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Horror Business: Interview with FANGORIA Editor-in-Chief, Phil Nobile Jr.

Phil Nobile Jr. is a producer, director, and journalist who was recently appointed to one of the coolest jobs in the world: Editor-in-Chief of FANGORIA Magazine. Between the recent ascension to the FANGORIA publishing throne and executive producing Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Phil has had a hell of a year. We got to catch up with him in New York on all things FANGORIA and did a fair share of geeking out along the way. 


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DC: So one thing I’m really curious about is, considering the position that you’re in, what does your movie diet look like? How do you stay on top of all the movies that are coming out, but also discover old gems? 

PN: I used to have time to watch more movies before FANGO. In terms of keeping on top of stuff, I have to do a fair amount of delegating now, because I don’t get to go to every film festival. So somebody at Sundance will tell me what to look out for, or we’ll be responsible for reporting on that film in the issue. 

The other thing that happened with the FANGO gig is that people ask you to be on a jury. So you’re suddenly mainlining fourteen movies in four days. And that’s no way to watch a movie. I don’t like that. I think three is the max. Otherwise, you’re not really doing a service to the film that you’re watching. I landed in Montreal for Fantasia and had to cram in, like, fourteen movies in four days. And it was rough. I barely remember them now.

DC: Yeah, horror fatigue. It’s a real thing.

PN: Definitely. So what it’s taught me to do is to not take watching a movie for granted. I used to go see everything, but now I’ve gotta be a little more selective. Maybe I have to wait for HBO for Aquaman. It is what it is.

DC: Have you seen anything lately that’s particularly blown your mind in the realm of horror?

PN: Yes! We’re in this weird, “is it horror/isn’t it horror” space. To me, horror is an emotion. So that’s my yardstick for whether or not something’s horror…I saw two movies this year where I could say I didn’t know what was going to happen next and I couldn’t wait to see what was gonna happen next. The Perfection on Netflix was one of them. And the other one is Under the Silver Lake, which is not horror at all.

DC: That’s interesting that you said horror is an emotion. Could you expand on that? 

PN: We see it on Twitter pretty much every other week. “Is this a horror movie or isn’t this horror? Is this science fiction or is this horror?” And to me, science fiction is a setting, more than a genre. The Fly is science fiction, but it’s a horror movie. Alien is science fiction, but it’s a horror movie. Star Trek 2 is not horror. 

The difference is, what emotion is that movie trying to get from you? If it’s trying to evoke fear, terror, horror, then it’s a horror movie. So it’s just about what the movie’s goal is in terms of what it wants to do to the viewer. I mean, everybody has their own metrics for what is and what isn’t a horror movie.  Then they called something a “horror thriller” the other day, and I was like, “What the hell is that?”

DC: What drove me nuts was when people called Get Out a comedy.

PN: That was a more complicated thing that had something to do with the studio trying to jam it into an awards category at the Golden Globes. But let’s not take away the fact that between Get Out and Us, Jordan Peele is the only guy to balance genuine comedy and genuine horror like that. Sometimes a horror movie is funny and sometimes a comedy riffs on some horror themes, but he may be the only guy doing both.

DC: Yeah. And he does it effortlessly, too. I heard somewhere that in order for the balance between horror and comedy to work, it’s gotta be 80 percent horror, 20 percent comedy. I thought Peele did that beautifully throughout the course of Us. It has moments where it gets so tense, and then he would completely relieve the tension with a well-placed laugh, here and there.

PN: Yeah. And I think all of it is rooted in something he said in his interview in our magazine about believable human behavior. If you’re buying what these people are doing and you’re never asking the audience to suspend too much, then you can get away with those moments. He buys this sort of creative capital by getting us to buy in early and getting us to believe in the authenticity of those characters. That’s kind of under-celebrated, I think, when people talk about his stuff.

DC: Totally agreed. So I want to talk about Horror Noire, which was fantastic, by the way.

PN: Thanks!

DC: There’s a long story behind getting it off the ground… 

PN: A good friend of mine named Ashlee Blackwell runs a website called Graveyard Shift Sisters, and it’s pretty much exclusively about black horror, and even more specifically, about a black horror from a black woman’s point of view. She’s the expert in terms of black horror. I’ve known her for a few years, and when I walked out of Get Out, all I could think about was, “I’ve got to talk to Ashlee about this,” because she’d been writing about this. Not to presume to speak for her, but it felt like she’d been waiting her whole life for that movie. 

