Since pretty much everybody in his right mind would start this
interview with a question about Re-Animator
- let's talk about Bleacher Bums for a moment, which I believe is
your first recorded-on-film collaboration with Stuart Gordon, right?
and I, and several friends, made 8- and 16-mm films in high school and on
summer breaks from college. They were kaleidoscopic comedies of classic
60’s sensibility; I’m sure they are lost, and I miss them. Bleacher Bums was taped for WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station, and
closely followed the original play, which was a particularly collaborative
collaboration. Since it was built from improvisations by the actors,
Stuart, as director, the entire cast (of the brilliant actors of the
Organic Theater Company), the talented stage manager, and I, who served as
an editor/play doctor/punchline provider, all got writing credits, all of
which were deserved. It was the most collaborative collaborative process
I’ve ever been part of and turned out a terrific piece of theater.
I’ve been very fortunate to work on a number of projects that took on a
life of their own—spawning multiple productions, adaptations, sequels,
etc.—and Bleacher Bums is one
of which I am particularly proud.
It also taught me about
writing with other people, what a communal effort writing can be. Many
writers are jealous of their text, and want to keep the creative process
as proscribed as possible, to protect the product from dilution,
distraction, the immutable disaster of someone else’s imagination.
Especially a producer’s. And I understand—believe me, I understand.
But when it works, as it did with Bums,
it’s a beautiful thing
did you and Stuart Gordon first meet, and what can you tell us about your
off-screen collaborations, and your days with the Organic Theater
We met in high school;
Stuart was an art student, I was in math and science. Our first
collaboration was that we formed a comedy/satire group, The Human Race, as
high school seniors and played the coffee house circuit in Chicago. We’d
go on between folksingers. We built an audience over a couple of years and
played a few college dates. And we tried out for the touring company of
Second City, the famous Chicago improv comedy club. We’d have gotten in,
but decided to go to college instead, at the University of Wisconsin. We
were roommates and flatmates for a couple of years, by which time Stuart
was becoming, as is his M.O., infamous for his assault-the-audience
dismember-the-conventions off-campus theater. I
joined the company (Screw Theater) and helped write a couple of pieces
(e.g. Americanizing Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter).
We graduated, went to each other’s weddings, and went our
separate ways. Stuart stayed in Madison and started the successful Broome
Street Theater (which became a local institution), then went back to
(sweet home) Chicago and started the Organic Theater, laying, with
City and Paul Sills’ Story Theater and David Mamet’s work at the
Nicholas Theater, the foundations for the world-class theater scene
Chicago would become. I got a couple of graduate degrees (from Columbia
and University College, Dublin) and became an academic in New York City
(still am, at Hunter College). Stuart called me to consult on Bleacher
Bums, since he knew I was a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, and then we
adapted Beowulf into a theater piece, Night
Feast. But mostly throughout the Organic years, I was a fan and a
theater rat, hanging out with the cast whenever I visited my hometown.
Bleacher Bums was
remade in 2001, with you writing the screenplay. What can you tell us
about the new version, what has changed in comparison to the original one?
That was a collaboration with one of the producers,
who was also a writer (who was also a friend from Chicago). The play had
been revived and updated several times by the time of the film (2001), but
the adaptation for Showtime required major changes,
e.g. we couldn’t
refer to the Cubs or any of their players, adding a winking factor to the
fiction. And it needed to be “opened up” for the screen, a problematic
issue in filming stage-plays. Still it’s the story, it’s the
characters, and the headliners were great—Peter Riegert, Brad Garrett,
think the stage is sufficiently set now for Re-Animator
- so how did that project come into being, and what can you tell us about
your collaboration with your co-writers Stuart Gordon and William Norris?
Re-Animator was created in stages.
