Monday, November 24, 2014

VIOLENCE LIKE THIS: An Interview with David James Keaton

Without further ado, here is an 8000-word interview with David James Keaton, too long to publish anywhere. (Seriously, it’s been a year since we finished this [11/13/13], and I’m tired of waiting.)

“VIOLENCE LIKE THIS: An Interview with David James Keaton”

I would argue that David James Keaton is one of the best and most heartfelt writers of destruction out there. His stories – deft, maniacally genre-averse, frightening, bloody, and often hilarious – weave around the liminal edge of contemporary fiction.

The first DJK story I read, ironically enough, was this tiny little number called “First Story Ever” in DOGZPLOT around two years back. In about 150 words, we’re pretty much summed up: the violence – impeccably, vividly rendered – the desperate invention, the inimitable tone, and the black comedy that tips off something deeper. If there’s pulp here, it’s only because it makes the blood thicker.

cover rough
His first full-length, a short story collection called Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities (which was released via Comet Press in May 2013), is at once a gleefully macabre, lurid stabbing at virtually every authority you’ve ever resented, and a dangerous, hybridic, romantic and curiously haunted group of stories linked by race, passivity, death, and way too many movies. His first, enormous novel, The Last Projector, is due out Halloween 2014 from Broken River Books. [Annotation: This fucker is OUT.]

We covered every single movie from the 1930’s on. Literally, I counted:

Simon Jacobs: You have incredible finesse when it comes to writing violence - mixing these vivid, visceral descriptions with metaphorical flair, blended with a very casual delivery, a technique that leaves both a lot and nothing at all to the imagination. I cite two examples from Fish Bites Cop!, both from "Killing Coaches," which, appropriately, is about killing a bunch of coaches but has a number of delicate thematic touches; here, the narrator murders the junior high football coach (with a hockey stick):
I stunned him with my first blow to his ear, then I brought that stick own so hard that I fully expected him to split into two more goddamn coaches. Instead, he croaked and pressed a fist into his fractured skull and crawled towards an exercise bike. He actually climbed aboard and started pedaling as if it would help him escape the room. He probably wondered through the glaze of blood in his eyes why the bike wasn't moving as I began hammering the top of his head into a jagged, purple Rocky Mountain skyline. No, more like the Black Hills. (p. 33)
Later, he kills the chain-smoking swim coach:
I showed up barefoot, ready to swim, ready to dunk him and hold my breath for a record two minutes if necessary. He would have been so proud. But he held onto the diving board like a vise, and I couldn't dump him into the water no matter how many knuckles I crushed under my heels. We struggled all the way back through his portable stereo and stack of music, and I ended up squeezing one of his inspirational sports mix CDs until it exploded, then plunged one of the shards into his throat. It was an easy shot, that vein that always swelled up in practice, the one that signaled someone was about to get coughed and bellowed at, a pulsing target as clear as a flashing arrow pointing at that motherfucker's mouth, which is exactly what it was really. (p. 34)
Whoa. How do you construct these violent scenes? At what point, if any, do you decide, "This is exactly as hard to read as I want it to be.” Let’s talk about violence.

David James Keaton: Killing Coaches" is a weird one because it was inspired by at least three to thirty things at the same time. The violent scenes you cited, and all the coach-killing set pieces really, were probably a result of listening to Nick Cave's "The Curse of Millhaven" and "O'Malley's Bar" one too many times, which I would feel guilty about, except that Mr. Cave admitted that "The Curse of Millhaven" was maybe the result of reading Peter Straub's The Throat and "The Juniper Tree" one too many times? So we're down a rabbit hole of influenced influences (here's a link to the Cave/Straub connection), and they're all fair game, damn it! In fact, there's one beat in the story that I kidnapped from "Curse of Millhaven," gagged and threw in a van to dance for me, too, where my narrator says, "I never killed the basketball coach." That's just me showing love for the lyric where Loretta, the Millhaven murderer, after a metric ton of confessions, confesses...that he/she didn't kill the dog. The townspeople had just assumed this. ("But I never crucified little Biko, that was two Junior High School psychos...") I thought that was a great touch, and a hilarious anti-confession after so much bloodshed. So early on when I decided to write "Killing Coaches," I was working off a very real disgust with coaching, my own experience of (not really) being coached (I was terrible at high-school sports), and a recent story in the news where a coach ran some kid at football practice until dehydration killed him. Actually, two stories in the news. During some downtime at a friend's Vegas wedding, we were in the giant NORAD-looking sports gambling auditorium of the MGM Grand, and a news report came on talking about some kid who murdered his high-school football coach. And I said to the groom, "The problem here is the coach unknowingly made that kid lethal with all those drills." Then I said was going to write that story if he didn't (the groom, not the killer kid). But I figured the only way a reader would have any fun reading any of this stuff would be if the actual murders were funny, or at least interesting. So I worked hard on each killing scene. The idea of someone confused enough to peddle to safety on an exercise bike cracked me up in a Looney Tunes kinda way. And the swimming coach's demise was probably the most densely written because it was a bit of a tribute to The Bad Seed (the 1956 movie, not Nick Cave's band for once). In it, the evil little girl played by Patty McCormack cracks a classmate's knuckles with her tap-dancing shoes when he's trying to climb out of a lake. The "half moons" of the metal "taps" of the shoes show up on the boy's dead hands, and that's the first smoking gun that implicates the little girl. In my story, the half moons are replaced with a sliver of CD, and maybe a literal smoking gun to go with the smoking coach. But the real gag is there's no way this guy will ever let go of a diving board, even if he is full of smoke instead of blood. Speaking of gags, it was the more overtly humorous aspects of this story that almost kept it from being picked up by Plots With Guns (back when the story was called "Dewlaps,"), and the original last line was changed at the insistence of editor Anthony Neil Smith because it couldn't be read without hearing an actual rim shot. I was sneaky and put that line back in for this collection, but I did move it to the middle, as the sincere aspects of the story took over like the needy creatures they always are, and that's how it has to end now. But I did rescue that line. We must not leave anything on our plates! There are children starving all over the world who would kill for an extra punchline. Something just occurred to me though, with all the talk of bad seeds and little Patty McCormack and Loretta in the song with her eyes that ain't green and her hair that ain't yellow ("it's more like the other way around"). This narrator should be a girl, too! I'm going to change that. Can I change that? Girls play football now, right? Only one spot in there I'd have to change from "he" to "she" really. Damn, that's going to bother me forever now.

