Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wednesday in the Palace with George: A Conversation with George A. Romero

George Romero is one of my heroes - always has been, always will be. Like most people, all of the filmmakers I admire are ones who have do their own thing and stick to their guns, never selling out and saying what it is they think needs to be said, and that's George Romero in a nutshell. Like Ed Harris' King Billy in the beautiful KNIGHTRIDERS, Romero has lived by his own code his entire career, making only the films he's wanted to make, working only where he wants to work and only with his own crew, making Romero as much of an outsider or maverick as Altman or Cassavetes and just as important a talent. His films personify what the term "independent film" is supposed to mean, intensely personal works made under a singular vision, films that have something to say about contemporary society that become more and more potent as the years go by. There is no other filmmaker around who understands the working class of America like Romero does, putting his films more in touch with the common man than almost any other American filmmaker since John Ford (yes, I fucking said that) and those who don't bother to take his work seriously simply because he's "the zombie guy" had better get hip to that. His films also happen to be entertaining as hell, wonderful works that give you everything you should in a movie - fun and food for thought in equal measure - and, I have to say it, no one is better at gore or scares. American cinema owes a tremendous debt to George Romero, if only for the brilliant DAWN OF THE DEAD, and to anyone who loves movies, I think his films are absolutely essential.

Needless to say, the opportunity to interview Romero for AMC's Monsterfest blog regarding DIARY OF THE DEAD was one that I wasn't going to pass up, and much to my surprise, none of the other writers sought out the job. So once I got in touch with the right people at The Weinstein Company, distributors of DIARY, the pieces were put together very easily and I was set to speak to George at the New York Palace hotel on Wednesday, February 6, the same day he was to make an appearance at a AMMI screening of DIARY later that evening. I'd met George only once before, just after the Fantastic Fest screening of DIARY, but I've been in his presence a number of times and while I was more excited than nervous, I wasn't quite sure as to what approach I was going to take with the interview. Obviously, DIARY had to take presidence, though I had no problem with that, and since this was for Monsterfest, I knew I had to slip in some horror-specific questions while also slipping in a few of my own. The list was cut down to about twelve questions overall, probably a few too many, but just enough in case George wasn't feeling talkative that particular day (though I know that's never a problem with him). In the 25 minutes I had with George I felt that we covered DIARY pretty well, though I know I could have covered a lot more, and while I didn't get to ask that many questions beyond the new film, the fact that this thing happend at all was fantastic in its own right. An abbreviated version appears on the Monsterfest site, but what you've got here is the entire thing. Enjoy. (Romero photo by Mary Sledd.)

Thanks to AMC's Drew Pisara and TWC's Lauren Felsenstein for putting this together, and to George, of course, for answering every question honestly and directly and for being super cool and super courteous after having no doubt listened to a lot of the same questions over and over again.

Do you think your films are getting angrier?

I think I’ve sorta stayed there, in a way. I think I’ve always been there, ever since the 60s didn’t work. It’s just that in-between I’ve done things that really didn’t have anything to do with it, they weren’t mine. MONKEY SHINES was adapted from a novel, the stuff I did with Steve [King] was adaptation and it wasn’t really me; you know, I was more concerned about translating their stuff. But I think in any of the stuff that’s been mine from the pop that bit of anger has always been there, but there’s also, I don’t know, I always try to lighten the load with some slapstick and somehow, it works! Even that slapstick thing with the farmer in DIARY, it’s actually a pretty angry moment. That guy is pissed off, he’s had enough, he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. I think that’s what it is, being mad as hell - nothing changes and in fact it just seems to get worse. I mean, it just blows me away that people are still sending their last dime into TV evangelist, people are willing to sucker in to whoever throws up a blog. I say jokingly, if Jim Jones was around and had a blog, there’d be millions of people drinking Kool Aid! It just blows me away that people don’t think. It’s like, come on, man. Tribalism and all these blogs, all it does is create many more tribes. It’s sort of always preaching to the converted.

You know this is going on a blog, right?

That’s fine, I’m talking about Tony’s blog from Cincinnati. I don’t know, I joke and say it’s bad enough to have to listen to pundits and people that actually have some degree of authority or some track record, so you know what their opinion is anyway, so they’re putting up a blog, but Joe Blow in Cincinnati throws up a blog and suddenly he’s got 2 million people going “Yeahhhh!!!” Maybe he’s a great guy, you know, but if he happens to be a radical of some kind he still is going to get a following, because very often he could sound quite reasonable. Hitler, I’m sure, sounded very reasonable to a lot of people. A bit dangerous, you know. That’s really what I’m attacking in this film; the fact that this guy, this character, thinks that all of a sudden thinks that he can become some kind of savior or some sort of important figure.

