Interview with Screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick
By: CJ on April 15, 2008  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
With the Day of the Dead remake/re-imagining doing the rounds, we here at Digital Retribution felt it was time to chat with the screenwriter, Jeffrey Reddick, to find out more. Our intrepid reporter, CJ, set off out into the wilds to seek him out and bring back this interview. It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it. Now, read on and enjoy...

Digital Retribution: So how did you get started in the movie business? And how did you come to be involved with 'The House That Freddy Built'? Do you have some connection with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies?

Jeffrey Reddick: It's an interesting and unconventional story. My start in the film industry is intrinsically tied to 'The House That Freddy Built' and "A Nightmare on Elm Street." I grew up in a small town in Eastern Kentucky and was lucky to fall in with some friends who were huge horror fans. When I was 14 I saw the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street." It's an amazingly original, terrifying movie that literally changed my life. After seeing the film, I went home and banged out a treatment for a prequel. I sent the treatment to Robert Shaye (the head of New Line Cinema.) At first, he returned it because it was unsolicited. But sending a surly letter, that only a ballsy kid could write, he agreed to read the treatment. It was a pass, but Bob was very encouraging. I ended up becoming pen pals with his assistant, Joy Mann and we stayed in touch over the years. When I was a sophomore in college, I went to New York for a summer program and got an internship at New Line. I ended up working there for over a decade and they produced my first film, "Final Destination." It was a long road, that didn't involve the typical film school route. But I learned about the industry from the inside out, which is something they really can't teach you in school.

DR: Now that you're established within the industry, so to speak, have you ever felt tempted to go back to your roots and script a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie, knowing that producers etc might be more receptive now?

JR: The original film is a masterpiece and it's such an important part of my career. Since I worked at New Line for a long time, I did pitch a few sequel ideas. My favourite was called The Dream Wars. It was a continuation of Wes Craven's Dream Warriors storyline. I also pitched a story for Freddy vs Jason that I loved, but the executives said it was too dark. Now that they're remaking the original film, those dreams are dust.

DR: I noticed you attended university in Kentucky – was there much appreciation of genre movies (especially of the 'grind house' variety) there? And how (and if) did attending this university shape your future career?

JR: I had the great fortune of going to Berea College in Kentucky. It was a liberal arts college that was geared towards giving students who came from lower income families a solid education. My first love was acting, so I really thrived in the theater department. There wasn't a great emphasis on film at the time. But the college encouraged us and I even tried to shoot a horror film when I was there. But studying theater really helped me segue into the film industry. I learned to appreciate the collaborative process. A great film, like a great play, starts with the written word. But the finished product is the result of the blood, sweat and tears of many people. Realizing this has really kept grounded, in an industry where out of control egos are rampant. And it's kept me from getting too bent out of shape, when directors, actors, producers or studios change my script.

DR: What attracted you to the horror genre, as it's generally considered a 'lesser' genre than others by most movie critics?

JR: I've loved horror films since I was a kid. When I was younger it was all about the blood and guts. There was something exciting about being able to sit through movies that other people were too terrified to watch. As I got older, I realized that watching these movies was cathartic. You get to experience fear, and release it, in a safe environment. I have to say I get annoyed with people who look down on the horror genre. It's just silly and petty in my opinion. I used to roll my eyes when I would read interviews where people would insist their movie wasn't "really" a horror movie, but a "psychological thriller." Whatever…

DR: You were involved with the Final Destination movies. How did this come about and how much involvement did you have?

JR: I was involved in the first two films. When I started working at New Line Cinema, I set out to land an agent. I was told to write a spec script for something that was on TV. "The X-files" was my favourite show and I came up with an episode where Scully's brother had the titular premonition. Mark Kaufman, a friend and colleague, convinced me that the concept would be great for a feature, so I wrote a treatment. I ended up with producers, Craig Perry and Warren Zide, who helped me develop the treatment. New Line bought the treatment and hired me to write the first draft. For the sequel, they met with a lot of writers, but ended up buying my treatment. Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber were brought on to write the actual script. I love Part 2, because unlike a lot of sequels, it expanded on the first film and didn't just rehash the same story. I think the writers and David Ellis, the director, did a great job. Eric and David Ellis have returned for the fourth installation. I've heard the story and, trust me, it's gonna blow people away.

DR: On the DR forums I've often argued that Final Destination is a clever slasher movie, in that it substitutes a masked killer with the persona of death itself. Was this the intent or am I way off base?

