Marc Sheffler Interview
From The Last House on The Left to The Love Boat!
by Lee Sobel
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is a notoriously gritty and gruesome horror movie released in 1972 that has the raw realism of movies like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and even has someone getting killed with a chainsaw two years before Tobe Hooper made it a fashionable thing to do. LAST HOUSE launched two filmmakers who would go on to be among the biggest names of horror movie makers in the 80's and beyond: Sean S. Cunningham ("Friday The Thirteenth") who produced LAST HOUSE and Wes Craven (the "Nightmare On Elm Street" and "Scream" franchises) who made his directorial debut on LAST HOUSE.
Shot on grainy 16mm blown up to 35mm and made on a budget of only $90,000, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is a brutal movie that Wes Craven always seemed ambivalent about, realizing that it unleashed from his mind a violent dark side that in some ways he felt went too far. That said, the movie is great and if you like scary horror movies, you should check it out. Originally titled NIGHT OF VENGEANCE, it was released under the titles SEX CRIME OF THE CENTURY and then KRUG & COMPANY until it came out yet again as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT with its famous tagline, "To avoid fainting keep repeating it's only a movie. Only a movie..." It was also remade in 2009.
Sadly the director of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, Wes Craven, passed away in 2015. Stars from the film that have also passed away include David Hess who died in 2011 and Fred J. Lincoln in 2013.
Marc Sheffler was a young upcoming comedian when he made LAST HOUSE at twenty-one years old and soon after its release he tried his hand at screenwriting and had instant success, leading him to writing scripts for major network sitcoms. Marc has also continued to do standup comedy over the years and here we are nearly 50 years later and
Marc is still talking about the movie he made called THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT which has become one of the all-time cult classics of the horror genre.
Lee Sobel: You were doing standup comedy in NYC prior to THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, correct?
Marc Sheffler: I grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to New York when I was nineteen. When I told my dad that I was going to drop out of college and move to New York to make it as a comedian in show biz, unlike most fathers, my dad was totally for it. But he said, "Go to the Catskill Mountains first and work there for a while." So I ended up bullshitting my way into stage managing for one of the nightclubs there. I spent a year working there and I became friends with a lot of the comedians, one of whom was a comic named London Lee. His entire act was based on being a rich kid, which he was, and I became his road manager. I also became part of his act and wrote jokes for him. I ended up doing two weeks at the Copa in New York, and I'm probably one of the only remaining comedians alive who did standup at the Copa. Right after that I got cast in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.
Lee Sobel: Didn't you meet the Three Stooges when you were a kid?
Marc Sheffler: For my tenth birthday, my dad hired The Three Stooges who I was a big fan of. They brought me on stage with them and because I knew all their bits I started interacting with them. Moe Howard dubbed me "the fourth Stooge" and I knew right then that I wanted to get into show business.
Lee Sobel: Do you have any funny memories of making THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT?
Marc Sheffler: Originally the script for LAST HOUSE had pornography in it and I knew there was no way I was going to do that so we got the whole cast together and convinced Wes and Sean to drop that from the movie. To his credit, Wes went back and rewrote the script into the movie as we know it.
Lee Sobel: How did you get along with the other cast members?
Marc Sheffler: Freddy (Fred J. Lincoln) was a sweetheart, wonderful man. In fact, he was responsible for a lot of the staging and blocking of the movie. It was Wes Craven's first movie as director and while Wes had a great story sense, he lacked the practical experience that Fred had because Fred made a lot of porn movies. Porn movies are made just like any other movie so Fred knew about cameras and lighting and how to block a scene.
Lee Sobel: For years Fred said THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was a piece of shit.
Marc Sheffler: Fred's problem with THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was that he never got the credit or the acknowledgment
for the depth of his contribution to the movie. For a lot of the key scenes in the movie, Freddy told Wes how to shoot them so he had lingering feelings about that for a long time. Fred had congestive heart failure for the last ten years of his life. He wasn't physically in great shape. We used to talk a lot and stayed in touch. Three days before he died he called me up and said, "I'm calling to say goodbye." I asked him where he was going and he said, "Fuck if I know, but I'm stopping all the medical care and all the treatments so whatever is going to happen is going to happen." Three days later his daughter let me know that he passed away.
Lee Sobel: The acting in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is very real and raw.
Marc Sheffler: Wes Craven wanted the movie to feel like you were raising the curtain on a horrific crime as if you were looking through a window and seeing something real. The fact that the cast were all unknowns helped to make it seem like we really were those people and you were watching a bizarre documentary. Also Wes let us work out some bits that allowed us to improvise. We understood what the scene needed and would come up with stuff. The scene where I do the "ribbit" with Jeremie Rain just came to me and I did it and Wes kept it in the movie. The chemistry of the cast of any movie is so important. Where Wes Craven struck gold was that David, Fred, Jeremie and I really fit
together as the "anti-family" family. We were structurally like a real family but at the same time we were the bizarro version of it.
