Quantcast ICONS Interview with Keith Gordon

Keith Gordon!!!

I'm watching an episode of DEXTER & am surprised to notice the name Keith Gordon listed as this particular episode's director. Could it be? The same Keith Gordon that made his acting debut in JAWS 2? Played the lead in John Carpenter's CHRISTINE? Was in Brian DePalma's DRESSED TO KILL and the comedy BACK TO SCHOOL? Sure enough! Keith Gordon started his filmmaking career by acting but made the shift to directing almost 20 years ago. We figured his diverse filmography warranted closer scrutiny. So we tracked him down & he was more then happy to talk to us! Read on for our FRIGHT exclusive interview with Keith Gordon! - By Robg. - 3/08

First and foremost, what are your earliest recollections of the horror genre? Do you remember as a kid the first film or films that scared or had an impact on you?

That’s an interesting question! There were a bunch as a kid that scared me, but I’m trying to remember which were the earlier ones. Some things that scared me weren’t even traditional horror. I remember seeing a lot of science fiction stuff as a kid, like FANTASTIC VOYAGE, the scene where Donald Pleasance gets eaten at the end by the giant white blood cell really scared the hell out of me! I don’t think my parents let me see true horror stuff, they’d let me see campy stuff like THE BLOB, which probably when I was 4 or 5, I thought was scary enough. But I don’t think I saw real, serious, heavyweight horror type films until I was more into my teens.
I remember seeing HALLOWEEN when I was 17 or 18 and I thought it was a really scary movie, but it wasn’t the same as being a kid where you have those things blazed into your mind. It’s funny, those films that scared you, you look back at them now as adults and you go “That scared me?” (Laughs) I remember STAR TREK, there was a monster that they had in the end credit rolls, it was a still photograph and it was the scariest thing to me in the world at 7 or 8 years old. This one alien face. Why? I don’t know! But I had nightmares about it. I don’t remember seeing what we consider traditional horror as a little kid. Doesn’t mean I didn’t but there’s nothing that leaps to mind in that category.
I grew up in the 80’s, so there was a plethora of things to watch. And you look at a lot of these films as an adult, and some of them aren’t as scary as you remember!

Oh, it’s amazing how that changes over time. I even find as an adult, things that I found scary 20 years ago that I don’t find scary now, and there are probably things that I find scary now that I wouldn’t have found scary 20 years ago. I think depending where you are in life’s journey, it can really affect what scares you.
You were 16 and already acting in plays when you got cast in JAWS 2? Is that correct?

Yeah, but not a lot of plays. I spent the summer at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill theater where they do a series of staged readings. They’re not full on productions of plays, but stuff by major American playwrights who have stuff that they’re still working on. So I’d spend the summer up there as an actor doing a couple of plays. And I’d also done a guest spot on Medical Center of all odd things. Those were the only two professional credits I had before I got the job on JAWS 2.
Was it both intimidating yet exciting to be a part of the sequel to JAWS? Because at that time, I don’t think sequels were all that common! JAWS was the type of movie that’d be re-released in theaters!
Sequels were certainly not common then the way they are now. They existed, but they were the exception, not the rule, and it was the sequel to the most successful film of all time at that point! I guess it was intimidating. I didn’t go in with any illusions, because I thought the first one was fantastic and very scary. That was a film that scared me, but again, I was already a teenager, so it didn’t scare me in that way. It didn’t give me nightmares, but I thought about it when I’d swim in the ocean! I didn’t go into JAWS 2 with any illusion that we were going to compete with the greatness of that (original) movie.
To me, I was just excited as a young actor, because it was a part in a real movie, and a chance to work on a film and learn about it. I was already at that point interested in filmmaking. So, I thought I’d get to be on a movie set for a couple of weeks, which actually turned out to be months and months and months! (Laughs)

It was 10 months or something?
It was really absurd, because between the rehearsal, and bringing us all to sail, and then shooting with John Hancock, and then firing John Hancock and then keeping us all on location while they got a new director. And then being in a location that no longer really made sense, because as the fall came in, every hurricane came right through where we were and would destroy sets, and knock things down, and the shark would sink, and we’d sit around for a week while they dragged it up from the bottom of the ocean!


