Dean Cameron, star of 80s/90s hits Summer School, Ski School and Rockula, talks to us about collaborating with Steel Panther, taking his live show to the Edinburgh Festival, writing and directing his own short film projects, and advice for aspiring writers and filmmakers after working with the Hollywood Connection Short Screenplay Competition.
The 1980s was full of cheesy and ridiculous indie gems that are easy to look back at now and think ‘how the hell did they get the money to make that’?
One of those (although released in 1990) was a $1.5M musical comedy called Rockula, which is a (deep breath) musical comedy about a young vampire who can't lose his virginity due to a curse imposed upon him centuries ago that sees his true love killed every 22 years on Halloween by a rhinestone-peg-legged pirate wielding a giant ham-bone. And breathe.
I'm not the only one who loves it, as it has since had a release on blu ray. It was the first lead role in a feature film for actor Dean Cameron.
“Everybody wants to be the number one on the call sheet, and that was my opportunity to carry a movie which had been a dream since I was a kid. It was the first movie I didn't have to audition for, I just went and met the director and the producer and talked about it. I thought it was a crazy, weird script. Apparently, they had originally written it as a drama and fortunately for everybody, realised that it would have been even more ridiculous as a drama. So, they changed it to a musical comedy.
A memorable experience was working with Bo Diddley, which was amazing. There was a point when we were shooting all the musical stuff in one week, and we just finished shooting 'The King Is Back' which was the last song in the movie. I remember walking back to our trailers, Bo Diddley was behind me and I heard him say, "This might be a pretty good movie after all." I was so happy that he said that. I thought that was really cool because I wrote that song and he liked it.
My favourite story about Rockula is, I took a cassette recorder to the set. This was back when everybody had answering machines with actual answering machines and people would call or leave the messages. I got Bo Diddley record an outgoing message for me and said, "Hi, this is Bo Diddley. Dean is not home right now. Please leave your message”. Back then, and it’s still true, other actors are never really happy when you’re working and they’re not, so I would never really talk about that I was working to my friends. I would just disappear for a while. Maybe they’d figured it out, but if we talked I wouldn't say, "I'm doing this movie." Nobody really knew that I was doing Rockula. So, when people started calling the house they’d go, "Dean, that message is not funny. That's racist. That's really disgusting." They thought I was doing this Bo Diddley impression on my answering machine and I ended up erasing the message. I wish I had it still. That's my Rockula story.”
Dean’s own musical talents would play a part in another collaboration many years later, directing videos for hair metal band Steel Panther and even co-writing some of the songs. As a fan of the band, it’s a pleasant surprise to discover Dean has worked so closely with them, so while we should be talking about film, I can’t resist finding out more.
“I played in a band with Satchel and Stix called The Thornbirds. Before they were Steel Panther, when they were Metal Shop, they said, "We want to do a video for 'Fat Girl'." I was the only one they knew that could maybe put that together, so we did. That was like 2,000 bucks and I got a buddy of mine to DP it and I think it's a really good video.
As for working on songs, I brought the song, Girl From Oklahoma. I was messing around with the chorus, “Come on Baby Suck My Balls All Night”, and brought it to Satchel. We collaborated on that, then when he had Supersonic Sex Machine, he'd written the tune and he had the title and asked, "Can you come up with some lyrics for that?" I did, and the rest is history. They're friends of mine and everybody works for their friends out here."
The video for ‘Pussywhipped’ is one that grabs the attention and epitomises the humour in the band’s work as well as Dean’s own. After a short introduction that sees a collection of his famous friends, including Eric Stoltz, all separately looking up at the sky in awe, it’s soon revealed that what they’re looking at is a dangling pair of God-sized testicles. The director explains his inspiration.
