Onscreen Mojo: An Interview with Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale

Many colorful descriptors have been affixed to describe the work of ten-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author Joe R. Lansdale, but reigning champion of mojo storytelling (as coined by Lansdale’s friend and webmaster Lou Bark) is the most fitting way to express his dynamic style. Throughout a prolific career, Lansdale has produced an astounding assortment of unique tales gracefully two-stepping between the pulp and the profound. His work is gritty, funny, and violent, characterized by biting dialogue and Lansdale’s ability to seamlessly cross genres while remaining conscious of history and storytelling tradition. Lansdale’s distinct literary voice regales his readers with tales of rough-and-tumble anti-heroes ready to throw down against dangerous criminals, serial killers, and occasional otherworldly monsters running amok in East Texas.

Producer interest in his work began in the 1980s, but nothing manifested onscreen until Lansdale contributed teleplays to Warner Bros. Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1996) for the episodes “Perchance to Dream” (1992); “Read My Lips” (1993); and “Showdown” (1995). Translations of Lansdale’s original work began in earnest with Don Coscarelli’s vision for the novella Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), a critical and cult hit. Coscarelli (creator of the Phantasm film series) followed up with “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” (2005) for the short-lived Masters of Horror anthology series (2005 – 2007). Terrell Lee Lankford dove headfirst into Christmas with the Dead (2012), shooting the post-apocalyptic zombie film in sweltering conditions. Indie stalwart Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are) helmed Cold in July (2014) from Lansdale’s revered crime thriller, and recently tackled the eponymous Hap and Leonard for Sundance TV, featuring James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams as the East Texan firebrand private investigators and best friends.

Mr. Lansdale spoke with Cemetery Dance Online about the experience witnessing his literary work translated to screen, crafting relatable stories with thematic heft, and hints at the possibility of sitting in the director’s chair himself.

(Interview Conducted by Chris Hallock)

CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: You had opportunities to work with producers on projects that didn’t necessarily pan out, and Cold in July bounced around for a while before Jim Mickle and Nick Damici tackled it in 2014.

JOE LANSDALE: I’d worked with some directors and we just didn’t get it made. Sometimes I’ve worked with them peripherally, and sometimes more directly. Cold in July was optioned by John Irvin, who did Dogs of War and Ghost Story. John Irvin was a great director, I really liked John, but we could just never get it off the ground. They just kept wanting to change it to something we never meant for it to be. Cold in July was always difficult to film. Jim and Nick had a terrible time getting it set up, too, because people didn’t know what it was. That’s a problem with a lot of my work—producers always liked the cinematic aspects, but they feel driven at some point to define it, to put it in a box. They just kept on until it finally got made. I also dealt with other directors—I sold a screenplay to Ridley Scott’s company and his son Jake was going to do it for a while, then it never happened. David Lynch was attached to The Big Blow for a while. The interest has always been there, it’s just been slow in happening.

How are you emotionally when negotiating with producers? Do you get your hopes up, or do you get nervous about your work being misrepresented?

No, I don’t. I mean, you have to have your hopes up enough to even go into it, but it doesn’t shatter me. I mean, I’m disappointed, but it doesn’t have any weight on my life, on my continuing projects, because I never put all my eggs in one basket. I just don’t work that way. I always think of that Twain quote, “If you put all your eggs in one basket, watch that basket.”

It helps to have creators like Mickle and Coscarelli who get you, right?

Yeah, well, they get it. Some of the others don’t really get it, or they get pieces of it. The thing about people in film—and this is understandable—what they’re doing is a job where they’re already worried about their next job as soon as they start. So, they live in constant fear of messing something up or not being able to put their imprint on it so that they can get another job. The best adaptation , if you think of works of good art, is one that comes as close as possible. You don’t always get that. Occasionally you’ll get something that varies, that’s even better than the original, but it doesn’t happen very often.

Does it bother you when producers make significant changes to the story and characters to accommodate time or budgetary restrictions? In Cold in July, there’s a change that doesn’t necessarily account for those limits: in the book, the intruder shoots at Dane first, but not in the film. Is it difficult to reconcile such a fundamental difference?

I actually thought that was a very good change, especially cinematically. When he shoots the guy and it turns out he doesn’t have a gun, it makes the guilt even heavier. In the book it works either way because you have plenty of time to explore the inner feelings of the character. In the film, that’s a way of establishing a lot of that instantly. That was one change I really liked. Bubba Ho-Tep didn’t require much changing because it was a long story. Once Don adapted it, it’s almost verbatim, the story. There are a few additions, little character parts at the first, but most of the dialogue, most of the scenes, most everything is right out of the story. In fact, when I re-read it some years ago, I was shocked at how similar it was. Same way with “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” although it was a little short and they did have to add some things, it was so close to the story it was amazing. With Christmas with the Dead, my son wrote that script, he actually did change it up quite a bit. That’s because it was such a short story you’d have had about a twenty minute film.