I ended up spending 10 months on the film, which if it happened to me now again, I’d probably lose my mind, but as a 16 year old, what a great adventure! It was really exciting and fun, but I didn’t think we could compete with the first film, and I don’t know if anybody ever really could. I mean, I think everybody knew that the first one was a classic. We were making a sequel that we were hoping would be good and would stand on its own merits. But ya know? With the possible exception of THE GODFATHER PART 2, I can’t think of any sequel that ever lived up to the original. I think people, if you get them to be honest will always acknowledge that even if they’re working on them.

Yeah. You mentioned before the change of directors on JAWS 2. John Hancock was the original director, he got fired and the producers brought on Jeannot Szwarc. They really re-worked the script when they changed directors. The rumor is that the original script was a lot darker of a film. Did you remember any of the differences between the original script and the one that got shot?

Yeah, it’s funny… in some ways I think the differences may have been exaggerated in terms of tone. I mean, it was very different in terms of specifics of incidents or characters were developed differently. I guess the Roy Scheider character went through some darker moments. Although, I think him getting fired was actually added in the new script. I don’t think that was in the original script.
I don’t think he got fired. So, in some ways, you can argue the final script was darker. I think there was more violence in the original script, there were more shark deaths. But frankly, there was more violence in the script that we shot then in the final edited version!
I was a kid when I saw JAWS 2, and it’s kind of a… mean-spirited movie! I consider it almost in the vein of a “slasher” flick of that era! The killer, “Jaws” gets scarred in the beginning of the movie, he ate people relentlessly, and you just felt “Well, there’s another kid gone! I can’t believe it!”
In the film, the deaths turned out less horrific. I was sort of disappointed, because I would go and watch all the dailies as someone who was interested in filmmaking and I thought that there were shots that were far scarier and more disturbing then what they ended up with (in the final edit). That may well have had to do with what rating they were going for or whatever. I know when I saw the final film, I thought “Wow, there were scarier shots then that one!” So, I think there was a toning down that happened to avoid getting an R rating and to have a bigger audience.
I recently re-watched the CHRISTINE DVD with the commentary track that you did with John Carpenter, which by the way, is one of my favorite commentary tracks.

Oh thanks! We had such a blast doing it.

What was it like getting together with John Carpenter to revisit that film for the commentary, 20 years later?
Well, first of all, I hadn’t seen John for really quite a few years, and it was really nice to see him again because he was someone that I loved working with. That film has really warm memories in my heart. It was maybe my favorite film acting job ever… Yeah, it definitely was. There was nothing I’ve ever done on film that was that much fun as an actor. And that was primarily due to the way John ran the set, and his infectious enthusiasm for what he was doing and for the genre, and for telling these kind of stories. So, it was really nice to see him again and to talk with him. And it’s funny, because I had heard a rumor that it was one of his films that he wasn’t happy with or proud of or whatever.
So, it was kind of nice actually to do that commentary with him and sense that he was happy with the film and proud of it. And he did feel it fit in his cannon of work. It was a film that I always felt fondly about. And it was just fun to share the old stories and have memories come back. I think it’s a really cool film. I don’t think of it as a flat out horror film, in the sense that I think it’s got its tongue very firmly in cheek. Which is why it does work as well as it does. I think if you try to do that film without a sense of humor, you end up with THE CAR. You end up with a film that seems kind of more goofy, because it’s pretending not to be goofy. (Laughs)

Hey, some people consider THE CAR a cult classic! (*editor’s note: like Mike C.!)

Some people probably do! But to me, taking an absurd concept and treating it with humor, ironically you can bring more fear to it. Hitchcock did it with suspense. And I feel like that’s what John did with CHRISTINE. By sort of doing things a little over the top or with a sense of humor, in a funny way, it could be more scary because we weren’t saying “Believe this is true!” We’re saying “Let us tell you this fun ghost story.” And then suddenly, you can get an audience to go with it in a way that they might have resisted had you tried to be self-serious about it.

It’s one of my favorite Carpenter films! And there’s things in it that still hold up. The sequence of the car fixing itself is still amazing to me.

