We have our first screenwriter in today's installment of Seven Questions In Heaven. Ryan Levin, writer of Some Guy Who Kills People, talks with us about the movie, horror films, The Simpsons, and John Landis.
Tell us about your writing career for our readers who may not be familiar with you.
I really can't imagine anyone is unfamiliar with my work, but just in case one of your readers has recently emerged from a cave or a submarine, here's a quick bio: My first job in "the biz" was as a PA on Scrubs, where I eventually moved up to writers' assistant. While there, I wrote one episode, my first writing credit. Getting to write an episode for, what was then, my favorite comedy on television was pretty damn cool. I then spent a couple years trying to get a full-time job on the writing staff of a sitcom–-any sitcom--but instead found myself as a writers' assistant on several shows. Those shows, while quite good, didn't last very long and I never got promoted to full-time staff writer. I was simultaneously writing more TV scripts on the side, as well as making stuff for the web (Benny: Escaped Convict). I also made a short film, The Fifth, which had some nice success on the film festival circuit. I eventually landed some full-time TV writing gigs, working on a Disney show for a couple of years, and then a Cartoon Network show. And somewhere in there, in 2010, I made my first feature film, Some Guy Who Kills People. It's a dark horror-comedy that I had been writing off and on for a few years and then finally raised the money to make. We recently sold the film after taking it around the world to 40-plus festivals, and I'm extremely happy with how it's all turned out thus far. Now, I'm writing more features and still writing for TV.
Who are your influences and idols?
I always struggle with this question because there are so many people whose work I adore or admire or am seethingly jealous of, but they don't necessarily influence my own work. In terms of who has had the biggest influences on what I write, or who I would kill so that I could suck their talent out and inject it into my own body and brain, I guess I'd go with Christopher Guest, The Simpsons writers (those who wrote for the show during the golden years: George Meyer, Al Jean, John Swartzwelder, Sam Simon, Conan O' Brien, etc.), and Martin McDonagh, the Irish playwright and screenwriter. He's had a myriad of plays on Broadway, and he also wrote and directed the film, In Bruges. His work is what I aspire to write. There are plenty more people whose talents I greatly envy, but we'll keep this somewhat short.
Whas there a movie that made you say, "That's what I want to do with my life?" If so, what was it?
Not that I recall. I was always a huge film-goer, but I never even considered writing for film until a few years ago. I'm not sure why. It either didn't interest me, or the thought of it scared me so much, I never even entertained the idea. My interest in writing began with writing TV, and that was all because of The Simpsons. I wanted to see if I could write a Simpsons episode, so during a period of unemployment many years ago, I just wrote a Simpsons script for fun. This was before I was pursuing a career in writing. The first draft was 250 pages. It was probably the most fun I've ever had writing because I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, and I just did based on the sheer enjoyment of writing for those characters, and without any ulterior motive like landing a job. The script is a lot shorter now, but I still look at it occasionally, and wonder if it's the best thing I've ever written. It still makes me laugh, but nobody's ever really read it.
Tell us about Some Guy Who Kills People. It looks to be a funny slasher flick with a great cast: Karen Black, Barry Bostwick, and the under-appreciated Kevin Corrigan.
Some Guy Who Kills People was born out of my desire to turn my short film, The Fifth, into a feature. I loved that short and wanted to continue the story. Essentially, I wanted to learn more about the main character, an everyday Joe who is also a serial killer. As I wrote the feature script over many years, stopping and starting to work on other things (almost all of it "on spec," ie, for no money), the script changed dramatically. Now, the feature script bears essentially no resemblance to The Fifth, other than having a serial killer protagonist. But I just kept writing and rewriting the feature, and then finally decided, "Okay, now I need money to make this." The search for money began. And then the search just kept on going.
As for the cast we ended up with... well, I'm still floored by it. Not only were we blessed with amazing actors willing to just jump in and go for it for virtually no money, but somehow, some way, without a minute of rehearsal together, they gelled beautifully, developed a fantastic chemistry and made my script look a lot better than it actually is.
How did John Landis come aboard? What drew him to the project? Did he have an active role in the development of the movie?
While seeking the financing to make this film, we tried to attach some "name actors," who we then hoped would attract rich people to give us money. We got some nice names attached, but still, nobody wanted to give us a penny. Finally, we went a different route and tried to attach a director to see if that might spark some interest from investors. The first person we sent the script to was John Landis. He called the next day and asked to meet. It was surreal. Going back to influences... this guy had directed three of my favorite comedies of all time, Coming To America, Trading Places, Three Amigos, and now he wanted to meet to discuss possibly directing my film. I was, shall we say, psyched. After a long lunch with John about the script (and so many other amazing topics), he verbally agreed to direct the film. We worked on the script together a few times, and now that we had Landis, we found a company that offered to get us the money to make the film. Then, one fateful day, they said, "Please have John sign this form stating that he's committed to directing your film," and we'll lock up the money. That same day, another project John had been working on for a long time – before we ever came along – got the greenlight. That was Burke & Hare, a much bigger film with big stars, a bigger budget and a bigger payday. He understandably took that gig, and politely bowed out of directing Some Guy. We lost all the potential money we were going to get, and we were back to square one. Eventually, we lowered the budget as much as we possibly could (I did some rewrites to consolidate locations, cut scenes, etc.) and then I went out and cobbled the much smaller budget together.
During editing, we sent John a rough cut and got some great notes back from him. So, between his help with the script and the cut of the film, he actually played a legitimately creative role. I asked him if he would take the Executive Producer title. Being the smart man he is, he said, "If I like the final cut, yes. If not, no." Fortunately, he loved the final cut and agreed to take the title.
Your film differs from a lot of horror movies of recent memory, which tend to derive most of their scares from torture. What do you think of this genre?
My film is different in that, first of all, it doesn't really have any scares. I guess if you're easily frightened, then sure, it has a moment or two. But the intention of the film is not to scare the viewer. It was never meant to be a horror movie, but rather a horror-comedy. Now, having seen the film way too many times, I have no idea how you would define it. The film changed in the writing, in production, in editing, and ultimately, it became its own entity. It's not a horror-comedy like Shaun Of The Dead, nor is it strictly a dark comedy like Harold & Maude. I guess it's a dark comedy with both horror and dramatic elements. But, you know, sci-fi claymation, too. Whatever the hell it is, I'm very proud of it.
There may be some torture porn films still making it to theatres, but I think that trend has given way to supernatural films, a movement that began when the first Paranormal Activity blew up. Studios seem to be pushing that sub-genre right now, and will do so until a new type of horror film makes them big money, at which point they'll start producing those films. I'm a rather annoying horror fan (actually, an annoying film fan in general). I never cared for the torture movies, but I'm also not into supernatural films. The torture stuff was crap (the first Saw excluded), while I've just never found supernatural material scary. Unfortunately, the best horror films these days never make it to theatres, or, if they do, they get a few weeks without any marketing money behind them. Essentially, they fly completely under the radar, unless you're going to film festivals or are an educated horror fan with your finger on the pulse of this genre.
What's next for you? Are you currently working on anything you can tell us about?
I'm currently writing several scripts, all of which are indie films that fit somewhere in the broad genre of horror. Some are more comedic than others, but all of them will require my being lucky enough to find the money to make them happen on my own. Sometimes, I wish my writing interests leaned more mainstream, but right now, all the ideas that excite me are ones a studio wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. I just hope investors don't feel the same way.
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