The Funhouse Retrospective: An Interview With Tobe Hooper

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On the making of his 1981 film

The Funhouse Retrospective: An Interview With Tobe Hooper"There was some sort of romance with cinema that was evident between me and making The Funhouse," Tobe Hooper tells me on a week day afternoon. We've met at one of his "homes away from home," a quaint café in Sherman Oaks on Ventura Boulevard, to take a revealing trip into his past. Not to focus on his oft discussed searing experience on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but to dissect his vivid, off the wall 1981 studio picture The Funhouse starring Elizabeth Berridge, Miles Chapin, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff and Kevin Conway. And, of course, there's the frizzy haired, slavering funhouse freak, realized with the help of makeup artist Rick Baker and actor Wayne Doba (who would later appear in Scarface as "Octavio the Clown").

To wait one more year to connect with Hooper for a 30th anniversary retrospective would be too much as, for some particular reason, I've been on a Funhouse kick, relishing its eccentricities, performances (especially that of Conway), lens flares and deviant nature. It's a film in Hooper's canon that is often disregarded, overshadowed by the behemoth named Leatherface, Poltergeist or his chilling adaptation of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot. Yet, Funhouse swaggers with the same bad behavior we equate to Hooper's early works, including Eaten Alive. But it has finesse and there's something roguishly refreshing and charming about the atmosphere and band of characters who decide to stay in a funhouse long after it has been closed for the night. Where Chainsaw heaped filth on top of filth for a nightmarish, oppressive experience where there was no escape, Funhouse finds Hooper gleefully luring you in with the entrancing, glitzy façade of the carnival environment until the walls crumble away and you realized you've been trapped…with something.

Hooper and I settle into a café booth to begin our chat and he reveals to me that a Blu-Ray edition of The Funhouse is in the works in the UK and our interview is a terrific warm-up before he's called in to participate in that disc's special features. For the next hour and a half, he candidly tells Shock Till You Drop all about the production, from the challenges and the puke to the gunshots in the streets of Miami, at the time the murder capital of the world, and his desire to remake one of his early films.

Shock Till You Drop: I had read somewhere that your deal to do The Funhouse was locked up before you began work on 'Salem's Lot, is that true?

Tobe Hooper: No, I think I finished 'Salem's Lot and the producers came to me with Funhouse. I admired a quality about the Tyrone Power movie, Nightmare Alley, and my memory of it was it was set at a working carnival. It wasn't, but I always wanted to do a carnival movie. When the project got more real, and I could have a real carnival for a couple of weeks, we didn't know where to put the carnival. Even though it was Universal, I had to go to the East Coast under the SAG union rules here [in Los Angeles] you can't work a minor during the night. But on the East Coast, it's fine. That was one of the hurdles and why we went to Florida. We used the old Ivan Tors Studios where they did Flipper.

Shock: You had to import all of the carnival elements?

The Funhouse Retrospective: An Interview With Tobe HooperHooper: It just so happens, during the carnival off-season, all of the carnies and circus people would camp out in Florida. So, we went to Miami, it was quite a shoot.

Shock: How much acreage did you wind up using? Was it a full-on carnival?

Hooper: It was a full-on carnival. And I wanted to make sure we used all of it. You always so segments in carnival movies Рthe Ferris wheel and what not Рbut the carnival here was a character. Mort Rabinowitz, this Academy Award-winning production designer, laid it out for me and created a fa̤ade of the funhouse with the gondola. And we used the inside of the Ivan Tors Studios for the inside of the funhouse.

Shock: You also enlisted Andrew Laszlo – who would go on to do First Blood and Streets of Fire – to be your director of photography. Shooting in a carnival – I'm sure the possibilities were endless, so talk about the look of the film you wanted to lock down.

Hooper: I wanted to work with Laszlo because of his use of color. Immediately, I wanted him for an extremely colorful movie. Laszlo, meanwhile, wanted to shoot something he didn't have to augment with a lot of lights. He can blow a lot of light into the lens, so you can see shapes and figures. This was long before we had the ASA rating for film. You can almost shoot in the dark. There's one scene in The Funhouse where they're walking through the funhouse with a Bic lighter. There are moments when they're walking through the shadows, this feeling of blackness, you can barely see their faces.