JR: When I first came up with the concept, it was for an "X-files" episode and focused on adult characters. After working with the producers and studio, we settled on a cast of young characters. In my original draft, since Death messed up the first time, it tormented the survivors in these really horrific ways until they killed themselves. When James Wong and Glen Morgan came onboard, they revamped Death's MO – and came up with the Rube Goldberg angle. So I think the finished film definitely fits into the slasher mold…sans a slasher.

DR: Are there any career choices you wish you had/hadn't made?

JR: I know this might sound a little New Age, but I try to live my life without regret. There are things that happened in the past, that in hindsight, I wish had turned out differently. Some situations regarding specifics projects, and others involving people I thought were friends who turned out to be anything but. However, it's all part of life. The movie "biz" is a tough business, so you learn and keep on going.

DR: On to Day of the Dead. How did you come to be involved with this project?

JR: The producers wanted to meet with me based on my draft of "Final Destination." I went in and was surprised to find Steve Miner there. We had a great meeting and they liked my ideas. But they originally wanted to hire someone to bang out the script in two weeks. I passed at that point. But Steve Miner fought for me, and fought for the time we needed, to write a solid script.

DR: Steve Miner is something of a cult icon within genre circles – what was he like to work with?

JR: Steve Miner's involvement was one of the main reasons I signed on. He's directed a lot of my favourite movies in the genre, so it was a dream come true. He was extremely accessible and he worked really close with me on the script. We were in touch almost daily. He had some definite ideas about the film he wanted, but he was open to hearing my ideas too.

DR: In scripting Day of the Dead, you must have had in the back of your mind the Romero classic, did this influence you in any way? Or were you able to go beyond that and free yourself of constraints that it might otherwise have put on you?

JR: Well, from a purely legal standpoint, we had our hands tied. Because of the rights situation, we could use the story and characters from "Day of the Dead," but we couldn't reference any of the other movies. So our story couldn't be a continuation of the events in "Night" or "Dawn." It had to be a standalone story…and because of the legal issues, it had to be an origin story. But even within these confines, I thought we could tell a story that was faithful to the themes and characters of Romero's classic. My original story was a lot closer to the original. The characters were updated, but similar and about 40 percent of the story took place in an underground bunker. But as we went through the development process, they had me strip away almost all of the things that referenced the original film. They decided they wanted to make a completely different film.

DR: What would you say was your biggest challenge in scripting Day of the Dead?

JR: The biggest challenge was trying to work in the elements from the original film that I, and the fans, wanted to see. I was brought onto the project last and it was a work for hire. At the end of the day, I had to deliver what was asked. So we lost a lot of the stuff that I felt would pay homage to the original film and really satisfy old and new fans alike.

DR: Did you have reservations about approaching a movie that would have high demands put on it by fans of Romero's work?

JR: I did. But the studio was definitely making the film…they'd already hired Steve Miner and locked a start date. So the chance to work with Steve, and to write a film that was definitely going to be produced, outweighed any reservations.

DR: Does the finished work encapsulate what you had envisaged in the script?

JR: It definitely captured the ferocious intensity of the script. There are some story elements that were lost, that come across as plot holes when you watch the film. And some of the unscripted additions; the "gangsta" jokes and the spider zombie stuff don't really work for me. But all in all, I think the film is a fast-paced, gory thrill ride that people not expecting a remake will enjoy.

DR: If you've seen the finished film and seeing how your work translates to the screen, is there anything you would alter, on paper, in hindsight?

JR: Not really. I'm really proud of the script and I think, given the restrictions, we did a good job at creating an enjoyable zombie flick. Unlike the theater, where the written word is sacrosanct, in the film world, scripts are merely seen as a blueprint. The studio, the director, the actors, the editor and the crew all put their mark on the film. So the changes that happen from the page to the screen is really out of the writer's control.

DR: Once you've completed and submitted a script, how much more involvement does a screenwriter have? Do you have to be 'on set' at all, or is it a case of sitting back and waiting to see the finished product? That is to say, are you consulted about script changes etc?

JR: Usually, when a writer turns in their script, they're cut out of the equation. Other writers are brought on without the original writer having any say. The director, actors and studio people also have input. At the end of the day, you cross your fingers and hope for the best. Sometimes you find directors who have the writers on set during filming to work on the script, but it's rare. I've been fortunate enough to visit the set for all of my films…often to do a cameo. At New Line, Bob Shaye, the head of the studio, was amazingly respectful. He sent me every draft of Final Destinations and asked for my input. On Tamara the director was really cool. I had to make a lot of changes because of budget limitations and nervous executives, but they didn't bring anyone else on to do them. With Day of The Dead, I worked closely with Steve Miner from the beginning.

DR: Is there a horror franchise or a particular director you'd like to write for?