So I couldn’t wait to talk to her about it because I wanted to experience her joy about it as well. We got to talking about her whole body of work and what Get Out was going to mean for that body of work, because Get Out was seismic. It changed so many things in the landscape. I think the day it crossed $100 million, they announced that J.D. Dillard, who’s a black filmmaker, had been signed to do a remake of The Fly. And suddenly, there were all of these things happening. 

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So I knew, just from a cynical business point of view, Get Out was going to lead to a bunch of stuff, but it also seemed like a moment was happening. A moment in film history, and we were there for it. Usually, you recognize them later.  Ashlee and I were sitting there at lunch, recognizing it as it was happening. 

My background is in nonfiction television and documentary production, and Ashlee’s is obviously steeped in black horror. So we partnered on a pitch and we made a sizzle reel, which started with the Eddie Murphy standup about white people not getting out. It was a catchy little sizzle and we spent all of 2017 pitching it. We pitched it to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Monkeypaw, Blumhouse…everybody said no. 

So it was kind of disheartening because I knew that somebody was gonna make the documentary. I was like, “What are we doing wrong? What didn’t we say? What didn’t we get across in our pitch?” So cut to 2018, the day after Jordan Peele won the Oscar, Shudder called up and said, “Let’s make it.” So that was what moved the needle. 

Everybody has different yardsticks for what makes something matter, right? And I didn’t think the Oscar mattered so much, but for Shudder it was everything. We had pitched a four-part series, but Shudder wanted a one-off feature.

DC: One of my favorite parts was seeing Ken Foree and Keith David hanging out together. That whole device of putting people in a movie theater and having them talking back and forth was pretty inventive and cool. How did that come about as a storytelling vehicle?

PN: That was in one of the first drafts of the pitch. Every time we talked to an African American about horror, somewhere in their reasons for loving black horror was seeing themselves on screen. Looking at the screen to find themselves, so we took it literally. We said, “Well, let’s put them in a theater. Let’s show them looking at the screen, looking at themselves.” And then it just became a device, like a metaphor that we made literal, and then it ended up being a great way to get them to talk to each other because we put a highlight reel up on the screen. 

We played it in a loop. So what they’re watching is a 90-second clip of Night of the Living Dead, a 60-second clip of Dawn of the Dead, a bit of Abby, a bit of Sugar Hill. And sometimes they were in the scene, like Ken Foree seeing himself in Dawn of the Dead. But sometimes they would just see a movie that they hadn’t seen since they were twelve, and they would light up, and they would start talking about it, and they would share stories.  

That would’ve gotten us one level of engagement, a very anecdotal, autobiographical thing, but in terms of the filmmakers and the actors, thank god for Ernest Dickerson, thank god for Rachel True, and Ken and Keith. They all knew so much more about the history of black horror, of cinema, than I anticipated, than I expected, or even deserved.

DC: That’s super cool.

PN: We rolled the dice. We didn’t pre-interview anybody. Sometimes those pairings were down to logistics and availability, who was around to talk with whom. We didn’t know if they hated each other. It could have gone another way. So it was really fortunate that it worked out the way it did.

And Ashlee was there the whole time to give them talking points if they were going somewhere else. Because some would just get to talking. Ken and Keith start talking, and suddenly we’re somewhere else.

DC: I could watch a whole movie of just the two of them talking. They should have a podcast.

PN: Yeah, they should.

DC: That would be cool. What were some of the most painful things to cut?

PN: I think I would’ve liked to have spent more time on the ‘90s. It wasn’t that we cut things, it was that we didn’t have material to really flesh it out the way I would have liked. So for example, Def by Temptation, the logistics just didn’t work out. We couldn’t get that director to come to sit with us and talk. So that was a drag. Eve’s Bayou–we didn’t have the time and budget to film in New York, so we missed out on Kasi Lemmons. That kind of sucked. It wasn’t that we had to cut out material, so much as that the accelerated schedule meant that we didn’t have time to get everything.

DC: So obviously, horror as a category goes up during times of social unrest. What are some of the potential topics that you think horror movies are going to start to cover, considering where we are socially & politically in America?

PN: I think people are starting to worry about sustainability and what kind of world their kids’ kids will live in. So I think there’s a bleak forecast happening right now, and I’m not sure how that will shake out. I don’t know if we’re going to get a bunch of Bronx Warriors movies out of it. That would be rad.

DC: That would be cool. So a lot of exciting things are happening with FANGORIA. Obviously, there are the movies, the magazine is kicking ass, you guys did an album, and there are multiple podcasts coming out. What’s next for FANGORIA, in terms of brand expansion?

