Ghost Scribes: Conversations With Horror Screenwriters

By Ian MacAllister-McDonald

“We need ghost stories because we, in fact, are the ghosts.”
Stephen King, Danse Macabre

As a lifelong horror fan and scare-enthusiast, I start anticipating Halloween sometime in late July, and begin actively celebrating the season in mid-September. I hang creepy decorations around the house, carve jack o’lanterns, watch a horror movie (or two) every night, relish in reading scary novels and short stories, and of course — this being L.A. — partake in the wonderful abundance of spooky events that pop up like whack-a-moles around the city. There are more things to do in Los Angeles during the month of October than I could ever even think about attending; of course, many of them are film related, and best of all, the makers of said films are frequently in attendance. This is arguably the best place, sans foliage, to celebrate Halloween.

For those of you who seek a literary take on this spine-chilling month, may I present An Evening With Horror Screenwriters, a panel which is being hosted at The Last Bookstore in Downtown L.A. on October 19th at 7pm. The panel is being moderated by Peter Katz (producer/manager and CEO of Story Driven) and features screenwriters Jeffrey Reddick (Final Destination), Stephen Susco (The Grudge), and Brad Keene (From Within). The panel promises to offer some tips on writing stories that scare, as well as broader thoughts on the current state of horror cinema. This is absolutely one of the must-attend events of the season — believe me, I’ve been preparing for months.

I had a chance to chat with screenwriters Jeffrey Reddick, Brad Keene, and Stephen Susco before the event to get a glimpse into their background and their work.

Left to right: Brad Keene, Stephen Susco, Jeffrey Reddick
Left to right: Brad Keene, Stephen Susco, Jeffrey Reddick

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: One of the things I find fascinating about the horror genre is how everyone seems to come to it from a different angle — Guillermo Del Toro was always in love with ghouls and goblins, whereas Wes Craven fell into the genre almost by accident. Can you tell me a little bit about your first encounters with horror and how it impacted you?

JEFFREY REDDICK: I fall into the lifelong horror geek category. I have always had a fascination with scary things. I remember seeing Salem’s Lot as a child and loving it. I loved to read Greek and Roman mythology growing up, which is dark. Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker were always on my must read list. And I devoured Shakespeare…his stuff was dark. And even though I abhor real-life violence I grew up reading all about the exploits of real serial killers. (I swear I’m not scary in person.) As far as movies, when I was 14, I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street and it changed my life. A great concept; great directing and FX. A terrifying villain. A strong, proactive female hero. It was magic.

BRAD KEENE: My first encounter with horror was through the slasher genre. Movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street. There was an electric energy to them, and the fact that they were franchises that unfolded through frequent sequels made it easy to reflect on their evolution. What made them scary? How were they changing? How would I make the next sequel? It was fun to contemplate. That interest led me to Fangoria magazine. What a discovery! You could read about the filmmakers. There were captivating images of [award-winning make-up artist] Tom Savini working on the make-up of a young Jason Voorhees [from Friday the 13th]. Fangoria gave glimpses of the behind-the-scenes action. Movies became an obsession. I can’t remember wanting to do anything else with my life. No matter what other genres I explore, horror will always be my foundation.

STEPHEN SUSCO: I was in love with books as a kid (fortunately that’s never gone away!), and it was the works of Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and the short story collections curated by Alfred Hitchcock that got me hooked into the genre. Being raised in a town — New Hope, Pennsylvania —where it was believed nearly every building was haunted also helped quite a bit.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: Speaking of formative years, what was the experience like of making your first films?

JEFFREY REDDICK: I started working at New Line Cinema when I was 19. It was the early 90’s — really their creative high point. I began as an intern and ended up working in the marketing and TV department. They produced my first film, Final Destination. So my experience was a little unique. But I got spoiled on that film. Even though it was behind the scenes, I was very involved in all aspects of it, from the director/writer team that was brought on after me, to filming and marketing. Working at a studio taught me how to deal with both the business and creative side of things. So I have been able to form great relationships with 99% of the people I’ve worked with, and that’s allowed me to be more involved. I’ve been on set for most of my films. And learning that the business side dictates decisions more than the creative has helped me learn not to take rejection personally, and how to be patient and persistent.

BRAD KEENE: The experience of my first films is a mixture of ecstasy, frustration, and virtually every other emotion that goes with the business. When we were making The Gravedancers, it felt like we wanted to cram every single scary idea into one movie. We barreled forward with a ton of enthusiasm and energy. The process is never as quick as you’d like it to be, but overall, I’m extremely grateful. Many friendships were formed. To make movies with people who share your passion is priceless.

STEPHEN SUSCO: I was blessed to have something of a dream first paying job, 20 years ago this month: I was hired to adapt a book called Bone In The Throat, which was the first novel (written on a dare) by Anthony Bourdain. A more fascinating and generous man you will not find. The same could be said for the studio producer, Mike DeLuca,  and film’s director, Ted Demme. The project began with meal after meal of astounding food and rich conversation — as a 24-year-old neophyte, I just soaked it all in.  It certainly set a high-water mark for future creative collaborations.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: You’ve all written a sequel or a remake at some point in your career. What are the specific challenges of writing something that has a built-in mythology or some kind of previously established narrative? Do you tend to view this as restricting or liberating? How much of your concerns tend to revolve around honoring the original vs. charting new territory?