SJ: It's a stew. I'll be parsing this later, but while we wait: what's the most effective scene of violence you've ever encountered in a movie/book/etc ('effective' being, as always, open to whatever: believable/convincing/efficient/brutal/squeamish-making, etc.). My mind jumps to the bar scene in A History of Violence, the bit where Viggo Mortensen shoots one of the robbers in the head (is there any word goofier than 'robbers'?). There's something totally un-glamorized about that headshot - the 'robber' is lying on the floor, face-down, with his knife in Viggo's shoe, and Viggo just whirls around and pops him. There's something different in how the blood appears on the floor, like, a 'glob' rather than the 'spatter' we're so enamored with nowadays - that seems somewhat meatier than what we usually see, because, yes, he just shot this man in the face (which we see the results of later), and this meaty combo has caused the scene to stick in my mind as being very unique and effective at making the audience understand the violence - quick, but absolutely brutal. The same goes with the bath scene in Eastern Promises (Viggo Mortensen, David Cronenberg, I sense a theme), which is great for a whole host of other reasons, but when he's crawling away at the end and the camera is crawling with him in that long shot, and he breaks the guy's arm and just stabs him right in the eye, no drama, no nothing, the way the blood just immediately starts flowing and pooling seemed very unique. That's another thing: whatever happened to pools of blood? What's with this splattery effect that we love so much nowadays? Everything is headshot: wall splatter, headshot: wall splatter.

DJK: Yeah, Cronenberg was doing something different in History of Violence for sure, at least in the diner scene. He sort of forgot about whatever he was doing later, but that's okay because you brought up Eastern Promises and holy shit, naked fight! That's why I also found the steam-bath brawl in Eastern Promises so wonderfully cringe-worthy. You have to find a male actor brave enough to let some genitals flap around, but when you do, it's hard to beat that level of vulnerability. Nice work, Viggo. They're always stripping down women in slasher movies like it's nothing, but rarely do men get the same treatment. So here's to Mr. Cronenberg for making the boys flinch, too, like they should, of course.

Okay, I'll do a movie, a book, and a song, since Matsumoto in Black Rain said, "Music and movies! All America good for!" (a movie that I'll always remember as the first realistic decapitation I'd ever seen, of one of the stars, no less!). Matsumoto would have said books, too, but he was enduring a shouting from ugly American Michael Douglas. Now that I think about it though, that movie's message was Americans need to lighten up on the violence and just bring in the bad guy, in a suitably dramatic, renouncing-the-violence fashion. Anyway, movie first...

Since it's movies, I should probably break this down further into the goriest, the most disturbing, and the most effective. Because it's fun, your question is way too interesting, and I'm clearly circling it to buy some time (this is the problem with typing as fast as you speak).

Goriest scene, yeesh, it's not even close. It's got to be the lawnmower scene in Braindead, aka Dead Alive, by Peter Jackson. But that scene is hilarious and plays like a pie fight, so it doesn't really disturb. Probably "effective" though, if the intention was just to gross-out, and also effective if it set out to be the goriest scene of all time, which it must be in terms of pure volume of goo.

