Earlier this month we posted an excerpt from writer-director S. Craig Zahler new novel, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child; and now, to make sure you’re keeping the project on your radar prior to its release tomorrow, we have a “fast five” Q&A with Zahler to share, in which he discusses the book, his vision for bringing it to the big screen, his partners on the project, and lots more… so strap in, and read on!
Dread Central: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us, Craig. People may not be aware of how versatile your career has been. In addition to being an award-winning screenwriter, director, cinematographer, AND musician, you’re also a published author with several novels under your belt and a new one, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, heading our way in early 2018. What’s it like wearing so many different hats? Exhausting at times, I would imagine! But is there one that you connect with more than the others? Or one that you turn to as a respite when you need some breathing space?
S. Craig Zahler: I came into an interest in moviemaking really early, at about 13. At the same time, I got really into reading H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and a lot of that sort of stuff. Those interests developed concurrently. And my interest in music probably developed a couple years later, though already at that time I was a big fan of Pink Floyd and a couple of other bands. For me, there’s always been two facets of stuff I’m interested in: One is learning a lot about it, be it a heavy metal band or an independent gore filmmaker or a pulp author or a painter or a jazz musician or whomever. The other facet is then trying to make my own version of whatever art I’m interested in. From a pretty early age I was writing fiction, I was roping my friends into being in my home movies, and I was drawing, as animation is probably my most consistent interest throughout my whole life. And, you know, I went to film school with the thought of working as a director and then focusing more on animation and cinematography. And after I got out of film school and shot a bunch of movies I didn’t really like, I realized that it wasn’t that satisfying for me to just make somebody else’s stories come to life, and I focused more and more on writing. And I think one of the reasons I’ve done more writing than anything else is this was something I could refine and get better at on my own. At this point in my life I’ve written 50 screenplays and eight novels; and that’s something where, if you have the discipline and are critical and apply that criticism to your own work, you can improve. At least I think so.
The music thing is an ongoing interest. I’m self-taught as a drummer. I’m a pretty terrible guitarist, but good enough I can write riffs, and I am a below average singer who was once a terrible singer, but I can sing well enough that I can come up with melodies and basic ideas to apply to the guitar parts or the basslines or whatever else I’m writing. And the musical aspect of my career is certainly aided in large part by one of my closest friends for more than 30 years, Jeff Herriott, who is a professor of music in addition to being a great friend of mine and a co-collaborator in most of my metal bands and the scores for all three of my movies.
In terms of it being exhausting, right now I’ve been burning pretty hot since 2013, when I was writing Mean Business on North Ganson Street and prepping for the Utah version of Bone Tomahawk that had a kind of different cast and didn’t happen and just kind of rolling from project to project. I’d like a little bit of a break before I get into movie number four or book number nine, but I’m happy that I now have a way to create a lot of different things and get them out into the world. I’m seizing those opportunities, but also, I look at pictures of myself in pre-production on Bone Tomahawk, and that was four years ago, and now I look ten years older. So I also need to slow it down for that reason. I don’t need to age ten years for every four I live.
DC: I would imagine screenwriting and penning a book are similar, but in what ways do they differ? And especially with Hug Chickenpenny, which you’re also going to be directing, what’s the process been like to now turn a 264-page tale into a tight, screen-ready story? And since you’re a musician also, do you already have the soundtrack for it worked out in advance?
SCZ: My intentions at this point are to do this story in full; this book is the script. I will reformat it, but we’re doing all of it. So I want the movie to be the entire book and for the movie to be black and white. And none of these are making the movie any easier to get made, and it will not be a short movie, either. But this idea has existed for me for 21 years, and now it’s coming out into the world in the form of a book, as my single favorite piece of the eight novels, 50 scripts, and two movies I’ve done, Hug Chickenpenny sits at the top. So if it takes awhile to get the movie made, and made properly, I’m okay with that. There’s no rush.
As was the case for Bone Tomahawk, which had very little score, and Brawl in Cell Block 99, which had far less—maybe only three minutes of score and all of it is transitional material—the musical aspect for Hug Chickenpenny is going to be sparse and interstitial stuff at the most. This is a story that I think has a lot of horror elements and pretty heavy drama as well as all of the weird stuff and comedic stuff that goes on. My aesthetic has always been to “make the scene work without music” and don’t use that as a crutch. And while there have been great movies that did use music to enhance the emotional reaction, it’s unlikely that I am going to go that route on Hug Chickenpenny. It’s unlikely that I would have a horror sequence or a sad sequence and put horror music or sad music to try and enhance it. I’m just going to try to make the best version of it with the images and the characters and the concept of the piece and see what it brings out honestly with what I was able to get on the set and assemble in the editing room.
