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  • Interview: 'Stuck' director Stuart Gordon

    Tue, 27 May 2008 10:56:17

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    In American Beauty, a few passing references are made to Re-Animator, the Stuart Gordon-directed campy gore-fest which survives as a cult favorite among horror aficionados and a touchstone of the genre. A quick game of six degrees of separation links Mena Suvari, who played Beauty’s pubescent cheerleading seductress, with horror maestro Gordon, who co-wrote and directed Stuck, her latest starring vehicle (pun intended).

    The film is a departure for both Gordon and Suvari. The former finds himself venturing away from hyperbolic humor and traditional horror plotlines toward a humanistic story, while the latter has stripped away aesthetic polish to play a fallible and unglamorous female lead. Stuck is based on the true story of Chante Jawan Mallard, a Texan nurse’s aide who struck a homeless man with her car, then drove his body—which was lodged in her windshield—to her garage and left him to bleed to death. Transfixed by the sensational case material and media coverage surrounding it, Gordon and co-writer John Strysik adapted the story to film, with Suvari playing a slightly different iteration of Mallard and Stephen Rea as her unfortunate victim. What results is a fantastical, yet simultaneously disturbing and realistic movie that exposes how individuals grapple with fear and disavow personal responsibility. Gordon talks about these weighty themes, how Rea dealt with being embedded in a windshield during the course of filming, and the surprising humor inherent in Stuck’s unbelievable story.

    What was your immediate reaction after reading about the Chante Jawan Mallard case?

    Well, I was reading about it everyday because it was in the newspapers. [It was] front page news for weeks during the trial. I couldn’t believe it. It’s one of those things where if you made it up no one would believe it. What would make this woman who was normally a caregiver at a senior citizens’ home capable of putting someone in her garage and letting him bleed to death? So that was the question that kind of started the whole process of writing this movie and making it.

    So, were you just accruing newspaper clips and unfolding the story in your own head?

    Yeah, I was reading about it and then I started talking to John Strysik who [co-]wrote the screenplay. We would get together and just start talking about it and [ask], “What must have happened?” We had certain facts that we did use; the first half of the movie is pretty accurate in terms of what really happened. She was high on ecstasy, she hit him [homeless man Gregory Biggs] and thought about bringing him to a hospital—almost did—put him in the garage, and then went into her house and made love with her boyfriend. That all really happened. It was like, “What was going on? What was she thinking?”

    What she does is horrifying and despicable, but it’s hard to watch Mena and not feel a sense of empathy for her character.

    That’s a large part due to Mena. It would have been easy to play this [role] as a monster, but she plays her as a regular girl who makes a bad decision. She makes one bad decision and then once she’s gone down that path she has to play it out. You do care about her, and it’s funny because when you watch it with an audience, the audience doesn’t want her to get caught. At the same time they want to see Stephen Rea’s character get out of that windshield, but they want Mena to somehow get away with it as well.

    It’s such a departure for Mena in terms of her oeuvre. Was there a lot of preparation that the two of you did beforehand?

    Well, we talked about it a lot and we rehearsed for a week before we started shooting and that was really helpful. We had John Strysik, the writer, with us, so some of the ideas came from the actors from those rehearsals and we were able to incorporate them into the script, which was really great. As a matter of fact, in the original version of the script [Mena’s] character did not stop at the hospital. That idea of her stopping there was Mena’s—getting out and trying to take him off the windshield, bring him to the emergency room, or at least leave him in front of the hospital, which is what you think her character’s going to do. And then getting scared and then driving off—it all came from her. It was a real collaborative process.

    Even Mena’s look in the film is stripped of any Hollywood veneer.

    She’s amazingly brave, I think. I said to her, “We’re trying to give this a documentary look and I don’t think you should be all made up like a movie star.”

    So whose idea was it for the cornrows?

    It was something we talked about. “How should her hair be?” One of the ideas was that she was a wannabe black girl. All of her friends are black and she’s into black culture and the black scene, and maybe she’s even part black herself. So I tossed out [the cornrows] out as an idea and Mena said, “Okay, great, let’s do it!”

    Even in the opening sequence there’s that odd juxtaposition of a bleak nursing home with blaring rap music in the background, which is surprisingly apt for some reason.

    It was! That came from my editor. Originally I was playing “Some Enchanted Evening,” like a Muzak version of that, which is sort of what would be playing at a place like that. The whole scene made you want to fall asleep. And then he said, “Let’s try this,” and threw a rap song in there, and I was like, “Wow!” The contrast really works and it kind of tells you the story of the movie in a way.

    Meanwhile, Stephen’s case is totally unique. What was the preparation process like for him, being stuck in a windshield while shooting most of the day? That’s incredibly physically taxing.

    Oh, incredibly. What a trouper he is. At one point he said to me, “The real guy was in a windshield for three days, I’ve been in a windshield for three weeks!” He had to go through two hours of makeup everyday before we could even put him in the windshield, so it was an ordeal. I never saw a happier man the day he finally got out of the windshield. His demeanor just completely changed because suddenly he was free. We shot a lot of the movie in sequence.

    It’s amazing, too, because in terms of dialogue he doesn’t say a lot, but he does say a lot in his performance.

    Oh, yeah, and he makes you feel every moment of it, too, which is really great. It’s an incredible physical performance. Fantastic work. I’ve been loving watching his movies for years, and the idea of being able to work with him is just such a treat. He’s just such a great guy, and very funny. He’d walk in everyday and say, “Well, I know my lines! ‘Help me, help me!’” [Laughs]

    What about the dynamic between him and Mena? Did they get the chance to rehearse a lot with each other prior to shooting?

