December 8, 2005
Playing Against Type: Josh Jabcuga gets face-time with character actor icon and genuinely nice guy Danny Trejo, on playing it cool and taking out the trash. Also, an interview with "the Cameron Crowe of the horror genre," Philip Nutman, author of WET WORK, and the co-writer behind the film adaptation of Jack Ketchum's infamous novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.
“Every evening I follow my master/
Lead me down to the praying ground/
No sir I can't seem to go no faster/
I'll be taking the long way around”
Lyrics to “Long Way Around” from LIVING WITH THE LAW by Chris Whitley (1960-2005).
Joshua Jabcuga, Squib Central at www.moviepoopshoot.com: The first movie that I really sat up and took notice of you in was Michael Mann’s HEAT, my personal all-time favorite movie.
Danny Trejo: Yeah.
Joshua Jabcuga: In a film filled with icons such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, actors like Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, you more than stood your own ground and put in an amazing performance. And from there it really seems like your career has been on this nonstop upward trajectory. You’ve worked with Robert Rodriquez, Rob Zombie, Michael Mann, of course. What are some of your own personal highlights?
Danny Trejo: RUNAWAY TRAIN, the first movie I did, 1985, I just walked on a movie set, I was actually a drug counselor. And I walked on the movie set to help somebody and somebody asked me if I wanted to be in a movie. And I said, “What do I have to do?” They said, “You wanna be an extra?” And I said, “An extra what?” And they asked me if I could act like a convict. And considering I spent about eleven years in the pen, I said, yeah, I’d give it a shot. The rest is history.
Joshua Jabcuga: How do you approach scripts? Do you see yourself as a character actor?
Danny Trejo: You know what, I don’t even read ‘em anymore. My people read ‘em for me and they say, “Hey, this is a good one,” and then I just look at the character. Then I read ‘em, you know, but if I started trying to read every script I got, I’d be reading forever. I just…I like making movies, you know what I mean. After THE DEVIL’S REJECTS I produced a movie called NICE GUYS. And I got Jason Mewes (“Jay” from Kevin Smith’s JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK) in it. (He chuckles and pulls the tape recorder closer.) Hello…Silent Bob…your partner. (Laughing.)
Joshua Jabcuga: As far as working with Robert Rodriquez, what about SIN CITY 2? Any chance that you’ll be involved?
Danny Trejo: If there’s a SIN CITY 2, I will be in it. Do you hear that Robert? (He laughs.) (Robert Rodriquez is the co-director, along with Frank Miller, of SIN CITY.)
Joshua Jabcuga: As far as influences on your craft, have you studied anyone? You’ve worked with some of the masters like Pacino and De Niro.
Danny Trejo: (nodding head) Yeah. You know what? It’s like…it’s like, I tried to get a little bit out of everybody. You know what I mean? It’s like acting kinda depends on the character, you know, what kind of character, happy guy, sad guy, bad guy, mean guy, convict. You just gotta take it from there. And I love to do it. I can’t think of anything, you know, that I’d rather be doing.
Joshua Jabcuga: Do you have criteria for choosing the scripts, other than the money of course?
Danny Trejo: The money. (Again, the infamous Danny Trejo-trademarked cackle.) And they kinda choose them for me. And then they give ‘em to me, and then I read ‘em, and “Yeah, that’s a good one.” You know, I just like something that’s appealing. You know, something that’s gonna look good on screen, ‘cause you get a lot of scripts that don’t make sense. And I don’t even see those. I’ve got a production company called 4.0 Productions. Trejo 4.0 Productions. My son got a 4.0 exit exam from high school and I said, “Shit! That’s it right there.” Trejo 4.0 Productions and we’ve got a couple of pretty good ones coming up. I’m getting ready to do one called JACK’S LAW that I’m producing. And we’re also going to do one called DOCTOR OCTOBER, that’s a horror movie, you know.
Joshua Jabcuga: You’ve really become larger than life. For example, in Mann’s HEAT, your character’s name was, in fact, “Trejo.”
Danny Trejo: Yeah, yeah.
Joshua Jabcuga: You’ve also been a character in a video game.
Danny Trejo: Yeah, that was a cool one, too. I’m in two. I’m in GRAND THEFT AUTO: VICE CITY and then I’m in that DEF JAM. And I was really buffed up in that, too.
Joshua Jabcuga: How do you handle all of that? Is it a trip? Do you see yourself as quote-unquote Danny Trejo?
Danny Trejo: I always see myself as Danny Trejo. Other people see me as something, but…my wife, Debbie, and my kids, they kinda keep me—
Joshua Jabcuga: Balanced?
Danny Trejo: Yeah. Pretty well grounded, you know what I mean? I still take out the trash at home and do all that shit.
Joshua Jabcuga: And as far as positive influences…you mentioned being in prison. What put you on this path to finding yourself? Was it the break into the movie business?
