Robert Hiltzik Talks the Making of Slasher Classic Sleepaway Camp

The man behind the original Sleepaway Camp remembers his slasher classic.

In 1983, a New York University film school graduate student named Robert Hiltzik decided that the best way for him to get into the movie business was to write, produce and direct his own feature film. That movie, Sleepaway Camp, was an unassuming yet distinctive slasher tale set at Camp Arawak, where a familiar genre scenario of revenge plays out as the campers are murdered one by one, in a series of gruesome “accidents.” When the killer is finally revealed, it’s done in a closing shot that is one of the more memorable of the many slasher films that came out during that bloodthirsty decade.

Like so many of its kind, Sleepaway Camp has become a cult classic among fans who saw it in theaters or later discovered it on VHS, while also spawning three more inferior sequels that Hiltzik had nothing to do with. He finally mounted his own follow-up, Return to Sleepaway Camp, that was eventually released in 2008, but not even that managed to be a satisfying successor to the original.

Sleepaway Camp arrives on Blu-ray today (May 27) for the first time, courtesy of the fantastic folks over at Scream Factory, in a bonus-packed edition that includes a fresh transfer of the film, new commentaries from Hiltzik and stars Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, a brand new documentary on the making of the movie and more goodies. Robert Hiltzik, now a partner in a New York City law firm, got on the phone with Den of Geek to discuss the movie’s history, production and legacy, as well as its possible (and probably inevitable) reboot.

Den of Geek: How did Sleepaway Camp first come about for you?

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Robert Hiltzik: I was in graduate school at NYU. It’s a three year program. It was kind of my second year and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with this master’s degree once I got out of there. I didn’t want to be getting coffee for film producers. So I figured what I wanted to do was I wanted to try and figure out how to make a movie and jumpstart that whole process. So the process was then to figure out what kind of movie was easiest to get to market and inexpensive to make. So I figured horror films — everyone likes horror films. And if I could shoot it in one location I’d save a lot of money. And that’s where the camp idea came from. So ultimately what happened was rather than go to school my third year I started making the movie without the school knowing it. And the story is that, you know, because I’d missed so many classes they weren’t going to give me my degree and my classmates actually came to support me and said the guy just made a feature film — you’ve got to give him his degree.

That’s a hell of a final project to show them.

I don’t know if they ever saw it. I didn’t actually show it there. But, you know, I was working on whatever assignments I had to some extent but I rarely went into class.

Did you have a taste for horror films yourself or was it simply just the most practical movie to make?

When I was growing up that’s when they had Saturday matinees. Almost every Saturday I was going to see the double feature down at the movie theater – it was about three or four blocks away from my house. And I’d go there with my friends, you know, we’d go to the stationery store next door, buy the five cent boxes of candy and sneak them in. And we’d watch double features, you know. Robinson Crusoe on Mars and things like that. Sometimes there were horror movies — Dracula, Frankenstein, things like that. But horror movies were not something that I gravitated to as a filmgoer — just whatever they were serving up on those Saturday matinees. I was a big James Bond fan and I really liked those movies.

So you filmed at the actual camp that you went to as a kid?

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That’s right.

Things seemed much looser back then. It’s hard to imagine summer camps being okay with filming a pretty gory horror movie there these days.

Well, I don’t know if he ever saw the script. I think it was a business decision for the camp. You know: “We’re not doing anything with the camp and here’s a way to make a couple extra dollars –- why not?” I was familiar with the camp so I knew the layout like the back of my hand. When I was writing the script I didn’t know I was going to get access to the camp, but the layout of that camp was what I was depending on when I wrote the script.

Something that sets the movie apart from a lot of the slasher films of the time are the fact that the kids look like kids.

Right. That was something that was very important to me because in the horror movies at that time, whether it was Friday the 13th or the other films, they were using 20, 22-year-old kids to play 14, 15-year-olds. And that bothered me a lot because I wanted kids to be kids and I thought the audience would appreciate that. I really enjoyed casting those kids because, you know, one of the reasons that the producers use older kids to play little kids is because of the union rules. If you’re under 18 you can only work a certain amount of time a day. So if you have someone over 18, well, he’s an adult, you can work your 10-15 hour days. With kids you can’t do that because you have an eight hour day and four of those hours are spent on tutoring for school. So the path of least resistance, of course, was just use kids that are older. I didn’t want to go that route. I thought it would play better if I had kids playing kids.

