Written by: Christopher O’Neill on April 16th, 2010
With his cinematic debut Re-Animator in 1985, Stuart Gordon instantly proved himself to be a filmmaker with a unique style and vision. Now quarter of a century old, the picture still shocks with its graphic violence and splatter effects which are infused with a jet-black sense of humor which simultaneously enhances the sense of brutality yet makes it too absurd to be truly offensive. This disarming mixture, along with a strong control of working within limited budgets and a deft handling of actors, puts Gordon head and shoulders above many other directors working within the horror genre.
Having forged a filmography that includes such off-kilter classics as From Beyond, Dolls, Castle Freak and Dagon, Gordon has recently changed tact and gone from such fantasy-based pictures to a series of films characterized by what he calls “The banality of evil”. King Of The Ants (adapted from a novel by British writer Charles Higson) and Edmond (based on the controversial stage play by David Mamet) are dark, shocking and thought-provoking pictures that put ordinary people into extreme situations where they respond in the most horrific yet plausible ways.
His last feature film Stuck follows the same pattern and is all the more disturbing because it was inspired by a true story which took place in 2001 at Fort Worth, Texas: An intoxicated young woman was involved in a car accident where the victim went through the windshield and the driver continued home, parked her car in the garage and left the man, still stuck through the windshield, to die. Gordon has taken is taken this event and created a film that may be his masterpiece. In Stuck Mena Suvari portrays the driver while Stephen Rea is the accident victim and they both deliver magnificent, multilayered performances that must rate as among their best work on celluloid. With solid support from Russell Hornsby, Rukiya Bernard and a wickedly funny appearance by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, plus a solid screenplay by John Strysik, Stuck cannot be praised enough and deserved wider distribution than the token mini-theatrical releases that it received in America and Britain.
For the third Motelx film festival in Lisbon, Stuart Gordon was honored with a retrospective of his work and the director was in attendance to introduce the movies. It was here I met Gordon, a charming, intelligent and humorous gentleman who, for the benefit of my Dictaphone, introduced himself by saying “My name is Steven Spielberg”.
Chris O’Neill: With your most recent feature films you have veered away from the fantastical and into a reality-grounded kind of horror. What brought about this change?
Stuart Gordon: It was quite gradual. It started with King Of The Ants which is a book my friend George Wendt brought it to me and said “If you like this, I’ll option it”. I read it and I was completely blown away because it was about an ordinary guy who is hired to kill someone and I kept thinking at some point he was going to change his mind but he actually does the murder, yet somehow you end up still caring about this guy. I said “George, we’ve got to make this movie”, so we got the writer Charlie Higson to adapt the book into a screenplay and took it to every studio in town but they all said: “This is totally amoral, I don’t think we can do this movie”. I started realizing things that happen in real life are far more disturbing than the things that people dream up for horror stories.
Chris O’Neill: Beyond the horrific elements with these films you are also able to explore issues such as race, gender, class and sexuality. Is this something that appeals to you?
Stuart Gordon: Yes, it does. All these things are interconnected, that’s the thing you realize about life. You know, someone may say “You are making political movies now” but I never thought of these films being political but because they are about society, they are. All three movies are about ordinary people who end up doing terrible things and these things happen, you read about them every day in the newspaper.
Chris O’Neill: What is most impressive about Stuck is that it expands on a true story both to further explore the moral issues at hand and to invest in characterization.
Stuart Gordon: We did several drafts where we did follow the story closer to what actually happened, but what we realized was we wanted this character to become active. The question we started asking ourselves was did the guy realize what was happening to him and did he try to escape and to get out of this situation. Suddenly, this made the story open up into a whole new dimension that was exciting to us, so we went in that direction. I think it was Joshua Logan, a stage and film director, who said in his autobiography that the protagonist always has to change, that the events that happen in the course of the story has to change this person’s life in a major way. With the character that Mena Suvari plays that was the case and by opening up the idea of the Stephen Rea character becoming active, then it came through for him too. What we ended up with I think is interesting since we now have a story with two protagonists. It becomes this life and death struggle between the two of them and they are both sympathetic in their own ways.
Chris O’Neill: King Of The Ants, Edmond and Stuck are tautly paced and tightly scripted, recalling film noir of the 40s and 50s. Do such pictures influence you?
Stuart Gordon: Well I love those movies. With King Of The Ants I was aware that it was sort of a ‘noir’ story but while I was making the other films I never quite thought of them that way but it’s true, they do follow that pattern. One thing that I learned, even before I made them, is that movies should be very compact and economical and shouldn’t have any waste. Part of this is because when you’re working on a low budget you don’t want to shoot anything that you don’t have to, so you keep honing that script down to what exactly is essential to make this movie work.
