Dan Shea was a semi-finalist in our first Launch Pad Feature Competition and off of that placement alone, ended up selling his script BUTCHER HOLLER to Under The Stairs Entertainment. We had a chance to get on the phone with this new name in horror and discuss how life has changed since the contest, what he’s up to now, and what it’s like writing with multiple college degrees.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAN SHEA — PART 2
TB: So did you just say “I want to write a horror movie” or was it just a natural conclusion?
Dan: I write movies I want to see. And I’d been watching a bunch of horror. My daughter is a horror aficionado and over the past couple of years she’s been guiding my education. See, even though I came of age in the hey-day of 80’s horror, I never saw any of them, because I was too much of a p*ssy to go see them.
TB: You really missed out!
Dan: You’re telling me. I think it’s because, when I was 12, my parents went to a New Year’s Eve party and my best friend and I stayed home and watched “In Cold Blood” at midnight and it TERRIFIED me. I lived in a small rural Kansas town, and I was watching a movie about a family in a small rural Kansas town getting brutally murdered. God, I can still hear the gunshots. Seriously, there are still some scars there.
TB: Yeah, that’s a little too immersive. Like watching Jaws while floating in the ocean.
Dan: Well, the good news is I got over it. (Laughs) And I knew I wanted to write a horror film and, living in West Virginia, I knew I wanted something Appalachian-based because there’s such a wonderful mixture of beauty and ugliness in West Virginia. Beautiful trees on gorgeous mountains which have had their tops butchered to mine coal. Dirt-blonde, gaunt, trashily-dressed teenage girls that on second look, you realize they could be models. So anyway, Appalachia: My first take on this idea, I called it “Snake Punch”–
TB: Was it a sequel to John Woo’s “Hard Target” (maybe something less esoteric)?
Dan: It was basically me imagining Michelle Rodriguez wearing, on her arm, a snake’s neck and head like a glove-sleeve that she punched people with. Which, seriously, would be a badass movie, but maybe it’ll find its way into “Machete 3.” From there it morphed into the current (more sane) version.
TB: What are some of your favorite horror sub-genres? Like if you saw a freeze frame of the betting board in “Cabin in the Woods”, which one would you point to?
Dan: I’m leaning toward psychological horror/thrillers. I mean, that’s sort of how “Shiny Penny” was written, and my current project, “Killdeer,” is very much in that vein. I like the idea of, you know, where you have those movies where a place is haunted, and a character says, “50 years ago, this lady went crazy and killed her family.” I’m more interested in the origin story, like, “how did the lady go crazy?” There’s just more opportunity to explore a human story.
TB: Every writer has different reasons for pursuing what they do, but what would you say specifically draws you to this genre?
Dan: Horror is so much f*cking fun. I mean, I love writing, and I’ve written different kinds of things, but I laugh out loud when I write horror. Or I cringe. Or giggle. I just wrote a short based on these characters as a promotional piece and as I was writing it I was thinking, “Gawwd I’m sick.” I mean, I wrote a disgusting set piece and literally put my hand over my mouth as I wrote it. Horror’s fun, and it’s fun from like, age 12 to adults. I think what draws me most to horror is the relationship the film has to the audience. Horror films are so in your blood and they elicit such emotional AND visceral reactions. Oddly, they make people happy. I went to see the “Evil Dead” remake with my daughter and as we left she couldn’t stop smiling. She had a bounce to her step and she said, “I’m just so happy with that. That put me in such a great mood.”
TB: Horror, while great, can easily be repetitive or derivative. What makes your script different than all the others?
Dan: I see “Butcher Holler” as a cult classic. It has so many familiar notes, but done in new ways. It’s also very Comic Con-y. I mean, I’d love to see people show up dressed as the Craggs (the killer family in the movie), or as the good guys. Like, some people have a vision of success of being handed the Oscar, and that would be cool, but to go to Comic Con and see your characters there? Be on a panel? Sign me up. But there’s also something really deep in this movie. I mean, THAT’S at the heart of it–a really profound idea about Man and what he’s done to the earth and how he has to pay the price for that, and how that theme is so tightly interwoven with the protagonist’s arc of personal redemption.
TB: From this script, do you have any favorite scenes? At any time do you write something and KNOW that you just hit a home run with that moment?
Dan: The opening ritual on the mountain is banging. The introduction of a character, Felicity, is pretty wonderful — I was giggling as I wrote her description and subsequent actions in that scene. The reveal of Preston and what happens to him in the cave is just perfect, and funny and horrible and just so, so wrong. And finally, there’s a sort of ‘love-note’ to “Evil Dead” in there that is not just a cool reference for horror fans, but it sits smack dab in the heart of the central conceit of the script.
TB: Your script is pitched as “Deliverance” meets “Silent Hill”. Why’d you pick those particular movies as a frame of reference?
Dan: I referenced “Silent Hill” for the images and the freaky religious backdrop. Also, that movie just really terrified me. I referenced “Deliverance” for the story and themes and powerful metaphor and the mountainous arena.
TB: What is your routine?
Dan: I’m an editor and writer, so I spend all day staring at a computer. As a result, I really just don’t have the eye stamina or spirit to work at night. So for the past few years, I’ve been getting up early to write, sometimes as early as 4, but never later than 6 or so. That way I can do 3-4 solid hours before my job. Then in the evening I do some re-reading of what I wrote or some light polishing. Then on weekends, try to get 4-5 hours a day in. Seriously, I’m just trying to write my way out of a shitty job.
TB: How long did it take you to complete the first draft of “Butcher Holler” and how long to get it ready for the contest?
Dan: It took about three months, from concept, thru outline to final draft. I think what saves me time is I’m pretty sure of the larger structure beats, and I make my decisions early regarding character and dialogue. If anything, I overwrite and it’s a matter of chopping away. And I’m just really, really hungry, so I can kind of turn into a machine. I usually know my big events from the start, almost as soon as an idea comes to my head. The inciting incident, point of attack, crisis, climax, those tend to follow pretty quickly.
TB: How close do you stick to your outlines?
Dan: I used to have a habit of spending forever on outlines, and they’re important, but for “Butcher Holler” I found that it was more fun to dive in and just write it. I don’t use cards or any software to do outlining. I just write. When I need to figure something out, I get out my Moleskine and just start writing “What if’s”. Pages and pages of ‘what if’s.” I will occasionally do some quick character sketches but almost all my discoveries happen as I’m writing. I find I usually have 2 false starts. And by that I mean, I’ll take a stab at the first 15-20 pages or so a couple of times before I find the hook. Now, those false starts aren’t worthless, because I discover character and voice by way of them. So I don’t mind.
TB: Has writers block ever hindered you? Any tricks to help others break out of it?
Dan: No writer’s block. Not really. If I’m stuck, I’ll just write, “some cool shit happens here” and I move on. I know my next three scripts.
TB: Most good writers write constantly, like a shark swims. Would you say you write more because you want to (get out of said crappy job) or because you have to (as in you’re compelled)?
Dan: Both, and also because, what the hell else am I gonna do? I’ve got like, two skills: I’m sort of funny and I can write. But I really do feel the need to write. For instance, I recently went to a funeral of a dear, dear friend. During the service, which was profound, I was taking notes in my head. I was writing poetry, line by line, in my mind. Writing is how I respond to the world around me. The pastor said something that sent my mental bad poetry writer self in motion; he said, “In heaven, there will be no suffering or pain.” And I said, out loud but to myself, “Then there’s no art in heaven.”
STAY TUNED FOR PART 3 OF OUR DAN SHEA INTERVIEW WHERE WE WILL DISCUSS: