John DeBello on Killer Tomatoes, Sour Grapes and the legend of Charles White

The filmmaking career of John DeBello (above, photo by Laura Embry for the San Diego Union-Tribune) began with a splat: the legendary no-budget horror spoof ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES! Ten years later he returned for three TOMATOES sequels, and served as Executive Producer on the popular animated series adaptation.

The making of the original film has been well chronicled – this oral history from BonAppetit.com is worth a read – but details about the rest of the KILLER TOMATOES franchise are harder to come by. Mr. DeBello was nice enough to take some time out from his current schedule as Principal & Creative Director at Loma Media for a chat about the sequels, the cartoon, and other tidbits from the salad bowl.

If we can start with a quick non-Tomatoes question, your 1986 comedy “Happy Hour,” aka “Sour Grapes” has an original song in the opening credits by DEVO, “I Wouldn’t Do That to You.” How’d they get involved?

One of the producers knew Mark Mothersbaugh, and it just sort of happened. I liked the song, and I worked with Mothersbaugh a little bit, but he and the producer did almost all the work on it.

When you made “Return of the Killer Tomatoes,” did New World Pictures have any reservations about the tomato-people story being a departure from the giant-tomato antics of the original?

Well we didn’t want to do the same movie twice, and the whole idea of “Killer Tomatoes” was that you could pretty much do anything with it you want, since it was essentially just an excuse to have fun, there really weren’t any rules. And New World bought into that.

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Theatrical one-sheet poster art by David R. Darrow for Return of the Killer Tomatoes

Our contact at New World who was assigned to the project had just come in off the Hellraiser series, and we were telling him how we were going to have fun with it, change it up a little, we’ve added this Fuzzy Tomato character, George Clooney, blah blah blah – and the guy looks at me and says “That’s all fine, but just don’t make it too good.” He had no idea why the original movie worked, but he just knew that for some reason people liked it. That was New World’s take on it, “Obviously this works, we’re not sure why it works, but just go for it, do what you did before.” At the time some people compared the straighter plot to Splash because it has some of the same elements, which wasn’t intentional.

Speaking of Fuzzy Tomato, F.T. quickly became one of the most iconic parts of the franchise, what inspired his creation?

I think we were just having fun with the idea of merchandising in movies, which was really just starting in the 80s. Right around the time we made Return, Mel Brooks did Spaceballs, which had similar jokes, so I guess we were thinking alike. It all sort of tied in with the joke where halfway through the movie we run out of money, and everything gets branded with outrageous product placement. Movies at that time were getting really commercial and it was getting a little bit too obvious, so we figured we’d have some fun with Fuzzy Tomato.

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F.T. as Himself and Karen Mistal as Tara in Return of the Killer Tomatoes

So he was pretty much created for that joke at the end of the film, where kids are buying F.T. dolls?

I thought so. But people liked him, so he became a recurring character. And it’s funny, we actually had a real working phone number in that scene, just to see what would happen. I remember picking up my phone one night to a three year old asking to buy an F.T. doll! And her mother grabbed the phone out of her hand and slammed it down. I thought that was hilarious.

Aside from the series producer Steve Peace returning as Wilbur Finletter, any other characters returning from the original film were recast. Do you remember why?

I don’t think there was any deep thought behind it. We thought “Well, it’s the sequel, let’s have some continuity.” But we didn’t have to be totally literal to it.

“Return” had a larger budget than the original film, did the budgets continue to increase for “Killer Tomatoes Strike Back” and “Killer Tomatoes Eat France”?

I think Strike Back was made for pretty much the same amount as Return, but Eat France was a little bit bigger. My problem was always that like most directors, if you gave me 12 dollars I’d probably want to spend 13. So we did a heck of a lot on Eat France with a very limited budget, I think it was a couple mil. When we showed the first cut at 20th Century Fox, the number two guy at the studio said to me “You know, this is funny, but you could’ve used more sight gags, like in Hot Shots!” – the Charlie Sheen movie which at the time was the number one comedy in the country, that they had just released. I said “Yeah, but our budget was two million and theirs was fourteen!” And he looked at me sort of blankly. At it was at that point I realized “Good God, this is an interesting business.”

