THE SLEAZE PARADE: “SHOCK FESTIVAL” AUTHOR STEPHEN ROMANO

Originally ran on FilmThreat.com on 10/28/08

Horror buffs are probably already familiar with the name Stephen Romano. After all, he scripted the first segment ever for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series (“Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” directed by Don Coscarelli) and his short story collection The Riot Act drew lavish praise from the likes of John Skipp and Joe R. Lansdale. Now Romano is poised to break out with Shock Festival, an illustrated fictional history of 101 exploitation movies, all of which were concocted by Romano himself. Romano – along with artists Tim Bradstreet and Dave Hartman – also created the original poster art and memorabilia for the movies. The end result is a painstaking and lovingly crafted tribute to grindhouse movies of yore, containing hundreds of glorious and gore-spattered full color images that give true testimony to the depth of Romano’s obsession.

Let’s start with the obvious: your love of exploitation cinema is well-documented, but what inspired you to come up with Shock Festival?
I wanted to do something completely unique, something that had never been done before. I wanted to challenge expectations after what I had attempted elsewhere in the print and film world. As a screenwriter, I work on a lot of projects, many of which never get made, and I’ve seen how crazy the business really is, first-hand. For example, did you know that John Sayles worked on the scripts for “Alligator” and “The Howling” at the same time—and when James Cameron gave him his screenplay for “Piranha 2″ for advice (John wrote the original “Piranha,” of course), not only did John never get around to reading it, but he ended up flipping the thing over and using it as BLANK PAPER when the deadline was coming down. So the moral is: “The Howling” was written between pages of “Alligator” on the BACK of “Piranha 2!” You can’t make up that kind of shit! Sayles actually told me that story at a party for “Pulp Fiction” many years ago. Joe Dante claims it never happened. So is it an urban legend? An interesting anecdote blown up over a few drinks? Who the fuck knows? I actually tried writing a straight book of film journalism once, and it was really frustrating. You can’t ever tell what the real truth is unless you were THERE. Everybody has a different story.

My goal with Shock Festival was to re-organize some of these urban legends, fictionalize everything and create a series of characters who would represent the exploitation scene of the 70s and 80s in a bracing, original way. And, of course, it would be illustrated with over six hundred pieces of “authentic” movie memorabilia which I would create myself, in tandem with a very talented team of support artists. I got to work with Tim Bradstreet, who was incredible. Also, Dave Hartman, an Emmy-nominated animation director for Disney, who took on the “role” of my Ralph Bakshi character! My alternate reality had to be fully visualized, and that was the challenge. It was almost like making a movie in that way. I had to cast it, script it, shoot it, paint it, edit it… it took two years to complete because I started first without a publisher attached. I wanted complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. Then IDW got involved, and Tim Bradstreet came on board, along with Thomas Jane, and it really came to life!

Just seeing the amount of effort you’ve put into this, however, leads me to believe you felt especially determined about this project. Do you feel the genre is still under-appreciated, even after the efforts of folks like Tarantino and Rodriguez?
Well, I think there’s always been an interest in his type of sleaze cinema… and I’m not exactly sure if “genre” is the right word, since we see so many different kinds of films floating around in this weird artistic underclass. There are so many DVDs devoted to “psychotronic” films now, lots of books. What R and Q did was to widen the audience just a bit, but “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror” only touch on a few important elements. It’s funny, because I was SO SURE that film would be “the next big thing” and create the perfect market climate for my book, then it crash landed at the box-office… but the even funnier thing is that those movies did really well on video, and lots of people seem to be into the idea of these trashy flicks. There’s a danger to them that makes you feel like you are doing something bad when you watch them. The theaters and drive-ins are pretty much gone now—we don’t get to sneak out to the local grindhouse with a bunch of wise-ass bros and a sixer anymore—but you can still see them, and the bonafide energy is still there. “Mausoleum” just came out a few weeks ago on one of those awesome exploitation double-feature discs. I’m playing it right now! Then again…if TOO many people get into it, or re-discover it… well, that might be contrary to the whole outlaw thing, right?

