Producer Joel Soisson talks about making “Trick or Treat” in Wilmington

Producer Joel Soisson on the set of Piranha 3DD at Shaw Speaks Community Center in Wilmington (2011)

By Brian Tucker

Joel Soisson hasn’t been to Wilmington since he produced and co-wrote Trick or Treat for Dino De Laurentiis in the spring of 1986. For the last month he’s been producing Piranha 3DD, an outrageous horror sequel to last year’s hit Piranha 3D. I spoke with Soisson during the last days of shooting at the Shaw-Speaks Community Center as a muggy heat wave preempted summer.

Soisson revealed himself to bean ardent multi-tasker. He would politely step away to shoot inserts for the film then return to exactly where he left off in conversation. For Soisson, being in Wilmington elicits memories of when the film industry here was still new and the soundstages maybe a year old.

Was the original draft by screenwriter Rhet Topham darker in tone?

Soisson: He wrote the story and turned in a draft. Great guy. That was a case where my then partner and I Michael Murphy did a rewrite, did a couple, because we brought on director Charlie Martin Smith and I think there were certain new directions which really preserved Rhet’s concept but made the screenplay a lot different in terms of characters, dialogue and plot. It wasn’t totally one of those cases where there were equal changes based on…I think the idea of having Gene Simmons and Ozzy had an effect on how things changed.

It became kind of like an alienated youth’s version of A Nightmare on Elm Street because there was this guy that didn’t come out of your dreams. He comes out of the backwards-masking of a record. Yet the way he infiltrates the real world was very similar to Freddy Krueger. Even the scarring on Sammi Curr’s face probably was a little derivative in that way.

I think the original idea was much darker. As I recall it was a very serious movie and that we did try lightening it up in whatever way we could. You always have to, it’s certainly a lot lighter than the Nightmare’s, but that’s sort of the tendency of trying to goof things up a little bit. I’m not a fan of straight horror actually and especially the direction horror’s taken recently with the gore porn stuff. It’s just a taste thing.

The movie found more life on home video.

Soisson: It had to do with the way movies were financed, how you made your money back and made a profit on films. There was this period in the mid-80s, that if you kept to a reasonable budget, 2-3 million dollars, or four, which is not much different than the low budget movies of today. If anything, low budget movies have gotten cheaper, not more expensive. Everything else has gone up in price for commodities. The technology on movies has taken the price down.

But you knew you’d get your money back. Even if you failed at the box office the video market was so strong that you’d basically put crap out there and make you’d get your money back. We never looked at it that way. Every movie, no matter how stupid it appears in retrospect, it’s a passion project while we’re doing it. You’re just thinking that you’re making the best damn movie ever. I know we did with Trick or Treat but part of that is the freedom to know that you are not being micromanaged, that it’s not a life and death situation. You’re not going to bankrupt your financing or your partnerships or bring down a studio if you make a misstep.

The film industry in Wilmington was in its infancy. The paint still fresh so to speak.

Soisson: Everything was pretty much new. I remember starting the movie – Dino who was ferociously Catholic, would have the set blessed by a priest. I thought that was kind of cool. So, it was a great time. The combination of being on this location where people still thought movies were cool. I get very nostalgic because I felt some of that enthusiasm that I missed in L.A. Even coming back now when people are still…you don’t have quite that sort of completely naïve childlike whimsical enthusiasm, but you have now professionals, now they’ve done movies – they’re in unions, they do their thing, but they’re still into it and you still feed off of it.

What did you see in Marc Price for the role of Eddie Weinbauer?

Soisson: It turned out to be surprisingly hard to find someone who was right. Marc was a good actor but he was also a comedian. It was sort of a comedy horror movie so we wanted that sense of humor. Frankly he was kind of a nerdy guy and he had this older adolescence, baby fat, goofy look that you could believe that he was sort of an outcast. So often they cast really cool Johnny Depp-type people.

I had great times working with that guy. We had a good time. To me that was the golden age of working in the horror trade because there was so much more creative freedom back then. Once we got out here we could do pretty much whatever we wanted.

Keanu Reeves was up for the role too?

