After a 33mm screening of Dagon in the RISD auditorium in Providence, Rhode Island, during NecronomiCon weekend, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli fielded questions from the audience. The following is transcribed from an audio recording.
Gordon: That was a scary screening- when the film breaks, it scares the crap out of me! I don’t know how many prints are left of this movie, so I hope it’s okay.
Q: How was the film site selected?
Gordon: I went location scouting, and that town is called Combarro, and it really exists and on a sunny day it’s really picturesque… we made it look worse than it really was! It’s a medieval fishing village.
Paoli: They have great oysters, too!
Gordon: They also have a dish called Pulpo Gallego, which is octopus, and when we were working on preproduction, one of the things that occurred to me was trying to come up with a look for the Deep Ones and their half-human offspring, and everything we did kept coming up like The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Earlier today we had a panel on Lovecraftian films, and that was one we should’ve talked about because it has a Deep One in it – the creature has a distinctive makeup design that is hard to avoid repeating. It struck me that maybe the way to go with this movie was to go with the idea that the people were turning into some sort of octopus-like creatures, which in a way, ties in with Lovecraft and all his tentacles, so that was the direction we went.
Q: Why was there no domestic theatrical release of Dagon?
Gordon: It was released directly to video/DVD, which really upset me. Lion’s Gate released it in the States, and I think their feeling was that it didn’t have any big names in it, although Francisco Paco Rabal is an incredibly legendary actor in Spain, and the fact that he wanted to do this movie astonished me- it would be like getting Sean Connery to be in your film! It turned out that the reason Paco wanted to do the movie was he was a Lovecraft fan and he liked the script.
Q: Can you talk about some of the creature effects in the film?
Gordon: The company that did the effects, DDT, won the academy award a few years ago for Pan’s Labyrinth, and they’re brilliant. Our budget for this movie was not huge and they were able to do so much for so little. They were incredibly creative. I remember walking in one day and they were xeroxing a real octopus! They had this octopus sitting on the xerox machine to get the textures of its skin. They were amazing. David Marti is the name of the guy who runs the company.
Q: Was it difficult to work under so heavy rainfall?
Gordon: It was. Dennis and I had the idea that the movie should be as wet as possible, and when we were shooting it, it was the middle of winter and we were all freezing our asses off in the rain, and all I could think was, “what were we thinking?” In retrospect, I’m glad that we did, because it really gives the movie an oppressive atmosphere, which was appropriate for the subject. But yes, it was difficult to do all that latex in water.
Paoli: One of the other things that I think creates the atmosphere in the movie is there’s no music other than in the dream sequence and the credits; except for chanting from time to time, there’s no background music in the rest of the film. You only hear what the characters hear, and Stuart and the crew really succeeded in having you feel very much as the characters felt, and that’s what gives the movie the overall effect it has. I know it’s hot in here tonight, but that movie makes me feel cold whenever I see it, so I think it evened out the temperature in here.
Gordon: The music was by Carles Cases, an amazing composer. I also think the sound design is perfect in this film, too- they used a lot of natural sounds: sea creatures, whales, seals, and dolphins, and so forth. The idea I told the producers of people turning into fish, it sounds absurd, but really what Lovecraft was talking about is a sort of reverse evolution- that we all came out of the water originally, and some stayed in the water, like the whales and the dolphins and other marine mammals, so the idea of going backwards, of regressing- he makes us believe it.
Q: What kind of direction did you need to give the extras to have them act in the fishy and jerky way they did?
Gordon: We actually had a troupe of mimes employed to play most of the extras, and they worked for a long time on the body movements. We talked about the different stages of the transformations- the ones who are most human are the ones who are visible, like the guy who runs the hotel and the priest. The idea in the story is that the more fishlike they become, the more they have to be hidden away, so we referred to them as level one, level two, and level three, and the movement guys developed ideas on how each would move.
Q: Have you considered filming a Lovecraft movie in his own city of Providence?
Gordon: The last time that Dennis and I were here together was when we were location scouting to film “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” They took us on a tour of Providence and brought us to the house that Lovecraft grew up in and I noticed there was no plaque on the house, there was nothing to indicate he’d ever lived there. I mentioned that to the film commission guy, and he said, “If you make a film here, we’ll put a plaque on the house.” We didn’t make the movie here and I believe they tore down the house.
