If you don't recognize Sean Cunningham's name, there's no question you've at least heard of his work. He first made waves in 1972 as the producer of the low-budget horror classic The Last House on the Left, collaborating with his partner, director Wes Craven. But it was 1980's Friday the 13th that made him — as longtime contributors Jane and Michael Stern said — "one of the hottest producer/directors in the whole movie business" at that time. In "Fade to Black" from March 1981, the Sterns paid a visit to Cunningham in his Westport home and learned why he shunned the West Coast, preferring to live and work as much as possible right here in Connecticut.
In the interview, Cunningham discusses his interest in branching out from horror to work in a variety of genres. Since then, however, low-budget horror-comedy has made up the bulk of his work. He was the producer of the 1986 cult classic House, and although he was not involved with the immediate sequels to Friday the 13th, he reacquired the rights to the franchise in the 1990s and returned to produce its later entries.
This article is being posted to the web in April 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
Fade to Black
His name may leave you in the dark, but Sean Cunningham’s films leave audiences so frightened they sleep with their lights on.
By Jane and Michael Stern
We know a celebrity who says there are only three places to live in the United Slates, and everybody who is anybody spends their time shuttling between them. The points of this golden triangle are Malibu, Manhattan, and Weston, Connecticut What do the celebrities do during their stay in this sweet little state? According to our expert, they come here “between projects" to “recharge their batteries.”
Sean Cunningham of Westport is one celebrity who doesn’t fit that bill at all. But wait a sec ... Sean Cunningham? ... a celebrity? You say the name doesn’t ring a bell. What if we say he’s one of the hottest producer/directors in the whole movie business. What if we say he’s the man who made some of the most successful independent feature films of all time'’ And furthermore, made those films practically in his backyard. In our backyards, on location in Connecticut? The name again is Sean Cunningham, producer of Last House on the Left, and producer/director of Friday the 13th, a movie made for half a million dollars that has so far earned Paramount about $40 million. One studio executive we know speaks of Sean Cunningham only in the most reverent tones, a voice appropriate to a mid-level deity.
So when's he moving out to the coast? Sorry, no Guccis and gold chains for this man. He’s doing preproduction for his next film out of his Westport home; and he’s going to shoot it in town, too. “I'm happy working close to my family. We might have to go to Bridgeport or New Haven for some scenes, but there's no need to go to Hollywood. They don’t make movies out there, they make deals."
We spent a morning with Connecticut's homegrown mogul to find out why he hasn't become bicoastal and what he’s up to now that his telephone's ringing off the hook with offers to make movies.
Our first impressions were definitely anti-mogul. Sean padded around his kitchen wearing sneakers and jeans as he brewed cups of instant coffee. Big homey mugs they were, although his was gaily decorated with the word, Hollywood. The refrigerator and cabinets were affixed with the effluvia of life with kiddies—school schedules, little drawings, reminder notes of when the violin recital was. A solitary goldfish swam in a bowl on the kitchen table. Weak winter light flooded in through a newly installed skylight, and except for a few interruptions from a secretary on an intercom announcing Very Important Calls, we could have been sharing morning java with any nice mid-thirties, good-looking neighbor who liked to play volleyball, feed the cat, or tell you cute things his kid said.
But it seems that Sean is always running into people who assume he’s going to be a lot different than he is—people who have left theaters all over the country so frightened they slept with the lights on for a month.
His reputation as a fear monger began with Last House on the Left, made in 1971. Like Night of the Living Dead and Halloween, it was one of those word-of-mouth horror movies that viewers babble about just to relieve the fear. Even Sean Cunningham's famous tag line for the film. “You’ll have to keep telling yourself—it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie!" wasn't much help to those returning to a dark house after the show. Last House isn’t an escapist entertainment about fanciful monsters and cracks in the time warp. It is rather like Psycho, dealing with the scariest of all realities—a psychopath who preys on unsuspecting victims.
"The movie has a profound kind of ugliness," Cunningham said, shaking his head ruefully. "It's like watching a train wreck." He explained how he shot it on a shoestring budget on location in Westport, using a “skeleton” crew. The low production values and unknown actors gave the film an almost documentary look, and made it all the more difficult for the popcorn eaters to relax and assure themselves that it was “only a movie.”
