David J. Stieve

David J. Stieve wrote the script for this summer's DVD hit "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon." We caught up with him recently to find out what he's up to now, the possibility of a sequel and what ideas he's been kicking around.

Those are the types of subtle inside jokes for true horror fans that we wanted to sprinkle throughout.

I remember thinking that even though I loved the film, that it must have sounded ridiculous on paper. Was it hard to get people to see the vision you had in your head? The concept is definitely pretty out there.

That was the hardest challenge I faced initially, back in 2001 when I
wrote the first draft. No one could quite grasp the angle I was
shooting for. I would hear time and time again that "the script is
great, but it just doesn't fit into any genre we're looking for."
Hollywood is difficult and infuriating that way, and it's been a tough
lesson to learn: generally speaking, the people with the money don't
want to take chances or venture out into uncharted waters. I was
getting very frustrated, even after Slamdance (2002 Screenplay
competition, in which the script was a finalist), people were still not
getting it.

Luckily, my friend Kelly (Rowan, from television's "The
O.C." and of course "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh"!)) got it into
(producer) Andrew Lewis's hands, and he did see the potential in it,
and knew that it would be right up Scott Glosserman's alley. I'm a big
believer in fate, so I feel vindicated in all the early refusals just
based on the fact that it eventually ended up in Scotty's hands. Here's
a guy who read it, saw what I was going for, and then brought a whole
lot more to the table. All it takes is one person to say yes. Now, of
course, standing on the other side, I bite my tongue and smirk a lot
when I hear some of the same people -who passed on it initially -
praising the finished product. That's the game, though, and I'm very
lucky to be playing in it.

Nathan told us that a lot of the comedy came from his interpretation of the character of "Leslie." Can you tell us about how you wrote him, and what Nathan brought to the part? Was it a funny script before Nathan came in?

What can I say about Nathan, and what he brought to it? Because I know
he's doing an interview with Bloody Good Horror, so... No, the truth
is, there are so many amazing, brilliant moments that he and Angela and
everyone else put up on that screen, that if I could take credit for
them, I would! Bottom line, as a screenwriter, you're really only
providing a roadmap or a blueprint. I can imagine the most beautiful,
gorgeous house in the world, and draw plans, and sketches, and provide
pictures of what I want in it. But at the end of the day, it's up to
the artisans and craftsmen and people lugging the lumber around to
realize that house in concrete terms. It's the same with film. I gave
Nathan as much as I could in terms of laying out Leslie's character
quirks, and the dialogue and action, and Nathan understood all of it
and ran with it.

So yes, I know it was a funny script before any actor
picked it up, I was told that enough times that I finally believed it.
But the magic comes in when someone, like Nathan, reads the funny parts
and starts to fill in the gaps between them. Leslie Vernon as a
character existed in my mind, in Scotty's mind, only as a ghost, an
outline of a man. Nathan constructed the finished, physical being that
we see on the screen. It was nothing short of amazing to watch,
specifically when Leslie "shifts gears" from jovial, friendly guy to
brutal killing machine. Nathan was running a parallel track as an
actor. He was funny and talkative between takes on the former, and then
he would drop out of the world and go to a pretty dark place between
takes on the latter. Breathtaking to watch, and invaluable as a writer
to witness.

You wrote the screenplay, and then the Scott helped you shape it. What were his biggest inputs on the story?

That was a collaboration that went on for almost two years before
cameras rolled. And then, even WHILE cameras were rolling! As I said, I
knew what story I was trying to tell - an artist's struggle to realize
his life's dream. That's the metaphor of Leslie Vernon, or Taylor
Gentry, etc. What choices do you make in pursuit of your calling? And I
knew I wanted to set that metaphor against the backdrop of an 80's
slasher icon. What Scott brought to it was, again, the fact that he got
the joke and saw that it could work, but then more than that, he knows
everything there is to know about the genre, and the imagery, and the
precedents that have been established in horror. So he really
illuminated some of the specific areas that I didn't explore fully, and
pushed me in the right directions to go deeper with dialogue and
action.

