Cogswell, Grant (Cthulhu)

Dread Central recently posted an article about a trailer for a forthcoming film simply entitled Cthulhu. In watching the trailer and then visiting the website, I found myself wondering about quite a few things. The film is about a Seattle professor who returns home to settle up his deceased mother”s estate and goes on to discover that the people he once knew are now involved in some sort of Cthulhu cult. The website also cited all sort of things like environmentalism and homosexuality being intrinsic to the story they were going to tell. More than a little curious, I sought out Grant Cogswell, one of the screenwriters of the film, and got to ask him a few questions.

DW: First off, where did the idea for the story come from?

Grant Cogswell: When we set out to make a horror film, I just immediately gravitated to Lovecraft. The stories, to me, seem very contemporary. He taps into something timeless, and they are astoundingly effective. I think the best two are ””The Colour out of Space” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”; they really hit on a kind of dread that I think intersects with the great dreads of our time: fear over what is happening to the environment. and a creeping fascism in U.S. culture

“Colour” would have really been a special-effects movie, and more like the kind of thing that has been done many times before. “Innsmouth”, though, more than anything reminded me of the experience of gay and lesbian friends, who after leaving home under duress in their teens, had to go back in their 30s when a parent was sick or a sibling needed help. Lovecraft said “Innsmouth” was about the horror of heredity. I think that particular horror is, if I”m not going out on too far a limb here, a part of some of the issues in certain areas of a very wide spectrum of what we might narrowly call the homosexual experience. This movie is really about a man who is bisexual, but has chosen a “gay” life, in part due to that horror of Lovecraft”s. I think some people are born to love the same sex, and others are pushed to it. Once I grafted the contemporary situation my friends lived onto “Innsmouth”, and introduced some of the elements of the other stories, from “Dreams in the Witch House” to “The Call of Cthulhu”, I had a basic script.

DW: I have to admit I have a few concerns about the film. One of them is the fact that you named it Cthulhu. Lovecraftian film is a real touch and go sort of thing. You either have it, or you miss it by a mile. Why did you decide to make a film about Cthulhu?

CG: Have you seen some of the books of stories that spin off the Cthulhu mythos? There was one that had an account of a journey through Ceaucescu”s Romania and wartime Yugoslavia and had the barest hint of the Lovecraft backdrop, but connected those events to a Lovecraftian sense of universal evil. That blew me away. I”ve been pretty unsatisfied with all the Lovecraft movies I”ve seen so far. Stuart Gordon can be a hoot, but I think HPL deserves better than camp. I think he deserves to be taken seriously, on his terms. I think I threw people off saying at first the movie was based on “Innsmouth”. It”s based on the whole enchilada, really, with plenty of stuff that”s just plain made up. Andrew Migliore of the HPL Film Festival saw an early script, and I think was the first to say, why call a movie Cthulhu if you don”t get to SEE Cthulhu (as you do in Call) ? Movie title writing is a subtle art, and , as Nabokov said of Kubrick”s adaptation of Lolita, the book is still sitting up there on the shelf. It”s fine. And I think that”s about all I”m going to say about that. Some people will not be satisfied with any answer to that question. They”ll still go see the movie, if only to talk shit.

DW: Cthulhu has a strong, old, and very unforgiving fan base. Does this concern you?

GC: Man, unforgiving is the word. They”re condemning this on their blogs, and nobody”s even seen it yet. After it comes out there are going to be ten times as many people digging into Lovecraft, and hopefully they”ll read the stuff and say, “This is a little like the movie, but totally different and it kicks ass!” I won”t say literature is a higher art form than film…wait a minute, yeah I will. I don”t think it matters what people riff off or on the screen. If someone tried to write a novel based on, say, “Heaven”s Gate” or “Dawn of the Dead”, that might veer a little close to being a travesty, because fiction is so thorough, and film is so slight. It”s a ritual, a dream. Fiction is built with bricks and mortar. What is a film to the writing of Lovecraft? Does anybody even remember the movie Lolita? And it was Kubrick, for Christ”s sake! It evaporated.

Not that we”re not trying to make a great movie, but film adaptations almost always pale in the shadow of their source material in the long run. Except for The Shining, which erases the lines of the book. The weird thing is that nobody objects to all these Cthulhu mythos books and stories that take the ideas all over the place. Why? Because they”re books and books aren”t such a quick medium of cultural transaction as film in the half-century. Check out Curtis White”s book The Middle Mind. If it had been published in the media world of fifty years ago, it would have destroyed Steven Spielberg”s career. Part of it is a total takedown of Spielberg of the most authoritative kind. But nobody pays attention because hardly anyone reads, but everyone (almost) goes to the movies.

