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In Conversation With Michael Doyle Author of Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters and Hancock on Hancock
http://www.bookpleasures.com/websitepublisher/articles/8722/1/In-Conversation-With-Michael-Doyle-Author-of-Larry-Cohen-The-Stuff-of-Gods-and-Monsters-and-Hancock-on-Hancock/Page1.html
Norm Goldman


Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com.

He has been reviewing books for the past twenty years when he retired from the legal profession.

To read more about Norm Follow Here






 
By Norm Goldman
Published on July 3, 2018
 

Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, Michael Doyle. Michael is a journalist and author born in Wales. His words have appeared in such publications as Fangoria, Rue Morgue and Scream, affording him the opportunity to interview many celebrated filmmakers including William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Philip Kaufman, David Cronenberg, Roger Corman, Guillermo Del Toro, Ivan Reitman, Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, John Landis and Wes Craven.

His first book, Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters, was published by BearManor Media in 2015 to critical acclaim. It traces the life and works of the independent filmmaker Larry Cohen, the man responsible for such cerebral “schlockers” as It's Alive, God Told Me To, Q – The Winged Serpent and The Stuff.


BearManor Media has just released Doyle's latest book, Hancock on Hancock, which is a candid exploration of the tumultuous career of the Academy Award-nominated writer-director John Hancock, whose films include Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Bang the Drum Slowly, Weeds, Prancer and The Looking Glass



Bookpleasures.com welcomesas our  guest,  Michael Doyle. Michael is a journalist and author born in Wales. His words have appeared in such publications as Fangoria, Rue Morgue and Scream, affording him the opportunity to interview many celebrated filmmakers including William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Philip Kaufman, David Cronenberg, Roger Corman, Guillermo Del Toro, Ivan Reitman, Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, John Landis and Wes Craven.

His first book, Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters, was published by BearManor Media in 2015 to critical acclaim. It traces the life and works of the independent filmmaker Larry Cohen, the man responsible for such cerebral “schlockers” as It's Alive, God Told Me To, Q – The Winged Serpent and The Stuff.

BearManor Media has just released Doyle's latest book, Hancock on Hancock, which is a candid exploration of the tumultuous career of the Academy Award-nominated writer-director John Hancock, whose films include Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Bang the Drum Slowly, Weeds, Prancer and The Looking Glass.

Michael is currently working on a book about John Carpenter, director of such classic and cult films as Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing.

Norm: Good day Michael and thanks for participating in our interview.

Michael: You're welcome. I'm happy to do it.

What motivated you to interview and write about celebrated filmmakers? As a follow up, who was the first celebrity you interviewed and how did you go about interesting him or her in being interviewed?


Michael: It really grew out of my passion and curiosity for movies. I've been a devotee of cinema – particularly of genre cinema – since I first saw John Carpenter's Halloween at the tender age of eight.

Watching that film was a hugely formative experience for me, and the purity and intensity of the terror I felt that day has never been repeated since.

After seeing Halloween, I began investigating movies more deeply. I read a lot of film magazines and books to learn more about how they were made and the people who made them. I visited libraries, read autobiographies and histories of film, all the time watching as many movies as I could.

There were actually two video stores in my street – one of which was located beneath my house – and I would rent and buy VHS tapes from these establishments every time I had enough pocket money. I even became a paperboy to earn more cash.

At this point in my life, I was not thinking of pursuing a career as a journalist. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I began writing short stories and scripts, and later attended university where I studied among other things film and creative writing.

The first celebrity I actually interviewed was the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, star of the TV series The Americans, who also recently appeared in Steven Spielberg's film The Post.

Rhys visited the university I was attending to shoot an interview session that was filmed by the director Karl Francis and later broadcast on television. The students were encouraged to devise questions that could be put to Rhys about his profession. The other students were somewhat stumped by this task, but I found it easy and came up with a few probing queries that had Rhys responding favorably. I suppose that was when I first realized I was fairly good at asking questions that elicited interesting answers.

Norm: What has been your greatest challenge that you’ve overcome in interviewing and writing about these celebrities?

Michael: My own natural shyness. Frankly, it would stun some of my friends and colleagues to learn about this as I've become extremely good at concealing it over the years.

Fortunately, I've learned how to control any anxieties I may have enough to do my job with a degree of competence. Once I get talking, I'm okay. Even if an interview becomes difficult or a little dry, once I'm into it, I'm concentrated enough to remedy most problems and can even enliven proceedings somewhat with a few thought-provoking questions or observations. Besides, I've found that a degree of fear and apprehension can be a good thing in that – if you channel it properly – it keeps you focused.

Norm: Which of the interviews you have conducted was the most memorable and why?

Michael: Oh, there have been so many memorable ones and for different reasons. If you ask any journalist who has interviewed a number of people over a period of time, they will no doubt have had a few mind-blowing encounters. I certainly have.

