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Interview with David Schmoeller (Puppet Master)

Having already given horror fans a fear of mannequins with his underrated classic Tourist Trap, David Schmoeller turned his attention to dolls with the cult favourite Puppet Master. Once again reuniting him with legendary producer Charles Band, the movie would be a huge success and launch one of the most successful straight-to-video franchises in horror history. Following his acclaim of his student short The Spider Will Kill You, Schmoeller expanded upon its basic themes to create Tourist Trap, the tale of a lonely old man who abducts outsiders from his out-of-the-way museum and transforms them into mannequins resonated with audiences and became a minor success.

Tourist Trap had introduced him to a young independent producer called Charles Band, and over the next decade the two would collaborate together on several projects, the most popular of which would be Puppet Master. Based on a concept by Band and written by Kenneth J. Hall, the movie would be the first release from Band’s latest distribution company Full Moon and would usher in a new era of his career.

Twenty years on, David Schmoeller recalls the making his his most successful picture to date.

How did you first become involved in Puppet Master and do you feel that your experience with Tourist Trap helped prepare you for a killer doll movie?

I had written and directed a number of motion pictures for Charlie Band through his various incarnations: Charles Band Productions; Empire International, and finally Full Moon. One of the last films (if not THE last film) completed at Empire was a film I wrote and directed called Catacombs. Just as I finished the film, the bank Credit Lyonnais was in the process of taking over the company. I carried the only existing print of Catacombs to the Cannes Film Festival (this was 1988) – which I had to leave with the French distributor.

By the time I returned to the US, Charles Band was out at Empire and a company had come in to liquidate Empire. Catacombs was my best work up to that point in my career – but it became a lost film. I only know that it had some overseas release because many years later, friends from abroad would send me a VHS copy – with the Catacombs title – from various countries. It was released in the US by MGM in 1989 under the title Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice. MGM ended up buying the Empire library – and they just tacked it onto an existing, very frail franchise. It remains my least known film.

At any rate, when Charlie made a deal with Paramount to release his Full Moon films, he hired me to direct the first film. He called me in, gave me a script he wanted me to direct called Puppet Master. The original idea was Charlie’s and the draft I was given was written by Kenneth J. Hall. I think Charlie considered me a skilled director who was also very dependable – in terms of schedules and budgets. Vestron, who released his Empire movies, had expressed how pleased they were with Crawlspace and Catacombs (Catacombs, in particular, was a very stylish movie especially considering the budget).

Charlie also knew that I had to write my own scripts in order to direct them. So, he knew he had to hire me to rewrite Puppet Master – so that I could direct it. The process of me rewriting Kenneth J.Hall is no reflection on his work (although I’m sure he was not happy – what writer would be?). It’s just that I have to rework the story to make it my own – and put it into a cinematic form that I can direct. So, that’s how I came to write and direct Puppet Master.

I was a much more experienced director from when I directed Tourist Trap to when I directed Puppet Master. But, actually, Tourist Trap influenced Catacombs much more than it influenced Puppet Master.

Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall are credited with the story, whilst you wrote the screenplay under the alias Joseph G. Collodi. Who originally came up with the premise and how come you chose to write under a different name?

After I rewrote the draft of Puppet Master that I was given by Charlie Band, since it was written under the aegis of the WGA (Writers Guild of America), there is a process that you go through to determine credits. The first step is the writers talk among themselves and see if they can agree to how the final writing credits should be. I spoke to Mr. Hall and suggested the credits read: Story by Charlie Band and Kenneth J. Hall and Screenplay by David Schmoeller (using my alias Joseph G. Collodi). He agreed and that’s how the credits are on the film. If the writers can’t agree among themselves, it then goes through an extensive WGA arbitration process.

What’s important to remember is that the while the ‘story’ credit only receives forty per cent of the future residuals and the screenplay credit receives 60% of the residuals; the story credit is given all future credit for sequels. So, Charlie Band and Kenneth J. Hall are given credit as creating all future sequels, or should be. Since traditionally, films are considered a directors’ medium, and I wrote and directed Puppet Master, I am frequently credited with creating the franchise. But, it you go to the current Full Moon website, there is no question who claims credit for creating the franchise – Mr. Band.

I used a pseudonym because I always had a problem in my career getting critics to see my directing work separate from the content. When you make a genre from, they review the genre, not the directing. So, foolishly, I thought if I wrote it under a pseudonym, then would separate the genre from the directing. But, they never did. In fact, they usually made a point of the fact that I was trying to trick them (the marketing people would always point out that I used a writing pseudonym in the press releases!).

Did you intend on Puppet Master to be a straight horror or would you have said that it was equal parts comedy?

