Irwin Yablans: How Ingenuity, Desperation Created ‘Halloween’

by | October 31, 2012 at 1:40 PM | Celebrity Interview, Movies

Irwin Yablans (Photo: IrwinYablans.com)

In 1976, an independent film producer named Irwin Yablans was aboard a Boeing 747 leaving Milan, Italy.

His production company, Compass International Pictures, had just introduced the world to a young filmmaker named John Carpenter at the London Film Festival, where his movie “Assault on Precinct 13” took top prize. Realizing the potential of his hungry director, the 42-year-old Yablans raced to devise a film project within the dark confines of his aircraft before the major studios could scoop him up.

“I knew I wanted to make a horror film,” Yablans told me during a recent interview. “And the idea of babysitters popped into my head. I thought everyone can relate to young, beautiful babysitters in jeopardy – that could be a lot of fun.”

In an effort to control the film’s budget, Yablans decided to centralize his babysitter horror film on one single night – but which?

“And before I knew it, I had an epiphany. It just came down from the heavens – Halloween popped into my head,” he said. “Halloween, the most frightening night of the year. Halloween! That’s a great gimmick. And we’ll call it ‘Halloween’!”

Yablans immediately called Carpenter and explained his concept for a horror movie that would capture the “theater of the mind” qualities of the radio serials he had grown up listening to. “I want this movie to be a movie where the audience thinks they see things, feels that they’ve seen things, but they really don’t,” he recalled telling Carpenter. “I don’t want any blood. I don’t want any gore. All of the scares, all of the horror, has to come from the anticipation.”

"Halloween" poster (Photo: Compass)

Carpenter loved the idea and agreed to make a top-quality film with a budget of only $300,000. To boot, the filmmakers discovered that no film had ever used the phrase “Halloween” in its title.

With the concept for “Halloween” in place, Carpenter and co-producer Debra Hill crafted the horror story that gave birth to the “slasher” genre. Set in Haddonfield, Illinois, the movie follows a psychiatric patient named Michael Myers (played by Nick Castle), who escapes his hospital and stalks teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends on Halloween night. Michael’s psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) follows his patient to town in hopes of preventing his killing spree.

By 1978, production on “Halloween” had completed and Yablans was now faced with the challenge of distributing his horror-classic-to-be. But when the major studios refused to send representatives to watch the movie and, potentially, make an offer to buy it, the crafty producer got creative.

“I said, ‘The heck with it, I’m going distribute,’” he recalled. “I devised a campaign, I designed that iconic poster and made the trailer, and did it all for a pittance.”

“Halloween” opened that year in Kansas City, and within one week it was selling out the theater. As word of mouth spread, the film became the hottest ticket in town and soon became a national phenomenon, opening across the country and grossing more than $47 million in the United States alone. Irwin Yabans had done it. Not only was “Halloween” a bona fide hit, but it became one of the most profitable independent films ever made and gave birth to the genre that soon gave audiences “Friday the 13th” and many more slasher classics.

Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" (Photo: Compass)

Now 78 years old, Yablans has embarked on yet another do-it-yourself venture with his autobiography “The Man Who Created Halloween,” which he self-published through CreateSpace. The book documents his early life in Brooklyn, his rise to regional salesman for Warner Bros and Paramount, the birth of Compass Pictures and his successes and failures as an independent filmmaker.

In our recent interview, Yablans dished the dirt and secrets behind his most successful film, “Halloween.” And like Michael Myers, he doesn’t hold anything back.

Yablans on casting Jamie Lee Curtis: “John came to me with Jamie Lee Curtis, who was 18 years old, and I didn’t know who she was, but I did know she was the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, which piqued my interest. Janet Leigh was the thing that really pushed it over for me, because I had this concept in my mind about taking the picture of Janet Leigh from ‘Psycho’ and putting it side by side with her daughter in our movie, and using it to break AP and UPI all over the world. So, it was the publicity angle I was really after.”

Yablans on casting Donald Pleasence: “I had seen Donald Pleasence in a movie called ‘Will Penny,’ a western that Charlton Heston starred in. [John] wanted Christopher Lee at first. I said, ‘John, if you do Christopher Lee, it’s going to be another Christopher Lee horror movie.’ And I mentioned Donald Pleasence and he really liked that idea a lot. And we didn’t think we could get him. It turns out that his daughter had seen ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ in London and loved the picture, and liked John Carpenter. So he signed on to do the picture and I found another $25 grand.”

Donald Pleasence in "Halloween" (Photo: Compass)

Yablans on why Dr. Loomis carries a gun: “You’re the first guy to ever ask me that question. I have to think about that, because I don’t know. That’s a very good question, because that never occurred to me!”

Yablans on Michael Myers’ famous William Shatner mask: “We sent Nick Castle out to find a bunch of masks and he brought them all back. It was John and Debra who really loved that one – and that was the key to the movie – the blank everyman. The fact that the face had no expression was more fearful. I think that set the tone for the way the character behaved. One thing about ‘Halloween’ is that [Michael] never does anything – he just shows up. He emerges from the dark, he keeps coming, coming, coming. The expressionless of it, the fact that there were no gimmicks – just a pale, white, blank fear.”

Yablans on his favorite scene: “I think the scene when they’re in bed and [Michael] comes up in the sheets. That scene, for its shear simplicity and effectiveness, is wonderful.”

Yablans on his falling out with John Carpenter: “John was a reticent sort of guy, but he was happy to get this break and he was so thankful [to me] for giving him this chance. We had a wonderful relationship. Unfortunately, right after that, it was never the same again. It’s almost as if he resented getting an opportunity. But we served our own purposes. We used each other, and it worked for the better for both of us.”

Nick Castle as Michael Myers in "Halloween" (Photo: Compass)

Yablans on why “Halloween III” ditched Michael Myers: “With ‘Halloween II’ – that was made by Dino De Laurentiis. We were offered a buyout. We got $2 million to say, ‘Ok, go do it.’ And we had an option for ‘III,’ but they never understood the ‘Halloween’ mystique. They just sort of went astray. I think ‘Halloween II’ and ‘III’ were not great movies, and if I had more creative input, it would not have been made quite that way.”

Yablans on Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” reboot: “I think they’re all attempts to cash in on the genre and on the iconic series. As far as I’m concerned, they’re superfluous. The story was told in ‘Halloween.’”

Yablans on the current state of horror: “I am really, really disgusted with what kind of movies pass as horror films today. The sadomasochism ones. I know some of these guys. I know Eli Roth, he’s a very talented guy. I said this to Eli, to his face, I said, ‘I don’t know how your mind can conjure up such sadistic, masochistic stuff!’ I mean, how do you allow your mind to delve into such painful, ugly, torturous things? And it shocks me that the audiences not only stand for it, but they love it!”

Yablans on why Michael Myers can’t die: “There’s another $30 million lurking around the corner.”

Click here to order Irwin Yablans’ autobiography, “The Man Who Created Halloween.”

 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.