The Terror Trap had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Rosman, director of the superlative 1983 slasher The House on Sorority Row. We discussed the underrated gem: its filming, marketing and advertising, deleted footage...and general thoughts from the filmmaker nearly twenty years after its release.
The Terror Trap: Where are you from?
Mark Rosman: I'm from L.A. actually.
MR: Yes, I grew up in California, went to NYU film school, undergraduate, and then came back out to Los Angeles. At that point, I moved back into my parents' house and decided the only way I was going to get to direct a movie, which was my goal, was to write a script.
TT: Were you a fan of the horror genre?
MR: I was always fond of thrillers, suspense movies. I wasn't really a big horror fan.
TT: That's what they all say!
MR: (Laughs.) No, that's not true! A best friend of mine grew up with Mummy, Frankenstein and Werewolf stuff. I wasn't into that. I was into The Twilight Zone.
TT: As a director-to-be and a fan of thrillers, you must have had a respect for the "Master" - Hitchcock?
MR: I loved Hitchcock. When it came to doing my first movie, I wanted to do a suspense and thriller film...but it also was a time when Halloween and Friday the 13th were huge hits. They were made cheaply and I thought this was a way I could get started and blend what I wanted to do, which was a suspense movie with something commercial.
TT: You mentioned writing a script. Did you always want to direct or did you have a hankering for doing other things?
MR: I always just wanted to direct. I didn't even want to write or think I COULD write. I never wrote before my first movie. In fact, House on Sorority Row was my very first script.
TT: What led to you writing it?
MR: At first, I tried to find a real writer and I talked to one or two people. But I realized that if I wanted this to be something that I believe in, I would have to write it myself. So, I got some script books, one of which I still very much believe in. It's called Screenplay by Syd Field. I sat down and read the book, and then started to write the script.
The key thing I did, was when I finished a draft, I showed it to about four or five people. Some were peers that had gone through film school with me and some were people that were peripherally in the film business who knew scripts, and they gave me some really good notes. I did a second draft and sent that. Then finally a third draft and that was the script that I ultimately went with.
TT: Three drafts is a pretty good batting average.
MR: I think so. It's because I did a thorough job in terms of getting it critiqued. I didn't just show it to friends.
TT: Before we get into detail about your work on House, we're curious as to how you ended up working with Brian De Palma...
MR: That was a really great experience. The summer after I graduated from NYU, I got involved in a movie he was putting together called Home Movies. He had just finished The Fury. I was Brian's first assistant director.
TT: What was he like?
MR: He was not the easiest person at times to work with. But I loved his work, especially Carrie and Sisters and I learned a lot from him. Timewise, Home Movies was between Fury and Dressed To Kill.
TT: Do you like Dressed To Kill?
MR: Yeah, I thought it was an interesting film. It was kind of more on the homage side than it was an original movie. I didn't like it as much as Carrie and Sisters but it was pretty good.
TT: Was it difficult to get financing for House on Sorority Row?
MR: Going through it, it seemed that way. In hindsight, I think it went pretty quickly. It took about six months. I had finished the script and I decided to pursue a couple of different ways of getting money.
One was the standard Hollywood route, which was to send it to agents to try and get it through the normal distribution and studio system. But that didn't go anywhere. Nobody really wanted to do it. Especially with me attached as the director.
TT: Do most scripts still go through agents that way?
MR: Absolutely. A majority of movies out there are usually sold the old fashioned way, through agents to studios, production companies and established entities.
TT: You were pretty young at the time, weren't you?
MR: Yes, like twenty-three, twenty-four. I then decided to try and get independent financing for it. A friend of mine was working for a company in Washington, DC that wanted to make a small movie. This wasn't a film production company.
They were doing audio and visual programs. They had a little bit of money, like a hundred thousand dollars. I ended up getting some money from family and friends. I got it together and I raised about $125,000. I started shooting, then got some more money and finally got to the end of shooting...and ran out of money.
