Stuart Gordon's latest film, "King of the Ants," is as difficult to
categorize as the novel that it's based on, by Charles Higson. On the
surface it feels like a departure for the acclaimed director of such
supernatural horror classics as "Re-Animator" and "Dolls." There is in fact
nothing supernatural going on. It's intentionally skeletal. You know, bare
bones. To use Gordon's words to describe the film to the audience in
attendance at the 29th Annual Seattle International Film Festival premiere,
it's a "descent into perversion." But then, it's also very funny in places.
And it has some important things to say about its perversely descending
antihero, Sean Crawley.
"KOTA" is the story of a young laborer who agrees to tail a man and
eventually kill him. He takes to his new line of work with impressive zeal,
too. Crawley has never killed anyone in his life, that we know of, but by
the end of the film he's laid the foundation for a thriving necropolis. The
beauty of the film lies in the fact that it makes us feel uneasy about his
rapid descent, instead of incredulous.
Luckily, I don't have to try to unravel the mysteries of "KOTA" on my own,
since Mr. Gordon graciously accommodated my curiosity after the screening.
As a very pleasant boon, two of the film's stars were also present and
willing to be questioned: Vernon Wells (of "Road Warrior" fame), who plays
the morally dubious Beckett, and Chris McKenna, the lead in the film.
Pete Mesling: I'll try not to make you repeat yourself too much, but I'm
curious about how the project got started, because I kind of pictured you
just picking up the book, reading it and wanting to make the movie, but it
sounds like it was more a case of it being put in your hands.
Stuart Gordon: Yeah, George Wendt brought it to me. And you know, Charlie
Higson was here yesterday and I asked him how George had gotten it. George
does a lot of work overseas and had worked on a project in England, and
Charlie Higson is a well-known TV guy there, a TV star. And I guess he met
one of Charlie's friends who had talked about the book and gave George a
copy, and when George read it he said this looks like a job for Stuart
PM: How was your approach to making this movie different from some of your
more supernatural horror movies? On the one hand it seems well suited to
how you balance humor and violence, but...
SG: Yeah, it is. But it's not supernatural. There's nothing kind
of...it's all in the real world. And that's one of the things I really
liked about it. We tried to make it like a documentary almost, in terms of
the look, and all the locations are real places. We shot it in a hand-held
style to kind of give it that feeling.
PM: I have a feeling that not just any director would have included some of
the things you included in the shed, from inside Sean Crawley's mind.
SG: Yeah, well it's funny. We went back and forth on that, whether to keep
that in. There was some feeling that this was almost like a different
movie. But eventually I felt likeactually it was Chris who kind of
twisted my arm and said, "What, are you people crazy? That stuff's great,
you've gotta leave it in."
Chris McKenna: (laughs)
PM: How collaborative was the script-writing process? Was it completely
Charlie Higson's? Were the actors involved?
SG: No, the script was really Charlie, George and myself. George and I
kind of provided Americanisms. Charlie would send us scripts that talked
about people wearing trainers and, you know, fancying people, and we would
say no, it's better to use this word or that word. But Charlie did like 99
percent of the work. The thing that was great about it was that he writes
for television. He wasn't one of these novelists who say you can't change
anything. He wasn't like what's her name, from "Harry Potter." He
understood that a movie is a very different animal than a book, and so a lot
of correction was done, a lot of characters were cut or combined. He was
great about that.
PM: I guess this would probably be more of a question for him if he were
here, but I noticed some similarities between this story and "Crime and
Punishment." Was that anything that you guys talked about? Was it
something that you, Chris, looked into when you studied the character?
CM: No, I got there the day before, and Stuart handed me the book on the
day. I'd read the script about a thousand times, and I adored it, but I
hadn't touched the book. I got the book, and I read along with it as we
were filming, as best I could, to try to keep up. I hadn't personally seen
anything like it and I was able to make no parallels. But I've heard a
million of 'em now, and I see the point.
SG: That is a good comparison, but no, we didn't talk about that when we
were making the movie.
CM: What goes on in the mind of someone after they've committed a terrible
act, and they see the consequences of it?
PM: There are fairly specific things, like the sash-weight that Crawley
rigs under his jacket, in the book.
SG: Yeah, that's right.
PM: It's kind of like the loop that Roskolnikov uses for his axe.
SG: Yeah, that's right. Exactly.
PM: Was the main reason for changing the setting to the States logistical?
SG: Yeah, I also wanted to make it for an American audience. I felt that
if we'd set it in England, me not being English, that it would be kind of
distanced. When I first read it, I immediately thought of Chicago, which has
got the whole City Hall versus the building contractors going on all the
time. But that happens in any big city really.
PM: Vernon and Chris, what appealed to you most about the characters that
you play in the film? How is it different doing such extreme, violent
characters as opposed to something a little more normal?
