An Interview With Stuart Gordon

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Just over a week ago I was lucky enough to catch Re-Animator: The Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s reviewed here and you can order your tickets for it here (get ’em while you can). I love Re-Animator and I loved this comedy musical take on the material. Which is why I kicked myself when I found out, a few days later, that director Stuart Gordon was in town to lend a helping hand with the show every night. When I found out that he recently turned 65 while here in Edinburgh I joked that as a birthday treat I would NOT follow him around my home city, desperately trying to get my DVDs signed. But then when I found out that there was going to be a screening of Re-Animator at The Cameo cinema with Mr. Gordon in attendance for a Q & A and a signing I knew that fate was conspiring against me. Because I couldn’t make that screening (but for anyone who can . . . . . . . here is the place to buy the tickets and . . . . . . . . . . get ’em while you can). Thankfully, after a few polite enquiries were made I was able to gain an interview with a man I have championed for years and I headed along to meet a master of horror. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous for an interview opportunity as I was for this meeting but Stuart Gordon is THAT big a deal in my movie-watching life.

Here is a brief, and incomplete, list of his movies – Re-Animator (reviewed here), From Beyond (reviewed here), Dolls, Robot Jox, Daughter Of Darkness, The Pit & The PendulumFortress, Castle Freak, Space Truckers (reviewed here by Tue), Dagon, King Of The Ants, Stuck and two fine episodes – “Dreams In The Witch House” and “The Black Cat” – for Masters Of Horror.

A lot to choose from and more, sadly, than I have actually seen. Oh, I’m going to get to the rest because I’ve not yet seen a Stuart Gordon movie that I disliked but I already had enough to be going on with just now. In fact, if I hadn’t been worrying about keeping the article somewhat structured and keeping Stuart Gordon from enjoying some more free time while here in Edinburgh then I could have happily stayed to talk with the man all day long. We discussed the festival itself, some of the history and tales of interest of Auld Reekie and I also thanked the man for giving me my teenage crush on Barbara Crampton. Whether I was recording or not, I found him to be everything that I’d hoped for – someone with a genuine love of movies who can easily defend himself against critics who try to dismiss the genre while also having a wealth of anecdotes taken from a career that has managed to rack up one enjoyable movie after another.

What follows is the main interview, tidied up and slanted to make me look a bit less than the bumbling fanboy I may possibly (definitely) have appeared to be. I’ve also left out some of the great conversation we had about the macabre history of Edinburgh but it was nice to get the impression that Stuart Gordon was quite taken with this fair city and a fan of the atmosphere, especially in the old town (so horror fans from further afield should definitely visit some time and soak it up).

Flickfeast: So, I’ll start off with your attachment to theatre and then we’ll get back to theatre by the end of our conversation. You were majoring in theatre years ago and then there was some controversy about a version of Peter Pan that you were involved with and you dropped out after that, is that correct?

Stuart Gordon: I did, I did, in my last year, in my senior year and then I started a theatre company. I actually started two, one was called The Broom Street Theatre and then I left that to start The Organic Theatre Company. Both are still in existence today.

FF: The interesting thing I found about that part of your life is that there was already a tendency, some might say, to push the buttons of others. Is that something you like to do to be playful and confront people or is it just something that stemmed from the material and led to ways to communicate certain ideas?

SG: Well, it was certainly about ideas but it’s true, I do like to push people’s buttons. I did one play that ended up with the audience rioting every night and attacking the actors. It was originally supposed to be a play about apathy, it was called “The Gameshow”, and it was set up as a gameshow with members of the audience coming up to play games and take part in a quiz show but in our version of things the ones who would lose would get beaten or, in one case, raped, their clothes torn off, and we had plants in the audience to play some of the contestants but the audience didn’t know that. So it was originally supposed to end with a big speech about how “you just sit here and you let these things happen” and we never got a chance to deliver that speech because the audience would rise up and just attack and stop the show. It was always at the same moment, which was interesting.

FF: In a way, I suppose, that’s almost a good thing to go against the apathy. I was going to ask about, obviously, getting your cast together for your first cinematic feature, Re-Animator. Did your reputation build with the theatre group, did it already precede you by that point?

