"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There are some people who don’t know who Bruce Campbell is, and there are others who will wait hours in line just to get next to him. The 47-year-old actor’s uproarious roles in horror films like “Bubba Ho-Tep” and the essential “Evil Dead” franchise — which he created along with his high school buddy and fellow Michigan native, director Sam Raimi — have earned him a dedicated cult following. Indeed, legions of aspiring horror-show nuts have followed Campbell and Raimi, who parleyed his own “Evil Dead” accomplishments into a career helming Hollywood blockbusters like the “Spider-Man” movies, ever since the two do-it-yourselfers first decided to produce and shoot their own films instead of waiting for a billionaire studio to discover them.
“It’s the old cliché about grabbing the bull by the horns,” Campbell says. “There is no mystery to it, just an incredible amount of elbow grease, and most people just aren’t built for that.”
To be sure, Campbell’s road, which has also included stops behind or in front of the camera at other fandom bonanzas like the “Hercules” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” television series, has not led directly to the Emerald City of the Hollywood mainstream. But that’s fine by him. In fact, his new, side-splitting exercise in hard-boiled Hollyweird, “Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way,” shows just what kind of chaos can emerge when the straight-shooting icon known mostly by his “Evil Dead” alter ego (the actor-author feels compelled to sign his book jacket “Bruce ‘Don’t Call Me Ash’ Campbell”) enters the ranks of the Hollywood elite ruled by stars like Richard Gere and Renée Zellwegger.
Unlike his previous autobiographical tour de force, “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor” — which became a national bestseller to the surprise only of those who haven’t seen the “Evil Dead” films — Campbell’s newest book is straight-up fiction, a mash-up of noir action and gut-busting humor centered on the artist’s long-awaited jump to the Big Time. In the book, he stars with Gere and Zellwegger in a Mike Nichols update of George Cukor’s 1960 Marilyn Monroe vehicle, “Let’s Make Love,” a movie Gregory Peck abandoned because he famously felt the script was “about as funny as pushing Grandma down the stairs in a wheelchair.”
Which, come to think of it, happens to Campbell in his new book, although he’s no grandma and it’s Richard Gere who eventually does the honors by throwing him down a flight of stairs. Still, that’s just a taste of the abuse Campbell undergoes on his quixotic mission to make the A-list. For the entirety of “Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way,” its doomed protagonist spends more time getting his ass thoroughly kicked by any number of people rather than doing any actual acting. But perhaps that’s the object lesson to be learned in this metafictional exercise in mayhem, which just happens to moonlight as a relationship advice manual of sorts: If you want to make love the Hollywood way, then perhaps you’d better be ready to take a beating.
I caught up with the opinionated and refreshingly honest Campbell by phone from his Oregon home, where he was setting off to visit some local swimming holes before leaving for a four-month promotional tour. It’s strange, but besides being one of schlock cinema’s enduring supernovas, Campbell is also an environmentalist of sorts; he’s currently wrapping up a three-hour documentary called “A Community Speaks,” a nonpartisan examination of the thorny issue of land stewardship, which he produced and directed with his wife, costume designer Ida Gearon. (This is especially weird if you remember that this is a guy who starred in a horror classic where an ingénue gets raped by a tree.) But Campbell’s tongue is built for more than resting smarmily in his cheek. During our chat, he used it to lambaste Tom Cruise, to explain why yesteryear’s stars like Spencer Tracy get no respect, and to confirm for us, once and for all, that “Healthy Forests” is a opportunist’s euphemism.
I just finished the book last night and it’s hilarious. So I guess the first thing I have to ask you is…
Why did I bother writing it?
Sure, let’s go with that.
Well, it seemed like a good thing to do at the time. Honestly, it all boiled down to the fact that it didn’t make sense to write anything else that was autobiographical. Mostly because, as I joked in the book, according to my publisher I hadn’t done enough to warrant another one. So this was a way to put together material that doesn’t fall too far from my tree, so to speak. I’m still a central character in it, and it still takes place in the movie business, but the book is a pseudo-attempt to convince readers that I’m actually going through everything that’s in it. And that’s basically it. Also, the opportunity to write fiction is always more challenging and fun.
