Take a drop of Joe R. Lansdale's blood. Then a slice from David J. Schow's scalp. Scrape some phlegm off Tarantino's tongue. Inject some of Robert Rodriguez's sperm. Pour in some Karo syrup. Mix it in a blender. Pour. These are just some of the ingredients of Stephen Romano's unique work.
Stephen Romano is a mutant. He's a military science experiment gone all bug-fuck bad. He's a dangerous DIY author/artist/hyphenate. Residing in Austin, Texas, Stephen Romano is best known as the screenwriter who, along with the infamous Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), brought to life Joe R. Lansdale's "Incident On and Off A Mountain Road" for the pilot episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror series. Stephen also released THE RIOT ACT, a collection of his balls-to-the-wall short stories, in which Joe R. Lansdale wrote, "This may be the best new short story collection I've read in years. Stephen Romano isn't fucking around."
If the buzz surrounding his new book, SHOCK FESTIVAL, is any indication, Stephen Romano's work will not only turn heads, it's going to make heads roll, because no, he isn't fucking around. FANGORIA called it "One of the greatest homages to B-cinema ever undertaken." FILM THREAT described it as "A stone groove and as badass a tome as you're likely to come across this year or next."
Here Stephen Romano talks with Joshua Jabcuga about SHOCK FESTIVAL, his love of movies, and working as a professional screenwriter.
Joshua Jabcuga: With SHOCK FESTIVAL, you weren't content with just writing a book. You mapped out the Walt Disney World of grindhouse cinema, constructing an imaginary world from the ground floor up (certainly not to imply it's safe like Disney, though). Where do you even begin tackling a project like this?Stephen Romano: Well, first, I think it helps if you work in the film business, because you see a lot of shit go down on movie sets, and it also helps if you have a lot of friends who work in the film business, because they've seen a lot of shit go down, too... and most of them LOVE to talk about it. These are the stories you usually never hear in public interviews, the kind of things that are said after a few drinks, or behind closed doors, off the record. I actually researched and wrote an entire book about the making of a favorite exploitation film, and I ended up unable to publish it because the stories were just TOO good, you know? I was harassed by a bunch of lawyers on that project. I put it away and got to work building my own legacy, having my own adventures... and I realized that it might be possible to re-dress all this interesting information as fiction someday. That was just a vague notion, though. What kickstarted SHOCK FESTIVAL is that I wanted to do a project that was more fun after writing a dreary novel about the death of my mom. That novel kicked the wind outta me, man. I wrote it in just 20 days or something crazy like that. I was standing at a great turning point in my career, looking out over the precipice and asking myself a few important questions about what my work was gonna be all about in the future.
"An illustrated history of the strangest, most outrageous movies you’ve never seen! An elaborate work of illustrated fiction, Shock Festival is a raunchy, hilarious tall tale of imaginary sleazebag exploitation films, lavishly brought to life with hundreds of never-before-seen original movie posters and memorabilia items. It’s the retro-dazzle of Grindhouse meets the authentic "mockumentary" appeal of Spinal Tap!"Then I realized... well, this is me. My work is me. I'm a professional screenwriter and an author and I love exploitation films. I'm drawn to the seamier underbelly because that's where I come from. So I started thinking in more philosophical terms. I had just come out with a limited edition pressing of THE RIOT ACT, which got a lot of acclaim, and I had written the follow-up novel, which is what you're "supposed to do"... but I really wanted to take on something more original, something outrageous that no one had ever done before and that no one would ever expect.
I started with the posters themselves, and I invented the key players through that process. I cast my friends---many of whom are professional models or actors---as the faces in the art and I taught myself how to paint and design using digital tools. I already had a background in graphic art, having written and edited many comic projects, so I built on those skills, taking myself back to art school. And I paid a few of my artist friends to come aboard and help further define the world by either contributing new pieces or allowing me to use existing work. Once I was well into creating the posters, I began to see the amazing behind-the-scenes history of these remarkable filmmakers unfold before me, partially inspired by real events and people. After I pacted with IDW and RAW to publish SHOCK FESTIVAL, it entered yet another phase of discovery. I was adding new stuff up, both visual and word-wise, until the very last day before the digital files were sent off to Korea for printing!
JJ: What notes did you have to hit and what pitfalls did you need to avoid in order to pull this off? In order to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief?