When I was actually making Puppet Master, I thought it was a silly movie. I was completely embarrassed. But, I was also a single father and I needed the job. But, I always gave it my best in my work. However, when I was in film school and I saw my future as making serious, important films, it was now really hard to swallow making a film about killer puppets. Funny thing is, by the end of the film, I would be talking to the puppets (and their puppeteers) like they were living, alive actors.

I have a very dry sense of humor – which I always try to put into my work. I think it helps a horror film. With Puppet Master, I actually set out to get an X rating – because I had frequently been accused of pulling my punches in previous horror film. So, I went all out. It’s not that hard. How far can you go, then just go further. And, in fact, the first version we submitted received an X – and I was deliriously happy. Contractually, I had to deliver an R. Since we had had so much experience working with the ratings board, we knew how they worked and how to manipulate them.

Since I felt killer puppets was basically a silly notion, the only way I could go – especially with my own dry sense of humor, was to make the killer puppets fun, funny and entertaining. The last time I was seriously frightened by a horror film was when I was four years old. The Creature from the Black Lagoon gave me nightmares – but I was four (and my mother should have been locked up for sending me with my big brother to see that film).

So, the answer is, horrific things happen in Puppet Master, but it’s all really just funny and silly (Leech Woman…come on!).

What kind of budget were you allocated and do you feel that you were given enough? How different do you think the results would have been had you been given a more substantial amount?

It would have been irresponsible to spend any more money than we did on Puppet Master. These were ultra-low budget movies for the time. If I remember, Puppet Master was shot in eighteen days, with four days of second unit. Charlie Band just shot Puppet Master #9 in China a few months ago. I’m sure they had much less than we had in 1989 when we shot the original Puppet Master. If Paramount were to actually remake Puppet Master today, they could easily spend 10-20 million, and it would certainly do better than Charlie will do with #9 from China, reaching a much wider audience – but he will do very well with his version…it’s all relative.

Would you say that it was a straightforward shoot or were there any significant problems that you faced? How long did the filming last and were you forced to cut out any sequences that didn’t go as planned?

Puppet Master came in exactly on schedule and on budget. There are always problems but I was very experienced at that point and I delivered. We shot the script I wrote. When we finished, I had no idea it would go on to have the success it had. Eighteen principal days; four second unit days. I don’t remember cutting any sequences. Point of order: John Myhre was my production designer (he went on to win two Oscars: Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha, plus two other Oscar nominations) and my second unit DP was Russel Carpenter (DP on Titanic).

Who was responsible for designing the dolls and how were these effects achieved? Were you pleased with the results or are there certain things you wish you had tried differently?

One of the principal dolls, Blade, is actually Klaus Kinski – whom I had directed in Crawlspace – and later made a well-known short documentary called Please Kill Mr. Kinsli . There were a number of special effects artisans who actually realized the various dolls – Dave Allen was the main animator and Mark Rapaport was one of the main creators – but there were many people involved in creating the various puppets. Dave Allen was a very famous animator – and deserves much credit for the Puppet Master animation – but I was never happy with it – because you can tell it’s fake. I have the same problem with Hitchcock…who is reknown for his cinematic prowess…but I always go ‘huh’ – because so much of his stage work is so ‘fake.’ I’m a film snob, what can I say.

Which of the dolls in particular were you most fond of and how did it feel to see them come alive on camera?

Well, Blade, of course, because I was still – and always will be tramatized by my experience working with Kinski. So, it was fun vicariously directing Blade (aka Kinski) since I had no luck directing him in person.

I obviously enjoyed the work with puppets that were done by puppeteers…or in one case, with a ‘little person’ – as in the case of Pinhead (sometimes was animated, but sometimes was a little person). When it’s a sequence that is all stop-motion, you discuss the sequence with Dave, then months later, he delivers this sequence – that always for me looked faked, so how am I going to be happy about that?

How much of an influence did Charles band have during the shoot and how would you compare this collaboration to Tourist Trap?

Charlie is a mostly hands-off producer, especially during principal photography, so that part is great. He only comes in at the end of post. And he is almost always a fairly smart, effective producer…with good, reasonable ideas. It was really no different from Tourist Trap to Puppet Master.

Puppet Master

Puppet Master

How come you chose not to direct any of the sequels? Have you ever been tempted to return to the series and, if so, how do you feel your approach would differ now from the original movie?

I was never offered any of the sequels nor did I care to pursue them. I was always trying to make my own movies.

I must say, when I saw this blog by Charlie from China – on the set of Puppet #9 – where Charlie talks about trying to invigorate the franchise (because it has been cheapened beyond any repair), and he is on a studio set where they have completely recreated the opening of Puppet Master – my version!, except the German Nazi characters are played by two Chinese actors, still speaking German? I really wondered why he wouldn’t come back to me – to try to invigorate the series. I would have loved to go to China, even to make a silly movie about killer puppets.

I would have made it funny, not silly.

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