by Rich Rosell
Stuart Gordon, legendary director behind the 1985 H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Re-Animator, has been entertaining horror fans for years with a steady stream of darkly memorable films, such as Dolls, From Beyond and The Pit and the Pendulum.
dOc had a chance to sit down with Stuart Gordon during a recent film festival in Chicago, where his latest Lovecraftian film, Dagon, made its midwest premiere. Gordon sets the record straight on theater, Peter Pan, similarities between Honey! I Shrunk the Kids and Re-Animator, as well as working in Spain.
dOc: There's an infamous story that I've heard about you that involves a racy version of the play Peter Pan that you were involved with while you were in college that got you arrested on obscenity charges. Is that an urban legend or is that true?
SG: It is true. It was a production of Peter Pan at the University of Wisconsin in 1968, which was the same year as the Chicago Democratic Convention. I had been protesting against the war in Viet Nam, and got tear-gassed by the Chicago police, and it suddenly struck me that you could take Peter Pan and turn it into a political cartoon about the whole situation. So, Peter Pan became the leader of the hippies and yippies, Captain Hook became Mayor Daley, and the pirates became the Chicago police. We left all of the James Barrie dialogue intact, so when they all went off to Neverland they sprinkled pixie dust on themselves and think lovely thoughts, and up they go. That was an acid trip, which was visualized by a psychedelic light show that was projected onto the bodies of seven naked young ladies, that sequence got me and my wife arrested. They told us that it was obscene, and that we had to close the show. We felt that it was a violation of free speech, and so we performed anyway and were arrested for it. It was a serious charge—obscenity is a felony offense—and we were facing ten years in prison if convicted. Luckily, our defense attorney discovered that the guy who had brought the charges against us was a convicted child molester, and as soon as that information was passed along to the District Attorney, the charges were withdrawn. So it had a happy ending.
dOc: You're best known as primarily a horror director, but I think a lot of people might not be aware that you were co-founder and artistic director of the Organic Theater (in Chicago). How long were you there and how did that prepare you for the leap into directing films?
SG: Actually it comes right out of the Peter Pan story. My wife and I started the Organic Theater in Madison, but we were harassed there by local law enforcement who were upset that we'd gotten away. I'm from Chicago, and I came here to visit family, and while I was here I went to Lincoln Avenue. There were two new theaters that had just opened, one was The Body Politic and the other was The Kingston Mines. Paul Sills, who ran The Body Politic, knew of my work and said, "Why don't you guys move here, they'll leave you alone. If there's three theaters, we can call it a scene." So we did. The Organic came to Chicago in 1970, and I was artistic director here until 1985 when I went off to Los Angeles to do movies.
dOc: Meaning Re-Animator?
SG: Actually Re-Animator was done in '84, and released in '85. When I finished Re-Animator, I came back to Chicago and did more theater, and we took one of our productions to the Goodman Theater. Then Re-Animator became a hit, and I was offered a three picture deal, so we moved to L.A., and as soon as we got there they told us, "Yes, it is a three picture deal, but we want you to shoot the movies in Italy."
dOc: Well, they could have saved you a step if they had told you earlier. How did shooting the films in Italy work out?
SG: It was great. From Beyond, Dolls and Robot Jox were the three I did under that agreement.
dOc: A lot of your more well known films have a direct influence from H.P. Lovecraft, if not being outright based on his stories. When did you first discover his writings and how did you decide those were the stories you wanted to film?
SG: I started reading Lovecraft when I was a teenager, and his stuff always scared me. It's very disturbing. What got me started with Re-Animator was when I was talking with someone about the fact that they were making all of these vampire movies, and I said, "I wish they would make a new Frankenstein movie." This friend then said "Have you ever read the Lovecraft story 'Herbert West, Re-Animator'?" I had never heard of that story, so I was kind of intrigued. I discovered it was out-of-print, and I finally ended up going to the Chicago Public Library and found that they had one copy of it in their rare books collection. I had to fill out a postcard to request it, and six months later I had the postcard sent back to me saying I could come and see it, but I could not take it out of the library. When I got there what they handed me essentially was a pulp magazine, which was how it had originally been printed. It was so old, and the paper was so cheap, that it started crumbling in my hands as I started turning the pages. I asked them if I could Xerox it, and they let me do that. I was knocked out by these stories. He wrote them as a serial, as six short stories. Each story is only about two pages long, and he sold it to a magazine called Home Brew. Lovecraft sort of disowned the stories, I think, because he was actually being paid to write them. He considered himself an artist, and didn't like the idea of doing work for hire. They were ideal movie stuff. Unlike a lot of Lovecraft's stories, they were very action-packed and very graphic. None of this "It was too horrible to describe, and then I fainted." He laid it all out there, so we were able to take those stories and jam them into a movie.
dOc: Is there a dream Lovecraft story you'd like to do? I know your latest film, Dagon, is a combination of a couple of Lovecraft stories as well.
