Tom Jolliffe on the ups and downs and ins and outs of being an indie screenwriter specialising in genre cinema…
As a screenwriter plying my trade in the low budget world of independent genre films, quantifying success can be difficult. I’ve had a number of horror films released across the world in the last few years. They have such titles as Scarecrow’s Revenge, or Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. My most recent release is Jack and Jill. Whilst ordinarily the releases tend to hit shelves in physical form, and through PPV streaming avenues (as well as Prime), this latest release has premiered through the V Horror Movies channel on YouTube. A week in (as I write) and it’s hit a million and a half views. It’s impressive to me. Sure, makeup tutorials, cats doing shit, people falling over, people eating pizzas, all hit the million mark in viewing figures, but still, this was a film I wrote. It was one in a line of horror commissions that have come my way in recent times. It all begins when the producer comes to me and asks… “Do you think you could/want to write a horror film based on the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme?” As a lover of B movie horrors with daft concepts, I couldn’t say no.
That opening gambit has extended to such nuggets of gold as, “do you want to write a fire twister film?” “…a sky kraken film?” “…a Van Helsing movie?” Almost inevitably I do. The fact that these wonderfully eclectic pitches are fired my way is great, and provide a creative challenge, particularly when the budgets of these might amount to what a footballer may spend on a watch. I’ve made peace with the fact that these particular creature features etc., aren’t going to win me an Oscar, nor are they going to buy the sea-front second property I wouldn’t mind having. They might just make a hefty car repair bill a little less painful (actually…nothing makes that less painful). Again though, what does a million (and a half and counting) views mean? For my pocket, nothing, but I guess it proves there’s a willing audience.
A note on the market right now: If you aspire to get into the industry as a writer, and have maybe toiled a while, or are looking to start on a lower rung and work your way upward, then horror can be a good place to begin. For one, they can be cheap to make (sometimes surprisingly cheap to make to a standard that is ‘release worthy’). This further means, that if you’ve found no willing takers for a script or haven’t found an in, then you may well have the option to produce something yourself (as long as you can connect with talented aspiring filmmakers). Networking is very important in creating connections that may open doors, or give you an opportunity to collaborate in that search for the level up. Right now creature horror seems to be popular. There’s always a gimmick. The distributors seem to enjoy anything related to supernatural ghouls, puppets, dolls, myths and legends, anything with a ‘vs’ and anything which might follow in the slipstream of something high profile (think Asylum). All being said, do so if you have an affinity for the genre and are at peace with the fact you’re more likely to make the next Troll 2 than Evil Dead 2.
If you’re UK based and bemused by a seeming inaction through the industry to create low budget genre films, then you might be surprised to know that it’s currently seeing something of a rise. An array of companies like Dark Temple Motion Pictures, Greenway Films, North Bank Entertainment, Jagged Edge Productions, Proportion Productions, Champdog Films and more are prolifically creating (predominantly) horror content. Several of which I have worked with. The key selling territory also happens to be the US and I’ve found myself often working vicariously through US based distributors, catering to what they might want. Those gem pitches which come to me have already been cleared by the people who will ultimately sell the picture to the audiences out there. The last half decade has seen a rise not unlike the Corman/Wood American B picture era, Grindhouse or in a smaller way, Hammer horror. A lot of self-starting young and passionate filmmakers are utilising the more attainable tools, and creating content that might occasionally be rough around the edges but still find their way on the supermarket DVD shelf or in your streaming algorithms. In addition, they’re opening up opportunities for aspiring cast and crew specialists who want that first break and certainly, creating a familial working environment. It’s very common through almost all these horror companies to have recurring cast/crew who enjoy the creative and fun atmosphere as much as anything else.
Sometimes the realities of the budgets are clear. From my perspective as a writer even as realistic as I can lay something out (for the budget), I can still feel like some things haven’t quite come out as expected. It might be a location, an avoidable oversight (such is the swiftness of productions, these are unavoidable avoidable oversights), a prop or consequences of losing crew at the last minute (which in horror can be telling, particularly if it happens to be someone in the makeup effects department). I recall one particularly underwhelming prop and location in a single scene of Witches of Amityville Academy. “Fetch the chalice,” booms the villainous Witch about to sacrifice someone and capture the blood in the ornamental chalice. Only in the final film it wasn’t so much ornamental, or even a chalice, but more like a pretty standard cereal bowl. All that was missing was the milk and cornflakes. This all took place in “the great hall…” which looked more like a quaintly small suburban dining room (rather than a grand academy hall). Such is indie horror screenwriting life. Although these moments, I feel add a certain charm to projects that shouldn’t be taken too seriously from a viewers perspective. Above all, one must also learn not to obsess with reviews. In horror you’ll get plenty of bad ones, but by the same token a good review doesn’t suddenly make you John Carpenter.
