Combustible Celluloid
 

An Interview with Bruce Campbell

Groovy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Bruce Campbell's Book If Chins Could Kill.

Ask anyone on the street if they've heard of Bruce Campbell, and you're bound to hear a resounding "who?". Ask any ten people and I would wager you'll get more blank stares. But ask a hundred people, and at least one of them will respond with enthusiasm. "Bruce Campbell? He's the coolest!"

The handsome, goofy, big-chinned Bruce Campbell holds a unique position in the entertainment industry. He's a self-made actor and veteran of some fifty movies and TV shows, most of them B-level entertainments like Maniac Cop 2 and Waxwork II: Lost in Time. He also produced and starred in (and performed various other jobs on) the Evil Dead trilogy, The Evil Dead (1982), Evil Dead II (1987), and Army of Darkness (1993), which all remain a cult items to this day. Fans of the Evil Dead films are quite often fierce and devoted, and it's these folks who not only recognize, but revere, Mr. Campbell.

Now Campbell has written his biography, the story of his life and career, with the apt title If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor (St. Martin's Press, $23.95). It's a delightful read, and a true must for Campbell's fans as well as any independent filmmakers. Campbell visited San Francisco on a book-signing tour, and he was gracious enough to speak with me for a bit.

Campbell admits over a cool Corona that If Chins Could Kill (named for his good-sized protruding chin) was not his first attempt at a book. "When I was a kid I started to write a book. It was the lamest book. I think I worked on it for a day. It was about Walt Disney. This was when I was about ten or twelve. I thought, 'I'm an expert on Walt Disney.' I think I looked up something in the Random House encyclopedia about Walt Disney just to find out when and where he was born. I remember writing lines like 'then Walt made millions off of Mickey.' And I'm like, 'how would you... what kind of bulls**t is that?' I didn't work on it for more than a couple days and just trashed it."

"But everyone has a book in the back of their head," Campbell goes on. "Everyone has a story to tell. The guy who started it was my literary agent. He became my literary agent after he sent me an e-mail. He said, 'I've been to your website, and I've read some of your rants.' And they're very crude. They're not very polished at all. And I said, 'that's not really a book.' So we started to just talk about how we would go about selling the idea of a book to publishers. It became an odyssey in itself."

A television set over the bar in the Hilton plays a commercial for exercise equipment. Campbell eyes it and wrinkles his nose. "That's not a good way to shoot muscles," he says. "You can see every vein. That's disgusting." Campbell admits that he spends many of his waking hours thinking about film and filming. And justifiably so, it seems, after reading about the long and grueling shoot on the first Evil Dead film, an experience that would have permanently scarred anyone.

Now at age 42, Campbell sounds like a wise old sage passing on his wisdom to younger filmmakers and actors. "If you go to Hollywood, you've already sold out," he says. "By the sheer act of going there, you're saying 'I need to go there because this is the only way I can get my movie made.' Baloney! Indiana's the place to make your movie. Pontiac, Michigan. Whatever. Then you're just making it on the merits of the movie. You don't have to have any discussions about what's hip now. Who can we get to do the soundtrack? You can actually put a score to your movie instead of a soundtrack. I get this thing all the time. Filmmakers go, 'can I send you a script, you'll read it and attach yourself and we'll package it.' Why can't you get the money based on nothing, just the script? This whole packaging thing is out of control. Then you get absurd casting because it's all packaged by the same talent agency. The sensibility is so bizarre."

"Hollywood's a creepy place," he continues. "I'm just going to say: it's a creepy place. Geographically, the city of Hollywood is a s**t-pit. They hose it off every spring and chase all the hookers away, and the burned-out rock star wannabes. If I were Charlton Heston, I wouldn't want my star to be where it was. Homeless people barfing on your star all day long."

"Some of the conversations I've overheard on pay phones were just classic; just gut-wrenchingly depressing. This woman was talking on a pay phone to her mother in Hawaii. During the course of the conversation it came out that her mother had taken her child away because she was clearly just whacked out her gourd half the time. But she had a big deal that was right around the corner. I've heard so many of those 'one-phone-call-away-from-fame' stories. After a while it's like, 'go home. Go to Buttlick Indiana. Have some dignity. So what if you didn't become an actor? Who gives a rat's ass? There's 5 billion other jobs you can have. Give it a rest. So you're not Mel Gibson? That's OK. I'm not either. I don't wanna be.'"

"That's one of the reasons I wanted to do the book. Why don't we do something where we don't gloss it all over like "Entertainment Tonight"? Not to point fingers, not to name names. I've got no reason to go after anyone. No one I would go after would mean anything anyway. It's such a low level. Who cares? But instead of everything being wonderful, we ran into idiots occasionally, or smart people, and people who were fair to us."