Yeah, I had a hard time separating what I thought was fiction from fact, which made it a blast to read.
Well, I will say this: Of all the characters in the book, probably 90 percent of them could be attributed to someone who’s alive. Honestly, the book has many real characters, as well as a whole series of knuckleheads who don’t exist. But basically everyone was patterned on someone I had met or come across, whether he or she was in the film business or just some general idiot. And as an actor who gets to travel all over the place to different locations, I can always go, “Yeah, there was this weird place in Dallas that I remember.” Which is great, because the problem with writers is that some of them never leave the house. I would encourage any writer to do this thing called traveling.
The book seems to indirectly put across the idea that a guy like you, who’s beloved by tons of fans, doesn’t deserve to hobnob with the A-listers on a Mike Nichols movie.
I know, but it’s also a way to say, “You wanna put me in the A league? Here’s what would really happen!” But overall it’s a way of saying, “Don’t worry about me.”
You feel comfortable where you are.
Oh yeah, what the hell: You wind up where you wind up, and as an actor, you have no idea where you’re going to wind up. You really don’t. And there are a lot of A-list actors today who never gave a shit about acting, so it’s funny how the cookie crumbles. But I defend my position by stating that I have the best of both worlds: I can make a living and make movies that aren’t going to be picked apart by a thousand chefs. When you make a movie for a couple million bucks, there are only going to be so many people involved. And usually there are much fewer than there are on the blockbusters, which makes things much simpler. You don’t have the pressure to have that $20 million opening weekend. So it allows me to just be an actor, which is what I always wanted in the first place. I don’t have to spend 50 percent of my time figuring out how to stay famous. I don’t want to devote that much time to that. Although I do have to tour like a mutherscratcher.
The one thing I took away from your early days is that you and Sam did what many artists consumed by their craft do, which is to just go out and make whatever it is that you want to make, rather than take a class or…
Or wait for someone to discover you! That’s just not the way it works. It’s the old cliché of grabbing the bull by the horns, and the cool thing is that the United States is one of those few places that’s conducive to such a process. You can literally go knock on someone’s door, get him to invest in a movie, go make it, and then sell it around the world. It’s crazy. What kills me is that there is no mystery to it, just an incredible amount of elbow grease, and most people just aren’t built for that. They think it works in a different way. They think that you’re just supposed to get famous, or fall into it.
Is that how you conceived of your arch-nemesis in the book, Rob Stern, a studio exec with no discernible talent or skill other than middle-management manipulation? Is that character based on someone you know?
He’s based on the asshole idiot executives all actors have had to deal with at one time or another. Hollywood has this habit best demonstrated by Tom Cruise on “Oprah.” He goes, “You know, Oprah, I help people. I just have a reputation for that.” Reputation for that! This is what’s killing me. Then I heard a comic say to me once, “Sometimes, I just take off and bust through town! I got a reputation for that!” Everyone wants a reputation for something, and again, to me, that takes away from the craft. It’s like, “What are you, an editor, writer, director, actor? Then go do your fucking job!”
Seriously. There was a hilarious interview with Cruise and Spielberg in Der Spiegel recently, reporting that there was a Scientology tent on the set of “War of the Worlds,” because in between shots Tom wanted to help people kick drugs and alcohol.
I can believe that. That’s fine; it’s sort of a way of life for Tom. It’s not really a charity. It’s more like his religion.
He’s got a reputation for it!
Yeah, he’s got a reputation for helping people. But my feeling is, “Shut up and act.”
So are you worried that you’re going to get any concerned calls from Gere, Nichols or Zellwegger about the book?
