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An Interview with Dennis Paoli, Screenwriter of Re-Animator, From Beyond, The Dentist, Body Snatchers, Bleacher Bums, ...

by Mike Haberfelner

March 2013

Films written by Dennis Paoli on (re)Search my Trash


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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?


Stuart 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


How 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 in general?


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 Second City and Paul Sills’ Story Theater and David Mamet’s work at the St. 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, Wayne Knight.


I 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.


Re-Animator 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?


All 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?)


Re-Animator 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.


Both 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.


Both Re-Animator 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…


You co-wrote 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 Snatchers mythology. 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 starker relief.


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, beware!


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 future projects?


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 of Horror 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—BLOODY and you-can’t-stop-laughing-but-you-are-aware-you’re-laughing-at-dismemberment-right? 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, right?


One can't help but notice that most of your films are of the horror variety - a genre especially dear to you, and why (not)?


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.


As 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.


How 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.


Writers and, why not, filmmakers who inspire you?


The 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.


Your favourite movies?


North by Northwest, Psycho, Notorious, The Producers (the original), Pinocchio, La Strada, Wild Strawberries, A Man Escaped, Day of Wrath, El (This 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 Hall, The 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, Monty 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?


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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 everything.


Your 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?




Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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