Masters of Horror Explore the Art Hidden in the Nightmare

Masters of Horror Explore the Art Hidden in the Nightmare
Exclusive! -- Wes Craven, Mick Garris, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, and William Malone as you've never known.
Updated: 02-20-2010

In its continuing commitment to spotlighting the art in cinema, American Cinematheque, based  in Hollywood, California hosted a tribute to the late Polish painter, sculptor and photographer Zdzislaw Beksinski. His art - a wide palette of baroque, fantastic imagery that mirrored the darkness of his demise (he was found stabbed to death) - served as an inspiration for William Malone's latest horror film Parasomnia (coming to DVD soon). The Cinematheque called upon five masters of horror - Wes Craven, Mick Garris, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, and William Malone - to discuss how art has played a part in their respective oeuvres. The following is a transcript of this candid, thoughtful and revealing panel led by Richard Elfman.

Richard Elfman: When was the first time each of you became aware of art and how did it affect you?

Stuart Gordon: My cousin used to take me to the art institute of Chicago, which I enjoyed very much because it was an opportunity to look at naked women. I also started to like the painters' work I saw there. They had a great impressionist collection there. I just became an art fan overnight.

William Malone: I think I remember my evil cousin had a pulp magazine. I remember looking through that which was dark and weird. Strangely enough, it got me into liking art and I started to look at other genres of art. Also, when I saw Fantasia as a kid, seeing "Night on Bald Mountain," I just thought that was amazing and it kicked off a lot of stuff for me.

Tobe Hooper: Where I come from, I saw a lot of pictures of western paintings. Paintings of the capital of Texas. But my babysitter was a movie theater, so I have to include Tom & Jerry.

Wes Craven: I come from Cleveland, there's many jokes about Cleveland. Every country has a city they make fun of and to the United States it's Cleveland. For Poland, it's Cleveland. But, they actually had a great school system and they'd take us to the art museum, the Cleveland Metropolitan Museum of Art, a renowned museum. So I got to see a great many things early on. That's where I saw a lot - didn't see any naked women but there was a subscription to "National Geographic"...

Mick Garris: My introduction was actually through my father. My father had been a big art student and had studied art very seriously. He was unable to make a living at it and support his four kids but I learned from him, he was a painter. I originally wanted to be a cartoonist and an artist and that's the first thing I started doing. But the first artist I knew by name was Dali. He was my favorite, I love surrealists. But really, it was "Creepy" and "Eerie" magazine. Joe Orlando, Graham Ingles and people like that who really influenced me as far as making a frame for art. That was the most influential for me.

Elfman: I used to take some life drawing classes when I was 15. Who else has studied art?

Malone: First off, if you don't know. Richard [here] made one of the coolest movies that has an enormous amount of really cool art in it called Forbidden Zone. There is some really cool art in that film and I'd like to know what inspiration that came from. Where did you get the idea to do that?

Elfman: Well, the art direction was German Expressionism, Max Fleischer with a bit of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But let's take it back to you guys. Who has studied art here?

Gordon: Well, I majored in commercial art when I was in high school and thought I was going to be a commercial artist until I graduated and worked as an apprentice at a commercial art studio. I discovered there were people who made their living by doing nothing other than draw the frosty driblets on the sides of Coca-Cola bottles to make them look delicious and I realized this was not what I wanted to do. Then I started to do other things like theater which led me to do films. But one of the things I discovered is a lot of directors are incredible artists. They just had a [Akira] Kurosawa exhibit, of his work, at the Academy. Fellini was a wonderful artist. Terry Gilliam would go from cartooning right into making movies. So I think there's a definite connection. A painter is expressing ideas visually, the same thing that we do, except our pictures move. The first time I became aware of an artist who got me into movies was an artist in Chicago named
Ivan Albright who does these weird types of things. He did the picture of Dorian Gray in the 1930s movie. They hung that up in Chicago along with some of his other paintings. That had a huge impression on me.

Andrew Wyeth
Frank Frazetta
Zdzisław Beksiński

Elfman: How else would you say art has affected your films?

Malone: For myself, a lot of times I start out with the image. I see a painting or something, by Giger or Beksinski, that stuff you just look at and it sparks so many ideas. A lot of things just turn into scripts or stories, so I just use it a lot.

Hooper: For Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a lot of the exteriors I wanted to have an
Andrew Wyeth feeling. There are a couple of shots that are undeniably inspired [by him]. Also, I had a chance to work with this really great production designer on The Funhouse and we were trying to make the carnival look like Chagall, with those tones and colors. The colors do something emotional to me. So I fixate on that.

