What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?
Camp Nowhere. I was a pretty sheltered kid. My mom didn’t want me to watch nasty stuff, so besides catching a glimpse of the chestburster in Alien, I hadn’t seen anything outside of Disney movies and Indiana Jones. Which, now that I think about it, are pretty fucked up movies. Melting faces, torn-out hearts. Kind of weird how that stuff, if viewed early enough, blends into the images of Sesame Street and The Lion King. Maybe there’s something to that.
I went with a buddy and his dad to see Camp Nowhere, and I remember not getting it at all, but I knew some real shit was going on. I still don’t remember the movie, but I know I stood outside the theater, staring at the poster, not sure how I’d tell my mom what it was about.
As far as deep impressions in my teen years, I eventually got my own room away from my brother and sister, and Mom relaxed her strictures. There were a ton, then. Fight Club, Mulholland Drive, Hard Boiled.
Very often film is one of the ways we first come into contact with a world outside that of our direct experience. Which films introduced you to areas of life away from the familiar circumstances you grew up in?
This is an interesting question, because for me, TV was always around. I guess the best answer to this would be foreign films, specifically from Hong Kong and Japan. I had to order A Better Tomorrow III from overseas, and when I got it the subtitles were all fucked up. It felt like how I’d feel later on in life, actually visiting foreign countries: lost. I should probably rewatch that one, but I had put it back in the jewel case and never returned to it. Wasn’t any fun.
Films from East Asia fascinated me because, besides the obvious language barriers, the social interactions displayed in the movies felt different to me. It was the first time I grasped the idea that people can be fundamentally different, impenetrable to each other. I got hooked.
What films first felt transgressive to you? Do you remember being secretive about any films you watched growing up?
That would have to be Ichi the Killer. After I watched that one, I felt like I needed to take a shower. Everything about it felt grimy and wrong. Which is by design, of course. Even as an edgy teenager, I’d never seen anything so depraved and confusing. Do people actually like pain? Is there something besides being gay or straight? Is it possible to be that sadistic, or masochistic? One time I was hanging out with a friend of mine. I was eleven or twelve. His house was filthy, his teeth were rotten, and we’d mostly spend time playing Command and Conquer on his dad’s PC. One night he took me to his parents’ bedroom. Equally filthy, clothes on the floor, this sweet rotting smell throughout the house, probably from old takeout boxes. He opened the top drawer in a chest of drawers, and it had all these sex toys in them. He grabbed some Polaroids and showed them to me: they were of his parents fucking. That is kind of what it was like watching Ichi the Killer.
Are there any films that define your formative years?
The Indiana Jones movies, Star Wars, Disney/Pixar’s run from 1992 to 1998 or so, then moving forward in time, Hard Boiled, Starship Troopers, Predator 2, Ronin, Mission: Impossible 2, Face/Off, Con Air, Goldeneye, Rumble in the Bronx, and Pulp Fiction.
Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing?
My biggest influences are films. I read a lot as a kid, but eventually I got bored with books. By the time I hit my mid-twenties, I was barely reading any fiction at all, which was the perfect time to start a small press. My relationship to reading fiction is weird. It’s my job. I read and edit between three and five manuscripts a month, and some of them are really good! So while I read a lot of fiction, at this point, of the fifty or so books I read a year for fun, almost all of them are non-fiction. Surprise is the most important element for me in art, and I never know where the non-fiction books I read are going. If I’m reading Tiqqun or Barry Lopez, I am completely swept up because in the first case I don’t know what they’re talking about, and in the second I’m exploring the arctic with this cool guy. Keeps me on my toes. But I have read some great fiction recently, too. Blake Butler’s Alice Knott, Adam McOmber’s Jesus and John, Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy. Good, weird books.
Anyway, I say all that to say that films have been my biggest influence because I love the visual language. The amount of time it takes to build a mental image while reading is delivered automatically through film. That’s why I’ve always been confused about books that attempt to tell a straightforward, filmic plot through the written word. Isn’t that just a less-good version of a medium that already exists? Instead, why not adopt film’s self-confidence? Not sure if that makes sense or not. Seems like a contradiction to say I’m mostly inspired by film, but that I don’t think books should try to mimic film. But it’s not, not if you’re inspired by the spirit, rather than the technical, storytelling structure.
Do you use film as a prompt or direct motivation for your writing?
Almost exclusively. I don’t get a lot out of books, unfortunately. I think the internet might have broken my brain.
What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?
