[Portions of this interview were previously published on BookReporter.com]
In celebration of Father’s Day, I have interviewed my father. I dedicate what follows to every good father out there who is loving, respectful, honest, real and true. This day is for you. And to all of the rest, well, you know who you are and have a long, long way to go.
That Old Angelella Line: Coal Miner, Salesman, Sound Mixer, Writer
Over the course of several spirited conversations, my father, Rick Angelella, and I discussed all things Zombie, covering some serious familial ground and touching on such hot topics as our preferred necktie knots, the size of our inner film-nerd, how chicken bones are used as sound effects in the film Total Recall, a zombie’s place in religious history, the secret lineage of writing in our family, and just how easy it is for Kevin Costner to make my Dad cry.
ROSS: Dad, I feel like this whole necktie knot conversation that seems to be sprouting up in the wake of Zombie is something people are either completely unaware of or simply have never openly discussed. There really are quite a few different types of knots, even though Ballentine, the authority on knots, only acknowledges three. This being said, I feel like it’s only right that we begin by talking about necktie knots. I learned everything I know about knots and their names from you, which begs the question—who taught you?
RICK: Great place to start. Well, I taught you and my dad taught me. My earliest memory of tying a necktie into a knot was at a very early age. I must have been maybe 6 or 7. My dad—your grandfather—he was a salesman and so he always wore a tie to work. I remember he had this very colorful selection of ties in his closet and they were all hung up on the inside of the closet door and after he’d select his tie, he’d stand in front of the mirror and turn this colorful fabric into a perfect knot, tucking the loop underneath his collar. He took great pride in making that knot and having the tie fall correctly to the top of the belt. You write about that well too.
ROSS: For me, it was easy to write about knots. There was no research required. But I did sit at my desk with a tie on during that first writing session and spent a good deal of time tying a knot over and over and over, then trying to describe it in as simple a way as possible.
RICK: Sure. I mean, you know how ties are–they’re all different. Some ties are thin and some are fat and it all comes down to timing the crossover on the shirt at the right button to make sure that the tip of the tie hits right at the belt and my dad was always really good at that.
ROSS: I never knew him as a salesman. He was into his old man flannel phase by the time I came into the picture. I will say though that I can relate to the story you tell of him standing at his closet, selecting the right tie. When I worked at the law firm as a real estate clerk in Ithaca, New York, I’d do the same thing–stand there every morning and take such care with the selection. That moment where you match your shirt to your tie is an important one, so while I never knew him as salesman, I can definitely relate to Poppop on that level. It sounds like he was really focused on the details.
RICK: Ross, he was larger-than-life and most definitely detail-oriented. I found everything he did fascinating. This is very true–everything. How he shaved. How he polished his shoes. The way he combed his hair straight back. Everybody else combed their hair with a part back then, but not him and for that reason not me. We combed ours straight back. He carried a handkerchief in his right rear pocket. He would also fold his tongue in such a way that he was able to whistle really well. He’d whistle for me to come in and eat dinner. Nobody else had parents who did that, but he would open the back door and fire off this whistle with his tongue. You couldn’t miss it. I remember spending an entire summer trying to whistle like that and I never could.
ROSS: I can’t whistle at all. Period. End of story. Just sounds like I’m hooting. Like I’m an owl.
RICK: That’s the kind of person he was–he made the little things interesting. Everything he did I found fascinating. I looked up to him. He was very big in my eyes. When he taught me how to tie a knot, he made it a game. He made it fun. He was partial to the full Windsor knot. He loved it and wanted me to love it too, so he made it fun. All of these things, as we’re talking about them, I really think were the very things that made a man a man in his eyes.
ROSS: A full Windsor makes a man a man, huh?
RICK: He was a full Windsor guy and had no interest in wearing anything else. This was true. I would get lazy and do the Half-Windsor and he would wave his hands at me, shaking his head, and say, “No. No. That’s not a Windsor.” His appearance nattered when it came to his customers. Remember, he was a salesman. Everything mattered. I think he felt the Windsor knot was classy and anything less was just unacceptable.
ROSS: The Half-Windsor is not even really that lazy, certainly not as lazy as a clip-on tie. Do you know where he learned to tie a knot?
