Sunday, May 10, 2015

An Interview With Screenwriter Bragi Schut, Part II

For the unfamiliar, a “reveal” in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

FADE IN:

INT. GALLEY – NIGHT

ON CLEMENS, wracked by fear! He scrambles
to pull his legs through.

          CLEMENS
     Close it! Close it!

Anna and Wojchek struggle to push the
door shut. SLAM! The creature strikes it
from the other side, almost forcing it
open again.

Everyone retreats to the center of the
room. Clemens is frantically reloading
his pistol, fingers fumbling to pack
the powder, load the ball.

          CLEMENS (CONT’D)
     The ice chest! Get the
     ice chest!

Anna and Wojchek hurry to push the heavy
ICE CHEST in front of the door which
continues to BUCK violently. – Clemens fi-
nally gets the pistol loaded and waves
them back.

          CLEMENS (CONT’D)
     Look out!

Clemens FIRES both barrels through the
door. We HEAR the creature HOWL in rage.

A momentary silence -- then we HEAR a
CREAKING NOISE from the ceiling that
causes the men to wheel around and train
their weapons upwards.

THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

We hear its heavy footfalls on the deck
above.

          ANNA
     It’s looking for a way
     in!

          WOJCHEK
     Quiet, woman!

Clemens and the others plaster themselves
against the walls of the cabin.
THUMP. THUMP.

We hear it jump down from the deckhouse
ceiling and begin to circle them.

NEW ANGLE --

Anna has inadvertently retreated to the
rear of the cabin and backed up against
a porthole.

          CLEMENS
     Anna, get away from
     there!

Anna looks to Clemens, puzzled, but be-
fore anyone has time to react -- two
gaunt arms EXPLODE through the porthole
and enfold her.

She SCREAMS as the arms drag her half
way out the porthole. Clemens lunges
after her and grabs hold of her legs.

Wojchek snatches up the pistol and with
an expression of mounting rage, rushes
at the window, JAMS the pistol through
the gap and FIRES!

We’re rewarded with an INHUMAN SCREECHING
and Anna is abruptly released. Clemens
drags her back into the cabin where she
collapses in his arms.

THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

We hear the sound of the creature’s foot-
falls slowly heading aft. Wojchek pans
the pistol, tracking the sound through
the walls.

Ka-THUMP! We hear it jump down to the
Mid-deck and diminish slowly.

          CLEMENS
       (puzzled)
     It’s leaving.

          WOJCHEK
     ...going aft...

          ANNA
     I don’t understand. It
     had us trapped.

Clemens glances out the porthole.

          CLEMENS
     The sun. It fled from the
     light.

ANGLE THROUGH – PORTHOLE

The first dim rays are visible on the
horizon.

 
From THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, script by Bragi Schut
 
Q – So, the Nicholl script, SEASON OF THE WITCH, was eventually produced and released in 2010. Can you give us some background on that project?

A - SEASON OF THE WITCH was a bumpy ride to production. That script traveled through a number of studios before it finally got made.  It was developed over a good six-year period.  I probably have some 20 different drafts on my computer.  The draft that won the Nicholl was very different than the draft that was finally produced.  Not so much in terms of plot, but certainly in terms of tone and characterization. Although there were some significant changes to the plot as well.

The director, Dominic Sena, just had a different vision in mind for the film, so there was a lengthy development process.

The initial idea for the script came from a scene that I saw in Bergman's movie THE SEVENTH SEAL. There's a scene in which a group of knights are transporting a woman accused of witchcraft to some village where they're going to burn her. I remember watching the scene and thinking to myself that that scene could become a whole movie of its own. And what better twist could there be than finding out that this woman whom you think, initially, is a victim, is actually a witch. That reversal, that twist, was very exciting to me… So I started to play around with the idea.

Q – So, the Nicholl win happens, and as part of the Fellowship, you are expected to write a script over the next year. What was your project?

A - I actually never got the opportunity to write a script for my follow-up year.  Basically, you can't collect on the Nicholl Fellowship money if you are currently employed by studio. And in the wake of my SEASON OF THE WITCH sale, I was continually employed for the next couple years.

I remember talking to some of the other Nicholl writers, like Andrew Marlowe (AIRFORCE ONE, HOLLOW MAN, CASTLE), Ehren Kruger (THE RING, REINDEER GAMES, & the upcoming television miniseries, THE TALISMAN), and I don't believe they collected their Nicholl winnings either. So it's a good problem to have.

