An Interview with Robert Parigi

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Robert Parigi is best known as the writer and director of award-winning cult horror film Love Object. As a producer, his diverse credits include animation (King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead), genre series Profiler and Tales from the Crypt, and most recently, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It is my pleasure to bring our readers a more intimate look at the man who has helped entertain the masses.

Where did you grow up? What do you love most about the place you came from?

I loved the bayous, overgrown with Spanish moss. The Southeast Texas State fair, with its atmosphere of exotic danger (which I found out later from my good friend Johnny “Czar of the Bizarre” Meah was quite real; the fix was in and the Fair was notoriously corrupt). I took for granted the great bbq and Tex-Mex food (the only decent bbq I’ve found in L.A. imports its sauce from Austin). And I was fascinated by the statuary and ritual at the Catholic church I attended growing up. One of the first videos I made detailed the inner workings of a local Aeolian Skinner pipe organ.

What were you like as a child? Did you always have an active imagination?

I was a weird kid. I’m still a weird kid; I just look like a grown-up. I made gelatin scars out of the classic Dick Smith Famous Monsters make-up book so I could creep out an air conditioner repair man by lurking while he worked. Once I sneaked into a department store mannequin window. Two old ladies walked past; when only one was looking I would move, but then kept still whenever she convinced her friend to look.

Were you always drawn to things of a darker nature?

Always. One of my earliest memories is seeing House of Frankenstein on TV.

What were some of your favorite television shows early on?

This was before the mainstreaming of genre, before the internet, even before home video, so movies were always more important to me than television. Television was rarely weird enough.

My favorites by far were the classic Universal horrors that showed on Saturday afternoon. And classic Termite Terrace era Looney Tunes, Fleischer Bros. Popeye with their kitchen sink surrealism, old Republic serials like King of the Rocket Men, Flash Gordon, The Purple Monster Strikes. Everything I loved was vintage, so I’ve always felt dislocated from current things.

The CBS Late Night Movie showed great AIP films from the 1970s. Abominable Dr. Phibes, Haunting of Hell House, Frogs, The Devil’s Rain, and others re-ran frequently, along with the original Planet of the Apes films and made-for-TV classics like Trilogy of Terror, Dan Curtis’ Dracula with Jack Palance, Frankenstein: The True Story, , Gargoyles.

I stayed up until 4am once to watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which became especially creepy the next day as I struggled to stay awake during school.

Which do you think influenced you most to do what you do now?

Anything that was weird or unusual, usually in re-runs of older programs. Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Addams Family, The Munsters. The Prisoner fascinated me, especially the Rovers that patrolled the Village.  Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Wild Wild West (steam-punk before there was a name for it). I liked the weird monsters in Star Trek (the original series), but was always bored with all the moralizing. Why did Kirk have to destroy the Tiki planet?

A local affiliate celebrated their anniversary by airing the original programming from their first night of broadcast back in the 1950s. I loved the Ernie Kovaks clips, One Step Beyond, and a bizarre first-person POV show called The Continental (later parodied on Saturday Night Live). That really gave me an idea that TV could be far stranger than the shows we see today.

Is it true you used to spend hours on end at the Tyrrell Public Library in Texas? What was that like?

It was the closest thing to the gothic castles I loved in the Universal horror films, and it was air conditioned, so I loved going there during summer vacations. It also has a two or three story spiral staircase. Of course, I had to roll down it once, and made it all the way to the bottom without cracking my skull. And as an older building, formerly a church, it was built of solid masonry. That in itself was fascinating, in a world of flimsy modern buildings.

Do you think with all the modern technology available that people are missing out on the full experience of books and libraries?

Absolutely. Here’s something I noticed recently at a museum, but it applies to libraries as well. I was visiting a new-style museum designed to “engage” kids. When I was a kid, I always hated things that talked down to me. I think most kids feel that way. All the kids visiting this museum-turned-playground were running wild and trashing the joint. The displays were tacky and the interaction was lame. It felt like a soiled Chuck E. Cheese.

I went across the street to the old-style Natural History Museum, all neo-classical galleries, funereal taxidermy diorama, and dinosaur skeletons. Unlike the “fun” museum, this one was dark. It required respect before it would offer up its secrets. It whispered rather than shouted. The kids wandered in awed silence, looking at the great dead things. Far more engaged by mystery, than by banality.I wager they will always remember their visit to this old museum, and instantly forgot the time wasted at the modern one.

