Quantcast ICONS Interview with John Russo - NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

John Russo!

Hey all you horror hungry kids! Today ICONS is presenting to you… John Russo! Writer of Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead and writer/director of Escape of the Living Dead! - By Beth - 5/08

ICONS: Mr. Russo, I'd like to start off by saying thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview! You are truly an ICON of fright. How is it that you became interested in writing and creating film?

JR: I became interested in writing probably from around the time I was in fourth grade.  A substitute teacher asked us to each write a poem, and when she came to my desk and read my poem, she accused me of copying it from one of my school books. She spent the rest of the afternoon searching through my books trying to find the poem I had "copied" which of course she did not find because my poem was wholly original.  So I discovered early that I apparently had a talent for writing, and I also loved to read.  I got acquainted with and loved Mark Twain's writing when I was in fourth grade, too.
Like most people, I loved going to the movies but I didn't think I'd have that kind of career because I thought all movies were made in Hollywood.  But when I met George Romero and Russ Streiner when we were all 18 years old, through George especially the idea of actually making movies on our own began to excite me very much.  Still, my main goal up to this time was to become a published novelist -- and I eventually succeeded at that, and to date I have had fifteen novels published worldwide, plus four nonfiction books dealing with movie making.

ICONS: And how is it that you all met?
JR: I met George Romero when he came to Pittsburgh at age 18 to attend Carnegie Tech, which is now Carnegie-Mellon University.  I was 18 also and was enrolled at West Virginia University -- an English Education major.  George was in the fine arts program and during his first day on campus he met my close friend Rudy Ricci and Rudy mailed me a letter saying he had met this great guy, very wild and talented, who instead of drawing the nude models in "life" class, would spend his time drawing scenes from movies.  So when I came home for Christmas vacation, Rudy and I drove to George's apartment in Pittsburgh, and he came out dressed like one of his favorite characters in VIVA ZAPATA -- he was wearing a sombrero, carrying pistolas, and wearing a drooping black mustachio.  We went to a Dairy Queen and the girl slammed the window shut and wouldn't take our orders.

Later, also through Rudy, who later became one of our original investors in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was introduced to Russ Streiner, who was acting in a play.  We all became fast friends, and after some failed attempts at making a movie comedy, as Russ and George were forming a little company called The Latent Image to make commercials and try to raise money to eventually do another feature film, I got drafted into the Army.  I dreamed of joining Russ and George when my hitch was up, and that's what happened.  We all worked our butts off, learned the film business from scratch, won lots of awards eventually, and built up our assets and equipment to the point where we could launch our first feature -- and that became NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
ICONS: What kind of horror do you remember growing up with?

JR: I grew up reading EC comics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and true crime stuff, etc.  I also saw all the movies that came into town, including the horror movies like FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF MAN and so on.  I went to see all the "B" horror movies Hollywood was cranking out, and was almost always disappointed.  They all had the same hackneyed plot -- a giant grasshopper or a giant caterpillar would menace the world, it would kill the town drunk, the scientists would eventually figure out what was happening, and the National Guard would come in at the end and destroy the creature with flamethrowers.

ICONS: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up (Laughs) What inspires you to frighten?

JR: I always yearned to see a good horror film and did not see too many until I saw INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, PSYCHO and FORBIDDEN PLANET (which was technically science fiction, not horror, but I consider it to be horror in a way because it did have "monsters from the id" which was a very horrific concept.)

When we were developing the concept for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD I told everyone that we needed to make a movie as stunning, shocking and scary as INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