Paoli: I thought they did a very good job of staying close to the original script for a location in Spain; originally, of course, I wrote the script for a location in the Northeast, either here or we were looking at a town in Maine, where it would’ve worked perfectly. We did have to make some adaptations to the script, but actually very few. Stuart and Brian (Yuzna), who we worked famously with before, were dedicated to shooting that script, and I actually thought that the fact that there was Spanish spoken in the film- lines originally written in English- made it more alienating and disturbing, in a way, and just as there were level one, level two, and level three movements, there were three levels of language: English, Spanish, and Lovecraftian; you know, “Ia, ia!” I thought that ultimately lent something to the film, as well.
Gordon: The language actually is not Spanish, it’s called Galego. In Spain they speak five different languages. We were funded by the Galician Film Arts Commission, and I got a call one day that they had a couple of problems with the script, and I was going, “Oh, boy, here it goes…” and they said, “in your script you refer to Galego as a dialect, and it’s actually a language; it’s not a dialect.” And I said, “yeah, okay…” and I was waiting for the rest and there were nothing else, that was it! The thing that was interesting was that if we’d shot this film in America, it’s hard to imagine a community today would be so cut off from the world that you could have something like this going on, so the idea of setting it in a remote part of Spain, for us, somehow made it seem more real. Although, I have to say, to the Spaniards, they thought it was ridiculous there could be such a place in their country.
Paoli: There’s a long-standing Welch tradition in Galicia. If you notice, especially early in the film, there’s some Celtic influences in the music- Galicians are the Celts of Spain. They play bagpipes, they wear kilts from time to time… they are Celtic in origin and so partly is their language.
Q: Can you talk a little about how they skinned their victims, since that wasn’t in the original story?
Gordon: No, it’s not in Lovecraft’s story, at all. Lovecraft, being who he is, talks about the horrible things that were done to the people in the village, but doesn’t tell us what those horrible things are. When we were doing research on this- the thing I should tell you and I think some of you probably already know this- is unlike Cthulhu, Dagon is a real god. Dagon is the god of the Philistines and he appears in the Bible several times as the opposition’s god. There were a lot of battles between the god of the Jews and the god of the Philistines, Dagon, and he was, as Lovecraft must have known, a sea god- half human, half fish- and when Christianity came into being- you know they have a fish symbol? One of the reasons they did that was to bring in the Dagon worshippers. The whole thing about eating fish on Fridays- that was part of the Dagon religion! And the hat the Pope wears? It’s the fish head the Dagon priests wore, with the skins of the fish down their backs, like a cape, so if you‘ve ever wondered why the Pope wears such a strange hat, it’s actually a fish head that comes from the Dagon worshippers. We decided to take that idea and flip it; instead of skinning fish and wearing them, they’re skinning humans and wearing them.
Paoli: And then, of course, the idea is they shed their skin when they go into the sea for eternity- they shed their human skin. I thought of it as anthropological- it’s a tribal thing. Sometimes when you’re doing an adaptation, you have to find things that are faithful to the ideas of the story that reach back to the roots, as we did reaching back to the imagery of the mythology; to find not perfectly-faithful, but faithful-in-idea concepts that will feed the story, and we thought this worked. Plus, it’s horrible!
Q: What’s your favorite movie of yours?
Gordon: What’s mine? You know, it’s like saying which is your favorite child, because you love them all for different reasons, but I have to say that Dennis and I have collaborated together on all of the Lovecraft films and it’s hard for me to imagine doing Lovecraft with anyone else besides my old pal Dennis here. We have a Lovecraft script we’ve been trying to make for twenty years. When Billy Wilder was asked what his favorite film was, he would always say, “my next one,” so I guess my favorite film would then be The Thing on the Doorstep, yet to be made.
Paoli: No… do you know anybody? I’m kind of partial to From Beyond, too. If you look at Dagon and Reanimator, they are really full-tilt start-to-finish stories, they have structure and they tell a mythologically-sized tale. From Beyond was the craziest movie we could make for the budget we had; it was no-holds-barred. From Beyond is a very short story- we had gotten through the short story by the credits, so we just went on from there had had some fun. While the story is short, the idea is gigantic, that there are other dimensions out there that we impinge upon, and if we open that door, this can happen; the story simply opens the door we walk through.
Gordon: Also, the thing about Lovecraft, he never believed in the supernatural; if anything, he would’ve considered himself a science fiction writer because there’s always a scientific basis for everything in his stories. From Beyond is one of those stories where the idea is that the five senses are limited, that there’s so much more going on than we can perceive; it’s a brilliant concept. When Lovecraft first started writing, his stories were very short, and "From Beyond" is one of his earliest ones- it’s only, like, seven pages long. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which is one of his last stories, is a novella at sixty or seventy pages, and I think it’s one of his most accomplished stories.