How Did This Get Made: Death Spa (An Oral History)

Death Spa

Part 2: A Hard Day’s Night

Mitch Paradise: I was writing spec screenplays in San Francisco and I got recommended to her for this project. And we met and she gave me a copy of the script, which was really rather a pedestrian attempt…I mean, the idea of the haunted health club was there. But it really was something else. It was not very good. James Bartroff, I guess, was the original writer. Never met him. Never have met him. Don’t even know if he’s still around. But he’s listed as the co-writer on Death Spa, which is something of a gift, by the way, in all honesty. I probably could have made that “written by Mitch Paradise” from a story by both of us. Because it was a total re-write. I totally re-concepted the thing.

Michael Fischa: Story is so important. A good horror move has to have a story. Girls getting butchered in a room for two hours is not enough. Even if it’s totally absurd and silly, you need a story to get into it and get entertainment out of it.

Mitch Paradise: I felt it needed something a little twisted. So I came up with this idea that it’s a computer-run club. And that the ghost was in the machine, basically. So I came up with the idea that all the machines were computer run. That you didn’t, like, move weights around yourself. That was…I think I was the first guy to ever do that. I mean, there are clubs like that now. And then I came up with the idea that the owner’s dead wife was a twin of the guy who runs the computer, you know, command station in the basement for the club. And so she was possessing, alternately, him and a female. So that was really the concept of all of that. So, I re-concepted it, re-wrote it, they liked it and they shot it.

Jamie Beardsley: Actually, I don’t know that Mitch even knows this. But one of the juicy, juicy tidbits…you probably know who Kirk Honeycutt is, right? So Mitch’s draft was good, almost there. But he’s the one that did the final polish on the script that got us to greenlight. And just to avoid having everyone and the kitchen sink’s name on there, Mickey and I took our names off the script and let Jim and Mitch be the only ones with their names on it. And, you know, I don’t think that Kirk wanted to be credited, per se, at that time.

Mitch Paradise: For me, I was just thinking I was getting a shot here to write something and get paid for it. And I liked the people, so I was happy to do it. It was a fun project. I really liked Walter a lot and Jamie was a sweetheart. They seemed to like what I was doing and, when it was ready to go, they made it right here in Los Angeles.

David Shaughnessy: [in a deep-voiced British accent] At a health spa, I believe, on the corner of Crescent and Sunset. Though I must confess that, at the time, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the city. Nor did I really have much of an idea about what I was getting into with Death Spa.

Shaughnessy had moved to the United States only a couple months prior to filming. And although, indeed, he did not know what he was getting into, he wouldn’t have cared anyway because this was all just a means to an end.

David Shaughnessy: My father knew Walter Shenson really well from England. So Walter basically gave me a job just so I could get my SAG card. And it was just the most bizarre thing. And I had no idea what the story was—I could never really follow the story—I’m not even sure if there was one. But it didn’t matter anyway, because I was doing it—yes, of course, for the SAG card, but also for the chance to work with Walter. I mean, he wasn’t just a producer; he was something of a legend.

Mitch Paradise: Walter Shenson is a great man. Literally, a great man. The scion of a family of deli owners in San Francisco. There’s a well-known Jewish delicatessen called Shensons out on Geary and 14th. Been there forever. But he sort of ran away from the deli business and went down to Hollywood and got involved in the movie business. And he was a publicist at Paramount when he went to England and discovered Dudley Moore and made Dudley Moore’s first movie. Left Paramount, went out on his own. Made a lot of great films: The Mouse that Roared, 30 Is a Dangerous Age, Reuben, Reuben.

Jamie Beardsley: And of course, you must know what he’s most famous for?

Mitch Paradise: Took a chance on this rock and roll band that people in America didn’t think would amount to much—they’re called The Beatles—and he was able to retain the rights to the movies. His estate now owns Help and A Hard Day’s Night. That’s crazy.