David Lee Roth once said that his songs were like a funky old Volkswagen, and when Alex Van Halen talked about how the “new” revamped band with Sammy Hagar was more like a Porsche, Diamond Dave replied: “Yep, they went out and made the kinda music that will buy you that kinda car… but if mine’s a Volkswagen, I probably have a hell of a lot more of the cool people in my backseat than they do!” That’s Grindhouse, man.

I think the highest compliment I can give Shock Festival is saying that upon leafing through it the first time, I honestly believed I’d seen some of the fictional movies depicted within. You used some existing flicks as a template for some of the posters, right?
I had done a little bit of that in my original version of Shock Festival—just a few visual tip-offs to the hardcore fans. For example, the poster for “Lone Star Living Dead Axe Maniac Showdown” is a direct riff on “Madman.” But when I started showing the thing around earlier this year at conventions, people like Mike Gingold got really excited about those things, so I decided to put some more in there when I was revising the book for IDW and RAW. Now there are quite a few visual tributes to real movies in there, some much more obvious than others. I did that for the fans. They like it when they can pick out a homage to something. It makes them a real part of things. I’ve been thinking about having a contest to see who can spot them all! And, of course, there are several films inside the story which are blatant “rip offs” of other people’s films—such as “Raiders of the Wedding Day Massacre.” But you have to have those things in there, because that’s part of the game. Recycling. Shameless imitators. Half the business operates on rip-offs, and that was something I wanted to explore in a weird way.

You could probably get some side gigs doing art for The Asylum. Do you have any “official” graphic design training, or are you self-taught?
I taught myself how to do it all, mostly for this project. It was absolutely necessary, because I had to do most of the work myself, in order for the book to be realistic on a low budget. I did the math one time and figured out that just getting the posters done through other artists at minimal prices would have been south of fifty grand. Umm… no thanks, man. In the words of John Carpenter, “I knew I was the fastest and the cheapest I could get.” That’s why you’ve never seen a book like this before. Good artists cost! But I already had a great deal of self-training in graphic art, having done many comic projects as editor/illustrator/designer/editor.

Tim Bradstreet came on as an additional art director and was kind of my “graduate professor” in a way, because his wicked-wise eye helped to shape the book into something much slicker, much more impressive than it had been before. I’m really in his debt.

I’ve been a fan of Bradstreet’s since he started doing “Hellblazer” covers. How did the two of you hook up?
It’s a really funny story, actually. In 1999, I was doing a Lucio Fulci film festival at the famous Alamo Drafthouse Cinema here in Austin, and I was hanging out in the lobby waiting to screen a bunch of 35mm trailer reels I had purchased for the event. These were really cool reels, with everything from “Mortuary” to “The Beast Within”—-awesome mid-eighties grindhouse horror trailer comps. I’m just standing there in the lobby with the film cans… and in walks GUILLERMO DEL TORO! I had no idea who he was—this was just after “Mimic” and right before he made “The Devil’s Backbone.” He just comes blasting into the room, in his very particular style… and right next to him is Tim Bradstreet! I didn’t know either of these guys from Adam, so we just sat down and started shooting the shit. They were both super-nerd, mile-a-minute guys. Tim has a portfolio case with him and G has some film cans of his own. So first I ask time what’s in Tim’s case, and he reaches in and pulls out a whole sheaf of BERNIE WRIGHTSON ORIGINAL ART! These were pencils, right from the man’s drawing board! Tim had just been hired to ink them! I nearly had a heart attack! I was holding Berni Wrigtson originals IN MY FUCKIN’ HANDS. Then I asked what was in G’s film cans, and he said exactly this: “It’s PHANTOM OF THE FUCKING PARADISE THE GREATEST FUCKING MOVIE EVER FUCKING MADE!!!” He really talks like that when he gets going. Just one big run-on sentence with plenty of fuck words. I was just in love with this guy. So we screened all my trailer reels and looked at “Phantom” on the big Alamo screen, and it was incredible!