RICK: That’s a really good question. I don’t know exactly. I don’t know if he learned it from his father who worked in a coal mine; or if he learned it when it he joined the Navy. I’ve seen pictures of my grandfather wearing a Windsor knot, but I don’t know where my father learned it.
ROSS: You taught me how to tie the Windsor knot and the Half-Windsor knot. I think I was in first grade too. Must be a catholic school thing. I know for me at school everybody wore these navy blue clip-on ties with a silver clasp in the back—except for me. I tied my own tie, but I didn’t wear the Windsor or Half-Windsor. I couldn’t quite figure out how to tie those knots with the tiny piece of fabric the school required us to wear. I remember feeling empowered by being the only kid in grade school to tie my own knots. It was easier to do the basic knot, or as Ballentine calls it in the book the Limp Dick. And to dispel fact from fiction here, you never called it the Limp Dick. I gave it that name when I began writing Zombie. It felt on-par with the Ballenitne character.
RICK: I thought his descriptions of the knots were accurate and pretty funny. I could relate. I could also really relate to him and Jeremy watching movies together.
ROSS: The whole movie aspect to the book came in to play at a fairly late stage in the writing process, actually. It totally changed Jeremy’s narrative and opened up a lot of possibilities for all of the characters. Aimee White fancies herself a film buff. Jeremy and Ballentine share a love of zombie cinema. Even Jackson, Dirtbag Boy and Super Shy Kid get in on it with Zombie Strippers! I write about the Orpheum Theatre, which was a childhood favorite theatre of mine, and the porn cinemas downtown and video rental stores, which are sadly and quickly becoming obsolete. There is the video of the surgery in Ballentine’s closet. And then, of course, there is the heightened awareness of survival codes that Jeremy pulls from the zombie movies.
RICK: It’s a major part of the book, and really works well. I had no idea that was a late addition. Did that come directly from you? Or was it something that came about from the characters?
ROSS: A bit of both, I think. I knew that the book was missing a major element, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. My agent wanted another pass done before we went back out with it to editors. So I re-read the book from start-to-finish, something I hadn’t done in a few years, when this one line just jumped out at me. It was the scene where Jeremy is lifted into the air by the Plaids. He says something in the book like they want to pull him limb-from-limb. But in the original version it was that they wanted to pull him limb-from-limb, like zombies, to see what his blood looked like. That word–zombie–made sense, somehow. That next draft started change immediately, as all things zombie-related and film-related came into focus for me. I learned a lot on some of those early influences that you had on me, especially Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. I remember you introducing me to films by way of directors, upping the degree of complexity as I matured. Charlie Chaplin. Woody Allen. Alfred Hitchcock. Steven Spielberg. Ridley Scott. Robert Altman. Francis Ford Coppola. Martin Scorsese. Brian De Palma. Oliver Stone. Stanley Kubrick. Sam Peckinpah.
RICK: See, it’s that old Angelella line. My father is responsible for my introduction to movies, just as I am responsible for yours. He would take me and my brothers to whatever was playing at the local movie theater on the weekends. He was very partial to John Wayne and WWII movies. I remember seeing a very violent film called Attack! when I was 9 or 10. There was a scene near the end where Jack Palance gets his arm pinned under a tank and he has to pull it out so he can go back and kill Eddie Albert. Well, this was so graphic and so exhilarating at the same time that I was running around for weeks playing Attack! in the neighborhood. When we would go to the movies back then, we would just walk right in, usually midway though. We’d never see a movie from the beginning. We would find empty seats, sit down and watch through to the end, and after we would stay through the next showing, watching the first half that we had missed. Then he would lean over and say, “Okay, this is where we came in. Let’s go.” And we would get up and leave.
ROSS: Funny that you played Attack! for weeks after you saw it. I had the same experience with Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. You took me to see it as a celebration for finishing my midterm exams for the first time in 4th Grade. (I think it was as much as celebration for you as it was for me that it was over.) You told me that they used a lot of chicken bones for sound effects in post-production. I had no idea what that meant. Then I saw the movie and knew exactly what you meant. Snapping bones. The sheer ultra-stylized, futuristic violence of it had me running around the house playing out the crazy shit I had just seen for weeks.
RICK: Movies are memories to me. You give a perfect example with Total Recall. That film will always be associated with you and those midterm exams.
ROSS: Do you remember Godfather III? It was playing on a limited released, at a theatre in Washington D.C.? You wanted to see it and took me with you.
