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The Ghoulish Times | 10/02/21
Movie Origins - Frank is Pissed - Film Production Design
Hello and welcome to the 3rd issue of The Ghoulish Times. Exactly a year ago today I was checking into a hotel in Southfield, Michigan to be on set for the filming of the movie I wrote, We Need to Do Something. I would not check out until the end of October. It was one of the coolest months of my life. To celebrate, I thought I’d reprint the new afterword I recently wrote for the updated paperback edition of the novella (it’s also included in the limited edition hardcover). Check it out…
AUTHOR’S NOTE (for WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING)
What you just read was a book that saved my life. I self-released it through my small press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, in April 2020 with almost zero pre-promotion or confidence that anybody would actually like it. At the time, I was nearing my eighth year working the night shift at a hotel on the city limits of San Antonio, which was a job I despised to my core (see my novel The Nightly Disease for a deeper exploration into this occupational hell). Just a reminder, for those somehow reading this afterword years into the future: 2020 was not a particularly kind year for the human race. The coronavirus pandemic pretty much fucked us all.
For an idea of my mental state at the time, here is an email I sent my film & TV manager, Ryan Lewis, on March 20, 2020, at 4:53 AM:
Just wanted to let you know I'm leaning toward self-releasing this novella sometime soon. Something cheap and quick for people to read, an easy way to make some extra cash. Might be a good time for it, considering the novella is about a family caught in self-isolation from a natural disaster.
My hotel's cut some of my hours and let a bunch of other people go. I work for Marriott and I don't know if you've seen the news, but Marriott is facing a harder loss than they did for 9/11 and The Great Recession combined. It is looking pretty gloomy over here.
So that's why I'm leaning toward self-releasing it. I don't know how much longer I'll have a job and it will be an avenue to make a little bit of money.
How's it going with you and your family and everything?
My partner and I were barely managing to survive living paycheck-to-paycheck, which is the only lifestyle I’ve known since early into my childhood. Coworkers were getting furloughed left and right due to COVID complications. Breakfast attendants and our laundry person were let go, and both of their duties were suddenly sprung on me, without offering any additional payment. Several hotels near our location shut down. I was scared of losing my job while simultaneously terrified of catching COVID from handling dirty laundry or interacting with guests—where, in Texas, over half the population didn’t believe the virus was even real. Not a shift went by that I didn’t get into an argument with a guest refusing to wear a mask. My general manager at the hotel laughed and implied I was a coward whenever I brought up safety concerns. Misery plagued me every time I stood behind the front desk.
Before continuing, I should probably explain how this novella originated in the first place. Contrary to how most books are written, We Need to Do Something started as a screenplay. Back in 2019, I had lunch with a screenwriter friend of mine named Shane McKenzie, who convinced me to try writing my own script so we could send it to an indie production company that was supposedly hungry for original material. Despite not having any experience with screenwriting, I decided to try it out with this weird bathroom idea I’d been thinking about lately.
Living in Central Texas means we often receive tornado warnings on our phones, although literally experiencing a tornado is pretty uncommon. At least by us. Still, it’s better not to fuck with mother nature, right? So when the notifications do pop up, we seek shelter in our bathroom until the weather app tells us it’s safe again. It was during one of these nights that I tried to spook my family by asking them a simple question: What would happen if we got stuck in here, and nobody came to help us? My partner’s daughter immediately told me to shut up. All three of them acted unsettled by the question. I wasn’t expecting them to actually take my joke seriously, but witnessing their reaction was all the convincing I needed to know the premise would potentially respond well with an audience. At the very least, it would be a fun challenge to myself: Could I set an entire book within a bathroom? I’d previously written a novel primarily set inside a basement (Carnivorous Lunar Activities), so why not try a bathroom for the next one?
I already had this bathroom idea percolating before having lunch with my friend, but now it was all I could think about, because if we were going to send this script to an indie horror company, it was logical to assume they would prefer something that could be made with a low budget. I already knew this idea would be set in one room, with—at the very most—four characters. They’re going to love this! I thought, while spending several months banging out a script. I sent it to my friend, who forwarded it to the film company. Then several more months passed without a response (to this day, they have not emailed us back about it).
