Thursday, December 28, 2006

Noir Interview #3: Robert Neblett

How did your interest in film noir originally get sparked?

Honestly, I would say the genre first caught my attention through the work of contemporary directors who utilized its style in their own ways, such as David Lynch in Blue Velvet. Once I recognized the fact that these films were borrowing so many conventions, I was curious to see what the originals were like. Additionally, I think that The Baltimore Waltz is one of the best plays of the 1990s, and it owes so much of its tone to Orson Welles’ The Third Man. Watching movies like Sin City is a much richer experience if you know where its methodology and world view come from.

So, what is film noir? How do you define it?

Film noir is, to me, a genre of film that journeys from our everyday world of light into the shadowy corners of an alternative reality, foreign but familiar, in which the societal norms no longer apply and man is reduced to his baser natural state. Yet it is the job of the noir hero to return triumphant from this dark pit, like Orpheus, heroic but never the same. Innocence lost and all that.

Do you have a favorite film which for you most clearly defines the movement/style/sub-genre?

It would have to be a toss-up between The Third Man and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The latter spoofs the form so well because of a love and understanding of its conventions. The Third Man captures the ironic beauty of the seedy underbelly of society and the eternal appeal of man’s darker side – both which also relate strongly to Bram Stoker’s novel.

What do you think, generally speaking, film noir has to offer the theatre artist?

I think that, today, the theatre artist must strive to separate stage performance from that of television and film, to accentuate the theatrical. Styles such as noir impose their own sets of rules and conventions, which must be followed in order to maintain their integrity. This kind of discipline is exciting onstage because it forces the performers and audience to take an imaginative leap into an impossible world that is not wholly unfamiliar.

Why do you think the past few years have been so noir-saturated in film, television, and theatre?

I think that, since 9/11, we are eager to see representations of good vs. evil in clear-cut scenarios. Noir, at first glance, purports to offer us that, but then turns the classical hero/villain paradigm on its head as we see the good guy stoop to depravity in order to succeed and we see the complexity of the bad guy’s character development, and we can never tell which side the femmes fatales are on. This blurring of the lines is essential to understand the true nature of good and evil, and the relativity of the inner psychological justifications of a gangster, maniac, or even terrorist.

What elements of Bram Stoker's novel inspired you to re-envision 'Dracula' as a noir? How does the noir lens enrich our understanding of the original? Will audiences have a chance to see this play brought back in the future?

The idea was actually proposed to me by David Grapes while I was working with him as a dramaturg on a production of The Taming of the Shrew in TN, in 2003. He had wanted my assistance on “noirifying” the traditional Balderston-Deane stage version of the Dracula story, and I proposed just rewriting it to fit the style.

It took us a while to understand that, in the noir framework, we had to center on Van Helsing as the crimestopper, the detective of the story, as well as the femmes fatales nature of the central women’s roles. So, we reconfigured Van Helsing as a Sam Spade-esque private detective, hard on his luck, needing new life in his career, and haunted by his past. Interestingly enough, characters like Dracula and Renfield stay the same, but the other characters like Jonathan Harker become reinvented in the world of 1940s Hollywood.The seduction of Lucy is so perfect for noir, because Dracula literally steps out of the shadows, and his desire for her is two-fold: savage thirst and unbridled passion. Dracula: The Case of the Silver Scream has actually been produced regularly by professional and amateur groups in the US and Canada since its premiere in 2003, and will be performed at the Altoona Community Theatre in Pennsylvania in February 2007, so the chances of catching it are actually pretty good.

Are there other film styles you'd like to montage with well-known narratives?

Yes. I’ve become very interested in Bollywood during the past two years, and I’m actually in the process of working on a Bollywood-inspired musical based on a popular children’s story with a Dallas composer

Any other upcoming work to plug?
I recently completed working on a musical revue based on the music and legacy of Nina Simone with my Dracula collaborator David Grapes, which is scheduled to have its world premiere in early spring 2008.

To find out more about Robert Neblett and all of his work as a director, dramaturg, playwright, actor, and educator, visit

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