Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing?
I used to write out imaginary “screenplays” when I was in middle school. I think I still have one, maybe more back in Michigan. They weren’t properly formatted scripts by any stretch, but they were hand-scrawled goofy horror action/dialogue narratives that flowed like movies I wished I could’ve slipped into, but didn’t exist. Waxwork II: Lost in Time was quite an inspiration for one of them. I brought them to life on the page as best as any middle schooler could. Being a voracious reader definitely helped. I wrote several more messy screenplays in university. These read more like numbered shot lists, but that simple list-like script of shots resulted in one surprisingly watchable noir piece called Tears For Tono, where I played a quiet hitman betrayed by his shamanic overlord. My friend Johnny Unicorn did the music for it. He made it come to life.
Years later, when I finally started penning short fictions for publication purposes (circa 2010), I found my imagination warmed up nicely when I turned toward that cinematic light. In fact, The Mondo Vixen Massacre (Eraserhead Press) really mutated into a structured narrative when I began examining the works of Jim Wynorski, Russ Meyer, and Takashi Miike. Wynorski’s work took center stage for some reason. He’s a master of B-movie pacing and twisting movies sharply toward their ends so smoothly and in such a fun way. I didn’t realize at that time that I would actually be paid to write four feature scripts for him just a few years later. Maybe that cinematic light that bubbled out of my fingers never left me. I just needed to tune into it and trust the source of it all, lean into the magic, and write myself closer to the light. Thank God for it all. I also listened to a ton of Grinderman, Ennio Morricone, and Leonard Cohen in those days. That helped, too.
Are there films that are reliable for inspiring your creativity?
Zulawski’s Possession still drops me to my knees. I first saw it in Beijing and could relate to the intensity of it all. I felt the tentacles and crucifix and monsters and tears all swarmed with such a familiar spirit of lust and estrangement. Actually, I used to live up in northern New Mexico. One summer, my wife took off overseas for a month, and I may have wound up with some strange tea in my coffee cup. I kept Possession playing on repeat for days and just blurred into the vibe. There’s still so much to it that baffles me, though I don’t care anymore to analyze beyond the poetry it brings to me. That poetry is enough.
I’m also in love with Nicolas Winding Refn’s work, especially The Neon Demon, though Too Old to Die Young is something I could watch every day and still find much to love about it. I watched The Neon Demon a few weeks after moving to southern California and it’s just a perfect theater of body horror and beauty worship. Or maybe I’m still stuck in that arthouse theater in Shibuya where I worshiped Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny. I would love to see the original Cannes cut. I could watch those driving shots forever. I bought the Japanese novelization, which I still have on my shelf, and still can’t really read. Kanji was never my strong point. But that novelization… what wonders it must possess. And The Shining is in here, too. I think I’ve built my own imaginary Overlook so many times and keep wandering there when the page is blank. And there are more movies: David Lynch, Jim Riffel, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Jarmusch, Von Trier… Too many. I can easily tear myself apart by how much I love certain scenes, and in my better moments I’ll use their sublime beauty and just let the tone wash over me, truly grateful for good art and I’m lucky enough to experience any of this. Roger Watkins’ work comes to mind, too, almost makes me tear up when I think of what he could’ve brought to life if his work would’ve reached a larger audience.
What films have roused a visceral reaction in you?
Dead Man Walking strangled my teenage heart and I must’ve cried so many times near the end. I love a good redemption story. Pulp Fiction on the big screen was a massive wave of joy. Lost Highway on a tiny TV in my bedroom. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre almost made me puke noodles all over the carpet, which I totally respect. But absurd works of art move me just the same. I was a loud advocate of Fragasso’s Troll 2 so much so that I tracked down a copy of the script from one of the actors, keep it on my bookshelf alongside a hardcover copy of Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (another beautiful film). The Naked Gun still makes me laugh, and The Righteous Gemstones seems to satisfy a little of everything in me. All of the Friday the 13th movies are in here, too. I used to pray Jason wouldn’t lug silently down the hall and javelin that machete into my guts. Who knows… He still could. Speaking of guts, Gaira’s Guzoo always makes me want to write.
I grew up without the Internet during the VHS boom of the nineties, and there were just so many tapes that I’d tremble over as they entered the VCR. It’s hard to keep track.
A few other things that really got my heart beating in recent years have been Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sono Sion), Suspiria (Guadagnino), and, stretching back a decade or so, Southland Tales (Kelly).
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?
I grew up surrounded by woods, fields, an old mill, a Lutheran church, a cemetery just down the road, a local “party store” in the other direction, and farmland for miles and miles. It was glorious, really. And thank God for that party store. Their small VHS selection was always shifting with the weirdest shit. And, of course, we had bigger video stores in the nearest town. Those movies made the world expand. Now, I seem to watch things to make the world feel smaller, calmer, more intimate.
