We revisit a chat with Bruce Campbell in time for Sunday’s Ash vs Evil Dead finale.
Bruce Campbell is a goddamn legend. He’s conquered the dead, fended off maniacal cops, locked up Billy Drago, lorded over thieves, sailed the East Indies, impersonated Elvis, brought back Ronald Reagan, and slept with Miami cougars on a nightly basis. He’s also directed four films, written three books, officiated multiple weddings, and raised two children. Now, he’s back for the third season of Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead, reprising his iconic role as Ashley “Ash” Williams, who’s not only a prophesied hero this time around but a totally deadbeat dad. In anticipation of the February 25th premiere, we spoke to Campbell about his salad days in Michigan, how Stephen King saved his ass twice, and the trick to acting on horses. Groovy? See for yourself.
Meeting Sam Raimi
I had seen him physically in junior high school, in about eighth or ninth grade. He was a year behind me, and I was walking down the hallway and this guy was dressed as Sherlock Holmes. He was sitting on the floor of the hallway — in the middle of the hallway — playing with dolls. I remember very specifically, very vividly, going “Okay, I’m gonna go way around that guy.” It turned out that was Sam.
So, in Wylie E. Gross — I guess in ‘75 — I had typing class. It was the worst class I ever had, but I never even knew I could drop a class. I never even knew where the counselor’s office was. It just never occurred to me. So I went down there and said, “Hey, can I drop this typing class?” They were like “Yeah. Well, what do you have in place of it?” I said “Well, how about this, how about that”, and one of them was radio speech. I said, “Wait – like a DJ who plays music and all that?” They were like, “Yeah.” I went “Ok, sign me up.” So, Sam was in the same class.
We started doing morning announcements together, and then we got in plays together, and we started spending more time together and seeing each other extracurricularly. He did little movies in his neighborhood, I did them in my little neighborhood, and then one other guy … there were about three neighborhoods that made Regular 8 and Super 8 movies. So, we just eventually started to link up.
Making Short Films
Around ‘75, Scott Spiegel, who wound up co-writing Evil Dead 2, was very into the Stooges and he had been making Super-8 movies pretty much since 1969. Scott’s the same age as me, he was around 11. I started doing it in my little neighborhood around ‘71, ‘72. I would do D-Day, Son of Hitler, Day of Violence … they were a bunch of these weird little shorts. I played Hitler and Hitler’s son was still alive lurking around. Scott would do like, Pies and Guys and Inspector Club Saves the Day. Sam was doing stuff like The Great Bogus Monkey Pignut Swindle.
Sam’s were a cross between Monty Python-ish, Groucho Marx-ish… Scott was very Three Stooges. I was a big fan of the Stooges. So we all had our influences. Then, these short films started to get longer or more sophisticated as we met each other. This one guy is like, “I got a better camera than that,” and the other guy is like “Oh, I got a package of lights here.” So, we started working more on each other’s stuff. The weekends were slammed. I never got in any trouble in high school because we were too busy.
Working with St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild of Cranbrook
Unofficially, I was. I was too young to join. You couldn’t join this local, suburban Detroit theatre group … you couldn’t join until you were 18. But, every summer, they would do this big splashy musical in their outdoor pavilion. It was this beautiful facility formerly owned by the guy who created, The Detroit News. It was his former grounds. So, ‘71 … I think ‘72 … I did The King and I and played the King’s son. Each summer after that I was in South Pacific and Fiorello and played all these different parts.
I was always the guy who was the “servant boy.” I was a newspaper guy, a World War I soldier, that sort of stuff. Then I turned 18, and I could join. My dad had been a member for years, since the ‘60s, so my dad was a formative member there. He directed me in Sweet Bird of Youth. I started to do plays there, and it was a great access to costumes. They had a great collection for this theatre group that had been around for 30 or 40 years.
Keeping Things Professional
We were serious. There was no one else other than us doing this stuff. We started buying equipment. Some of us would act more than others, some of us would direct more than others, and whoever put up the money was the producer for these things. That’s how that kind of worked. We started to get more and more interested, but more panicked at the same time because we realized “Ah crap, high school’s gonna end. Are we gonna actually have to get a regular job now?” There was that possibility. But then in ‘78, Sam’s brother Ivan — who went to Michigan State — his roommate was Rob Tapert, who became sort of a partner over the years. Rob was the first one. He met Sam through his brother, and Sam was always talking about making movies. He wanted to make a real movie. Rob was the first guy to go, “Well, you need a lawyer.” And we’re like, “A lawyer? What does that mean?” He goes, “Trust me: you need a lawyer.”