SR: First, I knew that the visuals had to be at least 80 percent convincing, absolutely, no bullshit. I think we ended up achieving that. Second---and this was probably even more important than the pretty pictures---I had to take the world completely seriously and write in the voice of a nerdy film journalist who is supposed to be sharing his obsession with these lost films. That doesn't just mean playing your cards close to the vest. You have to make certain sacrifices as a writer. You can't get too detailed with things, because this guy wouldn't have found out everything. Even exhaustively researched books on film, such as EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS have a certain amount of mystique and gray area to them. You have to concentrate on drama and controversy, in broad strokes, rather than explaining too explicitly exactly what happened. The tactile details of how movies get made, things like craft service and location management, are just BORING to a psychotropic audience. I mean, I enjoy books that give you those details and I know a lot of people who do---and you can stick some of that stuff in there to give your work a sense of historical accuracy---but the bottom line is that everyone knows going in that you are full of shit. These movies are NOT real. So you must give them as much ENTERTAINMENT as possible for the buck they spend. But be careful. Concentrating ONLY on the controversy may backfire. I went back to my extensive library of CINEFANTASTIQUE and FANGORIA and VIDEO WATCHDOG and strove to emulate those guys in tone, so I had to refrain from using too much of my usual smartass noir voice. Someone even tried to convince me early on to let it stand as a real work of journalism, to try and convince everyone that these were really lost films or whatever, but I said no. You'd never be able to get away with that in this day and age of Google and Wiki. Besides, it's more fun if you know it's fake!
JJ: I remember when GRINDHOUSE was released, I thought it was the greatest thing ever, warts and all, but it was pretty much D.O.A. at the box office. Since then I've noticed people have started coming around to the concept. There are DVD releases that are cashing in even now with titles like "Drive-in Cult Classics" and "Exploitation Cinema" and those amazing 42nd STREET FOREVER trailer collections. Why are people only now embracing the nostalgia that Tarantino and Rodriguez were trying to shine a light on? And what is it about that period of filmmaking that people want to keep from dying?
SR: I think people have always loved this sort of trashy exploitation stuff---it possesses an outlaw quality that is pretty much gone forever from this day and age. And there has been a market for it dating back to the beginning of home video! That's all in my book. But here's the skinny: GRINDHOUSE was not nearly as bad a flop as certain people seem to think it was. Sure, it was kind of a disappointment in theaters, but theatrical releases these days account for very little of a typical movie's total profit---unless you are THE DARK KNIGHT, of course. But those are pretty extraordinary circumstances. It's nice and sexy to be the box office champ and all, but films live forever in people's living rooms now and that's where the real money is made.
Which is kind of sad, actually. I remember when drive-in theatres were everywhere. I got stoned on some of my mom's homegrown weed in my '78 Camero as a 17 year old kid in 1987 and watched ROBOCOP and MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE at a drive-in. That experience is almost completely gone now---that sense of sneaking out and doing something wrong when you see a movie. And I think that's what most people want back when they rent or buy those double feature DVDs.
JJ: Was there ever any fear that your project was so massive in scope and so one-of-a-kind that publishers might not "get it?"
SR: Oh sure. Absolutely. It was terrifying. But it was also something I really wanted to do, something I really wanted to see completed and hold in my hands. I was totally committed to it, obsessed almost to the exclusion of everything else in my life. I think I probably represent at least a few geeks out there, so I figured SOMEONE would get it. The trick was to pitch the concept to publishers right. Sam Raimi once said, "if you want something big to happen to your project, you have to present it in the biggest way." I think there's a lot of truth in that kind of thinking. Working with film people, I know how difficult it can be to convey a complicated idea unless you spell it out in big bright primary colors for them. So what I did with SHOCK FESTIVAL was totally unique. I got the project into a good enough place that I could design a full demonstration version of it---a version fairly close to what it would end up looking like in stores, all 357 pages, complete with a cover, hardbound. I had a local printer do a 24 copy run of these "demo only" books, made sure they were really beautiful, and sent most of them out. I also sold a few to some lucky fans for feedback, and to make some of the money back from printing the books. I took it to conventions, asked people what they liked and didn't like. IDW was one of the first places I hit, and Chris Ryall was blown away by my presentation. Based on that, without even reading the whole thing, he and Ted Adams green-lit the project. IDW had been recommended to me by Tim Bradstreet, who I had known for years and really wanted to get involved with SHOCK FESTIVAL, so I went back to him and invited his company to co-brand the project. He agreed, and then the next year of SHOCK FESTIVAL began, with a complete re-thinking of the book's design, the addition of seven new characters, including one played by Thomas Jane, and over two hundred new pieces of art, some by Tim himself!
Bradstreet was invaluable as an artist and a co-art director. He made some crucial observations that really kicked things into a higher gear! It was like making an indie movie, then getting a distributor and reworking the final cut. But IDW also left Tim and me alone creatively. They let us get away with some really offensive shit. The book is challenging. They knew this going in and did not interfere even a little bit. I have never heard of an author having this much control over how his work is presented.
