Gerald Wexler [Interview]

Welcome to Day 29 of Trainwreck’d Society’s Annual Month of Horror Showcase! We have a fully loaded month of all things horror for you fine folks! October is our favorite month for this very reason, and we are so excited to share 31 full days of film showcases and interviews with some of the finest folks from the world of horror, just as we have been doing for the last 5 years. What started as a simple 5 day showcase, has now blossomed into a full blown month long event. You’re going to love this! Enjoy!

As we enter the last few days of our Month of Horror showcase, we are going out with a bang. And today we are featuring a storyteller who impacted me in a major way, around the same time period of my life, yet for very different reasons. But, also similar reasons. Is this making sense? I could try to explain, but it probably won’t matter. Anywhodoesit, Gerald Wexler worked on two television series in the 90’s that I very much enjoyed. One of them was Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark, which I was definitely allowed to watch as a youth in this era. And the other was Showtime’s The Hunger, which I definitely was NOT allowed to watch, but most certainly did. In the end, I learned about David Bowie in my defiance, so I feel like I made the right call. I found that parallel between watching a show geared for younger audience and those geared towards adults. In the end, it’s all great story telling. If the writing is excellent, the art will be excellent, no matter the target audience. And Gerald Wexler is a hell of a storyteller.

And with that, I am so excited to have Gerald Wexler grace our digital pages today, so let us get right into it. Please enjoy some wonderful words from the brilliant man himself. Enjoy!

What inspired you to get into the world of film and television writing? Was it an early aspiration to do so, or did you just happen to find yourself in this world one day?

In my youth I was seriously obsessed with still photography. And in fact the first few short films I made were composed entirely of still photos and live action that would segue into still photos. Somewhere in the back of my mind, though, I knew I wanted to get into film and began absorbing everything I could about that art. I attended McGill University which is not a creative arts school. Everything was highly academic. There were no courses in film, art, photography, or creative writing. But there was a great film society and for four years I feasted on foreign and North American Films.

Despite the fact that McGill was 100% academic at the time, it’s amazing the number of creative people that emerged from there, including a number of Oscar winners and nominees and artists like Leonard Cohen.

So, photography led me into film.

After McGill I did a graduate diploma in film and TV at the Hornsey College of Art, in London, England. (Now part of Middlesex University). We were housed in the same building (a 19th century palace built by Queen Victoria) as a unit of the BBC and most of our instructors were BBC film editors who would walk around the corner to help us out. So I got into film editing after finishing my course and returning to Montreal. I was an assistant editor to Thom Noble who got the Oscar for Witness, was an assistant sound editor on the first Imax film ever made, and a few other productions.

Essentially, I love story telling. There’s a Hassidic parable that Eli Wiesel tells with the credo that God created the world because he likes hearing a good story. And that may very well be true.

I wrote short stories that were being published in literary magazines and anthologies, and also in a collection of my own, The Bequest and Other Stories. Film is really storytelling. It’s as fascinating now as cavemen sitting around a fire relating how their buffalo hunt went that day, and all the complications they encountered.

So, I really wanted to be a story teller and figured I should combine my interest in short story writing and film and become a scriptwriter.

I sent a number of my stories to the executive producer of the new Drama Studio of the National Film Board, building up my meager editing credits. He invited me to meet and in that meeting hired me to write a short film. I did a ten minute film about five men doing the midnight shift in a boiler room, which we shot on the midnight shift in an actual boiler room. The film won an award, and a nascent career was launched.

In the mid-90’s, you wrote for a show that happened to hit the airwaves at the exact time I would have been a target audience member for, and was definitely caught up in. That show as Are You Afraid of the Dark? That appeared on Nickelodeon when I was just a pre-teen boy. One episode I noticed you are credited with happens to be the one that has truly stuck with me, which was The Tale of the Vacant Lot. I thought about this particular during my middle school years that followed. So with that in mind, what was it like to write for a series like this? It’s one that seemed like it was supposed to be a bit scary, yet some lessons to be taught. Was it this the intention all along?

I remember once telling my wife that when it’s time for me to go the great beyond, at least I’ll go knowing I scared little children.

I really enjoyed writing Afraid of the Dark. One reason is because it’s a pure anthology series, like the old Twilight Zone, with every episode being a unique story with unique characters. Anthology writing is one of my most favourite and I had already had a number produced for a variety of networks. (This was the eighties and these kind of series like Tales From the Crypt and Afraid of the Dark were still being made at that time). I love the format where each episode is like a mini, finite feature film and you don’t have to worry about creating complications for the same characters week after week.

