There are character actors, and then there’s Bruce Campbell. With his malleable face and booming voice, Campbell has carved out his place in pop culture with charisma and just the right amount of cheese. Back in 1981, alongside two of his buddies from Michigan, director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert, Campbell made a cult film by which other cult films are measured: Evil Dead. Despite the tiny budget, Evil Dead ended up spawning a trilogy, a remake, and eventually a television series, Ash Vs Evil Dead.
Building on the foundation of the films, the series follows chainsaw-wielding antihero Ash Williams as he continues to deal with the ancient Necronomicon Ex-Mortis that has made his life a living hell, Ash Vs Evil Dead has become a show that horror and comedy fans alike can flock to and Campbell was kind enough to catch up with at the SCAD aTVfest, giving us the inside scoop on the new season of Ash Vs Evil Dead and how to keep a classic character feeling new.
So, you have been playing Ash for almost 40 years.
And you still seem to be having a good time.
Yeah, so far, because we’re trying to do new stuff with him.
Right. How do you keep things fresh?
You give him a daughter. Challenge him to defeat the ultimate evil. Challenge him to do the final confrontation. I think fans are gonna be happy with the ending of the season regardless of whether we have more. Because from experience I’ve seen shows canceled in offseasons on a cliffhanger, which was very unsatisfying.
That’s the worst.
Yeah, so, we’ve been trying to really make that season after season that if it ended, okay you tied up that part of the story. We’re doing the same thing this season. People will not be ripped off. That’s important to us ’cause I would feel pissed as a viewer. I want guys who run shows to pay attention to my feelings. Don’t piss me off. I’m glad that we did it so that we have a future, great, but we’re designed to have an “Oh, what the f*ck?” moment. We want to leave people with their jaws hanging open.
That certainly seems like it’s the M.O. of the series for now. What do you think it is about Evil Dead that keeps people so invested for so long? It’s had such incredible staying power.
It’s a little movie that could. It was a $350,000 movie, three schmoes in Michigan. Got endorsed by Stephen King, sort of duped our way out. In England in 1983, it was the number one video and The Shining was down at number 8. So, to beat Stanley Kubrick that’s pretty cool, at his own game. Horror to horror. And so, not like that’s the idea or that you can thumb your nose at that but it’s nice to be in the game. For me, funny thing is, the moment when I saw my local theater, the Showcase Cinema of Pontiac, Michigan, playing Evil Dead, the original Evil Dead, on a Saturday afternoon [I knew] that it was real. That’s the same theater where I saw all the movies as a kid. That was it. That was the moment. There’s nothing really beyond that, it was all gravy for like. ‘Cause you go, “Okay. That did it.”
Yeah. That’s definitely a tangible accomplishment. What drew you to Ash in the first place?
First of all, it’s all kind of cool that Ash is a sort of blue-collar guy, doesn’t have any money, kind of a loser. I think people can identify to some degree with a guy that’s struggling. ‘Cause there’s a lot of perfect heroes out there. I need flawed heroes. Like, in f*ckin’ season two, I think he was doing like mescaline. You know what I mean? Where do I sign up for characters like that? Rather than the “I’ll save you from the dog, little Billy” type. That’s fine but, there are a lot more goofy characters to explore out there, and that’s good ’cause hopefully, people can go, “Oh, my God, is this guy gonna do this or not?” Is he gonna succeed or not? He might not and this season the fun thing where he actually might not able to own up to it. This season we kind of broke him.
Really? That will be interesting to see.
It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to do. To have Ash just melt down. So, he’s like, “What the f*ck? Why is this me? This isn’t my f*ckin’ job, who told me? Who gave me this job? Who would want this?” It’s like the worst job ever.
Yeah, it was kind of thrust upon him in a horrific way.
It was. So, we’re Joseph Campbell-ing him in a little bit. What is his journey? His image is in an ancient book. He is special even though he’s not special at all. So, there lies the myth, the myth of Ash.
The Chosen One narrative.
It’s almost like you used to see they did some testing of motion pictures, they showed blank images of actors’ faces and they would say like, “Happy” and then they’d show a blank face and your mind would make you interpret that expression as happy, even though it’s the same expression. It’s sort of like… I was relating that to Ash in a way. I’ll come back to that. It was very profound.
I believe you. What did you find was the biggest adjustment in taking the franchise from film to television? You guys have a little bit more room to get weird with the story?
Expanding the character, expanding the world. Who is he with? Who is he partnering with? What is the association? Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Do you have the bad guy of the week? Do you have the demon of the week? There are a lot of ways to structure your show. You can do a mixed bag, some mythology but then the shit that they’re throwing at you is the bad guy of the week. Or a three-arc [appearance], like a Baal character from season two, where he’s around a little bit and he causes trouble for a certain period of time to up the stakes.
Lucy Lawless will be kind of full bad-bitch this year. She’s so good at that, and she’s just always delightful, so any chance to work with her is always good. Once we knew we were gonna do the show, I’m like, “Rob [Tapert, Ash vs Evil Dead executive producer], at dinner tonight, talk to your wife, Lucy Lawless, and tell her she needs to be in this show.” We struggled a bit giving her really good stuff to do but she’s always a trooper. And I think she likes coming home to her actual house ’cause we shoot the show in Auckland.
That’s not a bad deal.
No, because she usually travels.
Now I know you guys went through a bit of a transitioning period behind the scenes, getting a new showrunner.
We clean house every season. Our first showrunner, Craig DiGregorio, did two seasons, then Mark Verheiden did one. The trick is finding that match between what the show is and what the writer is.
Did getting Verheiden as a new showrunner have a big impact on season three?
We wanted Verheiden. I’d worked with him before. Rob Tapert worked with him before. Mark has done a lot of sci-fi writing, so we thought he was good for that mythology. I think he wanted to introduce the daughter, he wanted to have sort of a family theme, so Mark’s a veteran. He doesn’t do amateur stuff anymore.
I’m a big Battlestar Galactica fan, so I’m ready to see what he does.
He brought a lot to the table and [for] a potential season four. We just go a season at a time. You always look back when you do a season. With some directors we go, “Keep these people and jettison these people.” And the same really goes for the writers and the showrunners, ’cause you go “What did this person bring to the table? A lot. Okay, keep ’em. What did this person bring? They can write Ash’s dialogue like a son of a bitch. Okay, keep ’em.”
Other people are good at story, and then other people who didn’t really contribute much or had other issues. Turnover is part of the standard. Now, Matt Nix, I’d say, conversely, on Burn Notice, kept a very solid writers’ room for seven seasons. That’s impressive. To keep his little monkeys interested, you know what I mean? ‘Cause they all look around after a while if they’re not being interesting stuff to write. So, on their staff, I always had certain writers that I looked forward to and certain ones that I would dread because they wrote how they wrote. One guy was all tactical. “Delta team, go, go!”
That isn’t always the most interesting.
My God, you wanna hang yourself. And then there’s another guy who is just great at my dialogue so I’m going, “Oh, thank God, I now got something to do.”
I feel like Evil Dead has such a strong perspective. You know you’re watching an Evil Dead movie or the show.
Also, look, these guys have to fit into the Evil Dead world. Sometimes it’s a great fit and sometimes it’s not ’cause we’re still the bosses. We still go, “Hey, remember how we told you to write it like this and you didn’t? Well, now we’re just gonna change it because this is kind of our franchise.” So, the same thing will happen to any of our writers who sometimes don’t pay attention to what our notes are. They have to.