Gay directors are certainly a minority in Hollywood, and those who helm horror films are even more scarce. Tim Sullivan, director of the supernatural thriller Driftwood ( involving youths at the titular attitude-adjustment camp ) and the horror movie 2001 Maniacs, is one of this rare breed and, in an e-mail interview, he discussed Driftwood ( now out of DVD ) , maggots and The Exorcist.
Windy City Times: I understand that the storyline of Driftwood is pretty close to your heart. Could you explain that?
Tim Sullivan: I was mentoring a youth group several years back and there was this kid in the class who was just so cool, a little rock-and-roll rebel in a classroom filled with pop-culture clones. I knew he was having trouble relating to his parents, who had him later in life and were in their 50s and just couldn't relate to their 16-year-old.
One day they were watching some news show talking about the aftereffects of the Columbine tragedy, and the show was saying how the teen killers listened to Marilyn Manson and wore black and watched horror movies and read monster comics. [ Then, ] some twisted light bulb went on and they went into the kid's room and found a Manson CD and a leather jacket and a bunch of horror comics, and next thing you know, they sent their kid off to an attitude-adjustment camp for troubled youths. They saw an ad for these places where they were saying stuff like, 'You don't want to be the parents of the next Columbine Killer, do ya?' Rather than talk with their kid, they just paid their 50 grand and packed their kid off and then patted themselves on the back about what great parents they were.
Well, when I found out about this, I went ballistic. The idea of this young, unique soul being incarcerated simply for marching to a different beat—I mean, he had committed no crime! He had done nothing illegal! He was a loner, shy, and kept to himself because whenever he tried to talk to his parents, he just couldn't get through. Yeah, he was morose and melancholy and listening to Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison and [ was ] intrigued by their early deaths, but he wasn't slitting his wrists or burning his arms with cigarettes, for God's sake. But because he was 16, under the age of 18, he had no legal rights whatsoever, so when Mom and Pop decided to throw him in a place like Driftwood, it was bon voyage and to hell with anyone who questioned the decision. That became obvious when I started asking them about the kid, and they not-so-subtly implied the trouble they could create for a gay man such as myself simply inquiring about the welfare of a teenage boy. Realizing I was David going up against Goliath, I made a pact with myself to one day tell this kid's story and, in effect, tell the story of every kid, myself included—whoever was imprisoned, both literally and figuratively, for simply being who they were as a human being.
WCT: You seemed to be quite the advocate for [ pro wrestler ] Diamond Dallas Page being [ the main antagonist ] The Captain. Why was that?
TS: Actually, at first, I wasn't. My dear friend and producer, Barry Levine, with whom I had produced Detroit Rock City, kept insisting I consider this wrestler friend of his named Diamond Dallas Page for a significant role in the film. Now I gotta confess, I am not a wrestling fan and had never heard of Page, [ and ] the idea of putting some gladiator named Diamond in the film did not exactly appeal to me. But that attitude was certainly very judgmental of me, and certainly went against the theme of the film, so I quickly changed my tune and agreed to meet with DDP.
Man, the minute I met him, I was immediately struck that I was in the presence of a great man, a person so filled with positivity and determination and spirit, he made me a believer in his ability to do anything he set his mind to. This is a guy who began his wrestling career at an age when most other wrestlers are retiring. And he went on to win the world championship! A guy who he developed his own brand of yoga named YRG ( Yoga for Regular Guys ) and healed himself after he broke his back and was told he might never walk again. His face was a road map of life's ups and downs, but his eyes sparkled with a kindness that contradicted his intimidating physical size. He was perfect for The Captain. I always wanted there to be a wounded animal underneath the grizzly-bear exterior, so much to both my surprise and DDP's, I offered him the lead role of Captain Kennedy right there on the spot. And then I became his staunchest defend [ er ] in the face of others who, like I was initially, doubted his ability to deliver. But by the end of the first day of shooting, everyone was a believer like me.
WCT: Is it true that co-star Talan Torriero was hit so hard in one scene that he actually bled?
TS: Yep, and you can see the full uncut take in the DVD 'Making Of' documentary. Having been known primarily for the MTV reality show Laguna Beach, Talan was very determined to prove his chops as an actor, and to do that, he went to great lengths to 'get into character.' So when we were shooting the scene where Dallas bitch-slaps him, he was so 'in the moment' [ that ] he forgot to whip his head back, and took a fistful of Dallas right in the nose. That sickening [ thump ] you hear is real, as is the blood dripping from his nose! Dallas was mortified, but Talan thought it was cool. And I honestly gotta say [ that ] his commitment to the role took the character to a level that wasn't in the script. I admit I wrote Talan's character, Yates, as sort of a one-note bully, but Talan added sympathy and tragedy that surprised us all. And I believe a lot of that came from the actual physical beating he underwent!
WCT: You were fined for cruelty to animals regarding what you did to maggots after filming. Looking back, how silly do you think that fine was?