David Shaughnessy: You want a piece of Beatles stuff? I don’t know if it’s true, but I was having lunch with Walter one day and he told me that years earlier—when they were shooting A Hard Days Night at L Street Studios in London—he was having lunch with John Lennon after a very long night of shooting. At that point, they still didn’t have a title for the movie and, what’s worse, they didn’t have a title song. But apparently, at some point in the conversation, John recounted how the previous night they hadn’t finished until 4 or so in the morning. And he mentioned that Ringo—who was always saying these weird malapropisms, weird phrases—had commented in the morning that, “Yeah, that was a Hard Day’s Night.” And Walter, mid-conversation, said “Oh my god! That’s the title!” So he got John and Paul together and he told them to go off that night, after they were done shooting, he told them to go home and come up with a song called A Hard Day’s Night. So they went off to Paul’s apartment that night, and then the next day John called up Walter and said, “We need to see you right away.” And Walter, at this point, thought: oh god, they’re going to be in another fight, aren’t they? Because John and Paul were always fighting about stuff. But what could he do? So Walter went to John’s dressing room, where they had this little gold box of Benson and Hedges cigarettes. And on it, they had written down all the lyrics to their new song. And just as Walter is starting to read whatever it was they had written, John and Paul burst out into song. [doing his best Beatles impression]: IT’S BEEN A HARD DAY’S NIGHT…AND I’VE BEEN WORKING LIKE A DOG…

Jamie: He just had a million stories and he wanted to tell them all to me. I felt so lucky. And those stories he would tell me, they just gave me an appreciation of great storytelling. The importance of talking about something. Not, you know, all about the effects and the guns and the sex and the whatever. Walter just was, he was amazing. He was amazing. He was kind of a father figure to me as well because I lost my father very young. He actually gave me away at my wedding.

David Shaughnessy: Given that Walter had done so many great projects, yes, it did strike me as a bit odd that he’d be doing Death Spa. But, you know, I think at that point he was kind of semi-retired. And I think he kind just wanted to do something that was young and hip. He was very into wanting to stay hip and relevant, so I think that was why he wanted to do it. And, around this time, horror movies were the thing.

Death Spa: Micki, Jamie and Production designer/art director Robert Schulenberg

Micki, Jamie and Production designer/art director Robert Schulenberg

Part 3: All Watched Over by the Sheen of Betty Davis

Michael Fischa: Death Spa was the first film I directed, yes, but I was not totally novice to the whole thing. In my spare time I worked as a camera assistant. And I did a lot of movies before—sort of 8mm experimental things and I traveled a lot and did travel documentaries—and trusted myself, so it wasn’t like it was a new thing for me. So to step from theater to film was not so hard. And it also helped too that I had Arledge.

Arledge Armenaki: Prior to Death Spa I had been the director of photography on, I think, three films. One on One, Grad Night and Disco Godfather. And I had also worked on a lot of films, as a camera operator, with Karen Crossman. She did Microwave Massacre and The Slayer. So I had some experiences under my belt, but nothing major.

Jamie Beardsley: You could tell Arledge knew what he was doing. And that he was the right guy to help us try and do something different with Death Spa.

Arledge Armenaki: I remember meeting with Jamie and Michael in the editing suite, we were all siting in directors chairs and just having a chat and it just went really well. And Michael, Jamie, they just seemed like a perfect team. Jamie is a very bubbly producer. Extremely energetic, smart as a whip. Just sharp, sharp, sharp, you know? Just a great outlook on it. And Michael, very funny, he has this sort of Cheshire cat grin. I mean, they were just wanting to make a horror film that the kids would love, you know?

Michael Fischa: We wanted the look to be very modern. Colorful. Vibrant. Just like in the health clubs at the time.

Arledge Armenaki: Robert Schulenberg—the production designer—had a very color saturated look for the film. And we were gonna shoot in an actual fitness club. I forget the exact name. The company had gone out of business, so we took over the space for a few months. The offices for the production were actually housed right there in the same place as where we shot.

Jamie Beardsley: I was able to get a good deal on the space, that made for a nice start. And one nice surprise that we soon discovered was that Betty Davis lived in the apartment overlooking our set. And she would come out some days, sit out on her balcony and just look down on us. That was always the big scuttlebutt in our production offices: is Betty out today? Is she on the balcony? Does she look like she’s going to be out there much longer? Because everyone just wanted to get a glimpse of her. And maybe, who knows, borrow a little bit of her magic.

Arledge ArmenDeath Spa: Arledge Armenakiaki

Arledge Armenaki

Magic or not, beneath the balcony of Betty Davis, production of Death Spa officially began in the summer of 1986. 

David Shaughnessy The first day I turned up, I remember walking in and there were just buckets of blood and stuff everywhere: I thought to myself: Ohhhhhh-kkkkkkkaaaaay, that’s the kind of movie this is.

