What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?
I think it’s more about the time, there’s been a few specific times in my life where I’ve immersed myself deeply in cinema. The household I grew up in wasn’t a household where there was a lot of television watching, or even going to the cinema, and we were late getting a VCR. I was in high school in the late 80s, so when I did start to watch a lot of movies, I felt that I had a lot to catch up on, and would prioritise that over other pursuits, like attending school. I rode my bike to school, it took about 20 minutes to get there, but my friend’s house was on the way and I would stop in to pick him up. Usually, his parents had already left to go to work, and he’d be there with a movie on, having his breakfast and we’d decide to go to school after the film he was watching was finished. We did that a lot, and then get to school for the class prior to lunch and then meet at lunch and we’d be so excited from whatever film we’d seen in the morning, that we’d leave school and go home and watch it again, and when the movie had finished, we’d watch it again before his parents came home from work. It was the time of the video store. The video store we went to was tiny, was a little shopfront store, not a Blockbuster or anything like that, so we pretty much went through the entire store, getting several movies for a week, watching them all within two days and then rewatching them and then rewatching them until we had to return them. We just watched everything, that was what we did, we didn’t watch stuff with a purpose, like we were watching movies to learn how to shoot a film, or how to write a screenplay, or even how film may influence or assist in writing a book, we were just restless, aimless teenagers with no drive, trying to fill the boring hours of our life, eating our corn chips and Cokes, watching all those massive 80s action films, the horror stuff, but occasionally finding gems like The 10th Victim with Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, or The Man from Rio., or Edward G. Robinson, Janet Leigh and Klaus Kinski in Grand Slam. I used to work in a petrol station, finish, grab some movies, go home and watch. To this day the smell of petrol reminds me of movies.
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?
That’s the best thing about film, or novels, that soup of experience that swamps you, that isn’t your usual, or known experience, your lived experience. I could say practically every film I watch is something outside my familiar experience, either current or historical experience. We sometimes use the term ‘bookish’ as an insult, someone who knows more about the inside of a book rather than real life, but isn’t that sometimes the point, for a variety of reasons, ranging from empathy to entertainment. We talk about decolonising our bookshelves so that we can learn to listen to the experiences of others, or to understand marginalised communities who were excluded due to colonialization, supposed free markets based on absurdities like meritocracy, so to do that we need art, books, films to assist, not to be the only assistance, but it should be something that we at least do. But like I said, entertainment also escapism. One of my favourite directors is Jean-Pierre Melville, without a doubt he is one of the greats, and I watched Un Flic again recently, I’m never going to know what it is like to be a sexy French cop such as Alain Delon, or a baddish gangster like Richard Crenna, it’s all bookish, pure daydreaming and diversion. But it’s also an education, an education that consists of empathy and entertainment.
What films first felt transgressive to you? Do you remember being secretive about any films you watched growing up?
There’s obviously the ‘Cinema of Transgression’ from the mid-80s, all those guys like Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, and Casandra Stark. They all sort of melted out of the No Wave music scene or whatever, Zedd even wrote a manifesto. That stuff didn’t, or doesn’t really interest me, I mean I’d rather just watch Driller Killer or something, same deal to be honest. Having said that I do really like Beth B’s shit. That doesn’t really answer your question. There’s nothing I’m not going to show people, but there’s also nothing really I’m going to be a cheerleader for. As much as I love the films of Joe D’Amato, I’m not going around recommending Porno Holocaust or Black Cobra Women to people. Also, where I grew up, no one wanted to hear me bang on about Maya Deren or Ida Lupino, Michael Snow or Leni Riefnestahl. I had, and have, enough social anxiety without introducing Ritual in Transfigured Time into the mix. So yes, I was secretive about stuff, a range of things, from books to film to music, you’re not allowed to be tender-hearted, I probably still am to some extent, but not from the content, just because people are horrible. For some reason, Hellraiser, the first one not the 60,000 sequels, flipped me out, that clipped sadomasochism where there’s no issue, or difference between pleasure and agony, that put a chill right through me, all those hooked chains, skin, and eroticism. It really is an unappealing film that is very alluring.
Are there any films that define your formative years?
