Saturday, 1 August 2015

interview: David Pabian

Screenwriter David Pabian doesn’t have many produced credits but he’s been earning a steady living writing Hollywood scripts for many years now and the few that do have his name on are among the very best straight-to-video B-movies of the early 1990s. This interview with David was conducted in November 2007. The picture shows David with Carroll Baker, star of Andy Warhol's Bad, The Watcher in the Woods and other cult movies.

What are you doing in Italy?
"I live here part of the time. Six months here, six months in Los Angeles. I can work here of course also, thanks to e-mail and things like that. So it’s the best of weather in LA and here, living year round in the perpetual Spring."

I understand that both of your parents were animators.
"As a matter of fact, they were."

So how did you end up as a writer, rather than making Charlie Brown cartoons?
"Because I have no talent for drawing or art! Everyone in the family actually, uncles on both sides of the family, were animators but it was not a talent that came naturally to me. I always read and was always very interested in films and film history, even as a very young kid. So it just seemed a natural thing to do, to try and make my own, and since I didn’t have the wherewithal to actually make movies I just thought I could maybe start writing them. And I did for a while as a kid, just messing around. Then I joined the real world and got an honest job at the telephone company and sat around for years doing that. But when an opening came for a reader at United Artists studios, friends of mine suggested I look into that. So that’s how I got back into the business."

Did that give you an ‘in’ to be able to show your own scripts to somebody?
"It did eventually, although what it really was, was upon reading all those scripts I realised that good stuff would be seen. The competition is astounding, there are thousands of scripts floating around. But I saw as a reader, and speaking with some of the executives, that the good stuff is seen, is held onto. There are scripts that film executives cart around with them for years, trying to get made. And when you get down to the pool of the quality stuff - there’s not that much, there really isn’t. I knew that I had some facility for writing and I thought I could get back into doing that. Then eventually, when I moved into a more executive development position, that’s when I began meeting people and was able to show my stuff to a few agents. It was an agent who told me that there was a writing job at Charlie Band’s company Full Moon that she couldn’t recommend any of her writers for as she was a signatory with the Writers Guild. Charlie didn’t want to use any Guild writers of course. At that time I was not a member of the Guild, so I sent in a couple of scripts, he called me up and that was it."

What was the first thing that you did for Charlie?
"The first thing I did was called Crash and Burn. He actually had a script called Crash and Burn and he told me that it was one of the few scripts that he had actually made a Writers Guild deal on so he was contractually obligated to use that writer’s name. But he wanted a total page one re-write and they would end up giving me, I think it was ‘dialogue coach’ as a credit at the end! So along with Crash and Burn, he also then hired me to write Puppet Master II."

Was Crash and Burn intended as a sequel to Robojox?
"It really wasn’t. I do remember him talking about that but I don’t think he wanted it to be. He had actually gotten the Crash and Burn script, I think, before Robojox but by the time it got made I believe it came out afterwards. I’m not sure on that. I was not aware of that at the time and he had had Crash and Burn for at least a year or two before he finally got around to getting somebody to rewrite it."

What sort of instructions were you given about limitations such as effects sequences?
"He did tell me to use all the characters and only the characters that existed in the first script. But I remember there were two women in there who were hookers and he thought that they were far too over-the-top and vulgar so he wanted them toned down. They also were drug-users, they were always high in the original story, and he didn’t want them to be drug-users. I didn’t exactly turn them into nuns but I softened them very much. I softened them and had one sort of a world-weary women of the street, who has moved out of it, and the younger woman, rather than her protégé, she is now trying to get out of that life.

"I remember when I turned in the first draft, Charlie’s wife Debra read it and she said, ‘Where’s that line about looking for the mindfucking drugs?’ Right away I had to put back the line about: ‘You got any good mindfuckers around here?’! Which I never thought was a particularly funny line. But I was told to soften the girls and then the first comment was: why aren’t these girls tough whores? But the effects, actually at that time he said nothing about keeping the budget in mind. I think he just figured that he and David Allen would figure it out in post-production. They actually did a pretty good job for the kind of stop-motion stuff it was, I thought."

How familiar were you with Charles Band’s work before you started working for him?
"Actually I knew some of the work of his father, Albert Band, who had directed some interesting small films in the fifties. A very creepy, odd movie called Face of Fire with James Whitmore which was based on a Steven Crane short story, ‘The Monster.’ Other things that Albert had done, he seemed like a pretty interesting guy. I barely knew Charlie’s work when I was hired. My job at the time, as a development executive, I just wasn’t looking at that kind of stuff. It was sort of under the radar. Though I really had the idea myself of putting together a company where we would do low budget horror films. But I wasn’t that familiar with what was coming out of Full Moon - or Empire I guess it was, before Full Moon. I had seen some of his stuff but I hadn’t followed him in any way."

