Interview: Robert Shaw, Writer and Fan of Classic Horror

Image of Robert ShawRobert Shaw has worked in film and television in Australia, England and the US, and has been involved in such films as Angel Heart, Homeboy, The Blob, A Chorus of Disapproval, Jack’s Back and many others. He was also involved in the development and packaging of Jericho, written by and set to star the late Marlon Brando, who personally picked him to assist with casting suggestions for the film.  Additionally, he co-wrote the indie action/horror film Mexican Devil starring Danny Trejo.

The Scare, his first novel, was adapted from a screenplay he wrote as a tribute to ‘80s and ‘90s-style horror films.  He currently lives in Australia, where he is writing his third novel, which he describes as “a thunderously violent, slightly sci-fi tale of the Old West featuring the fierce and lovely Emeline Bransford.”

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Robert.  I see from your bio on that you have lived and worked in several different countries.  Where are you from originally?

My pleasure, Mark, it’s great to be invited to your blog. Thanks for having me. I was born in a little cottage in Essex County, apparently the first male baby born there in a hundred years. I wonder if that can be my claim to fame.

Sounds like you’ve been involved with lots of films during your career.  Of these, which is your favorite?  Why?

Yes, I’ve worked on quite a few TV shows, movies and live events. I’m always much more nervous about live events because they have the inherent “something always goes wrong during the show” factor – and you can’t stop the cameras and do it over. The audience sees it warts and all. My favorite movie that I worked on was a little picture that, sadly, no one will ever see, called Joe Joe Angel and the Dead Guy. I was involved in this from concept to completion and made it with a group of my best friends from LA. I loved those times and will never forget how great it was to work with my best buddies on such an intense and sometimes difficult shoot. We went all over the place on that one and had a great time. Everyone was terrific and I miss those days. It’ll always be one of my fondest memories.

Who are some of your favorite authors?  What draws you to their work?

I love Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins – I never knew what a Victorian Novel was until I read those guys. The characters they create are funny and complex and the villains dastardly to the point where you’d like to reach into the book and strangle them. Pumblechook in Great Expectations is one of these. I wanted to throttle him! Dickens has a way of describing characters that is beyond compare. When describing a person, he’ll sometimes talk only about an old building or location but you’ll get a very distinct idea of what the person looks like. He’ll do likewise sometimes when talking about a place, describing a person and their traits and giving you a perfect image of the thing he’s talking about. I’m sure I’m not articulating what I mean very well, it’s almost something I can’t quite put my finger on.

How long have you been writing?

I started writing short stories in high school – I was the kid who was always wanted to keep writing when the bell went. My teacher once told me I would probably become an author. I wrote my first novel longhand when I was nineteen – a cheesy Dirty Harry knock-off set in Australia. But I thought it was terrible and threw it away. I started writing screenplays in my early twenties. When I saw Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior I was so impressed that it was an Australian film (in those days Aussie films were not what you’d call mainstream commercial and The Road Warrior was an impressive deviation from that) that I wrote a story for a third movie. I then wrote a letter to the producer, Byron Kennedy, asking if he’d look at my idea, and believe it or not he called me at home one night! At first I thought it was a friend playing tricks but once I got on the phone I realized it really was him. We talked about my idea and he told me to flesh it out into a sixty-page treatment and send it to him and then we would talk further. At that time, I had no idea what a treatment was so had to ask around. It turned out that a treatment is a short story told in present tense, so I fleshed this thing out into Mad Max III: The Steel Prince and sent it off. Byron’s secretary called to say he’d read it and liked it and would call me when he got back from a trip he was on. Sadly, he died in a helicopter crash while on that trip and so that was it. There were some similar elements from my treatment in Mad Max Beyond Thunder Dome – I had a fight in a pit, they had the dome fight; I also had an oasis with kids but they weren’t airline crash survivors. Anyway, who knows if it was coincidence or plagiarism? There’s a new Mad Max movie being shot in Africa right now so I’m doing a quick novelization of my Steel Prince story to put on Amazon before that movie comes out.

Tell me about your daily writing routine.

I deal with Twitter first, it’s the only promoting I do for my book other than the infrequent interview by invitation (like this one). I don’t bother with FaceBook and I’m not a frequent blogger – I find it’s just as hard to get people to read my blog as it is to get them to read my books. After that, I sit down for a few hours and thrash out the words. Sometimes it flows and sometimes it blows. But eventually I get a first draft done… and then the real work begins.

