Monday, February 4, 2008

Vern Talks Seagalogy: The Fantasmo Interview!

Photo Courtesy of Baron Yeh

You may recall a few weeks ago I reviewed (and raved about) a terrific book on the films of Steven Seagal called Seagalogy. Well, I ended up exchanging a few emails with the book’s author Vern, and he graciously agreed to an interview for the blog. Enjoy!

JB: There are quite a few action stars who have yet to be treated to a book-length analysis. What was it about Seagal that made him stand out as a worthy subject?

VERN: I liked his movies and I had reviewed a couple of the straight to video ones for The Ain’t It Cool News. I was very unpopular there at the time but people seemed to like the Seagal reviews, I think because they thought I was making fun of him. But I had noticed how almost all of the Seagal movies I’d seen were tied together by certain themes and motifs. He seemed to always have some kind of intelligence agency background, but usually had quit in disgust, and the bad guys were usually corrupt cops or former CIA guys. And his character would have adopted another culture, usually Japanese but sometimes Native American or something. There would usually be a part where his character made some sort of emotional political statement, and it seemed ad-libbed. A lot of times there would be a fight in a bar. I made this big chart for all the movies and came up with this idea of watching them all in order and analyzing those motifs and my hunch was right, they all did fit together. It’s not just a list of different movies he’s been in, it’s one complete body of work. I consider Seagal to be an auteur, he puts his imprint on every movie he ever makes. He would never do a Junior or something.

I’ve had people ask if now I’ll do a book about Bruce Willis or Dolph Lundgren or whoever, but I honestly don’t feel like I could write a book like this about any other actor. Anybody else the movies would be all over the place and would be hard to tie together. Seagal’s all seem to have the same voice.

JB: The first printing of Seagalogy has already sold out. Given that the last theatrical Seagal film (Half Past Dead) was almost six years ago, and the last really decent one (Fire Down Below) was released over a decade ago, were you surprised at the strong response to the book?

VERN: Well, unfortunately that’s not really accurate. The first edition was a print-on-demand deal, so there was no way for it to sell out, each copy was printed as it was ordered. One of those copies was read by a guy from Titan Books, who wanted to publish it. So I retired the online version as part of the deal. But I think it will be worth it because they’ll be able to get it into book stores and promote it a lot better than I can on my own.

But yes, by my standards it has done really well. I always say “I don’t think the Harry Potter lady is looking over her shoulder,” but I did sell a lot more copies than my previous book. I think it’s just because it’s an unusual topic – there aren’t too many books about action movies really, and especially not one zeroing in on a guy like Seagal.

I do hope that my book will contribute to a re-evaluation of Seagal’s work. I mean, the guy gets made fun of a lot. My dream is that Seagalogy will be like that movie Ed Wood, which completely changed the conventional wisdom about its subject. What has been really gratifying is talking to people who read the book just because they liked my reviews, not because they were interested in Seagal, and finding that they had been convinced of my thesis of Seagal as auteur. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from people saying that they are now going through and renting all of the Seagal movies because of the book.

By the way, I just realized recently that this April is the twentieth anniversary of Seagal’s first movie Above the Law, so it’s a good time for a resurgence in interest.

JB: Due to the steady stream of subpar DTV (direct-to-video) titles released over the past several years, Seagal has been the unfortunate recipient of much negative criticism. Although to some extent his DTV output does invite negativity, you manage to strike a balance in your reviews that acknowledges the problematic elements, while still remaining respectful. Did you ever find yourself needing to dial down harshness within the reviews, or did this balance come naturally?

VERN: That’s just how I approach movies I think. I want a movie to be good. Even a so-called bad movie I want to be really interesting. I enjoy a lot of the craziness in these type of movies that is not necessarily put in there on purpose. For example the movie Out of Reach is about Seagal saving his penpal from a white slavery ring. I don’t know why they thought that was a good story for an action movie, but also I think it is a good story for an action movie.

The only thing I did try to dial down was I didn’t want to get into Seagal’s personal life at all, I didn’t think that would be nice. I sometimes mention his brushes with the mafia in real life and some of his background that is relevant to the movies, but I didn’t want to get into it too much since I don’t know the guy. I just know the movies. So I had a few jokes and observations here and there that I decided were out of line and took out. I hope I got all of them so I don’t get thrown through a window.