The biggest thing that happened, by far, was the addition of a
third act. I had originally ended the script when Leslie's about to
make his first kill at the farmhouse on the night of the Harvest Moon.
I though the point was "hey, we've all seen what happens next a
thousand times." It's every slasher that's ever been made, so no need
to show it again. It was Scott who rightfully insisted that that was
exactly what we needed to deliver on, what Leslie had set up. I
resisted, of course, being a young writer, but he brought me around.
And as soon as we started working on the "what happens next" question,
the whole third act just blossomed. It was like a door was opened and
all this fresh air came rushing in. It was awesome.

Well, first of all, Bridgett IS hot, so that was no great thespian stretch from The Beez!

Were you on the set alot of the film? How much involvement did you have in the actual shooting?

I was spoiled! Writers typically are not wanted on set, and don't have
any input if they are. But I got to be there for a week of
pre-production in Portland, and then for the final week of shooting as
well. I tried to stay out of everyone's way, because at that point it's
a lot bigger than any one person, and I was just a spectator. But there
were some scenes that needed to be re-written on the fly, to
accommodate for some logistical thing, or to fill in gaps in plot or
back story and exposition that got missed or dropped, so I was able to
make myself useful in that way.

I remember Scott and I staying up until
about 3AM -before a 6AM calltime, as I recall - tweaking some scenes
for the next day. That was a rush! Don't know if I'd care to do it
again, but it was still a rush. Scotty even put me in a few scenes as
an extra, so I got to do my little Hitchcock-style cameo! But the bulk
of my involvement was standing on the sidelines, watching this small
army of professionals bring the story to life. I will never forget how
that felt, for as long as I work in this business. So validating as a
writer to see.

I loved the moment where Leslie introduces us to his turtles. That for me was the moment when I realized the film was supposed to be funny. Was that one of your original scenes, or was that added later?

That was there. They were fish in the script, actually, and I'm not
sure how they ended up evolving into turtles, but the idea of his
having pets was there. Pets he could eat, specifically! The point
being, Leslie would have a hypocrisy about him, that he would never
hurt or neglect an animal, or anything cruel like that. But plants and
fish/turtles, or teenagers, that's fair game! And it was always
intended to be a nod to "Pet Sematary" that they'd be named Church and
Zowie. Those are the types of subtle inside jokes for true horror fans
that we wanted to sprinkle throughout.

Another moment that made me laugh out loud was when Leslie exclaims that Bridgett Newton's character is "f'ing hot" right before entering the house... because she is! Any thoughts on that particular moment in the film?

Well, first of all, Bridgett IS hot, so that was no great thespian
stretch from The Beez! And I'm confident enough to say that Bridgett's
husband, David, is a damn good looking dude as well. The two of them
together, it's flat out ridiculous and makes you want to kill yourself.
But all jokes aside, that's one of those moments in the film that
because it was being shot on DV, and in a very impromptu documentary
style, both Scotty and the actors got to play around and improvise some
of the scenes and dialogue as they were shooting. With film running
through a camera, you don't have that luxury on an indie film. But
video allows you to experiment and trust your actors to tinker with
what feels right to them. I think. That's more a question for Scott, I
suppose. But the point being, that particular reaction/line was
something that Nathan felt expressed Leslie's character in that moment,
and it worked brilliantly.

I thought Angela Goethals was a revelation as Taylor, can you describe the process of casting her? Do you think she embodied what you had laid out in the script?

Well, hold on, is Angela doing an interview, too? Same thing applies,
Angela was exactly the right person for the role. Everyone who loves
the film loves Leslie's character, and they should. But for me, Taylor
has always been my favorite. From a storytelling perspective, there's a
very strong argument to be made that Behind "The Mask: The Rise of
Leslie Vernon" is actually more about TAYLOR'S character arc. She's the
one who goes through the Campbellian, Hero's Journey type experiences
and transformation. And I am always drawn to the idea of a strong
female character, one who embraces her own femininity and at the same
time can "run with the big dogs." In the inevitable sequel discussions,
it's obviously about what Leslie does next, but I would caution anyone
who is projecting ideas or having hypothetical discussions of BTM II,
don't for a second count Taylor Gentry out!