Originally there was some thought of creating a script adaptation of the
early Lovecraft stories as a TV series on the sci-fi/fantasy/horror
anthology model—the several Twilight
Zones, Tales from the Crypt,
etc. Stuart asked Bill, who had been a longstanding member of the Organic
Theater and a local director of note, to write a half-hour-long adaptation
combining elements and characters from several of the stories. In his
adaptation, Bill did much of the heavy lifting, updating the locations and
characters, setting up the dramatic situations. When a producer—enter
Brian—showed interest in the project as a feature, I was brought on to
extend the story and develop the characters. Not only had I worked with
Stuart off-and-on for decades by that time, but Gothic fiction is one of
my areas of academic specialization (still teach it). And I had written a
screenplay that hadn’t been produced yet but had been optioned—three
times. I expanded the script to feature length, and indeed was phoning in
lines while they were shooting.
has a highly ironic edge to it - how did that sneak into the movie, and
how much of the macabre humour was actually in the script?
of it. Stuart is funny, Bill is funny, and I am macabre, so there’s
that. Stuart and I had previously worked almost exclusively in comedy. And
it was the sensibility, and the industry model, of the time. You could
still break into feature filmmaking with a low-budget comedy or a
low-budget horror film. Stuart chose horror, but we never saw it as an
either-or choice. Horror and humor are categorically close, in the sense
that screaming and laughing are both releases of tension and responses to
the strange. Horror explores the amoral abyss; it is existential, absurd.
We live on the line between horror and humor, and every time the audience
laughs, they are implicated in the amorality: what exactly are you
laughing at? (On the other hand, what are we laughing at?)
was relatively quickly followed by From Beyond - so what can you
tell us about that movie and its coming-into-being?
A film adaptation of Lovecraft was a hit—make
another film adaptation of Lovecraft! Except don’t use as much blood (so
we used inter-dimensional goo) and don’t be funny (but we kinda were).
The original story is very short; we tell it before the credits. But it is
very suggestive, so we took the suggestions and ran. There was much more
in the script concerning the Lovecraftian mythology and geometry of
inter-dimensional chaos, and there were drawings for bizarre non-Euclidean
sets, but they were cut before shooting. I am quoting myself when I say
that it was the craziest movie we could make for the budget. But I think
it is suitably disturbing—or unsuitably disturbing.
Re-Animator and From
Beyond are based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, to whose oeuvre you and
Stuart Gordon have returned time and again over the years. So how
important would you rate Lovecraft for your work as a writer, to what
extent has he inspired you? And quite simply, why did you return to his
stories quite that often?
H.P. Lovecraft is one of the great, embarrassing
geniuses of American Literature. Intellectuals have a hard time with Poe,
but Lovecraft sends them crawling under the bed. He is one of the most
important literary impressionists (quoting myself again) in our literary
history, and while he’s not Henry James or Stephen Crane, he’s a
master of the artform. But film is more readily expressionistic than
impressionistic, so our adaptations have to show
the grotesques that his prose impresses on and dredges from our
imaginations. So we work to be faithful to the spirit of his work, to make
each adaptation an appreciation of his genius.
and From Beyond were produced by legendary low budget producer
Charles Band, for whom you have written quite a few scripts over the
years. What is it like working for him, and what are the advantages and
challenges of writing low budget genre movies?
Working for Charlie was fun; he’s a fan and up for
almost anything. Most producers get to “no”—or in our case,
“NO!”—much more quickly than Charlie did, and he said “Yeah!”
with more genuine joy. Many critics dismiss genre films as limited, but
Charlie lets you explore the genre at your will, and we haven’t found the
limits yet. But low budgets are limits, and you get to “no” pretty
quickly sometimes on your own. It’s the difference between imaginative
and inventive; we had to be inventive to get as much of what we could
imagine on the screen as the budget allowed. But the talents that Charlie
recognized and gave chances to—the effects and make-up artists, the DPs,
the editors—were always up for the challenge. I’ve been fortunate in
my life to go through a number of institutions, organizations, and
collaborations in which I met and worked with terrific, talented people,
and working at Empire
Studios, and Full
Moon, was one of those
experiences. That said, I’m still waiting for Charlie to get back to me
on an issue or two…
the screenplay for Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers, which is of
course a remake of the 1950's sci-fi classic Invasion
of the Body Snatchers. What were the challenges of updating such
an iconic movie the way you did?
