You may have seen the STUDIO OF SCREAMS mega-interview in last week’s newsletter. Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, Mark Morris, Stephen Volk & Stephen R. Bissette (the “creative quintet”, as Paul Simpson rightly describes them) got together on Zoom to discuss their new book with Paul at SCI-FI BULLETIN. Well, here is more from Stephen R. Bissette. Find out how he brought Blythewood Studios to life . . .
All books spend conceptual time in their respective ovens, a baking process that can take months, more often years, depending upon the nature of the book, the nature of the author or authors, the nature of the planned publishing schedule (or lack of same), and so on. My steady work on my respective portion of the collaborative STUDIO OF SCREAMS began in earnest in the summer of 2018, and lasted for well over a year-and-a-half, much to the frustration of my co-authors-in-arms. After all, one cannot pull an entire manufactured imaginary motion picture non-studio out of one’s ass overnight.
The daisy-chain of creation and co-creation can be difficult to trace (just look at how many generations have been trying to sort out the complexities of the post-Lovecraft Cthulhu mythos, or the Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko/Stan Lee Silver Age comics creative conundrums), but in the case of STUDIO OF SCREAMS, there’s nothing to trip over, really. By all accounts, Stephen Volk was the fellow who had the notion of emulating the beloved 1966-1967 THE HAMMER HORROR FILM OMNIBUS pair of paperbacks by Sussex-born, Liverpool-raised John Burke (aka Russ Ames, J F Burke, Jonathan Burke, Harriet Esmond, Jonathan George, Robert Miall, Martin Sands). This was the twist: instead of Burke’s compact distillations of four real-world Hammer Films, Stephen thought it might be fun to invent a competitor-that-never-existed for Hammer Films, and “novelize” four of their imaginary feature films.
John Burke, by the way, was also the writer who novelized the Amicus portmanteau feature DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (for Pan Books back in 1965), which is of anecdotal interest since it’s that Amicus film (and their last anthology film, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, circa 1974) that inspired much concerning my respective contribution to STUDIO OF SCREAMS.
Stephen also cooked up the moniker for this imaginary British film studio, Blythewood Studios. Stephen suggested it to Mark Morris, who thought it a fine idea, and together they brought fellow novelists and horror movie lovers Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden into the fray to make of it a fearsome foursome, the magic number needed to match the John Burke HAMMER HORROR FILM OMNIBUS package.
It was Chris who suggesting bringing me into the game to write either a framing device or a frame-and-interstitials (which is what I ended up doing) to flesh out Stephen Volk’s Blythewood Studios into a proper studio, with an invented backstory, history, and context for the four imaginary movies each of the quartet were inventing and “novelizing” from scratch.
Perversely, when asked, I not only said yes, but I proceeded to make Blythewood Studios a studio-that-never-was-a-studio, and puzzled over how to believably fold a mysterious cargo of “lost and forgotten” British horror movies into the well-trod legacy of 1960s and 1970s UK cinema history. The problem was twofold, to my mind: how in the wake of the videocassette boom of the 1980s and in the thick of this era of definitive-edition DVD/Blu-ray sets restoring and reissuing every nook and cranny of British horror could one even imagine four vintage horror movies being “lost”—and why would any living producer or heir of the Blythewood products sanction and enforce their films being wilfully excluded from this ongoing home video revival?
But what if the entrepreneur behind Blythewood had buried his own feature films, removed them from the face of the Earth altogether? What if…
Backtracking through my own records, this is what I asked of Stephen, Mark, Tim, and Chris in July 2018 in an email tagged, “STUDIO OF SCREAMS: What Slumlord Stevie B needs to concoct his interstitial in time for deadline” (which is a laugh in hindsight, since it took me until March 2020 to wrap up my contribution):
“I’m writing to ask for some clear directives from you, per whatever stage you might be at in your stories.
I just need enough to work from and with.
OK, to clarify:
My interstitial involves my (imaginary) indie studio ‘mogul’ being interviewed, his joking about and obsessing over the filming locations, each of which was a real estate purchase he’d use for one film, then sell—that was his money-saving/making concept. He was a studio that never had a studio, but every movie project made money because he’d bank on the sale of the property, which he’d roll over into the next production and property purchase.
But he was also leaving something behind at each location, with a greater intent…
I’ll just need certain key cues: primarily:
- PLACE (setting, so I can construct a ‘studio’ fabrication of a story locale; i.e., the way Hammer at Bray would craft sets to be Tibet, Spain, etc.); IF you have a British ‘location’ you’d like me to use, please, send me all the details you can! I’ll do my best as a Colonial, and will be looking to you, Mark, Tim, and Stephen, to help fine-tune the final result so the references fit enough of reality to read with conviction.
- TIMEFRAME (period setting, contemporary, or whatever, of the fiction piece you’re writing: i.e., 18th century London; 19th century Paris; 1960s Swinging London; 1970s Northampton in the decline; etc.);
- CHARACTERS and ‘types’ (so I can play with casting in the references; if you’ve a preferred actual actor/actress or ‘type’ I should work towards, just say so, as in “this character might have been played by Michael Ripper” or “Tod Slaughter on the skids” or “Martine Beswick” or “Veronica Carlson was cast, but since she was under contract to Hammer….”);
- GORE or HORROR set pieces (so I can, if necessary, reference special effects or makeup issues: ask yourself, “how would Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton have done it?”);
- and a clue as to CLIMAX (so I can thread the interstitials in context, without giving away anyone’s game)…”
In the end, in collaboration with longtime friend, fellow cartoonist, former student, and professional archeologist Al B. Wesolowsky (that middle initial is vital, because there’s apparently another Al Wesolowsky working in the same field), I imagined that Lawrence Blythewood’s career in filmmaking was a ruse, a guise, for something Lawrence and his brother were doing that would resonate (I hope) for the reader in the real world. After all, what I loved and still love most about the best of the portmanteau movies from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) to FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is that the whole can be more than the sum of the parts; that the framing device can and should be a horror story in and of itself.
