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CHRISTINE Revisited, Part One: A Q&A with Keith Gordon

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Thirty years ago, director John Carpenter took to the driver’s seat in adapting one of Stephen King’s most successful novels from the early ‘80s: CHRISTINE. The result: a taut, beautifully realized film that was not only a top notch horror flick, but a brilliant exploration into America’s romance with the automobile! CHRISTINE is all about possession and obsession, and the monster herself sets her high beams on the pathetic miserable Arnold Cunningham. Transforming for the worse as a result of “owning” the titular ’58 Plymouth Fury, Keith Gordon gave life to Arnold Cunningham all those years ago, and recently spent some time with FANGORIA to revisit his past love- that sleek, sexy but sinister CHRISTINE…

FANGORIA: How did the role of Arnie Cunningham come your way?

KEITH GORDON: It was the usual way: my agent called me and told me they were auditioning. I was very excited as I was already a big fan of John Carpenter. I had never met him but I really wanted to work with him, so I got the script and went into the audition with my two looks: the nerdy Arnie look with the glasses and the buttoned up shirt and the cool/crazy Arnie look with a black t-shirt and what not, and the read went well. Later I went in and shared a scene with John Stockwell, who played Dennis Guilder. John was cast first, which I thought was odd seeing that Arnie is the central figure of the movie, but I guess Carpenter found John first and saw something he liked, so he cast him before me.

FANGORIA: Were you a fan of Stephen King’s work? Did you read the novel? Did you like the Stephen King film adaptations that had been made up to that point?

GORDON: Oh I loved CARRIE and THE SHINING a lot, and I certainly read some of Stephen King’s works, but I wouldn’t read everything of his. But, of course Stephen was not directly involved with the making of CHRISTINE, although I did get to speak to him on the phone, which was exciting.

The novel itself was a hugely successful bestseller right while we were making the film adaptation, which is a very rare thing. It also was extremely hard to get a hold of, so I couldn’t read it before getting into the role of Arnie. King was becoming very popular, and two other books were being made at the same time we were making CHRISTINE: CUJO and THE DEAD ZONE. I was certainly well aware of his growing fan base, but not at all focused on it; I always thought of CHRISTINE as more of a John Carpenter film rather than a Stephen King adaptation.

FANGORIA: Speaking of Stephen King adaptations, CARRIE was taken on by Brian De Palma, who you also worked with on DRESSED TO KILL. How did John Carpenter differ as director from De Palma?

GORDON: John had a very relaxed sensibility in the way he directed and was on set. This was something that I very much enjoyed; he had a playful, fun manner to him and there were many practical jokes on set. He also used the same crew people over and over again on each movie, so there was great a sense of community on the set. Brian, however, was a lot more serious.

Now I learned a lot from Brian in regards to filmmaking, but with John, it was far more jovial and not so intense. I mean, John would grab a mic and hide it for the day! He had a playful nature that had a means to an end in that it would keep the energy levels up for the cast and crew, and keep them on their toes while also having fun. Brian was more like, “You’re here to work and do the work.”

But both are very good directors and are superb with their actors. Brian loved to rehearse his cast, whereas John would be more keen on chatting about character. John and I spent hours together talking about Arnie: What should he look like? What kind of kid was he? What was his relationship like with CHRISTINE?  What would the transformation in Arnie be like? What would change and what would stay the same? Brian would do far more takes than John. He would say, “Okay, cut, now play it angry… Okay, cut, now play it sad…. Okay cut…”, Brian wanted a whole range of emotions from each scene whereas John would do a couple of takes, but if he got what he liked than he would move on.

Also both directors are so distinct in their visual style and tone. Brian’s shots are far more complex and there is usually constant movement while John has an amazing eye for composition; he is such a wonderful classicist as he loved the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks. John was a very straightforward director, where Brian would spend a whole setting up one shot. You tended to cover more ground with John because CHRISTINE was made up of so many shooting locations. John’s films are gorgeous to look at, there is a lot of attention to light and composition like a western but Brian is all about movement with a highly stylized European visual sensibility which is almost baroque. There are some wonderful moments in CHRISTINE that look like they’re taken straight out of a western – where the camera shoots from between the back of my legs with CHRISTINE in the distance, I mean that is right out of a face-off in a western. Just great stuff!

