Three on a Meathook: Interview with Author Doug Brunell

I was first introduced to Doug Brunell back in 2004, when I discovered his column “Excess Hollywood” at Film Threat. His column was often so addictive and volatile I spent a few days reading the entire archive. When I joined Film Threat in 2005, I made a point of befriending Doug, because he’s simply one of my favorite online writers and I had to pick his brain and learn from him. Since then, Doug has been a consistent source of creative inspiration, an all around nice guy, and someone who isn’t smug about his talent. After reading his gory new horror novel “Nothing Men,” we interviewed Doug about his book and views about movies and entertainment since he is still a very ardent and influential voice in film criticism.


For people unfamiliar, who is Doug Brunell?
Great question … and there is almost no way to answer it without sounding pompous, so thanks.  I think the answer depends on who you would ask.  Since you are asking me, I would say I’m just a guy who writes so as to keep out of the serial killing business.  I write about movies, culture, politics and, above everything else, stories about people doing horrible things.  The darker side of mankind has always held a certain fascination for me.  I don’t shy away from it.  In fact, I study it in order to know myself better.  Of course, what I learn comes out in my writing, and if the darker side of life appeals to you, then my writing may appeal to you.  I’m also someone who is deeply interested in the fluid nature of reality and how easy it is to change it and manipulate it, but that may be for another interview.

If you want the boring biographical stuff, I live in Northern California, don’t smoke pot, stalked Tori Spelling for a long time (TV Guide actually wrote me a letter asking me to stop writing the publication letters about her), enjoy playing elaborate pranks, have some tattoos and piercings, can legally marry folks, and think I would have made a great Pope (Jake Darkstar would have been my Pope name).  That about cover it?

What influenced you and your love for film and filmmaking?
The easy answer is: every film I’ve ever seen.  I think, though, if I would have to say who started me on that path, it was my late father.  I have fond memories of watching the Saturday afternoon horror and martial arts movies on UHF out of Philadelphia and New York when I was a child.  I would be sitting on the floor with a book (for during the commercials) and my father would turn on these wonderful movies and eventually fall asleep on the couch leaving me take them in on my own essentially.  I was transfixed by their power.  It wasn’t until I watched Terror in the Aisles and saw clips of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film I had only read about but really wanted to see (we had a horrible video rental store that did not carry titles of worth), that I understood the true power of film to instill a deep fear.

My mom ended up buying me that film for my birthday, and I was blown away.  I had seen Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange and a host of others and loved them, but Leatherface’s tale showed me what film could accomplish.  That movie worked magic like no other I had ever seen. Roger Ebert (rest in peace) and Michael Weldon also both inspired a desire to understand film better and led to me becoming a film journalist.  They both have totally different ways of working, but I never got the impression that either of them took film for granted.  Ebert especially knew how to dissect a film by a certain set of rules, and that has definitely translated into my writings on film.  I don’t always agree with them, but I also don’t have to.  They are, in their own ways, amazing.

Did you ever consider directing or writing your own feature film?
I have.  I used to be totally against the idea.  I considered myself a writer and not a filmmaker.  I don’t work well in creative group efforts, but eventually I came around to the idea.  I’ve wrote a flashback scene for a friend for one of his films and the opening shot of another film at his request.  Neither film of which got made.  The opening scene I wrote, which has now been adapted for another novel I’m working on, bothered the guy so much that he said it would never be seen in a mainstream theatre, and if it were, I would clear out half the audience before the opening credits.

I knew then that filmmaking would not be something I would pursue too heavily.  I don’t think I could handle the compromise too well.  That’s not to say I won’t pursue it in the future, or that I wouldn’t lend a hand to a project.  I definitely believe film is a powerful tool for getting a story across.  I think, however, my time and skills can be better utilized by sticking to the written word.  I can say, however, if I did get a chance to make a film, it would probably be relegated to the fringes because it surely won’t play at the local mall … and I wouldn’t want it to.

When did you begin writing?
I started when I was nine years old.  I had been a reader as long as I could remember, but one day I saw the trailer for The Shining and that changed everything.  That trailer fascinated me, and I noticed there was a blurb instructing people to “read the Signet book.”  I decided I had to have that book, so I convinced my dad to take me to the local (Quakertown, PA at the time) 7-11 for ice cream.  I knew they had paperbacks there and I also had parents who never denied me books.  I grabbed the book while he was getting the ice cream and asked him to buy it for me.  He did, and I started reading it the moment I got home.  (Later, after my mom read it, she stated she thought they should have never allowed me to read it at that age.)  It terrified me.  I knew at that moment I wanted to do the same thing to people, and started writing my first story as soon as I finished the novel.

