Showtime’s Masters of Horror (a series of one-hour horror films directed by “masters” such as John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, John Landis and others) chose to adapt my short story “Pelts” for its second season. The notorious / infamous and enormously talented Dario Argento chose to direct it. These are dispatches sent to the RJ website from the set.

Since MoH films all of its features in Vancouver, that’s where I went. I couldn’t spare the time for the entire two-week shoot, but I could manage a couple-three days.

“Pelts” Shoot

4/18/2006
A few words about the adaptation: They’ve kept the basics but altered the ending and added lots of sex. My story held the promise of sex – it fueled one character’s actions – but it never happened. (Ah, frustration.) In fact, not one of the people who schemed to gain from the pelts got what they wanted. That was one of the points of the story.

Am I upset? No. Am I about to throw a hissy fit for you? No. Sure, I’d have preferred them to follow my nobody-got-what-they-wanted arc, and preserve the story’s symmetry, but when you sell film rights, the operative word is “sell” – which means you no longer own them. They belong to someone else. You hope they’ll treat your story with respect, but there’s no guarantee. I learned that the hard way with Michael Mann’s adaptation of The Keep. But in that case my book was raped. Here, “Pelts” has simply been tarted up without corrupting its essence.

If you’re not JK Rowling, with every filmmaker in the world bidding to adapt Harry Potter, thus allowing you to demand cast and script approval, you either take your chances or refuse to sell any rights at all.

So, I arrove in Vancouver late Tuesday night, too late to visit the strip-club shoot. (NB: There’s no strip club in my story, but that shoot would have been, um, interesting.)

4/19
Wednesday is a night exterior shoot with crew call at 3pm. Mick Garris – the creator and guiding light of the series – calls in the morning and invites me to go to the location along with him and director Dario Argento. We all gather in the lobby at 1:30. I've met Mick before. He’s a screenwriter, director, producer, novelist, and a gracious, unpretentious, genuine man – about as unHollywood as you can imagine.

He introduces me to the maestro and his translator, Francesca. Dario Argento turns out to be a slight man, about five-eight, with a quick smile and an amiable manner. His heavily accented English is serviceable and Francesca helps him when he gets stuck on a word.

The location for the Jamesons' farm is a historic site about 40km outside of Vancouver. We all make small talk and stroke each other for a while. I try to get him to see that the Jake character shouldn't get it on with the stripper because the motif of the story is that no one involved with the pelts gets what they want. Dario is totally opaque to the idea. So he and Francesca put their heads together over the day’s call sheet while Mick and I catch up.

We turn off a country road onto a dirt drive lined with equipment trailers and cranes and generators and the all-important catering truck. Even though it’s after 2pm, they're serving breakfast. I have some peppers and eggs and bacon while the other three grab fresh-made grilled-cheese sandwiches.

The house sits 200 yards from the road. It has no power lines running to it so it’s perfect for a remote place in the Jersey Pine Barrens. The set designers have wound vines all around the front to give it a more unkempt look.

Beyond that, on a rise behind the bend, they've erected two walls with a roof to serve as an old Piney woman’s shack – from the right angle you'd think it was a complete building that had been sitting on the spot for fifty years.

Beyond that the land slopes off to where they've erected the “ruins” Dario requested. In the story there’s a species of spleenwort growing in a straight line. It can't grow in the acid soil of the Barrens, so when you see it you can be pretty sure a building (or maybe one of the “lost towns” of the Barrens) used to sit there and the stuff is growing over the limestone of the foundation.

Since this is film, Dario wanted a more visual hint that some other structure preceded the Jameson farm in the area by a long, long time. What they've given him is a couple of piles of worn, broken blocks (styrofoam, but you'd never know) indicating maybe an ancient gateway, and beyond that something that may have been a monolith or temple stone in its heyday. I’m impressed.

A light rain begins as they start the shoot. People grumble but it isn't going to stop them. Today’s scenes involve furrier Jake Feldman and his assistant as they find the pelts and what’s left of the Jamesons. John Saxon plays Pa Jameson but he’s not involved today.

Meat Loaf plays Jake, and Mick introduces me to him as the guy who wrote the original story.

“You dreamed this up?” Mr. Loaf says as we shake hands. “You're one sick guy.”

