After decades of cranking out high-caliber, genre-smashing literature, and with a badass martial arts pedigree to boot, it’s remarkable that no one tackled a documentary about East Texas’ reigning champion of mojo storytelling, Joe R. Lansdale. Along came intrepid New York City filmmaker Hansi Oppenheimer, a self-described fangrrrl who grabbed her camera and jetted to the source, joining Lansdale in his hometown Nacogdoches, Texas, to film All Hail the Popcorn King. It was a journey — what Lansdale’s rabid fans might call a pilgrimage — to East Texas, the site where the local color echoes through Lansdale’s masterful tales of blue-collar anti-heroes, two-bit criminals, and voracious monsters lurking in raucous honky-tonks, musty movie houses, and swampy bottom lands frequented by their fictionalized counterparts. Through her lens, Oppenheimer grants us an intimate visit with our favorite raconteur, inviting us into the oldest town in Texas, and the place Lansdale calls home.
The titular Popcorn King, of course, refers to the brutal demagogue who presides over his popular work The Drive-In, still one of Lansdale’s most outrageous tales. It also refers to a special popcorn blend, concocted by Landale’s wife Karen, that sent the author to bed with bizarre dreams and a stomachache, but whose hallucinatory effects helped conjure his earliest literary visions. Lansdale shares a cornucopia of anecdotes and insights on these topics and more, showing the breadth of his interest from classic literature to music history to the martial arts, while displaying a tireless dedication to his craft. Oppenheimer’s artsy guerilla-style technique suits the Lansdale story well, and their work ethic, mutual love of comics, and free-wheeling approach blend to help Oppenheimer overcome a myriad of challenges working on a shoestring budget during a pandemic.
At the time of writing this article, Oppenheimer is self-distributing limited-edition DVDs (with 90 minutes of additional interviews and outtakes) on her website (squeeprojects.com). Cemetery Dance spoke with the director and her subject about guerilla filmmaking, B-movies, and the Texas-sized affection that radiates from the screen.
(Interview conducted by Chris Hallock)
Portions of this interview have been edited for size constraints.
CEMETERY DANCE: A lot of fans would agree that it’s a shame Joe R. Lansdale isn’t more of a household name. How did being a fan of his work shape the way you approached the project, especially knowing that this might be an introduction to those who may be unfamiliar with his work?
HANSI OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, that still shocks me; I can’t imagine people not knowing his work. I mean [the documentary] has helped a lot of people. I did it because I wanted to celebrate Joe, that’s what it is. If it turns more people on to him, that’s great. He doesn’t need my help with that. It’s just a matter of getting his name out there to people who might not have heard of him. That’s great, it’s been really rewarding. They’re all telling me about all the books they’ve read.
What was your personal introduction to Joe’s work? What was the first book of his that made you say, “He’s got me”?
HO: I think it was in Silver Screams. It’s so long ago, it’s the ’80s. God, trying to remember anything from the ’80s is a little blurry. I started reading his work really early on, all the way through. I’ve always been a reader of his. The opportunity for me to be in Texas, for him to be available, everything just kinda lined up really nicely.
Joe, you’re already immortalized through your work, and you seem like a person who doesn’t really care about that sort of thing. What made you decide that this was the right time to do a documentary? Has anyone else approached you to do a documentary project? I’m surprised there wasn’t one already in the works.
JOE LANSDALE: Yeah, I actually had been approached about it before, and about memoirs and stuff like that, but I just didn’t feel that excited about it. I think getting older, and looking back at what you’ve done, you can at least appreciate that you’ve been around, that you’ve done some things. Hansi had such a good approach to it, and it was the first time I’d heard anything I thought I really wanted to do. I kind of liked the sort of — this maybe seems like it’s not giving it its due — but that sort of fly-by-the-seat of your pants approach. But I think that was a good approach. It’s not too unlike the way I write, so I enjoyed that. And I think that we could have very personal conversations, and it didn’t seem like it was so planned, and it felt more natural. For me, that was the appeal, cause I sorta thought that’s what she was gonna do from having spoken with her. I was certainly convinced when she came to do it, and it went well.
Hansi, you describe your style as low-fi artsy, which seems to be the aesthetic Joe responds to. Can you tell me how you arrived at that aesthetic for the film, particularly those great choices with the comic book style illustrations and other graphic art that appears throughout the film?
