“These days, studios are very afraid of
anything that’s new.”
One of my most surreal film experiences was watching RE-ANIMATOR with my grandmother. I was just a stupid kid, but whenever I visited, she’d let me rent any damn thing I wanted. Grandma wasn’t crazy about horror movies – or “Spooky-Doos,” as she called them – but she’d nonetheless sit on the couch with me, chain-smoking like Dennis Leary, and watch whatever crap I happened to pick up at the nearest Mom ‘n’ Pop Shop. I will never forget the moment David Gale was holding his own decapitated head between Barbara Crampton’s exposed thighs. Grandma, never missing a beat, took a long drag off her Winston Light and exclaimed in her thick southern drawl, “I never did like these here Spooky-Doos!”
Thanks, Stuart Gordon!
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: Last week we spoke with Diane O’Bannon, the wife of legendary screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and she told us you’re working on a script written by her late husband. I was wondering if you could talk a little about Dan O’Bannon, his work, and what established him as one of the best screenwriters of our time?
STUART GORDON: Well, Dan O’Bannon was a genius. I got to meet him back in the eighties, and he was quite a character. The first time I met him, a friend of mine brought me to his apartment. We knocked on the door and it took a long time for anyone to answer. Finally, there was this voice on the other end going, “Who is it?” We told him who we were, and then heard about twelve locks being unlocked. And then the door opened and he was just standing there, wearing a bathrobe – this was around three in the afternoon – and he’s holding a taser in his hand, which was the first time I had ever seen one of those. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a raygun or something. He explained what it was, exactly what it could do, and that all he had to do was shoot an intruder and then plug it in. He could have the guy on the floor convulsing while he called the cops. He was a strange fellow. He kept his apartment super air-conditioned, so it was freezing in there. We had a wonderful talk, and got to be friends. When he married Diane, and had Adam, they came over to our house several times for barbeques and things. He was just a terrific guy. The most incredible imagination of anyone I’ve ever met.
DG: What do you think about his work that makes it so timeless – such great movies?
SG: Well, he really understands what scares people, and he always used to say that he would start with himself and whatever were the things that would scare him. He would always take a fresh take on everything. I remember him talking about ALIEN and, in most movies, the monster wants to eat you. But he came up with the idea that the monster wants to reproduce with you. Actually, it doesn’t even want to reproduce with you really, it just wants to use you as a host for laying its eggs, essentially. He was basing that on nature. He said that the things that you find in real life are much more disturbing than anything that you could dream up. That idea, I thought, really was unique: the idea that they were just using the humans as hosts for their reproductive function.
DG: Right, that sounds fascinating. And now, from what I understand, the project is called THE MEN, and were you surprised when Mrs. O’Bannon brought it to you? What is your take on the project? Can you take us a little bit into that?
SG: Brian Yuzna and I were hanging out with Dan one day and he just starting talking about this idea. He hadn’t even written it yet. It just knocked us out; we thought it was just such a funny idea. We worked with him on it for a while – for like a year, I think – while he was developing outlines, and did a draft or two. Then, for some reason, he decided this might be a project he wanted to direct himself, and so he kind of withdrew it from us. I guess he was unable to get it set up at a studio, unfortunately. When he passed away, I was at his memorial service and I was talking to Diane about that script and she said, “You want to take a shot at it? Get it made?” and I jumped at the chance.
DG: Is this a sure deal? Is this something that’s going to happen?
SG: We’re pursuing it. We’re talking to producers. It’s looking like it may happen – be shot in Europe. That’s one of the things that’s shaping up right now. We don’t have a start date yet, so it’s still not 100%.
DG: Ok. Are you still working on a film entitled THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP?
SG: On and off. That’s a project I’ve been trying to get made for a long time. Looked like we were getting close there a couple of years ago, but unfortunately, things kind of fell apart, so we’re starting over again. It’s a great script, written by Dennis Paoli, who wrote all of the Lovecraft movies that I did. He’s my writing partner. We go way back – all the way to high school together. Gosh, we’ve been trying to get it made for almost twenty years now.
DG: Wow. That’s amazing. That’s some diligence on your part, sir.
SG: Well, DAGON took fifteen years to get made. The thing about Lovecraft is that his ideas are so bizarre that it’s not your typical vampire movie, or something that studios would understand. They’re much more posh and unique. These days, studios are very afraid of anything that’s new. It seems like all they want to do is remake things or sequels.