Writing is such a solitary thing, did you appreciate being able to experience that with an audience around you?

It’s fun, but you know, nothing takes the place of writing. People say it’s a lonely thing, but I never feel alone at all. I mean, I feel alone, but not lonely. So, I enjoy writing a lot. I’ve worked on screenplays, too, but I think on some level that it’s not an art—it’s a craft. You’re writing something, and as soon as you write it, even if you’re artistic in your moment, as soon as you finish and hand it to somebody to interpret, it’s already got other eyes, other ideas and visions involved. Once the actors come into it, they all have their own take on the material—they have their own sound and their own look, their own body movements which change it to some degree. The director has their own ideas about it, even the stage direction, the cinematography, that combination of things. I don’t believe in the auteur theory at all. I believe the director’s the general and I believe the writer’s the engine. Everything after that is just different philosophies and interpretations.

It looks like Hap and Leonard is a big hit for Sundance.

It was their number one show.

Do they shoot that in Louisiana?

They did the first season in Baton Rouge, but I think some of the tax credits changed. They ended up shooting the second season in Atlanta, Georgia.

Do you think the environment they created is suited to the atmosphere of the stories?

I really do. I haven’t seen the second season, I wasn’t on the set for it. My daughter was in it, she’s in the fifth episode. She’s playing a singer. She does a couple of songs, an old Carter Family song and one of hers, a song she wrote when she was seventeen or eighteen.

I was hoping you and your family would make an appearance in there in some way.

Well, Kasey and I both were in the first season, but we’re in the background in the cafe. Unless you’re looking, you won’t see it. But, she’s in it this season. They gave her a Dolly Parton look, it’s really kind of clever. Watch for her in the fifth episode in the carnival.

I’m curious who’s going to play Jim Bob Luke who was portrayed by Don Johnson in Cold in July.

Well, right now there are some contractual problems about that because he was in Cold in July, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be solved. I think they can, in fact. I think Don would be very interested in playing that character again, but I don’t know how that’s going to play out.

Fantasy fiction is typically looked at as a means of escapism, but you don’t let your readers off the hook so easily. How important is it to you to confront them with relatable challenges like aging, racism, marital strife, and financial struggle, as found in both print and filmed versions of Bubba Ho-Tep, Cold in July, and Hap and Leonard?

It’s very important to me. I’ve written some things that I think are just fun and they’re nothing more than that, but I think that things that are difficult are fun, too, in a different way. I don’t think my stuff is difficult to read, but I mean difficult subject matter for some people. For me, I think probably growing up in the sixties and early seventies—I reached my early manhood in the seventies. I was eighteen when I graduated in 1970. All through that era, that was a time of change. It was a time of civil rights, the Vietnam War—people for it, people who ditched it, anti-sexism and women’s liberation, gay rights were beginning to have a stronger formation then. A lot of those different things, they were so much a part of the fabric of who I was that I always wanted to write about them.

You accomplish that without anything feeling heavy-handed. If you take a look at Bubba Ho-Tep, one might look at it as being one of your lighter stories, but it’s really not; it’s one of the most devastating.

I don’t consider it light at all; it’s funny, but it’s not light. It’s sort of like The Drive-In. The Drive-In has got a lot of humor to it, but it’s not light at all. It’s about something totally different. It’s about trying to find purpose in life and about meaning and the best laid plans of mice and men. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I felt I was trying to say and I was trying to use drive-in characters that were more caricatures than they were common characters. I have this belief that there are some books and stories where the main character is the book itself. Examples of that were some of Ray Bradbury’s stories which I don’t think the characters are particularly real, but the overall flow and the dynamics and the political aspects when all put together—the story itself becomes the character. Or some of (Kurt) Vonnegut’s work, in which he very seldom deals in real characters or feelings of bright characterization, especially his later works. The overall book itself, the tonality of it, becomes a character. The themes and the elements and the little things he brings into it as he writes are all part of that fabric. I tried to do that with The Drive-In. Most of the time I prefer a more realistic approach to character, but in that I was trying to make this broader statement to pull the reader in before they knew they were there.

How do you balance the realistic consequences versus an over-the-top character like Jim Bob Luke, or Bruce Campbell as Elvis? How do you keep these exaggerated characters from outgrowing the gravity of the stories?

