December 22, 2017 Interview – Dennis Paoli
Literature is a vital part of the fabric that makes us who we are. It tells us where we have been, where we are presently, and where we are going in the future. That in mind, perhaps one of the most significant authors of the 20th century is H. P. Lovecraft. A master of the macabre, Lovecraft’s imagination created images with words and more than a half-century later, the work translated into motion pictures thanks to talented screenplay writers such as Dennis Paoli. Penning outstanding modern adaptations of Lovecraft’s tales in such films as 1985’s Re-Animator and 1986’s From Beyond, Paoli is one of the Horror genre’s most respected writers. Recently we caught up with the busy Paoli to talk his passion for writing, working with Stuart Gordon, how he approaches writing, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – With a career dating back over three decades, you have written in film, television, and theater. First, briefly tell us, what inspired you to become a writer?
Dennis Paoli – Well, there are actually a couple of answers to that: one was reading. I love to read. As a kid, I was a very avid reader, so I loved to read. I’m an academic too, I run writing programs. I think one of the real keys to becoming a good writer is to read, to read as much as possible, and to love it. To love it so much that you pay attention to how it’s done. I’m a very slow reader and I am happy to be. I used to think it was a deficit to be a slow reader, but I think now that it was a real benefit. It helped me enjoy it, and I would stop to reread sentences and passages that gave pleasure, either in the story elements or the ideas in them, but also in the way they were written. I think reading, and loving reading, was really important, and helped lay the groundwork for my becoming a writer.
I also think, and this may sound anomalous, the fact that I grew up in one of the earliest generations of TV-watchers, of kids who watched TV. My family were big TV-watchers, we watched TV all the time. I think watching television, the half-hour and one-hour formats of most shows, gave you a real sense of story, of story development. It gave you a real sense of character. You really got to know it because you saw them through weekly stories. You really got to know the characters in most of the television shows. I think TV made me really aware of the narrative form of the joys and of the real satisfactions of appreciating a narrative. I think when you put that together with the verbal learning from reading, you started to be aware that, “Oh, these stories are written.” Then it sort of put itself together.
CrypticRock.com – Very interesting. As a writer, you have worked on various things including Horror film screenplays such as Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), Ghoulies II (1988), etc. Is it safe to say you have an affection for Horror?
Dennis Paoli – The absolute truth of the matter is yes, absolutely. That’s not sort of why I am known for writing Horror films. I always had an appreciation of the genre of Horror. You engage them first on television, Saturday nights used to be the Horror films. On one of the independent stations, they’d always have Horror films, so I’d find myself watching Horror films. When I did go to the movies, it was often to go to Horror films because it was so much fun and there were so many of them back in the ’50s and ’60s. So many of them were good, it was the golden age of the Hammer films, and the American International films – the famous Edgar Allan Poe that Roger Corman and other filmmakers made. Also, the great versions of Dracula with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, so it was a great time for Horror films.
Then you had real film geniuses working in the genre like Alfred Hitchcock making Psycho (1960) with the development of the Psychological Thriller. The films that I could choose from back then when I was growing up were great! They were very influential to the work that I do now, but that’s not why I wrote Horror films. It was when I worked with Stuart Gordon, who directed 2 out of the 3 films that you mentioned. I knew him from high school, we were also college roommates, and I worked with him in theatre in college.
Then I worked with Stuart’s theater on a couple of projects in Chicago, The Organic Theatre Company. Even though I was living in New York, and his theater was in Chicago, we maintained our friendship and we had a working relationship on a couple of projects all over the course of the next decade and a half. Then, when he got the opportunity to make films, to direct his films, this is back in the early-to mid-80s when he made Re-Animator. In that era, the way to break into films and direct was often to go through the making a low budget film. The two genres that were most popular as low budget films and that were most likely to get released were Comedies and Horror films.