But people always talk about the truth, that you don’t get the real true story about what’s going on in Iraq or what happened with Hurricane Katrina, but if you see it via You Tube or the blogs…

If it’s helmet cams on real soldiers showing you how they blew away those kids, that’s not a lot. But very often it’s just opinion and it’s just some observer and not necessarily the horse’s mouth. I guess that’s really what concerns me, sort of everybody piping up. People have always had a hard time handling as much information as they get. In the old days when it was three networks, maybe it was being managed, manipulated, whatever, but it was being managed. There was nothing going out there that was particularly inciting that was going cause people to run off on their own and form some sort of a mob. I think that’s the danger, people don’t handle that stuff very well and tend to be very reactive. There could be a whole new clan started, some white supremacist gets on there and there’s going to be hell of a lot of people who’ll join up.

Something you said regarding NIGHT was that it was born out of the spirit of 60s revolution. Do you look upon it the same today with DIARY, but in a more negative sense?

Not so negative. All the zombie films I’ve done, the zombies could be… everyone keeps trying to define them. In the old days it was like, “They’re the silent majority”. No! “They’re the hurricane!” It could have been any disaster, and the stories are really about how people respond or fail to respond to this sea change. The world has changed, you have to change. People won’t. Most of the stories I’ve done have been about people being unwilling to change and trying to carry on with life as it was. So yeah, there’s that seed.

I basically ripped off the idea. I originally wrote it as a short story, never thinking it would become a movie, which I ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I AM LEGEND, which is now back with us, and I thought it was about revolution. In the case of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and in the case of all my films it’s not a failed revolution, it’s just a change, and it’s a revolutionary change, an inevitable change because the rules have changed. In this film there’s a line, “God has changed the rules”, and it’s about people failing to recognize that and failing to go along with it.

Was there one specific inspiration that did this for you? I recalled after LAND OF THE DEAD hearing that you had nothing lined up…

No, I had nothing to talk about except that I had already noticed this and I was keeping a notebook on it and we had the idea even before we started to shoot LAND. I just had this vague notion of, if we could do something about this emerging media and it would be great do this format where it’s a bunch of young students, film students and they have a camera and they’re out shooting. The idea was going back to the very first night. There was a collection of short stories called BOOK OF THE DEAD, horror writers of some note, Stephen King did one of the stories, about other people on that first night of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and said we can do the same thing, just have a parallel story with new character, but basically starting on the first night, and that was the idea. It didn’t really develop until later; we kept nibbling on it, working on it, until it finally came about. I wasn’t discouraged by LAND OF THE DEAD; I loved it and Universal, even though I was afraid of working at “The Black Tower”, but they were great, they really let me make the movie and there’s a lot about that movie that I like, but it owes nothing to the original. It was getting close to Thurderdome, it was sort of taking over, eating itself alive, just gets bigger and bigger. So I really wanted to go back and get small again, not Alice when she’s 10 feet tall.

This decade, there has been an overflow of zombie movies. There as many zombie movies as there are zombies in your movies…

There are a lot more of them. We could only afford 12 at a time!

Does that make it easier or more difficult for you, this glut of zombie movies?

We certainly haven’t felt the effect of the glut, if there is a glut. I honestly think that it’s not so much the movies that have made this creature popular – I mean, I didn’t even think of them as zombies in the first one. I didn’t call them zombies they were “flesh eaters”. In fact, that was our original title, NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS, which is why we lost the copyright. What it is, it’s almost a new creature; it’s the neighbors. The dead are coming back, the dead aren’t staying dead, and to me in my mind it was some new kind of creature, a ghoul or a flesh eater. I couldn’t use vampires because Matheson did.

But we haven’t felt the effect of the glut. You know what, there haven’t been that many that have been “big”. I don’t think of the 28 DAYS films as zombies, they’re not, they’re infected. DAWN [OF THE DEAD, 2004] made a lot of money; SHAUN [OF THE DEAD] was very popular, I loved SHAUN. RESIDENT EVIL has made a lot of money, but I was just gonna say it was the video games, more than anything else that have popularized.

It’s also with comics, too…

Yeah, comics, too.

I don’t know how much attention you pay to the shot-on-video horror scene, but everybody and their brother has made a zombie movie in their back yard.

I go to these conventions, at each one a dozen young people come up to me and say “I made a movie, will you look at it?” and it’s always a zombie movie! I say, try something else or get an idea. If you want to do a zombie movie, put some backbone in it. I think that’s what people fail to recognize. It hasn’t been more difficult for us I guess because of my reputation I can always get the meeting; maybe not necessarily get the film. And who knows? If WORLD WAR Z gets made, if CELL gets made, maybe it’ll hit that saturation point. But I don’t know if they’ll get made you just don’t know if it’s going to happen or not.

