Name: Paul Etheredge
Birth Place: Ft Worth, Texas
Notable films: Hellbent (2004), Angel of Death (2009)
When did you know you were queer? When did you come out?
Paul Etheredge: I grew up in a queer family. My mom was a lesbian. Gay men & lesbians were a large part of my extended family so queer has always been “ordinary” to me.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t aware of my own sexuality until I turned 14. But once I realized I was gay, my coming out was sudden and smooth. I stood on the table of my 9th grade class, made my announcement, and by end of day the entire school knew. I’ve never, thankfully, had to wrestle with the shame or abuse or harassment so many queer kids do.
You famously made the first gay slasher with Hellbent and followed that up with Angel of Death, a revenge film fronted by stunt woman Zoe Bell. How did you get into filmmaking?
PE: I grew up with movies. My mother taught college-level film studies. She would bring home 16mm prints of French New Wave & sci-fi classics and project them on a sheet in our living room. By eight years old, I knew I wanted to make films. I spent at least three nights a week at the local rep cinema consuming everything from John Waters to James Bond to the student films of John Carpenter.
Shortly after college, I got a Production Assistant job on a film shooting in my hometown, Oliver Stone’s JFK. The pay was terrible, the hours were terrible (this is a constant in filmmaking, btw), but my mama taught me “Make yourself invaluable, and you’ll always have a job”. I did, and managed to impress the people who could hire me on for the next film.
Hellbent’s creation was something of a Hollywood fantasy. I worked on staff at a boutique production company in old Hollywood. One day, my boss literally yanked me into a meeting with horror heavyweights, Joe Wolf and Irwin Yablans. “We want to make a gay horror movie. We want to set it at the West Hollywood Halloween carnival. Whatdaya got?” I completely bluffed my way through the pitch meeting and landed the job of writing and directing Hellbent.
I’d never written a script. I’d never directed a movie.
As a horror creator, what is it about horror that attracts you?
PE: I enjoy all types of movies, but horror is my love. The genre has few – if any – rules (“Don’t be dull” is the only rule I know). Horror movies don’t even need to be coherent to be successful stories.
As a creator, I love the visual freedom horror allows. Hellbent is vividly colored and often dreamlike and unreal, and audiences accept this without question. Also, horror movies encourage audiences to be vocal – to respond to the screen. Hearing audiences scream and yell at the characters in Hellbent is hugely gratifying!
What films (queer or not) have made a significant impact on you and your work? In what way?
PE: I’m a huge Brian DePalma fan, and I love Hitchcock. They are masters at crafting sequences and suspense. The prom scene in Carrie is rivalled only by the split screen sequences in Sisters. I routinely watch Hester’s death sequence in The Fury during every project I write, just to remind me of how emotional an action scene can be.
I admire David Cronenberg’s ability to “go there” and really push his horror metaphors for visceral impact. Visually, I’m drawn to Powell/Pressburger movies (Black Narcissus is a favourite) and William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars. Stylized approaches, but evocative and visually meaningful despite their simplicity.
You’ve been working in a variety of different roles the last few years, including Art Director of Eli Roth’s History of Horror series. Aside from wanting tea about Roth, how progressive or welcoming is the industry for queer creators right now?
PE: I can only speak from my experience, which is that the industry is very queer friendly, although queer product has been a challenge for it to embrace until recently. At the time it was released, the queerness of Hellbent did little to help my career. Even though executives seemed to like the film, no one quite knew how to position me for a follow up project.
In today’s industry climate, I think having the film on my resume is an asset. Lately, I’m heartened to see more representation – for all people – in the projects getting financed and released.
You’ve directed a gay slasher and written for a gay vampire soap (Dante’s Cove) so it’s probably safe to infer that your sexuality informs your work. Why is that important to you?
PE: Partly, writing for queer characters is creatively practical. It’s simply the perspective I know the most about. I can utilize my own experiences in the storytelling without needing to translate them for a heterosexual character (although I write plenty of cis gen characters, too).
With Hellbent, I was particularly interested in creating queer characters I’d never really seen in films before: young guys with interests and lives and friendships and desires that existed beyond their queerness. I wanted to see gays that weren’t haunted by their sexuality. Characters with flaws, but being queer wasn’t one of them.
If I’m being honest, I felt a duty to show another version of queer – an “ordinary” one, like the gays and lesbians I’d grown up around. Not for the straights in the audience, but for the queers.
For a lot of queer horror audiences, myself included, Hellbent was a seminal experience because it was the first time we were really seen. How do you feel about the film, the production and the marketing in hindsight? What do you think its legacy is?
PE: I’ve enjoyed a turbulent relationship with Hellbent, as I think many creators do. It was a very difficult movie to make, both physically and mentally. We had the typical indie production challenges – no money, little time – but it also carried the stigma of being a queer movie. I couldn’t get any men of color to audition. Some actors had issues with intimate scenes. The original “murder on the dance floor” scene had to be gutted when two actors never even showed up on the day of the shoot. The scene in the film was improvised on the spot.
The marketing of Hellbent was horror in itself. We used the moniker, “Untitled Thriller”, during shooting (which made for a remarkably lackluster wrap gift tee shirt). Since we hadn’t agreed on a title, the producers decided to hold a public contest to name the film. The title submission with the most votes won. Predictably, we were flooded with the worst sort of puns and camp. Proposed titles that porn producers would reject. I was frantic.
Luckily, among the last few of literally hundreds of submissions, Hellbent arrived. And it was perfect.
If I had a do-over, I’d probably market Hellbent to horror audiences more aggressively, as opposed to focusing on gay markets. But what do I know?
Side note: I’m a big fan of the Hellbent poster. Kudos to the advertising team for that one.
I’m continually amazed hearing from people about their affection for Hellbent . Recently, I attended a screening in San Diego – an audience of Hellbent newbies – and the reactions blew me away. Screams & laughter. That’s legacy enough for me, personally. If Hellbent carves out a spot in queer horror history, if it inspires queer artists to tell their horror stories, I’m all for it. But mostly I’m grateful that “my three-legged dog of a movie” still has an impact on people.
Have you interacted with many queer horror fans over your work?
PE: I get a fairly regular amount of fan mail – typically from two categories: younger guys who have just discovered Hellbent and are astonished it exists, and people who have embraced the film as a required part of their annual Halloween celebrations.
As the creator of the film, I’ve definitely connected with many other queer horror creators. Don Mancini & Bryan Fuller are hugely inspiring – and entertaining!
It’s been fifteen years since Hellbent. Have you ever considered a sequel or a remake? And what else do you have coming up that fans can look forward to?
PE: Ah, yeah, the sequel…
I created a sequel story, one that picked up right from the end of Hellbent. Jake in the hospital, Eddie at his side and the killer right there with them, less dead than expected. But the stars didn’t align, and that sequel story never developed beyond being a deck of index cards.
I think if we ever returned to the Hellbent universe, it would be to reboot it. And, to be honest, I don’t see the value in doing that when there are other queer stories to tell. That said, if anyone has the money and interest, I’m down to revisit it!
As for what I have coming up? Ack. I shy away from talking about future work, even with my family! It’s impossible to predict which project will hit when, if at all.
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