Monday, April 5, 2010


I got a call from Charlie, my best buddy back in my high school days, to hear the sad news that his brother Michael had died.

Charlie was my best friend and movie making pal in high school. And his brother Mike, a year behind us, was our cameraman, stunt man and co-conspirator. The three of us were the resident drama club geeks, Harryhausen fanatics and weekend filmmakers.

The sad news of Michael's passing brought back all the adventures we had in those strange and distant teen years, many of them running around Alhambra High School, in northern California, with a Super 8 camera, starting what I didn't know then, was the beginning of my career as a filmmaker.
You are forewarned that this is gonna be a very long blog entry, some of it painful. And it will take a while, or may never get to, bits and pieces about POWDER and JEEPERS CREEPERS or Hollywood filmmaking.

So Creeper fans look elsewhere-- but as I said in my very first blog -- the blog is more for the blogger than anyone else. And that is certainly true here.

When I heard of Michael's untimely death, I went back to year books, scrap books and early screenplays, and started to read and see things, I had forgotten (or tried to forget) because they were so long ago.

I do, on occassion get questions about how I got my big break, or how a kid up in Northern California ends up in the movie biz, and answers are never simple ones.

Maybe in this blog, are the answers for some of you, to those questions. But really, this blog is about me telling the story I feel like telling right now, one that came rushing back to me, with this sad, sad news.


I called my story "a Cinderella story" to an Entertainment Tonight interviewer on the set of THE NATURE OF THE BEAST in 1994.

I detest the cliche, and even the emasculating properties of the words to describe my journey to Palmdale California, outside of Los Angeles and directing Eric Roberts and Lance Henriksen in a script from my own pen, but I couldn't help myself, when I said Cinderalla story.

At that moment, I was insanely happy at my own situation.

For me, I was a kid who survived a terribly troubled childhood, a shame filled struggle with my sexuality, an alcoholic step father, and had even survived a terrible misstep that sent me to prison for a year, a place I was brutalized and was lucky to have made it out of alive.

And after all that, here I was, somehow now living my dream -- shooting a feature film, in Hollywood California, with top-notch actors I had grown up admiring, a producer who believed in me, working with a real movie crew, all of us shooting a script I had written myself.

The idea for NATURE OF THE BEAST, had ironically, come to me during my eighteen months in prison. Based on some of the tragic and very scary people I found myself living among there.

And now, here was Entertainment Tonight, interviewing me on my set.

Though to be fair, I think ET was there mostly because that day, we were shooting with legendary animal wrangler Jules Sylvester, and working with a poisonous Gila Monster, a massive boa constrictor, several poisonous spiders and a virtual zoo of other creepy crawlies.

Michael Coday's passing stopped me in my tracks. It stopped me cold. Like death stops all of us when it gets close and personal. And makes us stop and think, how none of us know the path our lives will take. Or when our time here will be up.

Thinking about Michael takes me back to the early years of my life, and how my journey to being interviewed by Entertainment Tonight, began.
Here is probably much more than you want to know, about how I remember it all happening.


Years before I was lucky enough to have Francis Ford Coppola tell me he would pay for my first 35 millimeter feature film out of his own pocket, I had already been making films for over a decade.

I read somewhere where luck is just where preparation meets opportunity.

Well, I might be an illustration of that concept, simply because there were many, many years where I was learning my craft, making tens and tens of super 8 and regular 8 movies.

You see, there were no video cameras when I was growing up young readers - call us Children of a Lesser Technological God- no easy access to getting your story onto a TV screen or any other kind of screen.

I made probably more than twenty short and three feature length films in Super and Regular 8 -- that preceeded Francis Coppola seeing me as someone who could take a couple hundred thousand dollars and come back with a movie.


I was always interested in movies and television from my earliest memory as previous blog entries mention. But maybe what I haven't mentioned, and am wary to -- is that the first film to ever truly terrify me, was the one my dear old mother decided to expose me to, when I couldn't have been more than four or five.
ATTACK of the 50 FOOT WOMAN was one of those Drive-in movie cheapies that ended up on TV as an often run late, late show only a few years later. This is my earliest memory of watching anything scary on TV. Something where I was literally terrified.

Watching it now, it is a laughable melodrama that the bots of Mystery Science Theater would have a field day with -- but the visuals of a great white ball, landing on earth and containing an evil bald giant, who looked like a pissed off version of Mr. Clean - was all it took to truly mess up my little brain.
Even this still, of the sheriff and his deputy investigating the interior of the ship, and looking through various glass tubes and balls -- reminds me of the chills that movie brought me when I was a tyke.

Have you ever seen a film that did this to you? Scared you so much, you went back and saw it again? And not for fun - you saw it again because you refused to let it become the master of you?

I really think this is the seed of my early and ongoing fascination with horror and suspense. And with me, I think letting me see this particular movie, when I was way too young - became the catalyst.

And this rather hilarious lobby card, where the giant reaches down to grab a woman out of her car who witnesses the landing -- reminds me of how terrifying that scene was to me.

Now, as I look at it, it looks as if they borrowed a giant rubber hand from another sci-fi cheapie and put it on a fork-lift, its big floppy fingers swinging unmenacingly -- but back then, through innocent and horrified eyes -- it was literally heart stopping.

Whether I like to admit it or not, it left a scar on me that can't be ignored. Maybe this scar, the first of many in my early childhood - was the seed of my seemingly fatal attraction to scary movies.


Unlike most kids, I was actually happy to be at school and away from my unhappy and scary homelife - what kid wouldn't? And while I don't remember exactly how Charlie Coday and I first met and became friends, it had to of been in my freshman year at Alhambra.

And Charlie would be my best friend for the next four years. His younger brother Michael wouldn't join us in the hallowed halls of Alhambra till the next year, but in that magical freshman year, when Charlie and I first picked up a camera -- it was an old Regular 8 millimeter that his parents had.