DG: Your fascination with Lovecraft goes without saying, and a lot of his themes provide a strong undercurrent to your work: insanity, an impending sense of doom, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Is that a challenge as a filmmaker – conveying somewhat abstract ideas visually?
SG: I think, in some of Lovecraft’s stories, he gets very specific about things, and there are some where he’s very abstract, or vague. I think it’s about choosing the right story. There are some of his stories that are very clear, very action-packed, and those are the ones that I gravitate towards.
DG: Now, if we can step back a little bit, can you tell us a bit about the first film that changed your life – that made you say, “Wow, this is why I want to get into movies!”?
SG: I think the first film I ever saw was called THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, which was a circus movie. I must have been about four years old when I saw it. My response to it was it made me want to become a clown. But the movie that really changed my life was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. I got very excited about that film and the idea of making movies. You know, realizing that you could get across some really complex ideas in film. That movie changed my life.
DG: When people like me are bothering you, what movie do they bring up the most? I think I know the answer, but thought I would hear it from you…
SG: (laughs) RE-ANIMATOR has become my middle name. I’m cool with that. I think if it weren’t for RE-ANIMATOR, I wouldn’t be making movies. I’m always happy to talk about that film, but I like it when I get questions about some of the other movies that I’ve done as well.
DG: That’s kind of a follow-up for me. Is there a film that you dig, or may have fell undeservedly under the radar?
SG: The one film that I really wish had gotten a better release was a movie called THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT, which is so different from the other movies I’ve done. It’s not a horror film at all. It’s a comedy, and it was written by Ray Bradbury. I had a chance to work with Ray on the film. He wrote the screenplay. We produced it for Disney studios, but it never really got a good DVD release, unfortunately.
DG: I did read up a little about that film, but I must have missed – I don’t know how – that you collaborated with Ray Bradbury. What was it like working with him?
SG: He was fantastic. He had written the script and it was a beautiful. It was like poetry. As a matter of fact, he wrote it not in the typical format of a screenplay at all. There were no breaks for scenes. It was like he was describing the finished film. I told him, “Ray, in order to budget this and schedule it, we’re going to have to break it into scenes.” He said, “Oh, sure. Of course. Go ahead.” I did, and showed it to him. He said, “What did you do to my script?!”
DG: I would be terrified if I brought something to Ray Bradbury and he said, “What did you do to this?!”
SG: He was very funny. Sometimes I would suggest ideas, changes and things, and he would say, “Stuart, I’m the tailor that made this suit; I know where all the buttons are supposed to go”- which I realized was the nicest way that anyone had ever told me to go fuck myself.
DG: (laughs) I’m assuming you didn’t argue very much with him, right?
SG: No. We’re still great friends. As a matter of fact, I just saw him a couple of days ago and wished him a happy ninety-first birthday. Ray told me he feels that THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT is the best film that’s ever been done of his work.
DG: Well, now I’m going to have to go watch THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT. That’s on my to-do list. Now, looking at your writing resume, we have: RE-ANIMATOR in 1985, FROM BEYOND in 1986, and then HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS in 1989. I wanted to know if you caught anyone off-guard with such an abrupt transition.
SG: Well, you know, I always say I don’t think it’s that abrupt of a transition because I think HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS is a horror movie. I really do. It’s about a mad scientist, and his experiment goes terribly wrong. The kids are being attacked by giant insects. It has all of the earmarks of a horror film. It’s just that the tone of it is more family-friendly. We wanted that movie to be scary. We wanted the audience to be worried about those kids. I think that’s the reason it was successful; there’s a lot of tension in that movie.
DG: You know, I never thought of it that way, but now that you mention it, you can actually take Rick Moranis out and put in Jeffrey Combs, suddenly it’s a horror movie.
SG: Absolutely. I mean, Rick Moranis is great, and I like the comedy that’s in the film, but we really wanted the sense of danger. There are moments in there where you think they’re not going to make it.
DG: Speaking of Mr. Combs, you once said that the whole process of making a movie really hinges on having a great cast. Of course, I think Jeffrey Combs is an extraordinary actor, but you guys work with each other – A LOT. Does he have incriminating photos of you, or is he simply the De Niro to your Scorsese?
SG: (laughs) Every director has his favorite actor. Jeffrey’s one of mine. We are on the same wavelength about so many things that we can almost read each other’s minds now. So it makes working together very easy, and fun. He can do anything, he can be anybody. He’s a chameleon really, so he’s always surprising me. I’m always amazed at the stuff he comes up with.