HO: I was really just trying to be as creative as I could on an extremely limited budget; I financed this. There was a grant donated, but basically I financed this on my credit cards. It’s been a struggle trying to see this through to distribution. Distribution is really a whole other set of things. I’m really grateful to have the Lansdales in my life. They know how the business is, and there’s stuff that, while working on this, that they taught me. It was kinda like a masterclass. But I was also fan-girling over Joe Lansdale — and his work and his life — cause he’s just a fascinating person, and he’s such a good person; I just wanted to celebrate him.
JL: Well, thank you.
HO: So I tried to make the film in the style in which I saw him and his work.
Yeah, I think that definitely comes across. I was wondering, how much of this did you end up having to work on through the pandemic?
HO: Yeah, we did. We had some issues. We had to get a couple of new editors in during the pandemic. You know how that goes, that’s always really complicated for a new editor to come in and look at something that’s already assembled. For the DVD, we did like 33 extras, and they needed to be edited. It was a long and exhausting process. I’m happy to say I did make the DVD. The DVD is available on my website (squeeprojects.com)
It’s quite an accomplishment. Congratulations. I can’t imagine how much stress it is on top of just trying to do this during normal times. It’s really impressive to me.
HO: Thank you.
You got to travel to Nacogdoches. To me and other Joe Lansdale fans, that’s like a pilgrimage. What was it like visiting some of those locations that informed Joe’s work, and even appeared in Joe’s work, maybe not exactly how they are in real life? How was that for you as a fan?
HO: It’s interesting because I just followed Joe’s lead. Joe showed me the things that were important to him. So, it’s Joe’s tour. There were particular places — I did want a shot here, this shot — but for the most part, Joe drove [laughs]. That’s why it’s personal to him. You can feel it when you can see it, I think. Joe, did I get it?
JL: Yeah, I think so. It’s very personal to me. I didn’t want to interrupt there, I wanted to let you go on what you were saying, but to me, I think it’s what I was saying earlier, that I felt it had a very natural feel. It covered the stuff that I was interested in. I think it had that sort of mixed genre feel that my mind has; that my writing has; that my interests have; and including some animation. It kinda covered a lot more than just the drive-in, although that was kind of the catalyst for a lot of the stuff, was the drive-in; a drive-in-like film. When I used to go to the drive-in, they always had the features, and a lot of times they were real low-budget features. Sometimes they were low-budget, but great. It had that feel, and it made me feel that it was about me, and not just somebody doing something with me. I think there’s a difference in it being about me and it being with me. Of course, I was flattered, it was very nice, but I think the thing that appealed to me most was just that Hansi was able to do it. I think it’s a big step for her to go on some huge elevator rides. I was happy for that. It was a little shocking to me sometimes to hear what other people had to say because I had no idea. I knew a lot of people — we liked each other – –that was moving, it really was.
Just to touch a little more on that, is it fair to say that a documentary about you and your life pretty much had to be about East Texas itself?
JL: Had to be. I have some interests outside of East Texas, and I’ve written things outside of East Texas, but nearly everything I’ve written is in East Texas, and everything I have written, even if it is not, is informed by it. It’s how you see life. You look through a prism. Some people would come here and they’d go, “Hell, there ain’t nothing here.” They might be right, but to me, there’s a lot here. It’s just not the sort of thing you’re gonna sightsee in fifteen minutes. It’s more the people, the characters and how they are.
HO: We did discuss that before I came to Nacogdoches. I looked at a documentary on Robert Johnson, Devil at the Crossroads. It’s 45 minutes, but, of course, there’s one photo of him. There’s no footage or anything. They just did it around the place he was from. I talked to Joe about that, I asked him, “Do you want to try something like that?” Because that made sense to me. If not for that, I might not have gone to Nacogdoches.
JL: I agree. I saw that documentary. Also, I think I saw some animation in that documentary, if I remember right. That was somewhat reminiscent of the little bits we did. I really liked that, and also, I’m a big fan of animation. I’ve written for animation, so it was nice to have that element inside the documentary.
It was fitting, the imagery that you chose; it fit the scope.
HO: I’ve been reading the guy for years, I can’t count anymore. But yeah, I had a good sense of who he is.
JL: It was fun to do because I didn’t think of it as being a documentary. I’m not camera shy either, so I don’t get bothered by a camera. Because it doesn’t seem like a camera to me. I just feel like I’m talking to somebody, and Hansi makes that real because she was somebody I had not met until she came to Nacogdoches. We talked, and I did the little piece for the Joe Bob [Briggs] documentary she did. We just fell in love with her.