And Angela, as Taylor,
brought exactly those qualities to the film. In the same way that
Leslie existed as an idea, so did Taylor. And watching Angela read for
the role in the casting process, it was very clear that she either
already had a bigger idea of Taylor in mind, or she was naturally a
good fit to begin with. It's easy to spot an actor who "takes over" a
character as opposed to just reading lines off the page. All of my
favorite scenes are with Taylor, even when I was writing them. That
says more about Angela's performance than anything- she took my
favorite character on the page, the one I would have been most
possessive about, and turned Taylor into more than I'd ever imagined.

It does involve what Leslie would do next. He's only just begun to execute (pun intended) his master plan on Glen Echo.

Nathan mentioned that you might be working on a script for the sequel, maybe showing Leslie getting what he always wanted, his fame so to speak. Can you expound on your ideas for a sequel? Is that something that's inevitable?

I wish I could say that a sequel is inevitable, but I can't. Hollywood just
doesn't have much room for absolutes. Had it done gangbusters business
at the box office and gone "Blair Witch" or "Cabin Fever" or something,
then yes, of course it would be different. And that's not to say a
sequel isn't a possibility. But the jury's still out on the business
end of it. Buy lots of DVD's, please! Great stocking stuffer gift, it's
never too early to start shopping! But even then, the logistics become
tricky. I've likened it to trying to land an airliner on a postage
stamp. When you have actors like Scott Wilson and Robert Englund
involved, it's a challenge to get them all back. Scotty (Glosserman)
has other projects on his slate, as do I, and it's not like Nathan and
Angela are sitting around with nothing to do, either. To get everyone
together again, as much as I'd love it, would be a steep mountain to
climb.

Having said all that, for me personally as a writer, I would relish the
opportunity to tell the next chapter, and I do have a framework in
mind. It does involve what Leslie would do next. He's only just begun
to execute (pun intended) his master plan on Glen Echo. This was his
opening salvo in what he aspires to be a lifelong passion project. He's
succeeded in the first phases, setting up his legend and pulling off
The Boy's return. Now he'd want to cash in on that in the following
years, to create a larger mythology. This was only the beginning, and
he would only get better, bigger, more terrifying as he learned and
pushed himself. I think there's a ton of material left to explore in
that, and self-referential aspects of the genre left to showcase. Just
on some of the stuff that got cut from THIS film, we'd probably be
halfway or a third of the way to a finished script!

On top of that,
there's the entire untapped potential of the devices and cliches of
slasher horror sequels to look at. And last, as I mentioned, one of the
areas that appeals to me the most is what happens to Taylor. Survivor
girls are subject to their own cliches, and not very many have come
back with any great success. Typically, a survivor girl from one flick
is the first to go in the next, or she sacrifices herself for the new
survivor girl. Halloween's "Laurie Strode" being the obvious
antithesis, she's really the only survivor girl who matters in my
opinion. Taylor Gentry would be a lot more like Laurie Strode in my
vision. And let's face facts, if Leslie aspires to be the next great
slasher icon, he's not going to get there without Taylor, the next
great Survivor Girl.

Do you think there are heights of self awareness left to explore? Immediately after the film was over I remember saying, "that's it, we've come full circle with self awareness." Almost as if you finished off what Wes Craven started with "Scream." Is there anywhere to go from here?

As far as the self-awareness, I don't know. Anytime Wes Craven's name
gets tossed out there, you have to tread very carefully. As much as I
am blown away by even having my stuff compared to his, it's a reality
check to think I even came close to touching that stratosphere even
once. I think the hope that I would hold out for myself, if I was lucky
enough to be asked for a sequel, would be that I think Leslie and
Taylor as characters have established enough of a dynamic and a
relationship, and they're both smart enough, that they would be able to
carry the immense weight of the expectations of a sequel.

