Interview: Peter Jobin
Peter Jobin has been active in Canadian film for more than thirty years, but he will always be best known to Canuxploitaion fans for penning the classic 1980s Canadian horror Happy Birthday to Me with his writing partner, Timothy Bond. Despite a slightly troubled production history which saw the pair's original ending nixed, Happy Birthday to Me has gained a reputation as one of the best Canadian slashers, a film whose influence on the genre is still felt to this day. On September 30, 2004, Peter Jobin graciously sat down for a candid interview with Canuxploitation.com to talk about Happy Birthday to Me and its controversial conclusion, My Bloody Valentine and the state of Canadian film in the tax shelter heyday.
So you actually started out not as a writer, but as an actor?
Right. I was born in Montreal back in 1944, and lived there up until the early 1960s. I acted for a while at Stratford, and after the 1967 season I ended up moving to London, England to do a couple of shows in the West End. Then out of nowhere, I got asked to go to New York to do a show on Broadway, which ran for a year. New York in '69 was a fantastic place, and I had a hoot, but I got invited straight back to England for another show. I was getting sick of London, and I had an ex-girlfriend who offered to let me stay with her New York, so I went back in 1970 and hung out with her for three or four months. At the same time I also had offer to help start a theater up here, the Toronto Free Theatre. I dropped in on my friend Tim (Bond) on my way through, and he said " You gotta come and write—you've got all these great stories, just write!"
With the CFDC just starting was there a huge need for scripts at the time?
No, not really. The CFDC hadn't really started too much yet. There was some financing, but very little. Tim had been producing a bunch of small pictures—mostly fill-in stuff. He'd set up a little film company, but I think Tim wanted to step up a bit.
At the time, Tim had written The Babysitter, the original script of what became Black Christmas. Its big twist—although it was kind of an urban legend of the time—was that there's a girl alone in the house getting strange phone calls. She freaks out and calls the cops and they tell her " He's inside the house!" It actually took awhile to sell it hadn't been picked up when I started working with Tim.
Your first script was for a TV movie called She Cried Murder with Telly Savalas.
Yeah. She Cried Murder was actually sold before Black Christmas ever came out—in fact they were being shot around Toronto at the same time by completely different operations. It was weird to have written your very first story and have it sold to Universal. Bear in mind there was a writer's strike at the time, but still, it was fun to know that you actually sold something. Once that happened, I got other offers, and went on to other things. We had an offer from Dennis Friedland, a producer at Cannon Films who did The Happy Hooker. Tim and I went down to New York to work on a script, a story about a high school kid who goes to the King Tut exhibit...
Which was huge at the time, of course...
Yeah, it was giant! I have to say I think we did a really nice script, but ultimately, it never got made. After that, our next job was Happy Birthday to Me.
How did you get involved with that project?
We got a call from John Dunning, a producer at Cinépix saying " Come to Montreal, we want you to do a script." Of course, what they didn't tell us was that they already had another writer on it—John Saxton. He had already done an entire script, which Tim and I never even knew about when we started work on our script. Saxton's claim to fame was that he previously wrote that Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.
So you were obviously aware of Cinépix at the time.
Oh yeah, but their stuff had mostly been French. They'd done some more well-known stuff, but they were definitely on the edge. What was interesting to me was that this was the first relatively large-sized picture they thought about doing in English. I liked John. André Link never sat in on meetings because he was the business guy, but John was the creative dude, and he was a lot of fun to work with. They gave us a very loose story outline to work from. In the original version the kids were all different nationalities, like an international kind of prep school—I think John wanted to track down some international starlets to be a part of it—but his big thing was that there should be an accident. We invented the bridge and the boat hitting the car, but what John Dunning was interested in, for some reason, was her " brain swelling." That was really what he wanted to see!
Anyways, the script we wrote got sent to Columbia, and they signed on for $5 million up front. It wasn't until they finished shooting the picture with J. Lee Thompson that we were told that John Saxton had written an original script. It was natural that John would get a credit, so that wasn't a problem from my point of view, but Tim was a little miffed about it.
So did the final film stick to one script more closely than the other?
The script that was finally shot was by and large, mostly our stuff. There were a lot of things in there that I really liked, such as the kid hanging from the sign and falling into frame, and those kinds of fun things that I thought were cute. Obviously all the deaths were ours, the motorcycle wheel, the weight on the guy's nuts and all that crap. And the shish kebob skewer, which I really liked.
Were you a horror fan before you wrote the script?
I always loved those kinds of pictures, although you have to remember at that time, there weren't that many modern day horror movies. I grew up with Hammer horror—those were my favourites—the Chris Lee stuff, and of course, Psycho. I knew the principles of how you structure it, and I loved writing things like this sequence where the kid sneaks into Virginia's bedroom and grabs her panties. Now, a lot of that didn't end up in the picture, but it was a big fucking sequence at the beginning. It's all about the menace. " Is there somebody else in there?" It's bullshit, but it's fun to do.
