This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 297: Writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) Talk About Their New Horror Feature, Haunt.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #297 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 duo Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. They wrote the hugely successful film A Quiet Place, which is available right now through Amazon Prime if you haven’t already seen it. Bryan and Scott are back with a new film called Haunt. We dig into that film, how that came about as well as talking specifically about A Quiet Place and how that project came about as well. So stay tuned for that interview.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director duo Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Bryan and Scott to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you guys coming on the show with me today.
Scott: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having us.
Bryan: Thanks for having us.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the business? And maybe to start, Scott you can go first and then Bryan we’ll get you second.
Scott: Absolutely. So Bryan and I, we’ve actually known each other since we were 11 years old. We both met in the same town Bettendorf, Iowa sitting at the same lunch table and we quickly discovered both of us had a love of movies and a love of making movies with action figures just like Stop Motion Films. And so in middle school and then in high school, that’s where we really started taking the craft seriously and we would write our own screenplays, we would produce them for no budget with our friends or local [inaudible 00:02:44] and then we would screen those on the local IMAX screens and hand out score cards and try to get a gauge of what was working about the movie, but more importantly, what wasn’t working about the movie and then steam-roll that into the next project that we were then writing and making.
Ashley: And so how old were you guys when you were doing this, getting a film onto an IMAX screen seems something a lot more advanced than an 11 year old.
Bryan: I mean, we were young, probably in middle school and then high school, you know, a teenager [inaudible 00:03:15] . We had probably made at least five micro-budget features before we got to college, and then in college we’d do more of micro-budget, very kind of small and scope feature films and in college just casting local actors and you know, were from Iowa [inaudible 00:03:35] so friendly and film is so exciting and there’s so many talented people who weren’t able to work in film because there was no film business in Iowa obviously. We were the beneficiaries of ground floor’s amazing talent and support. And we kind of just progressed from there.
We eventually moved out to Los Angeles and hit the ground running, writing spec after spec and just kind of falling on our faces and getting back into it and just doing the best we could. We probably wrote close to 30 screenplays before we became professional screenwriters. It took a very long time to get there.
Ashley: Yeah. And I think that’s so interesting that you guys say that because I think with A Quiet Place being such a big hit, I think everybody’s gonna to look at that and wonder sort of what is the ground work, and I think it’s so interesting just to hear that you guys were just slugging away for years and years and years, ultimately to get to that place. Do you feel like there was a tipping point in your career? So you’re making all these shorts, you’re making these micro-budget features. Was there a tipping point where all of a sudden you were round at a corner and you thought,” Okay, we can actually make a living at this?”
Scott: Yeah. I think there were [inaudible 00:04:52] to be honest. There was one point that is what we consider steeping failure, which was we were maybe… a few years out of college, we were lucky enough through an entertainment attorney friend to get a meeting at a few big agencies like CAA and ICM and Gersh and we had lined up… we had a few screen plays that we were [inaudible 00:05:14]. We had the meeting and it was fantastic and they were like, “Oh! You’re gonna be the next big thing.” Like everything that you typically think a Hollywood agent is going to say, they said and we were young enough that we were like, “Maybe we finally will get signed.” We found out that the screenplay [inaudible 00:05:31] way too ambitious like movies that were budgeted at $200, 000, 000 and we got turned down at every corner.
That same week we had scripts that were sent out to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab for consideration and the Nickels Fellowship [inaudible 00:05:47] to other places, and also in that same week we got rejected from them and it was a turning point when we realized what we need to do is we need to write something that we could produce in our own backyard. And that rearranged out thinking of how to approach story. And very much that carried through to this very day. It certainly was a lesson that we applied too as we filmed Haunt, it applied to A Quiet Place. There’s a version of Quiet Place that [inaudible 00:06:13] like an island, we couldn’t make the lower budget version of that movie. So it’s just writing with that in mind. I think beyond that, certainly A Quiet Place was a big tipping point for us.
