Severance could be set to be the biggest british horror-comedy since ‘Shaun of the Dead’, writer James Moran was kind enough to lend us his time to chat about the writing of his first feature film, the process of carrying the script through to the screen and his favourite bits from John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’.
This is the first original interview we’ve done here on Solace, let us know what you think in the comments section.
There is a charity screening of ‘Severance’ this thursday in Leicester Square as the unofficial opening to this years ‘Frightfest’ (that we will be covering on this site in detail), tickets are still available.
SIC – It’s an obvious question, but how did you come up with the idea for Severance? did the idea spawn from anything specifically or did it just pour out of your mind?
JM – I’d been trying to think of a good horror idea, and one day had a really bad commute home – yuppies in pinstripe suits were everywhere, pushing past me, jumping the queue, and generally being the ignorant scumbags that they are. So, in a flash of temper, I decided to kill off some yuppies in a horror – take them to a cabin, and pick them off one by one. Once I’d calmed down, I thought that was a pretty good idea – take some standard, British office types, and throw them into a cabin-in-the-woods horror, see how they react. And it developed from there.
SIC – Hah hah that’s great, so for you it’s less ‘write about what you know’ and more ‘write about what you fantasise’?
JM – Exactly. The office politics part was what I knew, and the yuppie death was what I fantasised about. Take what you know, and give it the old “what if” scenario. If you can come up with something universal that everyone will be able to relate to, then you’re on a winner.
SIC – So had you already decided you wanted to write a horror film? Or was it one of many ideas you were throwing around? I mean I’ve read (and I’ve no idea if it’s true) that a lot of writers and directors often do a horror as their first film, as it’s a lot easier to be recognised, than say churning out a low budget drama, plus distributors know the quality tolerance of an audience for horror films is a lot higher, than many other genres
JM – I had a few different ideas, some horror, some comedy, some science fiction, but that was the strongest one. Horror is a good place to start, because you can make a bigger splash, have more fun, and go a bit more extreme. It’s true that a lot of people pick horror as their first movie because you can make it cheap, and it’s guaranteed to make money, because there’s a built in audience. The trouble with that is, you get some people who are just in it for the money, and they don’t love the genre, they don’t know the history – you can always tell when a horror movie is made by horror fans, and when it’s made by people who just want to make money. People who aren’t familiar with horror tend to think “oh, it’s only horror, it doesn’t have to make sense”, and make cheap, crappy movies, they assume that only 14 year old boys watch it. But they’re wrong, and those movies get no respect from horror fans. I wrote Severance because it was the best idea I had at the time, and also because I write the sort of movies I go to see on a Saturday night. I don’t do kitchen sink dramas. Don’t want to watch them, don’t want to write them.
SIC – Interesting, I guess that’s why a film like Shaun of the Dead, but also films like Switchblade Romance(AKA High Tension) do well, they have the scares and laughs to attract mainstream audiences but at the same time are giving the appropriate nods that the genre fans pick up on.
So you’re a big horror fan?
JM – I love horror, always have. When I was at school, someone discovered Stephen King, and started passing around these battered, dog-eared copies of his books. I was immediately hooked, and realised that you could actually be a success writing this sort of material. I started watching horror movies even earlier than that, the gorier the better, my family were terrified that I’d grow up to be a serial killer or something. I think they realised that I knew the difference between movies and real life though, because I was also obsessed with TV shows about special effects. I’d tape them and watch them over and over, to see how they did exploding heads and intestines. All the other kids were fascinated with footballers and pop stars, but I just wanted to be like the special effects people and stuntmen.
SIC – So at what point did you decide you were more about making heads explode on the page and less about making them explode with latex and polystyrene?
JM – I tried making some things at home, but all I had was glue, paper, and whatever I could scrounge from the kitchen. So everything I made looked the same, and fell to pieces within seconds. When I started reading horror books, I realised that you could “make” whatever you wanted on the page, and your mind would create it perfectly. Plus I was lazy; it was easier to write something than make it out of physical objects.
