This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 382: With Screenwriter Simon Barrett.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #382 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Myers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I’m interviewing writer-director, Simon Barrett. He is a screenwriter living here in Los Angeles. He was a writer on the Blair Witch sequel that came out in 2016. He was also one of the writers on V/H/S, a really good found footage horror film that came out in 2012. And now he’s on the podcast to talk about his latest film, Seance. So stay tuned for that interview. SYS’s Six-Figure Screenplay contest is open for submissions. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. The regular deadline is May 31st, after that it goes up by $10 and then the final deadline is July 31st. So if your script is ready, definitely submit now.
And in fact, the day this is publishing is our last day for our regular deadline. So definitely submit if your script is ready. This year, we have a short film category as well, 30 pages or less. So if you have a low-budget, short script, by all means, submit that as well as that’s very appropriate. I’ve got a number of industry judges looking for short scripts. So hopefully we can find a home for some of those as well. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about or perhaps even enter, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. 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 re-tweeting 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 #382. 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 your 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. So now let’s get into our main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer-director Simon Barrett. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Simon to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Simon: Thank you for having me.
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 entertainment business?
Simon: I grew up in Columbia, Missouri, kind of small town in Mid-Missouri. And I’ve always wanted to make films for as long as I can remember, I guess like a lot of people. Basically since I basically knew what a movie was, I kind of wanted to be involved in that sort of storytelling. Like from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I think when I was like five or six was when like, “I wanna do this,” real moment. Obviously growing up in Mid-Missouri, that avenue wasn’t obvious to me. So like a lot of people I did go off to film school. I actually majored in cinematography because I was kind of thinking at that time I was mostly gonna be directing micro-budget films was kind of what I thought really my first path to success would be.
I ended up selling my first horror script, my first horror feature that I wrote to a studio that did not want me to direct it, but did wanna make it. So then I was a screenwriter. And because I could write for no money and making movies costs money, that is what I ended up doing for about a decade while I was working a day job and not having any real success at it. Then I started… but on the set of that film, that initial film that I’d written and sold…
Ashley: What film was that?
Simon: Oh, I should say. A film called Dead Birds, which premiered in 2004. So then, which was like a festival horror movie, had a cool cast, a cool DP, cool director, but at the end of the day it was kind of, probably not the best script. And a film that has an audience, people like it, but to me, I just see mistakes that… And so, but on the set of that movie, I met, Adam Wingard because we were filming that in Alabama near where he was living at the time. He was making a film there with our pal Evan Katz, Katz called homesick. And we just stayed in touch. And after a few years of just failing to get our career started in any meaningful way in the actual film industry, we knew that we were gonna have to start making movies for no money if we wanted to make movies.
So we kind of just paired up and we were able to raise about $60,000 for our first feature together. Well, we did a feature called What Fun We Were Having, which I only kind of helped come up with like a little bit of the idea for one part of. So I wasn’t too involved in that, but then A Horrible Way to Die, I wrote and was heavily involved in the production of. That was about a $60,000 project, and that led to bigger films. We filmed that in my hometown in Missouri, and then that led us to getting V/H/S and You’re Next kind of set up and financed, which we also filmed in my hometown in Mid-Missouri, all those being like well under a million dollar projects. That led to bigger things for me as, that led to The Guest and Blair Witch, and now ultimately Seance.
Ashley: Let me go back and touch on a couple of things you just mentioned. I wanna talk, if we have time, about V/H/S a little bit. That’s kind of a horror movie that’s sort of out there, a lot of people have heard of it. And I’ve actually had some of the, some other people… Is that sort of an anthology where different people wrote different sections? I think I actually had a writer from Atlanta who actually wrote, maybe it was for the second one, be it just to… I don’t know, but it’s something that maybe I would get to a little bit later, but let’s talk about Dead Birds quickly. How did… you said you sold the script, but didn’t direct it. You were living in Missouri, it sounds like, at this point. How did you get that script out there?
Maybe walk us through that a little bit. What were those steps to actually getting that script sold?
Simon: Yeah, I mean, again, my perspective on the film industry was always kind of, I guess like a lot of people I just felt like a total outsider and had no concept of how I would get a script read or how I’d get an agent or anything like that. Not that I have an agent now, I haven’t had an agent like in a decade. But so that doesn’t actually matter is one of the things you gradually learn. But I didn’t really know anyone and I was just gonna do this myself, but I had gone to film school with a guy Jim Busfield, who I wanted to act in the movie. He, at the time was working for a company called Silver Nitrate, who did these kind of negative pickup deals for Sony and particularly Screen Gems working for a guy named Usher, who financed a lot of, kind of like stuff for the video market,
Ashley: And just to find a negative pickup deal, that, real quickly, just for people who maybe aren’t aware of what that is.
Simon: In that situation, what happens, it’s usually kind of done for generally union and cost reasons. What will happen is a studio will essentially pre-acquire an independent film in a situation where they’re basically financing it and they’re calling it, it’s called a negative pickup, I think kind of referring to the… I don’t know if that’s like, I don’t know if that’s a cost thing, but I always assume that’s like the film’s being bought straight out of the can before the film is even made or developed. Or as soon as it’s shot, it’s owned by the studio. They acquire it before it premiers basically. So you can do kind of multiple ways of making independent movies.
Séance is an independently financed film that we made and sold halfway for a profit, but that’s a risky endeavor. What studios prefer to do is avoid any risk of loss. And so Dead Birds, which was about $1.5 million, that was not a WGA deal for me. I was non-WGA. And Sony is a WGA signatory studio so just, I think even to get certain low-budget content, and this is during the DVD era too, which was a period where these movies were really made for a physical media, home video market, which was huge at the time. Basically any movie that was remotely competent could sell like 10, $20 million worth of DVDs overseas. It was just a different era. Studios make movies for different reasons, but it’s always based on these kinds of monetary systems that evolve constantly based on technology.
At the time it was the video boom, the home video boom. And so they needed this product, they needed this content, but they… So they’d come up with these negative pickup deals, which happens all the time to this day. It’s just a way of basically pre-financing a film that’s somewhat off your books, made technically by different studios so you don’t have to worry about it yourself. Whether it’s DGA or WGA or whatever, but then the movie is yours. So essentially Dead Birds was financed by Sony, but it was an independent production that went to TIFF and then was distributed by Sony. And this is very, very common. To this day, this is how a lot of movies are kind of done, through these third-party studios that exist to make smaller projects for bigger studios. And it happens in a bunch of different ways.
That’s just the kind of one of the most straightforward. And he had this deal making movies for Sony, essentially making smaller movies. So they needed content. And I sent the script to my buddy, who’s kind of working for them in this situation. He was just like, “Well I think they’d be willing to make this.” My appellate Jim Busfield, he was kind of like, “I don’t know what your plan is, but I actually think we could get this set up to be really financed and be a real movie.” And he did. He showed it to his boss Usher, and they put it together, but there was no version of me directing that because I was very young and inexperienced. They wanted a more experienced director.
They hired a gentleman named Alex Turner, who I’m still friends with as well. That was my first script sale. So in terms of your podcast and kind of the focus we have here, that was my real first big sale, my first foot in the door, but it didn’t yield anything for me. I got hired to write a Syfy channel movie called Frankenfish for which I was paid $12,500, and that was it. I managed to write another script, which was kind of gonna be as part of this companion piece trilogy with Dead Birds that Alex directed, but the studio… and that was in another deal through Silver Nitrate and Sony, but that happened, we filmed that right before the writer’s strike. And then they ended up basically pulling the post budget, re-editing the film and re-titling it, it was originally called The Stone House.
So that ultimately is a movie that like, while I like a lot of things about it I see none of my work in it actually whatsoever, and I think Alex feels kind of the same. It ended up being just kind of taken away from us and not really becoming what we intended it to be. But that was the kind of experience that made me realize I needed more control over my scripts and my writing. Because you can write a great script, but if it becomes a bad movie, no one’s gonna go back and read it and give you the benefit of doubt. Your career is just done, right? So that’s when working with Adam kind of came into play where I was like, I trust him, I know we’re gonna make good movies, I know we’re making movies for the right reasons.
But for me selling my first script was really, it’s a funny thing because people always ask me if they should go to film school, and I always say, “No, absolutely not. Why would you do that? What a terrible waste of your money. Horrible, horrible, just make a movie.” But I’m lying of course. I’m being a hypocrite, because I went to film school because I didn’t know how to make a movie. And my first foot in the door, the way I met my friend, Adam Wingard, the way I got my first film made is a gentleman that I knew from film school. And it was that connection.
Ashley: Yeah, so let me just touch on a couple of things you said. Because I can see there’s a little cynicism in your voice about, it didn’t really roll, it didn’t… I think a lot of people come into screenwriting and think, “If I can get that first script produced, then all of a sudden my career is just headed straight to the moon.” I actually went through a very similar situation. When I sold my first script, it wasn’t really nothing that me and my writing partner thought that we had actually even written, it was so drastically changed. But I do think that there was some value in gaining that confidence or experience, because I’m totally, it was totally like you. I was from Annapolis, Maryland. I didn’t know any screenwriters or really any creative person.
The only like creative person I knew was my guitar teacher who was making, yo, $18 an hour, teaching guitar lessons. Those were the artists that I was interacting with in Annapolis, Maryland. So for me to sell that script, it wasn’t like creatively fulfilling, but I do think that there was some confidence that I gained, “Hey, maybe I can actually do this.”And speak to that a little bit. I mean, don’t you think ultimately, you also just made a comment, you said, “Well it’s not gonna, it’s gonna hurt your career,” or whatever. But I don’t feel bad movies really hurt your career. Sure, nobody’s gonna go back and read the script and see if it was good, but it just kind of gets swept under the rug and you move on to the next project and hopefully the next project is better.
But talk about that a little bit. That first experience. Obviously it’s maybe a little bit bittersweet, but don’t you see some value in it now with some years of experience?
Simon: Oh, of course. And I should say that, I think like as a screenwriter, the most important hurdle that you can cross is getting a film produced. Because once you are able to point to something and say, “I wrote that,” no matter how bad it is, no matter how obscure or low budget or whatever, you have written something that exists other than just a script. Which let’s be honest most people are just gonna see it as the blueprint for a final product of art and entertainment, not an existing work of art on itself. And there’s with good reason. It’s not the final product. The film is the final product. So absolutely, I think especially when you’re at the beginning of your career, the more credits the better.
And I do think that as a screenwriter, bad films generally don’t really hurt your reputation or job prospects. And that’s for two reasons, which is generally, I think people know that screenwriters aren’t ultimately to blame for a lot of these things, that were fairly powerless when a film goes into production in general and largely we’re being rewritten and it’s not our fault. And then secondarily, no one really pays attention to who writes movies or shows. So no one knows anyway, and they just gonna to look it up and they’re like, “Oh okay. Well, maybe that’s his fault, maybe it’s not.” But yes, I mean, even the… There are films in my resume that I’m not proud of.
I talked about Red Sands, that project, Alex and my follow-up to Dead Birds and the ways that I was disappointed by that experience and how it kind of galvanized me towards producing and now directing. But obviously I’m really glad that movie exists and it’s better to have it than a big gap of nothing on my resume, but I mean, it’s a tricky thing. Yeah, I do in general think everything is work. I would always rather be working than not working, whatever that means. Like if I have the option of working on something I truly believe in, great, if… but back in that day, I didn’t. And so I would go out for jobs and not get them for projects that I didn’t really wanna write, like Toy Soldiers II, the direct to video sequel to Toy Soldiers that I think finally did maybe get made.
I don’t know, but I didn’t write it. And, but I met on it and it was a miserable experience, enough that I still remember it. So it’s like, it’s stuff like that. I mean, but you’re right, just getting that first credit, just getting that first film made is so much more important. You can have 20 of the best scripts ever written, but that’s less valuable and less important than having one existing film, no matter how bad it is. So at the end of the day when people ask me for advice on what they should be writing, we all know the number one answer is what do you, what can you get made? What do you think people will make? What do people want? So it’s not, it’s probably not a coincidence.
And it made certainly a huge impression on me that my first script that I sold was again, not coincidentally, the first script that I’d written with an eye towards production and budget. I wrote Dead Birds thinking I was gonna direct it and make, and end up finding financing for it, probably myself through friends and family. I thought the budget, we met 60 grand. Ironically, I did end up doing that exact thing about a decade later with A Horrible Way to Die making a 60 grand movie in my hometown with Adam directing, but my plan… but the reason Dead Birds got made is because I concretely tried to write something make-able because I thought I was gonna make it and direct it and shoot it myself.
I thought I was gonna be the DP/director/editor/producer/everything. So I wrote something that was contained. It ended up costing 1.5 million and being a real movie. But that was the first script I sold. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my first small producible horror script, which by the way Dead Birds is set in the third year of the American Civil War. It’s a Western. It wasn’t the easiest thing to make, and I was probably crazy to think I could have made it for the budget I did, but it still was achievable. 1.5 million was no big deal for Sony and Screen Gems back in the day, especially with the cast that we got in that film. So that’s what I… that was really it. So, I mean, it’s that first produced credit. It’s that first just being able to point to something and say, “I have written a movie, not just a script,” is invaluable. Way more important than getting an agent, a manager or anything else that people consider a career hurdle. I do agree.
Ashley: Yeah, I totally second that, I think that’s outstanding advice. At what point did you move to LA? It sounds like you got this script sold, you were still living back in your hometown or did you move out here right after college?
Simon: Yeah, sorry. I should correct that chronology. So I grew up in Columbia, Missouri, I did go off to Upstate New York for college. I went to Ithaca College, Upstate New York, same town as Cornell and the lesser school in that town, I think it’s known. And then I moved to Brooklyn actually for about a little over a year. So like 2000, 2001. And then I moved to LA at the beginning of 2002. So I was actually in New York during like 911 and all that, and then I didn’t leave because of 911, I left because I sold Dead Birds. And I was like, “Well, I guess I should move to LA.” I was actually working as a private investigator full time. I’m still licensed in the state of California.
So I was just doing day job work right out of college. But my roommate and I were able to find, my roommate Ian was a buddy from film school and he managed to find a great place in Park Slope, kind of thing you can never get now. But we managed to be two broke kids living in Park Slope in Brooklyn in a pretty nice building. And we had a great couple of years in New York and that’s when I wrote Dead Birds and sold it. So, but I moved to New York because I just had no idea what else to do with my life. And I was in my early 20s and it just seemed like… My friend was like, “Wanna move to New York?” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” And then I sold a script and my other friend was like, “Wanna move to LA?” and I was like, “That’s a great idea.”
So me and my buddy, Miquel drove a rider truck from New York to LA and I moved to LA in the beginning of 2002. And I probably, I thought, I think at the time I was like, “Well, I’ll probably move back to New York in like a year or two.” And here I am. I’ve lived in the same one bedroom apartment for like 16 years.
Ashley: I’m curious, you made a comment earlier in the interview, you haven’t had an agent in about 12 years. And you also mentioned some of these gigs, Blair Witch. Those are the things that most of us have heard about. How did you get into pitching for those gigs or get considered for those gigs without an agent?
Simon: Pitching unsuccessfully for Toy Soldiers II is exactly the kind of thing that an agent gets you, is meetings for jobs like that. And that was why I ultimately was happy to fire that agent and I hope he’s unhappy. And that’s a true statement. So look, I’m probably a tough person to represent because I really do at the end of the day wanna make like original films and that’s not what Hollywood does, and that’s not what agents do. They look for open assignments, open jobs, and they get you hired for them. And I’m not really an assignment writer. I mean, I can do stuff like Face/Off 2 and ThunderCats, which I’m working on with Adam Wingard right now, but these are things that we pitched to the studios, kind of. It wasn’t like they were active things in development that we fit into those slots.
We kind of helped generate those projects or at least the momentum that they currently have that’s allowing us to get paid to write them. So that’s a different thing kind of, that’s something where we had originally, we had ideas that we came to the studio with to begin with. I find it very to be like, okay, the studio wants to make this, what’s your idea for it? It’s like, I know I’m not gonna be as good as a lot of other people at that because I just have such an idiosyncratic relationship with my own creativity and the stories I wanna tell. The directors I admire tend to be directors like the Cohen Brothers who don’t repeat themselves and tend to work in original territory.
Or if they’re doing a remake, it’s something like True Grit or the Ladykillers where they approach it in a different way. Not that I’m a huge fan of their Ladykillers remake [laughs]. I kind of prefer the original of that one. But True Grit’s a masterpiece, and Miller’s Crossing’s a phenomenal adaptation of The Glass Key. They’re brilliant. So that’s the kind of career that I always envied and still do, not so much just being successful or whatever, because I don’t have kids and I don’t need to make a lot of money because I never have. So that’s what that affords me, is that ability to be original. I did… So when it comes to Blair Witch, my agent didn’t get me that job, but that’s because the executive who wanted to do Blair Witch was the executive who acquired You’re Next for Lionsgate, Jason Constantine.
So he came directly to Adam and me and said, “I wanna hire you to do Blair Witch,” and that was because we sold an independent film to them. He skipped our representation and he went straight to us. And largely that’s what I’d found, that’s how I found things kind of get done. At a certain level, it’s like if studios really wanna with you, they kind of know how to reach you. They just need to have a contact person. In the case of Blair Witch, it was again, they just knew they wanted to make one, but they gave us a lot of creative freedom because they wanted to work with us on it. And that’s a different situation than us going in with like 17 other competing teams of writers and pitching, “I’m one of 17 writers pitching Blair Witch 3,” that day.
Because I honestly, in that situation, I’ll fail. I know I will. And I wanna end that thought by saying that an agent, in my entire career, my representation has gotten me two jobs. Two writing jobs, both of which were not made in the films and both of which I regret the amount of time it wasted versus what, vis-a-vis what I got paid. Both times turned out to be negative experiences. Every single film I’ve had made has not had any representation involved on the front end. My lawyer Todd Rubenstein at Morris Yorn, excellent guy. He’s great, but he doesn’t get me jobs, he just…
Simon: He negotiates on my behalf. I do have a manager and he’s great, but he helps me kind of put my projects together. An agent who gets few jobs… I’m very privileged to be able to say that I don’t maybe need one now, but the reality is I needed one for a very long time and they never did anything for me except waste my time and convince me to write a lot of things for no money that went nowhere and wasted years of my life on projects, trying to guess the spec market and insane things like that. So I have a lot of cynicism towards representation, but I do have a wonderful manager and a wonderful lawyer, and I know there are wonderful agents out there. I think it just depends on your path, and your own personal, you know.
Ashley: I really hope people listen to that. Listen to what you’re saying and go and look you up on IMDb and really understand that all of those deals and all those credits you have did not come through your agent. It’s really worth, because I think most people just assume that once a writer has a movie or two out there, they get an agent and then the agent is the one that’s actually pushing their careers forward. Which I agree with you is actually not the case for probably most screenwriters. Let’s dig into your latest film, Seance and talk about that. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Simon: it’s kind of a murder mystery set at a boarding school, a private girl’s boarding school. There’s a new student there played by Suki Waterhouse who moves into the dorm room of a girl who’s died recently because it’s the only room that’s available. It’s believed to be haunted, and she kind of sets about finding out what happened which leads to more deaths. So it’s a kind of like a supernatural murder mystery horror thing.
Ashley: Got you. So where did this idea come from? What was the genesis of this story?
Simon: Boy, that’s a good question. I think I just tend to watch a lot of old fashioned murder mysteries and read a lot of old fashioned murder mysteries. And I really wanted to try to make one, but I knew I wanted it to also be kind of a horror movie because that was what, A, what I could get made, but that’s also kind of what I wanted to make. That was a story I wanted to tell. So I don’t really know where my stories come from in terms of inspiration. Sometimes it’s a very concrete where I’ll have like an idea and extrapolate upon it, but in terms of Seance, I really think I just kind of liked the idea of doing a film in this genre that’s obsessed me for so long, which was kind of [inaudible 00:25:48], like supernatural slashers, kind of the late ‘90s slasher revival.
It was a pivotal time for me and kind of my development as a filmmaker because that was right when I was going off to film school when films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and such were coming out and Urban Legend, films like that. I guess it kind of ended with Valentine, which is actually one of my favorites. But that whole genre made a huge impression on me because that was what was really coming out when I was like first picking up a camera and trying to play around with it, at least in a meaningful way, like trying to really be a real filmmaker. Obviously my work at that time was abysmal, but I was trying and so those are the movies that just really shaped kind of who I am as a filmmaker, and I really wanted to make one, and that’s Seance.
Ashley: Perfect. So let’s talk about your writing process a little bit and we can be very specific to Seance. Where do you typically write, and when do you typically write? Do you go to Starbucks, do you need that ambient noise? You write right here in your home office? Are you morning guy, night guy, you write in the middle of the night? Do you wait until the deadline, crank out 20 pages a day for five days, or are you just slower and steadier? What does your writing process look like?
Simon: I have a very neurotic relationship with my own writing and ironically, as it gets older and I get more successful, it just gets worse and worse. And I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if that’s because I’m directing now that writing is getting harder. Lately I’ve been writing with a partner, Adam Wingard, which is great. He comes over and we hang out in my office here which is where I’m talking to you now. He lives a few blocks away from me. I’ve got a two bedroom apartment and one of the bedrooms is my office. So this is mostly where I do my work now. I do like coffee houses. It’s been kind of a little while since I could go hang out and work in a coffee house.
I do think there is… I actually love writing in coffee houses when I go back to my hometown, Columbia, Missouri, because there’s a university there. Like you go to a place and everyone’s really hyper-focused on their papers and stuff. And it’s a good vibe for a writer because you just feel like, “Oh, everyone’s working. I just have to keep my head down and type or everyone’s gonna wonder what I’m doing here.” In LA coffee houses can be a little annoying. They get really crowded, everyone takes up all the outlets and stuff. I mostly work in my office. And then beyond that, I wanna really emphasize. I just like, I procrastinate until the last minute. I’ll ruin my health.
I’ll drink too much alcohol, caffeine trying to figure out what’s the right combo for what’s gonna make me write. I’ve delivered a contractual rewrite to a studio 18 months late.
Ashley: Yeah. How’d that go over [laughs]?
Simon: We’ll see. I’m still kind of waiting for a response to a certain extent. But it’s a project that I do really like, I just… it was, I got really busy and it was a hard script, and so I delivered it 18 months late. They kind of did reach out to my reps and I think it was getting a little threatening for a little while, but I think they mostly just wanted to make sure that I was still working on it, and that I hadn’t just flaked. When they found out that I was still working on it and that I really was just having a completely neurotic creative experience, they were just like, “Oh, well, as long as he’s not just like taking our money.” I think that was their concern is that I bailed.
But when they found out that I actually hadn’t bailed and was just incredibly overdue, but that I was actually still working on it pretty consistently, I think they felt fine and they were just like, “Well, this guy is gonna do a good job, and there’s…” That’s a different thing. I mean, I could, if I was 18 months late on like Face/Off 2, or ThunderCats, they would’ve just replaced me two months into that. This is a personal project and these people were willing to wait for me, and it was a somewhat unique situation where I kind of knew I could somewhat get away with this just because we didn’t have an urgent timeline and there’s just like a lot of other unique circumstances related to that, that kind of made that okay.
But that’s just to say, like, I am completely capable of making extremely self-destructive decisions. I have a tremendously neurotic relationship with my own creativity and writer’s block and I just kind of write when I can, and I tend to write late at night to be honest with you. Because that tends to be the last minute for me.
Ashley: What do you do in terms of like outlining index cards versus opening final draft and actually cranking out dialogue and slug lines and description?
Simon: I tend to not outline if I can avoid it. I tend to find that the projects that I’ve outlined extensively usually for kind of contractual reasons, I tend to end up having to do more drafts of. Because I find that I’m not always sure where a story should go at an outline stage in the way that I am at a full writing stage, a full script writing stage. And sometimes I can take a story in the wrong creative direction in an outline that I would avoid if I was more clear on who my characters were and what my story was, which comes from the screenwriting process. If it was up to me, here’s how I generally prefer to work. I tend to start page one sentence one, but when I know what my ending is, which I usually try to figure out first, I write my ending first, and then I kind of scroll down and I do like return, return, return.
But even on the final draft or whatever you have to do, like action, action, just to get it to return. And then I just start at the top of the page and I write. I start with the first scene. And any additional scenes that kind of come to me, I can kind of toss them into that document somewhere in the middle. Usually by the time I get to that ending, I wanna rewrite it, but that kind of gives me the sense of like I know where I’m headed, and it’s not just like a story that might not work out. I know what the conclusion of it is that way, and then I can kind of just have the creative free writing experience. Because if it was up to me, I would just start page one and just write that way, but there’s a bit of doubt involved in that so that’s why I like to write my endings.
I just write the scene and then I start at the beginning. I try to not outline if I can avoid it, but usually I can’t. If it’s a studio project, usually they wanna know what you’re gonna do.
Ashley: Got you. Let’s talk about screenplay structure and genre requirements. You mentioned some of these other films that sort of influenced Seance, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, those kinds of ‘90s, young, sexy girls being harassed by a stalker. What are sort of the tropes? Like what are some of the films that influenced you? There’s always this thing, give me the same, but different. What are some of the tropes that you tried to maybe use, but maybe twist a little bit, what are some of the things you tried to just completely get rid of? Just how do you approach something like this? Looking at the old films, how do you add to sort of that canon of work?
Simon: I don’t wanna spoil anything narratively, but I guess I would say that the reasons for why things are happening in the films that I write are hopefully all just kind of interestingly unusual. I don’t know. I actually don’t really often think about like, how am I going to subvert the genre? Depending on what it is, I think I almost am just trying to figure out what’s different and new in a genre, but I’m not always trying to work in opposition to where I feel like the genre’s going. I’m just trying to think of things that I haven’t specifically seen before. Seance isn’t trying to be, I think, a very original film narratively. I wouldn’t say any of my scripts would really ever be described probably by anyone as like high concept.
I tend to think what makes the scripts that I write good, if you indeed think they are good, is the details, the humor and the particular ways that a story unfolds or who the characters are. So that’s kind of just what I truly tend to focus on, is just the detailed kind of oriented stuff. But again, but I also just like, I watch every horror movie and when you do that, you do just learn how to instinctively avoid certain things that are bad and certain characterizations that, especially in the slasher genre like you said, there’s a certain cliché of what those films are and what the characters in them are. We all think of a topless woman being chased by a hockey-masked killer through the woods, right?
But, I mean, but by and large, those ones are actually fairly rare and there’s always like, at the same time that those movies were being made, there were also films like The House on Sorority Row, or The Initiation, which are actually fairly complex in their mystery and narrative. So I think it’s more than just, I try to take inspiration from sometimes the outliers in a genre. So like the movies that I feel like are more interesting, but maybe don’t get the most attention and then it’s just really just like, it’s just a matter of kind of knowing what you like and what you don’t like as a fan, and trying to deliver that as a filmmaker. Which is a lot easier said than done, but that is it.
It’s like, I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever write a script as great as Kevin Williamson’s script for Scream. It’s a phenomenal script, but I at least understand what I like about it and what it does well that I personally think, I don’t know, a lesser film does not do well. For example, Scream 2. So you can kind of examine, for example, those two films and say, “Why do I like this one better? What would…?” And then more importantly, if you look at a film that’s bad, like what would I do differently to make this good? I always think people can gain more inspiration and especially filmmakers can gain more inspiration from watching bad movies and good movies. Good movies are unknowable often.
Like how do you imitate There Will Be Blood or like Trouble Every Day? These films are just like unique masterpieces. But it’s very easy for me to look at a bad film and say why it’s bad and what it did wrong, and also then to say, what could this have done differently? What was bad about this? What could this movie has done differently that would have been good in this moment? And then suddenly you have an original idea, kind of, as opposed to just trying to rip off, I don’t know, a great horror movie, a great recent horror movie, like Get Out or Hereditary. Look at a bad recent horror movie and say, “What’s this doing wrong?” and then say, “Well, how would I do it better?” And then see if that, see if you suddenly have something new.
Ashley: Excellent advice. And I’ve heard that same advice for app developers, go look at an app that’s got a good idea, but wasn’t well executed and make those… if you’re like an app developer, that’s a good way to find your first app is to just find one that’s got some potential and then just do a little bit of pivot on it. So excellent advice there. Let’s talk about once you’re with finished the script, what were those next steps to actually getting this produced? You have a script that you like, it sounds like you kind of knew you wanted to direct this one from the start. Were you telling some of these partners that you have about the script, getting feedback from them so once you got done, you were kind of ready to go?
But maybe talk about that process a little bit here. So you have your script now, and then what’s the next step to actually getting that thing to being a completed movie.
Simon: I mean, I have a body of work at this point in my career where there are people I can kind of reach out to when, I’m not… It’s not the way it was at the beginning of my career where you have a finished script and maybe if a handful of your friends will read it, if you twist their arms. I’m fortunately at a point where when I finish a script, people do wanna read it because I have made a… well actually I think everything I’ve written has made money. And certainly my more visible projects with Adam. Well, The Guest it’s a complicated one. But most of our films have been very visibly kind of profitable, so people are interested in investing in my work. That said, no one who I worked with before was interested in investing in Seance.
The producers of The Guest and You’re Next, were off making like One Night in Miami and they’re just kind of off doing their own thing now separately from the kind of genre stuff that Adam and I were enjoying back then. So they didn’t wanna do it, and that was kind of disappointing. And then it was really just a matter of, I showed it to a handful of people, I met with a handful of producers. This was kind of, a lot of this was facilitated through my manager, I should say. But just through kind of also general film connections, just reaching out to friends, just saying like, “Look, I’ve got a two, $3,000,000 horror movie here that I think is really good and unique, but I wanna direct it myself.
Ultimately HanWay Films financed, helped finance The Guest and You’re Next, and they agreed to come in for basically half the budget with financing from Ingenious who they work with. And then it was just about finding a domestic partner. So I had a studio, a sales company, an international sales company-ish in the project, HanWay through… I’m very grateful to, to say the least. And then Dark Castle Entertainment, Joel Silver’s old company, they’re kind of reforming and now trying to do smaller, independent projects. And they were kind of interested in doing, and they were kind of interested in Seance. They were like, “This is a low enough risk investment and that this maybe could be like our first kind of indie thing now that we’re like an indie studio and we don’t really work the way that we used to.”
And sure enough, that did work out. So it was just basically I needed a couple of companies to basically vouch and say like we’re good for about a million bucks of this thing. And then and then I was able to kind of put it together myself and go off and make it, which that’s generally how film financing works. I mean at the indie budget level, it’s a lot of sales companies and stuff. And HanWay just looked at the script and were like, unless he screws this up completely, we can sell this for X amount and it’ll cost Y amount, and that’s that. So, but I’m very lucky that I have those relationships. And I will be honest, I don’t think HanWay are making horror movies anymore. Seance did well for them, but I think I kind of got my window.
A gentleman named Matt Baker was very supportive. And I think my window for HanWay to finance this movie was when it was. I don’t think they’d do it again, even though it was profitable for them and I know that I think they consider it one of their bigger recent successes. It’s just kind of not their thing and they kind of did it just for me. But no one really wanted, I mean, it was hard. It took me four or five years to put together the financing for Seance. And I did not think it was gonna be that difficult because I was coming off stuff like The Guest and You’re Next where I was just like, it’s a small contained horror movie. Why wouldn’t anyone…? These things are always profitable if they turn out even remotely competent. Why wouldn’t anyone give me a chance here?”
But it was just too weird a script and the humor was too strange. And I think ultimately I’m really grateful that I found people to take a shot at it, but it was a lot of trial and error. And then also attaching a star. Suki Waterhouse once she came on board, that was really when I think I knew we were making a movie.
Ashley: Got you. How did you guys get Suki? Was that a connection you had, or just reaching out to her agent with a casting director?
Simon: I think it actually was a connection of Dark Castles. I think Alex Mace, who was kind of our main producer at Dark Castle. He was on set only for a couple of days, but that’s just how they kind of work. He, gosh, I think he is friends with a lot of her really close friends, so they somehow knew each other and hung out and are just like part of some scene. He’s like buddies with Leonardo DiCaprio and just like, he’s part of that scene. So I haven’t met Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m not part of that scene. So I’m out over here just being like, “Hey, can I please meet with Suki Waterhouse?” And he made it happen, I think. And she just really got the humor of it and she really got it and really understood what I was going for.
And thankfully… then the good news is once you get in a room with an actor, as long as they don’t hate the script, usually you can, if you’re a remotely decent filmmaker, you can kind of convince them to take a shot on you. But I if Suki hadn’t said yes, I don’t think Seance would exist.
Ashley: You mentioned you’ve watched every horror movie. I always like to wrap up these interviews by asking the guest to give us some suggestions on something screenwriters might like to watch. Maybe something that’s really great that went a little under the radar that you think maybe people should watch, but maybe haven’t. Anything HBO, Hulu, Netflix. Is there anything you’ve seen recently in the last six months or so that you’d recommend?
Simon: Yeah. I mean, there always is like good stuff. I’m trying to think of a new movie as well. A film that I always recommend to people that not a lot of people have seen, it was released by IFC, it’s called Lowlife, directed by Ryan Prows who just worked on V/H/S 94. That’s a really cool movie that was written in an interesting way. Like a lot of different writers working together collaboratively. There’s a film on Shudder right now called Anything for Jackson which came out late last year that I thought was a really original, fun, horror story. There’s also a movie called Host on Shudder, which is more of a found footage type thing that I thought had a really clever approach to like, again, kind of a new ghost story, a new kind of narrative approach that…
I thought Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, was like probably the best movie of last year. So original, I don’t know where he came up with some of, kind of the ideas in that, but I thought they were really nuanced and intelligent. So yeah, those were all like, those are some recent ones that I really was quite galvanized by.
Ashley: Those are great recommendations. How can people see Seance? Do you know what the release schedule is like, where it’s gonna be available?
Simon: I don’t know specifically what theaters it’s gonna be in yet. I know it comes out in theaters and on digital VOD and all that on May 21st. So, I mean, it’ll be on all the usual VOD places and hopefully also at a theater near you, but failing that, it’ll be VOD. And it is a day and date title. So it will be in theaters and On Demand on the same day, which is nice in these times because it just means everyone can see it.
Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing, I will put it in the show notes.
Simon: I am on Twitter @Simon_Barrett. Twitter, and that’s probably my most active site. I’m on Facebook, but I don’t use it very often. I’m not really out there. I don’t really talk very openly about anything on Twitter, but if people wanna check in and make sure that I’m alive, I’ll usually be posting some nonsense.
Ashley: Got you. Well, Simon, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
Simon: All right. Thank you, Ashley. I appreciate it.
Ashley: So thank you. We’ll talk to you later.
Simon: Talk to you later.
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 Ted Campbell. If you’ve ever, if you’ve been following the podcast you remember Ted is the director who found last year’s winning screenplay, Killer Profile though SYS’s Six-Figure screenplay contest. He took it over to MarVista Entertainment and they actually shot the film a few months ago.
So I had Richard on who was the writer and the winner of last year’s contest. I had him on a few weeks ago, and then next week we’re gonna have Ted, who is the director who found the script. And again, he went and got it produced. So we’ll be able to hear his experience from sort of a producer and sort of his experience working through that. He has a lot of experience, just real production experience, not just as a writer, which he is also a writer, but as well as directing and AD-ing, assistant directing, and working on a lot of these low-budget made-for-TV, female-driven thrillers. So we talk about that as well and just get some real insight into how these films operate and how these films do get made. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show. Thank you for listening.