Even though we had been working for a few years as professionals, writing scripts [inaudible 00:06:29] sold a few assignments that we did for film and television. What A Quiet Place did was it sort of really validated our passion projects, things that on the page may seem like really crazy, off the wall ideas [inaudible 00:06:44] on the page we would be able to find a home for it and put original filmmaking hopefully back into theaters outside of the franchise films that we see every week and that come out.
Ashley: Yeah, and I wanna get into Haunt, but just one more question about A Quiet Place because I know people will be interested in this. Can you talk just a little bit about your process of coming up with that high concept idea. I think every screenwriter would love to find that great idea, and A Quiet Place is such a good example. There’s a bunch of knock offs, we’re probably gonna see countless sequels. How did you guys come up with that high concept idea? Were you sitting around and just you came up with it one day, were you just generating lots of ideas and this was the best of the many ideas? Maybe just talk though just briefly that process of coming up with that high concept idea for A Quiet Place.
Scott: Of course. A Quiet Place was essentially one idea of a hundred ideas that we had stored away in a journal. We knew in college, we were watching a lot of silent film and really falling in love with Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati this French filmmaker and just filmmakers who were making silent film after sound had already been invented and been part of cinema for a while. In other words, there were silent films that were mostly visual but still had music and sync sounds. You could have dialogue if you wanted to. So we thought it would be really cool to marry [inaudible 00:08:12] modern day film that’s the horror genre because sound for us is a [inaudible 00:08:22] a tool that a core filmmaker has in a tool box. There’s no better way to create suspense or scares than sound device.
So we were like, “What if we could make sound the [inaudible 00:08:32]. How could we [inaudible 00:08:34] scary? And so we came up with what you would consider the gimmick of the idea. Like you make a sound, you die. But we put it in the drawer because we felt like it was just a gimmick and it wasn’t until [inaudible 00:08:47] few years later, we were working on a few assignment in different things for work and we kind of pulled that idea back from the drawer and we thought like what is the story? It’s a cool idea, but what is the story? What can it be about? That’s when we really started thinking about, “Oh, okay. What if it was about a family who’s lost a family member? A family member that tragically died and they are fractured and they’re not able to talk to each other?
They have this breakdown of communication. And even if they were living in a world that didn’t have aliens invading that attacked [inaudible 00:09:25] still wouldn’t be talking to each other. And it was the sooner we figured that out, the sooner we figured out that the whole story was gonna drive towards the father telling his children that he loves them [inaudible 00:09:38], it was all driving towards that, that’s when we were like, “Eureka! Now we have a story and we have a script that can be written.” So it took a while.
Ashley: I get you. Yeah. Well, thank you for that. Let’s dig into Haunt. Maybe to start out you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is Haunt all about?
Scott: Yeah, so Haunt essentially follows Harper our protagonist who is dealing with an abusive relationship and it all comes to a head on Halloween night and to kind of shoulder off all that stress she goes out with some of her friends for a night of haunted housing and where they end up is actually an extreme haunted house attraction where the lines become very blurred about [inaudible 00:10:23] and they soon learn that everything that’s happening there is 100 percent real and [inaudible 00:10:29] .
Ashley: I got you. Let’s talk through the process of this idea. How did this idea come about? What was the genesis for this idea?
Bryan: [inaudible 00:10:41] going to haunted houses over the Halloween season he would go… In Iowa it’s not like what people think of when I think of like fright pads or Halloween horror nights if you’ve been using the parks where they’re kind of [inaudible 00:10:58] kind of haunted [inaudible 00:11:02]. Like in Iowa you drive out into the middle of nowhere. It’s like an abandoned factory or like a dilapidated church in the middle of the woods and it’s run by people whose hobby it is [inaudible 00:11:14]. That’s what they’re there for. And we just started thinking why you’re really vulnerable when you’re in that position. And our producer Todd Garner he had wanted to [inaudible 00:11:27] it was something he was knocking around and he kinda brought us in and he was like, “You guys have any ideas? Do you… like total free reign.