I think it is the same with libraries and other brick-and-mortar cultural institutions. In an increasingly materialistic and literal world, these are the last remaining sacred spaces. The last engines we have for generating awe.

A recent article online proposed a new role for libraries in the digital age, since they are supposedly rendered obsolete by the internet. Libraries should become community centers where people would meet, and inventories of tools (like 3D printers) and services (like wireless internet access).

How horrible is this bland vision for our future! There is no space for the individual, since you no longer go to the library for the private activities of reading and research, but to join a group of others in a meeting. There is no value for ideas, only for things that can be used more cheaply than elsewhere. And this article was written by a librarian advocating this approach! How would Charles Forte ever write his books in such a library?

Were you a fan of Tales from the Crypt before you went to work on the series? What was that experience like?

Absolutely. I saved up for all the Russ Cochran reprints of the E.C. Library. Al Feldstein and “Ghastly” Graham Ingles were my favorite artists from the horror titles. Even before that, I was a MAD Magazine fan:  Don Martin, Al Jaffe, SPY vs SPY. Later, I learned that MAD was the only E.C. title that survived the 1950s witch-hunts against horror and crime comics. That must have inspired E.C. impresario/publisher William M. Gaines’ skepticism and distrust of authority, which I absorbed from MAD. E.C. and horror ultimately had its revenge. History, and more importantly art, remember William Gaines and the horror and crime comics. Even third rate pre-code horrors are available in hardcover reprints now, while the only purpose Estes Kefauver and Frederic Wertham serve are as petty villains in the story of horror’s ultimate victory.

Tales from the Crypt was an incredible show, so many amazing actors, directors, and composers to work with. I even got to meet William Gaines over the phone! He had a big, fun, voice that perfectly matched his caricatures in MAD.

Walter Hill was one of our executive producers, and directed several episodes. He’s the only person I’ve met who could quote Goethe’s Faust from memory, and also identify the Tor Johnson mask I had in my office!

When did you first know you wanted to work in film and television?

Famous Monsters of Filmland reprinted some Popular Mechanics diagrams from the 1920s and 1930s illustrating how Willis H. O’Brien did the visual effects for The Lost World and King Kong. The illustrations were so clear, I realized I could make movies, too. I started experimenting with a Super 8mm camera.

Of all the shows you have worked on is there one you enjoyed more than the others or have you loved them all equally? 

I most enjoyed making Love Object, the feature I wrote and directed. The perfect conclusion to that project was receiving the International Critics’ Prize at Gerardmer, which was presented to me by Christopher Lee! I had brought a pair of vampire fangs to joke around with him, but I was too much in awe.

I always love working on horror projects like Tales from the Crypt. And Beavis and Butt-head was exceptionally fun. Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky are great talents and very fun to work with. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is great, but my non-disclosure agreement prevents me from saying much.

Every show is a chance to learn. On smaller shows like Dark Skies or Profiler, I first learned to direct on second unit shoots, and learned about visual effects while shooting video effects plates for Freddy’s Nightmares.

How do you think the industry has changed most since you first started your career?

Digital piracy has almost completely destroyed the small-to-medium scale budgets that made unusual movies possible. All my favorite genre films land in this range, with budgets large enough to hire the skilled artisans who provide production value, but small enough to require imagination and unique vision from the film makers. Think of Cronenberg, Carpenter, and Lynch’s movies from the 1980s and 1990s.

Currently, the only business models that make financial sense are poverty-row found footage movies, and gigantic, dumb CGI spectacles. Everything in between is lost.

I’m hoping VOD and streaming services will soon provide a home for odd yet well-made niche movies. But that may just be wishful thinking.

What do you hope your viewers take away from your various works?

I hope I can share some glimpse of the weird. That’s not always possible on work-for-hire producing gigs, but you look for opportunities. It’s why I look forward to directing more films.

On Dark Skies and season 3 of Profiler, I designed the main titles on spec and pitched them to the shows. Dark Skies ‘main titles were inspired by Tribulation 99, an experimental film by Craig Baldwin, and Profiler was a mini-giallo. Profiler, was fun, since I got to shoot the original footage, and KNB (who do the make-up effects for The Walking Dead) made the creepy doll-head that we feature.

It has also been great to work with director William Malone.  We met back on Freddy’s Nightmares, when I noticed how much better were his dailies than ever other director. We’ve been friends ever since, and worked on Tales from the Crypt. His episode for Sleepwalkers was so disturbing, NBC moved it later in the air schedule! This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gave Bill and I time to give his extra time and attention.  We brought on a special composer for his episode (Frank Becker), and Bill and I shot additional inserts with his own cameras and effects lenses. Bill shot an amazing scene with the sets painted in negative colors. We filmed our lead actress, Naomi Watts, walking through the set, then reversed the color values during processing. She appeared in negative image and the set looked normal! All in-camera, with no digital effects.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? Who was it?