JJ: In your opinion, what are the ingredients of a good exploitation or grindhouse flick, and what are some of your favorites?
SR: I don't think there ARE any hard-and-fast rules, and that may be the point: it's a renegade form of storytelling that exists outside the playbook. I don't even feel comfortable with the word "genre" here because the word GRINDHOUSE refers to many different kinds of films. For example, some amazing work in---let's call it the "form"---are G-Rated trashy documentaries made by companies like Sun Classics Entertainment. Those who are older may remember "doco-trash" wonders like William Shatner's MYSTERIES OF THE GODS. An extraordinary, spellbindingly bizarre film, almost hypnotizing in its bleak examination of tabloid-friendly U.F.O. subject matter. Shatner is hilarious in the film. They take it all dead seriously. Incredible. Sun Classics eventually turned into Taft International Pictures, and they went from making family films to horror pictures like THE BOOGENS. The CEO of that company actually wrote the pocket paperback novelizations of these films himself!
JJ: You worked on comic book adaptations of Lucio Fulci films and one set in the PHANTASM universe. This caught the attention of Don Coscarelli, which catapulted you into another realm, professionally speaking. Talk to me a little bit about making the transition from DIY indie comic-book writer to MASTER OF HORROR screenwriter and Coscarelli writing partner?
SR: It was crazy, because suddenly I was in a whole other playing field. I had actually worked professionally as a screenwriter and a novelist before that, ghosting for people. I ghosted several science fiction novels, which was good training because I had no real artistic commitment to those projects, beyond just making the sentences work and the dialogue sort of believable. My name wasn't on it. If I failed, it was not my fault, you know, and certainly not my problem once the check cleared. It allowed me to free my mind in certain ways. Coscarelli hired me to write a remake of PHANTASM for New Line with him back in 2002. This was after the P comic we did, and just before BUBBA HO-TEP came out. I was flattered and stunned that he would want to work with me, and we just eased right into it. We always have a great time. Don likes the way I think and I have all the respect in the world for him. After the remake sort of fizzled at New Line, we kept on hammering away at projects. Some of them are still happening! I did a few things under his direction, working from stories he provided, and we collaborated on others. With MASTERS OF HORROR, we got the chance to really prove ourselves to the outside world that our partnership was solid and we smoked it, man! Knocked out the screenplay in a few weeks and Mick Garris loved it. It was the strongest script they had, besides maybe CIGARETTE BURNS and maybe HOMECOMING, which I think is extraordinary work. I'm told they used our script to seal the deal with Showtime. I'm not sure if that's actually true, but one of the producers told me that. Making the film was much harder, and I was there for all of it. Not enough time, not enough money. Yadda yadda yadda. I was invited to the set personally by Don to work with him on revising things and such. It blew everyone's mind. I learned that writers are usually not treated with much respect on set. Don respected me, of course, but the crew... well, let's just say it was a very revealing experience. And it wasn't Don's own film, per se, so he couldn't really defend me. We were just that week's "guest stars," so to speak, and we had to tow a certain line that had been drawn by the producers, who were the real bosses. My mom also died during the shoot. When I finally saw the finished film, I couldn't stop crying. It was the greatest moment of my life and the worst moment of my life. My mother never even read the screenplay. I had promised to send it to her, but never got around to it, I was so busy. I called Don to thank him for this incredible opportunity, and to tell him what a great film I thought he had made, and I'll never forget what he told me: "I absolutely could not have done it without you, Stephen."
JJ: You and I are both fans of Chuck Palahniuk's work. There's a very distinct rhythm in Chuck Palahniuk's writing, a cadence with his phrasing. He'll also manipulate his level of description to the point where he can itemize and catalog details, so there's a heightened sense of reality, because he gets the reader to buy in. I've noticed the same trait in a lot of your short stories and now in SHOCK FESTIVAL. Do you feel you haven't done your job if a piece doesn't feel real or personal on some level, or if you haven't invested yourself emotionally? What sort of advice or techniques might you offer to aspiring writers looking to make a reader feel some connection to the material?
