This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 350: With Horror Filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #350 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer-director Darren Lynn Bousman. He wrote and directed Saw II and Saw III. He also did a movie a couple of years ago called Abattoir, which we talked about right here on the podcast in Episode Number #154. So if you haven’t listened to that episode, definitely check it out as we talk a little bit about Darren’s backstory in that episode. And then this week I’m talking to Darren about his new film, a film called Death of Me. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #350. If you want my free guide-How To Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell a screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really, it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. Just a quick shout out to Norma Purina, who was just hired to work on a script that is in pre-production. This is a great example of how networking and being prepared can lead to future opportunities. Norma actually submitted through one of the leads that we publish through Selling Your Screenplay Select. The producer liked the writing sample that she submitted, but it wasn’t quite right for what they were looking for.
But because the producer liked the writing, they ended up offering Norma this other writing project that they were developing and hired her to work on that. Things often lead to other things, so always be professional and ready when you get an opportunity like this. Again, a big congratulations to Norma and thank you, Norma, for sharing your success with me. I added a little blurb about this on the SYS success page. If you wanna learn a little bit more about it, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. And I love hearing these success stories, so if you’ve had some success with any of the SYS Select products, please do just email me and let me know, but really any success you have, I’m always curious just to hear how screenwriters are succeeding and just see if that’s not a way that maybe we could talk about here on the podcast.
Quick few words about what I’m working on. Still plugging away on my mystery thriller feature film, The Rideshare Killer. I’ve sent back notes to my editor, still waiting for another pass. Hopefully I’ll get the new cut this weekend. I’ve got everything else lined up, colorists, the sound department, the composer. We’re just waiting for the editor who I think has gotten busy on another project, so he’s just kinda trying to squeeze us in. And this is part of a low budget producing as you always do get pushed around a little bit, but it is coming along nicely. We’re still hoping to get done around the end of the year. We made our big announcement last week for the SYS Six Figure Screenplay Contest. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com to check that out.
We will be announcing, where we just announced the semifinalists. So that’s very exciting. I’ve had a couple of producers interested in some of the scripts. Some of the industry judges have been interested in some of the scripts, so I’m hoping we’ll have some optioned scripts before the end of the year and hopefully before the end of the contest. So that’s been nice to see that we’re finding some good scripts that are resonating with some of these producers. It’s fun going through all the scripts and trying to match them with a producer. It’s been fun getting to know the producers, just hear what they’re looking for. And then as I said, I’m going through all the scripts that are making it into the second and quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
And just trying to figure out what scripts would go, what scripts would match with what the producers are looking for. Again, it’s been an interesting process and a fun process, just getting to know some of these producers. It’s interesting, I have a handful of scripts that everyone likes. My first-round readers is all like the scripts. I’ve given them out to a number of industry judges and they have all liked them too. But there’s a couple of these scripts, everybody likes them, but for a variety of reasons whether that be budget or whether it feels like the audience is too niche, the producers don’t necessarily think that they can do anything with them, even though they say, “Hey, this is a really great script.” There’s always this idea out there that if you write the perfect script, it will get made.
It’s not always that simple unfortunately. This is gonna be one of the things that I’m gonna kinda have to deal with in selecting a winner for this contest is how producible this movie, this script actually is, especially for something like this that’s a low budget screenplay contest. That was sort of one of the criteria, is just being able to produce on a low budget. But there’s definitely some scripts that are kinda standing out that are just, all my first-round readers liked them, the industry judges are liking them. As I said, I’ve even had some producers start to inquire about maybe optioning some of these scripts. So it seems to be working nicely, and as I said, we should have some more announcements in the coming weeks.
And as I said, we just announced our quarter finalists just last week and we’ll be announcing our semifinalists I think next week, so keep an eye out for that. Again, all of those announcements will just be made on www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. We will email, if you’re in the contest and if you’re one of the people that made it to the second round, you’ll get an email about… a direct email from us saying, “Hey, you made it to the semifinals,” or the quarterfinals or whatever round we’re getting to. Anyway, that’s the main thing that I’ve been working on over the last couple of weeks. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer-director, Darren Lynn Bousman. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Darren to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Darren: It’s good to be here. Thank you.
