There are some names that all horror, gothic, crime, fantasy and sci-fi genre fans should know: H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Joe R Lansdale, Bruce Campbell, George A. Romero, Joss Whedon, and Don Coscarelli among many many others. But there is a new name that should very shortly be added to that list. He’s worked on many projects that you’ve probably seen, or at least heard of, and he’s about to break out in a big, big way. At least I think he is because I just read his latest novel and it’s really really awesome. But don’t take my word for it. I mean, I know I have impeccable taste but not everyone else knows that yet (but thanks to the internet they soon will, mwah). So how about endorsements from Chuck Palahniuk, Don Coscarelli, Joe Lansdale, and Tom Piccirilli? If you enjoy the work of any of the aforementioned artists then you seriously need to check out Austin’s own Stephen Romano.
His new novel, Resurrection Express, hits shelves in early September. But why wait until then? His previous novel, Black Light, which was co-written with the writers of several of the Saw films, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, is available NOW. Incidentally this novel is now currently in pre-production with heavy-weight film producer Michael DeLuca (The Social Network, American History X, Blade, and a million other good movies everyone has seen). And if you enjoy short stories, as I do, you can also pick up The Riot Act. It’s an excellent introduction to Romano’s frantic prose and intense thematic elements. In fact I recommend inoculating yourself to Romano’s work by ingesting the small doses provided in The Riot Act, that way your brain is less likely to melt down when you realize you’ve been reading Resurrection Express for eight hours straight and you just. can’t. put. it. down. lest the train ride you unwittingly embarked upon comes to a whiplash-inducing halt.
The protagonist of Resurrection Express, Elroy Coffin, is a safe-cracking, computer-hacking wonder boy who we are introduced to two years into his current incarceration for a job gone wrong. Things are about to get very interesting for him when he is visited by the story’s “concerned citizen” who promises to get him out of prison early in return for providing her with his special skills. Elroy immediately knows there’s something not quite right about this lady but when she shows him a photo of his wife, who he thought to be dead, and informs him that she is somehow caught up with the man responsible for putting him in prison, he puts aside his misgivings and agrees to help her. The first half of the novel has a very noir-style crime thriller feel to it, almost like a punk rock version of a Raymond Chandler story. So of course I was hooked. But then there is a shift toward the weird, and it’s that shift that pulled the hooks and began to draw a little blood, in a good way. My only problem with the novel was not being able to get to the next page fast enough.
Last month I dragged my friend and fellow Austinite Stephen Romano to Austin’s punk rock pizza place, The Parlor, to have a conversation. Among other things we talked about life, relationships, movies, the current state of publishing, the underachieving nature of the horror genre, our mutual love of Christopher Nolan, and how Alien Resurrection should have ended. It went a little something like this:
Nerdlocker (NL): When I first met you, which was something over a decade ago, you were working on some comic books. What were they and how did that end up shaping your career as a writer?
Stephen Romano (SR): Comic books are something I’ve always kind of been interested in and done because they are a real easy way to write something. You just start drawing it as a layout. So I did this unpublished graphic novel called Battle Jack and Laser Punk in collaboration with my friend Noah David Henson. We practically killed each other doing it because whenever you collaborate with anyone on anything there’s always a thing going on. But it had everything from zombies to robots, we had Jackie Chan in there before he was really known in the States… we thought we were so cool. And the bad guy’s name was Mr Happy, he was this kind of Darth Vader-looking guy with a big happy face. It was completely insane. And I actually did the artwork in that as well. And you know, these kinds of things teach you how to fall before you can fly.
So after that I did the official novelization of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, which was being released at the time through Tarentino’s Rolling Thunder pictures. They wanted a product out with it, which was a graphic novel based on the film and it had a soundtrack also. From there I did the novelization in a similar style to Fulci’s Zombie, which was even better. The artwork was better, the adaptation was better. Then I went to do Gates of Hell, which was also known as City of the Living Dead, but it never quite got finished. In fact it was turned over to the artist and I think he’s still working on it to this day.
After that I met Don Coscarelli and did the Phantasm comic book series, which at the time I felt was the best thing I had ever written. It came from a long series of scripts I had written both as demos of my talent and also things I wanted to do in the Phantasm universe, which were pretty ambitious. It was supposed to be a four issue series but we never got past issue one because of certain legal problems with Universal Pictures over the rights to those movies.
NL: How did you meet Don Coscarelli?
