Q&A with Stuart Gordon

  king of the ants
Chris McKenna, star of "King of the Ants," discovers what can happen when Botox goes bad.

© 2003, The Asylum
All Rights Reserved

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 Gordon.

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 like—actually 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? Financial?

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?

SG: (laughs)

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."

SG: (laughs)

VW: I just love working with him. It's just that simple. And I have one thing to say about Chris.

CM: (laughs)

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?"

SG: (laughs)

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 be—and I consider myself rather normal—I 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."

SG: (laughs)

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.

SG: Yeah.

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?

CM: Yeah.

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.