The most disturbing bit of movie violence, at least to my young mind, was in David Lynch's Wild At Heart. In a flashback, we see Nicholas Cage (remember when he wasn't so silly!) as Barry Gifford's "Sailor Ripley" (close enough), and him and his girl Laura Dern are confronted by a crazy guy with a knife with the unlikely name of Bob Ray Lemon. That's the guy's name, not the knife. That's a great name for a knife. And they fight. And Sailor and his Elvisidal Tendencies win the day. But I hadn't been prepared for what happened right after the fight, where Sailor proceeds to take apart Mr. Lemon's head on the hard floor with a series of crackcrackcracks. The scene goes on way longer than you expect, and just like History of Violence where Cronenberg inserted those extra couple seconds to linger on the effects of a bullet to the face, to effectively rub our faces in it, Lynch says, "Hey, kids! Here's what happens to a human head when you do those action-movie moves you love so much." And it was shocking. I remember my roommates back at undergrad in Bowling Green talking about this scene quite a bit, and it was pulling teeth to get them to watch any of the weird stuff I would bring home, let alone talk about it later. But I distinctly remember my one roommate Gary confide one night in his Southern-Ohio accent, "I think about that scene a lot, man. That's probably what would happen if you did that to someone's head." So something different was happening with that scene. The problem is who can assign the word "effective" to anything Lynch does, when it's impossible to pin down why he does anything? That movie was slammed as being gratuitous, and that feels like cheating, right? But I'd argue that anyone who films the aftermath of a car wreck, as he does later in that same movie, and presents another cracked skull to us in such a sad, beautiful way, gets the benefit of the doubt here.

But if I had to pin down what was the most disturbing violent moment in any movie I've seen, even though because of my own immaturity I'm equating "disturbing" with "effective"...actually, no, I have to separate the two. Otherwise I'm only talking about stunt movie masturbations like A Serbian Film and Freddy Got Fingered like a goofball. Effective has to mean real, right? So maybe Get Carter, when Michael Caine stabs poor Albert near the toilets in the alley. That scene was effective in making me feel guilty for rooting for the guy. Keep in mind, back then anti-heroes weren't a dime a dozen like they are now. But at the risk of sounding like I'm having my cake and not eating it, too, I do think the unseen goes a long way here, like the off-camera moments of Funny Games when the worst things happen, or showing that execution through the blue eyes of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, especially when Lawrence is executing a murderer that he himself saved earlier when he pulled him out of the Nafud Desert amid all the grumblings of "Why are you going back for that guy? God wrote shit that way." Damn, did that feel awful, hearing the gunshots and watching his eyes, after the extended sequence of him saving that man. And to hear everyone shrug, "See, it was written," afterwards still saddens and infuriates me every time I see it.

Okay, most effective violence scene on the page is still going to have to go to the fence post popping through a bad guy's throat in Firestarter. For two reasons. One, I was way too young when I found that book in my dad's stash of forbidden paperbacks. And two, Stephen King has the line, "...with a wet punching sound that Andy never forgot," which sounds pretty much like an order from the writer to never forget what he wrote. And it worked! Because kids do what they're told.

Most effective bit of violence in music is going to have to go to nine hundred or so Nick Cave songs. Extra points to make it shocking and funny, too, like the killer in "O'Malley's Bar" crooning, "With an ashtray as big as a fucking really big brick, I split his skull in half..." That line right there is why there's a five-pointed, big-ass ashtray in the climax of FISH BITES COP!. And a starfish stabbed in the sand on the back cover.

SJ: I read The Shining when I was 11 or 12 years old - I think, to date, the only Stephen King I've read - and the only sentence I remember is when Jack enters room 237 or whatever and sees his dead student (?) lying naked in the bathtub: "His penis floated limply, like kelp." That's all I got. A different kind of scarring. And speaking of flapping genitals.

There's a lot to be said for the directors who are willing to hold a shot. That lawnmower scene in Dead Alive; volumetrically speaking, I think you might be right in that it has the most gore - however, I remember when I saw Cabin in the Woods last year [Annotation: 2012], when they release all of the monsters, I thought that was the most blood I've ever seen in a movie (that's what I told people, "it's the most blood you've ever seen in a movie!"), where the walls are literally painted over and over again with layers of blood; I think that movie was self-consciously trying to try and top the volume of gore from that lawnmower scene (although the lawnmower scene has the carnival music going for it; those are also some of the highest-powered spinning tools I've ever seen - they take a lot of abuse). [Annotation: I think the Evil Dead 2013 remake has a higher volume of blood than CITW, because it rains blood.]

I have one more question about gore. I'm going to cite another example of this terrific violence in Fish Bites Cop!, in "Greenhorns." This is a great story: in some way, it pretends to be a zombie story but is so different from any other zombie story, in that THEY ARE FUCKING UNDERWATER, which is perfect in that it feeds from current zombie tradition but also twists it into an entirely novel conceit: as one character says, "They walk. It's as simple as that. ... That's the one thing they do. All day, even when it rains. And if you walk long enough on his planet, you're gonna hit fuckin' water. Thicker than Tanners, thicker than Opies in the off-season..." (p. 67)