Nah, I haven’t gotten any calls yet, although the book pretty much just hit the stands. I really hope I don’t get in trouble with anyone, because I’m the dumbest guy in the book. By a country mile. Richard Gere is very calm and professional, Renée Zellwegger is really sweet, and Mike Nichols is completely reasonable. There just isn’t a section that goes, “And then Renée’s coke habit got totally out of control!” It’s fiction. It’s make-believe. They’re public figures, so as long as I’m not telling things out of school, we’re going to be fine. Lawyers crawl all over these kind of books, and no one’s mentioned it at all.
So how does one make love the Bruce Campbell way? My condensed take on the book seems to suggest that everyone is thinking way too hard to make love at all.
Yeah, there’s a lot of overanalyzing. If you’re bipolar, you’re bipolar forever, you know? We’ve come up with all these new terms, whether in medicine, relationships, whatever. And they’re all labels: You’re a recovering this, you’re a son of that. It’s horrible. I think everyone needs a clean slate.
That theory seems to be borne out in your imagined conversation with Liz Taylor about all her husbands. So is the idea — whether expressed in that conversation, the high jinks at Forest Lawn Cemetery, the section on Tyrone Power, and others — that your book is in part an homage to Hollywood’s past?
Yeah, because those people will soon be forgotten. You mention Tyrone Power to someone in their 20s and they go, “Who?” He was a guy who I first got exposed to during the time when movies were starting to come to television. I’ll take those old actors over some of the new guys, because they had so much experience. That’s how you get good. That’s how Spencer Tracy got so good. And most people today say, “Who’s Spencer Tracy?”
You and your wife Ida are making a documentary of land stewardship called “A Community Speaks.” Would you like to tell me about it?
We’re still editing it; it’s a monster. We’re trying to get it down to three hours. Where I live in southern Oregon, I’m surrounded by government land, whether it’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. Together, these two agencies manage probably about 200-300 million acres in the U.S. BLM, for example, usually takes care of the less desirable lands, so around 80 percent of Nevada is government land. Same with around 30-40 percent of Wyoming, Oregon and Utah. So the question is, what do you do with that land? I boil it down to a single watershed, the Applegate Watershed, which is located in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon. So it is a closed case study of the area and how it has traditionally been used by everyone from the pioneers and settlers to the miners and loggers.
It’s an examination of how we got here and where we go from here, how we use the land in the future. We weren’t financed by any group or cause, so we didn’t take any sides, which allowed us great access to everyone, because they didn’t think we were going to slant the doc one way or another. What we are struggling to do is look at the big picture and decide what is good or bad land stewardship. The face of the forests has changed dramatically in the last 75 years because of the decisions we have all made, and now the question is, Do we like our forests they way they are, whether they are clear-cut or overstocked with trees because nature hasn’t been allowed to burn them? What do we do? Do we go in manually? What do you cut? What do you leave?
Wait, is this another Healthy Forests initiative?
Yeah, you can get into that argument all day, because it’s a great title and all. If I was looking forward to some timber extraction, I’d call it the Healthy Forests initiative too. This current administration is going to get their wood out now.
Well, they are! For the first four years, they got hassled, but now that they’ve got another four coming up, it’s open season on the woods. They’ve already recently rescinded Clinton’s roadless provisions. Hopefully, the agencies will manage the extraction of lumber in a responsible way. But that’s basically what the documentary is about. We talked to die-hard environmentalists, we talked to unemployed loggers, all kinds of scientists. It was fun, like getting a Ph.D. in land stewardship. I’ve tried to apply what I have learned to my own land. Which species should be on the northern slope, which should be on the southern one? Fuel ladders, buck brush, manzanita. Names of trees I didn’t even know until a year after I got here.
Which, in a way, exhibits your philosophy rather well. Instead of getting an actual Ph.D. in land stewardship, you just went out and made a three-hour documentary about it and learned along the way.
