Steensland, Mark (Sucker, Lovecraft's Pillow)
You have just got to love a guy who is almost arrested trying to make a horror film about pedophilia. One such man is Mark Steensland, director, writer, and all around cool creepy cat. He currently is a lecturer at Penn State University, an active member of the Eerie Horror Fest, and the proud papa of two very interesting short films: Sucker and Lovecraft's Pillow. I was able to tie Mark down for a bit and pick his brain; unfortunately, I had to stop picking, or it would have never healed properly otherwise.
D. W. Bostaph: Who the hell are you?
Mark Steensland: Sometimes even I wonder that. But right now I'm Mark Steensland, filmmaker.
DB: Why horror?
MS: Mainly because it's the way I see the world. My father died when I was six years old, and I think I got sort of obsessed with trying to figure death out or at least understand it. Frankly, I don't see horror stories as about being scared. I see them as about confrontation -- about confronting your fears. So to me, horror is sort of like reading the opponent's playbook.
DB: Where did you get the idea for Lovecraft's Pillow?
MS: I'm a big HPL fan, and so I picked up this book by a French writer named Houellebecq and found it had a very interesting intro by Stephen King in which he recounts once coming up with an idea for a story while in Providence about finding Lovecraft's pillow in a pawn shop. He never actually wrote the story. But he goes on to say, "If you would like to try your hand at it, Reader, I bequeath it to you." So that was the start of the idea.
DB: So Lovecraft's Pillow is the unwanted step-child of genre maestro Stephen King. What tempted you to take up the story and make the film?
MS: I wouldn't call it his unwanted step-child. In the intro he actually says he was very scared of the idea and that was what prevented him from doing it. I was looking for a new idea after having completed another short called Sucker. And I started thinking about King's intro. Knowing that I was only planning a short film put a very tight frame around my thinking, and it wasn't long before I came up with the story. I had met Rick Hautala at a Rod Serling conference in Ithaca, New York, and we were talking about doing something together. When I asked if he wanted to write the script for it, he jumped at the chance, and I think he did an absolutely outstanding job. In fact, we're trying to put something else together right now.
DB: Think old Papa Steve is gonna watch it?
MS: I sent him a copy, but I'm not holding my breath. I can't imagine the sheer volume of stuff King must get sent to him every day. But I'm friends with Bev Vincent, the guy who writes the Stephen King column for Cemetery Dance magazine, and he's writing something about it for an upcoming issue.
DB: Lovecraft seems to be enduring a weird (natch) popularity these days whereas I can remember as a kid, he was hardly ever mentioned. It was all Poe, Poe, and more Poe. The table seems to be turning. Why do you believe this is?
MS: The people who really matter have always admired Lovecraft -- I'm thinking about King and Straub and Barker and Ramsey -- and as respect for their work continues to grow, people ask about their influences, and we keep hearing "Lovecraft." We also can't forget all the work that S. T. Joshi has put into earning more respect for Lovecraft. And guys like Andrew Migliore, who runs the HPL Film Fest out in Portland, Oregon. All of this, I think, has created more interest in his work.
DB: Personal Favorite: Poe or HPL?
MS: Well, I doubt we'd have Lovecraft if it weren't for Poe. I've always really liked Poe -- in fact, I have a brick from one of his houses in my office -- but there's something about Lovecraft that gets into my gut more than Poe. I think it's the atmosphere. The palpability of his stories. I also like the feeling that there's so much more going on beyond what's on the page. You really get a sense that he's captured one small corner of a massive canvas.
DB: Favorite story?
MS: That's a tough one. When people ask me about a good Lovecraft story to read, I always suggest "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" just because, for me, that captures so much of what Lovecraft was about.
DB: Ever fancy adapting it?
MS: Stuart Gordon sort of did with his film Dagon. But maybe if I could come up with the right approach and had the right budget and cast. I think I might be more interested in playing with his ideas in an original story.
DB: Lovecraft's Pillow is just one of many independently made films that deal in the world of HPL, and while indie filmsters seem to be embracing the Eldritch Influence, mainstream movies move as far away from the material as possible. Why the divide?
MS: For one thing, Lovecraft appeals to the independent filmmaker because so much of his stuff is within the public domain. So you can make a film from well-known material and not have to pay for the rights. I think mainstream Hollywood hasn't really embraced Lovecraft because, in spite of the fact that he is becoming better known and respected in horror circles, I doubt the average moviegoer would know who he is. I don't think that's ever been true for Poe. Even when Corman was making his Poe films in the '60s, moviegoers knew Poe because he was a respected and well-known American author.
DB: How did you become involved with the E.H.F.F.?
