powered_by.png, 1 kB
Home arrow Entertainment arrow Dark Gallery arrow Writing Monster Movies: An interview with John Oak Dalton
Writing Monster Movies: An interview with John Oak Dalton PDF Print E-mail
Written by Written by Joe Sherlock   
Mar 30, 2005 at 02:00 AM
DG: Your produced work in recent times has dealt with horror and specifically monsters of one sort of another (Among Us' Bigfoot, Peter Rottentail's killer bunny, Sex Machine's frankenstein-ish creation, Razorteeth's killer fish). Have you always had a love of monsters or did you just happen to fall into writing this run of creature features?

JOD: Everything old is new again - which is good, because I'm old. I think we're in a period of time where there is a lot of interest in the classic, archetypal "creature features." This is great news for me because this is a lot of what I grew up on, as well as Italian sword and sandal epics, Mexican wrestling flicks, Japanese rubber monster outings, Hong Kong kung fu thrillers, and the occasional Russian sci-fi opus.

I missed the whole slasher phenom more or less; I remember in high school my brother and I taking some girls on a double date to an early Friday the 13th picture that was sold out, and that was probably the end of that. I do understand why people make flat tons of microcinema slasher movies, because it represents a certain time in that person's life that means something. That doesn't mean it's overall a good genre, though; but I understand it. For instance, I know in my heart that Abba's "Dancing Queen" isn't that good, but it represents a certain time in my life, so I can't help but tap my toes when it's on.

That being said, horror isn't my favorite genre, and I had a lot of catching up to do from everything that happened in it post-college when I landed a scriptwriting assignment writing a horror project for the Polonia Brothers. I think that's why I have had a fair amount of luck with horror; since I wasn't deeply immersed in it as a fan I can look at it from the outside a bit and hopefully provide some different perspectives.

DG: How did you hook up with the prolific Polonia Brothers?

JOD: My day job is working in technology at a Midwestern university, and a student of mine was a big b-movie fan and gave me a couple of tapes that turned out to be the Polonia Brothers' Blood Red Planet and Brett Piper's Drainiac. Despite its motorcycle helmet space suits and gravel pit planetscapes and sock puppet monsters, Blood Red Planet is full of fun and love of the genre and it jumped right out at me and punched me between the eyes with its pure energy. I saw Mark Polonia had a credit on Drainiac as well, a nice little picture, so I sought him out and discovered we both worked at Midwestern universities and had families and so on. We corresponded for quite some time before we worked on a (unrealized) project or two together, and a bit beyond that before Among Us got greenlit.

You've got to give respect to the Polonia Brothers, whether you love them or hate them - and nobody seems neutral on the topic, and there seems to be legions on both sides! They are among the few pioneers who blazed a trail in the SOV/DV field that a lot of people followed along behind, and they have helped many, many filmmakers along the way. They've put around twenty features out there that are in distribution, dating back to their high school days, and there aren't too many people out there in microcinema (or in Hollywood, for that matter) who have that much work on the shelves. The Brothers are great, fun guys who really love what they're doing. I hope they save me a seat on the rocket, and I will save one for them.

DG: What were some of the highlights of your trip up to the Among Us shoot? I think the initial heady moment was hearing my words spoken by an actor - in this case, Hunter Austin - for the first time. Unfortunately, that first speech included the word "cornhole." There were a few moments where I had to think WWWGD - What Would William Goldman Do? - like when I carried some heavy equipment across a rickety bridge, or watched Bob Dennis burn my script up in the campfire scene, or when I had to don the Bigfoot suit for the climax and almost passed out from the lack of nose-holes in the mask.

It's funny, but there's one scene in the "making of" documentary on the DVD that shows me cooking dinner for everybody and blithely making rice without any butter (there was none at the cabin). I have probably had more people ask me how that rice turned out than anything in the movie!

DG: Well? Inquiring minds want to know - how did the rice turn out?

JOD: I grilled hot dogs and put out a few sides and didn't hear any complaints!

DG: Tell us about your script-to-screen experiences - sometimes a lot changes between the two. Have you been happy about some? Unhappy about others?

JOD: There is no doubt there are a lot of changes for good and ill. Some things don't work out, with changes in actors or locations or weather or what have you, but even if everything goes smoothly you see your script changed through the actor's interpretations as well as the director's perspectives. I think what you come to realize is that a script really isn't your baby - you're delivering somebody else's baby. You can argue your case up to a point but ultimately it rests in the hands of someone else; that's why God invented pseudonyms. Though I have vowed never to use one.