And thirteen year old Mike was our cinematographer -- because Charlie and I had to of course be the stars in front of the camera! But how did we even think to make a movie? We didn't think of it on our own believe me.

The big moment I think -- came in my freshman English class, in the form of an amazing teacher named Jack Holder.

We have all heard stories about teachers who made a difference in someone's life, and I have to say -- I had one of those and to spectacular effect. Leyland "Jack" Holder was about to retire, when a spindly, skinny and geeky Victor Salva got him for freshman English.

What he did with me, in that year would probably get a teacher fired today.

Now that I've purposefully got your prurient minds spinning -- it was something that may have made all the difference in how I would from then on, see myself and navigate through my life.

Jack may have been more of an actor than a teacher -- or combined his talents for each, and by the time I got into his class, was a tall, balding white-haired guy with a great voice, hilarious sense of humor and a great outlook on life that every high school freshman should be exposed to.

Jack was perfect for getting bored thirteen and fourteen year olds interested in reading Shakespeare and all that lit stuff. But when we were asked to write our own short stories -- all that changed for me, thanks to this man.

Who I will always be thankful for, helping me see, in skinny, young, closeted Victor Salva in frosh English, where my passion lay.

I'm not sure what I was thinking about here in my frosh portrait. Or what that far off look in my eye was -- like most teenagers, dreaming of a better life maybe? Somewhere over the rainbow?

Jack Holder took that dreamer and put me in touch with my true bliss. It started when I handed in a required writing assignment: a short story, which after reading, Holder had me read to the class.

Always a bit of a class clown, and hungry for attention, I really liked reading my story to everyone. It was my first ever really public storytelling moment I realize now as I write this down.


But another thought occurs now -- what about the little animated movies I would draw on the end of tablets -- Spiderman adventures and Superman, and Jonny Quest, imitating the cartoons I loved so much?
I would buy tablets in bulk with the money from my paper route and create my own animated stories, and even created my own company logo after seeing "A HANNA-BARBERA PRODUCTION" so many times.

My tablet animations would end with "A VSP PRODUCTION". Meaning a Victor Salva Production -- though I think it never occurred to me that VSP Production, literally translated into "A VICTOR SALVA PRODUCTION PRODUCTION".

I would flip my tablets for the neighbor kids, friends, family and anyone who would watch, performing the soundtrack myself making voices and sound FX.

What a strange little creature I must have been. And excuse my French, but -- holy shit, that would mean I was making little movies as early as ten or eleven years old.

So maybe I was a storyteller long before I got to Jack Holder's English class, and he clearly saw this, when he read that story.

Jack Holder liked my story and performance enough, that he made a deal with me: for the last few weeks of the year, he would excuse me from ALL homework and reading assignments in his class, if I would write one short story a week and then read it to the class on Fridays.

It was a dream gig for me! I started looking forward to every Friday and making sure I made my deadline of having a story. Usually in the mode of TWILIGHT ZONE. Scary and with a twist! Some of the stories were utterly ridiculous, but in my boy's mind -- they were terrific!

I vaguely remember one story I wrote was about a rash of cat murders in a neighborhood and the two cops that got stuck with the job of tracking down the sadist who was doing it. The big twist was that at the end, they chased him down a dark alley and shot him -- only to find that he was a full grown man with the head of a cat!

The result of some horrible accident gone wrong. Was he killing cats because he couldn't stand the sight of them? Or because he was trying to cure himself? I don't remember, I just remember thinking how brilliant it was that this guy wore clothes and stalked the back alleys as a cat killer -- and turned out to be a giant cat himself.

Another was about a boy who mowed lawns and did gardening for his grandmother, and found a dead body in her mullberry bushes. The twist on that one was that the boy found out too late that it was his grandmother who was the homocidal maniac.

Now, let me get one thing straight -- I wasn't a morbid kid. Or a violent one. I didn't like to torture animals and couldn't abide cruelty, which I saw plenty of in my dysfunctional family. Better shrinks than I, could tell you why my storytelling always ran to the macabre.

I don't know what these stories say about my family, my childhood, or my religious upbringing (Catholicism is a bloody tapestry of torture and murder -- see Passion of the Christ if you don't understand what I'm saying) but at the time, I could think of no greater pleasure than to try and chill my fellow freshman on Fridays, with another scary tale.

Was I trying to scare people as bad as I was scared watching ATTACK of THE FIFTY FOOT WOMAN or Hitchcock's THE BIRDS? Was this my turn to be the one scaring people instead of them scaring me?
Fridays where popular too in class. Not because my stories were any good, which they weren't. But because no one had to do any work on Friday except listen to me!


Jack Holder was the man who after several Fridays of TWILGHT ZONE like tales, told me I should pick up a camera and put one of my stories on film.
At first, we dabbled mostly in stop-motion, following in our hero Ray Harryhausen's footsteps.

You can click the image for a larger view and read the text for more info, but this is me at Charlie's getting ready to try our first animated Gumby movie.

I was teaching myself about movies, imitating movies I loved (spoofing a lot of them, because that's easy and fun to do when you're in high school) and trying my hand at longer feature length films, scary ones (horror was my favorite genre growing up) but I never really finished any.

We always ran out of money, time or patience.

The first screenplay I ever saw, was actually a teleplay -- and I saw it at the age of thirteen, because I remember I was in the eight grade at St. Catherine of Sienna, the Catholic grade school I attended. The teleplay was for one of Rod Serling's TWILIGHT ZONE episodes called THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET.

I was in creative writing that year, one of the text books had a complete half-hour teleplay for that episode of Rod's series.

I read the words trucking shot (what they called dolley or moving shots back then) and close ups, and all kinds of the language used to created the shots that made up the stories I watched in TV and movies.

