Charles Burns on FEAR(S) OF THE DARK

Charles Burns Explores Nocturnal Dread in FEAR(S) OF THE DARK

Charles Burns Explores Nocturnal Dread in FEAR(S) OF THE DARK

Put down that Junior Entomologist kit, son, you don’t know what you’re fucking with. In celebrated comics artist Charles Burns’ contribution to the exquisitely unsettling, animated horror antho, FEAR(S) OF THE DARK, a young boy’s discovery of an unusual, bug-like creature will ultimately lead to a romantic encounter that, in fine Burns fashion, mixes social and sexual dread with everything that makes you squirm about creepy, crawly little critters. Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons had an opportunity to speak with the artist:

What was it like stepping into the role of director?

Richard McGuire & Michel Pirus' Experiment in Negative Space

Richard McGuire & Michel Pirus' Experiment in Negative Space

To be honest, I really didn’t know what I was in for. What happened was that I was contacted by Prima Linéa, the French film company that did the movie, and they asked me if I wanted to be involved in this project. One of the other artists, Richard McGuire [who contributed the dialogue-free haunted house sequence that closes the film], had worked with them already, so I contacted him and sounded out how it was to work with them. He was very positive and had great things to say, and it seemed that if I was ever going to be involved in this kind of project, this seemed like the ideal situation.

Pretty much it started with them basically saying, “It’s going to be a feature movie; it’ll be black and white; here are the other artists involved; you’ll have fifteen to twenty minutes to tell a story; and we want you to do everything, every detail, including the music, the sound effects, everything.” I’d just finished working on Black Hole, which was this comic that I’d worked on for a long time, and I really wanted to step out of my typical workday and try something new, and this seemed like a good opportunity.

Was it an incentive that it was going to be in black and white?

Horrific Debauchery, from Blutch's Segment

Horrific Debauchery, from Blutch's Segment

It seemed to make sense. There’s something about black and white and horror that — for me, anyway — works really well. I’m working on a color comic for the first time, but, for example, I can’t imagine my story, Black Hole being in color. It’s meant to be in black and white. It’s something I have a strong feeling for — that graphic quality. I don’t know, you can certainly do great stuff in color, but black and white lends itself to horror.

Was this an original story?

It was based on an earlier comic that I had done. It was a story that I had done in, like, the late 70’s. I was never happy with it — the drawing was bad, the writing was bad, but I really liked some of the ideas and the themes that were in the story, so I went back and used that as the core of the story.

One of the things that got to me about this segment was that the horror initially starts with the image of the boy lying in bed, listening the sound of this creature.

An Unsettling Memory, from Lorenzo Mattotti/Jerry Kramsky's Sequence

An Unsettling Memory, from Lorenzo Mattotti/Jerry Kramsky's Sequence

All of my stories come out of… I don’t know… from me. It actually came from me having a creaky bed when I was a little kid. I probably watched one too many episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS and imagined that there were actual things in there — it really sounded like there were insects inside my bed. So taking that idea as a starting point, the idea of having this creature in the bed that goes from childhood to adolescence, moving toward sexual maturity — it’s kind of ridiculous but I like that idea, this image of this bed that gets taken to college and then the time comes that the little creature comes back out again.

Literature seems to manage the intersect between sex and horror pretty well. Yet in film, any attempt seems to veer into comedy. Any idea why that happens?

Maybe because there’s a whole tradition of exploitation in horror movies. You need to have sex, you need to have violence, you need to have humor, all those things together to kind of satiate the audience. Some of those elements find their way into my story, because I’m thinking about that, I’m thinking about the stereotype of the perfect, sweet girl who transforms into an aggressive, more masculine character. I like thinking about what’s behind those stereotypes.

Yet you do achieve that sort of literary dread in exploring the sexual violation of the body.

Supreme Vulnerability: Marie Caillou's Anime-Style Sequence

Supreme Vulnerability: Marie Caillou & Romain Slocombe's Anime-Style Sequence

I always seem to come back to the violation of the body or an external manifestation of the internal horror. That’s something that comes back in the stories I write again and again and again. I should try something else, but it’s something that appeals to me and that I keep returning to. In Black Hole that characters are going through the trials and tribulations of turning from a child into an adult, that transformation, and then I have this idea of a teen plague that transforms them, a physical manifestation of all the internal anxiety that they’re going through.

Talking about internal anxiety, my thought coming away from this film — for your story and many of the others — was that this stuff really gets under your skin.

In my case, literally. [Laughs] It’s thinking about that imagery. There’s explicit sexual imagery, or imagery that references sexual imagery, I guess: the penetration; the vaginal wounds; [the girl] has this phallus that’s growing on her arm. You’ve got all those strong, graphic images that are at play there.

This is actually the first time your art has been animated. What was it like?

It was very strange. I guess when I’m writing and when I’m drawing I’m always thinking about the movement and thinking about the characters in a physical sense. Obviously, once you move into animation, you have to think about what makes it interesting, how are the characters moving in a very specific way?

It’s an odd thing to sit in a room and talk to animators, and you’re talking about the character, you’re describing the character, and he’s this and he’s that. I actually stood up and tried to act how I envisioned this character moving. But how do you tell someone how to walk? I don’t know — it’s almost like a choreographer who has very specific ideas of how he wants his dancers to move, and then depending on the skills of the dancers, they’re able to interpret his work correctly. That was interesting, working with these animators and having them bring these characters to life. They also bring their ideas to it as well — how they move and how they think as animators.

What scares you?

What scares me? Leaving my studio, probably. I do spend an amazing amount of time by myself, and part of my reason for taking on this project was to force myself out of the studio and the control of working on the comics that I do.

I had an absolutely great experience working on the movie, and yet, I also realized why I spent that time working the way I do, by myself. It’s part of my personality — I know that for a fact, now. Just the way that my ideas slowly, slowly percolate and rise to the surface — it’s a very different process working that way as opposed to sitting around with people and saying, “We need to have a solution as to how this works and this works and this works. Here’s a list of ten more scenes that need to be done.” It’s a very different process of being out there in the real world.

Any news on the film adaptation of Black Hole?

As far as I know, David Fincher is the director who’s attached to it, that’s official, and I know that there’s a new script that’s being written, so that’s coming up as well. As far as anything more concrete than that, I don’t know.

Are you prepared to see this make the jump to color?

I don’t know that it’s going to be in color, I honestly don’t know. Could be, could not be.

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.

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