DG: It has always perplexed me as to why he never got that much mainstream success. I know he was in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but mostly his work is a little left of mainstream. You think that’s just a choice of his, or . . .?
SG: Jeffrey has really become today’s version of Vincent Price. He’s a genre actor. There’s a certain group of people – Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney – these are people who are giants of the world of horror, and I think Jeffrey is one of those people now. I think he would’ve liked it if he could get into some big studio pictures from time to time, but he’s constantly working. He’s constantly doing really interesting stuff. I think he’s pretty pleased with his career.
DG: I do love his work. I know he starred in another Lovecraft adaptation that you were once attached to, called THE LURKING FEAR, in ‘94. Stuart Gordon, Jeffrey Combs, Lovecraft – it sounds like a sure thing, and suddenly you see C. Courtney Joyner take the helm. Could you tell me maybe what happened?
SG: I think it was a project that originally we were talking about doing for Empire Pictures, which was Charlie Band’s company before Full Moon. I think when Empire went down, that project kind of ended for us. But Charlie had always wanted to do an adaptation of THE LURKING FEAR, and I think that’s what he finally did – getting Courtney to direct it in ‘94. Courtney went in a very, very different direction than we were planning to go. We were thinking of actually making it a period piece, and having Lovecraft as the main character in it. The main character is a writer of horror stories. It’s almost like Lovecraft describing himself.
DG: Jeffrey Combs has already proven himself, being able to play Edgar Allen Poe, so I’m assuming he could probably do justice to Lovecraft as well.
SG: He actually did play Lovecraft in a movie called NECRONOMICON. It was sort of a wrap-around story. The movie was directed by Brian Yuzna, and several other directors. Brian directed the framing story, which was about Lovecraft going to the library and reading the Necronomicon.
DG: Keeping in line with collaborations, I’m a huge fan of your work, obviously, and also of David Mamet’s – but your respective filmographies are, in my opinion, pretty different. How did you end up collaborating with him on EDMOND?
SG: David Mamet and I go way back. As a matter of fact, I produced and directed the first professional production of his work on stage, which was Sexual Perversity in Chicago back in 1974. So we met each other when Mamet was just beginning as a playwright, and we stayed friends throughout the years. I had seen Edmond when it was first done on stage, and thought that it would make a great movie. I’ve been pestering David ever since and we finally got it to happen a few years ago.
DG: Making sure you have a wonderful cast definitely starts with getting somebody the caliber of William H. Macy. I really love his work.
SG: He’s just amazing. It was a part he’d always wanted to play too, and had never actually done it onstage, which was very interesting to me. William Macy also is a very old friend, back from our days of doing theatre in Chicago.
DG: Speaking of writers, is it frustrating to see your words interpreted by others? In that vein, is it frustrating when you’re actually directing the film, because I’m assuming there are some logistical issues that play a hand in what transpires between the page and the screen?
SG: Usually, when I’m directing, I’m able to keep things pretty close to what I had in mind. When you write something and you end up not directing it, sometimes things go in directions that you never expected, which sometimes can be good and sometimes not so good.
DG: I’ve read that you were given carte blanche to do what you wish when making the Masters of Horror. How does contributing to an anthology like that compare to the restrictions of feature filmmaking?
SG: Well, actually, it was very much like making a feature film. When I do a feature film, I’ve got the final cut. So I’m able to do what I want to do.
DG: You don’t get a lot of studio interference, or anything of that nature?
SG: No, not lately. Not in the last fifteen years, really. I’m pretty much able to do what I want to do. That was what made that series so wonderful. In television, it’s usually the opposite. In television, the director is really just a hired gun, and it’s really the producers that control television – producers, who are usually the writers of the shows themselves. What made Masters of Horror different was that they let the directors have the power, and that really was spectacular. It was great to work on that series, and to hang out with some of the directors who I idolized. It was great to be able to meet them and to get to know them as friends.
DG: You mentioned television, and I was going to ask if the transition was tough when you did EATER for Fear Itself – which I loved, by the way. I loved the claustrophobic police precinct – the feel to it. Working on NBC, though, I know you can’t really go back to a lot of your standard tools.
SG: No, and that was really kind of rough, because NBC was very worried and very scared and nervous about the idea of doing horror on network television. I had to fight for every drop of blood that appeared in the final cut of the film.