I don’t have that story anymore, but I’m fairly sure it was horrible.

What writers have influenced you over the years?
There are so many.  Stephen King, obviously.  Jack Ketchum.  Clive Barker.  James Ellroy.  Edgar Allan Poe.  Alan Dean Foster.  Garth Ennis.  Kazou Koike.  Grant Morrison.  Noam Chomsky.  Rex Miller.  Frank Miller.  H.P. Lovecraft.  Edgar Allan Poe.  Peter Sotos.  Kafka.  I could probably fill a book with the names, but those are the ones who immediately come to mind.  If you know comic books, you’ll see that there are some comic book writers on there.  Ennis and Koike took the medium to new levels, as did Frank Miller, who inspired me to venture out of horror with my writing … before he went crazy.

In all honesty, almost every writer I’ve read has inspired me in one way or another.  Sometimes it is all because of one perfect sentence.  Other times it is for a concept or execution of an idea.  I try never to imitate, however.

What would you say is your favorite film of all time?
That really depends upon my mood.  I am doing my favorite films list on my blog, “The Last Picture Blog,” so I don’t want to spoil it before I get there, but two of my favorites are I Stand Alone and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not the remake).  They are two very different films, but you can’t avert your eyes from either, and they are both emotionally brutal.  I like film that creates an emotional response.

I want to get to the credits and actually feel something.  Being purely entertained is fine for some things; I like a lot of films that are just entertainment.  The ones that stick with me, though, and move me and inspire me are the ones that grab me by the throat with their teeth and give me a good shaking.  I like films where I can’t tell what is going to happen next and anything can happen.  I don’t like it when films play it safe.  I want them to feel dangerous.  Those two films feel dangerous.  I think that comes through in my writing, too, or at least I hope it does.

What do you think is the main aspect of modern film bringing down the business?
I don’t think there is one main aspect of modern filmmaking that is doing it in.  I think it is many different things all working together.  You have filmmaking by committee.  You have test audiences.  You have the ratings board.  You have uneducated filmmakers (ones who don’t know their craft) making films for uneducated audiences (people who don’t understand film).  Film is a form of art.  You can use it to entertain, too, but it should still maintain some artistic qualities.  In America too many filmmakers and their audiences treat films like Twinkies.

They are a fine snack food, but nothing you’d want to live on.  In fact, you’d eventually die if you did.  So there really is no “main aspect” bringing it down.  When any art form is reduced to demographics it becomes a paint-by-numbers business.  That is where modern filmmaking is at now.  I will say that it is nice that television is finally realizing its power and this is where some of the most creative and daring material is being produced.  American mainstream film, however, is more concerned with the dollar.  Gems filter through, but as long as the dollar is the pursuit, the industry will never be pure.

I would blame the audiences.  As long as they keep flocking to junk, junk will keep being made.  I have no problem with movies that are pure entertainment, but when that is all you take in … well, that isn’t good.  I know far too many people who say, “I just want to be entertained.  I don’t want to always have to think.”  That’s fine, but if you look into what else they consume, it’s all entertainment.  There is nothing of worth, weight or value.  And then, those same audiences say things like, “If the critics hate it, I love it.”  It’s hard to take a person like that very seriously, but those people are what drive the films that come out of Hollywood.  Without them, Hollywood wouldn’t exist (though that isn’t quite that horrible).  Again, I have no problem with pure entertainment, but it should be tempered with films that move you or make you think.  We have far too many films being made for 17 year old boys and the men who are still there intellectually, and this degrades an entire art form.

These audiences don’t understand film, and they don’t understand film criticism, yet their tastes dictate a large portion of what we see.  Honestly, I’ve lost friends because of film reviews.  These people weren’t even involved in the films I reviewed – they were viewers.  I wrote reviews that plainly stated that the films should be avoided if you couldn’t handle what I was writing about, but they were good films nonetheless.  People decided to see them anyway and then got irate that I would give such a film a good review.  One broke the friendship because he was horrified I could find Amateur Porn Star Killer worthy of serious criticism and gave it a positive review.  He watched it despite my warnings and was traumatized.  His favorite film?  Spider-Man.  How do you fight that?