And done in an era where it couldn’t all be done with CGI or anything! It’s funny, I think of a generation seeing that stuff today and probably just assuming it was all done by some computer, but you couldn’t do that back then! They had to psychically create those effects, and that’s what impresses me looking at it. Is that John had to, on a moderate budget, it wasn’t a big budget film, find ways to physically make it look like the car was repairing itself and not allotted to some composite or computer station somewhere to create that for him.
A lot of hard work and ingenuity went into it, and a lot of tests. I remember they redid things numerous times, those specific shots until they got them to where they thought they worked well enough. It was really a lot of effort put into making those specific effects come off.

Yeah. But the final result is film history right there!

Watch the scene we're talking about from John Carpenter's CHRISTINE!

Yeah, and look, I’m old enough that I’m old-school. I love physical effects! I always feel 9 times out of 10 when I see CGI effects, I go “Oh look, a CGI effect!”

You usually can always pick it out and for me, it totally takes me right out of the movie.

That’s certainly how I feel. The generation growing up with it might feel differently. I’m really a fan of, in any kind of movie, weather it’s horror or action – when things are really done, they just look cooler. But hey, that’s me. That’s what I grew up with, that’s what I’m used to.
Oh, I totally agree with you there! One of the other interesting things about CHRISTINE, you did the movie back in 1983. How familiar were you with the work of Stephen King? Because around 83, that was the cusp of when they were finally starting to adapt a lot of his work into films. I don’t think there were a tremendous amount of Stephen King movie adaptations at that point.
There had been a couple, but not a lot. There were a couple of things done for TV. I certainly feel old, because I’d have to go look on IMDB to see what the exact order of things were. I don’t think we were the first with CHRISTINE, but there certainly had not been as many of them.

So, were you familiar with CHRISTINE the novel, or just Stephen King in general when you got involved with CHRISTINE the movie?

I was somewhat familiar, but I’m embarrassed to say I was not widely familiar. I didn’t read CHRISTINE the novel until I knew I was going to be working on the film. So, once I knew I was going to be working on the film, I of course immediately read the novel. But I had read some of his short stories, and bits of pieces of his work, but it wasn’t like I was a big fan or was reading a lot of that stuff. Although at that time, to be fair, I probably wasn’t reading a lot of anything!
That was a time in my life where I was such a movie obsessive that I was seeing every movie that came out. Which meant that I had very little time to read novels. So, it wasn’t like I was avoiding Stephen King, I wasn’t reading anybody else either! I was probably only reading things that had directly to do with the work I was doing. Mostly, in terms of taking stuff in, I was doing it by going to movies constantly, and going to film festivals. And probably seeing 10 movies a week! So, it was not the most literary period of my life. So, Stephen King was left out, but no more then everybody else! (Laughs)

Looking back now at CHRISTINE, what would you consider your favorite scene in the film? Something that you might be proud of work-wise? Or just something that perhaps stands out from the shoot?

God, it’s an interesting question, because there were so many things I remember fondly in the film. In some ways, some of my fondest memories were not stuff I was in! Because as someone who was interested in filmmaking, it was so interesting and fun to have the pressure off just to watch John work! Like, the scene where they blew up the gas station?
I just remember being out in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere watching them do first the car crashing into the wall, and just being blown away by the bravery of the stuntman! I don’t care how much stuff you’re wearing. Driving a car INTO something driving 35-40 miles per hour was pretty insane to watch up close!
And then coming out with the car on fire! A guy was in there driving that thing!

Yeah! And then blowing up the damned gas station! It was amazing to me. I just remember driving out way into the middle of nowhere for that, and just sitting and watching and talking to John and asking him questions. So, I loved that as kind of a filmmaking fan.
Because when you’re acting, you’re busy being nervous about your own work and the stuff you’re doing. On those days, I could just sit back and relax when I wasn’t working and just enjoy the spectacle and the complexity of what they were doing. In terms of the acting scenes, probably my favorite was the stuff with the parents. You know, the scene where I turn on my dad and strangle my dad, and say “Fuck you” to my mom.
Yeah! How often do you get to curse out your parents?!