The end credits of “Return” tease the next installment of the “Tomatoes Trilogy” as “The Killer Tomatoes Go to France.” Was it an issue of budget that kept France from being the third film?

I think it was a less a budget issue and more of a logistical one. Because the cartoon show was already running on Fox, they wanted to get something out to promote it. So it was easier to do Strike Back first, which was a much more modest effort logistically.

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Video retailer trade ad for Killer Tomatoes Strike Back! VHS tapes

What prompted the story of “Killer Tomatoes Strike Back,” with Professor Gangrene’s plan to take over the world as “Jeronahew” the tabloid talk show host?

Well in the days before South Park and instant response to whatever was happening socially, doing a Killer Tomatoes film was a way to make fun of something like the wave of talk shows at that time, which sort of preceded the whole world of reality TV. So that’s what we went after.

This may be a dumb question, but why did John Astin lose his moustache on the third and fourth Tomatoes films?

It’s not a dumb question – I have no idea! (Laughs) I can’t even recall the conversation that took place for why it was different.

Could it have been because “Jeronahew” had his own Geraldo-style moustache, and he didn’t want two moustaches?

You know what, that answer is as good as any that I could give.

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John Astin as Professor Gangrene in Killer Tomatoes Strike Back!

Any reminiscence about working with Steve Lundquist, who played Professor Gangrene’s henchman, Igor?

Steve Lundquist was an absolute pleasure to work with, a total pro and favorite of everyone on the set. After his Olympic champion swimming career he gave acting a shot, and I thought he’d be a perfect complement to John Astin. It worked out well, they hit it off, appeared in three films together, and I believe he even became an action figure per the animated series that followed. Not sure Michael Phelps can say that!

The third and fourth films brought back the tomatoes back in a big way by making them puppet characters, was that difficult?

We had some very good puppeteers working on them, certain puppets did certain things so we’d swap them out based on what they were required to do at any given time. This was just at the beginning of digital effects, when you could see it coming but it was still right on the cusp. But it was during that transitional time, and a few years before digital would become the norm in terms of envisioning things, so we still had to work with physical puppets. That’s an example of how big your eyes are versus how big your stomach is. By the time we did Eat France every single scene had an explosion or a sight gag or a puppet. When you’re writing it on the page it’s easy but it takes a lot of time and effort to make it happen.

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VHS box detail of “Viper” and “Ketchuck” in Killer Tomatoes Eat France!

When we were shooting on location in Paris we actually had all these different kinds of puppets lined up, and there’d be certain kids who’d come up and they’d be really into it, like “Wow, what’s this?” But all the kids would either be American, English, or Scottish – all tourists. There wasn’t a single French kid that was remotely interested. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing, or what. We used to laugh that if you called to a dog and said “Hey buddy” the dog would sort of just look at you with a “French look” on its face – too cool for school.

Was there any reason Steve Peace couldn’t make an appearance as Wilbur Finletter in “Eat France”?

Logistically we didn’t really have the time. He was too busy being a California state senator by that point.

“Eat France” was easily the most ambitious of the films, if only for the international location. What made you want to actually go all the way with what was initially just a joke in the end credits of “Return”?

You know, it was just because if you’re going to do a series – I don’t know, I’d get bored if I had to do the same thing over and over again exactly. Each time it was like, “Okay, what can we push or make a little bit different, or maybe surprise people? Or if they’re a fan, just give them something new?” And France just seemed like the next step. It was “out there.” I remember writing the scene with the Ben-Hur car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, typing it, thinking “Well that was easy to type” and lo and behold six months later, I’m in a camera car and we’re approaching the Arc de Triomphe going “Well I’ll be damned, we’re pulling it off!”

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One-sheet poster art (with Polish subtitle) for Killer Tomatoes Eat France!

A lot of times throughout life, and especially with Killer Tomatoes, the younger you are the easier it is to take chances because what you don’t know works to your advantage. So you just assume you’ll pull it off, and you give it a shot.

