AICN LEGENDS: Capone talks RE-ANIMATOR, CASTLE FREAK, EDMOND, Poe, Lovecraft and more with director Stuart Gordon!!!
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Stuwart Gordon has always been one of my favorite directors of modern horror. He has always seemed like a filmmaker who is in a constant battle with his budget, but somehow he always manages to win, and in the process has created some of the most lasting horrific images I've ever seen. And with RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, CASATLE FREAK and DAGON, Gordon is also one of the few directors to ever popularize the works of H.P. Lovecraft on film.
At a recent Fantastic Fest, he and one of his favorite actors, Jeffrey Combs, presented a performance of NEVERMORE…AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE. I wasn't able to make the performance but when I found out Gordon was around the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, I Tweeted to whoever was around. "If anybody sees Stuart Gordon and then sees me, please point him out to me or introduce us." Someone after 25 years of living in Chicago and even being the same room with him on more than one occasion, I'd never met the man. Within 10 minutes of that Tweet, Harry came rolling up to me with Stuart Gordon right behind him and introduced us. I had a wonderful conversation with Gordon about all things Chicago, he gave me his card, and we parted with me giddy as a school girl.
Gordon has deep roots in Chicago theater with the Organic Theatre, which he founded in the 1970s, presenting the early works of David Mamet, among other, and launched the careers of actors such as Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna. It wasn't until this year that Stuart returned to the stage when he directed a musical adaptation of RE-ANIMATOR, which I'm hearing nothing by great things about.
In between his Lovecraft films, Gordon made some highly watchable genre works such as DOLLS, ROBOT JOX, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, FORTRESS, SPACE TRUCKERS, THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT, KING OF THE ANTS, and his David Mamet adaptation EDMOND, starring several of Gordon's old theater chums, such as star William H. Macy. Gordon also contributed episodes for both seasons of Showtime's "Masters of Horrors" seires, including "Dream in the Witch-House," also based on a Lovecraft short story. His most recent work was the wonderfully entertaining, based-on-a-true-story STUCK (2007) with Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea. I'm really itching to see a new film by Gordon, but there are certainly plenty of fun ones to choose from. I recently rediscovered CASTLE FREAK after not having seen it since its release, and I was surprised how well it held up.
Some of you may not realize that Gordon and his FROM BEYOND writer Brian Yuzna came up with the story for HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS as well. Now that's scary.
I had the chance to sit down on the record with Gordon back in the spring at an mini-film festival here in Chicago that celebrated the works of Gordon, actress Barbara Crampton, and producer Charles Band. I'm sorry for sitting on this one for so long, because there's a lot of great stuff here. Although the RE-ANIMATOR musical just recently closed in Hollywood, I'm hoping Gordon will get it take it on the road, so the rest of country can have a taste. Please enjoy Stuart Gordon…
Capone: A friend of mine worked at, what was then the Touchstone Theater on Halsted Street.
[A cat walks up to Capone in the offices where the interview is taking place.]
Capone: Hi, kitty. [to Stuart] You don’t like cats very much, do you? You kill them in so many of your movies.
Stuart Gordon: [laughs] I know it's true, but I do actually have a cat. I love cats.
Capone: Well I saw the cat die in CASTLE FREAK and I thought, “That's the first of two cats we are going to see die tonight [including one in RE-ANIMATOR].”
SG: I know, and then there’s "The Black Cat" [Gordon's second "Masters of Horror" entry] where we cut out the cat’s eye. People think I hate cats. [laughs]
Capone: I always love whenever I get to interview a person who was a part of the old Chicago theater scene. I talked to William H. Macy when EDMOND was previewing at the Gene Siskel Film Center about working with David Mamet in the '70s and '80s. Organic Theater, did it have a mission statement in terms of the kind of productions you wanted to mount and what you wanted to accomplish there?
