By Tony Jones & Jim Mcleod
Ginger Nuts of Horror is proud to bring you an interview with Dan Wells, author of the excellent I am Not a Serial Killer trilogy.
I am Not a Serial Killer has just enjoyed a very successful limited cinema run, where it gained a great deal of critical acclaim. The film is due for widespread release on 20 Feb 2017 on DVD and VOD.
“You don’t know the things I’ve done, or that I will do.”
A dazzlingly original, darkly funny and disturbing gem with a genre-bending twist, about a small town teenager in the US, obsessed with serial killers, who unwittingly discovers the identity of the killer who has been slaughtering residents for body parts.
Featuring a star-making lead performance from 17-year-old Max Records, and an extraordinary turn from Back To The Future’s legendary Christopher Lloyd,
I am Not a Serial Killer is the most sheerly entertaining and audaciously offbeat offering since Donnie Darko hit cinema screens.
A big hit when it premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March, nominated for 3 British Independent Film Awards, and was a must-see film at the prestigious BFI London Film Festival, it proves that left field indie cinema is alive and kicking, even if the Clayton County killer’s victims aren’t. “Hit the switch John...”
Welcome to the Ginger Nuts of Horror Dan, we appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for the website. We’re huge fans of both your YA novels and the recent film made of your 2009 debut I am Not a Serial Killer as the flick is currently showing in the UK cinemas many of our questions focus on this, with a few others on your work in general.
GNoH: You must be delighted to find out that a film based on your book is gracing midnight showings at some pretty iconic London cinemas with huge posters scattered across the London Underground?
I am! The movie debuted in America first and got some okay press, but the response in the UK has been amazing. Seeing photos of the poster in tube stations has completely made my year.
GNoH: The popular daily UK newspaper The Guardian calls I am Not a Serial Killer "an odd indie”. Is this a fair description of the film? Surely a film which is averaging at the time of writing 93% on the reviewing website Rotten Tomatoes deserves a better by-line?
That's probably not a blurb we'll use on a future poster, but it's accurate enough. One of the problems we've had since the beginning--with both the book and the movie--is that it's so hard to categorise. It's kind of a horror, but also kind of a comedy, but also kind of a drama, but also kind of a coming-of-age story. If even we can't describe it, I think "An odd indie" might have been the best that reporter could come up with :)
GNoH: We loved the original trilogy of novels and featured the first one in one of our top YA horror charts earlier in the year http://gingernutsofhorror.com/young-blood/-fifty-kids-and-ya-horror-novels-to-enjoy-part-one Why did you return to the ‘John Cleaver’ series in 2014 after a three-year break when the series looked like it was done and dusted?
I'd always known that John COULD have more stories after the first trilogy, because of the way it ends, but knowing cool plot stuff is different from knowing cool character stuff. John's arc in the first trilogy is complete and satisfying, and I didn't want to mess with it unless I knew I had some new and interesting way for him to change. It wasn't until I was living in Germany, sometime in 2013, that I had the inspiration for what his new character arc could be.
GNoH: The press has called I am Not a Serial Killer a “cult” novel. Do you see it as a “cult” novel and have any kind of notoriety in the USA?
I don't consider it a YA book, and in the US it isn't sold that way; my publisher calls it a supernatural thriller, and most bookstores shelve it in General Fiction. My "real" YA books, the Partials Sequence, have outsold IANASK almost two to one over here, so it's far more popular numerically, but IANASK is what I'm known for--which means that the fewer people who've read them really, really love them, which seems like a good definition of "cult" novel. I always love to see which books are popular in which markets and try to guess why, but in the end, I think it's really just down to fate.
GNoH: The very best YA novels, horror or otherwise, can be equally enjoyed by adults as well as teens. The film doesn’t portray itself as a teen movie, do you think adult viewers of the film who seek out the book are in for a surprise?
Like I said, I don't really consider it a YA book. The UK and Argentina are actually the only markets that sell it that way.
GNoH: Could you tell us a little bit about how the film came around and any involvement you had with the script or anything else?