“Yeah that was my idea. There's this guy, he calls himself Owl City, and he's got this video and it's all these people looking up at the sky. It's a very important video. Then Shaq out of nowhere, shows up in this video and he's looking up in the sky. There, I think, that God is supposed to come down and he says, "Take me with you." I thought, "This is the worst, most horrible, treacle-y video. I want to just make fun of it." I thought, what if balls were coming out of the sky. The whole point of the 'Pussywhipped' video was just so I could do that intro part. I didn't care about the rest of it. I just wanted that first thing and I got my semi famous friends to do cameos. I just would call and say, "Hey, would you do this thing? There are going to be balls coming out of the sky. Would you do it?" The ones that didn't hang up on me, they'd say, "Yes, okay, come over." I take the DP and we'd go with the camera and shoot stuff."
Moving back to Dean’s own work, it’s interesting to hear more about his true experience with a Nigerian scam artist which he turned into a live show that he even took to the Edinburgh Festival.
“I corresponded with the Nigerian Scammer for, initially, a year and then I got hold of them again a couple of years later, and then it was another eight months. I ended up getting a cheque from the Nigerian Scammer for $3.50. It's an amazing story. I put the show together called the Nigerian Spam Scam Scam. My friend Victor and I travelled to Edinburgh twice, we did it two years in a row and also toured the world with the show. I'm just editing one of the live shoots of it to finally release it because people should see it, it's very funny.
Edinburgh's a tough gig. It's a month of doing it every day and it's a lot of walking and the weather is weird there. When I was there, it's 2004 or 2005, the dollar sucked, it was way expensive. Fortunately, I had been produced, so I didn't have to pay to go over and all that stuff, but it was fun. It also made the show great because when you do something 30 days in a row, it gets good, so we came back, and the show was amazing after that. Yes, it was a fun time. There were these other actors from Texas and one the guys had this great joke, he said, "Everything in Edinburgh has stairs, even the buses have stairs”! I would like to go back as a tourist and not doing a show every day and worrying about if we going to have audiences or not. This country is beautiful, and the people are awesome and really sweet.”
Since the Nigerian Spam Scam Scam, as well as continuing as a working actor appearing in various films and TV shows, Dean has worked on short project Some Kind of Joke - a series of films that take jokes as inspiration for short videos.
“I had this idea to take classic jokes and shoot them as narrative short films. My friend Richard Horvitz, who is also in Summer School, we were grousing that we weren't working, and were bored and wanted to do fun stuff. I said, "Let's do that joke I did." We have done this other thing called ‘Dickhead Firemen’ where we just got a bunch of friends together to a green-screen studio with iPhones and shoot firemen being horrible people, because firemen are saints. What if they are horrible people and didn't want to rescue someone? We did that as a test to see how we work together and then we did this Some Kind of Joke. The dream is to do even bigger and longer jokes. There's this bear joke, a clown joke and they're epic jokes. People take 15-20 minutes to tell the joke and the pay-off. I'm editing now one called, ‘The Bug’ which is a classic joke about a guy who finds a singing and dancing bug and he ends up losing everything because he gets so focused on this bug, and finally he takes it to a bar and he lets this bug out of the box and the bartender just kills the bug immediately. It’s about following your passion and how it will end up just destroying you. I'm hoping that it's going to be my calling card to start directing television. It started big enough and weird enough and there's a lot of effects and stuff like that."
As well as keeping himself busy with his own projects, Dean is only to happy the next generation of writers and filmmakers with their work too. He’s one of the experienced professionals involved with the Hollywood Connection Short Screenplay Competition, set up to give opportunities for aspiring screenwriters to write specifically for a group of willing actors.
"The Hollywood Connection Short Screenplay Competition is a really cool idea by a guy I know called John Venable, where he approaches actors who are semi well known who say, "Yes, I'll do this." Then, asks people to submit short film scripts tailored for these actors. We said what we'd liked to do or not do. People then write scripts and then I look at them and we all get together and read them and pick the one that we think is doable on a limited budget and that we like. I think it's a wonderful thing. It really promotes getting aspiring writers to write.
Short films have a real ability to do beautiful things just like short stories as oppose to novels. You also get to meet young filmmakers who may hire you later or you may learn what to do or what not to do when you are directing your own short films. I've had that experience, great experiences and horrible experience on shorts and it's a great thing. If you've seen my body of work, you know that I would say yes to anything. I just like working, even if I'm not getting paid much, it's just fun to get out there and do something interesting and fun.”
