Like many writers struggling to find their break in Hollywood, Sean Keller worked on a variety of low budget productions, learning his craft on several projects for the Sci-Fi Channel. Commencing in 2006 with Mammoth, Keller collaborated on the screenplays for Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep and Attack of the Gryphon, but it would be while working in a bar that he would become close friends with one of his colleagues, Jim Agnew, and the two would agree to develop a project together. Their first script would be L.A. Gothic, a concept pitched by Agnew that would soon find its way into the desk of legendary filmmaker John Carpenter.
While this production would fail to see the light of day, an homage to the Italian thrillers of the 1970s would bring them to the attention of horror fans when Giallo made its world debut in the summer of 2009. Starring Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody as a burnt-out detective on the trial of a demented serial killer, the movie would feature many of the trademarks that had come to define Argento’s work, from the complex murder mystery plot to the succession of beautiful women who fall prey to the maniac.
Sean Keller offers advice on the struggles of becoming a writer and surviving in the entertainment business.
Would you say it is a fair statement that Hollywood has little interest in unique and provocative writers and merely wants a product that will sell, regardless of its lasting appeal?
It’s easy to pick on Hollywood, but just like everything in life, there’s more to it than just the stereotype, yet the stereotypes exist because there is some truth in them. The big studios want something they can sell. Big movies cost a ton to make. Even small films cost quite a bit to make and there must be a return on the investment. The easiest way to protect your investment is to sell something with which the audience is already familiar. This is why remakes and sequels will ALWAYS dominate the marketplace. Some sequels and remakes are good, most are not.
But Hollywood is also a town of dreamers and true film fans which, contrary to popular belief, includes a large number of knowledgeable and creative producers looking to make quality films. Everyone wants original material and everyone wants to make a great film; unfortunately, when it comes to financing, you have to be able to prove to an investor that your material will find an audience. The money people have money because they know a good investment when they see it.
Most artists – regardless of medium – tend to ignore this principle and believe that art will trump commerce. It won’t. The truth is art is always a struggle. With film, the most costly of the arts, placing something truly provocative on the screen simply isn’t good business most of the time. If you wish to be truly provocative, you must deal with the financial limitations of this pursuit. It is a tricky balance, but it happens from time to time.
You have been the victim of the dreaded ‘production hell’ with the John Carpenter project L.A. Gothic; are writers usually kept in the loop when a production is stalled or do studios have little interest or respect for them?
I wouldn’t call taking repeated meetings with Dr. Carpenter ‘hell.’ He’s hilarious and charming and always on his toes. He is honestly one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met and I look forward to every meeting we have with the man. He’s a guy who doesn’t want anyone to tell him what to do and as a result he would never tell us what to do. The collaboration has been rewarding beyond my dreams and if the project never makes it to the screen, it will still be a huge success in my eyes.
Freedom comes with a price. Dr. Carpenter doesn’t work within the studio system, so we are at the mercy of independent financiers. That said, we have taken a new approach with the project and are currently developing L.A. Gothic as a television series. We just recently wrote the series pilot. It is incredibly fun while still remaining dark and scary and it should fit in quite nicely with the rest of the Carpenter oeuvre.
Rewrites are a necessary evil for various practical reasons (budgets, locations, etc), but do you feel that producers are more often than not willing to seek input from the original writers to rework the material?
Original writers on a project typically have a contractual right/obligation to perform the first rewrite. After that, it’s anyone’s game. It all depends on the project and the creative team behind it. Jim and I have rewritten our scripts for various producers and have been brought onto others’ projects in various stages of development. In that situation, you are dealing with someone else’s story so there are limitations to what you can contribute and how much you can change.
In the case of The Ward, Jim and I were charged with pumping up the scares and giving the lead character a stronger personality. Hellraiser: Revelations was different altogether. We were called in on that job less than two weeks before the start of principal photography. The location, budget and roles were already locked so all we could really alter was the dialogue and some of the action within the scenes.
