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"Blood, Guts, Skin, Tits, Whatever"

Director Mitchell Altieri talks about the new play Grand Guignol.

Christy Crowley and Andy Strong in "Grand Guignol," Carl Grose’s horror play running Oct. 30-Nov. 3. 

Film director Mitchell Altieri knows what audiences want—and he's given it to them in eight feature films, including The Violent Kind and The Hamiltons, featuring a biker gang and a family of vampires, respectively. Now, he's branching out into live theater, directing Grand Guignol, a seasonally-appropriate tale of haunting, madness, and murders at the Grand Guignol, a real life shock theater in the early 20th century in Paris. We recently sat down with Altieri to talk about the differences between stage and screen, how to shock an audience, and whether the original Original Joe's might be haunted. 

 

San Francisco Magazine: So this is the first stage show you’ve ever directed, but you’ve done how many feature films before this?
Mitchell Altieri: Eight.

All of them horror?
The bulk are, but I’ve done a comedy and a drama. My second-to-last film is a dark psychological thriller, like Winter’s Bone. Everything else is horror.

How is it moving to stage work? I can imagine it’s trickier than you’d think.
Well, the script read like a film. I wasn’t expecting that. That helped a lot. I’m approaching it like a movie.

What does that mean?
On the stage, you have to entertain folks without relying on music, cutting, angels, or insane cinematography. But our script is so fast it’s constantly moving. In film you always keep going, never slow down. Unless you are Terrance Malik.

This is going to be a yearly show right?
Yeah, the idea is that this will be the first year.

What is the Grand Guignol in the first place?
It started back in 1903 in Paris. It was exploitation. [The playwright] De Lorde and the company were putting on these 20 minutes long plays. It was really bad theater, but just like an exploitation film, it went on shock value. Blood, guts, skin, tits, whatever.

All the basic food groups.
Right. They would do three shows a night. It became overwhelmingly popular. People would get dressed up, pretend they were going to the true theater, and then cut a right to the Grand Guignol and watch pig guts get thrown into the audience. People were fainting. That was the whole idea, to have rows of people passing out. There was Shakespeare down the street, but the audiences would rather sneak out to get repulsed.

You think anybody’s going to pass out here?
I don’t know. That’s tough.

Do you hope people faint?
I would. But there’s stiff competition out there in the world of horror.

What does it take to shock an audience now?
Great question. I’ve been trying for some time. It really is hard nowadays. You can go on the Internet, and within 20 minutes find the most fucked up stuff you could ever find. I think for art it comes down to pulling the audience into a world. How much can you get them invested? That’s where I think you can do it. If you are just throwing things at them—I mean we’ve all seen Hostel or Saw. After a point it doesn’t work anymore.

Is that vibe you are shooting for with this project?
Absolutely. But the play itself is really funny too. It’s more like outlandish and gross.

You think people are going to roll with it?
Yeah. There’s going to be some gross moments where you want to look away. There’s going to be some parts where you’ll be genuinely scared. For the most part, we want to stay true to the spirit.

You are rehearsing in a space that housed the original Original Joe’s. Any ghostly cans of pasta sauce still floating around?
[Laughs] It’s clean, but you still get the vibe. I’ve been in LA for a long time. When they told me we were going to be rehearsing in the Tenderloin, I was like, man, we’re going really fast here. I’m not working my way up from the Marina or the Sunset.

 

Grand Guignol runs from October 30th to November 3rd at Z Space (450 Florida Street near 17th Street). For more info, click here. 

 

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