Danny Trejo: I’ll tell you straight out. I stopped drinking and I stopped using drugs. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous. Hello to all my friends over in “Cry-Help” in Burbank, and Jack Bernstein, who is the executive director there. He’s a really good friend of mine who always helps me get people into detox. I was a drug counselor before I started in this movie career. In 1985 I worked for Western Pacific Rehab in Glendale. Basically, I still consider myself a drug counselor.
Joshua Jabcuga: Is it tough being in the movie business, with all the stories you hear, you know, Hollywood being Hollywood?
Danny Trejo: No. You know what? I mean, you can buy into this shit and really think you’re somebody, but the reality is it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
This article is dedicated to the author’s father, James J. Jabcuga, hero, teacher, leader, friend, and a man just as cool as Danny Trejo.
Blood and Brains: An interview with “the Cameron Crowe of the horror genre,” Philip Nutman, author of WET WORK, and one-half of the team responsible for the script adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s infamous novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, on witnessing the birth of Clive Barker’s Pinhead, meeting Dario Argento in Rome, and hanging with Stuart Gordon.
Joshua Jabcuga, Squib Central @www.moviepoopshoot.com:
You were first published at 15. By 18, you hit FANGORIA and some other pretty lofty genre mags, not to mention eventually having 120 or so pieces under your belt for the magazine. Your first novel, WET WORK (available now at www.overlookconnection.com), was sold at 26 years of age. You've done comic books. Now film. The best comparison I can think of is that perhaps you are horror's equivalent to Cameron Crowe, starting off at such a young age, and moving onward and upward from there. What persuaded you to begin this whole journey in the first place? Was there a particular writer, a movie, or maybe a feeling you were trying to capture...?
Philip Nutman, www.philipnutman.com:
The Cameron Crowe comparison is very flattering -- and humbling --
because I admire him and like his work a lot. I adore ALMOST FAMOUS.
I began telling stories as soon as I could read and write, so I consider storytelling chose me. I don't feel I had a choice. But there were three key events in my childhood that led me to where I am today. I learned to read and write at an early age thanks to comic books, specifically American comics, and my first desire was to be a comic book artist. I consider Stan Lee and Jack Kirby my spiritual godfathers as a storyteller. It all goes back to the silver age of Marvel: the original adventures of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four and The Mighty Thor. Those Jack Kirby splash pages of the Norse gods storming across the Rainbow Bridge! Thor turned me onto mythology when I was very young. My mother, who is an autodidact -- she's a very smart woman who came from a poor working class family and had to leave school when she was thirteen, but she has always been a voracious reader so that's how she educated herself -- would only buy me comics if I would read them with her.
Then, when I was six, two things happened. I lost faith in my ability to
draw. I could do damn good copies of Kirby and Ditko and Buscema, but realized I wasn't very talented over all. At least, I sensed I'd never be good enough to make a living as an artist. Then I was sick at one point and I read John Wyndham's DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS while I was stuck in bed. That book blew my mind. It was also the first novel I remember reading that I "saw" in my head unfold like watching a movie. That's when I first had the notion I wanted to write and direct films. Actually, I had been aware of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS for sometime before I was finally able to read it. I tried to write my first novel when I was five. Actually, my handwriting was so bad and I was such a slow writer I dictated my first novel to my mother, who indulged me by writing down what I said. I think we did this for three days. The story was about intelligent killer plants taking over the earth, and on the third day she said to me, "I hate to tell you this dear, but someone's already written a best selling novel on the same subject." I remember thinking, "damn, all the good stories have been told already." It was my first professional set-back! So, I had to find out who this Wyndham guy was and what made his book so special.
The third event that confirmed in my mind I had to become a writer, that
I had to write novels, was reading Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND when I was eleven. I read it in one sitting and was shaking by the time I finished it. I thought, "damn! I've got to write books like this -- I want to move readers like I'm feeling right now." And I've never looked back.
Before we jump ahead to your debut novel, WET WORK, or your script for Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, let's talk about your career and education leading up to that intersection. First, did you have any formal education in terms of creative writing, or did you learn much of your craft, or, crafts, plural, I should say, on the job at BBC TV? Also, freelancing for FANGORIA and other magazines isn't exactly a typical job for most teenagers. Some might think, "Eh, it's a fluke, a kid gets published." But you were getting published in multiple arenas. Was it steady work once you broke in like, "O.K., the levee broke, let it keep flowing from here"?
No, I've never had a creative writing class in my life, or journalism for
that matter. I am entirely self-taught and have mixed feelings about them.
Real writers write, other people just talk about it. I also believe those
who can, do, and in the main, those who can't, teach -- and those who can't teach criticize.
