Keep It Simple, Keep It Relentless: Halloween‘s David Gordon Green and Danny McBride On Horror Screenwriting

Horror master John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween has become so indelibly etched into the cultural consciousness, so synonymous with the contemporary commercial concept of All Hallow’s Eve, that one could be forgiven for forgetting it was an indie film.

With two small-scale features under his belt—one of which was his 1974 student film, Dark Star—Carpenter was offered the project by producer Irwin Yablans and investor Moustapha Akkad in spite of, not because of, his limited experience. He co-wrote, directed, and scored Halloween for $10K, drafted the screenplay with producer and then-girlfriend Debra Hill in about 10 days, and completed the film within a four-week schedule, cutting every corner imaginable on a $300K budget. Today, it’s taken for granted that Carpenter’s combination of minimalist theme music and stripped-down stalk-and-slash premise is a masterclass in crafting atmospheric dread. Viewing Halloween solely through that lens, however, glosses over the truth of how much of the film’s innovations were born out of necessity.

Forty years later, Blumhouse Productions have stepped into the Halloween franchise fray, seeking to return to those scrappy roots after earning Carpenter’s blessing and participation as executive producer and composer. A direct continuation of the original film that consciously ignores the plot twists of the series’ combined nine sequels and reboots, Halloween sees Jamie Lee Curtis reprise her role as babysitter-turned-badass Laurie Strode, and is co-written by indie veteran David Gordon Green (who also directs) and his longtime creative partners Danny McBride (HBO’s Eastbound and Down) and Jeff Fradley (HBO’s Vice Principals). We asked Green and McBride to share a conversation on the resourcefulness that working in the horror genre encourages, and the timeless advice they gleaned from Carpenter on writing fright. —M.W.

Hell’s Bells: Nick Castle reprises his role as Michael Myers in Halloween. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

David Gordon Green (DGG): Strangely, the movie that opened up my enthusiasm for horror was Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. After I saw that movie as a kid I started reading about how it was made in magazines, and that led me to explore special effects and puppetry. Then I started buying books about how to make horror movies and became intrigued by films like An American Werewolf in London, In the Company of Wolves, and Wolfen. So for me, it actually started with the seeds of a creepy kids’ movie.

Danny McBride (DM): My hunger for horror grew from going to the video store on Friday night, looking at movie covers and being drawn to the artwork in the horror section: “What is Funhouse, with that clown on the front cover? What’s Chopping Mall?”

DGG: My parents were very strict. I wasn’t allowed to see a lot of horror films. But living during a time when these films were at their peak and discovering how they were accomplished was impressive to me.

DM: I came from a similar background in the 1970s. I was in a religious family and horror wasn’t what our parents were encouraging us to pick up when they took us to rent movies. But that became all my younger sister and I would do—rent horror movies until we wiped out the whole section. Knocking one of those crazy movies on our list was better a option than whatever else was offered.

DGG: You and I like to fuck with people. Our siblings and classmates would attest that that’s been a lifelong quality of ours. It could be as early as in first grade, throwing paper airplanes and spitballs just to see what kind of reaction that gets out of our classmates and teachers. Or we could be challenging ourselves, provoking one another.

When I write something and hand it to you, I want a reaction out of you. The last thing I want you to say is, “OK, that’s acceptable. Now here’s my contribution.” It’s not that formal; it’s about two provocateurs fucking with each other. Whether it’s Michael Myers of Halloween or Kenny Powers of Eastbound and Down, the fun comes from what to exploit in our characters in celebration of their eccentricities.

For 25 years, whenever we’ve looked at any scene, we’ve thought, “Is this going to be fun, or is this going to be bullshit?” We only have one life. Well, we did one thing for money—a Texaco commercial when we were 19, 20…

DM: To call it a commercial makes it a little bigger than it was… [Laughs]

DGG: And even that was fun in a weird way. The principle is that if it’s fun for us, there’s going to be an audience it’ll appeal to. Sometimes it’s shocking how large that audience is, other times it’s confusing as to how small it is.

DM: I agree. When audiences are seeking out independent films to watch, they don’t always know what they’re getting: “Is this going to be a two-hour snooze-fest? Will the moviemaker be working out all of their personal issues? How much has this moviemaker thought about the audience?” When you’re making a horror film, you’re going to be focused on delivering an experience for the audience. It’s also easier for audiences to take risks—to give those films a shot because you’re inclined to want them to work.

DGG: That’s also a thing I realized, since Halloween is the first horror film I’ve worked on—how essential an audience is to the process. Most self-indulgent passion projects aren’t going to be horror films. The horror experience is a lot more calculated than that. You engineer the film for a specific audience. Your only form of self-indulgence when working in horror should be the audience’s enjoyment, and your effectiveness over the audience.

DM: People like to be scared, but people don’t need big stars or big budgets to be scared. You can scare people in efficient ways. You can browse through horror films on iTunes and even if you don’t recognize anyone in a movie, you may well still give it a shot based on whether it might frighten you.

DGG: It’s an accessible genre that doesn’t require a ton of resources. Even on a small budget, you can exploit something simple that feeds audiences’ neuroses. You don’t need big action and stunts—only lean stories, well-drawn characters, and scares that work.