SG: Yeah, well, with The Organic Theatre Group, I was artistic director there for 15 years before I did Re-Animator and we did a lot of plays. We actually toured Europe a few times and being here in Edinburgh reminds me of those times with the company. We went all over Europe, toured Amsterdam and Hamburg and Brussels, we were doing our shows all over. Some of our shows made it to New York, we did one show that ended up on Broadway and one off Broadway and one off off Broadway so we kind of ran the gamut.

FF: And you helped to launch a few careers, including that of David Mamet, who wrote “Sexual Perversity In Chicago”.

SG: We did, yeah, that’s right. Also, we had other members of our company who became famous. Joe Mantegna, now on Criminal Minds, of course. Dennis Franz went on to NYPD Blue. It always struck me as kinda funny because we did a show called Cops where the two of them both played policemen together and I think that sort of started them on that path.

FF: You have some great foresight there because you also had George Clooney in a TV show called E/R in the early 80s.

SG: That’s right, yeah. Before anyone knew who he was.

FF: But to get back to Re-Animator. Did you always know how far it would go? Did you have faith that the humour would carry it all through?

SG: Well, the story that it’s based on is funny, I think. Lovecraft’s story, whenever anything goes wrong then Herbert West says “it just wasn’t fresh enough”. It’s a continuing punchline. When we were about to make the film I teamed up with Brian Yuzna, who produced it, and Brian sat me down and had me watch all of the films that had been made at that time, the most extreme films. Movies like The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Driller Killer and all of these movies and then he said “we have to find a way to go beyond what these films are doing here” and I think that’s what inspired the big scene in Re-Animator.

FF: The big finale. The, as you called it, “world’s first visual pun”?

SG: Yes, that’s right. Dennis Paoli, our writer, that was his term for it

FF: H.P. Lovecraft, obviously, runs through a lot of your career. The obvious thing to ask is what are your particular favourites and have you any pet projects you’d still like to work on?

SG: Yeah, Lovecraft has so many great stories and you could just keep doing Lovecraft forever. There’s a script that Dennis Paoli wrote, it’s based on “The Thing On The Doorstep”, that we’ve been trying to make for, oh, about twenty years now.

FF: Just on a side note, did you see The Call Of Cthulhu adaptation by The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society?

SG: Yeah, I know those guys. They’re actually based just about a block away from my office in Burbank so I know them pretty well. And they come out of theatre too, they have a theatre company called Theatre Banshee and although our approaches to Lovecraft are very different, they’re all about the period and setting and so forth, to me I don’t really feel the need for that. I don’t think that Lovecraft is dated. The ideas are just so fresh and extraordinary and they could be happening right now.

FF: And, in a way, they are always a bit out there, to say the least.

SG: Oh yeah, yeah, we haven’t caught up with him yet. He’s way ahead of us.

FF: Getting back to the movies, after Re-Animator came From Beyond, which saw you re-using Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton and also saw you upsetting the Lovecraft fans again.

SG: They’re always asking me about why there’s so much sex in the movies and I always say because there’s a lot of sex in Lovecraft. Lovecraft is not explicit in terms of the way he shows it but all of his stories are based on these weird couplings between human beings and creatures from other dimensions or fish people – in one of them there’s an albino gorilla that turns out to be this guy’s mother. And all this inbreeding that goes on, as it does in “The Lurking Fear”. Lovecraft’s full of sex so I always say “he made me do it”.

FF: Even, I think, before I’d seen any of your movies I’d seen some great trailers in my youth. Those old VHS trailers would grab you and you’d be desperate to see them. The two I remember most of all are the trailer for Necromancy (not one of your films but a dark and twisted trailer promoting Orson Welles in a strange horror movie) and . . . . . . . . . . . . Dolls. Did Dolls seem like an easy job with dolls being so inherently creepy anyway or did you fight hard to get that fairytale atmosphere in the mix. It’s a strange blend but it works very well.