Hansi, the film ends up being a really sweet portrait of this loving and supportive family. Were you familiar with the other members of the Lansdale family before you set out on the project?
HO: There is no Joe without the other members of the family [laughs]. They’re a really tight bunch. I got to know Karen, Kasey, and Keith, Nicky, and Pamela. They were just lovely, they couldn’t have been more helpful or sweet. They’re just a wonderful family.
JL: I think the director Jim Mickle said the Lansdales travel in packs.
Hansi, the film is pretty short, but I feel it hits most of the highlights. I wasn’t left feeling wanting. Did you intend for it to be longer initially? Was there much that you cut out of the final version? Did you get the vision you wanted for the most part?
HO: Well, on the DVD there’s 90 minutes of interviews and outtakes, so there’s more with them. There’s extras that I couldn’t fit in. I had planned to make a short film, tops 45 minutes.
As a fan, it totally worked for me. I’ve also read reviews where the reviewer wasn’t familiar with Joe, but said it made them want to go out and read Joe’s work. It’s a success on two different levels.
JL: The thing I heard most often, and it’s what I really wanted to hear, it wasn’t long enough, and it meant we left them wanting more.
Just like your stories.
JL: It was actually just right in length. If they felt like they wanted more, that’s just great. It could have gone on for a half hour more, and they could have felt like they wanted less.
They can just go to Texas and do the tour.
JL: Right. [laughs]
Joe, I think you touched on this earlier, but how did you feel hearing this outpouring of admiration from your peers and your co-conspirators like Christopher Golden, Joe Hill, Mick Garris, Bruce Campbell…
JL: It made me feel pretty humble. I’m not sure I deserve all those things, but to think people think I deserve them feels kinda nice. It’s more than kinda nice, it’s exceptionally nice. It’s interesting, over the years, I’ve gotten things from so many people saying, “Hey, I wouldn’t have been a writer had it not been for you.” That means bestsellers; that means people that aren’t bestsellers; that means filmmakers; comic book writers, primarily because of Jonah Hex; people that wanted to work in animation because they watched Batman: The Animated Series and remember my episodes. That all makes it good.
HO: We filled up every screening. We four-walled it when I was working on it. We were also invited to George RR Martin’s theater in Sante Fe to screen it as part of a Lansdale event, which his family participated in. Kasey did a performance.
JL: That’s what George and them called it, it was Lansdalepalooza. It was fun. They had a number of different things. Kasey sang and Jonathan [Levit] did magic. I’ve been out there several times for several events. Then Hansi and George and I did an on-stage question and answer thing, where George asked questions about stuff. George, I’ve known him for a long time, he’s a really good guy. I really respect George Martin, he’s the top of the game.
HO: I like that he supports other artists. I really like the theater in Santa Fe. He definitely is a supporter of the community, which is really important, especially when you make it.
Hansi, I really enjoy that you incorporated some of Kasey Lansdale’s music in the film, which I feel complements it really well, gives it a really cool country edge. Was she your first choice to fill the majority of the soundtrack?
HO: I think it was just a natural decision while we were making the film. Pulling audio, we were like, let’s reach out to Kasey and see if she’s okay with us using some of her work. Cause Landsdales travel in a pack. But I’m glad we did. The only criticism of the movie from Karen was that her daughter’s music was too low.
JL: You know what’s interesting about that, that was some of Kasey’s really old music. That was some of the stuff she did when she was nineteen, eighteen, whatever it was. I think that was kind of fitting too because it sorta showed her evolution, or her beginnings before her evolution. Something of an evolution of her as an artist, as a singer, as a songwriter.
It fit the spirit of the film; I thought it was a nice choice.
A lot of Cemetery Dance readers are familiar with the demagogue Popcorn King and his fanatical followers from The Drive-In, but I would love to hear a just little bit more about this mythical popcorn that Karen used to make for you that gave you these hallucinations in your nightmares. Also, who decided that was the title, All Hail the Popcorn King? That’s the perfect title.
HO: Oh, thank you.
