Excepting Harrison Ford, the greatest hero to movie nerds everywhere may just be Bruce Campbell, whose lifelong cult-movie cachet was sealed when he starred as "Ash" Williams in Sam Raimi's 1981 feature directorial debut The Evil Dead and its sequels Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Campbell also appeared in Raimi's Crimewave, Darkman, and the Spider-Man films (in tailor-made cameos)—and, for Raimi's buds the Coen Brothers, Fargo and The Hudsucker Proxy. Campbell has starred in the cult TV series The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Jack of All Trades, and the current USA Network hit Burn Notice, as well as frequently guest-starring on shows like Ellen, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Raimi's Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Though Campbell's other acting credits are too numerous to mention here, he has also carved out careers as an author (of If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor and Make Love!* *the Bruce Campbell Way) and as a director, first with Man with the Screaming Brain and now with My Name Is Bruce. Campbell accompanied the film around the country; I spoke to him on his San Francisco stop, in the offices of PR whizzes Karen Larsen & Associates. My Name Is Bruce comes to DVD and Blu-ray on February 10, 2009.
Groucho: You’ve been on the road for awhile with the film, right?
Bruce Campbell: Yeah, since October 20th.
G: Have you had any Johnny Yune fans accidentally wander into one of your screenings?
BC: Johnny Yune fans? Who’s that?
G: He made They Call Me Bruce?.
BC: Oh, I see. No, no. (Laughs.) No one’s been confused so far.
G: Okay, good. You know, when I was watching the film, which I enjoyed very much, I couldn’t relax until I saw Ted Raimi, and then I thought, “Okay, everything’s going to be okay.”
BC: "Everything’s fine now." Yeah.
G: And then when he reappears, playing another part, I nearly plotzed. And then, when he appears again, doing his best Keye Luke impression, I—
BC: Like, "When will this stop?"
G: (Laughs.) I knew that I was maybe watching the greatest film ever made.
BC: Well Ted—I always put Ted in everything I do. We’ve been in eleven movies now together. I put him in my movies to make me look subtle as an actor—because you watch Ted, you go, “Wow, look at that guy go!” And then you watch me and you go, “Heyyyyy.” So it’s all about comparison.
G: Yeah. Well he also seems like one of those actors that can do pretty much anything, but people don’t see his potential as much as you do.
BC: They don’t. A guy like Ted—I’m surprised he’s not working constantly because he can basically do comedy, drama—he can sing. He can do all this crazy stuff that actors are supposed to be able to do.
BC: So, I don’t care. If it just means he’s available for me, that’s fine. I’ll use him.
G: Yeah. All right. You’ve made two features now—do you think what you’re doing as a filmmaker is sort of “the new camp”?
BC: I don’t know. That’s for the pundits to decide. I just—I only like what I like. I was sort of weaned on The Three Stooges. And I make no apologies about that. I know women don’t find the Stooges particularly funny because they don’t think pain is funny. But guys see another guy hit his thumb with a hammer—you know, generally that can be fairly funny—
BC: Until they throw the hammer at you. And then someone will laugh at that. So I’ve been a fan of broader humor. I’m not a subtle humor kind of guy...for whatever reason. And I think some people who go to see this movie, I think they’re thinking they’re going to see like a Saw movie or something and it’s not the case. This is, you know, Bob Hope with a body count.
G: Yeah. You mentioned being weaned on the Stooges...what is the strange brew of cultural and geographic influences that made Bruce Campbell possible? What formed you?