SIC – On a side note, have you seen the documentary on ‘The Thing’ dvd? one of the best ‘Making ofs’ for special effects ever, full of really fascinating stuff and it’s great to hear the crew talk about trying to purchase gallon drums of sex lubricant to make everything look slimey
JM – yes I certainly have, I love that documentary – especially the part where they describe how long it took to set up the chest opening sequence, and it went wrong, so they had to spend hours and hours setting it up again…
SIC – So what films have been big influences, in your career in general and specifically for Severance?
JM – The movies that influenced me the most were ones like An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Alien, Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Fly, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead. I saw a lot more like those, but they were the big ones. Deliverance traumatised me for several years. Jaws had a big effect too, I think it was my first horror movie, although it’s more a thriller than a horror. Spielberg and Hitchcock always got me excited about movies, Spielberg made the world seem magical and exciting, and Hitchcock showed that danger lurked in even the most mundane settings (The Birds scared the shit out of me). It’s not technically a horror, but when I saw Robocop, I realised that you could be really extreme, really nasty, but get a laugh out of it too. When I started writing Severance, I thought it would be easy because I know and love horror so much, but it turned out to be really hard – because *everything* has been done before, really well *and* really badly. But knowing the genre lets you play around with it, the horror audience is smart, always one step ahead, so you’ve got to be three steps ahead while pretending you’re a step behind. Or something.
SIC – Hah hah, I think I understand what you mean, It’s like you want to be knowing, but not overly cocky
JM – Oh yeah, you can’t let yourself get cocky – as soon as you think you’re smarter than the audience, you’ve made a fatal mistake. They’ll spot it a mile off, and you’ll really come unstuck. You just have to do the best you can, and if it satisfies you, then hopefully it’ll satisfy the audience.
SIC – So what do you think about the sudden rise in popularity of horror films, especially in the US, UK and Asia, do you see it as a positive thing that’s here to stay or just a trend that comes and goes in cycles?
JM – Horror, like Freddy, Jason, and Michael, never dies. It just lies low for a while. Sometimes it gets really popular for a while, then it passes – but it doesn’t go away, people still make horror movies that get a great audience, it’s just not crashing the mainstream. At the moment, it seems to be having quite a resurgence, which is great for everyone. But that’s also a problem, because as I said above, you get people making horror movies purely because horror makes money – if a movie isn’t made with the proper respect and passion, then you get cheesy, watered down, PG-13 semi-horror. Horror movies for people who don’t like horror – if you sat some of these people down in front of Cannibal Holocaust or The Exorcist, they’d have a nervous breakdown. It’s great to see the new wave of horror coming from all over the world, like Hostel, Ring, The Eye, Wolf Creek, strong movies made by people who know their stuff. Whenever a horror movie comes out and does well, it helps us all.
SIC – Totally, It’s interesting to see how some movies kind of break the wall down for others to follow on, for example Wolf Creek, there was virtually no horror coming out of oz before that film, but now there’s a whole swathe of things being filmed, The same with Ringu in asia, it woke the beast so to speak. Do you think that has happened in the UK? Or for us has it always been more of a steady trickle…
JM – We’ve always had that horror tradition, but there is definitely an upsurge going on. There’s been a snobbery in this country towards anything remotely commercial, anything that appeals to a wide audience, it’s perceived as somehow crass and stupid. Which is ridiculous, movies are entertainment after all, so they should be entertaining, surely? I think the past few years have shown that we can make commercial, fun horror movies, but also ones that are intelligent, that don’t underestimate the audience. They open the door for more of the same. “Commercial” isn’t a dirty word here anymore, thankfully. Let’s hope that means we get more good movies.
SIC – Was the Severance script picked up and shopped around to a lot of different directors, or had you specifically written it with Christopher Smith in mind? Had you seen Creep?