I would love villains that are really sharp and original and interesting and I love these kind of [inaudible 00:11:42] do whatever you want if you’re interested.” And it just really got our imagination going and we just kind of joined up on our childhood and our love of horror. We talk a lot about how we were writing A Quiet Place and Haunt at the same time and [inaudible 00:11:59] it was, when we were talking about it, we were talking about it like a prestige film. We were talking about like we really wanna elevate the horror genre and then at the same time we’re kind of rolling our eyes at ourselves and scoffing and going, “Well, like it’s horror you don’t need to elevate the horror genre. The horror genre is great the way it is.”
And so [inaudible 00:12:20] chasing this kind of 80’s and 70’s slashers of John Carpenter or Toddy Hooper and really kind of rolling around and those are the elements. It’s kind of two kinds of our love of horror really writing those movies.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about collaboration with you guys. And maybe you can kind of just describe how your collaboration works. Are you guys in the same room, different rooms, do you guys outline together and then divide up scenes and then critique each other’s scenes? What does the process look like of actual collaboration?
Scott: So from the genesis of a project outside of kicking around just a bunch of different ideas, once we hone in on something Bryan and I usually sit in the same room and we just brainstorm about, “Oh, this could be cool, this could be a great set piece, this is what a character arc should really be.” And then we kind of go off into separate rooms and we start writing it. We do like I wouldn’t say a traditional outline, we receive notes and notes and notes about what the story really might be and what it becomes, but we wanted to give ourselves enough bandwidth when we when we’re writing it. We’re not completely regimented to a single outline. Certainly in writing A Quiet Place and to an even greater degree in writing Haunt, there’s times when we’re on page 50 and we have a lose idea of where we’re gonna go, but we get a great idea and then we end up following that down a different trajectory entirely and it changes the shape of the film.
Hopefully it keeps it exciting [inaudible 00:13:51] as an audience member, and we’re just sitting back watching the pages kind of unfurl and hopefully surprise ourselves throughout that process too. But yeah, we end up writing in separate rooms so Bryan will do like a pass of 10 to 15 pages. He’ll send it over to me then I will do [inaudible 00:14:11] a rewrite of that and then pass it back after adding other pages, and it kind of goes back and forth until we have a whole completed draft.
Ashley: I see. And just what kind of tools are you guys using Are you using… do you outline on Google Docs so you guys both have access to it? What are the actual tools, how are you actually writing this screenplay or just final draft?
Scott: By all means, that’s the series. We have [inaudible 00:14:35] journals, sometimes we use yellow legal pads, we use Microsoft Word, we definitely use Google Docs when its [inaudible 00:14:45] kind of process together and need to edit and revise together and then we write in final draft in script form. All over the map where [inaudible 00:14:47] ourselves in the writing and get ourselves excited and [inaudible 00:15:02]. Sometimes it’s fun to write, usually on a keyboard or on a computer, sometimes it’s fun to write long hand with a kind of [inaudible 00:15:09].
Ashley: I see. So maybe you can talk a little bit about the outlining stage. You mentioned that you guys were sitting in the same room and kinda kick around ideas. How much time do you spend in that outlining stage versus how much time do you spend actually in final draft writing the pages?
Scott: So in the outline [inaudible 00:15:28] outside of writing a traditional outline, it is a lot about culminating notes. We may be working on an entirely different project [inaudible 00:15:39] and yet for a character sketch start set and we write that down either in a draft inbox of our email or on our notepads, or we just start collecting these ideas. We are very ultimate about the whole [inaudible 00:15:51] when you’re not writing. Meaning, you’re not just sitting on a laptop, but you’re just living life and you have your antennas out to be struck by inspiration at any point, and then you write that out and hopefully over weeks or months you’re starting to collect enough ideas that then we can sit in the same room and really talk about what the story is [inaudible 00:16:11] process.
We probably spend less time on it than some other traditional writers. What we really love doing is figuring out what that first act is. Like what’s really the entry to the story [inaudible 00:16:24] and what really is inside the incident [inaudible 00:16:30]. And then from there we have a loose idea of what act two is and act three. We usually need some runway to land on, meaning like in A Quiet Place, we always knew where that story was gonna end up in terms of how [inaudible 00:16:46] with the father and then the ultimate choice that he makes and where that leaves the family. But in the middle we love leaving a little bit of room for discovery, so we’re not as hard on ourselves as outlining all of that versus trying to discover a little bit of that on the page.
