Archive for August, 2015

I’m really quite bummed by the death of Wes Craven. As a kid of the 1970s and 1980s, the artistry with which he articulated the darkness that was thrashing around in the American subconscious gave me a lot of catharsis. I had the pleasure of interviewing him by phone back in 2010. He was erudite, literate, and intellectually deft. One of these days, I should transcribe the whole conversation.  But for now, on the occasion of his death, I’ll share the bits that were published.

Wes Craven

SINS OF THE FATHERS

by

Michael Marano

(c) 2010, by Michael Marano

First appeared in the December, 2010 issue of SciFi Magazine.

I was sitting down the road from the marsh where Wes Craven filmed Swamp Thing back in ’82 when Craven took time out from filming Scream 4 to phone about his upcoming movie, My Soul To Take.

“I very jokingly can refer to it as Stand by Me with knives,” says the man who picked apart the American Id when he brought us Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street. His voice is cultured and smooth as a really good whiskey, the kind of voice that’d be perfect for a late-night Jazz DJ in a rainy city like Seattle or San Francisco. “It’s about a group young kids, 16-year-olds on their sixteenth birthday. And were all born on the same night in the local town hospital… on the night that a serial killer who had seven personalities died. Or at least, seems to have died….”

“The legend in the town is that this man [is still alive and] is going to come back to take his revenge on the town. But also it is suspected that he did die, and that his [murderous] soul went into one of these kids, and that the rest of the kids have his other souls. All of this man’s souls were rather benign except for the one that was a killer, and that [soul] was operating without this man’s knowledge. So, it’s a matter of, ‘Should we watch out for the friend we have? Or should we be watching out for the killer who is coming to take his revenge on the kids?'”

In this light, My Soul to Take almost sounds like a perfect storm of Wes Craven themes. If you look at a lot of Craven’s movies, they seem to deal with atonement, even if the people doing the atoning aren’t responsible for the initial trespass that’s being atoned for. The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Deadly Blessing, the Scream series–all involve some dark wrong committed that fairly blameless people (who often weren’t even born when the wrong was committed) have to pay for. And they pay for them real bad. I asked him about that.

“Certainly it’s one of the most profound aspects of life itself, when you realize you don’t just have to deal with your own stuff, and what you have caused, but what other people have caused in the past and sometimes in the quite recent past, and in the case of families, maybe even you parents. That’s just always interested me.”

“This film to me, frankly, feels quite personal. My father died when I was about four, so I do have some memories of him and some of them are kinds of scary. Not that he ever beat me, or anything. But I think he was a very gruff man with a bad temper. That kind of journey of trying to find out who your father really was and whether he loved you or didn’t like you–what were the aspects of his life?–it’s a very personal one. And also, you know, I was raised in the Fundamentalist faith, or let’s say even more specifically with the Bible. And ‘The Sins of the Fathers are visited upon their sons.’ That is a profound reality in our lives.”

In the context of family dynamics, what Craven is talking about smacks a lot of the same chords as Greek tragedy–how the immediacy of something that happened in your family can rise up and wreck your life. Check out Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes if you want some familial knee-slappers. Craven has thrown-down with a lot of these themes, too. These family dynamics bubble under Last House, Hills Have Eyes, Elm Street, Cursed, People Under the Stairs and all three Scream movies.

“Horror films, in my mind at least, are kind of human experience boiled down to the essence and sometimes to a very primal physical threat to the physicality of the body, or the mind or the soul, to the extent that we can understand what that is,” Craven said when I brought this up. “These are very, very primal sorts of things. And the family is a great paradigm of that. It’s not necessarily that everything is the world is about the family, but in a sense, it’s a boiling down of the Family of Man….. To take it down to the simplest paradigm, it quite often is the family, or the ‘tribe.’ Some horror films are about the group of friends who go out to do this or that, or some member of the tribe gets killed, or whatever. But it is about these very simple entities that have to do with the world we live in, outside of our own bodies, and how that affects us, and what those people either have done in the past or what the immediate generation just before them has done. A lot of horror films start out with: ‘On this night, one hundred years ago, these sailors died because someone took the lanterns off the rocks!‘ and then you end up with The Fog. I just think that for teenagers, especially, part of the coming into maturity is finding out who your parents really are, and what they did, and how that affects you. And even wrestling with the question of ‘Am I ever going to be distinctly different from my parents?’, or, ‘Am I going to be haunted by realizing Oh my God, I’ve become my father?’ is something that can happen to you in your ’30s or 40s.”