SR: My stories in THE RIOT ACT are nothing BUT emotional investment. They aren't true accounts, obviously, but they are written from an open wound, straight from the heart of my worldview, as honest and raw and real as I can make them without telling you what I REALLY think. If that seems a bit contradictory, allow me to explain. I believe that filmmakers like Dario Argento have major psychological issues, otherwise they wouldn't be so obsessed with what they seem to be so obsessed by... but that doesn't mean they would actually kill someone or hurt someone. Through the eyes of people who are psychotic, they create tone poems that describe the darkest side of their own subconscious fears, desires, nightmares, whatever. So it is the same with me. I cannot defend the worldview of the guy who narrates FOUR DEAD GUYS IN ZILKER PARK, because he is a criminal who tortures and kills people for a living... but, again, if I am honest, he is a reflection of me. The best writing attempts this sort of high-wire magic act of holding your own heart close to what may be The Worst Thing Imaginable. I deeply identify with the character of Bruce in INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD when his heart breaks and he does those terrible things to Ellen. He is a primal, savage animal, the same primal savage animal that lives in me when my heart breaks... it's just that Bruce doesn't know how to love Ellen in any other way. He is insane and without pity for anyone weaker than himself. So he must be destroyed. Because he has sown his OWN destruction. Most of my characters are doomed people, who have allowed themselves to be consumed by madness or who have gone so far the other way that they are unreachable. They can't even fight.
If I can give anyone a single piece of useful advice as a writer, it is this: look deep into yourself before you begin. Look hard. Very hard. That's what Chuck's work is all about. He speaks the truth through the hearts and minds of men and women who are fated in terrible ways, but you cannot doubt it because the conviction is there. The worldview is there. It's the truth. Revolution. New life.
So, yes . . . I tried very hard to bring that element to SHOCK FESTIVAL, too. It was like writing a screenplay for a very long "documentary" about many different people, and allowed me to express some very personal thoughts about a great many things. That's another piece of advice I would give: You don't have to make sure everything you write is really ABOUT SOMETHING, but it sure helps, man. Even the sillier stuff I've written, horror scripts for hire or whatever, have a little bit of that in there. Be true to your vision and your voice... but know how to disguise your voice, too. As writers, we are actors pretending to be other people. Respect that. And know when to put those characters away, too. Know the difference between you and them. It can really fuck with your life if you don't.
JJ: Many writers break in and cut their teeth simultaneously via the short story, submitting to places like CEMETERY DANCE or SUBTERRANEAN PRESS. You took a different route and released a collection of previously unpublished stories titled THE RIOT ACT. Was it a conscious decision to strike out on your own from the get-go?
SR: My position on short stories is that selling them to magazines, one at a time, as many writers do to make a living between novels or in addition to their day jobs, is just not an option for me. The money is not very good, unless you are a big name, and then what's the goddamn point? I never want to rule anything out, there are always exceptions to any rule, but I feel that I do my best, most personal work in short stories. It's like painting in the abstract. There are no fucking rules at all. It doesn't have to be a certain number of words. The form can emerge however you like. I once wrote a short story that was a single sentence long. I wrote the first line and went . . . 'well, that pretty much says it all.' I wrote THE RIOT ACT over a period of about four years, with the idea solid in mind that I would organize them into a "collection" eventually and hit the world hard with it, just after MASTERS OF HORROR, which is pretty much exactly what I did.
JJ: I know you have a lot of projects cooking. What are some of the things we can look forward to from you next?
SR: THE RIOT ACT will enjoy its mass release next year probably, in the new, super-snazzy updated format. Also, JUST LIKE THE ANIMALS, my new novel, which I mentioned. I’m not sure when either of those will come out. I like to really take the time with these in-print projects and get them right. It took two years to get SHOCK FESTIVAL done. Of course, I’m working all the time on screenplays. I’m very excited about some new film and TV projects that are either in active pre-production or in development as we speak. The first one of these you are likely to see is BUBBA NOSFERATAU: CURSE OF THE SHE VAMPIRES, the direct sequel to BUBBA HO-TEP, which I co-wrote with Coscarelli. Paul Giamatti is the co-star and co-producer. That film will be lots of fun, and RON PERLMAN will join our cast as both the the aged and young Elvis Presley, taking over the whackky role originated by Bruce Campbell. I couldn't be happier with this casting choice, as Ron is not only one of the five or six best actors alive, but the nicest guy on earth! He just jumped right on it! Ron and Giamatti together, along with the terrific supporting cast they're assembling---man, it will be amazing! Hey . . . and as a card-carrying WGA newbie (I was an “associate member” when I first joined), I get to vote on the Oscars for the first time this year! Who thinks DARK KNIGHT should win for Best Adapted Screenplay?
Check out more of the fake movies from SHOCK CINEMA
Joshua Jabcuga is the writer of such comic books as SCARFACE: DEVIL IN DISGUISE, and is a regular contributor at Comics101.com. This is his second piece for the Cult. Previously, he interviewed Jack Ketchum about the film adaptation of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.