SG: Yeah it did. We had several, actually. The first thing was that we wanted to do original theater with a resident company, an ensemble company, and part of the mission statement was that we wanted to be able to make a living doing this. We wanted to be able to devote our full time and all of our energy to this, so it wasn’t like we were waiting tables or driving cabs. Fom day one, we were splitting up the money that we were bringing in at the box office and people were able to survive on it. The other part of our mission statement was that we used to say “The theater is for everyone, not just for the rich or for the well educated, and that theater has to be fun.” So that was kind of our mission statement.
Capone: I actually just did an event here in town with Michael Rooker last night who came onto the Chicago scene in the 1980s…
SG: Well you know that movie that he did…
Capone: Which one? HENRY?
SG: Yeah, HENRY. Almost the entire Organic Theater Company was involved in the making of that movie except for me. [laughs] Which was a result, I think, of the fact that RE-ANIMATOR originally was designed to be a project of the Organic Theater Company to do.
Capone: As a movie?
SG: As a movie, and we were going to shoot it in our theater building using it as a soundstage. And at the last minute the board of directors of the theater vetoed it. They said, “We do not want the Organic’s name on a horror movie,” and so I ended up going to Los Angeles and shooting the movie there and only was able to use a couple of members of the company, one of them being Carolyn [Purdy-Gordon], my wife, and so the rest of the company I think got this idea that they should be making their own movie. But Richard Fire, who was a member of the company, wrote the [HENRY] script and our production designer did the design work on it, and several of our actors appeared in it, including Tom Towles who was a member of our company.
Capone: So the board was okay with like the naked Peter Pan, but not okay with a horror movie?
SG: It was really strange. You know, naked Peter Pan was sort of before Organic, but we did a lot of productions that did have nudity and bloodletting and all sorts of outrageous stuff going on. I mean, we did a pornographic musical for one of our shows. By the time I left the theater, our operating budget was over $1 million a year, and in order to please the people who were giving us grants and so forth, we had to have a board, and they were made up of businessmen and community leaders.
Capone: Like any board.
SG: Yeah, and people who had absolutely no idea what the mission of our theater was, so it was kind of unfortunate. After I did RE-ANIMATOR in Los Angeles, I came back and continued working with Organic for another year, and during that time the movie opened and turned into a big hit, and I ended up winning a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, a critics prize, which meant that it was an art film after all.
Capone: You were also the one who basically introduced David Mamet to the world, before he had his own company.
SG: That’s right, we were the first professional company to produce one of his plays and actually took two of his plays and put them together to create what became SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO [which was adapted into the film ABOUT LAST NIGHT…].
Capone: I don’t want to jump around too much, but I did want to say that I think EDMOND is one of the most incredible things that I’ve seen you do in a while.
SG: Thank you.
Capone: Talking to Macy about it, I know he had never been in the play before, but he had seen it many times.
SG: The play EDMOND had it’s world premiere here in Chicago at the Goodman Theater, and I saw that production and was totally blown away by it, and it was in the back of my mind for years that “this should be a movie.” It’s the most cinematic of any of the plays that David wrote.
Capone: And he wrote the screenplay, too.
SG: No, no, he was very much involved and we worked together on the film. It was fun to be working with him again. When I met David Mamet, this was back in I think 1974, you know he was this kid who was like giving me a new script to read every week and he would say things like “This is going to win the Pulitzer Prize,” and I would laugh. Then about five years later he did win the Pulitzer. [laughs]
Capone: That’s right. You mentioned that you had been arranging to have RE-ANIMATOR feature your ensemble at Organic, but how did you actually make that transition from the theater to movies? What was the initial impetus that made you want to make that move?
SG: Again, there was a Chicago connection. There was a good friend of mine, a guy named Bob Greenberg, who had been working at another theater in Chicago, and we had gotten to be friends and he moved out to L.A., and he kept saying “Stuart, you’ve got to move here and you’ve got to do movies.” I would visit him from time to time, and he was going to direct this film, and at the last minute they had a problem with the script or something and the project was falling apart, and he said “I have this friend who’s got this script called RE-ANIMATOR, why don’t you do that instead?” A very generous thing to do. That’s just kind of how it all came together.