Where did Puppet Master II come from?
"Charlie said that he wanted a sequel but I was not to worry about anything that happened in the first one except in the vaguest of ways. They of course wanted to keep the puppet characters and of course Andre Toulon - although Charlie wasn't pleased with Leech Woman and wanted her killed off, so I did that - but anything else was completely up to me. He didn’t care if it didn’t match at all. I had actually seen the first one before we even talked about this and I thought that storywise it could have been a little punchier. Charlie had also told me that, no matter what I came up with as a story, he would be taking story credit as he did on all his films - and I figured okay, fine. But you got it - you mentioned somewhere in your review - that it was very heavily influenced by the Karl Freund Mummy from 1932. I did that on purpose, I thought of it as an homage. I love that film so much.

"And I was very pleased actually that David Allen followed the script. There were only a couple diversions. Not only did he follow the script as written but he absolutely followed my directives: when to go to black and white; cut to a poster and fade from that poster to the next screen. I was really pleased that he did that because we seemed to be very much on the same page - if I may use the word! - artistically on that film. He saw it very much the same way I did, except I did see the whole thing moving a little faster than he directed it."

It’s the only feature that David Allen directed. Did he want to direct more films?
"Yes, he was set to do another one called The Primevals and actually was in pre-production on it and the deal was ready to go. There may have even been one or two scenes shot when he died."

Charlie Band tends to reuse people. Did David Allen not want to do any more films and concentrate on effects?
"No no no, he definitely wanted to direct more and it was only his death that stopped this. He got very sick, I mean he was obviously sick for quite some time before he actually left us. But Charlie and he had a whole little roster of films that, at least at the time, Charlie had told David he was willing to let him direct. And David was working in pre-production on things. I lost track of David actually before he died. I didn’t see David much after Puppet Master II. I would stop by his studio on occasion, which was an amazing place, and we would just talk and jaw. David would often be booming Wagner from his high-end stereo all day - 12" vinyl, as he didn't like the CD remasters. I don't know what his assistants thought of Brünhilde's top Cs, but the over-the-top mythology of Wagner's Ring obviously inspired him and his work. But I could see he wasn’t well, then whatever he was planning with Charlie did fall apart."

What sort of response did Puppet Master II get? Was it successful?
"It was successful. Actually I think there was only a couple of other films that were released by Paramount after that. Charlie got into some trouble apparently with them, in some way."

I think we’ll hedge round that a bit!
"But it was well received. It actually got some good reviews and I got some jobs from it, not from the script but from people who saw the film. It was extremely successful but of course it was also straight-to-video and I think Charlie always had pretty much a guaranteed box office on those things. I don’t know what it was like in Great Britain but all the video stores in Los Angeles at least had basically walls or large displays of Full Moon films. They had a real audience of 14-18 year-old guys and then older geeky types. He really connected with them and I think he had a pretty captive audience. I don’t really know, in the larger realm of things, how those films do in the world at large, outside of the Full Moon crowd. Puppet Master did really well and Charlie told me that he had won a couple of awards for Puppet Master II. Of course I was not even mentioned in those or went anywhere to receive an award. But there was a marketing company, a film-releasing company of some sort that gave Charlie an award for Puppet Master II. So he’d done well for somebody - I can’t tell you exactly who."

It’s one of the first DTV sequels, around the same time as Trancers II. Now we think of Charlie as the king of the sequels, but this must have been around the time that he was just starting to realise that he could extend these films into franchises. Was that part of his plan?
"We didn’t discuss his long-term plans. I didn’t know that when I did Puppet Master II. By the time I did Subspecies and he showed me the poster he had, for me to write the film around the poster, he told me at that point that Subspecies was going to go on and on and he wanted to get as many films as he could from it. Shortly after I began Subspecies, I heard that a friend of mine was writing Puppet Master III so I figured that was where Charlie was going now on those things. But when I had written II, I really thought that that was basically going to be the end of the Puppet Master thing. I think they went on to ... five?"

It goes up to Part V, then Curse of the Puppet Master, then Retro Puppet Master and finally the non-Band Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys. [This was before Puppet Master: Axis of Evil, obviously - MJS]
"But you know, he’s very cagey that Charlie. There was a scene in my script that was a very quick flashback to Nazi Germany. I think it lasted a page and a half in the script and he told me he was going to cut it. It was sort of important in the first draft but he said, ‘No, we just don’t want to do that, we’re going to cut that.’ So I cut it out and wrote around it it - and that is what Puppet Master III was. So he took that page and a half that I wrote and figured out how to do a whole movie out of it. So that’s what III turned into and then in fact all the Puppet Masters, at least the next two, until about V - I sort of lost track of them after that, obviously - still used that Nazi Germany background that I had given him in that first film. But he’s very good at that kind of thing. He does see the elements that are going to make a good sequel or a movie and zero in on them and realise how to exploit them to the hilt. He’s a really smart guy.”