JM – It wasn’t written with anyone in mind, whether directing or acting or anything – I wrote it at home, during evenings and weekends, and in the back of my mind I don’t know if I ever believed it would be possible to sell it and get it made. When I finished it, my agent sent it out to selected companies, and it sold fairly quickly. Once I’d done a rewrite for the film company, they started looking for directors. Creep was just about to come out, and they thought that Chris would be a good match for Severance, so he then came on board. I saw Creep around the same time, and really enjoyed it – it was very nasty, obviously made by someone who loved horror, and did what it set out to do, so I was really glad to find out that he would be directing it.
SIC – So how involved were you with the process of actually getting the script to screen? and what was it like to working with Chris?
JM – I stayed with it, doing new drafts based on the film company’s notes, and then Chris and Jason’s (the producer) notes, and then both me and Chris worked on it at the same time for a while. Once it got past that point, pre-production started, and I had to hand over the baton – when it reaches a certain point, the movie-making process takes over, and you can’t make big changes without messing the budget/location scouting up, so from that point the director is (and should be) in charge. But even after that point, they kept me involved, showed me everything that was happening, asked my opinion, and so on, so it was great. Chris is full of energy and passion, talks at a hundred miles per hour, and he looks at things from every angle that he can – so if you’re working with him, you have to tune into the same vibe and keep up, but if you can, then it works really well. It’s a bit like getting your coat caught in the door of a speeding train, if you can run REALLY FAST until the next stop, then you’ll be okay! Luckily I can run pretty fast. Plus we like the same sort of horror movies, so we both knew exactly what tone Severance should have.
SIC – So you discussed other movies you wanted it to be similar to in mood and tone? I mean from the sounds of it Deliverance was a point of reference (judging from the plot), were there any other films specifically?
JM – Deliverance was definitely an influence at the start, in that you get the city types going into the countryside, and getting completely out of their depth. But I always wanted it to be fun as well, so the humour was always there. But there weren’t any specific movies that influenced the tone, because we just instinctively knew how it should be – play it straight, with no “jokes”, but let the humour come from the characters and situations. And then when it gets scary and gory, let it be really scary and really gory.
SIC – The film is being touted as a horror/comedy, is that a difficult balance to strike when writing a screenplay?
JM – Totally. It’s really hard to tell if you’re managing to be scary, because you can’t really make people jump, you have no sound effects or clever editing, but it’s easier to know if you’re being funny, as good jokes just work on the page. Originally, the humour stayed at the same level all the way through, but early on we made the decision to reduce the laughs from about the halfway point, more and more, so as the horror increases, it gets less funny, until you’re just getting hit really hard with the heavy horror, with no light relief. The balance shifted several times, through the drafts, then during filming, then during the editing – they spent ages in the edit suite taking out a second here, a split second there, the slightest misjudgement and you overbalance the whole thing. So when writing it you have to just trust your instincts, and get people to read it and tell you honestly if you’ve got it right.
SIC – So in the future are you going to focus primarily on screenwriting?, and if so are there any specific directors you’d really like to work with?
JM – Definitely. I have lots of stories to tell, and want to try every genre, except the kitchen sink drama, obviously. There are loads of directors I’d love to work with, but it would be so presumptuous of me to list them, as if to say I could ever be up to their standard. But I’ll do it anyway: Spielberg has always inspired me, ever since I was a kid, he was the first director I could actually recognise, and who seemed to be on my wavelength. Plus he’s in a nice dark phase lately, so that would be cool. But that would never happen to me. Danny Boyle I really admire, he keeps doing different things and I love his style. Scorsese would be amazing. I would kill to do something with Robert Rodriguez, because he can make an entire film in about 5 minutes, and he’s effortlessly cool. Paul Verhoeven. John Carpenter, definitely. Zack Snyder, who did the excellent Dawn of the Dead remake, he’s very interesting. It would be cool to work with any of these guys, but it’d be even cooler to see what sort of movie they’d make of something I wrote, that would be the ultimate prize. Going back to the special effects guys – I would love to see a Rob Bottin or Stan Winston creation in something I wrote.