That was my crash course in screenwriting I think. And it came at around age twelve or thirteen. Charlie and I took Jack Holder's idea to heart and started spoofing our favorite horror movies and TV of the day: like JAWS.

Our film version was a spoof called GNAWS, and read like a MAD MAGAZINE send up. (Our magazine of choice) I played Roy Shieder, Charlie played Robert Shaw's Quint and Mike was faithful cinematographer.

Our JAWS spoof not only made headlines in the Martinez Gazette, but resulted in a Hollywood style premiere one Friday night at the high school cafeteria -- where a standing room only crowd roared with laughter at our take-off on one of my favorite films of all time.

Another youthful obsession was KOLCHACK: THE NIGHT STALKER.

The novel by Jeff Rice that they based the TV movie that not only introduced Carl Kolchak to Charlie, Mike and I -- but that sent us off wanting to create our own Kolchak thrillers.

Me about to don my Carl Kolchack garb for what was to be the first of many Kolchak adventures Charlie, Mike and I planned to shoot.

In my rummaging through old papers and photos, I did find the "script" for one of the earliest films Charlie, Mike and I ever made: our spoof of THE EXORCIST, we called THE ASMODEUN.

The Exorcist was one of those movies that scared me so bad (and Charlie too - we saw it with our girlfriends) that I had to go back and see it again. And then again, until I wasn't afraid of it anymore. If you weren't raised Catholic and taught all this was real -- you might not be able to fully understand the trauma this film inflicted on me.

Here is the title page of my script for the spoof. THE EXORCIST hit theaters in 1973 so I would have been fifteen and so would Charlie. Mike would have been fourteen:

The comments in pencil in the lower corner are from Mike himself: "Vic, I think we should film it in order and do as little splicing as possible. Props won't be much of a problem. It's possible. Mike Coday. PS: If you drop this movie, I'll have a big, spasmadic cardiac!"

I guess we had lots of plans for lots of movies that never got made, and Mike was really hoping we would actually give this one a try. Talk about minimalist screenplay writing: here is the first page of the actual screenplay:

Not a lot of format -- not a lot of anything!

Back then, we were all about special effects. And all of ours had to be done in-camera. We had already done shorts where turning the camera upside down when we shot, caused the shot to run backwards when played rightside up.

So we had this crazy idea for a shot where our possessed girl "Megan" would punch "Father Merrits" (me) and he would fly off the ground, into the air and then crash down on the floor smashing his head and dying.

We decided I would jump off a scaffolding down onto Megan's fist and when I would hit it, she would retract it. Since we would shoot this shot with the camera upside down -- in the finished film the shot would run backwards.

Meaning Meagen would thrust her fist up and hit me in the chin and I would go flying up onto the scaffolding (but really up and out of frame) demonstrating her demonic powers.

I can tell you, gone are the days when we just decided to jump down from a five or six feet and onto somebody's fist -- but the shot worked pretty good when we finished our little ten minute thriller/comedy and the effects as primitive and goofy as they were -- were a real crowd pleaser.

We would do ANYTHING to get a shot. Anything to ourselves or anyone else, who was willing to put up with us -- including burying Charlie alive for one scene in STALKED where he was a corpse breaking out of the ground next to some unsuspecting picnickers.

THE ASMODEUN was a "Cova Films Production". That's Cova as in the first half of Coday and the last half of Salva.

Our early attempts would include, animated heroes like BERT THE BEER CAN, sci-fi spoofs about killer ping pong balls, and even one called something like ATTACK OF THE YOBWONG.

If I remember right, the creature in that one was really a long stretch of Play-doh, animated frame-by-clunky-frame, into a monster we called "The Yob Wong" because its size and length at one point, resembled the wong of a fellow classmate who we had gym class with. He had one of the biggest penises we had ever seen, and titled our film accordingly, without ever telling anyone what the title meant.

This would not be the first or only time we took our inspiration from our rapidly developing teenage libidos, but for the most part the early films in high school, were more more goofy than bawdy. Or if it was drama or suspense - unintentionally melodramatic or preachy.

When we got permission to show a collection of our short films one day after class in the drama room -- the audience wasn't just receptive, it grew in size each time we announced a screening.

This was all the validation Charlie, Mike and I needed to keep producing film after short film. Many off-color, sometimes overly gory, but mostly pretty brainless - and the product of three boys who just loved movies.

Young Mike Coday with the fancy Super 8 camera their parents bought that graduated us from 8 millimeter to Super 8. For more info, click on the picture for the larger version. There is a bit more information on it.

We also graduated in our four years at Alhambra, to more serious attempts at serious films, but still by imitating others: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (STALKED), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (THE OCCURENCE) and a thriller in the vein of DIRTY HARRY movies, called TAKE ME A PICTURE.
TAKE ME A PICTURE was the first film we tried -- and never finished -- where we went "on location". In this case, to Santa Cruz to takes some shots of the lead in the film (me - who else?) and his girlfriend, being stalked by a killer who takes pictures of his victims before doing away with them.

One of our attempts at drama was even a very early version of POWDER (though we didn't know it back then) called THE MAN OUT OF THE APOCALYPSE.

Shooting A MAN OUT OF THE APOCALYPSE, Charlie makes up our friend Brad Shumate in the title roll. That's me looking on. To read more about this production, read the text on this picture by clicking it, to see the larger version of the file.

Scorcese says each filmmaker makes the same film over and over again. Well I might be proving him more than right, if you consider that this early high school film of mine, has elements and certainly the spirit of my 1995 film POWDER.

The predecessor to POWDER? Another friend in our class, Doug Sowers, replaced Brad Shumate as THE MAN OUT OF THE APOCALYPSE in the middle of our shoot, either because Brad suddenly couldn't shoot one day, or we thought Brad looked too short for our alien, in the scenes we had shot earlier.