Was there any pressure from Fox to make the third and fourth films more kid-friendly, since the franchise now included a kids’ cartoon?

No, there wasn’t. But ironically we sort of self-censored because – I didn’t have kids, but Steve did, and as a parent he was very cognizant of the age range the kids were at. I would have gone more to the edge, but the animated series was successful so we made sure that we kept it – you know, there were some inside jokes and some references but we tried to keep it pretty clean. The films always had sort of a frat boy mentality to them, but nobody really saw them as trying to be offensive.

When I was a kid, I didn’t get the joke in “Eat France” about how a ménage à trois is when you use both hands.

(Laughs) Yeah, if it’s quick and the kids won’t really understand it, then it’s sort of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle thing where it works on two levels.

How much involvement did you and Steve Peace have with the cartoon series as Executive Producers?

Early on it was a significant amount, in terms of what it was going to be about and which characters would be featured. We looked at scripts and reviewed them, made some changes. Steve was probably a little more intimately involved than I was. Working with a company like Marvel Productions, you know you’re working with people that know the cartoon business, so it was a pretty good partnership.

After the first season, Tara lost her belly shirt and daisy dukes. Were there any complaints that she was too sexy for Saturday morning cartoons?

No, that was never an issue but it’s funny in retrospect. That could have been a decision somebody at Marvel made when the animation changed from the first to the second season, artistic license on their part. Also, it was a different climate. Times change.

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Tara in a different climate

After the last Tomatoes film, how did you come to direct the Lorenzo Lamas action film “Black Dawn,” aka “Good Cop, Bad Cop” a few years later?

I just wanted to try something different. People have asked if it’s a black comedy, and I’ve said “Well, in a way” because I basically said “Let me take some of the typical rules of action-adventure and have a little fun with it.” I thought it would be interesting to do. We shot that out in the desert where it’s 110 degrees in the summer, it was pushing it. But I enjoyed doing it and people have enjoyed it enough over the years to have made it worthwhile.

It is part of the John DeBello Cinematic Universe, since the TV newsman character you played in all the Tomatoes films, Charles White, makes an appearance.

(Laughs) Charles White was – I say “was,” unfortunately, because he isn’t doing much anymore, but Charles White has appeared in many films, including some films we’ve done for the Defense Department. Charles has been all over the place. He works cheap, let’s put it that way.

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DeBello as Charles White in Return of the Killer Tomatoes

Do you play him as a comedic character in the sort of films you’ve made for the Defense Department?

No, I play him totally straight. But in my mind it’s a very thin line between a typical field reporter and a comedic field reporter. To this day I watch the evening news and I just crack up, in terms of the conditioning and the brand building on the part of the reporters. Not to be too cynical, but it’s acting: you’ve gotta talk a little extra loud, be a little extra serious. And at some level it still gives me a big smile.

Probably the most common theme in your comedies was spoofing advertising, marketing and the media – does it strike you as funny that your other career has been in advertising and communications?

(Laughs) Yeah, it is funny. What I’ve found most interesting is no matter what ridiculously stupid thing we put in a movie, no matter what we could envision the edge was, within ten years reality surpassed wherever we stretched the boundary. And it’s interesting, because in my career I’ve worked with so many different kinds of companies and cultures, and sometimes they know about Killer Tomatoes, and sometimes it blows them away when two years later they find out. Most of the stuff I do now tends to be narrative-based, a lot of time it’s based on true stories, but a lot of communications work is based on storytelling. I’ve enjoyed stretching myself to both ends of the extreme.

Many thanks to Mr. DeBello for this interview! The original ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES has a new Blu-Ray Special Edition coming out January 2018. RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES was re-released on Blu-Ray Special Edition last year by Arrow Video. KILLER TOMATOES STRIKE BACK! and KILLER TOMATOES EAT FRANCE! were released on DVD in 2005 but are currently out of print. The ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES animated series has no home video release as of yet.

Mr. DeBello’s advertising & communications company is Loma Media

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