I met Lucky McKee and the brilliant artist Vanessa McKee, his wife, when I had them out to screen McKee's feature debut May via his personal 35mm answer print about a decade ago. Like many filmmakers showing their work retrospectively, they didn't want to watch their movie again, so I sat with them in the green room between the introduction and Q&A, and we started talking about film in a broad-ranging chat that went deeper and farther than these things ever do--a product of their warmth, on the one hand, the depth of their knowledge and passion on the other. As they were leaving for their hotel, Lucky shook my hand warmly and thanked me for "talking good movie." A great night--and I thought that was that, but Lucky texted me a couple of weeks later to ask after me and follow up on a few family things we'd touched on. Considerate, smart, and, above all else, authentic.
We became friends, and I've been blessed by that friendship over and over again. Lucky and Vanessa are the real deal, generous with themselves--sometimes to a fault, I think--in an industry that rewards their kind of openness and faith with betrayal and disappointment more often than not. Even after all this time, I continue to be moved by how unguarded they are with their love. I think you can see that in Lucky's films--each of them until his latest, Old Man, featuring strong female protagonists doing their best to find connection and survive in a world explicitly designed to fail them. His pictures are lawless and uncompromising, yet rather than exploitative, their horror derives from our empathy with his characters; his heart is invariably on the screen. It leaves him vulnerable to attack, though I don't think he could do it any other way.
Lucky joined me over Zoom from his office in El Paso on the eve of Old Man's VOD release (October 14). We began by touching on our mutual affection for John Cassavetes and, naturally, Rob Zombie:
LUCKY MCKEE: Rob Zombie, man, yeah, I have a newfound appreciation for his films. I bought a collection of all of his stuff and rewatched all of his movies and they hit me. I was like, "Whoa, wait a second." Once I got beneath the surface of them, there's some really great shit going on here. You know, they hit so hard especially now, when a lot of the films being made, there's so much fear of offending and so much fear of not presenting people as real because the filmmakers themselves can be attacked for showing things that exist and that are real--but with Zombie, there's just something so raw about his stuff. I didn't get it when I watched his early stuff, I felt like there was...an unnecessary kind of meanness on the surface of it. But going back through, I didn't see that. I was looking underneath the surface and I didn't feel that cruelty, that frat-guy mentality that can take over a lot of horror films. It's the people, it's the characters. It's also the sheer joy of making something just totally fucking bonkers and really trying to scare people in a way that, yeah, I don't know... I rewatched Fulci's Gates of Hell films, I revisited a bunch of Fulcis before I did Old Man, and I don't know, there's something about them I appreciate, but unless you come at these topics from the right angle, it can just feel like exploitation in the most base sort of a way.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Lately, I've started thinking of him as our Cassavetes.
(laughs) The Cassavetes connection is really interesting. It's always the same troupe of actors, right? And of course there's Sheri Moon.
Who's really more like a creative partner now than just a performer.
No question. Oh, and Richard Brake. That guy is fucking amazing. He delivers a monologue, some performance stuff in 31 that's just astounding. I was... Just... He blew me away. He should have been celebrated on like a critical level, something--he's absolutely extraordinary. Zombie gives his collaborators so much faith and trust.
I fucking love that movie. That was the movie where I felt like he really hit his stride. I think that all directors have a movie where they just hit that stride, you know. Like, Taxi Driver is like that for Scorsese. He made great stuff before that, but that one just felt surefooted. "This is who I am, this is my signature." Halloween II is that film for Zombie. In all of his films, though, you can feel the love he has for his wife--another thing that reminds me of Cassavetes. Every frame is unapologetic devotion shooting out of the screen at you. And if you know this person loves you? You give performances that have no fear. His movies aren't exploitation--they're celebrations of individuals and their interactions with one another.
Of outcasts who create their own families out of isolation. You've indicated that you grew up feeling isolated--how has that fed your art?
Just on a simple surface level, there's real horror in realizing no one's there, there's no one around to help when you're isolated. There's no one around to help you when shit goes sideways, which you very much feel growing up in a rural environment. No neighbours close if something goes bad. There's a lot of talk about how scary urban environments are, but I think rural environments are scarier because they tap into the biggest fears we, all of us, have: of being alone, of not having anybody to lean on or having to rely on yourself when you're not sure of who you are.