Making films was just part of what Charlie, Mike and I spent most of our teen years time doing at good old Alhambra High School up in the hills of Northern California.

Drama class was an elective, but once I took it, and always with Charlie, it became another universe where I flourished and found myself capable -- and believe me, their were plenty of areas in my young life where I clearly wasn't.

We did lots of musicals and dramas during my time at Alhambra. Thankfully being exposed to some of the greatest playwrights of that or any time: Chekov, Arthur Miller (the first scene I ever performed was one from ALL MY SONS, a brilliantly written post war drama, that I am certain informs most the dramatic scenes I have ever put down on paper since.

My first leading role, was in a play that both Charlie and Mike each had parts in as well, THE RAINMAKER.

Charlie Coday, Mike Coday and me in one of the terrific scenes from N. Richard Nash's 1954 play THE RAINMAKER. He adapted his play for the screen and it became a film starring Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn.

Our time in drama gave us a working knowledge of just about everything: props, set construction, lighting. Everyone worked in every aspect. We built and painted our own sets and learned about exits, entrances, projecting your voice, learning lines... you name it.

Here is Barbara Garbarino and myself in a scene from THE RAINMAKER. I didn't know it then, but acting myself, was probably one of the best training programs I could have had in learning to become a director.


I see as I list all the fun, movies, plays and accomplishments in high school, and relive those joys for a moment, thinking back to Charlie and Michael -- I am avoiding a large, and much more unpleasant part of that life so long ago.

So, I'm gonna take a deep breath here, and get into it a little, and try not to sound like a Lifetime movie. When you grow up in the kind of family I did, you aren't just living in a climate of fear and danger, you are starving for attention, validation, a sense of safety and security, and of course love.

While Charlie and Mike's parents were buying us Super 8 wonder cameras, the irony was not lost on me that, I would have never been awarded anything like that back at my house.

It may sound harsh, but I'm not sure I would have ever been given anything from my mom and dad that allowed me or encouraged me to pursue any of my passions or talents.

And so here comes the uncomfortable part of my memories of growing up back then: talking about my strange and volatile family.

Here I am at my Grandpa and Grandma's house in 1969. That's me toasting with the other kids with my milk.

The picture above takes me back to memories of my deeply religious Catholic grandparents, who I know adored us, their grandchildren, but as I would find out later, threw my mother out of the house when she got pregnant at seventeen.

They also disowned their own son, my beloved uncle Phil, and never spoke to him again, when after his tour with the Navy ended, they found out he was gay.

So you'll forgive me if the words "family values" or Christian values, to me, always seem to translate into the words, bigotry intolerance and hatred.

What I didn't know then, was uncle Phil's banishment was a portent of what lay ahead for me shortly after I graduated high school.

My real father had abandoned my mother and her three tiny toddlers - myself among them. She had no money, and the story goes, when the power was turned off at our tiny house, she was reduced to warming milk bottles for my little brother Gene, by candlelight.

These were desperate times - and my stepdad arrived on the scene soon after.

My soon-to-be-stepdad was young, handsome, fresh out of the navy, and a rage-a-holic. Along with being an alcoholic.

In fact, when doctors told him to stop drinking a year before his death, he laughed right in their faces and said, "I've been drinking since I was fourteen and I am not gonna stop now."

Sadly one of the last things that got back to me, about my stepdad, shortly before his death, was that he had punched my brother right in the face as they both sat drinking at their favorite watering hole in downtown Martinez.

A "misunderstanding" about some fish my brother had caught, and hadn't shared.

But when I heard he dropped Gene with a punch to the face, right in public, I was reminded of the terrible time bomb we all grew up with as tiny children.

Why my brother stayed on, not only in Martinez, but at my father's side, to take that abuse and humiliation for years and years -- and from a man who despised just about everyone -- will always be a mystery to me.

Needless to say - this young navy man that suddenly inherited three kids (and soon had another on the way) was not great with children.

Just don't tell him that. Ever.

Like most alcoholics - he was a big kid himself, and a very angry and brutalized one.

My brother and my sister and I were still in short pants when he broke onto the scene - and was pressured by his own father, to make an honest woman of my mother, who was young, abandoned and struggling with no money and three very small kids.

My stepdad could not have realized how much responsibility he was taking on, by marrying my mother. And he would start to resent it almost instantly.

The fighting was often something terrible between he and my mom. And since they both drank -- and every night -- I remember it happening constantly. Sometimes violently.

Lots of Friday and Saturday nights the kids would be cowering in their beds when mom and dad got home from the bars and started going at it.

I remember my mother's blackeye one Sunday morning that made me seethe with a hatred for my stepfather, that if there had been a gun in the house, I might of made headlines even at twelve.

My point is, the horror in my films may easily trace back to the horror we all lived in that house on Shell Ave. A terribly scary place for children to grow up.

One point of honor I give my stepdad (there are a few) is that he was not religious. He refused to go to church, or confession (I'm not gonna kneel in a little wooden box and tell my sins to some other asshole, just because he wears a robe." And in retrospect, he did have a very good point.

It would be untrue not to say, that he was sometimes absolutely right about some things.

But he was crushingly oppressive. And then sometimes, turn right around and do something incredibly kind and generous. Like fix up a TV in the bedroom my brother and I shared -- or help me buy and then fix up an old Plymouth Valiant so I could have a car.

I was sixteen and I named it Bruce after the mechanical shark in JAWS.

He begrudgingly paid for all four of us (my brother, sister, myself and my half sister) to attend the Catholic school downtown, at my mother's insistence.

The war between my dad and me started almost instantly when he moved in, according to him. He used to joke, "You thought you were the man of the house, then I showed up. I had to show you who was the real boss." He showed me alright. And it must've been tough: I was three or four.

When school wanted me in the mentally gifted minors program - he flew into one of his rages and turned them down flat. Another raging argument with my mother. "You're gonna turn that boy into a faggot if you let him join some group like that, that's gonna let him think he's smarter than everybody else..."