Probably not so much whole films, but perhaps scenes from films, or as mentioned during the first question, the time watching and discovering films, the whole world that you didn’t understand existed outside of Hollywood or more mainstream stuff. There’s something about the thrill of the chase regarding repeated viewing of new films. That addiction to repeat an ecstatic moment, you keep watching for the exhilaration you get when you watch a brilliant piece of art or read an amazing novel. There was a time when I was meant to be going to technical college and I headed out each day to attend, but I never went, I kept going to the film section of the State Library, and I pretty much went through their entire catalogue, just watching everything, every amazing piece of cinema and every oddity they could offer me. I ended up being a fixture for the librarians. I found myself watching lots of earlier experimental B&W stuff, Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia and L’Etole De Mer, Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, all that shit, Hans Richter’s Ghost Before Breakfast, all this spooky stuff that wasn’t at any video store. But my favourite one of those would be Manhatta, from 1921 by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. Probably one of my favourite movies ever, and a massive influence on myself. B&W Manhattan, smokestacks, girders, mass populations, teeming people on ferry services, it’s just got that grime vibe of what a metropolis should be. I riff on it in my novel Xerox Over Manhattan… extinguished cigarettes on footpaths and subway entrances, shadows – it’s all about shadows. Ancient stuff that is actually the future.
Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing?
Oh yeah, heaps. I wrote a novel, well at least I defined it as a novel, called Napalm Recipe: Volume One, which is part-fiction, part-essay/manifesto and partly a collection of artwork that resides inside the memeplex. Anyway, the essay part of the book, bearing in mind all three parts are jumbled together, not separate chapters in the book, details a bunch of ideas I was throwing around about how I wanted to write a new novel, a new novel in the Robbe-Grillet sense of a new novel, not as he defined it, but as how I could define it. It quickly became apparent to me, after writing it and then publishing it, that a lot of the ideas were cleaved from how cinema is constructed, how certain effects in film made me feel, and then how I could replicate those in writing. For instance, a recurrence of sentences can cause pinches/tweaks of imageries, these in turn can cause a disarticulation and a jump-cut in the narrative. Cinema seemed to do this, but novels weren’t. It also seems plausible in a film to just have the death of a character only for the character to reappear later. For some reason that’s acceptable in a film, but in writing it’s deemed poor writing or plotting. Tenses in film can drift back and forth via editing, but in writing it’s a poor technique, but it actually is a form of time travel. Film celebrates a relentless overload of information, but in a novel it’s too much, we must hold back for some reason, we must pace, care for the reader, make them comfortable rather than uncomfortable, pleasant rather than deranged, teetering on delirium. The definition of dialogue in cinema is readily dissolved, dialogue doesn’t always just come from the mouth, but for some reason in a novel, dialogue always needs to be ‘said’ by some entity. In 1746 Aristotle stated that a story, something that is whole, whatever that means, needs to have a beginning, middle and an end. In 1966 Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is one of my favourite directors, asked Jean-Luc Godard to agree with him that films should have a beginning, middle part, and an end, it’s that famous quote, you’ve probably seen someone post it on Instagram, Godard said, he agreed but not in that order. I would say that a story needs neither of those three things, I mean it will, because of how it’s laid on a page, but in terms of how it translates when read, there’s no need, not one single need for those three parts, I also certainly have no want. As a writer, film, perhaps even just not film, just in general, I feel we should take pleasure in, and promote the instability of meaning, everything else is just conventional piss. Novels are a lot more enjoyable when there’s a denunciation of synopsis, and probably could get rid of narrative that can only be reduced to goal, motivation, and conflict, that seems confining and quite ridiculous as a constraint. The other thing about cinema is the screenplay, I was always interested in the transposition of other literature formats into the novel, for example movie script of newspaper layout or something like that. Cinema makes worlds within worlds, stories between and inside other stories, it makes no distinction between reality and illusion, I guess that’s what I want to do, or have been doing with writing. It’s good to try anyway. Traditionally the novel doesn’t really do much, its scope is limited, compared, and contrasted against cinema. Without getting all Andre Breton on you, there’s also the film of dreams, nightmares, sleep paralysis, demons sitting on your chest, these provide great plot points that don’t seem like traditional plot points. Also, a massive caveat on all this is, this is how I like to write, I also have a slim audience who seems to like, well at least read, what I write, this is no generalisation that all authors should write like this, it’s pretty depressing, or even hilarious to see two disparate groups of writers arguing about how one form should be the form. Put your pom poms down sweethearts. Hasn’t general semantics taught us anything?
