Stuart Gordon, Stuck
Since the very beginning of his career, Stuart Gordon has set out to shock and disrupt. Gordon, a native of Chicago, began his assault on the public after developing a love of drama at the University of Wisconsin. He subsequently started the Screw Theater – which made national news in 1968 when they performed a nude, psychedelic version of Peter Pan – and went on in 1970 to found the Organic Theater Company in Chicago, where he was artistic director for 15 years. Over that period, Gordon worked with Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, championed the work of the then-unknown David Mamet, and had Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz as ensemble members. In 1985, he left Organic to direct Re-Animator, based on an H.P. Lovecraft horror story, which won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and gained instant cult status. Gordon has since adapted three more Lovecraft works for the big screen, as well as works by Edgar Allan Poe (The Pit and the Pendulum) and Ray Bradbury (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit). In addition to horror and gothic, Gordon directed the futuristic prison drama Fortress and the campy Space Truckers, and wrote Honey, I Shrunk the Kids with his friend and fellow horror specialist Brian Yuzna. Recently, Gordon’s work has shifted from the fantastical to the horrors of real life with the gritty thriller King of the Ants (2003), David Mamet’s psychological drama Edmond (2005), and now his latest movie.
Stuck is based on the shocking true story of a care assistant from a senior citizen’s home who, while drunk and on Ecstasy, hit a homeless man with her car, breaking his legs – and leaving him lodged firmly in her windshield. Rather than calling the police, she returned home, left her car in the garage and regularly visited the injured man to check on his waning condition. In Gordon’s film, the names of principal characters – played by Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea – have been changed, but much of what is presented here is true to the real-life events. Gordon and screenwriter John Strysik try to imagine the otherwise kind-hearted Brandi’s (Suvari) motives for not helping Tom (Rea), the man she hit. However this is no dry psychological examination – Gordon takes every opportunity to play up the surreal and ridiculous elements of the story as well as, inevitably, the gory and unsavory parts. Stuck is a mixture of smart and silly, philosophical and flippant, as Gordon delivers an entertaining tale of the real-life macabre, and also a little food for thought for those who are looking for it.
Filmmaker spoke to Gordon about the true story behind the film, keeping Stephen Rea in a car windshield for most of the shoot, and making movies without film.
Filmmaker: Stuck is based on a true story. When did you first read about it and what was your initial reaction?
Gordon: When I read about it, it was in the newspapers for weeks, it was a huge story. The actual event took place in 2001 but I think the trial took place about two or three years later so it was during the trial that most of the copy appeared about it. It was one of those jaw-dropping stories: here’s a woman who’s a care giver in a senior citizen’s home who hits a guy with her and car and puts him in her garage and keeps going in to see how he’s doing and talking to him and apologizing to him. This seemed like a fairly normal woman, so I kept wondering what would make her behave this way. That was really the question that we tried to answer with the movie.
Filmmaker: How quickly did you realize this was a story you wanted to tell?
Gordon: I was talking to John Strysik, who’s a writer, and we were talking about ideas and I said, “What about doing a movie about this story?” He initially said, “Well, there’s not a lot there, really. Is there enough for a feature?” I said, “Sure, I think there could be. Just let it play out – it’s horrifying.” So we started working on it together.
Filmmaker: How did you get the rights to the story?
Gordon: Anything that’s in the newspapers is public domain, so we just based it on what we were reading. We didn’t talk to anyone, we didn’t interview anybody, we saw some things that were on the television at the time on Court TV, but that was pretty much it. And then we started letting our imaginations run with it.
Filmmaker: With a story like this, were you concerned with the exact details of the case or did you worry that knowing what actually happened would inhibit your creativity?
Gordon: Actually John visited Fort Worth and he saw the house and the garage where it happened and he went to the highway and found the spot where she had hit the guy. Unlike our movie, it’s out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a highway. It was really kinda weird – what was this guy doing out there? We tried to get as much information as we could and then some of it we ended up using and some of it we ended up changing. There were certain assumptions that we made that may or may not have been true. The whole idea in the movie of her being up for a promotion was something that we invented, but it was one of those things where the idea that she had something to gain by covering this up seemed important.
Filmmaker: How much did you manage to find out about Gergory Biggs, the real-life guy who was hit?
Gordon: We did find out that he had a son, and that kind of worked its way into the story. It was interesting, because the movie was just shown at the AFI Festival and although I was not there, John Strysik and Stephen Rea were and this guy came up to Stephen Rea and introduced himself, and it was Gregory Biggs’ son. Stephen’s feeling was that this was a guy who was looking for his father and that he felt that by seeing the film he would maybe learn more about him. He got the feeling that Biggs’ son did not know his father that well.
Filmmaker: Presumably you don’t know how Chante Mallard, the woman who hit Biggs, feels about the film.
Gordon: Mallard’s in jail serving a 50 year term. I don’t know whether she knows about the film, but I do know that there was a lot of press about it in Dallas-Fort Worth. I was contacted by someone from the radio station who had covered the trial and had heard about the movie after we had shown it in Toronto. She said, “You know, this woman is not a monster.” I said, “Well, I don’t think we portrayed her as a monster in the film.”
Filmmaker: I think the idea that she is up for a promotion is somewhat forgiving towards her as it at least partly explains her actions, though in no way excuses them.
Gordon: The thing that we got into was that it was really about fear, this fear of ruining your life. Also, if people are in traffic accidents, it’s never their fault. It’s one of those things that you’re schooled in, to never admit that you’re to blame, so I think that’s part of it too. I think that in our society now, people will just not admit to any mistakes, starting all the way at the top. There’s a line in the movie where they say, “Look who’s in the White House. Look, you can get away with anything now!” It’s true, we’ve got this completely amoral president who sets the tone for everybody else. In talking about fear in our daily life, this is a guy who has done nothing but try to fan the flames of fear, to get us more afraid – afraid of terrorists, afraid of immigrants, afraid of gays, afraid of anybody. He’s trying to keep everybody scared and under his thumb.