Craven: I was kind of a book hog when I was a kid because I wasn't allowed to see movies, so I went through the Cleveland Public Library. Wyeth was influential, certainly
Goya's paintings of nightmares. There's a great painting he did called "Saturn Devouring One of His Children" which I always cite when people say to me, "Why don't you make something artful?" I remind them, art, including Goya's, was once believed to be ugly and obscene when they were first put before the public. So those guys were inspiring to me just because I knew that just because somebody thought what you were doing was nasty or ugly didn't mean at all apt for the century or the moment, that you were okay. And the other thing I thought about art is never think that what you're doing is art or that will really cripple you. You just have to do your thing. The Cleveland Museum of Art showed Van Gogh's "Starry Night" for a while, and that is just one of those pieces that makes your jaw drop. I came from a family who was pure working class. Didn't go to museums, didn't go to college, yet I walked into a museum and was just stunned by it. It's one of the great things about art, especially visual art - you don't need to know how to read, it can strike you and go right into your heart and soul.

Blake and Bosch were certainly two of the horrific creators that stuck with me. But whenever I do a film or project, I'll always put together a visual manifesto and share it with the different department heads and try to put together a visual theme of what the movie is going to be. I did a movie called Riding the Bullet based on a short story by Stephen King. It was about an art student and the curse of his imagination, if you will. And we had Bernie Wrightson do all of his art including these massive murals on the walls of his bathroom, living room and bedroom. Bernie is just an amazing artist. He works quickly but if you've ever seen his illustrated "Frankenstein" it's really something quite remarkable. On Sleepwalkers, another Stephen King movie I did, I shot a montage we never used for the opening titles where I recreated a half a dozen or more Norman Rockwell paintings, each of them with a dark punchline. So all of them recreated something like someone lying in a hammock but there's a little kid with a match under it. The theme of the movie was Norman Rockwell goes to hell. Not spoken so much, but that's what it was. The fact that film is the ultimate art form in that it's about composition, it's about music, it's about performance - all of these things in one - the difference is it has a mobile frame. That's the remarkable thing that I find so interesting.

Elfman: Stuart, we see a little bit of Giger and Dali in some of your work.

Gordon: Dali, definitely. In From Beyond, Dali's paintings were a huge influence. The poster we ended up with was some sort of rip-off of one of Dali's paintings. Giger, if it weren't for him, there would be no Alien. I remember I was friends with the people who were making that film and Dan O'Bannon, the writer, came upon one of Giger's books called "Necronomicon." He looked at one of the paintings and said, "This is what the alien should look like." They were able to get Giger to come in and work on the film. He was actually there sculpting the big character they find in the derelict spaceship. He designed the planet's surface and wound up designing the whole damn movie. I had a chance to meet him a couple of years ago. His art is so weird and he's equally weird. He looked like Peter Lorre. One of the things he told me was that 20th Century Fox ended up buying all of his artwork for Alien so when they did all of the sequels, they never paid him another nickel. He's still a little bitter about that experience. But I've had the opportunity to work with some great artists on some of my films. We did a movie called Space Truckers and one of the conceptual artists on it did these robots and he did a drawing that looks like this artist named
Sorayama who does these things called "Sexy Robot." The ideas were great. I said, "I wonder if we could get Sorayama to work on this movie with us." And we contacted him and he was right there, he came to L.A. and worked with us on the film. It was an amazing experience. Movies encompass so many arts and it's such a joy if you can get a fine artist to come in and work at your side to help create those images.
Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist
Mick Garris's Riding the Bullet
William Malone's Parasomnia

Malone: I've worked with Giger on a couple of projects that sadly never got made. Then there was one that did get made called Dead Star which was called Supernova and it had no bearing on what we did way back when. Giger was such an amazing guy to work with and I wound up at his flat for a number of days. He had a pad and would do these little sketches, he'd make them so fast. He'd be six sketches beyond where I was, so it was amazing to work with him. His flat was painted all black. All of the walls and his paintings were stacked about four or five feet deep against the wall. They're huge paintings. And one of them, as I was walking around, had little holes in it. I said, "Giger, someone damaged your painting here." He said, "No, that's where my girlfriend blew her brains out." Turned out to be true and he left the bullet holes with the blood on the painting as part of the art.

Elfman: Does art affect your screenplay? Even before you hire a production designer?

Garris: It can. For me, the story comes first and visualizing it comes second. But in the case of Riding the Bullet it was all about art. Images would...there was a short story there, I changed it to 1969 in the first third of the movie. Something that was original and personal to me. Those images were there, the art class with the nude model was the opening scene - I knew how it would be portrayed in that light. But something that should be said here, too - Bill Malone is a really fine painter. He would often start with a painting and work from that. I've seen so much of his work, he's a really good artist. No one probably knows about that side of him.

