Learning To Trust The Tale And Question The ArtistInterview by Joshua Jabcuga
Stephen King was once asked, "Who's the scariest guy in America?"
His response? "Probably Jack Ketchum." King added "no writer who has read him can help being influenced by him, and no general reader who runs across his work can easily forget him."
Jack Ketchum is the pseudonym for a former actor, teacher, literary agent, lumber salesman, and soda jerk. That's according to the press releases, but speaking with Ketchum, one gets the sense that he's always worn many hats, but is easily most accomplished in the role of writer. He is the author of eleven novels, including OFF SEASON, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, THE LOST, RED, three short story collections (among them BROKEN ON THE WHEEL OF SEX, which will be released in a newly revised edition from Overlook Connection Press on March 4, 2008) and several novellas. He is a four-time Bram Stoker award-winner and a hell of a guy.
I've been privileged to interview the author three times now. Officially. Besides his generosity and his love of the craft, what strikes me the most is his down-to-Earthness and his openness. He's a straight-shooter in conversation, and on paper he hits his mark more often than not. You owe it to yourself to explore the honest-to-God and honest-to-Satan emotional intensity and raw truth on display in his work.
Oh, and just for the record, be forewarned. Stephen King was right. Abso-fucking-lutely.
Joshua Jabcuga (JJ): I'd always heard that Lucky McKee was a huge Jack Ketchum fan, and last I heard, he was one of the main catalysts behind getting the film adaptation of your novel RED to the big screen. I was shocked to hear rumors that there may have been some type of creative differences and a second director was brought on the film, with McKee no longer at the helm. Can you comment on any of this? Is there anything to the story about McKee being replaced?
Jack Ketchum (JK): It's true. More than midway through the filming Lucky and the producers had some sort of falling out, the nature of which I wouldn't go into even if I knew for sure what it was all about, and the movie was completed by Trygve Diesen. Lucky does still have an option on my script for THE PASSENGER, though, and I've high hopes for that one.
JJ: Tell me a little about the craziness that was Sundance. Was it anything like you were expecting?
JK: People -- myself included -- think of Sundance as a kind of Rodeo Drive or Cannes in the mountains, a transplant colony of movie people. It ain't. There are tourists galore there for the skiing and the movies both and plenty of drunken locals floating around the streets. I saw one kid in sub-zero weather with his pants and underwear down around his knees humping a handbill board.
JJ: How did RED play out in front of an audience when compared to THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (TGND) and THE LOST? Do you think all the right notes were hit?
JK: Absolutely. I think they did a great job and that movie-wise, I'm three for three. On gauge of audience response on these things in my experience is how many people hang around for the Q&A after. Normally you figure to lose well over half your audience. Here, in a 300-seat house, about three-quarters stayed.
JJ: With the film being co-directed, did you notice any shifts in tone, where it was obvious someone had reworked Lucky's handling of the book?
JK: To me it looked seamless.
JJ: I get the feeling that this film might be the most marketable of the three so far, in large part due to some of the casting, like Brian Cox and Tom Sizemore. Do you think this one has the best odds of being the most mainstream?
JK: Sure. It's not nearly as violent as the other two -- which is the direction Tryg and the producers wanted it to go. I suspect if Lucky had stayed on the picture it might have been more visceral. But it could never have been more violent than the other two even if he had -- it's just not in the material. And yes, you've got a real, established star in Brian Cox, who's in every scene in the movie, and he carries it like the powerful actor he is.
JJ: Indeed, let's talk about some of your material. There are three quotes that open your novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, including lyrics from Tom Waits: "You got to tell me brave captain / Why are the wicked so strong? / How do the angels get to sleep / When the devil leaves the porch light on?" And chapter one has that killer power chord for a first sentence, "You think you know about pain?" Do you remember when you first came across this, and what does it mean to you in the context of your own beliefs?
JK: With the Waits quote, it's much too long ago for me to remember when I first heard it, but do recall being delighted when I did. I know wit and truth when I hear them and those lines are packed tight with both. My first line for the book was the first line I wrote for the book. I figured it was a pretty good kickoff.