When you were a kid?
Especially as a kid. I had a hard time figuring out who I was, you know? And when you don't have any frames of reference around you that feel like how you feel inside, that gets kind of... That gets kinda scary, you know? Isolation also breeds itself. It makes it hard to start to mingle with other people after you've been in those periods of great isolation. I grew up that way. And then after my film career started, I was so traumatized by the realities of the motion-picture business after making my first couple of things that I retreated back to that rural setting and hid there for like 10 years, I didn't want to be in that mix. I was like, I'm gonna bury myself if I keep going into this environment that I don't understand. So I realized very early in my career that I'm going to function better if I distance myself from the Hollywood scene, because you get really caught up in that stuff and all of a sudden the things that are ruling your life have nothing to do with the actual work. By isolating myself, I was able to tap back into why I needed to make things--what I needed to express through these avenues.
You can go too far in isolating yourself, though.
Yes. I realized, okay, I went extreme and I shouldn't have isolated myself so completely. At a certain point, I realized that I do need to be around creative people on a regular basis. So does my wife. We'd gotten married and we were living in that kind of isolated environment and we're like, "Man, we need to be around people." We both realized that it keeps our own creativity churning by being around other people that are doing creative things. But it was just... There was something about the Hollywood version of that where I felt like you could end up just falling into this kind of hive mind, uh, sort of situation, where everybody around you is trying to do the exact same thing you're trying to do and there's this competitive thing that I really don't think belongs in the arts. I found a good balance by finding myself in El Paso. We have our shop here and we work with people we trust and love, and we do our thing. We're still isolated from the whole social scene that exists in the business, you know? It's excusing ourselves from trying to learn the language of a hundred-and-twenty-year-old system that exists in L.A. that hasn't changed as much as it thinks it has.
It's hard not to get sucked into it.
So hard. I think it's the transactional nature of it, of course, but it's also the competition that gets bred into it, too. It's that competitive rat-race thing. You know, George Lucas is one of my biggest idols because he's the one guy that had that big golden ticket, you know, from a sensation that he made, and he managed to keep control of it, and he managed to just keep himself completely separated from the usual garbage. From all of the bad stuff that circles around this wonderful art form. He created kind of a haven for artists to work in. I think a lot of us filmmakers from my generation are trying to create that for ourselves. Our own little haven where, like, I can come down to a shop in the industrial district in El Paso. It's linked to the Lucas thing of having your own little shop [where] you work on your stuff.
Your dad was blue-collar.
Yes, there's a link in this workshop aesthetic to my dad, too. He was a welder when I was growing up, and here I find myself as a grown man in a shop environment, except instead of people banging metal or cutting wood or something like that, we're editing, we're writing, we're, you know, building little sets. We're shooting something on the greenscreen... We're making things, and it feels the same to be making art as it does making a shelf or a table. There's something about it that just feels like "feet on the ground," like the work is the most important thing and not the stuff that...swirls around it, cheapens it.
Talk to me about mentors.
They're vital. When I started making movies, my father, who had started as a welder, got into building and welding inspection. He was a plant inspector for portable school buildings. So they have to build these buildings. They have to get them done on time. They have to get them done on a budget, they have a crew. How do you interact with the crew you're working with? All of these things that my dad was doing in construction applied to what I was doing making films, and it really drilled into me the importance of how to treat your crew with respect, how to take care of people, how to keep your eyes on outcomes when working really long days. What do you do to make your team more comfortable? How best to facilitate these artists that are helping facilitate your dream and to whom you owe everything. How can you communicate to them that this thing wouldn't be the same without them--wouldn't even be possible without them? It starts as your dream, and then it's your job to help it become their dream as well. I think the only way you get there is to make the experience of creating something a shared experience that's (pauses) beautiful. That's philosophy. Just on a practical level, working with a crew, with a budget, with a schedule.
You shot Old Man in 15 days.
I pride myself on making my days when I shoot, because when I'm shooting something in the morning, I realize if I spend too much time on it, I can't shoot that thing at the end of the day, you know? Of course you get pulled into a moment, but you have to balance that against the whole day. If I get too precious about something--which is usually not trusting your crew of artists to do their job--before lunch, I'm not gonna have time after lunch to do that other thing that also means a lot. A lot of that way of thinking started with watching my father work and going to work with him and then him being on set with me and being available for me as I was trying to figure this stuff out.
