© 1996-1997 Interviews from Beyond
Director John Strysik
November 12th, 1995
Beyond: John, how about a little background on what influenced you toward film making and H.P. Lovecraft.
Strysik: I actually got started in film almost by accident. I went to see a show called FREAKS (back in my sophomore year in high school so that was in '69 or '70) which had been re-released and was playing in a little theatre in Chicago. On the bill (we knew nothing about it) was Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. This short surreal subject just completely blew me away and I started to make films after that. And Lovecraft (like with most adolescence boys you go through this phase were you really get into Lovecraft), I read all his stories and that stayed with me quite a bit so when I finally got into film school in Chicago I was looking around for subject matter to shoot. I had done some of my own and it didn't come out too well and I though the basic thing is I don't have a good story to tell right now. I just didn't have enough experience or something. So I thought just get a solid story and worry about getting the technical stuff down. So "The Music of Erich Zann" kind of popped out.
Beyond: So why did you choose "The Music of Erich Zann" over other Lovecraft stories? Was there any criteria that you used?
Strysik: I wanted to do a period piece in the 1880's its not really told when (in the story). There is another reason too. You mentioned (I know you've seen the film) that you liked the lighting effects and at the time that it was made there was a movie called the Days of Heaven which was done with lots of natural light and we wanted to experiment with that. So our movie was really pushing it. Like we did effects were we just used the lamps (in movies they're called practical lights were they don't do anything, they're just in the scene) but that was were all the lighting was. It was almost an experiment. You usually, if you are using an oil lamp, have a follow spot on the guy and you have weird shadows projected all over the place. One of the reasons we used the lamps was to at least get that mood, the mood that Lovecraft paints. And in order to do that you have to get the lighting right. So we were just using bug lights basically. There was a wire up the actors shirt and to get the smoking effect someone taped some incense to the bulb. It just worked beautifully. Some of those scenes are seven stops under. It was incredible and really came out nice.
Beyond: Was there any other practical reason?
Strysik: I knew I could get the locations and costumes and I was looking for a story that only had a couple of people in it. You have to work within your means and so that thing cost me about $2000 to make plus I got some grants.
Beyond: What did you do after that?
Strysik: A Franz Kafka Story, my other favorite author, that was called The Hunger Artist and I got a scholarship from the school I was going to at the time called Columbia College in Chicago to make that film. That opened the doors to Hollywood a little. Once I made that film and it won a bunch of festivals and junk like that I got a job doing Tales from the Darkside which is pretty weird going from Kafka to Tales from the Darkside.
Beyond: They are related I think.
Strysik: Kind of, The Hunger Artist is sort of like a Twilight episode. I don't know if you are familiar with the story but it is about a professional faster who at the beginning of the story is the center of attention and performing in front of vast crowds. Suddenly public opinion changes and he is regulated to the side show on the way to the tiger tent in a circus. An as he is dying someone asks him, "Why are you doing this? Why do you keep fasting?" and his last words were, "Because I never found the food I liked." I read that story in high school and it just summed up high school for me.
Beyond: How did you stumble across the location for the house when you were making "The Music of Erich Zann".
Strysik: My cousin owned buildings and he knew this guy who had an old house. It was great. The location was perfect. They were actually remodeling it. It was built in the 1870s maybe. One of those old buildings that had leather wallpaper which we ripped off accidentally but that's another story.
Beyond: I thought the sticking doors, the moldings and the whole bit was very effective.
Strysik: Part of that was a little bit of a set too. The room we were working in didn't actually have a garret so we put in a fake ceiling lamp. And the window, I had a friend make that window which was cool because the window saved me some money instead of having an optical effect you could physically take the window out and put it in Ward's bedroom [for the dream sequence]. I consider it the first movie I ever made. I just cringe looking at it some times. It is what it is.
Beyond: It has its moments. Given some more money and better resources, I believe you could have created very fine adaptations of Lovecraft's stories.
Strysik: Yeah, and just more experience. When I was at Darkside I was really trying to get them to buy the rights to the story so I could redo it and do it right. Darkside was a strange experience it was a schizophrenic show. Half of it was shot in Los Angles and the other half shot in New York. But the story editor was in New York and rejected any story idea that came from Los Angles. It was really a political thing going on. It wasn't just sour grapes because I sent him a whole bunch of scripts as did everyone else including the producer and he would write ten pages of criticisms yet send some script his buddy wrote that had the same faults.
Beyond: Well you should have used a surrogate so that the post mark would look like it came from outside of Los Angles.
Strysik: Yeah, like a New York post mark.
Beyond: What elements in a Lovecraft story do you feel would be critical in capturing to film?
Strysik: I think with Lovecraft the main thing is creating a mood. When I did The Music of Erich Zann in 1980 it was right before the onslaught of HPL films that started with Re-Animator. I know the guy who directed it, Stuart Gordon, a really talented man. He's from Chicago originally. He was a stage director and did this thing called Organic Theater. He also did this thing called WARP which was this insane surreal Science Fiction Opera on stage. It was incredible. It was in three parts and you had to go to it over three nights. But he made Re-Animator real cheap. He shot it like in 15 days or something like that. But the point I'm trying to get to is that they went for the gross parts. That's part of it but you really have to go for the mood. We were talking about The Resurrected which I though t came pretty close.
Beyond: It was the closest effort to date of an adaptation of an HPL story done commercially. The cavern scenes were excellent and very faithful. It had only a few goofy things like the wife, reading the diary and the private detective stuff.
