In his long career as a writer and director, Tom Holland has managed to create visions that have haunted the nightmares of generations, especially Generations X and Y, who became familiar with him through movies like Class Of 1984, for which he wrote the screenplay, and Fright Night and Child’s Play, which he wrote and directed. He’s busy to this day with his website Tom Holland’s Terror Time, as well as a new movie in development, Cessation, and several documentaries. Mr. Holland was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to speak to me, though, and I hope you all enjoy my conversation with this master of horror.
Say hello to Tom Holland!
Tom: Hey, John!
Johnny: Hi, Tom. Well, I have my questions ready to go, and I always begin my interviews with these two questions. First, what were your pop-cultural tastes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Tom: Oh, boy. Well, I grew up, when I was young, with the AIP and Hammer stuff. That was in horror, and I adored anything in sci-fi. Them! would probably be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. The movie that changed my life was Psycho, because that was the first time I understood editing had something to do with it. I read prolifically. I read all the kids’ books…Everything. I read a huge amount of sci-fi…All the kids’ books that Heinlein wrote. He wrote a whole series that was for young people. This was when I was, say, in junior high school, which was about from 9 to 13 all the way through. I read everything in science fiction, but then I grew up in the era of what they call The Masters Of Science Fiction. I didn’t get into noir until later, when I was in my late teens and early 20s. You know, Dashiell Hammett and…
Johnny: Mickey Spillane?
Tom: By the time I got into it, Mickey Spillane wasn’t sophisticated enough for me actually. I mean Dashiell Hammett, The Postman Always Rings Twice…I was an avid consumer. That was also the classical period of movies, you know? I remember being very young and sneaking into The Wild One. That was, like, the 4th grade. Movies and reading were my two great loves. I must have been abouy 15 or 16 when I saw Psycho, and that was the first time I began to understand that the movies were edited together for the effect, which you didn’t get with the AIP or Hammer films, which were really more like plays. A master in those movies was like a proscenium arch. They showed off as much of the set as they could. Horror was part of it, but sci-fi was what I really loved, and then I went into film noir, and I read everything that was in that period. I got into crime novels and I read all the Tales From The Crypt comic books, but I was never that interested in superheroes. I mean, at the time, it seemed like Superman and Batman were old-fashioned even when I was 13 or 14. They were only reinvented in the 80s.
Johnny: To my next question: What were your high-school days like?
Tom: Well, great and horrible, like everybody else’s, right? I mean, there were cliques. You were either one of the cool kids or you weren’t. I had some athletic ability and I played football, and that sort of gave me some access to the cool clique, but my tastes were always geeky. We didn’t call them geeks in those days, though. Look, people thought I was crazy for liking horror in those days. Science fiction was much more acceptable than horror. I’m around back in the late 50s and early 60s. Psycho was ’61. Science fiction, it seemed to me, was more of its’ own category, but horror really wasn’t. I mean, that didn’t really start to happen until the rip-offs in the late 70s…Well, I guess the early 70s, too. I mean, Halloween was a popularization of Psycho, and Friday The 13th was a rip-off of Halloween, which was a rip-off of Psycho. Wes Craven had Last House On The Left, and that was either ’71 or ’73. That was shocking, and it had originality. I’d never seen anything like it. One of the most unpleasant movies ever made, by the way. Disturbing, if you want to put it that way, even though it has that stupid B-story running through it with the comic relief cops, but the actual girls and the crime and everything like that are really terrifying. That’s derivative of The Virgin Spring, you know. By that time, I was into Kurosawa, whom I loved, just loved. Breathless was an amazing event for me, and that was probably around ’63 or ’64. That was the first time I had ever seen jump cuts. Nobody had ever seen that that I was aware of before…Deliberately, I mean. Alien ripped off It! The Terror From Beyond Space. That was huge. It was right around 1957. I mean, I was sneaking into movies. I was too young to get into the movies I was seeing. It wasn’t that I was avoiding paying for them. It was that I couldn’t get in, so you’d wait until someone came out the side door and slip in. I did all the young adult literature at the time, but they didn’t call it YA then. Books like The Black Stallion? I was probably in grade school with some of that stuff. I consumed everything there was to consume, but there was only a limited amount. I mean, there was actually a point in the very early 80s where I thought that I had seen every studio movie ever made. This was just before the VCR, and I had really been able to damn near see everything. Of course then I got buried when they started making direct-to-video movies, and then I just gave up, because A.) there was so much shit, and B.) I had developed some taste. When I was a kid, I just consumed everything. I’m sure you did, too.
