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Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown Documentary – Director Frank Woodward Interview

The special Halloween double issue of Rue Morgue magazine included a number of interesting features, as usual, but one which caught my eye was a description of a new documentary on titled Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (Wyrdstuff Productions, 2008). This fim was directed and produced by Frank Woodward, and after getting in touch he graciously and enthusiastically talked about this production.

TheoFantastique: Frank, thanks for making this great documentary, and for allowing me to screen it for this interview. How did you come to develop a personal fascination with Lovecraft and how did it lead to this documentary coming about?
 
Frank Woodward:  I first became aware of Lovecraft like most people, I expect.  It was the Call of Cthulhu role playing game, mainly the monsters within.  I’ve always been a monster fan and who could resist the tentacled beasties in CoC.

That led to my reading some of the major stories… Call of Cthulhu, Pickman’s Model, Rats In The Walls.  I have to admit, though, that my Lovecraftian knowledge was basic. 

The desire to make a documentary was a more recent one.  I occasionally produce DVD extras for Anchor Bay.  There was discussion of doing a short bio of Lovecraft for the Re-Animator special edition.  It didn’t happen for various reasons.  By the time that decision was made, however, I had done quite a bit of research on the man.  In some way I experienced what many of the people who’ve seen the documentary experienced.  I was reminded how much I enjoyed Lovecraft’s work and wanted to throw myself headlong into learning more. 

Making this documentary was almost like a college course. I think that’s how all documentaries should be made.  They should be a journey of discovery.  The desire to learn all you can is why you bother making the film in the first place.

The other thing that really brought Lovecraft about was the response I received from Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, and Peter Straub.  They were the first people we approached and all three were generous and passionate enough to sit down and talk about Lovecraft for an hour.  Peter Straub even allowed us to interview him in his home.

But, by the time they said ‘yes’, the plans to make a DVD featurette had fizzled.  So here I was with Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Straub all willing to be in a piece about Lovecraft, but there was no more piece.  That’s when my producing partners Jim Myers and William Janczewski said, “Let’s just do it ourselves.”  So Wyrd was formed and Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown became our first documentary.

TheoFantastique: You have assembled an interesting group of commentators that provide their perspectives on Lovecraft. How did you assemble this group, and specifically, how did Guillermo Del Toro and John Carpenter come to be involved with this project?
 

Frank Woodward: I think each and every person we interviewed agreed to be a part of the film because they love Lovecraft.  It helped that they were also fans because, like many true genre fans, we delve into our favorite subjects and discuss them with others.

For the most part, the only thing we had to do was ask.  Obviously we had gained some respectability once Gaiman, Straub and others came aboard.

In the case of Guillermo, I first approached him at Comic Con in San Diego.  He had just told a packed hall about his plans for At The Mountains Of Madness (I believe he told us that we would cry and masturbate in a corner once we saw the designs he had in mind for the Elder Scientists – he’s right, by the way).  Guillermo said ‘yes’ there and then, but it took a lot of phone calls to actually schedule the interview.  This was right before Pan’s Labyrinth was nominated for a few Oscars so he was understandably busy.  Thanks to an assist from Andrew Migliore, the director of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and an associate producer on the film, we finally arranged a date.

John Carpenter was also made possible with Andrew’s help.  Andrew wanted to honor Carpenter with a Howie Award at the festival.  Carpenter couldn’t physically make it so Andrew arranged with me to help videotape an acceptance speech.  We timed our request to interview Carpenter for the documentary with this taping.  Carpenter was more than willing to answer a few questions.

This passion for all things Lovecraft was also responsible for convincing artists like John Coulthart, Paul Carrick, Tom Sullivan, Paul Komoda and others you’ll see in the film to loan us their work.  It also put me in touch with Mars, the film’s composer.  Mars put 30-plus years of being a dedicated cultist into the film’s score and I think you can tell.

TheoFantastique: You have screened this film at various festivals and conventions to the delight of audiences. Can you share some of these locations, how it has been received by viewers, and the awards you’ve won as a result?
 

Frank Woodward:  We’ve screened Lovecraft in Los Angeles (Shriekfest), San Diego (Comic Con), Portland (H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival), Erie, PA (The Eerie Horror Film Festival), Fargo (The Fargo Fantastic Film Festival), Sacramento (The Land Beyond), Montreal (Cinema du Parc) and Buenos Aires (Rojo Sangre).

We won Best Documentary at Comic Con.  That was all kinds of cool. Montreal’s Cinema du Parc gave us a week-long theatrical run in collaboration with the Fantasia Film Festival.  We’ve also received nice write ups in Rue Morgue, Dread Central, Horror.com and the Montreal press.