Do you use film as a prompt or direct motivation for your writing?
Mainly for tone, something like Manhatta. I mean filmmakers do it, they construct their worlds, well not just filmmakers, novelists have scrapbooks and other assorted collections that inform their world-building. The character of President Ricky, for example, in my novel Xerox Over Manhattan, was a combination of a noir criminal and some type of capitalist robber baron, some sort of Edward G. Robison bad guy. It may not come out in the novel like that, and it’s not important that it does, it’s more to use as motivation in writing it. I was highly entertained in writing that novel, I mean you have to be to write a novel, entertaining yourself, writing during the day, then immersing yourself in these film worlds in the evening, or using that as creative procrastination. Pretty much every novel I’ve written I could ascribe a list of films that were either watched around the time or were used as inspiration on that novel directly. I couldn’t say that with other forms of art. Certainly not books. Unless it’s some non-fiction book on UFOs or medical procedures or something odd like that. Other fiction doesn’t influence my work as much as cinema would.
What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?
Where do I start, apart from what has been previously mentioned, actually the list has potential to be very long, as I’m not too choosy in what I watch. 70s/80s action flicks, Giallo, B&W noir, bad horror, horror remakes, Winter Light by Bergman, Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson, Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco, filmmakers influenced by Bresson, Spaghetti Westerns, odd stuff like Michael Snow movies where nothing but everything happens in some plotless menagerie. That was the intent when I wrote Belfie Hell, to have this pulp Chuck Norris feel, like in his 1978 movie Good Guys Wear Black, but it has these Michael Snow, or Stan Brakhage sensibilities. With an 80s Def Jam soundtrack. I really love, at the moment, this B&W film from 1933 that is this absurd and strange telling on the Sodom and Gomorrah story called Lot in Sodom. It’s a very beautiful and tantalising film.
Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?
Not really, not a feature-length film or anything like that. I have made some GIF art and then put my band’s music over the top of it or made some abstract clips and put my band’s music over the top. Or I have made a short film to accompany me reading a short story. There was a festival in Glasgow a few years back, but they wanted me to film myself reading, now the idea of someone watching me reading didn’t seem appealing, for me or any intended audience, just seemed boring and unartistic, so I repurposed an old film and then flipped the frames around and then added me reading over the top. I have also written a screenplay that is 102 pages long or something, that I still have hope to film. It’s based on the life of Herbert Mullin, actually sorry it’s not based on his life, it’s based on the reason he gave for killing people. He thought that the killings were some sort of sacrifice to stop a bigger catastrophe from happening, in his instance an earthquake happening in San Francisco, a blood sacrifice. He thought the Vietnam War was some sort of massive blood sacrifice, but when the war started to finish, he thought he needed to take over with the blood sacrifices, that there weren’t enough blood sacrifices as the war had stopped. Anyway, I took that idea and have just transposed it into a modern setting and there’s a love story and a friendship involved. It’s not exactly using that serial killer motif as an elevated genre, as that seems quite snooty, there’s actually not much violence or killing in it, it’s more a character study of a guy falling in love who has some painful ideas going on. And he works as an orderly in a hospital. But if Gus Van Sant or Abel Ferrera want to buy the script off me, I’m more than happy to talk turkey, the elusive spoondooli.
Are there films you associate with a particular time in your life, or a specific writing project?