When you get right down to it, film is a director’s medium. The director gets the praise for a hit and takes the blame if it tanks, which leaves writers in an enviable situation. In order to get a film produced, a great number of people have to take a collective leap of faith based on a script. Even if the film fails, the writer wins due to the fact that enough people stood behind the work to get it made.
Having dealt with both American and Italian producers, how would you compare their working methods and business ethics and how are writers viewed in Europe?
There really isn’t much of a difference. The Italians take longer breaks and have shorter days, which are more civil and healthy than the twelve-eighteen hour days so common on American sets, but filmmaking is filmmaking regardless of where you are. Writers are treated with equal disdain around the globe, with good reason. We’re a nasty, ill-tempered lot who drink and smoke and swear too much. And to be quite honest, being disreputable is half the fun. If I wanted respect, I never would have become a writer.
Do you have a specific process that you tend to work with on each project, such as with character development, story structure, etc?
With story and structure, it’s never the same. Anything can spark a story and structure comes out of story, but when we sit down to the actual nuts and bolts of writing, it always starts with characters. We write out character biographies loaded with information that will never makes it into a script. It is essential to know your characters and how they will behave in any given situation, so that you can drop them into a story and let them react. It is very similar to improvisational acting. Of course, that makes for sometimes sloppy, meandering dialogue, but we don’t judge a first draft, we just let it flow. Rewrites are where the fine-tuning and re-shaping of scenes takes place.
While there are fundamental differences between the two, do you prefer writing screenplays or stories and which did you first begin with?
Jim and I both began with songwriting. We’re both musicians and have played in countless bands, having written hundreds of songs between us. Neither of us planned on screenwriting as a career, but songwriting was excellent training. Three verses, a chorus and a bridge is like three acts with a 2nd act turn and a reveal. Both forms are about the succinct transmission of image, idea and emotion and both depend on a sense of rhythm and pacing to be effective.
I also write creepy kids poems and short horror stories which are a wonderful and essential diversion from the pressures of screenwriting. When I write a short story, I don’t need to worry about budget or casting or act structures or the marketability of the product, it is simply writing. Story, theme and character unbridled. I write these for me and do not need to worry about satisfying my screenwriting partner.
Screenwriting is fun as well. I won’t lie, I truly enjoy the form, I love writing with a partner (we work together in the same room) and the restrictions are oddly freeing. I could never choose one or the other. I need poetry and short stories and songwriting to keep my screenwriting sharp and the converse is also true.
What advice would you offer struggling writers on both how to gain exposure and survive in the industry?
You wouldn’t ask a chef or restaurateur to taste the first dinner you ever cooked, so why do so many writers ask writers and producers to read their first screenplay?
Write a ton. Keep writing. Do it on a specific schedule every day – this creates a time of day when your brain is trained to work. Once you have knocked out at least three or four scripts, start submitting to contests. I landed my first manager after hitting the runner-up list in the Screamfest Screenplay competition three years in a row.
What is the single most important thing that you have learnt during your time as a professional writer and are there common mistakes that every new writer makes?
The most common mistake I read in screenplays is the dreaded passive protagonist. Your lead character needs to DO things, not simply react to life around him/her/it. These are motion pictures with an emphasis on ‘motion.’ Passive characters are inert and grind stories to a halt.
Same goes for stupid or unlikable characters. Make your lead character(s) likable and believable. Make us care! Make us not want to see any harm come to the character(s) and we will follow him or her to Hell and back. If we like a character, a stubbed toe or a hangnail can be excruciating. If the characters are weak, rude, stupid or just plain empty, we won’t give a shit what happens to them and no amount of gore can remedy the situation.
No jokes. Silly lines and stupid jokes destroy scripts. If you want comedy, make the comedy organic, have it flow from the characters dealing with a difficult situation. Don’t try your hand at clever Whedonesque wordplay – it won’t work and will make you look like an imitator, not an innovator.
BE ORIGINAL! Find your voice and style and write from the gut (or lower) and have a point of view. A story without a point of view is candy floss – a pretty diversion instantly forgotten.