Over the decades evil has evolved, not so much its shocking fabric, but the way the blood now hits ours screens. What was once merely inferred is now elegantly splattered. Where once we were tantalised with dread, we now find our nerve-endings assaulted by special effects so wonderfully vile that men like James Whale and Bela Lugosi would spin in their graves. And these days we can make that happen for you too!!!
Today, I’ve had the pleasure of catching up with one of the true artists of the modern genre; Tom Sullivan, who worked on the cult classics The Evil Dead & Army of Darkness. The important thing to know about a creative genius like Tom is that he caught the horror bug so early in life that it’s almost as if he had suffered a genetic predisposition. However, in Tom’s case, it was the classic scream flick, King Kong which changed his life at the tender age of five. Ever since then his life has been drawn into a world of shadows and darkness. Remember that this is a genre which allows for any potentiality and the young artist could explore an interior world bound only by the limits of his own imagination and the influences of those who came before.
Tom’s growth as a child revolved around the creation of worlds beyond the normal. His long apprenticeship covered every field, from comics to filmmaking, model-making to writing, drawing and an eternal study of the horror genre as created by men as diverse as Frank Frazetta and Ray Harryhausen. It is a life built equally on success and failure because both ingredients are always needed to understand what makes good ideas work. For every Evil Dead there are a dozen other films which are a total waste of celluloid. However, it is usually only in hindsight that one finds the cult classic. Unlike pure box office, many horror films take years to become classics. Some films even require a full generation before they find success and I don’t just mean Plan 9 from Outer Space!!!
Creativity for many artists requires enormous diversity and so Tom often finds himself working as much outside filmmaking as in it. This has included stints working with videogames, comics, animation, sculpting, commercial illustrating as well as Tom even publishing his own artwork and replicas.
A life in horror has included an increasing number of appearances at various Horror conventions where Tom has built a reputation for himself amongst movie lovers. His highly distinctive skull signature, have proven very popular with autograph collectors. If you really want to understand more about Tom’s world then you must check out his really dank and dark website choc full of gloriously gory fun at: http://www.darkageproductions.com
I recently pinned Tom down with a few questions and he was totally fantastic about them as you can see by his answers to my questions below. Evil and humour; such a potent cocktail…
David: What story or image could freak out Tom Sullivan the budding teenage film maker…
Tom: Anything Harryhausen was a sure-fire attention getter. What magic! Any work by Frank Frazetta. How's he do it.
But for actually freaking me out, The Exorcist sure did it. I was one of those people who had to leave towards the ending and sit down on a toilet with my head leaned over cause I was woozy. I made it back in time to see the ending. I have not seen it since. I should. A great film.
David When did you sign your first autograph and how did that moment go?
Tom: I probably signed my first autograph way back at a Premiere of Book of the Dead. I remember the whole event was a rush of activity. I was amazed at the movie and really proud of the volume and quality of my work. Sam made everybody look really good. I have always drawn blanks when coming up with good inscriptions. So I stole a bunch from Sam and Bruce. Fangs a lot! Beast Witches! The Gore the Merrier, etc. Still use em.
David: What is one or two of your funniest stories from working with people like Sam Raimi, Tom Savini and Bruce Campbell.
Tom: Sam, Tom and Bruce walk into a bar and the Bartender says, “Why the long face? Actually back in the day Sam was a laugh riot and Bruce was quite shy and quiet around me. I think Bruce and I exchanged about 50 words on Evil Dead 1 and 2. He is a very focused actor and with so much depending on his performance it not hard to understand.
There is a funny story that happened with someone who I thought was Bruce. During the filming of Evil Dead 2 in North Carolina I was using the Men’s room sink washing paint off my hands and “Ash” came in all ripped and torn and bloody and since Bruce and I had not talked too much I started chatting away and of course it was Bruce’s double for the mirror scene. Boy, was I embarrassed. I guess you had to be there.
Let's see a Sam story. Hmmm. I was always impressed how dedicated he was to making films as he was always finishing one film and starting the next. Once I called him up at his East Lansing apartment that he shared with Rob Tapert. As the conversation ended Sam mentioned that Rob was there and I said to say hello. I could hear Sam yell out to Rob, “Toms on the phone and says you are ugly!” Oh boy that Sam. What a kidder.
While I do appear in The Absence of Light, a Patrick Desmond film that stars Tom Savini I do not appear in any scenes with him. Nor have I ever had the privilege of working with him. But I do have a story.
As Evil Dead was finally being released Sam let me know the only reason my name was on the poster was because Tom Savini was so popular that with my name on it some proportion of the poster’s viewers might think he was involved. During Evil Dead 2 Tom visited the set in North Carolina and stopped by my room to chat. As I was having some pictures taking of me and the Master, I told him the story of the poster and told him my plan to change my name to Sullivani.
We laughed and laughed. No actually we didn’t. Sorry not really any funny stories about the guys. A couple of years ago I was on a panel with Tom Savini at the Motor City Convention in Novi, Michigan and he told the audience and very nice story. In 1980 he was walking down the street in New York and Sam and Rob were editing Evil Dead (then Book of the Dead) and they saw Tom and chased him down and showed him some of the clay animation Bart Pierce and I produced for the finale. Tom was kind of impressed by what he saw. I will always appreciate that. Again not funny but it did happen.
