Interview: Jamie Lee Curtis: Scream Queen Author David Grove

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An examination of horror’s female icon

With 1978’s Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis introduced herself to genre fans as the prototypical scream queen heroine. Subsequent roles in classic horror films like The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train, Road Games, Halloween II cemented Curtis’ status as cinema’s undisputed scream queen. The new book, “Jamie Lee Curtis: Scream Queen,” examines Curtis’ scream queen reign between 1978 and 1981 and details the making of the films that made her a genre icon. We had a chance to talk to the book’s author, David Grove, about all things Jamie Lee Curtis.

Question: Why did you write this book?

David Grove: I got the idea back in 2002 when I was watching a DVD of Halloween. I was watching the documentary on the DVD by Mark Cerulli, which was really good, and I started thinking about how Jamie Lee Curtis really dominated that era between 1978 and 1981 – the era of the horror boom that still dominates much of the horror movie discussion and focus today. I started thinking about her whole genre career during that period, and how she really crossed the entire spectrum of the genre – from the masterpiece that is Halloween, to slasher staples like Prom Night and Terror Train, to titles like The Fog, Road Games and Halloween II, the latter representing the tail-end of the horror boom. I thought a book would be interesting because not only could I cover Jamie Lee Curtis’ career, but it would also allow me to cover the making of all of these iconic films and the era itself, including the slasher era. This was before I’d even started work on my Friday the 13th book.

Question: How long did it take you to write the book and what was the hardest part of writing the book?

Grove: It took six, seven years. Just the sheer volume and depth of it was a bit overwhelming. You gather information, and facts, and interviews, and become engulfed by it and don’t know what to make of it all. It got way out of hand. I started off thinking that I would do a basic summary of the horror films that comprised her career, but I went deeper and deeper and got carried away with the interviews. Oh, and tracking down a lot of the people who worked with her on these films was a real feat of detective work. That was hard. Another thing that was hard, and I probably shouldn’t mention this, was the stupidity of some people. I told some guy I was going a book on Jamie Lee Curtis and he said to me, “I heard she’s really a guy.” Then I was getting my hair cut one day, and mentioned the project, and the guy cutting my hair also made a comment about her being a man. God! Do people really believe that? I think it’s disgusting.

Question: Who was the most interesting person you interviewed about Jamie Lee Curtis?

Grove: Probably the first major interview I did for the book, back in 2004, 2005. This was Derek MacKinnon, the guy who played the transsexual killer, Kenny Hampson, in Terror Train. What an interesting character. He told me a lot of things, some of which I couldn’t print in the book, and I kind of had to piece together what I thought to be true and what was too incendiary to put in the book, because the stories were so wild.

Question: Like what?

Grove: He said that he’d gotten married to a woman just to deflect rumors that he and David Copperfield had been dating each other. That has nothing to do with Jamie Lee Curtis, so I didn’t think it was relevant. You remember Casey Stevens, the guy who played Jamie’s boyfriend in Prom Night?

Question: What about him?

Grove: Casey Stevens was the hardest person to track down, in terms of what happened to him after he’d worked with Jamie Lee Curtis on Prom Night. He just disappeared, and several years ago, it was revealed that he’d died of AIDS, but nothing more was known about him. Well, I was intrigued about this, and I kept digging and digging until I tracked down Casey’s former agent who put me in touch with some of Casey’s friends who told me about his life. Casey Stevens was probably the saddest story, because of the way he just vanished after Prom Night. It’s as if his role in Prom Night, his role as Jamie’s prom king in the film, was his one shining moment, his one time in the spotlight. Oh, and they dated during filming too. You know, it’s kind of like someone for whom high school is the high-point of their lives. Sad. He was also in love with Jamie.

Question: How would you describe Jamie’s relationship with John Carpenter and Debra Hill?

