It has often been my custom to seek out and devour everything an author has written, once said author’s work has completely overwhelmed me.
My first brush with the man from Nacogdoches came in the form of a chap book in one of those slowly disappearing, (at least in Australia anyway) dust-ridden book exchanges, where the yellowing pages of the regarded and discarded writers of ages are stowed.
The store that I frequented, I often did so with my Grandmother, while still a boy. She (my Grandmother) was the most voracious reader in the family, and would go to the store often after reading a great pile of books to exchange them for new ones. Gran would always ask the proprietor to save some of the credit from her returns for me, to pick up an armful of comic books.
It was on a rainy day in February, three summers and a thousand years ago it seems, that I went to the old store by myself, ready with a pile of freshly digested comics, ready to swap them for more.
As I scanned the racks I saw, at far end of one of the shelves, wedged between two war comics, a thin, slightly discoloured book entitled: On the far side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks. Now, that title alone is a grabber – I don’t give a shit what you say. Eagerly I dove in and found myself so entranced that it took the hand of the proprietor, shaking on my shoulder, to break the spell the story had on me. Turns out I had been standing there for a good forty-five minutes reading.
Without hesitation I handed over the comics in my other hand and said I wanted nothing but the thin, little volume. The owner tried to tell me I could take it plus the comics, but I had neither need nor interest for comics that day. I shoved the Dead Folks into my pocket and cycled home as fast and as recklessly as I could – once there, I read the incredible find over and over, till the weekend faded away.
Some weeks later, and after countless repeated readings of the Cadillac Desert, I found myself beset by another grey and rainy Saturday. I was rushing into the city library via the side entrance. My breath was all but gone as I had been racing, narrowly escaping the oncoming downpour. Dripping on the carpet with my hands on my knees I looked up, as my breath returned, at the bottom shelf of the aisle closest to me. I remember clearly staring at the row of books there and noticing that they were all by the same author; the guy who penned my current obsession, Dead Folks. I snatched up as many books as my library card would allow me to leave with. My first encounter had been powerful, but now my love affair with Lansdale was really about to take flight.
Okay, I know this is a film website, so when Joe finally granted me the opportunity to interview him, I knew we would be chatting about those works of his that had found their way from words to pictures.
Like most writers of his calibre, Joe has had several of his works adapted for the screen; one of the more famous of these being Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep. But it does not end there, with Elvis and JFK taking on a through-the-asshole-soul-sucking-mummy, no sir. Joe’s work has a natural cinematic inflection in its voice and has been, and is continuing to find its way to audiences via the medium of film and television.
What follows is my encounter with the ultimate mojo-storyteller himself, as we examine, albeit briefly, those works of his that have found new life, beyond the printed page.
KH: Some writers are quite precious when it comes to certain of their works being adapted, some often resistant at first when those movie folks come a knockin’, are you one such author?
JL: I’m mixed. If I have involvement in it as a producer, I want that to be taken seriously. They can do what they want, but I prefer they listen to me before they decide. I understand how it works, that said, I had one instance where I was banned from the set because I thought they were messing it up. Most of that seemed to have come out in the wash. Also, sometimes you get caught up in the moment when you are involved because I’ve spent years with certain books and characters and then someone comes along who is a hired hand that suddenly knows more about your characters than you do, and knows that, and doesn’t want you to have any say because they can’t go their own way. In fact, you hear, books and movies aren’t the same thing, as if you don’t know that, but most changes in books come out of pure neglect, and the fact that people making the films often don’t want it to be credited to the original creator. All things are changed, but frequently, this idea that they have to be changed a lot, overrides common sense. I also feel like dialogue wise I know how my characters talk better than they do. Creators ought to be more involved. There’s a place where you have to step aside. If I just option or sell something and didn’t make a producer agreement up front, then I’m going to let that one go. It may not have anything to do with liking is less or more, it’s just, for whatever reason, one where I made the agreement up front not to be involved. If they want to do what they want to do, then I want to be paid adequately. One reason I like independent films, they are frequently more interested in it being what you want it to be. Hollywood is a machine, and it’s an age-old thing that they don’t like the writers who create the works, because they know more about them than they do.
KH: Do you exert or do you have creative stipulations when your work is adapted for the screen?
JL: Sometimes I do, but you can’t always, and sometimes you just take the money and go on. It also depends on how much bullshit I’m up to standing at the moment. I might be working on something else that has my full attention, and there just isn’t time or energy to bother with it, but I have turned down many things because I didn’t like the folks involved. You learn as you go.