Capone: Where did you learn to direct film? Where did you take your cues from?
SG: Well, I started making movies when I was a teenager. I did little films with my friends, and we also did a couple of adaptations of plays at Organic. There was one, a play called BLEACHER BUMS that we did, which was done for PBS, and I co-directed it and I learned a lot from the guy who worked on it with me at [Chicago public broadcasting affiliate] WTTW, and then another one of our plays was called E/R about an emergency room [not the NBC series], and that ended up getting picked up by Norman Lear and turned into a sitcom, and they brought me along to kind of work on that as well and so watching that process was also very educational.
Capone: A lot of first-time directors don’t go for this heavy special effects pieces, even practical effects like RE-ANIMATOR featured.
SG: Well, it wasn’t that different from the plays that we were doing. As a matter of fact, we used to use effects like that on stage, which is what gave me the idea to do the musical of RE-ANIMATOR, because all of the effects are stage effects essentially. There was no CG back then, and we had I think about two opticals in the whole movie, everything else was being done practically right there in front of a camera.
Capone: I am forever curious why you chose Lovecraft, who might be one of the more difficult writers to adapt, and you gave some great reasons on stage earlier why he is difficult to adapt some times.
SG: He’s always got his characters fainting and saying things like, “It was too terrible to describe,” and that kind of stuff. Sometimes he can get very vague, but other times his stories can be really direct and very action packed, and I think it’s choosing the right story that is the trick with Lovecraft. With RE-ANIMATOR, I had never heard of that story. Someone had suggested that I read it, because I was bitching about the fact that nobody was making any Frankenstein movies, and they said, “Well have you ever read 'Herbert West-Ra-Animator'?”, and I thought I know Lovecraft pretty well, but had never heard of the story. It turned out that the story had been out of print for 30 years, and I ended up having to go to the Chicago Public Library, because they had a copy of it in their special collections and I had to write up a postcard, which they sent me six months later saying, “You can come and read it, but you have to come to the central library downtown.” It was like that scene in CITIZEN KANE where they brought this thing out and put it in front of me and it was like a little pulp magazine essentially.
And the pages were of that crummy yellow paper that was crumbling in my hands as I was turning the pages and I said, “Can I Xerox this?” and they let me do that, and I read the stories and they were fantastic and just cholk-full of rich characters and events. At first I thought it was a miniseries, because he wrote it as a serial in six installments for a magazine called HOME BREW. So my first thought was, “We can do it in six parts,” and we tried to sell it as six half hour shows, and that didn’t work and then combined two of them into one to make an hour and then that didn’t work and then finally Bob Redenberg introduced me to Brian Yuzna who was the guy who had raised the money to make this film, and Brian took a look at what we did and said, “I think you should make a feature out of this.” So I said, “So we should add the third story?” He said, “No, add up all of them. Put all six into this.”
Capone: When you hear about all of the trouble that Guillermo Del Toro is having getting AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS made, do you get it? Do you understand why?
SG: Well I feel for him, because I’ve been in similar situations. For years, we were trying to make "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," and as soon as we would tell people it was about people turning into fish, they would laugh and the meeting would be over. Lovecraft sometimes was so weird and so far ahead of everybody else that it’s kind of hard to get mainstream studios to understand. When we were doing the "Innsmouth" story, one studio head said to me, “If you have them turn into werewolves, we'll make the movie.” That was something they knew could work, but I think that’s part of what [Del Toro] is going through. Lovecraft is still so far out there. He’s kind of ahead of his time still, and studios still are kind of uncomfortable about the idea of a huge-budgeted Lovecraft movie.
Capone: A $150 million dollar, R-rated, 3D movie.
SG: [laughs] I know, it sounds great to me, and I think to most moviegoers, but the studios want to play it safe. They want to make remakes of stuff that worked 10 years ago.
Capone: Yeah, it’s frustration. I’ve had a lot of conversations with him about some of the creature designs, and he’s just got the most incredible people working on preproduction.
