Interview With an Author: Julian David Stone

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Julian David Stone and his latest novel, It’s Alive
Author Julian David Stone and his latest novel, It’s Alive. Photo credit: Jase Lindgren

Julian David Stone grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, eventually relocating to Los Angeles to study filmmaking and then enter the entertainment business. His previous work includes screenplays for Disney, Paramount, Sony, and MGM; the full-length play, The Elvis Test; and several short-form documentaries on Frank Sinatra for Warner Bros. He is also the writer and director of the hit cult comedy feature film, Follow the Bitch, which has played to packed houses all around the country and received numerous awards. Recently, he began writing books, with his award-winning debut novel: The Strange Birth, Short Life, and Sudden Death of Justice Girl, about the world of the 1950s live television, which is currently being turned into a TV series. Julian is also the author of the best-selling coffee table book, No Cameras Allowed: My Career As An Outlaw Rock & Roll Photographer, detailing in words and photos his wild adventures photographing rock and roll concerts in the 1980s. His latest novel is It’s Alive and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for It’s Alive?

I grew up in the early 1970s building Aurora Monster Model kits and studiously watching the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s on television. I eventually outgrew the obsession when girls and the rest of what comes with adolescence took precedent. In the late 1990s, I discovered them again and viewing them as an adult, I saw so much more in them than I had as a child. I became obsessed all over again and began to read all I could about how these wonderful films were made. When I eventually discovered all the chaos that had gone on around the production of the original Frankenstein, with a 23-year-old Junior Laemmle at the helm of Universal Studios and the back and forth between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff over who would play the role of The Monster, I realized there was a great story about the birth of the horror genre, and Hollywood, in all of it.

It’s Alive is a fictionalized account of the days leading up to the filming of Universal Studios’ Frankenstein. How familiar were you with the motion picture industry, and Universal Studios, in the late 20s and early 30s? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write It’s Alive?

I had some knowledge of the era, but not nearly enough to write the story properly. Fortunately, research is one of my absolute favorite parts of writing and I spent several years doing just that before I felt comfortable writing, It’s Alive. What I found particularly helpful was doing research from sources from the actual time period that the story takes place—contemporaneous magazines, newspapers, books, etc. This is where a lot of the great details about the lives of the three main characters in my novel were found—scouring any and all media sources from the early 1930s. Additionally, interviews with the main characters were also very helpful. In the case of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, they were both famous for a very good portion of their lives, so there are many great interviews with them, and they were very helpful. Junior Laemmle was another story. There are a lot of interviews with him up to 1936 when the Laemmle family lost the studio. After that, almost nothing. So a lot of Junior’s story was pieced together from whatever tidbits I could find. Researching him was a great detective story on its own!

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

That nothing really changes. What was great about the film business was great then, and more astonishingly, what was awful about the film business was awful then. Every cliché of Hollywood, the toughness of breaking in, how quickly people will stab you in the back, the casting couch, etc., was established right out of the gate when the business began.

Since It’s Alive is a fictionalized version of those days, how/why did you choose a fictionalized account? Did you strive to stay historically accurate, or did you dramatize events or people? Was it necessary to take a literary license to tell the story you wanted to tell?

As my background is primarily as a screenwriter, I felt it would be best that I tell the story of the making of Frankenstein in the form of a novel. While I did a ton of research and stayed as close to what actually happened as possible, writing in the form of historical fiction allowed me to dramatize scenes of which there was little or no information about. Also, there are a lot of excellent non-fiction books about the classic Universal Monster movies, but not very many novels. I felt I could bring something new to the whole world of these marvelous movies by doing it in the form of a novel.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The biggest evolution, interestingly, was in my initial development of the story. As I said, I love to research and I like to say, “I want to be able to ‘wear’ an era” before I start writing about it. In the case of It’s Alive, I was well into my research, but I was still struggling with the story. I completed a draft that wasn’t really working. That’s when I realized I had made a big mistake. I was focusing my research to specifically on the Universal Monster movies and Universal itself. That’s when I forced myself to take a step back and dive into all of Hollywood in 1931. I started watching as many films as possible from the era—not just Universal’s films—and I read as many of the trade publications as I could get my hands on sequentially, starting in January 1931. This was so valuable as you could watch the progression of trends in the movie business, as well as the rise and fall of certain stars. After about a year of deep research into the period was when the story really started to fall into place. The only major thing that I considered, but then decided not to include in the final novel was making a bigger issue of the economic depression that was affecting the country in a major way at the time of my story. I decided to leave this out because, compared to the rest of the nation, Hollywood was not affected as strongly by the depression, plus I wanted to focus very specifically on how the impending production of Frankenstein affected the three main characters. When I tried to delve into the Depression, it kept pulling away from the main story and what the characters were specifically after.

