In 2003, I interviewed legendary horrormeister Stuart Gordon for the now defunct Science Fiction Weekly from Scifi/SyFy.com. The piece, originally edited due to length concerns, is no longer available online.
As a Halloween treat, I’m reprinting the complete 6,000 word conversation in three easily-digestible blog entries.
One of my more enjoyable assignments, I hope you have as much fun reading this as I did chatting with the affable Gordon.
Stuart Gordon Interview Part 2
With Rick Klaw
Have you had anything to do with the Re-Animator sequels?
GORDON: No, I haven’t. Although I am trying to convince Brian Yunza [director of the two sequels] to do another one, which is called House of Re-Animator, and it’s about the White House.
(laughing) When I saw Donald Rumsfeld, when he showed up, it was sort of like, “Wait a minute, I thought this guy was dead. How did he get reanimated?” Where did these people…James Baker? All of a sudden all these people are crawling back out of their holes in the ground.
Jeffrey Combs and the head of David Gale in Re-Animator
Jeffrey Coombs is getting old enough to play the president now. You could do it.
Well, I think Jeffrey Coombs would be reanimating the uh…in our idea he’s reanimating the Vice President.
In your early career, Jeffrey Coombs was involved in a lot of your movies. He hasn’t been in your more recent features. Was there a conscious decision to kind of distance yourself, or was he busy, or..?
No, I think it just had to do with the movies themselves. There wasn’t really the right role for Jeffrey. I would love to work with him again. It’s just finding the right part.
He’s kind of like your Bruce Campbell.
Yeah, he is.
At the moment, I keep thinking of Bruce Campell as Elvis.
Oh, he was great in Bubba Ho-Tep.
In movies like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak, umm…you have women engage in…interesting acts, to say the least.
Have you had any actresses balk at doing these scenes, saying, “Okay look, this is too far. I’m not doing this?”
I’ll tell you something: Barbara Crampton was not the first actress that was cast to play that part in Re-Animator. The original actress did balk at it and said, “No, I can’t do it” even after she had read the script and we had gone through all these callbacks and so forth. When she finally got cast like a couple days later, she dropped out.
So, yeah, that has happened. And Barbara…it’s so funny, I cannot even remember the name of this first actress, you know, because Barbara was so amazing. She just kind of wiped it out of my mind.
She was great. It’s just that when you watch the movie, that’s one of the things you think of, you know: Did you have any trouble getting her to do some of this stuff?
No. Barbara’s a really brave actress, and she’s a risk-taker. That’s the kind of actress that I really love and need. The people who are willing to look foolish or do something that seems completely degenerate or something, realize that… to me, the acting is the best special effect there is. You’ve really got to have actors that will make the audience believe things are true and really happening to them.
Barbara Crampton in one of her tamer scenes in From Beyond
In science fiction circles there are discussions about how that’s the difference between what Peter Jackson has done with his special effects and what Lucas has done with the recent Star Wars movies. The acting and the directing is so much better with Peter Jackson, the Tolkien stuff, even though they’re doing the exact same kind of digital effects, one’s so much better than the other.
You know what? You don’t need to have such great effects if the acting is good. The actors kind of do it for you, and you’ll accept something that isn’t perfect because you’ll fill in the gaps yourself. The greatest special effects in the world will not save a bad movie.
You were influenced heavily by the Weird Tales writers, not just Lovecraft. Are there any other of those writers’ works you’d like to adapt?
I don’t know. We were talking about Robert Howard and Conan [in a pre-interview discussion], and I would love to do a Conan movie, that would be really great. That’d be fun. As a matter of fact, I came close on a project once and I’m sort of sorry that I ended up being not able to do it. So yeah, that’d be great.
Talk about action.
Yeah, and just sort of giving it kind of a new approach.
What other things have influenced you?
I read…I was reading… It’s so funny, I think now that movies kind of got me reading. And I wonder if that still happens, that people see a movie and… I’m sure that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings has gotten people to read the books.
I read some where that Tolkien sales are up over 500%.
That’s great. That’s what happened to me. When I saw l the Roger Corman movies, I started reading Poe. And when I saw Time Machine, I started reading H.G. Wells. You see something and you go, “Who came up with this?” And I read Dracula as a kid, and it scared the shit out of me.
It’s a great book.
Yeah, the book is really great. I don’t think any movie’s really captured Dracula as he’s written. I was so scared, I remember I was reading in a room in Chicago and just reading it in the middle of the summer, and it was swelteringly hot and we didn’t have air conditioning, but I was closing and locking my windows every night. I didn’t want any bats flying in.
Yeah, I can definitely see that. It’s funny, because when I saw the name of the movie, King of the Ants, my first thought was, he filmed H. G. Wells’ Empire of the Ants, and I was like, “All right!”
Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Everybody’s so disappointed. They’re saying, “Where are the giant ants?” But I already did giant ants, you know, I did Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.
Well yeah, but I think this would have been a little different. They would have had blue eyes.
(laughing) Yeah, that’s right.
We were talking a little bit about the 50s and horror, and the 50s, of course was a big boom, and the 30s was a big boom with Weird Tales, the 20s and 30s. There’s a popular theory going around that horror is very popular during Republican administrations, when the president is much more conservative.
