[Shawn Macomber contributes this Sinister Seven interview with filmmaker/novelist Eric Red.]
Few are the novelists who could win blurbs from Ramsey Campbell and Joel Schumacher, yet Eric Red manages to bridge that considerable divide with his smoldering literary debut Don’t Stand So Close, a tale perhaps most aptly described as the first season of Dawson’s Creek re-imagined by Adrian Lyne as a prequel to Fatal Attraction.
A screenwriter-director best known for his pivotal role in bringing such landmark genre fare as The Hitcher, Near Dark, Body Parts, Bad Moon, and the underrated 100 Feet to the silver screen, Red graciously took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer seven sinister queries about temptress teachers, sex-crazed teenagers, Rutger Hauer’s fears of villain-hood, and the art of the transgressive ripper.
Don’t Stand So Close is reminiscent of the great films from Adrian Lyne’s look-what-naughty-behavior-gets-you canon—i.e., Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful—in that you make this ripped-from-the-headlines teacher-student affair seem so goddamned appealing in the first several chapters only to plunge us almost without warning into some pretty transgressive/terrifying territory. Where’d you discover the mustard seed of this plot?
I love Lyne’s films, especially 9 1/2 Weeks, for the seductive filmmaking style of romance and sexuality and, as you pointed out, channeled a bit of that feel in the book. I certainly played a lot of Brian Ferry music while writing it—I must have listened to “Slave to Love” five hundred times during the writing!
The inspiration for the story came from when I was a teenager in New York City knowing several other high school students who had sex with their teachers. The kids always ended up fucked up. There was a hot teacher that my male friends and I fantasized about—as young guys probably always do in high schools everywhere. When I got older, looking back, I realized that is a Watch Out What You Wish For situation and the seeds of an erotic thriller were planted…I always like playing with people’s expectations in my work and consider that a key aspect of suspense.
This novel would have fallen on its face if its teenage protagonists had been one-dimensional walking clichés, but you bring them to life as complex, conflicted individuals even as they are immersed in some unusually risqué (and deadly!) situations. Was summoning forth these characters a daunting task?
It’s significant to me that many of the books popular with Young Adult readers, like the Harry Potters [and] Hunger Games, deal thematically with young people facing the threat of utter annihilation or having to kill their friends to survive. Death seems to be part of the mythological consciousness of teenagers today, who are a more hard-nosed generation than mine was. I wonder whether kids today have any childhoods at all…
I mostly just tried to be truthful. I went back and drew from my own experiences as a teenager and how adolescence is an amazing time as far as discovering love and sex. It’s so awesome and new and you never forget it. But the flip side is what you don’t know can hurt you at that age and sex can get you in trouble. I think that’s all part of being a teenager and growing up and it never changes. The characters in the book were mostly composites of people I knew back then, myself included, so the book is a little autobiographical.
You’ve published excellent shorts in Shroud and elsewhere, but this is your debut as a novelist after many years as a screenwriter. What prompted that transition?
Writing prose came pretty easily because of the narrative and dramatic skills built in the screenwriting DNA. I’m a storyteller first and foremost, and writing short stories and novels I don’t need the whole machine I do when directing a film. This first book took me a long time to write, and there was more satisfaction in its completion than any script, probably because of the work entailed… Short stories were a good test run for a novel for the same reason making short films is the best training for directing a feature film—it’s like running sprints before attempting a marathon.
I’ve read that The Hitcher was based on an interaction with an actual hitchhiker you picked up on a cross-country drive. I love the idea of a drifter somewhere out there totally unaware of the fact that he inspired a psychopathic villain played by Rutger Hauer, but is the story true?
That’s a myth, actually. The Hitcher was really inspired by The Door’s song, “Riders On The Storm.” The closest thing that paralleled it happened a few weeks after I wrote the script and was driving a cab in Texas, which was my job then. I picked up an itinerant late one night who wanted to sit in the front passenger seat and just sat and didn’t talk, in a long coat and smelling of soil because he probably slept in a field. He was just strange, and kind of young. The transient wanted to be dropped off on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and I did. Uneventfully. He said thanks. So maybe John Ryder invoked this guy somehow, who knows?
My favorite Rutger story is while we were shooting The Hitcher, he wouldn’t come out of his trailer to shoot the truck scene because he was afraid it would make him the bad guy!
I rarely see my old movies, but I had a few screenings in LA of both Body Parts and The Hitcher last year and thought they held up beautifully. The Body Parts audience was in their twenties and thirties and had never seen the film. It was a packed house and they screamed and cheered and went on the rollercoaster and it was just supremely satisfying!
The most fun I ever had making a movie was Body Parts because I was still a kid making a big studio movie getting to film a dream project of mine where I had every toy imaginable to play with. Getting all that stuff up on screen was so exciting. That beautiful winter filming in Toronto was my best time on a set and one of the highlights of my life. That was as good as gets!
So much of your genre work deals with unmoored characters losing their innocence in a kind of representative rural isolation. What is it about that aesthetic palette that appeals to you as an artist?
Dislocation and loneliness are traits in otherwise good people that real life monsters feed on. Loneliness can be as dangerous as a bullet, and is the root of countless evils. Dislocation can happen easily. People who struggle with it are vulnerable to bad influences out of a need for some connection. Loss of innocence is the inescapable theme of Don’t Stand So Close, but the book is about how you can lose your naïveté and find true love. How you can learn from your mistakes and transform as a person and have the relationship with the person you love be stronger for being tested. That’s what I was trying to say in the novel…What separates Don’t Stand So Close from, say, The Hitcher, is that sense of a solid and decent small town community as a backdrop, not an isolated locality.
Don’t Stand So Close has more than its share of brutal moments. One of the most interesting things about your career is how little you’ve mellowed since that shocking scene at the end of The Hitcher where Hauer and C. Thomas Howell go halvsies on Jennifer Jason Leigh. Does that say anything about your personal outlook, or are these explorations of the darkness offset by an optimism audiences on the other side of the celluloid/page don’t get a chance to see?
Whew, relieved to hear I haven’t lost my edge! At the end of the day, my job as a horror writer is to scare the shit out of you and create truly horrific scenes to do so. Those scenes—which Stanley Kubrick called “Non-Submersible Units” and I like to call “Rippers”—are what we remember in a horror piece. I’m not squeamish or afraid to be transgressive and will try to push that envelope every time. If you don’t deliver the pure, raw horror, it’s time to get out of the field.
But as for my personal outlook, I’m optimistic. Hopefully, people don’t just take away horror from my work, because my constant theme is about how confronting evil and adversity forges people and makes them stronger and better for having overcome it. It seems to me the scarier the bad guy and the more terrifying his deeds, the more you root for the good guy to beat him, so I try to make the bad guy truly scary. That basic catharsis—the vicarious sense of triumph an audience feels when a character they root for destroys a character the audience hates, is a healthy thing. In my work, the good guys almost always win. In particular, Don’t Stand So Close is a book with very strong human and moral values. It’s a good and evil story about love and trust. But it goes down a very frightening path, at times.
Eric Red is currently in preproduction on a “kick ass, hard ‘R’” western he hopes to shoot early next year and is writing his next novel. Keep up with him here.