Grove: It was a very warm and supportive relationship. Above all, there was a level of caring that most young actresses don’t have when they’re beginning their careers. John and Debra were great mentors to Jamie, and great friends, although it wasn’t like they were joined at the hip, or anything like that. John and Debra would be like good cop/bad cop with Jamie, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. They were the first people to look at Jamie and see the beauty inside of her, and what an asset she could be in a horror film. The relationship between John and Jamie was extra special, in that John would speak to Jamie like she was a younger sister. They both liked to smoke cigarettes back in the day which also bonded them together. I think John and Jamie were both surprised that they never worked together again, as director and actress, after The Fog.

Question: Why do you think they never worked together again?

Grove: Well, I think it was partly because Jamie wanted to move out of the horror genre by 1981, and partly because of money, and partly because of bad timing in terms of scheduling conflicts with different projects.

Question: What was the craziest story you heard?

Grove: There was a wrap party for Prom Night at some bar in Toronto, although Jamie was long gone at this point. Paul Lynch, the director, had a crush on Mary Beth Rubens, who played Kelly in the film, and Paul saw Mary in the bar with another guy and it was driving him crazy with jealously. So, Paul’s standing at the bar, watching Mary Beth, and he has this swizzle stick in his hand, and he was so jealous that he took the swizzle stick and put it through his hand! There was blood everywhere.

Question: What’s your favorite Jamie Lee Curtis film besides Halloween?

Grove: Horror film? You know, I really don’t like any of the other horror films she made after Halloween, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re interesting, or that her greatness doesn’t shine through in these films. I would say Prom Night, and not because it’s a good film, because it isn’t. It’s Canadian Content at its worst. It’s a really bad movie, somewhat incompetent, but it’s interesting as a time capsule, both in terms of Jamie’s life and career, and as a portrait of teenagers in the late 1970s. You know, they picked the disco motif because it seemed topical whereas if that had been 1981 instead of 1979, the look and the time would’ve been completely different. You see Jamie in Prom Night giving her all to her performance, and giving that film much more than the material deserved, and it’s interesting to look at her in that film and read in the book about how her life was at a crossroads during the making of Prom Night and Terror Train, which isn’t unusual for most people who are nineteen, twenty years old. We’ve all gone on Facebook and seen someone we knew in high school who now appears so different and unrecognizable, and Jamie’s like that, except that she’s famous and her change is visible in her films. You look at her in Prom Night, which was filmed in 1979, and then you look at her in A Fish Called Wanda, and it’s like two completely different people, and that’s really strange, much like it is when you see an old friend from high school. Anyway, that’s why I find Prom Night interesting! Jamie would pick Road Games, in terms of that film being her happiest genre experience after Halloween. In terms of her whole career, I would say that Love Letters is probably her best performance as an actress. I would also list Trading Places, Blue Steel, My Girl, A Fish Called Wanda as her best, most distinguished work. Not True Lies. I don’t think her role in True Lies was very demanding or interesting, although it’s fun to watch her in that film of course.

Question: Any interviews you didn’t get that you wanted?

Grove: I interviewed pretty much everyone I wanted who worked on these films and knew Jamie during her scream queen era. There were only a handful that I would’ve liked to have gotten, and most of them are dead. Casey Stevens is dead. Sandee Currie, who played Mitchy in Terror Train, is dead. I spoke to her family. Another sad, sad story. Oh, I really would’ve liked to have interviewed Jamie’s sister, Kelly, to get her perspective on Jamie’s early career, and Barry Bernardi is one person that I really would’ve liked to have interviewed, but he was elusive.

Question: What do you think made Jamie Lee Curtis a great scream queen?

Grove: There’s a section at the end of the book where I ask this question of people, and I would echo their comments. Beauty, vulnerability, honesty, courage. I would say her ability to make you care about what’s going to happen to her, and her ability to make you believe that she has the strength to survive any obstacle she might face. That’s why I hated Halloween: Resurrection so much. How could they just punk her out like that? How could they do that to her?

Source: Shock Till You Drop