What was the next script after Puppet Master II?
"That’s Subspecies. That’s the one where he showed me the poster of the scantily clad woman being carried away by little green men, then said, ‘By the way, we can’t shoot this scene. You have to write the film around it but we can’t shoot this scene because we really can’t afford to do this kind of effect. So you have to figure out how to suggest this is going on so the poster will make sense, but you can’t actually write this scene’! So I did show the little green guys coming in the window, then I think we saw her arm disappearing out the door as she is dragged out. But ultimately he did shoot that scene. First it was done with Romanian guys in little green suits but it looked so ridiculous that he went back and hired David Allen after all to do some stop-motion."

The irony is that that’s not the main thrust of the Subspecies films. It’s all vampires and Bloodstone and whatnot.
"Right. That I made up. I hadn’t been able to come up with an idea and I was actually driving to the meeting to give him my idea. I had recently seen a production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal and I said, ‘Let’s just reverse that story around a little bit. The search for the Holy Grail. Let’s see, it’s something that keeps the vampires alive. Okay, it’s this Bloodstone thing. All right, that’s what it is.’ So I went in and I pitched this idea based on Wagner’s Parsifal! Two vampire brothers, a good one and a bad one. I used a lot of the imagery from the original Nosferatu, and Herzog’s 1979 remake - and just came up with that story. Stefan the good guy, Radu the bad guy and these girls who were in Transylvania doing their thing. So I just came up with that Bloodstone story, using it as the Holy Grail."

When Charlie just had the poster, was it intended to be a vampire film or just about the little green guys?
"Initially it was to be a vampire film. It was explained to me that it had to be a vampire movie but those characters had to figure into it. He also at the time told me that he wanted it to be very adult. He wanted to use it to break away from his teenage boy audience. So when I first wrote it, I wrote this creepy thing where - get this - one of those little creatures actually crawled up into one of the girls! I think that after seeing that script he decided to go back for the 15 year-old boys! That whole idea of going grown-up for a theatrical release - which is also what he told me his plan was - it just didn’t happen. He wound up making it more like a Band thing. But that’s right; I had forgotten that when I began writing it was to be a vampire film but I had to work that in. He’d already had the posters so those characters had to come in. So it was how to put that together into a vampire story - and it doesn’t really work!"

Did you work closely with Ted Nicolaou?
"No, I didn’t. I would send Ted the scripts and we talked on the phone maybe five or six times. Because he didn’t get attached until the final draft had been sent in. We worked on some polish; I polished the script up a bit with Ted’s notes and really liked him. We talked only a bit but he was really a smart guy. When they got to Romania though, they found logistically things were so different from what they expected. This was actually, I’m told, the first US production to be shot in Romania. They do a lot now. They now create Los Angeles in Romania. But this was the first and it was so difficult when they got there, they basically just rewrote the script on the set. Ted did it with Jackson Barr, the guy I get the co-writing credit with. I never worked with him; he did the day-to-day rewrite kind of thing.

"When I first saw that film, I thought it bore no relation - except the names - to my script but when I read a synopsis of the film, I realised it was my story. It was very interesting; I thought it had been so changed but somehow when I read that synopsis, I said, ‘You know, it does look like they followed it.’ They just changed the order of things and added a couple of characters. But it was a nightmare apparently, according to Ted, it was just a nightmare. They had to wing the whole thing."

Subspecies had three direct sequels and a spin-off in The Vampire Journals. Have you seen those?
"I only saw the second one, Bloodstone. That’s the only other one I saw. There were comics also, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of those. There were Puppet Master and Subspecies comic books, which are a rarity now. And cards, baseball cards."

I’m guessing you didn’t see any residuals or credits for reuse of your characters.
"Part of the deal with Charlie was, since they were not Writers Guild deals, there were no ancillary benefits at all. I will admit to a bit of cynicism about the films that were written after. In a way, I didn’t want to see just how far the stuff I had written had changed. Also by then I had become a member of the Writers Guild and I was off doing Disney projects and things. I just put it all as: that was the Charlie Band stuff and we’ve moved on."

The other film you did for Charlie was my favourite Full Moon film - and Charlie told me it was one of his favourites too - which was Dollman.
"Yes, although that also got very changed from the script I had written. Albert Pyun the director is a pretty sharp guy, I really liked him, Again, it got changed. I like my script better than what was shot but I really liked that film. I think it’s clever, it’s fast, it is one of the best ones I think that Charlie has done. I don’t know how far he went with that, how many others he made after that."