I once interviewed a rather famous actor who was clearly narcotized during our chat. He was slurring his words and making weird grunting and gurgling noises throughout. Honestly, his voice sounded like somebody was playing a record at a slow speed. Then, after about ten minutes or so, this individual actually fell asleep! End of interview. Our dialogue was then hastily rescheduled for the following day with the help of an apologetic publicist. This time the subject was sober and answered all my questions attentively, but not before insisting it was his prescribed medication that had made him act so stupefied and kooky. Whatever was the cause of his behaviour, it was an unforgettable experience.

Norm: How do you go about choosing the celebrities you wish to interview and how do you interest them in being interviewed and written about by yourself?

Michael: Sometimes I'm given an assignment by an editor to interview somebody to coincide with the release of a film, TV show or book. Other times I chose somebody just because I am interested in their work.

That was certainly the case with my books Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters and Hancock on Hancock.

I wanted to explore the careers and works of Larry Cohen and John Hancock in exhaustive detail, and obtain answers to the questions I'd always wanted to ask them. Of course, you are relying on the compliance and generosity of these people to engage in interviews that, in those two instances, took three years and five years respectively to complete.

Oddly enough, both Larry and John were flattered that I wanted to write a book about them. Cohen actually said to me when I first contacted him, "Who would ever want to read a book about me?"

Looking back on it now, I guess I also wanted to celebrate their achievements in some way, as I feel both of these directors have been somewhat neglected – although Cohen has been getting a lot of love recently and has had a feature-length documentary made about him.

As for getting celebrities interested in conversing with you, in most cases I find that if you are respectful and professional in your initial approach, you can entice people to talk with you. There have also been two or three instances where filmmakers have known who I am; they've read my previous work and liked it enough to agree to speak with me.

Norm: Do you use social media to reach out to celebrities you wish to interview? If so, how do you do it?

Michael: No, never. I don't have a Facebook or Twitter account. I don't like to expend any unnecessary time and energy detailing the minutiae of my day. My life really isn't that interesting, anyway. More than that, I don't want the distraction – even though I understand and appreciate the obvious advantages of social media from a professional perspective.

One day very soon I might surprise a few people I know and join Facebook, but not yet. I'm not quite ready. The fact is I worked as a struggling screenwriter for many years and gradually built up a solid network of friendships, contacts and connections in the business. When I packed in the screenwriting and became a journalist and author, I exploited some of these contacts in order to reach certain elusive people in the industry who would have otherwise been difficult to locate – particularly back then in those dim and distant days before social media exploded.

Norm: How do you prepare for your interviews? Do you follow a set plan and do you have rules as to which questions to ask and which to avoid?

Michael: I begin by doing a lot of research beforehand, preparing my notes and questions carefully so that all the crucial and valuable information can be gleaned from my subject. I find this also helps me if the conversation veers off on a tangent, as the conversation may bring up something unexpected or intriguing.

I don't have any rules as to what questions I ask, other than to make each question relevant and stimulating. Sometimes one anticipates that certain people will behave and respond in a certain way, based on previous interviews they have done which one has seen and read.

In my experience, I've found this can be somewhat deceiving. People with reputations for unfailing warmth and generosity can turn out to be complete arse-holes when you meet them. Conversely, others who appear irascible or slippery turn out to be soul-bearing sweethearts. So, take each person as you find them as reputations are not always deserved or earned.  

Norm: Do you avoid controversial topics when you interview celebrities?

Michael: Generally, no. I have avoided certain sensitive topics in the past, particularly if they have already been well-documented and there is no new information to be extracted from digging them up again.

There is nothing to be gained from alienating or annoying somebody by reminding them of some past indiscretion or perceived failure, however politely you do it. The subject may become defensive or reticent, and your interview will be the lesser for it. That said I've never been afraid to ask the tough questions when I felt it was necessary and appropriate. But you always take chances when tackling controversial topics. For example, I once asked a rather famous Hollywood director about something that was rumoured to have occurred on one of his sets. This incident had been verified by several of his crew-members, who put him in close proximity to the scene. The words were hardly out of my mouth, when he blew up at me. The rest of the interview was conducted under a cloud of palpable tension and suspicion, my questions met with cynical and monosyllabic answers. Our chat was then terminated earlier than I'd hoped.

Norm: What motivated you to write about John Hancock and could you tell us something about the book?

Michael: Again, it was simply because I enjoyed and admired John's work. I had interviewed him in 2012 for an article on his masterful horror film Let's Scare Jessica to Death.

He was such an eloquent, garrulous and candid man – with such a great ability to recall his long and tumultuous career – I knew he would make a terrific subject for a book. When I approached John with the idea, he happily agreed and was fully committed to what eventually became a rather convoluted but satisfying process.

I've worked with few people who have been as patient and generous as John. The interviews in Hancock on Hancock detail John's life from his beginnings in the suburbs of Chicago, where he initially wanted to be a professional musician like his father. We also touch on his formative years at Harvard, where he first began directing for the theatre, and explore his eventful years working Off-Broadway.

John directed a number of classic and contemporary plays, such as his legendary Obie Award-winning production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he offers some amazing stories of his friendships with people like Tennessee Williams and Jean Arthur.