Chris O’Neill: By doing so you learn more about the characters by having them respond to situations rather than through dialogue.
Stuart Gordon: Yes, you discover who they are by their actions. My writing partner Dennis Paoli always likes to tell me about how when he’s on an airplane he watches the movies without buying the headphones, since you should be able to follow the story completely without any dialogue and I think that’s really important. That’s one of the things about movies that I like, it’s really about action.
Chris O’Neill: Stephen Rea has a physically demanding role in Stuck, throughout the film I kept being reminded of the fly-in-the-spider-web from the 1958 version of The Fly.
Stuart Gordon: Well Stephen was always joking “I know my lines for today – ‘Help me! Help me!’” He is incredible and I have to say it was a dream come true to work with him because he’s been one of my favorite actors for so long and he really responded to the material. One of the things that was interesting was that it turned out that both he and the writer John Strysik are huge Samuel Beckett fans and Stephen actually worked with Beckett. There was something about this story that he could relate to it in Beckett terms with characters buried up to their necks in sand and so forth and this is kind of like that. Stephen also knew that it was going to be a very uncomfortable role to play, I mean he was literally in that windshield day, after day, after day when we were shooting and I think he really appreciated the spareness of it all.
Chris O’Neill: Your films are rich with moments of black humor, what are your thoughts on this?
Stuart Gordon: My films always end up being funny and I often describe them as comedies. I think King Of The Ants is funny, and Edmond is funny. I would have meetings with studios executives and they would go “What is funny about this?” and I’d give them a couple of examples. A friend of mine once said, “Life is too important to take seriously”.
Chris O’Neill: It is almost 25 years since you made your first feature Re-Animator, how do you think the film holds up today?
Stuart Gordon: I look at it and I’m pretty proud of the way the film came out. One of the things I didn’t realize at the time when I made it was it was one of those rare situations where everybody was making the same movie and everybody was really giving it their all. Brian Yuzna, the producer, says it was “beginner’s luck” because it was our first film and I thought all movies were going to be like that, but we soon found out how incredibly lucky we were.
Chris O’Neill: Is it true you are involved in a fourth Re-Animator film?
Stuart Gordon: I was, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen. It was called House Of Re-Animator and it took place in the White House! The plot involved re-animating Dick Cheney’s corpse, which was the basic idea. Bruce Abbot was going to come back, we had William H. Macy lined up to play George Bush, we were even talking about Barbara Crampton doing Laura Bush which would have been interesting, and George Wendt to be Cheney. We had an amazing cast, but we couldn’t get the financing for it. I think people were afraid of offending the Bush administration. Now, thank god, those days are over but the idea of doing another Re-Animator movie was appealing.
Chris O’Neill: What ultimately makes the Re-Animator films so successful is Jeffrey Combs, he is such a versatile actor who can adapt to and play any role.
Stuart Gordon: He’s a total Chameleon. We were doing Masters Of Horror (The Black Cat, in which he played Edgar Allan Poe) and when he was in his Poe make-up he didn’t look like Jeffery, he didn’t sound like Jeffrey, he was Poe. There was one day when we were staying in the same hotel and he got into the elevator with me and he looked like this sort of redneck character and after a few minutes I realized “It’s Jeffrey Combs!” He’s amazing in his ability to become all these people. I’m working with him now doing a live evening with Edgar Allan Poe and it’s just astonishing what he does and what a fantastic actor he is. One of the things I learned doing theater is when you find someone whose work is great and you’re on the same wavelength that you should hang onto that person and not let go.
Chris O’Neill: What is the concept behind the Edgar Allan Poe play, Nevermore?
Stuart Gordon: It set in 1848, the year before Poe die, and during that time he was doing recitals in big auditoriums and reading has poetry, so it’s based on one of those evenings with Poe dealing with what he would have called “The imp of perverse”. There was always something in him that had to destroy whatever it was that he was doing so he starts drinking heavily during the course of this recital and all hell breaks loose. Jeffrey is just astonishing. It’s a one-man show, although there are other characters involved in the story the only one that we see is Poe.
Chris O’Neill: Finally, you are here in Lisbon for a retrospective of your work at the Motelx Film Festival: how do you feel about being at this festival?
Stuart Gordon: Well it’s funny because when they do retrospectives it usually means that you’re dead, so I keep pinching myself!
(Special thanks to Nadia Sales Grade for arranging this interview)