Author, artist and director Stephen Romano gets down-and-dirty about his acclaimed DVD, STEPHEN ROMANO PRESENTS SHOCK FESTIVAL, and the 2008 novel that started it all.
What got you into genre films?
I had a very unconventional upbringing by my father who was a rock and roller in Houston. He thought outside the box, played blues and jazz in smoky nightclubs. I followed him into that life for a while, but it was movies that fascinated me the most . . . and because we partied so often with local entertainment types, it wasn't hard at all to go on movie sets and get a whiff of the craziness that lurks behind the scenes. I actually interned for a few days on Al Reinert’s Academy Award-nominated documentary FOR ALL MANKIND. I talk about some of the more bizarre experiences I had during that time on my commentary track on the SHOCK FESTIVAL DVD. What really got me into genre films had to be STAR WARS, and later STARCRASH and DAWN OF THE DEAD; those were the films that really knocked my lights out. DAWN was the first film I ever saw that made me want to make films. There was a real excitement in the craft of that movie. The way it was shot and edited, the pacing and the execution of the special effects. (HALLOWEEN also wowed me, though it probably hasn't aged as well.) I was always a nerd for films like CLASH OF THE TITANS, too. The sleazy allure of the grindhouse experience put me in a hammerlock not too long after that. By the time I was 13 I was beyond help of any kind. When ALIENS came out in 1986, I paid real money to see it in the theater 37 times. (Believe it or not, I was actually aiming for 38 times because of Lieutenant Gorman's line in the film where he tells Vasquez he's done 38 simulated drops. That's the kind of obsessive fan-boy I am.) That was really a magic year for genre films. THE FLY came out that year as well. There were always late night creature features, midnight movies. Elvira was in her prime with MOVIE MACABRE back then. BARBARELLA was a favorite, still is. I wish they would stop remaking my favorite movies!
What got you into genre related art and more specifically movie poster art?
I think anybody with any interest in film at all is into movie poster art. It's half the game, really, especially with genre pictures, and I grew up in the last great age of it, when home video was first starting. Remember when they used to put real hand-painted movie poster art on video covers? Man, I miss that. I'm not sure who came up with the current trend of "floating heads" in movie posters, but it speaks volumes about how sanitized and unimaginative the industry has become. I collect posters and original movie art, too. I have one entire wall in my house devoted to art from STARCRASH, which is the grandest, cheapest, silliest, most awesome STAR WARS rip-off ever.
There's something really off kilter and tacky-fun about being so obsessed with a film like that. The crown jewels of my STARCRASH collection are three original pencil studies for the one-sheet, done by Drew Struzan, back when the film was still called THE ADVENTURES OF STELLA STAR. Struzan is a legend now of course because of his posters for BACK TO THE FUTURE, STAR WARS and the Indiana Jones movies, along with about a million other things---but back then in the seventies, he worked for American International, doing amazing posters for films like TENTACLES, SQUIRM and THE FOOD OF THE GODS. They hired him to do STARCRASH, but AIP lost the right to distribute the film and he was canned. But he still did five different pencil comps, which are beautiful works of art; of course, because this is Drew Struzan we're talking about. I'm always on the lookout for the other two. (Any LOST BOYS fans out there?) John Solie did the final one sheet, which is pretty stunning in its original art form. Roger Corman was distributing the movie by then.
What was the start of your career in art?
I've been in comics in some form or another as a writer/layout artist since about 1992-ish. My first pro gig was the graphic novelization of Fulci's THE BEYOND. I wrote and illustrated an original graphic novel project a year before that, but I was just the pencil artist. I was a rough breakdown kinda guy. See, I was never really a finishing artist before SHOCK FESTIVAL. I literally had to teach myself how to paint and design using Photoshop for the project because I realized it was too ambitious to afford a larger art team. One of the reasons that something like SHOCK FESTIVAL has never been attempted is that it would have been far too expensive to do in any conventional way. Oddly, since the announcement of SHOCK FESTIVAL in 2008 at the Fango show in Austin, I've done dozens of real movie posters and DVD covers for filmmakers who dig the style I developed. Crazy world. I never really set out to be a finishing illustrator, it just sorta happened by accident. Up until now, I've concentrated mostly on writing and designing.
When did you start the Shock Festival book project and what were its origins?