SG: I talked to him about it.
Capone: I was wondering if he came to you.
SG: It was funny, I think at one point, he was talking about using Jeffrey Combs in the film.
SG: Which to me sort of said a lot, because Jeffrey now is so much associated with Lovecraft. In fact, he even played Lovecraft in one movie that I think it was a tip of the hat by Guillermo to our work.
Capone: That would have been fantastic.
SG: Yeah, it would have been. I’m sort of thinking or hoping that he’s going to somehow find a way to get that movie made.
Capone: Speaking of Mr. Combs and your repertoire, you came out of that environment from the theater, and you transferred it to a certain degree to a lot of the films. Why is working with some of the same people important to you?
SG: Well that’s something I learned in theater, which is the first play that you do together is good hopefully, but the second one you do together is even better, and it’s like the more you can hang onto people who are on the same wavelength that you are, the better the work becomes. We had members of our theater ensemble stay with the theater for five or six years at a time; people like Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Meshach Taylor. It was a delight to be working with them, because you could sort of read each other’s minds, and they were willing to take all sorts of crazy chances. And that’s why when I had met Jeffrey Combs, I kind of felt like, “This is a guy who should have been in The Organic Theater” and the same with Barbara Crampton. They are risk takers. These are actors who are not going to play it safe.
Capone: What was that initial connection you had with Jeffrey?
SG: Well, there’s a kind of energy that he’s got that just you rarely find in actors. He’s got great skill, but he almost wears his soul on the outside. You can really feel his humanity and excitement and energy, plus like I said he’s willing to do anything. He can make you believe the most outrageous things. I always feel like good acting is the best special effect, and if you’ve got a good actor, you don’t need to have a million dollar budget for CG.
Capone: I always got the impression from him there was nothing he wouldn’t do for you.
SG: It’s true. He’s fearless, and so is Barbara.
Capone: When you went from RE-ANIMATOR to FROM BEYOND, did you feel like you had to up the game a little bit?
SG: One of the things that Brian Yuzna and I have talked about was we had both been very much inspired by Roger Corman’s Poe movies, the movies he did based on Poe starring Vincent Price. It always was kind of cool that Edgar Allen Poe’s name was above the title of those movies, so we were trying to create the same sort of thing and have a series of Lovecraft films with Lovcraft’s name above the title. Lovecraft was really the star of our shows. Really because of Corman’s movies, it made me read Poe when I was a teenager, and I am always very pleased when I run into some fans who say as a result of seeing some of my films, they’ve started reading Lovecraft which I think is the greatest.
Capone: I would be one of those people.
SG: Oh cool.
Capone: I would definitely be one of those people. I was pretty young when RE-ANIMATOR came out. There is a direct line from Poe to Lovecraft.
SG: Absolutely. If there were no Poe, there would be no Lovecraft. Lovecraft idolized Poe. They're very different writers. I think what’s cool about Lovecraft is that all of his stories are interconnected and that he created this whole universe of other worlds and creatures and even a town--Arkham, Massachusetts--and its university, Miskatonicm and it’s they're all featured in his stories, and the characters sometimes even come back for some stories.
Robert Block was one of Lovecraft’s disciples, who wrote PSYCHO, and Stephen King was certainly influenced by him. He called Lovecraft “The greatest writer of horror of the 20th century,” which coming from him says a lot.
Capone: Definitely. So while you're doing the horror, you have you hand in more accessible films. I remember seeing THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT at a festival a few years back, and you were there.
SG: It was actually the Chicago Latino Film Festival. That was really fun. I mean we did that as a play here in Chicago and took it on tour, and when we did it in Los Angeles, we met [author/playwright] Ray Bradbury and that started a friendship for life. I mean that was the other thing about Organic that was great, I was able to work directly with and meet people like Roald Dahl and Kurt Vonnegut. It was spectacular to be able to actually collaborate with giants like these.
Capone: My point was you have this undeniable horror track, but when people find out you wrote HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, they're a little like “Really?” That’s probably your biggest success.