Craven: There's certainly thinking visually. But as it's been said, you're thinking in all sorts of directions at once. You're thinking about the story, the character, what it would look like, what the places would look like, and then there's the weird thing where you wind up in a place where it doesn't look like what you imagined. We had a talented storyboard artist on my next picture,
25/8. We were doing an additional shoot and I said to my wife Iya, who's the producer, I still don't quite know what the bad guy looks like. Let's get a conceptual artist. We [described] this is where the man comes from. He's kind of a figure who lives under the river, sleeps under the bridges, deep in the woods - he's been that way for sixteen years. Eats bark. And [the artist] came back the next day with this fabulous rendering he did in Photoshop. Everybody sparked off of that and all of the special effects makeup artists started to pool around it. It was quite interesting how just one single mind, eye, came in and looked at the film in very visual way.

Hooper: That's a tough one. I have many times had artwork or sculpted pieces done to sell our vision to the studio or to the backers of the film. I don't know. I hired the artist that did the cover for "Hotel California" for the Eagles to do these incredible, elaborate paintings for concept art for Poltergeist, the clown spinning around on the bed. These were beautiful works, airbrushed. Obviously not practical for storyboards because each panel would take three weeks to do. But wonderful pieces. It's a tough question for me.

Malone: For me, when I start with a storyline, it comes from an image or painting. Then I'll figure out what the story needs to be, then I'll start looking for artwork that I like. When I see them, I'll start using those ideas in terms of how I feel about it. When the actual script comes, I'll write a lot of stuff in there because I think it's important for the various departments to start thinking about that. That said, when I did House on Haunted Hill there's something I called the saturation chamber scene, we put Geoffrey Rush in there and he sees all of these bizarre images. In the screenplay, I put in "There's a weird scene here." That's all that was in the script. I sat down later to devise what it was and the producers were kind enough to let that float. Because normally they would say, "What is that weird scene?" It was a good thing. Stuart here is a good artist, I've seen his stuff, and it's excellent.

Gordon: The paintings of
Frank Frazetta inspired me. Again, a play I did back in the day in Chicago was called "Warp" and it was a science fiction-adventure thing, Frazetta's paintings really inspired me. There were a lot of those Marvel comics of the time, "Dr. Strange" and "Thor" - we were trying to capture that. What was fun is after we did the play, it was a success, and I was able to meet some of the comic book artists. I never got to meet Frazetta, he was one I wish I had.
Neal Adams became a good friend of mine. We took the show to New York and they asked "Who would you like to do the poster for the show?" and it was Neal Adams because his paintings are so alive and full of energy that you could feel them, you can feel the action. We were trying to capture that on stage. It's cool now that comic book movies are happening. Marvel movies took so long to get going. The first time I met Wes Craven was at a party Stan Lee threw for all of the people who were working on Marvel comic movies. Here's Wes Craven working on, I believe, "Dr. Strange"?

Craven: Oh yeah.

Gordon: Jim Cameron was working on Spider-Man. None of these movies ended up getting made.

Elfman: What the relationship like between the director and the art department?

Hooper: I dress the blood, always.

Garris: I bet all of us do.

Craven: I think it's an enormously important department. From the very beginning with the location scouts, you have two people with you, your director of photography and your production designer, because that's where the vast majority of the ideas flow from. If the production designer doesn't pull it off, you're kind of lost. That's the world you want to have created. You can photograph it, but if it's not there, you can't. Judging by everyone else's films here, I think we've all been gifted with some really talented production designers. I had a great one on Nightmare on Elm Street who is no longer with us and he created a wonderful world for us. He worked tirelessly. He built a set so strong, a grip came over and said, "He doesn't make anything wild." So he came out with a chainsaw and took off a wall so he could get the camera in there. It's a position that always gets short-changed. There's hardly ever enough and producers are always beating up the art department, but they pour their heart and souls into it. They're covered in paint and grime, working under the worst conditions, yet they give you one of the most essential elements of your film.

Garris: It's also a strong collaboration where you have to fight with, "How much do I want to guide him?" And sometimes it's getting in his way rather than inspiring him. I'm not a production designer and I want a production designer to be better than I am at that. That's not difficult. But it really is trusting someone's imagination, because I've worked all over the place, I never get to use the same guy twice. Learning that relationship, a camera man is one thing - but when you shoot around different states and countries, you're never allowed to bring a production designer with you. It has to be home grown, at least on my budgetary level. It really is a struggle to not get in his way. You want to give guidance but not give him limitations and that's where you have to find the balance.
Please be sure and look at the video interviews, exclusive to, featuring these great and artistic directors
Art in Horror - Pt 1 of 3
In Part One of our series about how fine art and great horror movies go together,'s Staci Layne Wilson talked to ... on the Doorstep) about the subject. Their insights on how art has influenced films (Hitchcock's Spellbound, or Aronofsky's The Wrestler) ...
Art in Horror - Pt 2 of 3
In Part Two of our series about how fine art and great horror movies go together,'s Staci Layne Wilson talked to ... of Eggshells) about the subject. Their reflections on how art has influenced their own films offers a rare glimpse into their deeper ...
Art in Horror - Pt 3 of 3
In the third and final part of our series about how fine art and great horror movies go together,'s Staci Layne Wilson talked to directors ...
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