JJ: Suffering and healing often coexist. Would you compare this story to a scar, or is it more like a wound that never heals?
JK: For David it's been a wound. By confessing, by writing all this down he's attempting to make a scar.
JJ: Since the material is so gut wrenching and you take such an unflinching approach to it, did you ever feel yourself carrying around too much of it when you weren't working on it, picking at old personal wounds?
JK: Not really, no. When I'm in the book, I'm in the book. The world of the book. I'm in pain or I'm laughing or feeling whatever my characters are feeling. But I have no trouble leaving it behind at the end of the day. Remember that an actor has only a single character to focus on, to inhabit. A writer may have dozens. You'd go nuts carrying them all around inside you every day for six, seven months.
JJ: Much of your work is not fan-friendly, for lack of a better term. I'm not sure I can say, "I just read this brilliant piece of writing dealing with sexual violence, and whoa, if this thing doesn't get a rise out of you, you'd better check your freaking pulse (and morals)." You've worked in many different genres, but your greatest hits, or at least the ones most commonly associated to you, always sound extremely depraved. Is there something about the material that lures you in more often than not? Is it some intrinsic need compelling you to explore or exorcise these elements?
JK: I like to be the one who gets to beat up on the bad guys for a change. But to do that you have to identify exactly who the bad guys are and deal with them in depth and detail. Hence the "depravity." Plus a lot of my bad guys are based on real people or an amalgamate of several. I didn't make these people do these awful things, I just try to get their bullshit minds down on paper.
JJ: We've all heard the expression "Kids can be so cruel." What is it that can make them so sadistic, in that LORD OF THE FLIES way? Surely it's not just their upbringing. Is it pack mentality?
JK: I think it's partly that and partly upbringing. It's also that kids are experimenting with the world and their place in it. They do some crazy things by adult standards. They play with matches. They run with scissors. It sort of stands to reason that they'd also play with pain to one degree or another -- and it is a matter of degree that makes all the difference here -- their own pain and others'.
JJ: Some may argue that the film adaptation of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was nothing more than torture porn. As far as the novel is concerned, peeling one layer back, it hit me: this book would have been gratuitous and irresponsible but the way in which the children are portrayed is so believable, the whole thing works, as if it hinges on that one aspect more than any other. It's the same with Stephen King's "The Body". This required more than just a stroll down memory lane or a visit to your old neighborhood. How did you go about creating such believable voices when fleshing out the children?
JK: Thank you. I think it came off believable because in the initial stages of writing it I was in my old neighborhood, remembering, and had been for months before. The sounds and smells were largely the same. The woods were the same, the street was the same. Linda's house was there. Billy's was up that way across the street. I was going through dozens and dozens of photos of us and our parents when we were kids. 8mm movies too. Photos can be a powerful jolt to the memory -- more so I think as the years go by. So I was really able to get into the moment that way.
JJ: On the THE GIRL NEXT DOOR DVD commentary track, comparisons to some degree pop up to NATURAL BORN KILLERS. You said this film is a much more responsible piece of filmmaking than NBK. Do you feel that artists have any sort of responsibility to society, or that art, especially that of the dark variety, has to have some sort of redeeming quality? Is this redeeming quality the main aspect that would separate, say, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR from NATURAL BORN KILLERS?
JK: I don't particularly want to piss on NATURAL BORN KILLERS. I just didn't like it much. I didn't much like the GODFATHER movies either -- which is heresy, I know. But for pretty much the same reasons. It glamorized a bunch of assholes. There's no glamour in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. If you like Ruth & Co. you should probably be institutionalized. In that way it's more responsible. But it boils down to taste. Some people love FORREST GUMP. I don't get it. Do artists have responsibility? Sure, given their lights. They're supposed to reflect the world as they see it. But that's all. And so does everybody. Sometimes artists get it wrong. Knut Hamsun liked the Nazis. He still wrote HUNGER. D.H. Lawrence said, "never trust the artist, trust the tale." I think he nailed it.
JJ: Do you have any sort of moral compass that you use to guide you and keep you within somewhat reasonable parameters, or did you decide long ago that any sort of map or social guidelines were not for you?
