I had a chance to read and review Tim McGregor's Bad Wolf a few months back. He seemed like an easy choice to hit up for a guest post on monsters. His offering takes a different approach, showing monster movies from the side of a screenwriter. Enjoy.
Making Monsters: A practical guide
By Tim McGregor
Here’s a weird truth about horror movies: they don’t require movie stars. Run through a list of your favourite horror flicks and I’ll bet most of them have no big names. Texas Chainsaw, Halloween, American Werewolf, Elm Street, Blair Witch, The Descent... not a movie star in sight. In fact, movie stars get in the way of a good story. Why? Because with horror, concept is the star and in this genre, concept breaks down to one word:
Whether the monster is big (the Devil himself in Exorcist) or small (a Tiki doll in Trilogy of Terror) or even the absurd (a vengeful tire in Rubber), the whole thing hangs on the shoulder of your monster. Remember Ring? Yes, the monster in that was the ghost girl but for the first half of that story, the monster is a crappy VHS cassette.
The holy grail for any writer in this game is coming up with a good monster.
Late 2006 I’m watching a made-for-cable movie called She-Creature. Rufus Sewell plays a carnival huckster in 1890’s Ireland who comes across a sea captain holding a live mermaid prisoner in a tank. When the old salt refuses to sell it, Rufus and his carnies steal the mermaid and board a ship for America intent on making it rich with their prize. Except this isn’t The Little Mermaid swimming around in a tank, it’s a man-eating predator. Entrancing and mute, the mermaid starts devouring the crew one by one. Fun ensues as our hero debates whether to dump her in the drink or keep going on to America.
I was blown away by this movie. Not just the story but the production values and brilliant filmmaking. Despite the B-movie budget, director Sebastián Gutiérrez and his crew convincingly pull off a period piece (expensive), a convincing mermaid (costly and time-consuming stuntwork) and set it on a ship (again, costly).
Yet I kept waiting for the story to turn a certain way, thinking that Rufus was going to fall in love with the mermaid. That doesn’t happen. Once the mermaid escapes the tank, the movie becomes a familiar ‘monster run amok’ flick. Again, well done but ultimately unsatisfying after such a great set up.
But the idea stayed with me. A character in love with a monster that he can’t be with. They can’t even touch because she’d kill him.
I start crafting my own deadly mermaid love story and then reality stops me cold. I simply can’t afford a mermaid movie.
I’m a screenwriter working in low-budget genre movies in Canada. You always have to keep production costs in mind or you’re sunk. If your script is too big, it simply won’t get made. In Hollywood, low budget means $10 to 20 million. Here, it means $1 million or less.
Mermaids are simply out of the question.
I had a precarious foothold in the biz with one produced movie, a low-budget action-horror written with my friend and fellow CFC alum Tyler Levine. Find it filed under the title of UKM: The Ultimate Killing Machine. I know what you’re thinking... what a godawful title! A licensing conflict with the original title (Kill Switch) caused the production company to slap a new title on it. It still makes me wince. But it got made and it was a boot camp education in low budget movie making. How to exploit your location and resources for maximum screen effect. How to use suspense over graphic SFX and how action can be shot without a lot of costly stunt work. A quick and dirty 18 day shoot in a decommissioned school in beautiful Hamilton, Ontario. Michael Madsen was our star.
Tyler and I try to make hay of it but the movie is simply dumped onto cable and DVD. There’s a nice review in Fangoria mag and then an onslaught of vicious reviews online. Here’s the thing, those vicious reviews may have stung but they weren’t wrong. UKM is a cheap B-movie and it shows.
So with one notch in my belt and looking for the next movie, I’m stuck with this mermaid problem. It just won’t work. Besides the prosthetic fish tail, the real problem is the actress having to perform underwater. That would require take after take to shoot the simplest sequence and delays on set are what burns money and eats your shooting days.
But the idea kept at me; a character in love with a monster they cannot be with. Again, the concept was the star. All I had to do was rethink the concept. Rethink the monster.
What I needed was a budget-friendly monster. Werewolves? Nah, too FX heavy. Ghosts? Nope. Japanese horror like Ring and Ju On had exhausted the ghost story for the time being. Zombies seemed overdone after 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Romero’s Land of the Dead. (How wrong I was in that assessment!)
So I settled on vampires.
Wow, Tim. How original!
The thing is, vamps are the easiest to get away with on film. FX wise, we’re talking about some fangs and contact lenses. A few pints of fake blood. No elaborate make-up, no complicated prosthetics that requires multiple takes to get right.
Maybe this is why vampires are so popular in film. They’re cheap.
I came up with a paramedic who’s burnt-out from working nights and patching up human wreckage of junkies and street people. Returning home to his rough neighbourhood, he finds a woman who’s been assaulted and left for dead. She has no memory of who she is or what happened to her but refuses to go to the hospital. The paramedic takes her in, nurses her back to health and quickly falls in love with her. Since he works nights, they sleep during the day with the windows shuttered. The woman heals quickly but becomes moody and erratic, leading the paramedic to believe she’s a drug addict suffering withdrawal.
Left alone one night, the woman is startled by a junkie breaking into the apartment. The paramedic comes home to a bloodied corpse on his floor and the woman he loves feeding off the body. Turns out she was suffering withdrawal after all, but it wasn’t for meth.
Our paramedic realizes that the woman he loves is a vampire and the theme of the story plays out from there. How far would you go for love?
The script was banged out quickly. Tyler reads it, gives notes and we work through the fixes. The script’s reworked, rewritten and polished up. The agent shops it around but we eventually come back to the production company that made UKM. They want it.
The company brings in one of their directors and another quick and dirty shoot is planned. The script was tailored for a tight budget meant to exploit a grimy urban environment. In fact, it’s so budget-friendly the company shoots a good portion of it out the back door of their production offices in Hamilton. (Sidenote: If you’re unfamiliar with Hamilton, it’s a beautiful place to shoot a movie. Built with grandiose ideas and fallen into economic ruin since the 80’s, Hammer Town is a film set waiting for a camera. No set-dressing required.)
Looking back on it, we should have asked for more money considering the savings built into the script.
Trouble starts when the director gives his notes about the rewrite. Scripts are endlessly rewritten, that’s just part of the business. Some notes are good but some are bad and the tone of the movie is changing. It’s becoming more of a crude comedy. It changes thematically too, less about how far one goes for love than about how relationships suck the life out of you. I balk, the director tells me not to worry. It’s all good, he says. How I hate that empty phrase. The rewrite notes keep coming as the camera date comes up fast. I balk again, the movie is becoming downright nasty. Misogynistic even. Again, I’m assured it will be handled correctly.
Now it’s too late to do anything. Once a film goes into production, it’s a hurtling train that can’t be stopped. Once it’s purchased, the script belongs to the production company and they can do whatever they want with it. If I don’t do the rewrites, someone else will. Probably the director himself. So I stay on and try to mitigate the damage.
So the film was shot and entered the distribution pipeline. First to cable channels then dumped to DVD. Bad reviews roll in. I wish I could recommend it but I can’t. It’s a mess. The poor actress playing the amnesiac vampire spends half the movie topless.
Of the movies I’ve had produced, this one still sticks in my craw. And I shouldn’t complain. I’ve had three features made from original scripts. I’m a lucky sonofabitch and remain grateful for the work. Movies are hugely collaborative efforts that involve a ton of talented people. And those movies morph and change throughout the entire process.
Still, that little monster script was something special. Simple but elegant in its economy. A clean throughline from theme to climax.
Now it’s just one more vampire flick clogging up the pop culture landscape.
Maybe I should have stuck with the mermaid after all.