The intention of the series was very much to be scary, and also convey a moral message. There was no profanity or violence, yet that didn’t stop the series from being incredibly popular. Which can be a nice lesson for media today.

I had never especially been a fan of the horror genre. But I found in writing Afraid of the Dark that I had a real affinity for it. Again – it’s all storytelling and the same  criteria Aristotle put down two thousand years still apply. The effect, emotions may be different from a romantic drama, but the storytelling still has the same basics.

A few years later you worked extensively on another show I remember catching on Showtime at my grandparents’ house, late at night when they had gone to sleep, and was actually my introduction to David Bowie, known as The Hunger. This was another highly original series, but a whole lot more frightening that AYAOTD?, for obvious reasons. So how was your experience working on such a truly original anthology? Was there anything about it that sets it apart from the plethora of other work you have done?

The Hunger, with David Bowie as host (and actor in one episode) was a nice segue from Afraid of the Dark. Like Afraid of the Dark it was a “pure” anthology series. I was a writer/producer on that, writing 13 of the episodes and being on board as a writer/producer on the entire series.

It’s interesting that at the time I was hired for The Hunger a feature film of mine, Margaret’s Museum, with Helena Bonham Carter had just been completed and was getting rave reviews in Variety, LA Times, Boston Globe, etc. I got the Genie for Best Screenplay and the film won the grand prize at San Sebastian and numerous other awards. Though essentially a drama, it did have a horrific ending. I thought Tony and Ridley Scott, who produced The Hunger, and Showtime would be really impressed, but apparently what really made them want me was my work on Afraid of the Dark, specifically an award-winning episode called “Train Magic”.

Again, The Hunger was a “pure” anthology series. With a rather, unique coda. All serialized drama wants to keep your hero around every episode. In The Hunger, the hero got “what he wished for” and died a horrible death. No need to worry about what adventures or mishaps he’s going to get into in subsequent episodes.

But like Afraid of the Dark, there was a moral lesson, or Coda to it. In Afraid of the Dark, generosity and honesty always trump evil. There is always redemption. In The Hunger, in every episode someone desperately wants something – food, money, fame, sex. And when they get it, it destroys them. Usually in some horrible way.

The ending of every episode generally sets The Hunger apart from virtually any other series I’ve written for and anything else on TV, then, or now, in the fact that our protagonist suffers and dies for what he wants, in every episode. (He or she generally have some good sex along the way, which at least mitigates the journey.)

While the world of horror is far from being your mainstay in the world of film and television, you have had some great success in the genre. And this being our Month of Horror showcase and all, I am curious to know what it is you enjoy about working in the more frightening world of suspense and horror? What sets it apart from other projects you tend to work on?

I honestly don’t know why I found an affinity to horror. Again – it’s all storytelling. The better the storytelling, the more effective the horror. It’s a challenge to tell a story that doesn’t just have scary moments, but that also has characters that engross you, and a journey that is plausible, and human enough, for the viewer to want to be with it every inch of the way. A good scary film is not one you watch to see what frightening bit will come next, but rather to see your characters change, learn on their journey. You want to see a bit of yourself in these heroes. The scary stuff is the icing.

What is your favorite scary movie?

That’s a hard one to answer but one film that really stands out for me is Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film, Don’t Look Now. The opening 7 minutes of the film are a masterpiece of tension, mystery, humanity and terror – all done with magnificent editing, sound design, and virtually no dialogue. Anybody studying cinema should study that film and particularly the opening.

A more recent film that stands out for me is Under The Skin with Scarlett Johansen. She plays an alien who uses her beauty to kill men in an extraordinarily beautiful and creepy way. But she too is on a journey and despite a trail of bodies (or oozing, disappearing masses) one can’t help feel great empathy for her by the end.

What are you plans for the upcoming Halloween? Any kind of traditions you try to uphold each year?

No plans at all. My kids are grown and flown the coop and I have no real connection except to let my wife hand out candies to trick or treaters.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

Right now I’ve been hired to rewrite a feature that in a way could fall into Afraid of the Dark arena – a kid who discovers he has paranormal powers. The powers do nothing but get him into trouble and he desperately wants to get rid of them. Have also been brought in to help develop a new Canada/US/Uk co-pro drama series presenting a unique way into the world of Muhamad Ali. Clement Virgo (The Wire, The Book of Negroes) is the director on that.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

My daughter reminding me of the many plays, films and concerts I’ve taken her too, and despite my many faults, still loves me.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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