BC: What formed me was mostly working stiffs—my grandfather worked for Alcoa Aluminum for 45, 44 years—something like that. And then my dad wanted to be a painter. But my grandfather said, "No, you’re not going to be a painter. You’re going to get a real job and, you know, support your family." So my dad got into advertising because he was sort of creative. But then he was really tortured, so he wound up doing community theatre on the side. And I went to see my dad in a play when I was about eight and saw a completely different version of my dad. He was wearing silly clothes, and he was acting really goofy and singing and dancing and hanging out with women who were not my mother, and it was scandalous. It was very scandalous. But I became really fascinated, and then when I got old enough to join that theatre group as a—I could be in their summer plays because they would let teens and young adults in their big summer plays. And then I eventually joined when I turned eighteen. And I just worked my way up the ranks at that little theatre group, and my dad was always very supportive as a result. Because he sort of suckered me into it. And he also, I think, didn’t want something to happen to me that happened to him. So I benefited from generational change. So three generations ago, I would not have made this movie—even a couple of generations ago, I wouldn’t be in this business. So I’m very thankful for the poor bastards who came before me who had to suck it up and work like a dog so that I could sit around and crack jokes.
G: Right, right. So, have you ever made a movie that you would describe as "Caligula Meets The Apple Dumpling Gang"?
BC: Almost. A couple of real stinkers. But that is the favorite thing in Hollywood is to say something meets something.
G: Critics do it too.
BC: And there was actually a pitch apparently with Die Hard. The pitches after Die Hard used to be "It’s Die Hard on a boat," "It’s Die Hard in the desert." And the pitch finally came back around one time, apparently, "It’s Die Hard in an office building."
G: Yeah. Yeah.
BC: Which, of course, that’s what Die Hard was in. But they love those pitches.
G: Yeah. It’s funny you should say that because when I was in high school, I was in a comedy troupe, and I wrote this skit about—I thought, you know, all that stuff was happening, like Die Hard on a cruise ship and everything, and so I wrote a skit that was Die Hard on a bus. And I thought, this is absurd, no one would ever make this movie. And then—
BC: And then Speed came out.
G: Speed came out. And then the punch line of the skit was "Next time it’s going to be Die Hard in a phone booth." And then Joel Schumacher made Phone Booth.
BC: Yeah. (Laughs). That’s exactly right.
G: There’s nothing they won’t do.
BC: No. And there’s nothing they won't do two and three and four times. You know, my favorite thing out of people is "Oh, I love these Batmans."
BC: These Batmans? I mean in this "whole new version"—there’s like the—you know, the Joel Schumacher versions, now we’ve got the Chris Nolan versions, before that it was the Jack Nicholson versions. It’s like—man! How about "Guess what? Time for a new idea."
G: And the fact that that might be a Best Picture nomination—does that make you laugh or does that make you hopeful that genre films might get more of their due?
BC: It makes me mad and happy and sad—because that’s a "B" movie. If you get dressed up like a bat and fly around a place called Gotham, that’s a "B" movie.
G: Dressed up, but yeah.
BC: No, it’s an expensive "B" movie. That’s the only rule it’s breaking as a "B" movie—it’s too expensive. Everything else is classic "B" movie stuff. If you get bitten by a radioactive spider—
BC: That’s a "B" movie too, billion dollar franchise that it is.
BC: "B" movie.
G: The trick is to get them to give you the money, right?
G: One of the great things about this movie is it’s not just a Bruce Campbell in-joke or just for your fans, but it’s also savvy about movies themselves...one of my favorite moments is when you have the Psycho sound-alike when you’re in the poor man’s process car scene, you know?
G: Was a lot of that in the script or was that something you brought to it as the director?
BC: A lot of it comes once you finally finish the movie off, because at each phase there’s opportunities for the movie to morph into something else. Obviously, when you write it, it’s one thing. Then you show up on a film set, and you go "Oh, wow, the ceiling’s not this high, it’s this high, so now we have to do this or that or that." Or the door isn’t there, the door is over there. So you have to re-jigger however you thought things. Actors will come up with stuff on the spot, or you see what they’re doing and you want to encourage something. Or you want to shut something down that you don’t like what they’re doing. So it’s like a genie—the script is all on this little digital format. Then it explodes into the movie. And then you keep trying to cram it back into the box until you get it back down into the negative again. But it changes at every phase and in post production—that’s in spotting with the composer, you know, he said, "Well let’s just do the—you know, it’s the cheesy rear screen, let’s go with the Psycho thing. Because it’s always good car driving music anyway." So we just went with it.
