By Jonathan Marlow and Patrick Mathewes
October 27, 2003 - 6:12 AM PST
Stuart Gordon's film career was spectacularly launched in 1985 with the release of the instant cult classic, Re-Animator. Its wild combination of gore, sex and outrageous black comedy had a similar re-invigorating impact on horror cinema as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead had almost twenty years before. Gordon had already been a taboo-breaker long before he made Re-Animator. In 1969, he staged a controversial psychedelic version of Peter Pan presented in the nude at the University of Wisconsin. He then founded Chicago's Organic Theater, where he served up groundbreaking plays such as David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. A friend who was in Chicago at the time characterized the Organic Theater's productions as being like live comic books. Gordon has brought that same vivid style to his film work, adapting memorable versions of classic horror and fantasy author's tales (Poe, Bradbury and Lovecraft). In fact, he has become the premiere cinematic interpreter of Lovecraft's imagination with four adaptations so far. His latest film, King of the Ants, manages the same sort of visceral shock and dark humor that he has long been associated with, while steering away from the supernatural.
Patrick Mathewes and Jonathan Marlow caught up with Stuart Gordon at the recent Seattle International Film Festival where King of the Ants premiered. As always, he proved to be a very gracious and entertaining (and talkative) interview subject.
Jonathan Marlow: I guess we can start at the beginning. How did you initially come to do the Lovecraft duo at the beginning of your film career, Re-Animator and From Beyond?
Stuart Gordon: Re-Animator started with a conversation I had with a friend of mine. At the time, there were all of these Dracula movies that were being made, vampire movies, and I was saying, "I wish somebody would make a Frankenstein movie because I'm getting tired of all of these vampires." And this friend said, "Have you ever read Lovecraft's story 'Herbert West, Reanimator'?" I had never heard of it and I thought I knew Lovecraft pretty well. I started looking around for this story and I couldn't find it anywhere. It was not in any of the collections; it was out-of-print.
I was living in Chicago at the time and I finally just went to the public library. It turned out that they had a copy in their reserve collection. I had to fill out a little card to request it, then waited for months - I think it was six months - until they sent the card back and said that I could come but I could only read it at the library. You couldn't take the book out. When I got there, they handed me a pulp magazine - it wasn't even really a book. The pages were yellowing and crumbling and I thought that I'd better Xerox this thing 'cause it might fall apart in my hands as I'm reading it.
I read these stories. He wrote it as a serial, in six installments. I thought, "Maybe this could be a TV series," and developed it as a half-hour program. We wrote the first half-hour and we set the original version in the period. The stories start in the late-1890s and go all the way through to the 1920s. I started taking it around and people said, "A half-hour series isn't going to work right now. We really need an hour." So we took the second story and added it to the first. People said, "What about doing it as a feature?" We thought that maybe we could just tack the third story on. Around that time, a friend of mine introduced me to Brian Yuzna, who had been developing a project but it had fallen apart. He had raised money to do a film...
JM: Do you remember what that film was?
SG: It was based on a underground comic book by Kim Deitch. Do you know his work?
JM: I do. Yeah.
SG: It was three short stories, like an anthology thing. They were all Kim Deitch stories. My friend, Bob Greenberg, was supposed to direct it but, when the thing collapsed, he suggested that Brian meet me and take a look at the Re-Animator project. When I showed Brian what we were thinking about, I showed him the hour script and said we can always add the third story to make it an hour-and-a-half, he said, "No, I think that you should add all of the stories." [laughs]
Patrick Mathewes: He wasn't thinking "sequel" then.
SG: That's what I said. I said, "What about the sequel?" He goes, "Let's not worry about that. Let's just make this the best movie you can." Throw everything in, the "kitchen sink" theory. That's what happened.
JM: At what point did you decide to set it in the present?
SG: I think when we did the one-hour version, we had moved it into the present day.
JM: In that version, were you already adding the element of humor. Obviously the Lovecraft...
