Talking all things horror/ An interview with Jeff Howard

In the 2010s and in terms of big names, two directors have massively influenced horror cinema: James Wan and Mike Flanagan.

Flanagan in particular is breathing new air into the field of widely distributed horror movies, with titles like Ouija: Origin of Evil, Oculus, Before I Wake and Gerald’s Game. What many people are unaware of, however, is that the scripts for Flanagan’s work are written by a person who’s providing horror movies with a depth that American horror had forgotten in the late 90s, early 00s. This person is Jeff Howard, screenwriter and of the movies mentioned above, who kindly agreed on talking to me about horror, upcoming projects, scary things and much more, starting with his career-long partnership with Mike Flanagan.

Jeff, in your career-long partnership with Mike Flanagan, the horror movies you’ve written have always combined supernatural elements and human emotions such as grief and depression. Do you think this combination makes your films scarier? Or, perhaps, do you want to achieve something more than just scaring audiences?

I feel like the idea is that if you spend time living with characters, if you come to know them and to love them in their own way, and you let the audience live with that for a while… then when the inevitable terrible things begin to happen, it will feel all the worse because it’s happening to people we like or know or both. In a perfect world, you would spend thirty or forty minutes living with people and have time to forget you were watching a scary movie. Then, when the bad things begin to happen, you realize… uh oh, anybody could go.

I often claim, in my blog posts, that Mike Flanagan is currently my favourite American director when it comes to horror flicks. How’s it working with him?

Mike Flanagan is in many ways the opposite of the tense and terrifying movies that he makes. He doesn’t think he’s funny, but he’s hilarious. I would love for us to write a family movie or a comedy just to surprise people. One of the great things about the Netflix series was getting to watch other writers realize the good time we’ve been having and share it.

What filmmakers, classic and current, do you look up to for inspiration?

My favorite filmmaker of all time was Billy Wilder. I grew up watching his movies, so his film language is like my alphabet. Plus, he was sarcastic and funny but also heart-wrenching and sad. He was kind of an antidote to the plot serving fluff characterizations of Hitchcock. I’m glad to have grown up with the Spielberg classics, and Rob Reiner’s first eight or nine movies are as good as anybody’s ever made. I can tell you for certain that Rob Cohen is the most under-rated director in the world, and deserves to be let loose on something great.

Is it fair to state that Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Before I Wake are a sort of hybrid between independent filmmaking and mainstream horror cinema? Is this something you strive for­ or something you envision when working?

I see what you mean about Ouija: Origin of Evil and Before I Wake… and I would include Oculus and Gerald’s Game in there, too. Never fully operating within the system, which is probably what allows each of them to delve so far into the world of the characters. They are indie in character spirit, for sure, and each released by a major studio. That mostly comes from having a director who execs respect and believe in.

Besides Permanent Damage (1992), you always worked within the horror genre. Do you think horror movies allow for more freedom in terms of story and themes?

Careers are funny because you sell scripts that never get made. Before working with Mike Flanagan, I sold comedies and biopic stuff to studios. That being said, scary movies are so absolutely pure in their emotions and connection to the audience that I love being part of it. When they’re done right, they can move an audience in ways nothing else can.

I find movies like Oculus (2014), Before I Wake (2016) and Gerald’s Game (2017) both touching and unsettling. How do you balance these different emotions?

All of my favorite movies incorporate most of the things that life has in it – humor, sadness, tragedy, triumph, silliness, love, action. All the stuff that goes into life goes into movies like Casablanca or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws. So I think in our own way, we’re just reflecting what actual life is like. Obviously, with a little extra thrown in.

The characters you write are always conflicted and multifaceted. Are they the key for a successful screenplay? Do you usually come up with the characters and then create a story around them or vice versa?

For some reason, the characters and the plot always seem to come together as one piece. It’s as though – these are the only people who could go through this experience. These are the people who need to go through this experience. It feels like, if they’re not intertwined completely, you should probably keep working.

Let’s talk about your next project, the remake of the slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997): do you want to make the movie go in a different direction compared with the original? In what ways do you believe it can be improved upon?

Actually, I can pretty much guarantee that our version of I Know What You Did Last Summer will never see the light of day. It’s an assignment we took a couple of years ago, and did not perhaps realize the worldwide interest in the title. As far as I can tell, just regular studio finance shenanigans have kept it from being made, and it will most likely end up as a TV series with another take. However, the next thing coming down the pike that Mike and I wrote is a Joe Hill adaptation called Snapshot, 1988. I think it’s the best thing we’ve done since the one-two punch of Oculus and Before I Wake. I can’t wait to see the movie, which is being produced by our buddies Jason Blum and Akiva Goldsman for Universal. I think it has a shot to be the new Stand By Me.

Have you got any suggestion for horror writers who might look up to you as an inspiration, or a lesson you wish you’d learnt earlier in you career­?

First, pick better role models. Second, write and re-write and re-write. Finish a draft and put it away for a couple of weeks and revisit it before you ever show it to anyone, most especially a producer or manager or agent. You can only make a first impression with a story once, don’t get so excited by reaching “the end” that you think you’re actually finished. My rule is, work on it until you can hand it to someone with no caveats or explanations. Also, nobody’s perfect, and just like you don’t like every movie that comes out, you can’t expect everyone who reads your script to love it. Development people and execs are all cautious for a good reason – if you say yes to the wrong things too many times, you’ll be fired. So “remove the no’s” from your script and don’t give them any easy reasons to turn you down. Third… know your film history and current movies. You should anyway because you purportedly love them or you wouldn’t be doing this. But I once made a Taxi Driver reference and the exec started telling a story about Uber and I realized… they think I literally meant a driver of a taxi. They do not know the movie Taxi Driver. And yeah, not everybody has to know everything, but…

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