PN: Our publisher, Dallas Sonnier, is an ambitious guy. He’s got big plans.  He’s got big dreams. He’s not interested in just putting out a magazine. He wants to resurrect the brand and put a bunch of things under that umbrella. My head’s been down, focusing on the magazine. I do get to weigh in on the movie stuff and I got to throw my two cents in on some casting, which was exciting for me.

DC: One of the things I love about the magazine is that it has a foot in the spirit of the original but is still very modern and has an entirely new veneer of sophistication while still being a little tongue-in-cheek. How did that all come together, structurally?

PN: The era that I grew up in was the early ‘80s of FANGO. And so, it was not particularly dyed-in-the-wool horror fans writing about it. They were writers, they were talented journalists, and they had a gig writing about horror movies. I liked that about it. I liked that these people weren’t incestuous horror fans. I liked that they were voices, and there was perspective, and there was a little bit of irreverence. The early FANGO, to me, is closer to something like National Lampoon, than say, even a FANGO from 1994. 

The magazine obviously evolved because fandom evolved, and the culture evolved. Then, once you had the internet, suddenly you didn’t need a magazine for news anymore. And I think the magazine struggled with how to maintain those eyeballs. And there was a lot of internal strife that was no fault of the writers or editors of the magazine. They had a Sisyphean task on their hands, trying to keep that thing going under a set of circumstances that was stacked against them, I would say.  I’ve gotten to know those people, and I’ve brought some of them back into the fold. Our 40th-anniversary issue is going to have writers from as much of the spectrum of the forty years as it can.

DC: Oh wow!

PN: Yeah. All of their struggles aside, in 2018, what’s FANGORIA supposed to look like? What does it need to look like when you’ve got Rue Morgue doing such a great job, and Diabolique doing a great job, and Horror Hound doing an awesome job? You don’t want to just be another one, because these guys kind of picked up the mantle where FANGO left off. So, we had to justify our space. The way to do that was to come at it from a little bit of a different angle. That’s what I pitched to Dallas when he talked to me about the gig. He kept saying he wanted the ‘Vanity Fair of Horror.’

DC: Oh, that’s awesome.

PN: And I’m like, “Sure, sure.” But at the same time, from across the room, I think it needs to look like a magazine from 1983.

DC: Right.

PN: And I’m sitting there at a printer in Dallas, Texas showing him FANGO 32 going, “It has to look like this from across the room, but then when you get closer…” And so we worked on things like the level of gloss on the cover, trying to replicate the way that FANGO caught my eye on a newsstand 35 years ago. So that was part of it.  The other thing was, I did feel like it needed to have a balance of legacy and evolution. 

So when you open it up, you said something about how it feels retro, but not. You start at the cover and you travel through the table of contents. You travel through that original Monster Invasion logo, and then Tony and Mike’s columns. Those are purposefully laid out in a vintage style, and the letters column and whatnot. Then as you get further in, it gets a little more modern, and then takes you back out through the same door, on the back page of the classifieds and stuff. So that was all by design, and I like that. I wanted people to feel like it was their FANGO, still, out of the gate at least. FANGO was only gone for a year and a half.

DC: It’s so enjoyable sitting down and reading it.

PN: That’s great to hear! I didn’t hear any of that for the first issue. Everybody was just Instagram-ing pictures of the cover. I’m like, “You know, we put a lot of work inside the damn thing! What did you think of the articles?”

DC: One thing that you touched on in FANGORIA 1 was the fact that for horror to really feel like horror, it has to have that element of danger, and you need to at some point think to yourself, “Did I make the wrong decision starting to watch this movie?” I haven’t felt that way in a really long time. Has anything touched that feeling for you lately?

PN: Once in a while I’ll find an old movie from the ‘70s or ‘80s that does give me that feeling, but if you’re talking about new releases, it’s harder to pinpoint one. One of the movies that I walked out and just felt unsafe after was Funny Games. As a grownup who is responsible for other people in my life now, and who has a home that he needs to protect, that movie messed me up.

But for horror movies today, I sound like a bad horror fan, but when they’re trying to be extreme, and they’re trying to be in your face about how messed up they are, it always feels really try-hard. You have to earn it, and earning it is getting harder, obviously because audiences are getting more sophisticated.

DC: The other day I re-watched Last House on the Left, and I was surprised at how difficult it to get through. It’s so stripped down, and it’s so low-budget, but it touched that unsafe feeling for me. That real feeling of palpable danger and a wrongness in watching something. It was pretty amazing. I forgot how powerful that movie was.

