Jay Holben

Posted: November 22, 2000
Here is an interview with Jay Holben, the man who turned King's poem Paranoid: a Chant into a movie.

First, let me say that I'm grateful that you let me do this interview with you. I also want to thank you for letting me see and review your movie Paranoid.

Lilja: Could we start this of with you telling me a little about yourself? Who are you?

Jay Holben: That's kind of a question for the ages, isn't it? Who am I? Why am I here?

I was born in Chicago Illinois, but moved to Scottsdale, Arizona when I was five. Just after the big move, my parents took me out to see a movie at a beautiful single-screen theater (back then they had such things) and when the lights went down, I was hooked. The film was Star Wars and when we emerged once again into the blazing July Arizona sun, I boldly informed my parents that I was going to be a film director.

Twenty three years later, I'm still following that same goal. I realized early on that to be a truly good director, I needed to understand and have a certain level of competence in every aspect of filmmaking. I started with acting, primarily in theatrical venues, but with some television and movies. Eventually I moved through the theater world to backstage working as a carpenter, rigger, electrician, master flyman, lighting designer, set designer, director and producer before I moved into film. I started professionally in film in Los Angeles in 1995 as an electrician in feature films and some television work. I worked my way through the electrical department to chief lighting technician and eventually to director of photography - my current professional position. All the while I continued to direct smaller projects and hone my craft was a filmmaker. Along the way I have produced a number of projects (features, shorts, commercials and videos) and continued to dabble in gripping, production design, costume design, camera department and pretty much anywhere I can get my hands dirty to learn a bit more.

From 1990-1993 I was an addendum teacher at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona heading up a program I designed to teach students to be professional theatrical technicians. I have also taught several seminars and workshops over the years on the art and technique of filmmaking. For the past three years I have also been a frequent contributing writer for American Cinematographer Magazine and, more recently, for The Hollywood Reporter.

I live in Los Angeles with my girlfriend of many years, Jennine and our dog Ripley.

Lilja: How come you choose Paranoid to make a movie of? Many would say that it's impossible to make a movie out of a poem.

Jay Holben: Oh if I had a quarter for every time I heard that...

I've been a Constant Reader (for those non-fans read: constant Stephen King fan) for many years - ever since my brother handed me a copy of Thinner sometime around 1985. Paranoid: A Chant has always been a quiet favorite. It's a great piece of writing that is often overlooked and forgotten. So many people quickly label King as a "Horror Writer," but I think he's much more of a sociologist. He has an extraordinary gift for capturing the souls of people and putting them down on paper. It is his characterizations and expressions of humanity that keep me coming back to King's words time and time again. Paranoid is a great example of how he gets you inside a person's head in a short, concise and powerful way. It's isn't Catcher in the Rye - he's not spending 200 pages immersing you in a character - he's doing it in less than 200 lines in a visceral way that is incredibly potent. In my high school days, I was a member of the speech team competing in competitions all around the state of Arizona. One of the pieces that I used, to a good deal of success, was Paranoid - and it's always been close to my heart.

Last summer, I was producing a number of small projects that I had carefully arranged to work together to reduce costs. In the midst of orchestrating these other projects, I realized that I had the opportunity to helm my own short utilizing the same resources. The only limiting factor would be a considerable lack of time - I'd really only have a single day to shoot a project. I wanted to find something that would demonstrate my photographic abilities as well as my directorial strengths. I went through a number of options, but I kept coming back to Paranoid. I had an extremely clear picture in my head about how that film would work and in the end it won out over any other ideas.

Lilja: Tell me a bit about how you did the movie. Did you start out with the poem and then build the rest around it?

Jay Holben: Absolutely. The poem was of paramount importance to me. It was the center of everything. I spent a great deal of time carefully studying the poem and working to get the cadence of King's words in my head. When I was writing the screen adaptation (I hesitate to call it a screenplay because all I did was take King's words and put them in screenplay format with some stage directions to get my interpretation across to those involved in the project) I was extremely anal to keep the rhythm and patterns that he created with the poem. I went so far as to meticulously compare the hardback publication (of Skeleton Crew where the poem is collected) to the paperback (which have some differences were the page breaks fall) to make sure I was faithful to his original structure of where line breaks and paragraph breaks came in his prose. That structure became the structure for the film. The layout of the acts, the structure behind the camera operation, editing, score, her voice-over - everything came from the poem. I was also very strict with Tonya when we were rehearsing and recording her voice-over. She had to stay true to the poem, even though there are some very strange turns of phrase - "Got off the bus at 35th and Lex." It's natural for an actor to want to say "I Got off the buss..." but King's words were very carefully chosen - and although keeping true to that structure proved very difficult for me later on in post-production, eventually I stayed true. The poem is what I loved and the poem is what I had to adapt.

