David J Schow
Stephen King articles
An interview with David J Schow
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995
In trying to define exactly my appreciation for David Schow's work, the term 'balanced' comes rather oddly to mind. Oddly because of course this is the man who coined the term 'splatterpunk' in the first place. Surely then he does not avoid excess? And he doesn't, he positively revels in it on occasion, it's just he doesn't let it tip the scale. If the argument is quiet versus loud horror, then just a reading of his two novels would show this man transcends the whole thing by mastering both.
With his successes becoming more prominent and his projects even more diverse, he took out some time (and put up with the tortured vagaries of our fax system) to answer a few choice questions:
Tabula Rasa: Your most mainstream success has been The Crow. Tell us what you think of the original comic and how that became the final script. We hear that some of the more morbid elements were taken out after Brandon's tragic death. Tell us about the Skull Cowboy.
David Schow: In a strange bit of predestination, James O'Barr had already adapted a short story of mine ('Blood-Rape of the Lust Ghouls') to comic format for a magazine called Horror: The Illustrated Book of Fear in 1989. I had not seen the Crow comic book until I was hired to re-do the movie script from the ground up; what they call a 'page one rewrite'. In fact, the comic was not finished as of my start date, in September, 1991. No one had any idea how the comic concluded; the most we had to go on was an incomplete set of pencil roughs for half the book. Carbon-copying O'Barr's story arc was not the aim by that time, anyway -- gleaning the atmosphere and mood from the comic was.
Photograph © Brian Douglas.
After Brandon's death, the producers insisted on de-emphasising many aspects interpreted as 'morbid' in the context of the tragedy. The only omission that crippled the film was Eric's discovery of a circlet of five bullet hole scars on his chest -- essentially, one scar for each of the guys originally involved in his death. This pattern was to be duplicated in the number of knives stuck into Tin-Tin, the number of needles stuck into Funboy, and so forth. That got lost. Eric's discovery of the scars (in the alley, right after he pulls off his shirt) was cut; subsequent to that, he is only shot twice in the loft. If you look very closely in certain shots, you can still see the five scars.
Other stuff deleted after a rough cut was completed in October of 1993 were several characters -- Alison, a woman who gets blown up inside of Arcade Games, and Axel and Chopper, two 12-year-olds who hold up the liquor store Skank visits to score road beers. A whole fight between Eric and Funboy (which explains how Eric's trenchcoat got slashed) was filmed, then dropped. Shots of Funboy free-basing and licking the needle he uses on Darla were cut, along with the impact shot of Top Dollar's body actually hitting the gargoyle in a spray of blood, the impalement.
The Skull Cowboy, played by Michael Berryman, was originally intended as a 'tour guide' to walk Eric through some metaphysical basics, define his mission, etc. Alex Proyas decided we didn't need him; rightly so, I think, because the beginning of the story is good visual storytelling that doesn't need any words to belabour it. It's also a good litmus test for whether you'll like the movie: if you visually understand the fact that Eric follows the crow, you'll buy it. If you get bogged down in why, then you probably won't like the rest of the film.
We shot two scenes with Eric and Skull Cowboy. The disinterment scene, and a sequence near the end where Eric has to literally pass through the Cowboy to enter the church to rescue Sarah. Again, if you look close -- or if you have a really good imagination -- you can see the edge of the shadow of the Cowboy's hat on the church door in the background, as the crow flies to meet Eric for the first time.
TR: What do movies need, and what is your ideal movie? With your experience of Hollywood, could it be made?
DJS: I'm not interested in the 'ideal movie' so much as I am in ideal circumstances for making a movie, which can be summed up as lots of control, and as little interference as possible.
TR: Describe Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III if it had been written as a novel, and The Shaft as a movie.
DJS: Leatherface as a book would be very much like the first draft script, which had a lot of extremely subtle things injected to provide a thematic continuity with Tobe Hooper's original film. Example: the rest-room at the gas station features a condom machine with 'Capricorn' rubbers, featuring a ram's head logo. That obscure enough for you?
The Shaft as a film, to put it in high-concept-ese, would probably end up as "Die Hard with a bloodsucking worm". I probably would not write the screenplay.