Q - Screenplays from 50 or 60 years ago were far different than those written today. Shots were indicated, often with camera placement and movement in extreme detail; scene action was far more detailed, and script lengths were often well above 150 pages. Since the late 1960s-early 1970s, screenplays have been getting shorter and more concise. In recent years this trend has even gone to a kind of minimalist style referred to as “haiku.” I’ve heard respected professionals refer to “100 as the new 120” for page length. Has this impacted your approach to your writing? And what do you think of the trend as far as finding writing assignments and/or getting your “spec scripts” read?

A - We know each other as screenplay collectors, so you know I'm a fan of those older scripts as well, and I've read a number of them. I refer to them frequently and I love that older format. I try to bring a touch of that to my own material. You can't take it quite as far as they used to in the old days because modern readers expect a different format, but I find it intriguing.  It's another tool we can use as writers: format. I'm writing a period piece war movie right now and I'm referring to a lot of older scripts like THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN, and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI for inspiration.  In some ways, that older format lends itself to the material. But I just finished a big science fiction assignment and I would never use that format for something like that.

I think the writer has latitude to do what they want with the format. If you compare somebody like Walter Hill (ALIEN, SOUTHERN COMFORT) with someone like Frank Darabont (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE WALKING DEAD), those are two hugely different styles.  And you’ve got guys like Tony Gilroy (the Jason Bourne films, NIGHTCRAWLER, STATE OF PLAY), who really mess with the format. I love reading Tony Gilroy's stuff but his format is very different.

I guess, the bottom line for me is that it still boils down to story. Story and characters. And format is just another tool we can use.

Q- At the same time that feature scripts are getting shorter, there has been a movement in television from single, stand-alone stories to over-arching meta-stories that inter-relate, and allow for far deeper character and story development. Has this moved you away from feature development, and toward small screen development, or do you try to work in both?

A- I still try to work in both. I love working in TV and I love working in features. And they're just different animals. But yes the trend for overarching meta-stories in television is very exciting.  I like that term “meta-story.” I'm going to steal that.
 
Q - From your own experience, do you see a difference in the way a “spec script” is evaluated compared to something written on assignment? Is there more latitude given to experiment with construction and plot for one over the other?

I think they’re evaluated the same: do they work, or not? Concerning spec scripts, obviously you have a lot more freedom in the writing. An assignment has to fulfill whatever the requirements of the assignment are. But in terms of how they are evaluated, I think people hold them to the same standard:   They've got to be great. They've got to be well told stories with interesting characters and captivating plots.

Q - Today we see fewer and fewer scripts getting produced that are not already a part of some franchise or adapted from a prior medium such as graphic novels, games, and traditional novels. Have you moved away from developing your own “spec” ideas and toward finding assignments and projects that are effectively already “pre-sold” because they exist in a prior medium or franchise?

A - You have to do both. The spec scripts bring the assignments in. Obviously, the assignments are great.  And you're right in saying that adaptations have a much greater chance of being produced than an original spec, but creatively, the specs are important to me. Those are original ideas, which makes them, in some ways, much more personal. And even if the spec doesn't get produced, as I said, it still gets read and it will bring in work. 

Lastly these things go in cycles, so I would not be surprised to see the spec market booming again. It may or may not happen in the film universe, but we're already starting to see a bit of a spec market in television. A couple of years ago that was unheard of. Now places are buying and optioning spec TV scripts. I just optioned a spec pilot to a company and we’re now packaging it. That's a relatively new development.

Q - Assuming you agree with the premise, do you see any indication, any “light” at the end of this “tunnel” Hollywood is in, producing super-hero movies to the exclusion of almost everything else unless they’ve got A-Listers (actors, directors) attached?

A - I don't think the super-hero genre is going anywhere, but I definitely see audiences looking for original stories too. Stories that are new and are not based on anything else. How else can you discover something new?

Q - SEASON OF THE WITCH and THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, your 2009 Blood List script (currently in development as this is written), are “period” projects, one set in Medieval Europe, and the other set in late 19th Century Europe. A commonly heard bit of advice to new writers is to avoid submitting period stories when trying to break in because they cost more and are harder to produce. Do you agree or disagree, and how?

A - I don't think I remember LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER being on the Blood List. Are you sure about that? [LM - It was on the list, available here.]

Regardless, yes, there are probably smarter genres to take a crack at than period piece movies.  I just have the misfortune of being passionate about stories that take place in the past sometimes. My brain just goes there. And I'm a firm believer that you have to write what excites you. That is where you will do your best work. That's not to say that I don't like writing stories in other time periods… It's more about world building for me I guess. I just love escaping from the present.  Or from reality I should say.

Q - So, a moment from an Ingmar Bergman film inspired SEASON OF THE WITCH. How did LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER come about?