Soisson: I didn’t even know of Keanu until Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Keanu came in and auditioned on Bill & Ted and nailed it. So no, I had no idea about Keanu. If Keanu had been mentioned for Trick or Treat I’d be surprised because I have no recollection of that. I’m sure I would have. So if you see Marc Price tell him he’s a filthy liar. No, I don’t recall, but I don’t think he was ever considered.

I honestly don’t know who else was considered for the role. But he had a bit of a name at that point because he was Skippy (on TV’s Family Ties). I think he read for it so he had an audition thing where he nailed the role. I liked him in it. I thought he really felt like a likable nebbish, an everyman, but he’s certainly got the geek thing working for him. It must have worked because more people connected to that movie.

Here’s a picture of Marc in a deleted scene, dressed up as a Conan type of warrior.

Soisson: Yes! That was the Frank Frazetta painting. Wow. It was a daydream (scene). (Frazetta) always did the barbarian looks. I think it was also a fact that we were sort of doing a shout out to Dino who did Conan with Schwarzenegger. Totally forgot about all that.

Charlie Martin Smith as director on a horror film a left field choice at the time.

Soisson: My producing partner (Michael S. Murphey) and I had been looking for directors and he had done a little movie about ice skating. It was the last thing that you’d want for a horror movie except we were already feeling we didn’t want to make just another horror movie with the normal expected guys you hired in those days to do those types of things. It was a total left field choice.

Based on that premise, rightly or wrongly, somebody who was coming at it from an actor/character background and the work he did as a second unit director and Never Cry Wolf was another thing that was interesting…how any of that tied into Trick or Trea” I don’t have the foggiest idea. I think we literally liked the fact that what we liked most about him is that he made no sense as a director. But he’s smart. He’s played the nerd. He’s always been that guy in the movies so we figured some of that might translate. I think it was probably in meeting him that his take on the movie struck us as being right. I can’t even begin to tell you what that was now.

Trick or Treat director Charlie Martin Smith

He seemed a good choice to work with Marc.

Soisson: Yeah, really well, because they have an actor’s rapport. One of the things you get with an actor/director is someone who understands that part of the game and can communicate it. A buddy of mine who actually did a polish on the script, just a little dialogue pass, punched up some things.

And actor Glen Morgan is an uncredited writer? Along with James Wong.

Soisson: Glen has, and had, a natural quality to him as an actor that was nerdy but awkward and interesting. We just basically said, Glen go in there and audition for Charlie and we aren’t going to tell him who you are, that you’re our buddy or anything. Just go in and be yourself and see if he’s interested. And he was. Then we told (Charlie) he’s our pal. We all had worked together with (producer) Sammy Howard. He did Meteor with Sean Connery. His biggest claim to fame was A Man Called Horse

Did you hire Kevin Yagher because of his work on “Nightmare on Elm Street 2”?

Soisson: Exactly. I was talking with Gary (Tunnicliffe, Make-up FX and Creature designer for Piranha 3DD) about this. Present company excluded, Kevin Yagher is probably the most talented artist I’ve ever worked with in the business. I must have met him or worked with him on another project. I just remembered seeing his work and thinking this guy is just ferociously talented and the first gig I could get him on was Nightmare on Elm Street 2.

He did a great design for the new Freddy look. Part of it was also there’s a natural tendency of any producer/filmmaker to reinvent things just a little bit, to keep it fresh, keep it different and evolving. Kevin brought a different vibe and feel to it. We certainly took him on after that to work on Trick or Treat. That’s what you do when you get a gifted artist, that you let them bring their vision to the table and give them as much free rein as you can. He was so on the vanguard of prosthetic makeup effects, making Chucky (Child’s Play) talk, making anything prosthetic that lip synchs amazing.

It’s an art form that digital FX still can’t completely duplicate.

Soisson: I have a digital FX company. I don’t believe the digital effects nearly as much as the rubber and plastic, they have weight. They exist in our world. Our mind comprehends it. I miss that. I know I’m the old geezer looking back to the silent films but it’s true, there’s a weight to them. As soon as you know its digital it’s not scary for me.

The same with stop motion animation. I love King Kong and the old Ray Harryhausen stuff, where there was still moving a model around. Jason & the Argonauts was one of my all time favorites. Kevin Yagher sort of embodies that because he makes the inanimate alive and he was so damn good. And still he does amazing work and one of the most expensive guys in the business. I’m just glad that we helped get him sort of in the marketplace.

