Thursday, April 26, 2012

Appearance from R.L. Stine promises to be a scream

“How do I make hamsters scary?”

These are the types of thoughts that occupy the mind of writer R.L. Stine, and with good reason.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Stine’s beloved children’s series, “Goosebumps,” boasts more than 100 titles. To dig into new ideas, Stine will start with the name of a book and then flesh out the story, which occasionally means asking some tough questions.

“I was walking the dog in the park and this title popped in my head, this ‘Goosebumps’ title, ‘Little Shop of Hamsters.’ Great title, right? I don’t know where it came from. … I’m just walking the dog and then I had to start thinking, ‘How do I make hamsters scary?’” Stine said.

Since the first book, 1992’s “Welcome to Dead House,” Stine and “Goosebumps” have become household names.

The series’ tone of campy creepiness was inspired by Stine’s diet growing up of “Tales from the Crypt” comic books, authors such as Ray Bradbury and episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”

“If you look at those comics from the ’50s, those horror comics, they’re a complete blend of horror and humor,” Stine said. “They all have funny twist endings and all kinds of plays on words and hidden things in the drawings and they’re a great combination, and it’s basically what I do.”

Today, Stine’s name can be found attached to more recent TV shows and book series, including “R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour” and “Rotten School,” respectively.

When he first began writing “Goosebumps,” it was a four-book deal that Stine said “sat on the shelves.” At the time, Stine’s credits included several books such as his “Fear Street” series and serving as head writer for the Nickelodeon show “Eureeka’s Castle.” Then, out of nowhere, “Goosebumps” came to life.

At its height, “Goosebumps” was selling 4 million books each month, and Stine said kids spreading the word to one another were to thank.

On April 21, Stine will take part in the Bethesda Literary Festival, crafting a ghost story with young fans, telling his own “true” ghost story, reading and signing books at Bethesda Elementary School. Running from April 20 to April 22 at various locations in Bethesda, the free festival also will feature authors such as Thomas L. Friedman, Judith Viorst and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson.

Stine said children enjoy “Goosebumps” because the books promise “safe scares.”

“They know they’re going to have this creepy adventure. They’re going to go out and have fun and it’s going to be pretty scary,” Stine said. “But they know it’s never going to go too far.”

In the past, Stine has been careful walking the tightrope of child-friendly terror. In an early “Goosebumps” tale, “The Girl Who Cried Monster,” Stine was told by his editors that he might have raised a hair too many.

“When I first wrote the book, she sees a librarian eat a kid and she realizes he’s a monster [and] ‘I’ve got to tell people.’ But my editors felt that was going too far,” Stine said. “That was one case they thought that was too much, so we changed it. The librarian, in the final book, he’s got a bowl of live turtles on his desk and every once in a while she sees him reach over, pop a turtle into his mouth and crunch it and eat it.”

“Goosebumps” is a monster that refuses to die. Its current incarnation, “Goosebumps Hall of Horrors,” takes place inside HorrorLand, which Stine sees as the anti-Disney World.

The classic villains of “Goosebumps” can be found in the series before “Hall of Horrors” that bears the name of the evil theme park. The most famous villains also will be featured in the series “Goosebumps: Most Wanted” this fall. One of Stine’s favorite characters is Slappy the Dummy.

“Slappy the Dummy is really fun to write because he’s incredibly rude. You can write all these insult jokes and he’s just so mean,” Stine said. “He’s just a really fun character to write. You can go a little bit further with him, because he’s a dummy.”

Another favorite evildoer, The Haunted Mask, will be the subject of the series’ first hardcover “Goosebumps Wanted: The Haunted Mask,” which is scheduled to come out in July. Stine also keeps a haunted mask and fake skeleton in his office to help with his writing.

“I have a giant two-yard-long cockroach. Maybe not quite two yards, maybe four feet long. ... And I have a skeleton, and the skeleton is wearing The Haunted Mask,” Stine said. “I can see it every minute.”

In October, Stine will release an adult novel for the fans he attributes with his initial rise in the ’90s. Titled “Red Rain,” the book follows in the footsteps of Stine’s previous mature fare like “Superstitious,” and documents “extremely” evil children and their unsuspecting parents.

