British horror seems to be enjoying a renaissance at the moment, following the recent success of Creep, The Last Horror Movie, and most notably, The Descent. Christopher Smith is following up his underground shocker with another horror film entitled Severance which has just finished shooting in Budapest and the Isle of Man. The cast includes Danny Dyer, Tim McInnerny, Laura Harris, and Toby Stephens and the completed film is slated for release by Pathé in the UK early next year.
The script for Severance was written by James Moran, a 33 year old writer – and horror fanatic - from North London. Here at Eat My Brains we recently had the opportunity to ask the hotshot young writer all about his upcoming film, and got the lowdown on his other forthcoming projects.
EMB: Hi James. Perhaps you could begin by telling us a little bit about how you got into scriptwriting?
James Moran: I’d been writing for years, short stories and then later scripts, but thought it would be virtually impossible to break into the business. A few years ago, I submitted a script to the Sci Fi Channel's Sci Fi Shorts competition, it won, and they made it into a short film (Cheap Rate Gravity). That made me realize that maybe people like me could actually get into this crazy writing world. It gave me the confidence I needed to get off my arse and give it a go. I put some scripts together, made a list of agencies, and sent them off. The first agency I approached took me on. I tried getting into TV first, but didn't have any luck, so decided to try film instead.
EMB: You sold your script for Severance last year. What can you tell us about the story?
JM: A group of office workers from a weapons sales company go on a team building exercise in the wilds of Eastern Europe - paintballing, orienteering, team games and all that sort of bollocks that managers insist builds character. But then things start going horribly wrong when they're stalked by a deranged killer… It's funny, it's scary, it's pretty demented - there's some extreme stuff in there that I'm dying to see on screen. I can't say any more, the film company would have me killed. If I go missing, you'll know I blabbed.
EMB: You worked on the script for two years in which time it underwent many changes. Was it a hard process finding a buyer?
JM: Finding a buyer was the easy part - when the script was ready, my agent sent it out to companies looking for horror stuff, and Qwerty picked it up fairly quickly. But before it got sent anywhere, I worked on it for nearly a year, on and off, just getting it right, making sure it worked, and making sure the structure was tight. After it sold, I spent some of the following year working with Qwerty, and later Chris and Jason (Newmark – producer), doing rewrites, making the scares scarier, etc. The main change was the title - it had a temporary title of "P45", which I always knew would have to go, as they don't have P45's in America, they have pink slips. And "Pink Slip" probably wouldn't have attracted the hardcore horror audience.
EMB: I believe you've just returned from Budapest where you visited the set? How is the filming coming along?
JM: It's going really well, everyone's really happy with it. I knew it would look good, but was shocked at how cool it looks already - this is before any colour correction, sound effects, editing, special effects and so on. It looks amazing. Chris is determined to make it look epic, he's a man on a mission, and is getting incredible results. The cast are all fantastic, I keep calling them by their character names instead of their real names, because they have just become the people in my head. It was so bizarre to be on set, seeing over 80 people working to bring to life something I wrote. I got a bit emotional at one point - this has been my dream, ever since I was a kid, since I was 5 years old, and now it's actually happening.
EMB: How do you feel about the group of actors and crew who have been assigned to the film? Had you seen Chris’s previous film Creep before working with him?
JM: There was one scene with Laura Harris which I wasn't even watching, just listening to it on headphones, and she was so intense, I actually got chills. And they're all that good, I can't imagine anybody else playing their parts, they're perfect. The crew were top notch too, it was a real eye opener seeing all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.
I saw Creep last year, at the last FrightFest, and really enjoyed it. It's a solid, nasty shocker, the sort of movie that follows you home, puts a hand over your mouth, and slips a rusty knife in your kidneys, leaving you to die alone on your doorstep. At the time, I knew that they were hoping to get Chris to direct Severance, and couldn't wait to see what he'd do with it. He loves horror, knows his stuff, and refuses to compromise.
EMB: Are you continuing to have an involvement in the development of Severance? I understand you've been asked to help out with the DVD?
JM: Yeah, they were thinking about the DVD even before filming started, as you have to plan ahead for these things if you want a decent disc. We bounced some ideas off each other, and so I've written a few DVD extras that they'll be filming with the second unit team. As it's my first film, I'll gladly do anything and everything I can, because it's all still exciting for me. I'm sure I'll get more used to it a few films down the line, but I hope I never lose that feeling of sheer joy when I see something of mine being made.