When you finish a first draft, do you immediately begin work on the revision, or do you let it sit for a while?

I definitely let it sit for a while! By the time I’m done with a first draft I’m so close to the material that it’s hard to be objective and I tend to think the entire piece is a steaming pile of excrement. I get a proof and let my younger sister read it and give me her thoughts. While she does this I put it completely out of my mind and read, watch movies, and start on a new book. When I come back to the first draft, it’s fresh and I can look at it objectively, and I’m happy to say that by this time, with very few exceptions, I usually feel that the entire thing is not too bad at all. I can only hope that readers feel the same or better!

Your first novel, The Scare, was adapted from a screenplay that you wrote.  Any plans to develop it into a movie?

I have no current plans myself unless I suddenly inherited a ton of money, then I’d do a straight to DVD version. Back in the late nineties, when I first wrote the screenplay, a couple of producers optioned it and I met a couple of directors who showed some interest. One of them was the Aussie images (2)director, Jamie Blanks, who had just come off Urban Legend so I thought we were on a fast track. But his agent had other plans for his career and nothing ever came of The Scare with him attached. Jamie did Valentine’s Day next, which was not a hit, so his agent messed up there I reckon.

I reviewed The Scare before reading your bio.  You said that it was written as an homage to the horror films of the 80s and 90s.  That is exactly how the book struck me, which I mention in my review.  I love those old horror films.  What horror films from that era stand out as favorites?

My favorites will always be Nightmare on Elm Street and I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was a way better movie than book in my opinion (and in fact if I ever could get The Scare made I’d love Jim Gillespie to direct). Another favorite is the old TV movie of Salem’s Lot with David Soul. As well as vampires, it had all those great horror elements: a small town with a creepy house, misty, windy nights, and creepy graveyard scenes. When I wrote The Scare, I in fact played with the idea of actually making it a vampire story, but there were so many on the market that I went zombies instead – but mine are the old traditional zombies (like from the Bob Hope classic, The Ghost Breakers) – corpses that have been revived to do someone’s evil deeds. I also love old black & white horror movies. All the old Lugosi stuff, Vincent Price, the Val Lewiton and Jacques Tourneur films, and the Seth Holt/Jimmy Sangster classic Hammer Horror movie Scream of Fear. I’m not a big fan of new horror – they seem to lack in story and rely on loud music and sudden shocks that have grown old and tiresome. The Ring was the last modern movie I thought was scary.

Tell me about what you are currently working on?  Old West sci-fi?

Yes, a slightly sci-fi western – I say slightly because there’s no alien spaceships or tech or laser guns and no invading army of lizard men or anything like that. In fact I could take the sci-fi element out of it and it would play as just a great western – except for the fact that I have taken a few liberties with historical facts and landscape. But I think the story will be engrossing enough that only the most die-hard fact checkers would even notice. It’s really about the path Emeline Bransford and her daughters are on and the things they encounter and combat along the way. The sci-fi element is just another one of those things that they deal with and not really the main focus of the plot. I love very strong and capable female leads in any story, and I like to think that Emeline and her girls are three of the strongest ever created. There’s nothing they can’t handle. And they go through some really brutal stuff.

How do you cope with the stress of being a writer?  What do you do to take care of yourself?

The main stress for me comes from self-doubt so when I’m working on anything I try to shut “me” out of the process and just leave the “writer” switched on. Otherwise the analytical side of my mind takes over and I start fretting over what I’m writing and doubting it. I think Stephen King said once that a writer’s worst enemy is self-doubt, and he’s spot on. Other than that writing is just like any other job – it takes work. The sitting down and just doing it factor. One word at a time until it’s done. I take care of myself by keeping fit and relaxing with a good book or watching a movie or favorite old TV show on DVD. I never watch anything on actual TV because the ads just drive me crazy.

Give me a list of five things that people would be surprised to know about you.

I can’t think of five things – I guess I’m not sure what others would be surprised at, but the one thing I can think of is that I’m very shy. When I’ve worked on a show, whether as a stage manager on a live event or an assistant director on a movie, I’ve had to interact with and coordinate many people – and I’ve produced and directed my own short film and loved dealing with the prep and with the actors – so I think people might be surprised to find that I’m very shy. Put me to work handling a large crowd and I’m in my element, but set me down in a crowd at a party or in a bar and I head for the nearest corner to hide away in.

Learn more about Robert Shaw at:

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