JK: You don't mess around with these questions, do you? I guess I'd say I write as I want to live -- with kindness and gentleness toward my fellow creatures. You always know whose side I'm on in my stories I think. I don't ever want to make cruelty or evil pretty. I want us, who have to deal with these things, big. Even if, as in life, we fail. Big.
JJ: You never really gave a shit about typecasting, did you?
JK: Nope. Actors hate typecasting and so should writers I think. I got into this to mess around.
JJ: Getting back to Tom Waits, if THE GIRL NEXT DOOR were an album, what would it be? Are there a few albums out there that you could say capture the tone of your book?
JK: I dunno. But I think when David's writing this he's drinking scotch and smoking and maybe listening to the blues.
JJ: You called THE GIRL NEXT DOOR the one book of yours that is probably the most difficult to film and perhaps the hardest to translate effectively to film. On top of that, here we are in an era where we've got George W. doing his boot-scootin' Big Brother boogey, and your "unfilmable" book is an honest-to-god movie. Regardless of what people think or feel about the movie, does it make you feel hopeful that a movie like this exists and people can get their hands on it?
JK: I'm very glad and still a little surprised that this movie exists and that it's widely available. Does it make me feel hopeful? That's hard to say. I still kind of feel now and then that it slipped between the cracks of Watchdog Nation. That somebody got drunk one night and said what the hell, let's give the fucker an R rating. My experience with the actual filmmakers of THE LOST, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and RED has been very encouraging. They all really did care about the integrity of the material. In that sense I'm hopeful for the future generation of filmmakers since all these guys are way, way younger than I am. But I doubt I'll be so lucky forever. And I doubt I'll be so blessed with such enthusiastic talent. It's inevitable that somewhere along the line I'm going to meet up with a hack. But more than that, don't you feel that you're whistling in a graveyard sometimes? Exactly how these books and movies have done well in a political climate like this sometimes amazes me. I almost expect the axe to fall on this kind of material at some point. And wonder if I've just been....overlooked. Which is just fine by me.
JJ: I'm actually a little surprised that this film hasn't caused more of an uproar. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
JK: Who knows? It still may cause an uproar....but sushhh...they may be listening....
JJ: What's one piece of yours that you feel gets overlooked too often, something you're really proud of that you wish more people would comment on? "Closing Time" comes to mind immediately for me. It's a bit of a moving target. Like a prizefighter who could go in for the easy KO but keeps pulling back for some reason.
JK: There are a couple of true stories living inside CLOSING TIME and maybe I'll write them one day. I'm glad you like that one. It's a favorite of mine too. But I can't say it's been exactly ignored. It won a Stoker Award after all. No, I think my most overlooked story is COVER. Warner dumped it on the market in a small edition with cover-art that made it look like a war novel. Who the hell reads war novels? And then Gauntlet priced the hardcover too high in my opinion. But I worked hard to get the lead character right on that one and I'm pretty sure I did. It's my agent's favorite, by the way. I'm hoping that in the summer of '09 -- following OLD FLAMES this coming summer -- Leisure will give the book new legs. With all these soldiers coming home battered and battle-scarred from Iraq, seems to me it's never been more relevant.
JJ: Some of my favorite stories are when you talk about your days as a music journalist, hanging in the same circles as guys like Nick Toches and Lester Bangs. Was it the music that died, or did the writers who were covering it vanish?
JK: The whole thing changed. With the advent of magazines like PEOPLE the music business wasn't much interested in real reviews anymore -- which after all may not be entirely favorable -- just publicity. And yeah, the music itself got more and more derivative and lifeless too. You knew you were in trouble when Aretha took her shot at disco. We had Patti Smith. Today we've got Britney.
JJ: Would you ever consider going back and doing some music pieces again?
JK: No. Music writing was a great springboard and a great way to learn your licks. But like Nick I've gone on to other things.
Continue on for a great interview with Phil Nutman, the co-screenwriter of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door.
"The Man Behind THE GIRL NEXT DOOR" screenplay: Josh Jabcuga interviews Phil Nutman, co-screenwriter of the film adaptation of Ketchum's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, who provides insight into the author and the process of writing the script.