TR: You've said that The Kill Riff was written for a rock audience rather than a horror audience. What do you expect of your audience (and should there be more safety barricades?)
DJS: Every writer of any worth writes, I think, for an imaginary group of about ten readers in his or her head -- that coterie who will understand every reference, recognise every metaphor, get each joke and follow each and every layer of story at whatever depth you care to veneer the writing. Beyond that ideal, theoretical group, anybody who comprehends the writing on any level is a bonus. Extra points, if you can get an editor or a publisher to get it. Jackpot bonus if you happen to tap into something a vast audience feels expresses their feelings or fears or experiences in simpatico words. Past that, the writing has to please me, of course, or it doesn't get out into the world.
TR: Good guys and bad guys. Any such thing?
DJS: That's like saying, "Do you believe in a force of evil?"
TR: What about censoring guys? Any personal run-ins?
DJS: Censoring guys are bad guys. No real personal run-ins, unless you count the banal sort of half-assed, semi-conscious 'censorship' one experiences at the hands of studio development personnel, or the college-grad know-nothings who are presently overrunning New York publishing by dint of having usurped their bosses' jobs. Censorship in theory is a conceit that fascinates me; just why it is that some people try to govern what other people see or hear or think. It doesn't take any brains to go 'fuck the MPAA, man!' What's more challenging is to investigate the structure that permits organised censorship like the MPAA to exist at all. Who defines moral climate? What are morals, anyway? What is technically obscene? Besides, it's fun to document how the MPAA shoots itself in the foot more consistently than any other dictatorship in history.
Most of my censorship encounters are of the "oops/stupid" variety. A story of mine was banned in Canada because it 'advocated necrophilia'. I didn't even depict it, let alone advocate it; I suggested it and then showed the aftermath. Idiots. At a convention I just attended in Atlanta, they conveniently 'lost' the back two-thirds of a Bob Bloch write-up I did for the program book, because in that write-up I slighted the very concept of conventions. I wrote up the fiasco as a column for Fangoria, and interpolated my Bloch piece into a much longer appreciation I'd been working on anyway, for a more important project.
TR: You are perhaps best regarded in the field for your short stories, and have edited the anthology Silver Screen. What separates a story that works from one that doesn't?
DJS: Judging fiction is a taste-smell-touch thing, very sensory, emotional and intuitive. Which is why I'm not in a hurry to edit another anthology. I get stuck on the question: "Am I suggesting this change to improve the story, or make it more like my writing?" That's a prejudice that should not be imposed on anybody.
TR: And splatterpunk. What are your thoughts on that subject?
DJS: Oh god, the s-word. Okay. Deep breaths. If fiction is food, then splatterpunk is chilli pepper. If horror is music, splatterpunk is thrashing rock and roll. Douglas Winter continually refutes those who would categorise horror by saying it's not a genre, it's an emotion, and if that is so, then splatterpunk is the downside range of the rawer emotions and perceptions.
As it happens, the word splatterpunk was a cool marketing term for readers who instinctively distrusted advertising. It was a way of designating what did not need to be designated, because readers with a clue already knew what it was. It pissed people off, disrupted the status quo, worried a whole gang of munchkins, became the Number One gossip topic in the depths of the little pond of American horror, and made people uncomfortable, made them pay attention... all of which is what any good chunk of fiction should do. I don't believe in writing that placates, or is palliative; but playing a scale of intensity does not necessarily mandate shrieking and exploding heads every time, either.
TR: What can we expect from you in the future?
DJS: I'm tinkering -- apparently forever -- with Novel #3. Finishing proofreading collection #4, which is titled Look Out He's Got a Knife. Preparing to reprint my first two collections. Girding to do a really cool book under a phony name. Polishing a revised second edition of my Outer Limits book for publication this year. Waiting for several TV scripts to be shot and/or broadcast, so I can get some residuals. Playing with CD-ROM design. Revising several movie scripts. Videotaping singers and bands no one else has ever heard of. Just because of me, Excedrin stock is going through the roof.
TR: Finally, as TED Klein suggests, are you too smart for the horror genre?
DJS: I think you should call up Ted and ask him if he thinks I'm too smart to answer that.
David J Schow BibliographyUpdated, September 2000
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