JB: You conclude each film review in the book with a list of observations and common threads found within Seagal’s body of work. These observations include such elements as the amount of broken glass in each film, political themes, accuracy of poster art, etc. At first glance, one might think these are included for humorous effect, but by the end of the book it’s apparent that they truly illustrate revelatory ties between films. Did these observations come after the reviews, or did you set these categories out from the very beginning? Were you surprised by the discoveries you unearthed when viewing the sum of all these parts?

VERN: I did set the categories at the beginning, although some of them (like accuracy of cover art) I decided to add later, and a few dropped out of the picture as they only happened in the early movies. In the beginning I literally had a huge chart with all those categories listed. I thought when it was all finished it would be like a diagram of DNA or something. But eventually I had to ditch the chart because it was hard to fit all the information in those little squares, and he kept putting out more movies (more than ten during the time I was working on the book).

But yes, I thought doing that list would be a good form of repitition to show how these movies connect together.

JB: A common thread you mention among the films that I’ve always enjoyed, is the consistent placement of a scene (or scenes) within each Seagal outing in which one of the villains explains in detail (and often-colorful language) why Seagal’s character is so capable and to be feared. While this sort of thing pops up in the films of other action stars, its frequency in Seagal films seems unrivaled. Do you have a theory as to why this is the case? Is it ego on the part of Seagal, or is there some higher purpose?

VERN: I’m not sure if there’s a higher purpose, I just think it’s an easy storytelling method and personally I think it’s almost always enjoyable. The character usually acts humble and doesn’t really talk himself up, in fact he usually plays down or denies those types of special skills and training. In the Under Siege movies he’ll just call himself a cook, in Into the Sun a guy calls him a sword master and he denies it. But then his adversaries will know his reputation or look up his files and speak of him in awe.

JB: You break up Seagal’s output into three distinct eras: Golden, Silver, and DTV. In so doing you discuss certain transitional films, and their importance in the trajectory of Seagal’s career. While it doesn’t mark the entry of the Silver Era, you cite On Deadly Ground as having a particularly significant impact. Do you think that On Deadly Ground was a misstep on the part of Seagal, or did it represent a necessary moment in the progression of Seagalogy? Would you personally have had the Golden Era extend indefinitely, or could you have lived without the later eras?

VERN: The Golden Era is my favorite because those are just four classic, solid B action movies. But if his movies hadn’t evolved the way they did it wouldn’t be as interesting and I don’t think there would be a Seagalogy.

Yes, to me On Deadly Ground is the most important Seagal movie. Obviously it’s the one he directed, so it’s the purest expression of what he’s about. But I think also if you look at where it happened in his career that shows the significance. He did those four low budget action movies and they were big hits. Then he did Under Siege which was a bigger movie with more mainstream appeal, an expensive studio movie, and that was his biggest hit. And one thing I don’t really explore much in the book is that in those early movies he even got a lot of positive reviews. Not universal, but there was a lot of good will toward him back then. So here he is, he’s a big star, he’s coming off his biggest hit, he decides to cash in his clout and become a director, and what is the movie he decides to do? A movie about the environment and Native Alaskans. A movie where the bad guys aren’t trying to blow something up or steal something, their villainous scheme is that they are hurrying the construction of an oil derrick to meet a deadline and it poses a threat to the environment. And at the end Seagal literally stands at a podium and makes a speech about how big business is raping the earth and what we need to do about it. And there’s also this amazing scene that starts out as a fight and turns into two men bonding and admitting that they are flawed human beings.

In the book I lay out many reasons why this is the ultimate Seagal movie, but I think that’s the most important thing is just the fact that when he was in a position to make almost any movie he wanted, this was the movie he chose. I compare it to Gus Van Sant having his biggest hit with Good Will Hunting and choosing to cash it in by doing something as crazy as a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. It’s like, screw it, I don’t care what they say, this is what I want to do. Yes, you could say it was a misstep as far as his career, because going out on that limb turned a lot of people against him and he was never taken as seriously again. But in all sincerity I think as an artist it was not a misstep. This is Seagal expressing himself, trying to make an action movie about the things that are important to him.

JB: The quality of the many films released during Seagal’s DTV era is highly variable. You note that the greatest strength of the films is often the outrageousness of the scripts and their execution. Given the audacity of these entries, do you think there is a self-awareness on the part of Seagal with regard to how absurd the plots have become? If so, do you think this is a calculated tactic to increase the entertainment value in compensation for the reduced budgets?

