A-List: Bruce Campbell’s new book charts the second phase of his career

Video still from Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell, Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor

Englert Theatre — Tuesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m., $37 — SOLD OUT
Presented by Prairie Lights

Actor, director and writer Bruce Campbell has crafted a career out of a certain kind of off-beat character. As an actor, he doesn’t disappear into a role, but rather imbues each with an almost ludicrous uniqueness, a deeply specific sense of self. This kind of interplay between the fantasy and reality of his existence is a perfect precursor to his alternate career as a memoirist.

“[W]hen you’re best known for mounting a chainsaw on your hand and building ‘deathcoaster’ people just assume you’re an expert in landscaping equipment,” he writes in his most recent book, the perfect example of walking that line.

Despite the iconic nature of the roles he’s played — the last defense against the forces of evil, a son of the Greek god Hermes, even a turn as Elvis — he manages to find the most honest humanity in each. His writing does the same, finding the humblest humanity in himself, self-effacing and unafraid of humor at his own expense.

Campbell will be in Iowa City on Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Englert Theatre, presented by Prairie Lights, touring in support of Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor, which was released Aug. 15. He spoke to Little Village ahead of his appearance.

You spoke a lot in your book about the value of solitude and I’m curious for you, writing specifically — is that a solo activity? Is it something you sequester yourself away for?

Yeah — I have a nice place in the Oregon woods and I’m building a new office now. I like a nice quiet place to write. I usually do it in the morning, about five, six in the morning until about 11 o’clock in the morning, and then my brain is fried and I have to do something physical.

That makes sense — and it seems like there’s a lot out there physical to do. You seem to engage with the environment quite a bit.

Yeah, there’s no shortage of activities. We just — two days ago with my buddy Sam Raimi we went to look for the bigfoot trap that’s out near where I live; about 45 minutes from my house is a trap they built in the ’70s … There’s a lot going on out here.

Were you able to track that down?

Yeah, we found the trap. We just didn’t find Bigfoot.

That’s disappointing, I’m sure.

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It’s alright.

You and Sam Raimi have been friends since high school, right?

Yeah, a long time.

That’s an amazing history of creativity together.

It’s 40-some-odd years I think — ‘75 is when I first met him.

I was also one of those sorts of high school people who was just as interested in making movies as watching them. Clearly none of us turned out to be the next Bruce Campbell or Sam Raimi but my friends and I definitely enjoyed making cheesy films in our down time. It wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have examples like Evil Dead to inspire us. Especially with the emphasis nowadays on production value in film, where do you see that inspiration for other kids coming out?

Well, my feeling is it’s getting so easy now there’s no excuse. You can go to Kmart and buy a terabyte of power in your computer, and you can buy After Effects and Final Cut Pro. About five thousand bucks will fix you up to make a movie now. In the old days you had to get insurance, you had to get a certain camera from a certain place; they would only rent it to you if you had a certain cameraman who was qualified to use it. It doesn’t bother you now. You can score in your bedroom, you can take a thumb drive to your local theatre to show it, you don’t have to get actual prints to carry around that were heavy enough to throw your shoulders out. It doesn’t bother you now.

I’m pleased to have done a couple of movies under the old-fashioned drudgery method of editing negatives and work prints and … editing machines — you know, analog. I’m glad to have done it, but I like the new systems now. I like how much easier it is to manage post-production and editing and all that. And word processing, that’s all new. A filmmaker from Gary, Indiana has no excuse not to make movies. It’s too cheap now. Save your money, buy your camera, get going. All it takes now is drive. The physical production part is easier, cameras are more high quality now — you can get fully HD quality stuff for cheap. But the sole second half of it is drive to do it.

What drives you to tell stories?

It took a long time to figure out what a story was. In the old days I would say yes to a script that nowadays I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole … Then once you figure out what a story is, you have to figure out what a good story is. So it’s a process. Same with a director: I didn’t know what a good director was or a bad director was. Now I can tell a mile away. It just takes time to figure stuff out, to be able to use your experiences — that’s why old guys, you shouldn’t get rid of them right away. Because they have experience.

One thing that I noticed in reading your book is you seem to have a great passion for history and studying history—what’s your interest in history?

Well if you don’t know where you came from you don’t know where you’re going. We need to step back, get away from ourselves a little bit. I mean travel’s pretty important too. Do you know only 25 percent of Americans have a passport? They couldn’t actually leave if they wanted to? So yeah it’s horrifying. I have a much better view of the world by traveling and doing what I do through my job. And I’m glad to do it. It makes me appreciate the good parts of our country and makes me understand kind of the crappy parts. So travel is important too—travel, history. Ignorance is our enemy.

Do you feel yourself at all trying to tell stories in a way that kills ignorance? Do you find yourself educating others at all in your work?

No, I like to tell stories that bind us more as humans, to make us realize we’re all in the same boat together. I like redemption stories. My wife and I have developed about ten different projects since Burn Notice ended, when I knew I had to get something else going. We’re going to shoot our roots here in Oregon, make more movies out of here, I’m going to write more books. I’m going to do a little more homespun stuff from now on. And those stories will be simpler. And I’m going to make movies how I want to these days. There’s a lot of ways that people make movies that are stupid and wasteful, and expensive for no reason.So I want to try to put the rational back in low-budget filmmaking.

What are your other interests outside of filmmaking creatively? I know especially with Evil Dead, it sort of morphed and grew into virtually every medium out there—you’ve got the films, the comics, the musical. Do any of those other areas interest you? Are there creative areas that you haven’t dipped your finger in that you’d like to try?

