I don’t know what this site would be today without Smilin’ Jack Ruby. Working the screening and junket circuit in LA, he helped the site straddle the line between fanboyism and professionalism, and many of the contacts I have today in the film business started with him. Without his lead, I don’t know if I would have ended up writing for CHUD. SJR moved on a couple of years ago and reverted to his normal identity of Mark Wheaton, under which he has begun a successful career as a screenwriter.
I caught Mark on the phone as he was preparing to leave for Africa to do research for a project (now that’s the screenwriter life people fantasize about, not sitting in a small room churning out rewrites all night). Mark’s in Africa when his first movie is being released in theaters, but really – it’s Africa. You don’t want to miss that.
The film is The Messengers, the American debut from the popular Asian twin directors, the Pang Brothers. A family moves from the city to a sunflower farm in North Dakota, where they come under attack by mysterious and creepy supernatural forces. Horror movies are right in Mark’s wheelhouse, so it’s exciting to have his first film be in that genre.
Messengers is your first produced feature script, right?
Very much so. I had a couple of studio bits here and there, and I had worked with the producers of The Messengers, Blue Star Pictures, on two scripts, but neither of them had been produced. One of them looks like it’s going in 07, but I hadn’t had anything produced. And this was the exact opposite – usually when you’re working on a script you get attachments, and then about a year later stuff starts rolling forward, and if you’re lucky another and it might go. This was, ‘The Pang Bros have a window this summer, we have nothing because we’re starting over, we need a full shooting draft in six months.’ It’s a very different process than I had been led to assume was the norm.
What was the first day on the set like for you?
It was funny, because it was like a set visit for CHUD. You walk on set and Cindy White was there for SciFi, I’ve been on a million sets with her, Staci Wilson was there, I’ve been on a million sets with her. And reporters I didn’t know like Andrew Sweeney from CHUD were there, and you’re all looking at it new. For me I felt like it was one of those set visits where I had read the script and knew what was happening and thought, ‘Aha! I know what this is about, I can write a great article about this.’ It did take some time – there’s just a disconnect between what you wrote a few months before and what you’re looking at.
Sometimes in Hollywood screenwriters really get shit on, especially when they’re new. What was your experience with the Pang Bros like?
It’s interesting, because when I had started this process, the Pangs were in Hong Kong either finishing The Eye 10 or doing press runs on The Eye 10, so when I got there I wondered what this relationship was going to be like. It was very much facilitated by [Sam] Raimi and [Robert] Tapert putting us in a room together. They’re writer/directors themselves, but they were coming on this as directors, not as writers, so they understood the space a writer would want. They were extraordinarily collaborative and I had a really good time working with both of them.
What is it like working with Sam Raimi? I’ve heard some interesting things.
Working with Sam? Once you get over the fact that you are surrounded by a 200 million dollar movie about to roll named Spider-Man 3, once you get over the fact that every day when you’re driving to Sony you’re doing the little 15 million dollar horror film and the other 60 people in the office are working to bring this behemoth forward, then you can start to relax. I met Sam as a reporter a couple of times, and I met Robert as well, and it was intimidating because I liked their work, but quickly it was like any other screenwriting job – you’re all in the same boat, you’re all trying to do the same thing. So even though you get the moments every so often of, ‘My God, it’s Sam Raimi!’ you mostly have, ‘Hey Sam, on page 64, let’s try this,’ and Oxide [Pang] will jump in with something and you’re just working as a group. I shouldn’t sound so blasé about it, because I wasn’t at first, but you have to work through the day.
You mention that you met Raimi and Tapert as a reporter. Being a reporter and a reviewer, when you’re making the move into the real Hollywood thing, are you ever worried it’s going to bite you in the ass, that someone will find something mean you wrote about them? It happened with Nick and Jan DeBont.
I was pretty inconsequential as a reviewer, or as a reporter. I wasn’t really way out there. I did the job for a bunch of years, but it never came up when we were working. It wasn’t like Raimi and Tapert were like, ‘Oh yeah, you were the guy writing about us.’ It came up with one of the execs because I had been on the set of The Grudge only a year before, but as soon as they hired me off of another script they read, they were like, ‘OK, he’s not a reporter anymore.’ It’s never happened, and I’ve worked with a lot of people whose films I’ve reviewed – people like George Tillman, who I interviewed for Barbershop 2, who I’m working with, and it’s not like he remembers me, it’s not like it was anything but a press junket. It never really comes up.
Having the background of the set visits and the junkets, what does that do for you when you’re moving into full-time screenwriting?
Most people who watch movies get to choose the movies they’re watching. When you’re a reporter you’re forced to watch every single damn movie that comes out. You have to see all the bad movies, you have to see all the good movies, you have to cover every single junket. You have to listen to people rationalize mistakes and heard people be surprised when things turn out in a good way. You run the gamut of not only every movie that comes out but having to talk about it afterwards and seeing the decisions of marketing. It was an invaluable education, specifically because you don’t get to be selective.
Coming from the background of the genre press and especially from message boards like CHUD’s and AICN’s TalkBacks, are you ready for the inevitable nastiness and scorn that people will dump on the movie, as they dump nastiness and scorn on just about every single movie?