MS: I had heard of the Eerie Horror Fest before I moved to Erie, PA, from California last year. But I missed it in 2005. Then, when I first heard that they had gotten George Romero as the headliner for this year, I called up Greg Ropp to congratulate him and told him that I had been a zombie in Day of the Dead. That piqued his interest, of course, and he asked me more about that and so we started talking. Over time I just got more involved, first as a judge in the screenplay competition, then as a guest. Now I'm a Board member.
DB: Care to tell us what part you will play this year in the fest?
MS: I'll be giving a seminar on screenwriting at the Expo on Saturday. I'll also be screening both Sucker and Lovecraft's Pillow on Sunday. And I'll be moderating the Q&A portion of the Day of the Dead screening.
DB: Sucker is the other film you have playing in this year's Eerie Film Fest. It deals with, um, touchy but timely subject matters. With similar subjects being examined in films such as Hard Candy, there seems to be an interest in it. Why?
MS: It's kind of hard to avoid, really. I mean just last week I read in the paper where some 11-year-old girl had sex with 20 different guys while some 16-year-old girl coached her. It's really sad and sick, and like I said earlier, I see horror as a way of confronting our fear. I see Sucker as a way of confronting this specific fear. I can take a thing like that and I can turn it around.
DB: It definitely has the ability to offend. Some may even dub it offensive, even when it is handled delicately. Are people too sensitive to this type of material, or is that just part of the allure?
MS: I did not approach the material by thinking I wanted to come up with something that would be offensive. I was just thinking about something really scary -- a guy abducting a little girl. As I started writing it, the little girl character just totally took over and dictated the rest of it. Writing is always best when it's more like a transcription of what you hear in your head.
DB: I understand you had a brush with the law while making Sucker. Can you tell us more about that?
MS: I originally wanted to set the story in the winter with a heavy snowfall going on. And I originally envisioned the beginning showing the girl leaving school with the other students and then walking down a street alone. Then the abductor drove up to her and offered her candy and a ride. So I was preparing the film and I had a bag of suckers with me and black leather gloves, and I went to a nearby school to get some background footage of the kids leaving during a very heavy snowstorm. Now I know well enough that as long as you can't identify anyone in your shots, then you don't need their permission. So I parked in front of this school and I started shooting as the kids were leaving. Then I drove home. When I got home, my wife came outside with the phone in her hand and she said, "It's the police." I was terrified, naturally. I got on the phone and this detective starts shouting at me, "Is this Mark Steensland? Do you drive such-and-such a kind of car? Were you just in front of such-and-such school?" Some parent had seen me in my car with my video camera and had called the police. So I start explaining to him that I'm making a movie and he says he's sending an officer right over to look at my footage. So when I hang up, of course I'm thinking about the black leather gloves and the bag of candy that's in my car. So now I'm trying to hide this stuff because I know they won't understand. So the officer shows up and he looks at the footage and he can see that it's nothing but long shots of kids in colored coats in the snow. He apologized for the detective's demeanor, but he said they'd had other reports of some guy around that school. So there again you see it's a very current kind of situation. Frankly, I was scared into not making the short until I held auditions for another project and found Camille Jones and Shannon Solo and realized they could really pull it off. I think they did.
DB: What would you say is the most offensive film you have ever seen?
MS: I'm not offended by the typical kinds of things. I mean if something is really gory or gross, I'm probably not going to be offended by that. I probably won't watch it either because that's not my style, but I'm fine with it. What really offends me most are poorly made movies from people who should know better. I mean, Hollywood movies have these huge budgets with armies of the best craftspeople in the world and somehow they don't bother to tell the best story they can. Besides something like that, I think Blood Freak is possibly the worst movie I've ever seen.
DB: Would you defend or recommend it?
MS: I was actually dared to watch Blood Freak all the way through to the end. Which I did manage to do, as painful as it was. So I pass that dare on to everyone else.
DB: What's next for you? Staying with horror?
MS: Absolutely. I'm developing a feature called The Special that made the semi-finals in the script competition at this year's Shriekfest. It's a scary love story that kind of twists Cronenberg's The Fly and Stan Winston's Pumpkinhead together to make something new. My dream would be to cast Henry Thomas in the lead. I saw him in Chocolate and Desperation and think he's great. But you need money to do that, so we'll see. I've made many other kinds of films, but I keep coming back to horror. I think it's what I do best, and that's what really keeps me going.
It was after this interview that I discovered Mark had been filming at the school my son was attending at the time. I also discovered that my wife knew about the entire incident as it was her cousin who called the police on him. Somewhere in his film library Mark probably has footage of my wife, very pregnant, walking our son home in a snowstorm. It truly is a small world.
Both of Mark's films will be playing in this year's Eerie Horror Fest. Click here for more details. Lovecraft's Pillow will also play at the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival and at FantasyCon in England. Sucker screens at both ShockerFest and the Festival of Fantastic Films. Visit Mark's official website for more info.