With Al’s considerable knowledge, experience, and insights, brainstorming what lurked behind (and beneath) the Blythewood legacy added immeasurably to the fun, as did fact-checking every frame and interstitial with Kim Newman, who I knew would catch anything too inconsistent with real horror movie history, slap me up aside the head if I wandered too far afield in my fabrications, but would also share and/or remind me of trivia sure to illuminate the manuscript further. I couldn’t have done it without Al and Kim, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. Of course, I also checked each and every interstitial with the respective author of the imaginary film I was—excuse me, Lawrence Blythewood was talking about, and I hastily incorporated the suggestions or revisions suggested by (in order of their novella’s publication) Mark, Chris, Tim, and Stephen, and along with Kim’s emails, Stephen, Mark, and Tim kept me from mucking up with too many Colonial errors regarding UK locations, language, or terminology.
When SCI-FI BULLETIN’s Paul Simpson first reached out to us all with hopes of corralling the entire Studio of Screams creative team for a chat, my hope was that I’d finally get to meet everyone involved. Being an impoverished college instructor in his 60s earning a bit on the side from reprints of my old 1980s comics work that remains in print (i.e., SWAMP THING), even before we were all subsumed in this global pandemic it was never in the cards for me to join Stephen, Mark, Tim, Pete, Nicky, and Mike in the UK for this month’s planned roll-out. I have been fortunate enough to meet and get to know Mark and Tim during their visits to the US thanks to mutual friend Chris Golden, but I’ve never met Stephen Volk (or “Stephen 1” as I cheerfully call him and forever will), nor Pete, Nicky, or Mike. So Paul’s suggestion was a happy one, and I not only got to enjoy reuniting with Mark, Tim, and Chris via the internet real-time conversation, but to meet Stephen 1 and Paul for the first time, and see with my own eyes Stephen 1 trot out his Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee action figures and play with them on-camera. It’s something I’ll never forget, and I’m smiling still at the memory. My heart swells with joy and pride to be part of this.
Alas, Paul’s written interview doesn’t preserve the “Playtime with Stephen 1” revelation, but all the rest of it is preserved and awaits you, disinterring the secret history of STUDIO OF SCREAMS…
As SCI-FI BULLETIN’s Paul Simpson says, “The result: an hour of real pleasure distilled into a 7,500 word transcript.” And, real pleasure, it is! You can read the full interview, here: https://scifibulletin.com/books/horror/feature-studio-of-screams-zooming-the-authors/
And, let’s not forget the legendary Graham Humphreys. Graham’s artwork is the cherry on the cake. Here’s what Graham had to say:
When I was approached with the possibility of painting a wraparound cover for STUDIO OF SCREAMS, I immediately thought about the Amicus anthology films. The brief synopsis that accompanied each of the author’s titles even depicted elements that might well have appeared within the Amicus and Hammer canon. The direct link was made in a couple of character descriptions, referencing Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. My artwork is an imaginary cinematic anthology poster. Taking my lead from the original art for DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, I made use of the colour palettes that defined the horror genre of the era and made generous use of a Peter Cushing portrait from THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, in direct reference to the tale which shares Central Asian elements.
With any job, the reference material is the essential foundation of any painting, particularly where specifics are observed. Although a basic description of the two depicted female characters had been supplied, precise age and hair colouring were not. This can cause visual confusion on any job where the text does not match the art. Many years ago, I worked on a series of illustrations for a corporate finance brochure, in which I was required to depict key management staff in various poses (e.g. ‘watering a very tall plant’ – depicting folio growth). I sourced the poses from various books and magazines (pre-google years!) of businessmen in suits (they were all men), approximating the required poses (folds in cloth are difficult to conjure up with any form of realism). All my portrait references (another point of difficulty, the body poses had to work with the angle of the supplied head shots) were in black and white. Inevitably, client comments on the final art included such questions as “why isn’t his hair red?” or ‘why aren’t his eyes hazel’. How could I know? No descriptions accompanied the photos! A lesson learned.
Some reference was supplied by one author, the vintage creepy clowns, whereas I made use of multiple references for individual characters… the seated female is a mixture of a head shot, hair from another head shot, a separate seated body and a separate scarf from another photo. Oliver Reed is a mix of a still from THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and Bela Lugosi’s DRACULA! The look of the demon bear was sourced from a benign zoo image and transformed by using my imagination inspired by the supplied text. The screaming head was sourced from a model agency shot, with subtle changes to disguise the original. The tower seen in the top right, is sourced from one of my own photographs of Whitby Abbey. Other elements were sourced and cut and pasted together to generate reference that would suit the look required. As with all such photographic composites, the quality of images varied according to the material, from tiny jpegs upwards. The basic composition is then traced onto watercolour paper. It is then down to my own skills to level the material or disguise the poor reference and skew the imagery to my purposes. It is never as simple as just tracing the reference – deciding on how much visual information is required from each image is key to the focus. Colour and light and contrast all need to work in order to create depth and interest.