The Ballad of Blood Angels, or How (Not) to Think Small

(This piece originally appeared as a guest editorial at Chiaroscuro)

 

 

So you want to write horror movies.

            Okay.

            You see every new thriller that hits theaters or tv screens, and you just know you could write something better than that; in fact, you’ve got a great idea, one that hasn’t already been done to death but isn’t so different that it can’t be conveyed in one short sentence.

            Good.

            You don’t know much about screenwriting, but you’re not afraid to shell out a little dough for scripts, books and software; maybe you’ve even sold a few short stories or articles, so you know you have some writing talent. You’re not afraid of either hard work or rejection, and you’ve even got a few connections you can call on.

            Great.

            You start writing your masterpiece, and you begin to realize that you just couldn’t stand the idea of watching one word get changed, so you think, “I’ll go the low-budget route, because it can become a cult classic that way, and I just know that in the low-budget arena my script will stand a better chance of getting shot just as it is. It’ll also be easier to sell, and surely the director will realize he’s lucky to have a script this good for a movie like this!”

            Wrong. You’ve just made your fatal mistake.

            I actually have heard this rationale from beginning screenwriters, and in truth I was guilty of it myself for a while. Now I – the hardened survivor of half-a-dozen low-budget features (almost all of which were horror, or at least horrifying) – am here to disabuse you of a notion I can only call the cinematic equivalent to thinking your short story will garner you exposure if you can just get it into that nifty royalties-only anthology.

            Case in point: In 2004 three low-budget horror movies I’d co-written were produced, all of which should be out on DVD at some point in 2005. Two were basically mutant creature flicks that I had exactly zero emotional investment in (and good thing, too, considering one of these is two is completely unwatchable); but one was a vampire movie with which I made The Classic Screenwriter’s Mistake: I let myself fall in love with the script.

Originally titled Jugs (after the “jugulars” that my vampire women admired on hunky guys), the idea was first suggested by my writing partner, Brett Thompson. Brett’s the hustler in our duo (whereas I do most of the actual writing), and he thought he could sell a version of that beer-drenched chick-flick Coyote Ugly with vampire babes. I’d recently been thinking about writing something that would employ many of the tropes I so admired in contemporary Hong Kong cinema: Unusual narrative structure, crisscrossing story lines, villain/hero reversals, strong female characters who bond together to overcome obstacles, and lots of kickass action. The result was the first draft (sometime in 2000, I think) of what would eventually be released as Blood Angels. The story was told completely in real time, meaning it took place entirely in the 90 minutes that the movie would run. It centered on five very distinctive women who ran a successful traveling rave and just happened to be vampires on the lam from the cruel master (a man, naturally!) who had created them; they were most definitely the protagonists, and made sure their bloodsucking was neither lethal nor without pleasure to both parties. They employed a human flunky, Rennie, who did their daylight work for them, and one of them – Leslie – was dealing with the arrival of her innocent little sister, Ashley. After handling everything from gang wars to a transvestite who knew their secret to their own hungers, the finale involved the arrival of the master, Jones, with an army of human thugs wielding stakes and crucifixes; at this point the women realized they’d been sold out by Rennie, who sought eternal life from Jones. Our heroines finally managed to defeat Jones and his mafioso-like thugs, but Ashley was nearly killed in the process, and wound up being vamped herself. The ending was happy, as the triumphant women left Jones, carved into tiny pieces by a silver knife, to face the rising sun.

            I was beyond stok(er)ed with the way the script turned out. It was funny, exciting, scary, and featured characters that practically talked back (bad writer’s confession: One character, DJ Roxie, was named after my cat). Because it was set entirely in one location, I knew it could be done cheaply. I also knew the characters were fun enough to attract good performers, and the rave setting offered great visual opportunities to entice production designers, cinematographers and directors.

            My hustler partner and agent started to shop the script. Reaction was mixed: Everyone loved the general idea and dialogue, but some wanted flashbacks (goodbye to my “real time” structure), some wanted more conflict among the women (in my first draft little sister Ashley actually thought it was cool that her older sister was a vampire), and that phrase I live in complete dread of finally surfaced:

            “It needs a ticking clock.”