We co-wrote the
screenplay for Stuart Gordon’s Body Snatchers,
but given the vagaries of Hollywood, Abel Ferrara was hired to direct it.
And he did his usual excellent, visually bold, powerfully stylish job. He
brought his favored writer, Nick St John, onto the project, and he changed
the main male character and his relationship to the female lead, which I
thought was a shame (much of the humor and sense of adventure was lost),
but he solved several plot problems we admittedly finessed with sharp,
effective scenes that heightened the menace. And we were working from a
script by Larry Cohen in the first place.
We’re proud to have contributed to the Body
It explored identity anxiety, with a political perspective (50’s
conformity, fear of communism, etc.). We wrote our script during the time
of advent of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military,
so it addresses that identity issue, as well as focusing the drama on a
family, which should provide a stable identity, but rarely does. And
making the lead a teenager threw the insecure-identity theme into even
I’m proudest of the scene in which the children hold up their
finger-paintings. That’s the scariest scene in the film for me. Artists,
Brian Yuzna's The
Dentist - want to talk about that movie and your collaboration with Mr
Yuzna for a bit?
Brian is the true
believer among us; he’s the real fan. Stuart and I have wide-ranging
interests and a broader production history than most people are aware of.
Brian hews close to the bone (and if we have a funny bone, we must have a
horror bone). Not that his tastes and intelligence aren’t multi-faceted
and keenly aware, but when he chooses to work, his truth north is horror.
He’s a participant-producer, by which I mean he has good ideas, a
collaborative spirit, and respects the process. He makes films he produces
better. And he makes good films, in any—make that every—capacity he
works in. He’s a fearless producer, with strong convictions, and the
same adjectives apply to his work as a director.
The Dentist was
originally a real-time script, meaning the action took place over just
about the same amount of time as the running time of the film. We observed
the unities! That aspect of
the story didn’t make it to the screen, but the tension and
claustrophobic terror it created persevered into the final cut. I had
written a story about a mad dentist for a creative writing class in
college, and it was great fun to revisit the subject. Who doesn’t fear
going to the dentist? Turns out there are deep-seated anxieties in being
a dentist as well. Somewhere in the back of our consciousness, as we stare
into a bright ceiling light, is the high-pitched whine of a drill…
Of late, you have also scripted two
episodes of the instant cult series Masters
of Horror - want to talk about your episodes for a bit, and how does writing
for TV compare to writing a feature film?
Loved both of those projects. We had considered Dreams in the Witch House several times when approached about
adapting a Lovecraft story, but it is about infanticide, which is a taboo
in the business. But Mick Garris and Showtime
assured us that we could do
anything we wanted, and crazier still, let us. And aired it. (They did
not, though, air Miike’s Imprint.) As in our previous Lovecraft
adaptations, we updated it, but we did have to cut a flashback to the
origin story of the witch, Keziah Mason, in 17th century
Arkham. Basic cable relaxed the rules of censorship, but not the economics
of airtime. Still, it was a privilege to bring Brown Jenkin, one of
Lovecraft’s most perverse creations, to the screen.
The next season we did a project which had long been incubating in
Stuart’s imagination, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. He saw it
as a portrait of the artist, Poe, imagining in the despair of his last
years the events that occur in the story, living the tale in a visionary
blurring of real life and hallucination. The adaptation worked so well,
and Jeffrey Combs’ performance was so rich and compelling, that we
can’t let the character go. We’re still working with Poe.
