From Dreams to the Screen: From Nightmare to Toronto

Acolytes (2008)
A still from Acolytes, screening at TIFF this month.

For the most part, our nightmares are something on which we try not to dwell. However, in the case of Australian screenwriting duo Shanye Armstrong and S.P. Krause, nightmares are explored, outlined and used as the basis for many of their chilling storylines.

The duo grew up together in a small area of Australia called Darling Downs, where they began experimenting with self-producing horror films in high school. Since then, they have both worked as scriptwriters and creative consultants for the Disney Channel, Jetix, Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and Fox Television, but their real interest has never strayed from the horror genre.

Recently, their focus has turned to their screenwriting partnership, with more than eight projects in the works. Their most recent screenplay, Acolytes, which they had originally penned in the 90s and recently revived, finally launched to the big screen premiering at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Always bringing originality to each story, Armstrong and Krause specialize in twisting the horror film formula and bending the genre stereotypes with the hope they can one day bring nightmares to the mainstream movie going public.

How did you guys first meet up?

Armstrong: We actually have a long history that pre-dates our births. We grew up in an area of Western Queensland called the Darling Downs, our grandparents knew each other and as teenagers Shane’s mum allegedly thought my dad was a bit alright. We crossed paths several times at kindergarten and primary school but it wasn’t until early high school that we cemented a friendship based on a mutual love of genre movies. Watching John Carpenter’s The Thing and the Clint Eastwood supernatural western High Plains Drifter on good ol’ VHS were seminal moments for us. We love hybridizing genres and those two are great examples of that. Eventually, we started writing—and I use the term very loosely—movies of our own that we shot on ultra-crappy Beta-Max cameras. Or maybe it was our working knowledge of them that was ultra crappy. They were actually hybridized genre films when you think of it, mixing horror, western, revenge film and the humor of Monty Python and the Zucker Bros’ spoofs such as Flying High and Top Secret. One was Battle Trolley, about a killer shopping trolley that goes on a rampage killing random human beings in revenge for the death of another trolley at the hands of an overzealous transvestite S&M mistress. We charged other students admission to a video screening of that film as a fundraiser for our nebulously arranged “Film Club” but I think we misappropriated the money and spent it all on ice cream. Maybe we should have been producers.

I read that both of you had your own frightening near-death experiences as children. Were those the situations that had prompted your nightmares/future story ideas?

Armstrong: The fact that one of us actually died [Armstrong was pronounced clinically dead on an operating table after a routine tonsillectomy went awry] and the other one probably should have [Krause was thrown into a car windscreen and suffered a head injury] probably gave us an awareness of the random cruelty of the universe. But it was more the kind of things we were exposed to culturally, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, that really inspired us to become dark genre writers. It was the rawness and darkness of the visceral 1970s cinema we were exposed to, combined with being allowed to watch creepy kids shows like Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People and even creepier adult shows like The Night Stalker, that set us on the path. Also our local television station ran a lot of Hammer Horror movies [low-budget horror films produced in the UK from the 1950s through the 1970s], on the weekends and even programmed all-night “Horrorthons” during which kids would sleep over each others’ houses and stay up all night being scared witless. We also read a lot of horror comics as kids. This was the heyday of Creepy and Weird and Eerie and even Marvel Comics was putting out the very scary and quite sexy Tomb of Dracula. Most kids weren’t given access to all this material at such a young age but we both had liberal and relaxed parents that pretty much let us watch and read what we wanted to. Our folks were pretty much anti-censorship and we can thank them for that.

Many of your projects seem to deal with the horror of real life events, and I was wondering what type of things scare you in real life?

Armstrong: That’s true. All of our projects start with some kind of grounding in real life or reality and then we add in the paranormal, supernatural or monstrous. We try to go for real-world reactions to unreal things and situations rather than try and create “movie” reactions to such things, which is adding unreality to unreality. As far was what scares us in real life, we’re scared of the logical things—sharks and snakes and being hit by speeding cars—but, in a more general sense, it’s human beings. Human beings are often the true monsters in our screenplays because people should know better than a beast or a monster, but they often betray their fellow humans or sell them up the river in order to survive themselves. There’s no more formidable or scarier creature in the known universe than a human being. Watch the news, read the newspaper and you’ll see that all around the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from century to century, somewhere a human being is doing something terrible, stupid and cruel to another human. Sometimes on a personal scale, sometimes on a national or international scale. It kind of depresses us on a moral level that there’s perhaps nothing we can actually conceive in our imaginations, no matter how horrible or outlandish, that a human hasn’t already done to someone else already.