Ashley: So you were on the podcast a couple of years ago with your film Abattoir. We talked a bit about how you broke into the business. So I’ll refer people back to that episode, its Episode Number #154, if they wanna kinda hear a little bit more how about you broke in. But today we’re gonna talk about your new film- Death of Me, starring Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Darren: The log line or the pitch that really sold me, it’s a high concept idea. The basic premise is a man and a woman on vacation in Thailand wake up with no memory of the night before, and they go back to their photo library to see if they took any photos. And in that library, they find a video of the husband killing his wife in a very brutal way, but neither have any memory of it, and they’re both still very much alive. So the movie is kind of a horror version of Hangover where they’re trying to retrace their steps and figure out what happened to them the night before.
Ashley: Huh! Wow, good pitch. So how did you get involved with this screenplay? At what point did it come to you.
Darren: A few years back, I filmed this in 2018. Friends, these two producers Lee Nelson and David Tish who run a company called EMA, we’ve been working for the last few years trying to find a project together. They sent me the script and said they wanted to film this. At the time I think it was set in… it was much more voodoo based, and I think that the location ping ponged around a few times and eventually ended up being set in Thailand, which causing it because the entire mythology would have to change from being something that was voodoo to being something more that was of the culture. So the first script was very, a lot more Serpent and the Rainbow. And then we ended up turning it and trying to adapt it to local films.
Ashley: And so maybe you can talk a little bit about that development process. You get a script, you have some notes, it sounds like these producers were people that you were pretty comfortable with. What did that development process look like in terms of working with the writers? Were the original, was this like an original spec script from some writers and then you guys got it and took your pass at it? Were those original writers involved in the rewrites? Maybe you can just talk about sort of that development process a little bit.
Darren: When I originally came on the project it was a much different screenplay. The original writers were not involved as we moved forward. It was one of these things that it kind of it slowly changed over the course of a few months as we had to adapt to the location and to the actors, it kept changing. Luckily one of the producers on the film, David Tish is also a writer. So it was much easier for us to still turn to David who was well aware of the production obstacles that we were facing. I think it just kind of happened organically that I would send email after email of just notes. And he was just, “Well, you know what, I can just do this really quick.” He ended up doing a really great pass on the material and adapting it to what we needed too for budgetary, time and location restrictions.
So at that point, yeah, like all things and just day by day by day until we were filming, and even through the filming.
Ashley: Got you. Now, as a director who is also a writer, why weren’t you the one taking these passes at it?
Darren: You know, when you’re making a movie like this, it’s absolutely… you have no time. I was on a flight to Thailand and we started filming I wanna say three weeks later. So I was dealing with location scouting, massive… Oh my God, I can’t think of the name of it. What’s the word when you can’t, when your sleep gets all thrown off? Jet lag. So I was dealing with jet lag, I was dealing with location and casting, and again, doing, yes, Maggie and Luke speak English in it, but the entire crew was Thai, the entire producers were Thai. Like everything about it was more complicated and cumbersome because of a lack of communication. So I can look at a producer or I can look at a crew member and I can, with this, I say something, it has to be written down and then translated back.
And then the crew members would have questions and that would have to be translated back to me. So you lose a quarter of the day of a lot of the kind of lack of communications. So I’ve shot a movie, I’ve been lucky to be able to shoot all over the world from shooting things in Tokyo to Barcelona to Thailand. I think that that’s one of the things which is… as a filmmaker is always this kind of shock, is that how much is lost in translation and how much time has to… and also culture. What I think is dark and edgy is not translated to dark and edgy in their culture. So then you give someone a task and say, “I want this,” and their interpretation of what I’m talking about is not the same as let’s say Western culture.
So then there’s a lot of time going back and forth to really hone that in and come up with a language that works. In a movie like this, there was no way that I was gonna be able to try to navigate a different type of filmmaking atmosphere and casting and location scouting and tackling a pretty substantial rewrite in that kind of time.
Ashley: Yeah. Sure. So I’m curious about some of the changes. You mentioned that it used to be a little more Serpent and the Rainbow, so that sounds more like Caribbean, Haiti, that sort of voodoo world. Why did you switch it then to Thailand? Was it just budgetary, did you feel like it served the story more? Why did you make some of those changes?