Tim sat on one side of me and G was on the other side and they were both balls of fire! G was especially animated during PHANTOM. He couldn’t shut up! Harry Knowles was a few rows ahead of us—it was just the four of us in the theater—and he had his head in his hands the whole time, groaning at us to shut up. But you can’t shut Guillermo up when he gets going—he’s a madman! When the scene in “Phantom” came up where Winslow Leach signs his name in blood to the devil, G literally leapt up from his chair and screamed as loud as he could: “I SIGNED THAT FUCKING CONTRACT WITH MIRAMAX!!!” It was an incredible experience. As we all know… Guillermo moved away from Austin and went on to great fame and fortune, and I kept in touch with Tim, because I really liked him and thought his art was just brilliant. We kept trying to work together but it never worked out, you know? The project was never the right thing. So when I started Shock Festival, I called him and said “Hey, I’ve got the perfect thing!” I bugged him for a whole year while I came up with the “first draft” of the book. Then IDW got involved and it was suddenly a very real thing, and so I decided to get his company RAW on board. Tim came in and helped me art-direct the book, did some amazing posters, and we got Tom Jane, too! The collaboration was really amazing. It’s harder to get in touch with Guillermo these days, unfortunately. If he’s reading this, he should know I am in his debt for introducing me to Bradstreet!

I recognize some of the local Austinites you incorporated into the posters (e.g. the Satan’s Cheerleaders), is there anybody else there we should be know about?
Well, The Cheerleaders are my good friends, and I had to rely on good friends for this project, because I could not afford to pay models. ALL of my friends are in there, actually! But you’ll recognize Ashley Laurence from the “Hellraiser” films as one of the major characters, and we have Thomas Jane, too, as a wild, crazy B-movie tough guy named Elliot Swann. When Tom came on the project, the first thing we asked him was “how do you feel about dressing up as a woman?” So Elliot’s character is very… umm, complex. You’ll have to read the book to see how it shakes out for Swann. He’s a major character. I want to emphasize that this is a book about people, and the lives they lived behind-the-scenes…but it’s done in a fast, funny style, trading off the “real life” stories with the plotlines of the fictional films. It’s a very unique “historical novel,” filled with entertaining stories and detail on how these movies are made and the kind of people who made them. There are heroes, villains…and LOTS of swell art!

I’m assuming “Tyler Rehnaldes” is based on Tobe Hooper? Were there any actual experiences with him that prompted this representation? What about some of the other characters in the book?
I’ve never met Tobe, even though we worked on the same TV series a few years back! From what I’ve been told, he is a very sincere, very gentlemanly fellow. Tyler Rehnaldes is NOT Tobe Hooper, nor is he based on any “bad experiences” I may have had with the man. What Tyler actually represents (and you may notice that his first name also belongs to another very famous imaginary friend) is a certain attitude I’ve seen among various actors and filmmakers towards their own fans. I’ve seen some of these people treat their admirers at horror cons and elsewhere with so much disrespect. It really pisses me off. I wanted to write about that.

Shock Festival is filled with composite characters which are neither this person nor that person, but a synthesis of many… and, often, they just exist to illustrate certain ideas and observations I have. Tyler’s film “Lone Star Living Dead Axe Maniac Showdown” is very much an homage to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”… but Tyler is NOT Tobe. Tobe is a cool guy. Tyler is a bitter, frustrated film director who hates me for writing Shock Festival. I wanted the guy doing my intro to get really angry and blast the shit outta me. I thought that would be hilarious! I tried to get Eli Roth to do it but he was too busy!

That’s a relief. Can you give us an update on the status of “Bubba Nosferatu” or “Phantasm V,” both of which you’re attached to as screenwriter?
All I can say is that some very, VERY exciting news about “Bubba” will be hitting the air very soon! You’re going to love it! You have my double-bonded Klown Prince Guarantee!