DG: When Stuart Gordon goes to the movies, is there a director – or anyone currently working in mainstream cinema, I guess you’d say – who excites you? Or did you see anything good at the theater lately?
SG: There are several directors whose work I really like. David Fincher is one. I think he does fascinating work and I loved THE SOCIAL NETWORK. I thought that was a great film. It should have won the Best Picture, I believe. I like P.T. Anderson a lot. I wish he did more movies. I love the work of Alex de la Iglesia, the Spanish director. I saw his most recent film (Ed. Note: THE LAST CIRCUS – great movie, Bastards!), which was hilarious and very twisted. And I love Gaspar Noe. I just saw ENTER THE VOID, which I thought was an absolutely mind-boggling movie.
DG: His movies intimidate me. I’m almost afraid to go see them. They seem to push the boundaries of film itself.
SG: He does great work, and I love IRREVERSIBLE. I think that’s his best film to date, actually.
DG: Is there an anecdote or a fact that never gets touched on during these types of interviews, something you’d like to pass along – maybe a Grindhouse exclusive?
SG: Well, we were kind of talking about movies that kind of blow our minds. The one that blew my mind last year was A SERBIAN FILM, which I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie yet, but it really goes beyond anything you’ve ever seen before. I met the writer and director at a festival last year. They told me that my films inspired them to make that movie. I couldn’t have imagined what they meant until I saw it.
DG: That’s another one I just read about. I don’t know if I have the constitution to put up with it.
SG: It’s really, really powerful. It’s extremely well-made, and it’s about something – it really is about Serbia. It’s about the atrocities that the Serbs did during the Bosnian war. It’s really making a very strong political statement.
DG: Do you see yourself collaborating with the gentleman who made A SERBIAN FILM at some point?
SG: Well, that would be cool. I’m looking forward to see what he does next. He’s a very, very interesting filmmaker, I think.
DG: That movie, along with films like THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, kind of take me back to the glory days of VHS – the Video Nasties – the ‘we dare you to watch’ kind of movies. It seems like we’re kinda going back to that era.
SG: Isn’t that what horror is supposed to do?
DG: Exactly. Especially considering mainstream fare like TWILIGHT. I’m not going to get on a rant about that, but it just seems like movies aren’t dangerous anymore. You have nothing to fear when you sit down in the auditorium and the lights darken.
SG: It’s always been those little movies – that were done independently and for no money – that are the ones that blow you away. Movies like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or EVIL DEAD – those are the kinds of films that come out of nowhere, and the filmmakers are ready to do things that you’ve never seen before. That’s what I like about people who are still making those kinds of movies.
DG: The fringe films, the dangerous films – I think that’s what the horror genre is all about. I think you’re absolutely correct, sir. Finally, I was going to ask if you have any projects you want to plug or anything you want to let our readers know about before I let you go?
SG: I just finished working on Re-Animator: The Musical here in Los Angeles. We’re hoping to take that on the road soon. Maybe that’ll be coming to a theatre near you some time soon.
DG: I live in Nashville, and something cool like that very rarely comes by. So if you could pencil that in, I would be forever in your debt.
SG: Also, I should mention that we’re talking to the public library in Nashville about bringing our show Nevermore, which stars Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allen Poe, sometime next year. We will be bringing something to a theatre near you.
DG: And we will plug away on the site. Anything we can do to help. That’d be great. It sounds awesome.
SG: Yeah, it is. He’s amazing as Poe. He played Poe in the Masters of Horror episode THE BLACK CAT. He looked so extraordinary that I really felt like I was hanging out with Poe. He came up with this idea of doing a one-man show, live onstage. We’ve been doing that for the last couple of years. We did it in honor of Poe’s bicentennial in 2009, and it’s still running.
DG: Do you have any thoughts about the upcoming film with John Cusack as Poe? I believe it’s called THE RAVEN.
SG: John Cusack’s a friend of mine, and I’m curious to see what he’s going to do with Poe. It doesn’t seem like they’re really sticking to the facts about Poe’s life. It’s kind of a fantasy inspired by Poe’s work. But sure, I’m curious about it. I look forward to seeing it.
DG: I love his work as well. He really made 1408. That was kind of a one-man show, and he pulled it off with flying colors.
SG: That’s a great movie.
DG: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today, sir.
SG: It’s a pleasure.
DG: Thank you, Mr. Gordon.
Special thanks to
for her transcription services!
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