Although many people thought it was a bad idea - how could I interpret this? It was always very visual to me. From the very first read I saw these pictures in my head and I knew I could translate it to the screen without too much difficulty. In the end, everyone of those "nay-sayers" recanted and eventually became fairly big fans of the film.

Lilja: I know that in one of the early versions of the movie there was a scene in which the girl (Tonya Ivey) sits in the corner of the room, her legs crossed, and rubbing her feet. In this scene you could really see that she isn't 100% sane. Why didn't that scene make it to the final version? Personally I though that it was a great scene.

Jay Holben: That was a fun shot that was actually in the script. Really it comes down to finding the best pieces to the puzzle that make the best whole. Movies are about juxtaposition. How one shot relates to what comes before it and after it. The editing is an extremely important part. In the end, it came down to finding the right rhythm between the shots and the story. There's an old phrase "Kill your babies" that refers to being able to let go of something that you just really love because it isn't right for the film. It's dangerous to be both a director and cinematographer in this respect because it's easy to fall in love with a shot or a moment - but in the end, if it isn't right for the film. It goes in the recycle bin with the rest of the waste.

Lilja: I understand this movie will be distributed on the Internet, right? Tell me how that will work. Will it cost anything to download it and if so, will you rely on the honor system, like King does with The Plant?

Jay Holben: The film will be on the net, but no - there will be no cost to view and download the film. This is not meant to be a commercial endeavor, and indeed my agreement with King excludes that possibility. More than likely the film will be featured on a site like for everyone to see.

Lilja: How about fans that doesn't have the Internet? Will the movie be available on video?

Jay Holben: Once again, the agreement with King excludes the possibility for commercial distribution - so, no. However, we are working on a possibility right now that may circumvent this and make the film available to a larger audience (at least in the US).

Lilja: When will the movie have it's premier? I understand it won't be until next year...

Jay Holben: Unfortunately, we're in a holding pattern. We've submitted the film to some very prestigious festivals that preclude its presentation anywhere prior to the festivals. Right now we're looking at a date in the spring of 2001 for wide Internet release. Keep your eyes on the website and this site for more information.

Lilja: You have a website for the movie ( Right now there isn't much on it though but I understand there will be a trailer on it soon, right? What else will be on it?

Jay Holben: Yes. That is currently in production and, like everything else I'm involved in, I'm working very hard to make sure it's the best possible presentation we can do. Translate that to I'm very picky and the designer is working very hard to meet my desires (poor guy). The trailer will be there, notes on the film and the making of it, bios of the principal people involved in the production, a page of current news about the film and its various exhibitions, links to communicate with the principal people involved, links to other King sites such as Lilja's Library (Have you seen it? Ya gotta see it!) - the typical web site contents.

Lilja: Was there any funny or special moment when you made the movie that you would like to tell me about?

Jay Holben: The main day of photography was a pretty serious day. Although we all had a lot of fun, I'm very careful to protect the environment of the actors. The set was carefully designed to be lit so that we could almost be continually shooting - there were very short breaks between shots and Tonya was on set for the majority of the day. That really helped her mood and performance to be constantly in that world.

Early on, when I was in high school, I made a lot of video movies entirely by myself. I set the tripod up and act out the shot, then go back to the camera, move it and do the next setup. Then I'd edit them together and viola - a one-man movie. I called them Holben-Solos. Although I had a comfortably sized crew for the main shoot, the majority of the insert shots (all the close ups of the toilet, light bulb, beetle, etc) I shot entirely by myself in the evenings after a day of work. I'd come home after shooting for 12 or 14 hours on another project somewhere around 1am. Spend the next hour or two setting up a shot and shoot till 3am. Then get some sleep, wake up early to pack up the gear and go off for another day. Most of the inserts were shot over a three evening period and I had no crew for them - so it was kind of like going back to the Holben-Solo days and was a bit fun.