I remember when I did a rewrite over the Polonia Brothers' Razorteeth that Mark called and complained that I had included a plane crash as well as a dam blowing up - and I had to remind him that they were both in the original script! John Polonia then said, "Don't worry, if we can't figure it out we'll shemp it" - which would send a chill down any screenwriter's spine, though in this case it all looked pretty good in the end.

DG: What do you feel are the most important things to keep in mind when you're writing a script?

JOD: I think no matter if you're writing Bigfoot scripts or killer rabbit movies or whatever you have to think about resonant characters, dialogue, and backstories. It may seem stupid if you're just doing genre work but you have to give audiences something to hook onto and then they will go along with whatever your plot happens to be. I've had a chance to do quite a bit of rewrite and polish work for a handful of projects and think those are my strengths in particular, so of course I'm going to say that, but I do think it is true.

I also think a good rule of thumb is to write movies you would like to see, instead of ones you think everyone else wants to see. The old adage that if you try to please everyone you'll generally please nobody really rings true in movies.

And as far as audiences go, it's never wise to try to write down to them. A viewer can't always articulate what is wrong with a feature, but they can tell something is; that's why it's so important to pay attention to foreshadowing and subtext, but also I think if you try to phone it in or are cynical about the outcome of the project a viewer can smell it a mile away. If you are going to write genre pictures you have to do it because you love the movies and not because you're trying to break into the industry that way.

DG: There's much talk of the "digital filmmaking revolution" including Francis Ford Coppola's infamous comment about the next great movie coming from a little fat girl in Ohio. Do you have any perspective on digital filmmaking and it's purported "leveling" of the film world playing field?

JOD: I wish that little fat girl would call me, I could always use more work!

I do believe there is a revolution at hand. When I was a little kid in the early 70s in my Indiana hometown there was no Internet, no PCs, no cable, no cell phones, no VCRs, no Blockbuster. When I was a teenager in the early 80s the list gets only slightly shorter. I was watching TV with my teenaged daughter the other day and she did not recognize that a record player was being used in a scene. That tells you how much has changed in 25 years or so. Once upon a time I was making Super-8s with my brother and showing them on the side of the garage, and that was about as far as that could go. Now with the web and grassroots DV technology you can reach the world in a very literal sense. There is no doubt that this has helped my writing career, as I can deal with people electronically or over the phone all around the country and still live in several square miles of cornfield.

It's a bit of a double-edged sword, because you see a lot of high school kids with camcorders building websites and calling themselves "filmmakers," which we didn't have the chutzpah to do when I was a kid, and if we did there was nobody to listen. The other danger is that so many people want to emulate Hollywood movies. But that's not the power of grassroots DV; it is in hearing other voices, from other lands, especially that great "Flyover Country" between LA and NY. Those people telling stories that they want to hear, as I said earlier, are the most powerful, I think. You've got Christopher Sharpe out in Oklahoma City, Jason Santo up around Boston, Jay Bauman in Milwaukee, Joe Sherlock out in Oregon, Scott Phillips out in Albuquerque, and the list goes on and on.

Of course, I think analog cable access and good old-fashioned paper 'zines/underground comix still remain vibrant and viable and represent that grassroots ethos, and I've dipped a little into those as well. Ironically, I started pursuing writing screenplays because I kept hitting brick walls writing for comics!

I think everyone who writes would like to see their work up on the big screen or on the best-seller list, but in my heart of hearts I think a lot about the kid finding the dusty paperback in the corner of the library or that rental on the bottom shelf at the back of the store, and wondering who those people were, and thinking "Maybe I can do this too," and of course I think a lot about that because once that kid was me. And there's something tantalizing about realizing that you have a project that is on its own in the great wide world, and that it exists, and can't ever be taken back, and maybe somebody will come across it someday and be inspired to do it and do it better.

DG: Any projects in the works or coming out soon you'd like to mention?

JOD: Right at this moment Christopher Sharpe's Sex Machine is wrapping up in Oklahoma City and the Polonia Brothers' Razorteeth is cooking in post out in Pennsylvania, both of which I did rewrites over. I have two others in development that I hope will see the light of day soon, and quite a few others in various stages. One would be my first theatrical release. The painful truth is that you have to keep a lot of things in the hopper all the time, because for every one thing I have out there I have the floating corpses of three other projects in its wake (though, in true horror movie fashion, you never know when one might come back to life some day). I honestly have been so busy with other people's projects, especially in the last eighteen months or so, that I haven't had time to work up much on my own or many spec scripts. This summer I wrote a modern dress/original prose adaptation of an obscure Shakespeare play that I have wanted to do for ages and now that I have that out of my system I'm ready to make some more monsters kill some more people.


User Comments
Your Name / Email Address


Mambo is Free Software released under the GNU/GPL License.