“What's funny is that in my experience making films, men have more often than not displayed the qualities that actresses are usually accused of: being difficult, demanding, being a diva. I had a little bit of a fear there, you know, this fear of men and this fear of alpha males, people like that.”
When we talk about the philosophical aspects of mentorship, you were close with Tobe Hooper.
I was very young when I started directing films. I made May and as a result of making that film, I got the opportunity to meet Tobe and we were just instant friends. I met him at a pool party at this writer friend of mine's, and suddenly now I have this guy who, you know, has been all the way to the top of... Of many mountains, and he's been in a lot of valleys as well, you know, and I suddenly have this artist who is also just someone I got along with. Love at first sight. He came from Texas, a kind of country environment like me, so we first related on that level and then connected on the realities of this industry. I told him that I saw in his work these amazingly complex things running underneath the surface--like what we were talking about with Rob Zombie, [t]here's stuff going on so far under the surface. I think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels more like a Fifties Kurosawa film stylistically, the way it's shot and its story structure and usefulness as a model for how we remember things. I told him it reminded me a lot of Rashomon.
(laughs) But warranted. He really appreciated that. We got into a habit of meeting up at his house on a pretty regular basis. With Tobe, you always had to show up after dark. I would go over there, we would talk for a couple hours, and then we'd watch a film. Stuff like Black Narcissus with Tobe Hooper on his giant TV was just like... It was the best thing ever. And not just watching it but talking about it afterwards: how it made us feel, what we thought it meant, how they did it. Being able to call him when I got my first studio job and him giving me advice on that was just... Man, it was just wonderful.
From there you also met Jack Ketchum?
Yes, after I got that first studio job I had a little money to buy options on things that I loved and wanted to develop. I bought an option for a friend on Ketchum's book The Lost and ended up meeting Jack Ketchum that way, and that relationship developed over the years, too. I had my own father who had a tremendous impact on my life, but then I found other men from his generation that had lived in this creative space in the same way my father worked in his construction space. My dad and I... Our brains don't work in the same way.
Sometimes we need more fathers.
I found these other father figures not to replace my father but to augment what he had to teach me. Between him, Tobe, and Jack, it's like, I'm not religious, but I'm blessed, you know? I'm really, really blessed to have known those guys and to have had their guidance. And, you know, I've lost Tobe now, and I've lost Ketchum, but they're still right here, standing on my shoulders and whispering things in my ears. You spend so much time with somebody that their voice is in your head when you're doing anything.
How has their loss now further informed your work?
Well, my grandfather was an old man that lived in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, a country boy who grew up in the Depression and in the sticks and dirt of northeast Oklahoma. After my parents got divorced and I went off to school and everything, my dad became the old guy alone in the house. I know these men. I think it's why I connected to Joel [Veach]'s play so much when I first read it. Joel had an ear for the way those men talk and an eye for the performative way they tell stories and how they mythologize themselves. He captured all of it. All of that grandiosity, which is a very real thing. I could really relate to that. I can't really do my thing unless I can find a personal connection to it, something from my own life, so as we worked on the script and developed the project into what finally became Old Man... I had to really confront some things. Like, for example, how I learned to be a man by observing my father and my grandfather, all the good and the bad. I started to really reckon with how that stuff was informing my vantage point as a director when we were breaking down the material, and I... I needed to be able to pull from that in order to make the film.
Grief. I think we learn something from the older generations and we're not necessarily learning the things they think we need to know or that they're actively teaching... We're observing their behaviour...and for me, I was like, "Oh, wow. I don't wanna end up alone living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere at the end of my life." And more than that, I didn't want my view of the world to become narrower as I get older. I want it to expand. I want to be more open to things and more open to ideas and more--more, you know? But what I see with my grandfather, the World War II generation, and my father, with the Vietnam generation, is everything just kind of narrowing down into a pinpoint of, "I like what I like and fuck everything else." Exploring that is very interesting. Also, what is their motivation for passing down that worldview?
They're afraid for you.