The only school subjects I excelled at were English language and literature. I was pretty good at art and biology, and was told I had an aptitude for foreign languages. I did quite well learning French -- so much so, I was forced to learn German, too, and that screwed me up totally. Some of my teachers were pushing for me to take the entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge, but I wasn't interested in studying literature to get a degree that basically qualifies you to be an English teacher and nothing more. I wanted to go to film school, but when interviewing at a number of colleges, all the students I talked to were depressed and hated their tutors, so I took a job with BBC TV instead. At least I was getting paid to learn, even if it was a pittance.
As an aside, I am completely crap at math. Clive Barker and I discovered we both have the same British school qualification in that subject, which is the lowest of the low. It's an honorary grade designed to make numerical morons feel less like idiots -- but as me and Clive agreed, who gives a fuck about algebra or needs mathematical sets? So long as you can balance your check book...
Although I "sold" my first movie review when I was 15 (for free movie tickets; the magazine was too cheap to offer cash) it took me three years before I sold my first feature article to FANGORIA. After that first review sale I was writing and submitting constantly -- and being rejected.
Basically, I educated myself by reading voraciously. Some of my teachers hated me because I knew more than they were supposed to be teaching. Other teachers really encouraged me because I was the only kid in the class who had a thirst for knowledge. Literally! By the time I was 16, some of my English teachers used to take me to the pub with them at lunch time. I used to drink and smoke underage and debate the merits of Dickens or try and persuade them to read Stephen King and Peter Straub.
Once I made that first sale to FANGORIA, it took about another six months to start to crack other markets. It really came down to reading, writing and submitting.
You had an amazing run on FANGORIA. What were some of your personal highlights, and what did writing for them and other magazines early in your career teach you?
Writing for the numerous magazines I contributed to at that time taught me to respect deadlines and appreciate working to a specific word count. The latter was a discipline that helped with writing fiction to a designated length. But, ultimately, being a film journalist gave me an incredible opportunity to learn about filmmaking from the trenches. Over the course of 10 years and 120-plus feature articles for FANGORIA, I had access to over 70 film sets and locations. What film school gives its students that kind of opportunity?
There are so many highlights. It was an incredible period of my life that spanned London, Paris, Rome, New York and LA and to try to do those 10 years justice would take a book.
Meeting Clive Barker for the first time when he was still relatively unknown and hitting it off. We had a terrific conversation, and he gave me what at that point was one of the best interviews I’d ever experienced. This was during the filming of UNDERWORLD, his first film as a screenwriter, that was ultimately released in a truncated form by Charles Band’s Empire Pictures as TRANSMUTATIONS .
Being one of the first people to see the preliminary designs for Pinhead and the Cenobites and then being on the set of HELLRAISER when they made their first appearance. The moment I saw Pinhead, I knew there was a new horror icon in town.
Going to Rome and interviewing Dario Argento in his apartment. He was out and his daughters, Fiore, who had just been in PHENOMENA (A.K.A. CREEPERS), and Asia, who must have been about 11 at that time, let us in and were very embarrassed to inform us that their father was out doing something...er, not quite kosher, and that he apologized for being late. Their English wasn’t terribly good and they were so embarrassed. Asia was actually incredibly bashful and kept peering around the door. Every time I smiled at her, she’d blush and giggle and run away. Who would have imagined she’s turn into this tattooed, multitalented sex goddess? But I guess having Dario as your dad, that’s not too much of a surprise!
My second trip to Rome to spend a week covering the filming of FROM BEYOND. That was like going to graduate film school. I spent the first few nights in the hotel with Jeffrey Coombs, Barbara Crampton and Ken Foree, which was a lot of fun, then spent the rest of the week staying at a motel on the beach with Greg Nicotero and all the other make-up FX teams.
Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna gave me total access to every aspect of the production: I was able to read every draft of the script, study the storyboards, was invited to attend Dailies, where Stuart would have me sit with him and he’d then quiz me on the footage. He was incredibly gracious and had me standing right beside him while he was directing and would take time out from rehearsing and blocking the actors to explain his creative decisions.
God, there were so many great incidents – hanging out with Ken Russell at the exclusive St. James Club, going to the Cannes Film Festival, visiting LA for the first time...it was a tremendous 10-year period.
Next week: The Conclusion: Phil’s thoughts on his script for Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and more.
Praise for the writing of Josh Jabcuga, who pens Squib Central with ink made from his own blood, published most Thursdays, exclusively at www.moviepoopshoot.com:
"You’re a bad influence on them, I’ll tell you right now." -Max Cavalera, lead singer of Soulfly, former lead singer of Brazilian death metal icons Sepultura.
I read your article and you my dear are a true
ASSHOLE!!! Wonder how you landed your job, desperation???"-Angie (last name unknown; article mentioned...unknown).
“Josh Jabcuga can take the 26 measly letters of our crude alphabet and capture the bi-polar soul of all that is classically yet disturbingly American. Then, when his typewriter is left to cool, he can turn right around…completely ready to trounce any drunk punk that’s got me backed into a corner.” –The Colonel J.D. Wilkes of The Legendary Shack*Shakers.
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