Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Interview with Award Winning Screenwriter, Jeff Palmer

Most of the guys I hang out with in the indie-horror scene, and by that I mean the guys I went to film school with, who I would still be having beers with regardless if we were all selling encyclopedia's, see directing or actually shooting a film as the end goal. Now, I love being on set and I love directing, however there's something about the screenwriting process that I truly, truly love. In fact, if I could cut it as a screenwriter, I'd be a pretty happy camper. You see, there's something about starting with just you, a pen, a blank piece of paper and some sort of cocktail, then ending with a 120 page, polished screenplay. You're truly crafting something out of nothing. Also, it's free, it doesn't require depending on anyone else and you can do it drunk. Not to mention that none of my finished films ever won shit, but I won a Kodak grant for my short film "The Town that Dreaded Some Clown" because of the script, but I digress...

I know I'm not alone, either. There's lots of quirky drunks out there who would rather be huddled over their PC with a cocktail in hand than stressing out on some set. Jeff Palmer's one of those guys. Well, maybe not... but he likes screenwriting. Anyhow, he recently won the top prize for screenwriting at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival for his script, "The Sleeping Deep" and isn't stopping there. Palmer's obviously a really talented guy and not only does his award winning script sound awesome, I really hope to see it on the big screen soon.
We had a chance to discuss it all with him and if you're an aspiring screenwriter, you'll want to check this interview out.

First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into horror?

Well, thanks for the interview. It's funny. Horror is the last genre I ever considered trying out. As a huge fan of the early Sam Raimi classics "Evil Dead" and Peter Jackson's splatter-fest "Dead Alive", I don't know if I would ever find myself making that sort of film. That said, my script "The Sleeping Deep" does contain a lot of gory bits and many horror conventions, so I suppose it all depends on what type of story you want to tell. I'm also a fan of Dario Argento films, spooky tales like "The House on Haunted Hill" as well as contemporary masters such as John Carpenter and Clive Barker. If the story is captivating and it makes your skin crawl, I'm all for it, so giving horror a whirl was only a matter of time I suppose. My first feature "On the Fringe" (available on DVD) was a dramatic character ensemble which was a perfect low-budget script for the time I was shooting it in 1999, but I couldn't bear repeating myself. It was time to branch out and the story behind "The Sleeping Deep" pulled me in and didn't let go.

What got you into screenwriting and is that your goal or are you using screenwriting as a means to an end?

It's all about telling stories, whether it be in music, art, film, writing... it's communicating ideas to a greater audience. Getting that message, that idea out of your head and into the world. I'm finding that the written word is, and has been, one of the best ways of doing that. Plus, it's free. You can go anywhere on the page with a cast of thousands and it doesn't cost a dime. Think it up in your head and blast it out onto paper. That was one of the rules I had when approaching "The Sleeping Deep" - write with no limits in both imagination and budget. This helped immensely and freed myself from stopping short and thinking, Oh, I couldn't afford to do that. As filmmakers and artists our job is to create paradigms for folks to participate in. If we don't break the rules and scribble outside the lines and off the page, who will?

I've directed features before and if I got the chance to direct "The Sleeping Deep" that would be wonderful, but it's not a deal breaker for me. What's important is getting the movie made and on screen and out there for an audience to enjoy. If a capable director with a vision digs the script and there's a budget behind the project I'd be thrilled to see it all come together as the screenwriter. Again, it's about spreading the story around in some form to a wider audience.

You recently won top prize at this years H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival for Screenwriting for your script, “The Sleeping Deep”. Tell us a bit about your screenplay.

This is always a difficult question to answer. Anyone who's read the script quickly realizes that it's not a typical horror film. There are elements of fantasy, suspense, mystery, historical fiction as well as bloody, squirmy things. Basically, two strangers, Charlotte Foster and Kevin Tiggs, are connected by the same nightmare. When Kevin goes into a catatonic state, his psych nurse Janice Harrington decides to figure out what caused him to snap. This leads her to find Charlotte at the grave of Kevin's dead fiancee in a rural cemetery somewhere in Maine. The two women, plus an assortment of other tagalongs, must join forces to destroy the creatures of an ancient underworld before its gruesome demons gain passage to the waking world of humans.

If I had to water it down using the Hollywood script algorithm it's kind of like "Rosemary's Baby" meets "Alien" and "Underworld" wrapped inside a Lovecraftian "Nightmare on Elm Street". Lots of demons, sex, sex with demons, bloody wombs squirming with writhing tendrils, gunfights, swordplay... that sort of stuff. Fun!

Is H.P. Lovecraft a big influence for you? If so, talk about Lovecraft as an influence.

