What would you do if you woke up chained inside a dungeon and couldn’t remember anything about how you got there or what you had done? You could be a good guy or a bad guy, a hero or a traitor. In that moment of unknown teror, what would you do?
These are the questions that screenwriter Matthew Waynee explores in his new film, Unknown. Awaiting the July release of his first produced screenplay, MM caught up with Waynee to discuss the importance of mythology and how it feels to have an all-star cast delivering your dialogue.
Jennifer Wood (MM): When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
Matthew Waynee (MW): When I was 16, I was in a serious car accident that resulted in me needing eight hours of brain surgery to save my life (the surgeons had to remove a blood clot and reconstruct my shattered skull). Remarkably, the surgery was a complete success, without any short-term or long-term physical or mental complications. This injury, however, forced me to give up playing football in high school, and that was when I was first drawn to storytelling and writing.
Over the next few years, I took classes in creative writing and drama and began to acquire the skills I felt necessary to improve my writing: I became an avid traveler in college to expand my view of the world, I majored in psychology and English and I devoured every short story and novel I could find.
Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and earned a master’s degree in creative writing (screenwriting) at the University of Southern California.
MM: You’re both a novelist and a screenwriter. Which role do you prefer?
MW: Overall, I prefer screenwriting. Don’t get me wrong: Completing my novel, The Table, was an exhilarating experience. Set in my hometown of Bay City, Michigan, the story follows a Polish immigrant family struggling to survive when the father heads off to war. Upon his return, he finds his son and wife have succeeded in ways he only dreamed of and now the father must deal with the personal displacement he feels.
To me this story had to be told as a novel (even though I think it would make a great film adaptation). With its focus on the jealousy and success that can rip a family apart, writing this as a novel allowed me to give equal weight to both the external events of the plot as well as the internal struggles that each character experiences.
On the other hand, the goal of writing a great screenplay is obviously to find the best way to express a story in a visually captivating way. I feel film as a medium offers the writer more sensory elements to help create a dynamic, visceral rush for the viewers by intermixing the visual elements, the sound design and the powerful moments of silence. Actually, when I first started writing Unknown, I began it as a novel. But I quickly discovered that there were certain parts of the story that would be better executed in a film. For example, with so many intense action sequences and showdowns between the men inside the warehouse, it was essential to heighten the stakes and suspense visually and let the audience watch this conflict unravel up on the big screen.
MM: How the idea for Unknown first originate?
MW: The idea for Unknown hit me years ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. I was taking a Greek tragedies course and we had just read the play Prometheus Bound. In the myth, the god Prometheus steals fire from the other gods and defiantly gives it to humans so they can have the knowledge and technology that is necessary for them to thrive. The gods become furious with Prometheus’ action and punish him by chaining him to the top of a mountain for 10,000 years.
What fascinated me about this myth is that Prometheus is viewed simultaneously as a liberator by the humans and as a traitor by the gods. It was this idea that morphed in my head: What if you woke up chained inside a dungeon and couldn’t remember anything about how you got there or what you had done? You wouldn’t know if you were the most ruthless murderer in the world or a positive rebel fighting against a corrupt government. In that moment of unknown, what would you do? How would you think about yourself? Most importantly, how would you redefine yourself? These were the themes that captivated me as I fleshed out the story. With this initial image of one chained-up character, the idea expanded to five characters (both bound and unbound) trapped inside a locked-down warehouse, not knowing whether they were victims or killers.
When you watch the film, you will see one character who symbolizes Prometheus: Handcuffed Man (played by Jeremy Sisto). This character awakens to find himself handcuffed to a railing, bleeding from the gut as he struggles to remember which side he is on; in the end, this character proves to enlighten the other men with important information.
MM: The film has a very mazelike quality—with an ensemble cast struggling to remember their past in order to deal with the present. What were the biggest challenges in writing this kind of story with so many characters and backstories to assemble?
MW: The biggest challenge writing Unknown was making sure each of the five characters inside the warehouse was unique. With each individual not knowing anything about his own history, occupation, family (or even his name for that matter), I spent a lot of time distinguishing each character’s actions and voices to make them different. If every character talked the same or acted the same, it would be easy for them to all blur together. As it plays out, without any known identity, all of the characters are only referred to by their clothing (Wool Sweater, Flannel, Snakeskin Boots) or by their condition (Bound Man, Handcuffed Man, Broken Nose).
Another creative challenge was figuring out how to maximize the suspense and twists that occur when certain characters’ memories about who they are and what side they are on start to return. I worked through countless possibilities of when to reveal this information and when to withhold it. Each time a new revelation occurs, the audience is forced to rethink which characters might be the killers and which ones might be the victims. With each new reveal, the characters’ alliances shift: Sometimes as subtly as a distrustful look exchanged between two men; other times as violently dramatic as a man stabbing another with a knife.
MM: The film has such a stellar cast. How close are the characters—physically, etc.—to those you originally imagined and wrote about? What was the casting decision that surprised you most?
MW: I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out how many phenomenal actors were attached to be in my first film, especially since Unknown is a low-budget film. During my time on set, I was able to meet all of the actors, and they voiced how they were drawn to the overall theme in the script: What would you do in that moment of uncertainty if you could redefine yourself? Would you choose to redeem yourself or would you continue on with how you were?
As I developed the script, every character (both victims or killers alike) is purposefully grey: Each with his own ambiguous background where the actors were able to develop and reconcile their characters’ arcs with how the events of the script play out.
As far as casting, I can’t reveal which actor played which specific character, but I can answer this generally. For the most part, the casting choices fit accurately with those in the original script: Barry Pepper was terrific with his character, who is so intense and on edge throughout the entire film. Joey Pants was fantastic, interjecting his little moments of comic relief within the tense pressure cooker inside the warehouse. When we first started shopping the script around, Peter Stormare was on our list so I was excited when he joined on. Finally, I was just blown away by Greg Kinnear’s performance as a weasely, vicious character. I know he’s played darker roles before, but generally he tends to embody characters with weaker or vulnerable personalities. It was great to see him deliver so powerfully in this type of role.
MM: Unknown marks your first time out as a screenwriter—which is a truly impressive feat. How are you going to top it? What’s up next for you?
MW: I am currently finishing up a script entitled Glitch. It is another dark thriller about a cold, ruthless hitman who is forced to relive the night of his death over and over again, until he finally realizes that to break this vicious cycle he needs to save the very victim he was sent out to kill, who happens to be his brother. (Imagine Groundhog Day as a dark thriller). Beyond this, I am also working with two different producers developing different adaptations: One based on a comic book, the other based on a novel.