Interview: Barbara Crampton

Barbara Crampton talks young fans and the changing face of the horror film community.

After a short hiatus in the 1990s, one of horror’s most beloved actresses is very much back in the fray, producing and starring in some of the genre’s most exciting new releases.

The star of both Road Games and Beyond the Gates at this year’s FrightFest, Barbara Crampton has been turning heads ever since the 80s with her roles in cult classics like Re-Animator and From Beyond.

We were lucky enough to grab some time with her to talk about her rejuvenated career, her favourite scripts and what excites her about the industry today.

To start with, you’re a very popular and legendary name in the horror community and must get quite a few job offers – how do you decide on the right roles to take? What makes a script really stand out to you?

For me it’s all about the foundation of the story, and good characters, because horror movies are about death and chaos usually. It has to have a good story. If it’s not a good story, then I will immediately pass. It has to have good characters, a good story, and a reason for being the way it is.

Somebody sent me a script recently and offered me the role of this leading character – the financing isn’t in place, but it was quite an interesting script, the character was sexy and cool and a killer, and beautiful, but I didn’t understand why she was doing what she was doing. So I went back to them and told them that I love the story but I don’t know why it exists. What’s the point? And I said if you can go back and work on that and fix that then I’d be interested in working on it. Maybe on a producing level or acting level, but I don’t know why this woman is doing what’s she doing.

So, first and foremost, it’s that. I also have to say that I get a lot of amazing scripts. I mean, there’s some amazing writers out there. Writers are really my favourite breed of everyone who works on a horror movie. I love writers! Most of the time they will be willing to work on a character, and help you understand what the character’s doing; revise things to help you make the character what it should be – so I really want to give a shout-out to all the writers out there.

There are a lot of people who contact me now on social media, or through my agent who say that they have a script or a film, and sometimes they have the financing and are offering me the role, sometimes they don’t and want to talk to me about maybe producing, and that’s a bigger task for me. So unless I really feel like whoever’s calling me – writer, director, whoever – really has a lot of energy to put the project together themselves, I tell them to call me when they have the financing in play, when they’re ready to go into production, ‘cause it’s monumental (and a bit magical) to get even a wonderful script off the ground and make it into something.

FrightFest is coming up in a day or so, and people are trying to make their mark and start in the business, and make a movie for as little as they can make it for. It’s a really difficult task. So you have to have a filmmaker who has the energy and the drive and just wants to push through all the roadblocks. Because there are thousands of them.

One of those people is Jackson Stewart. I worked on Beyond the Gates with him – I’ve known him for a number of years and he just had the drive to make it happen. He had a wonderful story, and beautiful, interesting characters that had obstacles to overcomes. I worked with him on the movie producing it and also acting in it and he had just the energy to get it done.

You have to have a tremendous amount of energy to see a project through to the end.

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Talking about social media and contemporary practises, with smaller budgets becoming easier now with digital filmmaking – do you think that that’s changed the horror community a lot since you started out in the 80s?

Well I think it gives an advantage to a lot of younger filmmakers to actually make their first film, or first couple of films. So I think that’s good. In another way, there’s so many people that not everybody’s going to be able to rise above that. You can only make these movies at – whatever they are, $100,000 – $200,000, to $800,000 – for a few years, because you don’t make a tonne of money back on those movies. They don’t usually get a wide release, unless you have something like You’re Next or you have something like the original Blair Witch, where it’s a breakout hit and you made it for $20,000.

There’s so many movies being made now and they maybe go into the theatres for a week or so, and then they go directly online, with all the pirating that’s being done now. People don’t realise how directly that hurts the filmmaker when you get a movie for free and you’re not paying for it. So these filmmakers aren’t making a lot of money back on their investment. They’re not getting rich off these movies, regardless of what people think, they’re just not. So you can only make these low budget independent horror movies for a few years, to raise your profile, before you need to go to that next level.

You need to get a movie that’s like $10 million, or $30 million and if you don’t rise to that next level you’re kind of out after a few years. It’s really hard unless you’re somebody like Joe Swanberg who for years made movies for like ten or twenty thousand dollars in his living room, and then sold them for forty! But that’s really rare, and that takes a lot of skill. He was able to do that, and buy a house, because he had that formula down and knew how to do it, but I don’t think a lot of people can do it as well as he can do it. And he’s already moved up to that next level, where he’s making movies with big stars and has bigger budgets.

So I think there’s the advantage to be able to make movies now for a lot of people on a lower budget, but to move to that next level after a few years is harder.