Strysik: That's so typical of television. Its such a cliche. The reason you see so many cops shows done that way is that it is real easy to create conflict. The story that HPL wrote is much more subtle than that. It could be done. What I'm hoping that will eventually happen is that his stories will be made like a Masterpiece Theater thing were it is considered of its time an won't be screwed with and transposed into present day. And make "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and set it 1927 like it should be. Why not? Maybe eventually, if HPL gets respected as an American author, it would be.
Beyond: So why hasn't there been a successful adaptation to screen of an HPL story by a big studio? Why haven't they focused on being truer to the story even if they modernized it.
Strysik: Going back to Gordon. He was suppose to do an adaptation of Shadow Over Innsmouth. And supposedly it was going to be really faithful. But he was making it with Charles Band, I don't know if you know much about him, The Full Moon films.
Beyond: You mean films like the Lurking Fear and the new one Castle Freak?
Strysik: Yeah. Is Castle Freak an HPL film?
Beyond: I don't know. I do know that it stars Jeffery Combs, Barbara Crampton and is directed by Stuart Gordon so with that combination I assume it is going to have some sort of HPL element.
Strysik: Did you see Gordon's version of The Pit and the Pendulum? It was good. Amazingly good. But anyway, Charles Band isn't the most scrupulous guy he continually goes out of business so I guess the project was scrapped. I don't know, I think when you get out here in Hollywood they are always looking for elements. They're looking for that naked woman or something like it and just reject screenplays out of hand if they don't conform.
Beyond: You have to meet a formula: enough violence, enough nudity to make it in Hollywood.
Strysik: Lovecraft had a formula. There is a monster and all that and there is always a quest. It may be a little more intellectual then most but I think it would translate fine to film. I mentioned we did an adaptation of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and I got some heat out here with some studios. I sent it to Corman's place and the producer really liked it and it almost got optioned by Heritage because this guy was a big fan of Lovecraft (they do mainly schlock) and he was saying, for years I've been trying to see someone adapt "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and I think you guys did it. But then it just petered out like most of these deals do. You know it took someone like Dan O'Bannon who had a track record to pull it off. But even he (I don't know if it was him doing it or the studio) put those dumb elements in the film but I guess he had to do it.
Beyond: It was so close though.
Strysik: Plus Chris Saradon was a great actor (the actor who played Charles Dexter Ward). He really pulled it off. The creepiest scene was when he was in the Mental Institution and he was actually Joseph Curwin and I've got to admit that it could have been really corny but he did it perfectly.
Beyond: Yes, but you can't help thinking that he's Prince Humperdink from the movie The Princess Bride.
Strysik: You know who did a good adaptation of a Lovecraft story was the old Night Gallery. They did an extended version of Pickman's Model which is actually one of the better adaptations of a Lovecraft Story. Its more subtle and they had a scene where the creature was in the pit but they did it smart. They didn't show the whole thing. They had it half in light and half in darkness. It was a lot creepier then showing the whole thing.
Beyond: The reason I like old movies is they leave a lot of things to the viewers imagination. Its more effective because what eventually happens (as a film maker) is you can never meet the expectations of what the audience (especially people who have read these stories) imagines what the horror is.
Strysik: Right, then you're put in a position were you have to top yourself. So you show this incredible effect (you can do absolutely amazing things with computer animation now) but then you see it and then say okay now what. So then it becomes a geek show were you have to top yourself. The theory of film to me isn't so much action its reaction. Its how people are reacting to things and getting the audience into that and having them be a part of that reaction. I don't know, I think its just formula and people getting caught up in all the special effects. Lovecraft had such a major impact on modern day horror films its incredible. Alien is part of that which revived the whole space horror thing. But no one's really gone to the source and tapped it.
Beyond: With this in mind, and with all your additional experience what would you have done differently with "The Music of Erich Zann" or another Lovecraft film.
Strysik: Thats a hard question to answer. I know with "The Music of Erich Zann" I'd would have changed the climax were he looks out into this blackness. I could have pulled it off I think but I would have needed to setup a lot more about were the house was and the hill and of course I didn't have budget to do that sort of stuff.
Beyond: Yes, after building up the story up very well the climax was anti-climatic. What other HPL stories do you think would make good film adaptations?
Strysik: The Dunwich Horror would make a great film. There is a lot of stuff you could do. I think it really has to be done as a real adaptation of an American author and not just a product. When you're in Hollywood everything becomes product and then it becomes a whole assembly line. But American Playhouse I can see and I actually I sent them my adaptation of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" but they didn't consider Lovecraft the right caliber of author. Lovecraft has to be considered as an American icon like Poe and if that ever happens I think you might see some good stuff.
Beyond: You would think this would have happened by know especially considering Lovecraft's gaining popularity and his concept of Cosmic Fear.
Strysik: It would be great if Lovecraft was alive today with all the things they are discovering. There is actually a theory that the universe itself is younger the stars in it. They do this by measuring the background radiation to determine how old stars are.
Beyond: Lovecraft would just say, "You see."
Strysik: Yeah right. Its the ultimate paradox.
Beyond: Lovecraft was compelled to write and you have to wonder (considering everyone's brain chemistry is different) did he see what we see?
Strysik: The strange thing about Lovecraft was that he kind of screwed himself. He had book publishers saying we liked your short stories but you can't really sell a collection since you are unknown what we need from you are novels. Whether he considered himself not up to it or whatever I don't know. Its just too bad.
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