Q: Tell us about "The Willows." Where's it currently at in the development process?
It's moving forward. A first draft screenplay was finally registered with the WGA in January of this year. It only took me about 5 years. So you might qualify that with, "It's moving forward... SLOWLY."
Q: Why so long?
Because I hate writing. As our Illustrious Leader, the Decider, likes to say, "It's hard work." What's that bit in Heart of Darkness? "No, I don't like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done!" But beyond that is the fact that I didn't really understand Blackwood's story very well, nor that one couldn't really just parse a particular item from his collective body of work and say, "Here it is, 'The Willows!'"
Q: Why is that, do you think?
With Blackwood you pretty much have to read everything he's ever written. Even then it's difficult to get your mind around, because he's so utterly different from every other "horror" writer. This is just it, of course, because he isn't a horror writer at all in the way most of us understand the term. So I just read everything I could, and corresponded some with his biographer, Mike Ashley, and studied what little scholarship was available, mainly S.T. Joshi. Finally I came across "The Centaur," a kind of key or legend to everything Blackwood. Realizing that the protagonist of that book was essentially just another self-portrait of AB himself, and that he was using the book to kind of unify his own cosmology, I decided to fold it around "The Willows." The result is that the original scriptment had a sweep and expansiveness I hadn't anticipated, and I decided I liked that approach a lot, much more so than my original conception, which was sort of a "John Carpenter's The Thing" meets "Session 9," on a river. Of course a huge part of the screenplay is also derived from AB's article, "Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe," from which he directly extrapolated "The Willows."
Q: So doing your homework really paid off?
Well, we'll see, right? But yes, from a standpoint of pure craft, absolutely. I was so confounded by the story at first, what with the missing objects, and that ghostly man in the boat, and -- well, what I've called for the last 5 years, "that fucking otter." It utterly vexed me, like David Lynch's "Inland Empire." Those spirals in the sand -- huh? It wasn't until after corresponding with Mike Ashley in 2004, and letting my eyes linger on that line of the Swede's, "Our thoughts make spirals in their world," that I realized what was perhaps obvious to everyone else, which is that the sand spirals represented a kind of physical "footprint" of these Beings' (whatever they are) PSYCHICAL presence. That "our thoughts make spirals in their world," and that theirs make spirals in ours -- which is just so chilling and bizarre and so utterly Blackwood.
Q: Sounds like the turning point for you in adapting the story.
Uh, yeah! Then I realized that if you broadened it out, is was just a really neat metaphor for the overall flow and pattern of nature and of the universe itself -- the planet's dreaming consciousness, of which we are a part -- something Blackwood thought awesome and beautiful but terrifying to most humans because of the loss of personal agency. This idea of the call to nature and expanded consciousness, of surrendering one's individuality to the whole, of a merging with V'ger, so to speak, is what Blackwood is all about. The horror in "The Willows" comes not from a guy with an axe but from the characters not understanding the true nature of the universe -- Blackwood's version of it, anyway -- and their active resistance to its pull, and that because personal agency is illusory and everything is in fact one, their thoughts may be literally altering their surroundings.
Q: Not your garden-variety horror themes.
No. You go in with your little lexicon of B-movie shorthand, the sextant you've been using to navigate books and movies and even the world since you were about 7, and find it doesn't work here, that nothing makes sense. Then Blackwood starts bending you and you begin to see things the way he did, just a little. Mike Ashley wrote a blurb for "Pan's Garden" that reads, "This book may open the channel between you and Nature. Do not treat it lightly." That's not hyperbole. He means it.
Q: Having written "Starlight Man," he should know!
Right. Talking to Mike and reading Joshi were absolutely critical to whatever understanding of the material I've gained, which isn't to say that they would necessarily approve of or endorse what I've done with the script. Blackwood fans and scholars (which Ashley and Joshi certainly are) tend to be protective, rightfully so, of the literature and the language. I would say that when it comes to this author's fandom in particular there's a decidedly purist streak, as evidenced by the online magazine "The Willows." Pretty understandable considering how beautiful (thought not always!) Blackwood's language and thought are. I think what most enthusiasts would lament is to see a slew of Blackwood movies that have little or nothing to do with Blackwood, as has (mostly) been the case with Lovecraft.
Q: So what's next for the project?
Oh, probably years more of nothing much happening. Seriously, though, we've got several "irons in the fire" right now, at least one of which seems to have some real hope. By "we" I mean Andy Kumpon, who has been constantly supportive in spite of being frantically busy with his own projects in New York; and Charles Harrison of the New York Film Academy, who will be co-writing the second draft with me. (If he doesn't pitch himself in front of a subway-car while wading through my 116-page "prosy blueprint of a movie." Poor bastard. Probably thought he was working with a pro!) I've got a bloody Master's degree to finish, as well. But we're moving forward... slowly.
Q: How's that MFA thing working out?
It's, er, a "work-in-progress." It's gotten better. I no longer visualize MFA-ers as a horde of Postmodernist literature-spouting zombies whose sole purpose in life is to eat me. I've got a paid teaching gig in the Spring. I'm fitting in better. I'll, ah, I'll let you know.
Q: Final question. What the hell happened with Ron Ford and "Snakeman?"
You know, it's just one of those things. I think Ron had a difficult time adapting to making a film in a place like Spokane, as opposed to making one in a place like Los Angeles. It's not the industry here, if Spokane can be said to have an industry. (Does parking count? A Parking Industry?) With Andy and I, we've just always been used to the idea that if you're going to shoot in Spokane on the cheap, you're gonna have to do a lot of the work yourself. You're going have to shoot amidst seasonal changes. You're going to have to work around people's schedules (most of whom are service workers, because it's a depressed economy). And you're going to have to accommodate some pretty diverse personalities. What you have here on a shoe-string budget, and this only if you're lucky! are friends and volunteers. One has to be very proactive in shaping their own material; you can't just crack the want ads and find "seasoned personnel," whatever that even means at this level and in a place like this. I certainly felt for him; it wasn't like he had a lot to work with. Nevertheless, it was a thousand times more than what we had to work with on "Shadows in the Garden" and "Last Stop Station," and I'm proud of both those projects. The key is this: I think he had some legitimate complaints about the "Snakeman" experience, but how to voice them without naming names, and how to generalize that experience without appearing to damn his whole crew? At some point I'll check out "Tiki" and "The Road" and then flash him an email. Much of the "Snakeman" debacle was just bad timing. I don't even think the movie is all bad -- I mean, it's pretty funny. Don't say it isn't!