who lives in a decrepit shack, hoping to find some answers to the strange things that are happening. I felt this would not only enlighten the audience, it also lent a creepy legitimacy and foreboding that made the whole Boogens myth feel much more authentic.
But, in the revised final script, MacPherson was dropped and replaced by another old character named Blanchard, nicely played by John Lormer. He made scattered appearances throughout the film, mysteriously lurking around and ultimately attempting to seal the mine up with dynamite in a scene near the end. It’s the only time the word “Boogens” is spoken in the movie, but without any context to explain its origin.
Other changes involved moving some scenes around and having both Mark and Roger working for the mining company. However, I think Jim Kouf did an excellent job of tightening scenes up and keeping the dialog flowing with a naturalism that allowed the characters to be believable and authentic.
BH: Any fun memories from writing Fatal Instinct (1993)?
DO: It was the best time of my life. Working with the comedy legend Carl Reiner was an indescribable pleasure. He was so brilliant, funny, and generous. I have enough great memories from that shoot to fill an entire book. The way it came about is one of those crazy “once in a lifetime” Hollywood tales. I had been developing two projects — Rough Justice,an action comedy for [Arnold] Schwarzenegger and Buddy Cops at TriStar Pictures and Disney with producers Pierce Gardner and Katie Jacobs.
When they were given a development deal at MGM, they invited me over to see their new offices. After a casual chat, they asked me, “So what ya got?” Meaning they expected me to pitch a new concept. But I hadn’t come prepared to pitch anything! So I had to backpedal and fake my way through it. I had just seen the remake of the film noir thriller A Kiss Before Dying (1991). It was not great, but it had hit every cliché and stereotype of all the classic film noir and erotic thrillers that had gone before.
So I told them that I thought it was time to do a parody send-up of these thrillers. With hesitant smiles, they nodded and said, “Okay. So … what’s the story?” Then I really started sweating bullets. I had no idea where to go with it. But I plowed ahead, anyway. “It’s the, uh, story of a cop …” Pierce gave a hesitant nod, “A cop?” Then I remembered many noir films featured a lawyer. “No, no … uh … a lawyer,” I said, awkwardly correcting myself. Looking confused, Katie asked, “So … is he a cop or a lawyer?” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Both!” Their eyes bulged.
I quickly explained, “He arrests people at night and defends them in court during the day.” Surprisingly, they both burst out laughing. “Is there a woman?” Katie inquired. “Sure,” I said, figuring I would just keep going. “Three of them — his wife who wants to murder him. A femme fatale who wants to seduce him. And his secretary who secretly adores him.” Without hesitation, both Pierce and Katie said, “Great! Go home. Describe the plot in two pages and send it over to us, and we’ll run it past MGM.” Inspired by their response, I dashed home, let my comedic brain run wild, knocked off a couple pages — and three days later MGM said I had a deal.
I wrote several drafts of the screenplay while we looked for the best director to handle a parody that would span several decades of classic noir thrillers. We considered everyone from Monty Python’s Terrence Gilliam to Ben Stiller. But we finally hit the jackpot when we attached comedy legend Carl Reiner, whom I have idolized since the days of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Where’s Poppa? (1970), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), The Jerk (1979), and many more.
And Carl turned out to be the perfect choice. He was an absolute delight to work with every single day and became a genuine mentor and cherished friend. I still fondly recall the many days we spent at his home working out comedic shtick for the movie, taking breaks to hear amusing anecdotes from his long, prolific career, while we ate homemade chicken soup and hot dogs. I could relate dozens of humorous stories about that production, but it would require an entire separate interview alone.
A highlight was wandering over from our film set to the one next door where Mel Brooks was shooting his wacky comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). It was a highlight not just because of the hysterical band of comic actors. The real reason was because Mel’s production always had the best craft service — the food and snack table for cast and crew. It was way better than ours, and ours was already top-notch. So, whenever we got a craving for fresh lox and bagels, we headed over to Mel’s soundstage to indulge.
When I first conceived the story and began writing the script, I originally titled it “Femme Fatalities.” But that was only a placeholder until I came up with “Triple Indemnity,” which was a take-off on the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944) that starred Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.
The title made sense, too, because there was one man, Ned Ravine [Armand Assante] and three women: Laura [Sherilyn Fenn], Ned’s secretary who was secretly in love with him, Lola [Sean Young] who was stalking Ned for nefarious reasons, and Ned’s wife Lana [Kate Nelligan] who was plotting to kill Ned and collect the insurance from a “triple indemnity” policy. But it pays off only if he is coincidentally (1) shot (2) while traveling on a northbound train and (3) dies by drowning in a river.
So “Triple Indemnity” was the title throughout the pre-production, the production, and even the post-production. But then the marketing department of MGM decided the title had to be changed because, as they put it, “Nobody knows what ‘indemnity’ means.” Both Carl and I knew that it didn’t matter. When Double Indemnity was released in 1944, nobody but a few insurance salesmen knew what it meant, either, but that didn’t stop the movie from becoming a huge hit.
But the nervous executives were not at all convinced. The studio told us we could call it either Fatal Instinct or “Kiss My Pistol.” We had to choose. Carl Reiner shook his head in disbelief and responded, “Well, there’s no way we’re calling it ‘Kiss My Pistol’!” And that’s how it ended up being titled Fatal Instinct. The week after it opened as the second-highest-grossing movie, instead of #1, MGM fired the entire marketing department.
The marketing guys had figured the “Fatal” would remind people of Fatal Attraction (1987), and the “Instinct” would bring in the fans of Basic Instinct (1992). Instead, the unfunny title caused many people to believe it was something they’d already seen. Ironically, Mel Brooks had told the suits at MGM that the perfect name for this comedic parody would have been “Frontal Attraction.” “Now that,” both Mel and Carl agreed, “would have been a very funny title!” And I enthusiastically concurred. But, sadly, MGM had the final say.
BH: What are you working on now?
DO: I recently finished co-writing a spec treatment for a limited series based on the life of show biz legend Ed Sullivan, which turned out to be full of surprises and unexpected twists that most people are not aware of.
This coming spring, I’m producing a comedy-drama titled Shakey Grounds, which we will be shooting in Arkansas and Seattle, Washington.
I have also co-written an action/thriller feature film, River of Dreams, that I am attached to direct and produce on the island of Mauritius later this year, depending on the developing status of COVID-19.