Monday, January 12, 2009

Joseph Maddrey: The Fantasmo Interview


Hey Superfans!
You may remember a few weeks back I posted info about a documentary coming out called Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. The very kind producer and author Joseph Maddrey allowed me to screen it, and pose some questions to him regarding the film. I can tell you upfront that this documentary is a real treat for horror fans, and features some amazing interviews with horror legends. What's nice too is that it's an intelligent exploration of themes that run through American horror, rather than a superficial clip festival along the lines of Terror in the Aisles and its ilk. Anyhow, without any further ado here is my discussion with Joseph Maddrey!

JB: The documentary is based on your book of the same title from 2004. Was the idea of doing the documentary in your mind while you were writing the book, or is it something that came later?

JM: When I wrote the book I wasn’t even thinking of it as a book, let alone a documentary. The first half of the book (the chronological section) was the outcome of an independent study in college. The documentary idea came from the people at Midnight Movies, who bought the adaptation rights and then, a year later, hired me to make the documentary. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity.

JB: You explore two primary concepts in the film, firstly that these films are reflections of the time and place in which they are made, and secondly that they involve the struggle of the individual or “outsider” with some type of threatening entity. As a lifelong horror fan, did these elements jump out at you initially or coalesce during your research? Were there any other aspects you found competing with these in developing your thesis?

JM: Growing up, I was constantly watching and reading about horror movies – always searching for things I hadn’t seen. (This was the age of mom and pop video stores, when finding the really good stuff took some legwork.) I kept a running chronological list of titles and that was how I started noticing thematic similarities among films from particular time periods.

When the book was published, a friend of mine who hadn’t read it yet said, “But did you write about why you, personally, are interested in horror films? That’s what I want to read about.” Of course, I hadn’t. Another friend read the book and commented that, while he understood my thesis, he believed that the true appeal of the horror genre was its universal themes – fear of death, fear of change, fear of the outsider, etc. So in conducting interviews for the documentary, I tried to pursue the historical, the personal and the universal.

There are countless other concepts that we might have explored in the documentary if we’d had more time. Ultimately, the challenge was not finding things to say, but narrowing the scope and creating a coherent narrative.

JB: Your book and the film manage to cover a tremendous amount of ground (basically the entire history of American horror cinema) in a fairly concise number of pages/running time. I found it interesting that there was such a parallel in terms of the economy you were able to employ in both formats, given that they could have easily spiraled into epic length. Was this part of the design from the outset, or did it happen naturally?

JM: I didn’t really plan the book that way – I just have a natural tendency to economize when I write. Some people appreciated that about the book and some people didn’t, but I never tried to write a definitive book on the subject. I just wrote about the things I was most interested in at the time. With the documentary, we consciously tried to keep the narrative moving at such a fast pace that the viewer’s mind would never wander off of the subject.

JB: One thing that is striking upon viewing the documentary, is just how many giants in the field you were able to conduct interviews with. Folks like John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Roger Corman, Larry Cohen, etc. The interviews largely stick to the general subject matter of the film, rather than delving into discussing each filmmaker’s catalog of hits. In taking this approach, it explores a different avenue than you usually see in discussions with these individuals. Did the avoidance of gushing fan types of questions aid your efforts in opening up discussions?

JM: When I started, I didn’t dare to hope for some of the interviews I ended up getting. And honestly, when I was sitting in the room with some of these legendary filmmakers, it was hard not to stray off topic – I had to constantly remind myself that I was fishing for soundbites for a specific narrative. Even so, there were some gushing fan questions (John Carpenter said he was sick of talking about that damned William Shatner mask).

For the most part the interviewees seemed eager to talk about films other than their own. The trick, with short interviews, was knowing what films to ask them about. I read a ton of interviews with all of these guys before we sat down and turned the camera on, so I knew which films they had claimed as influences. In my experience, filmmakers – and storytellers in general – love to talk about their influences.