SG: Yeah, although I always have to remind them that HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS is a horror movie. It is. It’s about a mad scientist who’s got this experiment that goes out of control, and it’s got giant bugs in it. You can’t get more horror movie than that. [laughs]
Capone: We were talking on stage about CASTLE FREAK and that wonderful, intense, hard-to-watch family drama that’s going on amidst the monster movie material. That’s such a great counterpoint, and then it's very closely linked to the horror story, but you see it as this story of abuse. Another thing Guillermo had told me over the years was that you can never make a good monster movie unless you sympathize with the monster, and you absolutely do in CASTLE FREAK. He’s not a bad person; his behavior is a result of a lifetime of abuse.
SG: Well, one of the things that I learned working with actors is that nobody ever thinks that they are doing a bad thing, and an actor cannot think he is doing a bad thing, no matter how bad of a character he is playing. If he’s playing Adolf Hitler, he has to believe that he’s saving the world, because an actor starts with himself, and to be able to put himself into those shoes, he has got to find the good in the character to perform. So I think it is important that there has to be some humanity in the monster, and the scariest monsters are the ones that are the most human, I think.
Capone: And he is human. He’s just mangled and…
SG: Yeah, he’s just been torn to pieces.
Capone: Did you set out to make a story about abuse? Or was that the way it came out?
SG: Some times it takes you a while to realize what the story is that you are telling, and that was one of them. But it also is about a guy… In a sense, he and the castle freak are almost the same person. They're almost twins. They have the same father and their mothers are sisters, so they are almost genetically the same person, and so there is this sort sense of almost a doppelganger, the other, who is doing all of these terrible things. It’s almost like it’s the Id of the Jeffrey Combs character.
Capone: And every single character in that movie is in pain, one way or another.
SG: I know, and one of the scenes I loved watching today is the one where the castle freak realizes that the girl that he is in love with is blind and feels bad for her that she can’t see. He sympathizes with her. Again, these are these two mutilated souls.
Capone: To me, CASTLE FREAK is the closest you’ve gotten to the Frankenstein model you were talking about, which no one ever makes anymore. This is very much in that vein. I certainly felt similar empathy for the monster.
SG: That’s great. The thing about my movies is that often times the monster turns out to be the hero. [laughs ] And I think that’s what is, to me, the ultimate horror that “I am the monster,” that realization finally. Bruce Abbott turns into the re-animator at the end of the film , so I think that’s a theme that runs through a lot of my films.
Capone: Barbara told me that over dinner, you had said that you hadn’t seen CASTLE FREAK in a very long time, and it has now become maybe your favorite of your own films.
SG: I am very proud of it. I think it is one of those movies where everything kind of fell into place, and the performances are great. I was marveling at the work of the DP who was someone I only worked with on that one film, a guy named Vulpiani, who was an old Italian DP who just did a spectacular job with that. You really get a sense of place and a feeling of the atmosphere in that film.
Capone: I think the other time you and I were in the same room in Chicago was when you hosted a screening of SPACE TRUCKERS as a benefit for Organic. Had you worked at all in theater before that with George Wendt?
SG: I actually worked with George Wendt at Second City, and that’s how we met each other. I got to direct him in like a skit at Second City, it was a take off on Organic Theater, and we did THE THREE LITTLE PIGS as a horror movie, and George of course played one of the pigs and was fantastic.
Capone: Wow, that sounds like another kid’s movie in the making. One more thing, because it’s your most recent movie, STUCK. I saw that at the Chicago Film Festival. Just incredible stuff again and I love that it’s based on a true story about one of the most horrible people that I’ve ever heard about.
SG: I know. Again, the monster is me. I was reading those stories in the newspaper thinking, “What would make someone do this?” Not only that, but she was a caregiver at a senior citizens’ home. So here’s a woman who normally is very loving and helping people, and all of the sudden she is getting some guy die in her garage.
Capone: Because that would be easier than getting in trouble for hitting him in the first place.
