“Joe Lansdale is a great writer who can kill you not only with words, but with his hands.”
So begins this feisty documentary, All Hail the Popcorn King, which celebrates the virtuoso writer from Nacogdoches Texas — a man whose vision is so original he even developed his own brand of martial arts.
Although I’m not a graduate of Joe R. Lansdale’s Shen Chuan school of self defense, I am among the legions of admirers of Lansdale’s acclaimed books, which have been translated into more than a dozen languages and have scored major literary awards in virtually every genre of writing. And so on a recent Sunday, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to attend the world premiere of All Hail the Popcorn King in Austin.
The timing feels right for a Lansdale documentary, considering how much Hollywood is embracing his work. Earlier, his novella, Bubba Ho-Tep, was made into a classic cult film — and if you haven’t read/seen Bubba Ho-Tep, you need to know it’s about an Egyptian mummy set loose in East Texas that meets its match in two nursing home denizens who may or may not be JFK and Elvis Presley. Lansdale’s writing has sparked many other productions, including a film version of Cold in July and the critically-acclaimed Showtime series featuring his good-hearted pair of misfit detectives, Hap and Leonard.
Here at the Wittliff, we’ve had a close association with Joe Lansdale for many years. We are privileged to be the home for his major literary papers, which he has generously donated. We’ve also enjoyed numerous events with Joe, have featured him in our exhibitions, and in 2009 we teamed up with him to publish Sanctified and Chicken-Fried: The Portable Lansdale as part of our book series.
One of the very best parts of working as a literary curator is getting to know so many cool writers — and Joe is among the very best, not just in talent, but as a human being. He has mentored and encouraged so many other writers in his career, all while maintaining his deep commitment to social justice, the environment — and his family.
So it was wonderful to arrive at this documentary premiere to see that Joe was there, along with his family: wife Karen, daughter Kasey (who provides the musical score for the film) and son, Keith, who is also a writer and often teams up with his dad. Joe, in his usual generous fashion, handed out a free signed book to everyone who showed up.
As the lights darkened, those of us in the filled-to-capacity theater were transported “behind the Pine Curtain” to Deep East Texas, where filmmaker Hansi Oppenheimer accompanies Lansdale on a tour of his homeland.
We hear Lansdale talk about his father, who never learned to read or write, but who wanted his son to gain an education. The author also tells us about the house where he grew up outside of Gladewater. The family could look out the windows and see — although not hear — the drive-in movie across the highway. As a child, Lansdale and his mother would watch movies together, and she would tell him what the characters were saying. Only later did he realize, “My mother was a plumb liar.”
Lansdale talks a lot about the important role his wife, Karen, has played in his career — not just in her steadfast support but also for the secret ingredient in her popcorn. Lansdale often credited that popcorn with giving him especially vivid dreams at night, inspiring many of his greatest stories. Only later did he realize that Karen was using lard — and Karen says that Joe’s “inspiration” was likely due to indigestion.
Such charming stories run throughout All Hail the Popcorn King, revealing the inspiration behind the man who says, “I didn’t want to be a writer — I had to be one.”
Thankfully for all of us, he is one.
All Hail the Popcorn King will tour the film festival circuit, then will be available on DVD. For more information on the film check out: https://www.facebook.com/HailThePopcornKing/
For more about The Wittliff’s Lansdale holdings see: https://www.thewittliffcollections.txstate.edu/research/a-z/lansdale.html