David Gordon Green is one brave soul. After earning a formidable reputation as a thought-provoking independent filmmaker, with 2000’s George Washington, All The Real Girls (2003), and the devastating Snow Angels (2008), the Arkansas native shocked the cinematic world by jumping headfirst into studio comedies. First came Pineapple Express in 2008, the eccentric and hilarious stoner action-comedy that led to a Golden Globe nomination for co-star James Franco. Earlier this year, to less fan fare, Green collaborated with lifelong pal Danny McBride on the raunchy sword-and-sorcery flick Your Highness, and the laughs will continue with December’s The Sitter, starring Jonah Hill as a rube who takes a group of kids on a drug run.
Now, as if confusing indie film lovers wasn’t enough, Green is hoping to ruffle horror fan’s feathers by remaking one of the genre’s most sacred works. For years, Green has been trying to get an update of the Italian masterwork Suspiria off the ground, and, now that The Sitter is done and HBO’s Eastbound & Down (for which Green is a consulting producer and frequent director) is entering its third and final season, he’s ready to devote as much time to the project as possible.
Released in 1977, Suspiria told the joyously incoherent and demented tale of an American ballet dancer who enrolls into a German dance academy that’s run by a coven of witches. Writer-director Dario Argento, one of Italy’s most celebrated horror filmmakers, shot the film like a neon-colored nightmare, soaking its extended and gory death scenes in a stunning Technicolor palette that’s given Suspiria the reputation of being one of horror’s most gorgeous films. It’s also the benefactor of a brilliantly creepy score from Italian rock band Goblin, an array of devilish chimes, ghoulish chants, and wobbling synthesizers.
So why the hell does the guy who directed Pineapple Express want to remake such an esteemed and notorious genre classic? In a discussion about The Sitter (which will surface here closer to that movie’s December 9th release date), Complex learned more about Green’s exact plans for what’s sure to be the most debated horror remakes of all time. If it ever actually happens, that is.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: You’ve made your name in both the independent drama circuit and mainstream comedies, but now you're trying to jump into horror with the long-discussed Suspiria remake. Has it been an especially difficult process for you, trying to transition into the horror genre?
David Gordon Green: Yeah, it hasn’t been easy. It’s like when I was trying to get Pineapple Express made, everybody got confused because I was coming off of a slew of dramatic films, and now everybody’s saying the same thing about horror. The people who are ringing my phone and trying to get me to make movies are trying to get me to do things I’ve already done, and that’s a lot less interesting to me than taking on, whatever, a great science fiction movie, or a great documentary, or a horror film, something that’s new for me and gives me something to professionally pride myself on. It’s nice to be wanted, but at the end of the day it’s more satisfying to be hungry, eat that meal, walk outside, and have a cigarette.
With Suspiria specifically, you’ve been trying to get a remake made for years now. What is it about Dario Argento’s original film that keeps you so determined to make a new version?
To me, what I love about it…. I love the original, but the movie that I’ve written based on that is just very much influenced by that. I think the idea of an isolated setting with a young, naïve girl stuck in the isolated setting is just a field day for what I find to be scary. It’s me responding horrifically to that movie; I was really terrified by that movie. My take is somewhat different from what Argento’s movie is, and it’s really me seeing what I have to offer that genre.
It’s the seed that Suspiria planted in my head, rather than a shot-by-shot remake. It takes that tone and goes into a new place with it. We’ve got the rights to Goblin’s original music, which is a crucial thing that I can’t imagine—any version of that movie not having that Goblin score.
Is your plan to keep the original Goblin score exactly the same, or do you want to update it?
I want it to evolve. I want to start it at exactly that same place, and take that symphony of synthesizers and evolve it to the opera version. It’d be real evolution from a girl getting off of a plane in Germany, and the kind of simplicity there, to the complex, fascinating, atmospheric horror of the ending, the climax with a far more evolved, sophisticated version of that score. I love the idea of getting someone like John Adams to come and compose the symphony version of it for the ending, something that’s out of left field but is truly just a blossom of the seeds that Goblin planted.
Considering how the Hollywood system works, it seems like the success of Black Swan might have pushed studio executives to jump on something like a Suspiria remake. Has Black Swan’s success made the process of getting the project on a fast track any easier?
Well, there’s a couple of things. One, I was actually going to make Suspiria with Natalie [Portman] a few years ago, but ended up pushing it to do Your Highness, and once she stepped into Black Swan it definitely made me not want to do what I originally had in mind; I didn’t want to make the Natalie version anymore. So I re-envisioned it. My version of Suspiria doesn’t have anything to do with ballet at all; it’s an all girls’ boarding school that doesn’t have the dance element, so there’s no real conflict there.