SG: Working on it that’s what I realized was that it was the fear, and I think that’s one of the things I’m learning about life is that fear makes people do the most terrible things.
Capone: Film-wise are you working on anything now?
SG: I’m working on a couple of projects, but I don’t want to say too much, because I want to wait until they are ready to go, and then I can say, “Here’s what’s going to come next,” But I’ve been having a great time with the musical version of RE-ANIMATOR.
Capone: Do you think that’s going to do a spin around the country?
SG: I’m hoping so. I would love to bring it here. It would be great to do it in Chicago.
Capone: I would love to see it here, absolutely. Thank you so much, Stuart.
Follow Me On Twitter
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
+ Expand All
Aug. 22, 2011, 9:58 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
every virgin geek gushes over where the doctor decides to eat out.
Aug. 22, 2011, 9:59 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
decide which I like better. They're both great, and both twisted in their own ways.
Aug. 22, 2011, 10:33 a.m. CST
created two of the best horror films of the past 25 years...so there's that. Just hope he's not a modern day Tobe Hooper.
Aug. 22, 2011, 11:16 a.m. CST
Rough around the edges for sure, and belies it's budget, but bloody powerful stuff with some terrific performances. And the Charlie Higson commentary on the DVD is great. Can't look at a golf club in the same light again.
Aug. 22, 2011, 11:21 a.m. CST
by sam jacksons wig
Aug. 22, 2011, 11:26 a.m. CST
Dam that was funny.
Aug. 22, 2011, 12:03 p.m. CST
What an awesome, twisted movie that is! It sits proudly on my DVD shelf.
Aug. 22, 2011, 12:12 p.m. CST
That movie is all kinds of fucked up, scary and brilliant. The imagery alone, the freak running around with that sheet wrapped around him is downright stunning. A lot of ppl don't know that WAS an adaption of a Lovecraft story...The Outsider!
Aug. 22, 2011, 12:56 p.m. CST
Both films need to be released on Blu-ray asap. The dvd release of From Beyond a few years ago was outstanding and I have to believe at least a 2K scan was done for HD when they were prepping the dvd.
Aug. 22, 2011, 2:13 p.m. CST
wonderful collection of films, and a cool guy to boot.
Aug. 22, 2011, 6:13 p.m. CST
I love both Re-Animator and From Beyond, but I think Dagon is my favorite. So creepy, strange. Great interview.
Aug. 22, 2011, 7:01 p.m. CST
Somebody give Del Toro the $ to make that happen. Hopefully they'd have scenes together, right? That would be Hilarious.
Aug. 22, 2011, 8:04 p.m. CST
but I love Castle Freak. It used to come on all the time at 2 am on Cinemax when I was younger. That movie always felt like an Argento film to me. Space Truckers was something I rented a few times for reasons unknown to me when I was younger as well. I remember there being some horny cyborg man. Dagon just gets better every time I watch it. The acting from the men in that movie is atrocious but I love the isolation that the characters felt once on shore. I don't remember liking king of the ants very much. I rented it at the time just to see Kari Wuhrer naked. Edmond was one of my favorite movies of the year it came out. It really felt like it had a budget to it most of the time, although the strip club scenes weren't shot very well in my opinion. To this day, my favorite Macy movies are Edmond and Focus.
Aug. 22, 2011, 9:37 p.m. CST
I love CASTLE FREAKS anything GORDON... ROBOTJOX was a dream as a teen...
Aug. 23, 2011, 12:39 a.m. CST
Aug. 23, 2011, 12:40 a.m. CST
Aug. 23, 2011, 8:38 a.m. CST
WHY? IVE NEVER SEEN THIS ONE and it's been in my Netflix cue for months. It's availabilty status is "unknown"
Aug. 23, 2011, 10:25 a.m. CST
was in my girlfriend at the times basement while watching a rented VHS copy of From Beyond. Thanks for the memories Stu. Can't say that I wasn't thinking about Barbara Crampton while this was happening. Smokin' hot she was.