Darren: No, none of that. So, and again, I might be completely messing up facts. I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, let alone two years ago. But if I recall correctly, when the original idea was trying to shoot Haiti for Haiti or going to someplace and make it look like Haiti, there was huge tropical storms. At that time there was a huge, huge thing that knocked out everywhere that we were looking to go and insurance was a nightmare for us. Just trying to be insured, to go to any of these places in the middle of this season. Knowing that we had a short window of time for myself, as well as Maggie Q, we couldn’t risk that. So then we looked at doing Hawaii, but Hawaii has a much different look than Haiti.
You can’t double Hawaii as that specifically with the actors that we would need.So we decided to look elsewhere, which then brought up Thailand. So it was a lot of it had to do with production issues to try to be authentic to that type of story. And then we found a mythology in Thailand that was dating back hundreds and hundreds of years that we kind of grasped onto, and said, “This would be cool. Let’s take the scenery and that idea and put it here.” Yeah, the… it’s one of those things that you change one percent over the course of a few months, and it becomes something different. It’s one of those things that happens so gradually you don’t actually see it happening.
I was gonna say, one of the other things that we had to deal with which was extremely something that I was not prepared for or ready for, was the conditions of shooting in Krabi, which was where Bangkok and Krabi are the two places we filmed this. I’ve never experienced heat like that. On top of that, the mosquitoes, there’s something called dengue fever over there, which you don’t want. It from the mosquito bites, where you basically go to the hospital and bleed out your eyes and I’m not joking you, and we’re shooting in the forest. So one of the things that we had to do is we had to wear long sleeved shirts, long sleeved pants, protective gear when you’re already dealing with a hundred degree heat and huge humidity.
And it was… so the challenges of production dictated a lot of what we did and were able to do as well.
Ashley: Yeah, sure. You mentioned that one of the reasons you were interested in this project was because it had a nice hooky high concept premise. Were there some other things about the script that you also really thought were well done?
Darren: Yeah. I mean, listen, anytime that I can step outside of my own culture and go to a different place, I think it’s just from a life experience standpoint, I jump out and love. So I think the idea of exploring other cultures, other places is always fantastic. I remember that, one of my fondest memories of my time in Japan was there was… two moments actually. I’ll give them both to you briefly. One of them was, I was in a taxi cab in the middle of the night in Tokyo. I didn’t speak a word of Japanese and my phone died. I had a translating app on my phone and the cab driver that I was with had no English. I had no idea what I was staying. I couldn’t name the hotel, I couldn’t name anything about it.
And so he was turning around asking me where I’m supposed to be going and I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know, I couldn’t even give him a place or town. I remember that I just drove and it was silent in the cab, and it was the most liberated I’d felt in a long time because I realized I was not tethered to technology. I felt like I was on this adventure and I couldn’t rely on a cell phone or something like that to get me back. It was the first time that I felt connected to an environment because I was walking around and I was lost, and it was this amazing experience. I always remember that because it was… it’s something that we don’t really feel a lot because there is so much technology [inaudible 00:15:25] your cell phone or even your watch.
So I think that there was a really scary and excited feeling that I always remembered from that trip because of that moment. To amplify that to a few months later when I was there, I was supposed to meet my wife in a place called Kyoto. And I just got done filming in Tokyo for the night and I was supposed to catch a train to Kyoto. I get on the train, and by the way, the train systems in Japan, they’re insane. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before. I managed to navigate myself to the right train. I get on the train and it’s like a two-hour bullet train, and I pass out, I fall asleep. I wake up and it’s something you see out of like Midnight Meat Train or a horror movie. I get up, and I’m the only one on the train, and this guy, this man is trying to wake me up.
It was the end of the line basically. I show him my ticket and he goes, “No.” He just goes, “No.” And he pointed the other way. I was like, “Huh?” and he’s like, “Off.” He was trying to get me off the train. I realized that I fell asleep and went two hours in the wrong direction, on a bullet train. Now again, this is a place where I was unable to communicate and I was completely lost, and I realized how quickly… and my wife didn’t have her cell phone. It was just one of those shocking things about even in a modern world and a modern society, you can fall through the cracks, you can get lost. And I think that those kind of moments always stuck with me. So when I read this movie about these people that basically fall through the cracks and get lost and can’t communicate with other people, it is something that had happened to me and I responded to that.