            The “ticking clock” is one of the great curses of modern day screenwriting; I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, but I’m guessing some self-proclaimed writing guru (is there any other kind?) started teaching it to his students and it spread from there to production executives everywhere. Said executives now feel the need to insert this ridiculous plot device into every movie that comes along, and the lower the budget the likelier you’ll be to hear that phrase. In the case of Jugs, the “ticking clock” eventually became a ritual that the vampire women – oh, excuse me, they were now half-vampire women, or “thralls” – had to enact by midnight in order to become full vampires and free themselves from Jones.

            The script, now titled Thralls, was eventually optioned to a producer. An “option” means the producer has a set amount of time to make the movie or return the script to the writers to shop elsewhere. Thralls had a one-year option.

            Well, the movie finally did get made, just before that option would have expired (actually I think it was after, but that’s hair-splitting). It was now 2003 – three years after the first draft had been penned, mind you – and Thralls was finally set to go before the cameras. I was paid for the script (more about that later). It would be shot on high definition video in Vancouver, and would star Lorenzo Lamas as Jones. I exchanged a few e-mails and one phone call with director Ron Oliver, who asked for one brief and very simple rewrite (the kind known in the biz as a "polish").

            Thralls was shot in February of 2004, and I just happened to be badly in need of vacation at that time (I really hadn’t taken one since 2000, when I’d gone to Hong Kong). I’d never been to Vancouver, so I decided to pay a visit to the set, expecting the thrill of seeing my dream come to life.

            Do I need to tell you what happened?

            Suffice to say that – aside from being a lifelong Californian suddenly enduring the frigid weather of a Canadian winter! – I stood on the set and realized I’d been had again. I recognized none of the dialogue or situations; although the characters and setting (the rave) looked like they’d come out of my script almost verbatim, my strong grrlz were now nothing but pawns of the male oppressor. In an increasingly ludicrous series of plot gaps, the women turned on each other, murdered each other, and performed ridiculous “martial arts” while all clad in identical black leather outfits (is this like a uniform for vampires or something?).

            I was of course…well, let’s just say unhappy, but I also realized the person most to blame here was me. Because the punch line – remember the brief mention of being paid for the script? – was that, by the time I’d given chunks of my pay to my partner, my agent, and the IRS, I didn’t even have enough left to pay off my credit card bill, and that bill wasn’t that big.

            So, novice screenwriter, I hear you thinking: Well, dumb girl, you let yourself get screwed, but I won’t. Oh yeah, I say? Do you know what the typical price is for the script to a cable movie? Let’s just say it wouldn’t buy you a new car, and it is completely non-negotiable. You’ve probably heard phrases like “Guild minimum” tossed around, but the truth is that phrase is essentially meaningless. No – and I do mean NO – low-budget companies pay anything close to Guild minimum. Of course if you’re lucky enough to score a good agent and get your script sold to a studio, you may see considerably more than that Guild minimum, but you’ll still have to suffer seeing your baby get lopped, chopped and otherwise disfigured on its way to the silver screen.

Then is the moral of this story to give up your dream of horror screenwriting? No. The moral is to give up your unrealistic expectations of screenwriting, and especially of low-budget screenwriting. Hollywood has thrown away the talents of writers like Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner (both of whom were under studio contract at one point), and it sure isn’t going to have any respect for you. Unless you have the financial wherewithal to produce and direct the movie yourself (which, by the way – assuming you don’t go bankrupt - is still no guarantee of creative control, since there’s always a distributor waiting to cut your film to pieces), you need to gird your loins and realize that screenwriting is a job. As such, you might as well go for the big bucks; if that script is half as terrifying as you know it is, you may be able to at least option it to a major production company or studio. Go to the WGA's website, get their free list of agents, and start sending out query letters. Move to L.A. and start networking. Deal with the fact that the same passion you put into a script may work against you one day, when other hands turn the script into film; it’s hard and it’s hurtful, but the sooner you realize that the better your chances of being an actual working screenwriter. If you decide to go the low-budget route after all, just remember: You probably won’t be able to make a living at it, so you’ll either need lots of sales or a good day job. As for artistic satisfaction…make short films. Or write short stories, or novels. Join a theater company and give them new plays. Just don’t look for it as a screenwriter.

And if you don't plan on becoming a screenwriter, then just remember this: The next time you see another bad horror movie and think, What idiot thought this crap up?, it probably wasn't the writer. Somewhere the real writer is undoubtedly asking the same question.