Today, it is my pleasure to interview Eric Shapiro – filmmaker, author, businessman, family man. My mentor. Perhaps my peer. Eric enjoys breaking rules, so let’s break some.
Peter: I’ve read a number of your scripts, and I’m a huge fan of “Rule of Three.” You have so much going on right now, in fact, that I have a hard time keeping track of you. Tell us everything you can about the film projects you’re working on.
You know, creative people are always announcing this project or that on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, and lately I’ve started to worry that I’m confusing people with my workload. As of this day, it breaks down into six film projects, three of which I don’t have full control over. I’m working on all of these with my wife and co-producer, Rhoda Jordan. It’s a good thing we just had a kid, because if we went out as much as we used to, we wouldn’t be able to keep up:
There’s THE LAST POET, which we just co-wrote with an ace screenwriter named Dan McKinnon. It’s a drama that’ll have people weeping, about a frustrated author who starts writing poetry when he finds out he has cancer. Dan came up with a really moving story line, and flattered Rhoda and I by hiring us as co-writers while he was drafting it. It’s owned by Dan’s company, Aloris Entertainment, and being co-produced by him and John Santilli.
Two other screenplays Rhoda and I wrote – THE DEVOTED and GIRL ZERO – are under option by two different producers, which means they’re not in production but that outside producers have attained the rights to get them financed (in this case producers whom we’re honored to work with). THE DEVOTED’s a suspense thriller about the last day in the life of a suicide cult; last year I had the opportunity to adapt it into a novel, which is out now from John Skipp’s Ravenous Shadows line. GIRL ZERO is about an apocalyptic world where females are being threatened. DEVOTED is under option by Richmond Riedel (writer-director of TARGET PRACTICE) and GZ was optioned by Kimberley Kates (producer of too many good films to name, and the champion and distributor of RULE OF THREE and TARGET PRACTICE). We met Richmond through Kimberley, who’s opened doors for us. All three of the above features are in script form; POET is in pre-production though hasn’t been cast as of now.
The other three are more low-budget, and completely under our ownership and control. There’s MAIL ORDER, which is a 16-minute adaptation of a Jack Ketchum story about a snuff film addict; it’s finished and will be in release later this year. Next is WHO YOU KNOW, which is a found footage horror film (feature-length) about a struggling filmmaker who loses his mind; it’s financed and aiming to shoot within six months. And also LIVING THINGS, which is a raging passion for me right now: It’s an ultra-ultra-low-budget flick (also feature-length) about a traditional older guy arguing over dinner with his vegan daughter-in-law. It’s just dinner, but it turns into World War III. Like MY DINNER WITH ANDRE on coke. We’ll be called crazy, but we may shoot that one within six months, too. When it rains, it pours. Note, again, that MAIL ORDER’s the only one of these that’s finished! We have some intense days ahead.
Peter: “Living Things” is my favorite of your unproduced screenplays. I can personally say that the script changed my life. It’s just that good. What were you hoping to achieve with that piece of work?
Thank you! We’ve been using the fact that it changed your life as a selling point for investors! LIVING THINGS is a debate; it pits a meat-eater against a vegan. I’ve been vegan since 2002, but both characters have me in them. The script examines the whole debate – not in a scientific way; more in an ethical and emotional way. It’ll drive some people nuts. My objective is just to get people to think and talk about the issue. That’s all. I suspect that that kind of thinking and talking tends to lead to increased sensitivity toward animals, though reality will let me know if I’m right.
Peter: Your most recent novel, “The Devoted,” is turning heads. Where did you find the inspiration for the book? And how does the book differ from the screen adaptation you’ve written?
The novel comes from a couple of places. On a deep subconscious level, it stems from having struggled with obsessive-compulsive thoughts when I was in my late teens, early 20s. I always got stuck on thoughts of suicide. I wasn’t suicidal, mind you, but I had an anxiety disorder that got me stuck on the concept. It was terrifying. So a book about a suicide cult, where the leader’s forcing people to off themselves, dramatizes what I went through. The book’s also inspired by some business situations I’ve been in where people have tried to coerce me into doing unethical or illegal things. I ultimately spoke up and got out, but it wasn’t easy; there was enormous pressure to conform and act like everything was normal.
The book and screenplay are very close, though the book develops the characters much more, and has many strands and sections that enlarge the cult’s world. Whereas the script is enclosed in one location, the book zigzags around to different places, points in time, and points of view. It’s more layered and complex, even though the central thrust is the same as the script’s.
Peter: I recently had the joy of ushering your first book, “Short of a Picnic,” back into print through Evil Jester Press. You wrote that book in 2002. How has your fiction changed in the last 10 years? How has your life changed?
Prior to the re-release, I hadn’t read it in like nine years. I sat down and read the whole thing when you and I were double-checking the formatting. There was a very tangible Raymond Carver influence that I’ve since shed, not out of any judgment on Carver, but just ‘cause I gravitated toward other states of mind. Also, there was a lot of really bald emotion. I was swinging hard, which I still tend to do. Though my writing probably has a less naïve and gentle quality now than it did then; it’s more aggressive and gonzo. In contrast, my life has changed to make me a happier, more clear-minded person. I still have extreme thoughts and am questing and questioning, but I’m far less tortured and brooding than I used to be. Knock on wood, I’m neither of those things anymore.
Peter: Your novella “Days of Allison” is one of my favorite sci-fi stories from the last 10 years, yet, oddly, it seems to be one of your most overlooked works. Where did you find that story? Where do you view it in your oeuvre?