“It’s a real novel for adults. It’s very violent and it has sex; it’s not a book for kids. That was fun for me. It was a nice change of pace,” Stine said.

Although his first readers have aged, the things that go “bump” in the night have not.

“When we started writing ‘Goosebumps,’ people didn’t walk around with phones in their pockets and they weren’t online,” Stine said. “All the technology has changed, but your basic fears all the stuff that we write about in ‘Goosebumps,’ the basic fears of being afraid of the dark, being afraid that somebody’s lurking under your bed ready to grab you, something in the closet those things never change.”

Photo by Dan Nelken; courtesy Scholastic

Sunday, April 22, 2012

When “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” veterans Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood perform at theaters across the country, they require mousetraps, and lots of them.

“Rock ’n’ roll stars have ‘Remove the blue M&Ms,’” Mochrie says. “We have, ‘We need 100 mousetraps.’”

The mousetraps are for the duo’s infamous routine, where they cover the floor with the devices and proceed to play a game such as singing opera about mail while walking across them.

Mochrie and Sherwood will bring their “no pain, no gain” approach to improv to the Weinberg Center for the Arts on April 22. Prior to the weekend gig, Mochrie spoke with The Gazette over the phone from his home in Toronto about the show, his new book and his utter disdain for the “Whose Line” game hoedown.

A&E: After eight years, how have you seen the show change?

Mochrie: We were looking over some old running orders and we've had so many games that we no longer do. I felt old all of a sudden. Some of those games I never recognized. Most of the time we’ve spent on the tours trying to figure out how to get audience suggestions in a way that we won’t get the same thing over and over again. ... We’ve sort of invented new games over the years because there’s just the two of us, there’s sort of a limited number of games we can play. So we are constantly workshopping new games. Unfortunately, when we workshop it, we have to do it in front of an audience and hope it works. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.

A&E: What are some of the newer games you're trying out?

Mochrie: You put me on the spot here. We’ll be doing sort of a new game where it’s sort of rap-based, where we start doing a scene and, at any point in the scene, if [one] person thinks what the other person said sounds like a rap song, we go, “Kick it,” and we start doing a rap song until somebody says “Word.”

A&E: So it’s not quite like [the “Whose Line” game] hoedown.

Mochrie: Oh, God no. Nothing’s like hoedown.
A&E: Has that followed you throughout your career?

Mochrie: I guess so. We often get suggestions for hoedown, which I can state with absolute assurance it will never happen. Ever.

A&E: What was the problem with hoedown?

Mochrie: Toward the end, when we finished taping “Whose Line,” we had been doing it, including the British version, for 14 years. So that was 14 years of hoedown and we would do two to three a taping. We would get a different suggestion for every hoedown. It was horrible. You’re trying to think of a joke you can have and then the person beside you would take that joke. Your minds are going along the same lines and then you’re just screwed. So it was the only time during the show that I felt pressure and was nervous. ... Although, Brad and I have found over the eight years we have been doing this, when the show works best it’s when we’re off balance. When we really ... just have so many different elements that we’re constantly trying to figure out what to do and where to go, and that’s sort of the fun part of improv, where it’s almost like Sudoku or a crossword puzzle. Where you’re using every part of your brain to try to figure out where to go next and wrap up what you’ve done.

A&E: Can it be a negative thing to be too comfortable in improv?

Mochrie: I think so. It certainly can. You can rest on your laurels, especially. You can get very lazy with improv. You can go, “Oh, your suggestion sort of sounds like something we’ve done before. We can head into this area because we know it gets a laugh.” So we definitely try to stay away from that.

A&E: I've read that you said after doing so many bits with Ryan Stiles on “Whose Line” that you started to feel like you were repeating yourself. Was that one of the reasons the show stopped? Because you guys felt like you hit a wall?

Mochrie: There were other reasons. It was sort of an odd show. The network never really knew what it was or how popular it was. When we first started as a summer replacement, we got great ratings and everything was fine and then they decided, because the show was so cheap, they put us up against “Friends” and “Survivor.” Totally killed us in the ratings, but we still made the network money because the show was so cheap to produce. Then a new regime came in at ABC ... [and the show] was canceled, although we were never actually told it was canceled. As far as I know, we're still on hiatus, but it has been eight years, so I’m willing to let that go.