The director, Billy O'Brien, had just finished up another project and was looking for a new one. Somebody suggested my book, and he read it, and we started emailing back and forth about horror and comedy and Russian literature and all kinds of shared interests. It quickly became obvious that not only did he love the book, he loved it for the same reasons I did, which more than anything made me feel like I could trust him to do the adaptation right. I visited London that year, and I wanted to take a walking Jack the Ripper tour but didn't have time because I needed to meet with Billy; without knowing my other plans he took me on a walking Jack the Ripper tour, and we became fast friends. He and his team then spent about five and a half years working on the script and trying to raise the money, and while I didn't have any official oversight or creative control he was always very eager to give me drafts of the script and to discuss issues like casting and creature design. I was actually the first person to suggest Max Records for John Cleaver, though our Nick Ryan was already a good friend of his family, and he's so perfect in the role I imagine he would have gotten it without my involvement. There are lots of different versions of that story floating around, but I prefer mine :)
GNoH: We thought it was a beautifully shot, incredibly well acted and an entertaining film. Everyone we know who has seen it has been extremely complimentary. I read the book a few years ago, but as I remember it, the film very closely follows the book pretty closely apart from changes to a few scenes. You must have been happy with the faithfulness to your source material?
First of all: thank you! It always makes me happy to hear that people love it. And yes, I love it, too. The couple of changes make it better, honestly--the book scenes wouldn't have worked in the movie, and the movie scenes wouldn't have worked in the book, so it all comes together really well. And my favourite scene in the book is also my favourite scene in the movie, which is a delight: the Halloween dance, and John's speech about the cardboard box. So many of the reviews mention that scene by name, which thrills me because they did such an amazing job with it.
GNoH: The Film does away with John's internal monologue, do you think it would have worked better with an internal narrator or was it unnecessary?
We tried several drafts of the script that had a voiceover narration from John, and it just didn't work. It felt too talky, and too safe, and in a lot of ways you actually didn't get a good sense of John's sociopathy and isolation because you as a viewer never felt isolated from him. Billy and Chris, the screenwriter, tried a test where they just cut all the voiceover completely, without changing anything else, and it astonished us all how well the movie worked without it. That draft, which just a couple of changes, is what we ended up shooting.
GNoH: How happy are you with the casting? Christopher Lloyd is exceptional in the film, and makes full use of being able to play against type?
We made a long list, in order of preference, of every single old man in the movie industry--you literally could not name an old man actor who wasn't on our list. We figured we'd end up settling for someone near the middle, because of course our first choice would say no, but Chris said yes and the rest is history. He and Max are perfect--just absolutely flawless in their roles. Laura Fraser as the mom, and Lucy Lawton as Brooke make me wish we could do the sequels just because they have such juicy parts in the later books (honestly I don't expect any sequels, but it's fun to dream). Karl Geary is wonderful as the therapist. Anna Sundberg as the sister, and Christina Baldwin as the aunt are only in a handful of scenes but add such incredible depth to the cast; Baldwin in particular is the highlight of every scene she's in. But the more I watch the movie, the more I realize that Dee Noah, playing Kay, is the absolute heart of the show. It simply wouldn't work without her, and she doesn't get enough credit for that.
GNoH: Trying very hard not to give anything away, as the twist and direction that the film, and book takes is exceptional, with that in mind, the final encounter between John and Crowley bravely goes against your typical Hollywood film, and is rather touching in a weird way. Was it important to you that both characters came off as being somewhat sympathetic?
Absolutely--that's the whole point, really. When I first set out to write about a sociopath I knew that the key issue for the audience would be empathy: how could they relate to a character who can't relate to them? So I built the story around that question. This is getting into spoilery territory, perhaps, since the movie studio is being very cagey about it, though I've always been very upfront about the the supernatural aspects of the story. This is the story of a boy who feels disconnected from the rest of humanity, who meets a literally inhuman monster who IS connected to humans in a way John never can be. Billy put it more succintly, in a mantra he'd repeat every morning to the cast and crew: this is the story of a boy who can't love, and a monster who kills for love. As the audience come to love them both, and to see their good and their bad sides, and to get so attached that we maybe cheer for something we shouldn't, that's when it all comes together. That's when I know we succeeded.
GNoH: When it comes to adaptations of books, a lot of nuances can get lost, I found it refreshing that John was portrayed in a very level headed way, that avoided many of the clichés of troubled teenagers. Did you have much say in how the character was developed for the screen?
Not really? I got to review the script, like I said, and to talk to Max on the set, but most of that is Max himself, who's just a phenomenal actor and a level-headed guy anyway. He was unofficially attached to our movie for most of those five and a half years of money-raising, so he had a lot of time to get inside John's head; he read all the books, and talked to Billy and Nick and his parents about the story and the character, and in some ways I feel lik he knows John better than I do now.
