'Satanic Panic' screenwriter Grady Hendrix eating sh*t to get sh*t done
Possessed best friends, a haunted Scandinavian furniture store, panic of the satanic kind and selling your soul to the devil – just your typical chat with novelist and screenwriter Grady Hendrix.
I was absolutely delighted that I had the opportunity to chat with Grady, I’ve been a fan of his writing for a good few years – I started with his furniture store haunted house book Horrorstor and just absorbed everything since. Luckily for us he’s back writing films as well, with Satanic Panic his latest project,
I caught up with Grady over Zoom from his New York home. We chatted briefly about, 'you-know-what' (COVID-19 if you don’t):
“They said, 'Well, the good news is only something like 486 people died of Coronavirus yesterday.' So I said, 'Holy shit, 400 odd people died of this thing in a day? That's bonkers.'"
We swing away from the current pandemic and go back in time to when Grady was a journalist and was just about to write his first novel.
"I was writing film reviews and covering entertainment for Variety, The Village Voice, New York Post, a daily paper we had here for a while called The New York Sun. I was the lowest film reviewer on the totem pole, which meant that I was the one seeing stuff that no one else wanted to touch with a 10-foot pole. I saw a lot of really fascinating movies over the years.
"I used to do a thing for Slate that's like the 10 best movies that no one saw last year, and there's still stuff I saw reviewing that I just like has really stuck with me forever."
Grady also used to live and work in Hong Kong for and when he came back to the US he started writing about his new area of expertise - Hong Kong cinema.
"That was when Rumble in the Bronx and all that came out - when Jackie Chan and Jet Li were starting to make inroads in the States. I wound up doing this blog that went through so many permutations at Variety called Kaiju Shakedown - for a good year, it was the highest trafficked part of the Variety website. Then, I also founded the New York Asian Film Festival."
We’ll touch on the film festival a bit later, but how does one go from writing about little seen films and Hong Kong cinema to writing a first novel?
"I'd always thought I would write movies more than books. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a movie director, but I thought, 'I don't have any of that equipment or anything. How do I get that?' I was in South Carolina, what did I know? I started doing plays, writing them and putting them on with people I knew. Then when I got to university, I said to myself, 'If you're doing plays, you spend most of your time trying to make people show up for rehearsal and learn their lines.'
"I thought, 'What's an even lonelier art form that I can do by myself I don't have to rely on other people for?' And it was writing. In 2008, with the financial crisis, it really ripped through freelancers like an extinction level event. So, I thought 'Well, I'll write fiction.' Because I really only had one skill. So, I'll find something even harder and stupider. I wound up making a really lucky choice. I tried out at this thing called the Clarion Writers' Workshop out in San Diego, which is specifically devoted to like genre fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy mostly and I got in which was really surprising to me. It really changed my life. To be around people for six weeks who were taking writing seriously, was amazing. It made me take it seriously because you couldn't be the asshole who was treating it like a joke."
That’s how Grady started writing his first novel and as we’re about to flow into the type of genre he likes to write in, we go off on a little tangent about how much, erm, “poo” one needs to eat.
"You have to figure out how much shit you're willing to eat. I realized there was an infinite amount. My answer was just, 'I will eat an infinite amount of shit.' Because you will give people stuff you've really died over and they say things like, 'Oh my God. We want this for the show. We have never been so excited of a script like this. We're buying this. This is not a problem.'
"I remember writing a script that was specifically about a sitcom actor who wanted to make it legit as a serious actor and he was famous for being a sitcom personality and he was self-financing a play, and it was an Edgar Allan Poe play - a one man show - tour de force thing. It was all about the stage manager for the show who may be someone he sexually assaulted a long time ago. The producers I gave it to said, 'We love this. We're taking it.' We got one note, which was fine' And that note was, 'Can he not be an actor and can it not be set in a theatre?'
"There are a lot of people who would very reasonably have said, 'Well, no. That's not what it is.' But, I have decided, I just don't say no. And I actually found a solution for it. Sadly, they wound up not buying it for other reasons, but we found an even better solution for it. I've never gotten a bad note, because I've decided I will eat any amount of shit."
If you’ve not read a Grady Hendrix book, or seen a Grady Hendrix film, they all have a horror or supernatural slant to them, it’s a genre that he seems completely at home with.
"When I started I was writing fantasy and sci-fi. Horror felt like a more comfortable fit for me but I didn't realize what I was doing until someone told me what I was doing. You know what I mean? It's like those genre labels or what a marketing department thinks about and also, I was writing a lot of horror because I was writing with a friend of mine, Nick Rocca.
"Nick and I wrote, seven or eight or nine finished scripts together. We never sold anything. We did that thing where you have a lot of meetings, and you really make an ass out of yourself and you learn what that's like. It was enormously educational, but that stuff was mostly horror, and then one of the scripts we were working on that I'd come up with, it just wasn't coming together as a script, so I turned it into a book and then it wasn't coming together as a book, so I took the title and wrote a different book with it.
