Interview: Stephen Lack
“Why are you such a derelict, such a piece of human junk?” Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) demands of the bewildered man bound to the bed in his laboratory in David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). It’s a rhetorical question: Ruth quickly explains to the piece of human junk in question, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), that he is a scanner. A telepathic “freak of nature,” Vale has been unwittingly recruited (by way of sedative-laced darts) to spearhead the fight against Darryl Revock (Michael Ironside), who is harnessing his own super brain for evil. With startlingly large blue eyes that lend themselves well to expressing both confusion and cognitive confrontation, Lack’s Vale helps drive the film’s willfully preposterous narrative to a blazing finish.
Stumbling onto Montreal’s underground film scene more or less by accident, Lack gained notoriety by playing versions of his smart-mouth self in Frank Vitale’s gritty coming-of age-drama, Montreal Main (74) and Allan Moyle’s vérité chronicle of hip, drug-addled Anglophones, Rubber Gun (77)—both of which crept past the 49th parallel to screen in New Directors / New Films in their respective years. Following his performance in Scanners, Lack was hailed by Laurence Kardish in FILM COMMENT (March/April 1980) as the potential savior of Canadian cinema: “Renaissance Outlaw,” the headline read.
Since starring in Cronenberg’s cult classic, the Montreal-bred personality has lived primarily under the radar pursuing a successful career as a painter in New York. If hard to keep up with, Mr. Lack is the kind of man next to whom you want to strategically seat yourself at a dinner party. Full of lewd stories punctuated by profound comments on art and politics, he can elucidate the advantages of “teal” vs. “cobalt teal” paint, discuss the significance of Edward Bernays, and recite lines from Pasolini’s Salò all within a 10-minute time span. This past summer, Criterion released a Blu-ray edition of the film, and FILM COMMENT caught up with Lack on a loading dock outside of his Chelsea studio for a chat.
Courtesy of the Stephen Lack Archive
In the FILM COMMENT interview, Laurence Kardish cites your acting as a much-needed reprieve from the “boors” typical of Canadian cinema—he mentions Meatballs and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as examples—and talks about your potential star power as an actor. But in the end, you opted to leave acting for painting.
Being an actor speaking others’ words is a very difficult thing for me. I have a great fear of disembodiment, not knowing why I am doing something. To really do a role, I am guessing you have to lose yourself. The work I was known for in Montreal Main and Rubber Gun was about bringing myself to the screen as an underground personality. When doing Vale, we were going against type, and I did not have any hipster rapping to fall back on. This reductive elimination of my inner chatter was very disembodying. As a painter in a studio, alone, this disembodiment is somewhat eliminated and you can sing, dance, yell, or whisper or be silent as you translate the external to another plane.
I moved to New York propped up by the money from Scanners and Head On, and within a few weeks I was living in the East Village and painting in a small apartment I sublet from Jean-Michel Basquiat and his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk. The apartment was littered with Jean's work, and to clear it out I offered to buy some of his paintings, which I loved. He grew big and the East Village scene happened and I was part of it and showed all over the world. [Now] Jean is gone and I am still at it—surviving to date with a museum show coming up in October at the Fort Wayne Indiana Museum of Art, par exemple.
I am happy and grateful. Like Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman) says in Scanners: “Friends!? Yes, I have them. I don't want them, but I have them.” Of course, you could put any word in there for 'friends' and it would work. Try “scabies.” David at his most brilliant!
I didn’t realize Kardish was also Canadian.
I never [kept in touch] with him because I don’t do film. I have scripts, like everybody else in the world, but film is such a cooperative and collaborative process that has such a time delay between conception and execution that it’s hard for me to maintain interest. People like Cronenberg that make films are control freaks but even that isn’t enough control for me. I’d rather not do anything than have it escape and run free and be fed by strangers.
In Montreal, you never planned on being an actor, but rather fell into the underground scene. How did you end up on the big screen?
I was always a performer—undisciplined, but out there—since I was a kid. It was a compulsive thing: doing imitations and riffs to small groups of kids in classrooms and at recess. Today they would hit me with a thorazine dart from a helicopter and bag me off to a reserve for my behavior. I was always getting in trouble for it.