I offer that being part of so many short film shoots and reading so many short film scripts must have opened his eyes to some common missteps by writers and filmmakers. He readily responds with his thoughts on this subject.
“I'm a writer and one of the things I love doing as a writer is trimming my script as much as possible. My wife is an editor. What she hates is when the director just leaves the camera rolling. It doesn't do anyone any good. You just get too much material and the editor hates you. Keep it tight and keep it moving. The directors I like working with the most are the ones who have a point of view and an idea. Even if I disagree with it, which is rarely, at least I know that they have an idea about what they want to see and how they want to see it and what they want the audience to see. I think that's an important thing for directors. David Mamet wrote a great book called On Directing. He talks about that, your point of view and rails against the steadicam because with the steadicam you start to get everything, and you don't have to have a point of view. That's my thing, the most important thing is have a point of view. What do you want to see? What's the story you want to tell?
It’s the same with writing. It's the overwriting. Show it, don't say it. A look or just a screen direction often takes the place of maybe a page of dialogue. This is also what other people have said and I sound like a dick saying it, but it's a visual medium so write visually. Although short films can be a little more talky, sometimes I think they're about ideas. The issues I see that I've read are just overwriting and not trusting that the readers going to get it. People are smart. People are smarter than you think as a writer. I know as writers, we always think we're the smartest one in the room, but other people are maybe smarter than you. They will get it. They will understand it. If they don't, screw 'em."
Playing roles as varied as a horny vampire (Rockula), a record executive (Straight Outta Compton), a pathologist (Trouble Creek), and a glory-hole loving party boy (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), means Dean has no preference to playing comedic or dramatic characters. Especially since taking something of a sabbatical from the industry in the middle of his career.
"I just want to work. I stopped pursuing showbiz for about 10 years. I was working as a front-end web developer at a bunch of different companies here in L.A. I got sick of it. Then, about five or six years ago, the people who grew up watching me are running showbiz now. This agent approached me and said, "I want to represent you and get you the career you should have had." It's just nice. I'm back. I'm not programming anymore. I wasn't very good at it, even after 10 years. I just like being in the showbiz thing. It's in my blood. I joke now that all I want is the doctor exposition part on a TV show where I come in, do all one scene at the beginning of the show and say, "We die to this and blah, blah, blah," and then I collect my money and leave for the week. Like I said, if you've seen my work, you know that I will say yes to anything."
With the previously mentioned sabbatical in mind, living in LA and being in and out of the business for a number of years, he doesn't hesitate when asked what he will say to anyone looking to up sticks and move to Hollywood tomorrow to launch their career.
"I will say don't do it. If you can exist where making films or acting is just a hobby, continue doing that, because when it becomes what you need to do to make money, it casts off very different light on the work and your work start becoming different. It just changes things and in some people, it creates a desperation in their lives and self-doubt. That was one of the things happen to me around 2000 or late '90s. I wasn't working and I felt like I was a bad person because of my previous years as a working actor and being someone who people knew. That was my life. Then when that was not around anymore, I didn't know really who I was. I stepped away from the industry and learned, "I'm actually a good guy and I can exist and support myself without this other thing." That's good and got control of it. I would say, don't do it, but if you must, create your own content as much as possible. Before you move to LA, have a body of work because it's easy to do that now. When I was coming up, things were very separate. You were an actor, you were a writer or you were director.
Ben Stiller is someone who I really admire and envy because he was able to do both or all three things really well. I was hoping to do that in the '80s and would write, my reps would say, "That's nice," and give me a virtual pat on the head and say, "You need to be an actor and that's what you do." Now, you have the ability to write and interact and do a show on your iPhone. I don't know, everybody has a computer, so create your own content because that's what's going to get you noticed."
For more information about Dean and his work visit his website.
You can follow him on Twitter: @DeanCameron