Interview: Charles Pieper
We first exchanged emails back in 2007 when we plugged your script for The Curse of the Blue Figurine. Tell us how that came about and if you’ve returned to it since then?
I wrote it as a summer exercise for myself when I was still in college – Emerson College, studying film/animation. I had written and directed lots of short scripts but had never tackled a feature length one so I thought it would be a nice way to 'ease' into it by writing one that I could adapt from a pre-existing story. So I went straight to John Bellairs and The Curse of the Blue Figurine as I always thought it would make for a great film. Since writing it I have gone back to it a few times, yes, and probably still will revise it. As it was the first screenplay I'd ever written I am sure it may be a little rough in parts and in need of smoothing out. I'd love to sell it and get it made but I don't own the film rights to the novel. Buying rights like that would be expensive and even if I had the rights that wouldn't necessarily mean I'd be able to get it sold/made so for now it will remain just a screenplay – until I perhaps have enough cinematic clout to my name to get people interested in it.
And how did you first discover John’s books?
I discovered the books when I was in elementary school and was immediately drawn to their spooky and gloomy Edward Gorey covers for they stood out from all the other brighter and childish looking books in the library. I read one and then read as many others as fast as I could get my hands on them. Even as a child I was a fan of all things spooky and mysterious so the books were absolutely what I wanted to read.
What story comes to mind when you think back about his work?
The first book that springs to mind is The Eyes of the Killer Robot as I believe that was the first book of his I read. I liked it so much that at the time I based a game I played with friends during recess off of it, and eventually even wrote my own series of hand drawn/written short stories that featured an evil robot!
Were you ever successful at persuading others to read his books?
My enthusiasm for the books when I was a kid was infectious. I got all my friends to read the novels as well. Interest in the books waned for my friends as they grew up, but I always kept the books in a place near and dear to my heart, which is why I returned to them when I decided to write my first feature length screenplay.
Do you identify with any of John’s characters?
I definitely identify with John's characters, in particular Johnny Dixon as I was absolutely a bookworm sort of kid, and was a little awkward and felt out of place at times! I also relate to Childermass as I am grumpy and can become almost comically pessimistic about things in general.
I find Bellairs characters unique in how they interact, specifically Johnny and Childermass. On the surface the pairing of a young kid with a grumpy old man seems out of place, or something that would work solely to create comic moments, but Bellairs goes deeper than that and creates a real honest sense of heartfelt emotion between the two which grounds the story as a whole. The supernatural elements are wild and scary, but on an emotional level, the characters are believable.
Are you familiar with the adaptations, those made-for-television specials from the late 1970s/early 1980s?
I am aware of the television specials but I haven't seen them. I've heard mixed reviews of them in the past and if they don't capture the mood of the books well I don't think I'd want to see them. They may prove too frustrating!
Yeah, the less said...anyway, back to your screenplay. Your version of Curse had some differences from the book but then again we know most adaptations do. What difficulties did you have in translating the book and, on the whole, do you think John’s books would translate easily to the big screen?
I tried to keep the script as close to the book as possible, but yes I did change a few things. Specifically I didn't have Charles Coote show up at the end to explain information gaps for I felt that in a film narrative having a new character suddenly show up in the final moments to give exposition would feel too forced. Also it would take away from Childermass's character and his sense of knowledge in the film. This is a change that I think is necessary and helps the story from a filmic point of view. As a whole though the book wasn't difficult to translate to the screenplay version, and I think that all of John's books could become great films.
So if you had your way and could do more than just write the script, who would be your dream cast?
Donnelly Rhodes (who played Doctor Cottle on the new Battlestar Galactica) would make a perfect Professor Childermass. The rest of the characters I feel less clear about, in terms of actors... I'm not sure who I'd want for Johnny Dixon because I feel casting an unknown child actor would be best, or even going with a kid who's not inherently an actor. He'd have to genuinely feel like a bookish kid and so I think using an actor already known might destroy that feeling. I feel that way for most of the characters actually! The less known the actors playing them are, the more they'll slip into the world of the film....
Tell us about some of the projects you’ve been busy with since we last talked.
I am currently working at a special effects company building miniatures for a new stop motion animation as well as doing an editing internship for a feature length film being produced by Bad Robot Productions. My latest short film called Last Remnants ; it’s based off of a mysterious newspaper article from the Chicago Herald published in 1901. It has been submitted to film festivals (and gotten into its first, the Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival) and I am in the midst of creating my next short live action film as well.
The short film I am currently directing is called Morning Cloth. It is a quiet and moody dream narrative.
Who...and/or what...are your influences?
Besides Bellairs, Edward Gorey has had a huge influence on my own drawing style. Filmically I am quite inspired by David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Where in the field of visual arts would you like to be in another five years?
I'd love to be in a position where I could get Curse made, as well as the other two feature length screenplays I have written. I'm not sure if I myself can get to a directorial position in five years but I'd like to be on my way there for sure!
In what medium/format do you think Bellairs work would translate best: live action film, black-and-white illustrated serials, video games, etc.?
They'd make great films. It boggles my mind that they haven't already been made into films! They exist as episodic stories already and could appeal to a wide audience: They could draw in fans of horror and ghost stories, as well as fans of the original books, and Edward Gorey, and everyone in between! Having films made would excite original readers who grew up on the books as well as get a whole new generation of younger people into the books who may otherwise not have known or found them. If a kid likes the film they are certainly more likely to track down the book.
On a slight side note I'd say I think that when the book publishers started republishing Bellairs books without Gorey's covers they made a huge mistake. Gorey's covers made them stand out so much and fit so well. The newer colorful covers diminish the books originality and makes them blend in with other children and young adult books way too much. I think the best way to get interest in the books again now (barring a film adaptation) would be to have the publishers reissue them as limited edition hardcovers with the original Edward Gorey art intact! Gorey collectors would love this and it would show that the interest is still there...
Compleat this sentence: you know you’ve read too much John Bellairs when –
...you think every curious old trinket you pick up at a garage sale is definitely cursed.
Thanks, Charles! You can see more of his work at his website or at Vimeo.