Don Coscarelli has said he enjoyed working with you on “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” (for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series). How big a factor was that in your getting the “Bubba” and “Phantasm” gigs?
Huge. Don and I work together all the time, on almost every project that he develops. He likes the way I think and, obviously, it is an honor to work with him.

Your collection of movie posters and paraphernalia could reportedly give the old Ackermansion a run for its money. What are some of your favorite items?
I have the Dead Baby skeleton from “Incident” in my trophy case. That’s the real stunner of the collection now. Howard Berger gave it to me as a gift after the shoot was over. He took me aside and said “don’t say I never gave you nuthin, man!” He was amazing. Really made things fun during a terribly difficult shoot. I also have the flannel shirt Bruce is wearing on the cross in the final shot at Crucifix Road. You’ve seen what my home looks like in Shock Festival. That shot of my living room is real, not Photoshop. Every inch of the place is covered in posters, lobby cards, comic covers, you name it. I also have three Drew Struzan originals on my wall, which are incredible pencil studies for his “Starcrash” movie poster, which he never actually got to do. (He did five different versions and I have three of them. I’m always on the lookout for the other two. I know they’re out there. Somewhere.) The original oil painting for the cover of my first novel, Invasion of the Mutanoids, sits over my TV. An AMAZING work. It appears in Shock Festival. My rare one-of-a-kind promo poster for “Bubba Ho-Tep,” which traveled the world with the film when it made the festival circuit, is a thing of real beauty. I designed that for Don. I have a great portrait of Caroline Munro by my friend Carolyn O’Steen on my wall next to the Struzans. Just amazing. Carolyn is the beautiful lady who plays actress Camilla Sterling in my book. Oh, yeah, and I have the poster of Masters of Horror in my bedroom, signed by all the directors, framed under glass. That’s always kinda nice to look at. But you should see DON’S trophy room, man! He’s got all KINDS of cool toys!

You bring up “Starcrash,” which we all know you’re a huge fan of. Ever given any thought to penning a remake and maybe getting Munro and The Hoff to make appearances?
No way. That movie stands alone, and can never be imitated because it’s a true snapshot of a certain moment in history. We had a screening of it last night at the premiere of Shock Festival, and it never fails to bring the house down! I shouldn’t have to explain the magic that film has to anyone who’s seen it… but for those who haven’t: it is, quite simply, one of the most charming, funny, sleazy, over-the-top B-movies ever made! It’s got all this terrific production value (except for most of the special effects), and yet something has gone awry with the story and acting at an almost sub-molecular level. Also, the effectsDO have this really spit-and-shoepolish genius to them—it was all doen for just 30 grand! It’s like an acid trip—with music by JOHN BARRY! You can’t duplicate that. A re-make would just be a slicker version of the same story, or something a little like it… and what’s the point of that? Now, I WOULDN’T MIND a new stab at a similar babe-in-space-saves-the-universe thing. I got really excited about Robert’s “Barbarella,” but it fizzled. A re-make of “Barbarella” makes a bit more sense, because it was a book and a comic strip to begin with. Then again, they reeeeeeealy fucked up “Flash Gordon” recently, so… hmmm…

Any thoughts on the death of Rudy Ray Moore?
Well, I have to be honest… my first thought was this: The Grim Reaper is white, so they’re both in deep shit right about now! Seriously, Rudy Ray was one of the greats. He absolutely hated white people, too, so I can dig that. Most of us suck. We need people like Rudy, people with balls, people with courage. I named a character in Shock Festival after him. Rest in peace, muthafuckka!

Finally, tell everybody where to go to get their copy of Shock Festival.
I always buy my books at Amazon. They’re cheaper and you don’t have to pay sales tax! They have the best deal on Shock Festival. Just $26 bucks and some change. Can’t beat that with a stick. But all the stores will have it too. I like Borders!

Shock Festival is, in my humble opinion, a stone groove and as badass a tome as you’re likely to come across this year or the next. If you love grindhouse, sleaze cinema, or B-movies in general, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. Look for it online and in quality stores near you.




Posted on December 29, 2008 in Interviews by
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