SG: Yeah, it’s funny because one time when I was at the University Of Wisconsin they have a historical society there and on the top floor they have a collection of Victorian dolls that look exactly like the dolls that are in the movie and one time I ended up getting locked in the museum. The museum closed and I was up there looking at the dolls and I got trapped with them so that was kind of in the back  of my mind when I was making that movie. But I’d also read a book by Bruno Bettelheim, it’s called The Uses Of Enchantment. It’s all about fairytales and what Bettelheim says is that fairytales are scary and they should be scary. There’s always a tendency, like in the Walt Disney films, to want to clean them up and sanitise them and he says you should go the other way, they really need to be scary. So that was something else, I wanted to see if that approach would work for a horror film.

FF: If you look back at some of the original forms of the fairytales there’s plenty of horrific stuff in there.

SG: Absolutely, they’re terrifying. What was funny was that when I was working on it with the writer, Ed Naha, the fairytale that it reminded me of was Hansel & Gretel, which is a story about kids being abandoned  by their parents and this with, this cannibal that wants to eat them. It’s a horror movie.

FF: Yeah, it’s easy to forget how scary they should be nowadays with everything being sanitised and made politically correct nowadays. I think you need those scares to help put over the lessons and the morals, I know that’s how I managed to learn them even though I didn’t realise it at the time.

SG: What Bettelheim says is that what fairytales do is prepare the child for the world, which can be a very scary place. What fairytales tell you is that if you are brave and good then you can prevail, face these things and defeat them.

And maybe a little pause here because, yes, we went off on a slight tangent with me talking about days out with my daughter and recommending Mary King’s Close as something that Stuart might enjoy experiencing. I related a tale of the first visit that my daughter and I had made to the tourist attraction and then the conversation headed back to the movies with this anecdote.

SG: It reminds me of a time while filming Castle Freak when my daughter was visiting the set and I was afraid that she would be traumatised by the make up that was on Jonathan Fuller and  so I said to Jonathan “do you mind not having lunch with the rest of the crew when my daughter’s around, could you have it in your dressing room” and he said “sure, I understand”. So, my daughter is with us while we’re having lunch and she says “where’s Jonathan?” because she’d seen him before. I said “well, he’s dressed up as a monster so he’s eating in his dressing room, he doesn’t want to scare you”. Then she says “oh, he’s eating by himself, I’m going to go and have lunch with him”. So she did and it was kind of wonderful. I guess when a child feels that they’re in control then they aren’t afraid any more.

KM: Yes, I have made that mistake of taking us out of control once when we went on a ghost train ride. Bad idea.

SG: Well, we had someone once who brought their 5 year old to see Re-Animator: The Musical when we were doing it in New York. He kept saying “oh no, she loves this sort of thing”. Then the daughter kept saying “daddy, I want to leave” and he wouldn’t take her out. It was kind of upsetting because this little girl was being kinda scared to death by the show. For most of us it’s a comedy but to a little kid it’s scary stuff.

FF: You have a body of work with a huge kind of cult following. The horror fans who know your work love it and embrace it. Are you happy to find others who share your tastes or did you ever want to change things slightly to reach further, even if it was something you’d personally never look at again?

SG: Well, I have to say that I feel very lucky that people are enjoying my films. Some of them are so old, Re-Animator is over 25 years old and so many people still enjoy it and that’s amazing to me. Most movies just kind of come and go. I think horror fans are the most loyal fans of all, they really are wonderful. Like you, they see everything and I learn a great deal from my fans. They’ve seen more films than I have.

FF: I have a fellow Flickfeaster who has been recommending Space Truckers to me for some time now but, sadly, I’ve not gotten to it yet. What appealed to you about that one and how did you get the cast? It seems very different even though you’ve done sci-fi before, sci-fi horror and sci-fi action.

SG: Well this one is more of a comedy. It’s a science fiction comedy, which is a weird kind of cross of genres. I think the only one I know of that’s well known is Men In Black, which is kind of having fun with science fiction. Most science fiction movies, the fans want it to be serious and it sometimes bothers them when you make fun of something. The movie was based on that fact that when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. This was my closest chance to get into space. Instead of it being about the Star Trek or Star Wars people these are just working-class people, truck drivers. The idea is that we’re colonising a planet and you need supplies on a regular basis, these guys are just doing their job. So it was all about just taking the science fiction world and making it into a blue collar story.