Yeah, it’s such a primal fantasy to really turn on your parents. And that was really a fun scene to do. And in general, all of the “bad” Arnie scenes were really fun. John would sort of encourage me, he’d sort of say “You can’t go too far. Over the top is good here.” So, he gave me a great deal of license to just try things.
The visits to Dennis in the hospital were really fun to shoot. Just all that stuff was fun to shoot. One thing that wasn’t fun to shoot, although it’s not the version that was in the final film, and we mentioned this on the commentary, the scene where John Stockwell and I are driving in the middle of the night, and I’m drinking the beer and throwing the cans out the window. That was originally done –
the first way John tried to shoot that was by basically bolting a false half of a car onto the front of this Mac truck, and we really were going 90 miles per hour down the highway! It was scary as shit! Because basically, this thing felt like it was going to fall off at any second. And if it had, we would have been just gone. We would’ve been swallowed up by the truck that was pushing us. So, that was really scary! (Laughs) We ended up shooting the real scene, with what’s called “poor man’s process”, where it was all shot on the stage and nothing was moving at all, in terms of the version that was used.
But really, everyday was fun on that show. Harry Dean Stanton is such a great actor! So, that scene with him in the parking lot was really fun to do. Because he gives you so much to work with, and he’d do something a little different every time, and that would push me to do something a little different every time. Really, it would be a long list of favorite scenes, because I have a lot of good memories.
In terms of your work as an actor, it’s probably my favorite performance of yours. That character just had such a fantastic arc that it must’ve been such a blast to play every spectrum of Arnie Cunningham.

Oh sure! Well, it’s Doctor Jeckyl and Mister Hyde! And how rare that you get to do that! To play a character with that much range, and to do it with a director saying don’t be afraid to be too big and a little operatic and over the top. It gives you so much freedom. Usually on films, you’re so nervous about looking too big or hammy or extreme. But having a director say, “Go ahead. For this movie, it’s fine.” That’s a very rare and special thing to do.

One of the things you mention on that commentary was that working on CHRISTINE, and even on DRESSED TO KILL with Brian DePalma, even though they were jobs, you considered them “paid internships” for filmmaking.

Well, absolutely! The thing was, when I was a kid, I was a film nerd. I made really bad super 8 movies, so I was always interested in filmmaking as a possible ultimate thing to do in my life. So, to get to work with directors like DePalma twice and John Carpenter and Bob Fosse, it literally was a paid internship. They were all in their different ways very kind about my interest in what it is that they did, and my desire to hang around on the set even when I wasn’t shooting to ask a lot of questions. They could’ve easily said, “Shut up and go do your job!” But they were never like that.
They were always willing and happy to take the time to explain what they were doing and why they were doing it. What film school could be as good? Here I was getting paid to be there and having real top rank directors explaining in a real way how & why they were doing what they were doing. There’s no way a classroom experience could replace that, so I was thrilled. And I was lucky enough to have guys like Carpenter and DePalma who were really kind and giving of their time. Again, they did not have to be anywhere near as nice as they were about the fact that I was asking them questions every 20 seconds about why they were doing what they were doing.
Well, you’ve been directing now for almost 20 years. And one of the things I found to be a pleasant surprise was to see your name credited as the director on several episodes of DEXTER.

Oh, yeah!

It’s my all time favorite show on TV right now.

Mine too!

In fact, you directed what I consider the most tense episode (“Truth Be Told”) of the first season, which MADE me go buy the DVD boxset!