Rob had always been a teenager who was always in trouble, so they had a family lawyer. You know, Rob’s father and this guy went to Catholic school together. So this guy Phil Gillis … we went to talk to him and he goes, “Well you wanna drop a limited partnership.” Then, we go “What the hell is that?” You know, it was way before the LLC kind of thing. His point was that you needed a creative structure. If you’re going to go into a businessman’s office to make an appointment to get them to invest in your movie, you had to have a structure, and you had to have a law firm behind it that’s actually a reputable law firm in Detroit. You had to have it all spelled out: How much if I invest 10,000 bucks, what do I get, what’s my percentage, and what position am I in.
So, there is a perception that the first Evil Dead movie is an amateur movie, but that’s actually not the case. Contractually, every “I” was dotted and “T” crossed because we got lucky. We found a lawyer. He got interested in the project so he didn’t charge us for his work, he invested the money that he would have charged us into the movie. Other guys at the law form then became interested and, you know, guys with money go “Hey! What are you doing?” to their buddies. Then the guy goes “Oh, I invested in a movie.” So, we got some investments just because their buddy invested. They were like, “Sounds good! I’m in.”
Studying and Warming Up to Horror
They still had drive-ins. So, we would go to drive-ins and we went to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which impressed us all very much. The theory was that once the horror started in that movie, it never stopped. That impressed us. But we also saw Revenge of the Cheerleaders and other shitty horror movies. You would see in the lousy parts or bad parts — or if it was bad dialogue or bad acting — that people would turn their headlights on the screen. They’re like, “Fuck you.” They would flash their lights or honk their horn until something better happened. You could tell that they were the barometer for “I’m bored.” What was amazing was that it had a lot of commentary, and we said, “Okay. Let’s not do that. Let’s not be boring, let’s keep these moving.” So, that’s what influenced us if we were going to make a horror film,
And I think to answer your upcoming question, no, I could care less about horror movies. They had no influence in my life whatsoever. I listened to The Carpenters. I didn’t play any of that game, I didn’t have any tattoos. So, there was nothing that influenced me like, “One day my parents took me when I was five to go see The Beast with Five Fingers.” None of that. Whenever I saw horror, I found it incredibly disturbing. I read an article when I was 10 about Night of the Living Dead — this movie that is so disturbing that people are fainting. People are being disemboweled by zombies, unstoppable zombies. I remember reading that and going, “I hope I never see that movie.” It’s like my wife’s point: I’m already a nervous wreck. Why would I watch something that would make me more nervous?
Do you still feel that way now?
No, I respect horror for what it can do. Aside from comedy, it’s one of the few genres that can make some actually have a visceral experience with the movie, like shouting and screaming, talking back to it, or jumping or lurching in their seats. It’s just really one of the few genres that can get you physically agitated.
What scares you in general?
Ignorance. There’s nothing scarier than that.
The Power of Stephen King
He’s responsible for two of The Evil Dead movies, not just one. The second one is much more obscure. He’s obviously quoted for the first Evil Dead, he saw it at Cannes and allowed us to use that quote, which was really cool of him and we’ve been using it ever since. On the second movie, Evil Dead 2, we were having trouble getting financing. We were prepping it and trying to get it going. We had a woman who was kind of like doing scheduling stuff, and we had to let her go. So she was a crew member, and she took off down to North Carolina and started making all these movies.
Dino De Laurentiis is making movies down there. Who does she run into? She gets on the crew of Maximum Overdrive, directed by Stephen King. Stephen was like, “What are you up to?” And she was like, “I just came from working with these guys trying to get money for Evil Dead 2.” He goes, “Evil Dead 2? They can’t get the money for that?” She goes “No.” He calls Dino De Laurentiis and goes, “You should make this movie.” I think we had a deal … we met with Dino and I think we had a deal in about half an hour, and a basic understanding.
Imitating the Late Dino De Laurentiis
On The Losers’ Club, our Stephen King podcast, we always joke around that Dino De Laurentiis used to materialize out of the shadows with a cigarette or a cigar, calling out to King. What was he actually like?
He was just like that. He was basically five feet tall. The guy was very very short — very dark, very swarthy. You’d come into his office and he would have a button that would open the door, so the door would open very majestically to a giant desk. He had a thing about lion’s heads. So, there were lion’s heads on the desk, and the desk was enormous. Schwarzenegger got in immediate trouble with him. Schwarzenegger comes in and goes, “Why does such a small man need such a large desk?” Dino goes [imitates De Laurentiis’s voice], “Get that Nazi outta my office!” Their relationship for Conan [The Barbarian] started with that conversation.
