Paul Tremblay Talks Horror Movie, Cursed Films, and What Makes Cinema Scary

Books Features Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay Talks Horror Movie, Cursed Films, and What Makes Cinema Scary

Through books like A Head Full of Ghosts, The Pallbearers Club, and The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Tremblay has become one of the most acclaimed horror novelists working right now, weaving strange, very specific stories that only he could tell. His latest, Horror Movie, is another singular achievement from one of our finest weavers of scary stories, with lots of metafictional twists.

The horror movie of the title is an independent film shot in the ’90s, a film that was never released save for three scenes that appeared on YouTube years after production ended. Those three clips were enough to spark a rabid cult fandom for the unreleased released project, also titled Horror Movie, and with that kind of fandom comes the possibility of a remake.

At the center of that possibility is the actor who played “The Thin Kid” in the original film, the last surviving member of the cast, who’s forced to reexamine everything he knows about his friends, what went wrong, and why his character has never really left him. 

In anticipation of the book’s release, we sat down with Tremblay for a discussion about writing a movie within a book, his favorite horror films, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and much more.

Paste Magazine: In the acknowledgments at the end, you mention that this book was at the bottom of a rabbit hole that started with a conversation between Walter Chaw and John Darnielle about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. How did that lead to this?

Paul Tremblay: Stephen Graham Jones recommended Walter’s [film series via the Denver Public Library], he was doing Saturday matinees, sort of like old-school Saturday matinees. He and the library would show a movie, but then he would have this amazing discussion. I can’t remember if Stephen sent me that episode, in particular, or if it was just the first one I watched, but I watched Walter and John Darnielle talking about Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

So I watched these two incredibly smart and talented people talking about the movie. It was just so infectious. And the first thing I did was I went and rewatched the movie, and during the YouTube talk, Walter held up a copy of Gunnar Hansen’s [memoir] Chainsaw Confidential. And when I listened to that, that really sort of crystallized this idea that I wanted to work with, because at the time I was in between novels. I had an idea for something, but I wasn’t loving it, so it was a sign to me that I needed something else. But I listened to the audio version, because it’s  hard to find any print copies of Chainsaw Confidential anymore. 

I think The Thin Kid is certainly very modeled off him in some ways, because, well, he’s narrating the audiobook. I mean, it’s really beautifully written. It’s very winky, and he feels dangerous in some ways. I think he purposefully sort of blurs the line between what he’s thinking and maybe what Leatherface would be thinking.

So that plu amount of chances that the crew and the director and the actors took, both financially and physically [making Texas Chain Saw]. Something really bad could have really happened. So all of that together was like, “Oh, OK, what if something really bad had happened?” It was really sort of the very start of it.

Paste: In terms of story, did it start with the movie within the book, or with the Thin Kid’s larger story?

Tremblay: I knew I wanted to talk about a “cursed movie,” so at least the broad strokes of the movie had to come first. And once I sort of knew that I could see, I knew I wanted it to be this weird post-80s, so early 90s, art house pretentious horror film that 20-year-olds would make, because that’s really sort of my favorite kind of movie.

But in terms of the writing, it wasn’t like I wrote the whole screenplay first. The order in which you read it is pretty much the order in which I wrote it. I would write a chapter and then write a section of the screenplay, and I went that way all throughout, which to me was kind of fun, because I enjoyed working on one thing and then going back to the regular narrative, and I enjoyed leaving the regular narrative to go back for a little piece of the screenplay.

Paste: We’ve already talked about Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so what other movies kind of worked as touchstones for you?

Tremblay: That’s a hard question. In recent years, Lake Mungo is a favorite. There’s a weird European movie called Borgman, which I think has a little bit of a tone [similarity] and, I didn’t write it, but I think initially I was trying to think of an ending that was sort of like Borgman’s ending, but I ended up not doing that. But, yeah, I mean even things like They Remain, which is an adaptation of Laird Barron’s short novel “-30-.”

With the exception of Jordan Peele’s movies, I can’t think of very many studio horror movies that speak to me like the more independent ones. And I think part of that was the exploration of the book. What drives these people to collaborate on something that is not going to make them rich and famous? That’s not a part of it. I mean, I’m sure they would love to. I’m sure these filmmakers would love to make a ton of money, as would I. But what’s driving them to not only collaborate and make this thing, but then where’s the line where the thing takes over, when the decisions that they make more serve the movie than they do the actual individuals making the movie?