When I first penned the screenplay, I did not have any representation. I wouldn’t hook up with Ryan Lewis (my film & TV manager/guardian angel) until January 2020. But I knew how to (sorta) sell books, so I decided I would just stick with where I was more comfortable. I grew impatient and rewrote the script as a novella. This ended up being a great move on my part, because the novella vastly improved from the original screenplay I wrote. For reference (I’m assuming you’ve at least read the book at this point), the original screenplay did not feature anything related to the supernatural. It also didn’t contain any romance elements between Melissa and Amy. When I look back at it now, the screenplay served as a great outline for the eventual novella. Once I finished the book, I sent it out to a couple literary agents, but due to the word length (36,000) nobody would even look at it. Agents don’t really care about novellas. They want novels with a minimum length of 60,000 words. This book didn’t stand a chance. So I sat on it for a couple months, unsure what to do with it.
Then, well, 2020 happened. Go reread the email I sent Ryan Lewis if you need a refresher.
I didn’t think self-releasing We Need to Do Something would help my situation that much, to be fair. There is not a lot of money in indie horror. I figured, at the most, it’d refuel our cars or restock our house with groceries a couple times. As it turned out, however, I was never fired from the hotel. Deeper into the summer, our murderous governor, Greg Abbott, lifted the minimal COVID restrictions already in place, and the hotel tried resuming as if business was perfectly normal and people weren’t wheezing their final breaths around the globe from a virus without—at the time—any vaccine available. The stress had finally reached a boiling point and, after discussing the situation with my partner, Lori Michelle, we decided I would put my two weeks’ notice in and try to make a living with writing, publishing, and various freelance gigs.
I should also note that this decision was made in August 2020, one month after optioning We Need to Do Something to Atlas Industries for $5,000 (read Sean King O’Grady’s wonderful introduction for further details on how that came about), but we had no way of knowing whether or not it would actually get funded. Books get optioned all the time and nothing ever happens with them. I didn’t think for a second that I would somehow be the exception. The money we were seeking for the budget ($800,000), while small compared to most other movies, seemed like an impossible number in my eyes. The script that we sold to Atlas Industries was a new version of the story, separate from the original screenplay I tried writing back in 2019, now incorporating elements created for the novella version. I wrote this new script in the early months of 2020, with Ryan providing many necessary notes on how to improve it.
However, with that said, exactly one week after turning in my notice at the hotel, we received a phone call from Ryan, informing us the movie had miraculously received full funding, and we would begin shooting in late September. Meaning I would get paid the remaining purchase price on day one of filming: $35,000, more money than I had ever seen in my life. Meaning I wouldn’t need to let freelance stress give me a heart attack at the age of 27. Lori and I celebrated by eating Whataburger, which—ironically—was probably more likely to cause a heart attack than anything else. Actually, come to think about it, I think we were on the way home from picking up Whataburger when Ryan called us, so maybe the terrible-yet-delicious food decision had nothing to do with our good news. Holy shit now I’m craving Whataburger again.
Anyway, a lot happened between initially optioning the book and physically filming the adaptation, but if I tried covering every detail this afterword would quickly exceed the length of the novella. I was fortunate to work with people who valued my opinion, and let me contribute on decisions beyond writing, such as set production and casting ideas (I was the one who introduced everybody to Sierra McCormick, after watching The Vast of Night; she would go on to play Melissa in WNTDS). Let’s just say I probably have another book’s worth of email exchanges between myself, Ryan Lewis, Sean King O’Grady, Bill Stertz, Amy Williams, and Josh Malerman, as we all figured out exactly how we would make this thing.
So, in the beginning of October, now a full-time writer, I drove from San Antonio, Texas to Southfield, Michigan, and quarantined in a hotel for a month with the cast and crew as we all made a movie together. I juggled my time between hanging out on set and sitting with our editor, Shane Patrick Ford, as he pieced together the movie while everybody else filmed the day’s scenes directly below in our garage-turned-soundstage. Every night I returned to my hotel room exhausted and beyond excited to do it all over again the next day. Except for the night I drank an entire bottle of Knob Creek while partying with some of the crew. I may have spent the following day vomiting in my hotel room and praying for a quick death. Luckily, I had already stocked up on plenty of saltine crackers, otherwise I might not be alive today to write this afterword.
It was an insane time. Probably the best month of my life. I think about it constantly and hope to experience it again and again and again. I am writing this exactly one month before IFC Midnight releases the film in theaters and video-on-demand. I don’t know if people are going to like it. I don’t know if it’s going to make or break my career in screenwriting. Much like the family in We Need to Do Something, I don’t know much of anything right now, except for the fact that in July 2020 I virtually met Sean King O’Grady, who told me he wanted to direct my screenplay, and almost one year later the film was complete and debuting at Tribeca Film Fest in Brooklyn, and now next month it’s releasing to the public—in goddamn theaters. People dream about this stuff and never come close to experiencing it and here it is, actually happening. The only real lesson I’ve learned from any of this is that life is nuts and unpredictable and nothing makes sense.
