Uncovering the Mothman - Gere and Keel Q&As

Compiled by Jack Foley

John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies, talks about the movie, the real life experiences behind the story and what he thinks of Richard Gere, while (lower down), New Yorker Gere talks about what attracted him to the role of John Klein and the disaster which has affected his life, September 11.

Q. When did you see the film?
A. "I saw it a couple of days ago."

Q. Did you recognize yourself in Richard Gere's character?
A. "Well, he's like a composite. The part played by Alan Bates is part of the composite. It's not all me - Richard Gere did not try to imitate me - that would be too big a job."

Q. How do you feel about the fact that it's a loose interpretation?
A. "It's not a loose interpretation - it's a Hollywood interpretation. I was pleased with it. They got a lot of the stuff in the book into the movie, but with slight variations. But it revived a lot of memories of that period, which was a very traumatic period for me. I have no real complaints about it. It's Hollywood, and it's done well - that's my feeling about it.
I worried first how they were gonna do the bridge, 'cause that might have looked like a piece of crap, but they did the collapse of the bridge beautifully. I thought Richard Gere was real good in it. I thought Alan Bates, playing his part, was very good in it - slinking around alleys, hiding from whatever he was hiding from."

Q. How close did you come to really experiencing the Mothman?
A. "I never saw the Mothman. But I saw people minutes after they had had an experience with it. And they were in a state of total terror. Just happened to be in the vicinity at the time.

Q. By what process did the book turn into a movie?
A. "It took 30 years. I had many, many offers and would-be deals. You're all writers, so if you haven't gone through this already, you'll go through it eventually in your lives. Dealing with Hollywood is no fun. Agents would call me up, and say "How soon can you get out here?" I'd say, "As soon as I get your cheque." That would bring the conversation to a close."

Q. What was the silliest proposal?
A. "Well, they all wanted something for nothing. They all had great deals - for them, but not for me. See, I have one of the best agents in the country, maybe in the world, and I'd say, "Well, you'll have to talk to my agent." And that would bring the conversation to a dead halt - they didn't want to talk to agents.
"I know authors who've been tricked like that. You've all heard of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"? It's a title from a college professor's book - and he got a total of $1,700.00 out of that. Which is absurd. But they conned him into it, they promised him the moon - a world of publicity, cardboard figures of him standing in front of the theater, and all this stuff. And of course none of it came true."

Q. You must have been devastated after the bridge collapsed.
A. "Oh yes. I knew some of the people on the bridge. And I turned away from the whole thing. I was as moved as people are by the World Trade Centre today. This was very personal. It was very unexpected; I had terrible guilt, feeling I could somehow have prevented it. But of course, I really couldn't. I just had this terrible feeling that, had I been a little smarter, I could have figured it out sooner. You'll see in the book. And that's what they followed in the movie. In the end, he's running around, and he finally figures out that the bridge is gonna collapse. But it's too late.
"I thought one of the chemical factories along the river was going to blow up or something. And every time I went to Point Pleasant, I carried a gas mask with me. So I was prepared, like a boy scout. The bridge was a surprise. I'd crossed that bridge hundreds of times, because the motel I was staying at was on the other side of the river - I'd drive back and forth all the time when I was there."

Q. Have you any idea why these things happened in this town, and not, say, somewhere else?
A. "Well, it does happen somewhere else - you just don't hear about it. I just happened to be there, and kept careful notes. If I hadn't been there, you'd never have heard about it. You'd hear about the bridge collapsing, and that would be it. But I was there to record the whole thing, step by step by step. As I was recording it, I didn't know what the hell I was doing, didn't know what was going on. So I withdrew from the whole thing. I had so much trouble with the telephone that I took the whole thing out and didn't have a telephone for ten years. People wanted to get in touch with me, they sent me a telegram. Remember Western Union? They used to be able to send telegrams."

Q. So you think, with other tragedies, people feel them coming?
A. "I think there are people in every area that have psychic abilities. Later, I turned my attention to that; how can you predict the future - unless the future already exists in some form? I wrote a book about that.
"There are a great many people, about fifteen percent of the population, that have psychic experiences all the time."

Q. After your book came out, you must have received lots of mail about Mothman sightings, etc?
A. "Oh - the mail has been voluminous. So much mail that I could never answer it all, so that there's people out there thinking, 'Whatever happened to John Keel?' They'd write me long, detailed letters, and I can't answer them. After this movie comes out, I shudder to think what will happen."

Q It must have been a traumatic experience back then - is it also traumatic to relive it now, as a movie?
A. "It was a little bit traumatic. I didn't sleep well the night I saw the film. It stirred up a lot of memories. Memories of people who are long gone. It tells you how realism and psychic phenomena sort of merge, in many places. And when it happens, people never know what has happened. I've spent my life trying to interpret that. With all the various theories of dual worlds and all that. It's probably beyond human comprehension, how the world and the universe really works."