Stuart was recruited by Brian Yuzna, who is a really true believer in the Horror genre. He asked Stuart if he had any Horror projects and Stuart had a Lovecraft adaptation in mind. So, since I had worked with him, we had known each other for such a long time, had such a longstanding working relationship, and I had already done some scriptwriting for him, he had asked me to collaborate on the script for Re-Animator. It wasn’t because we loved Horror films that we did it, it’s because Horror films could get made that we did it. Happily, we loved Horror film, so it was a real opportunity to work in a genre that we loved.
If you know Re-Animator, it also has its comic moments, so we were able to walk that line between horror and humor while trying to have the best of the low budget world. Happily, it was a successful effort – Re-Animator was, and continues to be, a really good film. Once you got known for making Re-Animator, and known for making that type of movie, well, that’s the type of movie you were asked to make again.
Hollywood has always been brand-conscious, and once you make a Horror film, you’re sort of branded as a Horror filmmaker or Horror film writer, and that is what happened to us. We’re perfectly fine with that, but it wasn’t just our love of writing Horror films, it was the opportunity that was available. Stuart has made a number of different kinds of films. He’s made several Comedies as well. I’ve written a couple of other kinds of films as well, but what we’re known for are our Horror films. That is sadly the way the industry and the business works.
CrypticRock.com – That seems to happen with actors and actresses as well. They play a certain role in a film and then they are typecast for the rest of their career.
Dennis Paoli – I can tell you for a fact that two of the most brilliant actors I’ve worked with, and actors I’ve continued to work with, are Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. Jeff would be a great actor in almost any role, but he, again, got most of his opportunities through Horror films. Almost all of his work is in that genre while he actually could have worked in any genre.
That is true with Barbara Crampton too. I think it’s even more problematic for the Scream Queens, for the women in the genre to break out of that, and I don’t think that’s fair. Barbara has shown herself to be multi-talented, she’s a producer now. She’s just a terrific actress and it was a great privilege to be able to work with them. You are right, it also happens to actors as well.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it does. Now, these two particular stories, Re-Animator and From Beyond, which are H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, they are modernized, obviously for the times. Is that a challenge to bring a story into modern times without it losing its potency that the original story had?
Dennis Paoli – Yes, I mean it’s always a challenge. The challenges in adapting literary work to the screen are multiple. It is a challenge to adapt any literary work to the screen – to go from one medium to another and those media are quite different from each other. It’s always a challenge with different media. Print, storytelling, and film storytelling, they sort of build tension and create shock in different ways. To some degree, they are similar, but to some degree they are quite different. It is why adapting Stephen King can be so difficult and adapting Lovecraft to some degree is even more difficult. One, because he has such avid fans who are so dedicated to his work, know it so well. By knowing it, I mean they know the way in which Lovecraft creates the environment of his fiction and the affective effects. He is a master, not just a master, in fact his storytelling was quite experimental for the literary genre he was working in. I’ve said this before in other interviews, he is, I think, one of the great American impressionists in literature. His work makes such a strong impression on the reader that it engages the reader’s imagination in a way that makes it very difficult to adapt it to the screen where you actually have to show things.
Film is not often a very successful impressionistic medium. It can be, but at some point you have to show things, you have to express them. You move from impressionism to expressionism. That is really challenging with somebody like Lovecraft, where, in order to be faithful to Lovecraft, you probably wouldn’t do that at all, but you have to on screen because the film form demands it. The way Stuart and I always approached being faithful to Lovecraft was to really engage with the story as much as possible. To appreciate it as much as possible. To appreciate the effects that it had and try to recreate those effect in an entirely different format. Luckily, we’ve been fairly successful at that, but it’s not easy to do. It means you have to be as faithful as possible. We have to at times be faithless in the most appreciative way. We have to appreciate what Lovecraft does and honor it the best we can in our own method.