Wow! I’m flattered! A lot of TV, some of it is the luck of the draw what episode you get to direct. I got the second to last one (of Season One) where everything was building to a climax! It’s funny, because it’s not like a movie where you get to read the material ahead of time and choose what you want to do. Basically, they just call and say “Do you want to do the show?” And you get whatever episode they need to slot somebody into. But what happened with DEXTER was I saw the pilot!
Normally, I haven’t been somebody that really chases TV, I mean, I’ve done some TV. Basically TV is a great way to pay the rent, but generally it’s the kind of thing where if they call and ask me, and I think it’s a decent show, why not? This was the first case where I saw the pilot and said, “I want to work on that! That’s just cool!” So, I basically said to my agents “Just get me in at Showtime and let me talk to them!” And I really went in and said please, please, please just let me do this show! Because it’s so great and I just want to be a part of it, and I get it, and I get the style of it.
And I’m really glad that they said yes, because I’ve done 3 of them now. 1 the first year and 2 the second year, and it’s really a fun job! If you’re going to do TV, you want to do a show that you would want to watch anyway. Doing TV, if you don’t love the show, then it really is a job. But working on something like DEXTER, it’s so much fun, because it’s something I would be sitting home and watching! The actors are so good. The writing is so good. The other directors are really good. It’s also that rare situation where there’s no schmuck! (Laughs)
Most jobs, especially TV with the strains of TV and the hard hours of TV, there’s at least one actor who’s really cranky, or at least one producer who just seems to be there to make your life miserable. (Laughs) But DEXTER doesn’t have any of that. DEXTER – all the people are so cool. They work really hard to not let the hours get insane. A lot of TV shows shoot 14, 15, 16 hours a day as standard operating procedure. And what happens is, the actors burn out, the crew burns out, people get angry, people get tired.
On DEXTER, they make a real effort to keep the days reasonable in length. And I think consequently, it keeps the whole tone of the show really positive. And someone like Michael C. Hall who’s carrying such a burden as an actor doesn’t burn out. You know, the way he would if they were doing normal series hours. And it’s really a pleasure to work on, but it is, it’s just a cool, well written show.

How was coming back for Season Two?

This year was fun (Season Two) because the episodes I did were earlier, so I didn’t know how the year was going to end up! They were still working things out! The funny thing about TV is while you’re shooting episode 4 or 5, they don’t necessarily know everything that’s going to happen in episode 12. So, its a little bit challenging for the actors and the director because you’re kind of making decisions without really being sure where it’s really heading?
But it’s also cool, because you get to be apart of the mystery along with the audience! They’ll tell you in general terms “This is what we think might happen.” But they were very close-lipped this year, because apparently there was a lot of debating and working out going on, even while shooting about weather Doakes would die or not. All those things, I think were on the table until really late in the game!
Not for nothing, DEXTER Season Two has got to be one of the best sophomore seasons to a show ever.

Well, here’s to hoping they can do it again! Because I certainly told them I would be happy to come back and do more of them. I hope they can be as creative (with Season Three) and do as well.

After you saw the pilot, but before you got your episode, did you familiarize yourself with the character more? There are obviously DEXTER novels that the show is loosely based on. Or did you just follow the show as a fan?
I just stayed with the show. Because basically, in talking to the producers, they said they wanted to try to give (the show) its own identity. Again, if you’re doing a movie and you’ve got tons of time to do tons of research, then I would’ve also sat with the book. Like if I was directing a feature of the book, obviously I would spend a ton of time with the book. But with TV, you only have so much time between when they hire you and when you start working, I felt it was more important to really study the episodes that they had done already.
I was coming in late in the season and I didn’t get hired until not long before I did my episode, so I really thought it was important to get really familiar with what they had shot, what the early episodes looked like and really study it shot by shot. Really look at the other shows, especially the pilot which established the whole tone of the series.
And really look at where they were putting the camera, where they were putting the lights, what kind of camera movement they were using. Not that you slavishly imitate it, but I do think when you’re doing TV, there’s this sort of duel responsibility. On one hand, you want to bring something to the table and its great on a show like DEXTER where they don’t want you to just follow their rules, they want you to add something as a director, but you still want to stay true to the DNA of the show that they’ve already created.
You don’t just want to do something that won’t fit in. I spent most of my time just trying to get as familiar as I could with what they’d been doing and also spending a lot of time hanging out on the set, so I could watch how the actors worked. TV’s such a funny thing because you’re coming into something that’s already a living organism. It’s already going and you’re walking into it. It’s like becoming the kid who comes into school mid-way through the school year!

I was always fascinating by that idea. When you’re directing a feature length, you’re there from the beginning to develop this whole thing. But this is TV with a cast and crew that’s there every week and you, the director are the revolving factor!


So, does that make it more difficult?