RICK: Yes! Godfather III! I do. I dragged you to go see it with me. You hadn’t seen any of the previous films and you absolutely didn’t want to go.
ROSS: I hadn’t seen either of the previous films, but you insisted that I experience the final chapter of the saga on the big screen. You told me not to worry and for the entirely drive to Washington, you told me the entire Corleone family history in chronological order, complete with detailed scene analysis of McKlusky’s assassination, Apolonia’s assignation, Fat Clemenza teaching Michael how to make sauce, and on and on. I’ll never forget that. That car ride was a pretty influential moment for me. I was forced to visually create these characters and time periods, and dialogue, and play out the action in my head without any references. It forced me to be an active participant in the creative process. From there I pretty much became obsessed with movies.
RICK: It happened in childhood for me too. When I was a kid we’d get the TV Guide every week. I looked forward to it because the movie listings had a one or two sentence description of what the movies were about. Sometimes the review would include the directors name. One day I noticed that two of my favorite movies, Ft Apache and My Darling Clementine were both made by John Ford. I looked up John Ford and found he had made all of these other films and it just grew from there for me. I heard about Hitchcock, Welles, Stevens, Curtiz, Wilder and so on, and began looking them up and then looking for the movies on TV. I began looking up these directors in our World Book Encyclopedia ,which was a popular thing to have in the early 60’s, and found more movies made by these directors. When I was in high school the library had Film Quarterly and Sight and Sound magazines. TV soon stopped feeding my jones and I started looking elsewhere to see movies. Sometimes I would sneak out of the house and go to Goucher College to watch Ingmar Bergman films, black and white print, screened in an auditorium with subtitles. Films like The 7TH Seal and Hour of the Wolf . Then there were double features in the downtown theaters like Bullett and Dr. No.
ROSS: I did the same thing. Every story that Aimee tells about the Orpheum is absolutely true. Probably the only unabridged, unmasked autobiographical moment in the book. I’d head down to Fell’s Point to the Orpheum which used ot be above the Daily Grind and watch some sick and twisted double feature, Like Wizard of Oz and Bad Lieutenant. I know for me, once I found myself sitting in tiny theaters, watching foreign films, that I wanted to make a run at working in the film industry, like you. I never wanted to be a sound mixer, but I definitely wanted to be a director or filmmaker in some way. That never happened for me, as I wound up tumbling down a different creative rabbit hole, but it’s interesting to see how our obsession with movies made us want to be involved in the film-making process.
RICK: I never wanted you to follow in my footsteps. and become a sound mixer. That was something I had experienced with my father wanting me to become a salesman and I resisted it. He wanted me to be a salesman and take over his territory and that was something that was not interesting to me. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I didn’t want that. When I became a father, what I wanted was to expose you to as many things that life had to offer, to give you as many opportunities and experiences and allow you to take the reigns and lead the way with what mattered most to you. Interestingly, it wasn’t long before writing clicked for you, which is interesting because my father was a failed writer. As a young man, he couldn’t figure out how to make a living at it and eventually gave it up and looked elsewhere to support his family, finally settling on sales.
ROSS: I wish Poppop were here to be a part of this conversation. He would love it. I don’t know if I ever told you the story about why I publish as J. R. Angelellla, but it was just before Poppop passed away, and you had sent me an envelope with all of his unpublished short stories. That was a very big moment for me. It was right around the time I began publishing my short fiction too. I had heard family stories about him being this frustrated writer, but I had never seen any of his work until I received that envelope of stories. They were mostly typed written, a few in longhand. There were revisions in the margins. There was a lot of passion in his words, a real want and yearning to be better, and his stories for the most part were interesting. I remember there was even a UFO story. The commonality in all of his stories was the idea of providing for the family–men struggling to be men, wrestling with the responsibility of providing for the family. There was a lot of him in those stories. Every time I read them, which is every few months, I can’t help but feel a great sadness in those pages–sadness that he just gave it up and walked away. This is why I took the pen name that I did. I made a promise to myself (and to him) to never give up on my dream of writing. And so as a reminder of that promise, I decided to take the pen name J. R. Angelella, out of respect for his name as written at the top of each story–R. A. Angelella.