To address another issue which you brought up, which was the updating, I don’t feel updating really violates Lovecraft in many ways because he was so interested and intelligent about the science of his days; from the medical and biological sciences to physics itself. His anticipations of what science would focus its efforts on of the extension of life or the revisitation of life, well, we see that now in life extension, medical inventions, and in cryogenics, etc. We also see in the development of theories of advanced physics that Lovecraft’s ideas of multi-dimensionality was anticipating the current scientific thinking. Lovecraft was ahead of his time. Well, if he was ahead of his time, by updating him, we are simply catching up with Lovecraft. So that was much less of a problem than to deal with his genius as a creative writer.
CrypticRock.com – He was an extraordinary writer. Your film adaptations have stood the test of time, these are adored films in the modern Horror film genres.
Dennis Paoli – Thank you, but let me reflect some of that back on Lovecraft. We did as good a job as we could with the material, and Stuart is a visual genius. Stuart Gordon is a real artist. Again, a lot of the effectiveness of the work reflects back on our appreciation of the fundamentals of Lovecraft’s imagination.
CrypticRock.com – That makes sense. Beyond your writing, you also teach. How redeeming is that for you to be able to share literature and teach literature to young, impressionable minds?
Dennis Paoli – I love it. I love teaching. It’s another kind of challenge. One of the things I teach is Gothic Fiction, so it keeps me in connection with the genre itself. I also teach Irish literature, it’s one of my specialities and I love that. To some degree, the fact that Irish literature is so different, and of course there are overlaps, but it is so different from Gothic Fiction that it sort of clears your mind. It clears your intellectual palette to go back and work in the genres that… when I get writing work to do, it usually is in the Horror genre. It is very intellectually refreshing to teach and to teach other literature that I love.
Indeed, I do occasionally do other types of writing. I do academic writing. When you teach, you are expected to occasionally publish, and I’ve done my share of publishing about other authors, and writing issues. I work in academic writing programs as well. Academic writing is very different from creative writing, but again, I think it’s mind-clearing. I never feel like teaching or working with other students on their academic writing exhausts my intellectual energy or curiosity. As a matter of fact, when I do that and then I go home, switch programs on my office computer, and start working on a piece of creative writing, it’s like I’ve been refreshed from being away from it. It’s almost as if I have a new relationship with it when I come back from the different perspective that I’ve been working with in my teaching and in my academic work.
I’ve been very fortunate I think, to have both of those jobs, and they are both jobs that I love. Not a lot of people get to spend their lives doing the job that they love, and I got to spend my life doing two? I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve also been fortunate to work with friends. I’ve always been fortunate enough to work with Stuart Gordon, who is a longtime friend. I’ve also collaborated on a couple of other scripts which have made it into other films with friends of mine. People who have worked on our films, like the actors Jeffrey and Barbara, have become friends over the years. It has been just a joy from the beginning.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it. As far as what you said, teaching literature, one can imagine you have probably come across a lot of talented young writers. What advice would you give to a talented young writer who is looking to make their way. Sometimes, as a writer, we tend to overthink it a little bit. What advice would you give?
Dennis Paoli – It depends on what you’re writing. First of all, I’d say my first piece of advice is don’t take any advice about writing (laughs). I’m not kidding. One of the pieces of advice that I hear young writers given all the time is “write every day. If you don’t write every day, you’re not a real writer.” What a load of, excuse the term, shit. I don’t write everyday, some days you just don’t write, you just don’t get to it. You do have to ultimately write, but a lot of days you’re just thinking about it, you’re writing in your mind. A lot of days, even when you’re not thinking about it, when you get to it the next day, it was better if you didn’t write for a day because you needed to get it out of your system so you could see it differently.
There are no rules. The rules of writing are to find out how do you write. Where do you like to write? When do you like to write? I used to only be able to write from midnight to three in the morning when I was younger. That’s because I live in New York, and the buzz of the city does not go down so I could relax into writing. That’s just the way I wrote – I needed to relax into writing. I would just start writing at midnight and write until the words were blurry and I had to go to bed. Now, I can’t stay up that late anymore. I have to get up early and write, but that’s fine. You find out when you can write. You find out where you can write. You find out how you can write. You have to find that out for yourself.
