Ginger Nuts of Horror
Jeffrey Stackhouse was a film actor, a singer and stage director before beginning writing for the screen. He has three scripts optioned with Allied Artists Film Group and has won The Page International Screenwriting Awards, Shriekfest Film Festival and Las Vegas Screenwriting Awards. He currently has a fully-authorized adaptation of a Stephen King short story in pre-production called I Am The Doorway.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I was Assistant Director of a theatre above Baltimore when I was 23, spent a few years there and then went to NYC to become a professional … waiter … but hey I did 5 seasons of Baroque opera and then started working with New Music composers, had a piece commissioned for me by Tom O’Horgan, the original director of JCSuperstar, Hair, Lenny. That was amazing: a cult leader is remanded to an Asylum where he organizes the patients, falls in love with the head nurse and blows the place to Kingdom Come with fabulous jazz-operatic riffs. John Grace Ranter. Wild stuff, and an 80-year-old madman/sweetgenius helming it.
-- So I’d met my now-wife doing opera, was brought out to LA to do the best show I’d ever been involved with, a rock opera called Pilgrim based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: stilt-walkers, trapeze, swordfights, beautiful and complex music with deeply layered themes, me as the major villain. I literally watched ahem, someone change their meds during the run-up, never get the thing blocked (did I mention stilts and trapeze?) and the critics savaged it. And the investors lost $3M
… Ah, the theatre.
I then tried to do more work with LA composers, never found anyone who really promoted their work, did some small films including an amazing superhero movie that won at San Diego Con, … delivered sandwiches and bartended?
Decided writing horror screenplays was more stable, because I seemingly have no firm concept of reality.
-- I work exclusively as a co-writer on scripts, because I enjoy the adrenaline of beating out story concepts with another sharp mind (while possibly sharing a beer).
I began writing with Wendy Lashbrook. Our process is to talk out all the beats, and then I start writing, staying up all night playing in amongst amazing icons and treacherous villains, endorphins flying as I catch a perfect turn of phrase or scalpel-like Truth, my brain going “I’m a god, I’m a god,” and handing the pages to Wendy in the morning
And I rise and go “oh no, not that, that was so beautiful, that was so clever, that was so True.”
But she’s nearly always right, and I settle down, and begin again.
And that very first script, a Spaghetti Western called Forsaken, won at the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards in Action/Adventure even though it was bloody horror.
My next horror script placed as Finalist in several contests, including Shriekfest, but it’s optioned and the title’s a bit of give-away, so clean cup clean cup, move down, move on, and then I hit again with the contained military horror Handful Of Dust at Las Vegas Screenplay, followed by a Short Script Award from Shriekfest (have you seen their new trophy?!) out of an Anthology Horror, Phobic Disorders. I wrote those with Richard A. Becker, a hugely inventive horror writer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the form. Great fun, there, killing folk in imaginative ways and creating whole mythologies. I went to him once and said “alright, one of the things I want to create here is a brand new form of possession” and then just left it in his hands, because I knew I could. – He returned with something so … well, he went “alright, this might be too awful for you” and then told me, and I immediately went “nono, that’s it, that’s the one.” He’d created a form of physical possession that had never been done before, and I got to make it even just a bit more gruesome. Good times.
So I have a Slasher script written with Wendy placed with Allied Artists Film Group which is now fully funded, and on the basis of that they've taken options on two more of my six screenplays.
And there’s this little Stephen King adaptation that the three of us wrote that I’ll find a way to shoehorn in, down below …
You just wanted a little, right?
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Heh. I garden, I read. I have two kids, a transgender boy of 17 (17!!) and a cis boy of 14. We just moved into a new house and I finally have walls to put the collected art up on and so original Dr. Strange art from the 60s vies with the storyboard artist from the 30s King Kong with work by Travis Louie and Jasmine Worth and George Pratt and Winsor freakin’ McCay. That takes some time to get right, even with Wendy’s help.
Plus I mod a group on Facebook called Above The Line Artistry where passionate film pros meet and share supportive stuffs.
What’s your favourite food?
I think I could do sushi or Indian for the rest of my life. Not sure which wins. You know that schwarma scene at the end of Thor, where they are obviously wrecked by the eating of it, but cannot resist the one-more-taste. My friend Suneel took us out for Indian one time and it was just that. Full beyond comfort, but just “one waffer thin mint …”
Who would be the soundtrack to your life story?
Well that’d probably be The Doors. Loved them my whole life; never get tired. But you’re limiting me there. Doing the soundtrack: have you heard Scriabin? Those Russian Futurists can make you mad with joy and despair in shivering nigh-simultaneous moments, hell, the very same. Back in vinyl, I’d lift that needle and listen to the same section again and again.
Do you prefer the term Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?
