Stuart Gordon on “Stuck” & “Fear Itself”

Director Stuart Gordon (copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski)by Dan Persons

Just where exactly in The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbookdoes it say that, if you get a pedestrian lodged in your car’s windshield, you should drive straight home, get high, and fret over taking the poor bastard — still jammed on your hood and bleeding into the glove compartment — to the emergency room? That’s the actual scenario that one not-necessarily-Einstein-caliber motorist found herself in a few years ago, and it’s the core predicament of STUCK, Stuart Gordon’s newest melding of social satire, black comedy, brooding horror, and patented Gordon splooshiness. Casting Mena Suvari as the driver and Stephen Rea as her unfortunate victim, the director has managed to cross-fertilize a snapshot of life in these Bush-ravaged times with the bad decisions that sometimes ensue. Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons had a chance to speak to Gordon by phone:

DAN PERSONS: So… “Ripped from today’s headlines,” isn’t it?

STUART GORDON: It sure is, yeah.

What attracted you to this story?

It was one of those stories where you just couldn’t believe it. The idea that a woman who works as a caregiver would do something like this to someone was just so impossible to believe, but here it was. It was really that question that propelled the writing of the script and the making of the movie: What would make a normal woman behave in such a cruel way?

It’s sort of the textbook example of the banality of evil.

Yes, exactly, exactly. That’s what I was thinking; that ordinary people can do such awful things.

What did you take from the actual story and where did you decide to diverge?

The first half of the movie is pretty accurate, in terms of following the real events: The woman did hit this guy while she was high on ecstasy; she did work in a nursing home; she did put him in her garage and immediately have sex with her boyfriend; and then she did keep coming to see if he was still alive and to talk with him and apologize to him. That much is all true. In the true story, the man ended up bleeding to death on the windshield, and they buried him in a shallow grave and burned the car. It seemed like they were going to get away with it until she started bragging about it at a party. She’s now serving a fifty year sentence.

In working on the script, Don Strysik and I stayed fairly close to the original story for several drafts, then Don said, “What would happen if this guy realizes that she’s not going to help him, and then he tries to get away?” That was where our imaginations kind of took off.

Did you need to sell Stephen Rea on what he was going to be going through on this shoot?

[Laughs] Well, Stephen read the script, and he really liked it. I think he saw the potential in it. He used to kid us about it. Every time he came on the set, he’d say, “I know my lines: ‘Help me, help me…’”

It was not an easy thing for the poor man. He was literally on that windshield for three weeks. He said, “The real story is that the guy was in that windshield for three days, and I’m in it for three weeks.” And he had to go through hours of makeup before he was even put on the windshield. It was a very grueling performance, and the man is an incredible trooper.

Given that the character’s dialogue is pretty limited, how did you keep Rea from falling into a one-note performance?

Stephen ReaStephen Rea is a phenomenal actor; he’s one of my heroes. He really found the way to keep that character interesting and to take him through this journey. They talk about the different levels of death — it was sort of like that for him, where he’s ready to give up at times, he’s angry, he’s trying to make deals. There are a million different beats that he’s playing throughout the movie, which is why I think his performance is incredibly strong. He also makes you really feel the pain. There are so many movies where terrible things happen to people — people are shot or people are stabbed or whatever — and it doesn’t seem to hurt them. Stephen makes you really feel every last little bit of it.

Altogether, how rigorous was this shoot?

Well, we were shooting in Saint John, New Brunswick in November. It was a pretty cold time of the year and, as a matter of fact, we happened to be shooting in an unseasonably cold November. You can see the characters’ breaths fogging in the outdoor sequences.

It was not an easy movie to make, but the positive side to it was that the bleakness of that environment added something to the movie. It makes the place dark, which adds a tremendous amount. Also, the town was very welcoming to the film crew — they literally turned over almost the whole town to us, almost like a back lot. That intersection where the accident takes place is the major intersection of Saint John, and they shut it down for us for the entire weekend. Something like that could not have happened in L.A.

