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For much of his career, Clive Barker has been known as the young-turk novelist once famously dubbed "the future of horror" by Stephen King. But Barker has worked in a wide variety of media, as a playwright, an artist, a toy designer for McFarlane Toys, a photographer, and a stage and movie actor. He's also directed a handful of movies based on his work, including the 1987 horror classic Hellraiser, which has spawned five sequels to date, and 1995's Lord Of Illusions. Most of his novels are in some stage of production as movies or TV shows. Still, Barker's phantasmagoric, often massive horror/fantasy books--notably including the Books Of Blood series, Weaveworld, Imagica, The Damnation Game, and the surprisingly kid-friendly The Thief Of Always--have been his most consistently successful works. Barker's latest novel is Coldheart Canyon, a Hollywood ghost story about a failing movie star named Todd Pickett, and his encounters with supernaturally preserved Hollywood icon Katya Lupi. Barker recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the hazards of Hollywood, his work process, and the universality of the extreme.
The Onion: At the moment, it looks like you've got at least 20 projects in the works, at various levels of activity. What are you devoting the most time to these days?
Clive Barker: Two things. Abarat, which is the book which comes out next year, which I've just turned in to my publishers, which is the first book of a quartet of fantasy books for children and adults, which is not just text, but is also associated with about 400 oil paintings that I've done. Now that I've turned in the text, I'm starting to design this book, which won't look like anything I've ever done before, because it's sort of an art book with a huge fantasy structure. It's pretty challenging. The other thing I'm doing is pitching a television show which [Francis Ford] Coppola and I have created. Francis and I are going in, along with the writer, David Goyer, who wrote Blade, to pitch the show.
O: Is this the Lord Of Illusions TV spin-off?
CB: No, it's an entirely different thing. This one is a secret project.
O: You've had a lot of problems with studio censorship of your films. What's it like working with Disney on Abarat? Disney is an incredibly image-conscious company.
CB: Yes, no question. But they have been wonderful. They know what the rest of my life is like. They know I pose naked for photographs. Disney's been very cool about it. They understand that Barker is more than one person. I have an identity as somebody who writes for children, I have an identity as someone who writes very graphic horror novels. They know that's who I am, and I think they're fine with it. They've understood that from the beginning. I think, in a curious kind of way, they feel as though that's what makes me interesting as a potential working colleague. I'm not someone who has just made safe work throughout my life.
O: Do you ever find you have to rein yourself in when you're writing a piece that's meant for children?
CB: Actually, no. In my head, I have a very clear idea of what the model should be, what I should be doing, where I should be going. When I've been writing Abarat, for instance, there's some dark stuff in it, but I'm aware that there are 10-year-olds reading it, and there's just some stuff you don't do. On the other hand, when I'm writing Coldheart Canyon, there won't be any 10-year-olds reading it, so there's no limit.
O: Coldheart Canyon takes the sexuality in your work further than usual.
CB: Definitely a little further than I'd previously gone, no question.
O: From things you've said about writing the book, it seems like it was intended as a much shorter, lighter work, but it developed along the way. Did the sexuality of the book evolve in the same way?
CB: Yes, it absolutely did. It came out of a lot of researching, for one thing. When I started to research old
Hollywood, I discovered... I think I was pretty innocent about old Hollywood. I didn't realize it was a place where people were really being wild. The things that came up over and over again in my reading about the Hollywood of the '20s and early '30s... It was really an unpoliced environment, at least at the level that Katya would have been working at. Until the Hays Commission came along, a lot of the movies were extremely wild, and that reflects back on the personal lives of these folks. If you look at a biography of Valentino or Navarro, or any of these folks who had very sexual public images, that was going on in their home lives. These were pretty wild people during pretty wild times.
O: How did your own movie-making experiences feed into your portrayal of modern-day Hollywood?
