Bruce Campbell on the Legend of Bruce Campbell and 40 years of Evil Dead
“I don’t think about death,” calmly states Bruce Campbell. That’s ironic, coming from him. Over the last 40 years Campbell’s become a legend in the entertainment industry for fighting off deadites and dealing with the Necronomicon. Having starred in what is arguably one of the most popular cult horror-franchises in the history of cinema, Campbell’s nonchalant declaration is a little unexpected. And yet, his notoriety from the Evil Dead films and series is actually an unintentional byproduct of a serendipitous series of events in an otherwise vast and all encompassing career.
The talented writer, actor, director, and producer, was born in Detroit, Michigan. During his early adolescence, he was fortunate to befriend and grow-up with some of the biggest hard-hitters in Hollywood today. But, when they first met, it was just a group of young guys running wild with ideas and some amateur film equipment they salvaged from different sources. Creative, motivated, and resourceful, the group made movie after movie. Their passion led them to hone their skills and try new things, from making war epics to slapstick comedies to horror. According to Campbell, the 1977 film It’s Murder is one of their “best works.”
Eventually, the group’s dedication would provide them with opportunities that helped turn their hobby into flourishing careers. Campbell, in particular, had tried his hand in almost every aspect of entertainment. Still, when people mention Bruce Campbell, more often than not, it is in relation to his most famous body of work and just about the most notorious anti-hero ever created, the amazingly charismatic and comically asinine, Ash Williams. Surprisingly, this world-famous character was never supposed to be in more than one film. Though he did die in the original movie, he was soon resurrected for strict pragmatic reasons.
“Our second movie, written by the Coen brothers, bombed!” reveals Campbell. “It died a thousand deaths and we were afraid we were finished in the movie business.” Realizing that if they didn’t make a hit film after the epic failure of Crimewave (1985), Evil Dead II (1987) was born. “We pulled it out of our a***s,” shares Campbell as he laughs recalling the story, “because it was never meant to be!” Thankfully, fate interfered and Ash Williams has been fighting evil ever since. Campbell, meanwhile, went on to attain iconic status of his own, dominating an industry he’s been prepping for since childhood.
ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Bruce Campbell about his wide-spanning career, interests, and – of course – his involvement with the Evil Dead franchise.
What sparked your love of film?
It seemed very interesting, like a further extension of play. In my neighborhood, a guy named Mike Ditz had a 16mm camera that you could do stop motion with. We loved that. In other neighborhoods guys like Scott Spiegel, who I met [in the] early 1970s, were building sets. [We] went to West Maple Junior High, so did Josh Becker, [and] Sam Raimi – but he was a year behind. So we’d meet and make short movies. By high school, we had a system that was pretty much up and running. Then we met another guy, John Cameron, who was interested in it, too.
We were very industrious. If there was a party, we would go to film it [and] create a scene with the party in the background, because it was the cheapest way to do it. Scott worked at a grocery store and so there were all these pie fights, because whenever the produce was going bad, they had to get rid of it, so we would take it. And, my dad was a member of St. Dunstan’s Guild of Cranbrook, an amateur playhouse in suburban Detroit, which meant I had access to all the costumes they had, and there were tons! Eventually, we all got into theater, so we did both.
By the end of high school, between all of us, we made 40 or 50 of these short films, and they got more and more ambitious, bigger and bigger. We kept upgrading equipment, learning about writing, figuring out how to shoot stuff, making dummies and creating effects, doing stunts. When high school came to a crashing end, it seemed too horrifyingly distant to then take that to the professional level. We all wanted to, but we didn’t know how.
So, how did you?
We all went off to college. I left for six months to Western Michigan University. Sam went to Michigan State University (MSU) for [three semesters], where he met Rob Tapert, who we eventually partnered up with. So we’d all come up on weekends and work with Sam at MSU making movies. We were busy as s**t. Josh Becker made a movie called Stryker’s War (1980) to raise money for his first feature. We used it as a prototype to show investors.
Did the feature get made?
How did The Evil Dead (1981) come to be?
Rob was the money guy; he understood money and how to raise it. He knew that if you actually wanted to talk to real businessmen with real money about a real project, you had to speak their language. You had to figure out if you invested 10 grand what would that get you – you know? When do you get paid back and how much profit do you own? You had to lay it all out. The Evil Dead is partially considered an amateur or college-type movie, but it’s just not true. Every actor had a contract. Every crew member had a contract. We didn’t want to f**k around; it was our first actual movie that we were going to try to sell to people.
It took a while to make, is that correct?
Yeah! It was a multiyear period. Everyone said it was released in 1981, but we [started to shoot] in 1979. We kept running out of money: [what we raised] was not enough, we went over budget, and we had to reschedule. So, it was a very hodge-podge painful process. And then nobody wanted it in the United States, so we found an old time foreign sales agent and that’s when it started.