You guys seem to have a lot of projects in the works. Have any reached the production stage yet?

Armstrong: Acolytes is the first script of ours that has been produced and released. Several others have been optioned and in development but for various reasons, usually because people don’t like the producers that have been attached to them or they’ve been rewritten—and several times behind our backs and without our consent—the project hasn’t gotten up. Thankfully, we’ve gotten them all back and are repairing the damage done by others and are in the process of getting them back out there. One of the scripts was rewritten by a…producer.

The genius ending of his rewrite was of the “… and then she woke up and it was only a dream” variety. Seriously. And they wonder why people with half a brain aren’t responding favorably to the rewrite. There are several others that are currently in the process of being shopped around or about to be. A Score Above The Breath is a novel manuscript that is sitting on the desks of a couple of publishers. We just keep producing projects because you never know which one is going to get up and we’d starve if we relied on some of the bozos out there to be bringing in the bucks for us. Our never-ending quest is to find the right match of producer and director for our projects and it’s only been recently that enough doors have opened for us to reach more quality people in that area.

Many of your project storylines, which deal with horror in one way or another, all seem to have a twist within them. A horror film with a certain formula change. With that said, how do you feel about some of the new horror films which are being released to the public today?

Armstrong: In any era of cinema history, there are great and crappy examples of films in any genre. There have been just as many decent horror films released in the last few years as there have been atrocious ones. Arguably, there has been a swing to more teen-oriented horror—slasher and gore—what some sections of the media have dubbed “torture porn.” We’re not interested in those films as an audience or as writers but that’s not to say that they don’t have their place in the horror world. We watched a lot of slasher film and gore and exploitation films when we were teenagers, it’s just that we grew out of them and our own tastes have changed. The Orphanage, The Ring, Session 9, The Blair Witch Project, The Others, and The Sixth Sense were all released in this decade and are not just great horror films but very good films full stop.

How does the writing process work for you? Do you each write a treatment and then mesh your ideas together in the end? Or begin a script together?

Armstrong: This is an ongoing experiment and we kind of change the process each time we write a script. Usually, we spend a lot of time throwing around ideas for concepts or premises and chatting about which one we want to actually spend months or even years writing and rewriting. That’s a vital decision to make. Then, once we decide on a premise, we go to a café—or a procession of them—and drink lots of coffee, eat lots of food and talk about pretty much anything but the script for a few hours and then force ourselves to actually concentrate on the outline. After we craft the outline—which is often quite detailed, between 30 and 60 pages—we’ve got the entire plot worked out, and we know the characters very well then we split up and go and write the sections of the draft independently, each taking half. Other times we divide it up into 20-page installments or put our hands up and advise the other to handle a certain section because of a certain angle we might be able bring to that section as an individual. Then we write the first draft, swap the sections over, polish each others’ draft, hand it back, go over it again and again until we’re satisfied with that what we have is a quality release draft. The analogy to think of is a Mixmaster, whipping a cake mix, blending the sections until there’s a consistency of style and voice. Even our oldest and closest friends and colleagues can’t pick which sections which [one of us] has written. It all reads as if one writer, the one voice, has written it. As it should.

For your project A Score Above The Breath, you claim to have written out nearly 300 pages in the screenplay. How did it go about being trimmed?

Armstrong: To be honest, it was expanded. It was over 300 pages long as a treatment, not even a screenplay, which is even more inexcusable and insane. The eventual screenplay will be less than half the size of the treatment. We just got carried away and before we knew it we had a monster on our hands. It was more like a novel than a treatment so we teamed up with another writer, a talented collaborator of ours named Greg Boylan, and turned into a novel manuscript. That manuscript is now going out to publishers. It’s an epic crime/horror novel, even in novel form. But we grew up reading Stephen King and Clive Barker’s horror mega-tomes. We see it as getting more story and more value for the price of your book. As for the screenplay, we’ve got ideas how to trim it down to a feature-film length. Our writing over the last few years has become more economical so I’m sure we’ll solve the length problem with little worries.

Regarding Acolytes, I read that the screenplay was many years old before the film had even been shot. How did the script come about being brought back?