Joshua Jabcuga (JJ): You and Dallas have been friends for many, many years. Friendship aside, you had his blessing after he'd read your screenplay adaptation of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. When it was all said and done, was there a point where you both sort of looked at each other a bit misty-eyed, as if you'd just sent your youngest off to school?
Philip Nutman (PN): Misty-eyed? Almost. Last summer was very emotional once we knew we had a distributor and a release date, and the next thing we know is we're in a recording studio doing a live audio commentary for the disc. By that point we knew it was time to finally say goodbye to Meg and David and the inhabitants of Laurel Avenue.
I think I'm closer to the film than Dallas is. Certainly me and Dan [co-screenwriter, Farrands] are very close to the text of the script because we nurtured and guarded it for nearly eight years. Dallas wrote the novel over 20 years ago and saw it sink into seeming oblivion after Warner Books killed it on release. Then he had this renaissance, both as a writer, and especially with this novel, 10 years ago, which has led to this third act in his career (and fuck the connotation that the third act's the last; I think it's going to be very interesting to see what transpires for Dallas Mayr/Jack Ketchum over the next few years).
The whole year, from July 2006, when the film started shooting, to recording the audio commentary in August 2007 was quite an emotional rollercoaster ride for all of us. Dallas had already seen one of his novels made into a movie - THE LOST, directed by Chris Sivertson, who subsequently landed the gig directing Lindsay Lohan in I KNOW WHO KILLED ME, on the strength of his Ketchum-based debut. But despite all the good press its festival screenings had generated, THE LOST hadn't been released, so it existed in a vacuum. That film now has distribution, also through ABE [Anchor Bay Entertainment], who released THE GIRL, but audiences aren't going to see it until March/April of this year. Much as he loves THE LOST, spent time on set, was consulted by producer Lucky McKee and gave a cameo performance as a bartender, THE GIRL is a far more personal novel - and film - for Dallas.
So, yes, it was emotional: watching the screenplay finally go before the cameras, seeing Blythe Auffarth and Daniel Manche bring Meg and David to life alongside Blanche Baker as Ruth Chandler and having an award-winning actor of the caliber of William Atherton portray David as an adult. It was thrilling. Then to see the first clip screened for an audience and participate in our first public forum at a convention...let alone how emotionally charged it was to finally see the preliminary cut of the movie.
I never expected the script to be made. And if it did get made...to have the MPAA pass it without cuts with an R rating? Never in my wildest dreams. So, yes, the last couple of years have been filled with surprises. What a long, strange, emotional trip it's been.
JJ: When was that first fateful encounter with the man they call "Jack Ketchum" anyway? Has it been all downhill ever since?
PN: We first met at the second WHC (World Horror Convention), a literary gathering, in Nashville in 1992. It was "Jack Ketchum's" first convention. He didn't know such events existed and was dragged along by writer Edward Lee, who was a big fan of his work and who became a friend after a lengthy correspondence. They were at the hotel bar as I walked by and Lee pulled me over to introduce us. My reaction was, "Jack Ketchum? There're a lot of people who want to meet you." I then pulled Dallas over to the corner table where I was originally heading and introduced him to over a dozen writers and artists who were fans of his work - including King/Barker biographer Douglas E. Winter, former SWAMP THING artist Steve Bissette, F. Paul Wilson. I forget who else was there, but Dallas was suddenly treated like a rock star by other professionals whose work he admired. It was quite a night. I don't think he had to pay for a drink for the rest of the weekend. We became firm friends from that point on.
JJ: Had Dan Farrands not contacted you and asked, somewhat naively, if you'd ever heard of TGND, would we be sitting here today discussing this movie? Would you have eventually tried your hand at adapting a Ketchum piece regardless of the circumstances?
