Bruce Campbell’s love trip
The man with the screaming brain brings his ‘Summer of Love’ tour to Sacramento
B-movie and TV actor Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., etc.) writes books that make me laugh out loud. OK. Two books may not muscle him into the next edition of Who’s Who in America. But they do enshrine him on my A list of current comic authors. And during a recent phone interview from his wooded 100-acre-plus home in Oregon, he boiled down the nativity of his talent to an incident in high school.
“I was reading a story about opening packages at Christmas,” said Campbell. “And once they got them open, the kids were hurting each other with popguns. The whole day was a disaster. And I remember that I kept embarrassing myself because I kept laughing out loud in class. It made such an impression on me that I went, ‘Holy crap! This guy made me laugh out loud for half an hour.’”
Campbell massaged this tone deep as he waded into what he called the “choppy waters of blue-collar Hollywood” with the autobiographical If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. The resulting irreverent memoir and rants on pop culture made for a fast, fun read. The book, which included such chapters as “College Schmollege” and “The Downside of the Upside,” became a sleeper hit in 2001 as Campbell’s “Chins Across America” promotional tour stopped in 55 cities (including Sacramento) in five months.
Campbell is back on the road again this summer, with a 40-city “Summer of Love” tour to promote his latest book, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way. No, this is not an instructional manual by a man who has pioneered an alternate route to the mystical G spot. Make Love is what Campbell and his publishers refer to as an autobiographical novel. I had no idea what this meant. But such chapter titles as “Mike Mounts His Movie” and “Dailies From Hell” did resonate with promise.
The book-flap copy that summarizes what he calls his “72,444 words” says that Campbell himself is the lead character in a story “in which everything in the book actually happened, except for all the stuff that didn’t.” Hmm. Not much clarification here either. Nor in the brazen name-dropping of everyone from Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Evans to Colin Powell and Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton.
The pages inside tell of the character Bruce being cast as the wisecracking New York hotel doorman Foyl in a Mike Nichols film starring Richard Gere, Renée Zellweger and other celluloid celebrities. (Aha! A spoof begins stirring in the wings.) This is not just another low-budget exercise in emoting fear and pain for Bruce. This is a leap into the big time. Foyl is a major player in a major studio production, and he’s a relationship expert to all. Bruce savors the transition and, in his “Homeric” journey, takes a serious method-acting approach to his role. This leads to a domino effect of bizarre events and conspiracies that jeopardize the project as well as Bruce’s private life and career. I asked Campbell for some further definition of what was at work here.
“We weren’t sure what the heck to call it,” he said. “You can pretty much count on 98 percent of the characters being based on somebody that is real. In dealing with Richard Gere and Renée Zellweger, all I did was perpetuate the general drift of who people think they are. The trick was you got to be a little careful that, yes, it is fiction, but you don’t want to say, ‘Hey Mike. How’s that coke habit coming?’ you know, referring to someone famous. You wouldn’t want to go too crazy with the fiction. So, I kept myself as the idiot in the book. Everyone else is smarter than me. It was a way to thread something together in a humorous light and cleverly disguise it as a novel. And hopefully people will be confused.”
This approach generates some of the most witty showbiz lunacy since This is Spinal Tap. And nearly every open page is complemented with graphics. On the book flap of Chins, Campbell notes, “If the book sucks, at least there are gobs of pictures, and they’re not all crammed in the middle like all those other actor books.” Make Love takes this layout to a whole new level by using not only captioned photographs, but also everything from wacky magazine and book covers to Internet sites and handwritten notes. I was constantly torn between either reading the text or absorbing the art first as Campbell and graphics man Craig Sanborn feed on and rebound off each other.
The book casually dances all over the map while chronicling Bruce’s rub up against several celebrities du jour. It takes potshots at Hollywood-ese. (“And I didn’t really lay it on all that heavy,” said Campbell. “People are so full of shit in Hollywood that it is unbelievable. They are always selling themselves.”) There’s a riff on “gentlemen” as an oxymoron. (“The funny thing is that I actually wrote that one chapter because I’ve never seen more aggressive males in my life as in my adulthood right now. So, I’d like to see men chill out a little bit.”) It talks of the guerilla warfare that we know as marriage (“I’m actually very positive on the concept of marriage, but people should not be fooled that just because they have a white dress and people throw rice at you, or you stomp on a glass, or even have a prenuptial, you still have to live with each other, and the give and take is essential”).
Campbell’s appearances are technically a book tour that will be complemented later this summer by the release of a six-hour audio book structured like a radio play. But tour stops in such cities as Sacramento include a screening of Campbell’s latest film, Man with the Screaming Brain. An advance screener was not available, so Campbell resolved my inquiry into the conflicting information on the film that shows up on the Internet.
The movie was funded through the Sci-Fi Channel and other entities, and its evolution is stranger than fiction. “I’m embarrassed to say that it took from 1986 until now to get made,” said Campbell. The film was initially to take place in East Los Angeles but ended up being shot in Bulgaria. “This is where the Sci-Fi Channel and these other producers were convinced that this was the most financially efficient place to shoot—meaning cheap-ass place—because the average Bulgarian makes $110 dollars a month, and you can’t compete with that. I was like, OK. If I’m supposed to make my movie there, I don’t know how to do East L.A. in a country where there are no people of color. What do you do? The gypsies are now Latinos? It’s twisted. So, before I went there, I rewrote it for Bulgarians.”
The final revision involves an American president of a pharmaceutical company. He’s diversifying his company by buying up utilities and infrastructure in Eastern European countries. He is the ultimate capitalist, and through a series of crazy events, he winds up getting half of the brain of a former KGB communist put into his head. They then team up to find the gypsy woman who killed them both. … I suppose it’s not what I would call a graphically gory movie.”
The film will screen at the Crest Theatre. “Probably 50 percent of the theater screenings,” said Campbell, “are going to be some cool or indie, offbeat or Landmark-type chain, you know, somebody that’s friendly to indies. It makes it more like a special treat. When you go to the Crest, it’s not like going to some crappy strip mall. You know what I mean? Plus, for me, it’s nostalgic because as a kid those [theaters] were starting to fade. It’s nuts. In Detroit [Campbell’s hometown], they gutted one and put a parking lot inside it so when you parked on the top floor of the lot, you would be up by that painted ceiling. It was so creepy. It’s totally sacrilegious.” For those who cannot make the screening, the DVD will be released this fall, and the first of several Screaming Brain comic books came out on May 11.
As I bade him farewell, I asked Campbell what his fans would be surprised to know about him now. “I specialize in land management,” he said. And he wasn’t kidding. He and his wife have shot 55 hours of footage for a documentary about land use. “It explores one particular watershed (that is, ecosystem) of public land,” he said. “We talk about the history of it, what Native Americans did, what the first pioneers did, gold miners, loggers, and then where are we now. How do we deal with fire, species invasion and all kinds of crazy stuff, because our forests are very different now than they were 100 years ago. And we should understand why.
“Everyone just needs to rethink stuff. … There are some new ideas out there that are pretty encouraging. We found it fascinating. Hopefully, in the next 17 years when I get [the film] done, you will too!”