Ashley: I got you. Let’s talk about your development process just quickly. So you guys, you eventually have a first draft. What does that next step look like? You mentioned that you had a producer in the case of Haunt that sort of suggested some loose ideas. Do you send it to him, get notes? And how do you ultimately take those notes?
Bryan: Yeah. It’s different every time, but we really incubate when we write. The first draft from us is like a twelve draft because we’re so vigorous with our own development process and we’re really insular, like we have [inaudible 00:17:35] readers that we’ve trusted for years and years and years. Our clutch readers were the ones who knew A Quiet Place was a terrific idea and script before anyone else. Like when people didn’t believe in the pitch or the idea of A Quiet Place like our trusted readers, collaborators and filmmakers and friends and family were the ones to really support us. And so our process was always sharing with them, developing. We have a manager that we’ve been with forever and on his contact we want to bring in and get his feedback and develop and then from there yeah, like when you work with producers especially at a big studio movie oftentimes you’re gonna [inaudible 00:18:24] the producer and the studio and that can go astray and it can go bad.
On a Quiet Place it was really terrific because our producers were fairly hands off on the script and really trusted and believed in the idea [inaudible 00:18:41] out as a studio, their notes are really terrific. Some of them were things that we weren’t as interested in but a lot of them were things about kind of developing character [inaudible 00:18:55] and embracing the family dynamic and digging in deeper and that was a terrific experience which now is a hit.
Ashley: How do you guys negotiate issues when the two of you disagree? How do you get past those blocks? There must be moments where you think one thing, he thinks another thing.
Scott: Yeah, there are. Luckily they are very rare circumstances that that ever happens but usually what happens is if Bryan presents an idea and I’m really stubborn and I don’t think that’s the right path forward, we both take the night and we think on it. And [inaudible 00:19:30] thinks of that. The next morning we come to the table and I’m like, “Oh Bryan, actually I’ve thought about it, your idea I actually love, we can make it work this way.” And then Bryan comes back and he’s like, “Actually I’ve gone back on that and I think you [inaudible 00:19:46] right about not doing it and not implementing that idea. We end up flip flopping, but what that means is we try to approach everything so free of ego, where it’s not about one person’s idea being better than the other.
It’s really what’s best for the story and what’s going to get us in the best shape possible. And so again, it happens rare, but in those circumstances it always has a different outcome. But I think whoever feels the most passionate usually we’re willing to trust the other creator and see where things go.
Ashley: I got you. How can people see Haunt, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Scott: Yeah, so it comes out in the United States September 13th. It’s coming to I think about like 10 theaters in [inaudible 00:20:32] in Los Angeles to New York, but that same day it will also be available on [inaudible 00:20:38] you typically use to watch any films. And it will be on [inaudible 00:20:43] in October, Shudder which is the horror based genre channel that you can get on any of your platforms. They’ll be supporting the release at the very end of October, October 25th.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. What’s the best way for people to just keep up with what you guys are doing, Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll put in the show notes.
Scott: [inaudible 00:21:06] Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is Beck and Woods and we post plenty of updates on [inaudible 00:21:55] of the projects…
Bryan: And lots of… we share lots of screenwriting horror stories on Twitter. So it’s a good follow if you’re a screenwriter.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. I will put that in the show notes so people can click over to it. Well, Scott and Bryan, I really appreciate your time and this is a great interview. People will get a lot of value at it. Good luck with this film and good luck with your future films.
Scott: We appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you, will talk to you later.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing Joseph Mbah. He’s another great example of a filmmaker living outside of Hollywood who’s getting his films made. He lives in Arizona and he just completed another feature film and action film called The Expo. We talk through that film as well as how he’s been able to get movies made while not living in Hollywood. Keep an eye out for that episode next week. To wrap things up I just wanna touch on a few things from the interview today with Scott and Bryan. I thought it was very interesting when they said that they had the idea for A Quiet Place and then stuck it in a drawer for a while. Hindsight is always 20/20, and it seems so obvious now what a great idea this is, but it’s only obvious because it worked.
As an aside, amateurs are always so afraid of someone stealing their great idea. But that’s what you have to realize, no idea, even great ones like A Quiet Place are that easy to identify before they’ve actually worked. Of course there’s the execution which is so, so important. That’s what amateurs tend to underestimate. If you’re a fan of the Blake Snyder book Save The Cat, one of the things that he proposed was just walking into a coffee shop and talking to strangers and just pitching them your movies ideas. That’s so great just to get that feedback. But again, the most important thing with all these stuff is the execution. On a practical level, what does this mean as far as getting these ideas, having these ideas and executing these ideas?
It means for me anyways, I start with a Google Doc, I have an idea bank, I log all of my ideas and put them into that Google Doc. I never delete anything. And that’s the thing. Sometimes then you can go back later with fresh eyes and an idea will look a little bit different and maybe you’ll be able to crack the story element of the idea, and all of a sudden it will start to make sense for you. So as Scott and Bryan described here, they put this thing in a drawer for a year or two and then they came back and they understood what they had to do in terms of the execution. They knew the idea wasn’t worth much until they figured out the broader strokes of the story. Again, really think about that. The idea is not worth nearly as much as you might think without great execution.
The actual execution is so, so important. What’s the story beyond the high concept logline? Go back and listen to that section. They knew they had a good idea but they didn’t know how to actually execute the script, so they just put the idea on hold, that’s the key. Once they cracked the actual story, then it wasn’t just a great idea, it was a great idea written into a well-executed screenplay and that’s what’s valuable in Hollywood. The actual idea without the good execution really isn’t worth nearly as much as you might think. It’s the execution that actually makes these things valuable. It’s not always gonna be obvious how to actually execute on a great idea, so doing what they did is just so, so smart.
If you recognize an idea, you recognize something in all of this, it might be a good idea but you don’t quite know how to execute it, again, put it in that idea bank. The reverse I think is also true and again, this is going to amateurs except these guys are not amateurs, they had been writing for a while, they’re obviously very smart, obviously very talented, so they recognized that they had a good idea but didn’t know how to execute it. And I find amateurs go the opposite direction. They will have an idea that’s not nearly as good as this one, they will think it’s as good or better and then they’ll do sloppy execution. And that’s the thing, that’s obviously never gonna work. But even if you are, even if you do are able to come up with a really great idea, if it’s not executed well, it’s not gonna be valuable.
There’s not gonna be too many people who want to produce a script where the idea is not executed in a great way. And here’s the other thing, it’s not like people are gonna read that script and say, “Oh, it’s a great…” Maybe this happens sometimes, they read the thing and say, “Well, it’s a great idea but the execution is poor.” And so then maybe they will hire another writer to actually go and do a better execution. But I can tell you for someone who’s been around Hollywood for a long time, it’s only in hindsight that the idea looks as brilliant as it does. It’s because it was in a well-executed screenplay. But beyond that, not only was it a great idea executed into a great screenplay, it was a great idea executed into a great screenplay, then also executed into a great production that also was a big hit.
You can mess up at any one of those points. You can have a bad idea, you can have bad execution, you can have a good movie that does… obviously you can make a bad movie, and then you can also make a good movie that doesn’t actually have commercial success. And unless all of those things line up, nobody would have gone back and looked at this idea and said, “Huh, what a brilliant idea.” It’s apparent to us now because everything lined up. The planets aligned and this thing worked from top to bottom. But it wouldn’t be that obvious if this movie had flopped or if the execution of the production, maybe the screenplay was really good but the execution and production wasn’t good. If any of these things had gone off track, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about what a great idea this is.
Again, all that to say is just listen to their template for that, how they worked through that idea of A Quiet Place. I think that’s really the best template you can have. Coming up with those great ideas, storing them, keeping them in your idea bank, and then also understanding that the execution is gonna be so important and so not moving forward until you have a good… not until you have a good idea, but until you have a great idea with a plan on how to actually execute that idea and pull it out and really make the most of that idea.
Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.