An Interview with Greg Lamberson – By Brian Morton

Last month I had the chance to review a CD (a first for me) called Gruesome and, I have to tell you, it’s become one of the most played CDs in my collection! Why? Well, being a horror fan and a rock fan, I’m always on the lookout for a CD that manages to capture the spirit of both. Often when a ‘horror/rock’ CD is released, it’s either one or the other, never both, Gruesome breaks the mold, it has great lyrics, terrific music and still has all the horror themes that we all know and love…besides, any CD that references Godzilla in a lyric without trying to be ‘cute’ will always get my vote! Well, although Gruesome’s music and lyrics are by Giasone and Marcy Italiano, the artist on the CD is listed as Johnny Gruesome, a character created by Greg Lamberson (of Slime City fame). Well, Greg is on a tear lately, and Johnny Gruesome is only the tip of the iceberg, so, I thought we’d check in with Greg (we originally talked with him back in November of 2005) about Johnny Gruesome, the CD, the DVD, the mask and the upcoming novel, how he got this long planned idea off the ground, the 20th Anniversary of his film, Slime City and what’s next for this very talented writer/director.

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 BM – What gave you the idea for Johnny Gruesome?

GL – I grew up in a small town called Fredonia in Western New York, and I went to film school in New York City for one year. The following winter I went back home to do some writing, and Johnny Gruesome is what came out of me. It’s set in a fictionalized version of my hometown and is based on the types of kids I went to school with. So in a sense it’s autobiographical. It was also somewhat inspired by Peter Straub’s novel GHOST STORY. The movie adaptation from the 80s eliminated a subplot involving a pair of teenagers, and that thread was definitely in my mind when I sat down to write the script.

BM – Which do you prefer, writing books or writing movies?

GL – They’re different animals and I love them both. With a novel, I can control every aspect of the story; the finished product is what I want it to be and I get the credit and the blame. On a film, circumstances like time and money pose constant challenges. Low budget filmmaking is about problem solving and thinking on your feet, and there’s a visceral rush to that. It’s also fun working with a large team of people, but I’ve actually done that on this Johnny Gruesome project. Another difference is what it takes to get a project finished. I wrote Johnny Gruesome, hired Zach McCain to illustrate it, re-wrote it, enlisted Giasone and Marcy Italiano to do the CD, re-wrote it again, got a publisher, and started the Mini Movie in the course of one year. I could never have written, directed, finished and found distribution for a low budget film in the time I did all this for the novel. Ideally, I’d like to write a novel, make a movie, write a novel, make a movie. But that’s not going to happen until I start making some real money at this. I’m a struggling novelist and a struggling filmmaker, and now I have a daughter to contend with; I’m a stay at home Dad, and that’s very time consuming.

BM – Since you wrote Johnny Gruesome as a screenplay in 1984, and have now made it into a novel, would you still consider doing the movie?

GL – The novel has allowed me to tell the story in greater detail and with greater depth than a film would have; there’s a lot more character development, and a lot more horror, for that matter; some of the most gruesome scenes in the novel didn’t exist in the screenplay. That being said, Johnny is a very visceral character and I still think he would kick ass on the big screen. If someone approaches me about making the film on greater than a micro-budget, I’ll definitely entertain the idea. I’ve got the novel, illustrations for the novel, a fantastic CD–you’d think it’s a no-brainer, right? If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be satisfied with the Mini-Movie and the novel. And the mask. And the CD. And the comics…

BM – As both an author and a director, I’m curious about what you think about books adapted to film. Many times (as with Steven King and Kubrick’s The Shining) the author is let down by the adaptation. Do you think that a filmmaker should adhere more closely to the book or be more free to take from the book whatever they want and be liberal with re-writes?

GL – I think that if filmmakers want to make a movie from a book, they should stick to the book as closely as possible, while making certain cinematic concessions. Let’s face it, King’s a tough nut to crack. His novels are long, but they work because they’re long. The minute a screenwriter starts collapsing events and combining characters, it becomes a different beast and usually loses whatever made it special in the first place. Kubrick’s THE SHINING wasn’t very imaginative, but it was a brilliant movie. And King’s version for TV, directed by Mick Garris, made Kubrick’s version look even better by comparison; absolute fidelity doesn’t always work. I’m a big fan of THE OMEGA MAN, but I’d love to see a faithful version of Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND. Recently on a message board some know-it-all told me several times that a faithful version of Matheson’s novel couldn’t be made. I though, "What a moron!" The novel’s only 150 pages long and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN are great movies!" Unfortunately, this is the way Hollywood works; there’s no respect for the source writer or for the screenwriter.

BM – Speaking of the mini-movie, you got Erin Brown involved, her career is really on the rise lately. How did she get involved and did you hope that her presence would raise the profile of the mini-movie with the fan-boys?