EMB: You’ve also been working this year on another horror project called Curfew. How is that coming along?
JM:Curfew is my raw, 1970's John Carpenter-style horror movie. Social commentary, sarcasm, cool main characters, and lots of bloody carnage. I can't give away too much about the plot right now, but it's set in London, is really bleak and violent, and will hopefully update an old sub-genre of horror.
EMB: You’ve also pitched an idea for a sci-fi movie and are working on a proposed television series entitled The School, is that right?
JM: Me and a director came up with a full treatment for an action/science fiction movie, and pitched it last year. It went well, but we couldn't get it off the ground - it's a big budget, complex movie, and at the moment, we're not well known enough for any film company to take that kind of a risk. So it's on the back burner for now, and hopefully soon we'll be able to set it up somewhere.
The School is my favourite, most personal project. At the moment it's a 6-part TV script, but it's kind of awkward for people to figure out what audience it's aimed at. It's a mix of surreal horror, black comedy, and drama - the main characters are kids, but it's aimed at adults, although kids would probably like it too. It's not hardcore violence, but some kids do get killed in it, so immediately that means 90% of TV people wouldn't be allowed to go near it. It probably won't get made in its current form, so I'm going to try it as a film script instead, to see how it works.
EMB: After your success with Severance do you intend to continue writing scripts or are you looking to move into screenwriting?
JM: It would be nice to be able just to do an outline and have someone pay me to write the script, but it's hard to convince them - unless you're well known, it's a risk for the money people, and the best outlines in the world are never as interesting as a proper script. So for now, I'll probably just do outlines for myself, to get the story straight, then write the full script and try to sell that. Spec scripts (scripts nobody has asked for or commissioned) are risky in their own way, too - you could spend ages writing it for no money, and if nobody buys it, tough shit, you have to start something else. But writing full scripts is much more fun than trying to do an interesting outline. So for now, I'll probably do spec scripts, then hopefully later I'll be able to squeeze money out of people up front.
EMB: Is there a particular method or way in which you develop your ideas?
JM: Sometimes an idea will just pop into my head - a scene, a character, a concept - and I can usually take it from there, either fleshing it out into a full story, or adding it to something else.
Usually, there'll be a setting or subject I'd like to work with. I do some research, build up a detailed picture of the world, and then I'm able to create characters that might live in that world, and imagine things that might happen to them. After a while, I'll get an idea of where the story should go, and the ending - once I've got the ending, I'm ready to outline it. I then do a short (2 or 3 page) outline, just to get the story straight and make sure the structure is all there, and after that I can start doing the script.
EMB: A lot of your ideas seem to fall within the horror genre. Is this an area that you will continue to work in?
JM: Most of the movies that influenced me when I was growing up were dark, disturbing ones. I love horror, so even if I'm just walking down the street or watching TV, I'm always thinking things like, "What if that guy just went crazy one day and killed his family?", or, "Wouldn't it be cool if Terry Wogan just snapped one day and stuck a fork in his guest's eye?" I like to go for the extreme angle whenever possible. I love 1970s and 1980s horror, Halloween, The Thing, Evil Dead, An American Werewolf in London (every single time I'm at Tottenham Court Road tube, I always think of it, and look back down that central escalator), Romero's zombies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, and am also really into the new Asian horror - Ring, Audition, The Eye, Kairo, Uzumaki, anything by that crazy Takashi Miike genius. It's great to see the recent revival of proper British horror too, with 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Dog Soldiers and The Descent - and of course FrightFest, which is such good fun.
I just like to write stuff I'd go and see at the cinema - lots of horror, science fiction, psychological thrillers, but also comedies, adventures, and happy stories. There are two sides to me: the dark, disturbing side (Severance, Curfew), and the light, fun side - I've got a comedy, an animated family tale, and a rollicking wartime adventure, all of them outlined and ready to write. The sadist in me hopes that one day some nice, pleasant family will watch one of my light movies, then think, "Hey look, he's written these other things, let's check them out," - and then hopefully they'll be damaged for life. The happy nice guy in me just wants everyone to survive in my dark scripts, he gets upset when I kill people off. That's when I know I'm doing it right.