I’ve been fortunate to work with many great mentors, who have given me great advice on life, the industry, art, and everything in between. But the best advice can’t be printed.

So here’s an example that says a lot about the industry. We were having a meeting to discuss preview screening notes and titles for Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight. At the end of the meeting, I pitch an idea for the end credit crawl: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we include an end credit like ‘The Crypt Keeper will return in Tales from the Crypt Presents whatever title.’ Just like the end of Buckaroo Banzai!” Joel Silver’s head pivots in my direction like a tank turret, and he blasts “Don’t ever compare my movie to a loser!” I was baffled at first, because I love Buckaroo Banzai. But it didn’t make any money, so in Joel’s eyes it was a loser.

That was an important lesson to learn, and good advice for anyone pitching an idea in Hollywood.  Maybe I should have compared the end credit tease to “Just like the end of a James Bond movie!”

Regardless of Joel’s disregard for Buckaroo Banzai, or my pitch, they did use my idea for the end credits. So it’s not just the idea that counts, it’s how you sell it.

How does your work differ when working on animated series?

The sense of time and detail is completely different. Live-action TV series are fast and furious. Their beauty has the vivid color and strokes of a watercolor, or the quick, expressive line of ink drawings and Chinese calligraphy.

Live-action movies are like oil paintings. The attention to detail is very fine, and the materials are worked slowly for cumulative effect over a much longer period of time.

Animation is even more detail-oriented and even slower. It’s like pouring concrete. You have to plan the foundation perfectly or the whole project is ruined.

Animators are also very like puppeteers. The best animators on Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill reminded me of the puppeteers who operated the Crypt-Keeper.

Are there any little known things about you that your fans might be surprised to learn?

I got to see Vincent Price when I was a kid. He was performing one of his college lecture tours, “The Villain Still Pursues Me.” My father taught economics at the university, so he took me to see the show. I got to ask Mr. Price a question from the audience, about playing the Invisible Man in The Invisible Man Returns, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and afterwards he autographed an issue of Famous Monsters which I still have.

Seeing a famous monster in real life was an amazing experience for a kid like me. And Mr. Price also inspired my life-long interest in art.

What would you say is the craziest thing you have ever done?

The craziest thing I’ve ever done was getting into this business! I dropped out of a philosophy doctorate, with no industry connections or training, hopped a plane from New York City to L.A., and started looking for work.

Do you have a dream project you would most like to bring into existence?

Chrome Gothic is my ultimate dream project. It is the reason I came to Hollywood, to someday make this movie. It’s my favorite script of everything I’ve written, and has everything I love in one story: hot rods, mad scientists, mutants, romance, action. Extravagant gore and ornate perversion.

It’s like The Little Mermaid, with organ transplants. And surgery cults. And car crashes.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m shopping a slate of genre films, ranging from artsploitation like Love Object to multiplex creature-features, with several strange detours in between.

Also, I’ve just written two motion comics for one of the “Masters of Horror” directors with his own company. Again, contracts prevent my mentioning names. One is a four-chapter graphic novel, very gory and perverse. The other is a one-chapter mood piece: imagine if Robbe-Grillet had directed a kaiju eiga in the early 1960s.

The art for the 4-chapter work is currently being colored and animated, and should be online in 2015.  We’re looking for an artist for the one-chapter, who can delivery good girl art, architectural detail, monsters, and machinery. Most artists specialize in just one, so I’m thinking about finding multiple artists to draw different elements on the same pages.

And a TV series I created is starting to heat up. I made up a storyline into which I could dump all of my weirdest obsessions, and now with genre shows doing so well, it might happen.

What do you think is the key to a life well lived?

Never give up your passions. In the real world, this means finding a balance between living your passion, and working to provide the material basis for doing so. But it is always important to never lose sight of why you are working: to fulfill your passion.

What are your feelings on death and the afterlife and such?

Even if there is an afterlife, it seems irrelevant. All of the passions and goals and memories that make me what I am are in this world. If anything survives the body, whatever it is will not be “me” in any significant sense, so who cares? All that matters is the here and now.

This makes our time and our decisions that much more important:  all you have is one take. Make it count.

This is also why art is so important.  It is the only way we have to leave behind something meaningful.

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