Hmmn, he said. I’m drawn to Weird Fiction, that whisper-thin attenuated slice of feeling that you’re not even quite sure what it is that is happening to you. But prefer-the-term? I’m a Horror baby, but it may be because I have a very particular definition of Horror. -- I think Horror is when people who don’t deserve to get it, do. That then encompasses tragedy, and creates a resonance that anyone can feel. I like when those who deserve it get it, sure, but that ain’t horror. When Arnie gets eaten by Christine, when Mrs. White calls her deaddeaddead boy back with the monkey’s paw, when Duane … well, you should just read Dan Simmon’s Summer Of Night, ‘cause that’s horror boyo. So, yes, proud to call what I do, Horror, because Horror resonates in your heart like the tolling of a ghastly bell.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
I’m attracted to “voices.” King’s a fave, because it’s like your smarter best friend is telling you a story around a campfire. I love his “voice.” You know you’re safe, but you know he’s going to f’ with you.
Roger Zelazny, RIP, is another, except there it’s your smarter older brother. He’s not messing with you, he’s telling you something that’s gonna be epic.
Dickens is great, Heinlein changed my life, Ellison woke me up. Sam Delany wrote the damnedest book: I think Dahgren is probably the best written Sci-Fi I’ve ever read, but I’ve read it probably 4 times, and I’m not really sure I know what it’s about.
Poe and William Hope Hodgson have unbelievable twists of words and layers of meaning. Back to that “voices” I guess.
What is your all-time favourite horror novel, and film?
Urhhhh. Favorite? I think it has to be Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Perfectly captures so many things and does it with perfect words. Hey, ya wanna hear the only definition of poetry that I know that fits all poems (and it’s where I aim in prose, and Bradbury achieved, and so was poetry)?
“When you remove every word you can, what is left is poetry.”
Helps if you have a vocabulary to authentically choose from, but then you winnow it down, winnow it down.
Film? The Haunting. Scared me as a kid to jeebus. Never see a thing, but that cannonball-pounding-of-the-door, “Take my hand; too tight!” the trapdoor at the top of the spiral stairs? And of course, the person who shouldn’t get it, gets it. Can’t pace something like that today, but Robert Wise had class and knew his damn job.
If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?
Flashbacks? We used them in Handful Of Dust, but were determined to make them integral to what was going on, leading in and coming out. Maybe voiceover, too. I keep using these things to try to prove they can have a purpose, use VO to good effect in the upcoming I Am The Doorway, but the fact that I’m trying to dramatically validate them probably means I’d rather they were gone.
I hate Slashers, as a general rule, although there are 5 or 6 good ones. A producer came to Wendy and me with the nugget of a script and asked me if I’d rewrite it, and I said “can I subvert the whole genre?” So we did, and that’s our first script that’s fully funded, so hey …
Which fictional character would be your perfect neighbour, and who would be your nightmare neighbour?
I’ve got Boo Radley as my neighbour right now, and it’s working out pretty well.
Nightmare: I’d go with loud, obnoxious, full of their own importance … are we back to Christine again? Darnell, the shop owner, maybe. Jeez Jeffrey, read more books.
What do you think of the current state of the genre?
Two ways to look at this: on the one hand, Blumhouse has driven out setpieces and leisurely building of an atmosphere, but on the other hand they often tell a tight economical story that gets the job done. Hard to argue with the value of that. I think we’re in a time where a really imaginative story can both be done well (spfx, both seen and world-building-hidden) and folk are looking for something they haven’t seen before, which is a great goal. But this “writing for the back row” lowest-common-denominator spoon-feeding crap is killing us.
I have a theory that no-one tells a painter how to paint, because everyone can see that you have to know how to hold the brush, how the different layers of paint interact and interfere with one-another, how to model the light properly.
But everyone knows how to type.
And so everyone thinks they have a valid opinion about writing.
And you get films that have everyone’s “storytelling” fingerprints all over them.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
Flicker is a very unusual horror novel that plays with conventions in ways you haven’t seen before. So is The Grin In The Dark, to a slightly lesser extent. Jeffrey Noon’s Vurt is pretty great sci-fi, I must say; virtual reality taken nearly to a virus (and in the sequel, no longer a metaphor). None of them are actually great, in the way that (genre stuff like) Dune and Lord Of Light and Isle Of The Dead and Foundation and More Than Human are in scifi, and Something Wicked and The Mephisto Waltz and Ghost Story and Watchers and Night Chills and Phantoms and Summer Of Night, and about 7 things by King, are.
But hey, always looking. Mr. Wicker was good, and Nicolase Mallat has something brewing that the little bit I read blew me away.
Disappointed? Damn near every new thing I read. I mean, come on, does anyone think the Hugo winners of the last decade equal the ones from the 60s or even 70s (broad brush)? Ducking my head because this will come back to bite me, but it’s like they are all written in shorthand. They’re filled with icons for emotionality, telling you what you’re supposed to feel, instead of creating icons and making you feel something against your will.
How would you describe your writing style?
