STEPHEN ROMANO is an author/screenwriter/musician residing in Austin , Texas , one of the great cultural and artistic capitals of our fair and fucked-up planet. In Austin, you will find the home bases of celebrity filmmakers and writers like Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater, as well as world-famous annual media events such as the South By Southwest Film And Music Conferences and the Quentin Tarrantino Film Fest, hosted by the man himself at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an equally famous (and infamous) stomping ground for some of the most celebrated directors, writers and producers in the world. Stephen became a part of the scene during the early years of its inception and has been lurking around the edges of infamy for nearly two decades, since his arrival in 1988.
He was born into a wild and paradoxical lifestyle in the early seventies, the child of Leanne Romano, a soil physicist from Beaumont and Rock Romano, an up-and-coming young pop singer from Houston . “Rock was a real rock star back then,” Stephen recalls. “He had this amazing bubble gum group called The Fun And Games, and they had a record deal with MCA. They sounded just like all those guys from the sixties—you know, The Turtles or The Zombies or even The Beach Boys. Their vocal arrangements were just amazing. In fact, a retro label just recently restored their album ELEPHANT CANDY and re-released it. They actually had a hit on the charts with a song called GROOVIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD. And they would have had bigger success, too, but they kinda got screwed by the record label. That was okay with Rock because he wanted to play the blues anyway.”
Becoming an integral part of the thriving Houston music scene, Rock formed DOCTOR ROCKIT AND THE SISTERS OF MERCY, an old school rhythm and blues band, ranking alongside contemporaries such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, ZZ Top and Lucinda Williams. “Growing up during all that was a true trip for me. I used to sleep over at Lucinda’s house all the time . . . and we partied with guys like Bo Diddley and Lyle Lovett, who actually used to open for Rock’s band! I followed my dad and his friends everywhere with a tape recorder and would pester them all into acting out scenes from my Archie comic books as little radio dramas when they got stoned backstage. (He still has the cassette tapes!) Then I got into doing home movies on Super-8 and video. There’s a really awesome one from when I was nine years old, where I’m dressed up as Spider-Man and beating up my own dad, who’s disguised as a mugger!”
Starting his own band at fifteen and gigging in clubs alongside such luminaries as Otis Day And The Knights (the band who play “Shout” in ANIMAL HOUSE, silly!), Stephen lived the fastlane life on the edge with his father, and honed his skills as a writer and filmmaker. “I’d write these silly horror scripts and shoot them in one crazy night, rounding up whomever I could to play the killer or whatever. It was a great school of storytelling and some of the work is actually pretty cool, even now. And I was playing drums and singing in my own group, partying all the time, just enjoying the hell out of being a kid in this weird rock and roll world.”
Aside from his love of bands such as The Police, Motley Crue, Gobin and Queen, Stephen collected the soundtracks of his favorite science fiction and horror films, because video had not yet come of age. “I saw everything that came out in the seventies and eighties, because I didn’t have a VCR. I actually saw that awesome crappy Bobby Breese movie MAUSOLEUM in a fucking theatre when it first came out, and things like INFRA-MAN, too! But, man . . . when the video stores started happening . . . that was the beginning of the end of innocence for me!” Stephen became obsessed with B-movies, blaxploitation, and the works of up and coming writers such as Clive Barker, David J. Schow and Joe R. Lansdale, beginning to create a storytelling style that would evolve over the years into something truly unique. “My favorite writer living is a guy named William Kotzwinkle, who has had a brilliant and bizarre career. I mean, here is a guy who’s a magician with words, has written about a million novels, all of which are classic masterworks . . . and right now he’s the most famous he’s ever been for writing a series of children's books about a farting dog! Now THAT’S some kind of hero, man!”
With numerous friends in film, Stephen was allowed onto the sets of many big movies shooting in Houston, such as TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (“Jack Nicholson told me that you could only fuck your mother on stage”), COHEN AND TATE (“Eric Red wanted so much blood to come splattering out of one guy that the squib bags made him look a hundred pounds overweight!”) and he interned as an assistant editor on Al Rienert’s Academy Award-nominated documentary FOR ALL MANKIND. “Al was a good buddy of ours, and it was so cool because he was just this down-home underground director guy who was kinda homeless and sleeping on couches, making his little trip-to-the-moon movie. Of course, years later he turns into this awesome celebrity and writes APOLLO 13 and FINAL FANTASY. People still don’t believe me when I tell them that there’s a shot in MANKIND that I’m responsible for. Al called me over to the editing table and asked me if he should keep this image of a really goofy-looking fella in a striped shirt. He was afraid it would get a laugh at the wrong moment . . . but I didn’t think it would, so I told him to keep it, and it’s still in there! (Stephen was right; at a screening just two weeks later, the shot was unlaughed-at and Al lost a twenty dollar bet with his editor!) He was a real generous guy and liked my home movies a lot, really wanted me to get some experience. My only regret was that I never got to meet Brian Eno, who did the music on MANKIND . . . but Al told me some really crazy stories about him!”