All told, Fish Bites Cop! feels like a subversion of genre-tropes, but we'll either talk about this later or we'll ignore it because genre-discussion is always frustrating and mostly fruitless. Anyways, in this marvelous little story there's a scene where one of the eponymous greenhorns gets torn apart by a group of underwater dead; it's tough and I won't write all of it out here but basically he just gets torn limb from limb, and there's a marvelous set of paragraphs that goes:
Jake watches in silence as Josh is painted like a Jackson Pollock onto the deck next to everything else that gets gutted for bait. A cube of cod bounces off Jake's boot. 
Jesus Christ, Jake realizes. No wonder he won that contest. He was barely chewing. 
Jake stays quiet, right up until one claw punches real deep and he gags at the white bomb of milk exploding from Josh's innards, bleaching the deck with proof of his ultimate victory at the Gallon Challenge. At the time, Jake couldn't believe he kept all that milk down, even accused him of cheating. He'd read somewhere that consuming a gallon of milk was impossible. 
And they were right, he thinks wildly. You adjust the time limit to the next day and everything comes back. (p. 65)
It’s not hard to appreciate everything that's going on here: you have a brutal and hard-to-stomach (pun) but perfectly imaginable scene of violence, coupled with revelations brought back from the story's other reaches, that "everything comes back" - the thematic flashes I mentioned earlier. You mix them so well with the violence; it turns these scenes into something beyond just action; it's goddamn poetic. I guess this is a process-based question: how do you assemble a scene like this? I mean, line by line. (Jesus, my questions are longer than the answers.)

DJK: Oh, crap, I remember that "kelp" line, too. I love that book. No adaptation has given it justice. They should stop trying really. Speaking of Cabin in the Woods and The Shining, isn't there an elevator full of blood homage in there? Hilarious, but just like the majority of the creatures on the board, Cabin in the Woods wouldn't really work if they chose anything else. Imagine the Elevator of Blood movie. Or the Merman movie, for example. Couldn't they just stay out of the water? I know, I know, that's not the point. Great movie though. I keep waiting for someone to make a meme of those two technicians on their golf cart with the popular line "You Had One Job" written across their faces. They really did have one very complicated job. And they fucked it up. Someone do this so it can be my computer background. I'm tired of the picture of the shuttle explosion. Kidding! It's a video of the shuttle exploding. But you bring up a good point, which is how can we measure the blood effectively? They should probably weigh it, if anything, because sometimes movies cheat and seem to have a river of blood or a lake of blood...but it's way too watery. Blade 2 for example. The Descent though, now there's some thick bloody blood. Real blood sticks to the ribs, inside and out. Man, I want to watch The Descent again right now.

I'm glad you brought up "Greenhorns" though because I'm very proud of that story (and it languished with a shady publisher a while back when I was naïve and threw stories at anyone slinging contributors' copies and nobody ever got to read it, so I was excited to put it in this collection). But this story was my love letter to the television show Deadliest Catch, which I worked on for a couple years when I was close-captioning. I worked as a captioner during the whole reality-television boom, and I still maintain that this show was the least corrupted (at least until around Season 5). So "Greenhorns" was kind of about the corruption of manual labor by the TV, and a bit of monsters. When I first started the story, it was based around the idea of what crazy things might be in that cage when they pulled it up over the rail of their boat? I could think of a lot of crazy things, but the idea of the ocean floor eventually being covered with dead people (it would have to be, since they never stopped walking, right?) let me concentrate on other aspects of the story. Then I realized it really was all about a job being ruined by the cameras, and what can happen to the human body every time that little red light blinks on above the lens and people start dancing for their dinner as fast as they can. That particular scene with the belly comes after a series of eating contests (and milk-drinking contests, which the internet tells me are notoriously difficult and disgusting), wrestling matches, and brawls, etc., which the "greenhorns" are coerced into at the beginning of the story by their potential captains. At first, the guys think they're simply looking for strong men for their crab boats. But then it starts to become clear that this was just a way of fattening them up. So I knew there was going to be a scene where one of the greenhorns was opened up for bait (kind of required if you're pretending to be a zombie story, definitely required if you're pretending to write a Deadliest Catch story), and I had to think of ways to make that interesting. So I thought, "Hey, the stomach contents should reveal something!" That way, it's not just gore but an answer. In this case, two things are revealed. One, Josh doesn't chew his food enough. And two, the fact that his stomach is full of milk means that he really did do the impossible and drink a gallon of milk back at the bar after all (the internet is furious with me at this very moment for even suggesting that's possible. Milk is apparently Kryptonite in mass qualities). Also, it's white, a different color than blood! So the scene's a little more interesting, to me anyway. White is gross, right? Big milk bubble. Bloop! So that shook the scene up a bit. And then the scene can close with a zinger or a punch line, in this case a line that suggests that drinking a gallon of milk is impossible after all, because it did come back up. Technically.

So to answer your question, that's kind of how I mapped out that paragraph. First draft came out a bit garbled. The milk gag was there as the end of the scene, but it didn't feel like enough was going on, so I got in the other character's head and wrote it again and crammed in more shit! So now I got Jake thinking about the chunks of cod, and the milk revelation, it all went smoother. And now, so that maybe people can get to know him a little more, Josh gets that last line instead of me.