DC: We’ve heard that Hug Chickenpenny is a really unique book, and while it’s not strictly horror, it does have a lot of genre elements. What do you think horror fans will enjoy about it? And can you elaborate a bit on its Gothic nature, especially with regard to the work you’re doing with The Jim Henson Company, which has come on board to produce and create/build the animatronic puppet versions of the titular character, “Hug.”
SCZ: I am very aware that there are people who like Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 who would read Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child and say, “What the hell is this?” or spend the whole time waiting for a dude to get cut in half. So some of those people may say, “Well, this didn’t deliver what I like most in Zahler’s work.” And that’s okay. There are also many people who would enjoy Hug Chickenpenny who would be turned off by the violence in Bone Tomahawk or Brawl in Cell Block 99. It’s a different piece… But whereas Bone and Brawl really go off the deep end with graphic violence, and Dragged Across Concrete gets pretty rough but isn’t as violent as these other two pieces, Hug Chickenpenny doesn’t go there at all. So if what was most appealing about my first two movies was the carnage, then Hug Chickenpenny won’t be that. But at the same time, the horror crowd in particular responded really strongly to both of those movies, even though Bone Tomahawk to me is a western that has elements of horror, and Brawl similarly was a crime piece that had elements of horror. Hug Chickenpenny has probably more elements of horror, with intimations of supernatural and wondering about Hug’s parentage and some longer horror sequences, even if the end result isn’t incredibly violent in any spot.
I’ve already had a few meetings with the designers at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and recently we closed our deal with the Jim Henson Company, which is going to come on board and co-produce the movie with us. And I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. They are the—it isn’t even that they are the best partners; they are the only partners… Sometimes when I talk about his anatomy, I’m going to want to show interior shots of his anatomy and I want the animatronic of Hug to be extremely detailed and at the edge of how this technology can work, but also flexible so we can have a puppeteer in there and it’s not the fully posable, slightly robotic, animatronic creation where everything is done that way. That’s where we’re at now in having that discussion.
DC: You had a pretty incredible 2017 – congratulations on the success of Brawl in Cell Block 99! It has revived Vince Vaughn’s career in a big way, and the film showed up on a lot of end-of-the-year “best of” lists. You’re so adept at interweaving genres – western, action, thriller/drama, and always a tinge of horror. Is that something you consciously strive for, or is it just organic in your development of a project? What films, particularly horror movies, have influenced your work the most?
SCZ: You know, I’m aware that when I say this it sounds dismissive to the audience, but it shouldn’t, so try and let me phrase it carefully. This is the story I wanted to tell. And I want people to like it. But I’m not thinking about what audience it’s going to grab. My writing process is—I surprise myself. So in the case of writing Hug Chickenpenny, it was initially the idea of doing something different than what I’d done before. But it mainly came from wanting to tell this tale and see how I would deal with something where there wasn’t a lot of violence. I’m just as interested in the character moments as I am in the violent ones and as I am in the humorous moments. So in the case of Hug Chickenpenny, it gave me a lot of room to really explore the character stuff.
Also, one thing that I did in this piece that I haven’t done as much in my others is deal with a different scale of time. And so whereas Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 both take place in a fairly short period of time, in Hug events are going quickly, and there’s this feeling of dread as bad things are getting worse and worse. Things are becoming terrible. This is a really different kind of piece. And you go with this character on a much longer journey; even though it is not an especially long book, you get a sense of the complete life of this character. And so that is a very interesting thing for me; instead of having something necessarily plot-driven—though I am inclined towards simpler plots in most cases anyways—instead of having something that’s plot-driven, all of my pieces—almost all of my pieces—are character-driven.
Gremlins was a game changer for me. I was, I think, 11 when it came out, and I saw it multiple times in the theater. I had a Gizmo stuffed animal, and I had the movie book that came with it and Gremlins shrinky-dinks and a lot of stuff. And at that time I wasn’t really into horror; and, clearly, that is a horror movie, and… wow, did they get away with a lot in a PG movie! I guess that movie and Temple of Doom are the reasons we have PG-13. So that was a big door opener for me, realizing I enjoyed the nastier side of the dramatic experience. It has a lot of other things, too; and the creatures in particular were something I really responded to and appreciated the craft of making them and how lifelike they seemed. There’s just some really great animatronics and some really nice puppeteering. So that’s something you’ll see, a direct connection between that and Hug Chickenpenny, where Hug will be created in a similar manner and will be a puppet and an animatronic and a tangible entity that performers are acting with in all of the scenes, not a CG creation after the fact.