DW: Another concern I have is the blatant manner in which you are including homosexual overtones. My problem does not concern the subject as it does the inclusion of material that is not inherent to Lovecraft”s original writings, which have no homosexual subtext at all. Where do you derive this subject matter from, and why is it important to the film?

GC: Lovecraft”s work entirely avoids two major topics: love (or sex) and economics. Those two things are what adult life and film are ABOUT. Entirely. Even Lord of the Rings has a little romance. We”re making a film for adults. Also, I would suggest that fiction regularly featuring deep male friendships in the absence of any heterosexual desire or relationships do in fact have a “homosexual” subtext, hope that doesn”t freak anyone out. Part of our problem with this is the establishment of a boundary between what is and what is not “homosexual”. What about Moby Dick? Huck Finn? All the great buddy stories in literature, and so many of the great lives, have woven into them a subtext that once dared not speak its name. I think that context should be available to us again, in addition to the context of out-and-proud. Sexuality is way more complex than sexual politics. I”m not ready to call Lovecraft gay by a long shot, but so what if I did? It might be inaccurate, but would it be an insult? People who think so need to check their own thinking. There”s no New Age infomercials or politics or heterosexual sex in Lovecraft either (like there is in our movie), but people keep going berserk on the gay thing.

DW: A lot of films that have tried to translate Lovecraft to film have failed mainly due to the inclusion of plot elements that are not intrinsic to the heart and soul of Lovecraft”s storytelling. There is no boy meets girl in any part of the mythos stories. How do you plan to avoid the pitfall of losing focus of the true nature of terror at the heart of the story?

GC: In fact, I think putting this in a real, adult world with adult concerns makes the horror very real. The soul of Lovecraft is in our film, I hope: watching the world you love and belong to crumble under the force of unstoppable, inhuman power. I feel about my part of the country and about this country at large the way Lovecraft felt about New England. But it is being destroyed not by the immigrants Lovecraft railed against, but by our carelessness and stupidity. I actually think this country would be a lot better off if the cultural influence of the Central American influx was deep and thorough. Unfortunately people come north and in a generation or two becomes real fat SUV-driving Americans.

One of the big points of contention is that a lot of the fan base thinks Lovecraft movies should be set in the 1920s, and that is just nuts. Lovecraft wanted you to feel the threat of imminent world destruction. A Lovecraft movie set in the 20s would be like watching the King Kong remake: in the back of your head you know all this stuff never happened in real 1933. If you know that the new reservoir never delivered the Colour out of Space to the residents of Boston through their drinking water for the last eighty years, that kind of shitcans the suspense, doesn”t it? Lovecraft wrote in the eternally doomed present.

DW: Where do you think Lovecraft”s horror comes from?

GC: Nobody home in the universe. Like Lovecraft, I am a complete atheist. (I am aware, from Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi- who even kind of liked the first, crappy version of the script- that HPL invented the mythos to embroider a pattern on his vacant universe: cold comfort. But I think the fear comes from his vision of that universe itself.) What IS Cthulhu? Cthulhu is death; Cthulhu is life itself, eating us and making us desire and reproduce and chucking it all out the window seventy years on. The thing is, so many people around us are just making it worse. (The cult, in his works.) Feeding death, speeding it along. That”s why Cthulhu is the ideal metaphor for a lot of things going on in our country right now.

DW: Tori Spelling? How did she come to be a part of the story?

GC: Hers was one of the names we got back of available folks when we were casting and contacted her agency. We had cast Storm Large of the band Storm and the Balls in the part- well, we had talked to her, and we really wanted her to do it, but she declined in the end, and Dan thought Tori was perfect, if we could get her. She liked the script, and was gung-ho. I think she”s gotten pretty short shrift out there from folks, maybe because her dad is a Hollywood power, whatever. I will just say that she is a stone pro, a terrific actress, and a great gal. I”d make movies with her for the next thirty years if she”d be down for it. Maybe she”s been in some stinkers, but she”s been in some really good indie stuff too, and you gotta hand it to her for having just a monster work ethic. This was a hard, hard shoot, and she was maybe the only person who didn”t bitch. (We”re paying her the SAG microbudget scale, too, $270 a day. There are plenty of other things she could be doing with her time.) Everybody”s had a great time on the shoot, though, and this crew is the coolest group of folks I”ve ever come across. Scott Green said it was the best crew he”d worked with since he was in My Own Private Idaho.

DW: Was she familiar with any of the source material?

GC: I don”t know about before-the-fact. I know she”s read “Innsmouth” and “The Call of Cthulhu”, like everybody involved in the project.

DW: I see a pretty steamy scene in the trailer, is there any tentacle sex?

GC: There”s a few steamy scenes in there, something for everybody. But tentacle sex? I”m just gonna wait and surprise you on that one.