PN: Yes, probably, but I would never have considered THE GIRL as the source material. It's a powerful book written by a great storyteller - very visual yet psychologically and emotionally intimate, which is why, aside from the disturbing subject matter, that novel continues to resonate with new readers. Personally, I was more drawn to Ketchum books like LADIES NIGHT and SHE WAKES. Maybe COVER, which has echoes of Dickey's DELIVERENCE, or STRANGLEHOLD, which I read hot off the word processor. Inevitably, I would have been drawn to THE CROSSINGS, his noir western novella, which came out in 2003 and which Stephen King believes is the best work Dallas has ever written. I now own the movie rights and am slowly adapting it. Growing up in England, westerns were my first love. They spoke of something unknown beyond the horizon, which always seemed so far away in comparison to the close confines of the British countryside. I hate to feel constrained. So yes: straddling film and novels, the probability of adapting a Ketchum work was high.
JJ: Was there anything in the script that you and Dan butted heads over?
PN: Not really. The only occasion I recall us having a creative conflict was over one line of dialogue in the opening portion of the contemporary wraparound sequences, of which I orchestrated the first draft. That said, we argued for nearly three hours over one line - specifically, adult David saying "hell is other people" - a direct quote from Sartre, which never made it into the movie. Dan felt it was too nihilistic, that David would never say that. Considering what he experienced as a kid - the betrayal of his friends, the hypocrisy of his neighborhood, the denial of his parents and the venality of the world at large, absolutely that's something he would say as an adult! We argued - damn, did we argue? Yes!! We ultimately used Dallas as arbitrator and he agreed with me.
JJ: Walk me through a little bit of the process of collaborating on a script with a partner.
PN: We worked together five to six days a week for close to six months. It was very intense. Not merely because of the subject matter, but because we were faced with the challenge of trying to adapt to a great work of fiction. There's an old saying that good books make bad movies and bad books make great movies. Maybe. But one thing we knew going into the creative process was that we had to do the book justice: it deserved a great script. It took a lot out of us to make that happen. I couldn't have done it without Dan and vice versa. Of course, writing a great script doesn't mean you end up with a great movie - that's in the hands of the director and the producer. Fortunately, we ended up with a largely good little movie.
JJ: Looking at the three main characters, Meg, David, Ruth, I can see pain in all of them. I'm reminded of a lyric from a PEARL JAM song: "Human pieces set me free / all my pieces set me free." Meg was heroic, her pain mostly of the physical variety. Ruth has something black on her soul and the only outlet she has is forcing her pain onto others, bullying others, punishing others, a cloud of pollution spreading cancer. David's only relief is in sharing the story. It's a heavy burden, knowing that he was not quite an insider and not exactly an outsider. Do you think the majority of the pain and negativity and struggles in life are those we create and force onto ourselves? As a human race, are we destined to exterminate ourselves, eat our young, kill our sick, wipeout the weak, for survival and or for fun?
PN: That's a heavy question to drop. I don't know how to answer that. Are we, as a species stupid and hell-bent on trashing the building blocks in the playpen like infants having an emotional fit? Probably. You elect enough juveniles who live in fear, and of course, they are going to lash out, project those fears and find targets for destruction. Some days I have hope for humanity, then I read about another case of child abuse or hear about the slaughter of 50 women and children in a church in Kenya and I just shake my head. My philosophy is best summed up by my favorite Schultz strip: Charlie Brown on the pitcher's mound, silent, perplexed for three panels, then saying in a pained voice: "I love humanity. It's mankind I can't stand."
Jack Ketchum: For more information on Mr. Ketchum, please visit his website at www.JackKetchum.net.
Philip Nutman is the multiple award-nominated writer of the cult novel WET WORK. Mr. Nutman served as co-screenwriter and producer of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, the film adaptation of Jack Ketchum's controversial book, currently available on DVD. For more information, be sure to visit www.UpAgainstTheWallMag.com and www.PhilipNutman.com.
Joshua Jabcuga is the author of SCARFACE: DEVIL IN DISGUISE, the official and definitive prequel to the cult-classic 1983 Brian DePalma/Oliver Stone film. The graphic novel was published in January by IDW Publishing and is available via IDWPublishing.com and Amazon.com. His writing can be seen online at www.comics101.com, and you can contact him at www.MySpace.com/BuffaloHack. This is his first piece for www.ChuckPalahniuk.net.