SJ: One minor obsession of mine is with the varieties of blood to be found in movies. This might stem from the ratings-obsession of my early movie-watching days, when I would parse what markers of violence distinguished PG-13 from R, etc, and tried to figure out exactly where that shaky line was drawn (I've seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated probably 30x). On that note, I saw The Conjuring a few weeks ago, which was solid and pretty scary. [Annotation: August 2013.] I remember reading something ahead of time about how James Wan said he wanted to throw away the Saw stuff for a change and "just make a PG-13 horror movie." But then, unfortunately, he just made the damn thing too scary for PG-13, so he got stuck with another R. (You can tell that he's trying though - notice how in the movie no one ever swears, and the blood comes only in indirect, filtered doses [through a sheet, from a ghoul, etc]).

But speaking of blood, it’s always satisfying when someone does something a little different. Have you seen Stoker? I watched it yesterday. [Annotation: August 25, 2013.] Chan-wook Park does violence just perfectly, holding back just barely enough. That movie (his first in English I think) is mostly just mediocre sinister psychopathis, but there is one scene where a guy gets shot in the head at medium/close range with a hunting rifle, and there's a shot immediately after where you see his blood splattered on the wall and hear it hissing as it steams/runs down the wall. I've never seen anyone do this before, but I thought it was great and by far the most convincing part of the movie. There was also a really nice blood cloud-spurt, a bit later on, when a dude gets knifed with some garden shears (there are also flowers; it's a very poetic shot). If I ever made movies, I would focus very heavily on the blood. As you said, we want none of that watered-down shit. We want the soup.

Anyways, this is actually a question about subtitles. You were a closed-captioner for a time - did writing out all those movies and TV shows contribute to your writing at all, in terms of seeing how dialogue/pacing/etc. was constructed?

DJK: I enjoy how we're focusing on blood. It's a much better conversation than the usual hand-wringing over violence in media begetting violence in real life, etc, etc. I'm always amazed at that discussion actually. Not to sound all Marquis de Sade or anything, but my own take on it is...I don't care. Wait, that sounds harsh. How about, "I couldn't stop it anyway, so best not to dwell on it." Yeesh, that sounds even more alarming. Okay, how about this then, "I only had one semester of psychology. Why are you asking me about science? [adjusts monocle] Did you ask that painter to solve that math problem with an egg?" But you know what I mean though? I'm typically horrified by writers with a large platform to pontificate about anything. I prefer my writers barely functional, acting badly, walking contradictions (or wheelchair-bound contradictions), or simply embarrassing off the page. Beautiful art by ugly artists! That's why they had to start writing, right? To communicate or act out? Because in public they were cringe-worthy monsters? Or maybe my aversion to writing advice and societal responsibility is being effected by my new online attention span (hopelessly short, thanks, lobotomizer!). Anyway, this is why I'm so happy we're talking about blood! Seriously. Sploosh! How weird is that shit?! No other substance saturates our books, movies, and Nick Cave songs like the ol' kroovy. For a year, all movies should be saliva-soaked instead of blood-soaked. Just to see what that would do. Or at least so we'd be horrified when it switched back to blood again. Like we were when the The Wild Bunch first came out. I just don't care if it's bad for us. Leave that to the professionals to decide. Or at least tell us how many buckets we can ingest. Until then, give us our soup!

I also was fascinated by This Film Is Not Yet Rated (especially the soccer-mom detective). I kept thinking of Egoyan's Adjuster, too, where the woman had that strange Canadian censorship job with the hilarious categories? That movie was a great example of taking the piss out of "responsibility." I haven't seen Stoker yet, but my friend Nate liked it. And you say the blood is done right. So that's good enough for me. And, hell, Oldboy is a masterpiece (which you know Spike Lee will fuck up by Americanizing). [Annotation: He did.]

But to answer your question about closed-captioning. I'm not sure if I learned anything about pacing or dialogue from the corrupt "reality" shows I captioned which made up the glut of my work day, except maybe learning from The Deadliest Catch that the floor of the ocean is covered with an amazing variety of scurrying, claw-clicking abominations. (They drop a box in the ocean, it comes up covered in crawling horrors. How is this not shocking anyone on those boats?) But, honestly, that job really was like going back to school. It sounds ridiculous, but I finally learned grammar and had some very basic rules of composition hammered back into my skull, not that you'll see any evidence in this interview. But the feedback from the television shows and movies I worked on was essential for me to get closer to typing as fast as I can think. Not that I'm saying you shouldn't revise and just type quickly and without consideration and nobly fretting over every little pretty word like it's a baby Panda (hairless, blind, and borderline worthless by the way). What I'm saying is we're dying, so we should type as fast as possible.

