Following his work as an editor, Jack Sholder made his directorial debut in 1982 with the underrated thriller Alone in the Dark, in which screen legend Jack Palance and a group of escaped mental patients lay siege to the home of their new doctor. The movie would mark the first production for fledging distributor New Line Cinema and would prove to be a modest success. His next feature would be A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, which would lead to such high profile projects as The Hidden and the Kiefer Sutherland action thriller Renegades.
Over the following decade, Sholder worked on a variety of made-for-TV movies, including the overlooked thriller 12:01 (which featured a similar concept to the hit comedy Groundhog Day) and the Marval mutant flick Generation X. In 1999, Sholder returned to the world of horror with Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies, in which Andrew Divoff reprised his enigmatic performance as the deadly Djinn. Sholder’s most recent projects have included Beeper with Harvey Keitel and the TV spin-off of the cult creature feature Tremors.
Jack Sholder looks back over a long and eventful career.
As a child your first passion was classical music; how were you first exposed to this and what was it in particularly about the trumpet that appealed to you so much?
On a visit to NYC (we lived in Philadelphia) when I was maybe six, I saw a trumpet in a store window and felt it beckoning me, kind of like the opening scene in Gun Crazy, where the young boy sees a pistol in the shop window and the camera zooms in to the gun. I pestered my parents for a couple of years, and finally my mother took me to a department store that had a music section where they also gave lessons and offered to give kids a free musical aptitude test.
I failed the test, but they said studying music would be beneficial even for someone like me; however, I didn’t have the lips to play trumpet and I should play the clarinet. I insisted on the trumpet and was so happy to when I finally got it that I practiced like crazy, got good at it quickly, loved the feeling of playing music and pretty soon that was who I was. I pretty much practiced every day from that point until I shot my first feature.
Why did you choose to study chemical engineering at Drexel Institute of Technology and what caused you to relocate to Antioch College and the University of Edinburgh?
I was the first one in my extended family to go to college and the expectation was for me to learn something where I could make a living. I had come to the realisation that while I was very good, I would never be one of the world’s greatest trumpet players and I didn’t like the idea that my life would be based around one square inch of lip. I had also gotten into writing so I thought I’d be an engineer and write in my spare time. Within the first week at Drexel I realised I was not meant to be an engineer and decided to major in English at a liberal arts college. I saw my old high school guidance counsellor for advice and started looking through her shelves of college catalogues, starting with A.
When I got to Antioch, I stopped looking and applied. I liked that it was both very liberal and very good, and in fact it was an excellent choice. My father was born in London, so I liked the idea of studying in the UK with delusions of becoming an English gentleman. Edinburgh had a very distinguished faculty in literature, so I chose it and got in for a year. I probably learned more about all sorts of things in that year that in any year of my life, came to the realisation that words were meaningless (it’s a long story) and began to consider filmmaking, which I began to pursue once I got back to Antioch, pretty much on my own since they had no film courses whatsoever.
How did you first become involved in the movie industry and what kind of films and filmmakers had the great impact on you growing up?
I made several films at Antioch and while there met an alum who lived in NY and made documentaries. When I graduated I moved to NY and he offered me some editing work. I was cheap, and so was he, so it worked out. As for films that impacted me, I remember seeing The Wizard of Oz at a very young age and being terrified when the witch melted and also seeing Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that also scared the hell out of me.
They had creature features on TV every Saturday night in Philly and we all used to watch them and laugh. I remember seeing The Seventh Seal later on and thinking, holy cow, you can actually do that?! In college I fell in love with French cinema; Renoir, Marcel Carné and, of course, the Nouvelle Vague. Then I just inhaled any film I could find playing anywhere.
Your earlier editing work were such pictures as King: From Montgomery to Memphis. What do you feel your strengths were with regards to editing and how did this prepare you for your subsequent career as a filmmaker?
Film is a lot like music, in that it occurs in time and has a micro and a macro rhythm, so clearly that was a fit. It is also a lot like literature since that’s where you put the story together, especially since I worked mostly on documentaries where the films were ‘written’ in the cutting room. So in a sense I was born to edit, and I feel as a director I really see things like an editor, that I cut the film in my head as I go.
You first turned to directing with a number of short films during the 1970s; what do you recall of these?
