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Writer/director Robert Hiltzik (pictured) initially
conceived the slasher cult favorite SLEEPAWAY CAMP as his early-1980s
directorial calling card. However, utilizing his special knack for offbeat characters
and striking kills, Hiltzik created a film that still endears itself to gasping
audiences 28 years later.
Most importantly, SLEEPAWAY CAMP introduced the world to
Angela, a killer with a prickly sexual-identity issue, and one of the only
screen villainesses to spawn multiple sequels, including Hiltzik’s own RETURN
TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP in 2008. To honor SLEEPAWAY CAMP’s bloody legacy, Hiltzik and
producer Michele Tatosian will be making a rare appearance at a special
screening of the film as part of Terror in the Aisles 8, along with the Midwest
premiere of TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL and a screening of Umberto Lenzi’s CITY OF
THE WALKING DEAD tonight, August 6 at the legendary Portage Theater in Chicago
(see details below). Hiltzik recently took time to talk to Fango about SLEEPAWAY
CAMP and its long-lasting appeal.
FANGORIA: SLEEPAWAY CAMP has influenced many over the years
and has been listed on multiple best-of-’80s lists. What has been the most
amazing thing about SLEEPAWAY CAMP for you?
ROBERT HILTZIK: The tremendous following! It still amazes
me. I still don’t know quite what to make of it. The film came out over 25
years ago, yet I went to a convention just three years ago and for two days it
was constant lines of people wanting autographs and things signed. It’s my baby,
but I didn’t expect it to be this embedded in the culture.
FANG: What was your initial impetus to create it?
HILTZIK: I was a student in the graduate film program at New
York University, and I was thinking about career moves. I loved making films
and I didn’t want to work my way up from a gofer or office position. I wanted
to get up to directing as soon as possible. So I thought a horror film would be
marketable, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create murders
that hadn’t been seen before and play with the characters and psychological
motivation. So, for my last year of school, I disappeared. I paid my tuition,
but I was making SLEEPAWAY CAMP. It wasn’t a student film; it was a professional
SAG film, so my professors, ultimately, didn’t know whether to give me my
degree or not. I found out later that my fellow students lobbied for me to get
FANG: Great story. You had a lot invested, personally,
in the project then.
HILTZIK: I attended the camp where we filmed, so that gave
me a very personal connection to the project. I also didn’t want to use 20, 21-year-old
actors to play the teenagers. I liked the idea of using 12-year-olds to play 12-year-olds.
Camp is your first taste of freedom as a kid. You’re in charge of your actions
and your environment. The counselors are only a few years older than you are,
and it is a LORD OF THE FLIES-type situation. You form your own societies, and
like in everyday society, you have the haves and the have-nots. I thought this
would be a great basis to start a horror film from. I like texture. I like
characters and story, and that is what I set out to accomplish.
FANG: Your cast, including Felissa Rose as Angela, also
contributed mightily to your vision, correct?
HILTZIK: Felissa is terrific, totally enthusiastic. She
connects with the part and truly has developed it. She is Angela. But I love
the casting process as a whole. It’s one of my favorite parts of making a
movie. Here’s a story I haven’t shared before. Judy was going to be a blonde in
contrast with Felissa. Jane Krakowski, who is on 30 ROCK now, gave a great
audition and was going to play her. But Karen Fields came in, and there was
just a certain quality to her bitchiness. She had a different tone, so we went
with her. I don’t think Jane has suffered, though. I’m proud of her. She’s had
a brilliant career.
FANG: How did everyone relate on set?
HILTZIK: It was a wonderful experience because the cast and
crew got along so well. Crews can almost be like carnies at a carnival. But
here, the crew enjoyed the innocent vitality of the kids. They really took good
care of them.
FANG: What about the performers’ parents?
HILTZIK: There actually weren’t a lot of parents on set or
taking charge of the kids. I actually had to stop some adolescent romances
because they threatened the project. Adult romances on set can be hard, but you
have the emotional tools to know how to handle them. To the kids, it’s their
whole world, and they don’t know how to react properly. But we got through it!
FANG: The queer community has also embraced the film
over the years because of its transgendered heroine.
HILTZIK: Well, there is no question—it’s a gender issue.
There are definitely gender conflicts going on with Angela. Starting at an
early age, she was exposed to multiple sexualities—her father was gay. Then she
was thrust into a gender transformation—whether she wanted it or not.
FANG: Were you afraid about any uproar because she was
the villain and not a sweetly misunderstood victim?
HILTZIK: Well, her actions were conflicted, but she had
justification. If you really think about it, she is a champion for the abused.
As a writer, ultimately, I was just trying to give possible reasons for her
actions. But I don’t want to give finite definitions. A film is like a painting;
there can be several interpretations. It’s up to the viewer to decide.
FANG: Were you at all nervous about the controversial
nature of the revelation?
HILTZIK: Well, I was worried I was going to get an X rating.
When the ratings board called, they said they had some bad news—they were going
to have to give me an R. I said, “OK!” I wanted an R rating. If I had gotten an
X, I would have had to contemplate changing the ending, which was something I
didn’t want to do. 12- and 13-year-olds can sneak into an R film. But an X? Not
FANG: Well, it was ultimately successful enough to spawn
HILTZIK: I was not involved in the second or third films in
any way. They were filmed in one shot for video release. I actually hadn’t even
contemplated a sequel. I had a few projects in development with the studios. I
was moving onward and upward, as it were.
FANG: What happened with those films?
HILTZIK: Well, I had a project at Fox. A new regime came in,
and all previous projects were dropped. I also had a high-action thriller in
development with Dino De Laurentiis. It hit 38 different desks and got 38
approvals. Everyone was enthusiastic about it and wanted to do it. Then it hit
his desk, and he didn’t want to do it because he thought it gave sanction to
terrorism. So it’s a frustrating business—definitely not for the faint of
FANG: And what happened between those projects and RETURN
TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP?
HILTZIK: Well, I had children and wound up going to law school.
I actually got in the day just before classes began, so it was literally a last-minute
FANG: And what is your take on RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP now?
HILTZIK: Oh, that was a disaster. I had that thing wired
with great effects. So that’s what disappoints me the most about the project.
The effects on it are just so low-grade and juvenile. The effects I had planned
would have gotten it into theaters. It was a tough shoot, as well. We had a
great location, a beautiful camp. But the weather just created awful
conditions. If it weren’t for the efforts of producer Michele Tatosian, that
film actually would have never been completed at all. She’s just a brilliant
producer. But because of that experience, I learned. I will never direct
another film unless all of the money is guaranteed.
FANG: So the experience hasn’t deterred you from making
HILTZIK: No, I am working on a new treatment for a SLEEPAWAY
CAMP film right now.
FANG: Wonderful. And now you and Michele are heading to
Chicago for Terror in the Aisles!
HILTZIK: You know, I honestly look at all my personal
appearances with a certain sense of apprehension. I still just marvel at the
enthusiasm for the film. So I truthfully never know what to expect. Don’t get
me wrong; it’s all wonderful, and I truly appreciate talking to the fans. At
one symposium, I even had an incredible talk with a 12-year-old fan, but I just
never know. I am never totally secure with it.
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