Granted, you adhere to the actual story to a certain point, yet around the third act, you go full-tilt Gordonian on us. Is that just in your nature?

As my wife often says, “‘Subtlety’ is a word you do not understand.” It was a question of just taking the setup and sort of just going with it, taking it as far as we possibly could, letting the characters play out. One of the interesting things about the story — and I think the actors figured this out — is that they both get stronger as the movie goes on. Even though Stephen’s character is losing blood and so forth, his sense of survival becomes stronger and stronger. He really takes charge of things, and so does she. In the beginning of the movie, she’s asking her boyfriend for help, but after a certain amount of time she realizes that she’s the one that has to take charge and see the thing through to the end. It really becomes a battle for survival, where only one of them can make it out of there alive.

Do you hope the audience maintains empathy for Suvari’s character?

Mena SuvariYeah, I do. I think toward the very end, she loses our sympathy. But one of the great things about Mena’s performance is that she did not turn this woman into a monster. She really approached it as, “This could happen to me; this could happen to you.” This is a situation where a bad decision escalates into something atrocious, and she manages to keep us on her side for ninety percent of the movie.

Do you think there’s an intersect between this film and your more Lovecraftian works?

I think there is a certain, bleak point-of-view that connects them all together. You can’t get more bleak than Lovecraft, really — what he says is that man is living on an island of ignorance surrounded by forces that are beyond his control. I think you can apply that idea to this movie, although in this movie there are places where they could take control and straighten things out, but they’ve just gone down the wrong path and it’s too late.

While we’re here, do you want to talk a bit about FEAR ITSELF?

I’ve already done my episode. It’s called “Eater” — the main character is a rookie policewoman; she’s in a police station where a serial killer has been captured and is being held until morning, and we see what happens in that one night. It’s not Lovecraft, but there are Lovecraftian elements, I have to say.

This is for NBC. What was it like creating this for a broadcast network?

Elizabeth Moss plays a cop in a jail housing a serial killer, in Stuart Gordon's episode of the NBC series FEAR ITSELFFor me, it was a challenge, because you’re not able to do everything that you could do on the old MASTERS OF HORROR series. That was for Showtime, and you didn’t have to deal with Standards and Practices and all sorts of things like that — we were given tremendous freedom. Here, to me, this was more like doing an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, or ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. My goal, at least in my mind, was to see if I could still — without being able to go as bloody or as freaky as you could do on cable — be as scary or even scarier, to create suspense, to create tremendous tension. I think we were able to do so — the actress who plays the policewoman is Elisabeth Moss, from Mad Men,and she was just fantastic, I had a great time working with her. And I had Russell Hornsby, from STUCK, and an old friend, Stephen Lee, who was in DOLLS and PIT AND THE PENDULUM, came back to do a role. In a lot of ways, it was great fun.

Was there anything you wished you had gotten into it that you just couldn’t?

There were a couple of things that the network finally said, “No, we will not air this.” But what they did do is that I’ll have a director’s cut for the DVD, so there will be a version that has everything in it. But I think that I was actually pretty amazed at how far they were willing to go. When I showed the rough cut to my wife, she said, “They are never going to put this on television.” I was pleasantly surprised.

Article copyright 2008 by Dan Persons. Photograph of Stuart Gordon copyright 2007 by Steve Biodrowski.

About the Author

Dan Persons

DAN PERSONS is a New York-based writer who first got bit by the Cinefantastique bug when he encountered the 1979 double issue devoted to the sci-fi classic FORBIDDEN PLANET. He contributed for many years to the magazine, first as a correspondent, then as an editor.

One Response to “ Stuart Gordon on “Stuck” & “Fear Itself” ”

  1. [...] which will be produced by Amicus, the company that financed his recent art-house release STUCK. Gordon told Fangoria that he hopes to begin filming in the fall. “It follows the short story [...]

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