Despite whatever talents I had as an editor, I didn’t want to take orders from someone else. Perhaps if I’d worked with great directors I might have felt differently. But I really wanted to make films that would make other people feel the same sorts of things that wonderful films made me feel. I can tell you I never set out to do horror or thrillers. My most successful short was an adaptation of a Katherine Mansfield short story, The Garden Party, about a young girl’s coming of age right after WWI (WWII in my adaptation). It won a bunch of prizes and played on PBS. There were others before that which were rather arty and again did well at festivals.
How did you first become acquainted with Robert Shaye and how would you describe New Line at this time?
When I moved to NY, a college pal was dating a girl who worked as a temp for New Line and he said they were distributing films and maybe they’d distribute one of my shorts. I met Bob, whose office was over a seedy bar in the Village. He had four features already paired with shorts and wasn’t interested in mine. But he mentioned that he needed a trailer, and did I know anyone who could cut a trailer for him. Me, I said. So he rented someone’s cutting room starting when they went home Friday night, and we worked straight through to Monday morning and ended up with both a pretty good trailer and a very good friendship.
Bob and his wife, Eva, sort of adopted me in a way, and in addition to doing all of New Line’s trailers and doing all the editorial work on the films New Line acquired, I saw them socially all the time; Bob would always show me any new film they acquired to get my opinion. I was there when he first saw Pink Flamingos and Even Dwarfs Started Small, which was Werner Herzog’s first film to be picked up in the US, and I got to know all those guys and many others through Bob. I did other work, since Bob didn’t have enough for me to make a living. It seemed like things were always hit and miss for New Line, meaning they’d have a hit and then a dry period when it seemed they might go under, and that’s the way it was until Nightmare.
What was your association with the Sonny Chiba films that New Line released?
I did the trailer and the title sequence. I also helped give the characters English names – Sonny’s real name was Shinichi Chiba – since Bob thought they’d be more readily accepted that way.
Where did the concept for Alone in the Dark first originate and did you always intend on it to be your first feature as director?
Bob and I and a few others were sitting around New Line late in the day, and one of the guys, Mike Harpster, said it was getting too hard just to buy and distribute films and they knew the market so well that if they made a low budget horror film they could really make some money. A week later I came to them with the idea that a group of criminally insane guys escape from a NYC hospital during a blackout (there was a huge three-day blackout a few years earlier in NY) and terrorise Little Italy and the Mafia finally rounds them up.
I didn’t think about it, but I later realised it was more or less like Fritz Lang’s M. Bob and Mike liked the idea but felt it was too expensive to do in NYC, so asked me to come back with some changes. A few weeks later I did and they made a deal for me to write it and, if they liked the script, for me to direct it.
One of the villains wore a hockey mask, an image that Jason Voorhees would adopt the same year. Do you feel that your picture was an influence in any way?
I honestly have no idea. Bob had this idea that one of the escapees was called the Bleeder because he’d get these nosebleeds. He would get away from the others, but the audience wouldn’t know who he was, and eventually he’d end up inside the house with the family that was being attacked by the other escapees. And at a crucial moment we’d reveal who he really was. We needed him to be able to do stuff during the looting of the department store, but we didn’t want to see his face. Hence, the hockey mask.
Were you intimidated to work with such talent as Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence and Martin Landau?
Very. Marty Landau turned out to be a great guy and we are still friends and did two other films together. I was in awe of Donald Pleasence, since I considered him one of the great living actors. And I was frankly scared of Palance, who could be very intimidating. The producer had promised him, among other things, that there would be no night shooting – on Alone in the Dark! So Jack wasn’t a happy camper. I was determined not to let him bully me, and I quickly realised that a) he was a terrific actor, and b) he was actually a decent guy, though he didn’t want you to know that. He also was an opera fan, so we could talk about that. I regard working with these three as one of the best casts I ever had.
Around this time you were working as an editor for Miramax on The Burning. How would you compare the running of these two studios and how did you feel about cutting such violent films?
The Burning was Harvey and Bobby’s first venture into filmmaking They did not have a film studio, nor were they especially film savvy. But Harvey had really great instincts. Nobody on the film had ever done a horror film before, with the exception of course of Tom Savini. All the unpleasant things Harvey and Bobby are now infamous for were present in that film experience and only grew more so. I never liked Bobby, but something about Harvey was very compelling in a weird way. At a festival several years later I saw My Left Foot, which blew me away. I thought it was a great film that would never make a dime.
When I saw what Harvey did with it, and how much passion he channelled into its distribution, I gained a new level of respect for him. I should also say that I learned a great deal about how a horror film works from the experience. Alone in the Dark had been stalled. Once I finished working on The Burning, I did another draft that was much better and New Line greenlit the film and I was a feature film director.
