UW-Madison alum Stuart Gordon got his start as a renegade in the local theater community, famously getting arrested for obscenity for his campus production of Peter Pan in 1968 and subsequently founded Broom Street Theater. Over the course of a 40-year career, he has also become a very successful director of horror, thriller and science fiction films, notably the cult classic Re-Animator and other Lovecraft adaptations. He brings his latest offering, Chante Jawan Mallard. In a battle of wills between Tom and Brandi, Tom reacts to his escalating rage and survival instincts by attempting a shockingly bloody and surprisingly humorous escape.
Stuart Gordon talks to The Daily Page about our disturbing reality, his desire to shock and awaken audiences, and Madison in the '60s.
The Daily Page: When did you first hear about the event on which Stuck is based, and what about it piqued your interest?
Gordon: It happened about five years ago, and it was one of those stories that was all over the newspaper. It was such an amazing thing. I couldn't believe it was real. The woman was a caretaker at a senior citizen home. She hit this homeless guy, and instead of taking him to the hospital, she panicked and put him in her garage. The guy was still alive and was begging for help.
It was one of those things where I was like, "What would make a normal person do something like this?" The woman was normally caring, and all of a sudden, she became so heartless and cold. What would make someone do that? That was really what intrigued me and got me interested in exploring this by doing the film.
Can you explain your process of adapting this sensational story for film? How faithful were you to the "facts" of the event?
I teamed up with a writer friend of mine named John Strysik, and we read a lot about it; we read a lot of court transcripts and articles. We worked on it for about two years. I would say that through the first year, we were pretty much sticking to the facts. In the finished film, the first half is really close to what happened.
But, after awhile, we started thinking, "What if this happened instead of that? What if the homeless guy realizes what's going on and starts trying to free himself, trying to get away?" Then we really started kind of changing the story. We just went with that idea. Kind of a "what if?" version of the story.
So, how did drawing on a true story affect you creatively? Was it ever limiting?
No, I think that the thing that I realized is that stuff that really happens is much stranger than anything you could dream up, and more horrific, really. Things that people really do to each other are much more disturbing than typical monsters. People are constantly surprising you.
You've done a lot of other work in the thriller and horror genres. From where does this interest stem?
I think I've always liked to shock people. When I was at Madison, I did some plays that were pretty shocking. I even got into trouble with some of them, because they were just so extreme. I feel like people go through life almost half asleep, and I like to wake people up and get them to see things a little differently; to grab them by their lapels and give them a good shaking.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this film?
Well, I think what the movie is really talking about is the fact that people no longer take responsibility for their actions, and that we're living in a culture where people are consumed by their own self-interest. People are living in their own bubbles, and not really caring about each other. It's very much a dog eat dog world I think, these days. People who care about helping others are considered weak or stupid, and I just think it has got to change.
What, then, is the relationship between entertainment and social commentary in the film?
I think movies that preach at you are kind of a drag. I think that it's much better to let the audience experience something, and maybe through that -- through entertaining them --you can get your ideas across that way, without it being heavy-handed or preachy.
Tell me about your time at UW-Madison and how it has impacted your career.
It was really at the university that I decided to get into this field. When I came to the university, I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I had majored in commercial art when I was in high school and had worked at a commercial art studio, and I discovered that I hated it. When I came to the university, I was kind of starting over again. I took a lot of general courses, and I had no idea how I'd ever be able to use this information. But, it turned out that everything that you do learn can be useful.
I was interested in film, and I wanted to take a film class, but in those days, there was really only one class, and it was full. I couldn't get in. So, I took an acting class in the theater department, and that really changed my life in a big way. In the class, we were asked to appear in a play, and the play that I got into really opened me up to the possibilities of theater. It was a play within a play, in which the inmates of an asylum are putting on a play. There's a sense in it that these inmates could at any second go crazy and attack the audience. It creates a real tension, and the audience members really get kind of nervous, because these inmates are right there. At a certain point, they actually just hop off the stage and start going into the audience.
I'd always thought that theater was a bad version of movies, and this really changed that. I realized that in theater, you have the ability to interact with your audience, and it's a two-way communication. So, I started exploring that and writing and directing plays at the university, and ended up starting my own theater company, which I think is still running in Madison. It's called Broom Street Theater.
Eventually I left Madison and started another company in Chicago called the Organic Theater Company, and that theater was dedicated to creating new work with an ensemble of actors. I was able to work with wonderful people and did the work of a young playwright named David Mamet. We did his very first professional production. It was a very exciting time, and it kind of led me back to doing movies ultimately.
Do you have one particularly strong memory of Madison?
Oh gosh, there are so many of them. The period of time that I was in Madison was in the '60s, and that was a time of great social change and a lot of protest. At one point, there was so much protesting going on that they had to call out the National Guard. I remember going to one of my classes, and there were National Guardsmen with rifles standing in front of Bascom Hall. You had to walk past them to get to your classes. I remember seeing a girl taking a flower and putting it into the barrel of a gun.
That's a very poignant image.
It was. It kind of said it all, I think.
Stuck is having its Midwest Premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival at 11:00 pm on Saturday, April 5 in the Orpheum Main Theatre; Stuart Gordon is scheduled to attend the screening.