SG: Well, there is humor in Lovecraft. In Re-Animator, the big line is whenever anything goes wrong, he always says, "Well, I guess he wasn't fresh enough." [laughs] That's Lovecraft's thing. What I also did, when we started developing the script, is I did a lot of research. I went to the Cook County Morgue and met Dr. Stein, who was the chief pathologist there, the coroner. He had a very sick sense of humor. I had never seen any dead people except at funerals, after they'd been embalmed and painted up and everything. I walk into this place and the first thing that hits me is the smell - a dead cats kind of smell. Dr. Stein sort of walks me down this corridor and there are these large refrigerator doors and he just throws one open after the other. Each one of these is packed with dead bodies, literally stacked on top of each other.
JM: These were unclaimed cadavers, basically?
SG: Yeah. They were people who had died and were brought to the morgue, some people who still had tubes stuck in them who died in an operating room or whatever. It was an incredible thing. We walked to the end of the hallway and he said, "Well, you're still standing." [laughs] "I think you're ready for the Rose Room." This is the room where they keep the bodies that were dead for a long time before they find them, including one guy that they fished out of the Chicago River, who was this bloated thing. That was my first inkling that these pathologists - it turned out that I met a bunch of them - all have really twisted senses of humor.
JM: I guess you'd have to.
SG: Exactly. You can't do a job like that unless you can keep a sense of humor about it.
JM: How did you get Jeffrey Combs involved in the project? I think he added something very special to the part.
SG: He did. He was great. He just auditioned. My casting director knew him from his theater work and thought he would be right. It's interesting because Jeffrey is not at all like the way that Herbert West is described in the story. In the story, he's described as blonde, blue-eyed, something of a Hitler Youth type. Someone who looks very innocent but is actually a maniac. Jeffrey Combs has dark hair but he had the attitude.
PM: It's very true to the spirit of Lovecraft.
SG: Yeah. As soon as he came in and read for me, I knew this was the guy. I stopped auditioning.
PM: Prior to doing Re-Animator, on the stage with the Organic Theater at the University of Wisconsin, did you do any horror plays?
SG: I did. A couple of them. I did a play called Poe which was based on the life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe which I still think would make a good movie. People keep talking about wanting to do a Poe movie but nobody has ever done it.
PM: One of the things that I find strong throughout your movies is that humor/horror dichotomy that's always going on.
SG: There were some funny things about it. When I was directing theater, I used to do a lot of comedies. The worst thing in the world is when you have an audience that comes in there and they're heckling. Just sitting there like, "Make me laugh." Trying to get a laugh out of an audience like that is like pulling teeth. With horror movies, you've got an audience that wants to laugh. They don't want to be scared. What I learned is that laughter is the antidote to fear. Audiences at horror movies want to laugh so I figure, "Great, let's give them something that they can laugh at."
PM: It also seems to be something that carries on with repeat viewings. The shocks lose their shock after the first couple of viewings but the laughter continues on.
SG: It's funny because Hitchcock always talked about Psycho as being a comedy, which I couldn't understand for a long time. What you're saying is true. If you see it five times, you start picking up on little jokes in it.
"I thought I knew Lovecraft pretty well.""I kept waiting for somebody to make a live action big robot movie."
"He's this very haunted figure."
"A lot worse than any horror movie."
"It's a good surprise for the audience."
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Jonathan Marlow and Patrick Mathewes
Jonathan Marlow occasionally writes but more regularly reads. He frequently makes little-seen films of varied durations when he isn't watching (and criticizing) the work of others. Marlow is also a composer of some repute, although he would probably deny it.
A new arrival at GreenCine, Patrick Mathewes formerly resided in Seattle where he was Inventory Manager at Scarecrow Video during its formative years. Later, he programmed and projected films at the Grand Illusion Cinema, where he hosted notable film directors such as Takashi Miike, Alex Cox and Stuart Gordon.
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