I met [Montreal Main director] Frank Vitale at McGill through friends I had made in the only “studio” course McGill offered at the time. We kept in touch, and when he was living with [Rubber Gun director] Allan Moyle on the Main our “crowds” intersected. Frank and Allen were writing one of those coming-of-age romance things, like typical post-college kids trying to get back to the dream of lost youth, cut into 90 minutes. I added a few twists to the story, which became the script for Montreal Main. Six months later I was setting up a painting studio and Frank asked me if I was doing anything today. That's how it all began: small video shoots in the off hours from other activities like painting and recreational spasms.
So how did Cronenberg finally connect with you?
I got some good reviews [out of Rubber Gun] but they were all about calling me the next Lenny Bruce and that was a corner I was not ready to be martyred into. I guess that I was a bit more “punk” in my attitude. When Moyle was beginning to promote the film in Cannes, the publicity people tried to hang a tag on me saying: “Is he the new Lenny Bruce or Bob Dylan?” or something like that. And I changed it to read: “Is he the new Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce, or Richard Speck of the Seventies?” Maybe that was the line that got David’s attention.
We met officially at Cannes and hit it off—although he is not exactly effusive—but we had a good introductory meeting and he invited me to join him in Monte Carlo the next day to watch the Grand Prix. Now that was something I could relate to.
I was in the middle of a shoot on another movie, Head On, when David sent me the script for Scanners and asked if I would do it. I liked David and thought he was special and I liked the way he could make me want to perform for him and to please him. So I said: “Yes, but you have to give me a week to rest from this mindset of Head On.” The director was in 10-hour turnaround for three weeks, which meant 14-hour work days. “Fair enough,” David replied. Of course, they lied. Within two days of wrapping Head On, I was in Montreal testing wardrobe and on set two days later.
There we were, the first day of Scanners and they had me get into this 18-wheel truck with four gearshift levers and have me drive into the shot. It was horrifying. I never drove such a thing and I was pretty disoriented. We were set up on a feeder road to the highway, and all the camera crew and staff were there, and some car on the highway slowed down to gawk—and a truck on the highway rammed them from behind. There was a death and sirens, and the whole crew jumped over the storm fence to help out. I was given a slight reprieve of an hour to figure out the gears.
Compared to your performances in Rubber Gun and Montreal Main, which had a lot of rapid-fire, comedic dialogue, your performance in Scanners is decidedly deadpan.
My deadpan performance was deliberate. We scripted Montreal Main and Rubber Gun and then shot to make it look like it wasn’t scripted. Not only was Scanners not rehearsed, but it wasn’t written. David was coming in with pink, blue, and yellow pages for the day for the version of the script that we were doing, and he was working on it right there. As a result I had to deal with the dialogue in such a way that I was not reacting to things, because the information hadn’t been given to my character in the linear progression of the story. If you chop it up and look at it, 50 percent of my dialogue is not an assertion of anything but rather a question: “You called me a Scanner, what does that mean?” “You’re part of an organization, who are you?” Everything is a freaking question!
I would say to David on the set: “How are we playing this, Alice in Wonderland?” [Valley Girl accent] “Hi, you’re a caterpillar, but you’ve got a Hookah, like, why? And what are you smoking? What does that mean? You’re a butterfly?” Because there was no rehearsal time to develop the character of Vale, we decided to “neutralize” any extremes, and that way things could be readjusted in post without having to compromise because of an inappropriate nuance.
Dick Smith and Stephen Lack, courtesy of the Stephen Lack Archive
Judging by the interviews on the Blu-Ray, Ironside seems like a pretty serious guy with a completely opposite approach to the material—much more studied. How did you gel on set with the other actors? In the Kardish interview you talk about bonding with McGoohan by reciting Yeats.
Yes, McGoohan and I bonded. We were reading lines and we did “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and he was impressed that I was literate enough to know—and love—that poem. But his personal claim to fame, or pride rather, was that he was doing Shakespeare at the beginning of his career and something happened with the lead actor and he had to learn the role of Hamlet overnight. And he did! He memorized and worked out Hamlet overnight—this is a man of vast intellectual capacities and great heart.
Ironside wants to prove that he’s as good as whoever he’s trying to be as good as. And that’s exciting for Michael and the audience. He does a good villain, though I don’t feel that a good villain necessarily has to scowl. We played brothers who didn’t know we were brothers and one was being manipulated by the other brother. It was a very complicated relationship and I was the innocent in it. I took it at face value that [Michael] wanted a good end product; he wanted to put as much of himself into it as he could and he did a great job.