Stephen moved to Austin in 1988 and began his career as a writer/director with the production of THE INCREDIBLE MIDNIGHT MOVIE MASSACRE, a low-budget contribution to the tongue-in-cheek horror mythos. “There was fire in the air back in the late eighties and early nineties. Austin was just starting to come into its own as an artistic community, and you had guys like Linklater really striking sparks in the street. I wanted to ride that energy to some sort of career as a filmmaker . . . and I had no money or scholarship to buy an education from an institution, so I took it to the street and learned the hard way—which is really the best way, because it’s more hands-on and you become wiser from mistakes. But the experience I had making my first “real movie” was really Ed Wood all the way. It was excruciating, and the end result was laughable. I was literally scoffed at by my contemporaries. Then again, I was still only a teenager . . . and, as Doug Stanhope says, what the hell are you gonna screw up at that age that you can’t bounce right back from?”
Stephen bounced back quickly from his painful on-the-street film school experience as a creator of Comic Book Soundtracks for the just-formed IMAGE COMICS in 1993. Utilizing his musical skills and the practical theatre tools he’d learned as a movie director, Stephen used his savvy to create a whole new market to thrive in as a dramatist. “I was literally holding my head in my hands and wondering what the fuck was I gonna do, because here I had spent all my best friend’s money on this silly horror movie that nobody wanted to buy . . . but I pulled us up by the bootstraps and created this strange new thing, which was actually a sort of re-invention of my old Archie Comics hobby. We went to the creators at Image, who were incredibly popular and selling millions of comic books at the time, and we said ‘okay, we wanna take your comics and transcribe them word-for-word as audio drama.’ We got a few of them to say yes, and really went for broke with it. The first one we did was THE MAXX for Sam Keith, which was amazing . . . and it did pretty well for us. Nobody got rich, but we broke even at the end of the day, and managed to stay working in a medium that allowed us to be something almost like filmmakers. I wrote the script adaptations, directed the actors, did most of the music and sound editing . . . and then I was even in charge of creating the packaging and print ads. It was a REAL education.”
MAXXIUM SOUND was released in 1993 to rave reviews and Stephen followed up with another audio project SHADOWHAWK: THE SECRET REVEALED. “That one was not as successful or as satisfying for me artistically . . . and then, of course, the bottom fell out of the comic business and we couldn’t get arrested. That whole thing was like the stock market crashing for anybody unfortunate enough to be in the industry then. But you pick yourself up and get back to work on something. That’s life. I decided to concentrate on my own career as a writer and musician. It took me a few years to get things in order, but then when I hit the scene again, I never looked back. I was constantly producing stuff.”
Stephen’s first novel, entitled INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS, hit hard in late 1997, just as his sound and music work drew attention from California . Signing on with a company then known as BLACKEST HEART MEDIA (now ROTTEN COTTON GRAPHICS), Stephen produced tracks for a highly-ambitious tribute album to legendary Italian film director Lucio Fulci, and followed up the effort with a string of successful soundtracks and graphic novel projects. Over the next few years, Stephen wrote and edited critically acclaimed adaptations of Fulci’s THE BEYOND, ZOMBIE and began work on THE GATES OF HELL, which was finished years later by co-creator DEREK ROOK. With Rook, Stephen started an indie publishing moniker, then known as XMACHINA, which only produced a few books before folding in 2004. “We weren’t set up properly back then, but we did get to do the cool PHANTASM comic with Don Coscarelli, and an interesting HALLOWEEN magazine for the 25 th anniversary convention. Actually, that project really left a bitter taste in my mouth and led to my disillusionment with comics and conventions for a while. But I had a lot of other stuff going on, too, and I never lost sight of my main goal, which was to get back into the movies somehow and keep the old writing career afloat.”
Pacting with the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 1999, Stephen produced and promoted a series of ambitious film festivals, including the ANNUAL LUCIO FULCI FEST, the SATAN’S CHEERLEADER CAMP WEEKEND and PHANTASMAINA, a weekend-long retrospective of all four classic PHANTASM pictures. “I knew Reggie and Don from doing convention appearances with Blackest Heart and we all got together and put on this kick-ass show, which just fucking blew me away . . . and it was that weekend that I convinced Don to read my screenplays for a proposed cable series based on PHANTASM. He decided at first to let me do them as a comic book, and while he went off and made BUBBA HO-TEP, I got busy with it.”