Oh, it definitely makes it more difficult. Certainly a different type of challenge as opposed to doing a feature. You learn to deal with that, and one of the things I try to do when I’m directing TV is to really try and spend some time on the set before my episode, watching how people all work together, so you’re walking in with some sense of, “Oh, Michael likes this kind of direction. And Jennifer (Carpenter) likes that kind of direction. And the DP works like this.” If you’re trying to do that all on your first day on the set, that’s really hard.
But if you watch how other people are working, you can get a pretty good idea of what works with each person. And that to me as a director is a big part of your job. You’re kind of like a psychologist. Really your job is in a lot of ways to figure out a way to help people to do their best work. And that’s going to be different for every person involved! So, just observing beforehand really, really helps. It’s not always possible, but whenever I can, I try to spend at least a few days on the set beforehand just to familiarize myself with the way people work. And also, physically familiarize myself with the set!
When you’re doing a feature, you’re very involved with the production designer and designing the sets and what they’re laid out like, and what kind of shots you might want to do. When you’re doing a TV show, all the sets are already built. So, sometimes I love to go spend hours on the empty set and sit in Dexter’s apartment and think “Ok, where are some places a camera can go here? What are some things you could do here that I haven’t seen people do here yet?” And that’s also real important.
I love the idea of you sitting in Dexter’s apartment and making these decisions! (Laughs)

Oh yeah! It’s kind of funny, and it is kind of creepy because you can end up all alone in these big empty sound stages with one or two work lights on. Especially on a show like that, there’s definitely a little creepiness inherent in it. It’s kind of a fun back of the neck tickle you can get in those situations.
Obviously, we’re Icons Of Fright, but... BACK TO SCHOOL… one of the only films as a kid that I stayed and watched in theaters, and when it was over, I stayed in my seat to watch it a second time in a row.


It’s the only movie I ever did that for. I loved Rodney Dangerfield. I saw him do stand up about a year before he passed. I was just wondering if you could share one good Rodney story from working on BACK TO SCHOOL?
Well, it’s funny because Rodney was not really an actor, he was a stand-up. So he was used to thinking in those terms. And one of the things I think is so impressive in that film, and that director Alan Metter doesn’t get enough credit for, is really helping Rodney work as an actor, not just a joke teller. You get caught up in his character. And I remember going to rehearsal with Rodney, and his stage act is very precise. Very planned.
So, we were sitting at this table, we were rehearsing one of the scenes, and Rodney said to Alan, “When we do this scene, what side is he going to be on?” He meaning me. And Alan said, “I don’t know yet Rodney, we don’t even have a location yet.” “Well, I need to know! What side is he going to be on?” And Alan says, “I don’t know? In my imagination, I guess maybe on the right?”
At the time, I was sitting on the left. So, then we started rehearsing the scene and Rodney spent the whole time talking to the right where there was an empty chair rather then talking to me, because he was so used to trying to get the physicality down of what he was going to do, that he didn’t realize, Oh when you’re acting, you actually have to really look at the other person! So, it was very funny, because it was just not what he was used to! And Alan, I thought did a masterful job with him of getting him to do something he was very uncomfortable with, which was at times be vulnerable. You know?
Rodney was very comfortable with doing the Rodney-shtick, but the few moments in the film that he has to be softer, sadder, I mean it’s not a big part of the movie, but I do think it’s a part of what makes the movie work is that there’s a human being underneath the wackiness. And Alan really had to work with him to get him to feel safe enough to let that out.

I agree, every comedy that has a little bit of heart behind it is usually the main reason it ends up a success.

Yeah, and that film without it really wouldn’t have worked. And I think Alan deserves a lot of credit with that film.

It’s funny, because with that film, there’s odd coincidences that fit into your overall career. Adrienne Barbeau was your step-mom in it, and she was married to John Carpenter at one point, whom you worked with on CHRISTINE.


And Robert Downey Jr. was your co-star but later was the lead in THE SINGING DETECTIVE, which you directed!


So, it’s kind of neat how BACK TO SCHOOL ties into some of your other work.

Yeah, I mean, the funny thing is the business isn’t that big, and if you’re in it long enough, you find a lot of those coincidences. You end up working with people again, and paths re-cross. It’s a funny business that way. That’s one of the wonderful things about it is it is its own community.
Yeah, it’s all true. It was fun to work with Adrienne, who is a complete sweetheart, although we didn’t really have stuff together really in the film. But just being around her, I had gotten to know her and really like her when she was with John. So it was neat to be in something with her again. And getting to work with Robert again that many years later in that different context was also pretty wild!
He’s one of my favorite actors right now.