TT: How much had you spent at that point?
MR: By the end of the shoot, it was about $300,000.
TT: What did you do next?
MR: I then brought the film back to L.A. and finished a rough cut of it, got some temp music and ended up screening it at every studio and production company.
Briefly, MGM was actually interested in it, the only big studio that was interested for a little moment. Then Film Ventures came in and we needed completion funds so they gave us $125,000. The final budget was $425,000. All that money we got...rather than going into our pockets, went into the music, the titles, cutting the negative, the sound mix, etc.
TT: How did you find the actresses?
MR: I did open casting calls in L.A., New York City - and where we shot it, which was outside of Baltimore.
TT: Of the group, we particularly like Kathryn MacNeil and Eileen Davidson.
MR: Eileen I think we found in L.A. We had an open casting call and 300 people showed up because it was non-SAG. My theory was I wanted to see everybody. We got to where we were like two weeks from shooting and we didn't have the main lead. We didn't have Kathryn.
We were in Baltimore in pre-production and the reason we got that far is that we did have an actress in the part, who I loved. But she was SAG and at the last minute, she decided she didn't want to jeopardize her SAG status.
TT: Do you remember what Kathryn's background was at the time?
MR: We found her in New York about two weeks before shooting. I don't think she had done much. Since then, she's done a soap opera and a movie with the word 'monkey' in it.
TT: Monkey Shines?
MR: That one. In fact, she walked into an audition I had for another movie I made called The Force in the mid '90s. I saw her then but I haven't seen her since. I liked her a lot.
Harley Kozak was hot for a little while. She made some feature comedies and then kind of faded.
TT: She's got a great face.
Where did you find Lois Kelso Kent, who played Dorothy Slater, the house mother?
MR: She came from Baltimore.
TT: There's something odd we've noticed each time we watch the film. Her vocal intonations make it seem as if she's dubbed. Is that really her voice we hear?
MR: She WAS dubbed. She had a great look and she was actually a pretty good actress. She was a stage actress...but the problem was that she was not scary enough vocally. We ended up looping her.
TT: Who dubbed her?
MR: We got one of the best ADR people in the business, Barbara Harris, who actually did it. She's still in the business and runs a loop group, a group of people who do voice replacement and stuff.
TT: Not Barbara Harris from Robert Altman's Nashville right?
MR: No, no.
TT: It appears as if Jodi Draigie, the actress who played Morgan, was given a very limited amount of dialogue. This is in contrast with the other girls, who have their fair share of action and talk. Just our imagination? Or a reason, a story there...?
MR: You know, there really isn't a story there. The part was written for somebody like that and when she came in, I said "God, this is perfect." She's funny yet genuine. She's really that character. It was a nice balance to some of the other girls. They all had kind of a distinctive feel to them and that was her deal.
TT: Did the girls get along?
MR: Yeah, they all lived together during the shoot. No big fights or anything. It was a pretty pleasant shoot.
TT: Was there any footage that was deleted?
MR: Yeah, there was some stuff. The biggest one being the ending. That is not where the film ended when I showed my rough cut. When the killer opens his eyes...
TT: You mean, essentially, the film keeps going?
MR: The ending was kind of rewritten a number of times. That was always there, that his eyes open at the bottom of the ladder. In the last scene as we actually shot it and was in our cut, it goes from him opening his eyes to a shot over the pool.
There's flashing police lights, the camera starts to pull away (we actually had a crane for this) and you see the clown costume and somebody's floating face down in the pool. A cop and a paramedic turn the body over...and it's Kathryn.
TT: That would have been great...
MR: We kept pulling back and back and back and you see the fire people, the paramedics and the cops and it just freezes and fades out.
TT: What happened to that conclusion?
MR: Film Ventures said there were two changes they wanted. One was that...and the other change was that the opening sequence was shot in pure black & white and they wanted it colorized. It was toned to blue and white or something like that.