Q. Does that scare you?
A. "It frustrates me. I want to know how everything works before I die. I want to know everything. I've been studying all my life."

Q. So where does the fear come from?
A. "Well, fear is an essential part of the unknown. I've been afraid many times. But I've also spent a lot of my time in cemeteries at midnight, I've been inside the great pyramids alone. I've done a lot of interesting and dangerous things. I trekked through the Himalayas alone. I'm six foot two and the Tibetans are five foot two, so it was not a good idea to go very far, but I stepped over the border just so I could say I'd set foot in Tibet.
"But I'm not courageous or anything. I'm stupid. I take chances. A lot of people don't - they'll sit in the corner of their insurance office all their lives."

Q. Have you kept up with what has happened subsequently in Point Pleasant?
A. "What happened there, was that gradually the economy has gone to pieces. There's nothing but vacant stores. There's one store that sells Mothman T-shirts. I'm gonna go down there and prepare them for what's going to happen, because when this movie comes out, and starts showing up on TV, people in Oregon are going to say, hey, let's go to Point Pleasant for our vacation! And they'll drive all the way there, and find there's nothing there. So the people of Point Pleasant had better prepare - they'd better set up Mothman hamburger stands. I would suggest they open a little theatre that would show the movie twice a week or something, so the tourists can go see it. There's a documentary also, ready to go - interviews with the surviving witnesses.

Q. Could this whole thing just be a figment of people's imaginations?
A. "Oh sure. The ancient Greeks call them chimeras. They had figured out, things with very red eyes and a terrible smell, really were not real in their definition of reality. And that's what this thing looks like, the Mothman. Except it didn't have the terrible smell. The smell, called fire and brimstone, is sulphur. Hydrogen sulphide - often accompanies sightings of monsters and ghosts. This is the only physical evidence we have; we can identify the gas, but we don't know what causes it. In West Virginia, in 1952, they had the Flatwoods Monster - bright red eyes, and a terrible smell. Some young people climbed a hill to get a closer look at it, and when they got to the top of the hill, the smell was so bad they turned around and ran back down.
"These things were known to ancient people. A lot of the dragon stories, when you really look into them. People who look into these things are called Forteans, after Charles Fortean, a writer in the 1920's, and there are Fortean societies that keep track of these things. There's a very good magazine that comes out every month in the UK, the Fortean Times. Because peculiar things happen all over the world at all time, and just very rarely get any press."

Richard Gere talks about what attracted him to The Mothman story...

Q. You haven't made a supernatural thriller before, is that why you wanted to do this?
A. "No, it was the script itself. I didn't say, 'I want to make a scary movie'. The script came and I could see the possibilities, although it went through a lot of drafts to find the balance between a scary movie and a smart movie."

Q. What did you like about the script?
A. "The emotional stuff was rich. In the beginning, my character's in the perfect job, he has a beautiful wife, they're talking about babies, they're buying a house, everything's great and then literally in the middle of laughing, there's a car accident and she's gone. Now if you put that on top of the metaphysical story of 'Is there anything out there?', then you have something that has a lot of power."

Q. You wanted to avoid the cliches of the genres, is that why we don't see the Mothman?
A. "That's the B-movie version of this. The assumption is that this is a metaphysical story, not a ghost story, meaning that we're making the adult's thinking version. So the trick and brilliance of director Mark Pellington was finding a visual vocabulary that would suggest a presence and give you the kind of chilling feeling that was much deeper and larger than 'Don't open that door!'. This was more like a dream and dreams aren't usually 'There's something behind the door', they're more a feeling that seems to take over everything."

Q. You normally play characters who are in control but your character in this, John Klein, thinks he's going mad....
A. "I don't think the people I play are in control. I think the characters always strive for control and it's the fact that they can't have it that makes drama. They have the illusion of control but the universe never gives any of us control, otherwise there'd be no drama at all. You know, people think they're on balance, life puts them off-balance and they have to find someway to re-establish balance."

Q. Since the success of "The Sixth Sense" there seem to be more and more movies with supernatural themes, why are we so fascinated by it?
A. "I don't think it ever goes away. It's part of our collective unconscious, whether we're tribal people or we're urban people. I think it's genetically-coded in us and, in a way, that belief is more powerful in urban people who are continually having it cut out of their lives. So that need to express it is always there."

Q. Do you believe in psychic phenomena and have you had any personal experience of ghosts?
A. "I have no interest at all in that, although if someone came up with the Loch Ness Monster I'd be interested. As for ghosts, there's been nothing that shook me to my marrow."

Q. You're a New Yorker, how did you react to the events of September 11th?
A. "Well that was so shocking that, again, it kind of calls into question the nature of identity on many levels. The skyline of New York literally changed in one hour. It's just mind-boggling. Just to imagine that's gone, something that we thought was going to be there as a monument forever. And the identity we had as a country totally changed and so did the people. As the anger and vengeance came up, that shocked our identity as well. You know, we're Christians, we're Buddhists, we're not supposed to feel this way."

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