    They did, and it was interesting watching the two of them work together because their styles are very different. Stephen comes from the theater, so it’s important that all lines be exactly as they were in the script. Mena likes to improvise a little bit and throw things in and try different things, and at first they were coming from completely different places, but eventually they got on the same wavelength and it was great.

    Going back to the actual crash scene, which was very elaborate—what was it like to choreograph that sequence?

    Well, I storyboarded it first so I had an idea of what the shots were and then we had to talk it through. In the movie it takes thirty seconds, I think, and in actuality it took us like a week to shoot. It was really complicated with all the stunt work and putting all of the little pieces together. Mena did a lot of her own driving in that scene, which is amazing. It's so funny, because I would always say, "Okay, we need someone to get the stunt girl in here," and she'd say, "Oh, I can do that."

    This is a role that she truly threw herself into.

    She did, and so many times you run into actors who are very worried—"Oh, I don't want the audience unsympathetic. I don't want my character to do something that's going to make people not like me. Mena just embraced it, and she found the humanity in this girl. It was really interesting—before I cast the part I got into a [discussion] with my casting director, [thinking], "We're never going to be able to find anyone to play this part. There's nothing redeemable about this woman. You could say the same thing about Lady Macbeth, you know? It's a great role; somebody just has to really get it.

    Would you call Stuck a horror film? In some ways I think it is, because what's terrifying is that it could happen to anyone.

    It's true, but it's not a conventional horror movie. It's not like it's a monster movie or something like that. It's a true story; that's really what it is. The horror is, like you were saying, everyday life…the horror that we all get into. It's a rough world out there, and everyone's sort of gotten like, every man for himself, dog eat dog. People who help other people are considered weak these days. It's sad. When my daughter saw this movie, she [commented] that everybody's got this bubble. The idea of empathizing with anybody just doesn't happen anymore.

    In real life, the woman was thrown into jail for fifty years. Your film ends much differently, so you took a bit of creative license there.

    We did. Where we started veering from the facts was the moment that he gets out of the windshield, because in the real case he never did. What's interesting to me is that both characters become stronger during the course of the movie—they really have to take it upon themselves to save themselves. She in the beginning of the movie keeps relying on her boyfriend to help her. Then after a while she realizes that he's useless, she's got to [deal with] it. And he [Stephen Rea] realizes that no one's going to come and save him. For the first half of the movie he's calling for help, he's trying to get the cell phone, he's beeping the horn, he's doing all of these things to get someone else to come and save him when he finally realizes that he's got to do it himself.

    The tagline for the movie is, "Ever have one of those days?" It's like a sly wink to the audience. There's something horrifying about what happened, but there's something inherently funny and ridiculous, too.

    Well, that's the thing. If you made it up nobody would believe you; it's one of those stories. The first time we put a stuntman through the windshield and had somebody drive the car with his body on the car, there's something that's horrifying and funny at the same time. When you're looking at it you don't know if you should scream or laugh.

    You're known for what people might consider "fantastic" material, but this retains some of those same elements even though it's a more human story. Do you feel like you'll explore similar material in the future?

    I would like to. I think the thing I'm realizing as I'm getting older is that the things people really do to each other are much more horrifying than the things you could make up, and observing the world can be damn scary sometimes.

    I guess that's where the documentary look of the film comes in. Was it shot on film?

    It was shot on film, although it's funny, because somebody else asked me that and said it kind of looked like DV. But it was film, and it was our director of photography, Denis Maloney, who really gave it that look. I really [didn't] want it to feel lit. I wanted it to feel like a documentary with available light, and he really took [to] that idea. There’s a coldness about the look of the movie. It's funny because I didn't realize what he was going for until I saw the final colortime and everything was kind of cold and there was a blue cast to the whole movie. And part of it was [because] we shot it in St. John, New Brunswick. It was cold, the trees were bare, people's breath was foggy, so there was this stark, cold quality which I think was good for the movie.

    Was it a conscious decision to film there? I know the story originally transpired in Texas.

    Yeah, it [did], in Fort Worth. Originally it was not my decision to go to St. John; it was actually the financial setup of the picture. It was a Canadian company and they wanted us to shoot it there for tax reasons. It took me a while to get my head around it because I was imagining it in Texas, and I couldn't see it, but when I got there it suddenly started to come across, "Yeah, this could really work."

    What do you hope people will take away from this film?

    I'm hoping that people will become kinder and gentler. I think [in] our times people behave at their worst when they're afraid, and I think it's because we had eight years of a President who did everything he possibly could to keep us afraid and keep us fighting with each other. This kind of behavior starts at the top. My hope is that people come away from this feeling like, "I'm not going to let that happen. I'm going to be more caring."

    Well, we are on the cusp of big change.

    Yeah, right on. It's gotta be better, that's all I can say. [Laughs]

    Can you say anything about House of Re-Animator?

    House of Re-Animator doesn't look like it's going to happen, but I just finished an episode of this new series called Fear Itself, and I'm excited about that. It's sort of a chance to do something like the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Getting to work with Elizabeth Moss is a treat. And I'm starting on a Lovecraft picture called The Thing on the Doorstep. It's coming up in the fall.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Stuart Gordon, Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea

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