What I do love about both of these great directors is that they were both open to input from their cast and crew. I teach a lot in film school and one of the main things that scares young filmmakers is not being able to control their film or their art; they are scared to just let go and let someone else make a decision or make even a suggestion that will benefit the final product. They feel threatened and there is no room to feel threatened when making art. And by the time of CHRISTINE, I think Carpenter knew this perfectly well, it was at that time in his career where he wanted an easy smooth ride and got it because he was amazing at his job, is ultimately amazingly talented and trusted his cast and his crew. He never had to prove that he was a great director.

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FANGORIA: How did you go about developing Arnie Cunningham’s trinity of character types from tragic alienated misfit to the determined mechanic to a man consumed by his devotion to CHRISTINE?

GORDON: We played a lot in rehearsal time, and not just as in rehearsing the scenes; We would talk about character and what the manifestations would be like in Arnie’s transitioning. One of the main things I worked on was changing my voice, and I wanted to make sure it changed at least an octave and a half during the course of the film. You know the nerdy Arnie is very high, nasal and reflects his high strung nature, but by the end of the movie, he has a low, deep voice which is threatening and mean. I did the same thing with my body language.

From the get go, John Carpenter and I wanted to set up how far Arnie’s craziness would go. What I really wanted to do with this role is find the core of the polar opposite of what was going on for Arnie at the time. In other words, I wanted to find the evil seed in nerdy Arnie and the moments of vulnerability in sinister Arnie. As an actor, you really need to try and find the contradictions in what you’re playing.

I find that Arnie is such a tragic, sad figure. There was a scene that was ultimately cut from the film where I have a major breakdown and fall into John Stockwell’s arms. John Carpenter just thought it was far too intense and said that it had to go because it was far too risky. But it was a great exercise that was ultimately what Arnie was about: a lonely, sad, miserable hurt kid who is oppressed by his unsympathetic parents, he sort of lives in the shadow of the good looking popular Dennis and is forever in a rut.

FANGORIA: There is a wonderful line, noted by a number of film scholars, that really adds a lot of depth into the story of CHRISTINE: “You know, part of being a parent, is trying to kill your kids.” What do you think that line says about the early ‘80s as an era seemingly obsessed with teen oriented movies where young people rebelled against authorities such as parents?

GORDON: I think that idea of parents inadvertently trying to kill their children is an extremely interesting idea, and something I’m very glad you bring up in relation to this movie. It’s a great piece of writing mainly because it’s a very classic idea and there is a lot of psychology behind it. You know fathers have such an immense amount of competitiveness with their sons, and mothers with their daughters; it seems to always be the parent of the same sex. I had that with my father when I was becoming an adult, as he felt threatened or didn’t understand me, and certainly young people get that feeling from their elders.

This era of movies was such a perfect time to tap into that as there was no real war going on, there was no civil rights issues really, it was a time when parents were the real enemy, or the main antagonist, yes, you’re so right in saying there were many movies that exploited that! The teen movie, whether they be horror films or horny kids movies or dance films that were becoming popular and whatnot, were flourishing. The idea of teen years is really only a new thing when you think about it.

In the old days, once you turned a certain age, you were married and started to raise a family, but come the turn of the century, especially from, say, the jazz age of the ‘20s, there was this birthing of the teenage years, where young people had room to grow into the adults they were to become, and parents were always opposing what they did and being the oppressor. The threatened oppressor who were one day going to be replaced by their offspring. CHRISTINE is all about this: Arnie’s parents really don’t know what’s right for Arnie, so him running into the metaphorical “arms” of this car really resonates with a generation of angry disenfranchised teenagers.

FANGORIA: Tell us about CHRISTINE herself. She was a composite of many elements from full scale car, models, bits and pieces, etc., but what are your main memories about such a stunning movie monster?

GORDON: I wasn’t around much to see the model cars. Because of the tightness of time, we shot all the special effects involving the full scale cars all at once and then in post production, which I really wasn’t around, for is where John used the models. And just watching the models is just amazing, they come across as so flawless and perfect! We didn’t want to rely too much on them, but they came off looking really great. I mean, all the wonderful stuff using camera tricks like reversing the film to show the fenders and whatnot bending back into shape when CHRISTINE resurrects herself.

