“I look at Friday the 13th as, quite simply, a fun two weeks of work that happened more than thirty years ago.”
That’s what Mark Nelson told author David Grove for his 2015 book On Location in Blairstown: The Making of Friday the 13th. Nelson, who plays the film’s practical joker, is fortunate to even have those two weeks to call on. Some of his co-stars only worked on Friday the 13th for a week, others for just a day or two, yet they have been hounded over the years for their recollections about their small part in what turned into a cultural phenomenon – an impossibly high-grossing indie horror flick that proved Halloween wasn’t a fluke and thus gave rise to a decade of slasher flicks.
But how much do you actually remember about a job you worked for just a couple of weeks when you were in your 20s? And how long is it before the stories you do remember or embellish simply run out? In the case of Friday the 13th’s cast, eventually after countless convention and documentary appearances and generous book, magazine, and blog interviews there are no details left to be uncovered. Sometimes, behind the scenes trivia and insight simply runs out.
Or so I thought.
I plowed through On Location in Blairstown, a book I only recently discovered through Kindle Unlimited, over the weekend. Much of it repeats what I already knew. A lot of it, though, is new to me. Since Grove interviewed every single crew member he could track down instead of settling for just the cast members and biggest behind the camera names like director Sean Cunningham, writer Victor Miller, associate producer Steve Miner, and effects experts Tom Savini he managed to dispel a number of the myths about the making of Friday the 13th:
MYTH #1: Cunningham’s infamous Variety ad led to an avalanche of financing offers from all over the world.
This is a myth Cunningham has been happy to spread throughout the years, proclaiming, “I ran the ad in the summer, around the Fourth of July, in weekly Variety, a big full-page ad, and the phones started ringing off the hook.” He supposedly got a big response “from brokers all over the world.” Other times, Cunningham has been more cautious, stating simply that foreign distributors called to express an interest in seeing the film once it was finished.
Truth: The ad simply got him back into bed with the same theater owners/film financiers who had backed Last House on the Left, Here Come the Tigers, and Manny’s Orphans.
If the phone was truly “ringing off the hook” it was likely just from the crew members from those prior movies calling Cunningham to see about getting a job on Friday the 13th. The reality, as Grove notes, is “Cunningham received no firm financial offers regarding Friday the 13th throughout July 1979.”
It did at least catch the eye of Phil Scuderi and his partners at Georgetown Productions, which had previously gone by Hallmark Releasing and financed Last House, Tigers, and Manny’s Orphans. For a variety of financial and artistic reasons, Cunningham was reluctant to ever work with them again. So, he ended up taking a second mortgage on his Westport, Connecticut home to self-fund Friday the 13th, if need be, which gave him the necessary leverage to negotiate a better deal with Scuderi this time around.
MYTH #2: The Variety ad came before there was a script or even a premise.
There is a long history in the B movie world of producers securing financing based solely on a killer title (and sometimes also a poster). It’s only once they have the money that they bother with the little things like, ya know, figuring out a story to go with the title and actually writing a script. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus turned this into an art-form in the 80s via Cannon Films, and Roger Corman had been pulling the same trick well before them. Sean Cunningham has always liked to imply Friday the 13th is a part of this schocky tradition.
In the forward of Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th, he writes: “I had this movie title banging around in the back of my head that I thought would be terrific: Friday the 13th. I had no idea what the movie would be, but with that title I thought, at least, I’d be off to a good start. That’s when I went to my friend Steve Miner with a half-baked idea about taking out an ad in Variety. We both knew it was crazy since we didn’t have a script, no production funds and we weren’t sure we could even get the rights to use the title […] After the ad ran, everybody wanted the film. I said, ‘Shit, I better make this film.’ So we scampered around and tried to write a script [with Victor Miller].”
Truth: By the time the ad ran, they already had a story idea and Victor Miller’s first draft was almost finished.
The fly in the ointment on this particular myth has always been the following: if everything Cunningham said is true then why does Victor Miller’s first draft of the screenplay famously refer to the film as Long Night at Camp Blood and not Friday the 13th? If the ad directly led to the birth of the story and script why would Miller go against the title promised in the ad?
He didn’t. As Miller tells Grove, “I worked on the screenplay that eventually became Friday the 13th during the spring/summer of 1979. After I began my efforts, Cunningham went about securing financing. The newspaper ad came later.”
One note, though: Miller has long since been at odds with others in the production, disputing claims that his original ideas and words are barely in the finished film due to extensive uncredited rewrites. Later on in the 80s, he sued the producers (and settled out of court) for a profit share. As of last year, he was suing Cunningham for the franchise rights. So, there’s that.
MYTH #3: To secure the rights to the title, Friday the 13th’s financiers had to settle with the producers of another low-budget horror movie.
The Variety ad wasn’t solely about attracting investors. It was also Cunningham’s attempt to see if anyone would call threatening a lawsuit over the title. When no call came he assumed the title was free to use. He was wrong.
Phil Scuderi’s former booker George Mansour later admitted, “There was a movie before ours called Friday the 13th: The Orphan. Moderately-successful, but someone still threatened to sue. I don’t know whether Scuderi paid them off, but it was finally resolved.”
Truth: No, they didn’t, at least not according to The Orphan’s producer Sondra Gilman.
Mansour denies ever saying the above quote, and here’s what Gilman told Grove: “Yes, we saw the ad in Variety and while we were upset that our title had been used by someone else we figured that was life and [Cunningham] jumped the gun on us. We then changed our title to Friday the 13th: The Orphan. We had no contact with Sean and we had no settlement. We later dropped the title Friday the 13th and only went with The Orphan to eliminate any confusion between the two films.”