One of those angels was an amazing man named Irvin Shapiro, who had worked on Sergei Eisenstein's legendary masterpiece Battleship Potemkin in 1925 and helped Campbell and Raimi sell the first Evil Dead film. "Totally honest guy, good sense of humor," Campbell says. "When we met him he must have been about 80. Good lord. He'd been around forever. We were fortunate. I don't like the world luck. I think you make your own fortune by putting yourself in situations and pursuing things. We tracked him down and he totally bought into it. Thank God for Irvin Shapiro. We had little angels along the way. Stephen King was another." That best-selling author went to see the film, and liked it enough to write an article about it. The filmmakers then asked permission to borrow a quote for the movie poster and video box, which helped tremendously in drawing attention to it.

Campbell's star rose over the years alongside that of his frequent director and friend Sam Raimi. In If Chins Could Kill, Campbell delights in telling about all the times Raimi tortured him on movie sets, but Campbell admits that this is not the whole story. "We're friends. We've always had that relationship. We used to torture each other in school. I stabbed him in the eye with a pencil and he never forgot it. Just dumb things like that. I thought it was very funny, when it came time to direct real actors I was just curious to see how he was going to do it. Because with us and Evil Dead, what are we going to say, 'no, we don't think the blocking is organic.' We didn't know anything about it! I didn't even know what blocking was!"

Now Campbell has to deal not only with the legions of Evil Dead fans, but with the rivalry that regularly occurs between them. "The issues are, which is the best of the three, and it kind of boils down to: Evil Dead is for the real gore hounds. They want the gore. The gore the merrier. They want gore coming from every orifice. Then Evil Dead II is a weird combination of horror and dark comedy, so it's sort of like "splatstick." Then Army of Darkness, a lot of people who were squeamish thought that was fun, who hadn't even seen the others. But the real hard core people were like, 'fuck you, you sold out.' Even though you don't wake up in the morning and say, 'Gee, I think I'll sell out to Universal today.' You think, 'good, they're going to make the movie.' We have to deliver an "R" rating, the other two weren't even rated. It should have been called Medieval Dead. Don't get me started on that."

In addition, fans often ask Campbell to recite his two big catch phrases from the films, "Gimme some sugar, baby!" and "Groovy." Campbell's response is now, "What am I, your little monkey?"

Campbell saw his fan mail explode exponentially, however, after he won the lead role on the Fox television series "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." playing an oddball cowboy. It was that kind of show that critics and a gaggle of fans love, but their numbers still didn't add up to a hit. Campbell is now writing liner notes for a new DVD box set to be released this fall. "I'm just glad people will be able to see it in a good, clean copy with no commercials," he says.

As Raimi's name rose on the list of Hollywood directors, Campbell's roles in his films got smaller, which is fine by Campbell. "Sam and I intersect all the time. I just worked on Spider-Man. Without me the movie would be called The Human Spider. Tobey Maguire's getting ready to go in the ring as his early persona, his sort of homegrown Spider-Man. I'm a Wayne Newton-type ring announcer with the flashy gold jacket and all that crap. And it's like, 'what's your name, kid?' And he says, 'The Human Spider.' And it's like, 'no, you gotta jazz it up a little. Ladies and Gentleman, the Amazing Spider-Man!' So I give him his name. So it's pivotal, really, the role. It's four minutes long, but it's pivotal. I can't vouch for the script because they never gave us full scripts for Spider-Man. They would only give you the pages, and they all had serial numbers, and if it ever wound up on the internet, they would sue you and murder you and take your children."

Campbell's most recent film, a fun little French comedy called The Ice Rink, played at the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival. Campbell says it was a strange experience. "I got the part because there was a production assistant who knew who I was. And the producers were thinking, 'what American actor could we get.' And he just happened to be nearby -- I'm sure he was getting them coffee or something -- and he said, 'why don't you get Bruce Campbell.' And they said, 'who's Bruce Campbell?' And he filled them all in. I didn't find this out until I'd been working two weeks on the movie. Finally I said, 'how did you guys find out about me?' And they said, 'talk to that guy over there.' And he was just a P.A. And I thought, 'wow! I got hired by a P.A.' I was so excited to be there to see a new style of filmmaking. It was actually pretty dangerous for me, 'cause I started to get some bad ideas in my head. They finish early on Friday 'cause they figure you're going to go away for the weekend. They start at noon on Monday to give you time to get back into town. They assume you're leaving town to go to the coast or something. It was so civilized!"

More than anything else, Campbell's greatest survival tool is his wonderful sense of humor. "Some of that comes from the Midwest thing," he says. "Hollywood was a weird place when we were kids, and it was a weird place when we got there. And it's still a weird place. But if you don't have a sense of humor, then you're one of those homeless people barfing on Charlton Heston's star."

July 20, 2001

Buy Bruce Campbell DVDs:

  • Army of Darkness
  • Bubba Ho-Tep
  • Comic Book: The Movie
  • Congo
  • Darkman
  • Escape from L.A.
  • The Evil Dead
  • Evil Dead II
  • From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money
  • The Hudsucker Proxy
  • Icebreaker
  • The Ice Rink
  • The Majestic
  • Maniac Cop
  • McHale's Navy
  • Menno's Mind
  • Running Time
  • Serving Sara
  • Spider-Man
  • TimeQuest
  • Tornado!
  • Waxwork II: Lost in Time
  • Xena: Warrior Princess - Season Three

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