SG: Dagon is that dream Lovecraft for me. It's my favorite story. It's actually based on two of Lovecraft's stories: Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and Innsmouth, I think, is my favorite Lovecraft story of all time. It took us fifteen years to get it made, but finally it's on the screen.
dOc: Are you overly critical or analytical of any of the other Lovecraft films that have been made, like The Dunwich Horror or Die, Monster, Die?
SG: I haven't seen them all, I'll admit. I did just buy the DVD of The Dunwich Horror, which I'd never seen before, and it was pretty interesting to watch. I thought it definitely had some great moments, and I thought that Sam Jaffe really captured Lovecraft. There's some sections of it that are pretty terrific, but that film was influenced by the success of Rosemary's Baby, so they were trying to turn it into a clone of that.
Some of the early Lovecrafts that were filmed, they tried to pass off as other things. The Haunted Palace is actually a Lovecraft story called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and was done by Roger Corman with Vincent Price starring in it, and they tried to pass it off as an Edgar Allen Poe story. Lovecraft was not very well known in those days, though I think his popularity has been increasing over the years. I think some of the more recent Lovecraft adaptations have been terrific—my favorite is The Resurrected, which is also based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It was done by Dan O'Bannon a few years back, and has a very Lovecraftian feel to it, particularly during the flashback sequences, which really captures the mood.
Of the movies that are being made nowadays, I think it's hard not to do something that's Lovecraftian. His work is just so imaginative. I even think that The Blair Witch Project was very Lovecraftian is structure and tone; though it wasn't a Lovecraft story, it still had that feel.
dOc: I think Lovecraft is still one of those writers who has a growing group of core fans, but I feel he is still not largely a household name.
SG: If they don't know his work, I think they know his name. When people start talking about horror writers he's one of the names they will mention. It's also really interesting that in the last few years they have started publishing his work in, for example Penguin Classics, not as pulp horror stories or collections, but as literature that is very heavily footnoted. There's some really great new editions of Lovecraft that are coming out, so he's being taken very seriously now. He's being compared very favorably to Poe, who was Lovecraft's hero.
dOc: I imagine it has to be fairly rewarding to see Re-Animator get yet another high quality DVD release.
SG: Yes it was. Another thing I should mention, since we were talking about publishing, was that after the movie came out they republished the stories. That was something I always felt good about. Now people don't have to go to the library—
dOc: —to get a crumbling copy. That also has to be satisfying because, in essence, you are helping get one of his stories back in circulation.
SG: It was one of his lost stories, and I think the movie helped people rediscover it.
dOc: Did you have any idea back in 1984, when you were doing Re-Animator, did you have any idea how successful it would be?
SG: Not a clue. When we were doing the movie, I was hoping horror fans would like it, but that was really about as much as I was hoping for. I had to basically assume that critics would hate it, and I wrote them off, and instead it went on to win a critic's prize at The Cannes Film Festival. It's all been a great surprise. A lot of luck was involved, like finding the right cast. Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Bruce Abbott all just showed up at an audition, and the chances of that happening is such a rarity. I didn't even realize it at the time—because it was my first film—just how lucky I was. It was a great experience.
dOc: You weren't involved with Brian Yuzna's Bride of Re-Animator. Did you want to separate yourself from the franchise?
SG: It was a couple of reasons. One was that I didn't really want to do a sequel, and the sequel would have to be R-rated. The first film was unrated, so I felt like that if you going to try and top Re-Animator you can't be wearing handcuffs. You have to have the license to kill. Secondly, I was doing another movie at the time, which was The Pit and the Pendulum, and so I was pretty busy.
dOc: Now that it's some years later, do you ever contemplate doing another chapter in the Re-Animator saga?
SG: Well, I do have an idea, which I've been trying to encourage Brian to do. Brian is about to start the third Re-Animator film in Spain, which is called Beyond Re-Animator. I do have a project I'm calling House of Re-Animator, for which the poster is a picture of the White House, with a light in one window with a green glow coming out of it.
dOc: You and Brian wrote the story for Honey! I Shrunk the Kids. How did you get a deal with Disney after Re-Animator?
SG: They were kind of nervous. It was after Re-Animator had come out, and our kids were complaining that they couldn't see these movies that we were making. We came up with the idea for Honey! I Shrunk the Kids, and took it to Disney. They liked it, and we developed it for them. We got Ed Naha, who wrote Dolls, which we had done together, to write the script. I was going to direct, and did all the planning and worked out the special effects, and two weeks before it started shooting I got sick and couldn't do it. They got Joe Johnston to direct the film, and I was pretty pleased with the results.
dOc: Disney. Re-Animator. Disney. Re-Animator. Those two don't seem to go together.
SG: It's funny. When people talk about [Honey! I Shrunk The Kids] they say, "It's so different." Really, it's not that different than Re-Animator. It's about a mad scientist and an experiment that goes wrong, and so forth.
dOc: A little less bloodshed? A few less severed heads?
SG: Yes, but the potential for severing some heads was there, when you have a giant ant coming at you with those big mandibles. Who knows what could happen?
dOc: Let's talk about the new film, Dagon. What were some of the challenges of filming in Spain?