Didn’t it become a hit in Europe?
It did. A company called Palace Pictures took it on through our sales agent Irvin Shapiro (1906 – 1989). We saw that he represented George Romero (1940 – 2017), so we approached him knowing that he would at least be familiar with horror or selling horror. He took it on, and then he taught us many, many lessons.
What do you prefer, television or movies?
I like TV because of the pace. By lunchtime you’ve killed the bad guy, given little Billy his medicine back, and you’ve kissed your leading lady – it all moves quick.
Is that why you decided to make the Ash vs Evil Dead (2015 – 2018) a series instead of another film?
Well, there were a lot of reasons for that. Rob Tapert just finished Spartacus (2010 – 2013) and I just finished seven years on Burn Notice (2007 – 2013). We had more experience with TV than movies. What most people don’t realize is that Army of Darkness (1992) killed the franchise. Everybody thinks it’s like this classic. The thing died, the movie bombed. People are like: “Why won’t you make another movie?” And I’m like: “Cause you weren’t there to count the box office receipts.” There was nothing to count.
Then, in the whatever-2000s, when all the “Making Of” stuff on DVDs started happening, it really [reignited] an interest in Evil Dead. We figured, what if we put out a really big movie and it bombs again? So, Rob and I pretty much talked Sam into revamping it into a TV show – to make it about the ongoing adventures of Ash, instead of a one-off. Sam Raimi had to get his head around it, but eventually it made sense to him. He and his brother Ivan made it into a pilot, we shot it, and went from there.
Was Army of Darkness intended to be something different from the Evil Dead?
The reality is that the studio didn’t want it to be like the other one. They [also] wanted it to be called something else. So, we called it Army of Darkness. [That] basically forfeited all of the goodwill of the first two movies. I remember people where like: “Army of Darkness? Wait, but the guy’s name is Ash!” So, I think it was a little confusing. But hey, from the first movie to the second movie, the recap doesn’t make any sense anyway. The whole point is that The Evil Dead was never intended to be a franchise. Never!
What was your first directing job?
I convinced Rob to let me direct a Hercules (1995 – 1999) episode. It was in the first season, back in 1995, called “The Vanishing Dead.” I just did The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993 – 1994), so I said: “Rob, look, I know how this TV thing works. It’s got stunts and effects! I’m the same age as Kevin Sorbo, your star. I know what he’s going through.” So, I got in. I [also] directed the series finale of Hercules [and] two Xena (1995 – 2001) episodes. One of them was called “The Key to the Kingdom,” I think it was among the most reviled Xena episodes. Ted Raimi and I were basically doing gags, and the Xena universe was not ready for that.
Both shows were filmed in New Zealand, why there?
They picked it for its variance of looks. Now [New Zealand] has a huge film industry, but back then it had just enough of one, and it wound up really working for some reason. It was a good place to go because you could shoot a whole episode before any of the suits back in Los Angeles saw the footage. So, if they didn’t like something a lot of the time you could go: “Oh, we’re already on the next episode. Yeah, sorry about that! Ok, we’ll try to fix that later.” [At the time,] you still had to send the negatives across the ocean to Los Angeles to get them processed. It was still a very, very physical ordeal.
Ash vs the Evil Dead was my fourth show down there over the span of 20 years. It was really great. Crew members from Xena were on Ash vs Evil Dead! Now, New Zealand basically has some of the best crews in the world. That’s why I’m glad no one can make fun of our special effects. “F**k you! These are state of the art!”
Die-hard fans definitely recognized some of the crew. It’s comforting.
It is. It’s like a meatloaf sandwich.
How do you prep for roles?
Everybody involved in a project, in my opinion, has to let the material rule. If it’s a comedy, then liven up your game. If it’s a serious drama, ok, tone it down a little bit; keep the intensity. And, everybody has got to be in the same movie. Actors are not allowed to be in their own little sphere; they have to acknowledge the world around them.
What’s it like to work with people you grew up with?
We argue like brothers. But, it doesn’t have to get nasty and you can speak very directly and plainly. Usually there is a lot of respect involved. So, it’s good.
What was it like to have to flirt with Lucy Lawless, Rob Tapert’s wife, on the set of Xena? Your character, Autolycus, had a very flirtatious relationship with her.
Screw Rob! You know? He gave me the part. It wasn’t my idea to flirt with his beautiful wife, Lucy Lawless. But, what are you going to do?
She had that great leather outfit! And Autolycus had his signature green tunic!