It did inspire me to think, “Well, I want to go younger now. I want this to be about 14, 15-year-old girls, rather than women who are Natalie’s age.” It made not want to do what Black Swan kind of did with the psychology and thriller elements of older characters. If anything, I want to focus on the younger, more naïve kinds of characters—the wide-eyed, Snow White version of the movie, rather than a more sophisticated, sexual version of it.
Pulling off a truly scary horror movie with younger characters can be tough. A film like Let The Right One In did a great job of nailing that dark tone with kids at the center, but then the recent Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark lost a bit of the original’s scariness due to centering the story on a scared little girl and rooting the monsters in a kind of tooth fairy mythology. Is that something you’re being mindful of?
Oh, I have to, yeah. It’s interesting, the book that Argento cites as inspiring him to write Suspiria is this novella called “Mine-Haha” [written by German author Frank Wedekind], and that story actually became a film that [Enter The Void writer-director] Gaspar Noé’s girlfriend [Lucile Hadžihalilović] made in France a few years ago [called Innocence], and that sort of shows the raw, strange, and naïve beauty of what was his inspiration as a director in creating Suspiria. So I’ve kind of gone backwards and gone back more to the source material, and his inspiration, and then coupling that with my enthusiasm for what his film did for horror and trying to blend all of that.
But, yeah, you don’t want to soften that. It’s a pretty hardcore movie, so you don’t want to soften it up by making the little girl version of it. I do like the idea of young, impressionable characters—not strong, confident vixens, but young, impressionable, naïve witnesses to the occult.
Suspiria has some of the craziest, most gloriously over-the-top death sequences in the horror genre, particularly that long, elaborate opening kill. It’s going to be interesting to see how you’ll be able to maintain that level of brutality with 14-year-old girls.
Absolutely, yeah. It’s going to be a challenge, but I have to keep as much of that hardcore edge as possible, otherwise, why do it? That opening scene is amazing, and for my script I’ve pretty much kept the same structure. I’ve written it with my sound designer, actually, which was interesting, just because I think sound is such an integral part of what Argento’s movie is. It’s been a really fun collaborative situation that has introduced me to a new writing perspective that I’ve never taken on before.
Is Suspiria definitely your next directing project?
I would love for it to be, yeah. But the reality of handling the obstacles that come with it is tougher than just saying the movie will happen next, you know? I definitely need the right amount of money so the film can have an elegance to it. I don’t want to make the low-budget, schlocky version of it; I want it to be beautiful and interesting, and have an elegant quality to it. The original film is such a vivid, artistic creation that it’d be terrible to make a lo-fi, grunge version of it.
Suspiria doesn’t fall into the “torture porn” genre; it doesn’t hang its hat just on gore. It hangs its hat on an artistic ambition that exceeded most, if not all, horror movies of its time, if not also our time.
Yeah, it’s definitely one of the most beautiful looking horror films ever made, which adds to the film’s dreamlike feel. Or, rather, nightmarish feel.
Yeah, it was the last film shot in Technicolor, and there were just so many aspirations that the film had technically. There’s a genius to it, so I’d hate to scrabble together a janky version of it. it’s not just about finding the money—it’s about finding the right money. A company that supports what I believe that movie needs to be, because if not, then why remake it? Because it already exists and it’s great.
What’s unique about what you and Jody Hill are doing in comedy, with your films, Eastbound & Down, and his film Observe & Report, is that you guys are bringing a certain darkness into funny projects—the comedy, as a result, becomes just as uncomfortable as it is funny. It seems like you guys could do something interesting stuff in the horror genre, and Suspiria is an intriguing choice.
That’s really cool to hear, because I get a lot of hate mail about it. [Laughs.] You make what you’re passionate about; you make what challenges you. The second that people just start doing the next job and cashing the paychecks is when their movies start getting boring. I want to challenge myself.
I feel exactly like all horror fanatics do—when a bad remake comes out, I think it’s the worst thing in the world. But there are good ones. I thought that I Spit On Your Grave remake was really good recently; I thought The Hills Have Eyes remake was fucking amazing. There have been a few guys who have nailed it. Even Piranha—I thought that one was a lot of fun.
But I’ll tell you, the other thing about a remake that’s interesting is that it already has a value to it. By merely calling a movie Poltergeist, studio executives will be like, “Hey, it’s worth X amount of money to go make it,” rather than making a haunted house movie where you have to start from scratch on a budget and it’s not worth anything. You could make a Poltergeist remake and probably get a great budget for it even if it had nothing to do with the original and it’s just called Poltergeist.
It’s a twisted, perverted, unfortunate state that our industry is in—that’s literally more valuable than quality, or originality, or having something be unique. Something that’s derivative is an easier sell, or, “What can we hang our hat on financially that already exists so we don’t have to market it creatively?” That’s what I’m trying to avoid with Suspiria.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)