SJ: That reminds me: as is pretty obvious from our conversation thus far, your writing is full of movies: esoteric trivia, fastidiously remembered minor scenes from movies no one's seen in at least ten years, lines of dialogue - there's a lot. For example, in "Bad Hand Acting," there's a fairly involved conversation among some cops clustered around a dying man talking about the forms of "hand acting" in movies, a part of which goes:
"You know what other movie [Sigouney Weaver's] hand is in? The Ice Storm. There's a shot of it plucking some car keys out of a salad bowl, the keys of the man she's having an affair with, get it? And her fingers do this twirl with them that is just ridiculous. Fuckin' hot though." 
"You know what that twirl means, right?" Little Cop asks. "Betrayal. Deception. Try to get that across with only one finger." (p. 26)
I read somewhere else that you always have movies playing in the background while you write - how the hell does that work? Don't you get distracted? Are they always movies you've already seen? Don't they bleed into one another, or is that precisely the point? Were you on an endless loop of Sigourney Weaver, keyswapping, Elijah Wood-electrocutions and teenage-Toby lust when you were writing "Bad Hand Acting?"

DJK: Yeah, the misdemeanor that is Bad Hand Acting has been an obsession of mine since high school, when I first saw the Bruce Springsteen video "I'm On Fire." I knew there was something wrong about the way she handed Bruce her car keys, the way her hand hung there way too long and fluttered out of the scene. Then I saw Angel Heart, and there's a scene where Mickey Rourke is rooting around in a drawer for some clue, and his hand was drifting around and acting weird, like total Addams' Family disembodied "Thing" weird. Then I saw Jacob's Ladder, and there's this scene where Tim Robbins' hand swims and fusses around a drawer looking for clues, and I was ruined forever. Not just ruined with Adrian Layne movies (he directed both Jacob's Ladder and Angel Heart, and I love them both), but ruined with being able to watch any scene that only showed a person's hands. It's an art form, making your hand act normal. Amateurs shouldn't even try. And in the movies, they usually fuck it up. So when I was writing a story about a guy paralyzed except for one hand, I thought "Now there's a challenge. How does a guy in bed who can only move one hand not ham it up and overact with those digits?!"

Bad Hand Acting can be dangerous, too. It's probably the reason for 97% of 4th of July fireworks accidents, because people fall in love with the cinematic way their hand looks when it's lighting a fuse.

But to answer your question, I didn't have The Ice Storm or Alien 3 on a loop when I wrote that story. I just remembered the egregious moment with the keys in The Ice Storm and plugged it into the characters' mouths. Actually Alien 3 might have been on because I've seen it probably 50 times.

And that's the answer to the other question - if I have a movie on when I'm typing, you're right, it does have to be something I've seen before, typically something I've seen a lot. Almost always '70s or 80s movies then, since I've had more years to rewatch them. '60s movies don't connect with me as much, but oh, man, do the '70s feel like home. Even though I was like zero when those movies were big, there's just something about a '70s movie that feels right. Like being a little kid and lying on the carpet with my dad when he listened to his Elton John records. Those movies are hazy comfort food. Movies for longer attention spans, and they look soft like film, real film, like movies should look. Not like this crisp, glossy digital ass we're going to have to endure from now on. Those aren't movies. They're shiny kids' stuff. And they smell gamey. That's my new word to describe these high-def digital video-game monstrosities that pass as motion pictures these days. Gamey. Makes you want to yell at the screen, if the line wasn't such a movie cliché, "What do you think this is? Some kind of a game?!" Hand shaking and pointing at the projectionist all dramatic.

SJ: When I started watching movies in a 'serious' way (i.e., obsessively cumulative; I like to make lists), when I was 14 or 15, someone (probably my mother) told me to "start with the ‘70s": when I first saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which I think comes from the land of 1971, I remember thinking, "I didn't know they were allowed to have nudity in movies back then," which was a ridiculous thought, but still formative for me as a viewer.

I saw recently this modern-dance production of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, and - as you can see in that clip - as per our previous discussion one of my favorite elements was the smearing and splattering of black tarry paint-stuff all over an otherwise pure white set. Obviously this has been a technique since the beginning, but still - there's that apocryphal story of the chocolate-syrup blood in Psycho, and I imagine they had a lot of fun coming up with blood-substitutes back in the b/w days when the color didn't read so long as it was dark. Your writing, I think, is inventive and experimental in the same way - like brand-new ways of making blood.

You recently sold a giant novel, The Last Projector, to Broken River Books, which (presumably) you are in the midst of revising. [Annotation: NOPE, this interview languished so long that the book is out.] How will this work alongside the others? Is it going to pop its neck through the fencepost of the literary/lurid divide like the rest of your stories? OR ARE WE JUST AWASH IN NOSTALGIA.

DJK: This is fascinating to me that your mom said to start with the '70s. I wonder if this is the way everyone should do it. I started with the '80s - because that's when I was hatched - but your mom was thinking in three dimensions here. Or thought you had some catching up to do, and she's right. Okay, maybe being born later means you missed nine or so movies in the '60s, maybe three movies in the '50s. And that one in the '40s, and fuck Wizard of Oz. But as far as me and your mom are concerned, the '70s is where movies started.