Johnny: Oh, yeah. I was like that. To move on to the beginnings of your career, one of your very first projects was providing uncredited voice work for America, America, one of Elia Kazan’s last movies.
Tom: That’s right. How did you know that?
Johnny: I found that out on the Internet Movie Database. What was it like to work with a legendary director like Kazan?
Tom: Well, I was in what they call the loop group. I forget how many of us there were…10 or so. We did the cries and the voices for the crowd scenes, when he boarded the ship or got off the ship, I forget, when he was in a crowd. Kazan was God. I mean, this was in New York City, and I just can’t tell you. Elia Kazan? I don’t know if anybody knows his name anymore, but he was THE biggest. He was at the top of the apex for film directors AND Broadway. He was an even bigger success on Broadway, so to any actor who was interested in Broadway or film, Elia Kazan was just God. He co-founded The Actors’ Studio, you know. It was him, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. Those three founded The Actors’ Studio, and The Actors’ Studio essentially created the dominant acting style that ran probably from the late 30s all the way into the early 70s. 40 years, at least. I was in The Actors’ Studio and studied under Lee Strasberg, the most boring man I ever met…The most boring teacher I ever had.
Johnny: As an actor under the name of Tom Fielding, you appeared in quite a few guest roles on dramatic TV shows in the 60s, ranging from Combat! to Medical Center. Did you ever audition for any guest roles on any 60s sitcoms?
Tom: Jesus. I must’ve, but it’s hard for me to pull the titles now. Love, American Style was one of them. I tested for the lead in The Mod Squad and did not get it. I was the lead in The Young Lawyers. Did you ever see the pilot? It was a two-hour movie. I left it. Zalman King took over as lead. Under Tom Holland or Tom Lee Holland, I guest-starred on The Incredible Hulk. Bill Bixby was a friend. He went early of brain cancer.
Johnny: This leads me to my next question. What led you to make the journey from being in front of the camera to being behind it?
Tom: I was in The Actors’ Studio, probably from ’66 or ’67 to maybe the very early 70s, ’71 or ’72, I think. Lee was still teaching. Lee would come out from New York and teach. They had something called The Playwrights’ Unit. It was writers, and they were doing one-act plays at the Studio, which was a small stage here in Hollywood on De Longpre Avenue. From acting, I met a lot of writers. I met Jim Bridges there, among others. Oh, Christ, it was anybody who was anybody in the late 60s and early 70s in Hollywood, in terms of would-be directors and actors. I was making a living, staying alive by doing commercials behind-the-scenes, working crew, but also in front, too, being a spokesman for this and that product. I was a spokesman for Johnson’s And Johnson’s Shampoo. I made a lot of money off of it one year, probably ’71 or ’72. A lot of what was going on…That was the beginning of the revolution of the 70s. All of us were kids, and out of that came a group of people that started writing and directing movies in the 70s. I guess I was sort of at the tail-end of that movement. I directed these one-act plays at The Actors’ Studio. The older I got, the less interested I became in acting, John, and the more interested I became in directing. There was no way into directing in those days or any time. I started writing because I saw that writers were getting a chance to direct. This was the late 60s/early 70s. Now remember, I was under contract to Warner Brothers when I was around 17. I was there when JFK was assassinated and that was 1963. I came in just at the end of The Studio System. It was in its’ death throes. When I came into Warner Brothers, Jack Warner himself signed me. They still had the set standing of The Ascot Races from My Fair Lady, in case they had to do any pick-ups, and the outside set of Camelot, the castle, was still standing. If you were a film nut like I was, I was deliriously happy. I’m from a small town in mid-state New York, man, and I couldn’t believe I was out there on the set of Warner Brothers. Anyway, I started writing as a way to direct, but then writing became so difficult that it became something in and of itself. I taught myself how to do it, and I had a wonderful mentor who just passed away a year-and-a-half or so ago named Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without A Cause. You know, there’s no way to do this. I just sort of fumbled my way through. I started working when I was 15. I worked at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and so I just sort of stumbled my way all the way to where I am now.
Johnny: Very interesting.
