Screenwriters Judy Snowden and Stiles White
Screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White

This week, screenwriter Alvaro Rodriguez (Machete) talks with scribes Stiles White and Juliet Snowden (Knowing, The Possession) about crafting great scares. All three writers are appearing at the Austin Film Festival and were on the panel “Words That Go Bump in the Night: Writing Horror” along with Rhett Rheese (Zombieland).

To start off our conversation, let’s talk about beginnings. How did you get skin in the game? What got you started professionally as writers?

Stiles: I was working in special effects for Stan Winston Studio. It was a great environment. Creatures and monsters coming to life before my eyes every day. Like a lot of people out in Los Angeles, my ultimate goal was to be a full-time writer. As much as I enjoyed working on really cool films, I wanted to be creating the stories. Juliet and I had been writing scripts for a few years — together and separately — but nothing was taking off yet.

Juliet: After we got married, we felt it was time to really try and make the writing thing happen. We knew we had to write that definitive calling-card script that could get our foot in the door. We’d just been through all the planning and rituals and anxiety of a wedding, and we thought, “What if we wrote a horror movie about a wedding?”  It was a real simple jumping off point. At the time, the new wave of teen horror was in vogue with movies like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend, and we thought we’d veer off in another direction. So we took the Rosemary’s Baby route and went more psychological, but it was all based around the event of this upcoming wedding and the young woman at the center of the story suddenly not sure if she really knew the person she was about to marry.

Stiles: In Save the Cat! lingo, it was very much a “Monster In The House/Supra-natural Monster” type story.

Juliet: The script started to get passed around and we met our managers through that process. We did a bunch of meetings and there was various interest in the script, but it never sold. So… we sat down and wrote another script. It’s a supernatural thriller called The Waiting — and Wes Craven ended up optioning it. And that was the true beginning. We got the stamp of approval from one of the real masters of horror. Sometimes it’s a two script process. The one that broke us in could have never happened without the first.

Together you’re that rare professional beast — writing partners who are married to each other. What makes this partnership work? Do you still work on projects separately?

Stiles: Not really. We pretty much do everything together — brainstorming, breaking story, drafts of scenes. The magic formula is in our partnership. We’d both been writing things separately for years, but when we became writing partners something new happened in our work that wasn’t there before.

Juliet: I’m not going to lie. Being married to your writing partner has its own challenges. Stiles and I are together all the time, we work out of the house, and we’re parents. The early years were particularly hard because we were figuring out how to work with each other. We’d be out for a nice meal, and Stiles would start telling me about a problem he had with a scene I’d written earlier. And I’m like, “Um… honey.  Really? We’re going to do this now?” So yes, there was a learning curve with each other. We’re synced up now. We respond to a lot of things the same way, and yet we bring different perspectives to the same story. And Stiles knows now that if he brings up a story problem at dinner, he’s going to get a fork in the eye.

You mentioned in a conversation we once had that you’d read and connected with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! some years ago, and that you had carried on an email correspondence with Blake. What did you get out of the book and how did it inform your writing?

Juliet: I think the great thing about the Save the Cat! books is that it helps you take a different look at what’s really going on under the hood of movie structure. We find ourselves talking about the “Fun and Games” section a lot, especially in horror. That’s a great part of any horror script to get as freaky and out there as you want.

Stiles: It feels like the “Fun and Games” section is where the characters are most defenseless against the horror. They don’t understand all the rules yet. So you can have stuff happening to them left and right. It should be relentless. The audience is good and ready for it at that point.

Juliet: Blake’s 15 beats are also really helpful when you’re preparing a pitch. It’s a good way to organize all the ideas you have into a cohesive pitch flow that keeps you on track.

Stiles: Yeah. You know you’re going to hit all the marks that executives and producers want to hear. But beyond all of that, Blake was just this really accessible guy. On a few occasions, Juliet and I would be talking about a movie and debating the particular STC! classification. I’d drop Blake an email and there was an answer from him the next day. He was always breaking down the latest releases and sharing his thoughts on how they fit into the STC! categories. And he was really game to discuss and figure things out with his readers. I miss that he’s not around anymore, but he lives on in the books.