CB: I'm very conflicted about modern Hollywood. I've had great times here, and I've had terrible times here. I've met some wonderful people, and I've met some dreadful people. It is a shark-infested pool, but there are also some really nice people here, too. Most of them are missing a limb, but that's what happens when you swim with sharks. Even though the book is a fantasy, I wanted to provide the reader with the feeling of what it's like to be here, to be dealing with the egos, to be dealing with... Some of this stuff is almost in passing. For instance, when Todd is at home in the Canyon, and he can't go to the Oscars, there's this section given over to what the Oscars are really like, beyond all the glamour and E! Television and Joan Rivers talking about the gowns. The kind of fake smiles, the fake kisses, the "Oh, I really hope you do well and I wish you all the best" kind of stuff. And you go to the parties afterwards... I've seen Oscar losers drunk after the ceremony, cursing the person who took the Oscar out from under their noses, saying they're worthless sons of bitches with no talent. It's the stuff that doesn't get shown on the telecasts. In a sense, it's entirely predictable, but it doesn't get spoken about that often.
O: Is that the actor's fault for being petty, or the media's fault for glossing over anything that doesn't reflect well on Hollywood stars?
CB: What we expect of our stars is something abnormal. We expect our stars to be bigger than life, don't we? We expect their behavior to be more generous, more forgiving, but of course they're subject to envy and anger and all the other things. Whose fault is it? I think the issue of fault is perhaps even irrelevant. We all conspire in the illusion-making: the media, the stars themselves, and we who are accepting these fictions, who are applauding these fictions, who turn on our televisions ready to watch these fictions.
O: Given that Coldheart Canyon is so much about the fallacies of celebrity and vanity, it seems kind of ironic that the book uses a glamour shot of the author as cover art.
CB: It's very
O: How did that come about?
CB: It came about in a very interesting way. My husband took a picture of me in the style of George Hurrell, a photographer of the '40s, which I loved. And we gave it to HarperCollins, and they loved it. They did a bound version of the text for BookExpo America, so people could read the text, and they put the author photo on the cover, and everybody went, "Wow, that's a really great cover." Meanwhile, they're designing a cover with the mansion on it, and all the regular things you'd think: klieg lights, you know, Hollywood. And everybody said, "Well, this looks great, but it doesn't look as good as the cover we used at the BEA." Eventually, everybody says, "You know what? Let's just go with the cover we've got." And I said, "No problem. People will pretend it's [Canyon protagonist Willem] Zeffer, or they'll know it's me, or they'll say, 'Isn't this paradoxical? Here's the author playing Todd Pickett, at the age of 49.'"
O: The parts of the book that resonate most strongly, that seemed most real, occur wherever Todd comments on celebrity, and the shallowness of fans, and how it mixes with his need to be seen and to receive approval. Is that you talking, or are you speaking for people you've known?
CB: I'm blessed with not having to be an actor. It's certainly me speaking for people I've known and still know. But then, I've known screenwriters and agents who have committed suicide. It isn't just actors. This is a deeply envious culture, and a deeply competitive culture. I'm not saying anything the world doesn't know, but this is a place where if you fail one too many times, you're erased. You don't exist anymore. I don't like to name names, so I've changed the names in the book, but everyone I've spoken of, I know or have knowledge of. I've known directors who were at the top of the tree whose names you would not now know. They made a wrong turn, they believed their own publicity, got a little too confident, a little too much ego, and suddenly they were in a dark cul-de-sac, without an agent holding their hands. When Nightbreed came out, my own agent called me up and said, "I think it's time I let you go." I said, "Well, it's only one movie. I hope to do better next time." "No," she said, "I think I'll let you go." No room for failure.
O: Is that why you haven't directed a movie in so many years? Lord Of Illusions was back in 1995.
CB: I've been up to my neck in books. But I don't think I'll direct any more movies. I think it's a young man's game, I really do. You've got to really, really, really love cinema, to almost an obsessive degree, to put up with the bullshit. I love books to that degree: I'll put up with any amount of bullshit to get my books out. And I love paintings to that degree. But I don't love cinema to that
O: Is there any compensation in directing your own work, in getting the extra level of control over your adaptations?