Tony Fields as Sammi Curr

Marc Price said that Tony Fields stayed in character as Sammi Curr.

Soisson: I don’t think he ever stopped being Sammi Curr when he was with us. Those were hard times back then. I feel fortunate to have escaped most of it but I mean, the coke, and the lifestyle, and the AIDS epidemic. The threat…the threats aren’t all gone, of course. But back then they were really profound. I think they navigate them better now. I think they’re a little wiser about (it). But I don’t think there was a more perilous time to be a fringe dwelling artist in terms of, well maybe back in Gaugain’s era when VD could kill you. It felt like, for a lot of those people, life in the Hollywood film world was a party that just never stopped.

I didn’t know Tony enough to know what really did him in. I was very sad to hear that he went because he was a tremendous dancer and had great acting instincts. He could have done all sorts of wild flamboyant outrageous characters but he burned hot and fast like a rock star. It was almost that life imitating art kind of thing.

How did Fastway become involved?

Soisson: Someone that knew more about heavy metal than I did made that connection and said, ‘look, you got your struggling heavy metal band and could you use some exposure? We need a soundtrack album, what do you think? They dug the premise and they wrote our songs. A lot of them were (already) recorded and we could sort of build the movie around them. I don’t know that much about Fastway, I’m not a heavy metal guy myself, they never became one of the A bands, they sort of simmered around edges for a while.

That was a tough period for Ozzy with all the press and pressure from the PMRC.

Soisson: Ozzy totally dug the idea of playing a preacher. He had gone through that with the PRMC, Tipper Gore had been at the forefront of. With all the biting heads off bats and the bad press he was getting which was really good press because it launched a new era of fans. He was a delight. As an actor that just does not come easy for him.

Ozzy was your first choice?

Soisson: Oh yeah. It had to be Ozzy. If you’re going to embody the complete opposite of what you’re playing then it had to be Ozzy. We were just delighted he wanted to do it.

Gene Simmon’s character echoed famous radio DJ Wolfman Jack.

Soisson: He was certainly channeling Wolfman when he did it. That’s pretty clear. He never mentioned it that I’m aware of. He might have done that in the process and might have mentioned that to Charlie the director. But it is implied in the way he approached the character.

What do you remember about the band scene at Trask Coliseum?

Soisson: That was fun. I kept the guitar that (Sammi) used to blast people with. Cheap little Fender thing. I play a little myself and I kept it in the garage for years. Somebody stole it. Doubtful they knew it was a cherished relic from Trick or Treat. Even more fun was shutting down the big bridge in downtown Wilmington. That was fun. We got to shut that down and send a car driving off it. We got that car back out, I can’t remember now, maybe it’s still down there. That was the last shot of the movie, the car going off the bridge. We not only got a cool finale but we’re all standing on the shore cheering once everyone appeared to be okay.

Trick or Treat concert scene filmed at UNCW’s Trask Coliseum

The movie seems to really stand out for you.

Soisson: I get more e-mails and letters on that movie than Bill & Ted which I would have thought would have connected with a whole lot more people but not necessarily as deeply. It connected with people. It just did. We didn’t set out to make this adolescent coming of age for heavy metal kids. I never thought it would have any staying power or any kind of real impact beyond just being a diversion for an hour and a half. I still get letters from people that it was their transformative movie from adolescence. They watched that and they adhered to it, bought the albums and followed some band and that sort of that stuff.

Have there been other experiences that come close to that period?

Soisson: (thinks for awhile) It’s like childbirth, since I know so much about childbirth, it’s the pain of delivery. And then, what is that hormone that women have that comes over them after childbirth that makes them forget how truly agonizing and how horrible it was so that they’ll want to do it again. I think that’s probably what happens with the film experiences as well. It’s like sports, coming together for a common goal and you get across the finish line. There’s something to that.

Trick or Treat deleted scene – Lisa Orgolini and Marc Price in heavy metal dream sequence inspired by Frank Frazetta artwork

About avenuewilmington (314 Articles)
A website hosting articles about Wilmington music history (its bands and bands visiting the area), articles from my ILM based base publications Avenue and Bootleg magazine (2005- 2009) and articles from other publications (Star News, Performer, The Tonic)
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