Not sure if
that makes sense. But I believe in them enough, and Scotty and myself
enough, that we could find a way to take the story to the next level.
What would be ideal to me, and then I'll shut up about it, would be to
get Scotty, Nathan, Angela, Robert, Scott Wilson, and Bridgett, all
together in a room, open a case of wine, and start spit-balling ideas.
Even if nothing concrete came of it, it would be a blast just to talk
it out. Because each of them brought so much to their respective
characters, I think NOT tapping them for their thoughts would be
short-changing the project.

So other than possible sequel ideas, what are you working on now?

I have a bank heist caper called "Days Like This," which is about two
bank robbery crews who coincidentally both hit the same small town bank
at exactly the same time, and also a feel-good Christmas script about a
mother of three who inadvertently makes Santa Claus so angry at her
that he cancels Christmas until she figures out how to make things
right again. Both of those are in different stages of what I will
optimistically call "pre-production," in that they have other people
attached to them, trying to secure financing and cast. Other than that,
I continue to work on original scripts, and my manager is pursuing
"hired gun" writing assignments for other producers or studios. BTM
certainly opened some doors there, now it's time to step up and deliver
whatever is asked of me next.

Have you ever considered writing a straight up horror script?

Sure, and I would love to. I don't know that I'm equipped, necessarily,
to do anything too "by the book," there would always need to be a
smarter twist on it just for my own sanity. But if someone asked me to
give them a straight up, murder by numbers, we-know-what's-coming-next
script, I'd gladly give it my best shot. Interestingly, I feel like any
sequel to BTM would by necessity have to be darker and grittier in that
regard, though. Leslie crossed the Rubicon when he killed Todd and
tried to kill Taylor and Doug. There's no "sorry about that, let's
shoot some more docu footage" to fall back on. So BTM II, if it
happened, would be closer to straight horror. And I'd love to try that
more than any other stand alone idea.

Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?

Don't do it! No, but I would caution anyone out there not to treat it
too lightly. Give it the respect it deserves. When you say you're a
screenwriter, you're picking up a heavy mantle of responsibility, that
of being a modern day storyteller. Too many people, in my opinion,
treat it like it's a simple, easy thing to do. It just isn't, it's
tough and very time-consuming to invent a story that works. There are a
lot of components that need a great deal of attention and thought. To
sit down and start writing dialogue from page 1, and think you're going
to end up on page 110 with a complete story that works, you're
absolutely deluding yourself. It would be similar to getting in a car
with no idea where you're going, only the vague idea of a destination,
and thinking you're going to drive straight there with no wrong turns
or dead ends along the way.

IF you believe screenwriting is your calling, however, or if you have
an idea that you just HAVE TO TELL, then my advice is commit to it and
don't stop. It's going to take you several years to realize it on
screen, and the possibility of failure will be clawing at you at every
step. But if you mentally prepare yourself for that long hard road,
then nothing can stop you. On a practical level, read books on
screenwriting. That's my single biggest piece of advice. Story by
McKee, Writer's Journey by Vogler, Screenplay by Field, read them all.
Take the parts that register with you, and read the next. You will form
your own style, your own understanding of how to tell a story. Stealing
Fire From the Gods by James Bonnet is one of my lesser known, personal
favorites. Storytelling is arguably the oldest of all art forms.
Screenwriting is just its newest, youngest form. Approach it accordingly.

Well thanks for answering our questions, everyone here just wanted to wish you the best of luck in the future!

Thanks for having me, and BIG THANKS to all the fans out there at Bloody Good Horror for your support of the film!

Around the Web

What's New?

We talk about Joe's feelings. ALL of them.

Podcast

So this one's quite the... head-scratcher...

Podcast

Latest Reviews

Search

Around The Web