The influences for those kinds of characters go way back to Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, where they had Fess Parker play Davy Crockett. Davy Crockett was a real guy, but he was also bigger than life. Like Daniel Boone, “Wild” Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, they’re all real people. Even my dad in some ways was bigger than life. What I always try to do to make sure it doesn’t go too far is never forget the humanity of that person, the strengths and weaknesses that they have, their common strengths and weaknesses as human beings. As long as you keep that core, you can run out there pretty far before pulling it back in.

Had you been writing comics for DC at the time you were approached to write for Batman: The Animated Series? How did you get involved in the beginning?

What got me onto it was not writing comics, but I was writing some short stories that were based on Batman. So, they asked me to do a short story for a thing called The Further Adventures of Batman and I wrote a thing called “Subway Jack.” Then I was supposed to do another one, I think it was called “The Adventures of the Joker;” it was a book where the Joker was the main character, and of course Batman was in it as well. I did those two and I think somewhere along there I might have done the Batman novel I did Captured by the Engines. I believe that’s what got the interest. A friend of mine, Bob Wayne, who I’d known in Dallas, went to work up there, he just retired there recently, and I think he threw my name in the pot along with the fact that I’d actually done some Batman stuff so they could look at it and see I knew the character. That changed everything, and I think it was Michael Reeves who called me and said, “Are you interested in doing this?” and I said, “Yeah.” They had ideas and storylines that they put together and they would pick a writer they thought might fit. They sent me one of them and allowed me to do dialogue and trail off where I wanted to go. It was one of the better experiences in my career dealing with cinema.

How much experience have you gathered behind the camera being on set for these projects?

Quite a bit, actually. Not as much as the people assigned those jobs, but a lot of osmosis, as I like to joke. You absorb a lot of it just from observation and from being around it. I helped produce Christmas with the Dead, and Karen and I could afford to do a large part of that. We didn’t do it all, but we did over half of it. Now we’re talking about bigger money so I have to go out and do what everybody else does. When you’re working, you have to dedicate yourself to what you’re doing so you don’t do it halfway. You also have to have a way of compartmentalizing to go over and work on something else.

So that only galvanized your interest and didn’t scare you away?

No, I loved being on those sets. I enjoyed it. Some are more pleasant than others, some are more interesting than others, but it didn’t scare me at all. I’ve been around a lot of directors in my lifetime, over thirty years being around directors. I’ve certainly been involved in it peripherally. I’ve read a lot of different things about it. So, I’m not scared of it at all.

You mentioned you’re considering directing something yourself.

If things go well, I’ll be directing my first one next year; it’s called The Projectionist and it’s based on a short story of mine in the anthology by Lawrence Block called In Sunlight or in Shadow. It was never my driving force in life to be a director and it still isn’t; I want to be a writer. Sometimes you look at it and think, “This is a way to project your work to people who might not ever see it.” Writers like to think that everybody’s reading their work, but I don’t feel that way because I know they’re not— you’re not universally admired. What happens though is the more darts you have heading in different directions, the more possibility of hitting targets. If you did something based on one of your books or a TV series based on a series of books, that draws attention to them and gets readers you might not have otherwise. That’s part of why I’m doing it, along with the love I have for film. It’s fun to work with my son, and my daughter and I are working on some stories, so it’s a way of continuing to work with my family.

What are some other projects on the horizon?

Not counting the TV series, there’s the Hap and Leonard novel Rusty Puppy (out in February). Blood and Lemonade, which is a collection of early stories about Hap and Leonard when they were teenagers, mostly Hap but some with Leonard, is coming out (in February). I’ve also got a new collection, Dead on the Bones, which is a tribute to the old pulps and those kind of TV shows I was mentioning. There’s Coco Butternut, which is a Hap and Leonard novella from Subterranean. There’s another Hap and Leonard short story called “Hoodoo Harry” from Otto Penzler, in a little chapbook that they do and  also a hardback version of it. I’m writing another Hap and Leonard novel right now Jackrabbit Smile, and I’m writing an e-book that I promised. After that, I’ll probably put Hap and Leonard on the shelf while I do other things.

Chris Hallock is a screenwriter and film programmer in Boston. He has contributed to VideoScope Magazine, The Boston Globe, Diabolique Magazine, and Paracinema among others. He serves on the programming teams for the Boston Underground Film Festival and the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival. He is currently writing a book entitled Just a Whisper: Intimate Moments of Terror in the Horror Film for Midnight Marquee Press. His other passions are cats, drumming, and fiercely independent art.

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