I didn't grow up reading Lovecraft, but I've had his "Lurking Fear" collection of short stories for a long while and have always enjoyed the dark, haunting settings that he conjures in his writing. His style is very flowery and descriptive, which isn't for everyone, but there are gems hidden amongst the passages that are truly macabre and disturbing. His story "The Dream-quest of Unknown Kaddath" definitely inspired me to write "The Sleeping Deep" but it's not based on any of his stories.

Did you write the script with intent to submit it to this specific festival?

I used the Lovecraft Film Festival submission deadline as an impetus to get a first draft done, but had intentions on submitting to other festivals. Still, the content of the script was perfect for that festival so it made sense to buckle down and get it done. I put ass to chair for several weeks and followed through. I'm glad I did. Deadlines are essential.

Talk about winning the award.

A good film friend Matt Johnson had an extra ticket to see Henry Rollins in Berkeley and he invited me to join him. It was also an excuse to meet up and talk about the script since he had read the first draft and wanted to give me some feedback on it. We talked about it and I asked a lot of questions, what worked, what didn't. He had some great input and it all had my head spinning with ideas for the next draft. When I got home that night I checked email and found this telegram (visit thesleepingdeep.com to see) from the H.P. Lovecraft Festival. I had to read it nearly five times before it sank in. At first I thought it was a joke, but I emailed to make sure and the telegraph was legit. I was thrilled. The only part that sucked was that it was like 1:30 in the morning and no one was up to celebrate and my wife was traveling so it was a long restless night. I think I was most surprised that my first draft script at 154 pages made it all the way to the top. The festival didn't have a page limit, so that was one reason I was able to submit to them.

My wife and I had plans to attend the festival in Portland, Oregon even before winning the award, so it made the trip that much sweeter. The three day event was a lot of fun. I saw a lot of cool flicks and met some great people. I'd love nothing more than to return with the filmed version of "The Sleeping Deep" in tow down the road.

Has winning the award opened any doors for you? Basically, is there any difference between “pre-award winning Jeff” and “post-award winning Jeff”?

It's nice to have another feather in my cap, but not too much has changed. I'm pretty excitable so I was really stoked at first (who wouldn't be?) and then after a few weeks it turns into "Ok. What now?" I got a flurry of emails from folks in the biz wanting to give it a read which, at the least, could turn into decent connections. I think the award, if anything, helped to validate my efforts and it made me realize that all the time and research I invested in the process was worth it.

What’s happened with “The Sleeping Deep” now that it’s an award winning screenplay?

Since winning the award I've had to whittle the 154 pages down to a reasonable 119, which wasn't easy. But it was necessary if I wanted to submit to other festivals and contests. I incorporated a lot of feedback from folks who read the first draft and tried my best to keep all the parts that made it shine. It's so important to listen to what your readers have to say about the story: when they felt confused, when they were sucked in, what they thought was different or cliche, which characters they cared about or didn't. As much as we'd like to just write what we want, the goal is to entertain an audience, right? And if we don't heed some of the caution signs we're liable to go astray with the finished product. Why not make the changes when it's just on paper instead of in the middle of a million dollar production?

It's also opened my eyes to this idea of franchise filmmaking. Not to downplay content or story, but any producer will want to know what the return is going to be on their investment. With that in mind, I want to have the sequel script ready to go or close to it when the first part hits the screens. The ending opens up a whole can of worms (literally) and leaves me with a great jumping off point for Part 2. The first film is intimate and personal, the second film will cast a wider net bringing more characters into view. I suppose there could even be a third part although I haven't even thought about that yet. Of course this is only if I can find the right producer or production company to get behind it, but I don't think it's impossible. It's a very marketable screenplay and would be perfect for the Asian, horror, and comic book/graphic novel audience.

I'm excited about this part of the process because the die has yet to be cast. I learned my lesson with trying to find distribution for my feature "On the Fringe". When you're shopping around a film, it's a done deal. There's not much you can change about it so it's a take-it-or-leave-it situation. With a script, it's more flexible, more malleable. If a producer or production company has some ideas and they are within the realm of the story, changes can be made to make it a better film. Then there's the whole process of casting and production. When you're in the script stage, the sky's the limit. Nothing is set in stone so there's a lot of room to maneuver. If a producer sees potential with one story line versus another, this can be discussed in pre-pro, but when you're shopping a movie around, especially one with no name talent on a shoestring budget (which is where I was at with my first feature) you don't have that option. This isn't the case with a screenplay. The right development team could ratchet up a project by taking what's on the page and fleshing it out into pre-visualizations, concept art or storyboards.

Would you suggest that other up-and-coming screenwriters submit their scripts to festivals and contests like this?