JB: No doubt you have a truckload of additional interview footage that you weren’t able to include due to time constraints and relevance to your themes. Is this something fans may look forward to seeing on a future DVD release (hint hint, nudge nudge)?

JM: There are definitely a few extras that should go on any DVD release – answers that didn’t really fit the specific narrative of the documentary, but would be of interest to fans. For instance, I started every conversation by asking the interviewees how they first became interested in movies. For me, every single response was compelling. There were also some great anecdotes about getting into the business – Carpenter learning to edit at USC, Bousman campaigning for the director gig on Saw 2….

JB: In my opinion you scored a major coup in obtaining your narrator Lance Henriksen. First off he’s a fixture in horror/sci-fi filmdom, and secondly he has such a wonderful voice. I have to imagine given the part the subject matter has played in his career, he has some degree of fondness for the material. Did you observe this to be the case in working with him on the project, and do you feel that vibe enhanced his performance?

JM: I couldn’t imagine anyone better for this project than Lance, and it was a thrill to work with him. I think he does have a particular affinity for genre films, but based on my own experience of working with him and on what I’ve heard from other people who have worked with him, he brings the same level of enthusiasm, talent and dedication to everything he does. Roger Corman said that the great thing about working with Vincent Price was that he put himself 100% into whatever he did, no matter how silly the role or the film might seem at times. I think the same thing can be said of Lance. He’s humble, down to earth, and very comfortable in his own skin… I think that demeanor enhances everything he does.

JB: You are credited as writer and producer on the film, and Andrew Monument as the editor and director. Having talked with you a little bit about how you two worked as a team on this, I know it was an interesting process. As the creator of the source material, was there a time initially where you considered assuming the duties of director? Did you find letting go of a certain amount of “authorship” control difficult?

JM: I was responsible for the narrative and the interviews, but visually this is Andrew’s film. If I had been dealing with anyone else, I would have been reluctant to relinquish control, but Andrew and I had worked together in the past and I was confident that we would see eye-to-eye 95% of the time. Since I’m on the west coast and Andrew is on the east coast, we had to work independently most of the time, but we never had any significant creative differences. I can’t imagine being able to do that with anyone else, so I’m glad he was as excited to do the project as I was.

JB: Something that occurred to me while watching the film, is that there are a number of examples of horror films/filmmakers from Canada (particularly in the 70’s and 80’s) that echoed what was happening here (e.g. early David Cronenberg, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Prom Night, The Burning, etc.). Did you find universals like that in your research, in which the trends driving American horror films frequently crossed borders?

JM: I think it’s easier to draw comparisons between popular trends in Canadian horror and U.S. horror than it would be to draw comparisons between U.S. horror and European or Asian horror. Your examples show that Canadian filmmakers certainly jumped on the slasher movie bandwagon (though, admittedly, only after Bob Clark provided John Carpenter with the idea for Halloween). I didn’t focus on Cronenberg too much in the book or the documentary – not because he’s Canadian, but because he’s such a unique storyteller. I believe that the man is a true genius, and I thought I’d need a completely separate narrative in order to discuss his work properly.

JB: The film has a really nice flow to it, but one of my favorite bits was a Friday the 13th montage of Jason attacks. Seeing all those kills from the Friday films in quick succession hammered home just how much violent imagery they contain (and that I had viewed over the years). Even so, I couldn’t help but laugh while watching them because, strange as it may seem, I’ve always found those to be innocent and goofy despite the content. Conversely, if you were to do a montage of the Saw or Hostel films, which are just as over-the-top, I think my reaction would be pretty different. Do you find that same sort of qualitative difference in the teen horror films of the 80’s vs. those of today? If so, how do you account for the distinction given the similarity in nature (e.g. superhuman or faceless killers dispatching hapless victims in creative fashion)?