The psychosexual aspects of the movie — was it simply about making the most shocking type of angle for the movie?

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Well, you know, the way I wrote the film was I came up with a beginning and I came up with the end. I wanted a good beginning to grab the audience right away and then hold onto them. Then I wanted a shocking ending or a twist that they would talk about when they walked out of the movie theater. And then I filled in the middle from that point on. I thought that was something that no one had really seen before and would really shock the system of the audience. The psychosexual angle came about because once I picked that ending, I thought I had to foreshadow it, otherwise I’m cheating the audience. So there had to be that issue — even if it’s just below the surface it had to be presented.

The last shot has been commented on a lot, because of the way you hold it and change the color. Was there any particular inspiration for that?

Once we shot it, we were just looking for something new with the music and everything. I didn’t want it to be too static so that the color changes just to give it a little more energy and just make it more visceral. I didn’t really know how I was going to shoot it until, you know, we were planning on how we were going to do it but, you know, we played with that a little bit and probably shot it a few different ways and then solved the problems in the editing.

Even though you had been in film school, this was your first feature film. Did you feel like you had a handle on how to make it or were you just making it up as you went?

No, you know, I wrote a 90 minute script and that script is what we shot. In other words I didn’t take a two and a half hour film and then cut it down in the editing room and shoot everything. We shot my script. So effectively what I did was I pre-edited the film with the script. This is what the elements are, this is what we’re going to do. And there were some times where we had to make some adjustments, which you have to do on every film, whether it’s because of weather or because some of your stunts aren’t working out. But I would say that we pretty much stayed on a straight line. After the first day of shooting we were already one day behind because we were shooting in the water which is, you know, the opening scene. And water always takes a long time. But we never went over another day. In fact, for the rest of the shoot we were always only one day behind. So we were pretty well organized. We had a really terrific crew and they were really very supportive. They’re professionals. You’ve got some kid coming in who’s still in film school making a feature and they were really terrific. They got it, they understood what I was trying to do and that made things much easier.

Do you have a single fondest memory of the shoot?

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Well the bees (sequence) was always one of my favorites. I remember the local beekeeper coming in and, you know, I was like, “More bees, more bees.” Many fond memories. The cast, the crew — we were family for the five weeks we were shooting. It was a different kind of family because you had very young kids there and I didn’t have a lot of parents around which surprised me a lot. The parents would basically allow me to care for their kids because they left. It’s not like they were on the sidelines, you know, like a little league game where you have the little league parents. They pretty much gave me their kids and didn’t interfere. We were all in it together and we were in one location so for five weeks it was a terrific experience.

Obviously the movie has become a cult favorite over 30 years — are you gratified to see that happen? You certainly couldn’t have foreseen it at the time you were making the movie.

Absolutely. I’ve said before when you make a film you never know how it’s going to be received. You think it’s the best thing since sliced bread but you still never know how the audience is going to react. And yet I’m constantly surprised at the reaction it’s developed over the years. In fact, a couple of years ago I was in Chicago at a viewing and a whole new generation of fans was coming up to me, you know. Instead of 40 and 50-year-olds I was being approached by teenagers, 15-year-olds, 20 year olds who were gushing about the film. So it’s gratifying but always surprising because you just never know.

Is there still a possible reboot in the works?

There is. The reboot has been written and, of course, the way I put it is it’s not your parent’s Sleepaway Camp. So it’s been updated, modernized and it has different elements in it while trying to maintain the elements that the fans have really appreciated. So I want to keep that. Honestly the issues I’ve had with it is that all the studios want to use their director, and that’s not going to happen because I’ve seen what some of these rebooted ’80s films end up looking like and at this point in time, it’s not something I need to do. It’s not a money issue because they’ll throw money at me to give them the rights, but I’d rather do it myself.

Sleepaway Camp is out now on Blu-ray.

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