TS: What can I say? People have to justify their job descriptions, and we had the [ humane ] society on the premises, but the only 'animals' that we used were a bunch of maggots. When we were done with the scene, we were running late, [ so ] I just grabbed a broom and started sweeping them up and tossing them in the trash, and next thing I know the [ humane ] society rep is freaking out, and we ended up getting fined. We were supposed to gently gather up the maggots and then let them go free in a meadow where they can grow up into productive fruit flies or whatever. I guess I understand where these folk where coming from, and I would like to take this opportunity to deeply apologize to maggot lovers all over the world. If only Hollywood treated writers and filmmakers with as much concern as they do maggots!
WCT: How intense was it to film in an actual ( abandoned ) youth correctional facility?
TS: Extremely intense. This was an actual 100-year-old juvie prison that had been abandoned after it was closed down for questionable practices and cruelty. So you could just feel this oppressive dread everywhere. There were prison cells the size of public toilets, and I'd go in there to gather my thoughts in between takes and plan the next shot, and I would think, 'Man, I can get up and leave any time I want, but these kids were trapped here for years.' It was very frightening.
And then you look at the walls of the cells, and see messages written in what only could be fingernails. One of them said, 'Set Me Free,' which was where I got the idea for the name of the theme song, written for the film by Tad Jacobs and Bobby Alt. And, I swear to you, that place was haunted. It had to be. I refuse to believe all that pain and angst just disappears with the passing of the flesh, so to speak. Everyone felt it, especially [ lead ] Raviv Ullman. We all couldn't wait to leave, but it definitely added to the impact of the film. I truly feel it's in every frame of film.
WCT: You filmed Driftwood in 15 days. What are the pros and cons to operating within such a short time frame?
TS: The cons will always be that you never have enough time to rehearse or get what you want, and often you have to compromise—but the key is to look at limitations and compromise as challenges to your skills, whether you [ are ] the director, writer, actor, cinematographer, what have you. A short shooting schedule keeps you on your toes. You really have to bring your A-game and be ready to think fast and make quick decisions in order to make sure you have all the pieces that you need to put the puzzle together that makes up your film. You have to be open to adapting your story to the situation, changing as you go, but always staying true to the vision.
For my money, films that have endless budgets and checkbooks tend to feel like corporate fodder made by committee—studio films that feel overthought and second-guessed. On the other hand, films made with the edge of a time clock running out tend to feel more organic, and have a true energy and soul. That's why I will always prefer the indie-spirited films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween over commercial Hollywood product.
WCT: How do you feel your directorial style has changed/evolved since 2001 Maniacs?
TS: On Driftwood, I had the deep fortune of being surrounded by some top-notch Hollywood veterans serving as producers on the film. I had Bob Engelman, who had produced The Mask and Scooby Doo, and Bud Smith, who was Billy Freidkin's editor and cut The Exorcist. I learned more from these guys in the two months of production that I did in four years of film school. Bud particularly helped me to let go of preconceived notions of what I thought the film should be, and metaphorically held my hand as the film revealed itself.
Movies are written three times: on the page, on the set and in the editing room. So on Driftwood, I really allowed to 'serve the song,' so to speak, and make my directorial choices based on what was best for the film, not so much on outside influences and personal preferences. This especially came into play in the editing room, where I think my style evolved the most. I learned to go. There was an entire five-minute coda to the film that was brilliantly shot, acted and edited, but it just felt like the film had reached a pinnacle, an exclamation point, and this coda, as well-executed as it was, changed the ending of the film into an ellipsis. I knew it, and Bud knew it, but I didn't want to admit it out loud because we had spent nearly an entire day shooting the scene and I just couldn't dream of tossing a whole day's shoot down the trash. But as Bud puts it, the day comes when that white light comes on over your head, and you must speak the truth, and the hard truth was, it wasn't working. So, I let it go. It's on the DVD for those who are interested, but I know we made the right decision, and we made it quickly. On Maniacs, I wouldn't have been able to let go.
WCT: While there are gay/homoerotic elements in Driftwood, do you plan to play an explicitly gay horror film, like HellBent?
TS: Funny you should mention that. My next flick is the sequel to Maniacs, and then after that, a project I am directing for Tobe Hooper with Diamond Dallas Page called Clowns. After that, however, I am going into production on a supernatural love story called Brothers of the Blood, depicting a love triangle between two male vampires and a female mortal. It will be sexy, scary, tragic, elegant, operatic and, yes, highly erotic. Thomas Dekker, who was on [ TV's ] Heroes and is John Connor in the new Terminator TV series for Fox, will be playing the young male vampire, and we are in talks with Rob Lowe to play the elder.
WCT: You've said that The Exorcist is your favorite horror film. In your mind, what makes it such a classic?
TS: Its themes are timeless and, in my estimation, the basis of every great horror film—the notion that for so many people, the only way they come to know goodness or 'God,' is by coming face to face with the Devil. I can relate to that.
WCT: What scares you in real life?
TS: George Bush. But, thank God, his days are over. And, unlike my maniacs, he won't be coming back.
To keep up to date with Tim Sullivan and his projects, go to www.myspace.com/newrebellion and the Official Driftwood MySpace page at www.myspace.com/driftwoodthemovie.