One of my favorite themes is how the best intentions of scientists, political leaders, religious figures, etc., often can go awry -- through lack of understanding, greed, selfishness, lust for power, and any other sort of human failing.  So therefore my novels and movies strive to be cautionary tales with strong themes and realistic characters.
ICONS: Your contributions to the film world, especially the horror genre, have become cult classics! Your most popular works have been NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which was based off of a book you wrote. But now you have a new film project called ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD, starring Tony Todd and Kristina Klebe. Can you tell me a bit about this film and how you're transferring it from graphic novel to the screen?
JR: ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD was a screenplay before it was a comic book.  William Christensen, president of Avatar, liked the script and offered to adapt it into comic book form.  The fans loved the result, and we made the Top Ten of horror comics nationally, and it spawned T-shirts, sweatshirts, shot glasses mugs, etc. To date I have written or collaborated with Mike Wolfer and William Christensen on ten sequels, all contained in a huge graphic novel after first debuting as multi-part comic books.  The first graphic novel of ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD, based on my original screenplay, sold out.  And so, when you have that kind of terrific fan response to a story, then the movie really deserves to be made and needs to be made.
The screenplay itself has never been turned down by anybody including all the actors, actresses, agents, publishers, producers, financiers, etc., who have read it -- this must be some kind of record in the movie business. ESCAPE has a very strong heroine whom I like to think of as "the Sigourney Weaver" of horror films.  The character's name is Sally Brinkman, and she is to be played by Amber Stevens, a beautiful and talented young actress who stars in the ABC/Family Channel series, GREEK.  Sally's father, Henry, is being played by another terrific actor, Tony Todd.  They are both in great jeopardy in the movie and must try to save each other from a dire fate. We (producers Sam Sherman, Joe Majestic, Dave Mendez and Russ Streiner, plus myself as writer/director) are very, very pleased to have Kristina Klebe and Gunnar Hansen as part of a wonderful cast in this movie.  The story is not a trite carbon copy of things that have been done before, but instead has elements I have never seen in any other zombie movie, and I think this is why the readers of the comic book versions are so in love with what we are doing.
ICONS: Well I can’t wait to check it out! When can we expect to see it in theatres or on DVD?

JR: As I write this (May 10, 2008) one of our producers on ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD, Joe Majestic is on his way to the Cannes Film Festival to secure financing for the project.  We anticipate shooting later this year, probably by October, so editing won't be complete until sometime in 2009 when the picture will probably be released theatrically.

ICONS: When you wrote RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, it wasn't as humorous as they portrayed it in the final movie. How did you feel about the film when it was released and how did you feel about Tom Savini’s NIGH OF THE LIVING DEAD remake?

JR: The original screenplay for RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was written by me, Russ Streiner and Rudy Ricci, and was stark horror in the vein of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  But, when we sold the property to Fox Films, it was then sold to Orion, and they decided that "straight horror is dead" -- which in my opinion is always a fallacy -- and they hired Dan O'Bannon to add the comedic elements and to direct the result.  I thought Dan did a marvelous job, and I liked the movie.  Dan and I got along superbly well, and he very much liked my novelization of his script.
Russ Streiner, George Romero and I co-produced the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake, and George as executive producer tapped Tom Savini to direct.  It was Tom's first stint as director of a theatrical feature, and he did a decent job -- but overall the picture did not turn out as well as we hoped.  This was not all Tom's fault.  There were other factors beyond our control, having to do with the distributor, the tornado-like weather, and so on.
ICONS: Personally I loved Savini's version and I have yet to meet another horror fan that feels any different. Savini himself even said at Texas Frightmare that when it was initially completed he didn’t like it, but watched it more recently and decided it was actually a really good movie. Tornado-like weather!? Do you have any real life horror stories from being on set during the bad weather?

JR: Even though I mentioned tornado-like weather, nobody got killed or anything.  We were on the fringes of the tornados which meant that we and all our costumes, makeup, equipment, actors and staff were getting drenched and the intended big wrap-up of the remake couldn't happen very effectively.
I kept coming up with ideas for things that could be done pretty well on short notice, and I'd run the ideas past George and he'd say, "Let's do it!"  For instance I suggested that one of the zombies should eat a mouse, so I went into the special effects quarters and asked them if they could make one, and they said, "Sure!"  Then I got them to rig a zombie who died from an overdose and with the needle still hanging out of his arm, and they did that, too.  And so on -- anything to dress up the movie even though the circumstances were trying.
ICONS: How has the "40th Anniversary world tour of NIGHT" been going? How many conventions have you attended for the event and where can we still expect to see you?

JR: The 40th Anniversary NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD TOUR has been a wonderful experience.  It is always great to meet the fans and keep in tune with their likes and dislikes and remain on the same wavelength so we can continue our careers on a high level and keep on pleasing the fans in a big way.  As I said, our intention from the beginning has always been to really pay off the fans who buy the tickets.  They are often disappointed by movies that fall short of their expectations, and we never want to be the filmmakers who fall short.  So far, on the tour, we have been to Pittsburgh, Dallas, Los Angeles, Baltimore, etc.  In June we will be at the Fangoria Convention in Secaucus and Flashback in Chicago.  Also on the schedule are St. Louis, Phoenix, Orlando, etc.  We are also making appearances at Sitges in Spain, London, and probably Portugal, Germany, Belgium and Italy.

ICONS: Well I’ll be at the Flashback show and I can’t wait to see what’ll be going on at the Russo table! I was there for the 40th Anniversary premiere in Dallas, at The Texas Frightmare Weekend. It was amazing to see everybody from the film together on one stage! Was this the first time you had all gotten the chance to get back together again?