For Hercules and Xena they had custom sets, costumes, props – custom everything! Good God! That’s the kind of artistry they’d use on that show! And it was all very meticulous and colorful. The craftspeople could do it all. By the time we got them on Ash vs Evil Dead they were the finest craftsmen in the world. I mean really, it was such a treat to walk around the Ash vs Evil Dead sets. You could open up drawers and there would be business cards that were accurate – the sheriff’s diploma on the wall! You know what I mean, the hyper-reality of it?
How do you choose material?
It has to be appealing. It has to have a f*****g pulse. A lot of stuff comes through here, but when you read the right material, you know it’s going to work out! I just did Lodge 49, a show Paul Giamatti’s exec-producing for AMC. When he sent me the script, I couldn’t say no. The words – they were too good. I just finished a book tour last summer and I was throwing up blood. So when I [got it], I was like, “F**k!” But, that’s my criteria for work – whatever gets me off the mountain, otherwise, I’m very happy on the mountain. I’ve got to write another book, man; I got another book deal!
So far, you’ve written three books and an introduction to one, is that correct?
Three best sellers, if you must get technical. We cracked the Top 10 with my last book. It was #8.
Why did you write, Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way: A Novel (2006)?
It was fun to write a fictional version of my life [that] didn’t have to make sense. Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way: A Novel is a meta-book, and My Name is Bruce (2007) is a meta-movie. Sure, my character could have been called Nick Danger, or some other C-grade movie actor name [in the film]. But using a real person’s name and a real person’s face added a level of confusion to the whole thing. Because of My Name is Bruce somebody somewhere probably thinks I feed my dog whiskey in his dog bowl.
Why did you star in Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)? For fun?
No, no, no. At the core, I thought it was a really sweet little story of forgotten old people at a rest home. I mean, yeah, there’s a mummy sucking the souls out of old people through their a******s. But, you know, that’s sort of an afterthought. I tried to do an honest portrayal of [Elvis Presley (1935 – 1977)], and not the buffoon portrayal, because deep down I hope some member of the Presley family watches Bubba Ho-Tep to see what it would have been like if [Elvis] made it to old age. Maybe Priscilla, on a rainy day will say, “I’ll just watch this movie, Bubba Ho-Tep.” It could happen.
You directed and starred in Man With the Screaming Brain (2005). Why did you make this film?
It was a ridiculous pursuit that went on far too long. And, by the time I was able to do it, it probably shouldn’t have been done. My writing partner and I were trying to make the film for 15 years! It was a weird story, admittedly. Stylistically, it should have looked like it was shot in the 1940s, like Touch of Evil (1958) by Orson Welles (1915 – 1985). The reality is we took it to the Sci-Fi channel and they went: “Cool. You’re shooting in Bulgaria.” So, it was either we finally give up and be done with it, or we rewrite it, go to f*****g Bulgaria, and just do it. The story took a hard left turn out of absolute necessity – to accommodate for the new location and parameters. But, like the old saying goes, you fight with the army that you’ve got. We went back and forth and eventually got the thing done.
How important were the props for creating Ash vs Evil Dead and some of your other works?
Ash had chainsaws, shotguns, and grappling hooks – stuff like that. There were a lot of swords on Jack of All Trades (2000). Props are cool, but they could also be a major pain the a*s. You have to learn how to use them, sometimes they don’t work that well, and oftentimes they’re heavy. Fortunately, we had different things for different needs. For Army of Darkness, we had a shotgun made out of balsa wood that was perfectly balanced and had a round trigger cage; most shotgun trigger cages are sort of oblong, so they don’t spin. Every year the prop guys got very excited about refining them; everything was custom made! Costumes, too.
Since you’ve started making movies, what has evolved most in the industry in terms of filming?
Now, when you go on sets, they are a lot darker than they used to be – at least the horror sets. Thirty years ago, film stocks were not that sensitive, so you needed a lot of light. When we did Super 8 movies, we needed two types of stock: one for low light, and one that was good for filming outdoors during the day. That was it. We had two choices. Today, you can take certain lenses with certain digital cameras and shoot as is, in existing light and change whatever you need in the editing room. It’s astounding what you can do now.
The one thing that never changes is the necessity of telling a story. That’s easy to forget because of special effects, but they are not what tell the story. The number one job of directors is to learn what a story is, figure out the story they are going to tell, and then tell that story.
What about sets? Did you create a set for the original Evil Dead films?
No, we were on location at a cabin in the woods of Morristown, Tennessee. The only thing that’s left is the remainder of the fireplace; fans have been dismantling it for decades now. They tweet about it!
What about for Ash vs Evil Dead?