Like most parents panicked about their children's sexual preferences -- they were unaware that my sexual attractions had been decided long before any gifted children's program was offered to me as an adolescent.

My dad was an uneducated man who feared, and so hated, all things (and people) who were more educated than him. He kept saying he wanted all of us kids to do better than he did.

But his behavior said something completely different. He didn't really want us to be a better man than him, or to be a smarter man than him, or a richer man than him -- because whenever it started to look that way, he reacted not with pride, but with that very scary anger and obvious resentment I came to know so well.

Looking back, I don't think I had a dad. I had a bully. I had a boy who never grew up, who was beaten and mercilessly abused by his own mother and father, who drank as early as fourteen to cope with it -- and then, as an angry, raging alcoholic teen, joined the Navy.

When he got out, he may have genuinely fell in love or maybe just lust, with my beautiful mother. And, with a beer in his hand, and his chest puffed out, -- as bullies do, so they won't look like the coward they really are -- my stepdad married my mom, while they were both still in their early twenties.

He crashed onto the scene, as a big, tattooed lout -- "who knew all about parenting kids..." because he had been so expertly parented himself, by a dad who would beat him so badly -- he often slept in the family car, in the garage afraid to go inside his own house

My stepfather would mistreat us all terribly -- and then become angry when he didn't receive what he felt was the requisite amount of unconditional love he deserved.

And he would often tell us why he deserved it: for putting clothes on your backs and food on the table and a roof over your heads. He didn't know that every time he would rant this -- his complete resentment of having to do any of it -- raged through.

This, young readers, gives you, as a child -- a feeling of being a quite worthless piece of shit. Not to put too fine a point on it.

And I think my dad really did drink so much, and was consumed so much by his own self-hartred and fear of being stupid or poor, that he went through all of his years as our father -- calling us worthless pieces of shit -- and then getting angry at us for not loving him for it.

As I got older, around twelve or thirteen -- I started to realize just how little my father knew. I didn't forgive him for being stupid -- I hated him too much for that. He had been far too cruel and abusive to forgive him for anything.

But I did make a classic mistake, that all boys make with their dads: I decided that since he didn't know everything -- that he didn't know ANYTHING.

He had learned some lessons about life, that even in his terrible way of bullying and brutalizing somehow got through and serve me today.

But back then -- it was war. War between me, and this terrible thing that I could never understand the reason for suddenly being brough into our house and our lives.

I still remember the Christmas when all I wanted was an Easy Show Movie Projector. That was all I asked for and all I talked about. I would be able to show little two minute clips of Space Ghost, The Flinstones and Jonny Quest on my bedroom wall.

Santa that year only left me a pair of barbells. Because he thought I should work out more. My stepdad of course, found this hilarious. And when I cried, I was punished for my tears -- and probably spanked -- and then forced to smile and announce to the room, that I loved what Santa brought me.

My stepdad was the kind of man that was so unhappy, so abused in his own life, by his own father -- that he could literally find a way to punish you with ANYTHING.

He found a way to punish me with Christmas that year. Punishing me for being a boy who loved movies, instead of fishing, weightlifting and football.

I know he would argue that he was just trying to make a man out of me. But I would argue that if someone had cared enough to make a man out of him, a real man, who knew what love was -- this father and son story would have been a much better one.

This picture hits me with a sad and kind of terrible irony -- since my dad's nickname for me as a boy, was eventually 'Asshole'. He even called me this long after I left home. He would leave me messages on my answering machine. "Hey asshole, don't forget you're coming to dinner here Saturday night..."

His resentment and discomfort with me -- and what had become an unspoken but intense battle between stepfather and stepson -- never found a truce really. Until the night my mother died of a cancerous tumor.

Before then, I don't think my much damaged parents, ever saw their strange, angry and twisted form of parenting as any form of cruelty. But they didn't see a lot of things. They chose not to.

And when they saw something they didn't want to -- they beat it down, or looked the other way, or they drank.Here he is with his newborn daughter. My half-sister. I love the big cigar and my little sis looking like she's going to puke from it. Smoking around the baby -- my how times have changed.

There was lots of terrifying crazy-making behavior as there is in all alcoholic families -- where all the children can do is take cover. Because you never knew what would be coming flying at you next: rage or disproportionate affection.

There would be some nights when I would be woken out of bed at two or three a.m, along with my brother Gene, and treated to hamburgers from the local burger joint.

Dad would be drunk, have had a fight with mom, and when he brought her burgers as a piece offering from her favorite eatery, and she refused them -- dad would wake up Gene and I -- and make us eat them as he professed his love for us and a warning to us -- even at seven or eight years old -- never to get married.

One of those times I remember Gene falling asleep right on top of his burger, he couldn't keep his little head up at three o'clock in the morning.

Me and my little brother Gene back then. We haven't spoken for over twenty years.

There was never any money, that was always the excuse when we wanted something, even a breakfast cereal that we had seen on TV.

These were parents who could find money to own fishing boats, several over the years, and a cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, but never took their kids to Disneyland, even once in their lives. In fact, I think a total of about three times, were we ever even taken to the movies.

That's three times in eighteen years that we ever went to the movies as a family. We were never taken anywhere on vacation that was about us as children.

We were more just the lug along baggage of a man and woman who drank too much, and through deeds and actions, often displayed a not-so-hidden resentment or utter indifference to being the parents of four children.

Stepdad and mom in their later years.

I never knew my dad was an alcoholic until I was about twenty something, and he ran into me with a friend of mine who was a substance abuse counselor. After we exchanged quick hellos, we moved on and my friend asked me, "How long has your dad been an alcoholic?" I got very defensive and said, "What?" She said, "That is a serious drinker's nose."