Arledge Armenaki: It was a bloody mess! We had exploding heads, exploding chests, all kinds of things that were exploding with blood in them. So we had the Special Effects Team, the Makeup Team and then we had The Blood Team. The guy who headed up the blood effects was Mel Slavick and he was great. So great, in fact, that the production purchased for the camera crew these ponchos—these big yellow ponchos—that we put on and I’d put on a mask and I had booties I slipped over my shoes because there were times when we’d end up just covered in blood. That blood, literally, was raining on us at times. But what was really cool was that were in this health club and do these shots where we’d literally get drenched so the camera crew and the camera we would take off our ponchos, then someone would take them and clean up, and there were 2-3 times when I’d literally have to take off my clothes and go take a quick shower, put on a fresh set of clothes and then come back to work again. Because that blood—the formula—it would stain anything. It wouldn’t come out. So whatever clothes you wore, I would re-wash them and wear them again on the days that we were doing those explosions. Drenched in blood, blood pouring all over people.

Jamie Beardsley: We didn’t pull any punches…

David Shaughnessy: So there was a lot of blood—every frame, another splatter of blood!—but there was also a lot beautiful women.

Arledge Armenaki: There’s a whole scene where the girls at in the shower. And the tiles pop off the walls and they get hurt. Simple scene, think you can knock that off in an hour, right? But, you know, Michael was having the time of his life shooting this scene. He had 12 or so naked women that were beautiful models taking a shower in front of him, so we were shooting take after take after take. I think we were in there for about 3 hours and then finally Jamie Beardsley came in and said “that’s enough! Time to wrap this thing up!”

Fischa and Jamie Beardsley

Jamie Beardsley: What? Time was a luxury we didn’t have!

Michael Fischa: Time, I think, was the biggest challenge on Death Spa. It is the biggest challenge on every movie. To manage the time right because you always want more. You always want one more day. To get it all done on time before the money runs out.

Arledge Armenaki: But even though the film had a relatively small budget [$750,000] we were still able to do a lot of cool things. Like the opening scene.

Michael Fischa: The opening scene, maybe, was my favorite part of the film. Because it was very elaborate.

Jamie Beardsley: And it was cool. There was a style to it. It was the perfect way to bring viewers into the world that we were making.

Arledge Armenaki: The shot starts off on the Marlboro Man, which was a very famous poster on Sunset Boulevard for many, many, many years. This big, giant, iconic poster.

Michael Fischa: We had a crane and a steadicam operator on a crane, up 60 feet.

Arledge Armenaki: We had to get a construction crane in there because conventional cranes couldn’t get the height that we needed to be. And then we had to weld out a portion of basket so our camera operator fit inside. Liz Zeigler. Who, I believe at the time, was the only female steadicam operator in LA at the time. I called her the “Amazon Woman” because she was such a tall gal and very chesty. [chuckles] She had to have a special breastplate made for her steadicam, which totally thrilled the crew. But anyway, the shot starts up there on the Marlboro man and then it cranes down and you see the sign for the health club. Night time, it’s raining. And then a lightening bolt—which we did with an optical flash—goes off and all of the sudden the sign goes kazonkers. The light dims on some of the letters in the sign and, all of the sudden STAR BODY HEALTH SPA becomes… STAR   BODY   HEALTH   SPA.

Michael Fischa: And then crane went down and she stepped off the platform and we went handheld through the whole spa.

Arledge Armenaki: Which was a huge challenge, to do all that in one shot.

Michael Fischa: One mistake, we had to start all over again.

Arledge Armenaki: When Liz Zeigler was lowered on the crane the grips stabilized it by holding the crane basket and putting Apple box steps out so she could smoothly step out of a big construction crane basket down to the ground. So we had to rehearse all the lightening cues with the rain, the sign, the door opening—the exact movements of everything—so that she can glide into the health club and go into that dance room in one fluid shot. And you have to remember that, during all of this, I’m looking over the steadicam’s shoulder and following her as close as I can without getting in the way. And there’s no playback, you know? It’s film.

Jamie Beardsley: Have you ever carried a film canister, by the way? You can’t believe how heavy they are. I mean they are so flippin’ heavy I mean, it was crazy how heavy and how physical—very, very, physical—it all was.

Arledge Armenaki: So we didn’t have all the super extras that a major motion picture would have. We were an independent film. But we had just what we needed to get the job done.

And they did. Not just with the opening shot, but with the entire production. It was never easy, nor particularly pretty, but the film managed to finish on time and on budget. 

But, unfortunately, that’s when things got really difficult. 

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