Krause: We started writing the script in the early 90s but only made it 30 pages in before we lost interest. But it was always at the back of our minds. Then sometime in 2005 we dusted those 30 pages off and thought we’d have another crack at it. Simple reason. It was the smallest project we had in terms of budget and we wanted to direct the script and make the film with whatever pitiful amount of money we could raise. As far as the writing went we started from scratch again with a scene breakdown and had about two thirds of that in shape when we got impatient and started work without completing the breakdown. We paid for that later on. But the first two-thirds of the screenplay based on the breakdown wasn’t so difficult until we hit a wall. The script became extremely complex and the solutions took a lot of time and strain. We were also constantly asking ourselves what kind of film we wanted to write, what kind of film Acolytes was and why it was worthwhile writing it. We ask these questions all the time. We have to believe utterly in the value of what we’re doing otherwise we’d never go through the agony of writing scripts. There are so many other things we’d prefer to be sinking our time into like girls, booze and good times. Once we picked the script up again and waded through the last third that had never been dealt with as a scene breakdown, it took about a year to finish, which wasn’t bad since we were both working jobs and taking on other freelance to get by. Before the script was complete we had dropped about 60 pages of the manuscript into the hands of a couple of producers we knew and they went for it as an unfinished work-in-progress. They still liked it when they read the rest of it and we had a deal. For a while we were attached to direct, which was the whole reason we picked it up again in 2005, but that went out the window in a series of cunning maneuvers from the producers and the funding agencies involved but that’s a whole other story…

How did the public receive the film upon its premiere?

Krause: We’ve seen the film twice at festival screenings and they were both sold out. You can tell when you’re sitting among a thousand people when you have them and when you’ve lost them. At the risk of sounding like writers with their heads stuck up their arses, the bits that grasped the audience were ours and whenever the film tripped up and stumbled around like a half-wit those were the director’s/producer’s/funding agencies’ contributions. Of course we can never be objective about it. If anybody likes the film for what it is now that’s fine by us.

How do you feel about the film?

Krause: We’ve only ever seen the film with a paying audience. We weren’t welcome to the set or involved in pre-production due to the insecurity of the director and producers. So we don’t have a strong connection to the film. Our attitude is we were the biological mother and then somebody stole it from us at a shopping mall, locked it up in a basement Fritzl-style, where it grew up into a pale and twisted freak. It sounds like we’re choked with rage and hate but we are pragmatic. The film opened doors for us. We’re now happily dealing with filmmakers we admire and have enormous confidence in. The producers on this one were the best we could find at the time and the director was the quickest way to a paycheck.

Regarding the writing process, have you ever been scared by your own ideas whilst writing? Or are you completely desensitized after years of jotting down your nightmares?

Krause: We still get creeped out. There have been times when we’ve appalled ourselves and had to leave our office and get some air. Most of all we get excited when we feel we’ve dreamt up something that has a bit of power or the potential to jolt a reader. It’s thrilling and addictive to come up with those moments, which is why we keep at it.

Understanding you both were huge fans of Hammer Films which horror films inspired you as children and made you interested in writing horror films?

Krause: It was probably a TV series rather than a particular film that gave us a taste for horror and the need to work in the genre. We’re utter Doctor Who nerds, particularly the Pertwee and Tom Baker years. Sci-fi and horror are made for each other and it’s still our favorite genre hybrid. It’s why we dig movies like Carpenter’s The Thing and Alien so much…but it all started with Doctor Who and its scary-as-fuck villains like Sutekh, the Sontarans, Mr. Sin, Davros and his bitch Nida. The great thing about the show is that each story was spread out over multiple episodes, so what you were watching were films broken up into half hour installments. It wasn’t a TV series at all but a series of films. And it was smart. You weren’t treated like a blob—or a kid. One of our freelance jobs at the moment is writing with Bob Baker [of Wallace and Grommet] on his K9, a spin-off series built around the Doctor’s pooch. We pitched heavily to get involved and put together reams of shit before we made a bean from it. It was sheer enthusiasm just to have some connection to a show that we were obsessed with as kids and continue to love. The hope is we’ll eventually get a shot on Doctor Who itself but we’re happy getting this far for the moment.

What’s next?

Krause: Writing. On our own stuff and for other people. We’ve written three screenplays since Acolytes—crime, horror and sci-fi horror—and these are just about all in shape to be released together. Plus we’ve got one we wrote before Acolytes that was under option with some total duds for a long time but the option has expired and we’ve been revising it. So as far as spec scripts go we’ve got that covered for the moment. Freelance TV assignments also keep us going, plus Shayne lectures copywriting and screenwriting at about 200 universities. The freelance means we can keep pumping out our spec scripts without government support, which is how everything is done in Australia, pathetic bunch of motherfuckers that we are. We are only just starting to work with filmmakers we really admire and though we’d love to be able to blab who these guys are we can’t right now. But whatever happens we’ll keep grinding out our spec scripts and hope that they find good homes with good people. We’re certain it can happen like that.

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