The writing process itself has evolved for me. I went from train of thought and exploding into drafts, to preparing my blueprint more rigidly in the form of a treatment (in part as they’re often requested first). With a treatment in hand it’s easier to avoid writing yourself into a cul-de-sac. Additionally, it’s easier to chop and change a few pages of treatment (the idea of lengthy 40-50 page treatments are an auteurs indulgence, a biblical excess, don’t waste your energy) than to scrap some or all of your draft pages. Ultimately, if you’ve got the green-light from a treatment, which has all the coherent beats a genre film needs, and its audience expects, then filling in the gaps is easy. At which point you may find it easier to stray creatively from your map, and easily get back to the route without giving yourself too many problems. In my experience getting a treatment that everyone agrees on, will mean less rewrites once you’re into the script. The liklihood is that you will need a treatment anyway (as it may very well be requested before the script), and in the past I’ve had to retrospectively do it for a finished draft before pitching. I’ve found that way around more difficult than having it there prior to drafting.
A consistent outpouring of micro-budget horror isn’t the extent of my aspirations. Prior to getting those breaks, I’d laboured with attempts at pitching scripts and getting close to seeing a few features (action/comedy/thriller) going into production only to fall at the final hurdle. I’d even been struggling in getting short scripts out there and inevitably my first credits would be films I co-produced in order to get myself rolling. This did two things. For one, it meant that the fate of the film going to camera rested largely in my own hands. More importantly though, it also gave me the feeling of creative control. Producing was needs must, but in time it’s turned into an on-going future goal, to create more of my own projects. It’s also inevitably lead, through short films and more, to a degree of multi-tasking. I’ve had to act in shorts (I won’t win an Oscar for acting any time soon), I’ve scouted locations, been a sound recordist (never again), done makeup effects and blood (never again, ask my brother’s irremovably stained wall), scored several shorts, won an award for production design, despite not particularly considering it as a job on that particular film, and more. Of the tasks I’ve taken on outside of writing, I’ve particularly enjoyed casting. To have a say on who plays the role you wrote offers with it a kind of creative power. Additionally, many of the aspiring or more established artists I’ve cast over the years have been fantastic (many of whom I’d actively look to and love to work with again).
There comes a moment though, when writing for hire offers so much, but leaves a desire within to tickle that control freak within. Those aspirations to do something more ‘me’ which might be a dangerous antithesis to what is dominating the market (and what has become my bread and butter). I may write about demonic tooth fairies for fun but my artistic side, my cult cinema nerd within wants to make the next Mandy, or The Lighthouse. I want to create my odes to films like Stalker, The Shining, Possession, to atmospherically creepy J-Horror like Cure, Pulse or Ringu. Next year will mark a drifting away from spec horror at least, as I look to push on with more personal projects. I got a great deal of satisfaction working on When Darkness Falls, a 70’s inspired throwback thriller, which I helped cast (the leading ladies Michaela Longden and Emma O’Hara are superb). The script was more in line with my creative tastes and helping to find the cast that felt ‘right’ was also something important to me. It’s one I look forward to showing off. Produced by my friend Nathan Shepka, it’s the first of undoubtedly many future collaborations, including a long gestating cerebral horror The Clan which may well be the Mandy-styled The Hills Have Eyes in Scotland ode I’m longing to make. Additionally I have two art-house infused horror films which will brushstroke plenty of eclectic elements and which I can craft as I see fit (and hopefully still find a willing audience), as well as long gestating drama, Feral with Leila Bartell.
What also happened last year, was another long held ambition was achieved. I found myself in the action genre and furthermore, writing for established greats I’ve long admired. The first of these, Renegades (from trailblazing company Shogun Films) is an old school throwback to the kind of films I watched when I was probably too young to in the 80’s and 90’s. The cast is packed with legendary talent like Nick Moran, Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Billy Murray, Michael Pare, Louis Mandylor, Tiny Lister (the late great icon), Patsy Kensit and more. From a fans perspective it’s a cast brimming with actors whose work I’ve loved. As a writer, being able to write for such legends and tailor roles to them was also a dream come true. It’s the start of a new cycle of films for me, where I can visit the genre which most appealed to me as a kid. Films like Crackdown and The Star Chamber will follow, with the promise of equally impressive cast lists. Additionally, ‘just’ being writer still undoubtedly has a big appeal to me still and these projects will be ones to look forward to, whilst I also look to do more personal gigs too. Derek Kolstad began in the video action world, before creating John Wick, which is a point that certainly fills me with hope and ambition when it comes to potential next upward steps. What I don’t underestimate though, is that as my projects have undoubtedly grown in stature in the last 12 months, that leg work and experience in spec writing horror played a big part in getting up to writing for the Mr Trejos of this world.
One piece of advice I can give to aspiring writers is to keep going. Even if you think you’ve hit the brick wall, or every door is closed off, just keep plugging away. If you need to, take things into your own hands but be patient because since my first feature, shot and released in 2019, I’ve been writing features non-stop. It’s a very definite snowball effect. Momentum hits and you might find doesn’t slow. That aside, just be reliable. Do what you say you will. Don’t get ahead of yourself or expect too much. Ultimately, if people come back to you, it’s a sign you’re doing something right and you’ll find you build useful and mutually beneficial relationships within the industry. These circles show themselves to be increasingly small. You’ll find yourself surprised at how many mutual connections you might share with particular film-makers, or how many times you’ll be recommended to another strand in that web of connections. Just be ready for the snowball, because the jump from inaction to relentless can occasionally happen in the blink of an eye.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/