JR: As you mention, we were all on stage in Dallas, a terrific event sponsored by the American Film Institute and Texas Frightmare Weekend, and we had a lot of fun with the fans.  But we do see each other quite often at other conventions and events from time to time, so the event in Dallas was not exceptional in that way.
ICONS: I understand you have also written a handful of books on the subject of film making and screen writing. These books are even revered as "bibles" to those in the industry. What kind of tips do you give to film makers?

JR: It is true that my filmmaking books are considered "bibles of the industry" and I am very gratified by this.  I was originally a teacher, and I still teach with Russ Streiner in the Master Mentoring Program that is an integral part of our movie making course at the DuBois Business College in DuBois, Pa.  Many filmmakers, both beginners and noted filmmakers as well, give me credit for jump-starting their careers.  For instance, when I met Quentin Tarantino at the LAND OF THE DEAD premiere, he said that he made a movie that he did not complete, and then he read my books, took notes and made charts, and that is what guided him through the making of his first complete movie.

ICONS: Wow, that’s amazing! Giving advice to one of the most influential filmmakers of our time!

JR: The advice I give aspiring filmmakers is really too involved to cover in the space of an interview - that's why it takes an 18-month course to scratch the surface. I can say that the goal of our program is to bring the students to a professional level as rapidly and smoothly as possible, and we are meeting that goal.
They learn how to do everything from TV commercials to industrial films, documentaries, sales films, etc. -- all the way up to feature film production, marketing, and working out contracts -- the entire business side as well as the creative side of filmmaking.  What we give them -- because of our long and comprehensive experience in the business -- cannot be learned so readily and so comprehensively anywhere else in the country.  The Master Mentoring Program that Russ Streiner and I implement is entirely unique and quite fruitful in terms of its ability to inspire and educate young filmmakers on a high plane of accomplishment.
ICONS: Can you tell me a bit of what it's like to be in your classroom? What are your teaching methods?

JR: Our Movie Making Program at DuBois Business College, about a hundred miles north of Pittsburgh, takes place on a beautiful campus where total student enrollment is about 250 students overall.  But the Movie Making Program is very personal and hands-on.  Everyone gets a great deal of personal attention, and right now our first class there numbers seven students.  We have on-campus apartments available, and we also have federal aid for qualifying students, a terrific staff, and so on.  To contact the admissions office phone 814-371-6920.
ICONS: What are some of your favorite films, not necessarily horror but films of all genres?

JR: I love all sorts of films, not just horror.  Some of the best horror films, in my opinion, are PSYCHO, ALIEN, HALLOWEEN, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (original version), plus the original DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and WOLF MAN movies.    I also liked THE HOWLING.  A list of my favorites would include SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, VIVA ZAPATA, GLADIATOR, STAR WARS, GOODFELLAS, THE GODFATHER, PULP FICTION, RESERVOIR DOGS...I could go on and on.

ICONS: How do you feel about the horror today and how it has changed with time?

JR: Today's horror films are sometimes too dependent on shock and gore instead of good plot, theme and character development.  Also I'm not a big fan of the over use of CGI effects.  There is always room for a movie that does have fresh ideas, and good plot, theme and character development.  Also, good casting is extremely important.  For the most part, people go to the movies to see and identify with people, not lavish effects.

ICONS: Briefly, can you tell me of a few good films or bad films you've seen recently?

JR: I was disappointed in THE DEPARTED and did not think it was one of Martin Scorcese's best films, even though he got an Oscar for it.  On HBO I loved ROME and JOHN ADAMS .  I also think that Michael Moore does a great service to the country by making things like SICKO, FARHENHEIT 9/11 and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.  I can't think at the moment of five bad films I've seen lately, maybe because I've blotted them out of my mind.

ICONS: Agreed, Moore’s goal is just to open people’s eyes to what’s really going on in this world and especially in this country. He takes a lot of hard hits from his critics but if it weren’t for him and others like him we’d never get to see the full picture or hear the whole story. Well, thank you so much again for taking time to speak with us! I’m sure many of our readers will get the chance to see you at an upcoming convention. Your new film will be highly anticipated by all of us here at ICONS! Is there anything you’d like to add before signing off?

JR: The only thing I'd like to add is that if anyone out there has the desire to become a filmmaker, he or she should definitely check out our program, JOHN RUSSO MOVIE MAKING, at the DuBois Business College, dbcollege.com, 814-371-6920.  Thank you to all my fans and thanks, Beth for doing this interview!

Visit: http://www.dbcollege.com!

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