JEFFREY REDDICK: Day of The Dead is always the remake elephant in any room full of horror fans that I walk in to. As a standalone movie I think it’s really fun and entertaining. But as a remake of Day of the Dead, it doesn’t work. With that property, we were very limited. We could only remake the Day of The Dead movie. We couldn’t tie it into any of the other films in the series. So that was a tough one creatively. When I got hired, I pitched a story that was very faithful to the original film. I was very mindful, as a fan, that we were facing an uphill battle. But I knew it was getting made and Steve Miner was directing, so I was excited. However, as the process went along, I was forced to change more and more of the story to make it as different from the original as possible. So, honestly, it was a frustrating process. The finished film has threads of things that are similar to the original but never pay off, because we had to change it. That said, I think it’s a really fun zombie movie on its own. But I just wish we had released it with a different title and not said it was a remake of Day of the Dead.

I don’t think most movies need to be remade. However, it’s the business that dictates. It’s frustrating when you’ve got a pile of original scripts, but people are only financing remakes, sequels, or projects based off of comics, video games, or books. It’s not that writers don’t have original ideas; it’s that we often have to make our living writing what people are financing. So you try to make the best of it.

I’m really happy with the Final Destination sequel. With the second film I tried to expand upon the mythology of the first film, bring back some of the original players, set up a group of kids you thought were going to be the leads and then kill them off. So: deliver what made the original film work, as sequels do, but add enough new stuff so that it didn’t feel like we were just remaking the original film.

BRAD KEENE: Writing The Grudge 3 presented a unique set of challenges. We wanted to maintain the feel and logic of the previous installments as much as possible while building on the mythology. The journey was tricky, but rewarding. After reading about all of those sequels in Fangoria growing up, here was my chance to participate in a franchise firsthand. We worked hard to balance honoring of the original material with charting new territory.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: Can you speak about the role of a screenwriter, as opposed to a novelist? How does the inherently collaborative nature of filmmaking impact the way you work on a script? Do you tend to write with other people (directors, producers, actors, etc.) in mind, or do you write mainly for yourselves?

JEFFREY REDDICK: Every writer has a different process. Personally, I start with a concept. I try to think of an idea that will resonate with a lot of people, like the fear of death. Then I write characters that I feel are interesting and entertaining. I don’t imagine actors in the roles, but I do try to create roles that actors will want to play. That means trying to make them as complex and interesting as possible. Having a theatre background, I was taught that everyone was key to making a project work, so collaboration has always been important to me. Many directors I work with avoid working with writers who insist that everything stay the way they wrote it, because filmmaking is a collaborative process. That’s why I’m moving into directing. I have a few stories that I want to tell and have them reflect my vision of the script.  But as a writer, trying to find that middle ground of keeping your creative vision pure and accommodating the ideas of directors/producers/actors is a tough balancing act. The thing is, once a movie starts to go into production everyone wants to “put their mark on it.” Oftentimes that means people changing things just to change them. So you’ll get really bad ideas from the person financing your film and you have to figure out how to make it work, or how to gently get them to change their mind.  As a writer, my motto is “anything that makes the script stronger is great because it’ll make for a better film.”  So, I don’t mind rewriting (which happens all the time) as long as we’re improving the script. It’s torture when it’s the other way around, or when you’ve labored over a script for years and the first note is to dumb it down. But navigating those waters is half the battle to having a long career and not going crazy in the process.  

BRAD KEENE: I love to collaborate as soon as possible, especially with the director. It really helps solidify the vision. An element I also try to keep in mind is the budget. If you’re fortunate, your script will be in production one day. The sooner you can anticipate the general cost and time involved with your story, the better. You’re writing the movie to be made, not to sit on a shelf. That’s the goal.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: What films inspire your own work? Do you try to keep up with the all the new releases, or do you tend to gravitate towards older films?

JEFFREY REDDICK: Nightmare On Elm Street has always been the benchmark film for me. It hit me at an impressionable age, and is still an iconic film that will be hard to match. But I love so many horror films, from the classics to new stuff. I’m influenced by classics: A Nightmare On Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Halloween, Friday The 13th, Suspuria, Dracula. I do like my horror films to have interesting characters and smart thrills. I like cool deaths over explicit blood and gore. I rewatch old movies all the time. But you will always find me at the theatre on opening weekend for new horror films. I love to support the genre. But it’s also like chasing the dragon. You go into the new releases hoping for that chilling rush that you got as a child.  

BRAD KEENE: I revisit old favorites often, but I also cherish time spent in a theater with new movies. A recent film that knocked my socks off was Green Room. It had me at hello. In the end, I draw inspiration from everywhere. I’m proud to be part of the filmmaking community, and I hope to keep making movies for a long time.

STEPHEN SUSCO: Horror is continuously in flux – it’s one of the most adaptive and mutable cinematic genres — and it is constantly revitalized by voices from outside the mainstream. So as a vet, it’s a thrill to stay connected to the new. Most recent standouts for me are Ryan Gregory Philip’s Shortwave, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Jackson Stewart’s Beyond The Gates, Robert Eggers The Witch, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, William Brent Bell’s The Boy, and Jennifer Kent’s Babadook.

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