Did you get a chance to visit the set?
No, we delivered the script and that was it, but if someone would have called us, we would have gone down. We did a final rewrite after we had a meeting with the director J. Lee Thompson, a final polish. I remember in the meeting Lee said to me, " Couldn't we find a more interesting way for the mother to get injured?" I said, " They're driving on a lift bridge in the rain. They skid off the top and the car balances on the top edge. When she goes to help her daughter, the car overbalances and falls underneath the bridge in the water. Then, just at she frees her daughter the boat comes through the top of the car and kills her...that's not interesting enough for you?" He started flipping pages like " Where's it say that?" He'd never read the fucking thing!
Did you like the choice of J. Lee Thompson for the film?
J. Lee Thompson is a really interesting director, who did some great stuff, like Guns of Navarone. He got the rote stuff down okay, but I felt that he really didn't take horror films seriously, which is too bad, because the point of this thing is that you have to take it seriously—it's like any genre. You have to play with it, because it's got its own rules. That got a little overplayed with Scream, but that's Kevin [Williamson], that's his number.
Let's talk a bit about the controversial ending of the film.
Well, the whole double ending was not something we did. I didn't even know about until after they finished shooting. Matt Craven, the actor who got shish kebobed was the one who told me that they changed the ending. There was nothing I could really do about it—once you've sold the script, you've sold the script. But I was a little pissed off and I called John Dunning about it. I'm a big believer that things always have to be laid out. If you want to change the movie like that, you have to go back and look at the whole thing, not just the end.
Do you know who wrote the ending?
No. They were shooting it Montreal, around McGill, and I was working on something else in Toronto. Years later, Tim told me that he was at a dinner with Lee in Hollywood, and Lee essentially admitted to having written the ending all himself. Whether that's true or not, I have no idea.
So what was the original ending?
Well, Virginia did it! Her father ends up in the room with her, and that's how it all comes out. That was the ending Cinépix wanted originally—that was what the " brain swelling" was about! I think—but I'm not sure—what had happened was that something else had come out with a similar double move. That left them in a situation where they had to go for the old plastic mask gag, the Mission Impossible thing, because they'd already shot the whole picture, stuff which showed her committing the murders. They weren't going to reshoot anything because they'd already spent half of the $5 million, and Lee never had much respect for the genre anyways, so from his point of view, it didn't make any difference who the hell did the killings. But the new ending doesn't make any sense at all.
How did the film do on release?
Around the spring of 1980, it was tops in Variety for two weeks. Somebody told me afterwards, it was the biggest grossing Canadian picture ever, but it was taken out a year later by Porky's.
I didn't see the picture until it was well into its run, at one of those nasty little Garth Drabinsky theatres down at the Eaton Centre. It was still pretty packed, and I was sitting there in the back row with a bunch of kids ahead of me. When the ending started, when it became obvious that Virginia wasn't the killer, every single one of the kids went " Aw, fuck me!"
Now, My Bloody Valentine started up production a week after Happy Birthday to Me, right?
I believe My Bloody Valentine was paid for out of the same money as Happy Birthday to Me. That film didn't have a deal until after the fact, until Paramount picked it up. The cheque that Cinépix got from Columbia up front for our film was close to $5 million US, and I believe they spent a little under $4 million. Then, the day they got the draw down, they started to shoot this cheap-o picture in Nova Scotia.
I've never actually seen My Bloody Valentine, but I've heard great things about it. I know some of the actors that worked on it and they had a good time. I would have liked to have been involved with both films in a funny little way. A story like that about miners in Nova Scotia, it's a great idea! I think they got more of a hit off doing that than they did on Happy Birthday to Me. Ours was more of a California thing with starlets and Glenn Ford, whereas My Bloody Valentine was the low rent dudes down on the corner. I would have loved to be involved in it.
You mentioned Scream a little earlier... did you notice any parallels with Happy Birthday To Me?
No—I never even thought about it, to be honest. When I saw Scream, I really enjoyed it—they played so many tricks in the right kind of way. Neve Campbell is great menaced heroine, and I love that they started out with Drew Barrymore—it was such a great gag, almost like Psycho. They're all very funny and they're great, but they are a little over-the-top, having the kids always going on about the rules.
Do you find that people still remember the film fondly?
Well, my favourite story about this is years and years later, I was walking down Yonge Street, and I saw these American teenagers coming up the street. One of them asked where they could get a drink, and I pointed to a bar owned by some friends of mine, but I told them they were going to need some ID. One of them said " Thanks, you're a nice guy-what do you do?" and I told them " I write movies." They said " Oh really? What did you write?" I told them Happy Birthday to Me, and they went crazy over it, saying it was a great picture. But then one of the guys stopped and said, " But you didn't write the ending, right?"
And you said " no," of course.
Absolutely, yes! I said, " You're fuckin' a-right I didn't write that ending!"