Audience reaction has been very positive.  Obviously fans of Lovecraft have the strongest reactions.  I’ve had a few people thank me for making the film.  One guy was so thrilled that he had something to show his wife and say, “See?  This is why he’s so important.”  I’ve also been receiving wonderful emails from people in Montreal.  Lovecraft fans are legion.

Even people who don’t appreciate Lovecraft’s writing have been complimentary.  I mean, you have to admit that the man, for all his eccentricities, is a captivating subject.
 
TheoFantastique: As the film concludes it notes how Lovecraft died in relative obscurity as a writer, and yet it also touches on the incredible influence of his writings on the horror genre as well as various parts of pop culture. Can you touch on some of these?
 
Frank Woodward:  The obvious aspects of pop culture that bear the mark of Lovecraft are the ones discussed in the film.  Alien and The Thing have definite ties to At The Mountains Of Madness.  Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean is clearly Cthulhu spawn.  Hellboy takes place in a Lovecraftian universe.  You also have the entire Chaosium line of RPGs and board games.

You can also see a fondness for tentacles on line.  Sites like Boing-Boing.net, Ectoplasmosis and i09 frequently have posts about Cthulhu inspired art, films and plush toys.

There’s also loose references to be found in Batman (Arkham Asylum), The Evil Dead movies (Necronomicon), Peter Jackson’s Fellowship Of The Ring (if the Watcher in the Lake outside the gates of Moria isn’t an Old One, I don’t know what is) and lost world stories such as King Kong.  Caitlin Kiernan pointed out the Kong connection to me.  I believe we posted a YouTube video about it.  They may not be as apparent as the ones in Hellboy, but the similarities do make you wonder.
 
TheoFantastique: Why do you think a man who was haunted by his own personal demons of various types has become one of the most influential horror writers of our time?
 
Frank Woodward: Lovecraft didn’t write stories about standard monsters like vampires and werewolves.  He invented his own universe with creatures unlike anything writers were conjuring at the time.  To paraphrase Guillermo, I think anytime someone creates a rich mythology like the Cthulhu mythos, it’s hard not to take notice.

The cosmic chaos at the heart of Lovecraft’s work is also something that resonates with people.  It’s the whole idea that mankind, for all of his accomplishments, is insignificant in the face of what may lie beyond.  If you go through any sort of existential period in your life, the thoughts Lovecraft expresses in his stories may suddenly make sense to you.

There’s also the unexplained.  For me (and many other horror aficionados), it’s the things we can’t describe that frighten us the most.  The things we don’t understand.  I mean, once you explain a monster or shadow, it doesn’t seem as scary. 

Think of the first people to experience a tiger.  Before its mystery was explained, a tiger was a striped demon with a thirst for human blood striking from the shadows of the jungle.  Before… it was a supernatural monster.  After… it was another big cat. It became something you could deal with… more or less.

The best horror doesn’t explain itself.  This is a lesson Lovecraft taught us.
 
TheoFantastique: What does the future hold for Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown in terms of future film festivals and wider distribution? Any chance it might get picked up by a national distributor or perhaps be shown on places like Bio, Chiller, or the Sci Fi channels?
 
Frank Woodward: I think we’re done with the festival circuit (though we did submit to Sundance and Slamdance, just in case).  Now our focus is on distribution.  Obviously we would love to have the film handled by a major distributor.  We have screeners at many such places. 

With regards to cable, we’re talking to the usual suspects.  Believe it or not, Sci-Fi Channel has already passed.  They passed on Doctor Who initially so we’re in good company.   Maybe they’ll reconsider.

Documentaries in general are a tough sell. One way or another, though, Lovecraft will be available to people soon. You can check our blog at www.wyrdstuff.com for updates on our crusade. 

TheoFantastique: Any plans for the next documentary or project through Wyrd Productions?
 
Frank Woodward:  Wyrd is currently editing a piece called The Splat Pack.  It was a term coined by British film critic Alan Jones to describe the new wave of horror filmmakers such as Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Darren Lynn Bousman.  Whether you respond to their brand of horror or not, these filmmakers were responsible for reviving R rated horror and showing Hollywood that such films could be well crafted as well as profitable.  The Splat Pack will most likely be our first foray into internet distribution.

We’re also in production on a non-genre themed documentary.  Something about a way of life in America that has come and gone.  That’s all I can say at the moment.

I’d love to do another piece on the weird tales genre.  Possibly something on Weird Tales magazine itself.  First things first, though.  Our primary goal is to get Lovecraft out in the world.
 
TheoFantastique: Frank, thanks again for this great work. I hope this film is disseminated as widely as possible and that more people become aware of the significance of Lovecraft to the fantastic in popular culture.

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown can be watched for free online here.

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