JL: That’s Hansi, she did that. I thought it was cute. I liked it. It was clever. As far as the popcorn goes, my wife used to make this popcorn — big giant grocery sacks full of it, because we had friends over to watch. We used to have Trash Theater, is what it was called, and we watched really bad movies, or movies that were, if not bad, they were low-budget, but they had a lot of energy and a lot of heart — like Basket Case and Street Trash and stuff like that. We would watch those and eat that popcorn, and the idea was eat a lot of popcorn because when I would go to bed at night, really, I would wake — it was sort of like punishment in a way because I’d wake up kinda sick to my stomach, and then once I got back to sleep, I would dream crazy. Then I would get up in the morning, and I would write that dream. They were all short dreams, and it would either inspire, or it would sometimes be very literal. I sold every one of them. All of a sudden, I was just on this roll.
It seems to me that many writers or filmmakers don’t really enjoy the process of creation. Like you’ve said in the past, Joe, “Some writers want to have written, but they don’t like to write.” It seems strange that [they’re] not enjoying that process.
JL: Right. I agree with you. I don’t get that. People are people, and everyone’s got their own feelings about things. The first time I heard that, I thought, “What?” This is what I always wanted and I got it. I’m the dog that caught the car.
HO: Yeah, that’s the dream, to be able to support yourself on your work. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request for artists. I don’t like the hierarchy.
There are a certain number of obstacles that filmmakers do experience, but it seems like for you, Hansi, that’s not a roadblock.
JL: It’s different because in film, you have to depend on so many other people. That’s the thing in Hansi’s case; certainly she has to get the money, but mainly it’s a one-woman show. She’s making it happen.
Everyone who had a hand in crafting it made it such a moving piece of art. Maybe someone who approached it from the outside, not as a fan, it would have felt like a dry, matter-of-fact — Joe sitting on a chair, talking head. It was really refreshing. It had energy, and I just felt like I was there with Joe, sitting in the car with him, driving down the street. I feel like the questions Hansi asked were the questions I would have asked as a fan. I think it’s a nice gift to the fans.
JL: Well, the film taps into my personality, but the film has her personality.
Exactly. It has a style.
JL: You want that. I mean that as a compliment. It very much feels like Hansi. If you know Hansi, it feels like Hansi. If you don’t know her, well, you’re introduced to her by this film. Even though you’re introduced to me too, and I’m supposedly the main focus, and that’s great, but I think that the methodology of it is very much Hansi, and that comes across.
This might seem like a weird question, Joe, but are there any plans for a Joe R. Lansdale museum in Nacogdoches? How would you feel about something like that?
JL: I just thought of something. I laughed, then I thought there’s a museum in Gladewater, Texas [which is where I’m from], and they have a section. So, I have a section. It’s not as big as Elvis Presley, who used to play in Gladewater, but it’s a nice little section. I’m gonna have to complain about that [laughs].
Hansi, I know you mentioned a few events, but where would you ultimately like to take this? What’s next for the documentary?
HO: Well, the DVDs are half sold out. I had promised some to folks. I made 300, we sold 150. I still have half. I’m just kind of waiting and seeing what kind of interest we get. I’ve gotten some offers, and they weren’t good for me creatively. I didn’t want to give up creative control. So it’s going to take a while to find a place, but we will. Even if I have to get there myself.
Any upcoming projects both of you would like to mention?
JL: I’m gonna mention Moon Lake, which comes out this month. (EDITOR’S NOTE: See the Cemetery Dance review of Moon Lake right here.) That’s my newest novel (on Mulholland Books). I’m excited about it. I know the publishers are excited about it. I’m currently writing my new one, The Donut Legion, which I’m about two-thirds through.
I’m intrigued by that title.
HO: Yeah, I bought my copy of Moon Lake, the pre-order. I’ll have to bring books back to Nacogdoches.
Hansi, is All Hail the Popcorn King gonna be your focus for a while, or do you have some other documentary projects you’re pre-producing?
HO: I have lots of projects I’m working on. Like Joe, I work on it a couple of hours a day doing something related. I was going to start working on a Splatterpunk doc with John Skipp, but I really need to be in-person to shoot that. That’s kind of on the back-burner. We don’t know what will happen with that. It’s just me and my camera; I can shoot anything; I’m never at a loss for ideas.
Chris Hallock is a writer and film programmer in the Pacific Northwest. He currently serves on the programming team for the Boston Underground Film Festival. He has written for Rue Morgue, VideoScope, Diabolique, the Boston Globe, and contributed to the books Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film, Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film & Television, and Kids of the Black Hole: A Punksploitation Anthology. He is currently writing a long-overdue biography of prolific character actor Billy Drago called Hoodlums, Hitmen, and Hillbillies: the Professional Villainy of Billy Drago.