Save the Cat! is somewhat unique in that it reclassifies genre (horror, comedy, drama, thriller, romance) into descriptive categories that sometimes overlap. What’s the secret of a great Monster in the House screenplay?

Stiles: It’s really the main ingredients: the monster, the house, and who the horror is happening to. Those are great building blocks to start with. Take Ridley Scott’s Alien. The “house” is the spaceship. There’s only one monster, but it morphs through all these different forms throughout the story — egg, then facehugger, then chestburster, and then the final hero monster. They found a way to create various versions of a monster out of what is ultimately a single entity. And finally you’ve got this crew — outer space truck drivers. Even though it was a futuristic story, you felt like you could relate to that crew. They were just doing a job and got caught up in this horrifying experience. It all springs out of those three primary building blocks. It’s up to the writer to find new ways to expand those concepts and figure out a fresh way into what can otherwise be familiar territory.

One of Blake’s hammer-home mantras about plot was making it primal and delivering on the promise of the premise. Is there something about scary stories that makes them inherently primal on an elemental level?

Juliet: That was something we believed in as well before we read Blake’s books, and it was great to have it validated. Deliver on that “promise of the premise.” If the poster or trailer or title tells you that you’re going to get a certain kind of unique scary experience, then you want to deliver that over and over again in a series of escalating events.

Stiles: The more primal, the better. We’re always looking for ways that the audience can see a version of themselves in the story. We tend to gravitate toward stories that involve families or some kind of close relationship, and then something supernatural starts to happen around them. It’s more interesting to see characters get tested by their fears when it involves other people that they love and care about. And nothing’s better than seeing a horror movie with a good crowd of people in a theater. That gets to the primal thing you’re talking about. There’s a totally different energy happening. A clip showed up online recently of the audience reaction at an early screening of Halloween. You can hear people freaking out! It’s so great. And then you feel that collective relief when it’s over. Everyone looks around at each other like — man, we survived that. I feel like anyone writing horror is sort of chasing after that kind of moment. It’s the ultimate achievement in this genre.

(HALLOWEEN audience reaction: 1979 audio)

You’ve got a new horror film coming in early 2012 called The Possession, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick, about a haunted antique and the havoc it wreaks on a young family. Was there a particularly difficult hurdle to overcome when you tried to break the story?

Stiles: That story certainly had its challenges. It’s inspired by some true events, so we wanted to weave all of those real elements into a proper structure. And without giving too much away, it was also important to convey the idea that the horror of the story was all centered around this cursed antique. It’s an object, but you start having the characters talk about it and trying to understand it so that at some point it starts to become a true character in the movie.

Juliet: In a “Monster In the House” movie, sometimes the “house” is so unique (like the hotel in The Shining) it has its own personality and becomes an iconic part of the atmosphere and the scares. For The Posssssion, we wanted to achieve that same effect with this unusual antique. In a lot of ways, the antique becomes the “house.”

Is there an essential element common to all great horror films and, if there is, is it a hard element to “get right?”

Juliet: For me it’s all about character — do I care about the people this story is happening to? Some of my favorite horror movies are Rosemary’s Baby, The Changeling, The Sixth Sense, The Omen, The Ring, and The Others. When I recall these films, I immediately think of these characters’ personal story arcs rather than the particular moments of horror that happen to them. You’ve got to be invested in the characters or you don’t care about what jumps out at them from the dark.

Stiles: Making it feel real. Creating a world where you think the particular horror could really happen. If you can get everyone freaked out about a mysterious videotape and that you’ll die seven days after watching it, then you’ve pulled it off. It’s like, everything seems so real and relatable. It’s the world that you see every day when you walk outside. And then there’s the discovery of this one thing that’s really horrific that threatens to totally unravel or destroy this normal world. That’s the element that’s hard to get right.