Onto Road Games more specifically, and going back to the sort of characters you’re interested in – your character here is very unusual, there’s a lot going on in her head, and it’s a very different role from what you’re used to playing. What was it about that character, and how did you go about creating that more unusual tone to her? Was it something you worked on with the director, or more on your own?

It was kind of something I worked out on my own. Abnor [Pastoll, director of Road Games] has written the script already and didn’t have me in mind for it, which is I guess a disadvantage and an advantage to creativity in a way. Lately people seem to have me in mind for something and they write for me.

This wasn’t written for me at all; Abnor contacted me on social media and said he had a great script and would I read it. I don’t always do that but something about him really impressed me and we had been talking for a while so I read his script and just thought it was fantastic – one of the most well crafted scripts I had read ever. So I really wanted to be a part of the movie

It isn’t a character I would normally play, she’s kind of meek and scared and a little frightening herself, a little alarming, and you don’t quite know why she’s having the feelings she is until right at the very end of the movie and the surprise hits you, so it was something I kind of worked out on my own and had to justify why she was acting the way she did.

Without giving too much away, because of my current circumstances in my life, I thought about if this happened to me in my own life, how would I feel? I think I was able to tap into the reality of if this happened in my own life, to people I knew, and how would I react? So that worked.

I definitely had to do some inner work on that character, and I also had to speak my French dialogue because I don’t really practise my French here in America. I took some French lessons when I knew I was going to work on the movie and then I had a tutor – a friend who speaks fluent French – and she helped me with all my dialogue.

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Road Games is just one of the many movies you’re in that’s playing at this year’s FrightFest and your work has been shown there many times before. Is it a festival you’re familiar with and come to a lot?

Y’know the only time I ever came to it was last year, because they showed Sun Choke, We’re Still Here and Tales of Halloween which I had a little part in. And I think they played one of my older movies too…

The fans definitely went crazy for it – do you get a lot of fan attention when you come to festivals and conventions like this?

Yeah, and a lot for the older movies, especially Re-Animator and From Beyond. Chopping Mall which is coming out on blu-ray soon – we did some recent commentary for that and they’re releasing it in the next few weeks.

It’s amazing how many people have grown up with those movies and they continue to grow up with them and discover them for the first time. I meet kids at conventions who are 10 or 15 and they tell me how they just saw me in a movie and they loved it, so I’m really happy that some of these movies are not dated and they seem to have a cult following after all this time. And I think that’s probably why I’m working a little bit more now, because a lot of these filmmakers who grew up with these movies in the 80s are now old enough to make movies, and so y’know, they’re calling me to play the old gal [laughs] which is quite nice for me.

But most of the time I meet these filmmakers and they know me mostly from the old stuff. The newer stuff hasn’t developed the cult following yet that it probably will in a few years. Also because From Beyond and Re-Animator were on the big screen for about a month and a lot of these independent movies haven’t reached a wider audience yet. I think except for You’re Next.

One last question: do you have any tips for any young people that want to start acting or producing in the film industry?

Start as early as you can, because it’s so competitive now. I’ve had people ask me “what school should I go to?” or “what college should I go to?” and especially in Hollywood, if you want to become a director you need to go to a technical school, and you need to learn editing and directing and how to work technically on a movie.

If you want to be an actor you almost have to start working when you’re 15, or 16. A lot of the actors in Hollywood years ago would start after school or move to Hollywood when they were 25 and you can’t really do that anymore. By 25 these kids have 20 or 30 projects that they’ve already been involved in. So I think the earlier you can get involved in it the better.

Do community theatre, work with filmmakers in your area, try to get some things on camera as soon as possible so that when you do move to Hollywood you have some sort of demo reel. And work with your friends.

Keep creating projects, don’t wait for the phone to ring. You have to create your own opportunities.

I have a lot of young actor friends who say “my agent’s not calling me!” and “he’s not putting me up for things!” but the thing is today I think filmmakers are calling people directly. Even people who don’t have a resume, they’re working with their friends so you need to find your community and work on things together. You need to not sit home and wait for the phone to ring, you need to create your own product and get out there and make stuff.

All the people that I know today are doing every job. They’re producing, directing, acting – so go to a technical school and learn the skills of technically working on a movie, but also take some acting classes and directing classes and work on everything, do every job, I think you’ll have an advantage over the other people.

Road Games is out in the UK on DVD from FrightFest Presents… on 29th August and Beyond the Gates will be premiering in the UK this Saturday at Horror Channel FrightFest.

Posted on The National Student.

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