I said she was crazy. She asked me five questions about him and I answered yes to all of them. Until that moment -- which truly staggered me -- I had no idea I was the adult child of an alcoholic.

I just thought my dad was an out of control asshole who you should just stay clear of whenever possible.

Me on one of our family camping trips -- which I despised. Notice I am not doing anything - including reading, or smiling or having a good time.

When I started to bring comics to read or paper to write with on fishing or camping trips -- this became forbidden as well. One of the many ongoing battles between my dad and I. He wanted me to be something I clearly wasn't -- and as a result, I think didn't like to see me pursuing anything that I took a genuine interest in.

I don't want to talk about the food issues around my house, but I did start this blog with an oath to myself to tell the truth in it. And I have had enough therapy over the years to know that the food rules in this unhappy house may indeed be one of those reasons why at times in my life I have ballooned to almost four hundred pounds.

My mom and my brother and sisters and I, on the day of my big sister's First Holy Communion. All smiles on days like these. I never understood till years later, that everyone's family was not a volatile, unsafe place to grow up.

Food wasn't scarce at home, we just weren't allowed in the kitchen, or the refrigerator -- ever. Forbidden. Food was controlled as if we were about to run out of it at any second. Have you ever heard of a family where the children weren't allowed in their own kitchen or refrigerator?

And it wasn't from not having money for groceries believe me. These were parents who were eating steak every Friday and Saturday night, leaving the kids at home and staying out till the wee hours drinking.

Meanwhile, my brother and my sisters and I, rarely were taken out to eat. Even McDonalds was too expensive. I remember the time Charlie came over to our house (a rare ocassion indeed) and lunchtime came around -- and my mother made me a hotdog for lunch -- and Charlie wasn't offered anything. Nor did I dare ask her to make him anything. (She was quite violent and volatile herself when triggered)

This was one f***ed up family and I would not understand the far reaching damage of their cruelty and dysfunction till I was long gone from that house on Shell Avenue.

My uncle Phil, home from the Navy with a buddy. That's me with the spaghetti beard and big smile: (I always loved when Phil came to see us. I probably had a teeny-tiny boy-sized crush on him way back then)

Even though this picture brings back chills as well as memories, I like this picture because you can see my stepdad for what he really was. He's not hiding behind a smile or a somber pose. That's him in all his dark, angry and drunken glory.

A timebomb ready to explode at any moment. And he often did.

This may all sound like a lifetime movie, or that I am just taking my place in a long line of disgruntled kids who blame their parents for not loving them enough.

But I think that stage I have left behind. I love them now, and know they did the best they could. I also despise their cruelty and weakness and utter disregard for the four tiny souls they were entrusted with.

I am one of those grown-up kids who need the world to know, that I barely survived my alcoholic parents, and that if I really want to trace back the roots of my storytelling sensibilities, and even my knack for horror and suspense, you really don't need to look any further than the time I had growing up.

The three posters I grew up with in my teen years, on the wall beside my bed. I added Jeepers Creepers with Photoshop because it seemed like an illustration of it's logical origins.

Ultimately, I am saying in my own clumsy and clunky way, that if you starve a child, as they develop, from any of the vital human necessities -- like love, security and a sense of self-worth, then you are committing, in my eyes, the worse kind of child abuse there is.

The first film I did where I openly addressed a lot of my issues with my stepdad was the thriller RITES OF PASSAGE, where Jason Behr played a sort of movie version of myself, DEAN STOCKWELL played my stepdad, and ROBERT KEITH played the favored son.

Dean Stockwell refused to do several things in the script, because he said a father would never do those things to his young son. I think what he was really saying, is that it made him uncomfortable to portray a man so unsympathetic.

A different actor, Dean was far from my first choice for the role, would have found a way to fill out this incredibly tragic and abusive character.

In the final moments of RITES OF PASSAGE, young Cambell truly has a rite of passage -- having to defend his own abusive father from a man who plans to kill them all.

Rites was a thriller in the Hitchcock style I love so much, but it also touched on all the issues I had with my own dad, and I remember it was painful to write and to make --but I told myself I was making it not just for me, but for all the boys in the world, gay and straight, who had been abandoned or betrayed by the men they needed to trust the most.

Dean was a lazy actor, who perhaps had spent so much time in front of the camera, (since he was a boy) that filmmaking had lost its allure. It was a paycheck for him, I think. And though he had some good moments in the film -- I think missed the mark.

I think the character of my stepfather in my script, challenged too many of his own ideas - or simply demanded he work too hard, and go to places an actor needs a lot of courage for.

Ironically, I never told Dean that he was refusing to do things that really happened in my life. That my stepdad had actually done. I was afraid to argue with Dean, in the same way I had been afraid to confront my own father.

Young Cambell is arrested at the end of RITES OF PASSAGE. Betrayed by both the men/ fathers in his life. I had a blood father and a stepfather - both alcoholics who I felt abandoned and betrayed me in my real life -- though admittedly in a much less cinematic way than the men in my film.

I guess I still had some shame and fear about asserting myself to any man. I was still a scared boy, trying to tell a tale about what happens to scared boys when their fathers push them away.

A final heartbreaking moment between brothers at the end of RITES OF PASSAGE as Cam (Jason Behr) is about to be driven off to prison.

The kids who grow up battered, whether it be physically, sexually or emotionally -- have a heavy toll taken on the rest of their lives. They often spend it, in a wreckless and destructive search for a family.

A desperate search for connection, validation and the sense that they are loved. Most of us from that generation are lacking these things in various degrees. Because they are things we never got, from parents too damaged themselves, to love even their own children.


In drama class, I found a family. In movie-making I found a family. It wasn't just storytelling. It wasn't just that for a moment, as you told your story, you were the center of attention, the master of the tale -- it was oxygen to a suffocating child.

It was validation for my battered pysche, and it made me something valuable, desirable and precious to others.