GNoH: And were there any things you would have liked to tweak about his character?
One of the casualties of the adaption was John's obsession over Brooke. The movie plays that relationship almost in reverse, where she has a crush on him and he's oblivious to it, and this works both to underscore his lack of emotion and as beautifully dark humor, and I think it was the right choice for the film, but I do miss his creepy fixation with her and the struggles he goes through to overcome it.
GNoH: Are there plans for any more of the books to be turned into films?
The cast and the crew are all excited for it, but at this point, it comes down to the studio. If they want more, we'll make more, but my gut tells me this is the only one we'll get. Indie films rarely get sequels, and quirky niche films like this one are often so beloved by their core audience that we don't realize how niche we really are. The film we have is great, and whether we get sequels or not we can be happy with what we have.
GNoH: The film has some rather gruesome scenes, which may preclude it from being seen by some of the target audience of the novels. Do you think scenes like those have more of a psychological impact on the screen compared to being on the page?
Film, of course, is a visual medium, which has the funky dual effect of making some things more disturbing and some things far less so. Reading my description of an embalming procedure is a totally different experience from watching an embalming procedure right in front of you. Imagining what a monster looks like is very different from seeing one on a screen. Translating all of that from words to images, and tuning the dials just right to get the maximum effect, was difficult to say the least, but I think they did a great job.
GNoH: What’s the state of YA horror in the USA at the moment? But perhaps you’re not up to date…. I read somewhere that you live in Europe? Do you recommend anyone we might not know?
I lived in Germany from 2012 to 2014, but I'm back in the states now. And YA horror here is in great shape: read Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake, or The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd. I actually just read a fantastic Middle Grade horror called The Memory Thief, by Bryce Moore, about a kid who learns how to steal and plant and store memories, and it's awesome and everyone should read it.
GNoH: You’ve written some very diverse YA novels which I’ve also read any enjoyed. How easy was it to move from YA horror into crossover dystopian science fiction with ‘The Partials’ series?
I chose Partials as my follow-up project to John Cleaver precisely because of how different it was. I never want to get pigeon-holed as a horror author or a YA author or an anything else author, so I go out of my way to jump around and write whatever I feel like. If it excites me, it will excite the readers, and that's more important to me than sticking to one thing and hoping people like it.
GNoH: ‘Extreme Makeover’ has just been released in the USA. I have a copy currently sitting less than ten feet away and I hope to review it for Ginger Nuts of Horror soon. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Is this an adult novel?
It is a standalone adult science fiction novel, half corporate satire and half apocalyptic thriller. A scientist named Lyle Fontanelle, working on a new hand lotion for a cosmetics company, accidentally creates a technology that overwrites your DNA, turning you into a copy of someone else. The cosmetics company wants to sell it as a beauty product, but it slowly spirals out of control, and by the end it's far and away the darkest, bleakest book I've ever written. And, at least in my own opinion, the best. I hope you like it.
GNoH: Then you return to YA and another series called “Mirador” which looks like a cross between fantasy and science fiction?
It's cyberpunk, actually, so there's no fantasy (though, as the saying goes, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic). The story takes place in the year 2050, when cars drive themselves and automated drones do everything and we all have computers in our heads called djinnis, that allow us to access the Internet directly through our brain. The main characters are a group of girls in Los Angeles who play a virtual reality video game, trying to get on the pro circuit, until one of them discovers a new digital drug called Bluescreen. Think Veronica Mars meets the Matrix.
GNoH: Tell the readers of Ginger Nuts about your favourite horror writers or those who have inspired you?
I already mentioned a few. To that I would add some older authors like Victor Hugo (Hunchback of Notre Dame is pure horror), and some younger ones like Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Though to be honest I mostly read historical fiction :)
GNoH: Finally, what’s the best piece of advice another author has given you?
Always be writing, and always be submitting. Never stop, no matter how bad you are, because the only way to get better is to keep trying.
Dan it has been a real pleasure having you on the site. We hope the film continues to pick up a positive buzz over here in the UK and the vibes sends readers over to the bookshops to check your very cool and highly original body of work out.
Thank you so much! It's an honor to be here.
I am Not a Serial Killer is Released On DVD, Blu-ray & Digital HD Monday 20th February 2017 Purchase a copy here
You can read our review of I am Not A serial Killer here, and