Lee Sobel: What was it like seeing the movie for the first time?
Marc Sheffler: We saw an answer print of the film about two or three months before it was released at a screening house. David Hess, Fred J. Lincoln and I walked out of it and said, "Nobody's ever going to fucking watch this!" The three of us had become great friends and it was fun but we were ready to move on and then when it opened Roger Ebert gave the movie a great review and it took off. David Hess and I would occasionally go see the movie when it was playing in theaters, looking
for women. The audience at showings of the movie that I went to were at the same time repulsed and captivated by it. They'd never seen anything like it. It had such in-your-face violence that had never been shown before. One of the things about the movie when it opened was that suddenly women who wanted nothing to do with me were suddenly all over me and I thought, "Wow, I made the right career choice!"
Lee Sobel: Did you like the movie?
Marc Sheffler: It took me many years to really get THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Years after making it I watched the movie for the millionth time and the dinner scene finally clicked
with me that the movie was about class warfare. That's the pivot scene in the movie -- it's the scene that lays bare what the narrative of the film is.
Lee Sobel: I heard that when the movie was going to be released on home video that Wes and Sean had a hard time putting together a print of the complete movie. Apparently so many of the prints had scenes cut out by projectionists who felt the movie's violence went too far. Do you remember any scenes from the original version of the movie that got lost?
Marc Sheffler: There was a scene where Sadie played by Jeremie Rain disemboweled Lucy and pulled out her intestines -- that I don't believe made it into the final cut.
Lee Sobel: Do you go to fan conventions and have you met any interesting fans?
Marc Sheffler: Yes I do the conventions. David Hess got me into it. I went to one and made $600 in one day and Hess and I said, "We should be doing this all the time." I then got an agent who books me into conventions. It's been fun. You're the center of attention and people are buying stuff from you. Also once I started talking to people, I found out that some of the younger fans had parents that made them watch the movie. I began to see this cross-generationality of it where parents would be handing it off to their children who would then hand it off to their children because it's a cautionary tale: this is what happens if you make wrong choices in your life.
Lee Sobel: Have people asked you about the concerns of audiences who have gone to the movie and its detrimental effects of seeing such violence?
Marc Sheffler: I've done panel discussions where we talk about this and my response is, "Can you tell me what movies Adolph Hitler or Attila the Hun watched?" So, no, I don't feel that watching movies has an adverse effect. I don't think that people commit violence because they see it in a movie. If they commit violence it's their predilection but I don't think they do it because of the film.
Lee Sobel: Wes Craven seemed ambivalent about the violence in the movie when he talked about it in interviews -- like he felt he may have gone too far.
Marc Sheffler: Wes had a love-hate feeling about the movie. It was his first movie as a director when he knew the least about filmmaking. As his career progressed and he became someone who had a very substantial career in movies, it bothered him when he would hear from critics that LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was the best movie he ever made. Wes was a sweet man and I saw him at an event about a year before he passed away.
Lee Sobel: What are your memories of living in New York City back then?
Marc Sheffler: I used to have a joke about when I lived in New York City in the late sixties. I was very health conscious and every day I would run five miles: three for my health and two for my life. It was pretty dangerous in the city back then but I hung out with David Hess from THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and we shared an apartment together. Because his face was on the poster all over the New York subways when the movie came out and people would move away from him when they saw him, it was like having your own private army with you. Nobody ever messed with David Hess, ever.
Lee Sobel: What was the comedy scene like in your early days of doing stand up?
Marc Sheffler: There were two comedy worlds that coexisted back then in New York and they were interconnected somewhat. There was the kind of hip, avant-garde side with comedians like Lenny Bruce, Robert Klein and David Steinberg, and then you had the very traditional Catskill Mountain comedian situation. Luckily I was able to dip my toe in both of those worlds. I did about 200 club
dates with London Lee but at the same time I was doing standup at The Improv. I became friends with the owner of The Improv, Budd Friedman in the late 60's and then even better friends with him when I moved to L.A.
Lee Sobel: What made you move from New York to L.A.?
Marc Sheffler: I sold the first script I ever wrote and got an agent at William Morris. My agent also arranged for me to do standup on a Monday night at The Comedy Store in L.A. So I went to check out comedians at The Comedy Store before doing my act and I shit my pants because it was a whole different kind of comedy. It wasn't that Catskill Mountain rhythm. So I had to write a brand new set and I became a regular within three weeks.
Lee Sobel: You went on to write the movie DU-BEAT-E-O (1984) and for numerous sitcoms including THE LOVE BOAT, WHO'S THE BOSS? and CHARLES IN CHARGE. That world is pretty far away from THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Did people you met as a writer connect you with the movie?
Marc Sheffler: It would come up now and then and people would comment that I was nothing like the character I played in LAST HOUSE, Junior Stillo.