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Examining screenwriting in genre

Taxi DriverI’ve always been more influenced by good screenwriters than by well-respected novelists. Ever since I was young (yes, that long ago) I always found my own style of work more influenced by screen writers like Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Blue Collar) Robert Towne (Chinatown) and Walter Hill (The Getaway and Alien) than by the writers people usually expect horror novelists to owe a debt to. That was probably because my background in writing was always a cinematic one rather than a literary one. I read loads of books when I was in my teens and twenties but my first love was always films and that’s where I feel I learned the techniques for creating characters, tension and stuff like that. Also, to my mind it’s more skilful trying to describe someone’s character through their dialogue rather than taking ten pages in a novel to do it. It’s also not as boring. I always structured my own books like films. The short chapters were meant to be like cuts in a film because that was how I learnt. Right, enough of the pretentiousness, I’ll carry on.

I’ve written scripts over the years for television, radio and film, none of which I’ve ever pursued too enthusiastically, mainly because the novels have always taken precedence and I prefer writing novels.  And there’s the problem of too many people sticking their noses into what you’ve written when you’ve done a script. I wrote a short called ‘The Eye of the Beholder’, about a girl who enters a beauty contest only to discover that she’s to be judged not on her outward appearance but on the quality of her internal organs and the director was forever wanting to change lines here and there (his prerogative I know but we’re not talking big budget Oscar material here…) and mostly to absolutely no effect as far as I could see. There are so many changes to be made to scripts when you’re writing them. They have to be tailored to the stars or to the director or to the producer’s cat. The writer’s vision is rarely the one seen (or heard) on screen unless you’re also directing or producing yourself! But that’s the way of the world and I accept that. With a novel you have no one else sticking their nose in telling you what to do and how to write. You’re on your own and that is why I prefer that medium. In a novel you write what you want and you write it for yourself.

William GoldmanDon’t get me wrong, screenwriters like William Goldman are still heroes of mine and in recent years David Koepp has emerged as a bloody good scriptwriter. As for the rest of the crop, there isn’t anyone who springs immediately to mind as far as I’m concerned and looking at the way the horror film business has gone over the last ten years – and the way it seems to be heading – I can’t see me finding any more figures to fawn over in the near future.

What is really weird is that cinematic trends are usually mirrored by literary trends, in as much as genres that are popular at the pictures will inevitably spill over into the book business, but this isn’t happening with horror these days and I can’t understand why. You can’t go to your local multiplex without seeing that a new horror film has opened virtually every week and yet the publishing business continues to ignore horror books. I know the Twilight series have been popular but are they horror books? Give me a fucking break!

The Texas Chainsaw MassacreIn cinema horror is plentiful and so are psychological thrillers, ghost stories and Christ knows what. The problem is that so much of what’s on offer is derivative, predictable and safe. Re-makes of classic horror films have been reasonable though. I thought the remake of Dawn of the Dead was better than the original and so were the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (the less said about the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street the better…), but the fact that no one seems to be coming up with new ideas and that the Final Destination, Paranormal Activity and Saw franchises have swamped the film business is proof of how studios are willing to milk an idea to the point of insanity. It’s also proof of how reluctant they are to try anything original or that can’t spawn half a dozen sequels!

Film companies hit on a formula and they stick to it. I can understand that from the money side of things but as someone who spends a lot of their time at the pictures it drives me nuts. Every now and then a gem like Buried will crop up but how many pictures like that do we get every decade? Let the Right One In and The Orphanage were also excellent but both were made outside the Hollywood system, as was Buried. Of course, any foreign horror films like the two I just mentioned have to be remade a year or so later because the target audience (15-24) can’t be expected to read subtitles for two hours, God forbid it would distract them from eating their sacks of popcorn, nachos or whatever else they stuff their faces with during the film.

The Blair Witch ProjectThe Blair Witch Project (also independent) was another notable horror film, I thought it was brilliant and without it there wouldn’t have been pictures like Cloverfield or Apollo 18 or any of the Paranormal Activity films (that isn’t a recommendation by the way, just an observation), but these ‘made with a handheld video camera as if real’ pictures have also had their day.

The truly great horror films from the past like The Exorcist, Alien and Halloween all spawned imitations we’re still seeing today, but all of the imitators seem to forget that what made those three pictures so brilliant in the first place were their scripts. Yes they all had great directors too and superb performances from the actors but if there’s no script there’s no film to begin with! And there’s the problem with cinema now compared to thirty years ago. Back then scripts were written and they were put into production on their own merits – because the stories were good, because they had strong characters and ideas, but now films are pitched first as ideas and then someone is hired to write a script along the lines that a studio wants. A script should be a blueprint, these days it’s more like toilet paper.

SHAUN HUTSON

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