Re-Animator was big, and I think I saw that in seventh grade, so let’s say I was twelve. And that was a big one for me to see because I saw the unrated version. I saw a lot of things I hadn’t seen before and was initially horrified and repulsed by the violence and, you know, the intestine strangling, all of that. And then I realized I liked it. So that was more or less the movie that turned me around the corner into a kid who, within a year, had posters from Fangoria on his wall and was a gore hound with a VCR, who would bike to the video store every week and would just rent anything that looked like it was a horror film.
So those were the big ones for me. Certainly David Lynch’s material has interest for me. Around that time I discovered Eraserhead, which I think is particularly striking. There’ve been a lot of different pieces over the years. Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Texas Chain Saw Massacre—those are three long-standing favorites of mine, all of which I’ve seen multiple times. There’re a lot of different pieces. But definitely Gremlins and Re-Animator were the big stepping stones into the larger world. And Gremlins still remains a top favorite of mine to this day.
DC: Our typical last question is: What’s coming up next? But no doubt you’ll have your hands full with the Hug Chickenpenny adaptation. Is there anything else you have cooking for the near future that might be of interest to the horror crowd?
SCZ: I intend Hug Chickenpenny to be my fourth movie, and it’s obviously very different from the first three, which are sort of this collection of men being mean to each other. We can call it “The Mean Men Trilogy.” And then after that I have interest in a few different pieces. One of them is a horror piece that would be quite extreme called Flesh Beneath the Concrete. One is a western feature that I will be writing imminently. And the third is possibly doing a limited series from my western novel, A Congregation of Jackals. So those are the three most likely candidates.
And something else that I have a lot of interest in—but it would be going on more concurrently with other projects—is doing an animated, adult fantasy piece. That’s the kind of piece that I would probably like to co-direct with somebody who has far more experience than I do in animation, though I was trained and have a background in it. And I’d like that to either be hand-drawn in a kind of older style and fluidly done in the style of masters like Richard Williams. That’s a project I hope to get going, but that’s gonna be a tough sell because adult animation in the United States is seriously rare, if not totally nonexistent. But I can’t think what a comparable piece would be that’s in existence anywhere at this point.
So there’s the fantasy-animation piece that I want to do and then the western feature, the western limited series, and the horror piece… I’m going to kinda see what opportunities are there and how long the experience of making Hug Chickenpenny lasts and see where my life is at after going through another big production experience.
DC: BONUS QUESTION: Since we’re just coming off the holiday season, what are your favorite films to watch during that time of year? Anything you can recommend to our readers that they might keep in mind for next year?
SCZ: Well, let me go back to Gremlins again, and say that’s a really nice one to see in the Christmas season. I’m a purist, as much as I can be when it comes to movie watching, so with movies that were shot on 35mm, I want to see them projected on 35mm, so I tend to see what’s running in revival houses. So it’s a little more dependent on what’s out there. But Gremlins is certainly a really good movie for this time of year. I also think Fargo is particularly good, with all that snow, to put you in that sort of experience; and, perhaps most people aren’t choosing Death Wish as their Christmas movie, but it was pretty enjoyable to check out this year. And I make an effort to watch holiday specials. So I’ll always watch something that looks like it’s going to be fun. There are one or two good Muppet specials, like “Letters to Santa,” that I enjoy; and then there’s a Pee-wee Herman Christmas special that’s particularly funny. So I enjoy watching a bunch of that stuff even though I’m not religious and not Christian if I were. So I do get into the spirit with that and have a nice time watching all that sort of stuff.
Cinestate releases the trade paperback original Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child on January 23, 2018.
Hug Chickenpenny is an anomalous child. Born from tragedy and unknown paternity, this asymmetrical and white-haired baby inspires both ire and pity at the orphanage, until the day that an elderly eccentric adopts him as a pet. The upbeat boy’s spirit is challenged in his new home and as he is exposed to prejudiced members of society in various encounters. Will Hug and his astronautical dreams survive our cruel and judgmental world?