Exclusive: Red Screenwriter Stephen Susco


Grudge writer on the Jack Ketchum adaptation and more

Long before The Grudge became a huge hit for Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures, Stephen Susco was a struggling independent filmmaker trying to get one of his screenplays produced with one of his early projects, an adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s novel Red, which he was developing at the same time as the first Grudge movie.

Despite being based on a novel by one of the top horror writers, Red is more of a revenge drama about smalltown widower Avery Ludlow, played by Brian Cox (The Ring), whose quiet day fishing is disrupted when he encounters a group of troublemaking teens who shoot his faithful dog Red when they realize he has no money to give them. From there, the film follows Avery’s attempts to get justice for their actions, which leads to a violent conclusion.

Originally, the movie was directed by another horror vet, Lucky McKee (May, The Woods), who called upon the likes of Robert Englund and Tom Sizemore to fill out the cast, but the production was stopped midway through the shooting and six months later, Norwegian filmmaker Trygve Diesen was called upon to finish the film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

ShockTillYouDrop.com had a chance to speak to Susco about the movie, but talking to a writer so involved with the current wave of studio horror movies was the perfect opportunity to get off the beaten track and talk about the state of horror and Susco’s feelings about it as well. (You can also read a progress update from Susco on his other horror-related projects here.)

ShockTillYouDrop.com: How did you get involved with “Red”? Did the producer find you to write it or did you find the material yourself?

Stephen Susco: We all found each other. I had read the book and immediately started hunting it down and the producer had just optioned it right about the time I started looking for it. I started getting in touch with the producer and the producer said it was interesting because this other guy who reached out like a week ago I think, a writer/director and that was Lucky. What we did was we sort of teamed up, the three of us, as a writer/ director producer unit and developed the project all the way from the beginning, and that was back in 2003.

Shock: So that was even before the first “Grudge” movie came out?

Susco: Actually, I wrote “Red” while I was writing “The Grudge” and in fact I was rewriting it while I was on set in Japan. It was an interesting experience because “Grudge” was also originally an independent film and I was originally going to direct it, so I was sort of doing both of these. “Grudge” was started in early 2002, and it was myself, and Roy Lee, and Shintaro Shimosawa, and basically I was into it because I had been writing Hollywood scripts for a while and I wanted to do something that was a little bit more autonomous. When we first teamed up with Sam Raimi, that’s actually what they were going to do, because Sam had a deal with this American arm of an insurance company called Senator, and it was actually being developed as an independent film. It wasn’t until I guess the third quarter of 2003 around September when the script was done and they had raised enough money to shoot the whole film that they ended up calling backup studios to look for a distribution deal and everybody wanted it. They had a great situation.

Shock: At that point, Sam must have had a great relationship with Sony following the success of “Spider-Man.”

Susco: Oh, absolutely. Obviously, Columbia was favored and that’s probably how they ended up with it, but what happened was, it was sort of changing from an independent film to more of a studio film, and “Red” was compensating for that. That’s when I sort of got into “Red” because when “The Grudge” started to change, I was really excited about the success that it was having, but at the same time I was sort of like, “Well, now I’ve got to find another independent project.” Then that’s how “Red” sort of came about.

Shock: So “Red” was always going to be an independent project, and there never was an idea of shopping it around to get studio backing?

Susco: Well, honestly we all kind of said we want to see where we’ve got to go with it and we did expose it a little bit. In fact, Lucky at the time was directing a film for United Artists, and they read it and loved it and optioned it and said, “As soon as we’re done doing “The Woods” with Lucky, we’d like you to do this one next.” While he was in the middle of doing “The Woods” unfortunately that whole shakedown happened, which is a shame, so they let go of “Red”, and it took its toll on his movie. It was kind of tough for everybody. I think we came out of it understanding that this was not a huge studio movie. It’s not “The Dark Knight.” It’s a movie about a guy in his mid-to-late sixties–and originally he was in his seventies. So this is a very, very small character film, so we knew it was going to be a longer road.

Shock: Obviously studios are making revenge flicks like “The Brave One”, so you could’ve taken it in that direction, but did you want to avoid that and keep it more about his character?

Susco: Absolutely. The book was an exercise in restraint, and it always reminded me a little bit of “Straw Dogs” which is one of my favorite films. It really is a very slow film, and it is much more about your amazement that this character is being so restrained in his reaction to this. But at the same time you see an escalation coming (laughs)… you know it’s not going to be easy. It always felt like it wasn’t a studio film; it really was a character story, so it kind of has elements of everything. I talked to somebody recently who said it’s three movies: it’s a drama, it’s a thriller, and it’s a horror film, and I would have to agree with that. It could be a horror film from Brian Cox’s character’s point of view.

