The Pale Men pose some questions to writer/director Joe Maggio about his powerful fable RAM KING, now available at TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE The Podcast.
PALE MEN: How did the idea for Ram King come about?
JOE MAGGIO: I had just re-read Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and was thinking about the little novella within that novel – “The Grand Inquisitor.” It’s a story told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha, a young monk. In Ivan’s story Jesus returns at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, but instead of the glory and pomp we’d expect around Christ’s second coming the Grand Inquisitor has Jesus arrested and orders him to be burned at the stake the next day. The Inquisitor explains to Jesus that he is no longer needed because what Jesus wanted to give to mankind was freedom, but humans don’t want to be free, they just want someone to take care of them. I liked this idea, and I started to think about a character, a young boy who is driven from his village because he doesn’t fit in with the herd, who has ideas that the frightened villagers deem peculiar, but who is able to exist as this free spirit on the edge of society, using science and his active imagination and intellect. And for this he is punished and killed.
PM: Wasn’t your original idea to have it all in an indiscernible language?
JM: Yes, I did want to create a language – I’d forgotten about that! I think I’d imagined trying to make “Ram King” into a movie, and if the characters were speaking a made up language I could have had subtitles. When I was a kid I had a made up language called “Songu.” It was just a series of sounds that sort of cut to the essence of whatever it was you were trying to communicate. So affection would be communicated with these really soft, melting tones; anger with short, sharp grunts, and so on. I thought it would be fun to tell a story in Songu and see if all the information would come through. But when we decided to use the “Ram King” story as a radio play, well, it just seemed impractical to try and play with made up languages. There are no subtitles in radio plays.
PM: There is a wonderful righteous anger to the piece.
JM: The Tales came into being as I was entering middle age, end of my 40s, early 50s, and I was startled by how suddenly the ways of the world seemed so clear to me. Getting old sucks in many ways, all the pains and aches and sudden physical limitations, but like an aging major league slugger who is hobbled by injuries but has just seen so many pitches that his hitting instinct is refined and automatic, a middle-aged man or woman finally starts to see the world for what it really is; all the folly, humor, tragedy, nobility – it’s all suddenly laid out before our eyes and so we can analyze and respond in ways that we couldn’t when we’re younger. One of the hard truths we live with these days is that being right, being smart, being informed or being really, really good at something doesn’t necessarily mean anybody will listen to you. I wanted to present a character who is innocent and clever, but is nevertheless punished by a cynical bully, and in doing this I guess a little anger at the injustice of it all just came through.
PM: You have a great ability to use horror tropes for your Glass Eye collaborations. What type of narrative would you consider this?
JM: I was not someone who grew up crazy for movies in general. I came to storytelling through literature and, when writing short fiction proved too difficult, decided to give filmmaking a try. So in my 20s, when I started getting excited about movies, it was through the lens of literature. For me, horror films were never just about the scares, although I love when a movie scares the shit out of me. But I’m mostly interested in the metaphorical nature of horror, the deeper messages and what the stories say about humanity. That seems to be at the core of the Glass Eye ethos – using horror tropes to interpret the world, to explore the existential horror of just being alive. So I guess I’d call “Ram King” an existential horror narrative.
PM: You have a great cast. Have you worked with them all before?
JM: With the exception of the great Joel Garland I’d worked with everyone before. Vincent D’Onofrio and Larry Fessenden were the central characters in my first tale, “Man On the Ledge”. Owen Campbell starred in my Glass Eye film “Bitter Feast.” That’s one of the things I love about Glass Eye; there’s a real family of creative collaborators, kindred spirits who always seem to find each other on multiple projects.
PM: This was your first live Tale with us. Was it a different experience? Do you like the studio ones or the live events better?
JM: Recording live was very difficult for me. My approach to directing is very much about preparation, working out all the questions – with the story, the actors, the camera person, sound, etc – before you actually shoot so that once we’re on set I can kind of step back and let people do what they’re all good at doing. Recording live at Dixon Place meant that I was on stage with these really talented performers and actually performing myself, which was challenging. I felt embarrassed and shy and kind of in the way. But it was thrilling nonetheless and I think the tale survives despite my incompetence!
PM: This tale of the plague and powerful anti-science forces seems relevant to day’s world. Any thoughts on that?
JM: I hadn’t been thinking about “Ram King” but it really is so close to our lives now. Trump IS the Grand Inquisitor. Cynical, power hungry, with a canny ability to read the needs and desires of his base and a willingness to exploit human frailty for his own gain. I just wish the mythical beast at the heart of “Ram King” would come and carry him away to some dark cave in the mountains so that we could find our way out of this pandemic with love, grace and intelligence, as opposed to the delusional, anti-science, cult of personality approach we’re suffering through. But most of all, can we just find our way back to some respect for excellence? For people who are intelligent and who have studied something for years and rightfully become experts? We truly are back in the Dark Ages, where mysticism rules the day and science is deemed witchcraft. Scary times indeed!