SG: This movie was the most difficult one I've ever done. The problems with language, which could have been a big problem, really weren't. I was the only American on the production, other than Brian, who was the producer. The entire crew was Spanish, as was the cast—except for Ezra Godden, who was English and did the whole movie with an American accent. The biggest problem with that movie was the water. We decided early on that we wanted the movie to be as wet as possible: shooting in constant rain, out on the ocean in boats or inflatable rafts, and then doing underwater photography, which I'd never done before. It was incredibly, physically demanding. We also shot it in December and January, so it was freezing cold as well, and luckily no one got sick or hurt, and no one complained. This crew was amazing, and so were the actors; Ezra and Paco Rabal sort of set the tone very early on, and if they didn't complain, how could anyone else?
dOc: Was the village in Dagon shot in a studio or on location? That's one of the creepiest looking places I've ever seen.
SG: No, it's a real village. The production designer, Llorenç Miquel made it look extremely creepy, by boarding up some of the windows. It's actually a very charming place on a sunny day. But, when it's overcast, there's definitely a very foreboding feeling about it.
dOc: As I was watching Dagon, I kept thinking that if the sun came out, and it stopped raining, maybe all those spooky things that were happening wouldn't seem so bad.
SG: It was the only movie I worked on where if it was sunny, we couldn't shoot.
dOc: What was the shooting schedule on Dagon?
SG: Eight weeks. We started in November of 2000, and finished in February of 2001, and then almost a year of post-production.
dOc: I had read that Paco Rabal, who played Ezequiel, passed away in August of 2001. Was he at all ill on the set?
SG: He was kind of frail, although he was a big guy, and he was having problems with asthma, or some sort of pulmonary problems. He was not in the best of health, but he was very game and we tried to protect him as much as we could while we shot. But there were sequences where he just had to be out there in the freezing rain. As I understand, he had just been in Montreal at a film festival where he'd been honored, and was flying back to Spain when he started having breathing problems on the flight. They had to make an emergency landing in France, but it was too late.
He never got a chance to see the finished film, either. He was an amazing man, an incredible actor. To the Spanish, he is like one of their greatest actors. He goes back to the days of working with Buñuel, and his career is just amazing. He's won all sorts of awards and prizes at Cannes. Everyone was so amazed, they kept saying, "Why is he doing your movie?" "How did you get Paco to be in your film?" The answer was that Paco was a big fan of Lovecraft, and the first time we met we spent about three hours talking about Lovecraft.
dOc: Was it difficult to convince Raquel Meroño [who plays Barbara in Dagon] that she was going to be shackled and dangled nude as part of her role?
SG: She had never done a nude scene before. She's a big television star in Spain, so for her to do this was very brave, and also very physically demanding. She is really a strong character, and very much like the character she plays in the movie. When we were shooting the sequence where they're in the inflatable raft, the sea was incredibly rough and the waves were huge. It was like The Perfect Storm. They would be going up and down, and out of the frame. I was getting nervous, because it was the real actors in this raft that we had taken half of the air out of, because it's supposed to be sinking, and filled it with water. It was starting to rain, there was a storm coming in, and we were thinking maybe this is not a smart thing to be doing. But Raquel, as the waves were lifting her up and down, started whooping like she was on a rollercoaster ride, and putting her arms up in the air. Everyone started laughing, so we knew it was cool, so we were able to get the scene done.
dOc: Dagon comes out on DVD in July of 2002. Are you involved with that at all? Are there going to be any extras?
SG: It's going to have a lot of extras on it. I did two commentaries, one with Ezra Godden, and one with Dennis Paoli, the writer. There's also going to be storyboards, which are kind of animated, which is fun. There will also be some of the original production designs for the film, which are very strange and interesting. It's going to be a nice DVD.
dOc: Do you prefer to direct material that you write, or is that a non-issue?
SG: I like to develop things, that's fun, but it doesn't always have to be that way. The film I'm doing next was written by Charles Higson, and it's called King of the Ants, though it's not about giant ants. It's a kind of crime story, like Reservoir Dogs, based on a novel he wrote, and he adapted it into a screenplay. If it's a good script, I'm there. I'm ready to do it.
dOc: Other than King of the Ants, what else is in the future for Stuart Gordon?
SG: I should also mention that I executive-produced a film called Death Bed, which is directed by Danny Draven. It's about a haunted bed; it's a very scary film. It's due out in late August or September.
dOc: What are your opinions on the current horror film genre?
SG: I think horror is always going to be alive an well. It's one of the most popular—if not THE most popular—genres in existance. There's been some great movies done in the last year or so, like The Others, which I thought was fantastic. There's also some great work being done in other countries. There's a movie that Miramax is going to put out later this year called Darkness, which I think is going to be great. I love the Japanese horror films being done now, like Audition and The Ring. The Ring is being remade for American audiences.
dOc: I hope The Ring is not drastically changed when it's released stateside.
SG: Yes, I hope not. I dislike it when Americans feel they have to redo a film because they don't want to look at subtitles. Those movies (The Ring and Audition) are scary as hell.