There’s only really one other Dollman film which is Dollman vs Demonic Toys although the character turns up very briefly right at the end of a really terrible film called Bad Channels. What sort of brief were you given for Dollman?
"They wanted it in an urban setting. Dollman had to be twelve inches tall initially. In fact I remember going out and looking for a GI Joe or something and at that time they had become very politically incorrect and you could not find boy dolls any more. I think they’re all out there again now but I couldn’t find one. I almost bought a Ken doll because I wanted to have something in front of me to imagine moving around and doing stuff. I think I eventually found an old GI Joe at a garage sale. Charlie wanted him to be twelve inches tall and he wanted him to fight crime in an urban setting. Again, he wanted it to be very gritty with drug users and a really dark, nasty urban sprawl. I think I probably overdid it in the script and they softened that. Because I had pretty rough stuff going on. I thought I was writing a film that would be looked at by grown-ups. But what he came up with ultimately I think is really better. Certainly I am also surprised that it didn’t go on. I really don’t know why not because it is one of the best things he ever did."

Did you come up with the prologue on an alien world and the other sci-fi elements?
"No I didn’t. That was all Pyun I believe. That alien world, there was very little background on that in my draft and that’s the way Charlie wanted it. He really wanted to start this thing in Chicago, which is where we had it initially, and to delve a very little bit, he didn’t want more than a page or two on back story. So that was all another writer. It was Albert Pyun who worked on that. Albert was a really good writer and he just invented so much. I almost didn’t recognise that film when I saw it. It doesn’t represent my writing nearly as much as Puppet Master II or Subspecies. And Crash and Burn, although I don’t get the credit for that, is page-for-page what I wrote. I cringe at some of it when I see it now but it is what I wrote. Dollman is about the best and yet it’s the least me."

Did you work on any other stuff for Charlie?
"Not for Charlie, no. But I had a great affection for that group of people.

Did your credits on the Full Moon films help your career?
"Yes they did but not an awful lot. I had so many scripts of my own that by the time I was out pounding the pavements and going to the majors, and I had a good agent and I had joined the Writers Guild, I had other material to show them and other material I was getting hired from. But having those credits, having produced credits, even Band video produced credits, even the straight to video stuff, is always a help. More doors open simply because you’ve had produced credits. You make the comment on the website - and I really appreciate it and it is true - you can have really good, long-lasting careers in that town where you’re writing and writing but very little gets made. You’re getting assignments and getting paid for them but there’s very little to show as far as produced credits go. Or for various reasons you have to write things that you know your name is not going to be on, there’s Guild-contractual things involved in that.

"Certain percentages of structure changes have to be met before a different writer will get a credit and very often producers will say, ‘Don’t go over the forty per cent structural change rule because we’re going to use the original writer’s name. They do that because they don’t want to get into the whole, sometimes very long, arbitration process in deciding who gets what kind of credit. Those produced films are great on the resume but most of my later jobs came from other writing samples that they saw and other written things that I’d done."

Are you allowed to say anything else that you’ve worked on?
"I can’t claim credit for the things that are credited to others. There was a Disney feature called Dragons which never got made. A Disney feature called Minotaur, based on the Greek myth, which never got made. And doctoring jobs that I’ve done but will shy from naming."

Is it frustrating seeing that work and not getting a credit? Would you like to get something else out there with your name on it?
"Certainly, and I’m working on something now., I’ve been commissioned to write something. It’s an assignment and oh, absolutely, it does kind of drive me nuts. I said to my agent, ‘Look, I don’t even want to share a credit with a director. It’s not going to be A Film By. I want A Film By with my name on it too.’ They laughed at that. That’s actually a huge bone of contention at the Writers Guild now and one of the reasons that we’re all going on strike as of Monday, because of this proprietary credit that directors are taking, A Film By. The writers are saying, ‘Wait a minute, I want my name up there too.’

"That‘s another thing, a bit of an aside. When Puppet Master II was finished and there was going to be a viewing of it, David Allen called me up to very gently break the news and prepare me for the fact that Charlie didn’t give me a separate card in the opening credits with my name on it as script but put me on the same card with his name: ‘Story by Charles Band, script by David Pabian.’ I couldn’t care less. I didn’t care at all about that, it didn’t bother me. What I did think was it was kind of sweet that David called me up, really thinking I’d be worried and he wanted to prepare me for that. He told me he had argued with Charlie about that. That’s what David was like, he was a real sweetheart. Too nice in some ways, really too nice. I will say in closing that I look back on those years with great affection and even some for Charlie and Debra his wife. I enjoyed it.”

Interview originally posted 29th November 2007

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