FF: And with Dennis Hopper, Stephen Dorff, Debi Mazar and Charles Dance you had quite a fantastic cast (note to self – I need to see this ASAP).

SG: Yeah, a great cast. Charles Dance was wonderful, we had a great time. He was really funny. All of them liked the script and really wanted to do it. Charles Dance saw me and told me that it was his daughter who had asked him to do the film. She had read the script and said “dad, you’ve really got to do this one”. There was one scene I remember – he plays a guy who is a sort of cyborg, he’s half man and half machine – Debbie Mazar pulls all of his equipment apart and he’s lying on the floor with all of these fluids squirting out of him and he looked at me and he said “this is all my daughter’s fault, this is the end of my career”.

FF: The next movie I wanted to briefly touch on was King Of The Ants. When I first heard about that combination – yourself, George Wendt (who is also in Re-Animator: The Musical and you’ve obviously known each other for some time but I only knew him as “Norm from Cheers”) and Charlie Higson, best known to UK fans at that time as a writer/performer for The Fast Show – I could not think of an unlikelier grouping to make a film. How did all of that fall into place?

SG: George Had met Charlie, he was in London working on a project and the two of them had met. I think Charlie was up for a job writing for a show and he gave the book as a writing sample to George. And George read it and said “I know just the guy who should do this as a movie” and he sent it to me and said “if you like it, I’ll option it” and I thought it was an amazing book. Charlie Higson, I don’t know if you’re familiar with his writing but his books are all very dark. There are some other ones that would make great movies too.

FF: I think I need to read those. I still only know him mostly for the comedy.

SG: Yeah, because of the book I started watching his comedy act as well. And now he’s doing a whole series of books about James Bond as a child, which are very popular. He’s had so many different careers and he’s a pretty young guy. It was great to work with him because when we did the movie he did the adaptation of his own book and he made a lot of changes in it for the screen, which most writers will never do. They often stay thinking that “this IS the book”, if you look at people like J. K. Rowling, she insists that everything in the book be in the movie and Charlie wasn’t like that, he understood that books and movies were two different things. I think it’s that he knows that not every book, a novel especially, you’re not going to be able to do everything that’s in the book in two hours so you’ve got to really find ways to really reshape it a little bit.

FF: And speaking of changing shape, I believe that it was when I first saw King Of The Ants that was the first time I heard about The Asylum. So what are your thoughts on the studio then and now?

SG: Yeah, The Asylum produced the movie but this was before they started doing all of these knock-offs. I was a little disappointed that that’s the direction in which they went because when they did King Of The Ants it was the largest budget movie that they had ever done, which was still a tiny budget, but I was kind of hoping that they would get more into doing bigger movies but they went in the opposite direction. As someone who watches movies, I don’t want to see a cheap knock-off of some other film.

FF: I will, however, watch anything with the word “shark” in the title and I defend a lot of their movies as being akin to the Bert I. Gordon films from back in the day.

SG: Oh well, Bert I. Gordon, no relation by the way, but I’d be kind of offended because I think Bert Gordon made some great films and he wasn’t trying to copy the other movies. He was making his own movies.

FF: Oh no, I don’t mean the knock-off films, the “mockbusters”. I mean the creature features they do, those ones. People often have a go because they often have, to put it nicely, variable special effects in there and I always say that it’s about fun and it’s a monster movie. When I mention Bert I. Gordon I mean in terms of Empire Of The Ants and all of those big creature movies.

SG: Yeah, he also did The Amazing Colossal Man. But back in the day that was the level of effects and he was at the top of the form. You look at them now and can’t believe that people were watching them but I have a feeling that that’s what going to happen all the time – people will look at the movies we’re making now and the CG and they won’t believe that people settled for this stuff. It’s funny because they re-released Titanic and you look at the CG work in that, which was so groundbreaking at the time, and now it just looks terrible.

FF: And re-released in 3D, of course. You could join in with that and go for the whole Re-Animator re-release in 3D?