G: Absolutely. I also enjoyed the self-conscious spoofery of acting itself, like your Lost Weekend binge scene. And I wanted to know if there’s a key to comedy drinking and eating, because there’s a lot of that in the movie.
BC: Just excess.
G: Excess. (Chuckles.)
BC: It’s all about excess. But I’m a little afraid of—there’s always going to be one person in a group—and I make this disclaimer sometimes when I do Q&As after the film—that I want to clarify I do not drink cheap whiskey out of dog bowls.
BC: Very good whiskey out of dog bowls.
BC: So you know, it’s a little dangerous—by calling yourself Bruce Campbell, you are actually opening up a whole new can of worms because the perception now changes. Because they think—somebody even said that they thought this movie was an ode to myself. I’m like "Dude, what kind of self-esteem would I have to have if that was the case?" So, by calling him that, it confused the issue more. I mean had we called him Dash Riprock, "C" movie actor, I guess it would have been okay, but we felt this is an opportunity to make it even weirder.
BC: And a little more twisted.
G: And now there’s—we don’t know yet how it’s ultimately going to roll out, but you might do a sequel. Is it possible that the role of a lifetime is you?
BC: Boy, that would be terrifying. Yeah, a horrible version of myself. We don’t know, the sequel—we’re gonna just see how the cookies crumble. I don’t know if I need to play myself again right away.
G: Right. And I also wanted to ask you if you really dance like an old prospector in real life.
BC: I do. Elbows up, knees up. Just watch out. That’s exactly how it is—the prospector dance. (Chuckles.)
G: One of the things in doing my research that really stood out is that you have this horse sense about everything, but particularly about business and about the business that you’re in. And it’s alluded to in the movie with the line about, you know, "Keep it at $1.5 mil"—
BC: "Get one name actor. Straight to DVD—you might break even."
G: It seems to me that Man With the Screaming Brain was profitable—maybe I’m wrong—thereby making it much easier to make this film. Is that true?
BC: Unfortunately, I made this movie in spite of Screaming Brain. Screaming Brain, I guess you could consider that a flop, in that a previous movie I made for the Sci-Fi Channel was Alien Apocalypse, which was one of their biggest ratings at the time. It was their number one TV movie that they had ever aired. And I thought, "Aww, this is a shoo-in. Screaming Brain—it’ll knock ‘em dead." And it laid a turd. And then the DVDs, I thought, "Well, that was just the Sci-Fi Channel. That’s their version. I’ll show the real version of the movie." Same thing. Laid an egg on DVD. So, it’s good, though—it’s helpful for me to realize that I gotta be careful too. Fans are very loyal. But they’re not going to watch anything. They’re not going to. And if they see something and go, "That ain’t for me," they don’t care who I am, you know—they’re not going to support it. And so, it’s an interesting thing, and I also learned a good lesson in trying to make movies in countries where you’re not being chased by packs of wild dogs either.
G: (Chuckles.) Right. Yeah, everything goes into the file, right?
G: The lead parts in Darkman, The Hudsucker Proxy and Crimewave –they’re all written for you, right? Who were the craven bastards that screwed those up for you?
BC: Well, meaning something—roles I should have had?
BC: Well, Hudsucker, no.
G: No, that’s not true?
BC: No, not Hudsucker. No, that was always a Tim Robbins thing. And the Coen brothers—they’re just so particular. They’ll only put in who they want. Even if you’re a friend, they’re not going to put you in everything.