Your response to nudity in movies "back then" is kind of what happened when I saw The Graduate (1967, one of the nine not-to-be-missed). Now there's a movie with literally just tiny flashes of naked but I felt kind of sheepish watching it as a kid. It sure felt a lot more naked than it really was. The Deep, too, a.k.a. Wet T-Shirts Enter The Public Consciousness movie, which probably horrified me more when Jacqueline Bissett got painted with a chicken claw in some dangerous places. And those movies were Rated PG! More skill on display for sure, when you can take little to no nudity, or chicken claws, and make us feel dirtier. Try The Chicken Claw Challenge. Watch The Deep and then Angel Heart and compare your squirm levels. One is a hard R and all sorts of violent. One looks like it should be a nice vacation. But I think The Deep wins, claws down. Yeah, McCabe and Mrs. Miller though, that was Rated R, too, right? I call that movie Deadwood: The Prequel. Deadwood owes its life to it. Deadwood makes every move that movie made. And it's my favorite Robert Altman movie by far, not just because of those giant fur coats. And the way he pulled back from every scene (the thing everyone loved about M.A.S.H., too, but it's so much more effective here), made those splashes of violence all the more shocking. Something about a bit of violence seen from across the room has so much more impact to me. Nowadays the camera is up everybody's ass or following the bullet through the spleen (actually that was probably the best part of Three Kings), and that distancing which invoked realism is lost for the sake of...realism. Or something.

But I'm so glad you brought up chocolate blood because here you are in my head again. There's this guy on Twitter that I follow - mostly to read his meltdowns and watch his number of followers roll down like an odometer - but every so often he nails it. And he was talking about Kill Bill and said something about "Fake black and white, I can't put my finger on it." And I thought, "Yes! That sequence always bugged me, and I don't know why." But today I figured it out. It's the blood. The blood is like water because it was supposed to be in color (I heard the B&W was an 11th hour switch to save the rating), and in color, the blood looked like blood. But as Hitchcock could have warned them, once you switch to black-and-white, you have to bring in the chocolate syrup to make it black. Which is why the most ambitious sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1 totally looks like a lighthearted water-balloon fight.

Yeah, The Last Projector, the giant book formally known as Spunkwater, based in part on the unsold screenplay of the same name, which mostly dealt with a crazy guy masturbating into Venus Flytraps. My favorite story regarding that screenplay is when some studio almost considered buying the damn thing - they were printing it out in their offices, and this guy calls and says, "We're printing the script." "Oh, great. Great news," I say. "No, I mean we're still printing it. We've been printing it for awhile." "Okay?" "So we'd like to know...have you written a screenplay before?" At the time, I thought he was making fun of formatting issues or something, but, nope, it was because, if the one-minute-per-page formula for screenplays is to be believed, my movie would be six hours long. I think that formula is probably bullshit most of the time though. Once Upon A Time In The West should have been an hour then, right? But it was probably dead-on with mine because most of that original script was juicy, big-ass speeches!

But I do hope it wriggles around on the fence dividing the genres, but you're definitely right about nostalgia. It's so awash with nostalgia that it's like that wave of blood that rolls off the elevator in The Shining. If that blood was nostalgia. And the color was all wrong. This book had been in the hands of a half dozen agents and publishers for the better part of a year, half of those with painful "maybes" morphing into "Nah, not for us." My favorite correspondence was the "Send the first 50 pages. Send another 50 pages. Send another 50 pages. Send the final 50 pages..." And I had to say, "Wait a minute, the 'final' 50 pages? Uh, you're only about halfway, my friend!" And..."Not for us." So I was despairing, and having nightmares about cutting it into three books like I had to do with my graduate thesis (turns out there's not just a page requirement at Pitt, but a page limit?! Who knew?), so when I was at the Books & Booze reading in St. Louis, hanging out with Jed Ayres and J. David Osborne, and we were drinking on the rooftop of some hotel from a Wes Anderson movie (I mean Paul Thomas Anderson, I mean Paul W.S. Anderson, whoever), Mr. Osborne told me about his plans for Broken River Books, which was sort of rising from the ashes of the amazing Swallowdown Press, and how they were going to conquer the globe. I don't know if it was the giant fake moon over his shoulder during this speech (not kidding, giant fake moon), but I was convinced. So I pitched him my novel in a sort of "This is why you don't want anything to do with this" reverse psychology way, and this must have worked. So the novel is due out in the summer of 2014, and it's got all that First Novel-itis people probably expect. Lot going on. It takes place in my version of the '80s. Which in my brain is kind of now. And it's full of movies and blood and unhealthy projecting.

Broken River Books just recently released their first five books, from some phenomenal authors, which goes a long way to easing my mind that all that pillowtalk with J.D.O. and Jed on that rooftop was for real. They've got The Least of My Scars by writing juggernaut Stephen Graham Jones, which has already been optioned for a movie, Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres, his first novel, also being eyed eagerly by other forms of visual media, but I'm sworn to secrecy about that, Street Raised by Pearce Hansen, resurrected by Osborne so it finds the audience it deserves, Gravesend by William Boyle, which was blurbed by Megan "Dare Me" Abbott (!) who compared it to Lehane and Pelacanos, and finally some disreputable abomination called XXX Shamus by a "Red Hammond," which is some famous big-shit author who wanted his/her name taken off of it so that his/her family would still love him. Or her. [Annotation: It's Anthony Neil Smith.] Several of these are notorious books that were kicked around writing circles for years, where people hear the name and they've already read big bloody chunks of it, so Last Projector is a perfect fit. It's been kicked, too. Kicked enough to finally bite back. I really want you to read it actually. It's so full of '80s VHS tapes that it should have a warning about leaving it in your car.