DW: You have such a different view on the source material, and as we have discussed, there will be people who feel that the film is “too much” of a departure. I think you have a very inclusive view on the work. Are you really trying to create a paradigm shift, or do you feel that it is the rest of us who are missing the point?

GC: I think a lot of people are missing the point and unfortunately they are the loudest. Aficionados of the broader horror genre have been very accepting, significantly the amazing Portland horror film scholar Willy Greer (he”s a musician and I don”t know what he”s published yet but the book on horror movies he is working on is very deep and excellent), the folks over at Fangoria, (which I hadn”t read since I was a kid until recently – its clarity and intelligence and quality writing blows me away) the leading Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. The paradigm shift I”m trying to create is not in how the adaptability of Lovecraft is perceived – the work will be convincing or not to everyone, one at a time, and to make the best film we can will be most convincing – but in how we see our effect on the environment. We are ruining the planet, hands down, and this is not about some romantic notion of nature that is ultimately disposable and aesthetic, but our own survival is at stake, not to mention the tragedy of extinction of millions of other species. You could reduce it to say, hey, they”re just animals, but something deeply tells us this is very wrong. That”s the paradigm shift I”d like to see happen: a fuss over what you leave in or take out of a movie is not really interesting to me.

DW: You promise surprises, but you hint that there are no monsters. Just the presence of shadows and suggestions is wherein your screen terror awaits. Is the terror purely psychological?

GC: As my director says, if you”re going to spend an hour and a half promising a monster, you”d better fucking deliver. We”re operating under that philosophy. The whole notion that there are no monsters I think comes from Andrew Migliore”s statement that Cthulhu never appears in “Innsmouth”, which the film is largely, but hardly exclusively, based on. If I talk about it anymore than that it”ll be a spoiler, and I hate spoilers. I already had some talk radio dumbass ruin Brokeback Mountain for me.

DW: What if I told you the blood of the Old Ones flows in my veins… Any last words for the fans reading this?

GC: I just want to let folks know this isn”t a one-off. Our ongoing project, Cascadia Film Collective, is an independent movie studio with five more feature projects slated, two to shoot in 2006. One is a black comedy about New Agers, world trade and the fast food industry, (kind of Sideways crossed with Super Size Me), and the other is another black (romantic) comedy about the Ukrainian internet bride trade. There”s a “grunge” musical about the poet John Keats, a period drama called The Soviet of Washington telling the true story of a congressman in the 30s named Marion Zioncheck who went very colorfully insane, and one more horror film about which I am forbidden to speak. There are two more novel adaptations we”d like to do, one from Joseph Conrad and one from Russell Hoban.

I would like to see a deeper exploration in books, mags and blogs of what a horror movie is, what its purpose is (beyond the well-covered physical reasons we enjoy being scared, and the obvious exorcism of political/social tension). I really agree with Rob Zombie”s intent of revealing the true horror of violence and taking it seriously. He is my guilty pleasure – I am drawn to his stuff but I don”t think it”s good for me anyway. Texas Chainsaw is a great piece of art in my opinion, but when a film is not so loyal as that one to a conscientious portrayal of reality, when it”s more of a cartoon, what does it become? But I enjoyed the hell out of Shaun of the Dead. I saw it a week after Bush got reelected and I don”t think I”d smiled in a week. I laughed my ass off and was so grateful. I”d like to know what the thing I”m doing means (not that we”re making anything remotely resembling a splatter flick). And then there”s the fact that horror folks are the gentlest, sweetest people you could run across. Cause or effect? A lot of these questions are covered in Willy Greer”s book but I want to see a dialogue about them.

My director and I come at horror from opposite sides: he thinks Japanese New Wave horror is the height of terror, the karmic, inescapable horror of Ringu”and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I think those films are skillfully made, but I don”t find them scary. What”s scary to me are zombie movies, (horror of society) which Dan thinks are silly. (!) So we”re making a film that is a hybrid of those two sensibilities

Finally I”d like to say to the Lovecraft fans who doubt us, A) wait to see the movie before you judge,
and B) I promise that we hold Lovecraft in very high regard and are honoring him and his legacy. Literature belongs to all of us, and there is no sense in getting dogmatic about an exercise of the imagination. The imagination, if anything, is what is going to save us.

…and save us it will have to until we can take a look at the film and judge for ourselves. My curiosity is off the scale. I have to hand it to Grant and crew for at least thinking this out in depth, albeit from a perspective that I had never quite considered. There definitely is a lot to think about while we await the mighty tentacles of the sleeping old one…

For more on the film and to see the aforementioned trailer, be sure to click on over to the official site for Cthulhu right here!

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Jon Condit

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