Well, I've wanted to do a book of fake movie posters since I was a kid, and it still strikes me as bizarre that someone hasn't done it yet! Seems like a real no-brainer, huh? But as I mentioned before, doing a book with hundreds of these damn things would be really expensive to produce . . . good artists cost lots of money, just ask Drew Struzan . . . but I think that's only part of the reason nobody ever did it until now. The best ideas are the most original ideas, and they tend to hover right there in plain sight. I had just finished writing a dreary novel about the death of my mom in early 2007 and decided I needed a more fun project to occupy my creative headspace. I had been toying with the SHOCK FESTIVAL concept as a real project since just before MASTERS OF HORROR (Episode one: INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD) started filming---but I always came up against the wall of the art itself. I didn't feel like spending all my money hiring artists or getting my friends to work for free---but it was always nagging in the back of my head. So one night I'm just kinda doodling around on the computer and came up with a pretty respectable poster for I HATE YOUR GUTS and I said "hey . . . I bet I could pull this off." In the beginning, it was my plan to do all the design and graphics work myself, while farming out the key art to various professionals I could hire on the cheap. I put an ad on Craig's List, called in some favors, and enlisted all my friends as character models. I got Tim Bradstreet on the project on a kind of a wink-and-handshake deal. But a funny thing happened as those first few months of the project inched forward---I studied what these guys I was hiring to do my key art were doing and realized I could probably do it, too, and I could probably even get closer to what I actually wanted if I did it myself. I shot a bunch of photo reference for the fake film SHARKHUNTERS and was gonna send it to Tim Bradstreet so he could do the poster . . . but I just ended up art directing the thing until it was done! And it looked really terrific, very authentic.
When I realized I could shoulder most of the workload myself, I altered the scope of the project from sixty-six (because it couldn't be 666!) fake movies to one hundred and one and started putting in 18 hour workdays. Before I knew it, an entire year was gone and I had taught myself how to paint movie poster art! In December of that year, I had the project in good enough shape to print a small run of the book so that I could demonstrate the concept to publishers. Bradstreet was really blown away and came on with Thomas Jane as co-publishers with IDW----and then I spent ANOTHER year getting the final version ready, doubling the amount of art, working with Bradstreet. Jane offered to become a character named Elliot Swann. It was like making an indie movie and then getting a distributor and reworking the final cut. It became this massive, unprecedented endeavor. Literally two years in the making.
Was it harder coming up with the intertwining back-story of your fictional exploitation personalities or did the difficulty lie in coming up with so many fictional films that could pass as actual lost gems from the heyday of grindhouse cinema?
It was a completely organic process. I knew I wanted to have text along with the posters and some kind of faux history built around them, but I never realized just how deep it would eventually get. I began with inventing the posters, casting my friends as characters, kicking it around. A few of the models made suggestions to me about what kind of B-movie stars they wanted to be---like my best friend Ashley Laurence. She's still really famous for playing Kirsty in the HELLRAISER films and wanted to be a Russian sex kitten rather than a scream queen. We brainstormed over the phone and just kinda invented Natalya "Natalie" Ustinov right on the spot. I'd have wild photo sessions where people like Lynn Mikeska, who plays Tracie Lynn Darcie in the book, would show up with armloads of costumes and we'd just make up stuff! She had a wedding dress one of those nights and one of my other friends had a cool Indiana Jones getup on--so we slapped shotguns into their hands and RAIDERS OF THE WEDDING DAY MASSACRE was invented!
This was the first creative woolgathering session---the "research" period, so to speak. I started to see who the characters of SHOCK FESTIVAL were during this time. About mid-year, I just took a break from the art and spent a month writing the text of the book. It just flowed right out, that first draft, and it was wild and crazy, way too long, and I invented more films and characters along the way. Later, when it was time to get the book in shape for its nationwide release, I did an incredible amount of editing on the fucking thing. I cut it down from over a hundred and fifty thousand words to around sixty thousand. I added Thomas Jane's character. Cut out the fat. Added more posters. I made certain rules for myself editorially that provided a sort of "instant objectivity" about things. You'll notice that aside from the opening of each chapter, there's almost never a full page of text and each block of text ends on a PERIOD. In other words, I never wanted a page break in the middle of a paragraph, and I wanted the text to completely support the art, changing off smoothly in tandem. I spent months hacking it up and putting it back together. And while it was definitely a long and intense process . . . I wouldn't say that any of it was difficult at all. This stuff is in my blood. In fact, it was the MOST fun I've ever had on any project I ever attempted.
You directed the I HATE YOUR GUTS trailer - what was it about that specific film that inspired you to pick up a camera?
It was the first poster I did for the book . . . and I knew I could get Lynn to come in and reprise her role as Tracie Lynn Darcie. I had the concept for the trailer way early in the development of the book, actually. It's a sick joke that comes at you really hard and fast, and I knew it would make people laugh and maybe cringe a little. It's just under a minute long. I wanted mine to be short and brutal, really in-your-face. We had no money at all, so we had to do something that would be easy to do in one day. A lot of screaming and blood flying around, it's really very silly. But it's my little movie. Someone called the cops on us because we shot in my backyard and Lynn is a method actor. A bunch of officers showed up just as we wrapped and there's all this blood everywhere, it was just insane. I had to do my best song and dance to keep out of jail for directing I HATE YOUR GUTS!