A - I'm a huge huge fan of Ridley Scott's ALIEN, as well as [the sequel] ALIENS.  I was trying to find a way to do a story like ALIEN, but different. And it's very hard to do anything in space with a creature and not be compared to ALIEN. So I started exploring other venues. At the time I was working as a model maker at Digital Domain. One of the guys in the model shop had worked on BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. He was showing me his portfolio one day and I saw that there was a model of the ship in the portfolio.

It was a wonderful model, just beautiful...  This old ship with sails covered in blood. I was just staring at this model and suddenly I saw a way to do my monster movie.

Q - You mentioned that you actually wrote LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER before SEASON OF THE WITCH. A lesser-known fact about the Nicholl Fellowship is that you can’t enter a script based on material from another writer. Since DEMETER is rooted in Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, it could not be entered. (I am acutely aware of this because one of my own scripts, THE SLEEP OF REASON, which I had considered submitting to Nicholl, is also based on the Stoker novel.) Had you originally intended to enter DEMETER?

A - I actually did enter DEMETER. And I was crushed when I never heard back. It didn't even make it into the Quarterfinal round. I found out after the fact about that rule. Who knows whether that had anything to do with it or not. I'd like to think it did.

Q - Both SEASON OF THE WITCH and LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER appear to arise out of situation, the former from a premise of knights transporting a woman to be judged a witch by the Church; the latter about the un-described sea voyage Count Dracula made on his trip to England in the Stoker story. Many screenwriters claim that they write from character, rather than from situation or plot. I have gone on record (in this space, and in my book on screenwriting) as saying that I prefer the situation/plot approach, but I will use whatever works, given the project, and I have. Do you prefer plot over character as a starting point?

A - That's an interesting question. I've never thought about that much. I guess if I had to analyze my own scripts, I would say that it's been a mix of plot and character. SEASON OF THE WITCH and THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER are both clearly situational as you pointed out. But I have another spec that's kicking around right now that started with more of a character concept.

Q – Without giving too much away, I noticed that your conception of Dracula in DEMETER is far closer to his physical presence in one of the earliest versions of DRACULA, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film, NOSFERATU. And he resembles the vampire (Barlow) from the 1979 version of SALEM’S LOT. But with that as a starting point, what you do with it is closer to ALIEN than it is Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. I loved how much mystery and menace you brought to the story. So what led to that “take” on your villain? And if you are able, can you say whether that approach is in the current production?

A - We actually struggled with that in the development of the script. Because people are so used to Dracula being personified as this learned, intellectual, conflicted passionate person. The Gary Oldman version. Or the over sexualized vampire version from the Hammer films.  The tormented half man/half monster. But in Demeter I really wanted to avoid that stuff and make him this animalistic force that is feeding off the crewmembers until it reaches its ultimate destiny.

That probably comes from the fact that I really wanted to do something that was a monster movie. And to me the most primal elemental terrifying monster I could think of was something that didn't have any vestige of humanity in it. It was purely something that would devour you. Something that would eat you because it needed sustenance.

The only glimmer of humanity the creature ever shows is at the very end of the script when it comes face to face with the female crew-member. There's a moment where the creature looks at her and seems to hesitate.  Her face seems to stir some dim memory in him. That moment was meant to acknowledge that there was a soul underneath all that but it was a bit of an afterthought, frankly, and doesn't fit in much with the tone of the rest of the script in which it is purely an animal.

Q - Another script you wrote, THE PASS, has a rather unusual pedigree. First, there was an historical event (commonly known as “the Dyatlov Pass incident,”) that happened in 1959, in the Ural Mountains in the former Soviet Union. A party of hikers were massacred, leaving any cause as both unexplained and extremely bizarre due to the details found on and around the bodies--they had few external injuries, but massive internal ones; they were found a fair distance away and almost naked, their clothes still back at the tent, despite the zero temperature; and there were no tracks that could be identified from would-be attackers: a great, thus-far unsolved mystery.

Recently, a film was produced and released in 2013 called DEVIL’S PASS, written by another writer (Vikram Weet), and directed by Renny Harlin that is based on the same incident, and done in the currently popular documentary-styled, “found footage” approach (Ex. - THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT) with a character in the story shooting the film you see. Your script, also based on the incident, has a completely different, and, I would say, more unusual take on the event. But you tell the story in the more traditional, objective narrative style. Yours, then is narratively wilder without the stylistic razzle-dazzle indicated, while the produced film has a much more conventional explanation for the mystery, while using the flashier subjective camera and docu-drama narrative approach. Can you give us some background on how you came onto the project--or were the two scripts unaware of each other? What transpired? How did we end up with the film Renny Harlin directed?