SR: Well I met Reggie Banister at a Fangoria convention in 1998 and we became really good friends. He introduced me to Don when we showed the Phantasm series at the original Alamo Drafthouse. Before Don arrived for the event I wrote three scripts for a proposed Phantasm TV series that were basically fan scripts, each of them sixty pages long. And I laid them on him while we were watching pay-per-view wrestling at my house the day before he left. So he read them and loved them and we became partners. It was wacky. I ultimately made those into comic books that we put out and he invited me to write the Phantasm remake and it went on from there. Nothing we have ever done has been produced except for Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, which was green lit before we ever started working on it.
Anyway, before Masters of Horror I was working as a screenwriter for Don and a few other people, but pretty much none of that stuff ever got made. And during that period I published a book of short stories called The Riot Act.
NL: I remember that. I read it. It was really good!
SR: Well then you know how angsty and life worn it is. I don’t want to say inspired by my life because that kind of intense weird violent stuff is never completely inspired by your life, but there is a lot of world view in it that I was never able to translate into my prose before. And you know, granted I am writing from the point of view of psychopathic killers and really fucked up people, but there is a little bit of us in all those guys, so it becomes about how you identify with those people. That was a real important project because not only was I able to get a lot of stuff into those stories and experiments, but also the work is good and I got a lot of praise from contemporary writers like Joe Lansdale, who wrote the forward, Brian Keene, Tom Piccirilly… guys I really respected coming out of the woodwork and saying, “Wow, this is really good, now you need to write a novel.” So I wrote a novel called Just Like the Animals and it was totally based on my life, maybe a little too much. My mother had just died and so it was an insane period of time. There’s a bunch of stuff in there about a significant relationship at the time and an enormous amount of angsty horrifying crap. It was fun and cathartic, well, fun isn’t the word. It’s more like a Brett Easton Ellis novel and not a genre piece.
Anyway, I then decided I really needed to get involved in something I really enjoyed from the perspective of being a fanboy so that’s when I did Shock Festival. I had started doing all these fake movie posters and began seeing that as a possibly really cool way to plug into my love and encyclopedic knowledge of genre films, especially the really bad ones. I had always wanted to do a book of fake movie posters but then I thought what if each of them had a whole history, so I decided to write the whole thing that way. At this point Grindhouse was getting ready to come out, which was a perfect time to do that. Have you actually read it?
NL: I’ve read parts of it, but not cover to cover. You sent me a PDF of it while I was living in Japan because you used some images I was in and some of the other Satan’s Cheerleaders were in, as well as many of our mutual friends.
SR: You also did some photographs for it.. The photos for the Fizzy Tablets.
NL: Oh yeah, I had actually forgotten about that! I remember going in to Japanese grocery stores and taking pictures of random products. You know they have such hilarious packaging over there.
SR: That was for the Lucky Duke’s (of Satan’s Cheerleaders) film. She’s a character in the book who gets kind of famous in Japan so I wanted her likeness on a bunch of products. And that whole thing was actually a really joyous process because it involved all of my friends as models or as people taking the photos. It was a way to get all my friends in on the act and put all these weird ideas I’ve always had for movies. The book itself is pretty dark, it’s a twenty year history of exploitation film. So after a year and a half of really intense work on this thing I sold it to a company that unfortunately didn’t do much promotion for it. I ended up doing a DVD companion to it which had the trailers of the films the book was inspired by, and if that’s not confusing enough there were fan films sent to me that were inspired by the films in the book. Some by professional filmmakers and some patently not. But even the bad ones were fairly interesting so we put them all on there. It’s a three disk set and the third disk has hundreds of radio spots that were given to us by a fan.
But yeah, Shock Festival was a passion project that nearly killed me. Which is what you do, you roll the dice with ballsy almost avant-garde stuff like that. It would have found a much bigger audience if it had been properly promoted. It wasn’t promoted at all, unfortunately.
After that I was hired by Shout Factory, a really great exploitation company… or a purveyor of really nerdy stuff like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and all the Roger Corman movies. They were getting ready to release Starcrash on Blu-ray, which as you know is my favorite movie of all time.
NL: I didn’t know that actually.
SR: Well, it’s really bad and pretty much undefendable, so I really love saying it’s my favorite movie ever because people go, “What the fuck are you talking about!?” But they asked me to do a commentary track on it, two actually. And I’m totally geeking out talking about how amazing the acting and camera work is.
So after all that I got into some pretty big time New York stuff when I collaborated on Black Light with Patrick and Marcus, and then more recently with Resurrection Express, which is more or less a straight thriller but it does have some hidden sci-fi elements to it.
NL: Sounds right up my alley!
SR: It may or may not be the best thing I have ever done, but I’m really happy with it. I mean you never want to say that about your own work, but I am.