A&E: Don’t think you'll be getting that call anytime soon.

Mochrie: I’m pretty sure not. Even though we got creamed, I'm still amazed how all of us are recognized everywhere from “Whose Line.” God bless it, it gave us all a really good career. so I’m certainly thankful for the show.

A&E: I have to ask you about the mousetraps. When did you start doing that?

Mochrie: I think we were doing it fairly close to the beginning of our tour. It’s a horrible game. We’ve tried to get rid of it, but people are upset when we don’t do it. Oh, OK. We begrudgingly keep it in our show.

A&E: Is it the most painful improv game you’ve ever heard of?

Mochrie: Yeah, we've both been hurt from that game. Yeah. It's a painful, painful game.
A&E: I don’t think I've heard of any other game of improv that involved so much physical pain.

Mochrie: No, because everybody else is smarter than we are.

A&E: How many mousetraps do you tend to have on stage?

Mochrie: It changes depending on venue to venue. ... It’s always at least 100.

A&E: I understand you have a book that is coming out this year, “Not Quite the Classics.”

Mochrie: Yes. Technically, that is correct. I’m supposed to have it finished by the end of this month.

A&E: How is the writing going?

Mochrie: It’s horrible. I have quickly found throughout this process that I despise writing.

A&E: What convinced you to write the book, then?

Mochrie: I was so roped into it. My agent said, “You know, you should write a book,” and I replied, “I don't feel like I have anything pressing to say.” He got me a literary agent who hooked me up with Penguin Canada, so I said, “Alright, I'm up for a challenge.” So I was trying to figure out a way of writing a book in sort of an improvised style, so ... what I came up with is I used the first and last line of classic novels and I do a completely different middle.

A&E: I know you were trying to write it with an improv mindset. Was there much revising?

Mochrie: Oh God, yeah. A lot of editing. If you actually transcribed our improv scenes, they make no sense. They’re not funny. They make absolutely no ... It truly is an art form where the comedy is of the moment. If you try to describe to friends an improv scene that you saw, it’s really hard to get that across why you were laughing. So as I was writing, I thought, “Oh the improv is sort of a jumping off point,” then it’s honing and editing.

A&E: Do you see a connection between improv and stream of consciousness writing, which is partly what I imagined you were doing with the book?

Mochrie: On stage your thing is you just accept what comes to you and you work from that, and I’ve sort of been doing that also with this. There have been a couple of stories where I get to a point where I can’t, I don’t know what to do, where to go from, so I just kind of relax and sort of go back to the beginning and try again and find a different path to get to the same end. There are similarities between the two, but making up stuff on stage is much easier.

Photo by Dan Bergman

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Road to Nilbog: George Hardy and 'Best Worst Movie'

In the hit movie department George Hardy is two for two, which is not shabby for a general dentist living in Alabama.

Yet the quality of the films is what sets them apart.

Hardy’s first film, 1990’s “Troll 2” follows the Waits family as their vacation to a remote town named Nilbog is derailed when its citizens turn out to be hungry, vegetarian goblins.

The shoot was plagued by its own horrors. Director Claudio Fragasso and his wife, screenwriter Rossella Drudi, were Italian filmmakers who spoke minimal English. Still, they required the lines be read by the film’s amateur actors word-for-word.

After filming in 1989, Hardy married and set up his dental practice in Alabama, where life went back to normal.

In the meantime, “Troll 2” became a cult classic, eventually earning the only zero percent score on the popular movie review site With its cheesy production value, oddball story and impressively horrible lines, the movie developed an ever- increasing fan base.

Catching wind of its popularity, Hardy and “Troll 2” co-star Michael Stephenson filmed the documentary “Best Worst Movie.” With Stephenson directing and Hardy acting as the movie’s guide, they hit eight countries and filmed 420 hours worth of footage beginning in 2006.

