Stuart Gordon is, inarguably, one of the undisputed masters of the horror genre. With such landmark works as the cult classic Re-Animator under his belt, Gordon's filmic oeuvre has always sought to blend a touch of scholarly class with the genre's gory grand guignol.
Never one to shy away from his literary influences, Gordon has frequently returned to the works of horror titans H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe to craft some of his most celebrated films, including the gleefully depraved From Beyond and the criminally underrated The Pit and The Pendulum. However, the audacious auteur's latest project takes his obsessions one step further, leaping from the pages of fiction and into the very real life of the man behind some of literature's most notorious shadows.
The project, titled Nevermore, is about the often fractured life of Edgar Allan Poe, and reunites Gordon with his Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs. Originally mounted as a celebrated one-man stage production, Gordon and Combs began scheming to translate Nevermore to the silver screen when they saw just how much impact the tragic tale of Poe's life was having on their audiences.
In an effort to realize their vision, Gordon has turned to his fans via Kickstarter to help Poe rise again from the grave. With a campaign that ends on Halloween night, Gordon, Combs, and a tireless crew of Poe enthusiasts (including yours truly) have been working diligently to ensure that Nevermore can claw its way out of the darkness and into the light.
In the midst of all this madness, I was able to sit down with the acclaimed filmmaker to discuss this passion project, and get his definitive word on why, more than ever, we need to re-animate Edgar Allan Poe.
Ladies & gents, my Halloween treat to you: Stuart Gordon.
The Nevermore project initially began life as a one-man stage play, also directed by you and starring Jeffrey Combs. What was the impetus to take that theatrical experience and turn it into a film?
I think to capture it, really. His performance has been hailed as a "landmark performance" by the Los Angeles Times. We wanted to preserve it and make it available to audiences to come in the future.
How does one adapt a one-man show into a full-fledged motion picture?
Well, this one man show is sort of different, because there are a lot of characters in it who we don't see. One of the main characters is Poe's fiancé, Sarah Helen Whitman, who is sitting in the audience watching him. A lot of the show and performance is directed toward her. What we learn during the course of the evening is that Poe has promised her he'll stop drinking if she'll marry him, and of course, he breaks his promise during the performance. We'll be able to cut back and forth between her and Poe. There's also an unseen stage manager who keeps trying to get Poe off stage, and he'll become a real character in the film, as well. But, the real thing is that we'll be able to dramatically portray some of the stories and poems that Poe was reciting, such as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, and Annabel Lee.
You mentioned that Jeffrey Comb's performance in the stage version of Nevermore has been hailed as the definitive performance of Poe. You also directed him in his first ever portrayal as the writer in the Masters of Horror episode The Black Cat. You've said that particular performance was the spark that led to Nevermore. Could you explain?
Well, it was so extraordinary watching Jeffrey transform into Poe. You really believed he was Poe. He didn't look like Jeffrey, he didn't act like Jeffrey, he didn't sound like Jeffrey...he became Edgar Allan Poe. I thought if we could do that for an audience, the idea of spending 90 minutes in the presence of this great genius, it could be an amazing night of theatre. We also did the performance in 2009, for Poe's bicentennial year.
You did it Baltimore, right?
Yes, we took it to Baltimore and did the show at Poe's gravesite! That was one of the most exciting performances we ever did of the show.
Since we're talking about Jeffrey Combs, I couldn't help but notice from your Kickstarter video that you and Jeffrey have a friendly disagreement over just how many projects you've worked on together in the past...
...but, regardless of number, you're both forever connected for your pairing on some of the genre's most enduring classics. For those who don't know, could you briefly summarize how Jeffrey first came to be part of the Gordon universe?
He walked into an audition, it was that simple. Our casting director had seen him in a play and thought that he would be right for the role of Herbert West in Re-Animator, and it turned out the casting director was absolutely right. We knew he was the guy immediately. But, you know, spending time working with him on that movie, I enjoyed spending time with him, and realized he was an incredibly versatile actor who could play all sorts of characters, and we've been exploring that ever since.
Although your work crosses a number of genres and themes, you're most widely known for your contributions to horror. While Edgar Allan Poe certainly can be connected to that world, Nevermore is definitely very different from past works like Re-Animator or From Beyond. What about this project do you feel will still connect with the traditional Stuart Gordon fans, and how do you think it will reach new people who are discovering your work for the very first time?
I think Poe is one of the giants of horror. I think for many of us, the very first scary stories we ever read were Poe stories. The idea of him being connected to my work as a director of horror is a given, I think. What I think would surprise people though, is that we also touch upon the tragic life that this man led. This show can be very moving. We've done performances were the entire audience was in tears by the end. I'm hoping we can do the same with the film.
As you've mentioned, it's a widely regarded fact that Edgar Allan Poe is, without question, America's most celebrated author. You're clearly a fan, and in addition to Nevermore, you've done projects utilizing his material in the past. What is it about Poe, would you say, that gives him such appeal to the masses? Why are we still fascinated with his work all these years later?
There's no simple answer to that, but I think that part of it was due to the fact that his life was so sad. He kept losing the loves of his life, starting with his mother when he was two years old, and then his wife when she was in her 20s. It seemed like every time he would find someone that he could share his life with, they would be taken away from him. That, I think, makes us feel for him. The other side of Poe was that he could be his own worst enemy. He called it the "imp of the perverse," in which just when things are going well, you do something to mess it all up. Poe did that time after time. He had a drinking problem, which often caused him to lose his job, or get in even worse trouble. Every time Poe seemed poised to achieve something fantastic, he would destroy it himself.
I feel like it says a lot about society that this author whose work is so consumed with darkness and madness is the one we culturally gravitate to the most.
There's a tremendous amount of heart in Poe, also. He talks about hope in almost all his poems and everything he writes, even if it's the lack of hope or losing hope. I think that's part of him, too. There's something ultimately optimistic about Poe, even though he's constantly pursued by the dark figures of death and destruction.
Talk to me a little bit about the role your Kickstarter campaign is playing in making Nevermore.
I think this is the ideal way to get the film financed, because I think it would be a very hard sell with a studio. I read recently that even Steven Spielberg had a hard time getting Lincoln made, and ended up with a small budget - for him- and it almost became an HBO television show. I think it has to do with the fact that historically-based stories seem to be one of the last things studios want to produce these days.
I have to say that I'm very indebted to my fans, Jeffrey's fans, and Poe's fans for making this possible. There's something wonderful about it, really. Poe was a man who, in his life, couldn't find enough love. When he died, there were only five people at his funeral, and now the world regards him as one of the greatest writers of all time. In a way, it's very apt and perfect will come into being because of the love of his friends and his fans. It's a perfect way to get Nevermore made.
Finally, a fun, yet tough, question to wrap things up: If you had to pick, what's your favorite Poe story?
That is a hard one, because there's so many of them that I love. One of the stories that I like a lot is The Masque of the Red Death, and I think about that a lot these days. The story is about a prince who seals himself off in his castle to escape the plague that's ravaging his kingdom, and he has this big masked ball for all of his rich friends. It seems me to be very much of our times, what with the 1% living high off the hog while the rest of the world is in chaos, sickness, and war. I think what Poe is saying is that no matter how wealthy you are, you can't escape the reality, and that death is going to come and get you anyway.