I hear that a lot; I give my standard reply: “Thank you.”

Between setups Mick, Meat (his folks named him Michael Aday but he wants to be called Meat -- I kid you not) and I sit and gab in the set’s “video village” – a tented area where we can watch monitors and see what the cameras see as they shoot. He’s natural and unassuming, and serious about his acting. He wants to know more about Jake and how he feels when he first sees the pelts. I tell him these aren't just pelts, they're uber-pelts and he’s seeing his whole future open up before him. He's seeing paradise by the dashboard light.

After hours of lots of activity and very little footage being shot, I'm ready to go. The temperature has dropped, a wind has sprung up, and I'm not dressed for this. Mick is heading back to the hotel to meet with Tobe Hooper about budgeting his upcoming film, and so I hitch a ride.

Back in my room, I write into the night.

4/20
Crew call isn't until 4pm so I spend the day writing. I break to go out and buy a new digital camera since my old Fuji had finally crapped out. All of the photos from yesterday are gone -- or never were. I find a Sony Cyber-shot on sale and snag it. The guy tries to sell me something with more features but if I use a camera four times a year it's a lot.

I'm supposed to ride over with Dario at 2:45. I get there at 2:35 and they've already left. Swell. I call the production office and they say I can ride over with Meat Loaf. So I do. I want to talk about music but he wants to talk about how the film differs from my story. I give him my fiction-imposing-symmetry-on-the-chaos-of-reality theory and why leaving out the homeless woman breaks that symmetry. He says he likes my ending better, but he may simply be polite.

We stop at a convenience store because he likes to drink Diet Coke with ice -- with ice -- and they don't have ice on location. We also have to find a florist so he can buy flowers for a woman he fears he inadvertently insulted yesterday. It's like driving around with an eccentric but lovable uncle.

They drop off Meat at makeup and me at the farm house location. Same as yesterday, they're serving breakfast. I grab some bacon and eggs and head up to the house. Dario is effusively apologetic when I tell him about being left high and dry -- he didn't know I was coming. I reshoot all the photos I took yesterday -- the ruins, the shack, etc., then go to the basement set where all of the day's interiors will be shot.

This is the scene where Larry, the trapper's son, performs a facectomy on himself. Covered with blood after bludgeoning his father to a pulp, he enters, opens a bear trap, and slams his face into it. The bludgeoning is in my story, but the trap is not. It's an AA (Argento addition) -- but I kind of wish I'd thought of it.

The prop is a real bear trap that's had its springs welded so they can't snap the jaws. Opening the trap takes the most takes because the actor's having a tough time making it look like he's struggling against the springs.

With retakes, lighting changes and different setups for master shots and close ups, it takes almost 4 hours to film a sequence that will run 40 seconds tops on the screen. I look around. Everyone's smiling. They're delighted with the progress we're making.

Meat arrives for the scene where Jake discovers Larry's body with its ruined face (a dummy). He's been on the road doing driving shots for a later sequence. Now, with the interiors, the master shot and close-ups are done in half an hour. He's outta there.

So am I. I say my good-byes and get an Italian left-right double embrace from Dario. I promise to send him the first-edition
chapbook of “Pelts.” (Hope I have an extra.)

On the way out I meet John Saxon who's playing Pa. No time for more than an introduction and moving on. He'll be shooting scenes with Larry down by the ruins. I'd love to watch but frankly I'm bored.

I drive back to the hotel with Meat. We commiserate about conglomeratization -- he about music, I about publishing. I get him talking about touring for his new album coming in the fall and his early experiences as an actor -- Rocky Horror in particular.

I realize how boring acting can be. They picked us up at 3:30 and now they drop us off at 9:30. They've needed him for maybe 90 minutes of those six hours. No wonder some actors get into drugs.

Meat wants to see the original “Pelts” story so I get his email address and promise to send it to him ASAP. He's too tired for a trip to the bar and I don't like to drink alone, so we shake hands and head to our respective rooms.

My Vancouver trip is, for all intents and purposes, over. All that's left is the plane ride home tomorrow morning.

Am I glad I flew 6000 miles roundtrip for this? Yeah. Very. I met some great people and saw pieces of my story come to life.