As curiously awful as “Troll 2” is, “Best Worst Movie” showed the colorful characters behind it, from Fragasso, who still sees the film as an important work, to the reclusive Margo Prey, who portrayed Hardy’s wife. “Best Worst Movie” currently holds a 95 percent Fresh rating on

Saturday’s back-to-back screening of “Best Worst Movie” and “Troll 2” at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring will also feature an appearance by Hardy, on-screen via Skype, who will introduce the documentary and participate in a post-screening discussion. In between appointments with patients, Hardy spoke with The Gazette about the movies, the fans and possible future of the franchise.
A&E: Was it a juggling act to film “Best Worst Movie” and maintain your practice?

Hardy: At the time it was. It really, really was. Believe it or not, I missed very little time from my practice because I would leave that on Thursdays and then Friday, Saturday, Sunday is when I would go to these events. So I did it all on the weekends. But ... over the course of three and a half years, [I] probably missed three or four weeks of work, which I would have done as vacation time anyway. We went to Italy twice, so that was cool to connect with Italians, which I’m now doing now with Rossella and Claudio. ... They’re working on a 3D film in Africa right now. And what’s cool is, we’re looking for production and the pulling together of “Troll 3D,” which she’s written a treatment [for], which is really cool. I’ve read it and it’s fantastic.

A&E: I was curious about what it was like on set. Was it very serious or were you guys having fun?

Hardy: Darren Ewing, who plays Arnold ... he says in “Best Worst Movie” we were really trying to make a really good movie. We really were. ... We were all amateur actors. None of us — I had only done high school plays and was a college cheerleader, you know... I’m not probably your normal dentist kind of guy, but I did always kind of want to go into acting ... And so we were really all trying hard to make a really good movie, but we didn’t know and it was so discombobulated, we just didn’t understand anything. We would try to decipher what the script meant and I would try to sit there and analyze scenes and couldn’t do it, and it was just like, ‘Oh well, what the heck, let’s just wing it and do the best we can.” And there was as a huge sense of innocence about that, because, you know, there was nothing really cynical about “Troll 2.” ... I think that it was miraculously made in the fact it delivers from scene to scene in how they edited it, the music and the campiness of it and the timing of it. I mean, the older “Troll 2” gets, the more popular it’s going to be. It’s one of those things that’s never going to go away. It’s a cult classic, it’s forever. And you take that film and you compare it to one that’s intentionally made to be bad like “Birdemic: [Shock and Terror]” or “The Room” and you see they were really trying to make a good movie.

A&E: Even in the film, Claudio seems so driven by his vision. He never seems to doubt himself for a moment. He totally believes in what he was doing.

Hardy: I really feel like “Troll 2” was this piece of work that was put on canvas as a treatment… that’s what I really love about Claudio and Rossella, either one, from the Italian or the European way of looking at things. They don’t really care what people think, they simply want to move people’s hearts and they want to entertain and they don’t care whether its good or bad. Take it or leave it. It’s simply like Claudio said. I really think he’s right about making an impression. And, I have to say, I really admire him for that and I really do think Claudio and Rossella are very creative people and they’re both very, very bright. And I wish I only spoke Italian so that I could really get to know who they really are, but it’s been kind of hard to understand them even with interpreters. But, I do know, there’s a beautiful sense of innocence with Rossella. She’s very lighthearted. And Claudio, he has a bit of an ego but he’s just a huge sweetheart. And every time I call, which has been a lot recently, he’s thrilled to talk to me. And I’m just not going to quit until “Troll 3D” is made. I just don’t know. Being a general dentist in Alabama, it’s pretty damn hard to make contacts in the west coast or New York. I don’t really know how that’s really done. I’m just trying to get feelers out there.

Photos courtesy George Hardy, AFI

Jack Hanna Goes Wild at the Weinberg

Life is a jungle for Jack Hanna. When he’s not traveling the world for his Emmy Award-winning program “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,” he’s holding down duties as Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. Since first taking on the role in 1978, Hanna has become America’s go-to wildlife expert, and he can be seen regularly on television making rounds on talk shows, especially with his longtime friend David Letterman.

 For all his success, Hanna has also seen the grim realities that beleaguer the animal kingdom. Last year, he was called on by police in Zanesville, Ohio, where a man released several large and exotic animals from cages in his home before taking his life. With dangerous species such as lions and bears threatening to move into residential areas, the police killed 49 of the animals. While consulting police on site, Hanna and the
Columbus Zoo took the surviving animals back to their facilities.