SG: No, not me. I’m just waiting for somebody to remake it. I’m not looking forward to it, I don’t really care for those remakes. It seems inevitable, it seems like they’re remaking everything and it’s amazing to think of some of the things that they’re remaking. It just has to do with them being afraid to make new work that they think is too risky, which is sad because that’s really where all the excitement would be. Doing something that no-one’s ever seen before.

FF: Something I’d never seen before was used for the premise of Stuck, based on a bizarre true story (note to readers, Stuck is all about a man hit by a car who is then stuck in the windshield while the driver tries to forget her crime and leave him to die – the following conversation about it has a couple of spoilers). I was wondering if you worried more about working on something, recreating something, based on fact. I couldn’t remember how that panned out in real life.

SG: It did not end the way our movie ended. It ended up with the guy who was stuck in the windshield dying of blood loss. If he had been taken to a hospital he could have been saved but he wasn’t and so he ended up dying. When we were  first releasing the film we did a bunch of film festivals and we showed it at a film festival in Texas and the son of the actual man came and saw the film and was kind of upset by it because he felt that we were not being true to the real story. I think you run that risk when you deal with a true story

FF: I guess as writing changes from source to movies so does the truth, depending on how you have to get things over to the audience.

SG: Well, the thing that I learned was that the things that really happen are far more horrifying than things that we could dream up. Some of the stuff that people really do is so bizarre, it’s just beyond anything you could imagine. I was reading about this case when the woman went to trial and it was unbelievable, especially the fact that she was a care giver for senior citizens, that was her job, and that she didn’t help this guy at all. It was kinda like “what would make someone do that?” – that was the question.

FF: A lot of that movie, you may be pleased to hear, made me wince while watching because of the horrible predicament of the poor guy (played by Stephen Rea) in that windshield.

SG: Yeah, it was great and he was great. At one point he turned to me and said “you know, the real guy was only in the windshield for one day and I’ve been in the windshield for two weeks”.

FF: Well, I did say that we would go from the theatre back to the theatre so now I have to ask . . . . . . who came up with the idea for Re-Animator: The Musical and was the Splash Zone always going to be an essential element?

SG: The idea was something that people had been mentioning, I wish I could claim credit for it. I kept getting people say “you should make a musical out of this” and I thought that was like nuts, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. And then one day I sort of envisioned it and I thought it could work. The Splash Zone comes from the second question that everyone always asked – “is it going to be as bloody as the movie was?” and so you have to say “sure, why not?”. If that’s what people remember from the movie you’ve got to at least give them some blood.

FF: I actually showed my wife the movie last year and because I remember how funny it is I forget how gory it is. And I bought tickets for the show with the intention of taking my wife who said “I didn’t like the movie so why do you think I would go to see the musical?” so I lost brownie points for that idea. Yet, when I went home after seeing the show I told her that she would probably have loved it because of the humour and the songs and the music.

SG: Yeah, it’s more of a comedy than anything else. It reminds me of the time I met this guy who said that he had taken a girl to see Re-Animator on their first date and then she said to him afterwards “if this is the sort of movie you like, I don’t think I want to have anything more to do with you”. I said to him “well, you’re better off” and he said “no, we’ve been married now for twenty five years”.

FF: I think it’s always funny that I remember the humour so well and forget how much gore is in there.

SG: There was a while there when we had the record for the most blood uses, until Peter Jackson did Braindead. I think we used something like 30 gallons of blood in the movie. Then I asked him what he had used and he said something like 3000.

FF: How satisfying is it to go from being, in the eyes of some, a peddlar of gratuitous gore to a bit of a darling of the theatre critics?

SG: Well I never think of it as gratuitous. There are some people who, no matter what, are never going to like horror films. Period. They’re always going to try and ghettoise horror and put it down. My feeling is that it’s not for everyone, some people really like it and some people don’t, but you shouldn’t dismiss it for everyone. The most popular movies ever made, most of them are horror films or science fiction. This is one of Brian Yuzna’s ideas – he said that, in the entire history of movies he thinks the strongest image is Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. He says that you can show that to anybody and they immediately know what it is. It’s a horror film, it’s a classic. The thing about horror films is that you watch them over and over again. You probably can’t remember the best film of last year, or what won the Academy Award, but you know you can sit there and want to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre again.