"I had a chance to put a book in front of an editor, Ed Cork, who's my publisher and he hated the book, but he really liked my writing and the fact that I was trying to do a new haunted house thing. From there, we got a horror story about the haunted IKEA which was my first standalone novel that I did on my own."
And that book was Horrorstor. Writing film and books about horror, means he must be a lover of horror films in general.
"Yes. Although, I didn't read horror growing up. I read Stephen King, but the covers grossed me out too much. My thing was, I had a bunch of friends and we were all into horror together as kids. We'd go and rent a bunch of things and watch them together and that was where I found horror. We made the classic mistakes, like I think everyone's had this problem where you watch Evil Dead 2 and it's great and then you watch Evil Dead 1 and you're all really traumatised or you watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
We chat briefly about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and how back in the day it was like this thing of legend, especially in the UK, as it was banned you couldn’t get a copy. But, there was always this one kid at school whose uncle had a copy. When you watched it, it was super grainy, but added an extra layer of grime to an already sweaty and dirty film – it felt very dangerous to be watching it. We touch on other classic horror films – it goes without reason that Grady’s favourite scary film should be something like The Exorcist or The Shining – right? Wrong.
"Return of the Living Dead. There's no question. I would argue, it's one of my two favourite movies of all time. I would argue it's almost a perfect movie. Everything it sets up, it pays off. Every promise it makes, it delivers.
"It really was a big lesson for me in the fact that people under duress are really funny to watch, even though Return of the Living Dead, I find it an enormously scary movie, like zombies are scary and all that, it's still really funny. I think people are very worried that comedy will undermine horror, when usually what it does is it just makes you like the people more because they're identifiable."
After speaking with Grady, I re-watch Return of the Living Dead, and he’s right, it’s a great little film. It’s also a very, very 80s film, much like some of his books, I wonder if growing up in the 80s was the reason the books are set in that time period.
"My Best Friend's Exorcism, I had the title before I had the book and I said to myself, 'Okay, I want to make an exorcism book'. But usually exorcisms wind up being like a teenage girl tied to a bed while some old men yell at her and I wanted to make it about her experience. What's something that instead of religious faith that people take seriously?' It's your friends, faith in your friends.
"I thought, 'Okay, if it's about best friends and all that, it's got to be set when friendships are most intense and that's high school.' I can't write convincingly about modern-day high school. I went to high school without cellphones. You know what I mean? I picked 1988 because that's when I was in tenth grade and I took a look through all my old yearbooks.
"My new book returns to the same neighbourhood which is a neighbourhood I grew up in a few years later in the early '90s. I know it and I know the ins and outs and I find it tremendously comforting to write about it. I like to stick my head up my own ass as much as anyone else and everyone's nostalgic for their own childhood so yes. It wasn't a calculated '80s cash in nostalgia thing, I wound up there by accident."
The great news is that My Best Friend’s Exorcism has been picked up to be a film. This interviewer is extremely excited by this.
"Yes, they have a package together, it's a British director who's done a lot of TV. I can't say who it is, I think but they've got a package together and a script and I think they're looking for money right now."
Grady also wrote this amazing book, Paperbacks from Hell, a twisted history of 70s and 80s fiction, featuring reviews and artwork of some of the most bonkers horror paperbacks of all time. And, he only went and read them all!
"I made a mistake early in my career when I was reviewing a retrospective and I hadn't seen all the movies and I didn't know enough about the director. I didn't say anything wrong but I felt really uncomfortable and I was going to get called out and after that, I made this promise, that if I write about a movie or a book, I've read it cover-to-cover and I've seen it through to the end credits.
"For the 10 months I wrote that, I read 230-something books on top of what I had already read and I've kept reading since then."
Back to script writing – as we talked about earlier – it was where he started out and now he’s back with a quick one two of Mohawk and Satanic Panic. We chatted about the difference of writing books and scripts and how difficult it is to switch between the two.
"Writing books has nothing to do with writing scripts, but writing scripts has a lot to do with writing books. From the beginning, I've really treated my books according to some stuff I learned writing scripts and doing plays. You can't just drop a main character on the page. They need an entrance. Characters need entrances because there's no way to convince an actor to just sidle in.
"Also, the other thing that I really kept is this idea of set pieces, which is big in screenwriting, not so big in books. They bring everything together you've been building to and really pay off as you go. Characters have to do something. The problem with novels is they're very internal. It's very much about people's internal emotional states and their thinking and all that. You read a book like Rebecca, which is a book I love, but not much happens.
"Mostly Rebecca is the narrator imagining things that might happen to her or conversations or things that may have happened. It's mostly inside her head and it's great but I find I'm much more outward and my characters have to be doing something. They have to be interacting with people.
"I realized that if you've got a character on the page, they have to be doing something even if they're thinking. If you read Horrorstör, even though it takes place in this haunted IKEA, Amy, the main character is in her car three or four times all by herself thinking, and if you read The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires, every time someone's in a car, there's someone else in the car with them that they're talking to.