Shock: The crane shots you and Laszlo pulled off still amaze me.

Hooper: That was a 150-foot construction crane with an arm that was so smooth. We took the first ride up and I wanted to have one of those on every film.

Shock: The one that still hits home is the crane shot looming over Joey as the carnival begins to shut down. It's ethereal and so damn effective. The scope is terrific as you go up and over tents…

Hooper: Telescoping with the swivel. We were dollying over the tents and going way up.

Shock: Was it tough orchestrating a full-blown carnival?

Hooper: Coordinating background extras was a challenge. All the rides had to get up to speed before every take. With the extras. There's one shot where the group are behind the tent smoking a joint. It's a quiet little moment. The shot starts with this octopus gondola rides that spins around. One of those rides you max out on in about three minutes. I wanted to get this shot and not have to shut the whole carnival down. I just didn't say cut, we pushed in for the shot again, I just reset things. The first A.D.'s never called cut to stop the machines. About the third or fourth take as we're dollying into Beth Berridge, it started to drizzle. I looked up, the stars are shining. The moon is out. Then, in the distance, I hear these distant screams and someone had totally maxed out on the ride. I looked over to the ride, and it was backlit, and I just see them spewing. Puke is spinning out of control. I called cut. Get those people off the ride! [laughs] Shit would break on some of those rides. Big, heavy ball-bearing traction tires would just go flying, bouncing across the set.

The Funhouse Retrospective: An Interview With Tobe HooperShock: Did the production team even know how to fix that stuff or did the carnies come in…

Hooper: Oh, we had the carnies there. They knew how to make those rides works. [laughs] We had a local crew and we did some local casting.

Shock: Let's talk about the opening a bit. You throw a knowing wink to both Carpenter's Halloween and Hitchcock's Psycho. Obviously, you were cognizant of the type of film you were doing, but you make it entirely your own which makes the opening homage bit peculiar.

Hooper: It was my idea to do them and I wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do. I didn't want it to appear like I was ripping John off. But it came down to immediately letting you know you're watching a genre picture. In particular, too, it helped make the film a little safe. And I wanted that. Because I wanted the color and the fantasy, to build up to this moment where this person is wearing a Frankenstein mask is actually the strange anomaly.

Shock: You're tipping the hat to three generations of horror in some respects: From Universal's classic monster days to Hitchcock to Carpenter.

Hooper: Yeah, and we got to use Bride of Frankenstein on the television and the registered Frankenstein mask.

Shock: You mention casting in Florida, talk about some of the actors you gathered up. You've got Elizabeth Berridge who looks super young in that shower sequence, but when she's all dolled up, she looks much older.

Hooper: [laughs] Yeah, she was 18. We found her in New York and Shawn Carson, too. I had a casting session there. Largo [Woodruff] was from Los Angeles, Cooper Huckabee was an L.A. actor. Cooper has a major role now in True Blood. I spoke to him the other day, that was just great.

Shock: What was it like with that gang on set?

Hooper: Always fun. Sometimes I had to become a bit forceful. The disciplinarian. For them, a nasty environment helped them out to get into the mood.

The Funhouse Retrospective: An Interview With Tobe HooperShock: Sylvia Miles is such a cantankerous crone, too.

Hooper: She played the prostitute in Midnight Cowboy. She was brought into a casting session and I thought it was great. She did her gypsy accent and would slip out of character for that line about breaking every bone in the kids' body. Madame Zena, you paid her a hundred dollars? [laughs] For that scene when the creature breaks her neck, I told her, you’re in silhouette. I want to really see what’s going on. Give him a hand job. So you see her bend over and her shoulder moving a little bit. I said, let’s do it one more time, but when you stand up, pull the sheet up to wipe her hands. So that’s in the movie. [laughs] She said to me, did I just ruin my career? I don’t think so, Sylvia. Every chance I had to put something naughty in there… [laughs]

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Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor