Halfway to Halloween Month continues on Consequence of Sound with an exclusive interview featuring actress and producer Barbara Crampton.
Barbara Crampton is pretty sure she’s had the coronavirus. “I think I had the virus in January, actually,” she tells me on a warm afternoon in April. “I was very, very sick for three weeks, and I had all the classic symptoms.” At the time, she didn’t think much of it. “I just thought I had the regular flu because we weren’t really clued into the COVID scare yet.”
She’s not entirely sure, though, and isn’t that fun. It’s an anxiety we’re all feeling today in this chaotic pandemic, and Crampton is well aware of that. “It’s really hard for people to live with the unknown. That’s what we’re all struggling with,” she says. “It’s really hard to just surrender to this moment, but that’s kind of what we have to do.”
There’s a pragmatism to Crampton that’s incredibly affecting. Talking to the Hollywood icon is a lot like speaking with a college professor before Fall break. She’s patient with her words, assuredly analytical, and runs circles around you. She’s also a storyteller and hearing her discuss life in quarantine is as cinematic as her performances on screen.
But we spoke on a lot more than just strictly Covid-19. No, the actress, producer, and mother of three went deep into the past, present, and future of her career. She shared how she’s paving new roads for women in horror, detailed the ways Hollywood has changed (both good and bad), and revisited her triumphant return to the genre.
On life in quarantine
I’m probably going to the store too much. But I have two kids at home, and my husband, and I’m cooking a lot now because we’re not ordering out. I feel like I’m going to the grocery store every two to three days same. We’ve been wearing masks. We had fires here in Northern California last year, and so I have one box of N95 masks. So, we’ve been wearing those, but then people have been sending me cloth masks. So, we just have this one box that we keep reusing.
I think I had the virus in January, actually. I was very, very sick for three weeks, and I had all the classic symptoms: a headache, body aches, fever, chills. I had the dry cough, which started almost immediately, and it didn’t leave for three weeks. I got the cough medicine with codeine and it didn’t help, and I thought, That’s weird. It always helped before when I had a cough, but I just thought I had the regular flu because we weren’t really clued into the COVID scare yet.
But now I’ve been reading articles that they’re saying they think it’s been in America since December. And we had such a bad flu season that people now are saying it was probably the COVID, but I’m supposed to get an antibody test this week. But even Dr. Fauci yesterday was saying that some of the antibody tests that were rushed through the FDA are a little faulty. He said there’s one out there, but he didn’t say what it was, that’s 90% accurate, so I’ll take that. I don’t know what tests I’m getting, but I go to a very good doctor up here, and I’m sure they’ve researched it and gotten whatever the best test is.
It’s really hard for people to live with the unknown. That’s what we’re all struggling with. It’s really hard to just surrender to this moment, but that’s kind of what we have to do. We do have to ask our administration and the healthcare providers and the schools — I have high school children at home — we have to keep asking these probing questions. But we also just have to surrender to what’s being asked of us, of humanity, at the moment — and that’s hard.
On staying entertained
I am busier than I’ve ever been. I’m doing a lot of watch parties on Twitter. I’m doing Puppet Master tonight. I did We Are Still Here on Shudder the other day. It was great! Then different little horror groups are asking me to do some of my own movies that are playing on Hulu or whatever. So, I did Beyond the Gates, and then I did Road Games.
I get excited about watching the movie together. We’re talking about behind-the-scenes stuff — usually the director’s on with us, maybe some of the other actors — and fans are asking questions and I’m able to answer them and I know what I’m talking about. So, you know, I feel like an expert in something. I feel like I have a purpose. I feel like I’m bringing another level of entertainment to people regarding my movies. It makes me feel positive, like I’m contributing to the ease of everyone and bringing some happiness and joy to horror fans. I’m delighted. I’m delighted to do it.
But I’m keeping myself busy with cooking a lot like everybody. I’m going to the store, breaking out my cookbooks that are all dusty and that I haven’t looked at in years since I’ve been so busy working, flying around the country, and getting my family takeout meals. Now that I’m actually cooking, they’re ecstatic and happy because I’m feeding them gourmet meals every night.
On great timing
I also just wrapped production on a movie that I produced called Jakob’s Wife. It’s something I’ve had in development for years, and we finally got the financing for it and got a director. We were able to secure a location in Mississippi, and we shot it in February.
I came down with the virus — or what I think was the virus — on January 10th, and then I was sick for three weeks, so I couldn’t be there for pre production. But I flew in about six days before we started filming. We filmed the whole month of February and then we wrapped on February 29th. On March 3rd, we all flew home, and by March 8th, we had the lockdown in California.
We got that movie in under the wire. Now, we’re in post and I’m looking at the footage. The director’s making a preliminary assembly and cut of the movie before we bring an editor in, and so we’re looking at all of that and talking to different people about different aspects of post production.
So, I have a lot to work on that’s gonna keep me busy.
On what to expect from post-pandemic horror
I do think that people are starting to make little content at home right. I’m even doing little Facebook and Instagram videos that I hadn’t really done before. So, I’m getting a little bit more creative, but Mike Mendez actually wrote a little thing for himself. He directed it, designed it, and brought in Guillermo del Toro as a character. His mouth is moving from a picture on this little robot, and it was hilarious and so great and so creative. I also saw another filmmaker say he was going to make a whole movie from his house. Maybe have one or two friends come over and stand far part. [Laughs.]
On watching horror versus making it
I’m a good audience. So, something like The Platform is gonna gross me out, even though I know it’s fake. I know it’s moviemaking. But, when I’m working on my own stuff, it doesn’t gross me out as much.
From Beyond is one of my favorite — if not my favorite — movies I’ve ever worked on, mostly because I had a fantastic role. It came at a time when they weren’t giving a lot of women those kinds of roles in film. We did have Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, we did have Sigourney Weaver in Alien, but those were big movies. This was a smaller movie and it was a very big part — especially on the heels of the success of Re-Animator, where Jeffrey Combs is the iconic character. To then turn around and give me the biggest role in Stuart Gordon’s next film was quite a gift to me in my career. And also to give me the kind of trajectory that character had throughout the story.
But there was a lot of gelatinous fake flesh from the notorious monster being thrown around — and it was disgusting, and I was next to it all the time. But, you know, I saw the latex, I saw the pain, I saw the methyl cellulose that we used as the gelatin over the actual special effects makeup to make it look even more juicy. And I knew what that was. Methyl cellulose is a food thickener. They used to use it in McDonald’s milkshakes back then. I don’t know if they still use it today. They probably don’t. But it’s a clear, cold jelly, and it was on everything. It was on the monster. It was on my clothes. It was on my face. It was on objects when we went into the beyond. It was everywhere. But I saw it for what it was: It was makeup.
So, my own films don’t give me pause and make me disgusted to a certain degree because I’m fascinated by the process and I love special effects makeup. When I’m watching it, though, I’m a good audience and I get as scared as the next person, and turned off, and disgusted, and titillated by it, too — you know, just like the best horror fans!
Read ahead to find out why she returned to the genre…
On her epic return to horror
I never wanted to leave the genre, but the genre left me. When I hit my middle 30s, I had just done Castle Freak in 1995. Even after, I’d say, maybe 13 to 14 years in the business, I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. I understood how to act on film. I had gone to school for theater and done theater in New York, and then done some soap operas and television and a few movies. But by 1995, I felt like I had grown enough in this business that I really knew what I was doing. And then all of a sudden, I wasn’t getting any calls anymore. I wasn’t getting auditions. I wasn’t getting any job offers. Things dried up for me. I thought, That’s it. That’s my career. I’m not going to get anything.
It was a really sad time in my life, and it was a real wake up call. I remember my manager, at the time, said to me, “Well, you know, you should just get married and have some children.” My manager’s telling me that! So, I’m thinking, Maybe he’s right. There weren’t a lot of roles for women at that age because I wasn’t the young, sexy teenager, and I wasn’t really a mom yet. (Even though in Castle Freak I played a mom.) It was hard for people to buy me as the mom of a 14-year-old at my age; I wasn’t really there yet. But that’s how Hollywood was using women, you know? Either as a sex object or a mother figure. I didn’t fit into either mold, so I hit a place in my career where there was a deep low.
There were two things I was interested in at the time. Food, because I had grown up with my brother-in-law, who is a restaurateur. So I thought I could go to chef school and I could become a chef and get a job in a restaurant. Or I was thinking about going into gardening because I love gardening. I love flowers, love plants, love vegetables, and I’ve always had a garden. So I thought I’d become a master gardener. So, while toying with this idea, I finally did meet somebody that I got married to, and then he asked me to move up to San Francisco because he was transferred with his job. I was so frustrated with Hollywood at that point, I said, “Okay, let’s just just move because Hollywood doesn’t want me anymore. So, I’ll just leave.”
And I had two kids back-to-back so I did exactly what my manager said to do! [Laughs.] I got married, I had kids, and I left the business. But I was really busy with my children, and I didn’t really have time to work anyway because I had my kids less than two years apart. And I was really a full-time mom for a few years and I really had forgotten about acting. I hadn’t talked to my agent in eight years, and I wasn’t on social media. But then I started thinking, Well, what am I going to do once my kids get a little bit older? I have to do something. I didn’t know quite what that was.
And then I got a call out of the blue from my agent, Mike Eisenstadt, who hadn’t lost my number and hadn’t dropped me off his roster. He called and said, “Somebody is offering you a part in this horror movie, and here are the people involved.” One was Keith Calder, another was Adam Wingard, Simon Barret, and so on. He gave me all the credentials of all these people and the independent movies they had done. What did I know? I didn’t know anything at that point. I had stopped everything. I just was watching the Teletubbies and reruns of Sesame Street with my son.
So, I read the script, and I said, “Well, okay, do they want to meet me or talk to me on the phone? Or, you know, read for it?” He said, “No, they’re just offering you the part.” And I said, “Oh, that sounds too good to be true.” And he said, “Well, do you want the part or not? They’re asking if you want to leave in 10 days and fly down to Missouri.” And I thought, Well, I don’t know. I’m the mother of these four grown kids. Are they gonna think of me as being old enough to have these kids who are 30 years old? I mean, I’m an older mom, but my kids were, at the time, six and eight or something. And my agent said, “I think they just want to offer it to you and you can just go and do it.” I thought, Okay, motherhood is really hard and acting is really fun from what I remember. So, maybe I’ll just go do it, and it was just on a lark. I thought it was just going to be this little low-budget independent movie, and maybe few people would see it, whatever.
But I arrived on set and I was just blown away by the talent of Adam Wingard, and Simon Barrett, and Keith Calder, and all the actors that were there — especially A.J. Bowen. I didn’t know where the acting started and the real life ended because his delivery of the lines were so natural and easy. And Amy Seimetz, and all of these people that were at the forefront of the mumblecore movement at the time. They had all known each other and had worked together and had been going to the film festivals for years to really try and hammer out their career. They were some of the most dynamic, exciting people that I’ve ever been around in my entire life. I felt like god had just given me a gift. My eyes are welling up with tears right now just talking about it because it was one of the most extraordinary moments in my life.
And my thought, at that time, was these people are good and I hope I’m as good as they are. Because I hadn’t really worked in so many years, and it really took me by surprise. It really took me back. I had the most extraordinary time with them. And then, of course, the movie went on to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival — in their Midnight Madness section — and studios were fighting over it to get the distribution. Then we went to Fantastic Fest, and I went there with the film, and the amount of accolades and attention that we got from that movie was incredible. It brought me back to the genre in such a profound way. There was no way I could have left at that point because I was welcomed back with open arms and I just felt like I was part of a group that I didn’t know I belonged to.
On feeling the energy of You’re Next
Well, I didn’t know when we were filming. I just thought it was exciting and wonderful. Sharni Vinson was also an amazing final girl; why isn’t she working more? Anyway, at the time, I didn’t know it was going to be as good, but leading up to it, when they were editing the movie, I kept saying to Keith Calder, “Will you show me a cut of the film? Or let me see it before we go?” We all knew we were going to the Toronto Film Festival. And he said, “No, no, no, I want you to watch it with an audience because you just won’t believe it. You won’t believe how good it is.” And I I was like, “Okay, all right.”
So, I sat in the audience, and I remember sitting with Wendy Glenn and Sharni Vinson — the three of us sat together. And I couldn’t believe the response. People were screaming and cheering at the screen, and the Ryerson Theater in Toronto holds something like 1700 people, and that’s where it played and it was filled with people. I was shaking. I was shaking. They asked us to come up to the stage for the QA, and I was shaking and shivering with excitement. I couldn’t believe how great it was. I loved the film. I thought everybody was so good in it, and it was so scary, and the story was so good. So good.
It was it was one of the highlights of my life, and so, at that point, I knew that we had made something great. And then I came out of the theater and I was in the lobby, and I saw all of these executives on their phones. And I stopped in that moment. And I thought, Oh, people are telling their people we have to buy this movie. I think the movie got five solid offers the next day.
Keep going to see how she’s changing the genre for women…
On joining social media
Watching Body Snatcher with friends on zoom. First viewing pic.twitter.com/YrXkGOtdrS
— Barbara Crampton (@barbaracrampton) April 24, 2020
Watching Body Snatcher with friends on zoom. First viewing pic.twitter.com/YrXkGOtdrS
— Barbara Crampton (@barbaracrampton) April 24, 2020
I realized I wanted to come back to the genre. I had made this movie having lived in San Francisco, and I thought, Okay, maybe I don’t have to be in Los Angeles or New York to continue working. Maybe I can actually live in San Francisco and work in the genre again. At the time, Simon Barrett said to me, “None of call each other, and we don’t really e-mail that much, so if you want to keep in touch with us, you’re going to have to join Twitter and Facebook.” I wasn’t on any of the social media sites. So, because of Simon Barrett, I joined all the sites and became more connected with people.
On the differences between now and then
Well, a couple of things. I guess the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s sort of exemplary of what happened on You’re Next, is that a lot of those people that worked on that film also did other jobs. A lot of those people are producers, actors, directors themselves. Amy Seimetz was a new director at that point and she was also acting in something. Ti West was a director; he was acting in his friend’s film. And Adam Wingard kept taking the camera away from Andrew Palermo, filming the movie, and then giving the camera back to Andrew.
When I was acting in the ’80s, I was just an actress. I came on and did my little job. When I saw that everybody was doing multiple jobs, and they were really good at multiple jobs, I realized, Well, why can’t I do that too? I, I don’t have to be just an actor. I could do something else. What could I do? So, over the years, I parlayed my acting into producing and helping other people achieve their dreams and their movies, and so I really like that aspect of the business.
Having produced a couple movies now — and some are upcoming — I feel like that was an eye-opening experience for me. Because back in the ’80s, Stuart [Gordon] was the director. He didn’t really write the dialogue; although he wrote the movies with Dennis Paoli. Dennis mostly wrote a lot of that dialogue, and Stuart was very influential on the story and what they wanted to come up with. They wrote together, but Dennis was the one that really wrote a lot of what we said. So, everyone was in their lane.
Now, I feel like you need to be good at all the different jobs because there are so many people that are competing for the same jobs. Back in the ’80s, we had more money because there wasn’t as much product. I think it Jim Gianopulos who ran Fox Studios for a while. In the early days, he ran the video department for Paramount, and he was in business a lot with Charlie Band, who had Empire Pictures at the time and now has Full Moon. He was also asking for more product. They were saying, “We need more product, we need more product. Where’s the product, you know?”
