It had been a decade since James Isaac had directed his first feature, 1989′s The Horror Show (aka House III), but after years as an acclaimed special effects artist James Isaac returned behind the camera to helm Jason X. Utilising many of the same crew members that he had previously worked with on David Cronenberg’s surreal thriller eXistenZ, Isaac resurrected the long-dormant Friday the 13th franchise with the assistance of its original creator, Sean S. Cunningham.
James Isaac discusses his work on the science fiction slasher Jason X.
Your directorial debut, The Horror Show, was a troubled project, with you taking over from David Blyth mid-shoot. What took you a decade to return to the director’s chair and what made you choose Jason X as your big comeback?
The Horror Show was a bit of a double-edged sword for me. It was great to get a shot at doing what I got into the business to do, which was directing, but by the time I was asked to take over, I wasn’t happy with the script. I thought I could work with the writer to get it back to the original idea, which was really great. It was strange, scary, dark and it had twisted humour in it, but we didn’t have the time to stop production, so I just tried to tell the story the best I could. After The Horror Show, Chris Walas of CWI asked me to supervise the creature FX on Arachnophobia. I agreed, partly because I needed the work and partly because I really wanted to work with the old gang again. We had done Gremlins, Romancing the Stone, Enemy Mine and The Fly together and I thought it would be fun… and it was. After that, Chris asked me move back up to NorCAL and supervise his creature effects shop. He sent me David Cronenberg’s script, Naked Lunch, and I jumped at the chance, not only to work with David but the script was amazing.
I didn’t get back into directing for a while, mainly because I found myself involved in some great projects, mostly with David Cronenberg. After eXistenZ, I decided it was time to get back into the game and direct something. A producer friend of mine, Sean Cunningham, who I directed The Horror Show for and worked with him on a few other films, owned the rights to the Jason character. I basically told him I thought it was time to dust off Jason and make a movie. He was developing Freddy vs. Jason with New Line at the time, which I was helping on a little but it was going slow. Todd Farmer, Noel Cunningham and myself pitched Sean a few different story ideas. He liked Jason X the best, so we stared working on it. I worked with Todd on the story and he wrote a killer script in about three weeks. We took it into New Line and they loved it. That’s how Jason X was born.
Jason X‘s $14m budget was by far the most expensive Friday the 13th movie to date (with Jason Takes Manhattan‘s $5m budget being the closest). How did you manage to negotiate such funds and how did your background in special effects help you make the movie look more expensive than it actually was?
The fact that Jason X took place in space and in the future meant that everything had to be built. That’s where most of the money went. That and the FX. The make-up effects look really great in Jason X and that’s because of the talent of Stephen Dupuis and Kelly Lepkowski. I worked with both Stephen and Kelly for years at CWI – we also just finished working on eXistenZ together so of course I begged them to help me out on Jason X. That’s why it looks so good. They are both brilliant.
What made you decide to pursue a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the story and do you think it would be possible to make Jason scary again?
I wanted to have a little fun with Jason X. I was tired of seeing the same dark, dirty horror films. I simply wanted to do something different. I was pretty familiar with the Friday legend. I tried to be different with the story and characters but stay true to the formula… if you have sex you die. That’s a big one.
Jason X is notable for some truly unique deaths, specifically the liquid nitrogen ‘shattered head’ scene. Was it a conscious decision early on to utilise as much of the future setting as possible?
Yes, we spent a lot of time trying to come up with unique deaths, not just bloody but strange and fun. Putting it in the future and in space allowed us to make up our own technology. It just expanded the death palette.
How did the concept of Uber Jason originate and was this an attempt to reinvent the character in case the series continued beyond Jason X?
It wasn’t an attempted to change the character of Jason. Todd, Noel and I thought it would be cool to kill Jason at some point during the film. The fact that we were in the future, it allowed us to create Kay-Em, the robot that fights Jason. We thought it would be fun for them to fight, she kicks his ass, actually kill him, our heroes think it all over… but no, he is rebuilt in the Nano machine and comes back bigger and stronger. Stephen did an amazing job of designing Uber Jason. I think he looked very slick and cool. It was just fun.
Once Jason X was completed it seemed largely ignored by New Line Cinema. Was this due to them being preoccupied with the upcoming Lord of the Rings series and do you feel that the twelve-plus months that the film was delayed hurt the movie’s release both critically and commercially?
You never know what is going to happen after you deliver a film. Two days after we delivered Jason X, Mike De Luca left New Line. He was the one who loved the first script and gave us the greenlight and, because it was a negative pickup, New Line did not have much to do with it during production, and then when we delivered there was nobody around. It was like a ghost town over there after Mike de Luca left and it took a while for them to regroup. Jason X just sat on the shelf for a while; it just wasn’t on their radar until we bugged them about it, then they jumped onboard, there just wasn’t anyone to push it through and really be its champion. For what it was, I was pretty happy with it. I think the script got gutted a bit and I wish we stayed true to Todd’s first draft. It was more gritty and hip.