“It's clever," Cunningham says with deep ambivalence. "A crummy little picture that tells a story well and works. But it's not something that's close to my heart."
Sean Cunningham didn't start out wanting to give people the willies. In fact he didn't plan on making movies at all. “I'm a fan," he said. “I go to the movies to be entertained. But I'm not what you'd call a student of the cinema." He studied theater arts in college, and began his career as a “spear carrier" in Shakespearian plays on the West Coast. He moved to New York and quickly became a successful stage manager in the theater. But he became disenchanted. "After all, if you're really lucky in the theater, you get to do Hello Dolly for twelve years,” he joked. “You mount a fantastic Richard III, and a hundred people might come to see it. So I began looking for another way to communicate with an audience—and make some money.
“Now," he asks rhetorically, “how do you become a film producer? Easy. You buy some stationery.” And that is exactly how Cunningham broke into the movies. “I was with some friends and I said, ‘Let's make a movie,' and so we found ourselves out there, trying to figure out how to do it.”
“Out there?" we asked. “Where? Hollywood? Or the world at large?”
“No," he laughed heartily, “I mean out there." And he pointed to his driveway.
His first film was called Together, a quasidocumentary about Esalen, Gestalt, and similarly trendy psychological phenomena of the late 1960s. “It was a real family film,” he explained. "My kids, my wife, my friends, we were all involved. I paid the crew fifty dollars a week. We shot most of it out in the backyard, and it was like, 'Hey, you’re not in this shot, so you do the sound.’ It was that primitive. But it did well. It played in theaters and made money."
Next came Last House on the Left, a film Cunningham made with Wes Craven, a part-time cab driver who had worked as a film editor on the earlier project. This too was done with the kind of aggressive joie de vivre that causes Cunningham to call himself “a guerilla filmmaker." “I said to Wes, ‘I'm going to produce and do the dishes. You can direct and bring lunch.’ ’’
It took a while for Last House on the Left to catch on. “We went through seven cuts. And we couldn't figure out what to call it.” The original title was Sex Crime of the Century. "We figured that to be a sure winner. It had sex, it had crime, and it wasn't even ordinary sex and crime ... it was the worst of the century. But we tried it out in a few theaters, and people stayed away in droves." A new title and the “It's only a movie” ad line started the ball rolling. The movie gradually became a cult favorite. "It's still popular," Cunningham told us.“It's always playing somewhere. I get a check every month."
Despite the financial success, Sean Cunningham wasn't happy. “I decided it was time to really learn my craft." And the best way to do that, he figured, was to make a lot of films and get plenty of hands-on training. So he went to work on commercials, industrials, everything but feature-length movies. According to Cunningham, the best and only way to learn to be a filmmaker is to have to “pay the bills.” This technique has nothing to do with “fussy little magazines that detail the careers of directors no one has ever heard of.” Nor docs it have anything to do with sitting in a theater all day studying how others have done it. “It does have to do with knowing how to respond to a man who asks, ‘Can you make a movie for fifty dollars?' by getting him up to fifty-five.“
One of Cunningham's projects during these years of “study” was a Spanish epic on which he served as American producer. “It was a great experience, a year of real learning about the craft.” The film was never released in the U.S., which was fine with him, since “it could well be one of the worst films ever made, anywhere."
When he returned to America he began to put together a deal for a Canadian feature, and just as it fell through he got a call from Boston. “I flew up there and a money man asked me, ‘Can you make a film like The Bad News Bears?' I told him I thought I could. Then he asked, ‘Can you make it now?' I told him I’d like to see the script. ‘No problem,' he said, ‘We're going to get started on that right away.' Three weeks later we were in production.”
The film was called Here Come the Tigers, shot in and around Cunningham’s favorite locale, Westport. “I loved doing that movie, I loved working with kids, including Noel and Jessica (my own). It was great. We had a big premiere here, with klieg lights and all. The kids had a ball. Noel became the movie star of the fourth grade."