It was the exact opposite. We went outside maybe three times in three years. Once you get that stylized, you fake everything. Nothing is normal in the Evil Dead world, so you may as well build it. Plus, you can contain it. I absolutely love studio work! You can light something really nicely on a stage. If you’re driving a fake car, the camera guys are happy cause it’s not shaking; the sound guys are happy cause it isn’t rattling and hitting potholes as they’re trying to record; and if the hair people have a problem, they can reach in through the window and fix it. By faking it, everybody is happy. But if you don’t fake it well, it will look like s**t.
How is voice acting different from standard acting?
Well, the method is different; there’s a lot of repetition. You also have to record a lot of stuff that may or may not be [used]. I did some games: Spider-Man and Evil Dead. And a couple of cartoons: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), Cars 2 (2011). I just finished, Tangled (2017 – current), a [Disney TV show based on the 2010 animated film]. I’m King Edmond.
You were in all three original Spider-Man films as different characters!
I told Sam: “You’re making Spider-Man (2002). I must be in this movie. I don’t care if I’m the mailman or the guy who gets hit by a bus, there’s a part.” So I warmed my way in. Tobey Maguire’s reaction was very funny. On the first one he was like: “Oh, hi Bruce! You’re Sam’s friend? Ok.” When I showed up for the second movie, he was like: “Why are you back?” I was playing a different character, so I went: “Don’t worry about it.” By the third one, he was like: “I get it. We can’t make a movie without Bruce Campbell. Yeah, I see.”
Why did you want to be a part of those films?
Because they were new! You could tell right away that they were going to make some noise. It was also fun to see the big stuff happen, like going to the back lot and seeing 1200 extras screaming their heads off. Sam was the right guy for the right project at the right time; he did a great job!
What’s it like to be your own director?
It’s OK. The main drawback is that it’s tough to concentrate on both [acting and directing]. But the thing that’s very liberating is that you go: “Oh, I’m just doing it all here! No one is telling me anything.” Plus, I’m kind of just done dealing with first timers. There’s a lot a director has to know to be able to be good at the job. Being 50, everyone is younger than me, and I have no issues with that whatsoever, but when someone is so under-qualified that somebody else really should do the job, that’s when [I have] an issue. I’m not going to learn on their watch. They’re not going to learn on my watch. Sam Raimi was a first time director with The Evil Dead and he happened to have done what I consider a great job, but he’s also a very rare bird. Most first-time directors are God-awful.
You’re saying he has a natural knack for it?
Visually and in every other way – he’s a tour de force! We went all day on The Evil Dead to just get one shot – the one with the camera directly above Ash. [It’s] when he’s going crazy and everything’s cockeyed and the shutters are slamming and the wind is blowing; he’s walking from one window over to the mirror, the camera is above him, moving above the beams of the ceiling as he walks. [To get the shot] you’ve got to get the camera up there, figure out where to position it and how to fasten it to this rig you’ve built. It’s that type of stuff, but the end-result is fantastic. Visually, if you watch it without sound, it’s very contemporary; it’s like a modern movie! Of course, today, he’d be fired if he wasted a day on one shot, unless it was actually planned that way.
Is it hard to portray death or dying?
I died as a character multiple times, [once on] the moon in Moontrap (1989). Death scenes are not fun, because you have to go from extreme emotion – screaming and/or crying – to not moving and not breathing. Physiologically your body does not want to do that; it wants to continue breathing. Look at the necks of the actors after they die; you’ll see their veins bulging because they just emoted. Then they’re supposed to lie still? It’s a cruel joke.
What do you like to watch?
What do you like to read?
I read mostly non-fiction. I love reading about people, and people in the industry. I have probably read every actor book ever written; I want to see the contractual s**t they go through, how they handle their personal and professional lives. Recently, I’ve read a book called Beer Money (2017). It’s about the Stroh beer family. I’m from Detroit, so I can relate to the history of my city and how [families] like that shaped it. It’s really fascinating.
When do you have time to read? Aren’t you also hosting a game show?
Yeah! A guy named Steve Sellery created Trivia Quest – a game show for the troops that you would host on a base; I hosted it 2009, when I visited them in Iraq. [One thing led to another and Last Fan Standing (2015 – current) was born.] The way it works is that anyone who comes in gets a voting device. Everybody plays; there’s no vetting, no pre-trials, no nothing. So, we’ve been touring throughout the country. I’ve easily done 30 venues over three years.
Do you get to spend time at much time at home?
No. But, that’s going to change. My wife and I have developed a bunch of projects that we now want to focus on. We’re gearing up for the next phase, which will begin in 2019.
Note* Images curtesy of STARZ (1,5,7,8), Tom Sullivan (2) via Bruce Campbell, Mike Ditz (3,9) via Bruce Campbell, Warner Bros (4), Universal Studios (6) | In 2019, it was revealed that Campbell will be hosting a reboot of Ripley's Believe It or Not for the Travel Channel.