Festivals and contests cost money and it seems the prices to submit are creeping up there. If you do choose to submit, make sure it's the right kind of contest and do some homework beforehand. There are tons of contests that boast all sorts of prizes and great honors and accolades, but in the end it's just an online banner award or something like that. There are some great contests that I'd love to win, but not every script fits into every submission criteria. You could have an amazing screenplay that people love, but if it's 5 pages too long don't bother sending it. So some of the rules are kinda lame. Still, it doesn't hurt to poke around Withoutabox.com and find a few that are appropriate for your story. You never know. I sure didn't. Sometimes you just gotta put it out there and see what happens. I submitted "The Sleeping Deep" to a few more contests just to see if it holds up. If it comes back with another award then I must have done something right. If not, well, that's okay. Nothing ventured nothing gained. As a friend once said, this business is all about being the turtle. Slow and steady.

Here’s a two part question on screenwriting.

What do you think makes a good script/story?

Far be it from me to decide what makes a good or bad screenplay. I'm certainly no expert. So much comes down to personal choice and a lot of what I've mentioned in my answers are only my opinions. But I believe that a good script/story should have an amazing beginning and an amazing ending. As a reader you need to be sucked into the world within the first 5-6 pages. There needs to be something that hooks you and won't let go. The same goes for the ending, whether it be a bang or a twist or both. That's the flavor you're leaving on the reader's mind. That last page or few pages have to really put the icing on the cake. Of course, the mid-section needs to be solid and meaty, but the opening and ending are the two slices holding the sandwich together. If you have those I think you're in a good place. Also, keep the characters interesting, the dialog true, and as I've mentioned before, don't dismiss feedback. This doesn't mean you need to incorporate what everyone says, but if 9 out of 10 readers find the ending confusing, maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board and do some tweaking.

What do you think makes a good horror script/story?

Show more restraint when it comes to the gore. Less is more and that can be said for good horror. Of course, I love over-the-top blood and guts, but it's hard to believe that an intelligent audience wants to watch 90 minutes of people getting torn to shreds without some story that brings it all together. Or maybe they do? That's not for me to decide. With "The Sleeping Deep" I wanted to infuse a supernatural thriller with moments of horror and the macabre with a nod to Lovecraft. Whether that is of interest to the average horror fan is up for debate.

Talk about the state of horror right now… Where do you think it’s at and where do you see it going?

First off I need to say that I'm definitely not a fan of torture porn. When people were raving about "Saw" I was yawning. I just didn't see the appeal. Then we started to see more and more of it in the theaters and on DVD. I just didn't find it to be inventive. Gory? Yes. Interesting? No, at least not to me. And I do feel that it's important for horror to be interesting, whether it's the characters or the story. There's got to be more than trapping people, tying them up and killing them. However, I have seen a few decent new horror movies in the past several years. "The Strangers" that recently came out on DVD was actually very suspenseful and the opening sequence had you really involved with the character's lives. This made you care about their struggle. Same goes for "The Descent". That was another great collection of characters thrown into a really shitty situation. Their struggle became very personal. "The Ruins" wasn't bad either. That had some moments where I was squirming in my seat.

I guess I'd like to see more Wes Craven and Clive Barker style films and less torture porn and cookie-cutter slasher flicks. But a well-made zombie film can be fun. "30 Days of Night" was pretty cool. In fact, for sheer graphic in-your-face violence and bloodletting, "Doomsday" was chock full of horror moments that were couched inside a sci-fi film and setting. Talk about gruesome, a mass of people roasted a man alive, ripped the burnt flesh off his bones and ate him. That's horrific, but there was a lot more to the story than just that. Straight up horror certainly has its place and fan base, but a great story sprinkled with some gory bits can go a long way, too.

Where can people find out more about “The Sleeping Deep” and follow what’s going on?

My main website is FlickerPictures.com and information about the script can be found at TheSleepingDeep.com. People are welcome to contact me with any questions or inquiries.

What’s next for you?

The big goal right now is to get "The Sleeping Deep" into the hands of a producer or production company who will get behind the story and shepherd it through the process of funding, casting, production, etc. Some folks have mentioned Lionsgate or Dimension Films, but that's a high hill to climb. Maybe I can tuck the script in a Trojan horse and send it through the gates? I've seen that Riptide, a division of Shoreline Entertainment, is producing a remake of H.P. Lovecraft's "From Beyond" so they might be a company worth approaching. But it's all about being realistic, staying the course and being open to possibilities. I'm in the early stages of outlining the sequel "Return of Mazimus" as well as novelizing the first part. While I enjoy scriptwriting, the art of writing short stories or longer works is still important to me. Great novels, books and short stories are always being adapted into films, so it's important to get the message out in some form for people to digest. I've been talking with a good friend and cinematographer John Tulin out of San Jose about shooting a few scenes for promotional purposes, but before that can happen I'd need to get my act in gear and scout some locations. Producing isn't one of my strong suits. Anyhow, these things take time. There's no need to rush into a bad deal or the wrong production dynamic. I am willing to keep working on the script in order to find the right combination. Timing is everything.

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