DM: Often you and I approach writing a comedy just as we would a drama: filtering the story through a character’s point of view. The question is always, “How do you get audiences to latch onto someone for this time period?” With Halloween, our thoughts were, “What happened to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode character? What would that be like if you experienced what she went through in Carpenter’s 1978 film? What happens after that story ends?” Horror characters’ stories are going to be written with different beats than they would with a comedy, but you’re still fighting for audiences’ engagement throughout. Both processes are similar in that way. The only differences lie in what ideas you’re going to the well for.

In Good Hands: Green and McBride’s Halloween script reassured Jamie Lee Curtis that her Laurie Strode character still had a story worth telling

DGG: The genre is a great testing ground for new voices in that way. That’s why horror has a great lineage of breaking in moviemakers—from producers like Roger Corman and Jason Blum to directors like Joe Dante, Brian De Palma, James Cameron, or of course, John Carpenter.

I had a lot of questions for John. Part of what appealed to him about working with us on our Halloween is that I was really inquisitive. His advice was always straightforward: “Keep it simple. Keep it relentless.” “Keeping it simple” and “keeping it relentless” seem like two contradictory things, but they share a similar motivation: You don’t need big set pieces and you don’t need big spectacle.

Sometimes John would challenge an idea we’d pitch: “This may be too complicated. Do you want to strip it back to its animal nature?” As he was scoring the film, I’d say, “What if we embellished this, or made this section orchestral?” Again, “Let’s keep it simple. Let’s keep it relentless.” I learned a lot from that. Simplicity, the unanswered, the ambiguous, make horror even more imaginative, because when the audience isn’t being forced to over-intellectualize the material they can bring complications and nuances to the experience themselves. You’re in the moment seeing it unfold. You need raw, primal, minimal statements to tell your story. Those broad strokes were helpful as we navigated the material.

DM: If you’re not afraid of broad clichés, you can use those clichés against the audience. The audience can be made to think they’re walking into one thing, and then you pull the rug out from under them. Everything we see in the world is so full of clichés that it’s impossible to avoid them. It’s better to embrace them… then destroy them. Find ways to subvert them.

DGG: With Halloween, we were combing through a franchise thinking, “What broad strokes do we want to apply?” For example, a babysitter is alone in a house and a bad guy comes inside. There’s nothing radically innovative about that concept. But that’s one trope we wanted to play with. In this movie we have a lot of hyperactive synthesizer stings when a scare moment happens, or when certain characters reveal themselves unexpectedly. Whenever we’re saying, “Hey, look at me, I’m a horror movie!,” I’m having a good time. It’s not subtle, or “cool.” But horror tropes are bit pieces that put the puzzle together. For instance, to me the Michael Myers character doesn’t exist without his mask and mechanic’s uniform. So, the game you play with yourself creatively is: “This is 40 years later. How do we get the mask and the mechanic’s uniform back on?” We have to bounce ideas to get to that place—through character background, through cliché… by any means necessary.

DM: And whenever we don’t see eye-to-eye on what those “means” are—those beats in the writing—that doesn’t register to me as “arguing.” That’s just what the process is. Bumping against each other’s tastes is why we do this in the first place. Otherwise you could just write a script on your own, you know?

DGG: You, our co-writer Jeff Fradley, and I started working together in college around ’99 and have been for three decades. That’s a long time to have worked out the kinks. So, there’s no negativity, ever. The issue we do have with low-budget horror films like this is that we’ll write a big sequence only to discover that we don’t have enough time or money for it. We have to figure out how to look at those moments as creative opportunities, and 100 percent of the time we’re able to crack that code.

When you’re working with new drafts every day, being open to evolving realities becomes its own kind of fun. Sure, we can be pissed that we didn’t have all the money and time in the world, but on Halloween we had a 25-day principal photography schedule. That’s as few days as I’ve had on a movie since perhaps my first one, George Washington. Prince Avalanche also had a modest shoot schedule, and even All The Real Girls was a 30-day shoot. I’ve learned what needs to be accomplished in a limited period of time. You’ve got to get creative and remain positive or you’re screwed.

DM: It’s totally true. Once you get into indie moviemaking, you instantly ask yourself, “How can we move away from people who get stressed out during this process?” You learn that working with those people doesn’t end well. If you’re spending more time battling, stomping your feet at things that don’t go exactly as you’ve planned, it’s wasted energy.

Making movies is about constantly dealing with, “This person doesn’t like this part we’ve written,” or, “This actor didn’t nail this scene.” What’s great about writing with you and Jeff is that you’re up for the adventure of it. You don’t hold onto things too preciously. Any movie is the culmination of that attitude.

DGG: You can’t sit back and wait for the “Story By” credit. Keeping stories like this alive is what’s important. We’re in a time where a horror film that works in relatable terms can subvert the bullshit of our culture. Some of the most talented voices get derailed if they don’t commit to that. You have to commit to this extraordinarily complicated, psychological circus. You can’t accept failure. MM

—As Told to Max Weinstein

Halloween opened in theaters October 19, 2018, courtesy of Universal Pictures. All images courtesy of Universal Pictures. Featured Image: Tricks and Treats: Co-Writing Halloween, David Gordon Green (L) and Danny McBride (R) displaced their lifelong love of screwing with people. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.

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