Tom: You gotta remember that when I started out, I went to Northwestern for my freshman year. They didn’t have a film school. They only had a theater school. I had no interest in theater. I was only interested in film. At Northwestern, I found their ONE room that was their film school. They gave one class that they had in film at Northwestern. They had these 16MM projectors, and I went out and I made my first film there. They had a cold splicer, and that was how you spliced it together. I left after the first year and landed a contract that Summer with Warner Brothers, and I never went back to Northwestern. I was just stumbling my way through, John, because there was no path to get there, you know. I was born near Poughkeepsie, New York, in a small town across the Hudson River called Highland. Back then it was dairy farms and apple orchards. Nobody could even conceive of doing what I wanted to do, and there was nobody to tell me how to get there. There were no film schools at the time, so I sort of stumbled along. My father was a haberdasher like Harry Truman, and that’s a big word for somebody who sells men’s clothes. One of the customers was friends with this guy who ran this summer stock playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and he got me in as an apprentice there. I then started to meet people who were in it, and then I found acting classes in New York City, so I started taking the New York Central and going to acting classes on, I think, Saturday nights or something like that, and then taking the train home. I was very young, but that was how I started to get into it. Then, it was possible to dream of being an actor, being from the sticks, but it was impossible to think of how you could ever become a director or a writer. There was just no way to do it, so I used acting as a way in.
Johnny: It definitely reminds me of one of my sayings, “When in doubt, improvise”. I think you’ve been doing a magnificent job.
Tom: Well, thank you. Where are you from?
Johnny: I’m from New York as well. I live in a small town called Greenwood Lake.
Tom: Where’s Greenwood Lake?
Johnny: It’s both upstate from New York City and downstate from Albany. We’re on the New Jersey border.
Tom: Okay. Well, Highland, New York, is very close to New Paltz if that helps you at all.
Johnny: It does. I think I actually have some cousins who live in Highland or around there.
Tom: Well, then try imagining getting from your town to New York City. Listen, going to New York City was a tremendous event for me. We’d go on Easter and take the New York Central down the Hudson to the city, and that was like a two-and-a-half-hour ride to go to Radio City Music Hall and see The Rockettes. That was a huge event for us. You couldn’t have been more out of it than where I was from, or for that matter, where you’re from.
Johnny: Now we jump ahead into the 1980s. Your first screenplay for a theatrical release was for The Beast Within.
Tom: I was writing television. My first sale was in ’77.
Johnny: I’m sorry. I was talking theatrically. I know you’d written some stuff for TV beforehand. I’m going by the Internet Movie Database. The Beast Within was a scary story dealing with rape and the supernatural. What was the inspiration for that screenplay?
Tom: I got hired to do it, ha, ha, ha, ha. That would’ve been like 1979 when I got hired. Harvey Bernard, the producer, had bought a book which had not been written. What he did was he bought the title, The Beast Within, and then the writer got divorced and had a nervous breakdown and didn’t write the book. What he gave me was the title and a four page synopsis of the idea. He said “I don’t care about the story, but what I want is I want a teenager to have a transformation on-screen and turn into a monster. Write a story around that idea”.
Johnny: That movie was pretty scary. Even the video box was scary. I recall that the local video store had the MGM/UA Big Box of it, and even the design looked frightening.
Tom: Listen, in a lot of ways it’s a terrific movie. The cast is excellent, and Philippe Mora, who directed it, is a friend of mine, but the effects aren’t what I would’ve liked. Do you know what I mean? It wasn’t possible yet technically. They were just creating pneumatics at the time, so that’s what they used for the transformation. The script was very strong. It was essentially a Peckinpah cast. They pulled all of Sam Peckinpah’s people, so it has some terrific character actors in it. In a lot of ways, it’s very good. The effects couldn’t do what I wrote, and that’s probably my fault. I wrote a whole thing with cicadas, which was the visual symbol for what was happening to the bot. Cicadas come out of the ground every 17 years and they turn into moths and then they die. That was a metaphor for what was happening to the boy, but they had no way of doing it. It was a script that would be much better now, given the effects and what they can do with CGI. Still, I think the first half is terrific. I was always writing ahead. I wrote The Initiation Of Sarah, which was a TV movie in 1978. They’ve remade that, too, by the way. They couldn’t do the effects then. That was about witches and sororities in college.
Johnny: Yeah, I did see that that was remade in 2006. Another movie you wrote that came out in 1982 was Class of 1984. A tale of violence in schools, what was once thought of as horror ended up being real, with a DVD release a few years after Columbine having the tagline “The Future Is Here”. With attacks on places like Columbine and Newtown, did you feel any apprehension about revisiting the movie for special features on assorted digital formats?