CM: Something a little more normal? Like almost everything?
Vernon Wells: Straight away, the thing that appealed to me about it was
that the character was two sides of the same coin. I don't see any of them
as villains, I'm sorry. To me, as Stuart says, they're working class people
who are really just doing a job. I think that just playing a sympathetic
villain appealed to me immensely, because to pull it off you had to be able
to do both: You had to have him be a little intimidating, but you also had
to see that underneath it he felt something for this human being...that
something wasn't right. In his own way he wanted to make it better, but he
really couldn't do a lot because he would have ended up in the room with
[Crawley] getting his head beaten. They had already stated that one other
worker had been hit by a large beam and was now a living vegetable. So it
was a fine line, and that's what I found most appealing about the character.
And just the fact of working with Stuart. I mean, if Stuart would have
handed me a piece of paper with nothing written on it and said, "This is
what you're doing," I would have gone, "Yeah, baby."
VW: I just love working with him. It's just that simple. And I have one
thing to say about Chris.
VW: As much as I adore him, and I loved working with him, my wife has now
compared my butt to his three times. I do not appreciate it.
CM: (laughs) That's a tough place to be.
VW: You know, I have one here for Stuart. When you see a naked woman with
a fake penis and your wife says, "See how big they can be?"
VW: You know, what can I say?
PM: Enough said. So, was that real?
(laughs all around)
CM: Kari's a strange woman.
SG: Yeah, she sure is.
CM: Actually, I didn't get a chance to answer your question. The
character, I just felt that I understood exactly, and, I mean, I didn't know
what he was going to do, but I knew exactly why he did it every time he did.
I really just felt like right away I understood that no matter how nice or
normal a guy can beand I consider myself rather normalI can still see
the dark side under that, and I could see that I might very well have gone
with that impulse. I would have stopped myself, personally. But Sean just
doesn't have whatever that is, that mechanism that will stop him from going
with that impulse. And I found it so real, what he does. And so brave, how
it ends. And he gets away with it. And I thought the easy way would be to
kill him or have him get over it and show a moral, that it doesn't pay. I
love the fact that it really went all the way, and that he walks off, with
the fire [in the background].
PM: Do you think he's sort of vindicated for some of his actions because of
the violence that gets visited on him in the shed?
CM: Right, I mean, yes. It depends on how you look at that, I suppose.
But I felt so. I think that he was dying for revenge, and he got his, and
it's all done. But it's not emotional anymore. He's the King of the Ants.
He's not angry, I don't think, in a particular sense anymore. He's kind of
past it. They just simply had to die, because I need to go on. I had to do
my work and they're in my way. He's completely unemotional about it. I
love that scene when Vernon is lying there, and I'm just going about my
business. He's begging me to save him. And Sean just keeps walking by.
"Sorry, I've got work to do."
VW: I love that scene. Very powerful.
PM: I also loved Gatley sitting up off screen, and then you cut to him.
CM: Ron [Livingston] did a great job. One take. He's lying there, and he
got to that fridge without even knowing it. It scares me every time.
PM: That scared me worse than in the book.
CM: That scene blows my mind. I remember waiting to shoot that scene. We
were a couple weeks into it, and I was so nervous about it. It was so
great. Ron did such an amazing job. It was so haunting. I was really
haunted. Chris was haunted by what happened to Sean in that scene.
SG: The whole crew applauded Ron, remember?
PM: Excellent. Well, I don't want to take up any more of your time, but I
appreciate it, and I hope "KOTA" is a huge success.
SG: Thank you.
VW: Thank you, my pleasure.
CM: My pleasure.
"KOTA" may be in the can, but it isn't out of the woods. It's still in need
of a distributor. Hopefully it won't take as long to sort that out as it
did to get the film financed (seven years!). It's an important adaptation,
I think. It should be seen. My comparisons of the story to Dostoyevsky's
"Crime and Punishment" aren't meant to imply that Higson's novel, or the
film, is simply derivative. This is an inventive piece of work, for sure.
But it is a kind of "Crime and Punishment" for our times. And although
Sean Crawley gets away with murder (if you consider what he goes through in
a certain aforementioned shed getting away with anything), the film as a
whole is a pretty strong crime deterrent, as is the novel, as is
Dostoyevsky's classic tale. In fact, to bounce off of something Chris
McKenna said in the interview, the film might not have been as effective as
it is at demonstrating various injustices if it had gone for an ending with
an obvious message. Its moral ambiguity is what keeps us off-center from
beginning to end and makes the film very difficult to watch in places, but
impossible not to.
Count on Filmfodder to keep you informed of any future release information regarding "KOTA." Just peel your eyes in the general direction of our
"Quick News" section!
Pete Mesling is the creative juggernaut behind Filmfodder's Critical Eye section.