December 15, 2005
Full Throttle: Wherein Josh Jabcuga concludes his interview with author/filmmaker Philip Nutman, who spills his guts about co-scripting Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, learning firsthand from literary icon Clive Barker, and what it’s like to sell and write a cult classic when he was only 26 years old.
To read part 1 of Josh's interview with Philip Nutman, click here
Joshua Jabcuga, Squib Central @ www.moviepoopshoot.com: Was there a distinct point in your career when you decided to tackle fiction, or was the process of submitting fiction concurrent with your work as a journalist?
Philip Nutman, www.philipnutman.com: I had been sporadically working on novels and short stories and teaching myself how to write screenplays throughout my teenage years. I thought my stories sucked – which they did! – and two “serious” attempts at writing a novel hit a brick wall each time.
When I quit BBC TV to write fulltime, my goal was to support myself as a journalist and carve out more time to get serious about my fiction. But when you’re freelance and writing for a living, it can be even harder to put time into the creative work. It was slow going for the first year, then, on the strength of one story – CHURCHES OF DESIRE, which was bought by Tom Monteleone and published in BORDERLANDS 2 – Skipp and Spector asked me to write something for BOOK OF THE DEAD. Having editors request stories from me, even if there was no guarantee they’d buy them, gave me the spur to write my ass off.
Joshua Jabcuga: So let's talk about WET WORK (available at www.overlookconnection.com). People like to toss around "cult following" to describe so many films and books these days, that it's kind of lost its value to some degree. With regard to WET WORK, though, it really does seem to have a cult following.
Philip Nutman: WET WORK seemed to catch fire as a short story in BOOK OF THE DEAD. Within two weeks of that anthology being published, I started receiving phone calls and letters saying how great it was and that I should turn it into a book. That surprised the hell out of me as I considered it nothing more than a vignette with a twist ending. But then when I mentioned it to my literary agent, she encouraged me to do it. The story of what happened is recounted in the Definitive Edition which just came out from Overlook Connection Press.
It was once I got on the Internet back in 1996 that I started to really get a sense something was happening. Despite not having a Website at that time, I started receiving two-three fan e-mails a week, which was quite a shock. Just because the paperback had gone through two printings, I wasn’t expecting this. And it kept on going for years.
I honestly don’t have a clue why the book seems to resonate so strongly. Some people obviously appreciate the political satire, which has become timely again, 12 years later, and many others clearly dig the explicit carnage. But I guess it’s because there aren’t a lot of zombie novels out there, and as a genre icon, the zombie has fans as devout as vampire addicts. Most of the mail I get, the writers state it’s one of their favorite horror novels of the 1990s. That, and readers complaining the book hasn’t been made into a movie. It’s been optioned several times, but...
Joshua Jabcuga: At a mere 26 years old, you sold the novel on the basis of a 16-page outline. Not naming names, but did you find that there was resentment from your peers? Of course, you'd already been doing work for FANGORIA and other such outlets for a few years, like we've mentioned, but did you catch any flack, where writers were envious and put out vibes like, "Hey, this kid didn't pay his dues; take a number and get to the back of the line."
Philip Nutman: No. Except I had one friend, a writer the same age as me, who’d published dozens of short stories but hadn’t sold the two novels he’d written, be rude to me when I asked him to read the outline. He dismissed it as “mediocre,” and not his cup of tea, but that I’d probably sell it, implying shit is more likely to get published. Otherwise, Skipp & Spector, Clive, Tom Montelone, Peter Straub, et al – everyone was happy for me and treated me like an equal, albeit the new kid on the block. It was very humbling.
Joshua Jabcuga: You were part of that new brand of horror that was breaking through the ranks, which some critics at the time referred to as the “splatterpunk movement.” I asked David J. Schow what his thoughts were on this (featured in IDW’s DOOMED #1). I’d like to hear your take.