I think that that was another thing that I really dug about it. Also I’m a fan of any movie that explores religion and people’s belief system. If you go back to my work, I do a lot of those types of movies. I think that it’s me as well, just kind of dealing with my own beliefs and things. You look at somebody’s beliefs and it’s easy to point to them and say they’re crazy, they’re insane, they’re delusional. But how delusional is someone’s belief when you realize that the majority of the population believe in something? They believe in a man that if you pray to will grant you wishes. Or they’re…. when you break down beliefs in general, it’s a fascinating thing. So this was another opportunity for me to explore beliefs as ludicrous and insane as they may be, they are people’s beliefs and they believe in them. I love movies like that.
Ashley: Yeah. You mentioned that you were shooting in Tokyo, you’ve shot in Spain, it sounds like obviously Thailand for this movie. Maybe you can just quick, in a minute or two, kinda give us just an overview of some of the problems in shooting in Asia versus the US versus Japan versus Spain. What are some of the problems and what are some of the things that are easier in these other countries?
Darren: That’s a hard one. I’ll tell you, one of the best filmmaking experiences that I’ve ever had in my entire life was in Japan. And I’ll give you what’s so crazy about it. So when you go to Japan and you do a production meeting, so in America when you do a production meeting, you meet with the department head. So I meet with costumes, I’m sitting in a room with a costume designer or a production designer, and I’m sitting in the room with a production designer. But in Japan, when you meet with a costume designer, every single department is there. The grips are there, the gaffers are there, the special effects teams are there, the DP is there. Every single person is there.
And you sit in this room and it’s like you and the cinematographer are sitting in a room talking, but standing completely surrounding you is every other person in the production. It was really off putting, when I first did it. I was like, “What is this?” It kind of was frustrating for a little bit, because I was like, I’m trying to bond with these people and have these conversations, and I felt like I was being crowded upon. Well, let me tell you how that was the best thing that ever happened. Because when I would show up to set on any given day, they knew everything. They knew, every department knew everything, and there was not a second wasted, not a minute wasted because it wasn’t like someone hearing something for the first time.
Every department was aware of what was happening from every other department, and it was amazing. So I think for me, that experience was so amazing and I’ve never in my career made my days more than I did in Japan. Because everyone was just on top of their game and it was great. Also again, I just loved the culture. It was such a fantastic… the producers were great, the actors were great, it was just a great experience. So Barcelona, that was the first time I filmed out of the country. I mean, I’d filmed in Canada throughout my entire career, but Barcelona was the first time of doing that. And again, you just got to get quickly accustomed to way different people work.
That was a, it was kind of a culture shock for me because I’m so used to doing things my way, and then you see someone doing something else. But I’ll tell you again, every time that I’ve left a different place, I’ve added new tools to my tool chest and I’m like, I bring them back into my productions in America or in Canada. So you learn things every time you go somewhere. Whether that be ways to cut corners or new ways to do things that I just never thought of before. So it’s just a learning experience in all sides. It was just a great learning experience.
Ashley: Have you ever tried to suggest that Japanese method of having everybody in the room to some American producers and cinematographers and production crew and see if they’re open to it?
Darren: No. I think that something like that you come down… that would be a very, very hard thing to do I think financially, because when you’re doing something like this, when you’re doing something with wardrobe or gaffers or grips or cameramen, you’re paying them in America for their time. It’s you’re unionized, you’re doing that. With something like Japan, I think that everyone was brought on at the same time to work the same [inaudible 00:21:17] always there. They were always just there. I think it would be a logistical scheduling nightmare to try to do that in America, on American shoots. But again, I gotta tell you, it… I remember the first day that we arrived on set and it was a big stunt. There was a huge stunt that we had planned.