Tom: You know, I didn’t have any control over that. That’s a Mark Lester question. He was the producer and the director. When I wrote that, we were ripping off, or as I say, making a nod to Blackboard Jungle. We were trying to update that, but that’s a drama. I think it’s a very good film that Mark directed, and I thought the cast did a brilliant job, including Roddy McDowell. That’s still a very good movie. It worked dramatically, and still does. None of the sequels…The original I’m talking about. When I wrote that, I never would’ve believed that something like Columbine was possible. I feel about that like Stephen King does about that one he wrote about murder in the classroom. No one thought it was possible, and then they were horrified when it actually happened.
Johnny: It is very unnerving, but it is only fiction, stuff like Class of 1984 and Apt Pupil. It is only fiction, so that’s a relief.
Tom: No, Stephen wrote one specifically about a kid going crazy and taking over the classroom with a gun.
Johnny: I’m sorry.
Tom: Yeah, they wanted to make a play out of it and he wouldn’t let it be done, or maybe they did do it and he withdrew it. I can’t remember, but everything changed after Columbine, you know? I mean, people of mine and Stephen’s generation wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible. I thought I was really daring to write Class Of 1984 and put metal detectors in the hallways before you got to school. All of that seemed daring, not reality, but daring at the time. It shows you how far, how corrupt, and how degraded American society has become that now you have murders and killings in high school classrooms, for God’s sake, and stabbings. Back in those days, if somebody pulled a knife, it was a huge deal.
Johnny: It’s very scary.
Tom: You better fucking know it, honey.
Johnny: On a lighter note, in 1983, you wrote the screenplay for Psycho II. As you mentioned, Psycho was a tremendous movie for you, so how did you react when approached about writing the sequel?
Tom: I thought I was committing career suicide. I thought it was the end of my career, because by that point, it had achieved the status of a classic. You have to remember, when that film came out in 1960, it was attacked and vilified and considered one of the worst movies ever made. If you go back and read the original reviews on Psycho, it was castigated. The critics hated it. In 10 years it went from being the worst movie ever made to being an American classic. So much for critics. They also did the same thing to Bonnie And Clyde. They did the same thing to The Wild Bunch. If all the critics hate something, you should take a second look at it. It might be brilliant. Now, of course, film criticism has fallen apart because of the Internet…Because of guys like you, actually. When I was a kid, the gatekeepers? There were very few of them, so they controlled everything. Anyway, I thought doing Psycho II was probably career suicide, because I was sure all the critics would attack me for even having the hubris to do such a thing, but the opportunity to do something like that was just too enormous to turn down. Even if I flamed out, I had to take a crack at it, you know? It was a movie that I thought was probably the defining movie of my youth. It’s what changed everything. Modern horror stands on Psycho, John. Everything before that is still working off the 1930s Universal horror movies, you know? You go look at how AIP, which was a rip-off of Hammer, they were like fucking plays. If they did a close-up, it was a big deal. They hardly ever did an insert. Everything was a wide shot or a three and two shot. Psycho changed film. Hitchcock was a fucking genius. He really was. I had such overwhelming respect. I worked on that script harder than anything I ever worked on. Psycho II was the film that broke me out, and it was also the film that I worked on the hardest. It started as a cable movie. Cable was just beginning then. It was a throwaway. Universal thought it was just this crappy little title, and they gave it to a cable company. What I had to do was I had to write an acting script that was good enough to get Tony Perkins to commit to it, and the director, Richard Franklin, and I knew that. Not only did I have to write a script that would not infuriate the fans of the original, which meant I had to be faithful to the original, but I had to write up an acting part for Tony that was strong enough that he would do it. Lo and behold, Tony said yes. That opened it up, and then what happened was Universal announced it. There was this enormous worldwide reaction. “Tony Perkins is going to do Norman Bates again”. Universal all of a sudden thought “Maybe it’s more than a cable movie. Maybe we’ll release it as a low-budget horror film”. That was how it got a theatrical release, and what happened was the goddamn thing tested through the roof. In other words, Universal was dragged kicking and screaming into making a movie out of it and into releasing it. We did it for next to nothing. We did it the same way Hitchcock had done the original, which was never leaving the lot. He did it with his television crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That movie, without the studio overhead, was I think around $3.8 million dollars.
Johnny: It was definitely a smash.
Tom: It was the biggest movie of the Summer of 1983, and they had no idea of the value of that title.
Johnny: You never know how some studios are going to be.
Tom: Well, what happens is they live off their catalogs, but they have no idea of how to exploit their catalogs. I shouldn’t think of that as a blanket. It depends on the studio. Disney does a better job than most, but they’re buying creativity, you know. The bigger a corporation is, the less in touch they are with an audience. They’re not fans like we are. I love Cloak And Dagger. I’ve been waiting for them to remake it forever. Universal, for 10 years, said they were going to remake it, and then they forget they have it.