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FANGORIA: Stephen King really explores the nature of possession in CHRISTINE, both as a tangible reality and as a entity unto itself. How do you think this movie differs from other possession/haunting films?

GORDON: I honestly feel that CHRISTINE truly is about relationships. The desperate need people have for them and how they can turn ugly. What I love about it is its examination of how much one gives up their personality, character and soul once they’re in a relationship, which is completely about possession. There is always a domineering partner in a relationship, and when I was shooting CHRISTINE, I was in one with a much older woman who, because she was older and more experienced, was dominant and the aggressor, which was perfect for this role and perfect for my character’s relationship with this car.

So yes, I feel that this film really is different from other possession movies is that it is about possession in the form of a relationship. I always treated the union between Arnie and CHRISTINE as a highly sexual one; look at the way I touch her steering wheel in parts, or more explicitly the V of her grill, which is totally a vaginal image, with my blood stained hand. Amazing stuff! Also, I think that people are slaves to their things: their homes, their possessions, their work and, yes, to their cars!

FANGORIA: CHRISTINE really employs narrative elements usually associated with the buddy film and the unsaid love between two males sometimes that borders on psuedo-sexual. One scene in regards to this is where Dennis tells Arnie that he is not ugly, and as he drives off we hear, “As I walk along I wonder what went wrong with our love, a love that was so strong…” What are your thoughts on this interpretation of the connection between Dennis and Arnie?

GORDON: Great question! Well there are are two love triangles in this film: the one between Arnie, Leigh and CHRISTINE and the one between Arnie, Dennis and CHRISTINE. The thing about teenage years is that as we grow up is we tend to form very strong bonds with members of the same sex. And for most teenagers, a lot of sexual confusion is a huge part of their life. I definitely think that connection between Arnie and Dennis exists. Arnie sees him as a handsome, successful winner who gets all the girls and is a football hero on campus; there is this kind of adoration and for Dennis, he sees Arnie as someone to protect and love.

Their relationship is absolutely at the heart of the film and CHRISTINE seduces Arnie away from him. I mean, Dennis gives Arnie some of what CHRISTINE gives him, but ultimately CHRISTINE gives him more to the point where it becomes unhealthy. It’s juicy brilliant stuff. And as for Leigh, she is the idealized love object, the normal representation of healthy romance whereas CHRISTINE is the depraved idea of love. Arnie never gets a chance to know Leigh to the depths he knows Dennis, so yes, the love affair between the two boys is extremely palpable and the heart of the film.

FANGORIA: One of my all time favorite scenes is the “Show me” sequence. What was that like to film from a technical standpoint as well as from an actors perspective?

GORDON: I love that scene too! It was fun to shoot and really fun to watch! It was so sexy and completely sexualized. It was exactly like having your girlfriend do a striptease for you. And the music John used was “Harlem Nocturne” which was just perfect! I mean John has an amazing ear for music, he’s a great composer but in the case of CHRISTINE he really gets to show off his love for other people’s music and choose such perfect songs for the “voice” of the car.

FANGORIA: What does CHRISTINE mean to you?

GORDON: CHRISTINE was the most fun I’ve ever had as an actor! I got to play Jeckyll and Hyde! CHRISTINE was a film that I just adored working on. I mean I would go to the set on days that I wasn’t working and just look at the cars the crew were working on, the setting up of the dolly track, the lighting design, everything. It was a blast! And John Carpenter and the rest of the team just made the entire experience a hell of a lot of fun while delivering this amazingly smart and very sexy horror movies!

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About the author
Lee Gambin
Lee Gambin is a Melbourne, Australia based playwright, screenwriter, film and theatre essayist and journalist. He has been working as a writer for Fangoria magazine since 2008. He has worked in independent theatre for many years as well as Artistic Director of his own independent theatre company. His rock musical OH THE HORROR! was a major success in its initial workshop run in 2009. He has lectured for numerous film societies and film festivals including the Melbourne International Film Festival. Gambin runs Cinemaniacs, a film society in Melbourne that present genre favorites. Gambin’s play KING OF BANGOR was published by Stephen King associative publishing house The Overlook Connection and MASSACRED BY MOTHER NATURE: EXPLORING THE NATURAL HORROR FILM, a film analysis book, is published by Midnight Marquee Press and has had widely positive reviews.
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