CB: Oh, sure, absolutely, yeah. You're getting to choose the actors, the costumes... You get lots of control. But there are also incredibly petty battles, battles of painful pettiness, which don't stop when you finish making the movie. I'm still fighting battles about money owed, or how they package the DVD, with movies I made 10 years ago. In a way, it never ceases. You could say, "Are you arguing about those things where books are concerned?" And, no, I've never had to put a bunch of lawyers on a publisher to ask where my money is. If they send me a cover design I don't like and I say, "Hey, change it," it gets changed. But one of the problems with this town is that there's very little consistency from day to day, month to month, year to year. It's a game of musical chairs here. And even though it's true that there are only 50 people running this town, so eventually if you stay here long enough you'll meet the same people, there's very little accountability. When your movie goes onto DVD, the person in the DVD department has nothing to do with the features department, so you can't say, "Well, I was promised..." Whatever promises were made, they'll just say, "Well, that was them." But also, the regime will have changed by the time you make the movie. I had this happen to me in the middle of Nightbreed. One of my executive producers flew over to London to see me, and said, "I have some bad news. I've parted from the person I've been working with. You haven't met him, but he's a mad dog." I said, "So, where does that leave me?" He said, "I'm afraid it leaves you working with a mad dog, because I'm leaving to do something else." So you work with the mad dog. You have no choice.
O: There was a project you were going to direct later this year, in theory: American Horror Movie.
CB: There's a perfect example. I turned the script in to Mike De Luca at New Line, and he laughed and went off to head up DreamWorks. The script is stuck with New Line, who decided it's too dark and violent for them to make, but they won't release it so I can take it anywhere else.
O: You mentioned that you changed the names of some of the real people appearing in Coldheart Canyon, but you also use the actual names of some actors, who don't always appear in a flattering light.
CB: We had a lot of lawyers on the issue, a lot of lawyers asking questions, and they had me change things to disguise people a little better. One of the issues was, "Are you saying something that people will really believe?" Because to defame someone, readers have got to genuinely believe that these things might be true. I don't think anyone believes that the ghost of Theda Bara is somewhere in the
hills of Hollywood, mating with strange animals. The book moves into a fantasy zone. The places where I had to be more careful, and where the lawyers made sure I was more careful, was where there was a very close likeness to people that exist.
O: Are you taking an active hand in any of the dozen or so potential adaptations of your works floating around Hollywood at the moment?
CB: It depends on which ones. Some of them, I just let them go on their way. It also depends where they are in the process. At the very beginning and at the very end, I tend to be active. When the thing is going through various drafts, and there are notes, I leave my staff to do a brilliant job of making sure all that gets done, and I concentrate on the books. There are only so many things you can do in a day, especially when you're getting to the end of a book. And I've had the last three months on Abarat. Occasionally, I'll take a meeting, but it's pretty rare. You delegate and rely upon people to do the work on your behalf. I have a brilliant agent who's been extraordinarily supportive, and not only that, he understands where my tastes lie. A lot of that is important. You want to be dealing with people who understand who you are sufficiently well that they can make a choice on your behalf in your absence.
O: Are any of the potential adaptations pet projects for you? Any you'd particularly like to see made?
CB: Damnation Game would certainly be something I would love to see made. Abarat, at Disney, I'm very passionate about. Weaveworld has been in development for eight years at Showtime, and one of these days, one of these years, one of these millennia, I'd like to see that made, too. There's nothing I actively don't want to see made, or I wouldn't have put it into production in the first place, but there are certainly things where you think, "Yeah, that would make a great movie."
O: What happened with the multimedia CD-ROM you were doing with Korn's Jonathan Davis?
CB: He has all my images. I think we're looking at Jonathan having the music finished by the end of the year.
O: When you get up in the morning, how do you decide whether it's going to be a writing day, or a painting day, or a creating-new-toy-designs-for-Todd McFarlane day, or what?
CB: Some of it's about meetings that have been set at long distance. Todd is a very busy man, so we tend to set meetings two or three months ahead, always for the later part of the afternoon, when I've finished writing. Every day, I write. I'm at my desk between 8:30 and 9 every day without fail, seven days a week, because that's the heart of everything. Whether it's a screenplay, a novel, or a short story, that's where I'm going to be beginning. Once I get into the latter part of the afternoon, I'll take meetings. I'll sit with my team and talk about where things are going, maybe
sit and read a screenplay. And then in the evening, I'll paint.