And back in the days of Alhambra High School, I got to do it with my best buddies. Charlie and Mike. Who were my family away from my family. I would spend hours and even days at Charlie and Mike's -- dreading when I would have to return home.

At Charlie and Mike's, I found generosity, acceptance, laughter, plenty of food, and even encouragement to go and do whatever we boys (Charlie, Mike and me) got excited about.

As a testament to this, the Codays even bought us a state-of-the-art Super 8 camera that allowed us to do slow-motion, fade-ins and fade-outs and had filters for indoor lighting and outdoor lighting.

Like other young men find a family and a brotherhood in their football, baseball or basketball teams at school, I think I found my family in drama class or what was then called performing arts.

Me as John Procter in Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE. It would be years before I realized just how beautifully written and constructed the play actually was. Back then I'm afraid it was mostly lost on me. And my actor's subtext was simply a driving need to sound like Charlton Heston -- someone I adored and worshiped back then. Hey I was a Catholic boy and he did part the Red Sea!


As my courage and popularity grew, I got into politics and was elected Student Body President in my senior year. It was there that I learned a hard lesson about running for office and politics in general -- namely, that the guy with the best campaign wins. Not the best guy - the best campaign.

Simply by giving my campaign speech to the student body with an excess of jokes about cafeteria food, and large posters done by my own hand with my passion for cartooning, including Harryhausen creatures and comic book heroes like Spiderman saying "Spidey says Vote for Victor" -- I won by a considerable margin.

The popular candidate had taken office, without a real idea about bettering the school, student rights, or school policy, anywhere in my head.

I was the incredibly funny and popular boy who wrote, starred and directed his own movies, and even skits for the football rallies, with his girlfriend Gail Rouse.

The skits which came at a time when attendance in the rallies was waning -- reversed that trend to standing room only. Again I was being validated and valued -- and I swelled with confidence and accomplishment.

Me and Gail Rouse, my then girlfriend (and still one of my best friends ever) doing one of our rally sketches.

I'm not sure what was more fun -- performing the sketches, often doing the best Paul Lynde impersonation I had -- or Gail and I laughing ourselves silly writing the sketches often just a day or two before. I realize now, it is the only time in my life where I ever wrote comedy -- and I'm not sure I ever had a better time writing. Gail I think was a very big part of that.

I never felt bad about winning the election for Student Body President until much later in my life. Back then, I enjoyed my victory, my position of power and proof of my popularity. Even though I realized that the girl I had defeated, was not only better for the job, but would have actually done something positive for the school.

It was insane what happened. And unjust. Politics truly was simply a popularity contest.
Me and Charlie clowning at one of the student council meetings. The man looking unamused is our principal Frank Walsh. I think he saw me as an annoying, insanely popular glory hound. And there is too much truth to that my loyal readers!

I don't think politics has changed much. The biggest dipshits are often elected simply by having more money and more ads, and being able to throw bigger scares into people -- than the guy who is less worried about power and who really cares about you and your country.

Though for the first time in almost a decade, we finally have a president, I can be proud to say I voted for.


This tale of my high school years wouldn't be complete if I didn't address what back then was my terrible secret. Something that weighed so heavy on me, the mere thought of it back then, made my heart skip a beat.

While Charlie and Mike were lusting after girls, I knew, down in the deepest part of me, it was certain guys, not certain girls that gave me the feelings most young males enjoy with a semi-clear conscience.

What if you were the most normal boy in the world? Good looking, student body president, editor of the school paper, voted most likely to succeed. You had a lot of good healthy lust in your loins, just like your best buddies, but it wasn't for some hot cheerleader - it was for the team's quarterback.

You didn't wire yourself this way. You didn't wake up one morning and say, "I think I'll try this whole gay thing out." It was decided for you, and years before you would ever be concious of it.

You still liked monster movies and Clint Eastwood, hot cars and tough guys like Charlton Heston and movies where lots of things blow up -- but you fantasized about boys instead off girls late at night, with your hands below the covers?

You weren't a girl, and you didn't want to be one. You didn't secretly dress up in women's clothes, or talk like one. You weren't interested in fashion or clothes -- and had no innate sense or obsession with style or color.

You were just a guy, who was like all the other guys, except from the time you were six or seven, your natural gravitation and sexual attraction was toward other guys.

At fourteen or fifteen, when I had to come to terms with this in 1974 - it was like finding out you had cancer. And you needed to find a cure.

My very somber looking high school graduation portrait. JEEPERS CREEPERS fans will recognize this picture from an album cover in Jezelle's house, the first time she plays the song for Trish and Darry on her record player.

But there wasn't a cure for what my heart desired. There was just a lot of shame. And hiding. And tears. And stolen glances in the locker room.

And my Bible telling me I was an abomination -- though now I realize it was calling people who eat shellfish the same thing, and in the same chapter encouraging parents to sell their children into slavery or put them to death for being disobedient.

One of the many religious depictions of homosexuality I was exposed to during my young Catholic years. I find this painting about the demonic perils of gay love to be almost hilarious -- since the painter has made it so very homoerotic, it's as if his own sensibilities betray themselves while he tries to condemn the subject.

And oh yes -- if you look close in the background -- is that THE CREEPER back there?

Like the painting above, back in the 70s, as I struggled with coming out, it felt like some kind of black death. Like a cruel trick of nature. To give me so much, so many talents and so many highs and joys, and accolades, so much to be happy about -- only to be cursed with something, that if it became known -- would take everything away.

That's how it feels when you're young and you realize you are different. It feels like it threatens to take everything from you. It wasn't much of an exaggeration in the small little, teen-aged existence I had fashioned for myself in Martinez California.

I knew if it was found out, it would make my life with my family an even bigger nightmare than it already was. And it did. When magazines with boys instead of girls were found under my bed at age eighteen, I was told to either give up my evil desires or move out.