That screenplay, when I started thinking about it, I had no idea how to write a screenplay, so I decided to, and was committed to this, that I would watch at least two movies a day, well, in the evening. I would watch to see how certain things were developed, how a story was told, why things were done the way they were, the composition of shots. Admittedly some of the things I watched were watched for tone only. Not just for tone, but also for character development, all that stuff. If you’re writing a film about a whack job, best to immerse yourself in whack job art. Bearing in mind that the intention of my screenplay wasn’t to make an exploitation film, but I found myself circling that specific genre – these films that are cheap and trashy but do have fantastic artistic statements to them. There’s this film from 1979 called The Killer Nun that stars Anita Ekberg and Joe Dallesandro, of all people, it’s a nunsploitation film. That actually is a genre. It’s an Italian film that follows Eckberg as the nun who is recovering from brain surgery and is paranoid, becomes addicted to opioids, morphine, and heroin, has random sexual exploits, reads hagiography about Saints, and becomes complicated in murders in the hospital where she works. It’s fascinating stuff, and highly entertaining, but I also observed the look of the hospital, that tone and effect, as my screenplay is set in a hospital as well. Also, Ekberg and Dallesandro are gorgeous. I pretty much submerged myself in William Lustig’s Blue Underground label, things like Salon Kitty and The Toolbox Murders. In fact, there’s a scene in William Lustig’s Maniac that I lift into my screenplay. There’s a scene where Joe Spinelli jumps on the bonnet of a car with a shotgun. I lifted that scene and put it in my screenplay, not the same reason, or the same motivation, as Joe Spinelli’s character. My character did it for a different reason, but pretty much lifted the action of that scene as it’s magnificent… well to me it is.
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?
To me ‘cinematic’ implies sweeping grand vistas or breathtaking moments, views of natural habitats or something, and that doesn’t interest me much. I’m a bit more focussed, and not too tied to things that are tied to a specific location, I’m more interested in the common and how that translates, a city is a city and it’s going to have certain tangible and exact facts to it, for instance, it’s going to be polluted, unless you’re writing something utopian. Which is not to say where I live is boring or not breathtaking, but that’s for a different writer, there’s a certain jingoism in how national landscape can be portrayed, and that’s not interesting to me, especially from a novelist point of view, landscape or environments are how I imagine them to be, not how they actually are. I’m not interested in being connected to something unless it’s in a world I’ve created.
Are there films you regularly return to, and do you know why?
Films from certain directors, their body of work. Directors like Maya Deren, Carolee Schneemann, Agnes Varda, Ida Lupino, Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson, Abel Ferrera, Michael Mann, Paul Schrader, I’ll watch at least one of their films every couple of months. Especially Schrader and Ferrera, given that they’re still making stuff, and their recent stuff is smashing, but they’re the sort of director where even their worst movie is 100 times better than someone else’s best movie. Quite possible I am the only person who thinks The Canyons is a masterpiece. Perhaps not even for the film itself, even though I could argue that it is, but even for the story on how that film was made. There’s a really great longform article from the New York Times Magazine from 2013 that I have saved onto my phone, bookmarked, it’s titled: Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie. If the idea of the movie doesn’t appeal to you, just read this article.
Do you have any lines of film dialogue you regularly use in your daily life?
Not really, I mean not that I use, there’s lines of dialogue that I think are superb, top shelf, there’s no situation that warrants itself for me to use them, also the dialogue I think is top shelf wouldn’t really fit into using it at the convenience store, or talking to the lifeguard at the pool, or anything like that. Seems odd to say this, as he died quite recently, but one of my favourite films is Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets from 1968. The creation of that film is wild, almost very meta, that’s worth reading about and understanding as an aside, there’s almost three movies going on in one film, footage of a previous film is used in the film, and then it all ties together at a drive-in in the conclusion. Anyway, there’s a great scene where the protagonist goes into a gun shop to buy guns and ammunition. The shop owner asks the protagonist what he is going to be hunting. The protagonist replies, “Gonna shoot some pigs”. And he does, he goes on a murderous rampage killing people. It’s such a glib, throwaway line delivered in downcast manner, but as a portent of things to come, it’s quite chilling and macabre, and as a writer it’s one of those lines that’s captured lightning, so simple, but says the perfect amount. A line like that is obvious, it’s just there, but probably can’t be seen until it just hits you, can’t be articulated, because sometimes writers are searching for the artifice not the actual substance within dialogue. I also really like that scene in Full Metal Jacket when they start talking about Plato’s ‘duality of man’ as Mathew Modine is wearing a peace button: “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.”
