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Interview with Homecoming Screenwriter Sam Hamm

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I met Sam at a local bar about a year ago. We got to talking about politics and that was that. I've seen him around periodically, but I didn't know he was a screenwriter until he recently told me about this movie. I am proud of his work and of the fact that he makes San Francisco his home. So I axed him a few questions, which he most graciously responded to. (Note: Sam has also done an interview with the LA Times, I think, but I can't find it on the internets yet.)

Victor Shystee: From a political perspective, you managed to pack so many important concepts into an hour-long zombie flick: the dishonest talk show windbags, the forbidden photos of flag-draped caskets, the soldiers who died over political gamesmanship... it goes on and on. Was Homecoming meant as (counter-)propaganda, a persuasion piece? If so, what were you trying to accomplish?

Sam Hamm:
It does have sort of an “Atrios’s Greatest Hits” quality, doesn’t it? But that’s the air we breathe. We’re in the midst of one of the most genuinely grotesque administrations in American history, one that will be long remembered for its corruption, mendacity and malfeasance. In Washington D.C. you cannot swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting a crime or a scandal or a national disgrace. So it was no great feat for us to cram a bunch of hot-button issues into the margins of our story. The big trick was deciding what to ignore.

And if you take as your topic the GOP spin machine, well, Good God Almighty! The moment you attempt to address right-wing punditry, you are in a realm beyond parody. How do you top the vaudeville duo of Falwell & Robertson, announcing that 9/11 was God’s retribution for rampant homosexuality? How do you top that necrotic turd Bill O’Reilly, offering Coit Tower in San Francisco to Al Qaeda? A couple of decades ago you would’ve paid fifty cents to see these circus freaks in a tent, with the bearded lady and the dog-faced boy and the India rubber man. Now they’re part of our national political discourse.

What were we trying to accomplish? I guess we wanted to give our target audience of dedicated lefties what the great Samuel Fuller used to describe as the essence of film: “love, hate, action, violence, death - in a word, emotion!” We don’t--or at least I don’t--expect to win any converts with “Homecoming,” partly because Bush loyalists aren’t going to watch it. And if they start, they aren’t going to finish watching it. Joe and I have been visiting the right-wing sites, and most of the commentors there are having a grand old time trashing the show based on reviews they’ve read, without having seen it. The tipoff? They almost always toss off some little bon mot about dead people in Chicago voting for Democrats, completely unaware that our pundit character Jane Cleaver makes the same obligatory joke roughly thirty minutes in.

But that’s fine; there’s no reason they should put themselves through the agony. Our little zombie tale is not going to cause the scales to fall from any Republican eyes; it’s not an analytical work. It’s a modest little agitprop fantasy, infused with what we think is legitimate anger, and its only purpose is to amuse and startle and sadden and (just maybe) galvanize the people who are willing to sit through it. If enough of them like it, maybe we’ll get to see more serious, refined work in the same vein--and that’ll be great, because our Republican betters certainly deserve to be treated with all the seriousness and refinement we can muster.

Another concept you managed to stuff into the script was the blogs. Were blogs a factor as far as inspiration and research for your script? In general, do you think blogs really make any difference in the struggle against the Bush regime?

For the last few years Joe Dante and I have been exchanging at least a dozen e-mails a day, mostly links to blog entries and news items we stumble across and insist on sharing with the poor hapless bastards on our e-mail lists. We probably both suffer from some newshound version of ADD, and because misery loves company we’re trying to spread it to everyone we know. So yeah, blogs clearly had some influence on the issue-a-minute machine-gun style of “Homecoming.”

As to whether blogs really make a difference, it’s hard to say. Regular blog-hopping certainly puts you in touch with a lot of stories you’d never hear about if you had to depend upon what the editors of the local newspaper thought you should read. And of course blogs offer a sense of validation to readers who aren’t quite satisfied with the Official Story as told to, then by, the talking heads of cable news. If you hear Woodward’s spin on Miller’s spin on Luskin’s spin on Rove’s spin on Plamegate, and something about it strikes you as a wee bit fishy, you can visit Firedoglake, and chances are Jane Hamsher will already have posted a detailed analysis of the contradictions in all four stories. If you come across a dodgy quote on Abu Ghraib, and the name of the quotee sounds strangely familiar, you check Digby: Oh yeah, she’s the one that runs the torture training camp in Arizona. The danger is that you’ll become an outrage junkie--or conversely, that you’ll develop outrage fatigue.