SIC – Getting you’re boyhood hero’s involved in a future project sound’s like a dream come true, kind of the way Tarantino works, basically just pulling in all the people that influenced him over the years to work on his latest project. Are there any actors you’d specifically like to work with in that way?
JM – Kurt Russell and Kevin Bacon. Those guys are the unsung heroes of the acting world, every single movie they’re in, they turn in fucking amazing, powerful performances, and they never get any recognition for it. You never see them up for Oscars, which they deserve for nearly everything they do. They’re too good for Oscars. Watch Dark Blue, and tell me that Kurt didn’t deserve some kind of award for that, or Stir of Echoes with Kevin. They’re solid, brave actors who always do their best for the character, and never worry about making them sympathetic. Peter Stormare is incredible too, I could watch his face all day. James Caan. Christopher Lee. Kiefer Sutherland has a superb, tight energy to him, I have a massive mancrush on Jack Bauer. Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Edward Woodward. Maria Bello, Jodie Foster, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Richardson. And obviously the king of all men, Bruce Campbell. I could go on all day…
SIC – So what lies ahead for you? is there anything you’re working on, or projects that you’re involved with that you can talk about?
JM – I’ve just finished a draft of a new horror, “Curfew”. That’s my dark, gritty, 1970’s style horror thriller, there are no laughs in that one. And I’m just starting a spec comedy, to get some light relief from the gut-wrenching stuff. I have an action thriller and an adventure tale that are both still being worked out in outline form. I’m working on a couple of other things for other directors that I can’t really give details for yet, but they’re mostly horror. I’m just going to keep working and work my way up. I’d love to do some adaptations, but I have to wait for the opportunities. My dream project would be to adapt the Preacher comic, they’ve tried to get it off the ground many times, but it’s never happened, for various reasons. If I ever get in a position of power where I can pick anything I want, that’ll be the one.
SIC – Yeah Preacher has been in development hell forever, but then it was never really going to be an easy ride. I always put it in a similar boat to ‘Watchmen’, not that it’s un-adaptable, but it just needs someone with respect for the story, knowledge of fans expectations and also the ability to make it into something that will bring home the box office bacon. It would be a challenge, that’s for sure.
JM – I think they need to go lower budget with it, make it for 10 or 15 million, mostly unknown actors, maybe one star, and really just go for it, balls to the wall. It’s kind of a dirty, raw story that you wouldn’t need a massive budget to do, if you were creative about it, you know? Watchmen, on the other hand, needs a bucketload of money, otherwise it’ll look cheap. I think its time will come, people are more open to things like that, they want stuff that pushes buttons, gets debates going. And if nothing else, it will get plenty of debates going…
SIC – If you do ever reach that position of power, you write a script, please don’t cast Keanu Reeves in any roles…
Unless the script is a sequel to Point Break, in which case it’s ok.
JM – I’m going to stick up for Keanu, I think he’s a very underrated actor – check out his early stuff, like Prince of Pennsylvania, The Night Before, he’s really good in those. He doesn’t seem to get cast for many roles outside of a certain type, but he was great in The Gift, a genuinely disturbing performance. Plus he played Ortiz the Dogboy in Freaked, which gets him a free pass for life, in my book.
SIC – hah hah fair enough, I guess anyone who plays Che Guevara as a dogboy you have to give respect to.
So can you tell us anything about the plot of ‘Curfew’ at all or is it to early to talk about it?
JM – Dude. They’d kill me, they’d kill me dead. They’d make it look like an accident, probably plant some drugs or bestiality porn on me, too. You have no idea what these movie people are capable of. Plus I don’t want to give away the story, I’d like to keep most of it a surprise for as long as possible. All I’ll say is: it’s set in present day London, it’s fast and violent, and a lot of people get killed in various nasty ways. Just what you want from a Saturday night out at the movies.
Again a big thanks to James Moran for taking the time out to talk to us. Severance is released around the UK this friday.
Check out the official site and trailer here.