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Stuart Gordon on “Stuck”

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05272008_stuck1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Though cult filmmaker Stuart Gordon is most revered for his many screen adaptations of horror legend H. P. Lovecraft’s work (including “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond”), his latest could be read as the final leg of an angry American trilogy that began with 2003’s “King of the Ants” and continued with his 2005 adaptation of David Mamet’s “Edmond.” In just over an hour and a half, “Stuck” is at once a caustically funny economic drama, a moral thriller and a survival horror flick, all based on a bizarre but true story. Mena Suvari stars as Brandi, a nursing home caretaker who, after partying a little too hard one night, hits recently downsized sad-sack Tom (Stephen Rea) with her car. He doesn’t die, but is slowly bleeding to death while half-embedded in her windshield, forcing a panicked Brandi to stupidly decide to leave him in the garage as she vies for a meager work promotion the next day. Events escalate disastrously for both parties, but to say another word would ruin the experience of this taut, nasty, giddily compelling little film that barks volumes about the state of the country today. I spoke with Gordon about “Stuck,” Lovecraft and sneaking political agendas into gore flicks. [WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead.]

“Stuck” bounces between so many genres. How do you perceive what the film ultimately is?

It’s based on a true story, of course, and that is what drew me to it in the first place. I was reading about it in the newspaper every day for weeks and couldn’t believe what I was reading. I kept wondering, what would make a woman do something like this? Finding the answer to that question was what the movie was all about for me. My daughter had a great take on it — she said it’s about how people are all walking around in these little bubbles of self-interest and no one really cares about anyone else. I think it’s unfortunate that things have gotten to be that way, but that’s the way they are.

What was the creative bridge between the story you read and the pointed sociopolitical critique the film contains?

I think those things fell into place. It wasn’t a question of “let’s do a movie about social criticism.” It’s part of telling the story, the idea that people are so afraid of admitting that they’ve made a mistake or taking responsibility for their own actions. We live in a world where no one apologizes anymore. People think it’s weak to help other people. It’s a real dog-eat-dog world, and I think that’s the world we’re all unfortunately stuck with right now.

Why are we like this?

I think people are afraid. It starts with our leadership, going all the way to the top. [George W. Bush] created this atmosphere of fear to get himself… he wasn’t elected, but to get himself in power, to keep people afraid and afraid of each other. The Supreme Court appointed this guy, which is completely unbelievable — it’s like a coup d’état. I’m hoping with a new administration coming in, God willing, things will get friendlier.

There’s been a lot of talk about the anniversary of 1968, the same year you were arrested on obscenity charges for a college play [“Peter Pan”] you produced. How much has changed in the sociopolitical climate since then?

05272008_stuck2.jpgWhat I think is interesting is that this administration is still trying to destroy all of the work that came out of ’68. I was getting depressed about that, and then I realized it’s still about the strides that were made in all sorts of areas: civil rights, the environment, women’s rights. All of that started with the things going on in ’68. You’ve got these people who are now trying to question it, to wipe it out, to get us back to how things were in the ’50s. I’m hoping that we can start undoing all the damage that’s been done in the last eight years, and start getting back on track.

But there’s so much apathy. How can you be cynical and progressive at the same time?

I think people have given up. They feel like they’ve been beating their head against a wall and it’s pointless. I think what’ll happen is that, bit by that, they’re going to realize that they do have power. Again, I think that’s been part of this administration’s approach — it’s like those old villains in movies who go, “It’s hopeless to struggle, there is no escape, blah blah blah.” That’s what we hear all the time, and people just eventually throw their hands up: I can’t do anything about it. One of the things that is exciting about this election is that people are getting engaged again, and hopefully that will lead to change.

Do you find it hard to get audiences to accept politics in a non-political movie today?