Today, Hanna’s career has covered decades, continents and species. On March 17, he will host two performances at The Weinberg Center for the Arts, where he’ll show clips from throughout his career and introduce Frederick audiences to exotic animals.

A&E: What will you be doing when you come to the Weinberg?

Hanna: Anybody who’s three years old and up to 100 enjoys our shows. We’ve had mostly all sellouts the last three months. What we do is, we come there and sign autographs before the show. I talk to people about what they’d like to see. I do my show. We have some of my favorite clips from my shows from all over the world from the last 25 years. I show a six minute clip then I show some live animals, show another clip, live animals, another clip, live animal. That kind of thing. Some of the animals will probably be a cheetah, the world’s fastest land mammal, Siberian lynx, a sloth, flamingo, penguins, all kinds of stuff. I used to have three to four animals between each segment. We usually bring 14 to 16 animals.

A&E: Does your show have an overall message or theme?

Hanna: Basically, the theme is very simple: Touch the hearts to teach the mind. That’s my basic theme of the show. It’s a fast show by the way, there are no breaks. Hour and a half show with no breaks. It’s a fun show, but when you’ve left here you learn about the animal world and conservation and how you can help, what you can do. I tell some of my stories about what’s happened to me when I was filming around the world. All that kind of stuff.

A&E: The average person hears about conservation, but probably isn’t sure what they can do. What would you tell them?

Hanna: Typically the day to day person can go to the local zoological park. Visit them and they’ll have support organizations. For example, we have 44 projects around the world we support at the Columbus Zoo. ... They already have the people there working. They already have the computers, they already have the buildings. A lot of [the organizations] you give to, half the stuff goes to rent, half the stuff goes to salaries we already have people taking care of all this. When someone gives to our project ... 98 percent of their money goes to that animal or that project, and we talk about some of those projects through my videos. All my videos are very moving. None of them are graphic, but some will bring tears to your eyes when you hear stories about some of these animals that are rescued. That kind of thing. Then you see these people and [I ask], ‘How do you want to help this person in Africa?’ And I tell them how to do that. It’s stories about people as much as animals and people that dedicate their lives to animals is what the show’s about, as well.

A&E: How have you seen the roles of zoos change since you started?

Hanna: The role of the zoological park is going to increase, because ... last year 176 million people went to zoos in this country. The largest recreation in America was visitation to zoos and aquariums, [and that’s] including pro football, basketball, all of them. One hundred and seventy six million counted attendants. The roles of zoos are changing drastically versus 30 years ago when people didn’t even want to go to zoos. Zoos are an economic power for a community as well as one of the last hopes for some of these animals. Everybody gains from going to a zoo or an aquarium.
A&E: Have zoos shifted their focus to conservation?

Hanna: Last year, the zoos in this country gave $38 million to conservation in the wild. Thirty-eight million dollars they gave to conservation in the wild. It’s amazing.

A&E: How are the animals from Zanesville doing since you took them in?

Hanna: They’re doing good. We’re getting ready to pass one of the hardest bills in the country to make sure people don’t have pet lions and tigers in their backyards.

A&E: Would the legislation impact the markets that sold the animals?

Hanna: Let’s hope it does before someone gets killed. We’re trying to have people have responsible ownership where the animals live in not poor conditions. Like what happened in Zanesville. You don’t want that to ever happen again.

A&E: Great. Well I think that should cover all my bases, Jack.

Hanna: It was good to talk to you. Just make sure you come out to the show. But, again, the show’s going to be fun for everybody. I’m going to sign some autographs before the show and get to talk to everybody and the show is never the same, by the way.

A&E: What is the range of the stories you cover?

Hanna: I go back to when I started. Some of these videos are 30 years old. My blooper tape is. I got a David Letterman show in 1986 where he milked a goat. It’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen.

A&E: You and Dave have had a good relationship for a while now.

Hanna: I’m the longest-running guest on his show. Four or five times a year since 1985 so that’s almost good Lord, that’s 27 years or whatever.

A&E: Has there been an animal that has really surprised Dave?

Hanna: Not really. An ostrich had diarrhea on his show once. I’m just waiting to bring Bigfoot on there.

Photo by Rick A. Prebeg