RICK: That’s a great story, Ross. I didn’t know that. He would have loved that. And what a nice memory to have–receiving those stories when you did before he passed away. He is the reason movies are memories for me. I associate a lot of movies with the details surrounding when I saw them—who I was with, where we were, what was happening in my life at that time. For example, I saw The Wild Bunch at 1 o’clock on a Friday afternoon by myself. It was the first showing that day at the Colony Theater on Belair Road. I wasn’t working and had no classes that day. I had seen the ad campaign of a couple of guys walking in a silhouette shot from behind, caring guns. I had no idea what it was about, but I couldn’t wait to see this film and, man, did it deliver! I had never seen slow motion editing used as a tool to heighten action scenes before. It stunned me just how good it was. I was so blown away by that experience that I went to see it again that night this time with a group of my friends.
ROSS: I think it should also be noted that you have a fairly limited knowledge of zombie movies and when I came to you for your advice and insight around the time I began researching the zombie cinema landscape for this book, you, surprisingly, referred me to The Greatest Story Ever Told, much like Father Gibbs does to Jeremy in the book. You said that you didn’t know a lot about zombies, but always thought of the resurrection of Lazarus as the first zombie, that is before Jesus. What the hell did you mean by that?
RICK: I was raised in the Catholic faith and I have always liked Catholic films, both the religious ones, King of Kings, Greatest Story Ever Told and movies with Catholic reference in them, Mean Streets, Ben Hur. Now you have the story of Christ told straight up in King of Kings and the along come Scorsese and he tells the story differently in Last Temptation Of Christ, which I had read in high school and gave a speech on in my English class which caused quite a stir. Then you add in Jesus Christ Superstar and what you have is a story being imagined more realistically but still getting the teaching points across. What I came to realize in all of this in light of the cinematic scope, which includes zombie movies, was that Lazarus really was the first zombie. I think you handled it very well. Certainly, drawing on the actual zombie movie references that were largely foreign to me, while funneling it through the eyes of Father Gibbs with him coming at it through the eyes of the Catholic Church.
ROSS: We’ve talked a lot about movies and I can’t help but notice how many of them are very male-driven, testosterone action films. There are a lot famous sayings that exist, like real men don’t cry. The strong, silent type. Shit like that. I think in large part it may be a generational thing, but do you hold yourself to a certain code of behavior or subscribe to an idea of how a man is supposed to act? I ask because in high school, I was very much a survivalist like Jeremy, although unlike Jeremy, sadly and regrettably, I never did anything to help the kids under attack. I always just kept my mouth shut and eyes shut.
RICK: I have experienced hazing both personally and as a spectator. As a young boy I learned to avoid situations where I might be “picked on” by older boys, much like Jeremy does throughout much of Zombie. A certain degree of masculinity is called into play and if you do not participate in it, it leaves the moment frozen. In order to have an argument you need two people, but if you express a feeling in words rather than action it leaves the moment empty. ‘Yeah!’ ‘Oh Yeah.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Oh Yeah, I’m happy for you…’ It just escalates. This is something I learned that got me out of some of those moments.
ROSS: What about showing emotion? Do you think that makes a man look weak?
RICK: A young boy who spills milk might cry but that same boy as a teenager might just say, “Oh shit.” I think it has to do with the age and the type of emotional experience. As a man, showing emotion–that really depends on who you are as a person. In Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner asks his dad for a catch, I am reduced to tears every time. It’s a scene of melancholy that really resonates with me. In Red Dawn when Patrick Swazye tells Matty to turn his tears into something else, crying is used as a breaking point between adolescence and manhood. Showing emotion is a sign of weakness–I don’t agree. I feel it depends on the moment and the person and getting it out is healthier that holding it in. As a man, I’ve always felt that a person is judged by the way he conducts himself in everything he does no matter how trivial. You hold yourself to a standard and you work from there. That is not to say corrections or adjustment to that behavior are not made. A healthy person, man or woman, needs to be able to recognize bad behavior and own it as well as those moments of adulation. I think a man should be able to show compassion and sympathy as well as aggression and masculinity. I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness at all that I cry when Kevin Costner asks his dad for a catch.
ROSS: Dad, I think you pretty much summed up in a paragraph what I attempted in 320 pages.
RICK: I don’t know about that. I only know what I know. I am me and you are you.
ROSS: We certainly are us. I love you, Dad.
RICK: I love you too, Ross.