NL: I remember ages ago when we first started hanging out you gave me a copy of Invasion of the Mutanoids. Where does that fall in the chronology?
SR: Oh that. That basically comes under the heading of “school work.” That was my first novel.
NL: It’s got such a great cover!
SR: Yeah, the cover is great and I still have the original artwork hanging on my wall at home. My artist friend did all of that work for free. We were so madly in love with each other on that project. He would do illustrations that were so crazy that I would go and change the text because I would want to make it fit a little more. I started writing that novel when I was 19 years old and published it myself after it got turned down by every major publisher in new York when I was 27. Did you ever finish reading it?
NL: I started it but never finished it…
SR: It’s kind of hard to finish because it’s a little bit weird, you know? There’s a chase scene that goes on for like 40 pages. My friend Noah couldn’t finish it either. He was like, “When the fuck is this gonna turn into a story?” It does, eventually. But I look at it now and I’m like no wonder they turned me down. But I did get the most valuable piece of advice I have ever gotten from anyone as a writing lesson. I remember the exact words, they are burned into my memory:
While I appreciate the overall dark and unconventional tone of the book, I didn’t become connected with it viscerally as a reader.”
So after that I was like, “I’ll show these guys…” and after many years I came up with the style that is represented in The Riot Act and which is now represented in all the work that I do.
NL: So how many copies of Invasion are there?
SR: There were three hundred printed and you’ve got one of them. It’s a very rare item. I never actually purchased an ISBN number for it though because I knew at the time I wanted to be off the grid with it. I didn’t want that to be my first book. Technically the first book that ever came out with an ISBN number was The Beyond because that is something I’m okay with. But it’s so out of print now I think they’re selling it on Amazon for like $150.
NL: How did you end up collaborating with the guys from the Saw franchise?
SR: Well, it’s kind of a long convoluted story but basically in early 2010 I had been chasing after this editor at Little Brown company, who are the publishers of the Twilight books. And he was interested in my work. Patrick and Marcus had come up with this great idea about a guy who can consume and regurgitate ghosts. He absorbs your ghost and then pukes it up into an urn and buries the urn in the backyard. Then he gets on a train going 500mph between LA and Vegas, and of course there are ghosts on the train and he has to fight them. It’s a non-stop action thriller. The editor brought me this idea and I decided I could take this and that, and I talked to Patrick and Marcus about it. They pretty much just waited for me to stop talking and they were like YES! So I worked on it with them and we eventually sold the book, Black Light, like any other book. And now it’s being put into production for a film by Michael DeLuca.
NL: And your deal for Resurrection Express came from this deal?
SR: Not exactly. I mean, it was because of my collaboration on Black Light that I was able to get my current agent. I had actually written Resurrection Express before Black Light. I wrote that on spec without a deal in writing, which ended up being better in the end since they ended up not buying it over some disagreements with the direction I went with it. So my agent took it across town to Simon & Schuster and got me a deal with them. And almost immediately we had people lining up to bid on the film rights for it. Honestly I don’t really care what they do with it in the end as long as they are faithful to the character. And I’d really like Kristen Stewart to be in it. Really I just have a crush on Kristen Stewart. As bad as The Runaways was, Kristen Stewart was fantastic as Joan Jet.
NL: So what’s next?
SR: Well now I have a great agent and three books in development including a young adult series. I’m also working on a sequel to Resurrection Express, and the other project is top secret.
NL: Okay, so I want you to tell me what you think are the top five most underrated sci-fi movies. I mean, if you were going to tell me to go watch five sci-fi movies that I’ve probably never seen before, what would they be?
SR: Number one is definitely The Lathe of Heaven. It was made for PBS and stars Bruce Davison (of Willard and many other films) as a guy named George Ore whose dreams can influence reality. And he’s the only person who knows the difference. He goes to a psychiatrist for help and of course the psychiatrist figures it out pretty quick and starts manipulating him so he can control reality. It’s amazing. It’s based on a novel by Ursula K Le Guin, who is one of the great sci-fi writers. And a great fantasy novelist. If you’ve never read her I highly recommend it. Be warned though, Lathe of Heaven was remade about eight years ago with Lucas Haas as George Ore and it was terrible. They just got it all wrong.
Number two would probably beRock and Rule . It’s an animated thing but it’s about what happens in the future after the nuclear bombs and everyone re-evolved from cats and rats and stuff. So it’s like these weird-looking half rat people and they’re rock stars and shit. One of them is like Mick Jagger meets Peter O’Toole and his name is Mok. A lot of people have seen this but it’s still fairly unknown, but the cool thing is that it’s about rock and roll and Lou Reed voices Mok. It’s like what would happen if Disney took acid and added a lot of drug humor. Like if Disney and Ralph Bakshi had a baby.
