The Man Who Wrote 'Friday the 13th' Is Bummed They Turned Jason into a Killer
Writer and unlikely horror icon Victor Miller talks about his famous villain, his career writing for soap operas, and his Halloween plans.
For having written Friday the 13th—arguably the most iconic slasher franchise in the history of iconic slasher franchises—Victor Miller is a remarkably sunny guy. He talks to me from the backyard of the home he shares with his wife of over 50 years, Tina, in Alameda, California. As he speaks to me, I can hear him sucking on a cigar over the phone.
Born in New Orleans in 1940, Miller's father was a cotton broker who later sold insurance. Miller went to Yale, and then got a Master's Degree at Tulane, and eventually found himself hovering around the periphery of Hollywood screenwriting success. He eventually met director Sean Cunningham, with whom he collaborated on a couple of children's movies about sports. The pair eventually realized that the youth of America didn't want family-oriented Bad News Bears knock-offs, they wanted — as proven by the success of John Carpenter's Halloween — tons of blood, a good amount of screaming and the ever important nubile flesh.
After the unexpected success of Friday the 13th, Miller spent a bit more time on screenwriting, working with Cunningham again to adapt Mary Higgins Clark's A Stranger Is Watching, whose trailer ominously boasted, "The book that describes it is now the movie that shows it," before spending the next 25 years enjoying a robust career writing for soap operas such as All My Children, General Hospital, and Guiding Light.
Between the long shadow of Friday the 13th and the lasting impact of daytime soaps, you could argue that Miller has had a monumental influence on American pop culture, though given how humble he is, he'd probably disagree. Along with Halloween, Friday the 13th helped set the fundamental ground rules for slasher flicks. They are:
1. Begin with an historical evil, some event in the past that has implications that extend to the present—such as Jason Voorhees drowning because the camp counselors who were supposed to be watching him were too busy schtupping.
2. Create a landscape in which post-adolescents are on their own—i.e., that same summer camp, a generation later, when the counselors are frolicking around before it opens its doors to campers again.
3. Kill anyone who makes love out of wedlock.
These days, Miller's comfortably retired from the soap opera business, but he's still doing a bit of writing. He's trying to drum up funding for a slasher film called Rock Paper Dead, which he hopes can be "done for five million or under — even one million depending on the cast," and he's working on a satire he describes as Dr. Strangelove for the 21st century.
Though in the past Miller has expressed disappointment with the direction the Friday the 13th franchise eventually went, he seems comfortable with the knowledge that Jason Voorhees will be his legacy. Besides, he jokes, "every time they make a new [Friday the 13th movie], I get a little check."
Miller would also like it mentioned that if you send him the screenplay for your horror movie — his email address is on his website, he will happily read it and give you notes for free. Victor Miller is a mensch. I thank him for his time.
VICE: How tired are you of talking about Friday the 13th?
Victor Miller: It would be disingenuous of me to say I was tired of it because it just about made my career. So what kind of gratitude would that be? It does get a little exhausting but I remember all too well when I would go to parties and people would ask what I did for a living and I would say, "I'm a writer." They would say, "Well have you ever written anything I'd know?" and I'd say, "no." And that had its own lack of reward.
In the FAQ section of your website, you say you'd have preferred that they didn't make Jason the continuing killer.
[Laughs] Only because it completely destroys the motivation for Mrs. Voorhees! Which was the only thing I had going for me in that movie, which was that she was avenging her son and then it turns out that he isn't dead anyway.
Is the objection based just on continuity and how subversive it was to have the mother do it? Or do you think it's just less scary?
Well, that and that I wasn't invited to participate in the sequels.
The two put together make the whole.
Do you think you'd feel differently if you'd been asked to write the second one?
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. But they told me I was too expensive to write the sequel because sequels have to be made cheaper than the previous one. And I went, "Oh. OK." What did I know? I'd never written a hit movie before.
Fair enough. When's the last time you saw the film?
Today is Thursday? Last time I saw the film was Monday night. They have a really great film club at Dolby Labs in San Francisco so I went to a screening there. It was the best sound system I'd ever heard Friday the 13th shown on. I heard things on Harry Manfredini's score that I had never heard before and that was absolutely lovely.
You think the film holds up?
Yeah, Given what's been going on in terms CGI etc., I still prefer Tom Savini's work to most of the painting I see on CGI.
Do you consider the film your defining work?
Friday the 13th was a fluke. I'd rather have written Airplane! I don't consider myself an expert on horror. I just wrote Friday the 13th.
When did you transition to soap writing?
By the end of '82...
What are the similarities and differences in the moral universes of soaps and horror? You have this thing in both where evil is reoccurring and the bad guys don't necessarily get what's coming to them.
In a sense they're both based on Greek tragedy. Horror films are really Victorian. If you go out and get laid, you get killed. Whereas in soap operas, you go out and get laid, you have an illegitimate child and you claim the wrong person is the actual father. The universe of soap operas is not as punitive as that of horror films. Horror movies happen in 90 minutes or whatever and the good and the bad are punished, whereas in soap operas the good get punished for a little while and then they come out OK again. In All My Children, we had Adam Chandler, played brilliantly by David Canary, a wonderful actor — he also played his twin brother, Stuart — and he had done so many bad things to Erica [Kane] that the network said, "He's got to go to prison!" I said, "What if Adam has a growth in his brain, that made him do all these bad things?" That way the judge would say providing he has brain surgery he can get off. So I wrote this wonderful line in that episode where they're operating on Adam's brain and they open up his skull and one of the surgeons says, "It's an abnormality. I've never seen one this large!"
So that's very different than horror. You can't afford to run around killing people. You have heroes. In soap operas you have a character type called "Love to Hate," like Dorian Lord on One Life to Live who people tuned in for. You couldn't just kill her. You'd have to build up a whole other Love to Hate!
You know, OJ Simpson ruined daytime. When OJ's trial started we lost half our audience. When the trial was over lots of them didn't come back. They discovered all these cable channels that had real life dramas where real life people were being killed as opposed to fake people, and it was just easier. Worse than that, the cable and the networks discovered that it was much easier to make a reality show. You only have to pay Judge Judy and the bailiff and few other people. That's a lot different than than paying Susan Lucci's salary. It's been a sad loss for us but you can understand that, for instance All My Children was shot, when I was there, in NYC and the most expensive part (besides the salaries) was storage of sets because the real estate in New York is killer. Judge Judy's set never changes.
Switching gears, you have young a grandson. Has he seen Friday the 13th?
He has not seen it to the best of knowledge. His parents said, "I don't think so." He doesn't seem to be terribly interested in horror. He's much more into hip-hop.
Finally, what are you doing on Halloween?
I'm keeping the door closed and the light turned off. On Halloween, the traffic never stops; it just keeps coming so we just turn off the lights. I'm really not ready to see another kid coming up to my door with a hockey goalie mask. Not that I don't appreciate it. But it's tiring to keep getting up to hand out M&Ms.
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Image via Deviantart user SivArt1981
This interview was edited for length and clarity.