JM: I can’t take any credit for the F13 montage – that’s all Andrew (and of course John Muir, who gave us a provocative soundbite to illustrate). Andrew was the one who realized that we could create a montage of gruesome murders in such a lighthearted, playful tone. I think this was true because of the direction that the series took over the years – since the mid-80s, fans have known not to take Jason too seriously. Tom McLoughlin talked about consciously adding tongue-in-cheek humor to the series with Jason Lives. I think that was the first instance of self-parody in the series. It was the modern-day equivalent of pitting Frankenstein and The Mummy against Abbott and Costello. It’s also the film that re-introduces Jason as a superhuman zombie, rather than a vengeful human being. As Darren Bousman points out in the documentary, the later films in the series give us undeniable cues that we’re not supposed to think of Jason as “real.” By contrast, the Saw and Hostel series haven’t gone the way of self-parody yet, and the monsters are still very human.

JB: One point you highlight in the documentary is that the filmmakers who delve into horror are frequently outsiders, and typically do not come from a conservative point of view. Going back to the 70’s and 80’s slasher films for a moment, it has frequently been observed that they seem to support a socially conservative point of view in that freewheeling behavior is punished with severe consequences (i.e. death). In an interview segment John Carpenter dismisses this suggestion, at least in terms of the granddaddy Halloween, stating that the film was just an assignment. That may be, but the overwhelming number of films which adopted this structure makes one wonder. Do you feel given your thesis, that the culture of a particular time period influences the message of the films, that Carpenter is a little quick in his dismissal of this trend? Or is there something to the observation that these films were pushing a certain set of values, even if subconsciously?

JM: First of all, I don’t think that John Carpenter was dismissing the trend of slasher movies in general. He was just speaking about one film – Halloween. That film has been identified as the trend-setter among slasher films, but Carpenter himself didn’t consciously set out to create the trend or reflect the conservative movement in American culture.

That said, I think that a lot of great horror films do subconsciously reflect cultural trends, because serious-minded filmmakers are in tune with the world they live in. I believe that 100%. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things going on behind the films… As I said, we could have made several different documentaries exploring several different theses, utilizing clips from the same films. We could have structured it to explore the auteur theory, like the second half of the book, and it would have been a different beast altogether.

I do think of many of the people I interviewed as cinematic “outsiders” – and I believe they thought of themselves as outsiders at some crucial point in their lives (if not now). Most of them got interested in horror films when they were kids and were still trying to sort out their personal beliefs and find their place in the world. Mick Garris said that the horror genre is about “arrested development,” and in some respects I think that’s true – in a lot of cases, these horror filmmakers are still exploring the fears of adolescence, still examining personal beliefs.

Those kind of explorations go deeper than politics, so I don’t think we can say that the horror genre is essentially either liberal or conservative. There are two lines of thought on the subject. One says that this is an inherently conservative genre – it reinforces our fear of the outsider. The other says that it is inherently revolutionary – it prompts us to champion the outsider. I think that the best horror films do both.

JB: Okay the BIG question – when and where will fans be able to see this fantastic documentary?

JM: I wish I had an answer for that, because I really want people to see it. Right now, we’re submitting to film festivals and shopping for a distributor. I don’t know where it will finally end up. I’m hoping for some kind of release by summer.

Well there you have it from the source. I'd like to thank Joe again for taking the time to answer these questions, and I'll be sure to keep you all posted with developments on the release of the film. In the meantime, if you want to know more and see the trailer you can check it all out over at the official site.

2 comments:

george booker said...

this is a really fascinating interview, jim.

now i'm just stoked to see this documentary someday.

i hope you get a chance to screen it at the library sometime.

Jim Blanton said...

Thanks George! It really is a terrific documentary, and is particularly cool in my opinion because it asks questions I haven't previously seen explored in this type of feature.

I hope we get to screen it at the library/Fantasmo too : ) As Joe mentions right now they're in the process of seeking distribution, so our venue isn't an option . . . yet.