Starcrash obviously has to be on the list. So that’s number three. It’s a guilty pleasure. It’s a Star Wars rip off. It was literally produced three months after Star Wars came out. You can pretty clearly see its influence all over it. But it’s such a fun movie. I saw it at a drive in when I was a kid and it had the exact right effect on me. It’s got music by John Barry, who did all the James Bond films and is a multiple Oscar winner. It was shot by Paul Beeson who did Raiders of the Lost Ark. So there’s all this classy shit going on and you just have to wonder what went wrong with all the other stuff. Like the guy will be standing there and saying, “It’s located on an unknown planet, and it’s named Euragus.” WHAT? The reason is because it’s written by Italians and they don’t know the language that well and things keep getting changed.
I think another one would have to be Trancers. It’s more in the schlock vein because it’s a Charles Band movie and Charlie Band does not make good movies. But this was his one good one. It was made in the eighties and it’s kind of got a Terminator riff going on, but it’s really intelligent for being a no-budget kind of, Quantum Leap meets Terminator, where this guy from the future jumps into his ancestor in the past in order to prevent this guy from killing off these people that are going to murder the people that will end up being the people that run things in the future. They made a bunch of sequels that were really bad, but I think a lot of people have forgotten about this movie.
Another would have to be From Beyond, it’s based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. It’s a horror film in the sense that there are monsters and suspense, and it’s treated like a gothic horror, but when you are watching it it feels much more David Cronenberg than H.P. Lovecraft. And when I watch a movie like eXistenZ, which I feel is pretty good, I’m really alienated by that movie because, well, Cronenberg is just a weirdo and you get the feeling watching that movie that he knows something you don’t know and you’d rather NOT know about. It’s very icky. But with From Beyond it treats those things with a “gosh, gee whiz” type attitude. It’s like old-school American International Pictures B-movie sci-fi, which is my kind of sci-fi. Where the monster shows up and he’s got, like, a big penis sticking out of his head or something, which is actually your pineal gland extended through your frontal lobe, right?
NL: I do love me some Cronenberg, though eXistenZ is probably my least favorite. However, I think that was the first Cronenberg movie I ever saw. I was like 22 and my film knowledge was not very sophisticated at the time.
SR: Well, it’s not really that good. It’s one of those movies where his ideas far exceed his reach.
NL: I’d like to watch it again to see if I have a different opinion on it now that I’ve seen all his other films, because he really is one of my top five favorite directors.
SR: Yeah, he is amazing. The Fly, for me, is maybe his strongest film. It’s so character based. There are very few sci-fi films that can get away with that kind of hogwash science, the kind of ’50s science that’s in there and still do it. Goldblum was consumed with that part and you can totally tell. It’s maybe the only movie I’ve ever seen him in where that happens.
Speaking of Goldblum don’t forget Buckaroo Bonzai…
NL: I tried to watch that recently and I fell asleep.
SR: Yeah, it’s a weird one, and very strangely paced. But there’s this scene where they’re pursuing the aliens through the compound, they’ve got their guns out and Jeff Goldblum is following the other guy and they’re getting ready to go into the next room, and they pass this watermelon on a big fucking clamp and Goldblum goes, “Why is there a watermelon there?” and the other guy says, “I’ll tell you later.” And it never comes up again, ever, in the movie. It’s that kind of bizarre shit that I always wondered about. On the commentary track Rick Richter reveals that the reason that’s in the movie is because they had to keep screening the dailies for the stuffed shirt studio executives and they were constantly telling them not to do things. But after awhile they stopped doing that, like they just gave up. So as a test to see if they were still paying attention they did the watermelon scene to see if the execs would say anything. And it ended up in the movie.
A more recent movie that I don’t know as much about, although it was a big film that had a lot of fanfare, but was before Christopher Nolan was the Batman guy and The Dark Knight became the biggest hit of all time, and of course before Inception, which I love, was this movie he made years before called The Prestige.
NL: Oh hell yes, I love that movie. And Inception too. I’m kind of in love with Christopher Nolan.
SR: Well The Prestige is an amazing science fiction movie but it doesn’t really reveal itself as such. I mean you pretty much know it’s sci-fi from the beginning because it’s all about Tesla. And you know, I watched that whole movie and didn’t even realize David Bowie was Tesla. I mean his name wasn’t in the opening credits. And I had walked into it not knowing anything about it either so I was totally blindsided. Christopher Nolan is one of the great hopes for Hollywood. Memento is another one.
NL: Oh yes, I knew when I saw Memento that this guy was going to do some awesome shit.