A - THE PASS was a strange project. I'd been spending a lot of time on Wikipedia looking for true incidents to hang a horror film on. In particular I wanted to do an alien abduction story. But I wanted to do the scariest version of that story possible, so I went looking for an alien abduction incident that resulted in actual human deaths.  And I quickly found out that there really aren't any.

They are all told by survivors. The closest that we have is the Travis Walton story which was already adapted.

But the Russians have one, the Dyatlov Pass Incident.  And it is truly terrifying

So I stumbled upon the story and started to adapt it. Partway through my script, I had a call from a producer named Roy Lee who had stumbled on the same story. So instead of both of us trying to bring separate versions of the story to market, we decided to team up.

We took our script around town and discovered, ironically, that there was already another competing project out there on the same subject. There is actually a third script on the subject as well. And believe it or not, that script is written by a Nicholl writer too. We actually traded scripts out of curiosity, and their approach is equally different.

So that makes a total of four Dyatlov Pass scripts that I'm aware of. And there may be more. 

I still haven't seen the Renny Harlin film. But as far as I know their approach is very different.  Roy Lee and I are still trying to find a way to get THE PASS made. We've had some interest lately, so who knows. These things have a way of coming around.

Q – You were kind enough to let me read one of your unproduced (at least at this writing) scripts, a horror piece called ABOMINATION (the source story for this script was co-written with Chato Hill and the story is also the basis for a graphic novel from Bragi’s own Mythos Comics venture). If I were to try to describe it in the fashion of film-marketers, I’d say it is very loosely “DANCES WITH WOLVES meets the 1951 film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD”! And since it’s not a western, nor is it a UFO story, it’s amazing that’s still apt! But it’s set during World War II in the Arctic of all places, and it involves a group of Inuit (once called Eskimos), a very fresh and unusual setting, indeed. Can you give us any background on this project?

A - ABOMINATION is a script I had a lot of fun writing. I developed it with Chato Hill, who's a great writer and a frequent collaborator and an old college friend. ABOMINATION, in my mind, is really part of a triptych. Taken with LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER and SEASON OF THE WITCH, it really completes my period/monster fetish.

At least until I get the itch again…

Chato and I are having a great time with the graphic novel, because the response has been really enthusiastic. So, in a way, I feel like the movie has been made.  It’s right there.

We’ve had interest from a couple of places and hopefully it will find a home at some point. But it is a bit of a tough sell. For whatever reason, Hollywood has some peculiar rules about things that will or will not succeed.

I didn't know this until somebody told me but apparently snow is not a strong selling point for movies. Sounds ludicrous. But I'm not joking. Apparently it's a rule: movies in the snow don't do well. 

So we’re up against some rules like that.  [Being a] period-piece, frankly, also doesn’t help us. But for every rule, something will come along and disprove it.

Q – Another script, SAMARITAN also has a “fraternal twin” in the form of a graphic novel that you produced and published through your company, Mythos. This is a dark, urban noir story, kind of a grittier, more realistic take on Frank Miller’s and Christopher Nolan’s approaches to Batman as a “Dark Knight.” What can you tell us about the gestation of that story?

A - Samaritan is a script that’s very close to me, very personal to me. Actually I wanted to direct it myself, so when I wrote it I took a very disciplined approach and made sure that I didn't let the budget out-of-control. I wanted it to be something that could be produced for a million.

The genesis of that was really the fact that my wife was pregnant with our son at the time.  I had a lot of stuff kicking around my head about fatherhood and the meaning of fatherhood and whether or not I was good enough to be a dad. 

And I started to realize that I wanted to become a better person for my son. And that idea was very interesting to me. The idea of a broken-down morally questionable figure, who actually learns more from his son than the son learns from him.

So that was the basis for Samaritan.

I loved the idea of a redemption story about somebody who isn't perfect but who wants to be better than he is because of how he’s seen in the eyes of someone else. #
_____

I’d like to extend my thanks and appreciation to Bragi for consenting to this interview. With his embracing of theatrical, television, and the graphic print mediums, and his focus on the major genres of horror, thriller, and science fiction, arguably the most popular niches in Hollywood today, his success is an example to emulate.

FADE OUT


Quote of the Post: "That script traveled through a number of studios before it finally got made.  It was developed over a good six-year period.  I probably have some 20 different drafts on my computer.  The draft that won the Nicholl was very different than the draft that was finally produced.  Not so much in terms of plot, but certainly in terms of tone and characterization."

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