If you read this book and/or watched the movie, I hope—at the very least—it made you feel something. If it bored you, then I’ve failed. I can’t confidently say it’s a great work of literature, or a cinematic masterpiece, but I can promise you one thing: it’s not boring. So thank you for your time. I hope it wasn’t wasted.
So there you have it. A more fleshed-out story of how the WNTDS movie happened. If you’re interested in obtaining a signed copy, click HERE (limited edition hardcover HERE). If you’re interested in watching the movie, click HERE.
Also, if you haven’t seen it, Matthew Revert’s cover art for the new paperback is simply amazing:
Oh yeah, and on October 6th (this upcoming Wednesday!), I will be doing a q&a at a special screening of the movie at the Alamo Drafthouse in Katy, TX. Tickets can be purchased HERE.
GHOULISH EPISODE #112
Amy Williams is an Emmy-winning production designer. Her work can be found on hit shows like Crashing and Master of None. Recently she designed a horror movie bathroom for my new movie, We Need to Do Something, so naturally I had to get her on the podcast to discuss what went into producing such a bizarre set. We also get a bit into spoiler territory and talk about all the fun occult easter eggs hidden in the bathroom.
TOUCH THE NIGHT News
I think it’s probably safe to say this here. I can’t get into specifics, but last weekend I signed a contract to option my novel Touch the Night with a rather big television studio. I can reveal nothing else (in fact, I might not even be allowed to reveal it’s been optioned), but I’m pretty stoked about the potential future this book may have. You can buy a signed paperback HERE.
Frank is pissed.
MEDIA RECENTLY EXPERIENCED
The Addams Family (1991) - This was a rewatch, and I forgot how horny this movie is. I can’t think of another kids movie where the parents are literally having orgasms in every scene they appear in. Hell yeah.
V/H/S/94 - The latest installment of the V/H/S found footage franchise might actually be my favorite. Consistently interesting and never boring. Gnarly creature designs and fun stories. I had a blast. Watched via early press screener from Shudder.
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark - Only cowards rate this masterpiece anything less than 5 stars. This is seriously great and I can’t believe I missed it until recently. Immediately decided this would be an annual rewatch from now on.
Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It - This movie fucking rules. A nonstop blast of dark comedy, gnarly gore, and hilarious characters. The three friends feel authentic, and I could have spent all day hanging out with them, listening to them bicker. Bizarre shades of PULP FICTION, DELIVERANCE, THE HANGOVER, JOHN WICK, TUCKER AND DALE, and every 90s black comedy you can remember, all smashed together into this smorgasbord of pure entertainment. Watched via Fantastic Fest at-home virtual screenings.
Bingo Hell - My friend Shane McKenzie wrote this movie! Remember when I mentioned him in the author’s note for WNTDS? That’s him!
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes - Further proof that movies are magic. This is a one-take time travel science fiction comedy from Japan. I couldn’t look away. So funny and charming and enjoyable. Watched via Fantastic Fest at-home virtual screenings.
The City of the Dead (1960) - Another first-time watch for me, thanks to the Elvira special on Shudder. I found this thing utterly delightful. I was also surprised it had a similar structure to Psycho. If you’ve never seen this, I highly recommend seeking it out on Shudder. It’s excellent.
True Story by Kate Reed Petty - Blown away by this book, to be honest. It tackles storytelling in a way I’ve never encountered before. More people need to be talking about this one. I finished it a couple nights ago and I’m still thinking about it.
The Second Shooter by Nick Mamatas - Just started this one. It’s Nick’s new book, which comes out in November. He’s going to come on GHOULISH once I finish it and I’m excited to talk to him. The book sounds incredible.
Phoebe Bridgers released an excellent cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” and all proceeds will go to TX Funds1. I love both Bo Burnham and Phoebe Bridgers and I think this cover is fantastic. Get it HERE.
See you next Saturday, ghouls.
Proceeds will be split evenly between Texas Equal Access Fund, West Fund, Whole Woman's Health Alliance, Inc., Frontera Fund, The Bridge Collective, Clinic Access Support Network, Fund Texas Choice, the Lilith Fund, Jane's Due Process, and Support Your Sistah at the Afiya Center.