GL – I e-mailed Erin the script to see if she was interested in doing it and what her rate would be. To be honest, we couldn’t really afford her rate even though it was quite reasonable. But my wife, who produced the movie, realized how much she could bring to the project and encouraged me to go the extra mile. Erin shot a feature in Argentina with Lance Henrikson, went home for 2 days, then came to Buffalo. She missed 2 flights because of circumstances beyond her control before we got her here, and then we had a minor disaster that held up shooting: I was under the impression that Dave Gray, my effects guy, did beauty make-up. I think he spent 2 hours working on her before she politely scrapped his work and started over herself! And he didn’t have the make-up she needed, so my production manager, Jasmine Soto, had to do some last minute shopping. We lost half a day and ended up shooting all of Erin’s scenes over a 24-hour period. I’ll tell you something about Erin: she was a total pro and I’d work with her again in a heartbeat. The camera loves her, she got on well with everyone, there was no prima donna attitude, and I observed her doing certain things regarding continuity that really impressed me. When you look at her in GRUESOME, you can’t help but think that she radiates a certain star quality, and that’s what I wanted. I haven’t seen many of her films, but I’ve always been aware of them because of my connection to POP Cinema, and I think she delivered the goods in GRUESOME.

BM – What gave you the idea for the CD of music by Johnny Gruesome?

GL – The only idea I had was to have an Alice Cooper type theme song based on the character for my website. I enlisted Giasone Italiano, a Canadian songwriter, to create the song since he loves Alice even more than I do. And he in turn enlisted his wife Marcy to help him write the song. Marcy is a horror novelist; her first book was called PAIN MACHINE. The three of us decided the first song turned out so good that it warranted a full album. They took it from there. My input was minimal: I suggested doing a song about Johnny’s car, The Death Mobile; a song based on the chapter in which Johnny’s spirit–trapped in his corpse–observes and experiences his own autopsy; and I suggested the initial idea behind "Monster," a song that references a lot of classic horror films. But my suggestions were very basic, and G and Marcy took them in their own directions. After hearing the first song I had 100% faith in them, and never asked to see anything they were working on. When they sent me demos of the song I’d offer feedback, but every song was so good my comments were pretty much limited to, "That’s great, I love it!" It’s a fantastic album, and the recording is very professional, and I think horror fans are going to love it.

BM – From the novel, to the comic, to the CD and DVD, you’ve pretty much got Johnny Gruesome in all mediums, is there anything else you’d like to do with the character?

GL – Right now? No. I want the novel to be a success. I want the CD to be a success. And I want The Johnny Gruesome Death Mask to be a success. When I say I want these things to be successful, I don’t mean that I want to make a million dollars off them; it just means that I want people to take a chance on them and appreciate them. I’m going to spend the next six months promoting the novel, selling the CD and mask at conventions, and showing the Mini Movie at film festivals. I want to make people aware of the character. I’m in discussions with a mass-market paperback publisher about getting the book out here in a big way down the road. I wrote outlines for 3 movie sequels after I wrote the first script, so if the novel takes off there’s the possibility of three novellas based on those outlines. And if it doesn’t, I’ll have had the satisfaction of seeing the limited edition hardcover published exactly the way I wanted it to be by Roy Robbins over at Bad Moon Books. I commissioned Zach McCain to do the color illustrations contained in the book before I even had a publisher, so I was able to present Roy with a complete package. It was a case of taking my guerilla filmmaker mindset and applying it to publishing. I don’t know too many horror writer, especially in the small press, who have had this much say in the publication of their work.

BM – You made Johnny Gruesome a sort of 50s greaser in appearance, why that look?

GL – While the James Dean/loner persona may have played a role in Johnny’s rebellious nature, he’s a heavy metal dude–"The Headbanger from Hell." He was created in the 80s, he’s always had long hair, and in the Mini Movie, Ryan O’Connell, the actor who plays him, gave him a more contemporary heavy metal look. Right attitude, wrong era! When I showed the novel to friends, they initially thought it was set in the 80s, and were confused that the characters had cell phones and computers. So I removed references to specific songs by Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica–the stuff I grew up on.

BM – Tell us about the Johnny Gruesome mask. The CD and the DVD are one thing, but I don’t know of many novels that have a mask based on the main character, how did that idea come to you?

GL – I grew up reading FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMMAKING. I loved the Basil Gogos covers but hated Uncle Forry’s puns. But until FANGORIA came along, magazines like that, THE MONSTER TIMES, and when I could find it, CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN were my window on the world of horror. The advertisements for the Aurora monster model kits and the Don Post Studios masks based on the Universal monsters really stimulated my imagination. I would have loved to have done a snap-together, glow-in-the-dark Johnny Gruesome model kit, but my friend Larry Fessenden already did that with his WENDIGO character. When I was casting the Mini Movie, a guy named Matt Patterson got in touch with me. He makes custom masks for people based on comic book and movie characters. I said, "Why don’t you do a mask based on Johnny Gruesome?" I’m the copyright holder, so he can actually promote his work for a change go to Matt’s web site, Matty and check it out. The mask is finished and I love it! I’ve encouraged all of the artists who have worked on this project–Eric Mache, who did the original painting of Johnny back in 1986; Zach McCain, who illustrated the novel; Kelly Forbes and Martin Blanco, who illustrated the comics on the website; Dave Gray, who did the make-up on the Mini-Movie; and Matt on the mask–to create their own interpretations of the character instead of attempting uniformity, and I’m pleased with all the results.

