Monday, October 29, 2007

A CONVERSATION WITH SCREENWRITER-DIRECTOR DON MANCINI, FATHER OF CHUCKY (Part 1)


Writer-director Don Mancini, creator of the Chucky horror franchise and director of Seed of Chucky, after accepting his Eyegore Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Horror Genre at Universal Studios on October 5. Flanking the director are, clockwise from right to left, screenwriter Mike Werb (Face/Off, The Mask), producer Corey Sienega (Seed of Chucky and the upcoming Martian Child), Brian Roskum, actress Debbie Carrington, and yours truly, DC. (Photo by Damian Siegel.)

It was a dark and stormy night. No, actually, it was a typically bright, somewhat overly warm Southern California afternoon in 2006, several months after I’d written a lukewarm review of Seed of Chucky. I had raved in the review about the movie’s sensibility, especially as embodied by its stylized, ready-for-anything star Jennifer Tilly, and, in a classic case of almost entirely missing the point, gave the movie excessively short shrift for not being particularly scary even as I recognized it was funny and not just a little daft. So I’m looking through my e-mail that sunny afternoon and up pops this notice from Earthlink telling me there’s been a request to deliver an e-mail from Don Mancini, and should it be allowed? Hmm, thought I, that name sounds really familiar. I clicked on it and was treated to a very nice note from the writer-director of Seed of Chucky himself thanking me for my kind words, and even for some of the backhanded compliments and criticisms I leveled at the movie. Don also thanked me for consistently writing about horror films without the usual condescending tone or fanboy gushing with which the subject is typically greeted in a lot of film writing.

Not long after that Don and I met up for coffee and killed almost four hours of a workday afternoon talking movies, film criticism, families and a whole lot of other fun subjects and subsequently became good friends. We’ve seen a lot of movies together since that first meeting—I credit him with dragging me and my wife and daughters to Hairspray, which fast became one of our favorites of the year, and we also surprised ourselves by liking Hostel Part II—and I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone in the movie business who has seemed as genuine, good-natured and smart as he, with fewer pretensions and an ego the size of which suggests he’s in any business except show business.

Recently Don was the recipient of the Eyegore Award for outstanding achievement in the horror genre, and this Tuesday night he, along with star Jennifer Tilly, will be hosting a screening of Seed of Chucky, followed by a Q& A at the Egyptian Theater, the Halloween offering from OutFest, the gay-themed film series sponsored by the American Cinematheque and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). To celebrate the most horror-ful time of the year, and to celebrate Don’s award and the upcoming screening (tickets are still available but are selling more briskly than expected, so get yours now), Don and I recently sat down at Dupar’s in Studio City for another one of those long workday chats. However, this time I brought a digital recording device. There’s a whole lot more conversation than just this first segment, so I’ll be posting the interview in segments over the next week or so. We touched on everything from the movies of the year, to the state of the horror genre (as evinced by this past weekend’s Saw IV grosses, it’s apparently still alive and kicking), to critics and criticism, and finally what’s coming up next for the writer-director. But in the first segment we talk about Seed of Chucky-- how the movie was received, the philosophy behind the direction of the Chucky series, and what it’s like to be an award-winning director.

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DC: So how did the Seed of Chucky screening at the Egyptian come about?

DM: It was actually proposed by my friend, screenwriter Mike Werb (Face/Off, The Mask). He has connections to OutFest. Every year at the festival proper he teaches seminars, and he had suggested Seed of Chucky to them, which is probably, along with Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the gayest mainstream horror movie ever made. He thought it would be appropriate for them to show in their OutFest Wednesdays series. Only they changed it because Wednesday is Halloween night and I said, “You’re having a specifically gay screening of this movie, and all of the gay guys are gonna be down on Santa Monica Boulevard that night. I know I am! I’m not going to the screening!” So they moved it to Tuesday, October 30. But that’s really how it came about—it was Mike who proposed it.

DC: It’s interesting to me that the movie has had this extended life—it was a hit on DVD and groups like GLAAD are sponsoring screenings of it. Yet the movie didn’t do well theatrically. What’s it like to have the movie carry on like this?

DM: It’s really nice, particularly since the theatrical release was not very successful. That was disappointing, to say the least. But it’s nice to see that there are people who appreciate it. But I think Chucky has always been a fairly cultish phenomenon. It is, obviously, a mainstream movie, and the series has been successful in that regard, but it’s never been as successful as Freddy (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Michael Meyers (Halloween). But I also think that—I like to think, anyway, that it’s a little off the beaten path from those movies too. It’s not as formulaic as those movies.

DC: Horror is a malleable genre—you can fit a lot of stuff into the form. But what you demonstrated with the last two movies certainly is that it is a series that lends itself to experimentation with themes and even form.