My first novel is very influenced by Mulholland Drive. For the rest of it, I try to get as close in spirit as I can to the work of Miike, Tsukamoto, Sono, Toyoda. That mixture of high and low art, freneticism and patience, precision and shit smearing.
Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?
I have not, but I think it would be cool, although I recognize it as a medium that I have zero skill in or understanding of, so it’s just one of those “wouldn’t it be cool” things.
Thinking about the places you’ve lived, are there any environments that are cinematic? Have you lived anywhere that has been regularly depicted onscreen? If so, has this had an influence on your perception of the place, or how you’ve depicted it in any of your writings?
Every place I’ve lived is cinematic, for sure. The deep greens of Forest Park in Portland were captured beautifully in Leave No Trace, the deserts of El Paso looked great in Sicario, and my home state of Oklahoma has recently looked fantastic in the Hulu show Reservation Dogs, which is probably my favorite new show.
Place is extremely important to my writing. I don’t think I’ve done a great job of capturing it in the past. I had a tendency to set my novels in spare, unforgiving environments, and the goal was to make the novels feel cold and hollow. I’m getting into it, though. I remember reading once that the invention of the camera made the detailed descriptions of place found in novels redundant, and that’s true to a certain extent, but there’s a way to do it without being too exact, where you pick the details that make the scene pop. I want to make place much more of a character in my current books. You Pray for Dry Weather at the Sight of the Sun has the most place detail I’ve ever put into a book, because the game it’s inspired by conveys such a strong sense of being grounded in your environment.
Are there films you regularly return to, and do you know why?
I don’t rewatch films often. The last ones I watched over and over were No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Recently, I could see myself returning to Bullet Ballet and Tokyo Fist, because they’re so dense and beautiful.
Are there individual scenes that stay with you?
The “Llorando” scene from Mulholland Drive, the tempura scene from Ichi the Killer, the birth scene from Gozu, the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men, the bowling alley scene from There Will Be Blood, the heart-ripping in Temple of Doom, the rain of knives in Pornostar, the end of the world in Tetsuo, the run through Shinjuku in 964 Pinnochio, and 13 Corinthians in Love Exposure.
Are there films that are reliable for inspiring your creativity?
I’m inspired by Takashi Miike. He started out wanting to race motorcycles, then realized he’d never be good enough to compete. Then he wanted to work on motorcycles, but realized that required technical knowledge he didn’t want. He joined film school because it was free, didn’t do any assignments, and got recruited to help work on commercials because he was the only student not busy working on a final project. In the film industry, he worked every odd job he could for a decade before being given a director’s role for a movie where women in bikinis solve crimes (I think).
He’s humble, claims not to pay too much attention to the details, and yet his movies aren’t amateurish. He’s extremely disciplined. There’s no way he wouldn’t be and still have 110+ films under his belt. What Miike seems to do is approach every project with a workmanlike attitude: the films have to be done on time and under budget. He gets all of his ducks in a row, and then, when it’s time to actually shoot the film, he has fun. Experiments.
I like to say that writing books is a completely stupid thing that I take absolutely seriously. I feel like many people do it the other way. Miike tells a story in Agitator by Tom Mes, in his Ichi the Killer on-set diary, about how he asked Shin’ya Tsukamoto if he could use one of his sets to shoot some scenes. Tsukamoto says fine, and Miike goes in and shoots eight or nine scenes, then goes to check in on Tsukamoto. He hasn’t even finished one. Miike says, “That’s when I knew I would never beat him.” That’s the humility again, and I don’t think it’s fair to compare the work of the two, because they’re both masters doing different things, but I’d say Miike has it all wrong. Tsukamoto went on to make some brilliant films (I think he was shooting Bullet Ballet at the time of this story), but he’s also made some real dog shit, like Nightmare Detective or Tetsuo III. Meanwhile, Miike has finished over a hundred films. Are all of them great? No, of course not, but he’s got more hits than Tsukamoto.
My point in all of this is that I’m inspired by an artist who is able to not take himself too seriously, while taking the work seriously, while at the same time leaving space in the creative moment to allow happy accidents and moments of insanity into the mix. He is, to me, the image of an artist in full control, willing to loosen his grip when necessary to let the Muse do her thing.
Which of your writings would adapt most successfully to film?
Probably Low Down Death Right Easy (Blood and Water). It’s got the most straightforward, character-driven crime plot out of the bunch.
Can you give some film recommendations for those who have liked your writing?
Two TV shows: Atlanta and Too Old to Die Young. Filmwise, I’d say Gozu or Bullet Ballet.