I asked the cinematographer, jokingly, he was also a co-director on it. I said, “How long do you think we’ll pull up our shot?” And he says, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “I’m guessing three hours.” We get out of the car, and as we’re walking up we see huge lights on, we see a crane. And we walk up and they said, “We’re ready for you, actors are on set ready for rehearsal.” And we were filming 10 minutes later. So they had arrived hours before us. They had heard the meetings, they knew what they wanted and they were ready to go. I think that that was just a crazy, insane awesome experience for me.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So on this on this film Death of Me, it sounds like you were working with these producers, David Tish. I’m just curious, how many projects like that do you get involved in, but they never kinda pan out. And I ask just because I know of screenwriters listening to this, they don’t understand that there’s a lot of projects you start and there’s just a lot of false starts and they never go. And this is even something you said you shot two years ago, it’s finally getting through post production. So I just wonder sort of the scope of this thing. This is a project that went into production, but are there those projects that you do a lot of work on, but never go into production for whatever reason?
Darren: 99.9999 percent of projects don’t go into production. And I’ll tell you, and I’ve said this before, and it might sound self-deprecating or not real, but it’s a hundred percent real. I am a failure. Like my career is that of a failure. I write screenplay after screenplay after screenplay, I’m attached to movie after movie, after movie that go nowhere. In fact, the majority of my career is being rejected, told no or things falling apart. It’s that 0.1 percent of the time that something actually gets made, then it’s that 0.1 percent of the time that something actually sells. And that 0.1 percent of the time is what is viewed as success. People don’t hear about the 99.9 percent of the time, but that is the reality of the job that we do, is that you’re rejected, you’re failed, you’re whatever.
Now, that’s not even to mention how many movies of mine that have sold that never get made. But I think that’s something else that’s kind of fascinating, is you can make an entire career as a screenwriter and never see one of your projects actually made, but you’re still selling them. I think that’s what’s fascinating and frustrating about this industry. Is that just because you are being paid does not mean your movies are ever gonna get made, or just because you made a movie doesn’t mean it’s coming out anytime soon. In the case of this movie, we made it in 2018 and it took two and a half years for it to come out. That’s part of the business. Things happen. COVID happens.
I mean, Saw was the movie I made a spiral, which was kind of my big return to those type of movies. It was supposed to be coming out this May, and now there’ll be another year before it comes out due to COVID. It’s just the reality.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Is there anything you notice about the projects early on, the ones that actually make it into production, or is it just it’s totally blind and then all of a sudden, one day a door opens and this one goes in production and you’re never quite sure why that one went and this one didn’t, or are there some telltale signs early on that you kinda start to feel like, yeah, this one may not actually make it.
Darren: Yes. I think that I’ve been doing this enough that, I apologize to use a profanity, but my bullshit meter goes off. There are some things you can tell based on the creative process. Are you guys on the same page or is there a constant struggle back and forth of the creativity? Constantly being rejiggered and manipulated. That’s a red flag. It’s not always a bad thing, but there’s red flags there. A lot of it comes down to casting. You can have the greatest project in the world, but if you cannot attract an actor with some sort of value, then that’s a big red flag that it’s not gonna go. So I think that’s something else, is the cast and the castability of it. I know I was on Abattoir, when I did that movie, I don’t know if I talked about it.
That movie shut down three times. And you look at something where years passed and that movie keeps getting shut down. That should have been a dead project, but we all stayed with it and we were able to get it made. But it’s crazy, you do never know what’s gonna be a success or not. Some of the best screenplays I’ve been attached to have gone nowhere. Other screenplays that literally go almost immediately, and yeah, there is that thing about how did this get made and not something else? I wish I had that magic answer, but I don’t.
Ashley: Yeah. I wish we all had it. Perfect. How can people see Death of Me? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Darren: Yeah, it comes out on October 2nd. It’ll be in theaters, those that are safely able to attend as well, it will be on VOD. So I encourage people if you wanna watch a cool little thriller set in a really cool location, give it a watch.
Ashley: Perfect. Well Darren, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future projects as well.
Darren: I appreciate it. Thanks a lot, man.
Ashley: Thank you.
I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre, and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service, you can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS podcast Episode #222, I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads, we have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services, so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner, recently we’ve been getting five to 10 high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the gamut.
There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They are looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select, you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also, you get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years, so you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.
The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining, to the first act, second act, third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing writer, director, producer, and also actor Jessie McCormack. She wrote directed, produced, and acted in a new TV series that she talks about, and it was shot in England. She talks about exactly how she put it all together. Again, it’s another really inspiring story of someone who just got out there and just made something happen for themselves. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show, thank you for listening.