In this context, the antagonist in My Soul to Take seems to combine a couple of elements that have been staples of horror and slasher films of the past few decades: the earthly killer and the supernatural bogeyman. In the early days of the slasher genre as we know it, the killers had no direct connection to the supernatural. They had a level of power and blankness that seemed otherworldly, just look at early Argento movies. Then Jason became an undead super-being. Michael Meyers became a Druidic spirit being. Then we got Freddy, Chuckie from Child’s Play, the Trickster from Brainscan, Horace Pinker from Craven’s own Shocker. Where does the killer in My Soul to Take fall along this spectrum?

“I would spoil the story if I told you,” Craven said. “But the possibilities are that this is a man who has died and come back in one of the souls of the children, or this is a man who did not die and who is coming back to take his revenge, or this is a man who has died and who has come back in his own form, that has kind of been haunting the woods. All three of those are the given options over the course of trying to penetrate the mystery of what really is happening.”

Craven has directed in wildly different contexts. He’s done episodic TV for the 1980s incarnation of Twilight Zone. He’s done studio movies like Music from the Heart and Red Eye. One of the reasons he wrote and made The Hills Have Eyes was that it could be filmed on the cheap in the desert, where no permits would be needed. The climactic chainsaw fight in Last House was shot in a house that associate producer Steve Miner was renting.

“Even the budgets for Music from the Heart and Red Eye were modest budgets. I think over the course of making a lot of small films and learning how to make them seem bigger budgeted than they actually were, we’ve been able to mount films that have managed to get a lot of bang for the buck. My Soul to Take I would say is kind of in the middle. It wasn’t a miniscule budget. It wasn’t a big budget. But we were dealing with mostly unknown kids–there weren’t any gigantic fees on that. We shot in Connecticut, so we got a big tax break. The same guy was writing producing and directing, and his wife was also producing [Craven’s wife Iya Labunka], so we kept our costs down. I think the unusual thing about this film is that it falls into the films I’ve made that were written and directed by me where I’ve had final cut. Which were most of my classic films, possibly with the exception of Scream, written by Kevin Williamson and which also had terrific writing, and Carl Ellsworth’s work on Red Eye–[both] were scripts that were in terrific shape and had great ideas and I was able to just step in as director.”

“But My Soul to Take is very much of a personal film. I was given the auteur’s version of making a film, so I was allowed to do what I wanted, with great support. And although we didn’t have an unlimited number of days to shoot, we were able to put a film up that was designed to be modestly budgeted, but has a terrific look. I don’t think anyone is going to look at it and think that this is guerilla filmmaking. But on the other hand, anybody who knows about film would see that we designed it in a way that would be fairly economical to shoot.”

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Hey… I’m posting this because I’ve been getting emails about the specifics of my upcoming “Writing the Smart Page-Turner” class at Grub Street in Boston this January, which will be taught at Grub Street HQ in downtown Boston Thursdays, from 10:30 AM to 1:30 PM starting on January 14, 2016. The gist of the class is–how do you make genre fiction… be it fantasy, science fiction, mystery, suspense, Western, erotica, whatever… literary? Yep, I toss around ideas about what makes certain works both popular and literary. But the class is specifically designed to be useful for the actual writing of novels and short stories. The instruction is practical, not theoretical.

“If only every teacher had the passion of Mike. He brings his rich background of book and film knowledge–and experience–and uses them to create classes that are a joy to attend. His comments on your writing are thoughtful, sincere, and designed to make you strengthen your writing muscles–no matter how developed or atrophied they may be.” John D., former student

The class will consist of detailed workshopping, brainstorming, in-class exercises, and the reading of some pretty great fiction, screenplays, stage plays, and comic books/graphic novels. Here’s a breakdown of the class and a few of the things we’ll be reading.

