(This interview was originally done for ScreenGrab, and it appears on that site in a shortened form here. Many thanks to Peter Smith for letting me crosspost!)
Dan Gildark and Grant Cogswell premiered their debut film, Cthulhu, at the Seattle International Film Festival this last Thursday. A poetic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", Cthulhu tells the story of Russ, a gay professor who returns to his hometown for his mother's funeral, only to discover that his family, and the town, conceal a terrible secret. Shot by cinematographer Sean Kirby (Zoo and Police Beat), It's one of the few recent horror films that doesn't draw directly (and solely) from the U.S. government's recent embrace of torture as foreign policy. Which isn't to say it's apolitical -- on the contrary, it's downright angry, finding the connections between religious extremism, homophobia, suburban sprawl, and global warming, but expressing them through the metaphor of Lovecraft's cosmic monsters.
Director Gildark is a graduate of the Northwest Film Center's film program in Portland, Oregon, and, according to the Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, created a series of film clips that MTV allegedly stole for the opening of 120 Minutes. Screenwriter Cogswell is a poet and author, and is the subject of Phil Campbell's book, Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics, which details his failed run for a seat on Seattle's City Council.
How did you meet?
DG: Those sex pages in the back of The Stranger. (Laughs) We've known each other for about fourteen years now. We met when we were both driving the bicycle cabs down on the waterfont. We became good friends, stayed friends over the years, went our different ways, got reacquainted...
GC: In 2003, my girlfriend broke up with me, I lost my job and my apartment, and I was living on his floor. The Iraq war was starting, and we were watching it on a little cheap black and white TV, which made it feel like Night of the Living Dead. I was at a point in my life when I was very open to doing whatever was next, and he said "I want to make a movie and I want you to write it." If I'd known how much work it would be I probably would have said no!
It's clear from Cthulhu that you had a lot to say, politically. Why did you decide to adapt Lovecraft for that purpose?
GC: We wanted to make a piece of art that said something about our alarm over the political condition of the country. And we wanted people to see it, we wanted it to be visceral and intense, but as a horror film, we didn't want it to be the same ol' kind of horror film, and stuff like Hostel -- that's torture porn. But I didn't feel there was a story coming on in me, so we started looking for things to adapt. I immediately gravitated to Lovecraft, who I read for the first time in 2000. I think he really reflects a kind of apocalyptic flavor of the times. My favorite story was "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", and the one that I felt would work best. Some are more atmospheric or beautifully written, but they're not movies. "The Colour Out Of Space" is his best story, but it's not a movie.
It seems to me that "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" has one of the Lovecraft's stronger protagonists, because what happens to him has such a personal cost, which you can't necessarily say about the other ones.
GC: Absolutely. What the story reminded me of, more than anything else, was friends of mine who are gay, who come from these backwoods towns and then escape to the city to make an adult life. And then, fifteen or twenty years later, they're in their thirties, and a parent dies, or the sister has a child, or whatever, and they have to go back and engage with that family and that place. One of Lovecraft's major themes, and I think "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" expresses this best, is the horror of heredity. So I was writing from that feeling of threat, but also the issues of heredity, of anxiety about having children, and I decided to merge the two things.
I also think it's interesting because Lovecraft was very conservative, so to take that and flip it...
GC: Lovecraft thought, perhaps correctly, that immigrants coming to New England were eroding the local culture that he felt a loyalty to. I don't personally have a problem with that (laughs). What I find eroding our world is the militarism and the entertainment state and the willful, blissful ignorance of global warming, which is really gonna bite us in the ass. It's not gonna make the planet unlivable, but it's gonna make it hard to live and civilization is going to be in a lot of trouble in the next 50, 60 years.
Unless you happen to be a fish person.
Do you consider Cthulhu do be a horror film or a gay film?
DG: Yes. (Laughs)
Are you comfortable, then, with it existing in a kind of middle space?
DG: The genre films I'm most interested in are the ones that are indescribable, that move back and forth across genres. They aren't true horror in the traditional sense; they kind of skirt the edges. To call our film a gay film is misleading, but to call it a straight horror film is misleading as well, so it really is kind of a bastard version of those genres, which I'm totally comfortable with. It makes it hard to market, but anything interesting takes from different fields and doesn't try to be a purist art form.
Lovecraft is usually associated with the East Coast -- Massachusetts, Rhode Island. Why did you choose to film in the Pacific Northwest?
GC: Well, we live here, of course, but it's bigger than that. The film grew out of the town of Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia river. It's the oldest American town on the Pacific. It was founded right after Lewis & Clark came through. It's old, it's weird, it's creepy, it used to be a lot more important and now kind of a little meth town. Very Lovecrafty.
Furthermore, Diabolus Rex, the head of the American Church of Satan, grew up in Astoria. He dresses in immaculate black Victorian goth clothing, and he's got two four-inch long subcutaneous horns in his forehead. And he's really the nicest guy you could possibly imagine -- he does work with pitbull rescue and stuff. At the first public reading of the script in Portland, he approached me and asked, "Where are you filming this?" and I said, "Astoria" -- we were picking out locations as we were writing it. He said: Astoria is Innsmouth, and I'll tell you why. And he listed off forty-some parallels between Astoria and the town of Innsmouth, all true. In the the story and the movie, there are hidden tunnels underneath the town. Turns out, when Diabolus was a kid, his bedroom, which was in the basement of the house, entered into a series of tunnels the Chinese built in Astoria. I thought I'd made that up.
DG: It was very interesting for me to film the Northwest in general because everything you see is either L.A. or New York. To see imagery of another part of the country is a huge production value. A lot of productions are afraid of rainy locales because of continuity, but when it rains all the time -- there's your continuity. When I first started talking to my DP, we talked in terms of imagery we both understand and filmmakers we both liked, but we also talked about the painting that kept coming to mind: Goya's Laocoön. Very blue and grey. It has a very Northwest vibe to it.
GC: Naked guys wrestling with snakes-- that's what the movie's about!
In my previous post on Cthulhu, I wrote, "This is also the film that gained some notoriety by casting Tori Spelling, which turns out to be a wry joke if you're familiar with Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Was that intentional?
DG: The "Innsmouth look"? That's what you're alluding to?
GC: I think she's the sexiest woman I've ever met in my life! I really do. She's an unsual looking person, but there's a lot of unusual looking people.
DG: I knew she'd be right for the role. She can be funny, and serious, and we needed this seductress to come in. It's kind of a campy role, but we needed someone who could also take it seriously, and have the weight to carry it. I feel like she's a good actress who's been severely overlooked. She does these crappy Lifetime shows all the time, but she honestly could be a major contender and serious actress if she chose to do that.
GC: It's kind of a minor role, but it really is the pillar of the movie, in a way. If it were done badly, it would wreck the movie.
You're currently looking for distribution.
DG: Hopefully after the premiere we'll have some conversations. Know anybody? (Laughs)