Right now I don’t have a particular idea if we have to make a sequel to this quickly I would literally, for the first time, make it a sequel. It would be the same characters coming out of the house on another adventure and I still have a lot I could say on the same theme, which there was just no time and I didn’t want to get that talky, but I think I could whip up a sequel for the sake of making it a sequel, if that happens. Otherwise, I’ll wait for something else to happen out there. All of them have grown out of an observation that I’ve had about what’s going on. Frankly, I would rather do that, wait ‘til they nuke Philly or something.

One of the things that I love about DIARY is that you’re experimenting – narration, five-minute long takes, hand-held POV shots – it’s all new territory for you. Is this stuff that you’ve been itching to try for years or did it grow out of the material?

No, it grew out of “this is the way it would be”, it really did. It’s funny, I don’t know, maybe there really is this collective subconscious because all of a sudden there are films that we didn’t know about when we first were writing this, like REDACTED and CLOVERFIELD and VANTAGE POINT, and everyone seems to be focused on that. Everyone’s a camera these days; I am a camera. I just wanted to do it that way and actually it was a challenge. It looks like it’s free-wheeling; I mean, a lot of people will look at that film and say, “Oh, it must have been cake to shoot that, just turn the camera on and shoot it” – Not! It still needed to be lit, it has to be blocked, and it has to have all those production values that make a shot work, so it was not a cakewalk. However, because we were shooting 6, 7 pages at a time, and because this cast was able to do that without flubbing, it was great. Sometimes it would be five hours of setup, twenty minutes of shooting, but that’s what it was. Even though I hate all that waiting around, in a way it was very relaxed. Everyone was there to play ball, there were no bad apples, and it was a very collaborative effort.

You’re shooting digitally for the first time. Are you an HD convert?

No so much. I love finishing on HD; we shot LAND on film and finished on HD. Great thing about HD is that used to be if you got a shot in the can on film all you can do is effect the whole shot, make it a little greener, a little brighter. Now it’s like having a darkroom. You don’t have to worry about doing it on set you can say, “I can darken this guy’s face later, I can put a shadow on that wall”, so that’s very liberating. It just means you can get off the set later, and that’s really what you’re trying to do, when the wolf is at the door you’re just trying to get off the set and make as few compromises as possible.

I’ve noticed too that with this film and with LAND you’re going out with an R rating and I don’t think there have been any cuts…

Certainly not MPAA cuts, no.

Obviously DAWN and DAY set new standards for blood and gore…

Yeah, but the distributor put them out unrated, so we were lucky enough to have that.

But do you find yourself less enchanted with gore? The zombie attacks in DIARY are great, but there’s less of it and more of the characters and, personally speaking, I don’t feel it’s to the film’s detriment.

The tendency is when you’re shooting an objective piece is to do product shots on the gore, if you know what I mean, to focus on that. We realized early on that violates this; these kids aren’t going to go rushing in for a close up. And I found as we were watching dailies that it’s almost more effective to sort of stand back the way they would be doing and see it happen in a wider shot. It’s a bit more puzzling as to how it was done, even though we had to use CG. We’re not making a sonata out of it. They happen in real time and a bit at a distance.

OK, I’m getting the “one more question” sign from the publicist, so of course I will try and squeeze two questions in now… I read interviews with you and you tell people all the time, “I’m not really a horror guy”. You don’t keep up with the horror scene…

No, I don’t.

But I look at your list of your ten favorite films from Sight & Sound and you do have one horror film on there, REPULSION. Why is that your favorite horror film above all others?

It just worked on me. It was the most recent film to work on me at an age when I should have known better and it just worked. And I thought that the craft there, that mirror shot and the bureau being pushed open and it was just so creepy. I ripped off the hands through the wall in DAY OF THE DEAD. It’s not a monster movie; it’s all psychological and it’s one of my favorite movies.

The last question comes from a filmmaker friend of mine, Scooter McCrae, who wants to know, what is your favorite single-malt scotch?

[Laughs] Oh my god! Well, I’m not a big single-malt guy. I like good old J&B because you can stick a bunch of ice in it, you don’t have to worry about bruising it. Just give me a bunch of ice and make sure there’s some J&B or Dewars’ on there and I’m happy.

That may or may not make it in the interview…

Get me a deal from Dewars' if it does, OK?


Stacie Ponder said...

AWESOME! Man, I love Romero, even if his films don't always work for me. He's really one of a kind.

I'm not sure if I'd be able to actually get my questions out without giggling uncontrollably and going "You're George Romero!" over and over again.

Mary said...

Mary S. (the photographer) here. Thank you so much for giving me photo credit! Means a lot to me. If I sent you a couple of prints of this photo do you think you could get one signed and send it back to me?