Any other films of yours you'd like to talk about, any
We’ve been working in the theater again for the
last few years, and it has been a happy homecoming. First, inspired by the
experience of The Black Cat, Stuart and Jeffrey asked if I could
write a one-man Poe show, presented as a public reading of his famous
works given in his last desperate months. I adapted Poe’s work, taking
lines from letters and obscure magazine pieces, as well as including some
of his greatest work—The Tell-Tale Heart and The
Raven—added a few connecting passages and punchlines, and edited it
all into an evening with America’s maddest, and most melancholy, and
most entertaining literary genius. I feel as if I collaborated with Poe,
an exhilarating, and harrowing, experience. Jeffrey’s performance is
sublime, even better than in the Masters
episode, and the piece has played to standing ovations
across the country and in Canada.
Then, Stuart and Bill and I adapted Re-Animator
as a book for a musical. This is perhaps Stuart’s maddest idea—and it
worked! Spectacularly. With Mark Nutter’s eccentric, ecstatic, perfectly
pitched score, the show is bloody hilarious—bloody and
hilarious. And it is Re-Animator;
it tells the story faithfully. The show is a hit, has traveled
internationally and been revived—I don’t think you can kill it. If any
story has a life of its own, it’s got to be Re-Animator,
One can't help but notice that most of
your films are of the horror variety - a genre especially dear to you, and
I guess most kids love horror, and I love being a
kid. I was a math and science geek as a boy, so I loved sci-fi, and that
led to horror. I mean, there’re always monsters out there in space, and
then they’re here on earth, and then they’re in your neighborhood, and
then they’re in your body! And I had a runaway imagination; if I could
think it, it could happen. I remember, clearly, walking home at night down
the middle of the street after seeing Psycho—I
needed to be in the light so I could see Tony Perkins coming—after me!
It could happen! And it was
the great age of double-features, American
International and Hammer
films, Vincent Price [Vincent
Price bio - click here], giant grasshoppers, and the Blob. Who didn’t love horror?
How did you get into writing as such in the
first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?
I never took a screenwriting class or seminar or read
a book on screenwriting. I learned how to build scenes and characters from
performing, and I learned how to write in school. I have been told my
screenplays are as error-free as any, and more than most, a point of
pride. But I think I can write because I began at a young age doing it for
pleasure, writing mad little stories and madder meditations. The object
was to make myself laugh. I have to thank Stuart for offering an audience
other than myself that I respected, and I have to thank my collaborator,
Greg Martinelli, on the first screenplay I ever wrote, for a TV film
called Mortal Sins (with Christopher Reeve), for teaching me to imagine in
screenplay format and to be a responsible writing partner.
far as I know, you presently run the writing center at Hunter College, New
York. So what can you tell us about that aspect of your career?
I have been especially fortunate to work at the City
University of New York during the greatest experiment in public higher
education in history: open enrollment and free tuition. Lasted less than a
decade, but it created the idea of education for all. I still try to be
faithful to that idea in my academic work. The Hunter College
Reading/Writing Center is the tutorial service for all students in all
courses at the college, from basic writing to dissertation writing. I
oversee and develop the Center’s pedagogy and the tutors’ professional
development. All the tutors are students at the college and they are
invariably super people—smart, principled, and willing. It’s a
privilege to work with them. When I am working on a script, my work at the
Center reminds me of what is real, and of real worth. When I finish a
screenplay, it is as likely to be compromised—by budget and schedule
restraints, by opposing visions—as it is to be fully realized. When a
student who came for tutoring walks out of the Center, they know a little
more and write a little better, every time. It’s a joy to create
stories; it’s a joy to be of service. And I’ve found that one kind of
work clears my mind for the other; that was lucky.
would you describe yourself as a writer, and any one-line advice you'd
like to give to young, aspiring writers?
I am a hack, and proud to
be in the community of hacks, the purveyors of pulp, the explorers of the
low-rent back streets of the imagination. I am a collaborator, privileged
to work with the smart partners whose visions I’ve been fortunate enough
to share. I am an editor; I edit my emails.