I learned from the Criterion Blu-ray of Scanners that the infamous exploding head was achieved with a shotgun. Did you get to witness the big moment?
Yes, I did, and it was a wonderful moment. It was orchestrated by my friend Gary Zeller, who just passed away. I saw him get under the desk with the shotgun.
Did you get hit with the gunk?
Did I get hit with a little bit of muck? A little bit, yeah! Everybody was under the plastic, but I’m too claustrophobic to be under the plastic, so I got hit. But I’ve been getting yelled at for bringing mud in since I could leave the house. [Laughs]
Did you expect the film to achieve the cult status that it has? And has the DVD release—or hindsight in general—shifted your perspective on the project’s significance?
The film itself was groundbreaking, but I never realized it at the time. I had faith in David. I sensed his intelligence and I know from myself that the good stuff takes a while to understand. The film is very layered—as are most of David’s movies—even though it was written under extreme pressure. I remember being at rushes and not really getting what I was seeing. It all seemed so blank, the sets were sparse, and everything seemed to be white in the background. Everyone else watching was thrilled with the footage. I said: “It looks kinda blank to me,” and someone replied: “That's David’s style,” to which I answered—like the bitch I can be sometimes—“Style? It looks like a fuckin’ dentist’s office!” Of course, I was later to grow to appreciate such backgrounds and even the occasional nurse’s uniform. That's progress.
The music and the entire way sound is treated on the film were groundbreaking as well. Most people concentrate on the special effects. The gore David brought to the table is something everyone deserves and wants a bite of. Thanks [should go] to Dick Smith and Gary Zeller among others who made that possible, and a special shout-out to the artist Mark Prent whose sculptures inspired David, I am sure. With time I see how much influence his work has had on other filmmakers, from the X-Files to J.J. Abrams. I visited J.J. in L.A. and he told me that when Cronenberg visited there, all the staff practically lined up to meet him.
If my sources are correct, you still have the head from movie.
Yeah, I have the head where my eyes exploded and the chicken livers exploded through my eyes that was made by Dick Smith, who just passed away. He was a great guy. Nervous. He was 92. I can’t believe he lived that long dealing with all those chemicals he had to deal with to make the things that he was making. But he was brilliant! And he came from a time when things were done physically, not digitally, and he had the budget for experimentation, and the drive and the nervousness to get it done within the confines of the schedule of making the film.
I went to a horror convention with my head, twice. The entire convention space was filled with booths of people that had expanded on Dick Smith’s original discoveries. It was fantastic! People like to pose with [the head]. If it were the Seventies, people would be exposing their genitals to it. But those days are long gone—people don’t think that way anymore.
“A Tribute to Spring,” courtesy of the Stephen Lack Archive
What was it like working with all those exploding bladders attached to your body, especially in that final “scan off” scene? The way the special effects guys talk about it on the Blu-ray make it sound pretty grueling.
Yeah, and that was an aberration of my contract. I knew about the kind of effects Dick Smith did because of The Exorcist, which he was also a part of. I didn’t want anything to be done to my eyes. But Dick, who was a master manipulator, said: “Oh, we’re just going to cast you with your eyes open . . . This way it will look more realistic.” We didn’t get along that day. But he was grateful enough to give me the head and thank me for saving part of the film because I solved a problem [with a leak].
Getting my head cast, as a claustrophobe, was not fun. With my eyes open, frozen with Novocaine and plastic cups over my eyeballs! That was the first time that was ever done. They made me force my eyes to stay in the open position and not blink for the 10 minutes it took for the cast to harden.
Sounds like a horror film in and of itself.
Well, it was a horror film for Dick Smith listening to me because my mouth wasn’t covered. It was revenge by expletive. And he did not know that I was an artist and that absolutely nothing was to happen to my eyes.
How do you feel now about the title “Renaissance Outlaw” that Kardish gave you?
Maybe I was. But we all are outlaws, otherwise the Churches would be out of business. By virtue of being alive we are propelled as humans to transgress a bit and that way we discover who we are and who we do not want to be.
Scanners is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.