VERN: I think he does have some self-awareness. I’ve seen interviews where he mentions “making people laugh” as one of his goals. But no, I don’t think the absurdity of the plots is a calculated move. And I think the craziness of the execution is just a result of the way the movies are produced. I was able to correspond a little with Joe Halpin, who wrote a lot of Seagal’s DTV movies, and it was pretty enlightening. In the darkest days of the DTV Era they were shooting movies where the premise wasn’t even set in stone until after shooting was completed. For example there’s one called Attack Force that was shot to be either about aliens or about European gangsters. Doesn’t that explain a lot? Of course the storytelling is gonna be bizarre when they wait until postproduction to decide whether or not Seagal is battling aliens.

JB: In addition to discussing the films of Seagal, you also devote attention to his side projects (e.g. energy drinks and music). From my reading, it would seem that these areas of interest are perhaps more important to Seagal than his acting career at this point. That being said, he also strikes me as one who is particularly concerned with the quality of his work. With this in mind, why do you think he has continued to produce so many DTV efforts when the majority do not live up to his classic films? We obviously can only speculate as to his financial status, but one would assume he doesn’t need the money at this point. Why then risk tarnishing his cinematic legacy?

VERN: All I can really guess is that he loves making movies and has that drive to keep making them. Plus, in most circles his cinematic legacy is not held on as high of a pedestal as people like me and you hold it. So maybe he’s not worried about that. He has said in interviews that he thinks of himself more as a musician than as an actor now, but I guess after you’ve done that many movies then it’s gonna seem more exciting to go on tour with your band. I have a lot of hope for that movie Prince of Pistols that he’s been trying to make. It keeps getting delayed, so I’m not holding my breath, but it’s about blues musicians and he plans to direct it so I imagine it will be his most heartfelt since On Deadly Ground. I’m not sure if he’ll work energy drinks into it or not.

When this whole blues musician thing came up I have to be honest, I thought he was full of shit in saying that it was something he’d always been into. It seemed like it came out of the blue. But then I found this quote that I used in the book where somebody who remembered him from his young days studying aikido in Japan said he was the guy who was always hanging around playing guitar. The article was trying to use the quote to downplay stories about his aikido history, but in the process they proved his claims about always being a guitarist.

JB: The second printing of Seagalogy is due out in May. What additional material can folks look forward to in this updated edition?

VERN: The main difference is that I added a chapter on his new one Pistol Whipped, which comes out in a few months. It was kind of risky because if it had just been a mediocre movie it could’ve been a lackluster ending to the book. But I lucked out because not only do I really like the movie but it has all kinds of things going on beneath the surface and shows many signs of a rebirth for Seagal. So it’s a perfect ending for the book.

I’m also going back and fixing a few errors that people pointed out, including a really embarrassing one where I said John Leguizamo had a bit part in Marked For Death, even though obviously it was Out For Justice.

JB: Have you received any feedback from Seagal (either directly or indirectly)? What would your ideal Seagal response be?

VERN: No, I haven't heard anything from the Seagal camp. Obviously if I heard from him I'd hope to hear that he liked the book. But honestly it's not something I want to happen or even want to think about. If I actually communicated with the guy it would be alot harder to write about his movies in the future, and I don't plan to stop. If you read the appendix in the book that's a review of his band Thunderbox playing in Seattle you know that I actually got his signature and shook his hand one time. But I'm happy to leave it at that.

JB: Lastly, if you had to pick a desert island Seagal film above all others, what would it be and why?

VERN: I guess I’d choose On Deadly Ground, because it captures both sides I love about Seagal movies, the badass side and the absurd side. But do I get to choose which edition? If so I choose the “Warner Triple Feature” edition where it comes with Out For Justice and Fire Down Below.

My many thanks again to Vern for taking the time to do this interview. You can pre-order the upcoming edition of Seagalogy now at:


Chris Johnson said...

Thank you Vern . . . Gunner's Mate! This was a great interview. I have already pre-ordered my copy of the new edition.

Anonymous said...

Jim - Great interview. I just noticed that Netflix has put "Above the Law" and "Out for Justice" on the direct play list.... I know what I'll be doing this weekend.

Jim Blanton said...

Thanks Joe! Sounds like you're going to have a very good weekend : ) Seeing those two titles makes me wonder - can one be both "above the law" yet "out for justice?" Perplexing!