Philip Nutman: There never was a “Splatterpunk” movement, it was just an ironic, self-promotional label Dave Schow invented that he and Skipp & Spector could use. They lumped Richard Christian Matheson in because they were all friends and his collection, SCARS, was just coming out. I think RC was the one who was concerned about a label. I was flattered Schow considered me a “true” Splatterpunk, and for a while, because we all used to hang out at conventions together, I felt like the fifth Beatle. It was all just a joke really; label yourself before the media does.
It would be ungrateful of me to reject being considered a part of that period in horror publishing because that’s what sold WET WORK – publishers were looking for young writers who weren’t afraid to write it the way they saw it. Schow’s always said it was about writing from a position of emotional honesty, that the explicitness was almost like cinema verite – you see the consequences of violence. Unfortunately, a lot of less talented writers thought that just writing explicit sex and violence made them a horror writer. In most cases, it just made them a horrible writer.
Labels are for other people to invent; I write stories that I would like to read myself, and hopefully entertain an audience along the way.
Joshua Jabcuga: I know you've cited Clive Barker as a huge influence, and that he frequently acted as a mentor to you. What are some of the things that you've learned from him?
Philip Nutman: Clive was an influence in terms of intellect and emotion and creative bravado, not because the stories in THE BOOKS OF BLOOD were explicit. He was a self-conscious stylist who wasn’t afraid to flaunt his style or show how smart or well read he was both in and out of the genre. He showed me that you didn’t have to write like M.R. James to pen a great ghost story, that you could take Robert Bloch’s black humor and wordplay and write something that was both funny and deeply philosophical at the same time. He recast the mold and showed me that you don’t have to write within the confines of the genre.
He taught me to believe in myself, to believe in my talent, and not to be afraid to take risks. When I first met him in my early twenties, I was going through a terrible period of self-doubt. After spending most of my life at that point devoted to the desire to write and tell stories, I suddenly felt I had no talent, and therefore no future. He was the first successful writer I’d ever met who really believed in me, really encouraged and pushed me to believe in myself, and above all, to shut up and write.
Joshua Jabcuga: It was officially announced online that your script for Jack Ketchum's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (www.jackketchum.net), another book with a huge cult following, would finally be making its way to the screen. I know firsthand that the news generated some pretty strong buzz among fans of the book. And there's been some buzz around your script for some time now. How did you become involved with the project, and more importantly, how did you approach the adaptation? It really seems like quite a beast to tame.
Philip Nutman: Adapting THE GIRL happened because of my co-writer on that, Daniel Farrands, the screenwriter perhaps best known for penning HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS. Dan didn’t know I had written one of the afterwords for the limited edition reissue of the novel or that I was friends with Dallas Mayr (a.k.a. Jack Ketchum). It was due to our friendship he granted us an option to adapt the book – as he admitted after we finished it, he didn’t believe we could pull it off!
As the source material is so good – it really is an incredibly well-written novel, very simple on one level, but richly textured and filled with psychological nuances on others – we decided we wanted to try to be as faithful to the novel as possible. Which is not always the best approach to adapting a book into a movie; they are two distinctly different mediums. But sometimes it works, and this was one of those cases. I was up to my ears in comic book deadlines at the time, so Dan went ahead and broke the book down. At that point I became fully involved and we whittled it down to what we felt were the essential scenes, so we had both a skeleton of a script and portions of the three acts. Then we had to find the connective tissue to link those scenes and ensure the acts were structurally balanced.
We didn’t invent a lot of new material. The novel is so rich in detail, if we didn’t have a transitional scene we often found a potential in a remark a character made or fleshed out a scene that was mentioned but not described in the book. The rest, which was minimal, was just filling in the blanks. The main original material we wrote was a wraparound sequence which introduced the character of adult David, dramatizing who he is and hinting at the darkness that he hides inside. But even that was directly inspired by the novel’s opening narration.
THE GIRL was a tough bastard to adapt. Not only did we want to be respectful of the novel, it was extremely painful because of the subject matter – terrible, sickening child abuse – and because the characters are so well drawn in the novel they’re like real people. We spent six months dealing with the mind of an insane woman and her dysfunctional brood of sons and the powerlessness of two young girls who are systematically tortured. It was very disturbing, and there were days when Dan and I felt ill writing about this stuff. The fact the book was inspired by a true crime didn’t help. We did tone down some of the scenes, but even so...