So, money was thrown at you based on a poster or an idea that you had. They’d say, “Okay, here’s a million dollars. Here’s two-million dollars,” and that was 30 years ago. And that two million is worth, you know, six or eight million dollars now. We don’t have that kind of money anymore because the pool is so wide, and there are so many really creative, wonderful people out there that you’ve got to be able to do multiple jobs to survive in the business and also be able to do it cheap. We’re working on digital, so it doesn’t cost as much now. But there’s just so much more product out there that naturally everything’s gotten lower. The pay scale is lower now and there’s more people competing and so we have to make things for a lot less money.
Another problem is we don’t have what we had way back in the old days. We don’t have some guy making a Stradivarius violin, whittling it away for nine months, you know? So, we’re all trying to hurry up with our product and get it done. We’re trying to film a movie in 21 days or 18 days. So, how good can your product be? And you have to make it the best! It’s harder for filmmakers now. When Brian De Palma started out his career, he could make a movie like Sisters and it was pretty good. But all of his movies after he was given a chance to make things better, and better, and better, and he learned as he went along.
Now, if you make a movie, and you’re not making a movie on the level of Mike Flanagan, you’re not going to get another million or another two million to work your way up to make another movie. You’re going to make one movie, it’s going to be sort of okay, and then you’re not going to get the financial budget upfront to make another movie. It has to be really extraordinary, and it’s tough. It’s really tough to be a new person now.
So, for me, working in as a new producer now… We did Jakob’s Wife in Mississippi this year, but we worked on the script for four years. That way we were sure we got it. You have to start with the best of everything that you can instill. And even with that movie, I feel like, “Oh, we probably cut a corner on this too much.” Or, “Maybe we could have done this better if we had a little more time and a little bit more money.” But we tried to make the best product we could for the amount of money we had, and I think you really have to do that. You have to make something extraordinary to keep going.
On female representation in horror
The more things get better, the more they stay the same. Cliches are cliches for a reason. I do think that there’s more of an emphasis put on the fact that women are missing these potentially iconic villain roles. [In Fangoria], I talked about Jennifer Tilly as the character of Tiffany. She’s held in high regard and has continued on in that franchise. But, you know, we don’t have that many women that we can look back on. [In the article], I talked about the inner workings of women and how they’re different than men and how you could see a male figure acting more out of violence and power. But women have a lot to be angry about and, you know, we could be villains. We see them on Fox News. Every night.
But, at the same time, we were always going to have to fight the battle — and we’re never going to give up. I’m doing my part on my end to try to bring women to the forefront in those kinds of roles in my producing roles. For instance, there are some villains coming up in a couple of movies that I’m involved in that have very strong, villainous female roles. I can’t really say what they are right now because I’d be spoiling things for you, but you’ll see this coming up very soon. Because I was given an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is, I’ve helped create a couple of those recently.
On potential backlash of female villains
I don’t know if there’s a backlash, but maybe? There’s a movie I’m supposed to be a part of that’s in development, and it’s an updated take on a ’90s slasher film with some pretty, pretty gnarly things for women to do in the film. We’re trying to get some women of note in there, and there has been a little bit of resistance to that. So, maybe there is something to that.
The women I know and I work with, they would kill for some of these roles that the men have been carrying the banner for all these years. You go to the horror convention, and people line up for Freddy or Jason — you know, Robert England, Kane Hodder, and Jeffrey Combs? They’re not lining up to see the women as much they’re lining up to see the guys, and it’s annoying to me. It doesn’t feel fair or right.
So, I really want to help women overcome this hurdle, and that particular box that we’ve been put in: to be the heroine or the damsel in distress or the helpmate or whatever. I just want women to be more at the forefront of the horror genre and and see them getting the same kinds of roles that their male counterparts get.
Our interview comes to a close as she reflects on the loss of Stuart Gordon and meditates on what’s next for Hollywood at large.