The other piece I would give to young writers, and by young writers I mean anyone who is starting to write. You can start to write when you are a retiree. I think more retirees should spend their time writing. One of the pieces of advice I give is always think writing is collaborative. I do adaptations of Lovecraft, so to some degree I collaborate with Lovecraft. I write films, films are always collaborative. I always think that there are three writers for every film: there’s the writer, or multiple writers. I’ve collaborated with several other writers on most films that I’ve done. You’re always giving the script off to a director who is, to some degree, going to rewrite it as they film it. They are going to get ideas that build off of your ideas. Then the editor is going to write it. The editor is going to impose the grammar of the film form on it. So, you are always going to collaborate. You can’t be jealous of your words, you have to be aware that other people can have input in this and can make it better. I’ve been really lucky to work with other geniuses for which my work has been a springboard.
You can’t be too jealous of your work because we’re all inspired by other writers. Our writing is based to some degree on theirs. We’re collaborating with generations, with centuries of other writers who have done work that we appreciate. That’s where that reading comes in. I was ready to do that because I was such an avid reader when I was a kid. I don’t read enough anymore, I miss it.
CrypticRock.com – That is very good advice. That is a challenge that some people have, they do not accept editors work, etc. You have to be open because, as you said, your writing will get better. You can apply that to anything in life really.
Dennis Paoli – Absolutely. When you were talking about editors, the fact is when I write a script, I give it to Stuart, I give it to the director because I know very often who the director is going to be. In other cases, you give it to the producer and they give you notes. Very often, I don’t agree with the notes at all, but I’ve trained myself to sit with those notes for a day or two and really think them through.
Now, very often, I just think they’re wrong, and I don’t agree with them, and I won’t respond to that note. More often than I’d like to admit, they’re right. They saw something I didn’t see. They saw an opportunity or an opening that I didn’t see. That needed at least to be investigated. Maybe I don’t make a change in relation to their note, but I really should investigate what that change might mean if I were to do it.
Writers always collaborate. You need to be open to that, and it’s very difficult. As writers, we work so hard to get the words down and to get the words as right as we can, then somebody says, “Oh no, why don’t you do it this way.” Well, then you stop for a minute and think, what if you did do it that way? There are always new ways to see. The whole idea of writing and the whole idea of creative writing, literature, film, and art is to open people up. If you’re too closed up to participate in that process of opening up yourself, your work might not be as artistically satisfying as you want it to be.
CrypticRock.com – Very true, and very good points. Last question, since you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorites?
Dennis Paoli – Well, my very favorite is Psycho. I saw it as a kid and when I walked home at night, I walked down the middle of the street because I wanted to be in the streetlight. It was that effective. Psycho is a real work of genius. I love the Hammer films, Dracula films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I haven’t seen Alien: Covenant, but I like the first two Alien films.
About a year ago I saw It Follows (2014) on cable. What a good, smart idea. It is really creepy. Not only is it creepy, it is very suggestive with multiple meanings. American filmmaking is terrific and Hollywood filmmaking is great, but I really like foreign films to some degree because they have different structures. It’s almost like they want to be Hollywood movies but they can’t be because they have a different sensibility and culture. Something like Let the Right One In (2008) has such a different sensibility about it. It takes places in such a different environment and it’s kind of so oddly, lovingly made.
I can’t keep up with as much of it as I’d like to. I haven’t been able to keep up with Gaspar Noé, but I really liked the way he challenges the Hollywood’s format. His movies could never be made in Hollywood. They’re spectacularly worth making and seeing. There’s just so much out there that’s great, and that’s been true for most of my life. You don’t have to look far to find good stuff. You do have to look, you can’t just read the reviews, read the ads, and you can’t just get excited about the next big Batman remake. It might be great, but you have to look around and give other cultures and other film industries a chance. There’s really good stuff out there.
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