But anyway, you go in and you meet with him and he just wants to know [imitates De Laurentiis’s voice] “how much, how long, when you start, when you stop, and who stars in this movie.” We gave him the basic information, but when he saw the foreign sales figures for the first Evil Dead that sealed the deal. He knew foreign, you know. Some producers … they know America. This guy knew everything but America.
This guy … he bought movies and packaged them everywhere else but America. His version of editing … like Army of Darkness. We would bring it into his office and off to one side of his office was an editing bay. This was the whole flatbed, so you’d put the reel of film on the side and you’d run it through. For any part he didn’t like, he would put his hand over the screen and just go [imitates De Laurentiis’s voice] “Out! Out!” Then it would cut to something else and he’d go [imitates De Laurentiis’s voice] “Come back here.” It was like that trying to interpret it. He still didn’t have full grasp of the English language.
Dino was all business. He had a guy named Josh that worked with him for, I don’t know, 20 years? They’d fly together constantly — long flights all the time overseas. Dino would do no small talk. One day, 15 years into the relationship, he looks over while they’re on a flight and goes [imitates De Laurentiis’s voice], “Hey Josh.” He goes, “Yeah, Dino?” “Where were you born?” He says, “Uh, Brooklyn.” Dino goes, “Agh.” And that was it. That was the extent of their private conversation. He loved business and started a brand new young family. He lived the classic over-the-top lifestyle. He really did. He was just a big, big character and a little, little guy.
We like to imagine that he’d randomly call up Stephen King and be like, “Stephen, what do you have for me?”
He went to call our offices in Ferndale, Michigan. Someone had given him our number. He dared to like dial the actual phone himself and on the message machine was this: “Hello, thank you for calling Renaissance Pictures. We’ve moved our offices. Our new number is 313-547-6262.” He goes [imitates De Laurentiis’ voice], “Hey hey,” now he’s yelling at someone from across the office, “they got another number.” Then, the machine cuts him off. It completely flummoxed him that he had to write another number down to call us. So we didn’t get called right away, it was the next day — like he had to give the number to someone else. So, yeah, that was Dino. We did two movies with him: Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.
The Art of Acting on Horses
The first horse stuff was Army of Darkness. I learned how to ride a horse, but did not learn to ride it well. I benefited from the fact that a cape behind me disguised what cowboys call “the ass saddle battle” from slamming on the saddle because you’re not really fitting the horse right. You know, normally you’re kind of one with the horses as you go across the countryside. I struggled through Army of Darkness with the horse. There was not a lot of training involved. It was about a “C-” riding effort on my part.
But! A couple years later, you know, Army of Darkness was ‘91. In ‘93 comes The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. That’s a different ball game. He’s a cowboy, so I thought that there’s no way I’m not training for this. The producers were very good about it. So, me and the wrangler — the actual guy with the actual set of horses … you never just have one horse. You have, like, four horses for your one horse. We would train for 30 days in this guy’s ring, and that’s how you do it. The guy, he just ran me through every fundamental. He goes, “Okay! I want you to sit on the horse now for half an hour.”
And if the horse takes one step forward, you go, “I didn’t tell you to step forward” and you correct it, you take it one step back. This thing gets bored, starts looking around, and steps to the side. You go, “I didn’t tell you to go to the side,” and correct it back. You have to let it know that you are the pilot. Otherwise, the horse will take complete advantage of you. Like, I’d be on the horse and the horse is acting all crappy, and I’d go “Gordon, this horse is being shitty.” So he goes, “Alright, get off and let me check. I get off, and the second he sits on the horse, the horse freezes. He looks at me and goes, “Yeah. I guess it’s the horse.”
This guy was the most sarcastic son of a bitch. Gordon Spencer, he was great. He goes, “Crew members don’t give a shit about her horse. So that boom guy is going to shove the boom right by you, and the horse is going to see it out of the side of its eye, and it’s gonna freak out. We’re gonna get that horse, your main horse, used to things being shoved in its face. All day long.” He goes, “Your job is just to sit on the horse.” He takes a 4×4 piece of box cart — you know, the big bright white stuff. It’s just a big piece of styrofoam. They used it to bounce light. It was a big, bright, shiny piece of white styrofoam. So, he would just stand there with it, and I would sit there on the horse and we would wait and wait. Then out of nowhere he would just shove that thing in the horse’s face. Then, I would get control over it again, and we’d wait, and wait. Then, he’d shove it in the thing’s face again. We would do this for, I don’t know, half an hour.