Oh, he’s a remarkable, remarkable talent. It’s one of those clichés where they say he’s one of the best actors of his generation. But I don’t think it’s a cliché in his case, he really is. And he’s a fascinating guy, because he’s not a technician in the sense that he doesn’t know how he does what he does. At least when we were working together, it was interesting that he was someone who worked really on instinct. He’s brilliant, but he’s not brilliant in this technician, theater-trained kind of way. He’s brilliant because his instincts are brilliant. Which is really an interesting thing to work with. It’s very different then working with a Nick Nolte, who say you’re working on a play and you can be very intellectual about the themes. With Robert, it’s just finding what that phrase or thing is going to be that’s going to set up what he needs to really run with it.

My favorite film of last year was Fincher’s ZODIAC and I thought he stole that movie. But… I’m so happy that Robert Downey Jr. is going to be a superhero this summer in IRON MAN!

Yeah! I think that’s really cool. I think that’s a great piece of casting. I can’t imagine… again I think he will do that thing of bringing tremendous humanity to the piece, and you’ll end up with one those rare movies that combines spectacle and amazing effects with real heart. And I think he’s the kind of actor that can do that; in the midst of all the other stuff really bring out tremendous emotion. I’m excited to see IRON MAN. I’m very hopeful that it’ll be cool!
The thing I find interesting about your directing career – judging from the films I’ve seen of yours, you always make interesting choices in terms of what you’ve directed. Obviously, if you’re going to direct a movie, it’s a lot of time out of your life and you have to devote a lot of yourself to it. Example, WAKING THE DEAD is beautiful, beautiful movie.

Aw, thanks.

It’s not a horror movie, but I can think of nothing more horrific then losing someone you love and not really knowing what happened to them.

Yeah, it’s true. It’s a different type of horror, but it’s pretty horrifying.
On the DVD featurette for WAKING THE DEAD, you mention that you read the book, and it had you in tears the whole time. That’s pretty much how your movie version of it made me feel!

Aw, thank you. I’m flattered.

And it’s really hard NOT to fall in love with Jennifer Connelly!

Well, yeah. Come on, it’s hard not to do that.

So, my question is what do you look for when it comes to picking the projects that you want to direct? Because they’ve all been fairly different.

It’s funny, it’s very, very, very chemical and visceral. The thing I compare it to, when I teach, it’s like falling in love? You can date a lot of people. And you can even date some people that are really cool, and you know they’re great people but you just don’t get that feeling in the pit of your stomach where you’re flipping out with them, you want to get them naked and you want to spend the rest of your life with them?


It’s kind of like that when you’re reading material. It’s very visceral. I’ve read some scripts that I knew were really, really good scripts. But they just didn’t speak to me in a personal way. And I’ve read other scripts that I knew were problematic, or books or whatever that I thought there’s difficult stuff in here that isn’t right yet, but I get this. I know how to tell this story. Usually for me, a big sign is how much I see it in my head (like a movie) when I read it. Weather it’s a book or a script. The things that I fall in love with, usually even on the first reading, I’m getting images in my head, I know just how the scene should feel like. What the music would be like. And that’s a very… again it’s like dating! You might well end up marrying someone that’s really different from what you thought you would be with, but somehow that person just spoke to your soul, and I find that’s the thing with directing. It works the same way for me. So, it drives my agents insane!


Because there’s no pattern, there’s nothing I can say “Look for this!” The only thing I can usually say is “Look for originality.” The thing that doesn’t usually excite me is if we’ve seen that same story told that way 5 times before in the last 5 years. Even if it’s done well, I usually feel like “We’ve seen that movie.” But there have been fabulous movies and movies that went on to be huge successes that I read and went “I’m not the person who should do this.” So, it’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s an emotional response. It’s not an intellectual thing. People have pointed out to me, “Well I notice this theme that runs through all your movies.” Yeah, well it may, but I didn’t think that. I wasn’t thinking that when I fell in love with the material.