BC: Darkman—I think Sam wanted me for that. It wasn’t a huge battle—because they were like "Don’t even bring it up again." And then, our second film, Crimewave was really the one that was fully intended for me to be in it, and the word came down that this guy is not going to be in this movie. And that hurt only because they didn’t just bring in some name actor; they brought in a completely no-name guy from Broadway who basically made about two movies for the rest of his life. And that’s all fine—I have no issue—Reed Birney is a real nice guy, and he’s a good actor. But that hit me because I went, "Oh, wow. They’re not—they were just changing. They didn’t want my apple; they wanted an orange." It wasn’t like they wanted a shinier apple. I don’t know—it was a strange thing. That one stuck with me for a little bit. But that’s the film business. If you’ve got a thin skin—
BC: This ain’t for you.
G: You publicly take hits, including in this movie, at movies you have appeared in that didn’t turn out so well.
BC: Yeah, yeah!
G: Or you let your fans have a whack at them in an open forum. Do you ever hear back from the filmmakers? Do you ever get shit for doing that?
BC: I haven’t. But Hollywood’s not really like that. Hollywood is more insidious. If there’s a filmmaker who I said something about, they’ll just quietly try and destroy me. They would never just call you up and go "Hey, screw you. I thought that movie was good." But honestly, I don’t know that anyone’s really paying attention. I think it’s fans are the only people who are paying attention. Hey, I wrote a whole book with Richard Gere and Renée Zellweger [as characters: Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way]. Haven’t heard anything. I don’t even think they know they’re in a book.
G: Really? Yeah. Huh.
BC: But this interview will destroy all that.
G: Oh yes, right. Yeah.
BC: Because we know Richard Gere is listening right now
G: (Laughs.) Yeah, right. I noticed you got some prop assistance from the good old Oregon Shakespeare Festival in your neck of the woods.
G: Haven’t they ever tried to get you on their stage?
BC: I’ve been afraid to go there because Willie and I are not real tight. You know, the whole Shakespeare words—you can’t ad lib in Shakespeare. I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s for me. I’ve got this wonderful facility—probably I could walk to it in five minutes from my house in Ashland. And I just—I’ve been too afraid to go there, because you know, that’s where real actors hang out.
G: (Chuckles.) Right.
BC: But what was funny was we went to cast from their pool of actors, and they’ve got a big pool of actors.
G: Oh, yeah.
BC: They’re more booked than Jerry Lee Lewis. I mean, we tried to get one guy, he goes, "Uh, I’m doing Twelfth Night, and I’m understudying Othello"—they’ve got this laundry list of like—"Aren’t you an actor? Aren’t you supposed to be unemployed?"
G: Right. Right. They keep them busy.
BC: They do. There, they do.
G: You know, there’s a kind of Andy Griffith Show fetish in this movie. Is that something that Mark Verheiden put in the script or, again, was it something that you kind of brought out of it?
BC: Well we, you know—when you make the movie, you cast who you wind up casting. We knew that we wanted a small-town feel: you know, we made up the town of Gold Lake. It’s based on Gold Hill, which is a nearby town, and Bald Lick, which was a hill—another name of a mountain. And, you know, everybody that we cast we just tried to make sure perpetuated the typical cliché small town with an ignorant twist.
G: Yeah. Well you can’t have a good "B" movie without townspeople.
BC: (In agreement:) No, townies. You gotta have them.
G: You know, you mentioned not being tight with Willie. I know a lot of IMDB is fiction. But they have listed there that your first film credit supposedly is a short film from when you would have been like thirteen or fourteen, playing Creon in Oedipus Rex. Is that one of those Super-8 films?
BC: Yeah, it was eighth grade. So they—I don’t know why it’s there. I have no idea.
G: Probably the filmmaker—
BC: Yeah, probably put it in.
G: Posted it for his credit.
BC: He went, "Yeah—I made a film—"
G: With Bruce Campbell.
BC: "With Bruce Campbell." Yeah, no, that was a very, very old movie. But I brought my own toga. That was the only reason I got the part.
G: (Chuckles.) Well, I think that’s a good place to leave it. I’ll leave it right there. Thanks so much for talking to me—it’s been great.
BC: Thank you very much. And watch out for those togas.