Whenever I give advice,
I also advise people never to take my advice, but here goes: Read the best
and listen carefully; live inside sentences; keep creating characters
until they talk back to you.
why not, filmmakers who inspire you?
lists are too long, but at the top are Joyce, Stephen Crane, George Eliot,
and Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Huston. Wait! Arthur Miller, Pinter, and
Stoppard. And, of course, Donne, Coleridge, Keats, and Richard Wilbur.
Shakespeare! I left out Shakespeare! And Fellini! And Bergman and
Polanski…and Joseph Heller and Paddy Chayefsky and Mel Brooks…and
Emily Dickenson and Dostoyevsky and Beckett and Brian Friel and Dennis
Potter—Lovecraft goes without saying, right?—Sterne, Poe (!), pick a
Bronte, Fitzgerald, Flann O’Brien, Wilder (writer and
filmmaker), Preston Sturges, John Ford, Kurosawa, Dreyer, Bunuel, Lean,
Antonioni—Bresson, Bresson, Bresson—did I say Bresson?—sure, okay,
Spielberg—Malick, Scorsese, Cronenberg, Argento, Miike, and, ya know,
Orson Welles. And Gaspar Noé. There’re more.
North by Northwest, Psycho, Notorious,
Producers (the original), Pinocchio,
La Strada, Wild Strawberries, A Man Escaped, Day of Wrath,
Strange Passion), The Seven
Samurai (and The Magnificent
Seven), Throne of Blood, Lawrence of Arabia, Once Upon
a Time in the West, The Wild
Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Annie
Three Musketeers (Richard Lester’s), Paths
of Glory, 2001, The Searchers, The Maltese
Falcon, The Great McGinty, Sunset
Boulevard, The Bicycle Thief, Invasion of the
Body Snatchers (the original), Dracula (the Hammer
version), Mothra, Repulsion, Dead Ringers, Alien, Jaws,
Woodstock, Mean Streets, The Conversation, Halloween…there’re more (like the early Fred and
Ginger films, Capra at his best, some Jimmy Stewart westerns, a couple of
Willam Castle classics, Goldfinger, Savage Messiah, The Ruling Class,
Python and the Holy Grail…and there’re more), but these are the
ones I stop and watch when they’re on TV, or that I miss when I
haven’t seen them in a while.
... and of course, films you really deplore?
Feeling lucky ?
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?
The links below
will take you
Pompous films that present as radical but that
ultimately appeal to a bourgeois sensibility, like Titanic and Inception
(sorry—really liked Terminator
and Memento); empty, craven
romance, like the Twilight
films; needless sequels and remakes that assault the memory of terrific
originals (like Payback—though
we couldn’t resist doing Body Snatchers,
which was a sequel to a remake); those late-50’s-early-60’s throw a
bunch of stars together to dilute the story and distract from the lifeless
direction movies, like Around the
World in 80 Days (no fun) and It’s
a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (not funny); Guess
Who’s Coming to Dinner? (I saw the poster and guessed right; and I
guess I don’t like Stanley Kramer, though he produced The
5,000 Fingers of Dr. T); the last (Keira Knightley) version of Pride and Prejudice (every other version is good). There’re more
(like the Lethal Weapon series;
gimme Dirty Harry any day—oh, yeah, add Don Siegel to the “inspire”
list—and Sam Fuller). And Tim Burton’s Alice
in Wonderland—a great disappointment from the director of a film
that belongs on the “favorite” list above: Ed
Wood. “Pull the string! Pull the string!” Lewis Carroll belongs on
the favorite writers list, too (and for a film version of the Alice books, stick with the Disney). There’re more—of
website, Facebook, whatever else?
I hardly ever check my Facebook page; I think my
status is still “Busy.” I don’t have a website, but I will as soon
as no one uses the internet any more. Whatever.
Anything else you are
dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?
for the interview!