Yes. Let me give you an example: the dismissive, cruel way that some men of a certain generation--of every generation--look at women. We had the old man talking a very specifically misogynistic way about women in Old Man, and there was a little bit of concern on some people's part that he shouldn't talk about women like he does in the film. And I was like, "But that wouldn't be honest if we take that out." Those guys were in my life, trying to instill "wisdom" in me, and I did learn some things but not necessarily what they were trying to land with me. I don't want to be like them. I want to be (pauses) less narrow. I don't want to portray their influence as all negative. Obviously, there's also a ton of positive that can be learned from those generations. But this process of sorting through the things you never want to look at again... The trauma in me, there's so much ugliness and pain, but, you know, there's so much beauty in it all, too, and you can't get to it without the ugliness. Anyway, it all ultimately ends up being kinda beautiful, you know?
The process of figuring out who you are and why you are that way?
Yes. It's scary to work through that stuff in public. There's safety in isolation, but there's also a danger to it. I think everybody has a lot of regret in their life and a lot of guilt over ways that they've behaved or people that they've burned or, or people that have burned them, and the easiest thing to do, which I've done several times in my life, is just to get away from everything. But then, then this dread and this fear set in, because your mind just starts to turn over on itself and distort things and distort memory and distort the way things actually work because you're not confronted by life the minute you walk out your door. It's why I always enjoy going to New York. To see all these people and all this activity bouncing off of itself, it's so overwhelming but those are also people that are very engaged in life and very, very engaged with dealing with other people. And they get good at it! But when you isolate, you lose the ability to do everything. Your brain narrows down. That's scary. I don't wanna end up like that. I don't wanna end up alone. I've seen it with two generations of the men before me in my family, and I don't wanna end up being the next one. This movie is very much about confronting a decision that you make when you're very young, you know, and how that can just ruin the rest of your life if you can't figure out a way to deal with it, confront it, and get over it. You can't grow if you just remove yourself from ownership of the things you're ashamed of. You'll always be stuck there with it in limbo or purgatory or something like that in your mind. You can't grow if all you have are your own thoughts on your own experiences. That's a form of Hell.
Old Man is the first of your films where the central character is a man. Why?
I tried it once in Red and, you know, that went south on me, and I ended up only directing half of it. I didn't get to finish my thought. I think I could make Red a much better movie now with the things I've learned since. While we were making Old Man, I had a moment of realization where I thought, "Wow, this is, this is two men in a cabin." I was really, really out of my comfort zone. Really, really out of my comfort zone.
What's funny is that in my experience making films, men have more often than not displayed the qualities that actresses are usually accused of: being difficult, demanding, being a diva. I had a little bit of a fear there, you know, this fear of men and this fear of alpha males, people like that.
(laughs) I had Marc Senter, who's an old friend I'd known for a long time and worked with on a couple of things before. I was very comfortable with him. But the X factor was Stephen Lang, who is of course known for playing these ultra-tough guys, these alpha males, these gritty dudes. Like a lot of the people that I grew up around, the adults I grew up around that I was nothing like. I was afraid. I was. Then, lo and behold, I start working with Stephen and he's a wonderful, beautiful collaborator. You know, he's a hardass and he's a ballbuster and all that, but that stuff I can handle. I grew up, my balls fully busted, and [being] around hardasses. That part was almost nostalgic for me. But when it came to the work, he was very gracious, very open, brilliant. He could see that I was giving him room to do his thing and to showcase all of these skills he'd acquired by doing so much theatre work, so many films, so much television.
He became a partner to the process.
We sat down to start drawing a shot list like we normally do, a complete shot list. I'll probably sketch out a lot of the stuff I wanna do, the angles, we're gonna do the lenses, all that kind of stuff, the full Hitchcock. And we realized after about two days of trying to do that, we can't fucking storyboard this movie. We have to get the actors on the set. These guys who are both very, very well-versed in theatre. They know the material really well by this point. Let's let them work this set and see what feels natural to their characters. I'd never done that before. I'd always done everything planned out. But with this... I saw that if I did what I was comfortable with, what I felt the safest doing, we would be limiting or depriving ourselves of the discoveries that great actors make when they start working a room or working an environment or working the props. So we created this stage for them that had all those props sitting around, and maybe they would pick one up, move it around, break it--or ignore it. It was just such a beautiful collaboration, and it was like we were getting the most out of everybody's skill sets, you know?
For you as well?
Yes. For me and my DP [Alex Vendler], it was our job to get the camera in the best place to catch the best possible light, the actors at the moments of their greatest emotional truth. It was liberating and invigorating not to have a rigid plan every day. And it was scary, you know? Man, it was terrifying, but once we found our groove with it, we were just flying through pages.
It sounds like it exorcised some demons for you.
I really feel that. I really do. May was very much my angst story. It was me getting out all of this angst that had built up over high school and college and trying to fit in, trying to date, trying to maintain friendships with people, all this kind of stuff, all while being a weirdo from the sticks. Old Man was very much about confronting and examining the men in my life growing up but without judging them, you know, without saying, "Look at what an asshole this guy is. Look at the way he's talking about women." Or, "Look at this dick waving his gun around." It was about being as true as possible to that kind of character and just displaying it and maybe along the way finally allowing myself to see them as people for my own sake. It was vital for me to not be judgemental. It's too easy to do that, and it's a way of avoiding things. I don't want villains in my movies. If I do have somebody who's clearly antagonistic, I still wanna see the whole picture that brought them there. I just don't believe in fucking villains, man. In storytelling, I mean. (laughs) In real life, it seems like we've got...villains everywhere. It really appears that way, especially the last six years, but they've always been there.
Truth. But even those guys have a villain creation story. It's just hard to care when the stakes are the most vulnerable in this world.
Yes--the stakes for real villains are too high to empathize with their trauma, but when I'm writing a story, I'm always gonna find that sympathy for the monster. It's fascinating to me that, yes, this person is doing awful stuff, you know, but what's underneath that? What pain is bringing that forth? Because we're all a mess, we all do bad or villainous things, some of us in small ways and other people in very big ways, but there's always a reason buried underneath there somewhere, you know? My favorite filmmakers aren't afraid to do that, to show awful people or the human being buried underneath, sometimes really buried way, way down in there, but they're there. Take Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange, how Kubrick can show you Alex being such a shit and such a fucking awful monster for like an hour in that movie but by the time it gets to the scene where he's up on that stage and that guy's making him lick his boot, you're feeling sympathy for him, you know? Because you know that a line has been crossed. Mm-hmm, you know, that, like, no matter how evil somebody is, you can't do that. Even though you know at the end he's gonna go right back to evil. This experience has not changed him.
It's like the character of the penitent man in Silence.
I know! He keeps betraying them and they keep forgiving him! I don't understand why nobody talks about that movie. I've watched movie like a dozen times. Man, I can't get over it. It hits so fucking hard. The whole thing of just standing up for yourself and standing up for what you believe in, but when does that get to a point of absurdity and harm?
You mentioned watching Black Narcissus with Tobe Hooper.
Oh shit, Kathleen Byron, her face is just burned into my brain. When she steps out on that bell tower and the wind, her hair and everything. Oh my god. Black Narcissus is on my mind because that is something that I've chased in my tiny little independent-movie way, which is this idea of bringing paintings to life. Bringing sculpture to life, bringing portraiture to life, you know? And film can be every art. Look at Days of Heaven. The visual concept with Old Man, one of our starting points was the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and those Brandywine artists up there in the northeast. They created this stark feeling of loneliness and isolation from just a guy sitting in a chair with the right backdrop and the right lighting and all of that kind of stuff, the incredible heaviness of the mood something so simple creates, what sort of sadness it creates. Paintings of men laying on a bed with a quilt--something so fucking sad about that picture. We're looking at Wyeth and we're pulling the texture of our walls from them and the colour schemes and everything. Wyeth had such a gift for taking 20 different kinds of brown or green and just working them effortlessly together. My wife being a painter and an illustrator has also had a huge impact on my filmmaking. This idea of film as portraiture has become a really, really important aspect of what I do. And it's like, what story does this tell? The old man's sitting on a little stool against a wall, but he's, you know, he's tiny in the frame and there's, there's all of this around him, there's this degrading cabin with animal traps hanging on the wall. There's a broken hose hanging there. There's a rusty sink. All of these things say something about who that man is: the things he's chosen to surround himself [with] in his terrible, endless isolation. And then being forced to confront what brought him there when it's too late to create a better outcome for himself. There's nothing scarier than that.