Well, writing was a whole new ballgame from acting, because you dealt with new people, new companies, new sensibilities — new accounting. I like the accounting of books; pretty straightforward. There’s no fuzzy math in publishing. For some reason, they know how to count in publishing. So I’m going to explore that more. That was a whole new area — you get into other aspects of your life rather than just playing two-dimensional characters. You talk more about yourself personally, personal issues. It’s more personal, writing. I think it’s important to round it out. I hope people will take away from the book that I’m not much different from the average schmoe. I don’t want to be worshipped at all, I don’t want to be put up on a pedestal. Actors are the wrong people for that. We’re idiot humans like everybody else.

You have … an affinity for people who are creating on the fringe, for the other “everyday schmoes” out there who are finding their creative voices.

You know, Blair Witch is one of my favorite movies, but I’ve never seen it. Because of what it stands for. A schmoe has made a movie for nothing. It got a great marketing hook on the internet, like it was found footage. Started a craze. Someone else made money from it but I give those filmmakers a lot of credit. That’s exactly how you do it. You come up with a compelling story, interesting hook of how to sell it, and you can do alright. I’m really pleased for those guys, I’ve never met them.

So why have you never seen the movie?

I think it would give me a headache. I think they needed a tripod.

I understand that feeling! So, other than the creative people that you’ve known since high school that you’re still lucky enough to work with, how do you find those other everyday schmoes to create with?

You just ask more questions now … I’m sort of referring to this as the act three of my life. First act of your life you should do anything as an actor: any job, any thing, any script, any time, any place, any season. Act two you start to learn the difference between good script, bad script, lousy deal, good deal — picking out things that you don’t want to do anymore, things that you want to do more of. So now act three is putting it all into play. You only work with directors who you know or you know can do the job. No more guess work. For me it’s no more first time directors. There’s a lot of stuff now that I’m crossing off my list. The criteria for doing work now is much harsher, much higher and much harder. Harder to get me up the mountaintop.

Do you see an act four, or is your vision of the story a three-act one?

Three-act, just like the movies. I’m going to put the third book out in about 15 years, and that will be The Final Confession: you have Confessions, Further Confessions, Final Confession. I’ll be about 75 then — and that will pretty much wrap that up.

Do you believe in retirement?

No. No, not at all. But I am retiring from certain types of work, certain types of acting. I’m definitely going to pull back on certain things. There’s some stuff I just plain don’t ever want to do again as far as being an actor. I’m phasing some stuff out and phasing other stuff in. But retirement is for squares. That’s a really lousy — I wish it was a word we could get rid of. I’ve met so many people up here in Oregon, where I live, they retired and they either got divorced or became drunks — they didn’t know what to do with themselves. You gotta have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. And as long as I can contribute — if I get too old to be an actor, I’ll just be a director, whatever. I’m happy for whatever’s coming next, but no. Retirement, no way. No way in hell.

And I didn’t mean that offensively — clearly, you’re far from …

No, no: I’m just being emphatic. Because I’ve learned that. Guys like William Shatner, I meet him on the road at conventions, Stan Lee — all these guys. Adam West, who just died. They all worked until their mid-80s, late-80s. Don’t stop. That’s my motto. For anybody.

With creativity, if you have something to give, it’s horrible to hold it back.

Yeah, well, my dad, he became a teacher. He was an ad man for 30 years, and then he taught about it. So that’s another option, too — you pass along what you know. Share it.

You mentioned earlier about the older folks have that experience to share. Do you see yourself as someone who would mentor or teach or move on to that type of work?

I’d like to yeah; I don’t know why not. You know? What the hell. Why not pass along? Because there’s a lot of information that doesn’t get passed along. You assume that it does, but there’s a lot of techniques that I’ve learned over the years — filming techniques, acting techniques, writing techniques — and yeah, I think it would be very helpful.

We had a guy, when we were starting out in Detroit, who we would go to his house on Sunday mornings. He was in the ad business, he was a director, and he would teach us about storyboards, and things like screen direction and editing. And we’d go out and make movies and then show it to him and he’d give us feedback. So we did have a guy who we’d bounce ideas off of who was a professional.

It wouldn’t hurt to give somebody who’s green out there, (a) give them a little hope that these things can be done, and (b) set them on the right path. Don’t chase trends, that’s what I would say. These superhero movies are only going to last as long as they’re making money. The second two of them bomb I can guarantee they’re going to disappear.

It all comes back to having a good story to tell.

Yeah, if you run out of stories you can have all the explosions you want but it will run cold if people don’t like the characters or care about their journey. They do have to be careful, all those guys in tights.

A lot of the work that you’ve done has been in genre movies or genre television—a lot of fantasy, a lot of horror. Do you gravitate towards that? Obviously Burn Notice, one of your largest roles, was not. How do you feel that fits in with the others?

I like to do a little bit of everything; obviously as an actor you don’t want to be pigeonholed. I’m actually more pigeonholed by my fans than by the industry. Because Burn Notice was very mainstream. I’ve done Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Ant Bully and stuff like that. I’ve done a lot of mainstream stuff. I’ve worked for Disney. But I like genre stuff too because they tell weirder stories. I don’t like a lot of mainstream boring stories. Soap opera stuff never appealed to me. Dramas can get very ‘whatever’ … In B movies you can kill your hero. You can do a lot of interesting stuff.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 226.