Are there individual scenes that stay with you?
Oh heaps, many, too numerous to mention, but some would be the bathtub scene in Les Diaboliques, the escape scenes in A Man Escaped, the robbery scene in Rififi, some of the final shooting scenes in They Call Her One Eye, every shooting scene in Alan Clarke’s Elephant, numerous scenes in American Gigolo, from the opening credits to the bar scenes where Gere meets Lauren Hutton for the first time, Bobby Kent’s death scene in Larry Clark’s Bully, multiple scenes in Don’t Look Now, the slapstick and absurd climax to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
What films have roused a visceral reaction in you?
Not many, I mean not visceral in the same sense a song could, like I could list ten songs that would make me cry, ten songs easily, but couldn’t think of a film that could do that to me, or has done that, although there’s plenty of films that elicit sadness. The most visceral response would have to be horror, or thrillers. I remember once I was in my apartment, watching Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and had to pause the film to listen in on sounds I could hear out in the stairwell, it was having that sort of psychological breakdown on me. This was in my late-20s, usually that sort of visceral reaction you have with horror films prior to being a teenager. I remember watching Driller Killer when I was about 13 or 14 and it had some profound effect on me, years later I rewatched it and just thought it was more a film of realism and dramatics than horror or gore. Saw the subtleties and the disintegration of a febrile mind in the main character, then on repeated viewings you see homages, like the homages to Repulsion.
Are there films that are reliable for inspiring your creativity?
I will make mention of The Omen, it’s one of my first loves, will regularly check in to rewatch that every year, but the film also taught me something about not revealing too much of myself as a writer, how I write. In interviews people sometimes want to know how I write or something similar. I remember getting the DVD of The Omen with all the featurettes. There’s that scene in the film, where Damian is going wild on his tricycle and then he deliberately knocks Lee Remick over, as she’s adjusting some hanging pot plant, and she falls down and lands on her back, she miscarries and ends up in hospital. Anyway, in these featurettes, there’s one, solely dedicated to this scene, where Richard Donner just blabs and blabs about how they shot that film, the way they film Lee Remick falling to the floor is from the ceiling, but she twists and lands on her face, but because it was the 70s they didn’t have CGI, so he explains how they did it. I can’t watch the film now, as I’m not immersed in the dramatics of that scene, the smoke and mirrors that film should do has been taken away, all I can hear is Richard Donner talking. I don’t want people to know the how, I want to know the reactions people have themselves. No one wants to know how I wrote Belfie Hell, just let it bubble away.
Which of your writings would adapt most successfully to film?
Probably none of them. I couldn’t see how it could be done. Probably be like how they adapted Less Than Zero, almost like the novel was a template, an inspiration, but they went off and made their own film, with their own messaging. They’d have to adapt the novels as grimoires though. Actually, Belfie Hell, Xerox Over Manhattan and the Sex Shops of Sherman Oaks could be adapted. Whoever did it would probably end up loathing themselves though. Sherman Oaks would probably take the form of Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, some big melodrama shot in black and white, some big mysterious and complex mood composition. Could also have inserts similar to Viet Flakes by Carolee Schneemann, that style of collage.
Can you give some film recommendations for those who have liked your writing?
Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. There’s this Japanese film from 1969 called Naked Pursuit, this is the film’s rundown on IMDB, “A rebellious youth caught up in the student protests of the turbulent 1960s unintentionally kills a policeman before setting out on a violent and passionate crime spree in director Toshio Okuwaki’s classic piece of Japanese erotica.” – so that’s a stone-cold classic. Branded to Kill by Seijun Suzuki, or Tokyo Drifter, pretty much anything by him, but I would also recommend, highly recommend, Blind Beast from 1969, it’s the film adaptation of the novel by Edogawa Rampo. The film is tame compared to the novel, but it’s different, just as good, but on a different plane. Also, anything that has been mentioned throughout the interview obviously, but paying special attention to The Hitchhiker by Ida Lupino. I just love that film. Also, one last one, people must see Bertolucci’s 1962 film, La Commare Seca, based on a short story by Pasolini, it also heavily riffs on Pasolini’s Ragazzi. It’s very cool.