Cunningham's next film was another kids movie called Mannie's Orphans. [sic: The title Manny's Orphans appears with this spelling throughout the original article.] “It's a warm, human story with mom and apple-pie values. The kind of movie you go to, you pay your money, and you feel good." It was picked up by United Artists for distribution, but Cunningham laments, "Nobody ever really figured out how to advertise it. They all said it was really swell, but lust too soft. I did get a lot of left-handed compliments out of it, though—people telling me. ‘Hey, I didn't know you could do that kind of movie.’"
Unable to progress along non-scary lines, Cunningham again entered the world of goose bumps. "I was broke at the time, sitting in my office with stacks of bills. We were just tooling around and I suggested that maybe the trouble with Mannie's Orphans was the title. I said if we called it something like Friday the 13th, audiences would flock to it. And I realized that was a terrific title. So I took the last of my money and ran a full page ad in Variety that said, 'Friday the 13th — the most terrifying film ever made.’ I was playing what you call in poker a tap-out hand. But the results of the ad were phenomenal. I got telexes from around the world, people wanted that movie so bad. And all I had was a title."
Cunningham quickly raised $500,000 (by Hollywood standards, an amount barely sufficient to cover valet parking at the Polo Lounge), put together a script, and set out on location, again in darkest Westport. [Ed. note, April 2021: This last part would seem to be an error, or at least a conflation of facts. The first Friday the 13th film was filmed in New Jersey, although the name of setting, Camp Crystal Lake, is believed to have been inspired by Crystal Lake in Ellington, Connecticut. The sequel, Friday the 13th Part 2, which Cunningham was not involved with, was filmed in Western Connecticut.]
"Friday the 13th is a potboiler, but I tried to make it as scary as possible. Not gross or disgusting, but suspenseful ... an emotional roller coaster ride. It's a great film to see with an audience. They talk to the screen, they hold on to each other for dear life."
When he was finished filming, Cunningham screened the movie for three major studios and suddenly had a wild bidding war on his hands. "A lot of the executives who loved it were too afraid to see it," he chuckled. “Even now, a lot of them won't see it, but that doesn't matter. They figure I must know my craft, or else how would I have figured out how to make all those people want to come and see the movie? That's the difference between the cinema and the movie business."
With the enormous success of Friday the 13th, Sean Cunningham is now in the enviable position of being able to write his own ticket. He is working on a musical, and talking with Walt Disney Studios about a film more like Mannie's Orphans or Here Come the Tigers—his own favorites. But fans of fright need not worry that Sean Cunningham will abandon them. The picture now in preproduction is a screen adaptation of Mary Higgins Clark's A Stranger is Watching, about a psychopath who abducts a young woman and a boy from Connecticut to the maze underneath Grand Central Station.
As we sat over coffee, he mused about the casting possibilities of Mia Farrow and Harry Dean Stanton. It was apparent how far Cunningham has come from “You're not in this shot, so you do the sound." A Stranger is Watching will be a big-budget movie compared to anything Cunningham has done before ... but as is the producer's preference, it will be shot mostly in Westport, and written by Cunningham’s neighbor and friend, Victor Miller.
Sean Cunningham reminded us a bit of Frankenstein’s poor monster, who preferred listening to a sentimental violin rather than scaring the pants off people. We're sure that his talent and ambition will make him prosper whether he does scary movies or the sunnier projects he prefers. “Don't get me wrong," he said, after telling us about his hoped-for Disney collaboration. “I'm not embarrassed to make a living But I would feel very bad if all I ever did in the movie business was scare people."
Stories about Connecticut and the movies from the Connecticut Magazine archives:
Utopia Studios promised bring a piece of Hollywood to Preston, but it turned out to be a paper moon. ("A Giant Plan," September 2006)
Go to Redding for a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of The Stepford Wives. ("Stepford's Mechanical Wives," November 1974)
Meet some independent filmmakers who preferred working in Connecticut over New York or California ("Connecticut Filmmakers," June 1983), like Friday the 13th producer and Westport resident Sean Cunningham. ("Fade to Black," March 1981)
A professor of cinema takes a critical look at the (not always flattering) ways Hollywood sees us ("Connecticut in the Movies") and a quick overview of Connecticut's history as a filmmaking location. ("Everything But the Sahara," May 1987)
Take a stroll through a timeline of notable movies either filmed or set in Connecticut. ("Lights, Camera, Connecticut!," February 2017)