Charles Shelton, screenwriter of FREEDY KRUEGER, DEADTIME STORIES
March 11th, 2004
Delso: Welcome to the Screenwriter's Utopia Mr. Shelton. I understand you're a big fan of some of the old B-Movie horror films. Is this what initially got you into screenwriting?
Mr. Shelton: Absolutely, especially the 50s and 60s films. Before we had VCRs and could watch anything any time, if you wanted to see something special it became sort of a ritual. To catch *Mad Doctor of Blood Island* you had to get up at 3:00 am or whatever ungodly hour it was on, suffer though all the Crazy Eddie and Castro Convertible ads. If you made it through the whole event, it was a minor achievement. Then you had to go back to bed, alone with all these images in your head. *The Crawling Eye* gave me endless nightmares. Perhaps I got into writing as a way of controlling or exorcising so many weird stories and images.
Who were your literary influences?
Henry Miller especially. *Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Plexus,* and *Nexus* are incredible works; I've probably read them a dozen times. "Classic" authors too - Kafka, Camus, Ouspensky. And of course the pulp writers - Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Manly Wade Wellman and such.
What's the biggest change in the thinking behind how horror movies are made today and the classics, like Dracula, Frankenstein and films from that era?
I think the whole nature of what we perceive to be "horror" has changed over the generations. Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man all have their roots in agrarian folklore. People were much more clannish. There was only a "civilized" world (town or village) and the world "out there" - a wilderness of mysteries beyond the safe parameters of locked doors and firelight. The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Manual labor became menial conveyor-belt labor; we became nocturnal, dependent on artificial light, dependent on machines. Little by little the earthly mysteries are stripped away. A forest is not looked upon as an eerie incubator of unknown creatures, but a source of lumber. Nothing a bulldozer can't handle.
Machines changed the nature of horror entirely. Machines enabled us to escalate our cruelties to astonishing realms, reaching a peak (or nadir) with World War II. Horrors of reality, of mere existence and survival, obliterated the imaginary terrors of the past. Today it's hard to imagine anything more horrific than *other people* - what they believe, do and say. As we speak, right now, people are still being stoned to death, tortured in prison camps, murdered by drug dealers, kidnaped, raped, shot in fast food restaurants by irate postal workers, starved and taxed. And what's the sum of it all? Ennui, numbness. There's so much depravity at all levels we don't have any space left in our psyches for imaginary bugaboos. There will never be another "Dracula" or "Frankenstein" in the classic sense, because all the roots from whence they came are gone. We have no cultural unity, no common mythology.
What do you consider the most essential characteristic of a working screenwriter?
First you need to know script structure. Screenplays are blueprints. Secondly, you should always meet your producer's deadlines, provided they're reasonable and you've agreed upon them in advance. If you're paid to deliver a draft in 60 days, have it ready in 55. Then if you need to make changes, you can deliver the revised draft on time. Producers love that. On the other hand, never keep them waiting; personal indulgences ("I wasn't inspired") don't cut it.
You've written for both TV and film. What's the biggest difference and do you prefer one over the other?
TV is more rigid. The characters are usually pre-defined, and your (program) time limit is utterly inflexible. Feature film writing is a lot more flexible, but it takes much longer to see your work realized; the turn around time from script to finished product is a lot longer. So I can't say I have a definite preference for one or the other.
picture provided by Charles Shelton
Have you ever collaborated on a project with another writer, that is... co-written, and what are your feelings (advantages, disadvantages) on the process?
Collaborating generally does not work unless you and your partner(s) are completely in sync and you can put your individual egos aside for the good of the whole. You must have a common vision. A good partner will think of angles that may not occur to you. Can you jettison some of what you think are your own best ideas? If not, don't collaborate.
Tell us a little about your independent efforts, Solomon's Nightmare and Hans Christian Anderson's The Angel?
*Solomon's Nightmare* was a product of my Herzog / Fassbinder days. I was obsessed with German expressionist films like *Aguirre, Effie Briest, Stroszek* and *Marriage of Maria Braun*. The script for SN was written around a set of camera compositions, an attempt to create a story out of pure, somewhat disconnected imagery. The "plot" was simple and non-linear. Brother and sister isolated in a crumbling old farmhouse, locked in an alcoholic, abusive incestuous relationship. They are slowly driven mad by the spirit of their dead mother, whose corpse lies buried in a shallow swamp, the grave site marked with a pair of crutches. The mother comes back from the grave - literally - and locks her naughty children in the dirt cellar. [SEE JPEG ATTACHMENT]. The film did fairly well on the festival circuit. We picked up a Bronze Venus at the Festival of the Americas (Houston International), and we had non competitive screenings in Hong Kong, Manila, Melbourne, Athens, Goteborg, Chicago, Toronto and a few others.