After a couple of days, the horse would go, “Oh, oh, it’s just that thing.” Then he started with the noise. Here’s the tough thing: An ex-Marine takes a string of cans and puts it all over him — like the Tin Man! He’s running in circles around the horse making random, loud noises. The horse is flinching, you know, and he goes, “Don’t get off. Relax.” If I would relax, 9/10 times the horse would relax. So, you know, we just did that with every gunshot. She shoved big wads of cotton in the horse’s ears, and they have different loads for your fake guns. They have a quarter load, half load, and full load. If you wanted a big flameout at the end, you would do a full load. The noise would get louder with each one. We had those, and he would sit next to the horse, again, and you’d wait and wait. Then, randomly, boom! Right next to the horse, and I’m on it the whole time.
The horse just got used to noise, guns, things in its face … and by the time we would shoot, we did it, man. We did some stuff with that horse… I went back and was like “Damn, that was good.” The wrangler also did this: he taught us how to shoot the horses. It’s one thing to train them. So the director goes like this: “Okay guys. You’re gonna say goodbye to the girl, you’re gonna get on the horse, you’re gonna rear, and then you’re gonna ride out of town.” We’re like “Okay, that’s three different horses. And, like, four different angles.” He looks at you like, “What? Is he telling me how to shoot this?” And we’re like, “Yeah. Oh yeah. We’re telling you how you’re gonna shoot this.”
‘Cause the dialogue is on my main horse, Copper — and that horse is an old horse and doesn’t wanna go anywhere — that’s the dialogue horse. So, you do all your dialogue with that horse. Then, you fake like you’re gonna start your rear, swap it out with a horse called Ace, and all that horse does is rear. You give it leg cues on either side of its chest, and it’ll pop right up in the air. But you don’t want to use that horse normally, in a dialogue scene, because what if you gave it a leg cue inadvertently? The thing would pop right up and knock you off the horse — or knock you out. So the second shot is with Ace, that horse. Then the third shot, the wide shot, is with a horse that has a nice lope to it.
It’s, you know, three to four different horses for all this stuff — and the director’s faces would just fall. They always had it in their head about how they could shoot this seamless shot, and we’re like “Bullshit man, you got three horses. Here’s how it’s gonna go down.” In between each take, if you wanted a second take after the first take, the horse knows that it’s gonna ride outta town. The second you start to swing up on that horse, it’s ready to run. So between take one and take two, you jog it in a circle. Now the horse goes, “Well shit. Are we racing out of town? Or are we going to jog in a circle?” Then in take two, when you race out of town, the horse is like, “Aw, you fooled me!” Then, literally, if they want a take three, you now have to jog it in the opposite direction for a few minutes. So, now, it goes, “Am I going that way, that way, or around in circles?” You’re messing with the horse all day long.
I have great respect for the fact that we actually did it right. I’ve been on other stuff where they have horses since then, and nobody takes the time to do what we did. It’s so cool if you take the time. You can really do some great stuff. So, yeah, the horse stuff got better. It finally got to where it had to get — and now I’m good! If I never get on a horse to wreck my knees, or get thrown off, or get stepped on … that’s fine. I won’t miss ‘em. They’re a lot of work, horses, a lot of work.
Is that why Ash vs Evil Dead hasn’t gone back to medieval times yet?
There’s a myriad of reasons for that. That’s just one of ‘em.
Loving Motown, Ignoring Punk
I’m a Motown guy. I like classic rock. Gimme Bob Seger, gimme Creedence Clearwater. So, Ash and I sync up to some degree. I’m not as hard as Ash. Ash will go harder rock than I will. I didn’t do a lot of AC/DC, that stuff is just too much. I was too much for me.
Did you ever get into the Detroit punk scene growing up? Like The Stooges or MC5?
Nope, nope. I am, uh, musically illiterate. We were making Super 8 movies, man, while everyone else was going to Grateful Dead concerts.
The Future of Ash vs Evil Dead
It’s too early to tell who’s coming back only because we don’t even know if we’re coming back. So, mid-March is when we’re gonna get the sign; either see you later alligator, or pack your bags: we’re going for another season. So, we’ll see. Our inclination is to start fresh. We had some big changes at the end of the season which are great, it’s a cool end of the season. But the way that we went, it probably requires, you know, a little bit of shuffling if we were to continue.
If this is it, what would you say is your favorite hero moment from Ash?
Of this new one?
Yeah. The big payoff. It’s everything we’ve built up to. Hopefully the audience will go, “Fuckin’ A-right, Ash. Fuckin’ A-right.” You know? Ash is gonna prove his stuff, man. This is it. This is the final showdown.
Well the first five episodes are great, and I can’t wait to see how the next five go.
Nine and 10 are awesome.
Does Sam Raimi come back for any of them?
No. He’s a busy boy.
Well, you are too. Good luck with everything.
Alright, thank you.
Ash vs Evil Dead premieres on Sunday, February 25th via Starz. Read our review.