DM: Particularly because the characters are dolls. Dolls naturally lend themselves to satire and parody. We weren’t doing that in the first couple of movies, but certainly with the last two-- Bride of Chucky and Seed-- we really delved into that. Last night I went to the Ahmanson and saw Avenue Q-- hilarious, by the way. It’s basically a parody of Sesame Street. You’ve got these Bert & Ernie and Cookie Monster-type characters, but as if they’re living not courtesy of the Children’s Television Workshop, but in the actual streets of New York City. These characters fall in love, have sex—so you see puppets-- Muppets, basically—having sex. Bert of Bert & Ernie, we always knew he was a fag, and it turns out he is! (Laughing) I mean, it sounds obvious, but because puppets are distortions of human beings anyway means you can plug them into different kinds of situations that are ripe for satire and parody.

DC: I imagine you can get away with a lot more because you’re already dealing with something that is exaggerated beyond belief.

DM: Yes. The subtext of Seed of Chucky is domestic abuse. If you extrapolate what’s really going on in that story, it’s a very sad story. It’s about family discord-- a child who doesn’t fit in, who starts out fairly innocent and is completely warped by two crazy parents who are pulling him in different directions. You could tell that story in so many different ways. You could do it on the Lifetime network as a tragedy. But because they’re puppets, you can laugh at it.

DC: I remember reading someone who referred to it as The Great Santini done as a horror comedy.

DM: Yeah, it is, kind of.

DC: There are not too many movie series where you can mess around with the themes and the style like that, especially after having been so well-established.

DM: I just didn’t want to keep making the same movie over and over again. And we could have. Look at the various installments of other horror franchises. Sometimes some of the latter ones are good, but they all tend to be generally the same kind of movie and faithfully follow the formula. I just wanted to shake that up a bit.

DC: Given the way the movie was received, do you think you took extra heat because of that?

DM: Well, I think that probably Bride of Chucky-- And I think you prefer Seed to Bride.

DC: Yes.

DM: I think most people, certainly among the fans, prefer Bride to Seed. It might be for them Bride represented the best balance of the comedy and horror elements. In one of the many essays you’ve written about Bride and Seed-- and bless you for that (Laughing) —you had said that for you Bride still felt a little chained to that formula, which I think is basically true. I mean, you’ve got the teens on the run and stuff like that. I think that Seed is so bizarre and silly, I guess—And I love silly. For a lot of people “silly” and “camp” are pejorative terms, and I don’t necessarily see it that way. I think there are a lot of great movies that could be described that way. But I think that tendency turns off the core audience of early 20-something males, who I think really come, for the most part, to these movies with the attitude, “I dare you to scare me.” And they want the movie to take on that dare successfully and fulfill those expectations. Consequently, I think they were pretty bewildered by Seed of Chucky because it’s not a scary movie. But to me Seed of Chucky is no less “scary” than Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive. Those movies were openly silly, parodistic, satirical, meta-minded horror movies, and I wanted to make a movie in that mold.

DC: It’s interesting to think about why a fan base would have no trouble with Evil Dead 2 yet resist accepting Seed of Chucky.

DM: Interestingly, none of the Evil Dead movies did well at the box office. I don’t know how the grosses compare to Seed of Chucky, but movies like this tend not to do well at the box office. James Gunn’s movie Slither is another good example. And that movie got really, really good reviews, which mine, for the most part, did not. And it was silly, and I didn’t find it particularly scary, but I definitely liked it. That’s a movie which was much more embraced by the horror community and the critics. However, at the box office, it didn’t even do as well as Seed of Chucky. Horror comedy is a tricky thing.

DC: The genre itself tends to be pretty conservative. You set up a situation with characters, they’re threatened, some of them are killed, but eventually the order is usually restored at some point. I don’t know if “transgressive” is the right word, but movies that are doing away with conventions like that are asking you to accept that certain elements of the genre are not the stable, reliable signposts that you think they are. Maybe horror fans are less comfortable facing that.

DM: Also, Seed of Chucky is really gay. It’s got this gender-confused character at its center, and we’ve got Jennifer Tilly and John Waters—it’s just a very explicit gay sensibility. I think that’s also something that maybe turns off that young, straight, male— (Laughing)

DC: Well, regardless of what anyone says, now we get to refer to you as “award-winning writer-director” Don Mancini.

DM: The EyeGore! (Laughs).

DC: What do you think about that?


Onstage at the Eyegore Awards: the Eyegore Award equivalent of the Golden Globe Girl presides over (from left) Michael Berryman, Don Mancini, Shawnee Smith, Corey Feldman, David Arquette and Sherri Moon Zombie

DM: It was really fun! I have a feeling that, of everyone who was up there, it meant the most to me! (Laughs) Well, except maybe for Corey Feldman! I’ve been nominated for a couple of Saturns, which is kinda cool. But always a bridesmaid—never won. I’ve been nominated for a couple of Fangoria magazine Chainsaw Awards, a couple of MTV awards, but I never won. So even with the knowledge that this is just this semi-bogus thing that was created by Universal as a marketing tool to help promote their Halloween Horror Nights, I’ll take it! (Laughs) Where do I show up?

DC: It was fun to see everyone on that stage.

DM: It really was. I had such a good time. It was really fun to meet Shawnee (Smith, who also received an Eyegore that night for her work in the Saw series). You told me a lot about her. She was really nice. David Arquette (accepting on behalf of his sister, Patricia) actually came up to me and introduced himself, because I had worked with (his brother) Alexis on Bride. Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) was really nice!