Week 1. What Makes Fiction Popular? OK, what makes something a “Smart Page-Turner”? To warm up, we’ll be picking apart a few of those elements, tricks and techniques that give genre works literary heft. There are three factors that are key to this, and we’ll not just talk about each factor, but look at how they work together. Readings will include Ray Bradbury and a few others.

Week 2. Creating Characters–“Archaeology Without Digging” In this class we’re going to be pinching techniques from top Hollywood screenwriters, acting coaches, journalists and… believe it or not… archaeologists. Creating good, memorable, believable characters can be a daunting challenge, and ruthlessly stealing from other disciplines can give you an awesome toolkit for doing this. Readings will include (non-scary) parts of Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, who, it should be noted, was a top crime reporter before he became a crime fiction writer. We’ll take a close look at how he uses his reporter’s eye to create amazing characters.

Week 3. World Building and Setting In genre fiction, “World Building” is often thought of in terms of how it applies to the creation of imaginary worlds, like Dune or Middle-earth. But the same techniques that are used to create imaginary settings can also be used to create believable, visceral settings for mysteries, espionage stories, cop stories, and vice versa. Building on last week’s lesson, we’ll take a look at how character defines setting, and setting defines character. Readings will include Philip K. Dick, part of a Philip Marlowe story by Raymond Chandler, and Tom Perrotta. We’ll also be looking at some awesome comic books, written by bestselling thriller author Brad Meltzer!

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Week 4. Exposition “As you know Bob–my twin brother and fellow operative with whom I grew up in Kansas–our briefing report from HQ summarizes that it is our objective to….” Ever roll your eyes at an expositional groaner like that? How do you get across the background information the reader needs to know without making a botch of it? We’ll go over some elegant techniques that get that information to the reader in ways that the reader at times won’t even notice. Readings will include Andre DubusJohn Cheever, and we’ll take a look at how James Cameron pulls this off in his better screenplays from the 1980s.

Week 5. Dialogue Bad dialogue can kill a great story. We’ll take a look at the work of people who can skillfully tell stories using almost only dialogue, like playwrights and the authors of radio dramas. We’ll see how playwriting techniques can be used in prose form, and also look closely at the work of playwrights who also write for the screen. Authors read will include Norman WexlerMidnight Cowboy author James Leo Herlihy, and Sarah Kane.

Joe Cover

Week 6. Point of View We’ll take a look at how POV actually defines plot, how it determines the narrative arc of a story, and can be used to create suspense. We’ll build on previous lessons to find ways to get deep into a character’s head, and to use that perspective to figure out not just what makes that character tick, but how he or she ticks in his or her world. Among other sources, we’ll be looking at a pretty great comic book written by Ed Brubaker that features Batman… in a context you’ve never seen him in before!

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Week 7. Plot What is plot? How is what is not told to the reader just as important in the creation of a plot as what is told? Is the narrative climax of a work of fiction the same as its emotional climax? In addition to raking over these questions, we’ll go over some great “hands on” techniques for creating new plots and getting your creative pistons firing. Readings will include Annie Proux.

Week 8. Theme Theme isn’t a one-way street. This session will focus on the ways that the reader contributes to an understanding of Theme right along with the author. We’ll talk about the themes in your fiction, how to develop them and make them dynamic. Readings will include Jack Ketchum and either Rosellen Brown or Tom Reamy.

Week 9. Meeting Weird Editorial Requirements Writers have to meet deadlines and deal with certain themes or topics when solicited, and some themes are just weird, or bewildering, or whacked. We’ll dig in and take a look at real themed anthology guidelines and find ways to cook stories suited for those markets. We’ll also find ways to create stories suited for several specialized markets, and take a look at how specific works have been developed for and sold to specialized anthologies. Readings will include William Faulkner and a few others.

Week 10. How to Work with Editors, Cover Letters, Submitting your Work So… what’s an editor do? What do they look for? The course will close with an examination of fiction that I have myself taken through the editorial process with other writers in my capacity as the Fiction Editor of the online magazine Chiaroscuro. We’ll also go over ways to submit professionally, and ways to strategize to whom you should send your work and how you should pitch it.

For more information on the class and to sign up, you can click here.

You can contact me directly at profmike AT mindspring DOT com

Thanks stopping by! Hope to see you in January!