What do you enjoy about modern film?
I love the fact that the world is wide open right now.  It is so easy to see and obtain films from other countries, and independent film continues to remain vital.  Of course, on the flipside of that, more independent film is starting to mimic Hollywood, but I think that was bound to happen.

At this point, if you want to see a film no matter the country, you can.  If you want to make a film, you can.  This will produce a lot of junk, but will also leave the door open for the next Stanley Kubrick.

What director or directors influenced your love for film?
Stanley Kubrick.  Tobe Hooper.  Gaspar Noé.  Martin Scorsese. Shane Ryan.  George Lucas.  Dario Argento.  John Carpenter.  Quentin Tarantino.  Michael Mann.  David Lynch.  Lars von Trier.  Darren Aronofsky.  Akira Kurosawa.  Sergio Leone.  John Woo.  Fritz Lang.  Orson Welles.  Robert Rodriguez.  David Fincher.  Werner Herzog.  Lucio Fulci.  That list could go on and on.  Not all of them made miracles, but I admire and respect them in one way or another.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since you began writing?
People are always going to misinterpret what you write.  Period.  I’ve written things I’ve thought would be highly controversial and they have barely elicited a shrug.  Then I’ve written things I think are benign and they cause outrage.  Not only will people misinterpret what you’ve written, but they’ll form an instant opinion and hold you to it.  I’ve had advice offered on a certain piece or interview I’ve done, and the advice will essentially be, “You want to write that in a way that won’t offend.”  I just laugh that off.  It’s impossible to do that because someone can always be offended by the most minor things.  Writers have to develop a thick skin in order to survive.

What does the title “Nothing Men” come from?
The title came up when I was doing research for the novel.  I think it would surprise people to know just how much research goes into any given fictional story.  The amount I did for this book was nuts.  I was looking into old gas pumps and how they worked, Native American tanning techniques, the preparation and cooking of various meats, and so on.  When I was looking into a tribe of people, the Gimi (very interesting people with a strong respect for females), that term came up.  It is a name given to men of the tribe who, without giving away the story, do the act engaged in by the men in “Nothing Men.”

They are basically men of low cultural status and are considered weak because of their actions.  It was such a beautiful term, but using it as a title was risky. I figured if anyone knew what it meant, part of the story’s mystique would be instantly blown, but it could also lead to a sense of dread as that reader would be waiting for that aspect of the story to come out.  I figured most people wouldn’t know what the term meant, however.  It really seemed perfect for the story.  When I came across it I already had many of the characters and plot points firmly in mind, and hearing that label, well I couldn’t help but use it.

How did you come up with the idea for “Nothing Men”?
The first inkling of the story came on my first trip to Eureka, California.  I was camping with two friends and my girlfriend at the time, and we had to head back to Redding, California in the middle of the night.  We were on Highway 299, and for those unfamiliar with it, let me explain that it is this winding highway alongside a mountain that seems like it was designed by LSD addicts.  It is scary in the daytime, but at night it is utterly creepy and horrifying.  Anyway, the twists and turns of this mountainous road made my girlfriend carsick.  We pulled over, which was dangerous due to the fact that we were in an area that had no guardrail and we were thousands of feet up a mountain, and it was pitch black out and totally silent.

This was Bigfoot country.  As she was throwing up on the shoulder of the road, I looked down the mountain and saw some lights from some houses in the valley below.  It was then I realized how isolated those people were, and since I grew up in the Poconos, I had a very good understanding of redneck, hillbilly culture, and this was the kind of area we were in, too.  Those areas are almost lawless.  Anything can happen, and usually does.  I started imaging what went on in the dark down in that area.  Couple that with all the Bigfoot rumors and the fact that I’m fascinated by the subject matter at the heart of Nothing Men (not to give anything away), and an idea was born.

Is “Nothing Men” your first novel?
It’s the first fiction one to be published, but not to be written.  There are more are on the way.  Some may consider that a warning.

How long did “Nothing Men” take to write?
From the first sprout of the idea to publication?  About twenty years.  That said, the actual hardcore researching, writing, editing and publishing only took about three to five years or so.  After getting into a debate with one publisher over the ending I sat on it for a while.  That publisher called the end “too depressing.”  I was angry, but I could kind of understand it.  It was a depressing conclusion, but it was meant to be.  The conclusion he wanted was unrealistic and would have changed the entire story.  Changing that ending wasn’t something I was willing to do to get it published.  My life would have been easier had I changed it, but it wouldn’t have been my story anymore.