Blogs have obviously not supplanted newspapers or television or (alas) talk radio, but they do represent one more option on the menu. There are enormous amounts of information, research, and speculation (informed and otherwise) dangling just overhead, like ripe fruit; all we news consumers have to do is reach up and pluck it. But it’s pretty amazing how many people are too lazy to do even that.

Heads are already starting to explode like victims of a pissed-off Scanner in the Right Wing blogosphere over Homecoming. But one of the half-way legitimate questions I have seen is: aren't you in a sense speaking for dead US veterans as the main character in the movie is? How do you know how a zombie soldier would vote?

We assume most soldiers support the war and the war party. That’s a point we make explicitly in the picture: the ones who died for a cause they believe in--that “noble cause” that the administration has never quite gotten around to defining, whatever it may eventually turn out to be--are at peace. They don’t come back. Our story is not about them. Our story is about vets who believe they were killed for a lie.

The vets in our story are the guys who were ordered by their commanding officers to shut down their antiwar blogs. They’re Col. Ted Westhusing, whose suicide note read "I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars. I am sullied. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. Death before being dishonored any more." They’re Pat Tillman, who quit the NFL to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and wound up redeployed to Iraq. His family didn’t find out for months that he’d been killed by friendly fire because the administration was busy using him as a recruiting poster. The guy was a Chomsky reader, for Christ’s sake; he used to go around saying “This war is so fucking illegal.” But until the truth came out, the administration didn’t mind speaking for dead Pat Tillman. We don’t get to hear his own voice because the daily journal he kept mysteriously disappeared from his effects.

Maybe those guys represent ten percent of all soldiers. Maybe five, maybe one. What does it matter? The death of a soldier who supports the war is just as tragic and just as needless as the death of a soldier who doesn’t. It doesn’t dishonor a fallen soldier’s gallantry or valor to say that his sacrifice could have been avoided, or to hope for a little less sacrifice in the future.

Meanwhile, ten marines die in a roadside bomb attack on Thursday, and George Bush shows his respect by neglecting to mention them in his speech on Friday. He still hasn’t been to a serviceperson’s funeral. The coffins are still being flown home under cover of darkness, unseen, unphotographed. Two thousand killed is “just another number”; the right-wing attack machine reams Ted Koppel for having the temerity to read the names of the dead out loud on Nightline. This administration “honors” the dead by pretending they don’t exist.

Which is, by the way, another thing our fictitious zombie soldiers are a little pissed off about.

Follow-up question: How many millions of dollars are you getting from George Soros and Michael Moore (who is fat)?

None so far, but hope springs eternal. If they call asking for my mailing address, by all means give it to them. I can arrange to be home when the Brinks truck pulls up.

How did this project come about? Did you write a script and pitch it to Showtime or was it the other way around? How did you hook up with Joe Dante?

Down in L.A. a bunch of horror directors used to meet occasionally for dinner, and one night our Executive Producer, Mick Garris, said “Hey! There’s a cable series in this!” The lure for the various feature directors was a contractual guarantee of absolute creative freedom: although they’d be working on ten-day schedules with extremely skimpy budgets, they’d get no development notes, no studio interference. They could put whatever they wanted on film, as long as they did it quickly and cheaply.

Joe was part of that group. He has dinner regularly with the Masters of Horror and the Pinkos; I have dinner regularly with the Pinkos and the Winos. So I think he got his groups confused. One day he called me and said, “Hey, I’m doing a Masters of Horror, d’you wanna write it?” And it occurred to me that even though I’ve loved the genre all my life, I had never actually written a horror script. So I said yes even before I thought to ask how much money I’d be getting, or in this case not getting.