"They're going somewhere that's making them upset or nervous or scared or excited. You can't just have people drifting around having thoughts. They have to be doing things and that's something that I really learned from screenwriting. You need situations."
If you haven’t seen Satanic Panic, you really must, it’s a very lively and funny horror film. We quickly covered some of the pre-production of making such a film.
"With Satanic Panic, there was a lot of pre-production, and one thing that was really nice is I had written that script a few times. Then I rewrote it a couple of times for the producer. Then once Chelsea (Stardust) came on board as the director, I rewrote it a couple of times with her. I went down to set the day before they shot and sat in at a table-read with all the actors who were there then I rewrote it again for them again.
"I wish I'd been on set to be honest because 70% of the time, I would have had nothing to do and felt awkward and would have made other people feel awkward and sad, but 30% of the time I could have solved some problems for them because I feel sitting and doing the table-read was huge because A, it's fun to see people say your dialogue but B, it made us realize that they were things in the script we hadn't anticipated."
Grady tells me that Horrorstor is next to get a rework, but as yet we’re not allowed to know if it’s going to be a film, TV show or something completely different!
"It was going to be a TV show for a long, long time but now it's gone in another direction that I'm not allowed to talk about till they make a press release. Yes, other things are happening to it, but not as TV.
"Just one thing on that though is when I first started out doing stuff, I was adamant that, "The books are the books, the movies are the movies, the shows are the shows. I don't want to be involved." Then I realized that I do. It saves them a lot of time to have me involved. No one's thought more about this story than me. No one knows its weaknesses more than I do.
"I don't read any reviews because there's nothing a reviewer can say that I don't know. I know the problems with my books. I can tell you in much more detail where the holes are and where the weaknesses are and all that. When they're developing something for a movie, I can say, "Look, this is a real problem with this project. It's something I solved doing this, but that's not going to work in a film and you guys are going to have to come up with a solution for it. Here are three things I tried, none of which worked." I'm able to save them some time."
As we talked about earlier, Grady is a huge fan of Hong Kong cinema and he did a whole documentary of the subject.
"I worked on this documentary with this Australian company who had done Electric Boogaloo: The Cannon Film Story. It's called Iron Fist and Kung Fu Kicks which we’re really happy with. After that, I started working on a book that I'm in the middle of right now, which has a publisher, which is Paperbacks from Hell for Kung Fu movies. It's about Kung Fu movies coming to America in the '70s and '80s. It turns out there's a little arc and a little story in there and it's been really weird and fun to write. There's so many rabbit holes it keeps going down."
This brings us nicely on to the film festival that Grady started a while ago. Sadly, he’s had to step back from being a co-founder due to his ridiculous amount of work. However, it’s still huge passion of his – in fact festivals in general are very important to Grady.
"Nothing makes me sadder than when a movie comes to our festival and it gets this huge response and you can't convince people outside that room that it's worthwhile. We've had a couple of movies come that had been discovered at the festival, which is always great or directors have met people who've gone on and helped them out and done other projects with and things and I think that's huge.
"We've had lots of directors meet writers or producers and things at our festivals and develop a relationship. I think they're really nice as a crossroads to where people meet each other and see each other's work but we've had some movies come along and get picked up out of the festival which is great.
"You see the bad side of festivals in places like Sundance where everyone gets like festival fever and they'll spend way too much money on a movie that doesn't have a lot of potential with audiences because everyone at the festival is caught up in it. Our festival has always been a lot more about mass-market tastes. We designed it to specifically show non-art house movies because they weren't being shown from Asia, like romances and comedy. I know so many directors who come to our festival who were really influenced by stuff they saw there. Yes, I think festivals are enormously, enormously important."
With so many books and films to write, does he have any ambition to add “director” to the list?
"I would love to at some point, but I've got so much writing on. I've got this Kung Fu book and then I've got a novel in 2021 and a novel in 2022 and a couple of screenwriting gigs. I've got as much on my plate as I can handle. It'd be fun to do, it'd be really, really fun, but I'm not great at details. I'll get all-in on a book, great details, all that stuff but when doing projects, if it's not writing, I'm often happy to let something be carried by its momentum because I've directed little shorts and stuff before and I'm not the guy who's going to sit there and agonise the way directors I love do, I'm going to move on shooting.
"I'm more of a Roger Corman - so that's not the best quality director. You want a director who agonises over that stuff. I feel writing -- I feel pretty in control of that."
Grady has another call – in a busy day of calls - to get to, so we start to round it up. The only place left to go is the future – what’s next on the plate?
"Ha, I can't tell you. Everyone wants to do their own press release thing and so it's a bummer. I wish I could. It's a novel next year and a novel the year after, they're both horror and they're both pretty on-brand."
It was great to chat to Grady, there was so much more we talked about. He’s a great guy and great writer. I for one, can’t wait to see more of his films.
Stay safe in New York.
You can follow Grady on Twitter: @Grady_Hendrix