I write scripts in a literary style. I used to think I was writing so that eventually folk would go “hey, it’s a new Stackhouse script, make sure you pull that one out.”
That ain’t the job. The job is to get what’s in your head as clearly into their head as possible. I’m still subversive: I’m still full of alliteration, full of the “bite” of the word and the phrase, full of the prosody. Full of myself. But I temper it now. My co-writers still have the unenviable job of keeping my language grounded, of removing every word that *can* be taken out, but I’ve learned that terseness is poetry too.
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
I’m an actor. The reason I was decently good is that I was never satisfied, so never happy. Of course anything negative cut me. The reason I wasn’t truly great is that I’m full of myself, and so anything positive fluffed me up. -- Oh, someone reviewed a show a year ago and said “the simple act of crushing a paper airplane in his fist caused a hush to fall over the theatre.” That was fun.
But do you actually mean “learned from it?” No, I’ve never learned anything from a review. From directors, from actors, sure, but as a rule not from people outside the process.
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Sitting in the damn chair and hitting the keys. Not letting the world take you away or weigh you down, either one. That’s rough, for me. Although this marathon may have cured me …
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?
See, I’m trying to subvert people with my writing, get under their skin, make them look over their shoulder when they normally wouldn’t, and with my type of horror, that’s clean. I can take you aside right now and tell you something that will f’ you up for months, just niggle in the back of your mind. You could do that too, if you had a subject; it ain’t no big trick.
But if Man Of LaMancha can change people’s lives (it did mine), if Stranger In A Strange Land (mine) if Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four (mine) can change one’s life, why would it be any different with something negative? I’m not talking Green Inferno, though that’s not a “place” I really want to spend time as a writer, I’m not even talking Human Centipede, which I in no way want to go, but there are ways you can authentically change people’s minds, and not for the better. Why would one do that? Words are power. The thing I do is catharsis. There are a dozen subjects I have no interest in writing about, because I would try to change you with them.
What do you think makes a good story?
Through line, change, something learned.
High stakes that a character needs to overcome to achieve their goal.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
Both. I like the mouthing of it, as you now know, so the meatiness is important, but I allude to other works, I allude to feelings.
My favorite villain’s name in one of my scripts was “Anton Render” a corporate bloodsucker in nigh-literal sense. Very Swamp-Thing, I thought. A name I want to use for an elderly mystery solver is “Henrietta Twig.”
But yes, every name evokes an image and most are built in “sound.”
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I learned to write marketably (scripts, remember) and, as I covered, learned that less is quite demonstrably more.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Screenwriters: I’m a disciple of Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. I also like Pandora for building an environment that informs your writing: when I wrote Forsaken I started with Johnny Cash and built from there, with Handful Of Dust it was more Metal.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
It’s a paycheck, not your baby. Let it go.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
I write query letters, I use contests. “Work best?” Nothing works until it does.
Who is your favourite character from your script and why?
The Rider from Forsaken is still my favorite character, these several years later. He’s stoic and no nonsense. He has no wasted words and does not suffer fools. He’s an icon of what a Spaghetti Western protagonist should be, pragmatic to the core of him.
“I don't care why. Somebody kills the sonofabitch so it can't happen again, I'm fine.”
How about the least favourite character? What makes them less appealing to you?
Render is a stand-in for a more fully-formed antagonist. It’s not important; he’s a foil for the protagonist and there isn’t room to “render” him more completely, but in a perfect world …
-- Now the villain in Forsaken, that boy’s full blown.
Fame, fortune, or respect?
No. Let me feed my family doing something I enjoy; that’s enough.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
Forsaken’s still the best thing I’ve written, Handful Of Dust is the most marketable. Out On A Limb from the Phobic Disorders Anthology may have been the most fun. Yow baby that was brutal.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
Hell no; I’m good.
Can you tell us about your last script, and can you tell us about what you are working on next?
With Richard and Wendy, I’ve just finished a fully authorized adaptation of a Stephen King story, I Am The Doorway. A British production team is coming to the States to film it, and here’s the trailer for their last film, which won 7 major awards:
We wrote Doorway to be like a polished jewel with a soured rotten flaw at its center; beautiful in color-palate and widescreen scope, framing a brutal and unflinching horror beyond any I’ve written before. We took the original story and went further in relationships, in emotion, in physical horror.
I’m working on a novel now about 81 students in a rambling manor house in England. It deals with love and what happens when you call a dead god to make just one wish. It’s called None Greater Than
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
Why are you here?
We have a Funding Campaign. It doesn’t open ‘til next week, but if you are interested and contact me, I’ll give you a pre-peek. Phil Meheux (Casino Royale, Mask Of Zorro, many others) is our DP, Illusion Industries is our SPFX (and we have a quite-horrible ton).
C’mon, you want to see how legitimate I really am, don’t you …?
Facebook: I Am The Doorway
Twitter: I Am The Doorway