One of the great things about horror movies is that it’s one of the only genres to address and make political statements. It’s appalling when you think about how few movies have really made a statement of any kind. The biggest ones come from horror movies. One of the most obvious is Joe Dante’s episode of “Masters of Horror,” [“Homecoming”], where the dead soldiers come back from Iraq to vote out the president who sent them there. Since 9/11, horror movies have become the most important and popular genre because they’re dealing with what’s on people’s minds. “Cloverfield,” “War of the Worlds,” “28 Days Later” — they’re all making very strong political statements and they can do it because it’s in the guise of fantasy, of something impossible. In actuality, they’re dealing with the here and now.

“Stuck” is a bit booby-trapped with the ambiguities between heroes and villains. How did you approach the dynamics between Brandi and Tom?

We didn’t want to make her into a monster — the idea is that she’s an ordinary person who finds herself doing some terrible things. They always talk about the banality of evil. By making wrong decisions, she goes down this path and has to follow through with it. Both Stephen Rea and Mena Suvari pointed out that [in the script] both of their characters get stronger as the movie goes on. They’re fighting for their lives. Stephen said, “After this movie is over, I don’t think that Tom is going to be on the streets much longer.” Tom has found that strength to get himself out of this situation. The same is somewhat true of Mena’s character, that she has to take things into her own hands. She grows in the course of the film. It’s fun watching it with an audience because their sympathies go back and forth between the two characters.

You have a long history in theater, but you’re more renowned for your films. Artistically, how different are the two mediums for you?

Theater is the most difficult art form. It takes tremendous concentration. Unlike a movie, you can’t stop and do it over again. It’s also a real dialogue with the audience. The actors and the audience are communicating with each other throughout the performance, where a movie is an optical illusion projected on a wall. I try with my films to get that sense of involvement, to let the audience participate and engage their imaginations. My favorite kinds of movies are the ones where you forget you’re watching a movie. You forget there are actors, a script, a director, and you just get lost in it. Theater has the power to change people, and I think films do, too.

05272008_stuck3.jpgI’ve never seen any of your theater productions, but here’s a free idea for you: “Re-Animator: The Musical.”

[laughs] It’s funny, it’s actually been suggested to me to do a musical version of “Re-Animator.” I’m trying to figure out how to accomplish that. It would be a bad idea, really. The kinds of plays I like to do are [those in which] the audience actually plays a part. I did a play called “Dr. Rat” in which all the characters were laboratory animals, and the whole audience were put in cages. At a certain point, there’s a revolution in the lab and the animals open the cages and let everyone out. The audience is given the choice to stay in their cages, or to join the characters onstage. By the end of the performance, there’s literally 150 audience members onstage with the actors. It was quite extraordinary.

You’ve done so many H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, many of which were considered unadapatable. What makes him so vital to you in cinematic form?

You can’t top Lovecraft for imagination, what a mind! His ideas are still so far out there. We haven’t even caught up with him yet, 70 years since he’s left us. He creates universes, and the thing I love about his work is there’s a connection between his stories. How many writers have created a whole sort of mythology like Lovecraft has? He’s so incredibly rich, and he’s got so many stories. That’s the other thing I discovered early on — they’re all public domain. Anyone can do a Lovecraft story right now. There’s a festival every year in October in Portland where amateur filmmakers do Lovecraft adaptations. I think they’ve done all of them at some point or another, so he’s a treasure trove.

Have you made any plans for a sixth Lovecraft film, if we’re including your “Masters of Horror” episode “Dreams in the Witch-House”?

I’m prepping “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and I’m hoping that’ll be the next thing I do. It’s the only Lovecraft story that has a strong female character, and I really think it was written about his marriage. He was married for only a few years, and so it’s a horror story about marriage. For a while, I was hoping to do “House of Re-Animator,” but found that people were so afraid to do anything that might offend the Bush administration because the story was set in the White House. Thinking about it got me back in this “Re-Animator” world, and I would like to come back at some point.

[Photos: “Stuck,” THINKFilm, 2007]

“Stuck” opens in limited release on May 30.

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