PN: A lot of horror has sort of drifted into this carnival space. I’m a horror fan. I go to conventions. I’ve been going to conventions for twenty years. You don’t go to feel unsafe. You don’t go to feel messed with. It’s fun, because at some point it’s turned into mac and cheese for us, and it’s comfort food, and we want to be around these things that we love, right? And with others who love them too. That’s a huge part of the community, but I feel that for horror to grow and evolve, it can’t really grow and evolve from that space in any kind of meaningful way.

DC: I read somewhere that horror attracts people who don’t have any true darkness in their souls, which is why they’re drawn to dark arts because it’s such a thrill to have an experience that’s so far removed from how they normally feel. So apparently, horror fans and horror directors are some of the nicest people. Mick Garris said that Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter are some of the sweetest people he’s ever met.

PN: Right. Well, it’s interesting to me that all those people that you named didn’t set out to be horror filmmakers.

DC: That’s right!

PN: Wes Craven was an academic, and John Carpenter wanted to make Westerns, and George wanted to make Tarzan movies. They fell into horror and they eventually embraced it, but their brand of horror was more groundbreaking because they weren’t just ingesting one thing compulsively. I think they had a more well-rounded diet in terms of their film education. When I see a horror film by somebody who’s only watched horror films, there’s something missing.

DC: So, FANGORIA is celebrating it’s 40th anniversary with issue 4 next month, and you guys have a lot planned. What are you most excited about with this issue?

PN: What I love about the 40th-anniversary issue is that, on the heels of Paul Thomas Anderson interviewing Jordan Peele, we’ve got Peele interviewing Ari Aster, and the pages of FANGO are becoming this space for these talented peers to talk with one another. We’re maybe exploiting their nostalgia for the brand a bit (they all read it as kids), but they’re in turn helping us evolve the magazine into something completely new.

DC: That’s so cool, I loved the PT Anderson interview with Jordan Peele, it was such a highlight of the last issue. So, you’re the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA, producing awesome projects like Horror Noire, you’re pretty much living the dream for a horror fan. What advice do you have for people who want to do similar things to what you’re doing?

PN: If you’re talking about doing what I do, I think what I do is considered nonfiction storytelling. That’s the big bubble. Whether it’s the magazine, whether it’s blog stuff, whether it’s a documentary, I’m talking about horror. I think what this space needs is new points of view. So have something to say. Don’t give me the same think piece that I’m going to find in fifteen different places on the internet. I think it’s great that horror is so big right now, but that means that there’s many more people talking about it, and it’s turning into white noise. That’s why you’ll see on our bio lines, we tend to go outside the lines a little bit trying to find people who have something new or different to say, different points of view about horror. 

If you don’t know what that is yet, spend some time figuring it out, I think. I’m always looking for somebody who’s got a new point of view that can articulate that point of view in an entertaining way. I don’t want to read another college paper. I don’t want to read something that you did not leave your bedroom to source or research. 

The secret sauce is that you’ve got to know your stuff and you’ve got to do the work. There are so many pieces I’ve turned down because it’s just somebody typing their thoughts. Not everybody’s that special. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but you gotta get in there and mix it up with the world.

DC: Gotcha. Now for some final rapid-fire ‘this or that’ questions. American Werewolf or The Howling?

PN: American Werewolf.

DC: Henenlotter or Yuzna?

PN: Henenlotter.

DC: Fulci, Bava, or Argento?

PN: Argento.

DC: Fright Night or Lost Boys?

PN: Fright Night.

DC: Phil, this was a lot of fun, thank you!

PN: Thanks for having me!

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FANGORIA turns 40 this year and is celebrating big with issue number 4, available on July 3rd. If you haven’t already SUBSCRIBE today at www.FANGORIA.com. You can follow Phil on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is a producer and journalist specializing in horror cinema. With a background in marketing and PR, in addition to writing for Dread Central Nick hosts a horror-filmmaking podcast called The Nick Taylor Horror Show. The interview-style podcast explores the techniques, strategies, and key pieces of advice for aspiring horror filmmakers, straight from the minds of some of the latest and greatest names in horror today (Joe Dante, Mick Garris, William Lustig, Joe Bob Briggs + more).

Nick is currently producing a documentary on Steve Johnson while working on Zombie Road, a feature-length immersive zombie movie on the Oculus Rift platform that integrates film & real actors into a cinematic video game platform in virtual reality.

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