That’s interesting. I think it’s true, actually, there is something about repression and horror, and the more repressed the society you live in, the more need there is for horror movies, I think that is true.
‘Cause we’re certainly going through it now, again.
Yeah, that’s right.
And when you first came on the scene in the 80s we were going through it.
Yeah, that’s right, it was Reagan and now we’ve got Bush and it’s like Bush, Jr., it doesn’t get much more repressive than now.
At the premiere you really confused me. Somebody asked you, “What are you working on now?” and you said a circus.
Yeah. Well, I’m actually helping out a friend of mine, his name is Norm Langill, and he has a show running in Seattle and also in San Francisco called Teatro Zinzanni. What it is… it’s kinda hard to describe, but it’s…you’re served a five course meal by clowns, acrobats, jugglers, and magicians. It’s been a huge hit. It’s been running for almost five years in both those cities. He knows what a big fan I am of circus. We had met when I was doing theater many years ago. So he invited me to come and help him. They have a cast change going on, so I’m bringing the new cast into one of the shows. Every time the cast changes, there’s got to be a whole new story that’s created around them.
Interesting. How does that compare to doing film or even your other theater experiences, because those are a lot different?
It is, it’s very different, because you’re dealing with European performers, and most of them speak some English they come from all different countries… Russia, Vietnam, and Switzerland… it’s really kind of like the Tower of Babel trying to work with them all. Plus they’re all extremely, very highly trained. I found out that clowns get as much training, you know, in Europe, as doctors do here. You know, they go to school for years and years to become a clown.
Doctorate in Clownology?
(laughing) I know, I know. It’s really something. The clowns are actually the most highly-trained performers in a circus, and one of them told me that you really cannot be a great clown until you’re about 50 years old. I said, “Why is that?” and he said, “Because you have to live.” To really be able to, you know, sort of experience life to be able to portray it as a clown.
That sounds fascinating. So they like, serve the food and…
They do. When they start out, you think they’re waiters and stuff, and then it turns out they start doing these amazing things at your table. The first time I saw it, the guy came over and he started pointing at the silverware on the table and the silverware started moving all by itself.
Yeah, it makes you jump. It’s a very intense show, but very much fun. It’s kind of like being in a Fellini movie, or something. It’s great.
It’s a whole new meaning to dinner theater.
It is. That’s right. He’s reinvented it.
You’ve done film, you’ve done theater, and you’ve done, well, circus now, and you’ve done TV. Is there one that you prefer over the other?
I like them all for different reasons. Theater is still the most powerful art form. Even more powerful than film, because it’s all happening there: it’s really happening in front of you, and the audience, becomes part of the creation of the artwork. With a film, it doesn’t matter if there’s people watching it or not; it will always be the same. But theater changes every night based on who’s there in the audience. It’s a real sort of two-way communication. But there’s things that you can do in movies that cannot do in theater, so I like doing all of them.
Is there something artistic that you haven’t done that you would like to do?
Yeah, I’d like to direct an opera. That would be kind of fun. That’s something I’ve never done.
Stuart Gordon during the 2007 WGA strike.
(pause) Sorry. I was just imagining your version of Phantom of the Opera.
(laughing) I love musicals, and it was funny, I was trying to get… I contacted Stephen Sondheim. I was trying to get the rights to Sweeney Todd, which I think could be really fun as a movie. For awhile there nobody was making musicals but…
Now they’re big again.
Yeah, so, it’d be fun to do one of those.
You’ve recently started producing films besides your own. How is that?
I did it a couple of years ago, and I’m going to be doing some more of it. Producing work by first time directors or, writer/directors is great. The thing that’s difficult as a producer is that you sometimes feel like you want to just get in there and do it yourself. It’s holding yourself back and not doing that that’s sort of difficult. To be in there to help the director get his vision without intruding. That’s really the key to producing.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve also done some screenwriting and not directed it As a director who’s often directed his own work and who has definitely put his own vision on everything, how has experience been for you?
I’ve been lucky in that it’s usually been a good experience. Although the thing about writing is that it’s very rare that you get your work done exactly as you wrote it. There’s usually somebody brought in to do a revision, or this or that, so there are changes that are made, and sometimes you like the changes, and sometimes you don’t. It can be frustrating.
I’m sure you’ve dealt with that on the other end as a director, changing what the writer has written, ‘cause you’ve directed other people’s screenplays.
Yeah, yeah. Although, I usually will not change the words without conferring with the screenwriter and getting his okay on it.
Do you find a big difference in how you work when it’s somebody else’s screenplay or your own?
Even if it’s not my own screenplay I usually work so closely with the screenwriter that I feel really close to the material. That’s really key. I think the director’s job is to bring to the screen what’s on the page. So you really have to understand why everything is there, what he’s trying to achieve with everything he writes. So when you write, when you’re involved with the writing yourself, it’s easier, in a way, because you know. But, the hardest thing is doing something from somebody like Shakespeare and you can’t just call him up and say, “Now what did you mean by this?”
(laughing) “I don’t understand this, Bill.”
(laughing) “Yeah, what’s this ‘to be or not to be’ stuff?”
And more in Part 1.