SJ: We've already talked about him a bit here, but Chan-wook Park (of Oldboy, Stoker, etc) has a bit of that pull-back-for-the-violence going on in the Vengeance trilogy. Part of the reason I think that technique is much more effective is because there's, inversely, less room for filmic trickery and effects - you have a stage to let things play out on, and there's less sense that someone's trying to pull one over on you. Effective violence - we're back again!

Rosemary's Baby has got to be one of the nine of the 60s, right? I was a late bloomer to that movie - I just saw it recently, and, tonally, it's just perfect all the way through. There's not an off-note in that entire movie.

In an effort to contain ourselves, finally, here's a deceptively simple question: what, in your daunting mental recollection, is the most suspenseful movie? Please limit your response to three movies.

DJK: I think you're right with your pulling back theory. And, yeah, Rosemary's Baby probably gets to be in there if only because that's got to be the most realistic depiction of a dream state I've ever seen on film.

Most suspenseful, huh? That's a tough question. You're wise to limit this to just one movie. You ask someone "What's the bloodiest movie?" and they can answer that no problem. Suspense though? That's a different animal. With suspense, I'm sort of in suspense while I'm waiting to see if I'll hate a movie. I call that Suspense of Disbelief, and I might put that on a T-shirt!

Most suspenseful though...oh, man. Off the top of my head, I just want to list suspenseful scenes. The bathtub sequence in Training Day springs to mind (better than that entire movie), the middle third of Walter Hill's underrated Trespass, the first third of ol' M. Night's Signs (yeah, I said it), the opening sequence of the underrated Dawn of the Dead remake, the tense Irish/Italian sit-down in State of Grace when they argue about whether Ed Harris said to shoot up the place if he "did" or "didn't" call, the Drexel/Clarence showdown in True Romance, the opening scene of 28 Weeks Later (sure, 28 Days Later is the better movie, but nothing in that movie can touch the opening sequence in the house in 28 Weeks Later when the hero bails on his wife. Oh, Bickle's awkward date with Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver (which is 100 times more squirm inducing than the famous bloody ending), the beautiful blue-collar fetishizing safe-cracking scene in Thief - oh shit those were all "T" movies. The first and last action sequences in Children of Men both felt incredibly dangerous with clutch popping and world-gone-mad gun play that had consequences, the weird low-speed chase in Way of the Gun, every single conversation with the HAL 9000, the opening scene of Narc on the playground, every sex scene in Teeth...

So limiting it to three is definitely a good idea. So let's do this. I'll say movies that have one word, two words, and three words in the title. Then limit that to three each. So for the one-word titles. I want to say Memento, because of the suspense it creates by forcing that short-term memory on the viewer, but that one's too obvious. How about Aliens, Friedkin's comeback, the glorious Bug, and Oldboy. For the two-word titles. Rear Window because of that distancing thing we're talking about, of course, Sexy Beast because of the human time bomb Don Logan and his complete stranglehold on that movie, and Open Water, which had no money, no actors, and I was on the edge of my nuts the whole time. And for the three-word titles, Dog Day Afternoon (something about opening with that Elton John song, then having ZERO music for its sweaty, real-time duration), The Road Warrior (has there ever been a more lean, pure cinema experience as that final chase?), and The Mosquito Coast. Like those ice blocks sliding out of the mouth of his invention, a nerve-wracking slide to destruction. Man, the infectious arrogance and doom of that character. Harrison Ford will never do a movie that good again.

Actually, forget all that. The most stressed I've been watching a movie lately was We Need To Talk About Kevin. Knot in my stomach the whole time, knowing where it was going to go. Actually, fuck all that! Wages of Fear. The beautiful simplicity of that plot (trucks hauling nitroglycerin, driving really slow through the jungle), mixed with the fact that Sam Peckinpah swiped a ton of imagery for his most famous westerns. That's my final answer. No, wait, I want to say The Corndog Man instead because more people need to know about it - a movie made up almost entirely of stressful prank phone calls. Luckily it also contains Howlin' Wolf music to calm you back down. Wait, what am I even talking about. It's John Carpenter's The Thing, claws down.

Okay, one last bonus answer since you got flashback to '70s movies on your tender young mind. Back in the late '70s, Little Davey snuck out of bed and sat halfway down the stairs to watch as much of the movie Rollerball as he could. And it had quite an impact. The way that movie opens exactly like a game, no exposition, just those scenes on the track with those air horns. I was thrilled and horrified by what I saw, and because I was caught before that opening sequence was over, I just figured the whole thing was a game. And back then, before DVD, before VHS really, I would have to wait years for another chance to see the whole thing. So there's some real suspense for you, waiting a decade to finish a damn movie.


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