KH: When I read the foreword Coscarelli wrote for your collected Drive-In books, I have been curious as to how much development was done on his attempt to make a film version?
JL: Not much was done. It has had interest now and again over the years, once by Greg Nicotero, but nothing came of it. He got involved with the Walking Dead and that took all his time.
KH: You seem to have a solid collaborative rapport with Don, he having made Incident on and off a mountain road and Bubba Ho-tep?
JL: Don did an excellent job. Both things he did were very close to the originals. He gets me.
KH: So you were you pleased in both cases with these adaptations?
JL: I was pleased.
KH: It has been documented that you wrote a script for an animated Jonah Hex plus you have you written for the comic, what did you think of the Jonah Hex that finally made it to the big screen with Josh Brolin in the title role?
JL: You know, I haven’t seen it. I read the original script which was much closer to the comic I wrote, and I liked that, but that’s not the one that got made. There are so many reasons things can foul up. I don’t know if it did, not having seen the film that got made, but I can attest to liking that original script quite a bit. Sometimes everything can be done right and it can still go wrong.
KH: You’ve had some short films made of your work, The Job and Drive-In Date which you also scripted. How did these productions come about?
JL: I no longer remember, to be honest.
KH: Then we come to Christmas with the Dead and Cold in July, films independently financed. Was that a necessity or you not want too many studio cooks in the creative kitchen?
JL: That really had to do with the fact my son wrote the script, which I liked a lot, based on my story. My wife and I put up money for it. It’s low budget, and those roots show, but it’s fun.
KH: I’ve heard the wind talk of Bill Paxton and his hankerin’ to adapt The Bottoms. If you can tell us, what is the status of that project?
JL: Bottoms is supposed to happen next year, and it looks as if it will right now, but I never say go until it’s go time. But it looks good.
KH: Aside from what has been written, has there been any other of your works that have been optioned both recently and in the past?
JL: A lot. Dead in the West was optioned a number of times and bought by a French company that never made it, and won’t let anyone collaborate with them on it. No idea what went on there. Big Blow Ridley Scott has, and I wrote a screenplay for it, but it has interest in being made from time to time, but so far it hasn’t happened. Numerous short stories have been optioned, so many I’ve lost count. The Drive In, as I mentioned, The Pit is under option, Edge of Dark Water, The Thicket with Hollywood Gang and Peter Dinklage. I’m working to direct one of my stories myself, as a feature. It’s called The Projectionist and is based on a long story coming out in December in In Sunlight and In Shadow, edited by Lawrence Block, all the stories based on Edward Hopper paintings. We’ll see what comes of that.
KH: Are you pleased with the adaptation of Hap and Leonard the series?
JL: I loved the first season of Hap and Leonard, and I haven’t seen the second, but I’m hopeful. I love the actors in it.
KH: The first piece of yours I ever read was the chap book release of On the far side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks. I think this would make a great flick, has anyone ever posed the question of adapting it?
JL: On the Far side had an option once, but nothing came of it, and there are bites now and then, but none that hang on.
KH: Have you ever been commissioned to adapt the works of another author or to produce an original work for the screen? (Aside from the TV scripts you are credited with.)
JL: I’ve been approached about it, but have passed. I did write a screenplay for a French director once. He had an idea he presented to me, but we parted over creative differences. He had an imaginary idea in his head that he didn’t manage to pass on to me, or I failed to understand what he was passing. I really shouldn’t have gotten involved with it. I thought it might be fun, but had my worries early on, and I was right. It wasn’t a good idea and I shouldn’t have gotten involved.
KH: You have published screenplays like those in Shadows West, any of these ever peaked filmmaker interest?
JL: Yes. But nothing came of it.
KH: Are there any stories or novels of yours you hope will ever make it to the big screen?
JL: Paradise Sky, but I’d be nervous.
KH: Most writers have selected movies which were an inspiration for certain of their works or the body of their writing in general. What and who are some of the films and filmmakers that have fuelled you?
JL: Fiction has primarily fuelled my writing approach, but certainly I’ve learned from many movies, too many to name. Directors like John Ford, John Houston, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, The Coens, Don Siegel, so many.
KH: Well sir, once again, from this very big fan it has been a pleasure.
JL: You’re welcome.
Champion Joe is the only one of my literary idols not currently pushing up daisies. He continues to be a hero, whose new work I wait for with baited breath, an inspiration to whom I have dedicated my own work to, and a writer that I hope will fuel future cinematic adaptions I assure you, I’ll be first in line to see.
If you don’t know the man – then you should know the man!