It’s funny – there’s a Bill Cosby routine called Chicken Heart. Young Bill Cosby, nine years old, is home when his parents go out to dinner and he turns on the radio to listen to Arch Oboler’s Lights Out. It’s the story of a mutant chicken heart that comes, eats the whole city, comes up the Jersey Turnpike, is at his front door, and little Bill Cosby freaks out and sets the sofa on fire, puts jello all over the front steps and his dad comes home, slips on the jello, sees the sofa on fire and Bill Cosby yells, ‘Look out, it’s the chicken heart!’ And his dad says, ‘Turn off the radio!’ The good thing about the internet and the message boards is don’t read it. It’s very simple. It’s easy to get caught up in that but it’ll drive you nuts.
You hear people in the industry saying they don’t read the TalkBacks, but sometimes it feels like bullshit. Do you get the impression that people are reading the web and worrying that HaloFan78 is shit-talking their upcoming production?
I actually haven’t. I still read CHUD and Dread Central, but most of my friends don’t. I know some studio execs… I’ve walked past an assistant who will be reading David Poland’s site, but for the most part they don’t. I know marketing people will read the sites to see how people are talking for the ramp up, so they know how to aim the marketing. There are certain filmmakers who will engage the audience in messageboards and all that, but I think that’s the minority.
When you’re told you have six months to get a shooting draft in place, did you have something in a drawer you could pull out or were you starting from scratch?
It was very much, ‘What do the Pangs want to do? What are the Pangs looking for? What are they looking to make?’ They told me two sentences: they wanted a horror movie set on a farm and they told me a second sentence that explained the supernatural essence of the film. And that was about it. It was starting from scratch, and we spent a month working with the execs and Tapert and Raimi hammering out a concept that the studio would be happy with. We changed my original pitch, which is nothing remotely like what’s coming out, but we just kept adapting thing into something everybody was happy about making.
What was something that changed in a big way that you’re happy about?
When we began the entire process, one of the things we all liked was the the idea of the crows, and of having a poltergeist able to destroy the house but also – you’ve seen movies where a ghost will possess a person, but we thought that was two different mythologies, so we thought that if they could possess objects, maybe they could possess simple things, like the crows. So we related the crows to objects in the house, like the toy tractor. All the little things the ghosts could do. As we went along I really enjoyed working with that aspect of it, working out the crows as an extension of the poltergeists that were trying to destroy this family. I liked writing animal attacks and sinister crow crap.
What do you think the best steps for people who are out there in the trenches if they want to get their foot in the door in Hollywood?
I wish I had the Rosetta Stone of how it’s done, but every person I know did it differently. But here’s what to avoid: a lot of people come out here with one script, and they walk around with this one script and they give it to this guy and this guy and this guy. They spend two or three years on this one script and never thinking they should write another script. Agencies are looking not to make money off of one script, they’re looking to make money off people for years to come. It’s an easy mistake to make. But the best thing to do is to write. And write and write and write. When you finish one script, make the next one better. You learn from the mistakes of each one, and once you get to the level of writing a studio feature and working with execs and producers, you’re much less likely to be married to your absolute vision. It’s not writing a novel or writing theater, where the writer has a lot of power; because they’re so expensive, films are very collaborative. So if you’re used to rewriting, that’s what Hollywood script writing is. ‘We’ve lost five million of the budget, pick two scares and lose them.’
I’m not saying if you want to self-finance, if you want to become a director and a writer. But if you want to become an actual Hollywood studio screenwriter, it helps to be able to be fluid with your ideas. Keep your story, keep your characters, but be aware that you’ll be rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.
What does 2007 have in store for you?
A couple of days ago it was announced, this thing, Chinese Wall, that I’ve been working on about corruption in Nigeria, is going to roll. Clark Johnson is directing. I’m leaving for South Africa for this movie for Miramax about the world’s largest hospital, which is in Soweto. There’s a couple of other things I’m working on here and there. But that’s new writing – scripts from like two years ago will come back around and roll forward towards production, but since I don’t have anything to do with them, I don’t think about them.
You come from a genre background, but is it important to you to make a mark as a guy who does stuff beyond horror films?
I don’t know. The thing about horror films is that they genuinely are so impossibly fun to write because it’s like a theater experience. You’re so engaged with the audience, you’re thinking about the audience from frame to frame, scene to scene. I would write horror from here to eternity. It is an incredibly fun experience writing horror. Dramas and thrillers, they’re other interesting stories. Something comes along, some assignment I’m interested in, it’s another cool story. I think this for myself, but if you only write in one genre, I don’t think it would be too long before it got repetitive, before I started writing the same kinds of scares, and I don’t want that to happen.
Do you think we’re on the verge of genre fatigue with audiences?
Depends on the audience. I think we’re already there with audience fatigue on a certain age level. I know I used to see every horror movie that came out and now I’m not. Three horror movies will come out and I’m not there, I don’t care anymore. They’re getting more directed at specific audiences. Like Messengers is really aimed at 13 year old girls who are baby sitting for the first time, who have this responsibility for the first time, who have to figure it out for the first time. The Hitcher is aimed at 15 to 25 year old boys, but it’s R-rated, so it’s a different audience. If you start skewing things and don’t try hitting everybody, you won’t get it so bad. I know I’m fatigued as hell, but the good news is that there’s a lot of good horror fiction being written.