That was a case where the title and a single image came to me before anything else. I was walking across a Ralph’s parking lot in Hollywood when I suddenly thought, “Days of Allison.” And I pictured a gorgeous redhead girl dancing and letting her hair wave around. It was random. My buddy, Seth Hirschman, knew I’d been reading sci-fi, and turned me on to Asimov. Asimov is a writer of unique patience, centeredness, and delicacy – all qualities I lack. So I decided to write a punk rock robot story, about a suicidal robot. It’s my wife’s favorite of my prose stories. I think it gets overlooked because the narrator’s not me. The attitude in the IT’S ONLY TEMPORARY and THE DEVOTED narrators is closer to my own, even though the guy in THE DEVOTED is out in orbit. DAYS OF ALLISON’s narrator is total character acting on my part; he’s an inane rambler, and I wrote it with a British accent in my head.
Peter: What fiction projects do you have on the horizon?
The sole one due for release is a novella called LOVE AND ZOMBIES, which also goes in the IT’S ONLY TEMPORARY/DEVOTED me-as-narrator category. It’s a perverted Vegas zombie love story with eight or ten twists, under contract with Print Is Dead, the new zombie line from Creeping Hemlock press. I hadn’t done a full-length zombie tale, even though they’re all the rage in the horror genre, because I wanted to do it my own way, which Julia and Ronnie [Sevin, owners of Creeping Hemlock] totally encouraged. I’m waiting on a release date.
Peter: Is it true that you and Darwin Green plan to write a screenplay together soon? If so, what’s it about?
It’s true indeed! We’re pooling our minds and resources, hopefully sooner than later. Goal number one is to adapt a masterpiece of a novella called SUNFALL MANOR, which I believe was penned by the entity Peter Giglio, who lives inside my interviewer’s skin. I’ll speak for you and say that you wrote the brilliant book with the cinema in mind, and we’re gonna wave it around before the cinematic gods.
Peter: Tell us a little about your reading habits. Who are you reading now? 5 years ago? 10 years ago? How do your reading habits impact your writing?
I have the collected works of Shakespeare on my top shelf; I like to pull it down at random and read a stanza or two, just to remind myself that I don’t know anything about writing. I do that with MOBY-DICK and Dow Mossman’s STONES OF SUMMER, too. Right now I’m going back to Bradbury, since he just passed. Five years ago, it was a vicious Norman Mailer streak; he’s also humbling, but his reputation as a maniac distracted people from his talent. Ten years ago there was more reading in general: Palahniuk, Ballard, Aldiss, Denis Johnson, William T. Vollmann. The last novel I read that I thought was excellent was Eric Bogosian’s PERFORATED HEART. He’s a serious novelist, and completely overlooked. I try to only read the news when I’m writing something, because if I touch another author’s work I might start having doubts about what I’m doing, and begin daydreaming in the wrong direction.
Peter: You’re a relatively new father. Give us a glimpse into the life of Eric Shapiro, family man. How has parenthood changed your outlook?
I can’t add anything new to the general sentiment that you’ll hear from most parents: It’s the greatest joy in the world. No formations of language from 26 little letters can do it justice. My heart explodes when I see him, which is like a million times a day. For me, it’s been great to have something so primitive and mystifying going on in my life, because I tend to get ruled by ambition, and I’d rather be ruled by awe over what’s right in front of me. Being a dad, I see very clearly that I don’t care about fame, fortune, or being remembered. I’m in a phase where I’m drilled down completely into the substance of what I’m working on, and I hope to stay there.
Peter: Besides family and career, what’s your favorite thing to do?
I really love walking. And meditating. And walking and meditating. I should use this context to say that meditation gets the reputation of being this strange, airy-fairy, New Age thing for people wearing white togas, but there’s no shortage of profanity, sarcasm, flippancy, and extremism in my personality, and I still love it.
Peter: Name an author people don’t read nearly enough. What’s their best book? Why should people read it?
I’ll take this chance to get into Bogosian more. He’s an anomaly in our culture: performance artist, actor, playwright, novelist. He never completely dominated any field, though he came close as a playwright. His novels are lethal. MALL and PERFORARTED HEART are addictive. Haven’t read WASTED BEAUTY yet; I’m saving it up ‘cause when I’m done, I’ll have read all his books. PERFORATED HEART should be read because it will remind people of how powerful and absorbing a truly good novel can be.
Peter: What lights you up?
Sudden trust among people who just met.
Peter: What shuts you down?
People getting tyrannized by their own opinions. It’s just your opinion!
Peter: What advice would you like to give aspiring authors and filmmakers?
You have to wake the muse; she doesn’t come and wake you. Every single day, it’s on you to wake her.
Peter: If you couldn’t be human, but you could be anything else (that exists), what would you be? Why?
We can’t prove that aliens exist, so I’ll skip that one (laughs). I’d love to be a dog. Pure affability and good-heartedness. It goes back to my answer about sudden trust. We need more of that, I think. I’ve come to love cats as I’ve gotten older, but I’m not one.
Peter: Your wife, Rhoda Jordan, is a brilliant actress and screenwriter. And the two of you collaborate frequently. Tell us about that process.
What’s great about it is that we have so much openness: We can yell, scream, fight, argue, debate. We can debate about where a comma belongs. And we both are good about admitting when the other has made the better point and won. She complements what I do by bringing patience, marinated elements, and incredible narrative depth. I complement what she does by bringing urgency, tautness, and mania.
Peter: What else would you like everyone to know?
More and more, I’m loving artists who earn respect for their truth and insight rather than their technique. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course; truth and technique can go hand in hand. But an artist with something to share is worth a million who just want attention.