O: What's the writing process like for you?
CB: With the large novels, I tend to plot them pretty carefully, because with a book like Coldheart Canyon, where there's a lot of research to be done, and the resonance lies in being able to plot a character arc... If you look at the characters in Coldheart Canyon, almost none of them end the novel in the same psychic or spiritual state that they began it. Not to speak of the physical state. [Laughs.] They also change physically, obviously. But the selfish, inward-looking, self-obsessed Todd Pickett of the beginning is not the Todd Pickett of the end. That journey is one of the things that novels allow you to do. It's one of the great things about having a story at that length to tell. You get a chance to luxuriate in the narrative. You lean back in the narrative and have fun with it.
O: One of the unusual aspects of your books is the way they carry on after the point that would be a traditional ending for most novels. Coldheart Canyon, for instance, goes on for about 50 pages after where a movie version would probably end.
CB: Right. [Laughs.] Right. I think there's lots more to tell. Sometimes, I think there's more fun to be had, and more insight to be had, in the last 50 pages of a book, if you continue to observe how the characters respond to the sights they've seen and the horrors they've endured. To give you a kind of dark parallel, we are, as a country right now, only [a short span of time] into reeling from the events of Sept. 11. And we will continue to reel. And watching us as a group of people, as a society, as individuals, respond to those things—to rediscover our spirituality, perhaps, or to lose faith with our spirituality, perhaps—those are extraordinary things that are happening, changes that will continue happening long after, if you will, the story has ceased. I'm interested, as a storyteller, in seeing what happens after other people would have written "The End" at the end of the manuscript.
O: You've said in interviews that you're not a horror writer, but you tend to use traditional horror-novel tropes, which you usually remake with new rules, like the ghosts in Coldheart Canyon. Why begin with something that's been written to death when you're going to set out in a new direction anyway?
CB: Everything has been written to death. There are no fresh things in all the world. The dead are the dead and the living are the living, now let's go on—right. The idea of the ghost, the talkative dead, is as open to re-imagining as the idea of the solider, the nurse, the seamstress. I could venture out into space. What do you find out in space? You find, as generations of science-fiction writers have discovered, the same old stories. Stories of love and the loss of love, and disappointment, and anger, and avarice, and so on. Even when we create entirely new species—when I travel to a new dimension in Weaveworld, or in Abarat, or in Imagica—the things which motivate people don't change, in part because these are the facts of what we know about the world, but in part also because the audience needs something to relate to. The things that motivate people, and creatures, are universals. One person has more than another, one person is loved more than another. These things are places we return to. What I'm trying to do, constantly, is make them fresh, make them feel new.
O: Thematically, your work is pretty far out there. You deal a lot with the grotesque and the extreme, with images from sadomasochism to self-consumption. Do you think these kinds of things are universal motivators?
CB: Yes. Completely. But I think if you were to do a page count in Coldheart Canyon and see how many pages deal with S&M, it would be a very small count. Those extremes are things I like to be able to press into the fiction, but I like the people who experience those things in the fiction to be people that I've familiarized the audience with by telling the audience about them in some detail. An obvious example would be the death of the dog in Coldheart Canyon. Todd is not a very pleasant man, and if we didn't have that extended passage in which nothing supernatural happens, and he just tends to his dog, I don't think we'd like him very much. But once we've gotten into his skin, once we realize he's really just a guy from out of town who has a beautiful face and mourns his dog, then we can go on an adventure with him. That adventure will take us to some pretty extreme places, as you say, no question. But I think that the universality comes in the portions with the guy and his dog, rather than the adventure he's going to go on, or what lies at the end of the adventure. All of us have extreme moments in our lives. All of us have had times when we've thought, "Is this really us doing this?" Sex, sexuality, the erotic instinct, can make us do extraordinary things. They may not be the things I'm detailing in my books, but they can be different things. One of the things I get out of the fans... I had a signing last night, and several times at the signing people came along, saying, "You make me feel like I'm not the only one."