If a Shock Festival Volume Two DVD set ever happens, which film would you direct a trailer for on that set?
I wanted to shoot GOLDILOX STRAIGHT TO HELL for Volume One, but we were unable to pull it off on such a low budget. I'd like to do one for STARFIRE BEYOND THE GALAXY, which is my tribute to STARCRASH, of course. But to be honest, directing is not really a huge ambition of mine. I've actually been talking with one of the directors on this project about doing a feature-length SHOCK FESTIVAL trailer movie. That would be awesome and I wouldn't have to do any of the work! We DID have a great time shooting I HATE YOUR GUTS. You wouldn't believe how much laughing was going on behind the scenes on that. Then again, it was a one-day shoot on a zero budget, just goofing around with a camera and a few friends.
I understand that you have written for some other films and filmmakers, can you elaborate on this in general and specifically your work with Don Coscarelli?
Sure. I have actually written quite a number of film projects, most of which never got filmed for one reason or another. Sigh. That's Hollywood, man. But the money is good. I was able to take two years off to write and illustrate SHOCK FESTIVAL because of a few of those heavy paydays. I actually wrote something with Don during that period of time, but that's top secret for now. Coscarelli gave me my first professional break in the real business. I had written a few scripts for hire, published a science fiction novel called INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS, ghosted two books for other writers. But I'd never done anything in Hollywood proper and I wasn't Guild yet. Don was impressed with my PHANTASM stuff and allowed me to publish the comic series, which he was really blown away by, and so he invited me to be his writing partner on a lot of things. Obviously, the first tangible result of that was our episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, which ended up as the best reviewed film of his career. That was insane. It was really an honor. We also wrote the sequel to BUBBA HO-TEP together. That's looking like it's finally going to get made soon.
Can you elaborate on the script you wrote for Phantasm V that Don Coscarelli supposedly liked so much?
Afraid not. Top secret. I wrote it. Don still likes it. Maybe it will happen someday.
What can we expect next from you?
The next film project is most likely to be BUBBA NOSFERATAU: CURSE OF THE SHE VAMPIRES. It's a wild screenplay and Don's getting it set up now, with Paul Giamatti co-producing and co-starring as Colonel Tom Parker. Ron Perlman is on board in the lead role of Elvis originated by Bruce Campbell, which is outrageous and cool. Book-wise, you should check out THE RIOT ACT. That was a book of original short fiction I self-published just after MASTERS OF HORROR in a super limited run---just a hundred copies to test the waters, and was very well received by some very famous people. The new version has six new stories in it, none of which have appeared anywhere else. It's all original stuff. It will appear soon from a major publisher. Also, I am the author of the OUTRAGEOUS novelization of BLACK DEVIL DOLL, which is available right now from Amazon. I am working on another novelization now. That's for the classic Spanish horror film PIECES. I am doing that one for Grindhouse Releasing, which is run by Bob Murawski, my great friend, who just recently won an Oscar for his work on THE HURT LOCKER. It'll be out just in time for Halloween, I believe. In fact, I just did the poster for Bob’s amazing GONE WITH THE POPE, which is also in theatres now and you MUST SEE.
I also have two novels in rewrite now. One of them is called SAFE IN THE WOODS, which is an important work, a bit along the lines of Jack Ketchum's THE GIRL NEXT-DOOR. Yeah. I don’t fuck around. I speak truth.
Also, just because I’m into having FUN with horror movies, I’ll be one of the hosts of the FRIDAY THE 13th 30 year convention in August and you'll see a really kick ass poster from me on that, too! I also did the original promo poster for THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHOES POND, which is out now in theatres . . . plus I do private commissions for people who just want to see themselves immortalized in B-movies, like THE MUMMY OF MOTOWN . . . and then there’s my poster for MURDER LOVES KILLERS TOO, which is an amazing horror film done by real professionals with a love and affection for Italian Giallo . . .
and, of course, I hope people enjoy my SHOCK FESTIVAL DVD set. We put an entire year into creating it and I think the work shows. I'm particularly proud of the commentary tracks I did, which are very innovative for this type of project---kind of a combination of an extended interview and lecture on horror and exploitation films which takes you into some wild territory and hopefully sends you away smiling and maybe a little more knowledgeable about the form. We have Uncle Creepy from Dread Central on the main track with his wild and hilarious commentary, which is more screen-specific and fan-centric than mine. He's a good buddy, and just fucking insane. I really think people will find the whole package satisfying as hell. We have all the bases covered, man.
For additional information on Stephen and his many projects, visit -http://www.myspace.com/shockfestival
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