Unread Books and the Ancient Enemy:
An Interview with Dean Koontz
January 28, 1998
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the January 28-February 4, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................
Hollywood studios frequently spend astronomical sums to secure the rights to popular books and then proceed to make wretched films from them. According to Dean Koontz, the author of the best-selling novels Intensity and Sole Survivor and the recently published Fear Nothing, there is a simple explanation. In a recent telephone interview, he says, "It may sound surprising. Studios can buy a book based on a reader's summary of what the book is about, and then no one in the process bothers to go read the book. They read the summary, and then they begin to translate that summary into things they would like to see. You wonder sometimes why did they bother to buy the book."
Because the film versions of Hideaway (which he dubs a "disaster") and some of his other stories have left him and his fans unsatisfied, Koontz has been reluctant to sell his books. However, when Miramax/Dimension Films expressed interest in his 1983 science fiction thriller Phantoms, Koontz had better luck.
In adapting his tale of a small town wiped out by a mysterious force known only as "The Ancient Enemy," Koontz was allowed to write the script and was offered an unusual amount of creative input. He recalls, "I demanded approval of the director, absolute control of the shooting script and a number of other things assuming they wouldn't give them to me, and therefore, they would just go away. Because Miramax/Dimension works differently than other places, they said 'alright'."
Part of the reason Koontz was hesitant about seeing his book transformed is because his novels and the adaptations he has personally worked on are not conventional works of horror. He states, "I don't like to be stuck in one genre. I dislike the word 'horror' intensely. I don't find slashing and blood flying everywhere to be scary. I just find it repulsive. The movies that really scared me as a kid didn't really have any of that.
"If you look at those movies (he cites Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the original Cat People), it was the psychological suspense of the moment that really gripped you. It's harder to sell that to a studio these days because they don't believe that people will sit still for that. I think they're wrong. If there was anything I would have done more with Phantoms, it would have been to crank up that kind of psychological suspense higher than we have."
Part of what separates Phantoms from the pack is the "less is more" attitude Koontz and his collaborators took toward the special effects. He explains, "If I were to totally translate my book to the screen, we'd need a budget three times the size of Titanic because of the gargantuan effects. Plus, I'm a little tired of movies that are nothing but effects; so are audiences. I don't like mindless special effects movies. For people who like mindless special effects, we have a little of that. Basically, what interests me are stories that grip you and keep you. Your mind always does worse things than people can show in a movie."
While Koontz and director Joe Chappelle create some nightmarish sequences, Koontz says that he drew his inspiration from some chilling historic incidents. In 1939, thousands of Chinese soldiers vanished before they were to arrive at the battlefield, and their bodies were never found. One of the first British colonies, based in Roanoke Island near North Carolina, simply vanished. Koontz took these and other genuine incidents and used them to explain where his "Ancient Enemy" had struck.
He says, "I was interested in these things from the time I was a kid. Anything bizarre or unexplained in history had a deep interest for me. Many years later as I was writing, just one day,Boom! I came up with this idea of how all this might have happened-how the dinosaurs might have disappeared, how 600,000 Mayans disappeared overnight. It was a great deal of fun to think all that frivolous stuff I was into as a kid actually turned out to have value in my adult life."
Another aspect of working on Phantoms that appealed to Koontz was the chance to work with multiple Oscar nominee Peter O'Toole. He recalls, "Peter made only two tiny changes (in the dialogue), and in both cases, he called me up to explain. He said, 'I want to reverse the order of these two words,' and in another case he wanted to add the article 'the.' He did a fifteen-minute justification. I thought, 'Wow!' The guy who did Lawrence of Arabia thinks he has to justify to me why he wants to make these little changes." He quips, "I felt completely insane at that point and drunk with power. Actually, Peter's a guy who comes from the school where the word matters."
The movie also appealed to test audiences, even though it was incomplete. Koontz remembers, "The first test screening we had no special effects in the movie. When it came time to see the creature, a card came up that said 'Creature appears.' Then another card. 'Creature knocks car across street.' It was not a viewer-friendly picture. We got twice (the good or excellent remarks) we were expecting, which was really heartening because none of the payoff was there for the audience."
While the making of Phantoms was generally pleasing for Koontz, he jokingly laments, "I also wanted to cater for the crew, but they wouldn't let me. We had our ups and downs. One of the things I like enormously about (Miramax's) Bob Weinstein is that that he's the only studio head I have ever known who will change his mind and say, 'Gee, I was wrong.' This really worked, and I'm excited about being in the movies again."
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