David: What creation (so far) do you consider to be your best work and is there a story behind its creation?
Tom: I think that my work with Bart Pierce on the stop motion finale of Evil Dead is my most impressive work. Bart and I designed it all and we were able to shoot it without any micromanaging by Sam. Sam and Rob were in New York editing so we were left alone.
In the script Sam envisioned some clothes deflating with smoke coming out of the forms. I thought that if somebody in the audience saw this and made a farting sound the whole movie would turn into a joke. I came up with a dozen drawings of my proposal for a stop motion sequence of the gory destruction of the characters. Using the Morlock in the finale of George Pal’s The Time Machine and his clay animation disintegration as a model I was able to sell Sam on the idea. I wanted to extend into a more elaborate sequence. The dozen storyboards became about thirty and with Sam’s approval and introduction of Bart and I we were off to work.
I am also proud of my 18 years of illustrating H.P. Lovecraft characters and situations for role playing games for Chaosium Inc. Another neat career. I kept the copyrights and originals and have quite a catalog.
David: Are there any images etc that have never seen the light of day? Over the years have you signed many photos with actors and filmmakers and do you attend many film or autograph conventions?
Tom: On Evil Dead Bart and I shot some more gory shots for the clay animation finale. There were two shots the Editor rejected as too gross. They showed bile, snakes and cockroaches gushing out of the mouths and eyes of the skulls during the end of the meltdown sequence. I wish I had the footage.
It took twenty years to be invited to my first Convention. That was Ken Kish’s Cinema Wasteland Horror Movie Expo. I was a guest at the first show and a regular guest ever since. I was able to keep the props for Evil Dead, in lieu of being paid apparently and I now take my props, art and photos around the country in my Movie Memorable Museum for fans to see what is left of my collection.
I enjoy meeting fans and showing off my old rotting stuff. I am amazed that folks like seeing this stuff. I never knew how Evil Dead affected fans. A lot of fans are talented people and some say my work has inspired them to careers in art and film. I never planned on that. I saw the original King Kong when I was five and that film still inspires me. And on and on it goes.
David: Do you collect any types of memorabilia yourself, and if so what are a couple of your most treasured items?
Tom: The only memorabilia I have are the props I created. I am kind of a starving artist and only dream of having the resources to have a splendid collection. I am proud of the Books of the Dead and how it has invigorated my career. I am looking forward to moving on with new projects. But as a launching pad for my future plans it’s turned out to be quite popular. The reception of the Anchor Bay Book of the Dead Evil Dead DVD packaging has been overwhelming. It won DVD Reviews Best Packaging Award, Leonard Maltin made some glowing comments and it's almost gone from the shelves. And the best news is Anchor Bay has asked me to create an Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn Book of the Dead package in 2005. This time I want to sculpt as the Book alive and pissed off.
There will be more secret messages and new artwork as well.
David: If any person in history could sign their photo for you, whom would you ask and what would you have them say in their dedication?
Tom: That would be easy. I would have loved to meet Willis O’Brien and tell him how much his life and work has meant to me. In 1986 I had the privilege to meet his wife Darlyne and she signed a poster saying, “O’bie would be proud”. That’s good enough for me. O’bie could have been the Walt Disney of Stop Motion and Effects Animation but wound up as Hollywood’s best kept secret. A loss for all of us.
David: Could you tell us your all time favorite horror films, favorite actors and your favorite mainstream films?
Tom: The original King Kong still blows me away. I watch it regularly. Robert Wise’s The Haunting is the Citizen Kane of horror films in my book.
George Romero’s Living Dead films are favorites of mine but I might surprise fans by saying Horror films are not my favorite genre. I am a bit lighter in my tastes. I always liked the spirit of Harryhausen’s films and think that Stop Motion will still work with audiences. I am finding a lot of fans are pretty old school about their effects.
As for favorite actors I like, in no particular order. Denzel Washington, Jim Carrey, Audrey Tatou, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Renee Zellweger, Jeffery Combs, Bruce Campbell (and not because I know him), Sean Connery , Warren Berlinger (I’d like to see more of him. I miss his presence), Samuel Jackson, Lawrence Fishburne, and lots of classic Hollywood Actors. Errol Flynn, William Holden, John Wayne, Monty Woolley, Fonda (all of em), Dennis Hopper. The list goes on and on.
My favorite mainstream films are Amelie, Network, Citizen Kane, Matrix, Tarantino films, Orson Welles films, Bond films, Peter Jackson films (His King Kong is going to rock!), Scorsese films, Coppola films, Jean Cocteau films. Of course Alfred Hitchcock films. Again it’s a long list.
David: What does the near future hold for you and what projects should fans keep an eye out for?
Tom: Today I am writing a comic book mini-series called Tom Sullivan’s Books of the Dead: Devilhead. The Publisher of Dead Dog Comics, Chazz Demoss has teamed me up with Josh Medors, an amazing Artist who is taking my layouts and making them more dynamic and compelling. I think this may be my best work. I am very proud of what we are doing. This is another satisfying collaboration.