There is a chapter devoted to each of John's films, beginning with his Academy Award-nominated short Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet and continuing with the aforementioned Let's Scare Jessica to Death, which, in my opinion, is one of the best horror films of the 1970s.

John also discusses, among other things, his classic baseball picture Bang the Drum Slowly, which featured a breakout performance by Robert De Niro as a dying third-string catcher; his moving prison drama Weeds, which starred Nick Nolte as a troubled convict who discovers redemption through art; and the Christmas favourite Prancer, which concerns a little girl who finds an injured deer in a forest that may or may not be one of Santa's fabled flying reindeer.

Additionally, the book also examines John's later films, such as A Piece of Eden, Suspended Animation and The Looking Glass, which were made after John left Hollywood in the mid-1990s and moved to Indiana.

John also recounts his notorious dismissal from the Hollywood blockbuster Jaws 2 in 1977 after a year of pre-production and a month of shooting, as well as his contributions to Wolfen and 8 Million Ways to Die after replacing Michael Wadleigh and Hal Ashby after both men were fired.

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Michael: The most difficult part was the editing of the manuscript, deciding what material to keep and what to lose. So much of it was rich and interesting, with very little repetition, which is amazing when you consider the sheer size of the book.

As I said, the interviews spanned a period of five years, which includes two years of research, transcribing and editing, that was conducted as I was still writing articles for Rue Morgue magazine. There were one or two passages that John asked me to remove from the finished manuscript, as he did not want to offend or upset certain people.

John had been so open and accommodating to me during our conversations, and had already given me lots of juicy anecdotes, I cut those sections without protesting too much. The most enjoyable aspect of writing Hancock on Hancock was my many long conversations with John. He and I are now firm friends and that is what I treasure most about the experience of writing this book.

Norm: What is the most important thing that people DON'T know about John Hancock that they need to know?

Michael: Well, let me just say that Hancock on Hancock contains a veritable abundance of revelations that will hopefully surprise, delight and edify the reader.

These range from harmless nuggets of trivia to more devastating personal stories. For instance, John briefly recalls meeting with the legendary Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis about his possibly helming the much-maligned 1976 remake of King Kong.

He asked Dino what the film was about, thinking maybe he was taking an adventurous "anti-colonialist slant" with the material. Dino gave John a strange look, and said, "What's about?! It's about a bigga monkey!"

In another chapter, John vividly describes the terrible fire that consumed the beloved Malibu house he shared with his wife, the actress and screenwriter Dorothy Tristan, in 1993. The blaze burned for ten days and covered close to 18,000 acres, reducing 430 homes to ruins, leaving three people dead and many more severely injured.

There was also a tremendous loss of wildlife and vegetation, and, as John recounts, this inferno almost claimed his life.

To answer your question, the most important thing to know about John Hancock is he has not allowed the crushing disappointments of his life and career to defeat or dissuade him. He has an indomitable spirit and his passion for directing personal films that contain a lot of autobiographical content remains undimmed. With most directors, one can trace things more to art than biography, but John always invests personal aspects of his life and relationships into his work.

Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?

Michael: I hope that Hancock on Hancock will lead to a greater degree of appreciation and recognition for John's work. From the beginning of the project, I've always believed that his unique career – which has spanned more than sixty years – was worth chronicling. Some of the people who have books written about them these days – people whose career has lasted barely sixty days – is incredible.

The fact is we live in a disposable and shallow culture, one that offers people near instantaneous celebrity but has all the depth and value of a parking lot puddle. Sincere and literate artists like John, who have dedicated their entire lives to maintaining and developing their craft, deserve our full attention and respect. That's what I want readers to take away with them when they read the book: I want them to form a deeper understanding of a rare talent, who could have done so much more than he was ever asked to do.

Norm: What is next for Michael Doyle?

Michael: I am currently working on a book called Conversations with Carpenter, which collects a decade of interviews I've conducted with the writer/director/composer John Carpenter.

I have high hopes for the project and I'm fairly close to finishing it. Carpenter is a fascinating man and, like Cohen and Hancock, is a sorely undervalued filmmaker in my eyes. He is one of the most influential American filmmakers of the last forty-five years and he should be cherished.

Carpenter is a different personality to most other directors I've encountered. He is a very laconic and eloquent man once you have him engaged, but he doesn't suffer fools. I love speaking with him, actually. I think Conversations with Carpenter steers him into areas of discussion few other interviewers have attempted previously. I hope readers will like the book when it eventually appears.

Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your books, but nobody has?

Michael: I would like to be asked any question that offered me an opportunity to say just how difficult being a writer is; how it can be an isolating and financially unrewarding endeavor; how it requires sacrifice, persistence and dedication. It's not easy. Thomas Mann once said, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I think that's true.

I've certainly felt that way and I've worked hard at the art of interviewing people and communicating their ideas and stories through conversation. I still feel I have a lot to learn. But when you get it right, when you create a piece of work that gives you an enormous sense of pride and satisfaction, and, more importantly, gives the reader a great source of pleasure and information, it's a beautiful thing.

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.