Do you have a favorite of the Universal Monster films?

Yes—I love them all, but my favorite is Bride of Frankenstein. I think it is the true masterpiece of the entire Universal Monsters Cycle. With the original Frankenstein just behind it. I am also a big fan of The Invisible Man, and bit later in the cycle, The Wolfman.

A favorite Boris Karloff film/performance? A favorite film/performance of Bela Lugosi’s?

My favorite Karloff performance is his performance at the Monster in the original Frankenstein. It still astonishes me to this day. If you’ve ever seen footage of the real Boris Karloff, he is charming and funny and has a witty, light personality. All of this vanishes when he becomes the Monster in Frankenstein. It's hard to reconcile that it is the same person—he becomes completely lost in the role, and it’s more than just the incredible make-up by Jack Pierce. It is truly a transformation. I think it is one of the greatest performances ever by an actor. He could have so easily gone the simple route and created a character that just stumbled about terrorizing people. Instead, there is incredible subtlety to his performance an enormous empathy. As to Bela, I love him in Dracula, but I think his greatest performance is that of Igor in Son of Frankenstein, the third film in the Frankenstein series. He is just marvelous in this role, with his wonderful monologue while being grilled by the police being a real stand-out moment in the film and his storied career.

The Universal Monsters turned 90 in 2021. Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how these films continue, almost a century later, to be the iconic representations of these characters?

I think the reason these films are still so popular all these years later is the uniqueness of them. And I believe this uniqueness was set early on, in the first 5 films—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein. The Universal Monster cycle goes on for another 20 years, but these 5 definitely set the standard. And I also believe it was the influence of two men in particular. Karl Freund, who was the cinematographer on Dracula and also directed The Mummy, and James Whale who directed Frankenstein, The Invisible Manand Bride of Frankenstein. Freund brought the amazing look of German Expressionism to the series, and James Whale brought his wonderful puckish sense of humor to the films. I believe this unique and unusual combination is why the cycle’s appeal has lasted so long. Additionally, I feel the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein is still the most well-known because it takes the story in a different direction than the original book and explores themes that are still very relevant today: Man’s relationship to technology, the concept of ‘just because we have the ability to do something, should we do it?’, The unexpected consequences of our actions in the blind pursuit of technological advance, etc.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Several different books on the Apollo missions to the Moon.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Ray Bradbury
Michael Chabon
Arthur Miller
Rod Serling
John Grisham

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

There was a series of books called Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, sort of a knock-off of the Hardy Boys , where Alfred Hitchcock himself appeared as a character to guide a group of young kids who solved crimes. I loved those books.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Not a book, but a magazine. And yes, the obvious one.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Lol—Too many to list.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Yes—You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming. I was walking down the street in New York City years ago and someone was selling books on the sidewalk. The cover just leapt out at me. I had never considered reading a James Bond novel before, but the simple, yet dramatic image really caught my eye. I decided to buy it. And loved it, and ending up reading all of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Fahrenheit 451.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Get Back—The Beatles Documentary. So many moments I had read about over the years, and then suddenly there’s footage of it. Just an amazing experience—Seeing true geniuses at work, and so young, just astounding.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I love going to the beach. I would say going to the beach with my family is about as good as it gets. Though I guess you could call it perfect if we went to the beach, and somehow ran into Ray Bradbury.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

“What was it like looking back at the Earth from the surface of the Moon?”

What are you working on now?

I am working on another novel that I am about halfway done with. It’s about the 1960s space race and the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to land the first man on the moon. The era and the Apollo program especially, are big passions of mine, so I am very excited about this story—as well as immensely enjoying doing the research!

Book cover for It's Alive!: A Novel
It's Alive!: A Novel
Stone, Julian David