Paste: There’s a line in the script in Horror Movie where a character writes “This movie is not for everyone. This movie is for some of us.” And I think that that not only feels like a really good sort of tonal edict for this book, but for your body of work. Is that something that you set out to achieve with each of your books? Is there a certain technical challenge that you set for yourself, or do you think that’s just how your imagination works?

Tremblay: I think it’s more the latter. I mean, it’s impossible to do, but as much as I can, I try not to think about what anyone else is going to think of a thing while I’m writing it. I think most writers and filmmakers and artists probably think this way too, but, hopefully, you get to a point where…this thing is so much a piece of me. The hope is that there are other people like me out there who will want to read this. I don’t know any other way to approach it, but just to trust that there’s a bunch of weirdos like me out there who want to read this thing or experience this thing.

I think that’s been horror’s role for a really long time and still is, even though it’s becoming more popular. But no matter how popular horror gets, it’s still going to be not fully mainstream, at least I don’t think so. My favorite horror definitely pushes and prods at moral boundaries and transgression, and all of that. I find that just really thrilling.

Paste: You like to play with form in your work. A Head of Full of Ghosts is a blog inside of a novel. The Pallbearers Club is a memoir annotated by the other major character in the memoir, and now this book is a memoir with a screenplay inserted into it. Do you set out to do things like that, or is it just naturally something that falls into your work?

Tremblay: Oh, that’s interesting. I just know, as a reader, I’m drawn to fun, different formal sort of approaches to the narrative, bells and whistles. So for me, the challenge is if I think of something that excites me, I have to make sure, at least for me, if I’m going to use annotations like Pallbearers Club or the blog in A Head Full of Ghosts, that has to be there for a reason, at least a reason I can explain to myself. It has to be, “This is the best way to tell the story.”

And with Horror Movie, part of it was, I know I need to have the old version of this movie. Am I really just going to have it explained secondhand? I thought that would be really kind of lame. It was like, “No, I’m actually going to include the screenplay, and since the screenplay has the actors and characters have the same name, that’s sort of like a sneaky way to build up those characters. And at the same time, do we really know who they are?” Thinking about those things excited me, excited me about including the screenplay.

Paste: This book is essentially three POVs. You’ve got the Thin Kid narrating in the past and the present, and then you’ve got Cleo, the author of the screenplay, giving us her own voice in script form. Both characters really feel like classic Paul Tremblay figures. What was it like getting into what’s essentially three different perspectives on the same story?

Tremblay: For the Thin Kid, the thing I was drawn to was, here he is as this 50-year-old now, and oftentimes talking about himself when he was like 23, 24, and a very vulnerable person at that age, and not confident, but right from the first opening chapter [in the present day], he seems like not only quite confident but a little bit in your face, someone who’s very cynical and somewhat jaded. So it was fun to me to think of the young version and the old version, and how did one get to the other.

With Cleo’s screenplay. I don’t know, I feel like my emotional life from being a teenager and from being in my early 20s is still just so fresh and present. I wanted to lean into what that early ’90s sort of angst would’ve felt like as her character. And sometimes I sort of miss still not having that as a part of my day-to-day thing, if that makes sense.

Paste: It’s something that’s present in Pallbearers Club too, and while your books aren’t really nostalgia vehicles, you clearly find a lot of potent emotions in the ’90s. Why do you keep coming back to that?

Tremblay: I wasn’t anticipating it, because I thought The Pallbearers Club would sort of empty the bucket on that front. For Horror Movie, it started off as a little bit of a logic puzzle. Like, “OK, when can I make this movie, before there were unions and safety rules and things like that, that would make sense?” It couldn’t be the ’70s, because then everyone would be too old. So I hit on, “OK, so I have to go back to 1993 again,” which I was happy to do.