Since I earlier said horror films are not my favorite genre I have enjoyed this project with Dead Dog Comics, and the artist Josh Medors. The story is extremely violent and I am trying to make it as relevant as I can to today’s world although it’s set in the 1980s.
I am also writing scripts. I have horror, costumed crime-fighter, fantasy and adventure scripts on the way. I am thinking very commercial and within a range of budgets.
I taught myself art, writing, sculpting, graphic storytelling, special effects, and I have done a little acting, mostly theater in order to become an Uber Director for my films. Early on Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert chose me to do effects work on Evil Dead and I kind of got stuck with the Effects Make Up Guy label. That is why I have not done much work on effects since. I learned a lot on The Fly Part 2 but it had become more like factory work. It was meaning long hours and the knowledge that you are just a small cog in a big machine.
I went back to Illustrating and since the VHS/DVD phenomenon Evil Dead is bigger than ever and so I am taking advantage of this to refocus on writing, producing, and directing my own films.
David: Outside of films and your other creative outlets what are some of your hobbies and interests?
Tom: I love to read history. I am fascinated by how screwed up the world is despite the fact that we have enough answers in history and technology to feed, house educate everyone and create a wonderful place to live. Instead, we humans, aww… don’t get me started.
David: Have you ever had any funny or unusual encounters with a movie fan or an autograph hunter?
Tom: I love to meet fans and I am amazed at the talented artists who tell me that my work has influenced them into their choice of careers. A comic book artist, Jason Moore brought me his version of the Book of the Dead from Evil Dead that he made out of plastic clay, wood and drawings of my pages he copied from freeze framing Evil Dead. I never expected to influence people. I saw King Kong when I was five years old and that set me on my artistic course. And now I am passing the energy along that I got from Willis O’Brien. Freaky! I think everybody should pass it along.
David: What is the one question you have been waiting all your life for someone to ask you, but that you still haven’t been asked?
Tom: Can you use an Executive Producer to help finance your films? That moment is coming.
David: To sum up Tom Sullivan the artist, the visionary creator, Illustrator and filmmaker could you spin us a gory old yarn or recall an anecdote that best describes yourself?
Tom: I am in awe of many celebrities, but I have a fun story about my encounters with Ray Harryhausen.
Way back in 1977 I was at a Triple Fan Fair in Detroit. It was the weekend Star Wars opened. Ray Harryhausen was the guest of honor and I recall being the first on my feet for a standing ovation as he came in the room.
The thing is I am too nervous around celebrities and Ray is the biggest in my book. So I sent my Wife Penny through the line to get his autograph.
Yes I was a coward. His work means too much to me. I was shaking in fear.
So Penny got his autograph and couldn't resist telling Ray her husband was too in awe to meet him.
Later that day Penny was watching a film and I went to the hotel restaurant to get some lunch. As I start my burger Ray Harryhausen, Charles Schneer and Screenwriter Beverly Cross enter the restaurant and sit at the table next to me. Mr. Cross starts telling Ray and Charles the plot to Clash of the Titans. The Kraken attack on the city and all the rest. Eventually Penny finds me still ordering food so I can delay my departure as I am eavesdropping as well as I can. Penny and I had to leave but WOW! That was cool.
In 1981 Penny and I lived in San Francisco and she worked at the Stanford Court, A very high-class hotel in downtown San Francisco.
One night she and I had plans to see the premiere of Sean Connery's Outland at the Coronet Theater in Geary Street. She was late and everybody had gone inside to see the show.
Suddenly a stretch limo drives up and out steps Ray Harryhausen. And he is a tall guy let me tell you. With him is writer Jeff Rovin. I see Ray and say to myself, "today I will be a man!". I walk up to Ray and say "hello Mr. Harryhausen, I am Tom Sullivan and I am a big fan of yours and your work has influenced my choice of careers. I did stop motion for a clay animated disintegration meltdown scene of some characters for a feature film.
Ray says "It seems everybody is doing meltdown scenes. I just got back form ILM and they showed me a scene for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jeff stepped in and said Ray doesn’t get too many people recognizing him in public. I thank Ray and off he and Jeff went.
Right on cue a taxi pulls up and out hops Penny full of energy. I blurt out that Ray Harryhausen just went into the theater and I finally had the balls to say hello. Penny says "That’s who that was!" she was a waitress at the Stanford Court restaurant and had been delayed because Ray and Jeff were her last customers. She recognized Ray after all the years of me going on and on and of course I had her go through the line years earlier.
As soon as Outland was over Penny was out the door. The limo was parked in front of the theater and Ray was just getting seated in the back. Penny jumps into the back seat with Ray and says "Remember me? I was your waitress and this is my husband. He's your biggest fan. Ray invited us to see him speak at Berkeley Campus the next night. And off he drove.
According to Penny they became pals over the next couple of days. Of course we went to see him at Berkeley and show a tasty bit of the Medusa scene from Clash of the Titans. And the circle was complete.
And that’s my Ray Harryhausen story. Be a fan and let yourself be inspired.
© David Priol 2005