Filmmaker: When I was watching Stuck, I was aware of how unappealing the role of Tom must have been to actors because of its physical challenges. Did you have trouble finding someone willing to be stuck in a windshield for the majority of the movie?
Gordon: We didn’t really approach that many people because we were lucky that we got Stephen Rea, who was at the top of the list, really. He’s an actor whose work I’ve been admiring forever. There’s just something about him and his face that just seems perfect for this. He’s got this hangdog quality, and he’s so sympathetic and you really care about him. Everything he does, he gets you to kind of become him, in a way, and for this movie that’s what we wanted. He read the script and immediately signed on – we didn’t have to convince him or talk him into anything. He was really taken with the script, and he said, “I realize I’m putting myself up for a world of pain here just to do this.” There were times when he was regretting it, bitching about it, because every day was, like, two hours of make-up and then into the windshield for the rest of the day.
Filmmaker: Presumably the physical restrictions of the role had a psychological impact on him. Did you see the effect of that over the course of the shoot?
Gordon: I really did. As a matter of fact, we shot things in sequence and the day that his character pulls himself out of the hood of the car, I’ve never seen a happier man in my life. [laughs] It was like, “Thank God, I’m out of that windshield!” He was in that windshield for three weeks.
Filmmaker: How firmly embedded did he have to be to appear genuinely stuck?
Gordon: Oh, he was really stuck. He couldn’t move his arm, because it was wedged in there, it was that tight. And his head was hanging lower than the rest of his body and the blood would rush to his head. He would have to have something for him to lean on while we were setting up the shot. It was very uncomfortable. I would say to him, “Can you do one more take?” and he would say, “Ohhhhhh… Oh, OK.” He knew that we needed it, but he also got to the point where he said, “Don’t put me in that windshield until everything is ready to go. I don’t want to be in that windshield and have you fiddling with lights.”
Filmmaker: The film is a strange companion piece to Misery. Was that in the forefront of your mind from early on?
Gordon: It was. When we were talking about doing it, I was saying, “Well, it would sort of be like Misery.” It was one of those touchstones, and I know that Mena watched Misery several times before we started shooting.
Filmmaker: I think what makes this more interesting than Misery is that Mena Suvari, unlike Kathy Bates, is actually for the most part an extremely likable character on screen.
Gordon: I think that was one of the great things about Mena’s performance, that she did not choose to make her crazy. This is a normal person, this is something that can happen to anybody, really. She makes a bad decision and then has to follow through.
Filmmaker: I may be reading too much into this, but I detected a possible nod to Crash when Suvari’s character has sex with her boyfriend just after hitting Tom.
Gordon: This was actually true, this really did happen. Chante Mallard put Biggs in her garage and then immediately went in and had sex with her boyfriend. That really took place, and that’s where we got this idea. I think that what was going on there – and we tried to get into it a little bit – was that this was a way for her to escape from what she’s just done. It’s like, “I’m gonna get drunk, I’m gonna get stoned, I’m gonna fuck my brains out and I’m gonna pretend that this didn’t happen.”
Filmmaker: Looking at the arc of your career, there seems to have been a recent shift towards the grotesquerie of real life as opposed to horror grounded in science fiction or fantasy. Is there a reason for that?
Gordon: I don’t know, except that as you get older you start realizing that real life is scarier than anything you can dream up, that the things that people actually do to each other are far more bizarre and horrifying than anything that Lovecraft could dream of. I have a friend who used to say that it’s the little things that upset you the most. Godzilla destroying Tokyo is not a scary thing because it’s so huge that we can’t even imagine it, but a person cutting their finger with a razor is really upsetting because we’ve all done that.
Filmmaker: Looking at your bio, I was trying to find the common thread between your theater work in the 70s and 80s and the film work you’ve done subsequently. I suppose the crude conclusion that I came to is that in all of this you’ve given yourself the role of troublemaker or rabble rouser.
Gordon: That’s accurate, I’d say. I like shocking people, I like waking them up, making them see things in a new way and pay attention. I think that’s always a good thing. We spent so much of our life walking around in a daze. One of the things I liked about Edmond was that Mamet talks about that. He says, “How much of your life are you truly alive? Five minutes out of the year when you’re in difficulties, or a traffic accident.” That line, in a way, connects Edmond and this movie.
Filmmaker: When you were working in the theatre, was it your ambition to move into film?
Gordon: It’s funny, when I was a teenager I made little movies with my friends and when I went to university I wanted to take a film course but it was full so I took an acting course instead. That acting course showed me the potential of theater and I got completely into theater. But a lot of the plays that I did were sort of like movies on stage. I mean, we put on plays that had naval battles on stage, we did a police thing where we had gunfights on stage, a science fiction trilogy before Star Wars that went into other dimensions. I think, in a way, I was making movies without any film and so now to be able to make real movies is great. Although I still think theatre is harder.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Gordon: It was The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille, about the circus. I think I was about three years old. As a result, I wanted to be a clown. A lot of people say that I’ve succeeded. [laughs] That movie made a big impression on me, the wonder of it all – it was a big movie.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Gordon: I think of a job as being something where you’re being paid to do something you don’t want to do, and the last “job” I had was when I was in college. I was working as a credit manager for Hertz Rent-a-truck and I had to call people up who hadn’t paid their bills. That was one of those jobs where you wished you weren’t doing it. I’ve been lucky since then never to have to work again.