I do think my hope is [not being nostalgic]. I mean, nostalgia is dangerous. I think nostalgia is part of the reason why we’re so screwed up as a society. So when I do make look-backs, I don’t want it to be like, “Oh, I wish I was there.” It’s like, no, this time sucked, too. Things weren’t better back then, necessarily. They were different, but people were still hurting, people were still suffering, certainly all across all spectrums. So, yeah, I certainly didn’t want it to read like, “Hey, this is a 1993 party on set.” These are these kids, these early 20-year-old new adults, who are pretty messed up just trying to figure out what’s what.

Paste: The screenplay sections are full of Cleo’s life as a character, and it seems like the temptation was there to just let her keep monologuing instead of just writing a script. What was the screenwriting process like for you?

Tremblay: I’ve just within the last few years started messing around with screenwriting as a know-nothing novelist. Part of my frustration, at least in terms of how Hollywood studios approach screenplays, is the idea that it has to be like this. Even though I teach math, [it’s frustrating that] it has to be this weirdly mathematical thing where you have to have these three acts and the beats. I still don’t know what “beats” mean, like what those are supposed to be within a screenplay. I have a hard enough time identifying what acts are.

So part of me was a little bit gleeful. “OK, I’m going to write this thing that’s not purposely fitting the three-act or fitting the story beat thing. And part of the novel’s needs was Cleo did have to include a little bit, if not interiority, at least sort of further description [of who she is]. But I did want to try to keep that to a minimum, especially [because] I was trying to build up some credit to have this big weird thing happen towards the end of the screenplay.

Paste: I wanted to ask a broader question about cinematic writing in horror. Stephen King has talked about his imagination being formed by movies, and lately there are so many horror novels that use filmmaking as a subject. Gemma Files has done it, and Josh Winning, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and now you. Why do you think cinema is such a rich well for horror novelists?

Tremblay: That’s a great question. I would preface it by saying very much like Stephen [King], and probably even more so than Stephen, my nascent understanding of story—I wouldn’t even say nascent, I’m including ages from 5 to 23, let’s say—was mainly film, because I was not a reader for pleasure as a child or a teenager.

I was a math major. I didn’t fall in love with reading until my first year of grad school, so I was 23. I’ve been playing catch up for 20 years now. It’s sort of flipped. I read more books than I see movies now, and I know that’s probably not the case for most.

So what I think the appeal is, to actually answer the question, is for so many of us our favorite movies feel so dangerous, and I think we all secretly want to go that one more step and have that movie actually be dangerous. I think there’s that weird little thrill attached to it. I mean, maybe it’s not that weird, because I think so many of us, even regular movies that aren’t horror movies, we like to imagine these things are real, or these characters are real.

Paste: You’ve also got the chance, in this book, to have characters who are making a horror movie, particularly Cleo as screenwriter, talking about what they like and don’t like in horror movies. Was it a chance for you to say some things you wanted to say about horror storytelling and how it works?

Tremblay: Yeah, absolutely. I’m certainly on Team Cleo in that regard, but at the same time, with the caveat, with the knowledge that there’s infinite ways to tell horror stories of so many different kinds.

But, yeah, I like the things that I like, and I think it’s okay to be critical of the things that you don’t like. It was not only exploring “These are the things that I like,” but I was also trying to explore “Why are these the things I like?” Because so many of my favorite horror movies or stories, it’s really hard to explain how they make you feel or what it is you like about them, other than just to hand the person the Blu-ray or hand the person the book and say, “This.”

Paste: Were there moments in this book where you found a character saying something and went “That’s it. That’s what I’ve been trying to say about horror”?

Tremblay: I don’t know if it’s the exact same. Certainly in the moment it feels like that, but I think [one example is] the idea of watching this thing that’s…really inexplicable. You can’t really explain why it’s scary or why it’s good. 

Some of my favorite ones are these things like Lake Mungo. They bring out emotions that I recognize, but at the same time, I can’t really describe, and these are emotions that I’ve maybe only experienced elsewhere in life. So it’s like I couldn’t have described it with 1,000 words, we had to describe it with these 90 minutes and those images and what happened. And I think that runs often very counter to studio horror films, which want the one, two, three of the acts. They want the hero’s “arc.” They want all that stuff. My favorite horror is messy and hard to explain, but you connect with it on a deeper emotional level.

Horror Movie will be released on June 11, but you can pre-order it now.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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