Both films featured contributions by Tom Savini; how would you describe his methods and were you ever tempted or under pressure to make Alone in the Dark more graphic?
The Weinsteins always looked to Savini for advice, since he was the horror film expert. He was also quite a showman. His stuff was quite low tech, but he understood what was needed to create the most bang and he was very effective. On Alone in the Dark, we hired a special effects make-up guy who had worked on The Garden Party and who I quite liked, despite the fact that he was a serious alcoholic. He was supposed to, among other things, create the zombie for the sister’s hallucination. He stalled and stalled and finally, a day before we were to shoot it, we realised he had done nothing. I told Bob we should call Savini who flew out, went to the local supermarket, bought stuff like soap and Rice Krispies and turned out a truly hideous zombie in an hour or two.
Were you pleased with how Where Are the Children? turned out and how come you decided not to direct it yourself?
I thought the film turned out poorly and that the director was an idiot, which I suppose is how many writers view directors. I wanted to direct the film, and had backing from the studio, but the producer was buddies with the guy who he ended up hiring. The producer and I became friends and he told me he regretting making the decision. The experience made me determined never to write something for someone else to direct.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was unfairly panned by fans of the original movie, as well as many critics. Now, over twenty-five years later, how do you feel about it?
I don’t think it’s anywhere near my best work. I frankly never was that impressed with the original at the time – I’m more impressed now. Nobody at New Line certainly had any idea why the film was such a hit (Freddy, duh).
In fact, Freddy wasn’t even on the original poster. What I most love about the film was it opened #1 at the box office, made more than the original, and thereby gave me twenty more years directing features.
One criticism was that you chose to bring Fred Krueger out into the real world, which fans felt betrayed the original concept. Yet Wes Craven would take this even further in New Nightmare. Do you still stand by this decision and how would you comment on the homosexual themes critics repeatedly comment on?
Wes was supposed to direct 2 but backed out six weeks before the start of photography, primarily because he felt the script did betray his original concept. I had done a bit of editing work on the original and was very familiar with it, so they offered me the film. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another horror film, especially a sequel, which at that time was mostly looked down upon. But a producer friend convinced me that it would make money and give me a career, which it did. With only six weeks to prep the film, shooting in L.A. while I was still living in NYC, was pretty daunting. I was frankly scared to death and had no idea how I could possibly pull it off. The script was set, to the point that New Line would rather lose Wes than rewrite it, and I was just trying to hang onto a bucking bronco.
As for they gay themes, I frankly had no idea at the time. I mean, it did deal with teenage sexual anxiety which was a common theme in horror films, but I never thought I was making a gay film. I did live in the Village, where there was a huge gay scene and spent summers in Fire Island, which had several towns that were infamously gay party scenes, so I was around it. I suppose I recycled some of that in a cynical way, in the same way that I recycled the blackout and subsequent looting in Alone in the Dark. You may have seen the recent documentary, Never Sleep Again, that lays out the case for the gay theme of the film, and it sure is there. What can I say?
Perhaps your most underrated picture was The Hidden; how did this come about and how do you feel about the concept being recycled for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday?
I was looking to move out of horror after Nightmare 2, but that seemed to be a lot of what I was being offered. Sara Risher, head of production at New Line, mentioned The Hidden and said she thought it would be a great film for me. I read the script and immediately fell in love with it. Another director was attached, but I was really desperate to do it and eventually got the go ahead. I was a big fan of Sidney Lumet and his NY cop dramas, so I loved the idea of doing a cop film. I also thought it had a lot of heart and essentially it was all about what it meant to be human. As for the Hidden sequel, I read the script but never saw the movie and never considered doing it. Many other films have ripped off the basic theme which was really created by the writer, Jim Kouf, not me. So I will consider all those others as an homage to The Hidden, rather than a rip off.
As with Freddy’s Revenge, The Hidden featured an extensive amount of prosthetic effects. Were you comfortable working with such elaborate set pieces and do you enjoy the challenges these bring?
In a word, no. Special effects are very mechanical and time-consuming. I did come to get pretty good at it since I’ve done a number of films with make-up and special FX. My job is to keep them from looking mechanical and to remind the make-up guys that they are doing a character, not an effect. I prefer to work with the actors, which is the most fun, though I do like a car chase or two.