I think that’s a wonderful analogy, the idea of falling in love with something and figuring out what kind of relationship you’re going to have with this particular one.

Then of course there’s the fact that it’s so hard to get these kind of movies made! More personal, independent movies. It’s the luck of the draw on what gets financed! I’ve had plenty of different projects that I’ve loved just as much that have never seen the light of day. So, if some of those projects had gotten made, and some of those that got made didn’t get made, you might have a very different take on me as a director. And it would all be the luck of the draw of where the financing happens. People always think of me as very serious, and yet one of the projects I spent years on was a pretty wild comedy that I’d fallen in love with, but that we could never quite get the money to make. Had that gotten made, it would’ve changed every perception of me as a certain director. It’s so funny how that happens. For every one movie that you get made, there are 2, 3, 4 that you spend a year, 2 years, 5 years on and somehow they never happen! So, it’s an odd thing that way too.

Obviously, you’re a big movie fan. Do you consider yourself a genre fan? Is there anything you’ve seen in the past few years that you liked?

I’m somebody who’s more a fan of creepiness, rather then horror per se. I love the innocence of certain things. I thought THE OTHERS was really, really cool.

Oh, Alejandro Amenabar was the director of that! His first two Spanish films THESIS and OPEN YOUR EYES are among my all time favorite foreign films.

That kind of filmmaking I find much more exciting then some of the straight forward “slasher” horror that’s become more common. I love things that leave me with a creepy feeling. Sort of with an unanswered question. That just what seems to speak to me.
What would be among your favorite films that fall under the category of the horror genre?

Well, certainly THE SHINING is a film I love. And I know a lot of people don’t love it as much as the book, but that movie blows me away, as I think of it as part horror, part comedy, part social satire. That’s a movie that I’ve rewatched constantly. Same goes for a lot of John Carpenter’s films. I think that THE THING is a brilliant movie. Then there’s things like ESCAPE FROM NY that aren’t horror, but that I love. Same with Hitchcock. I mean, is FRENZY horror? I don’t know. Not really, but kind of?

Well, you mentioned Hitchcock and one of my favorite movies is PSYCHO.
Well yeah, I love that too, but is it a horror movie? I think it’s a great, great movie. Horror is a funny word, because some people mean it much more literally. In a kind of ghost, goblins or “slasher” kind of way. I think of it more as part of the suspense world, and I love suspense movies. THE EXORCIST is a brilliant film. There’s movies like WAGES OF FEAR. It’s suspense, but it’s not horror in an obvious way. I don’t know when I’d ever been more scared in a movie theater though! I like movies that take my breath away and make me wonder what’s going to happen. I don’t like films that try to derive the scares from cats jumping out of a closet. That turns me off very quickly. Something like DON’T LOOK NOW is a brilliant, brilliant horror film.

The craft that went into the filmmaking of those movies, THE EXORCIST, PSYCHO even John’s early movies like HALLOWEEN, I feel like that’s missing today. I can see DON’T LOOK NOW today and the ending bit still scares the crap out of me!

But it does it because it’s within the context of a story where you’ve built up to that. Now a lot of horror that I’ve seen seem to be based on short term shock scares, rather then build up. To me, making me jump isn’t really scaring me, you’re just hitting my knee with a hammer.

Scaring me is making me think about something and making me have an image that’s going to last and that I’m going to carry with me. So for me, as a film goer, that’s much more exciting. Yeah, you can show somebody getting their guts cut open and poring out and you’re going to provoke a visceral response. But to me, that’s kind of easy. Anybody can do that. But make me get invested in a character, and get involved in the way that you do with Donald Sutherland in DON’T LOOK NOW, so that when that ending happens, it has meaning beyond what you’d think.
It’s when it has these layers that it becomes such a powerful genre. At its best, it’s what our dreams are. Horror speaks to things that go beyond literal logic and into the realm of dream logic, and I think that’s fabulous. I think DePalma at his best gets you really involved in a different level then just the gross out level. All the best suspense and horror filmmakers do that. I think when Wes Craven is at his most interesting, he’s got a lot of stuff going on. To me, that’s the real key difference.

Thanks for your time, Keith!

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