There were a couple or three stories we initially talked about doing, but we were unable to secure the rights for any of them. We kept getting knocked back to square one. I’d say “Hokay, Joe, whaddaya wanna do now?” And he’d say “Something political. Something funny. It’d be nice if it was something good.”

Eventually I thought of Dale Bailey’s story “Death and Suffrage,” which I’d read in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction back in 2002. It was about a Democratic campaign consultant who blurts out, on a talk show, that his candidate, a closet gun-control advocate, would like to gather up all the handguns in the USA and melt them down into scrap iron. This, of course, makes him a target of the NRA, and his campaign goes in the tank -- until legions of victims of handgun violence begin rising from the grave to cast their votes for him.

And it suddenly occurred to me that the same premise could work for soldiers in Iraq. The first image that popped into my head was that of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover AFB under cover of night, and dead soldiers bursting out, wearing the flags like shrouds. Once I had that bit I figured the rest of the story would fall into place behind it. I sent Joe an e-mail: Would you be interested in a story about the dead coming back to life to vote against the policies that got them killed?  Macabre, but with plenty of room for humor . . . . And the answer came back: Yes!

We traded some notes – Joe had the great idea of inserting the Jane Cleaver character into the mix, which really made everything hop – and I began writing. Whenever I sent him a few pages I’d ask whether the new scenes were too extreme, and he’d say “Yeah, but let them tell us that.” Our producers, God bless ‘em, never told us that. They bought into the audacity of the premise.

So Joe went out and shot the movie in ten days. He was just fearless. He went for all kinds of extreme tonal effects and somehow pulled it all together into a whole that was simultaneously funny and bitter and cruel and compassionate and silly and serious. Everything in it was either lowbrow or highbrow: nothing in between. When I saw it, I asked him to marry me.

We gave the rough cut to Showtime several weeks in advance, because we didn’t want to surprise them with a “controversial” episode they didn’t feel comfortable showing. But they went for it. In fact, they scheduled us for one of their free promotional weekends, which probably boosted our audience considerably.

Why have you chosen to make SF (Our Fair City) your home for the past 20+ years? As a screenwriter, wouldn't it be easier to live in LA? All the action takes place down there. How did that work when you were making the movie?

It was no problem at all when we were making the movie, which was shot in Vancouver. It shaved an hour off my flights! My son and I went up to hang out on the set for a few days, and Joe very kindly arranged for Junior to make his film debut as a Background Artist (i.e., extra) in the scene that introduces Robert Picardo. You’ll see him in a white straw hat carrying a pizza box. When I showed him the first cut he was actually kind of irate: “Dad! You didn’t tell me my cameo appearance was going to be intercut with a sex scene.” I said we’d planned it that way so that no one would change channels while he was onscreen.

Why do I live in SF? For one thing, it’s an easy commute: if I need to be down south for a meeting, or because I have something in production, it’s a one-hour trip. But mainly I live in SF because LA is a company town, and I prefer to hang out with civilians. It’s healthier, especially for a writer. I have friends and neighbors who have no idea what I do for a living, which is great. I don’t have to talk shop all the time.

One of my industry buddies got fired off a movie project, and first heard about it from his elementary-school-age son, who was in the same carpool as a studio executive’s kid. “My dad says your dad is about to get shitcanned” – Jeez. That’s why I don’t live in LA.

Whose idea was that final shot where the lead character is a zombie member of a Revolutionary War marching band? Was it you or Joe Dante? Initially I thought it was really corny. But then I thought it kind of works as a final touch of humor. Was it meant that way?

That was the second image that popped into my head: the main character leading an undead fife-and-drum corps. In the script I had a zombie parade marching down a D.C. street, but we didn’t have the cash for that. Joe came up with the abstract fireworks-and-flags background, which is actually an improvement on the original idea. By that point we have long since left the world as we know it.

Admittedly it’s tonally bizarre, and some viewers find it quite bewildering. We were talking about cutting it right up until we locked picture. But I’m glad it stayed in; it has a demented Norman Rockwell quality that I like, and let’s face it: “Homecoming” is, at the end of the day, a corny, sentimental, patriotic tale. Even if it takes the long way around to get there.

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