April 18, 2015 marks the 10-year Anniversary of Salt City Horror Fest at the Palace Theatre (2384 James St.). Eight feature films will be shown in the 35mm format, and a special Rochester-based bonus will be screened at 10 p.m.. Enjoy all of the films for $20 (in advance) or $25 (at the door) from noon to the wee hours of the morning. Doors will open at 11 a.m.. There will be food trucks available outside and in the parking lot. Comedian Alex Bidwell will take the stage at 7:15 p.m..
Christopher Malone had a phone coversation with writer, director and former child actor Oliver Robins, who will be appearing in-person at the Salt City Horror Fest.
“I’ve always been scared of clowns,” Robins admitted in the midst of laughing. “I used that energy and fear for my performance.”
Writer and actor Oliver Robins has been active in the film industry since the age of seven. His first role was in a Turf Builder Fertilizer commercial.
Robins big break was in Los Angeles, after relocating from Manhattan. Although the fertilizer commercial may not be memorable, the seeds of his notoriety were planted into the horror classic Poltergeist (1982), a movie that has established itself as a classic film that, in part, helped instill the fear of clowns and dolls and their potential to terrorize us.
Robins talked about an old fashioned Charlie Chaplin doll that he had as a child. The eyes, how they were painted, were a poignant feature that seemed to embody an eerie life behind them. “I swore they followed me at night. Whenever I was in the scene with the clown, I thought about that doll. I would actually cover it up like my character did in the movie, before I went to sleep. Who knew? My nightmare actually came alive.”
To land the role as Robbie in the Tobe Hooper/Stephen Spielberg/Frank Marshall flick was worth it, terror and all. The team was dynamic, and the filming process was never difficult. Being on the set felt more like a game, Robins said. The environment was created for him, and he had to make his way through the scene. The process had more of a “summer camp” feeling than work.
Robins fell into the film industry. His father worked on Wall Street, and his mother was a fashion editor; there were no ties to the film industry. After getting his foot in the door with commercials, he found himself waiting outside MGM studios for hours to audition for the son of Craig T. Nelson.
“One of the things I talked about was how I was afraid of ghosts and clowns. I told them about how I thought our NYC apartment was haunted,” Robins said. “I was a living incarnation of the character from the film.”
Although he was called back and was awarded the part, there was a specific requirement that Tobe Hooper asked of the child. The director said Robins was great, but he had to learn how to scream.
“I met with people who specialized with teaching people how to learn to scream. I practiced in my parents’ apartment closet. I could have sworn the neighbors were going to call the police.”
Although he is not screaming (much) today, Robins is actively writing and working on films. His friend and co-writer, Paul Todisco, is a Syracuse native. They met at University of Southern California while studying film and production.
The school presented its own challenges. He was rejected even with a recommendation from Spielberg. “They told me, ‘We will not be told what to do even by Mr. Spielberg.'” But he sucked up the blow and was persistent.
“One thing about the film industry, you don’t take no for an answer.”
Robins presented himself and a film he had made to the Dean of USC and was accepted into the film school on special status: He had to keep a 3.0 GPA in order to stay enrolled.
“It was a movie in itself. If I dropped below a 3.0, I’d be out of the film school.” Robins stayed enrolled until he graduated.
Robins anticipates that being in Syracuse will be exciting for him. Not only does his co-writer (Todisco) talk about Central New York, but Robins will be returning to his New York and east coast roots. Seeing Poltergeist in the 35mm format is part of the package, because he hasn’t seen the movie on the big screen in years.
Salt City Horror Fest will also present an opportunity to talk to fans as well. “I’ve been doing horror conventions the past couple years. It’s great to talk to other people about this film, how it has affected them at different points in their lives.”
Robins knew about his love of film even back in the Poltergeist days. “You couldn’t ask for a better team. They complimented their skills: Tobe is a master of horror; Spielberg has the silver touch.”
Robins would talk with Spielberg about his desire to stay in the industry and make movies himself. One day, Robins was presented with a silver case. Inside rested a Beaulieu 5008S Super 8 Camera. “It was amazing getting this gift from Mr. Spielberg at 11 years old.”
His first Super 8 film was called The Day PacMan Ate the Earth, where Ms. PacMan saved the day from Mr. PacMan.