We had trepidations about adapting such a novel, and we’ve had concerns about seeing the script made, which is a weird attitude for the screenwriters to have! This is STAND BY ME and RIVER’S EDGE go to Hell. Someone said it makes Larry Clark’s films look like Disney flicks, and Dan sent it to producer Don Murphy and he said it’s the sickest script he’s ever read – that’s some kind of compliment coming from Mr. NATURAL BORN KILLERS, who prides himself on being controversial.
Despite the subject matter, we’ve had constant interest in this script. The general comment we received was it’s one of the best scripts people have read, but that they wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. Until Andrew van den Houten and William M. Miller of NYC-based Moderncine came along earlier this year and put their money where their mouths were, the only two directors who were seriously interested in making THE GIRL and weren’t afraid of the subject were Stuart Gordon and Lucky McKee. Andrew and Bill understand what we’re dealing with here. They’re big fans of the book, and they love the screenplay. They gave us the most thoughtful, intelligent and respectful script notes I’ve ever received from any producer, so I have faith they’ll do a great job.
Joshua Jabcuga: 2005 has been a banner year for you. Not only did WET WORK finally come back into print, you wrote and produced the ghost story SHIVER, your first feature. I’m intrigued by SHIVER. What can you reveal about it?
Philip Nutman: Not a lot. The executive producer doesn’t want to really publicize the movie at this point as it’s in post-production. All I can reveal is that it’s set in a haunted asylum, and I’ve always wanted to do a really scary ghost story like Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, based on the Richard Matheson novel. SHIVER was going to be a haunted house movie until I lucked out and found a derelict mental asylum here in Atlanta, a 150-plus room Victorian antebellum style property on several acres of land that I discovered I could rent very cheaply. The only downside was that we had to be out of the building before October, as the owners were going to renovate it. I found the building in May, started writing the script specifically around the location in June, aiming to film late August to mid-September. While I was writing the script, I had to cast the film and hire the crew. It was insane, doing two jobs at once and on a condensed schedule. I think I crammed six months work into three. I was exhausted by the time we came to shoot.
One thing I will say about the movie is that I feel incredibly lucky that I had the opportunity to work with Andrea Leon, a stunning Latino actress who was raised in Australia and has done the bulk of her work there. She’s very talented, a natural, and very committed to her craft. She was perfect as Anna, the protagonist, a young, deeply religious woman who is also a psychic lightning rod, and who brings the asylum to unholy life. I think she’s got a great career ahead of her.
Joshua Jabcuga: What else can we expect from you in 2006?
Philip Nutman: A lot, seemingly. The plan is to film THE GIRL NEXT DOOR next summer. Meanwhile, there are a couple of exciting cable TV opportunities I’m pursuing but can’t discuss right now.
Beyond that, I have a spec script I wrote for writer/director Darren Stein, who made JAWBREAKER, entitled WHITE STAINS, that I’m doing a new draft of. It’s another dark coming of age story, but totally of my invention. Sebastian Dungan, who produced Duncan Tucker’s TRANSAMERICA, wants to do it with us, so that’s exciting. And last but not least on the script front, Christopher Tuffin, the producer of Tim Sullivan’s 2001 MANIACS, has asked me to collaborate with him on ACROSS THE BORDER, which is another story based on a true crime, in this case the satanic cult killings that took place in Matamoros, Mexico, in the late 1980s. We’re seeing that as like TRAFFIC meets THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, and I’m really excited about writing that as it was a case that fascinated me when the news broke.
Prose-wise, I’m hoping to put the finishing touches to CITIES OF NIGHT, my first short story collection. But what I want the most is to sell my novel FULL THROTTLE, for which I’ve been trying to find the right publisher for quite some time now. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. And somewhere in the midst of all this, I’d like to get back to writing comic books because they’re so much fun to do.
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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