James Winburn has worked on probably half of your favorite horror or action films in a stuntman capacity – even donning the Michael Myers mechanics outfit and mask in the first HALLOWEEN – and also directing the retro horror video staple EVIL ALTER! But you can get his exhaustive list at IMDB. We’re here to talk retro slashers – and here, Jim kindly talks GRADUATION DAY (1981) with us.
Retro Slashers: What was the director Herb Freed like?
James Winburn: I did numerous films with Herb Freed. I think four films. He was a very sensitive, low speaking man that wanted respect on and off the set. He was well liked in the film community. Herb was studying to become a Rabbi in Israel, when he met a wonderful young lady that he fell in love with. But she told him she wouldn’t marry him if he was going to be Rabbi. Herb decided to be with her in America and they started their motion picture adventure together. His wife was the strength behind Herb. The crew members were hard working non-union film people. Herman Grigsby the production manager knew all the non-union people to bring on the film production at the prices IFI Scope III was paying. It wasn’t a large budget horror film. It was close to John Carpenter Halloween budget.
One critic review stated. “The crude, cheap, amateurish slasher is just about worthless.” They gave Christopher George a thumbs up for trying to save the film. But Herb Freed just smiled and cashed the checks from distribution.
Retro Slashers: What stunts in the film were you mostly involved in?
Winburn: On Graduation Day, I was the stunt coordinator. Herb Freed was going through a bad time in his life, due to his wife having just passed away.
Retro Slashers: Was the shoot fast/rushed or slow/relaxed?
Winburn: The shooting schedule of the film was four weeks. Due to IFI Scope III – a partnership of David Baughn and Herb Freed – the production scheduling was pushing hard to get all the shots that Herb wanted. The company worked six days a week, and long hours.
The first assistant director/second unit director Jan Gunderson was always trying to take over the directing for Herb. See now, Herb was not himself due to his wife’s passing and Jan Gunderson the assistant director was always trying to take over. The crew really didn’t work that good with him as a 1st assistant director. On the day that we shot the killing of the football player, Herb fell into deep depression over his wife and collapsed. He ask me to shoot that scene for him. I was setting it up and getting the actors in place with rigging of the football, when Jan Gunderson started [mouthing off over the decision]. I won out for that scene and shot it the way Herb wanted it. Needless to say, from that day on the assistant director had a dislike of the stunt coordinator. Anyway, that’s Hollywood show business…
Retro Slashers: Do you remember how the Pole-Voulter impaled on bed of spikes hidden under landing mat scene was achieved?
Winburn: The pole vaulter scene was easy, because I was a high school pole vaulter and took third place in the California C.I.F. Relays in my Junior year. Everything you saw was various camera angles from the cameraman Daniel Yarussi. Film editor Martin Jay Sadoff cut the scene great, because of the camera angles that were given to him. Good camera work helped the editor out to be a good cutter.
Retro Slashers: Who was playing the killer under the costume & fencing mask, was it the same actor (E. Danny Murphy) that turns out to be the killer?
Winburn: The actor that played the student and the killer, played student and the killer throughout the film. Herb and the actor both agreed to develop the character so he could feel the dual personality throughout the film. It really didn’t work…
Retro Slashers: What was it like working with Christopher George?
Winburn: Christopher George. What a nice guy, that was having bad luck in getting good rolls in the movies and in television. I worked with George on many films and television shows over the years. But, George’s drinking problems were knocking him out of getting better films. This film was easy and not a lot of work for a good actor. It was a walkthrough and a cheque, for a few days work. George and I would sit talk about all the various films and television shows we worked on together and on John Wayne films. We would laugh about some of the situations that occurred and how we completed those scenes laughing, which would piss off the director.
Retro Slashers: Seeing as how there were alot of athletics in film were there many accidents on set?
Winburn: I don’t remember anyone getting hurt on any of the scenes of the killing. That’s why I was there. Good prep and working with each actor through their scenes – showing them how to fall, take the impact of the rigging without getting hurt, etc. I was involved with all the action/stunt scenes in the film. Herb Freed wanted me there every day of principle photography. The second reason was that Herman Grigsby – the production manager – wanted me there to protect the company.
Retro Slashers: Where there any general problems, then?
Winburn: Yes, like many low budget films, problems are always popping up. So there are always people coming and going. Sometime it’s not the crew’s or actor’s fault when they leave. So that’s part of making these type of films and having these kind of production problems with this type of budget. Anyway, that what I remember. I had a good time with Herb, no matter what kind of problems occurred on the production. But did the check clear at the bank? Hmmmmmm…