*The Angel* Was a 180 degree turn, a very tight, minimal script adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen tale. A little girl is dying from a common cold, and her grieving father puts a bright red rose in a vase near her pillow. He tells her a final bedtime story, about an angel who helps children pick flowers to bring to God. We see the dream; when the father's story is over, the girl is dead. The little rose by her bedside is gone. The film won a Silver Apple award at the National Educational Film Festival.
What projects are you involved with now and how are they progressing?
Three screenplays, a crime drama, supernatural thriller and a farce comedy. I'd rather not go into details until they're completed. I'm superstitious.
I liked your analogy of a screenplay and a diaper. (See Mr. Shelton's Cinematic Eye, #4 at: hollywoodnetwork.com/Shelton/cinematic796.html for a more detailed explanation of this most interesting analogy. Or have some fun and figure it out for yourself.) Is this analogy from a writer's point of view? a producer's? or both?
Both. Unless I have a deadline, I end up rewriting over and over; nothing's ever just right. This could be funnier, that line could be sharper. As a producer, you always find changes that need to be made, often out of practicality and necessity. Ultimately a script is just a blueprint, a work in progress that's never complete until it's committed to film or video.
In one of your columns, you bring up a big difference in American and European tastes for film. Literacy and philosophy being more suited to the latter. What do you think turns on the average American movie-goer today and why?
I'd like to believe there's a great unappeased hunger for more substantial fare, but most people seem perfectly content with mediocre entertainment, and most entertainment execs are too timid to venture beyond their narrow parameters. Only a handful of very (financially) established filmmakers have the freedom to expand beyond corporate restraints.
Unfortunately, what I see is a deep erosion of what Hirsch calls 'cultural literacy.' We have more information available to us than ever before, yet it's mostly gossip, propaganda, manufactured events and bullshit. Thousands of *college students* are functionally illiterate. Historical revisionism and political correctness infect every level of our society. The sources from which our drama, humor and irony can be tapped are becoming extinct. Mark Twain's books are pulled from some high schools because they might "offend" somebody. American kids know more about Joe Camel than Ben Franklin. We like poo poo jokes and sports jargon.
Europeans cling tenaciously to their history, they embrace their cultural and literary icons (Wagner excepted). *Monty Python* for example; loaded with historical and philosophical references; they satirize Proust, Marx, Wilde, Titian, scores more. I can't imagine that sort of thing taking hold in 1990s America.
You don't see too many pure horror movies being produced today. Is this because good horror is difficult to write? produce? or both?
All genres go in cycles. One or two good ones come out; if they succeed, the market is glutted with imitators. Interest wanes, they go out of fashion - until someone has the balls to make *another* good one.
Good horror, like good comedy, is extremely hard to write. The best works have a long lasting impact. But is there such a thing as "pure" horror? It's a subjective thing, but horror - unlike thrillers, which are safe and secure - illuminates the darkest shadows of our being. And perhaps it's no surprise that the deepest fears we have are about our own condition, our minds and bodies. The best "pure" horror films ever made, in my opinion, are Fritz Lang's *M*, Tod Browning's *Freaks*, Hitchcock's *Psycho*, Polanski's *Repulsion* and Scorsese's *Taxi Driver*. All works with clear personal vision. Horror films can't be made by committee.
If you could change one thing about the way movies are made today, anywhere in the whole process from writing to distribution, what would that be?
Smaller, more realistic budgets. Let's make more films every year, rather than a handful of over- budgeted, committee compromised advertising packages.
And finally, who was scarier, Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney?
There were two Chaneys, Lons Sr. and Jr. Both were fine actors, but Lon Jr. never emerged from the shadow of his famous father. Both portrayed horrific, sympathetic characters (Lon Sr. the Phantom of the Opera, Lon Jr. Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man especially) marred by violence, ugliness, deformity. They were grand, tragic figures.
Lugosi's characters rarely evoked sympathy. His most memorable roles were (almost) universally cold and sinister. He excelled in the role of the scheming, power-hungry fanatic. *Dark Eyes of London* and *White Zombie* are perfect examples. Whether he's a mad doctor, vampire or super-villain, his goal is to take what you have. To me, that's scary.
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