Furthermore, Richard Illy, the photographer who created the Variety ad, alleges Cunningham was aware of the rival project, “Sean took the ad in Variety because he’d heard that another producer was going to be using the Friday the 13th title for another movie and Sean wanted to stake his claim toe the title before the other project went into production or was released.”
MYTH #4: Betsy Palmer was given her iconic sweater to make her look bulkier and more intimidating.
Palmer: “They gave me the baggy sweater to wear in the film to make me look bulkier and more physically-imposing, even though I’m only five-foot-seven. I also wore long underwear for the scenes to make me look stronger, but I kept thinking, ‘Who the hell am I going to scare?’”
Truth: No; she was given a sweater because it was nearly freezing outside.
Costume designer Caron Coplan: “I bought a Mexican peasant blouse which one of the girls wears early in the film as a sweatshirt. The baggy sweater came from one of those places and I gave it to Betsy because it was so cold and we had to keep her warm. There was no other reason. It had nothing to do with Betsy being a small woman, or looking skinny, because I remember she was fairly tall and strong-looking. At that point in the filming, there was a lot of night shooting, and it was bitterly-cold, and the rainy nights were brutal and unpredictable for the filming.”
Palmer joined the project halfway through the four-week shoot, by which point the 75 degrees weather they’d enjoyed on day one had plummeted to near freezing temperature with bouts of rain and snow. Considering how much of her screen time takes place outdoors, Palmer joked, “I would’ve died of pneumonia if it hadn’t been for the baggy sweater I had on.”
MYTH #5: They ripped off Twitch of the Death Nerve.
This isn’t a myth the creators of Friday the 13th have courted. Why would they? The allegation is they knowingly ripped off not just Halloween (which, guilty as charged) but also Maria Brava’s 1971 proto-slasher Twitch of the Death Nerve. Alternately known as Bay of Blood, Brava’s classic finds a group of partying teens being violently picked off one by one in and around an isolate bayside house. Granted, by the halfway point all those teens are dead and the film takes a series of surprising turns, but Friday the 13th cleary just expanded that teens-in-the-woods section to feature-length.
Cunningham, Miller, Miner, Savini, and uncredited co-writer Ron Kurz can plead ignorance all they want, but someone along the Friday the 13th line, most likely Phil Scuderi, clearly saw Twitch of the Death Nerve and ripped it off. We know Twitch played at one of Scuderi’s theaters in 1972, and one of Sceduri’s partners, Stephen Minasian, met Brava “sometime in the late 60s or early 70s.” They must have fed Twitch’s best moments and basic premise to Cunningham and the gang and pawned it off as their own original creation.
Truth: Friday the 13th’s script supervisor, Martin Kitrosser, sure thought so, but it seems unlikely. Friday the 13th: Part 2, on the other hand, yeah, 100%.
Kitrosser, whose love of Brava is such that he named his own son Mario Brava Kitrosser, became so convinced Friday the 13th was directly-imitating Twitch he lobbied Cunningham and Scuderi to dedicate the film to the Italian director. This request was denied, and Kitrosser ultimately stayed with the franchise, later writing Friday the 13th: Part 3.
In-between that, Part 2 directly lifted two of Twitch’s death scenes – the double-impalement of a couple making love and taking a machete to the face of a wheelchair-bound character. That likely stemmed from Scuderi feeding the ideas to Part 2’s screenwriter, Kurz, without telling him where it was coming from.
The deaths in the first film, however, are not directly patterned after Twitch, and Cunningham’s style and visual approach bares little similarity to Brava’s. Friday is a moralistic slasher punishing teens who have sex; Twitch is a bloody dark comedy about a group of people killing one another in a fight over real estate rights. The setting is similar, but the execution and storytelling massively differs. That doesn’t mean the financiers didn’t instill some of Death of the Twitch Nerve into Friday without anyone other than Kitrosser realizing it at the time. However, the evidence is flimsy whereas with Part 2 it’s undeniable.
Either way, had the first Friday come with a Brava dedication it would have been all the more potent for the following reason: Brava died just two weeks before Friday the 13th hit theaters.
MYTH #6: They ran out of money during filming and tried to offer certain crew members profit participation in lieu of salary.
Truth: They were always on the verge of running out of money but never actually did. The crew remembers getting paid on time. Some days, the baloney sandwich lunches didn’t have any actual baloney, which is when everyone knew things were bad, financially. But the crew doesn’t remember any disruption in actual payment or receiving any checks that bounced.
The cinematographer Barry Abrams, Palmer, and others were definitely offered points instead of salary, but they all turned it down. Most of them doubted the film would ever see the light of day. So, take the money and run, obviously.
Grove disputes the assumption that the profit partificipation offers were made because the production was running out of money. Other than Palmer, who wasn’t hired until after the second week of the filming, all of the profit participation offers were made at the start of production, when no one had any idea how good the movie was going to be.
As key grip Robert Shulman recalls: “We were all offered profit deals on Friday the 13th and we all turned it down. As we got deeper into filming, I think we all realized that this was something that had a real chance to be successful. One night, midway through the filming, I got drunk with Barry and Barry said, ‘This fucking movie’s going to make ten million dollars.'” Actually, it was more like forty million, domestic, sixty worldwide.
Cunningham and Miner did take profit points and later became millionaires off the film’s monumental success. C’est la vie.