I was far too angry at my stepfather by then, to give him the satisfaction of doing anything but calling his bluff -- and getting my ass out of that house and out on my own.

Me at twenty or twenty-one, when I moved in with a man over twice my age. I wasn't coerced, and I wasn't seduced. I think I simply wanted to live with a man who adored me -- and I truly found one. But that story, and that adventure is for another blog all together.

Though leaving home had one small problem -- I had no place to go. A friend I had made at the local community college, took pity on me, and I moved into the spare room in his apartment.

These were not good years, my late teens and early twenties.

I was putting on weight, my coping mechanism for all my secrets and stresses at home. I had started to eat too much and exercise less around seventeen when I got my job at the corner deli and liquor store as a stockboy.

I was later promoted to sandwich and deli boy -- and boy did I have a wealth of coping mechanisms behind that huge delicatessen.

Me at the deli before I started packing on the pounds. This is from '76, -- all the Alhambra students who worked at the store posed for their annual yearbook ad.

At high school, teachers and friends saw me how I wanted to be seen: talented, happy and above all special. And when I look back at the pictures of me during that time, I find it hard to see any pain or shame, or secrets hidden behind my eyes or my smiles.

At an awards ceremony for seniors in my graduating year, when a good friend was announced an award recipient - I wore a blue bandana around my neck, most of my senior year -- I thought it was way cool!

But I remember they were there plenty of secrets. And plenty of pain. I was living a double life.

I don't recall when Charlie or Michael found out that their best friend was gay. I know it wasn't during high school, maybe a year or two later. But I also knew they weren't the kind of friends who would turn their back on me. And they didn't.

There would be plenty of those who did. And then plenty more when I made my circumstances even more severe and repelling. But even that seems so long ago now. Decades really.

At twenty I was out of the house, had moved away from the man I had impulsively moved in with, and was again living with buddies. Still dreaming of breaking into the movie business.

After we all graduated high school, Charlie and Michael had found other friends, and I had too. My interest remained in movies and movie making and theirs seemed to go elsewhere.

Roddy McDowall, one of my favorite actors when I was a boy, said that the movie business isn't something you get into because you want to. It's something you get into because you have to. And that's exactly how it was for me. And still is.

Me directing my first (and only) film in 16 mm. It was expensive and when the young male lead turned up one shooting day with his hair dyed red and cut short to his head -- without a thought for the film's continuity -- it became another of my unfinished films in a long line of unfinished films.

I went on without Charlie and Mike to make films at Diablo Valley College, and eventually one that found its way to Francis Ford Coppola.

Me at twenty six or twenty-seven on local TV Station KGO in San Francisco. We are watching a clip from my backyard video SOMETHING IN THE BASEMENT. It had won first place at the Sony/AFI Festival, and by the time I was invited onto this show, I had already met Francis Coppola and was already rehearsing Sam Rockwell and the rest of the cast, for the upcoming CLOWNHOUSE.

When Francis came into my life, that is I guess, where the next chapter begins. With that incredible break where preparation met oppourtunity.

But that's a story for another blog. About another time.

I visited Martinez a few years ago, and sat down with Charlie, now a father, and Michael, all of us in our forties. Men who now lived very different lives from the one we all seemed to live together back in the 1970s at Alhambra High School.

But we found plenty to talk about. The disappointments, the stupid things we did, the miracle of us surviving those years with no severe injuries -when our antics were often so wreckless and dangerous.

We talked about my life in Los Angeles (I had made six feature films by then, including the JEEPERS films) and everything always led back to a story about Cova and our moviemaking days.

"Remember when Michael jumped off the roof as our stunt Dracula, because no one else would do it?" Stuff like that. And for a moment, it was like it all happened only yesterday.

I cringe when I think of how I must have sounded at some points. There is a part of me that is still so unsure, so insecure, that all I do is lead with my credits and accomplishments.

And I fear, I may have done that with my oldest friends, Charlie and Mike, during some of our conversation. It's my fall back position when I feel scared or uncomfortable. Or guilty.

And I did feel guilty somehow. That I had left Martinez behind. Escaped it would be more appropriate for me. Guilty that I had won the favor of Francis Copolla, disgraced myself nationally, and survived even that, to move to Los Angeles and make feature films.

Whatever this conversation was in part, sadly, I now realize, that it was the last time I saw Michael. Or spoke to him.

Charlie and Mike, were two brothers who weren't just the start of my dream. They were something much more crucial to my survival. They were friendship. And at a time when I needed it most, friends and a safe place to be, because my home wasn't.

They were my first brotherhood really. Much more than the frail and strained relationship I had with my own brother, who I shared a bedroom with, from the time we were toddlers to the time I left home at 18.

There is a line in STAND BY ME that says, we never have again, the kind of the friends we had back when we were kids -- and while I question the validity of that statement, I do feel when I look back on Charlie and Mike -- just how much they were my world.

Mike and me clowning at the Administration Building downtown where his dad worked. We wanted to shoot a couple of scenes there for our thriller TAKE ME A PICTURE. Out beyond us is the Martinez Harbor and Benicia Bay.

Mike, except for those five or so years, decades ago, I barely knew you, but the news of your death makes me long for the days when we ran around, laughing our asses off, learning new tricks to do with the camera, and just becoming who we were becoming.

We had the kind of enthusiasm kids have when they discover something they love and run at it with everything they've got. Ignoring the naysayers and in my case, the parents who thought it was a terrible -even disgraceful- waste of time.

But you can't tell kids that when they are in love with something -- and you, me and Charlie were in love with the movies.

And nobody was going to stand in our way -- or our dream of someday making that movie that would grab the world by the tail, and let us stand next to Spielberg and Harryhausen and the other mythic weavers of boyhood dreams.

So long, Mike. Remember you are loved.