Another action movie you made around this time was the thriller Renegades, which reunited Young Guns stars Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips. What do you recall of the making of this picture?
Well, it was my first big studio film – Universal. I had been looking for a film to top or at least equal The Hidden, which I thought turned out very well, and that was the general feeling in Hollywood. I turned down some big films and finally the offers were slowing down, and I felt I had to do something. The script always had problems in that it was quite formulaic. I enjoyed working with Kiefer and Lou is a real sweetheart. I do not consider the film very successful, though there are parts of it I quite like.
12:01 shared a similar concept to Groundhog Day, although your film was darker and less comedic. Was it frustrating having to compete with a mainstream movie and were you pleased with the results?
12:01 is one of my favourites. It was supposed to be a feature, but when New Line heard about Groundhog Day, they got cold feet and made a deal to do it as a TV movie with Fox, though they did release it theatrically overseas. I didn’t feel I was competing with anyone. I thought it was a terrific script, and the mixed genre – sci-fi/thriller/comedy/romance – was a good fit for me. I’ve always wanted to do a comedy – in fact, Hollywood Reporter called The Hidden one of the funnier films of the year – so I enjoyed making it. I must say it was the first film I can honestly say that about, though there have been others since.
During the 1990s, you worked on a variety of made-for-TV movies and shows, such as The Omen and Generation X. Did you find shooting for television to be more restricted or were you allowed considerable freedom on these projects?
They were certainly restricting compared to features. Less time to shoot, more adherence to the script since often the writer was also one of the producers. And there was a smaller upside, meaning you could go over budget on a feature, but in the end if that resulted in the film making more money, that was fine. With a TV movie, the producers got the same if it was mediocre or brilliant, so for them it was more about keeping to the budget and schedule. That said, I generally had more time and more latitude than other MOW directors I knew, and for the most part I liked the scripts. And given the restrictions, I mostly got my way in the end.
With Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies, you moved the focus of Andrew Divoff’s character from the Djinn to his human form. Was this to reduce the budget or to allow him to take the role in a different direction?
I just tried to come up with what I thought would be a good story. At heart I’m more the Garden Party/classical music guy than the horror guy who can’t wait to hack off limbs and spill blood. I frankly needed the work, and I tried to come up with an idea that would answer the question, what do people wish for that gets them in the most trouble? I suppose I also didn’t want to do something that was all about the make-up, which was what the original seemed to be. Ironically, I had worked with Andrew once before, when he did the voice of an assistant to the Russian Premier in By Dawn’s Early Light.
This was possibly your most FX-driven project since The Hidden; did you enjoy returning to the fantasy genre?
Reluctantly, I realised that I really do enjoy the genre. It allows me to act out my violent antisocial tendencies in a way in which no one actually gets hurt in real life. And they appeal to my sense of irony and the absurd. And you can get a lot more creative with the camera.
Over recent years, you collaborated with Harvey Keitel on the thriller Beeper and worked on the TV series Tremors. Have you consciously tried to avoid working on horror pictures and how do you feel about your earlier work?
Given a choice between a thriller – a genre I really do enjoy – and a horror film , I’ll take the thriller every day. That is how I see The Hidden, 12:01 and By Dawn’s Early Light, which I think are my three best films, though I do have a real fondness for Alone in the Dark.
How did you first become involved with Western Carolina University and what kind of role do you play at this institution?
They offered me a chance to create a film production program from scratch. Never having taught or taken a film course in my life, and thinking that film school can largely be a waste of time, it seemed a challenge to come up with something that might actually do some good. I also liked the idea of a steady pay cheque, which I had never had. It was pretty daunting at first, to come up with this whole structure and to make it worthwhile. But six years down the road I believe I have done that, and I am very proud of the program and of my students. Given my musical background, great musicians almost always teach as part of what they do, it’s almost an obligation to pass it on to the next generation. So I justify it that way. But I really do miss directing.
Do you have any projects in the works and have you ever been interested in returning to one of your films for a sequel?
I have been pursuing other projects, but this job keeps me pretty busy and also far from Hollywood. I do believe I will direct another film at some point. Not sure what, but I feel I’ve got at least one more good film left in me. I’d consider a sequel. But these days most sequels are done by someone new. I avoided seeing the new Nightmare film, but Bob Shaye tells me I didn’t miss much. If I’m going to take time off from teaching, it had better be a script I really relate to since that seems to be the common thread in my best work. If I had a passion for the script, I usually made a pretty good movie. If it was just a job, less so.