“Spielberg told me, ‘Compassion will always win over a camera.’ You can have all the special effects you want, you can do a $200 million dollar movie – but people want to see relationships between the characters, something that will make you cry, something that will make you feel. Those are the kinds of movies I like to make.”
Robins and his mother used to play a game together, and they called it the “what if” game.” While in the car, they’d come up with scenarios pertaining to life and writing. This is how he comes up with ideas for what he writes about today.
“With Poltergeist, the fear and horror element is obvious, but there are family elements. These relationships give Poltergeist that power. If you milk it down to its purest form, the movie is based on a mother’s love for her daughter. Everyone has a family of some kind, and people can relate to that concept of family.”
With Poltergeist, the sets and effects were practical. The Hooper/Spielberg/Marshall team utilized techniques that were used back in the ’30s or ’40s to illustrate the horror elements. “They had to animate some things in or overlay the images. A lot of people will look at the effects and comment on how cartoonish they look, but at the time that was the best of the best.”
Computer-generated imagery (CGI), Robins acknowledged, is still in its “early stages,” but sometimes filmmakers overdo it. The video game/animated element can take people out of their involvement with a story.
“It will destroy a narrative,” Robins stated. “How are you going to get people into your movie? You want to let people into that dream world. CGI can be an effective tool, but too much of it brings you back to reality.”
Even with the clown scene, Robins acknowledged the art to make the doll’s approach menacing. “They used a backward camera. I had to start at the pinnacle of fear and work in reverse to the point where I am not afraid. When they played the scene forward, it looked like the clown was wrapping its arm around me.”
In the world of Hollywood, remaking and rebooting is a very common practice that results with distinct hit-or-miss results, but the efforts can rekindle the excitement of the originals. Whether Sam Rami’s quoted re-imagination of the now-classic Poltergeist will be favorable for audiences has yet to be determined.
“Nothing is sacred with film, fiction. Audience members are going to add their own feelings to it. The movie is going to take a life of its own. If you can reinvent something and make it that much more amazing, go for it. It’s taking a risk. There are ways to tell a story a different way, bring it up to date with the times.”
Robins spoke of debating with peers and professors in regard to remaking and redrafting. “If you do a remake and you’re going to make it shot-for-shot, I don’t know what you’re really going to achieve.” Funny Games is an example of a shot-for-shot remake; the only difference is the English translation.
Jimmy Wilson was the name of Robins’ character in Airplaine II: The Sequel. After seeing the first movie, he feels he was destined to play in the sequel; although, there wasn’t one in the works at the time. Robins said that Director Ken Finkelman had written an original script, but the producers wanted to rehash and bank on the original.
He enjoyed himself on the set, playing basketball with Robert Hays and talking about his school art projects with Julie Hagerty.
The relationships and positive experiences lifted his spirits. The so-called Poltergeist curse was debunked by the actor, acknowledging the fates of his late friends were due to illnesses coming into production, and the death of Dominique Dunn was a tragedy.
“I hope there is no curse,” he said.
After a record-breaking Hallmark Channel premiere for You’ve Got a Friend (2007), which stars Jon Schneider, Robins developed 29,000 Wishes. 1 Regret. that is now available on Amazon.
The experimental film centers around a couple. After the economy goes down the tubes, their careers also sink. “She is spoiled rotten, and says if she cannot live like a princess then she doesn’t want to live live at all,” Robins explained. The couple has $25 thousand dollars in the bank, and they make a vow to to have the greatest time before ending their lives. As she convinces her husband to go along, the couple rekindles their relationship during their adventures and delve into addressing and clearing up their issues.
The film was made for under $2,000, and filmed in LA and Vegas. “It was interesting. The two actors did a fantastic job while I filmed with no crew in what felt like the harshest of conditions.”
2015 Salt City Horror Fest
2384 James St.
Doors open at 11 a.m.
Tickets: $20 Advance, $25 at the door
12 p.m. – Big Trouble in Little China
1:30 p.m. – Beetlejuice
3:50 p.m. – Poltergeist
5:30 p.m. – Dr. Who and The Daleks
7:30 p.m. – Comedian Alex Bidwell performs
7:45 p.m. – Clockwork Orange
10 p.m. – The Chunkblow
10:15 p.m. – Spider Baby
11:40 p.m. – Creepshow
1 a.m. – Demons 2