The one feature that changed the course of my life is Lloyd Kaufmann’s The Toxic Avenger Part II. The first Toxic Avenger is incredible and beautiful, of course, but Part II takes us to Japan where the Toxic Avenger believes he’ll find his long-lost father. Of course, it’s all a lie to get him out of the country so an evil corporation can defile Tromaville, but he seeks and explores and grows and it hurts so bad when he realizes the truth. And I fell in love with his search and with the tone of it all. Toxie’s wonderfully polite when he bungles around the city, but it’s super charming and warm.
Years later, I would study Japanese at university and actually became good at it. I lived there like a nictone hermit for six years, even started dreaming in Japanese, and spent a year working behind the scenes in TV, played noise shows in Tokyo a couple times, and put in my hours as an English consultant for both public and private schools out in the countryside. I can still trace it all back to myself as a small child watching The Toxic Avenger Part II in my grandparents’ living room. Cinema is always more than you think it is. It can be a portal to where you might find a fragment of your self that you are yet to meet. My grandma gave me a Hardy Boys novel around that same time, and I ate that up, too… but the Hardy Boys weren’t mopping up yakuza scumbags and scalding them in shabu-shabu juice at the local bath house. I greatly respect the Toxic Avenger. I have a lot to thank him for.
Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?
I suppose I have, though it’s all rather amateur. I made a series of camcorder-shot features in high school called EVERYONE SHOULD BE KILLED, which I stole from A.C.’s grindcore album of the same name. I thought the title was so bold and ridiculous and I needed to cannibalize its essence. I think I made four or five of those little movies. I made some more shorts in university including MEAT SALAD, which I also acted in. I got to bite into someone’s arm and spew slimy ketchup-soaked tuna chunks all over a kitchen table. Good times. I directed a few more in South Korea with friends for fun. I don’t think we ever imagined they would turn into anything other than ways for us to express our creativity and be constructive. I shot more short works in Japan, though I leaned into audio works moreso at that time. And China was the place where I was blessed by the inner voice of the Divine that encouraged me to seriously write.
I was a part of a weekly tabletop RPG group at the time and so I wrote a 30,000 word fantasy novella that felt good and read so wrong. But it opened the space for me to focus on shorter works. I took an online course with Stephen Graham Jones around that time, which was a great blessing. And then, soon after, a private course with Peter Markus. I was teaching in a prestigious high school, and was able to really explore creative ideas and test out and tear through many writing prompts with those brilliant international students.
When I returned to America in 2013, I landed the writing gigs for Jim Wynorski and bought Final Draft for the first time. All four scripts were shot and I could actually call myself a “screenwriter.”
Shortly after, during my time as a graduate student at New England College, I had the good fortune to study with Katie Farris, Matt Bell, and Lily Hoang among other insanely talented writers (Jennifer Mitello, Allison Titus, David Ryan, Ilya Kaminsky, Andrew Morgan, etc.). I still feel I haven’t processed half of their collective wisdom, but I walked away with a renewed appreciation of language, of the creative process, and of who I was (or am, or could be) as a writer.
But I digress… the short answer: yes, I’ve made some movies, but I’ve written many more. And maybe those are the best for me, because they exist in that space where they are not yet torn to a million bloody bits by the collaborative spirit that the cinematic ritual needs. They are still mine. And they exist in some way on the page when I read them. And when I don’t, they still exist as memories of distant films made in some world, forgotten, glowing, and quietly aching with the hope that they COULD be made in this world while I am still alive in this body.
What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?
Sono Sion’s work is edifying in that he’s created films that run the gamut from comedy to adult to horror to action and beyond. And that tonal shift often happens multiple times within one particular piece. Joe D’Amato is another hero of mine. I like creators who aren’t afraid of experimentation and failure. I fail up and down all the time.
Sometimes I fall into a subgenre like slashers and find myself hunting down every oddball knock-off I can find just to soak up the essence, just to hope that some of that darkness might rub off on my own work. I watched way too many Jack the Zipper clips when writing Static/Orgone (Bizarro Pulp Press), and had to stop myself from rewatching Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) lest I turn every character into Dakota Johnson’s incarnation of Susie Bannion.
I wish I could narrow this answer down to a single influence, but I’m forever coming up with names depending on my mood or what I’m working on at any given moment. But I love this way of approaching directors and actors. When I looked closely into Gaspar Noe’s work, I found his adoration of Carl Dreyer, which led me into Dreyer’s work, and finally into Vampyr, Ordet, and Gertrude, all of which have fed my spirit with their beauty. And I love to feel the imaginary thread that could exist between Noe’s work and Dreyer’s work, too.
May we all be so lucky to continue to experience influence and beauty from the work we spend time with.
Thank you for your questions. I enjoyed this meditation.