That’s the cool thing about it. I’ve learned some filmmaking skills over the years, so I decided to use them to shed some light on a topic that thoroughly interests my wife and me. And we’re not too worried about what happens to it. Mainly, I’d like it to be used for educational purposes. We want to send it out to senators, colleges, students and the like.
OK, just a couple more on the entertainment tip. What was it like to work with the recently departed Ossie Davis on “Bubba Ho-Tep”? His passing wasn’t publicized as much as I thought it should have been.
He was terrific — and unflappable. He was in his 80s when we did “Bubba,” but he looked 65. It was crazy.
It was such a great role for him.
It was, and you know what? The biggest problem was getting the script to him. Movies are made sometimes in spite of Hollywood. Because the Hollywood procedure is, you submit the script to his agent, the agent gives it to the actor, and the actor reads it, especially if the film is already funded. You put an offer out to him. Well, his agents wouldn’t even give the script to Ossie. They thought it was this weirdo, low-budget cult film, so they didn’t give it to him. And the director was like, “You have to give it to him! The movie is financed. This is an offer. You have show it to your client.” And they were like, “No, we don’t.”
And I’m not going to say that that was the exact wording, but basically they didn’t think it was worth it. So Don Coscarelli had to call another director who had worked with Ossie to get his number and said, “Look, I’m sorry to bug you about this, but I think we have a really good part for you.” And Ossie read it and said yes the next day.
Which is great, because you’re both hilarious in the movie and had amazing chemistry.
Well, it was really fun to work with him, because I always like to work with the old pros.
Yeah, this was a guy that delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral.
No shit. Well, he also knew Kennedy, and there he was playing him in “Bubba.” Life is full of ironies.
I also wanted to talk about your upcoming film, “Man With the Screaming Brain,” seeing that you wrote the comic and are both directing and starring in the movie.
We can’t talk about a ridiculous movie like that.
Are you serious? It sounds like a blast. I love watching capitalists get their comeuppance.
Well, it’s basically a story of karma, and his comes back in a big way.
Is it an accident that the guy who gets his ass kicked by karma is a wealthy industrialist?
Well, those are guys that could learn some lessons. I’m a big fan of redemption. I like a character who is less of an asshole at the end of the film than he was at the beginning. It gives me hope. So “Man With a Screaming Brain” is a story of hope.
OK, so that just leaves us with the upcoming “Evil Dead” sequel and remake.
No, there’s no announcement for the sequel, but there is indeed a remake. We’ll probably get around to doing it at some point within the next few years. There’s no part for me, you know.
Yeah, I know.
I’m going to be the old guy that works at the bait store. “Hey, you kids be careful! I’ve heard stories about that cabin.”
Well, you’re going to have to be involved in some way or people are going to go nuts.
Look, when we made the first “Evil Dead,” no one cared or knew anything about anyone in the movie. We were five absolute nobodies. So there’s no problem with putting out more movies, which doesn’t mean that they’re all going to be about Ash and his buddies. It just is going to be an “Evil Dead” story with a bunch of new nobodies. It doesn’t matter. Or we’ll just get Ashton Kutcher and cover him with blood.
Well, it’s just amazing to think that, years ago, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, who started out with the over-the-top horror classic “Dead Alive,” are now ruling Hollywood.
Yeah, those guys busted out. They went crazy.
Which says something about genre films like “Evil Dead” and “Bubba Ho-Tep,” which are perennially underrated even though they are some of the most lasting movies in existence.
Yeah, some of them are. But it just goes to show you that audiences aren’t as dumb as Hollywood thinks they are. A movie like “Evil Dead” can be crude, but it still is a handcrafted film, and there’s something about that that audiences really pick up on. Film truly is an opiate, so you have to make sure as an entertainer that you are feeding people the most potent and progressive opium. Sure, you’re distracting them from their daily lives, but for what purpose and with what film? That’s why I go for humor, because we really need it. This country is getting too serious. We need a return to irreverence. And I’m happy to carry the flag.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)