Johnny: On a different tack, the love of horror movies and their aficionados shines through in Fright Night. What was it like to be directing a big feature for the first time, since you’d already done a short film as previously mentioned?
Tom: It was the thrill of my life. It was not a big film. It was a throwaway from Columbia. In other words, they had a slot and they put in this terrible little horror film and didn’t expect it to do anything. The only reason I got it was because I was so hot as a writer. The film that Columbia expected to break box office records that year was Perfect, with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. That was supposed to be their huge hit, and then right behind that was The Slugger’s Wife. They were so concerned with these big titles that they paid no attention to Fright Night. I lucked out, the only time in my life where I haven’t had the studio interfering with my first movie. Fucking miracle, you know? The head of production was a guy named Shel Schrager, and he set me up really well. He gave me the entire Ghostbusters effects team with Richard Edlund. This little movie, that nobody paid attention to or cared about, had probably the best effects team in Hollywood at the time. I mean, I was very, very lucky. So much of this is luck, John. All you can do is try to get up and take your shot, you know, but it’s about being able to try and get up more than once to get something good done. There’s so many moving parts to making a feature film that you’re so dependent on so many other factors.
Johnny: Yeah, that was definitely one of the greats of 80s horror.
Tom: Ask me something about Child’s Play and we’ll call it a day.
Johnny: Sure. As the man who created Chucky, what do you think has made the character continue to be popular almost 30 years after his debut?
Tom: The first film, because I defined the character. What made Fright Night work was it was a mixture of things. Fright Night’s a love letter to fans. That’s my youth. I’m Charlie…Charlie is me. That’s what I would’ve loved to have happen to me as a lonely horror fan back in Highland, New York. Because I learned about mixing horror and humor in Fright Night, I carried that over into Child’s Play. What I did was I used humor as a release after the horror. Child’s Play is very scary. None of the sequels have been scary in the slightest, but Child’s Play was. If you can put together a good suspense sequence, and then release with a laugh, like the doll saying “Fuck you” in the elevator, it pumps the humor. If you can get scares and humor working together, it sharpens both, if that makes any sense.
Johnny: That absolutely makes sense.
Tom: Yeah, and I learned that from Fright Night. Fright Night’s affectionate. That’s my love for the genre. I started to get really good at putting together scary sequences and then giving the audience a release with a laugh with Child’s Play. I think that’s why, because the other thing is I never looked down on the genre. If you were to ask me, I create suspense more than I do horror. My horror is based on suspense. The reason that Chucky has lasted is because he’s so vicious, but he also had this nasty sense of humor, you know? The reason why I did that was because of My Buddy. You remember that doll?
Johnny: I do.
Tom: Okay. Well, that was the moment in time that they started putting computer chips in dolls, so you never knew what they were going to say. Before that, the doll said one thing. You know, “I want to go to sleep”, “I need to pee”, and that was it. The minute you got My Buddy and some of those early dolls, they had chips in them and they could say 110 things, and you never knew what it was. The minute I had that, that was out there technologically, and the My Buddy doll was an enormous success…With those movies, I was trying to do a universal theme. All of us, when we were kids, looked around our room and said to ourselves “Wouldn’t it be cool if our toys came to life?”. I knew everybody had felt that, and that’s what Child’s Play is. That’s what makes it work. The universal theme, plus the combination of horror and humor coming together, that’s the reason why. I mean, nothing personal, I’m friends with all these guys, but all the sequels have muted the reputation of the original, I think. I try to figure out how to be tactful about that, you know?
Johnny: I understand. TV Tropes would call it Sequelitis.
Tom: If you look at the end of Child’s Play, I tore that doll apart, I ripped his head off, I burned him and I blew his heart out. I did everything I could to make sure there wouldn’t be a sequel, so that goes to show you that the commercial instincts and the desire for merchandising in Hollywood will overcome any logic in the original. I really tried to set that sucker up so it couldn’t be sequelized. I love you, John. Good questions, and the best of luck to you in your career.
Johnny: Oh, thank you very much.
Tom: Thanks, man. I’ll talk to you later.
Johnny: Talk to you later. Have a good day.
Tom: You, too. Bye bye.
Johnny: Okay, bye.
I hope you all enjoyed this interview. For more on Tom Holland’s work, visit his official Facebook fan page. For horror news and more, you can visit Tom Holland’s Terror Time, both at the official website linked to in the introduction and on Facebook as well.
Who will I Flashback with next? Stay tuned.