JR: With the original Nightmare franchise finished, there's no horror series I'm anxious to tackle. There are a lot of amazing new directors out there, but my dream would be to work with some of the greats. I got to work with Steve Miner. Wes Craven, George Romero, Bernard Rose, Dario Argento, Neil Jordan, Guillermo del Toro, Brian DePalma, John Carpenter and Sam Raimi are all directors I admire and would love to work with some day.

DR: A cheeky question now – but do you ever suffer from writer's block and how do you overcome it?

JR: That's not a very cheeky question…come on…you can do better than that in the cheeky department (smiles). For me, I find that writer's block is really insecurity rearing its ugly head. I think most artists question themselves. It's really the only way to push yourself and grow. So when I'm feeling "blocked" it's usually because I'm tackling something outside of my comfort zone. Usually, I'll bitch and moan for a bit, but I've found the best way to get through it is to sit in front of my computer and force myself to write. It may be hard at first, but soon, I get back in "the zone."

DR: Have you any advice for budding screenwriters out there, such as how to get an agent etc?

JR: I can only speak from my experience. I never went to school for screenwriting. I learned how to write scripts by reading tons of them. Over the years, I honed my skills…often by trial and error. When I first started writing, I was overly wordy. Now I try to describe things with less, but powerful, words. I'm also an avid film watcher, so on some level you pick up on the basics, like the 3 Act Structure, from seeing them over and over in films.

I didn't have to do the standard search for an agent, since I worked at the studio that produced my first film. So I don't know any short cuts to getting an agent. But there are many things I've learned about screenwriting itself. One thing I tell aspiring writers is to write…every day. It sounds obvious, but I know writers who start working on an idea and never finish it, because they come up with another idea. Then they start on a new script and don't finish it because they come up with another idea. It's a self-defeating pattern of procrastination that we all fall in to at times. I think it comes from a place of fear and doubt.

I have a lot of colleagues who aren't good at collaboration…or hearing constructive criticism. But that's the only way to grow as an artist. I know writers who refuse to change a word of their script, because they're convinced everything they've written is genius. It's smart to be confident, but people who are truly confident know that their script can always be better. I suggest finding a core group of people whose opinions you value and have them read your work. Everyone will have differing opinions. Over time you'll learn to sift through notes and figure out what works. Any note that improves your script is a good note. But not all notes are good.

It's important to fight for what you believe, when it comes to changes in your scripts. But the sad truth is that in Hollywood, once you sell your script, it's out of your hands. I know some writers who got so bitter and angry after dealing with the studio development process that they left the business. Don't let that happen to you. You have to steel yourself for the "business" side of things. Most creative people get in to this field because they have stories they want to tell. So it's a constant battle to find a middle ground between art and commerce. Decisions will be made that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Scenes, characters and subplots that you poured your heart and soul in to, may get cut, or changed, at the whim of someone else. It's a brutal business. There are many good people in "the biz." but there are a lot of sharks who will run over a grandmother and spit on a baby to get a movie made.

Along with talent and persistence, I think patience is the most important virtue to have. When I was in college, I read that it takes 10 years of working and struggling to make it in the movie business. I scoffed at the idea, because you always hear about these overnight successes. But it was almost 10 years from the time that I graduated high school, to when I sold Final Destination.

And my final piece of advice is that ever writer should try to get their script financed independently. There are many small companies, and producers, looking for good material. The independent route is the best chance you'll have to see your script truly realized on film. And with all of the advances in digital, it's really affordable for people to go out and shoot their stuff. Hook up with a director and make it happen. There are a lot of distributors out there, who will release digital films on DVD. It's a great calling card and if it's successful, you can make more films with bigger budgets.

DR: And finally, do you have any projects lined up at present and are you able to tell us about them?

JR: I've got two projects in the works that I'm really excited about. First and foremost, they're both original projects. One is a supernatural horror film that's set up at Gold Circle. It involves a real life phenomenon, that we exploit in a terrifying way. It's a cast of adult characters and tonally, it's akin to The Grudge. The second project is my directorial debut. We're locking up financing as we speak and plan to shoot this summer. I can't spill the beans on the concept just yet, but it's about a villain who has a really unique way of bringing people's fears to life. It's set in a small town and the story plays out between three groups of characters: a trio of teenagers, a middle-aged single mother and an elderly couple. We'll be making some announcements next month as casting gets underway. But the project is near and dear to me. It's got the classic small town feel, and eclectic group of characters, found in the best Stephen King stories. And there's a reality-bending twist that's influenced by my love of Nightmare On Elm Street.

Big thanks go to Calum Waddell (Minds of Fear, Shivers and an upcoming book called Taboo Breakers – look out for it!) for making this interview possible.

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