Coscarelli was so impressed with Stephen’s vision that he invited him to become his writing partner on a series of projects, including a remake of PHANTASM (now in development at New Line Cinema), along with a couple of top-secret horror scripts entitled, respectively, ESCAPE FROM FREAK MANSION and ZERO. But it wasn’t until director/writer Mick Garris invited them to headline MASTERS OF HORROR, his innovative new series for Showtime, that things really started cooking.
The series was an unprecedented showcase for thirteen of the top directors in horror film to stretch their creative wings, and Coscarelli had been chosen to stand alongside such luminaries as Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Takashi Miike and John Carpenter. The hard-hitting short film INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD, based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale, best-selling author and creator of BUBBA HO-TEP, became the first tangible results of Stephen and Don’s partnership, and kicked off the series on October 28, 2005 to across-the-board rave reviews.
“We worked our asses off to make that show work, and it was not easy at all. The whole thing was set up on a real short schedule . . . but we were tough, and Don held to his guns about a lot of stuff. It was kind of a nightmare for me, because I had been out of the film business for so long . . . and here I was plunging headfirst into this very real world of multi-million dollar, high-pressure TV stuff. I hadn’t actually stood on a real movie set since I was a kid, and Don had me there and we were working really closely together, which pissed a lot of important people off. We were kind of the bad boys of that show, and they were telling horror stories about us for months after we left. I heard from Joe Dante that they were really bashing the INCIDENT experience when he filmed his episode. What people don’t understand is the very real and constant pressure we were under to deliver something that was . . . well, better than TV! And it’s not like we were raising hell about a bigger trailer or hookers on the set or something. The days were LONG, man, and we used every minute of every hour to get the job done. Don didn’t want his name on some bullshit product . . . and our script, while deceptively simple on the surface, was LOADED with detail and action sequences, written with a real big cinematic sensibility. If we were smarter, we would have centered more on intimate dialogue . . . which I guess is ironic, because the dialogue scenes we did do are my favorite bits in the film. I wrote most of the lines and getting to see Ethan Embry, who is one my favorite actors, adapt them in his wild style of improvisation was incredible. It was one of the few aspects of that shoot that I actually really enjoyed. And then . . . if you can believe this . . . when we were finally done, I missed my plane home and had to wait in a Vancouver airport terminal for 18 hours, during which I found out that my mother had been killed. You can’t make up tragedy like that, man.”
With a great deal of input into the casting, filming and even the final editing of INCIDENT, Stephen was ultimately pleased with the film, and Showtime Networks agreed, making it the debut episode over each of the twelve other efforts turned in by Don Coscarelli’s contemporaries. “That was amazing! I remember when Don called to tell me we were going out first, and I was, like . . . holy fuck, dude. They have some bad motherfuckers on this series—guys like Larry Cohen and Dante, who both made really, really good shows— and we were still picked to be the messengers. That’s quite a vindication for a guy like me, and a great justification for all the bullshit we had to go through to make INCIDENT. Howard Berger, our effects guy, told me later he thought it was the strongest episode in the series . . . and that it had definitely been the most difficult to make. And he worked on ALL of them!”
In March of 2006, Stephen dedicated his efforts on INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD to his mother during the recording of the DVD commentary track.
Stephen and Don continue to work together on various new projects, while developing old ones, and Stephen himself presses ahead with Arcaderetro INK. “My goal is to continue my development as a screenwriter and author, which means that I will now divide my time between print and film. I’m not too keen on directing movies anymore, as I do not like the politics involved. Standing at Don’s side on INCIDENT was about all I could take of that shit . . . but I would do it again in a heartbeat. I want to write a few more movies, work with Don, make my skin a little tougher before I decide to direct something again, which may be never . . . but you never know. My publishing imprint allows me to do what I want, when I want, in terms of pure artistic expression, and it also allows me to finish some old projects and invite my friends along for the ride. As of this interview, which is June of 2006, I have two new books in the pipe, one a collection of short stories which is getting a lot of great notices, and the other a non-fiction work about the making of a bad science fiction movie from the seventies starring David Hasslehoff. I can’t wait to see what people think of that one! Meanwhile, I’ll be “that annoying writer guy who always hangs around the set” on the movies I do. I can deal with that. The future looks pretty sweet from that privileged position.”Stephen still lives in Austin , where sparks are still flying.