SR: Yeah, he’s the guy. I think a lot of people had a problem with the pacing of Inception, because it’s like a 200-page script condensed into a very small space. There’s a lot of exposition in that movie and it’s great writing. It’s a guy really thinking a lot about what he’s doing and it proves you can do big ideas in a giant event movie that makes $200 million.
NL: So what is the best NEW movie you’ve seen so far this year (as of mid May 2012)?
SR: Cabin in the Woods.
NL: I knew you were going to say that because it IS the best movie so far!
SR: It’s the best movie of the year so far because it’s not just a great horror film, it’s just a really great movie. I haven’t sent a single person to see that movie that hasn’t come back completely astonished. I’ve sent all my jaded horror friends to go see this and they’re like, “Wow, that was invigorating!” You know, at first even I was like, yeah this movie is okay, but then the elevator scene happened and I was like, yeah, you got me. It’s a great statement about the world too.
NL: Indeed! Marty is my favorite character.
SR: Yeah, on second viewing all the things he says become much more clear. All that stuff in the rambler. It’s amazing. The world is watching all this horrible stuff, we are the viewers that must be put out of our misery because we’re so jaded and we’re just letting all this stuff happen. It’s not just a metaphor, it really is happening!
NL: I kind of felt it was an extension of what Joss didn’t get to do when Angel was cancelled. There was that whole “old gods” idea there too within the law firm and Angel is on the forefront, the champion, because the old ones want to take the earth back. But to me it felt like a pretty clear progression.
SR: Sure, when you think about it in those terms you realize there are bigger questions at stake, like the soul of man and whatever. There are other films that have kind of tried to do things like that but I don’t know if they ever really succeeded. Firefly I liked a lot, as far as sci-fi goes. I think Alien Resurrection was such a missed opportunity because that movie is half good up until the point where the aliens get loose on the ship. They had a really great set up with the space pirates and clones, and then the aliens get loose and they gotta get chased around for another hour and everything blows up at the end. It’s the same fucking movie. What should have happened was Ripley should have hooked up with the space pirates, booked it from the space ship and let the aliens get to Earth. Ten years later Ripley’s been chucking around with the space pirates and getting into trouble all over the universe and they hear the news that Earth has been taken over by aliens and they have to go back and save the world. How cool would that have been? And with the same director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
NL: Are you going to be checking out any of The Summer of ’82 flicks at the Drafthouse?
SR: Well, The Thing, for sure because it will be my 30th anniversary of seeing that film. I was only 12 years old and I had to drag my grandmother in to the theater because they wouldn’t let me in the door. I ran back to my grandmother, who was driving off, and begged her to come in and see it. Of course she was shocked and horrified by the whole thing while I was like, “This is the coolest movie I have ever seen!”
NL: I’m with you on all of those. I think the one I care the least about is Poltergeist. Not because it’s not a good movie but because when I was four years old, the year after it came out, my sister, who was babysitting me and my friend, was watching it on television and we saw it. I was completely traumatized for 25 years after that. That scene with the glow around the closet door and it opens to that portal and the damn clown doll under the bed. When I was finally old enough to have my own place I started putting my bed on the floor so there wouldn’t be any “under the bed” anymore.
SR: Do you still do that?
NL: No, but it took years of concerted effort on my part to alleviate the anxiety I would feel when walking by my bed when the lights were out. And you know, you know me, I’m not a horror lover. I’m a sci-fi lover.
SR: Well, horror is kind of a sucky genre. It tends to underachieve. I’m not really interested in Poltergeist either. Or E.T., which came out the same year. Neither of them really mean anything to me. Not like Star Trek II, which was so profound at the time and went so far over my head, that as a 12-year-old I didn’t really like it. But you know, as you get older you see it’s an examination of the fear of getting old. Kirk was 42 in that movie and he thinks he’s old but he isn’t. And that’s the thing, a lot of people think they reach their peak when they’re in their forties. I don’t feel that way. I’m 42 now. To me it seems like when you get into your fifties you realize you were really just starting to live in your forties. In your sixties you start feeling old, at least that’s what my dad says.
NL: I hope that’s true for me. I hope I don’t feel old until I’m well into my sixties.
SR: I can’t figure it out. When am I going to start feeling like I’m responsible?
Tell me about it. Check out Stephen Romano’s site and blog, Stephen Romano’s Shock Festival, to learn more and keep up to date with everything that is going on with his projects. And keep an eye out early September for the release of the excellent Resurrection Express.
One more thing, for all you horror fans, Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is currently available on the Netflix instant queue!
Here’s the trailer: