Daniel S. Duvall
29629 Schwartz Road
Westlake Ohio 44145-3824
mobile phone: 440-623-4680
mobile phone: 440-623-4680
ALLEY CAT COMES HOME
May 1, 2000
15 nights ago, I thought I heard a cat crying outside my apartment building as I was drifting off to sleep. The next day, I clearly heard a series of cat cries. I looked out my bathroom window to the driveway below – and saw a brown alley cat peeking out of a maintenance hatch in the building next door. He yowled for a minute and then vanished into his cubbyhole.
Someone had set out a water dish for the stray, and I took down a can of tuna. Alley Cat was quite skittish those first few days. He’d be sitting in the driveway birdwatching and quickly bolt for his cubbyhole the second I rounded the corner. I’d leave a plate of tuna by the hatch, then watch from my bedroom window as he scarfed it down.
I was worried – a literal hole in the wall is no place for a cat to live! And his cubbyhole was adjacent to the driveway… surely it was only a matter of time until someone ran over the lil trooper. I began to clean and cat-proof my apartment, for I knew what I had to do.
A few days ago, a neighbor in the parking lot waved me over after he saw me fill AC’s water dish. He told me that the cat is only 7 months old, and he and his wife had been taking care of him, but had to give him up because they were worried about fleas. Well, Christ, that’s what flea collars and flea dips are for. And instead of finding him a home, they just set him out on the street. Nice. The neglectful fool told me he’d be glad to see me take the cat in.
Last night, I took a bowl of Friskies down to Alley Cat. For the first time, he let me sit nearby as he ate, and then he rubbed his cheek against my outstretched hand. Contact! Trust! After two weeks of anonymously donating meals, I became Alley Cat’s friend. I spent a good hour playing with Alley Cat in the driveway. I tried to get him to follow me back to my Cave, but he got skittish as soon as we rounded the corner and his cubbyhole vanished from sight. Twice he followed me that far, only to be scared back by cars. On attempt three, we got to the end of the driveway, and I picked him up. I cooed and talked and told him what a good cat he was. All was well until we neared the steps to my building – then, sheer cat panic. I set him down, and he bolted. Disaster.
Tonight, I returned to the driveway with a can of tuna. I wasn’t sure if he’d trust me after the “I’ll just lug him home” fiasco, but he popped out of his cubbyhole and inhaled the fish. Then he purred and played and climbed all over me, just like last night. I told him I’d be right back, and I fetched a large printer box from my apartment. After a good 45 minutes of play, I sensed the right moment for Operation Alley Cat Relocation. I scooped him up, set him in the box, and quickly flipped all four flaps shut. Then I grabbed the side carrying handles and used my thumbs to hold the lid closed. You wouldn’t believe the yowls of indignation: “I trusted you, human, and now I’m in a tiny pitch-black jostling cell?”
I wrangled the box into my apartment, kicked the door shut behind me, and set the box on the couch. Then I stepped back to let Alley Cat assess the situation. He popped out of the box and gazed around. Much yowling. This went on for about five minutes. Then he tentatively explored the floor around the coffee table, stretched out underneath it, and shifted into a series of plaintive meows. After another ten minutes of cautious exploration of the facilities (including the discovery of the Food and Water dishes near the kitchen door), he seemed to realize that this warm, carpeted pad beats the hell out of a hole in the wall. Soon he was curled up with me on the couch, purring and stretching his claws in that Happy Cat way that emulates the motions of kittens pushing against Momma Cat.
It’s now about 6 hours later. He’s napping on a blanket in the middle of the living room floor. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s had solid, uninterrupted sleep: a cat’s street life involves constant hyper-vigilance, so it’s no wonder Alley Cat is catchin’ up on the REM. (Tangential anecdote: a research team once [unethically, in my book] surgically removed the part of a cat’s brain that inhibits muscle movements during sleep – the equivalent part of the brain that prevents us from physically acting out our dreams as they occur. The test cat would drift off to sleep, then groom and run around with his eyes shut. Apparently, cats dream about grooming and running around. I personally have observed cats’ legs twitch as their eyes bounce back and forth under closed lids.)
Dear God, I hope he knows what to do with the litter box. I showed it to him and demonstrated digging motions in the sand. He stared at me like, “What the hell are you doing?” But so far, he hasn’t peed or pooped anywhere.
Tomorrow, the search for a nearby vet begins, and I shall stock up on Iams brand dry cat food.
I may permanently name him Alley Cat, or I may name him after one of the Muses of Greek mythology. I’ll decide soon. And since his age estimate is 7 months, I do believe his birthday shall be Halloween.
So, it looks like I’ve found my Familiar for the next 10 to 15 years. Or, as the Jungians might say, he found me…
How I Spent My Spring: What I Recall From My First Ever ‘Shroom Trip
Written by Daniel S. Duvall on 30 April 2002 (five weeks after the trip)
My name is Daniel Steven Duvall. Near the end of March in 2002, I spoke with disembodied voices at the onset of my first (and so far only) psilocybin mushroom trip in the living room of the one-bedroom Hollywood apartment that I share with two housecats.
Just before I ingested the mushrooms, I said out loud, “I would like to speak with Bast and Mescalito.” Bast is the Egyptian goddess of cats: I figured She’d feel right at home in my pad, where I chirp and meow with my best friends (two former strays) every day on a couch that has absorbed the scent of much pot smoke. I called out to Mescalito even though I’ve never ingested mescaline. I was just screwing around and never expected anything to actually answer. Imagine my astonishment twenty minutes later when the empty air three feet in front of me said, “You asked to speak with us. What did you want to know?”
I had a spiral notebook in which I’d planned to jot down observations about the trip as it occurred. Here is the last entry, written as I cupped the fungi in one hand: “I can sense power thrumming through the mushrooms. Do they feel this way in nature or only after they’ve been irradiated by the U.S. Post Office?”
Before I replied to the disembodied voice, which I did not recognize, I reached for the notebook. My mind was humming with ways to translate the experience into sentences. “Not now,” the voice told me.
“But that’s what I do. That’s what I am,” I responded. I realized that the primary voice was not alone when a chorus of laughter erupted in the empty air. Some of the laughter came from my kitchen. I’m puzzled as to how I remained centered as “reality” melted away all around me, but I sense that the mushrooms have a built-in panic suppressor.
I’m still not sure if the voices were just hallucinations or if I was literally communicating with external entities: I’m hesitant to endorse any particular hypothesis too quickly, though my gut feeling is that some form of Higher Intelligence really was in my apartment that night. Spirits? Gods? Aliens? I have no idea. But they sure felt real. At one point, my whole living room stretched into a giant cocktail party filled with my ancestors and those of everyone I have ever met.
When I emerged back to normal consciousness just after sunrise, I could not speak for about five hours. I lay on the floor, shivered, and reflected on as much of the trip as I could remember: I melted into the carpet. I communicated telepathically with the bacteria that live down there. I saw “reality” turn into building blocks of pure energy, the Legos and Lincoln Logs of the universe. My feline friends, Alley Cat and Thalia, stretched out next to me and purred as I curled up into a fetal position.
The whole experience confirmed in a very direct way something that I’ve suspected ever since college. It is a suspicion that has flavored the themes, text, and subtext of my spec fiction for more than a decade. Here is my latest articulation of it: spiritual evolution is suppressed by certain laws (like those that prohibit the growth and ingestion of some plants) and social structures (such as the forty-hour work week) that reinforce artificial hierarchies and discourage people from trusting their own instincts.
Near the end of my psilocybin trip, I asked the primary voice if I could come back to the psychedelic spirit world again. I got the impression that I could and indeed would at least several more times in my life. The basic message of my trip was one of self-empowerment.
A True Story
By Daniel S. Duvall
Something just passed through my apartment, I’m pretty sure.
This literally just happened minutes ago.
Like all of my encounters with anomalous phenomena, this event was unexpected, unpredictable, and unnerving.
It’s about 5 AM. (I’ve been keeping nocturnal hours lately.) I’d just finished brushing my teeth when I noticed Alley Cat peering intently into the kitchen, tense, poised, on alert. He sometimes gets that way if he spots a bug, so I assumed there was a spider or something nearby. I turned on the kitchen light and followed his gaze — nothing. An empty floor, spot-free walls. I checked again to see where he was looking. He crept toward the kitchen and just stared into the open air of the doorway.
That’s when I noticed I was getting cold. There’s a reason that old cliche exists in so many ghost stories, I think. In the space of 5 seconds, I developed goosebumps, and my shirtless torso was suddenly chilled to the bone. Granted, the early morning hours get cooler here in L.A., but this felt like I was standing outdoors in an Ohio December.
And the rational part of my brain shut off, and I thought, “Oh, something’s here.”
Alley Cat continued to gaze at the empty doorway — and then he stretched his head and neck forward the way he does when someone scratches him between his ears.
My heart’s still pounding at triple its normal rate.
I retreated to my desk chair about 4 yards from the kitchen and watched as Alley Cat interacted with empty air for about twenty seconds. I remained chilled — and suddenly I was warm again, and Alley Cat blinked, sat down, and turned to look at me. I got down on the floor, and he sauntered over and rubbed against me and asked “Meow?” I scratched his head and rubbed his neck and said, “I don’t know what it was.” I noticed his neck & back muscles were still exceptionally tense. He stretched out beside me, looked back at the kitchen door, apparently no longer saw whatever had been there, and licked my nose. Back to normal.
Shortly after I moved into this apartment, I had 2 experiences with a clock radio that made me wonder about the location: one night the radio switched itself off while I was in the room–
Ah, shit. He’s getting squirrelly and checking out the kitchen doorway again– and here come the goosebumps holy God there was just a thump against the door frame.
Chill lasted about 30 seconds that time. AC crept to the doorway, stared at empty air again, then whirled around as if following something move toward the hallway. Chill then went away.
I’m seriously spooked. Will finish report momentarily. Going to visit with AC on floor.
Okay, AC feels safe enough to dig and pee in his litter box, and the chill’s been gone a few minutes. However, I did see something out of the corner of my eye just after the chill went away: a blur of white flitting from the hallway to the bedroom.
Anyhow, the radio. One night it switched itself off, and we’re talkin’ about the kind of switch that takes effort to slide from the left to the right. It clicks and locks into place at each position (on/alarm/off).
Several nights later, the radio was again sitting on the floor to my left as I worked on the computer (this was before I had furniture, so everything was on the floor). I got up and went to the bathroom, but I could still hear the radio – which suddenly got all muffled. When I came back into the room, I found it facedown in the carpet – and it hadn’t been balanced precariously or anything before.
Those events were over a year ago, and nothing odd has happened here since, until this morning.
I’ve been thinking about holding a séance here. Seems like the time is right.
Culture Shock: Life In Los Angeles
March 1999 – June 2000
journal entries written by Daniel S. Duvall
© 2019 Daniel S. Duvall – all rights reserved
PREFACE – July 2017
In May of 2005, I returned from Los Angeles to my native Northeast Ohio. I’ve been prolific in recent years and have had five short stories published in anthologies from various outlets including Robbed of Sleep and Nosetouch Press. I’ve also continued to craft speculative feature film screenplays.
I spent May of 2017 writing a 101-page dramedy with supernatural aspects. I’d begun brainstorming this script’s characters and the tale’s broad structure (in traditional Syd-Field-style three-act form) on April 23, then commenced work on the actual scenes on May 4. I had a polished draft done on June 3.
Only one of my screenplays took me less time to write; I jammed out a first draft of that other project in two weeks and am keenly aware that it needs much revision and elbow grease before I’ll feel comfortable presenting it to any film industry allies (other than the two who have already read it). At the other extreme, I once took three years to write one script, and it’s quite a foul stinker, though I like its experimental structure.
The new dramedy, on the other hand, seems solid in its current form, and for that I credit Alley Cat Duvall, who passed away on April 6 at the age of seventeen years and five months. His death fueled the grief and anguish that infuses the screenplay. There’s much to be said for pouring emotion into one’s art.
I adopted Alley Cat on the 1st of May in the year 2000. He was (until I carried him inside) a scrawny, flea-covered stray who scrounged for food behind the apartment building where I rented a one-bedroom unit at the corner of Yucca & Argyle in Hollywood. The “alley” he lived in was technically a driveway, but “Driveway Cat” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
Alley Cat swiftly adapted to the comforts of life indoors, and within two weeks he began sleeping atop my comforter whenever I dozed. A handsome sandy-brown fellow, this feline had a distinct and pleasant personality and a gentle disposition.
Approximately one year after I took AC off the streets, I adopted a six-week-old Turkish Van cat who I named Thalia. She stayed quarantined in the kitchen until she got a clean bill of health from a veterinarian, and then I introduced her to the apartment’s other kitty.
Within two weeks, Alley Cat and Thalia had bonded and often shared the couch, which meant I had to sleep on the floor (I had no bed in all of the years I lived in that rental unit). The three of us lived in comfortable symbiosis, and both cats traveled via airplane with me in late May of 2005 when I relocated back to my native Northeast Ohio.
Alley Cat’s death was a profound seismic shock to my psyche. When it became apparent that he wasn’t long for this world, I stayed awake all night talking with him as he rested comfortably on the floor in front of my chair. He’d lost his mobility by then, though he did at one point move all four of his limbs as if imagining that he was walking. He left his flesh early in the afternoon on Thursday, April 6, but he’d stopped perceiving anything on this side of the veil a couple of hours before he stopped breathing.
I infused my latest dramedy screenplay with the raw pain I felt in the wake of my old friend’s passing. It’s my most emotionally honest work ever.
Thalia passed away on June 18 (Father’s Day), and I’m still reeling. I’m not ready to process her death by pouring my soul into another work of fiction quite yet. But I will do so.
The absence of both cats has evoked a flood of memories from my years in Hollywood. What better time to dredge up my old journal entries about that era?
Please enjoy these vintage glimpses of my mind from the spring of 1999 through June of 2000. I’ll see you again at the end of this document for an afterword.
Should Aspiring Screenwriters Live in Los Angeles?
“Should I move to Los Angeles?”
This question haunts many screenwriters who live far from The Industry. Why abandon a comfortable routine only to venture into the smog-enshrouded, crime-riddled earthquake magnet that Hunter S. Thompson wisely labeled “the Freak Kingdom”?
I uprooted from Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Los Angeles seven months ago. L.A. is in many areas not a pretty city. Gaunt, vacant-eyed figures shuffle from one street corner to the next like Romero zombies, mumbling and scratching absently. Smog chokes the joggers. Busloads of aspiring actors arrive every ten minutes, loaded down with suitcases of head shots and demo tapes. Many of them, within the year, will end up shuffling from one corner to the next, scratching and mumbling and bumping into the busloads of aspiring screenwriters, who outnumber them and lug suitcases full of spec scripts.
But aesthetics aside, there are practical reasons for screenwriters to live here. Los Angeles offers screenwriters access to two important flavors of muse chow: screenplays and movies.
An aspiring screenwriter who never reads scripts is like an aspiring composer who shuns sheet music. Thanks to interlibrary loans and the growing film reference sections of many bookstores, it is possible to obtain some screenplays outside of Los Angeles. Online and published scripts are often out of proper format, however, thereby limiting their value as learning tools, and the title selection is limited. In Cleveland, I once waited six weeks to obtain a copy of the Poltergeist screenplay via interlibrary loan. My first week in Los Angeles, I found and read three different drafts of it. I’m now swimming in copies of scripts for films to be released later this year: outside of Southern California, such current scripts are either totally inaccessible or wildly overpriced by underground mail order sources.
“Okay,” you say, “I’ll brave the airborne carcinogens and mumbling street denizens for easy access to scripts. Where in Los Angeles do I get them?”
The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library is a great place to start: its collection of over 60,000 screenplays is available to the public, though all materials are non-circulating. For scripts that you can sign out, try the Los Angeles Public Library. Or plug yourself into The Industry at any level, and you’ll soon encounter the bustling network of script collectors who trade screenplays like baseball cards. You can also purchase scripts from retailers. Enroll in any of this town’s premiere film schools, and you’ll gain access to additional fine script collections. The UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, for example, gives its students free access to hundreds of current and seminal scripts. For a small quarterly library fee, students can also access UCLA’s library system, including the Charles E. Young Research Library, wherein the Department of Special Collections offers access to thousands of scripts, including rare drafts of many titles.
Just as aspiring composers must listen to music, so must aspiring screenwriters absorb movies in theaters as often as their schedules and budgets allow. Watching videos at home is of course necessary for extensive study of specific scenes and sequences: in a theater, you can’t yell at the projection booth, “Hey, run that sequence a couple of times and then bring up the lights while I scribble some notes.” But don’t totally forsake seeing films in theaters in favor of home videos. Aside from the tremendous increase in picture and sound quality, theaters offer the chance to feel the vibe of audience reaction, to develop a reflexive sense of what will and won’t work in a cinematic story.
Los Angeles has some of the finest movie theaters in the world. I was accustomed to the tiny mulitplex screens of Cleveland malls: I had no idea what a real movie theater is until I wandered into the Cinerama Dome and Chinese Theatre. The Westwood neighborhood is packed with excellent theaters within walking distance of each other; my first couple of weeks in town, I explored on foot and discovered new theaters every day, all showing different movies. Some have cool late-night screenings of older films. I’ve recently enjoyed theatrical screenings of The Godfather, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Taxi Driver, The Spanish Prisoner, The Omen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tootsie, Easy Rider, The Old Dark House, and The Invisible Man, these last two hosted in person by Gloria Stuart and James Curtis.
So should you move to Los Angeles? Only you can answer that question. Meanwhile, I’ll wade through the smog and seek out as many excellent resources for aspiring screenwriters as I can find in this town, and I’ll report about them.
Learn From The Masters
Before I moved here, I thought of Los Angeles as being much like Middle Earth: a mythical, magical world, totally inaccessible to mortals from the Midwest. Living, breathing screenwriters were like Hobbits and Centaurs: fascinating to read about, but certainly nothing one actually runs across in the real world.
Though I have yet to see any Hobbits or Centaurs (except out of the corner of my eye after long stretches of sleep deprivation), I have encountered many professional screenwriters in the eight months I’ve lived here. Believe it or not, writers are flesh-and-blood, generally approachable, and often generous with their time and wisdom. Consider Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Linda Woolverton (The Lion King), who spoke to an audience of about 150 members of the public in a small Westwood lecture hall last month at a Humanitas seminar.
“Imitate the masters. Learn from the masters,” Zaillian advised the crowd. Among the screenplays he considers seminal are The Godfather and Chinatown. He also suggested that screenwriters should enjoy quality novels, citing To Kill A Mockingbird as one of his favorites. His favorite films? “The 400 Blows and The Bicycle Thief.”
Zaillian and Woolverton discussed their differing approaches to screenwriting. “I honestly don’t analyze the themes of my films unless I’m forced to, like tonight,” Zaillian revealed, whereas Woolverton very consciously considers her themes. She said, “I always start with theme. The characters evolve from that, and the plot radiates out from there.” She works in a home office and prefers to write directly on a computer, unlike Zaillian, who writes his first drafts by hand in an office away from home. Woolverton, who performed uncredited rewrites on early drafts of Mulan, said, “I can do a first draft in three or four months… [including] a detailed outline.” These timelines apply to her assignment work; she recently completed a first draft of a spec script in eight weeks. Zaillian’s first drafts take longer: “I’m really lucky to get a first draft out in six months,” he said. “More like nine months, usually.”
Zaillian went on to describe part of his writing process. “Thinking and note-taking… is like doodling. Trying to see the whole thing. Most of the good stuff comes in the first draft. Then I’ll rewrite for a year.” Before he begins a draft, he prepares scene cards: “I’ll lay cards out on the floor… and make sure that the signpost scenes, the important scenes, are there. You can only plan so much, and then you have to do it.” He says that many flawed scripts halt their plots for scenes that only introduce characters: “I consciously make a point of introducing my characters as the story is being told.” Once he’s into a script, “It’s a matter of the writer inhabiting the character and trying to see things from his point-of-view… it’s about imagining the scene that’s taking place as if I was in it.” He tends to write long first drafts that he pares down in rewrites. A notable exception was Schindler’s List: his first draft was about 140 pages, but “Spielberg wanted more.” The shooting script ultimately weighed in around 190 pages.
On Spielberg, Zaillian commented, “He’s very much in touch with himself and his audience. He’s very good at [story]. There are a handful of directors who pride themselves on being good on story. He’s one of them.”
Zaillian stressed the importance of a quality script in the filmmaking process: “If it’s not good on the page, it can only get worse.”
Both screenwriters kept their Development Hell stories to a minimum, though Woolverton did reveal, “I had a difficult time working with Bob Weinstein and Miramax. It was war.” The project in question? Woolverton’s adaptation of the Madeleine L’Engle novel A Wrinkle in Time. “The book is really about communism. I had to dig deep down and find something relevant for today,” Woolverton explained. After she crafted “three or four drafts,” Miramax abandoned the project. Francis Ford Coppola then acquired the rights and wanted to make it as an animated film. Miramax has since reacquired the rights, though Woolverton says the project may soon shift to Miramax’s parent company, Disney. On the development process, she added, “I’ve always worked with studios, so I get a lot of notes. You have to dig through those and look for the gems.”
Zaillian says his Hollywood career has been mostly positive: “I haven’t had too many bad experiences.” He cites his worst experience as a showdown over a significant script change that he thought would adversely affect the story: “I was sitting down with a director, and he said, ‘Let’s cut to the chase. If you don’t do [the rewrite], I’ll do it myself.’ I couldn’t believe anyone would be that rude.”
Both writers encouraged aspiring screenwriters to be persistent. Woolverton said, “You can’t let the defeats defeat you. Just press on.” Zaillian agreed: “Every new project is another chance.”
Jedi Training with Tom Fontana & John Markus
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description of the Mos Eisley spaceport in the original Star Wars at times seems applicable to Los Angeles, though the Chamber of Commerce routinely ignores my suggestions to add it to their promotional tourist literature. Jawa-like scavengers raid the dumpsters on Sunset Boulevard. Bounty hunters roam the streets in search of their prey. Edgy patrons in half-lit bars brag about their status as wanted criminals. The economy is largely in the hands of gangsters. Parts of Los Angeles even physically resemble Tatooine: I half-expect to see droids scurrying among the adobe apartments across the street from the east edge of the Paramount lot.
Never were Mos Eisley and Los Angeles more alike than the evening of Tuesday, May 18th, in the final hours before the midnight opening of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, where costumed fans lined Hollywood Boulevard. Hooded Sith Lords skulked around with shining lightsabers. Jedi Knights, Wookies, and the occasional Naboo handmaiden flooded the neighborhood. Stormtroopers (well, okay, just normal Hollywood cops) busted bootleg t-shirt dealers, warning them to clear out or get a sales permit. (I swear I heard one bootlegger respond, “These aren’t the shirts you’re looking for. Move along.”) Gleaming metal airships (media helicopters) circled overhead with blinking lights. The overall gestalt was more surreal than many of the computer-generated landscapes in the film itself.
Like Tatooine, Los Angeles has its share of decent folk among the scum and villainy. Obi-Wan Kenobi, a wise mentor willing to share his experience with others, has many real-life counterparts. Last month, for example, veteran television writers Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere, Homicide, Oz) and John Markus (The Cosby Show, The Larry Sanders Show, LateLine) spoke to roughly two-hundred wisdom-hungry apprentices at a Humanitas seminar in Westwood. They even paid their own way and flew in from Coruscant (er, I mean, New York City) specifically for their free five-hour seminar.
“My only goal at this point in my career is to constantly be better than I’ve ever been,” said Fontana. Markus also challenges himself to hit new heights: “The success of [The Cosby Show] gave us tremendous freedom from the network… I still aspire to do things that haven’t been seen before.”
Fontana’s commitment to innovative storytelling compelled him to lunge at the chance to develop Homicide with Barry Levinson. He explained, “Levinson called and said, ‘I want to do a cop show with no car chases and no gun battles.’ I said, ‘That’s impossible. I’ll be right out.’”
A solid concept like Homicide requires equally solid characters to flesh it out. Fontana stressed the importance of strong characters in screenwriting. “To me what’s always interesting,” he said, “is when a character says ‘this is what I believe.’ And then what makes a good story… is when those beliefs are put into jeopardy.” He later added, “What’s important is to write a character not in a one-sided way… On Homicide, the story is written [around] character and the theme. We always start with characters and let them lead us through the story.” He and the staff at HBO’s Oz approach the creation of antagonists the same way he did on Homicide: with sympathy. “We never write anybody as a villain. That person always has real human motivations.”
Markus, who recently signed a three-year development deal with Paramount, plans to continue writing comedies, and he revealed his very Zen approach to crafting jokes: “I laugh and then work backwards.” He admires the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, but lamented, “So much crap is made every year.” He believes that television networks place more constraints on writers now than in the 1980s. “It’s linked completely to the advertisers,” he explained, “[There is now] more business-related fear.” Because The Cosby Show quickly gained a reputation as an envelope-pushing show, critics expected them to tackle specific issues. Markus recalled, “During the first season, I was getting a lot of calls from the press asking when we would deal with interracial dating… Bill [Cosby] said, ‘Tell the press we’re leaving all the racial issues to Newhart.’”
Fontana, known for his critically-acclaimed dramas, believes in weaving humor into even the most serious of stories: “It’s important to find the humor in each character you write when you’re doing a drama. Through the humor, you reveal as much about their humanity as through the dramatic situations.”
Both men know with clarity when they’re ready to begin a script. “If I can tell someone the story that I’m about to write, and I can stay interested,” said Markus, “then I know it’s going to work.” Fontana, who writes for an average of five hours per day beginning around 5:30 in the morning, described his scripts’ origins: “Every story that I do comes… when I experience something that just seems at the core of what it is to be human. It’s a thing that only writers really understand.”
As the seminar neared its end, Markus advised the attentive padawan audience, “Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself. Always ask yourself of what you’re writing, ‘What is it about?’”
Like many in the crowd that day, I ventured back into the world eager to apply Markus’ and Fontana’s shared wisdom by crafting stronger scripts, humanizing my antagonists, and defending the Republic from evil Sith Lords.
June & July 1999
An Eyewitness Report: Writers and Directors are Real Flesh and Blood People
“I do not think of The Exorcist as a horror film. It’s a film about the mystery of faith,” director William Friedkin commented to an appreciative audience at the Egyptian Theatre the evening of June 5, 1999. Friedkin fielded questions from the crowd after a screening of a new 35-mm print of his 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel.
The opportunity to hear filmmakers speak about their craft is a huge perk of living in Los Angeles. Last fall, after a screening of Vampires at UCLA, the audience engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session with John Carpenter and the film’s stars, Sheryl Lee & James Woods. Screenwriter Pamela Gray also spoke at UCLA after a screening of Walk on the Moon (not to be confused with this winter’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon), and she testified about the importance of persistence and patience in the lives of aspiring scribes. Gray rewrote her script (originally titled The Blouse Man) countless times for myriad producers before it finally got made. She also encouraged writers to be passionately interested in at least one non-writing activity, both to stay in touch with the real world and to stave off depression until a script sells. Gray survived many lean years, but is now working regularly: she scripted Wes Craven’s upcoming drama Music of The Heart (formerly known as 50 Violins), and has enough projects on her agenda to keep her booked up for a couple of years.
Also in June, screenwriter Millard Kaufman (no relation to Andy) spoke after a screening of Bad Day at Black Rock, and director Matthew Bright showed up to chat after the L.A. premiere of the uncut, pre-NC-17 version of his film Freeway.
Glance at the calendar section of almost any edition of LA Weekly, or check the schedule of upcoming events at the Egyptian Theatre, and you’re bound to find numerous opportunities to speak with filmmakers after screenings of their films and learn the answers to burning questions like:
If The Exorcist is not a horror film, what is? “Rosemary’s Baby is a great horror film,” Friedkin said, “Alien is a great horror film. Psycho is an absolutely marvelous horror film. I didn’t care for The Omen.”
Nor does Friedkin care for the first sequel to The Exorcist: he called part II “the worst film I’ve ever seen. It trashed Blatty’s great story and characters.”
Friedkin emphasized the importance of the screenplay in the success of The Exorcist. He described it as “just a great story… brilliantly written by Bill Blatty… it was irresistible to me.” It was, however, resistible to Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn, three of the directors who turned down the chance to film Blatty’s tale of demonic possession, according to Friedkin.
Readers of Blatty’s screenplay (based on his own novel) know of several scenes that do not appear in the extant film. The most infamous is known as the “spider-walking scene,” in which the possessed girl scurries down her staircase on all fours, face up with her back bowed. This scene and several others were filmed but not used, until now: Friedkin revealed that the film will be re-released theatrically this Halloween with roughly fifteen minutes of previously unseen material. “Over the years as we’ve aged and mellowed, I’ve decided to do this for Billy [Blatty],” said Friedkin. Blatty objected to the removal of the scenes when the film was originally edited. Friedkin says he cut the material “for reasons of pacing,” but he remembers Blatty defending the scenes as “essential.”
Living in Los Angeles also affords one a chance to chat with screenwriters in private, not just at public events like those described above. At a friend’s backyard picnic, I met a staff writer from Suddenly Susan who offered some off-the-record insights into the daily routine of television scripting. On the record, she stressed tenacity and persistence as a key to breaking through; she kicked around town for years before landing her first professional screenwriting gig. As a freelance journalist, I’ve also been privileged to chat with and interview screenwriters. Most recently, I visited David Koepp (Stir of Echoes, Jurassic Park, and more) in his Santa Monica office. I can’t stress just how remarkably cool it was to see a glass-cased velociraptor model with a signed card from Steven Spielberg outside his inner office door. A dry-erase board held a broad outline for his Spider-Man feature script (based in part on the treatment by James Cameron), which was encouraging to see; some successful, working writers start with the same three-act outlining process that aspiring writers go through with specs. Koepp’s board essentially held a Syd-Field-style diagram with an inciting incident, end of Act One, midpoint, end of Act Two, and resolution. (Don’t worry, Mr. Koepp: I’m totally mute about what I read in the outline. Not even the pleas and bribe offers from my friends have gotten any details out of me, partially because my friends are also aspiring screenwriters and therefore incapable of scraping together anything resembling a serious bribe.)
So has Los Angeles hit me with true culture shock? Most shocking is how generous so many working filmmakers are with their time and wisdom.
The Art of The Meeting, or Why Screenwriters Should Live in Hollywood
In a world where fax machines and speaker phones now outnumber Spinal Tap fans, shouldn’t screenwriters be able to live anywhere? E-mail can whisk a script to an agent’s printer, right? Isn’t the quality of a spec script more important than a zip code that begins with 90?
Sure, there are some screenwriters who get their Big Break while living far away from the needle-strewn beaches of southern California. For one such success story, check out Laura Schiff’s interview with New Jersey denizen Bryan Lynch (The Next Muppet Movie) in the Stanley Kubrick issue (July/August 1999) of Creative Screenwriting. Also, Kevin Smith (Dogma) still lives in Jersey, his home when Clerks found its audience. The filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project are based in Florida. It’s certainly empirically possible to catch the attention of The Industry without relocating to Los Angeles.
However, all the producers, agents, and working writers I’ve encountered agree that aspiring screenwriters increase their odds of success exponentially if they grab an oxygen mask and dive into Smogville. All other things being equal, producers will offer assignments to writers they can meet. Wouldn’t you rather get a sense of someone in person before forking over a sizable check if you were in their calfskin Oxford shoes?
I recently enjoyed my first face-to-face meeting with a producer in a swank Beverly Hills café. This is a guy with a lengthy track record of producing and directing television movies: Variety recently announced his attachment to an upcoming NBC movie-of-the-week. He’s for real, as opposed to the many bottom-feeding Bowfingers who slink around town in search of writers who won’t demand unreasonable amenities like paychecks.
“How,” I’ll insist you ask so that this essay may logically continue, “did you land this meeting?” Well, first I spent dozens of hours crafting some decent sample scripts. Then I spent hundreds of hours refining, honing, and polishing them before I dared to query anyone. A very wise screenwriter named Richard Hoblock (Central Park West and the Mira Sorvino film Tarantella) advised me to “never never never never never” show any scripts until they’re really, truly ready. It’s excellent advice.
So, Step One: WRITE A GOOD SCRIPT so that you’ll be perceived as a serious writer when an opportunity arises to show your work. Worry about how to find or create those opportunities AFTER you have a portfolio.
One of my scripts placed as 1 of 233 quarterfinalists out of 4,446 entries in the 1998 Nicholl Fellowship competition, so I felt reasonably confident about using it as a writing sample. I gradually trickled some query letters into The Industry in search of producers who might want to read it.
Query letters? Who needs them? I ended up bumping into a producer when I went to see Payback at the Chinese Theatre. He was sitting nearby and noticed me reading a script Steve Martin’s Bowfinger) before the film started. We struck up a conversation, and he gave me his card and offered to read one of my scripts.
So, Step Two: MAKE INITIAL CONTACT with producers through any means necessary. Query letters, seminars, schmoozing at parties. It helps if you live in Los Angeles and can bump into them in movie theaters.
I promptly sent a polite e-mail thanking him for the pre-film conversation, and then I popped my spec script in the mail. This is why it’s essential to have a strong portfolio before worrying about networking: this opportunity would have been wasted if I had no writing samples to show him.
A few weeks later, I got an encouraging fax: he liked my script and promised to arrange a meeting to discuss potential writing assignments.
Eventually the call came. Could I meet him at his Beverly Hills office that week? Certainly.
Step Three: BE PATIENT. It was several months from initial contact to scheduled meeting. In the meantime, I kept writing, expanding my portfolio. I also made initial contact with some other producers during this time and sent out sample scripts to two of them.
My meeting went reasonably well, and the producer gave me the current draft of a movie-of-the-week he’s developing. He described how he’d like it to evolve in a rewrite. He asked me to read the script and schedule a follow-up meeting with another producer he works with to discuss potential revisions. That meeting ended with the second producer, who is shepherding this project, offering to read one of my sample scripts to get a sense of whether or not I might be right for this assignment. Which brings us back to Step Three: BE PATIENT. I might be on the verge of getting my first professional screenwriting assignment. Or I might be on the verge of a polite “thanks, but we’re handing this gig to someone else.” While I wait for the verdict, all I can do is keep plugging away at my specs. It’s quite an agreeable way to pass the time.
Halloween in Smogtown
Wandering down Sunset Boulevard during Halloween weekend, it’s impossible to distinguish the actual homicidal maniacs from the costumed revelers. The streets of Los Angeles are not so much a melting pot as a diversely-stocked buffet table that has been overturned and sprinkled with mad cow disease. And that’s on a normal night. On Halloween, the weirdness is magnified exponentially. Masks encourage people to cut loose.
The evening of October 30, I enjoyed a Fairport Convention concert at the Roxy Theatre. After, I found the sidewalks of Hollywood clogged with demons and clowns, aliens and reapers. Outside the Chateau Marmont, vampires danced with astronauts and pirates. Ghosts carried leering pumpkins. Mutants shambled. Hobgoblins gawked. Tourists recoiled in fear.
Weaving my way through the costumed masses, I was struck by what a wonderful town Los Angeles is for people-watching. We writers spend so much time isolated in our caves, filling notebooks and typing. We immerse ourselves in our make-believe worlds for days on end. Halloween on Sunset reminded me of how important it is to get out and stay in touch with human nature. How are we to imbue our characters with realistic souls if most of our sensory input consists of our own words on our computer screens?
As I strolled past a gaggle of cheerleaders outside the House of Blues, I reflected on some of the people I’d observed at the Fairport Convention concert. At one table, a weary father played cards with his wife and two teenaged sons before the music began: I wondered how his family had ended up at this show. I imagined the conversation between the parents the previous night: “What shall we do for family night this week?” “Let’s take the kids to see some middle-aged British guys who sing about murder and adultery!”
As the band performed some fast-paced tunes, an Irish dancer in the audience jigged around the floor like a leprechaun who had overdosed on caffeine. Where had she learned to dance so well? Why had she pursued Irish dancing instead of, say, watercolor painting as a creative outlet? Had she practiced these moves to Fairport albums in the privacy of her living room, or was she just swept up in the spirit of rhythms she’d never heard before?
The dancer zipped past a waitress who would probably have enjoyed the concert a lot more if she were not on the clock. She served drinks to two yuppies who were on different wavelengths: one wanted to hear the music, while the other wanted to nap.
Meanwhile, I wandered to the edge of the stage so I could gawk at Dave Pegg’s fingers as they glided across the neck of his bass. Dozens of people are walking past this club, I thought, with no idea that one of the world’s best musicians is working magic on a bass guitar inside. Would they care even if they knew? Would they stop to listen to his melodic bass lines, or would they totally tune out the bass and focus on the lyrics or the violin? Would they tune out all of the music and just gawk at the Irish dancer? Would they just hurry on home to watch sitcom reruns?
I fleetingly wondered what the protagonist in my current script would think of the concert. “Stop writing,” I scolded myself. “You’re here to enjoy the music.” The Muse scampered back down into my subconscious. Doesn’t the Muse ever need a vacation?
Just in that tiny club for those three hours, there was so much raw humanity on display. Ecstatic faces, depressed faces, body language for a thousand occasions. After, as I walked down the Halloween-drenched sidewalk, I reflected on all I’d seen. Some of those raw observations may eventually serve as fodder for future screenplays. Some will just end up as fond memories of a great concert. Others will vanish from my conscious memory altogether, perhaps to re-emerge in a dream a decade from now.
But the important lesson of the night will remain in my thoughts: stay in touch with the human condition. Live. Breathe. Then return to the cave for a stretch of writing before absorbing more of the real world.
Cable Network Pitchin’: A Gonzo Report
I recently survived a pitch meeting in the executive suites of a national cable network. Many of the How to Write and Market Script Your Script books stress that a solid writing sample can open many doors. I’m happy to report that this theoretical advice works in practice. I landed this pitch meeting when one of my specs caught the attention of a cable development executive: she called to tell me that my script is too high-budget for the original TV movies her network produces, but she loved the writing. “Why don’t you come in and pitch some other ideas?” I maintained a calm, civilized tone while I performed a hyper-kinetic victory dance on my sofa. “Sure,” I replied. “I’ll work out a few ideas.” She asked me to call and schedule an appointment whenever I was ready.
I promptly hopped on the Internet and dug up as much information as I could find on every original movie her network had ever aired. I wanted a deep sense of acceptable genres and stories. Thanks to the Internet Movie Database and the network’s own site, I quickly assembled a detailed dossier on the network’s original feature programming.
I shelved my current spec script and spent two weeks brainstorming and fleshing out potential pitches. I narrowed down the ideas to three that I really liked, and I developed each as double-spaced two-page summaries. I took another week to hone, reword, refine, and practice until I could verbally present each idea from beginning to end in under five minutes.
After a couple of days of phone tag, I set my appointment. A few days later, I was on the sidewalk gazing up at the cable network’s skyscraper headquarters.
Maybe it was the half-pot of Irish Breakfast Tea I’d gulped down in ninety seconds before I left my apartment. Maybe it was the intoxicating bus fumes. Whatever, I was suddenly terrified. Butterflies? I had mutant bats in my stomach, clawing and biting and buffeting their wings against my innards.
I located a coffee shop and decided to ride the wave of nervousness out to the end. If I accelerate this phase, I thought, it’ll pass sooner. So I guzzled additional caffeine in the form of a 20-ounce café au lait. When the fire is raging, I reasoned, what are a couple more gallons of gasoline?
I mentally ran through my pitches over and over to make sure I hadn’t forgotten them. Nope. My rehearsals had paid off. Fifteen minutes before my scheduled meeting, I ventured into the network headquarters.
The security guards glanced at my recently-washed hair, my yuppie-style briefcase and designer eye glasses. I strode to the elevator bank unaccosted.
Upstairs, I made small talk with the temp who was staffing the executive suite reception area after he notified The Office that The Appointment Has Arrived. He guessed I was a writer. I asked how he could tell. “You kind of look like a writer,” he said. Hmmm.
Then – the door opened. “Dan?” I managed to find my feet, smile, and shake the exec’s hand. I think I vocalized an articulate greeting. It’s all a blur.
Once I was actually seated in the office, the stomach bats went away. I was fine. Enjoyed myself, even. The exec spoke at length about her network’s development process.
Then, the ride began: “Do you have anything you want to pitch today?” I took a deep breath and launched into my heavily-refined but spontaneous-sounding patter. That high school Drama Club training finally paid off.
She summarily shot down my first two pitches. Those were the ones I really liked and had invested the most time in.
She was intrigued by pitch number three. I wonder if, had I told them in a different order, she still would have liked pitch number three. Perhaps it was a test to see how I responded to her comments on the first two. I guess I passed, because she asked me to write up the third one as a three-page treatment and e-mail it to her.
So… a foot firmly in another door. I hope I made enough of an impression that, down the line, I’ll be able to set up additional pitch meetings even if she doesn’t like this particular three-page summary.
Meanwhile, I’ll resume work on my spec scripts. As always, it’s an agreeable way to pass the time.
The Architecture of the Contemporary Script Page
I generally don’t like to discuss the minutiae of screenplay formatting: if you have a format question, look for precedents in extant scripts or create a solution that makes sense to you. However, I’ve received several email inquiries about the nature of modern format. So let’s roll up our sleeves and dissect the “architecture of the page” (a term I first heard from screenwriter Richard Hoblock, though I’m not sure who coined it). Once you’ve taken the time to outline a brilliant story, make sure you craft each scene in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages.
Below are some pointers I gleaned at a December 4 seminar by UCLA screenwriting chairman Richard Walter plus examples I’ve observed in current scripts.
ECONOMY OF WORDS / SLUGLINES
“If you’re not sure if you need a line, you don’t need the line,” advises Richard Walter. “When in doubt, throw it out.” Walter refers not just to lines of dialogue, but descriptions and actions. Indeed, this advice is timeless: there will never come a day when readers crave scripts that are padded with extraneous, repetitive descriptions and dialogue.
Walter suggests this litmus test: remove any given element, sentence, or word from your script. Does its absence make a difference in the meaning of what you’ve written? If not, lose it. Use your words economically. Walter says writers should pretend that the toner in their printers is worth a fortune: put no ink on the page that need not be there.
On the subject of sluglines, Walter takes his “save your ink” advice to the extreme: he suggests removing all periods and dashes from sluglines, though he acknowledges that many contemporary scripts do still include them. For example:
INT. MUSEUM – DAY
INT MUSEUM DAY
(Walter suggests five spaces in lieu of the periods and dashes.)
I’ve observed many variations in slugline format from script to script. Just make sure you consistently use the same format within any given screenplay. Some examples:
INT. ANDY’S APARTMENT – NIGHT [Man on the Moon]
INT – PAUL’S HOUSE – NIGHT [The Green Mile]
EXT. PARKING LOT – DAY (DAY 2) [Dawson’s Creek “The All-Nighter”]
INT. GAS-STATION GARAGE. MOMENTS LATER – NIGHT [eXistenZ]
When should screenwriters capitalize entire words? “Use all caps sparingly,” says Walter. Appropriate uses include important sound effects, important props, and a character’s name the first time that character appears in the script. This last advice is an update: several years ago, Walter advocated capitalizing character names every time the characters entered a new scene.
Of course, try foisting this advice off on David Mamet. His adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Hannibal is written entirely in caps (except for the dialogue).
Richard Walter recommends removing almost all parentheticals from your scripts. I suggest you read as many scripts as you can and make your own observations about appropriate use of parentheticals. I tend to use them only to clarify who a character is speaking to when that information is germane, but you’ll find actions and adverbs in parentheticals throughout many contemporary scripts. For example, from page 83 of the first draft of The Green Mile:
Ran down there. Don’t think he’ll
Awful tired now, boss. Dog tired.
And from the Charmed episode “Déjà vu All Over Again” (page 12):
Can’t believe what a klutz I am.
(takes dress bag)
I thought I was going to have to
pull a Celine Dion and wear my
Piper, listen to me —
— I had a premonition. Of Andy…
Agent Leslie Kallen describes fragments as “tedious for the reader.” Plentiful fragments “grow numbing,” she opines. Indeed, descriptions of action in modern scripts tend to be in complete sentences. Fragments were more acceptable several years ago: here’s a fragment-peppered excerpt from William Goldman’s 1997 adaptation of the David Baldacci novel Absolute Power:
COINS. Antique ones. They disappear into the duffel.
STAMP BOOKS. Gone into the swelling duffel.
LUTHER as he hears the distant laughter.
Not so perfect.
He moves quickly out of the vault, takes a step toward the door – the giggling is getting louder, closer. Two people. A MAN AND A WOMAN.
Remember: established professionals play by different rules. An early draft of Sleepy Hollow includes an illustration of the round birdcage token that delights young Ichabod Crane. David Koepp’s script Stir of Echoes includes a page with nothing but the word “DIG” in a huge font. But when you’re a new writer hoping to impress a producer or agent, err toward the conservative.
Of course, individual readers have individual tastes, and William Goldman’s most famous quotation certainly applies to the architecture of the script page: “Nobody knows anything.” If you write an incredible story, readers will forgive minor deviations from contemporary format.
As the clock approached midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1999, I peeked out the window for any early signs of rioting and looting. If Y2K was going to turn the streets of Los Angeles into a primal Trigger Effect style nightmare, I was prepared to defend my stash of bottled water, precious caffeine, and other supplies. I’d rigged a wireless battery-operated surveillance camera in the hallway outside my apartment to give me a heads-up on any marauders.
To take my mind off the imminent collapse of civilization, I looked over some notes I’d taken at a December 14 Humanitas Seminar at which the guests were X-Files creator Chris Carter and his frequent collaborator Frank Spotnitz.
“The truth is that people want to buy good material,” Spotnitz had told the crowd when asked about the difficulty of selling screenplays.
I wondered what the value of a great script would be in a post-Y2K society in which canned food would be the currency of choice.
Another writer at the seminar asked about common mistakes in X-Files spec scripts. “Entry into the story is something people don’t understand,” Carter said. “Setup is so important.”
He also said few writers seem to grasp the dynamics between lead characters Mulder and Scully: “It is not a combative relationship.” Spotnitz added, “[Scully’s] voice is the one that is most injured by people who don’t really know the show.”
All of this information will be useless, I thought, when the streets are flooded with starving citizens.
Just in case the alarmists were wrong about Y2K, I read over Carter’s comments on the convoluted UFO/alien mythology of the show: “I had a big idea. It’s played out in ways I’ve never imagined. You make choices as you go. The mythology started to tell itself. It began to thread together perfectly. I didn’t have it all worked out [in the beginning], but the big idea is still in place.” He added, “The show is about faith. That is a thematic constant.”
The year 2000 arrived. The computers didn’t crash or evolve into a sentient Skynet menace. I yawned, listened to the Art Bell radio show until three in the morning, and fell asleep. Society was still intact when I woke up, so I called some friends to ask about any upcoming events of interest to screenwriters. A UCLA buddy tipped me off: Hurricane producers/co-writers Dan Gordon & Armyan Bernstein would be screening their film and speaking on campus on the 24th.
“Writing is the closest place I’ve even been to heaven,” Bernstein told the dozens of students, instructors, and professionals who showed up for the event. “It’s such a noble and worthwhile profession. But it will break your heart and test your character.”
Bernstein fought for years to produce a film based on the life of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He phoned Rubin Carter and implored, “You can’t get off the phone until you’re convinced that I’m the right guy to do this.” After his passion persuaded Rubin Carter to let the project move forward, Bernstein wrote a 267-page first draft by himself. He recognized that he needed help to cut and refine the story into a more efficient form, so he enlisted the help of Dan Gordon.
“Dan is a ‘let’s-get-down-to-work-and-get-it-done’ kind of guy,” Bernstein explained.
“I don’t know of any other writer in this business who would ever turn over anything they’ve written to another writer,” said Gordon. “That act of humanity and transcendence astounded me. It transcended ego, craft, and art.” Gordon warned the screenwriting students that Bernstein’s attitude is a rare exception in the Industry. “There are very few people in his position who are heroes. Most are slime. Get ready for that.”
Both men are proud of the finished film. Bernstein says it “reminds you of what’s best in all of us.” Surprisingly, the studio wasn’t confident about his first choice for a director. Bernstein “offered Norman Jewison the job, and he jumped at it. Almost everybody at the studio encouraged us to get a young MTV director.”
A gray-haired gentleman in the audience asked Bernstein about alleged ageism is the Industry. “Your passion doesn’t get old. Your talent doesn’t get old,” Bernstein responded.
I returned home and crafted several pages in my current spec script with renewed vigor. Society will probably be around for at least another millenium, and the studios will need a lot of movies to fill all that time.
Before I moved to Los Angeles, I wrote spec scripts in Cleveland. I also devised exercises that I imagined might be similar to lessons taught in film schools. I’d watch a favorite movie scene-by-scene, stopping the tape to jot notes and reverse-engineer an outline. I’d read the movie’s screenplay scene-by-scene, too, noting major differences from the film. I’d then puzzle over my notes, dig up interviews with the screenwriter, reflect, and enjoy epiphanies about the nature of story structure.
Screenwriting is a pursuit in which self-motivation is essential. No one is going to craft 100 engrossing pages for you, but you can create a first draft in under two months if you write as few as three pages per day, five days per week.
While everyone’s creative process is different, I’ve found that my daily page output improves significantly when I take the time to develop a coherent beat outline.
When I got to the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, I found that I’d already done much of my homework; students were encouraged to reverse-engineer a beat outline of a favorite movie by writing one or two concise sentences to describe each scene. Once you see that a movie can be distilled down to about fifty or sixty beats, the prospect of outlining an original screenplay seems less intimidating.
If you’ve never set aside a few hours to examine a movie beat-by-beat with pen and paper in hand, I highly recommend the experience. Below is the beat outline I reverse-engineered while I watched Jaws scene-by-scene.
At a bonfire beach party, two intoxicated TEENS flirt.
The teen boy, too drunk to swim, flops onto his back while the girl dives into the ocean.
Far from shore, something pulls the flailing, screaming girl under the water.
Police Chief BRODY receives a phone call at home while his wife cleans a cut in their older son’s hand.
Brody and the teen boy from the opening trot down the beach in response to a deputy’s whistle; the swimmer’s corpse has washed ashore.
At his office, Brody types “SHARK ATTACK” on his report about the girl’s death.
Assorted townsfolk intercept Brody with petty concerns as he retrieves materials to make “NO SWIMMING” signs.
Brody, en route to warn a group of swimming Boy Scouts, is intercepted by the MAYOR, who insists that the beaches must stay open to attract tourist dollars.
As Brody watches from a crowded beach, a young boy’s raft explodes in a spray of blood.
At a town meeting, after the Mayor announces over Brody’s protests that the beaches will only be closed for 24 hours, a weathered old fisherman (QUINT) offers to catch and kill the shark for $10,000.
Brody reads up on shark behavior.
Two fishermen chain a giant hook to a dock, bait it with a roast, and toss it into the water.
Brody stays up late reading more about sharks.
The fishermen barely escape alive when the shark takes their bait and pulls the whole dock into the water.
As dozens of hunting teams set out haphazardly in their boats, shark expert MATT HOOPER arrives and introduces himself to Brody.
The hunters dump huge quantities of blood and chum into the ocean.
Hooper examines the remains of the first victim and announces that she died from an attack by a shark much larger than normal for those waters.
One of the hunting teams poses with a dead tiger shark, much to the delight of the mayor, though Hooper expresses doubts that it’s THE shark.
Hooper shows up at Brody’s house that night and says that it’s likely the shark has become territorial: it will continue to feed in the area until its food supply is gone.
Hooper and Brody slice open the tiger shark to be sure it’s not the one that killed the little boy on the raft.
Hooper and Brody find the wrecked boat and corpse of another fisherman in the stretch of water where the shark has been feeding. Hooper finds (but loses) the tooth of a great white shark.
Hooper and Brody plead with the Mayor, who insists the beaches will be open for the 4th of July weekend.
Thousands of tourists arrive as Brody phones for extra help to serve as shark spotters.
The Mayor notices that nobody is swimming, so he coerces one family into swimming.
As helicopters and boats of shark spotters keep an eye on the water, the tourists swim.
Brody’s son Michael and his friends go boating in The Pond, an area connected to the ocean.
A fin in the water creates a panic, and tourists trample over each other to get out of the water.
Armed shark spotters surround the fin, which turns out to be a cardboard prank propelled by two young divers.
A lone girl calls for help when she spots the real shark heading into the pond.
Brody races to the pond as hundreds of witnesses watch the shark swallow a boater.
Brody’s son, in shock from watching the boater’s death ten feet away, goes to the hospital.
Brody coerces the Mayor into signing a voucher to pay Quint to kill the shark.
At Quint’s place, Brody insists that Hooper will come along on the expedition, despite Quint’s protest that Hooper has “city hands” and has been counting money all his life.
Quint, Hooper, and Brody load equipment onto Quint’s boat (The Orca), including an anti-shark cage that Quint observes couldn’t possibly hold up against THEIR shark.
Brody’s wife bids him a tearful farewell.
Brody throws chum and blood into the water, then nearly blows up the boat when he disturbs a tank of compressed oxygen.
The line on Quint’s giant fishing pole plays out quickly, and moments before the line snaps, Quint declares that the “smart big fish” has gone under the boat.
As Brody throws more chum, the shark surfaces and snaps its jaws near him.
The shark charges the boat, affording all three men their first good look at it, and Quint proclaims that it’s a 3-ton 25-footer.
Quint shoots a harpoon (attached to a barrel) into the shark.
The men pursue the barrel, but the shark disappears.
In the cabin, the men bond while trading scar stories and singing songs moments before the shark slams into the hull.
Quint shoots at the circling shark with his rifle.
The next morning, as Hooper and Quint work on fixing the hull & engine damage, Brody spots the resurfaced barrel, and the shark again rears out of the water snapping.
Quint smashes the radio when Brody tries to contact the Coast Guard.
Quint shoots another barrel into the shark.
Brody shoots the shark with his pistol while Quint shoots a third barrel-harpoon into it.
Brody and Hooper tie the barrel-lines to the rear of the boat, but the shark starts to tow them out to sea.
The ropes snap off after the boat takes on much water.
The shark pursues the boat as Quint pilots it back toward shore, pushing the engine harder and harder until it burns out.
Hooper proposes that he go into the water in his anti-shark cage and try to inject the shark with poison.
The men build the shark cage.
Hooper drops his poison and flees to the ocean floor after the shark tears his cage to pieces.
Moments after Quint and Brody haul up the ruined cage, the shark lunges onto the back of the sinking Orca and swallows Quint.
Brody shoves a tank of compressed oxygen into the shark’s mouth.
Brody climbs the crow’s nest of the rapidly-sinking ship and fires at the shark with his rifle.
Moments before the shark reaches him, Brody shoots the oxygen tank in its mouth and blows it up.
Hooper resurfaces. He and Brody swim toward shore.
In the last column, I described the “beat outline” exercise encouraged by UCLA to help you uncover the concise spines of your favorite films. Another UCLA exercise in reverse-engineering of stories is the Ackerman Two-Pager. For the first quarter of his Professional Program lecture class, Hal Ackerman requires each student to distill one film per week into a two-page (or slightly less) double-spaced 12-point font outline.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Try it. One point of the lesson is to illustrate how difficult it is to write concisely. Generally, my first drafts of these “two-pagers” were four or five pages long. In deciding what to cut and what to keep, I gained more insight into what makes up the very core of a story, and the outlines I created for my original specs became more focused and coherent.
Below are the two-pagers I reverse-engineered while I watched two excellent horror films that I’ve enjoyed repeatedly across many years: Poltergeist (written by Steven Spielberg & Michael Grais & Mark Victor) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (written by Wes Craven).
ACT ONE In an upscale suburban home, STEVEN FREELING (late 30s) dozes in front of the TV as a local station signs off for the night. As the TV goes to static, the family dog wanders the house, visiting all the sleeping Freelings: DIANE (late 30s) the mom, eldest daughter DANA (15), son BOBBY (11), and youngest daughter CAROL ANNE, who awakens and wanders downstairs to the TV. She wakes the rest of the family as she shouts at the static-filled TV, “Talk louder! I can’t hear you!”
The next night, a thunderstorm scares Bobby and Carol Anne into sleeping in their parents’ bed. They all doze with the TV on. When it goes to static, Carol Anne reaches for the screen… and a GHOSTLY HAND reaches back. She watches as eerie phantasmal mists stream out of the TV and into the wall. A rumble like an earthquake wakes the others: Carol Anne announces, “They’re here.”
After breakfast, Diane pushes all the chairs in around the kitchen table, turns her back for six seconds, and turns back to find all the chairs stacked on top of the table. Carol Anne attributes the stacking to “the TV people.” That night, chairs are pulled from one circle on the kitchen floor to another by an unseen force. Steve and Diane vow to keep this mystery “in the family.”
ACT TWO During a thunderstorm that night, Bobby’s tree crashes through his window and pulls him outside. When the family races outside to save him, a blinding light erupts in Carol Anne’s closet and sucks her in. The family searches for her. Bobby hears her voice coming from the television.
Steve invites three parapsychologists to help the family recover Carol Anne. As they inspect the house, jewelry and dirt materialize in a flash of light. That night, the team captures on videotape a procession of spirit-lights parading down the staircase. Diane talks with Carol Anne through the TV set; Carol Anne screams that someone is in there with her.
Steve learns through a conversation with his boss that the whole neighborhood was built where a cemetery once stood. It was moved to make way for the houses. Steve’s boss wants to move another cemetery to expand the development.
The team invites TANGINA (late 50s), a psychic, to lead a rescue attempt. Tangina explains that a terrible spirit is using Carol Anne to keep other spirits restrained. The team tosses a rope into the spectral light in Carol Anne’s closet – “the way in.” The rope emerges from thin air in the living room – “the way out.” Diane ventures into the light. She emerges in the living room clutching Carol Anne, both covered in ectoplasmic slime. Carol Anne’s eyes bounce open: “Hi Daddy.” Tangina pronounces the house clean.
ACT THREE The family loads a moving van. That night, with only Diane and the two youngest kids home, the spectral light reappears in the closet. As Diane struggles to rescue Bobby and Carol Anne from being sucked into the light, CORPSES spontaneously erupt from the yard. Steve and his boss return to the house after a meeting. Steve collars his boss, who spearheaded the construction of the neighborhood: “You moved the headstones, but you left the bodies.” Diane and the kids rush out of the house. The family piles into their car as more and more bodies erupt from the yard. Dana arrives home and lunges into the car with her family. As they speed out of the neighborhood, the house collapses in on itself and vanishes into the spectral light.
The family, together and safe in a motel room, shoves the TV set out into the rain.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET [1984 version]
ACT ONE TINA, 16, wakes from a nightmare. She joins her friend HEATHER at school, who also reports a bad dream. That night at a sleepover party, Tina dreams of a scarred man with a knife-glove chasing her. Her boyfriend ROD wakes to her screams. Unseen blades slice and kill her. Rod flees. Heather’s father, the SHERIFF, finds and arrests him. In class, Heather drifts off to sleep. She dreams of the scarred man (FREDDY) chasing her through a boiler room. She wakes to her own screams.
ACT TWO Heather visits Rod in jail. He reports a nightmare about a man with knives for fingers. That night, she falls asleep in the tub and dreams about Freddy pulling her under the water. She asks her boyfriend GLEN to watch her while she sleeps and wake her up if she seems distressed. In her dream, she sees Freddy hovering over Rod in his jail cell. Freddy then pursues her and nearly slices her with his knives. Her alarm clock wakes her: Glen drifted off to sleep. Heather races to the jail and begs her father to check on Rod. Meanwhile, Rod’s bedsheet is knotting itself around his throat. It pulls him up and hangs him moments before the Sheriff and Heather arrive. At a sleep disorder lab, doctors monitor Heather while she sleeps. She thrashes around while her brainwaves indicate a state between dreaming and waking. A doctor wakes her up. She produces Freddy’s tattered brown hat from beneath the covers: she pulled it out of her dream, and she has a bad cut on her arm. Back home, her mother (who has now put bars on the windows) explains that neighborhood parents cornered and burned a child killer named Fred Krueger after he went free due to a paperwork technicality. She shows Heather the knife-glove he used in his murders. Across the street, Glen drifts off to sleep and is pulled into his bed. His mother watches as a torrent of blood erupts out of his mattress.
ACT THREE Heather watches as the police swarm Glen’s house across the street. She prepares a series of traps in her house and drifts off to sleep with her alarm set to wake her in ten minutes. She pulls Freddy out of her dream and into the real world. Her booby-trap hammer swings and smashes into his torso. She flees to the front door, but the bars and locks keep her in; her parents anticipated that she would try to sneak over to Glen’s house. She douses Freddy with gasoline and ignites him. Her father races to the house; he and Heather find a trail of fire-footprints leading upstairs. Freddy kills Heather’s mother. Freddy reappears when Heather is alone. She turns her back on him and wills him to vanish. Heather dreams of being trapped in a car with a roof painted like Freddy’s sweater. The car vanishes down the street while kids playing jump-rope chant a warning about Freddy.
In my ongoing efforts to comprehend the strange rituals of the film industry, I have just read three books by wise guerrilla anthropologists who have examined the culture of Southern California for decades. The books are Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman, The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays (also by William Goldman), and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.
Everywhere I turn, Industry professionals are already quoting William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? Since a common frame-of-reference often serves as an ice-breaker at pitch meetings and schmooze-worthy parties, this is a handy book to read so you can begin conversations thus: “I read the greatest anecdote in the new Goldman book.” But the book is an excellent read even if you never intend to discuss it with anyone; when a writer as talented and successful as Goldman offers observations about the craft and business of screenwriting, take the time to pay attention.
The book is divided into four sections: More Adventures, Heffalumps, Stories, and THE BIG A. The common element that bonds one section to another is Goldman’s wry humor: it’s hard to put down a book that keeps you laughing so heartily and so often.
My only complaint about the More Adventures section is that much of the material was previously published in the essays within Goldman’s Four Screenplays, Five Screenplays, Absolute Power, and The Ghost and the Darkness. The section traces Goldman’s interactions with the blank page, studio executives, directors, and stars as he wrote the following films between 1986 and 1997: Memoirs of an Invisible Man, The Princess Bride, Misery, The Year of the Comet, Maverick, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Absolute Power. His experiences convey the fluid, collaborative nature of filmmaking: don’t become deeply emotionally invested in the draft of your script that sells, for as Goldman’s anecdotes illustrate, the pages are going to change before (and while) the cameras roll.
In the Heffalumps section, Goldman examines six of his favorite scenes from scripts by other writers (plus one of his own). Goldman often breaks down the scenes line-by-line, moment by moment, and he points out how each component thickens the plot. This section alone is worth the price of the book; if Goldman wasn’t such a talented screenwriter, he could have become the world’s best development executive. The examined scenes come from There’s Something About Mary, When Harry Met Sally, North by Northwest, The Seventh Seal, Chinatown, Fargo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The Stories section explores Goldman’s process of sorting the gold from the dirt when he brainstorms ideas for new scripts. He describes the genesis of four ideas that may or may not make interesting screenplays, and he rambles pleasantly about whether or not the concepts could be expanded into fully-functional blueprints for films.
THE BIG A section offers multiple professional perspectives on a Goldman script fragment: you read about half of a new original Goldman script (THE BIG A) followed by commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the story up to that point. The commentators are the Farrelly brothers, Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, Callie Khouri, and John Patrick Shanley. Their lucid notes are a great reminder that no matter how much experience and talent is behind an early script draft, it’s still a rough lump of clay in need of painstaking sculpting.
Which Lie Did I Tell is packed with wisdom from the trenches of the screenwriting profession. Before you venture to the front lines, consider the observations of those who have gone before you. They may just save you from stepping on a landmine or snagging your arm on some rusted barbed wire.
In The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays (a collection of articles that were originally published in Premiere, The Daily News, New York Magazine and Los Angeles Magazine), Goldman offers advice like, “Remember that Hollywood makes no sense. Remember that movies began as entertainment for illiterates.” The essays span the nineties and comment on dozens of studio films that were released in that decade.
The book is laced with Goldman’s humor and frank honesty: when he has a problem with a film, he pulls no punches. On Saving Private Ryan, for example, Goldman writes, “What the movie has to do is simple: get the rescue squad going after the kid. The Spielberg of Raiders of the Lost Ark would’ve taken maybe a minute to set that up… after more uninteresting stuff, forty minutes the movie, Hanks’ squad finally sets off on their odyssey to find Private Ryan.” He raves about the ensuing hour, then opines, “Guess what: the rest of the movie is a disgrace.” He deconstructs the inconsistent motivations of the characters, puzzles over the dying words of the Hanks character (“My only explanation is this: Spielberg was up half the night before reading Philosophy for Dummies and he wanted to inject that nugget into his flick”), and points out why it is absolutely impossible for the Matt Damon character to be the old man at the cemetery in the bookend scenes. Ouch.
Some of the essays offer glimpses into the minds of studio execs: Goldman conducts informal surveys every year before and after the Oscars to get predictions and hindsight commentary from various unnamed Players. Goldman concludes that more than ever, “Nobody knows anything.”
Even more than the Goldman books, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (an exploration of Hollywood politics) is a vivid reminder that screenplays do not exist in a theoretical void. Movies are made by real human beings who are sometimes brilliant, sometimes flawed, and always susceptible to stress and pressure.
Biskind investigates the major Players from the late sixties to the early eighties. Based largely on lengthy firsthand interviews, the book more often than not delves into tabloid-style scandals: Coppola’s taste for multiple girlfriends on location while making Apocalypse Now, the crushing low morale throughout the filming of Jaws, and such. No matter which anecdotes you perceive as apocryphal, the book offers a sharp contrast to the glittering front that Hollywood shows the public via studio tram rides and press releases.
Hollywood Parties: A Schmoozing Taxonomy
“If you’ll excuse me, I should really be talking to people who are somebody.” This bit of dialogue punctuates a scene from the television series Angel. Cordelia, an aspiring actress at a swank Hollywood party, delivers the line just before she vanishes into the crowd to schmooze anew. I was reminded of the scene at a party in Beverly Hills this weekend: an aspiring actress chatted with me for approximately twenty-three seconds, found out I was a writer, and swiftly merged back into the crowd in search of producers and casting agents.
I don’t blame her. There is no distinction between working and socializing in Hollywood. Every party is a chance to meet people who can advance your career, and a common belief is that it’s healthy (if not polite) to extricate yourself from conversations the moment you ascertain that you don’t want the business card of your new acquaintance. I take the more diplomatic approach of talking and joking with whoever’s around… after I’ve collected a business card or two. After all, today’s bartender may be tomorrow’s studio exec with Greenlight Authority. Karma is magnified within the coyote-infested Hollywood Hills.
Below, I have sketched three different types of parties and my experiences therein. Of course, schmoozing is hardly an exact science, and most parties are variations on these broad profiles.
1) THE ALLY POW-WOW: A small, intimate gathering of friends and acquaintances with few or no outsiders.
A friend was recently house-sitting for a producer, and she invited a half-dozen
fellow writers over for a poolside dinner. The Black Tower loomed a few blocks away, and the Universal Studios logo hung in the sky like a second moon after the sun went down. We chatted and laughed about non-industry matters for the majority of the evening, but vital tidbits of info were traded here and there. I’d recently spoken with a producer who was looking for historical dramas, a genre in which I don’t write, but I passed along the tip to a friend with an amazing historical spec in her portfolio. (She followed the lead, sent a query, and got the producer to read the script.) Someone else’s friend had just become an agent at a well-respected boutique. We swapped opinions about the managers who had participated in a panel discussion at UCLA that week. We debated which films in current release are must-sees and which are wastes of valuable time. (The Virgin Suicides got high marks from most present.)
These casual get-togethers are useful for pouring good karma (in the form of useful contacts and other information) into a pool of communal resources. In return, you receive information from your trusted allies.
2) THE MINGLER: A larger affair with many strangers, some of whom are worth querying with letters that begin “We met at so-and-so’s party Friday night.”
These are the parties where efficient, cordial conversations can yield many fresh contacts. Make a good impression, and try to carry on intelligent discourse about something other than movies. Save the film-chat for the query letter you’ll mail out the next day.
3) THE POWER ZONE: Much like the Mingler above, but with a higher concentration of well-connected executives, producers, directors, and writers.
Recently, I attended the premiere of a studio film. At the post-screening party in a swank Westwood bar, I mostly just mingled silently and eavesdropped, catching snippets of conversation like: “We’re finally on hiatus, so I can finish up my feature script and shop it around.” “That guy over there: what’s his name? He played the science teacher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” “They offered you how many points? What an insult!”
The night turned out better than I could have hoped when a filmmaker I admire (and had spoken with before) extended an offer to read one of my scripts. I was floored, and I thanked him. “You hear so many stories of Hollywood being so cold and inaccessible,” I said. He’d observed my respectful, professional behavior for several months, and so he was treating me with respect in return.
It takes dozens of hours of networking to get to such moments, but the visceral thrill is worth it. Move west and pan for gold. Get out there and schmooze, and drop me an invitation to your next party.
A Night of Staged Performances at the UCLA MFA Showcase
I can smell free food from up to seven miles away. Platters of free cheese, crackers, croissants, and grapes have distinctive scents that cut through the Los Angeles smog and activate special receptors in my nose.
Unfortunately I live more than seven miles from the Geffen Playhouse on Le Conte Avenue in Westwood, but my friend Fernley invited me to the June 12 UCLA Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting Showcase. I would have gone even without the promise of free cheese and gourmet coffee, for UCLA events are fun schmoozing free-for-alls somewhere between Type Two and Type Three (see the May 2000 operational definitions). Also, the Showcase itself sounded cool. It’s an annual event in which excerpts from five screenplays are performed on stage for the benefit of studio executives, producers, agents, managers, and other interested parties. The scripts are selected in a competition among the students in the UCLA MFA in Screenwriting program. (A script that won in 1996, The Affair of the Necklace by John Sweet is now in production with Hilary Swank starring.) The scheduled host was Mike Werb (co-writer of Face/Off). In 1999, James Cameron was a featured speaker.
I cancelled my plans to play “toss the toy mouse” with Alley Cat that evening and headed into Westwood.
Before the event started, the lobby was awash with pro writers and agents. UCLA veteran Sacha Gerasi (The Big Tease) worked the crowd and joked around, as did Screenwriting Department Chair Richard Walter. Fernley (who won the UCLA Advanced Professional Program in Screenwriting competition) spotted Michael Colleary, with whom he had studied in a workshop class.
I eyed the empty tables along the far wall. The free food apparently would not be dispensed until after the event.
Minutes later, the doors opened, and the crowd filled the auditorium.
Richard Walter and Dean Bob Rosen greeted the crowd and then turned the microphone over to Mike Werb, who made a few jokes at the expense of studio executives. Adopting the tone of Haley Joel Osment (the actor who plays the kid in The Sixth Sense), he said, “I see illiterate people. They’re all around. They don’t know they can’t read.” He explained that Showcase offers a chance for non-reading execs to actually see the material performed by actors. If they like what they see, they can have their assistants read the complete scripts.
Each performance lasted approximately fifteen minutes, or about to the end of the first act if you subscribe to the Lew Hunter paradigm of seventeen-page Act Ones.
In between the staged performances, host Mike Werb implored the producers and execs in the audience to snatch up the material. After the final performance, Werb introduced this year’s recipients of UCLA’s lifetime achievement awards. Standing ovations greeted Madelyn Pugh Davis & Bob Carroll Jr. (most famous as the creators and writers of I Love Lucy) and Ernest Lehman (screenwriter of North by Northwest, Family Plot, The King & I, The Sound of Music, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Inside Story, Black Sunday, and many others).
Bob Carroll Jr. joked that after fifty-three years of writing together, he and Madelyn had nearly split up the previous night while bickering over what sort of remarks to make to the UCLA crowd.
Lehman addressed the aspiring screenwriters in the audience; he said he wished he could impart a magic shortcut to success, but there is none. “I hope you’re lucky enough to lose all the right battles,” he said.
Werb then invited everyone to enjoy the “marginal food and even more marginal booze,” and the crowd flooded the lobby.
I enjoyed plenty of brie, brin, and bresse bleu. The cheese was so good that I cursed myself for not bringing Tupperware n my briefcase. Still, it would’ve been a fine night even without the refreshments. How often do you see an auditorium full of people who have gathered to honor screenwriters?
AFTERWORD – July 2017
As you process the rambling advice that I dispersed throughout Culture Shock: Life in Los Angeles, keep in mind that some of these insights remain relevant while other observations are outdated now, over one and a half decades beyond the turn of the millennium.
The UCLA exercises that I describe in the February & March 2000 sections are still useful thought experiments for those who seek insight into the construction of tales for the screen.
Those who seek to earn a living in the film industry can still gain a substantial edge by living in Los Angeles, though in this era of PDFs and email and Skype and cell phones, it’s more possible than ever to write and network and have a career as a screenwriter from anywhere on the globe.
I miss the atmosphere of Hollywood. I miss the copious revival screenings and other events at venues like The Egyptian Theatre. I miss the corner of Franklin & Tamarind (where The Bourgeois Pig coffee shop still sells an array of beverages and foods). I miss the comrades I met at UCLA. I sure miss those Humanitas seminars.
Most relevant in the present: my October 1999 advice about the need to experience life now and then (when not holed up in front of the computer writing fresh scenes or pacing and muttering while jotting handwritten notes). If I had my time in California to do all over again, I would enjoy more live music, more spontaneous conversations with strangers, and additional hikes through Griffith Park. I would spend less time hunkered down in my rental unit for days on end, reading and writing and watching movies. Ironic that I dispense such advice from my native Ohio in 2017, as I now lean toward staying in as much as possible. Hell, I’m 46 years old and have aching muscles and mental traumas to process; I was young when I wrote these journal entries, and some would say that 46 isn’t all that old, but I feel ancient and often snarky. I crave and require solitude more than ever.
I’m glad that I wrote the May 1999 piece about the atmosphere in the streets during the final hours before The Phantom Menace premiered. Reading that section brought back memories that I didn’t document at the time, memories of striding down Hollywood Boulevard just before sunrise after I’d attending a 3 AM screening of the first Star Wars prequel. Here in my twilight years (mid-40s), I no longer have the courage for such antics; I dread the thought of ever setting foot in California again, for I fear the inevitable massive earthquake that some seismologists predict. If I were in my old neighborhood again, I sure wouldn’t stride alone down Hollywood or Sunset in the wee morning hours. What was I thinking? The canister of pepper spray that I kept in my pocket back then gave me a sense of security, and I feel fortunate that I never had to douse any muggers. I roamed around on foot (and used public transportation) throughout most of my seven years out west; I owned a car for part of 2001 but ultimately found I liked walking and taking the bus better than driving.
I still love cinema, and in 2017 I’m wiser than I was during my 90028 existence.
I’m thrilled that home video technology has advanced so much since the bygone days of square televisions and VCRs. The modern Internet? Fabulous!
As I reflect on my journey from Ohio to Southern California and back, I have few regrets.
Now get the hell off my lawn while I hole up and craft some fresh scenes.
© 2017-2019 Daniel S. Duvall – all rights reserved
The 1998 film Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later is a character-driven drama cloaked in the vestments of a late-seventies slasher film, its nature as difficult to recognize on the surface as a remorseless killer disguised as a six-year-old clown.
Laurie Strode, H20‘s protagonist, has a backstory that spans two films (the original Halloween and its first sequel), both of which take place mostly on October 31, 1978. Unaware of the intense, life-defining trauma that she’ll endure after dark, Laurie commences that day by obediently taking a key from her father (who works in real estate) and walking to a long-abandoned two-story fixer-upper abode: the Myers house, where fifteen years earlier a six-year-old child named Michael Myers stabbed his teenage sister Judith to death. Laurie leaves the key on the front porch despite the protests of Tommy Doyle (a kid she’ll babysit that evening), who has heard from a peer, “That’s a haunted house… real awful stuff happened there once.”
Thus begins a set of fateful autumn hours that lead to an apprehensive Laurie discovering the fresh corpse of her friend Annie (positioned on a bed on which the gravestone of Judith Myers sits). In that same room, moments later, Laurie encounters two more bodies including that of her friend Lynda.
Then Laurie comes face-to-mask with the knife-wielding trickster who left the corpses for her to discover. Michael Myers slices open Laurie’s left arm, and Laurie plummets over a staircase railing, and the trauma that defines the Laurie Strode character’s backstory intensifies from there. If you’re reading this essay, you are likely quite familiar with Halloween.
As the twentieth anniversary of the events depicted in John Carpenter’s Halloween approached, horror fans learned that Laurie Strode would appear in a new film for a 1998 showdown with boogeyman Michael Myers.
The creative team behind this anniversary project faced the daunting task of crafting a movie that would inevitably be measured against the much-loved 1978 film in which the Strode/Myers legend began. Would the new story be compelling enough to appease die-hard fans and/or casual horror buffs?
Halloween and its Reception
The original Halloween has garnered substantive critical acclaim. John Kenneth Muir opines, “Simply phrased, John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of the greatest horror films ever made, in any decade… On virtually every criterion imaginable, Halloween is a successful film that transcends its genre… From acting and music to cinematography and screenplay, the film’s elements are managed superbly…”i Adam Rockoff calls John Carpenter’s Halloween “an almost perfect exercise in terror.”ii Bruce McClelland writes, “Halloween is one of the most totally involving movies ever made.”iii Michael Gingold observes, “What the film does so well is right on the surface… It is pure, it is primal, and it is terrifying.”iv Tim Lucas notes, “The movie conjures an atmosphere of palpably superstitious unease, which is skillfully interwoven with the sexual unease of its shyly maturing heroine.”v
Anne Billson gives this back-handed compliment: “Halloween is little more than a well-oiled machine designed to make its audience jump; but by stripping its story to the bone, Carpenter invests it with the quality of urban myth.”vi
The Halloween Screenplay
Culture-changing art need not take long to create; John Carpenter says, “Halloween was written in approximately ten days by Debra Hill and myself. It was based on an idea by Irwin Yablans about a killer who stalks babysitters, tentatively titled The Babysitter Murders until Yablans suggested that the story could take place on October 31…”vii
Irwin Yablans recalls, “I wanted to do a horror film, so I started to think about how to do this for the limited amount of money we had, and it occurred to me that if we did a movie about babysitters it would work, because everybody had either been a babysitter or been a baby… one night would be the best way to do it, and Halloween just popped into my mind…”viii
Carpenter yammered about the origin of Halloween with journalists Blake Mitchell & James Ferguson for a 1980 interview. Carpenter says, “Irwin Yablans… came up with $300,000 and had an idea to do a film about a babysitter murderer, which was a standard type of exploitation film… he came up with the idea of setting it on Halloween night, and then his next sentence was, ‘Do you think it’s too crass to call it Halloween?’ This was before the script had been written, and there was this ‘Ah!'”ix
Producer and co-writer Debra Hill says, “When [Yablans] called and came up with the brilliant idea of using the themes of Halloween to tell our story, it was like a gold mine.”x
In issue #138 of Fangoria, Hill says, “I worked on the structure and Laurie’s character, and John rewrote me and put in Dr. Loomis. He also drove the movie with the whole through-line about evil.”xi Hill recalls, “I was a babysitter, and I knew what it was like to be, you know, all those characters, and I really contributed the girls’ dialogue… John really is, I would say, the developer of the whole ‘evil’ concept. He gave Michael Myers that sense of foreboding…”xii
The original Halloween screenplay by John Carpenter & Debra Hill takes place mostly on October 31, 1978 and transitions from day to night at the very bottom of page 35 (out of 98). The final two-thirds of the pages follow the after-dark events.
The opening prologue (October 31 in 1963) commences at the bottom of page 1 and ends on page 4. Pages 5 through the first half of page 10 detail the escape of Michael Myers on October 30, 1978, and then the tale moves to the next morning.
At the bottom of page 10, the screenplay describes the protagonist as “17 and pretty in a quiet sort of way… Her face has a soft, innocent quality, her eyes bright and alive.”
Pages 11-16 follow Laurie throughout a block of daylight hours (before and during her time at Haddonfield High).
The top of page 17 includes a detail not in the final film; at the end of the classroom scene in which Laurie waxes poetic about fate, the viewer sees that Laurie has written “LAURIE STRODE IS LONELY” in a notebook.
There’s a two-page scene featuring Sam Loomis (the psychiatrist of Michael Myers), and then we see bullies picking on Tommy Doyle (the kid Laurie will be babysitting that night). Not until page 19 do we see Laurie again; here, she’s walking home from school with her friend Lynda (who Michael Myers later strangles with a telephone cord). Their friend Annie joins them, unaware that she’ll be choked and have her throat slit before November arrives. En route to their homes, the girls notice a station wagon moving up the street. Lynda speculates that the driver might be “Devon Graham,” but Laurie says “I don’t think so” and (in the words of the Carpenter & Hill screenplay on page 21), the protagonist “stares at the station wagon as it moves past. She looks directly at the shape inside. There is a quick glimpse of him, a strange pale face staring back.”
At the bottom of page 25, Laurie is alone on the sidewalk. Distracted, she collides with Sheriff Lee Brackett (Annie’s father) at the top of page 26, then arrives outside her home. She observes costumed children trick-or-treating and delivers this cryptic line: “Well, kiddo, I thought you outgrew superstition.”
The top of page 27 sports a scene in which Laurie’s mother, a character never seen in the finished film, prepares candied apples.
The rest of page 27 details the first part of a scene in which Laurie looks out her bedroom window and sees the station wagon driver standing in her yard between sheets on a clothesline – but only for a moment. Pages 28 and most of 29 consist of the end of the scene (Laurie gets two phone calls from Annie but doesn’t know at first who is calling).
Then Loomis goes to the cemetery and finds evidence that convinces him that Michael Myers did indeed come home to Haddonfield; someone stole the gravestone of Judith Myers, who met the wrong end of the antagonist’s knife fifteen years earlier.
Most of page 31 involves Laurie walking toward the curb, then getting in Annie’s car. The final line of dialogue on that page after Annie offers a joint: “We just have time.” Pages 32, 33, 34, and the top of 35 involve part of the drive to the homes where Laurie and Annie will be babysitting their respective charges (Tommy Doyle and Lindsey Wallace). En route, the girls stop by the hardware store where Annie’s father reports, “Someone broke into the hardware store. Probably kids… The only things missing were some Halloween masks, rope, and a set of knives.”
After Annie drives away with Laurie in the passenger seat, Loomis asks Brackett to talk. Brackett, oblivious to the predator whose path will soon intersect with his daughter, delays the conversation by saying, “May be a few minutes. I gotta stick around here… Ten minutes.”
And then at the bottom of page 35, night arrives.
John Carpenter gives this insight into the film’s structure: “It’s an old county-fair haunted house movie. You say to the audience, ‘You’re going to see something that’s going to scare you. Now get ready. I’m not going to tell you when it’s going to come… but here it comes!’ It’s programmed right in, just laying it on. But you can’t let them know that you’re doing it. You’ve got to put them on edge. And you can’t gross them out.”xiii
Tommy Lee Wallace (who wore many hats on the Halloween crew) says, “One thing I love about Halloween is… we’re not talking about a gore fest here. It is a creation of expectation and then being toyed with over and over again: now you see it, now you don’t… It’s extremely well-done. And let’s remember it started with a really simple, effective script.”xiv
Before Michael’s first on-camera 1978 kill occurs (in the first half of page 56 in the screenplay), 20 pages describe an evening of entertaining babysitting non-action interspersed with scenes of an obsessed Loomis and a skeptical Brackett searching for Myers.
Then on the top of page 56, Michael sits up in the back seat of Annie’s car before she even turns the key in the ignition; she was en route to pick up Paul, her boyfriend.
Journalist Ralph Appelbaum notes that Halloween‘s “narrative is sparse,” and John Carpenter agrees: “I didn’t care about the narrative too much. It was very loosely drawn. The point of the film is not the exposition. The exposition is rather foolish, and there’s a lot of holes in it. I could have worked out every minute detail. That’s not the point. The point was to get on with it.”xv
Fifteen suspenseful pages precede the next death, when Myers uses a single knife-thrust to kill Lynda’s boyfriend Bob (whose surname, according to the screenplay but not the film, is Simms). Michael grabs Bob by the throat on page 70. The blade ends Bob’s life in the middle of page 71. Exactly three pages later (the middle of page 74), the boogeyman wraps a telephone cord around Lynda’s neck and strangles her to death while Laurie, not sure what she’s hearing, listens via phone. Michael (always referred to as “the shape” in the descriptions within the screenplay) picks up the phone receiver the moment Lynda is dead. Michael hears Laurie’s voice. Laurie then hears the line go dead. On page 76, she steps outside and looks across the street at the Wallace house.
On page 77, she walks across the street toward what has become the boogeyman’s lair. The ensuing pages contain scenes that evoke dread, angst, and eventually outright terror.
John Carpenter observes, “The strongest emotion is fear. The oldest emotion is fear. We all have it, and it is a very deep pool inside every human being on the planet.”xvi
Debra Hill describes more about the crafting of the Halloween screenplay: “John and I write separately… We work out the idea together, then I usually sit down and write the treatment or first draft… I really have to have total seclusion…”xvii She also says, “We work out the plot of the story. What happens now, what happens next, and on and on… Little boy kills sister… escapes from institution, doctor goes after him, he rides into small town, follows three girls… we think up great scares and then integrate them… it’s not so much the plot that matters in a film like Halloween, but the structure of the scares and how the suspense manipulates the audience…”xviii Hill remembers, “Right from the beginning, we decided to write it small. So we wrote it for five characters, and we wrote it to be filmed at night most of the time…”xix
In a testimonial within the documentary Halloween Unmasked 2000, Hill says, “I wrote the first draft, laying in the kids, the teenagers, the teenage talk, the girl talk amongst each other, and John came back with a pass for the Sam Loomis character… all the stuff about evil and everything is really John’s.”xx
When Carpenter and Hill created the characters of Laurie Strode and Michael Myers, they could not have foreseen the impact of their film on the horror genre.
The 1978 iteration of Halloween is arguably the most imitated horror movie in history, having inspired the 1980s slasher film wave that in turn informs the early 21st-century cycle of remakes, sequels, and reboots. Ian Conrich observes, “Halloween gave the slasher film sub-genre, to a degree, its style of prowling camera, the voyeuristic camera positions, the fluid camera movement, the relentless stalker and the threatened teenagers.”xxi
In the early 1980s, William Goldman reported that “sixty clones of Halloween are for sale today from all around the world if anyone in Hollywood wants to buy them.”xxii Vera Dika notes that “as a highly successful and profitable low-budget film, [Halloween] was closely copied by a number of subsequent filmmakers…”xxiii David E. Williams describes the 1978 project as “the trendsetting shocker that virtually kick-started the slasher-film cycle.”xxiv Michelle Le Blanc & Colin Odell observe, “This is the film which launched a genre and formed a template for many, many more horrors to come, so it is difficult to view Halloween objectively…”xxv
According to Mark Jancovich, “Carpenter could not have seen Halloween as a slasher movie because there was no such category at the time. His film became the template for the slasher only retrospectively, after imitators had cashed in on its spectacular success.”xxvi
Ken Gelder counters, “The slasher film is sometimes traced back to Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963)… but the point of origin of the slasher genre itself is usually taken to be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)…”xxvii
Adam Rockoff says, “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Halloween. Many of the conventions which have become staples of the slasher – the subjective camera, the Final Girl, the significant date setting – were either pioneered or perfected in the film. It is the blueprint for all slashers and the model against which all subsequent films are judged.”xxviii Kenneth Nelson writes, “The film’s success quickly ushered in the most famous of horror subgenres, the slasher flick, inspiring countless knockoffs and imitations in the decade that followed. Though some of the films would prove to endure the test of time, to this day Halloween remains the quintessential slasher film…”xxix
Jeremy Dyson observes, “…this scary tale of a prowling murderer on the loose proved so successful at the box office that it inspired a whole new genre most commonly known as ‘stalk and slash.'”xxx
Dean Cundey (director of photography on Halloween & Halloween II) notes, “[Halloween] was sort of the first of this, you know, new take on the genre…”xxxi
Tommy Lee Wallace says, “You can see the evolution, or devolution, if you wish, from the time of [Halloween] to the time that Halloween II got made… in that time, [there were] so many imitators and other movies for which the doors opened at that point… immediately there was a sort of inflation of violence. Each movie felt it had to outdo and get gorier and rougher…”xxxii
Les Daniels points out that the opening sequence alone influenced the direction of horror cinema: “The homicidal child at the start of Halloween had a few imitators…”xxxiii
Bruce Lanier Wright opines, “Halloween led inevitably to Friday the 13th parts I through XVII… and reams of other drivel… I’d rather be boiled in owl urine than write about this stuff.”xxxiv
Between Halloween and H20
Critics and commentators have not been kind to the Halloween sequels that precede H20.
John Carpenter & Debra Hill wrote Halloween II, and Carpenter says, “The second film stinks. It’s just the same movie over again.”xxxv
In his review of the film, Stephen Rebello wrote that “…Halloween II takes on all the snap of week-old candy… [Producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill] blunder the intensive space-and-time formula that they exploited so relentlessly in their first opus.”xxxvi
Kim Newman concurs: “Even Carpenter and Hill dropped the ball in Halloween II.”xxxvii
Rick Rosenthal, who directed Halloween II, recalls the reaction of the screenwriting duo (Carpenter & Hill) after they watched his initial cut of the film: “They didn’t think the film was terribly good…”xxxviii
John Carpenter says, “I produced Halloween II and saw the first cut. It was about as frightening as an episode of Quincy. It just didn’t work. There was nothing frightening about it. They had all these grotesque, gory deaths in there, yet the film itself was just not scary at all.”xxxix
Roger Ebert opines, “The plot of Halloween II absolutely depends, of course, on our old friend the Idiot Plot which requires that everyone in the movie behave at all times like an idiot.”xl
Michelle Le Blanc & Colin Odell note, “Where Halloween played with the audience in terms of expectation and suspense, Halloween II just drags after the opening murder until it reaches a tired selection of relatively tension-free but graphic slayings.”xli
Tom Shales drives a knife through the heart of Halloween II by describing it as “a splashily bloody, tediously idiotic, doggedly inevitable sequel… it’s a startle movie, not a horror movie, and suffocatingly silly even on that level.”xlii
Jamie Lee Curtis laments the passiveness of Laurie Strode in the sequel; in a 1981 interview, she said, “I have about ten lines in the entire film… I don’t like being drugged for half the movie – I think it’s a waste of a wonderful character.”xliii
Debra Hill remembers, “John Carpenter and I agreed to write Halloween II and produce it… after we were in the midst of shooting it, we realized we had the lead character of Laurie Strode comatose in a bed. She was not proactive, and it really didn’t work in my opinion.”xliv
Halloween III: Season of the Witch has nothing to do with the Michael Myers story, so I’ll skip any discussion of its critical reception.
As I continue to quote reactions to the Halloween sequels up through part 6, keep in mind that H20 is a direct sequel to Halloween II and the events of 4, 5, and 6 are not part of the canonical Laurie Strode timeline.
Richard Harrington calls Halloween 4 “a cheap knockoff of its prototype” and Halloween 5 “a film so bad it took even the boogeyman six years to recover,” and he describes the sixth film (The Curse of Michael Myers) as “dully predictable.”xlvii The Overlook Film Encyclopedia describes the fifth film as “weak”xlviii while Alan Jones (in the BFI Companion to Horror) lumps 4, 5, and 6 together as “plodding follow-ups.”xlix Ian Calcutt describes part five as “astonishingly awful, worse even than Halloween II” and concludes that “Halloween 5 is an insult to the spirit of Carpenter’s original and an insult to the horror genre, confirming that the series has fully exhausted itself.”l Rod Gudino notes that the fifth film is “commonly reviled as the worst in the series” and calls it “a failed attempt to make the Myers storyline more interesting.”li Adam Rockoff describes the fourth film as “a rather tepid entry,” the fifth as “the bloodiest and, some would say, most offensive of the Halloween films,” and the sixth as “a film so bad and disrespectful to the series that it’s a mystery how anyone could have even allowed it to be made… it is an impenetrable jumble of random ideas and impossible coincidences…”lii
Ian Calcutt quite rightly rants in issue #26 of Samhain, “Halloween 5 is a stupid film… The clumsily devised storyline is both tedious and aimless. A cheapened version of the Myers tradition, his modus operandi is this time closer to Jason… and the moment when he briefly removes his mask is a disappointing cheat… There isn’t even a distinct atmosphere to Halloween 5.”liii
Stephen King (who lists the original Halloween as a “personal favorite”liv) says, “I didn’t see the sixth Halloween.”lv Moustapha Akkad (godfather of the Halloween franchise) in 1998 described the sixth movie as “a major disappointment.”lvi
In his review of 6, Marc Savlov laments, “Tired, silly, and ridiculously overwrought, the Halloween franchise has limped long past its natural running time…”lvii
Marc Shapiro quotes Jamie Lee Curtis in a 1998 issue of Fangoria: “I never saw 4, 5, or 6…”lviii
John Carpenter feels that the original Halloween should not have spawned a franchise, though he was initially optimistic about Halloween II once he overcame his reluctance to be creatively involved with the sequel. In a 1981 interview with Bob Martin, Carpenter said, “…there was the challenge of it – what could we do with a sequel to Halloween? Could it be exciting and scary? …after thinking about it a long time, I thought that there really might be another story in it, and I thought it really might be a lot of fun.”lix
Carpenter changed his tune once he and Debra Hill actually commenced work on the sequel’s screenplay. He recalls, “I didn’t think there was any more story after the first one. That story was over with. The second one, Debra [Hill] and I got stuck writing the screenplay, and it was horrible for me. There was no story there, and I made up this crap about Michael being her brother. I don’t know where that came from. I’m sure in the middle of the night I had a six-pack trying to come up with an idea going, ‘Help me, God, with an idea.’ I realized there was no more story to this…”lx He told interviewer Loris Curci, “When I sat down to write Halloween II, I realized, ‘We don’t have a story. We have the same story. There is no more story; there really isn’t. We’re done.’”lxi
In a telephone interview with Murray Leeder in either 2012 or 2013, Carpenter spoke of his alcohol intake’s influence on the decision to make Michael and Laurie siblings: “That was purely a function of having decided to become involved in the sequel to this movie where I didn’t think there was really much of a story left… That night’s done, that story’s over… The second script… mainly dealt with a lot of beer sitting in front of a typewriter saying, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I don’t know.’ …[The sibling twist] makes no sense. It’s just silly. Foolish.”lxii
The 2014 book On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker includes this John Carpenter quotation: “Stupidly, I decided to produce Halloween II… It was such a pain writing that thing; six packs of beer a night… I tried to turn the shit out and… it was awful. That’s probably why it was awful; my heart wasn’t in it.”lxiii
In the documentary Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, Carpenter says, “What got me through writing [the sequel] was Budweiser: a six-pack of beer a night sitting in front of the typewriter saying, ‘What in the hell can I put down? I have no idea. We’re remaking the same film, only not as good.'”lxiv
H20 and its Roots
Given the negativity that permeates so many reviews of the Halloween sequels, what creative impetus could spark the crafting of a seventh film? Nothing less than the return of Laurie Strode (the protagonist portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis in the first two Halloween movies).
In Newsday, Liz Smith quoted Jamie Lee Curtis about her reprisal of the role: “This was my call. I wanted this… It made perfect sense to pick up where we left off. I was totally ready for it.”lxv
Curtis contacted producers to express her interest in reprising her character twenty years after her unstoppable knife-wielding antagonist first stalked her. She first set out to persuade Debra Hill and John Carpenter to join the twentieth anniversary project’s creative team. On an H20 audio commentary track, Jamie Lee Curtis says, “It was coming up on twenty years after the original movie, and I called John Carpenter and Debra Hill. We had lunch. We talked about the fact that the three of us were still in show business, and wouldn’t that be interesting to revisit these people twenty years later… there was a little bit of talk that it was gonna happen, and then John decided not to do it…”lxvi
John Carpenter recalls, “Debra, Jamie Lee, and I had a really nice meeting, and we talked about it… Jamie Lee said… ‘I’d love to do another movie with you, and I’d love to kick the Shape’s ass…’ I stewed about it and stewed about it. As much as I’d like to work with Jamie again and have her finally undo the Shape, I thought, ‘I just can’t do it.’ I just couldn’t find it in my heart to make it.”lxvii
Steve Miner says, “Thirty seconds after I introduced Jamie and Kevin [Williamson], they started talking about doing the [Halloween] sequel.”lxviii
Jamie Lee Curtis recalls, “…ultimately Dimension decided then to hire Kevin Williamson to write it. Steve Miner came on as director, and Debra [Hill] sort of dropped off as producer… my thought from the beginning was, this poor girl has been terrorized for twenty years. She’s been on the run. Her life has been ruined by the trauma she suffered, and let’s meet someone in that shape, and then ultimately let’s have a to-the-death battle.”lxix
Curtis discussed her vision of Laurie as a nightmare-haunted alcoholic with Kevin Williamson, who crafted a treatment based on her ideas. “She had a lot of insight into where her character is twenty years later,” Williamson told Fangoria magazine.lxx
Screenwriter Robert Zappia ran with the treatment and developed a script (later rewritten by Matt Greenberg and an uncredited Williamson) that served as the basis for the project.
The H20 story traces Laurie’s struggle to overcome her alcoholism, purge her traumatic memories, and find peace in her professional and personal lives. “As she would in any sort of twelve-step program, she learns that she has to confront it, her brother,” Curtis explains.lxxi She also states, “We’re showing that Laurie Strode did not go off after the events of the first two movies and live a life unscathed by the horror she experienced. She married an abusive methadone addict, she had a son who barely tolerates her, and she has become an alcoholic. She’s a functioning non-functioning human being.”lxxii
Jamie Lee Curtis also says, “It’s a survivor’s story. This man stole her soul twenty years ago. She needs to get her soul back…”lxxiii She expressed a similar notion in Total Film magazine: “She has no soul. That’s what was ripped from her.”lxxiv Curtis told Amy Wallace, “This woman was a survivor, but the truth is that there is no surviving an attack like that. She had lost her soul. That is how I pitched the movie: regaining the soul by facing your own fear.”lxxv
In the introduction to his book Writing The Character-Centered Screenplay, Andrew Horton distinguishes character-centered scripts from narrative-driven scripts with a checklist of six characteristics. Of the six, it is the first that is most prominent in H20: “The character-centered script portrays character not as a static state of being but as a dynamic process of becoming which we will call the carnivalesque: in brief, the carnivalesque describes an ongoing, ever-changing state in which character is recognized as being made up of many ‘voices’ within us, each with its own history, needs, flavors, limitations, joys, and rhythms.”lxxvi
In H20, Laurie’s need to confront her past drives her to become an active, empowered individual. She is driven by multiple internal “voices,” some compelling her to escape through booze, others demanding that she live up to her responsibilities as a mother and professional educator, still others whispering that she will never be safe from Michael Myers. Laurie Strode is a complex and neurotic character, nothing like a standard slasher film protagonist.
“The scars are definitely still with her,” says Jamie Lee Curtis. “This is a very faithful return for Laurie because she’s totally repressed.”lxxvii
The creative team opted to make H20 a direct sequel to the first two movies in the series; David J. Skal observes, “The filmmakers gave little worry to the fact that [Laurie Strode] had been killed off after the second film. Instead, they just pretended that all the other Halloween films never existed. All the previous story lines after Halloween II were simply wiped clean.”lxxviii
Traditional Halloween elements pepper screenwriter Robert Zappia’s second draft of H20‘s script (substantially rewritten prior to filming by Matt Greenberg and an uncredited Kevin Williamson). Doors slowly open behind unsuspecting victims. Nubile teens die gruesome deaths (this draft includes the discovery of a body with an ice skate embedded in its face). Michael Myers prowls around in his robotic and unrelenting manner.
Woven into the archetypal slasher-film framework of the Zappia script is the transformation of Laurie Strode from a frightened alcoholic to a fully-empowered controller of her own fate.
Laurie Strode in October of 1978
To appreciate the tremendous degree of change in Laurie’s character, consider how disempowered she was in the screenplays for the first two films. When we first meet Laurie in Halloween, her entire day is mapped out by the wishes of others. Her time is out of her control. As she walks to school, her father (a real-estate broker) orders her to drop off a key for some prospective clients at the Myers house. She then bumps into Tommy Doyle, the eight-year-old boy she is scheduled to babysit that evening. Tommy proceeds to dictate Laurie’s agenda for the evening, and she agrees to his every request: “Can we make Jack-O-Lanterns? Can we watch the monster movies? Will you read to me? Can we make popcorn?”
Subsequent scenes reinforce Laurie’s role as a disempowered character. She is the passive passenger in a car while her friend Annie drives. When they pull over to ask Annie’s father about a break-in at a hardware store, Laurie sits quietly while Annie does all the talking. Later, Annie coerces Laurie into babysitting an additional child, thereby freeing Annie to embark on a rendezvous with her boyfriend (though she ultimately never even starts her car, for she’s intercepted by the masked killer). Laurie’s disempowered demeanor does not waver even in the third act (when Michael Myers stalks her). She discovers the bodies of her friends and flees across the street (pursued by Myers) to the house where she was babysitting. Back inside with the door locked, Laurie soon realizes that the killer may have gotten in. At the moment of realization, her reaction is again one of passivity. The screenplay includes this bit of business: “Laurie doesn’t move. She begins crying softly, her eyes wide with fear.”
A more empowered character might have immediately fled the house, searched for a weapon, or bellowed threats toward the stalker. Laurie, true to character, froze and cried.
In Halloween’s final scene, it is the psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (not Laurie) who vanquishes Myers by shooting him repeatedly until he topples out of a second-story window.
Even by the climax of Halloween II (which Curtis called “a horrible movie” during an April 1998 appearance on the Regis & Kathy Lee talk show), Laurie remains an essentially disempowered individual. It is again Dr. Loomis, not Laurie, who vanquishes the boogeyman, this time by striking a lighter in an oxygen-filled hospital room. Laurie passively cowers in a corner through much of the scene leading to this moment.
These first two films establish a character who changes from being disempowered but essentially content with her life to being severely traumatized while remaining disempowered. Debra Hill opines, “I think that’s why audiences responded so well: she really loses control. She doesn’t have control of the situation.”lxxix
Nothing robs a cinematic hero of control more effectively than an unstoppable antagonist, which is what Hill & Carpenter designed Myers to be; John Carpenter told George Hickenlooper, “The whole idea of the Michael character… being evil which cannot be killed was very appealing.”lxxx In the documentary Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, Carpenter says, “This guy is a human, but he’s not. He’s more than that. He’s not exactly supernatural, but maybe he is. Who knows how he got that way… you don’t give much of an explanation… It’s much more terrifying.”lxxxi
The first image after the title on page 1 of the original Halloween screenplay turns out to be “…a Halloween mask. It is a large, full-head platex rubber mask, not a monster or ghoul, but the pale, neutral features of a man weirdly distorted by the rubber.” (The underlining appears in the script.) The main title sequence of the finished film features a jack-o’-lantern rather than the mask.
On one Halloween commentary track, Tommy Lee Wallace says, “You gotta wonder what Michael Myers was thinking about when he found that mask or created it, you know, and then that’s always a sticky set of questions to get into.”lxxxii
In the Halloween Unmasked 2000 featurette, John Carpenter recalls, “What I thought about doing was not giving the antagonist, Michael Myers, really much of a backstory but kind of kicking him up into a kind of legendary kind of a situation, where he’s much more like an element of nature… I thought that would be more frightening… make him almost a force. So then the mask, which ties in with Halloween, would blank out his human features for most of the film, making him then just some sort of force of evil that is irrational, unstoppable.”lxxxiii
In an interview via telephone with Murray Leeder, John Carpenter said, “…we’re saying in the movie that Michael Myers is in fact a human being, but I wanted to bleach humanity out of him. I wanted him to be nothing, just like a vessel onto which we could project things… he’s a human shape and he’s an absence of humanity…”lxxxiv
In a 1994 issue, Fangoria magazine quoted Debra Hill: “The idea was that you couldn’t kill evil, and that was how we came about the story. We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived.”lxxxv
John Carpenter told Jason Zinoman, “All you are dealing with is something that’s pure evil. We strip everything down to a purity. He’s not wearing anything distinguishable… He’s a blank. We stripped away the particulars, the details.”lxxxvi
The antagonist of the final film had exactly the effect on audiences that John Carpenter and Debra Hill intended, as evidence by the diverse perspectives on Michael Myers below.
Tom Allen calls Myers “a faceless psychopath of terrifying strength and preternatural ubiquity.”lxxxvii Tim Lucas describes the Shape as a “killer who operates without governing laws of existence.”lxxxviii Walter Metz says, “The film posits that Michael Myers is a supernatural manifestation of evil, not just a boy driven insane by family romances.”lxxxix
Chris Durand (who played “the Shape” in H20) says, “What makes this guy so frightening is that under the costume and mask, he is a very determined human being.”xc
Kendall R. Phillips posits that Michael Myers “is a force of nature, an embodiment of some transcendent fate.”xci
In his doctoral dissertation, Aaron C. Anderson writes, “Myers is both an insider and an outsider in humanity and humanness and an insider and outsider of the small town of Haddonfield. He is both a piece of reality and a piece of nightmarish fantasy… he does not bear the markers of mortality that a human normally carries.”xcii
Peter Hutchings says, “…when in Halloween the serial killer Michael Myers survives being stabbed in the neck, in the eye and in the chest and, shortly thereafter, being shot six times at point blank range and falling out of an upstairs bedroom window, something very fundamental is being said not just about this particular serial killer but also about monsterdom in general, and that is that monsters… always come back.”xciii
Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that John Carpenter plays “a subtle guessing-game with us as to whether the elliptically-glimpsed and masked psychopath is actually human or not.”xciv
Anthony C. Ferrante reports that the Michael Myers known to fans of the first film nearly manifested in an altogether different shape. Ferrante writes, “According to [Debra] Hill, the scripting process began with sitting down and writing out as many Halloween scares as they could come up with. Next came the story; [Carpenter & Hill] tinkered with the idea of the father of one child being the killer, taking girls home and seducing them. Though Hill admits the murderer could have been anyone from a parent or teacher to another kid from school, the key always came down to telling the story from the teenagers’ point of view and dealing with ‘things that go bump in the night.’”xcv
Journalist Robert Martin reports that early plans for Michael Myers & Laurie Strode as they’d appear in Halloween II differed drastically from the screenplay for the sequel that John Carpenter & Debra Hill ultimately wrote. Martin notes, “[Producer] Irwin Yablans first announced preparations for the sequel [in 1980]. According to Yablans, the second film would take place several years later. Jamie Lee Curtis would repeat her role as Laurie Strode, a little more grown up and now living in a tight-security modern high-rise apartment complex. On another Halloween night, [Michael Myers] would reappear…”xcvi
In issue #8 of Fangoria, David P. Nichols reports, “Yablans reveals that Jamie Lee Curtis will continue the story of the victimized school girl who moves to a new town and resides in a luxury apartment complex. Donald Pleasence will be on hand as the killer’s nemesis, once again trying to save the population from the Boogeyman on Halloween night.”xcvii
Robert Martin continues, “However, when Carpenter and Hill sat down to write [the sequel], Yablans’s conception of the story was quickly abandoned. ‘It would have been absolutely ludicrous to do the film several years later,’ says [Debra] Hill. ‘Where has the Shape been? He hasn’t spoken a word since he was six years old, he’s not schooled… so where has he been all that time?’”xcviii
In 1998, Roger Ebert wondered, “How does Michael Myers support himself in the long years between his slashing outbreaks? I picture him working in a fast-food joint. ‘He never spoke much, but boy, could he dice those onions!’ …Maybe he is a mime when he’s not slashing.”xcix
John Carpenter reveals, “The killer in Halloween is sexually repressed. That’s his problem. There’s a connection between the killer and the virginal heroine. They’re both repressed.”c
Robert B. Winning writes in his doctoral dissertation, “Michael’s arrival in Haddonfield and his stalking of Laurie and her friends coincides with Laurie’s personal dilemma about her awakening sexuality. In this way Michael becomes a personification of that which Laurie is repressing about her sexuality.”ci
Rick Worland describes Laurie Strode as “…a virgin, albeit a reluctant one dismayed by her lack of social skills and sexual experience relative to her brash, promiscuous friends… in one of many needling references to virginity, Annie jokes that Laurie ‘must have a fortune stashed away in babysitting money,’ her repression channeled into rigid responsibility as a mother in training.”cii
Robin Wood attempts to get inside the head of Michael Myers when he speculates that “Laurie is the killer’s real quarry throughout… because she is for him the reincarnation of the sister he murdered as a child.”ciii
In his doctoral thesis, Alan Rogers discusses the sequence set in 1963 in which six-year-old Michael Myers stabs his teenage sister Judith: “The prologue suggests that Michael’s psychosis is triggered by some obscure reaction to sex. The sexual overtones of the scene are so strong as to inevitably affect perceptions of the entire narrative.”civ
J.P. Telotte writes that young Michael “is a viewer himself, cut off from that which he sees, as he stands outside his house, voyeuristically watching his sister ‘make out’ with her boyfriend. Afterwards, he inexplicably – perhaps through possession, madness, or even frustration – carries out his own assault on his sister, attacking her with a long, phallic knife in a horrifying travesty of the sexual encounter he has only partially witnessed and totally misunderstood.”cv
Morris Dickstein asserts, “The murderer is a voyeur enraged by his own excitement…”cvi
William Paul says, “…commentary on the film does generally attribute a sexual motivation to this sequence… I have yet to read any commentary that is particularly concerned by the fact that the murderer is a six-year-old boy. Reading sexual desire into this without accounting for the age of the child seems to me only slightly less perverse than the sequence itself.”cvii
Reynold Humphries posits, “To evoke sexuality… when discussing a child of six means that we take literally the notion of repression and the unconscious. Michael has no idea of why he kills his sister. For a start, Michael is not present in the bedroom; he goes up to kill her only after the boyfriend has left… Unconsciously Michael is killing, not his sister, but his mother for choosing someone else.”cviii
Discussing the adult Michael Myers, Steve Neal calls attention to the figurative elephant in the room: “Each killing involves either strangulation and/or stabbing with a huge, phallic knife… each killing implies punishment of a woman who asserted a sexual appetite.”cix
In her book Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage, Sue Short writes, “Despite being presented as a sexually naive bookworm who is mocked by her female peers, Laurie affirms that boys are intimidated by her intelligence.” Short then notes, “It is this trait that contributes further towards saving her than her piety. Indeed, although numerous critics have seen the slasher as an attempt to regulate female sexuality, it is equally possible to argue that it provides a positive affirmation of female capability, non-conformity, and a refusal to ‘put out’ simply to keep a man…”cx
John Carpenter elaborates on the link he sees between Michael and Laurie Strode. In an interview with Todd McCarthy, Carpenter said, “The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She’s the most sexually frustrated… all that repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy… She and the killer have a certain link: sexual repression. She’s lonely, she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she’s looking around. And she finds someone – him.”cxi
Carol J. Clover cites some of the above quotation in her seminal book Men, Women, and Chain Saws, and Clover writes, “…the ‘certain link’ that puts killer and Final Girl on terms, at least briefly, is more than ‘sexual repression.’ It is also a shared masculinity, materialized in ‘all those phallic symbols’ – and it is also a shared femininity, materialized in what comes next… the castration, literal or symbolic, of the killer at her hands.”cxii
John McCarthy counters John Carpenter’s remarks about Laurie and Michael having sexual repression in common by writing, “Curiously, Carpenter’s defense only makes matters worse because it still connects sex with violent retribution… Carpenter might better have let things go by stating the obvious… Halloween is nothing more than an updated fairy tale…”cxiii
In an interview conducted around the turn of the millennium, John Carpenter told Gilles Boulenger, “…the story starts out with a little boy seeing his sister fucking her boyfriend upstairs and killing her for it. So it seems to me that part of what he’s doing is getting vengeance on her because of an Oedipal or incestual thing.”cxiv
Murray Leeder writes, “…the film’s psychological elements are a critical stumbling block, since the film actively resists any attempt to see Michael in terms of any identifiable human pathology… A verisimilitudinous depiction of mental illness was not on Carpenter’s agenda; the creation of a cosmic threat beyond rational explanation, psychological or otherwise, was.”cxv
Vincent Canby asserts, “We never really get to know anything about the killer. Analysis has no place here.”cxvi
John Kenneth Muir says, “Michael Myers cannot be explained rationally in terms of psychology. He does not suffer from a specific, diagnosable or treatable disorder, and Dr. Loomis describes the monster unscientifically just as one of our ancestors at the dawn of time might have: Myers is purely and simply evil.”cxvii
In an interview with Jordan R. Fox, John Carpenter says, “Halloween is not about a crazy guy killing people. That’s the story, but not what it’s about. The movie is about evil, and it’s about sex. In my opinion, evil never dies.”cxviii
Laurie Strode opts to test that hypothesis on the twentieth anniversary of her trauma when Michael Myers resurfaces.
Laurie Strode in October of 1998
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later traces Laurie’s path to empowerment, continuing the character arc that began in the first two films (both of which depict the trauma that Michael Myers inflicted upon her on October 31, 1978). Laurie Strode was 17 years old that Halloween.
The H20 script introduces Laurie (age 37) in the throes of a nightmare, establishing that she has not coped well with her past.
With a new identity (Keri Tate) and a solid career as head administrator at a private school, Laurie remains haunted. Once controlled by her family and friends, she is now controlled by nightmares and alcohol. Instead of actively exerting control over her own life, she strives to control her 17-year-old son (John).
Consider a scene in which John offers to address Laurie as “Mom” instead of “Keri” in exchange for the right to move out. He concedes “I’ll call you Mom” and asks if he can live in a dormitory, and Laurie tells him no. She says, “I took the padlock off your door. What more do you want?” As John exits, Laurie asks where he’s going. He replies, “To the bathroom. Can I do that alone or do you want to watch?”cxix
In Halloween H20 (the finished film), Laurie’s control of John first manifests as her adamant refusal to let him leave the school grounds for a weekend Halloween party with his fellow students. In both the film and Robert Zappia’s second draft of the script (which differs significantly from the movie), Laurie displaces her need for control onto her son. The “overprotective mother” scene in the film immediately follows one of Laurie’s nightmares, making the connection between her past trauma and her need for control more clear than it may have been on the page.
In Zappia’s second draft, and in the film, Laurie experiences terrifying hallucinations of Michael Myers as the anniversary of her trauma approaches. These visions eventually push her to overcome her alcoholism in order to better cope with her fears. She first imagines the killer when she ventures outside the safety of the school’s gated fence for groceries. Laurie’s reaction to the vision, freezing immobile, is an echo of her behavior in the first film when she realizes that Michael may be in the Doyle house. This beat introduces the catalyst for Laurie’s change while showing that no change has yet occurred; she still feels powerless in the presence of Michael.
That evening, Laurie again imagines Michael in his mask, and then she has a third intense hallucination the next morning. These visions propel Laurie/Keri to take the first step on her path to empowerment: she pours a bottle of Vodka down the sink.
Though she resists the lure of the bottle, her need to control her son remains solid until the very end of the story. Significant character transformation in a believable screenplay is the result of many small changes spurred by narrative events. The arrival of Michael on school grounds serves as a major narrative catalyst that accelerates Laurie’s change. Her disempowered demeanor begins to crumble, and she takes action to protect her son, herself, and others.
In Zappia’s second draft, Laurie realizes that Michael is back when she sees him through her office window approaching John’s girlfriend (Molly). Laurie immediately charges out of the office in an attempt to save her. Though she fails, she has discovered that she need not be paralyzed with fear.
In H20 (the film), Laurie’s major empowerment-catalyst again is the confirmation that Michael is back. Instead of spotting him at a distance as in the second draft, she sees him inches away through the window in a door she has just slammed shut. She refuses to let fear paralyze her as in the past, and instead she barks instructions to three individuals: her boyfriend Will, her son John, and John’s girlfriend Molly. Molly and John hide while Will and Laurie, armed with a gun, seek out Michael. Will accidentally shoots the campus security guard. Michael appears and kills Will, at which point Laurie again takes charge; she orders John and Molly to take the car and leave the school grounds.
With John and Molly gone, Laurie is left alone in the school with the killer who has haunted her for twenty years. There is no one left to protect her. Laurie realizes only she can conquer her personal demons.
At this crucial turning point, she could easily give up under the stress and flee or cower until Michael kills her. Instead, she earns the title of hero and seeks out her brother for a climactic confrontation.
Jamie Lee Curtis observes, “There had to be a moment where Laurie could get away, but instead she recognizes that the only possible way for her to live is to face Michael Myers and risk dying.”cxx
Laurie’s transformation into an empowered character is complete when she begins actively hunting Michael on the school grounds. She even forsakes the element of surprise that she could have had by sneaking up on him, choosing instead to bellow his name in a primal scream before she sets out on her hunt.
As she confronts Michael face-to-mask in the climax, her behavior again demonstrates how far she has come since her days as a cowering teenager in Haddonfield. She is active, alert, and in control, focused on her task of vanquishing the Boogeyman.
Laurie Strode no longer needs Dr. Loomis or anyone else to save her; at long last, she is willing and able to save herself.
In lesser slasher films such as Happy Birthday to Me, The Burning, and Hell Night, the protagonist’s nature remains static. There is no growth, no learning, no comment upon the human condition. Halloween H20 manages to layer a believable and engaging transformation of its hero over an atmospheric, tense story. By portraying a traumatized alcoholic’s struggle to regain control of her life without slowing the pace or suspense that horror fans expect, H20 proves that it is still very possible to creatively explore the slasher genre in the post-Scream era.
Is the seventh film in the original Halloween series groundbreaking? No. Is it more carefully-crafted than ninety-nine percent of the slasher films cranked out in the past few decades? Absolutely.
H20 struck a chord with fans (newcomers and longtime Halloween aficionados) when it opened on Wednesday, August 5th in 1998. That first day alone, H20 earned over five million dollars at the box office. By the end of November that year, the film had grossed more than fifty-five million dollars. The well-crafted continuation of the Strode/Myers legend resonated with viewers and has garnered substantial critical acclaim.
In Variety, Dennis Harvey writes, “…[H20] belongs to Curtis, and care has been taken to make her character one credible, battle-scarred survivor. Laurie here is a caustic divorcee… a caring but oppressive parent whose understandable paranoia no pill can ease.”cxxi Maitland McDonagh says, “…Kevin Williamson, a true-blue Halloween fan, revitalized the moribund stalk-and-slash genre with clever dialogue, self-referential irony, and a healthy respect for horror traditions. Although he’s not credited as a screenwriter on H20… Williamson’s hand is all over it… and it’s a blast.”cxxii In The Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas proclaims that H20 “…brings back a stunning Jamie Lee Curtis in the role that made her a star, and it’s a work of superior craftsmanship in all aspects… it’s hard to imagine Curtis participating in a Halloween sequel unless her part was exceptional, and it is.”cxxiii
Bob Graham raves, “H20 is not a routine cut-and-paste horror but a full-fledged revenge fantasy – and a completely satisfying one… H20 may even be better than John Carpenter’s original, and that’s going some, because it capitalizes on the Laurie Strode character’s history. It makes her much more complicated and even archetypal.”cxxiv
At least one fellow apparently half-dozed through H20 as evidenced by his failure to mind the most basic details of seminal horror film iconography. In The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder describes Michael Myers as “the hockey-masked slasher of the 1978 John Carpenter horror hit Halloween…”cxxv Perhaps this critic accidentally wandered into a revival screening of director Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part III and just assumed he had watched a Halloween film. Hockey-masked? Really?
Jamie Lee Curtis fondly remembers her character (who Michael Myers ultimately killed in the lamentable Halloween: Resurrection): “Laurie Strode was a complex person. She was intelligent. She was sensitive. She was vulnerable. She was funny, and she was a heroine.”cxxvi
Halloween H20 was never going to win an Oscar, but it may inspire filmmakers to find new ways to layer nuanced character transformations into their stories (even in genres not known for character-centered scripts).
Daniel S. Duvall
i John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002), pp. 536-537.
ii Adam Rockoff, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 (McFarland & Company Inc, 2002), p. 50.
iii Bruce McClelland, “Someone’s Watching You: the Cinema of John Carpenter,” Cinemacabre #3 (summer 1980), pp. 14-23 with this bit on p. 21.
iv Michael Gingold, “Halloween: an Enduring Treat,” Fangoria Legends #2 (2013), pp. 18-19.
v Tim Lucas, “The Panavision World of John Carpenter,” Video Watchdog #27 (1995), pp. 49-55 with this bit on p. 54.
vi Anne Billson in The BFI Companion to Horror (Cassell, 1996), p. 57.
vii John Carpenter, “On Composing for Halloween,” Fangoria #30 (October 1983), pp. 38-39.
viii Irwin Yablans in a testimonial within the “Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest” documentary.
ix John Carpenter quoted by Blake Mitchell & James Ferguson in “John Carpenter, Natch,” Fantastic Films Volume 3, Number 2 (July 1980), pp. 17-24, 73, 76-77, and 92-93 with this bit about Halloween on page 73.
x Debra Hill in a 1999 video interview used in the 2010 Biography Channel documentary “Halloween: The Inside Story”.
xi Debra Hill quoted by Anthony C. Ferrante, “The Night He Made History,” Fangoria #138 (November 1994), pp. 12-22 & 90 with this bit on page 16.
xii Debra Hill in a testimonial within the “Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest” documentary.
xiii John Carpenter quoted by Todd McCarthy, “Trick and Treat,” Film Comment Volume 16 Number 1 (January-February 1980), pp. 17-24 with this bit on page 23.
xiv Tommy Lee Wallace on a Halloween Blu-ray commentary track from the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set from Scream Factory (disc 1).
xv John Carpenter quoted by Ralph Appelbaum (miscredited as Applebaum in the byline), “From Cult Homage to Creative Control,” Films and Filming #297 (Volume 25 Number 9 – June 1979), pp. 10-16.
xvi John Carpenter quoted by Stanley Wiater, Dark Visions (New York: Avon Books, 1992), p. 22.
xvii Debra Hill quoted in Film Comment (January-February 1980) with this bit on p. 21.
xviii Debra Hill quoted by Ralph Appelbaum, “Working with Numbers,” Films and Filming #300 (Volume 25 Number 12 – September 1979), pp. 20-24.
xix Debra Hill quoted by John Brosnan, “Interview: Debra Hill,” Starburst magazine #72 (August 1984), pp. 20-23.
xx Debra Hill in Halloween Unmasked 2000 (a featurette on the Bonus Disc [disc 15] from the deluxe edition of the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set that Scream Factory released).
xxi Ian Conrich, “Killing Time… and Time Again: The Popular Appeal of Carpenter’s Horrors and the Impact of The Thing and Halloween,” The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror (Wallflower Press, 2004), pp. 91-106 with this bit on page 99.
xxii William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (New York: Warner Books, 1983), p. 584. On page 127 of that same tome, Bill Goldman opines, “You don’t fret a whole lot about subtext if you’re writing Halloween VI.”
xxiii Vera Dika, Games of Terror (Associated University Presses, 1990), p. 53.
xxiv David E. Williams, “In the Mouth of Carpenter,” Film Threat issue 20 (February 1995), pp. 24-27.
xxv Michelle Le Blanc & Colin Odell, John Carpenter (Kamera Books, 2011), p. 42.
xxvi Mark Jancovich, “General Introduction,” Horror, The Film Reader (Routlege, 2002), p. 8.
xxvii Ken Gelder, “Introduction to Part Nine,” The Horror Reader (Routledge, 2000), p. 273.
xxviii Adam Rockoff, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 (McFarland & Company Inc, 2002), p. 55.
xxix Kenneth Nelson, “Halloween,” HorrorHound Special (November 2012), p. 4.
xxx Jeremy Dyson, “Epilogue,” Bright Darkness: The Lost Art of the Supernatural Horror Film (Cassell, 1997), p. 249.
xxxi Dean Cundey on a Halloween Blu-ray commentary track from the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set from Scream Factory (disc 1).
xxxii Tommy Lee Wallace on a Halloween Blu-ray commentary track from the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set from Scream Factory (disc 1).
xxxiii Les Daniels, “Children and Babies,” The BFI Companion to Horror (Cassell, 1996), p. 65.
xxxiv Bruce Lanier Wright, Gothic Horror Movies: The Modern Era (Taylor Publishing Company, 1995), p. 157.
xxxv John Carpenter quoted by Thomas Nilsson, “All Out of Bubble Gum,” Samhain magazine #26 (April/May 1991), pp. 6-10.
xxxvi Stephen Rebello, “The Second Coming of the Shape is Just a Dull, Dumb Rehash,” Cinefantastique Volume 12 Number 1 (February 1982), p. 52.
xxxvii Kim Newman, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (film review), Sight & Sound (November 1998). Reprinted in editor Kim Newman’s Science Fiction/Horror: A Sight & Sound Reader, pp. 202-204.
xxxviii Rick Rosenthal quoted by Patrick Hobby, “Halloween II: It Wasn’t Shocking Enough for John Carpenter, Who Stepped in to Direct in Postproduction,” Cinefantastique Volume 12 Number 1 (February 1982), p. 9.
xxxix John Carpenter quoted by Randy & Jean-Marc Lofficier, “John Carpenter: of Fogs and Things,” The Bloody Best of Fangoria Volume #5 (1986), pp. 16-19 with this bit on page 19.
xl Roger Ebert, “Halloween II” (film review), Chicago Sun-Times, January 1, 1981.
xli Michelle Le Blanc & Colin Odell, John Carpenter (Kamera Books, 2011), pp. 135-136.
xlii Tom Shales, “The Blood Puddles of Halloween II,” The Washington Post, October 30, 1981.
xliii Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Bob Martin in “Jamie Lee Curtis,” Fangoria #15 (October 1981), pp. 20-25.
xliv Debra Hill in a testimonial within the “Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest” documentary.
xlv Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Marc Shapiro in “Halloween H20: Back in Shape,” Fangoria #176 (September 1998), p. 22.
xlvi Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Marc Shapiro in “Halloween Heroine,” Fangoria #177 (October 1998), pp. 34-37 with this bit on page 36.
xlvii Richard Harrington, Washington Post, October 22, 1988 & January 2, 1995.
xlviii The Overlook Film Encyclopedia (Horror), edited by Phil Hardy. The entry for Halloween 5 can be found on page 446 of an edition from the mid-1990s with an ISBN of 0879516240.
xlix Alan Jones’s encapsulation of the Myers/Strode family saga from The Return of Michael Myers through The Curse of Michael Myers can be found on pages 145 and 146 of the 1996 edition of The BFI Companion To Horror (edited by Kim Newman).
l Ian Calcutt’s review of Halloween 5, Samhain magazine #26 (April/May 1991), p. 32.
li Rod Gudino in “Halloween: the Franchise Series Overview,” Rue Morgue magazine (July/August 2002), p. 20.
lii Adam Rockoff, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 (McFarland & Company Inc, 2002), pp. 171-173.
liii Ian Calcutt, “Halloween 5,” Samhain issue #26 (April/May 1991), p. 32.
liv Stephen King, Danse Macabre (Berkley Books, 1981), pp. 415-416.
lv Stephen King quoted by Linda Marotta in “Stephen King Shines On,” reprinted in Fangoria Masters Of The Dark edited by Anthony Timpone (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1997), p. 106.
lvi Moustapha Akkad quoted by Marc Shapiro in “Halloween H20: Back in Shape,” Fangoria #176 (September 1998), p. 22.
lvii Marc Savlov, “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers,” The Austin Chronicle, October 6, 1995.
lviii Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Marc Shapiro in issue #177 (October 1998) of Fangoria.
lix John Carpenter quoted by Bob Martin in “John Carpenter,” Fangoria #14 (August 1981), p. 10.
lx John Carpenter quoted by Anthony C. Ferrante in “Carpenter’s Tools,” Cinescape issue #54 (November 2001), pp. 20-21.
lxi John Carpenter quoted by Loris Curci in Shock Masters of the Cinema (Fantasma Books, 1996), pp. 38-39.
lxii John Carpenter quoted by Murray Leeder in Halloween (Auteur, 2014), pp. 12-13.
lxiii John Carpenter quoted in On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker (Titan Books, 2014), p. 128.
lxiv John Carpenter in a testimonial within the “Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest” documentary.
lxv Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Liz Smith in “Aieee! It’s Jamie Lee,” Newsday (Long Island, NY), June 21, 1998, p. A15.
lxvi Jamie Lee Curtis on the Blu-ray commentary track of the H20 disc from the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set from Scream Factory.
lxvii John Carpenter quoted by John Thonen, “Halloween H20: John Carpenter on Why the Sequel Didn’t Shape Up,” Cinefantastique (Volume 30 Number 4 – August 1998), p. 7.
lxviii Steve Miner quoted by Claudia Eller in “Will Lightning Strike Twice?,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1998.
lxix Jamie Lee Curtis on the Blu-ray commentary track of the H20 disc from the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set from Scream Factory.
lxx Kevin Williamson quoted by Ian Spelling & Anthony C. Ferrante in “Kevin Williamson’s Latest,” Fangoria #172 (May 1998), pp. 8-9.
lxxi Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Janet Weeks in “Halloween at 20: Facing Ghosts of the Past,” USA Today, April 24, 1998, p. 1E.
lxxii Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Marc Shapiro in “Halloween H20: Back in Shape,” Fangoria #176 (September 1998), pp. 19-24 & 76.
lxxiii Jamie Lee Curtis quoted in JET magazine (August 10, 1998 – Volume 94, Number 11), p. 58.
lxxiv Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by an unspecified contributor in “Halloween H20,” Total Film #22 (November 1998), pp. 66-70.
lxxv Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Amy Wallace, “Horror Comes Full Circle in H20,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1998.
lxxvi Andrew Horton, Writing The Character-Centered Screenplay (University of California Press, 1994), pp. 19-20.
lxxvii Curtis quoted by Marc Shapiro, “Halloween Heroine,” Fangoria #177 (October 1998), pp. 34-37.
lxxviii David J. Skal, Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2002), p. 180.
lxxix Debra Hill speaking on one of the commentary tracks included in many home video versions of Halloween.
lxxx John Carpenter quoted by George Hickenlooper in Reel Conversations (Citadel Press, 1991), p. 338.
lxxxi John Carpenter in a testimonial within the “Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest” documentary.
lxxxii Tommy Lee Wallace on a Halloween Blu-ray commentary track from the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set from Scream Factory (disc 1).
lxxxiii John Carpenter in Halloween Unmasked 2000 (a featurette on the Bonus Disc [disc 15] from the deluxe edition of the “Halloween: The Complete Collection” box set that Scream Factory released).
lxxxiv John Carpenter quoted by Murray Leeder in Halloween (Auteur, 2014), p. 90.
lxxxv Debra Hill quoted by Anthony C. Ferrante, “The Night He Made History,” Fangoria #138 (November 1994), pp. 12-22 & 90 with this bit on page 14.
lxxxvi John Carpenter quoted by Jason Zinoman in Shock Value (Penguin Books, 2011), p. 182.
lxxxvii Tom Allen, “A Sleeper That’s Here to Stay,” The Village Voice, November 6, 1978, pp. 67-70.
lxxxviii Tim Lucas, “Friday The 13th” (film review), Cinefantastique (Volume 10 Number 2), p. 42.
lxxxix Walter Metz, “Toward a Post-structural Influence in Film Genry Study: Intertextuality and The Shining,” Film Criticism (Vol. XXII, No. 1 – Fall 1997), pp. 39-51. The bit about Halloween appears on page 43.
xc Chris Durand quoted by Marc Shapiro in “Halloween H20: Back in Shape,” Fangoria #176 (September 1998), p. 76.
xci Kendall R. Phillips, Projected Fears (Praeger, 2005), p. 137.
xcii Aaron C. Anderson, Rethinking the Slasher Film: Violated Bodies and Spectators in Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, “A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy,” 2013, University of California, San Diego, p. 37.
xciii Peter Hutchings, The Horror Film (Routledge 2013), p. 53.
xciv Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Halloween,” Take One (January 1979), pp. 8-9 with this bit on page 8.
xcv Debra Hill quoted by Anthony C. Ferrante, “The Night He Made History,” Fangoria #138 (November 1994), pp. 12-22 & 90 with this bit on page 14.
xcvi Robert Martin, “Screen Preview: Halloween II,” Twilight Zone magazine (November 1981), pp. 51-54.
xcvii David P. Nichols, “Irwin Yablans: Fade to Halloween 2?,” Fangoria #8 (October 1980), p. 42.
xcviii Robert Martin, “Screen Preview: Halloween II,” Twilight Zone magazine (November 1981), pp. 51-54.
xcix Roger Ebert in his review of H20 (August 5, 1998).
c John Carpenter quoted by James Verniere, “John Carpenter Doing His Own Thing,” Twilight Zone magazine (November 1982), pp. 24-30.
ci Robert B. Winning, Archetypal Images and Motifs from Feminine Mythology in the Film Halloween, “A dissertation submitted to the graduate school in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Philosophy,” Northwestern University, June 1987, p. 93.
cii Rick Worland, The Horror Film: an Introduction (Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p. 235.
ciii Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 194. Wood goes on to speculate (elsewhere on page 194) that perhaps “Michael’s evil is what his analyst has been projecting on to him for the past nine years.”
civ Alan Rogers, The Contemporary Horror Film, “A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the Council for National Academic Awards for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy,” October 1990, Sheffield City Polytechnic.
cv J.P. Telotte, “Faith and Idolatry” in Planks of Reason (edited by Barry Keith Grant), The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984, p. 26.
cvi Morris Dickstein, “The Aesthetics of Fright” in Planks of Reason (edited by Barry Keith Grant), The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984, p. 66.
cvii William Paul, Laughing Screaming (Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 485.
cviii Reynold Humphries, The American Horror Film: an Introduction (Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2002), p. 140.
cix Steve Neale, “Suspense, Aggression and the Look” in Planks of Reason (edited by Barry Keith Grant), The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984, p. 332.
cx Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 46.
cxi John Carpenter quoted by Todd McCarthy, “Trick and Treat,” Film Comment (Volume 16 Number 1, 1980), pp. 17-24 with this bit on pages 23-24.
cxii Carol J. Clover, Men, Woman, and Chain Saws (Princeton University Press, Princeton First Classics edition, 2015), p. 49.
cxiii John McCarthy, “Halloween and the Exploitation Psycho,” Movie Psychos and Madmen (Citadel Press, 1993), pp. 165-188 with this bit on page 168.
cxiv John Carpenter quoted by Gilles Boulenger in John Carpenter the Prince of Darkness (Silman-James Press, 2001), p. 99.
cxv Murray Leeder, Halloween (Auteur, 2014), p. 86.
cxvi Vincent Canby, “Chilling Truths About Scaring,” The New York Times, January 21, 1979, p. 13.
cxvii John Kenneth Muir, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000), p. 76.
cxviii John Carpenter quoted by Jordan R. Fox, “Riding High on Horror,” Cinefantastique (Volume 10 Number 1, summer 1980), pp. 5-10, 40, and 42-44 with this bit on page 40.
cxix Dialogue from the Robert Zappia screenplay Halloween: The Revenge of Laurie Strode (Writer’s Second Draft, Dec. 3, 1997).
cxx Jamie Lee Curtis quoted by Chris Nashawaty, “Final Cut,” Entertainment Weekly #445 (August 14, 1998), pp. 28-32 & 34.
cxxi Dennis Harvey in his H20 review in Variety, August 3, 1998.
cxxii Maitland McDonagh, “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later,” Film Journal International,
cxxiii Kevin Thomas, “Living Up to Its Gory Past,” The Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1998.
cxxiv Bob Graham, “Sweet Revenge,” The San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 1998.
cxxv Lawrence Van Gelder, “Monster and Victim: Older, Not Wiser,” The New York Times, August 5, 1998.
cxxvi Jamie Lee Curtis at the end of the video documentary “Blood is Thicker than Water: the Making of Halloween H20.”
I watched the first 60 minutes of the 1982 slasher movie DEATH SCREAMS starting around 5 AM EDT on the 21st of April in 2018. 16 hours later, from around 10 PM – 10:30 PM EDT, I watched the balance of the scenes.
Sometime between 8 and 9 PM, I wrote a stream-of-consciousness review of that first hour. After 10:30 PM, I wrote up my thoughts on the denouement. Here are my findings about director David Nelson’s feature film DEATH SCREAMS.
8:20 PM EDT on 21 April 2018 – Impressions of the first hour of the 1982 slasher film DEATH SCREAMS (also known as HOUSE OF DEATH):
The production values are generally on par with the films one sees on MST3K — lots of uninspired shots of talking heads, average lighting, etc. Every so often, you see where the producers spent the money, like a couple of tracking shots while people walk down the sidewalk in a small town (evocative of HALLOWEEN imagery). There’s one really interesting character, a “special needs” young adult who roams around the town and has been known to steal stuff (bats, balls, and even bases) from the community’s baseball field. One of the actresses resembles PJ Soles and seems to be imitating the voice of Lynda from HALLOWEEN, and the character is a similar fun-loving blonde. As a customer at a baked goods booth examines brownies and such at a carnival, a different female character asks “See anything you like?” She then offers the browser a piece of pie. Ah, the carnival — the center of so many goddamn daytime scenes in this movie. Early in the day there, the main characters agree to have a bonfire that night (after which they’ll go tell ghost stories in the cemetery), and I was like, “Yes! That sounds great! Can we get to those scenes already?!” When I stopped the movie an hour in, the bonfire sequence had only barely begun, and there’s maybe 25 minutes of story left before the credits. No sign of the cemetery yet. Apparently the director felt that the sights and sounds of a small-town carnival would be interesting enough to hold viewers through like 40 minutes of the film — he was wrong. Also, the prologue of this flick features the deaths of two lovers, but it’s not clear how they died — there’s just suddenly a close-up of their faces while the guy gurgles blood from his mouth. There are periodic shots of their corpses floating down a creek throughout the rest of the movie — I read somewhere that the core characters spot the bodies in act three. My other complaint about this movie — it takes place across a few days and nights, but apparently the killer only successfully snuffs out the lives of those prologue victims, at least so far, as they’re the only people referenced as “missing” in the town — despite the prowler being out and about on night two, as evidenced by a shot of a hand with a blade slicing open a screen door moments after someone closes it. It’s like, “Well, my prey got away. Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.” So, yeah — this one’s not too hot.
10:50 PM EDT on 21 April 2018 – Thoughts about Act III of the 1982 horror film DEATH SCREAMS (alternately titled HOUSE OF DEATH):
The last 18 minutes of this film are actually wildly entertaining, unlike the 67 minutes leading up to that point. The third act would make a decent stand-alone short horror film (albeit with paper-thin characters) if a prologue and/or epilogue got tacked on for some context.
At the 68-minute point, the young adult friends finally get to the cemetery, and one young lady tells a classic urban legend — she got two sentences in, and I was like, “This is one of the ones that ends with a message written on the wall.” Yep – “Maniacs lick hands too.” I called it. Anyhow, that whole section is really well-shot and atmospheric, and then a thunderstorm kicks in, so the group heads to an old abandoned house nearby. One of them has to use an outhouse between the house and the cemetery, and his friends decide to wait a few minutes and then go scare him out there. While that fellow is sitting on the can, a raccoon wanders in, and the guy says, “I’m gonna be constipated for the rest of my life.” Best dialogue in the whole movie. His friends show up, open the outhouse, and find this guy with his throat slit, hanging upside down in front of the toilet. Naturally instead of immediately becoming hyper-alert and arming themselves, they wrangle the corpse back to the house, because the most important thing to do with a murderer lurking about is to contaminate a crime scene.
These characters are all incredibly stupid in terms of basic survival instincts. Three of them have the good sense to stay barricaded inside the house. Three split off (one at a time, mind you) and head back through the cemetery alone at different points – not wise.
In these final 18 minutes, there are some really great deaths with reasonably good practical effects – not like Savini-quality, but well done. One guy falls into an open grave and, while climbing out, gets both hands lopped off by a single swing of a machete. Two others get decapitated (off camera), and the revelations of the heads later are pretty fun.
Then suddenly the killer is at the house’s door, and someone inside goes, “I hear someone!” — and OPENS THE DAMN DOOR. Like, why did you lock it in the first place? Why not prop it open with a doorstop?
The remaining characters see the killer running at them, slam the door, and try to go upstairs, perhaps on the assumption that the blade-wielding killer can’t climb stairs due to fear of heights or something.
One girl falls through the rotting steps and gets stuck.
A guy figures, well, like, “I’ll just climb over her and add more weight to this death trap.” He does so and tries to pull her out, but when he does, she’s been cut in half — because the machete man who moments early was at the door is now UNDER THE STAIRS in a walk-in storage space! Its door flings open while the Final Girl (named “Lily Carpenter” – har har) and the last remaining dumb guy scramble upstairs. I think there’s another character in the mix here too, but I lost track.
The killer bursts into the 2nd-floor room, and for the first time we learn his identity — someone who had been introduced at the carnival as a fellow well-known around town, considered a “good catch” kinda guy by the older ladies who advise the teens about who to date.
Final Girl uses a shard of glass to slit his throat with precision accuracy even though, like, the guy was waving a machete between his throat and Lily.
He drops to the floor.
Outside, the small town’s asshole cop just happens to be wandering by and senses something amiss. He looks at an upstairs window.
The killer springs back to his feet despite the massive blood loss! He lunges at Lily, misses, and crashes through the window!
He lands, impaled on his own machete, right in front of the cop — who, having no idea the context of this event, unloads his gun at the fellow’s head! There’s a split-second shot of a model head exploding.
Then a brief epilogue with ambulances, etc. — and the credits roll!
After the cast credits, there’s a subsection in the scroll labeled “Staff and crew.” The first thing on that list: “Screenplay by Paul C. Elliott.”