BM – It’s pretty rare for anyone who creates this kind of project to allow others to interpret the main character as they will. That has to be a little scary at first, did you ever have any second thoughts about doing that?

GL – If this were a feature, I would approve every design, every sculpture, every appliance, application, and paint job. To a certain degree, that’s the equivalent of what I did with Zach McCain, who illustrated the novel, and that’s why I consider his interpretation the definitive one. He was as demanding on himself of those drawings as I was, and we went back to the drawing boards in a couple of instances. Once we had that look established, it was easy for me to tell the other artists–and I certainly consider Dave Gray and Matt Patterson to be artists as much as I do Eric Mache, who did the original painting, and Kelly Forbes and Martin Blanco, who did the comics–to show me what they could do. I was already secure that Zach had given me what I wanted, so I felt comfortable letting them experiment. To be honest, it’s very cool to see other people filtering my character through their eyes; the same thing applies to what G and Marcy did on the CD.

BM – From the Slime City 20th Anniversary, to JG to the new book, Cheap Scares!, you’re pretty busy, any new films on the horizon?

GL – I’ve spent years developing a script a friend wrote called DEADLY RITES. If it ever gets made, I think it will be my breakthrough film. I’m also writing an outrageous sequel called SLIME CITY MASSACRE. The issue, as always, is raising the money. I’m not interested in making a movie in 10 days for $15,000. If I direct another feature, it has to be the best film I can make, or I may as well not even bother. I’m looking for $200,000 for DR and $100,000 for SCM. If you know anyone with bread, send them my way! I wrote a screenplay called THE SOULLESS for Nicanor Loreti, an Argentinean filmmaker, and that turned out real well. Nicanor’s a great guy, and if he sticks to my script, he’ll have a wonderful low budget movie. I was supposed to write a screenplay for a rapper, but he never had the money he said he had for the project. I wrote him a fantastic treatment and kept waiting for payment for the screenplay to come through, and it never did. There’s a lot of that in this business. I had a great experience making GRUESOME, though.

BM – I have to ask, what can you tell us about Slime City Massacre? Will Robert Sabin return?

GL – SCM is a prequel, a sequel, and a post-holocaust musical! If I get the money–and I’m not looking for a million dollars here–Robert Sabin and Mary Huner will both be back. There’s such an interest in 80s horror films right now that this is the perfect time to do it. It will be a film that explains the mythology hinted at in the first film, which will make it totally unnecessary for people to see the first film to enjoy this one.

 BM – And what about the Slime City sou
dtrack? Will that be just music from the movie? Will the Italiano’s be involved in that project too?

GL – The soundtrack will feature Robert Tomaro’s orchestral score, which people have been writing to me about for years. Rob has already re-mastered the original recordings, which involved baking the original reel-to-reel tapes in a special oven for 8 hours just to get them to turn on the machines. The soundtrack also features a tribute song by Holy Mary Motor Chain. One of the guys in the band is a SLIME fan, and they did this fun song a couple of years ago without me even knowing about it. The funny thing is that I originally wanted to open the film with a song, so this is a perfect! It’s a real bouncy tune. Giasone and Marcy are not involved with the soundtrack because they had nothing to do with it, but they will definitely be involved in SCM. I’d like to get Rob back and use the Holy Mary Motor Chain song as well.

BM – And you have to tell us about ‘Cheap Scares! How To Make A Low Budget Horror Film’, what can you tell us about it and when can we expect to be able to get a copy of our own?

GL – It’s a big, big book that alternates instructional chapters by me with long interviews. I conducted with Roy Frumkes, Larry Fessenden, J.R. Bookwalter, Scooter McCrae, and a host of other filmmakers. It’s a very ambitious project, and I hope it will be a definitive guide to low budget filmmaking for several years, the way John Russo’s SCARE TACTICS was before digital filmmaking rendered it obsolete. I deliver the manuscript to McFarland in November, so I can’t say now when it will be available. There’s a lot of work involved just with obtaining photos and captioning them.

BM – And, in that same vein, what advise would you personally offer to someone out there who wants to make a movie of their own?

GL – Have a story to tell. Don’t just say, "Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to make a zombie movie?" Cast actors in your movie, not your friends. Sign written agreements with your partners, even if they’re your best friends, so you don’t get in trouble and waste people’s time. Feed your cast and crew or you’re a scumbag. Take photos while you’re on set and on location! Don’t just grab frames from the film later on.

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Greg is out there right now, promoting both Johnny Gruesome and celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Slime City, so if you have the chance to see him at a convention or a film festival, you should head on over and grab yourself a copy of the CD, or the mask, or the novel, whatever it is, Greg is a genre fan and knows what fans are looking for, you won’t be disappointed, and if you’re lucky it’ll be one of the places that Giasone is appearing to perform some songs from the Gruesome CD too! If you don’t live near anyplace that Greg’s appearing then you can always head over to Johnny to see the comic or find out about the book or you can hear clips from and find out how to get the excellent Johnny Gruesome CD by heading to the Johnny Gruesome CD page. How ever you slice it, Greg and Johnny Gruesome are heading our way, and, if you’re a horror fan, then you should consider yourself lucky!