It seems I have been nominated for an AWGIE award for best unproduced screenplay for my Horror feature ASHES. For those unfamiliar, the AWGIEs are the annual awards doled out by the Australian Writers Guild and represent the highest awards in the land specifically for performance writing (theatre, film, TV and radio). So, it goes without saying that I’m pretty happy about this turn of events, and for a number of reasons. On one hand the AWGIEs are peer-judged, bestowed by an ‘academy’ comprised of previous AWGIE award winners. Since the AWGIEs have been running since 1967 thats a large body of experience. But, more than a boost to my ego and some kind of validation of my work, I’m particularly pleased with the nomination as the script is very much a personal project.
The vast majority of writing and script development work i have done over the past decade and a half has been on ‘other peoples projects’. It’s not a unique scenario and is the staple of many writers. Moreover, there’s a significant part of me that probably thinks I’m a better adviser, editor and dramaturge than a writer in my own right. In any case, the nomination for a project that was purely a spec script i tinkered away on in the wee small hours without monetary, bill-paying, motivation, brings a certain kind of satisfaction. If nothing else the nomination allows me to legitimately bring this script higher up my priority list than it had previously been; to put its further development ahead of other work. In this light, it would seem that the AWGIE nomination has served its intended purpose of compelling the best spec scripts doing the rounds out into the light and give their writers good motivation to development them further.
The story idea itself was, quite literally, born from a dream. I awoke one morning shaking and sweating from a brutal nightmare. When I told my wife about it she blinked at me with half-awake eyes and said “that’d make a good horror movie…” Had she not planted that seed i might well have just lived with the nightmare residue of the dream rather than set about perpetuating it in script form. Over the next week we developed the story together and then over a couple of months in the hours after midnight, i knocked out the screenplay.
One particularly dark night I sat writing a distinctly scary scene and as i sat hunched over the keyboard with a dim lamp beside me there was a sudden flicker and flash and the light globe blew, my computer monitor flickered and flashed out and the window shutter rattled. In truth it was just a minor power spike but the effect of me virtually shitting myself and squealing suddenly like a little girl mid typed sentence, was none the less profound. After i had calmed down and retreated to bed for the night i remembered what i always say to my students in my Horror cinema classes at the Australian Film Tv and Radio School - if it doesn’t scare You it wont scare anyone else…. Perhaps i was onto something with this little tale.
The script itself is the story of 3 generations of women confronting a black-magic curse. The formal Logline reads:
A self-centred woman must confront a demon unleashed by her mothers war time transgression in the highlands of New Guinea to save the soul of her daughter.
And the short synopsis which fleshes this out a bit further is:
Ashes is a horror feature film about parenthood and black magic.
In it, Samantha - a career-focused documentary filmmaker and single mother with a troubled childhood past - must discover the reason she is being haunted by the ghost of her estranged mother in order to protect her daughter or else loose her sanity and her life.
She confronts the truth of her Mother’s war-time experiences as a nurse in the New Guinea highlands and must struggle against the black magic her mother unleashed that has cursed her daughter to pay the price for the war time transgression.
And to make the pitch complete, the Tag-Line is…
‘Love is Sacrifice’
At a higher, conceptual, level the script (like my infamous Horror Cinema courses at AFTRS) is in many ways a response to the sad state of many Australian Horror films over the past few decades. There have been some successes - Wolf Creek drew a big crowd through deft direction, Snowtown was creepy and disturbing, The Tunnel was flawed but clever and Daybreakers was bloody awesome (albeit much more SciFi in concept and structure than Horror). But there have also been too many Australian Horror films in this period have been a triumph of banality and lowest-common-denominator splatter often left me scratching my head wondering “who the hell green-lit that..!??”.
As a lover (and, dare I say, aficionado) of Horror I am increasingly angered by the narrowing and dumbing-down of Horror to a niche sub-genre of torture-porn and monster-movies. Horror is a much broader church than these two extremes - a genre capable of significantly wider audience appeal than teenage boys. It is a sophisticated genre encompassing a complex array of audience experiences and desires, a genre that can engage profoundly with the depths of human psychology.
My concern with the too often appalling state of Australian Horror begins with an observation of the kinds of filmmakers who often make horror here; as I said in a recent interview on Screenhub - horror “is made too often by people who don’t really love the genre, who are more interested in subverting exploiting or hybridising it, and not enough in just honouring it…. There’s too many writers and directors who see horror films as a way to a credit, and they don’t really love the genre for what it is and what it can be.”