There is, I suppose, as an amusing anecdote, the story of the dung beetle. I wanted a cockroach to crawl across the bathroom floor (that's what was scripted) but I was having an extremely difficult time finding one (lucky me). I called a company that provides insects and animals for movies and when all was said and done (including handler, transportation and the roach's fee) it was going to cost me $100 per roach. I said "ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Does it SING too??" So - needless to say - I did not use that company. As it turned out, one of the other projects that I produced in that time was shot in Hollywood's Griffith Park. As we were location scouting for that job, a fellow crew member spotted a pair of dung beetles out for an afternoon stroll. We recruited them for Paranoid (of course after a lengthy negotiation with their agents) and set them up in a lovely mason jar with some samples of home (dirt, horse manure and sticks). The first shot I did with beetle #1 (the only one that appears in the film) was merely having it crawl across the floor. I was combining this with a dolly toward the beetle on an extremely long lens coupled with a diopter. It was a very tough shot to pull off and took several takes. To get the beetle in position, I would place a large cup over it - scoot it carefully across the floor to its start mark and lift the cup on cue. After 10 or so takes, I but the beetle back in its jar. The next shot was to be the beetle crawling behind the toilet in the bathroom. I lit the scene and went back for the beetle only to find it on it's back apparently writhing in pain. I thought "OH MY GOD! I'VE KILLED IT!!!" Then I looked again and realized the possibilities. I took the writhing beetle to the set, put it down and shot the scene that is now in the film. I put it back in the jar, extending my condolences and promising a first-class burial and went back to work. A few hours later, I went back to the jar and the beetle was fine! I later learned that roaches and some kinds of beetles, if they feel threatened, can spontaneously give birth. If you look closely at the shot in Paranoid, you can see an egg sack coming out of the end of the beetle. Once filming was done, both beetles were released still quite alive, back into the wilderness with their new egg sack. I can only hope they named some of the little ones after me.

As another side note - the film was shot almost entirely in my apartment in Los Angeles. My girlfriend was not too pleased to hear this story of a beetle on the floor of our bathroom - let alone one giving birth. She made me thoroughly clean the bathroom again after filming was done.

Lilja: Did you have any personal contact with King during the making of the movie? Has he seen it (and if so, what did he think about it)?

Jay Holben: I never had any contact with King whatsoever prior to making the film or during the process. I don't recommend this process - but it was, unfortunately, the way the project came about. By the time I made the final decision to shoot Paranoid, I knew I'd never have a chance to clear the rights and get permission before my date of principal photography - so I shot first. I sent a finished copy of the film to Stephen in Bangor asking for his blessing and the right to show the film. He called me three weeks later to extend his permission for me to show the film as a presentation of my work in non-commercial venues. His only comment on the film was "You've got a good film here... I liked it." I was elated at that and didn't press for details. :)

Lilja: Is there any plans for another King movie?

Jay Holben: Oh... That's a loaded question. There are a great number of King stories that I would love to adapt to the screen. We briefly discussed this possibility in our phone chat and he remained optimistic, but realistic about the possibility explaining that "...Most of my stuff is either already optioned or complicated." At this point, no - there is no other King movie in the works for me, but I'd like to keep the prospects for the future open. One at a time, though.

Lilja: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you want to say to the fans that read this interview?

Jay Holben: In the past year I've been contacted by a number of King fans anxiously awaiting this film. I truly appreciate your support and interest in the project and beg your patience just a little bit longer. I know what it's like to be a fan and I know what it's like to be an avid collector who wants to see and own everything they can associated with King. I can say that we're trying our best to accommodate the fans and still stay true to King's wishes.

I'd also like to add, although I'm sure for most of your readers this is not necessary, my gratitude for Stephen King's extraordinary generosity and support. Many people have read about his "Dollar Deal" policy - a sure sign of his unending support for students and aspiring filmmakers. I remember a time, back during my high school speech years, when a very famous playwright sent his lawyers to the competitions to make sure that anyone using his material was paying the full royalty fees. In a litigious, money-hungry society - it's amazing to have someone like King who's willing to help and make an extraordinary sacrifice in his own gain to do so. He's often been accused of being driven by the dollar - but this policy is a sure sign that he's just doing it for the love of the written word.

That and scaring the pants off of your whenever he can.

And with those words we end this interview. If you want to read my review of PARANOID it's now available online.