Which audience do you think will love “Nothing Men” the most?
The people who love Twilight.  Obviously that is my target audience.  Seriously, though, I wrote it for myself.  That’s who I write for.  If other people like it, that’s the icing on the cake.  It’s a horror story, so the audience would be horror fans.  Not supernatural horror necessarily…

How was Momma Rose conceived for this story?
She, like most of my characters, just happened naturally.  I knew I wanted a strong female character who was kind of the centerpiece of the village.  I had an idea of what I wanted her to be like, but it was a very basic idea.  The evolution from that to what Momma Rose became was very organic.  I don’t think she’s a character you’ve seen much of in horror stories, and she’s kind of a twist on what people are used to in other stories, but none of that was planned.  It just happened.  She wrote herself, really.

What genre do you particularly find entertaining to write?
I primarily write horror, but I’ve written crime, too.  Horror has to be my favorite, however.  I like writing stories and characters where I can explore the darker side of humanity and myself.  Horror lets me do that with few restrictions.  Horror produces some incredible tension in readers, and offers them a safe release where they, too, can explore the nastier side of humans.  Fear and violence are strong story devices.  Now, not all horror needs violence, but when done correctly it has some amazing results.  My crime stories have a horrific element to them, too.  I think that if I were to really examine the stories I’ve written in other genres I would find that they have horror aspects, as well.  I believe when you write a story with people in it, horror naturally follows.

What kind of characters are the best to write in a horror story for you?
I like the ones who aren’t easy to define.  It’s real easy to write paint-by-numbers characters.  They are genre stock and trade.  I don’t find that fun, though.  Some stereotypical elements inevitably creep in, however.  They are stereotypes for a reason and in some cases they are archetypes.

When I have a character who develops into something more – that’s when I think the story starts to shine.  In Nothing Men, Sammy was a character who did that.  Charles and Momma Rose had that same evolution, too.  I think any author would say the same thing.

How has the critical reception been for “Nothing Men” so far?
So far it has been good.  I wish there would be more of it, but everything has been very positive.  I have had people tell me they can’t read past a certain point because it disturbs them to such a degree they just can’t finish it.  That makes me smile.

When a reader tells me that, I feel like I’ve done my job, though I suppose I should wish they could finish the tale.  That’s okay, though.  I wrote a horror story.  Horror stories should scare you.  I just happened to write one that scared some people too much.

Can you write a novel only for the character Charles? She was easily my favorite character.
That is very kind.  She is one of my favorites, too.  She was one of those who wrote herself.  I knew I wanted a young female character.  I had no idea where she would come into the story.  I had no idea what her name would be.  I had no idea what she would be like.  I had no idea what her back story would be.  She was a surprise to me, and I think to readers, too.  I have heard from a lot of people who like her quite a bit.  She and Momma Rose are about equal when it comes to readers who consider them their favorites.  As I was writing her I was wondering what it would be like to grow up in her situation, and I think someone would turn out like that.  It’s kind of funny – she is the one who first clues readers in on what is happening in the village.

As for another novel with her … I’m not sure.  I have actually considered writing her story and Sammy’s story.  The problem is, I have done a bit of her back story in the novel, and I’m not sure how much I’d want to write more of that.  If there were a movie made of the book, I could see her becoming a fan favorite, too.

Where can readers look for your writing next?
People who follow me on Twitter know I’ve been working on something I’ve called “the sex and violence manuscript.”  That one is a dark one.  It is inspired by some actual events in my life and came from a very nasty period.  I imagine I will have an extremely difficult time finding a publisher for that one.  To say it is unpleasant is an understatement, and it has really messed with my head.  Writing it has been an … experience.

After that I’m working on another manuscript, which will probably be the last one from one of my series that Amazon ran a few of years ago.  They sold fairly well, so I think this one will do okay, too, despite the decidedly controversial subject matter.  In the meantime, to get people ready, I may put out some of the other works in this series.

Between those two I’m still working on my movie review book.  That is turning into quite a project.

Those are the main things that are coming, but, like I mentioned, I may be releasing some previously written stories.

Thanks for your time, Mr. Brunell!
Thank you!  This has been great.  You’ve got a great website, and this has been an honor.  If readers are interested, they can find Nothing Men on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and Kobobooks.com.  You can also follow my “Cancerous Zeitgeist.”  Warning: It can be offensive.