What this leads to is a fatal flaw in Horror concepts and the development phase of creating Horror films; the focus on a Scary Circumstance rather than a Scary Idea. I have written about this previously and to quote from myself…
“Circumstances are, by literal definition, the given events and parameters of a scenario; thus the Horrific Circumstances of a Horror film are those given events that are innately dangerous and scary. A monster from the deep attacking a city, a giant snake hunting human prey in the jungle, a ghost killing off the crew of a ship, a serial killer stalking a victim in the city. These are circumstances that have innately high stakes, a level of direct threat that induces Fear. Horrific Circumstances are where most horror film’s begin, originating with the ‘monster’ the force of evil at the heart of every horror narrative - be it ghost, demon, killer or creature.
The Horrific Idea of a Horror film however is something different altogether; a terror inducing concept that goes beyond the monster, a fearful notion that is delivered by the presence of the ‘monster’ but which transcends it and invokes something deeper - something more human. Take Jaws for example; the Horrific Circumstance is a huge man-eating shark terrorizing a seaside summer resort town. Certainly sharks hunting hapless swimmers is a scary proposition but the massive success of Jaws, both critically and commercially, is not owed to this two-dimensional scenario. The Horrific Idea at the heart of Jaws is not the Shark but the Greed, Ignorance and Arrogance of the town in placing the ‘summer dollars’ of tourism above the safety of people. This central Idea is the essence that elevates Jaws above just fear of sharks and into a greater metaphoric fear of greed, pride and arrogance.”
Coming up with a scary circumstance is easy and it’s vacuous. Without metaphor the story is hollow. In the end I, as an audience, know that I’m not going to be eaten by a giant shark, but I cant escape the horror of Greed and Corruption that puts me in danger. And it is this bigger fear, for which the monster is a metaphor and manifestation, that sits with me long after the film is over and from which i cannot escape.
As one critic rightly observed about a recent (2010) Australian Shark horror film; “When the only thing at stake is the size of the body count, suspense becomes the first casualty.” Without a scary Idea that is more frightening than the scary Circumstance, the stakes can only ever be momentary and banal - entirely connected to fantastical circumstances, rather than deeply effecting us in our real lives, long after we’ve left the cinema.
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is another perfect example of conceptual horror elevating the circumstantial horror to a more universal and more deeply effecting level. The circumstances of The Exorcist are scary enough - the demonic possession of an innocent girl - but there is a much more complex array of Horrific Ideas beating through the veins of the film. More than half the film sees a mother exploring every medical, scientific and rational explanation for her daughter’s “illness” until ultimately she is faced with acknowledging a power beyond her comprehension and beyond her control. The Horrific Idea at the heart of The Exorcist revolves around our modern faith in science, logic and rationality being stripped away leaving us unarmed in facing and dealing with that which we cannot understand and rationalise.
Horror stories by nature deal with extraordinary circumstances, but the more extraordinary they are the more they need to be grounded in a Ideas rather than Circumstances; frightening ideas that are Universal and Truthful outside of the circumstances. Horror scenarios that aren’t grounded in metaphor are dismissible, disposable, momentary fleeting shocks without substance. And moreover, such films most often either fail at the box office or disappear very quickly from memory. The horror films that succeed and last and resonate with us over time are those, which as Stephen King saids, “trouble the night thoughts of a whole society”.
Too many recent Australian horror films have failed to recognise they are NOT ABOUT sharks, giant crocodiles, serial killers or natural disasters (one forthcoming Australian film has 3 out of these 4 in the one movie making its circumstances clearly beyond ludicrous) - ‘monsters’ are just metaphoric vehicles for exploring something much scarier, much more tangible, much more present in our real world.
So, returning to my own project, ASHES… the Scary Circumstance is a black magic curse cast down from mother to daughter based on a dark contract, decades ago, with a witch doctor. But, the Scary Idea is of human propensity to visit the sins of the mother upon the child and that humans are all too willing to trade off the future for the present. In the end I know my audience are not ‘really’ afraid of witch-doctors and curses. But they are very much afraid of the lengths they might go to save themselves, sacrifice others or repeat the sins of their parents upon their own children. These are the fears that keep me awake and night and for which a black magic curse is a great metaphoric vehicle of exploration.
Ok, enough said. Soap box now tucked neatly away…
Pleased I am with the AWGIE nomination but I know where the flaws are in my script. The idea is strong, the first act is good and the ending is solid and dramatically inevitable. It’s the middle structures that are wonky. But thats a good place to be for the next steps which the AWGIE nomination may compel me to engage. So I look forward to some more time after midnight, hunched over a keyboard scaring the shit out of myself…