DC: My best friend used to work in a bookstore in Santa Monica when he first moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, and he said Michael Berryman used to come in twice a week and talk to him all the time.

DM: It’s really interesting—I find this to be true among, for lack of a better term, the horror community—people who make the movies, act in the movies and are fans of the movies and cover the movies, it is a genre that inspires such devotion. The point that you have magazines—I mean, you don’t see Romantic Comedy magazine, that genre’s version of Fangoria, although the idea of that is quite funny to imagine. This genre inspires such cultish devotion, and I find that the people who are into that, who get sucked up into that vortex, tend to be really nice. I’ve worked in the movie business for 20 years now and I’ve met a lot of people, and some of them are not very nice. But the people who are involved in horror—it’s kind of remarkable. People who make horror movies, who like horror movies, there’s kind of like a brotherhood. You met my friend Stacy Wilson the other night. Stacy is a journalist who specializes in the horror world. She writes reviews—Another critic, by the way, who didn’t love Seed of Chucky. But it’s like our whole enjoyment of all of this kind of transcends any one person’s opinion about any one movie. It’s fun to be a part of that world, and I really felt that the other night. Even if I hadn’t been one of the honored, I would have had a great time just to be there and see all of those people. I had not met Shawnee Smith before, or David Arquette, or Michael Berryman, or Sherri Zombie. (Pauses) That sounds so strange. “Hi, I’m Sherri Zombie.” (Laughs) “But you’re so pretty!”

Next: Don Mancini talks about critics, film criticism and the movies of 2007.

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9 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

Dennis,

You mean The Great Santini isn't a horror comedy? Well, I'll be damned.

You are fine interviewer. Perhaps you can become Mancini's Boswell. I like the reason he gave for Seeds lack of acceptance: It's just too gay. That's hilarious, but possibly correct. After all, many of today's horror/gore flicks have a built-in young male audience that is probably too homophobic and too immature to either get the joke or confidently laugh at it. Great interview. I look forward to the next installment.

And hey, I had no idea you were such a fan of Forrest Gump. Go figure.

aaron said...

Mancini had me in his first answer, after referring to NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 as being one of the gayest mainstream horror films of all time (along with SEED) -- I've long since felt as such.

Universal just released the latter four Chucky films in a boxed set (but, inexplicably, not the first one), so I'll have to give these two Mancini-directed sequels a spin before Halloween.

Thanks for this, Dennis. I recall your interview with Shawnee Smith was just as informed and engaging.

Peet Gelderblom said...

(Drum roll) When I saw that first picture, I almost thought Chucky had grown a beard! (Crash cymbal)

Can't wait for the next installments, Dennis. Don is the real deal.

Sal said...

Were you really there when that photo was taken??

Looks like you photoshopped yourself into an awards show. :)

"RUN FORREST< RUN!!"

Sal said...

Seriously, Great interview thus far. Don seems like a REAL person. Tough to find those in Hollywood.

I just recently saw Seed of Chucky and, as always you were right about this one as well.

Hey... how does a Halloween Horror Fest at the drive-in sound?

aaron said...

One last thing, Dennis...since you're good friends with Mancini, maybe you can pitch him my proposed Chucky vs. Chuck Norris film idea. It's to be called: GOOD GUY DOLLS WEAR BLACK!

(kidding, kidding)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jonathan: I just got back from the American Cinematheque screening, and it was a real revelation to see the movie on a big screen with an appreciative crowd, conditions under which I've never experienced it. I may be unduly biased, but this movie has gotten better for me every time I've seen it, and I really think it's ripe for rediscovery-- or just plain old discovery, as it was pretty much trashed and ignored when it was released in 2004. As for that Gump fella, well, add Joe Torre to the Oregon Ducks on the short list of sports news headlines of the past week that have made me feel much better about his presence on my sidebar!

Aaron: Great idea for a pitch! Don says he wants to do a musical-- Chucky Goes Hawaiian-- just for the paid vacation, but they'd probably make him make Romania stand in for Oahu the same way it had to represent Hollywood in Seed! As for the absence of Child's Play in that box set, the first movie was an MGM release, whereas the subsequent four were all Universal titles, hence the Universal box. But apparently a spiffy new edition of the original is being readied in time to celebrate the movie's 20th anniversary, which is next year! And thanks for your kind words re the interview. I hope you enjoy part 2 (it's about a day away now, I think) as well!

Peet: You always know how to say just the right thing! :) And you're right-- Don is the real deal, and it was very gratifying to see him getting some props fo this movie, and for future projects too, which we'll address in the next part of the interview. How was your "vacation"?

Sal: Just call me Leonard Zelig! And you're right-- Don is one of those good guys that he refers to as having met in the film business-- talented, funny, aware of his talent, but a good measure of humility mixed in there too. And hell, yes, I'd be up for an all-night drive-in horror-thon. You know that!

Stan said...

Hey Dennis,

that Mancini interview is really interesting. Good job. I look forward to part 2.

Oh I hope you haven't forgotten my email. I still look forward to correspond with you.

All the best,
Stan

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