FF: Yet people still try to dismiss the genre or look down on it.

SG: This amazed me, we had a critic who came here to see the show  and said something about how she could not appreciate a show that was glorifying rape. She was talking about the head gives head scene, I think. I was thinking that I don’t think anyone is going to try this at home. That kind of thinking is so politically correct, it’s the head gives head becomes head up your ass, y’know. You look at all of the great literature and theatre, there are all of these crimes being committed on stage. King Lear, you’ve got the guy’s eyes being torn out on stage. Titus Andronicus – a girl is raped and her tongue is cut out and her hands are chopped off. So Shakespeare’s stuff is bad theatre? I don’t think so. So only good things should be shown on stage? People behaving politely to each other? That would be the most boring theatre ever made, and it’s not the way the world works.

FF: I know that it’s mentioned a lot but that’s another reason why I love horror movies. They look at the dark side of human nature and explore these aspects.

SG: I think that horror movies deal with the issues that we all think about all the time and I think that’s why they’re so popular. The main one is death, which is something we don’t talk about but it’s in the back of our minds all the time.

FF: Well, I didn’t read that review from the critic who thought you were glorifying rape but all of the reviews that I’ve seen tended to be good.

SG: Yeah, we’ve had a LOT of good reviews but that one kinda took me back because, obviously, she had never seen the film that it was based on. That’s kind of where things are going in this world, sort of killing things through correctness.

FF: But are you building up a nice book of cuttings? Do you have any favourite compliments or, indeed, insults?

SG: We are, we are, we’ve gotten some great reviews. We really are enjoying it, most of the critics have been very kind to us. There were a couple that I like. There was one guy who compared the music to a cross between Iriving Berlin and Tom Lehrer and I thought that was a wonderful comment.

FF: Well, from what I’ve seen, you’ve pretty much won over most of Edinburgh, haven’t you?

SG: Yeah, yeah. We’re doing pretty well. It’s a big theatre so it may not be full every night but the audience is there.  It’s funny to see when sometimes people want to avoid the Splash Zone or they’ll sit in the second row of the Splash Zone. You just end up thinking “well, if you’re going to be in the Splash Zone you might as well sit in the first row”.

And with that piece of advice, which I wholeheartedly agree with, the official interview ended. I wanted to leave Mr. Gordon to enjoy some more time in Edinburgh during the daylight hours although he never once looked to want to wrap things up or rush me in any way, which was much appreciated. I could have rambled on for hours and asked 101 other questions ( such as how David Gale dealt with portraying Dr. Hill in Re-Animator and the reaction to the big scene, the technical process of getting the dolls to work in Dolls and many more) but I had to keep things within reason and not just entirely for the benefit of allowing me to ask absolutely every single question that I’d always wanted to ask.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, yes he did very kindly sign my DVDs.

After reading through all that don’t forget to check out Re-Animator: The Musical every night at The Assembly Theatre in George Square (show starts at 22:40) and get yourself along to the screening of the 35mm print of the movie that started it all at The Cameo Cinema on the night of Monday 20th August. Both are guaranteed to make for a great night out.

I wish Stuart Gordon and everyone involved with Re-Animator: The Musical all the best for the future and a huge thank you to all of those who helped make this conversation happy. I may have to take “early retirement” after peaking so soon.

3 Comments
  1. Kevin Matthews says

    A few things I MUST add.
    1) Dagnammit, I SHOULD have taken a couple of photos.
    2) I may need to rethink my charitable view of those Asylum movies.
    3) I once again have to apologise to Chris McKenna, who plays both Dan in Re-Animator: The Musical and the main character in King Of The Ants. It’s a testament to his range and skill that I didn’t even connect the two until he gave me a little deserved ribbing on Facebook. Sorry Chris, I’ll get my eyes tested and more caffeine into my system next time 😉

  2. Kieran_F says

    Great interview

  3. Kevin Matthews says

    Cheers mate, if you know any Stuart Gordon fans who feel, as I do, that he doesn’t always get his due praise then do send ’em this way. Once you’ve popped on to the weekly thread 😉

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