Shock: Right, more about personal horror. What kind of interaction did you have with Ketchum during this whole process? Did you talk to him when you were thinking of optioning it?

Susco: The producer had actually just optioned it, and when we were developing it, Lucky McKee, he knew Jack, so they had a good relationship. My only interaction with Jack was sort of through Lucky, when we were working on the script and I said, “Well, I kind of want to change this,” and he’ll email me and Jack will say, “Why do you want to change that?” I didn’t meet Jack until Sundance.

Shock: I didn’t even realize he was there.

Susco: Yeah, he was there, and it was actually rather nerve-wracking to go to the premiere and have him sitting there and have the lights go down and go, “Oh God, I hope he likes this,” because really from the very beginning I wanted him to be happy with the final product. I hope other people are, but he’s the most important one because it’s his story. That’s how I approach most of the adaptations that I do. You will have to make changes and the scope of that change can be pretty extreme at the time, but it was critical for me that the novelist goes, “Yeah, that’s my story, that’s what I was trying to do. That’s the truth I was trying to get at.” Fortunately after the screening I went up to Jack and I introduced myself, and we had emailed, but I had never met him. I said, “What did you think?” and he said, “You nailed it.” So it was a good feeling.

Shock: What’s strange is that Jack is kind of known as a horror writer even though he does other things like this, which isn’t the same kind of horror we’re used to from him. You also do a lot of horror movies and so does Lucky… so basically, you have a bunch of horror guys doing something that’s not really a horror movie.

Susco: In fact there were a lot of familiar horror actors in the movie too. It was filled with them actually (laughs), but yeah, Lucky is a really, really unique director. He’s got a visual sense and you know when you’re watching one of his movies. He’s a really, really unique guy, and Jack is the same and I think “Red” is a very unique book when you look at all of his work together. “Red” was the first one of his that I found, and upon reading it, I picked up all of his books and they’re all very, very different. “Red” is a bit of an excursion for him.

Shock: Did you stay involved once Brian came on board and work with him and Luc on developing Avery and the script or were you doing other things by that point?

Susco: I was doing other things at that point. Lucky and I had gotten the draft to a certain point, and then Lucky and the head producers kind of got put in charge because I was going through “The Grudge” and then “The Grudge 2” right away and a whole bunch of other things I was writing while they were trying to make it happen. I was sort of out of it actually, and I had heard it got Brian which I was thrilled by. I visited the set once and oddly enough the very next day was when the production got shut down. So I should never walk on a film set again. (laughs)

Shock: Well “The Grudge” got through you being on set, so you’re probably okay.

Susco: That was true. Maybe it’s not me after all.

Shock: When did you hear that they were starting back up with another director? Brian Cox told me some of the story about what happened when it shut down, but at that point was it out of your hands and you didn’t hear anything more until Sundance?

Susco: What happened was, I got a call, it was like six or seven months later, and it was the producer and he said, “I’ve got the guy who’s going to pick up the ball now, another director, and he really, really wants to work with you. I really need to get you guys together and put your heads together.” So Trygve and I met up, and he’s a great guy, and we watched the footage that we were going to keep and just spent a week kind of reworking the script and looking at what had been shot, what was still in the book, and he obviously had to recast one of the lead roles. There was a lot to do in a very short period of time and on a very, very tight budget. So me and Trygve were just putting our heads together and just trying to rebuild the film from the inside, and I was just amazed at what Trygve was able to do because he and Lucky have very different styles as directors, just dramatically different. Trygve has this mini-series “Torpedo” which is absolutely brilliant, it’s a completely different style. What Trygve was able to do, I think quite elegantly, was really match Lucky’s vision so that it didn’t feel like there were two directors. The film might have certain moments where it might feels a little schizophrenic, but it was really nice to have a lot of people at Sundance be surprised and say, “Wait, there were two directors? Did they direct together?” I think it’s a testament to Trygve coming in and really sort of adapting (Lucky’s) style.

Shock: Did he edit together some of the footage before you watched it?

Susco: There were some lost assemblages of scenes that had been pieced together during the production process, but when he and I sat down we were looking at raw footage, and we were looking at a marked-up script because a lot of stuff that was shot, we were going to be re-shooting and rewriting. It was just a lot of dialogue and Trygve had a lot of really wonderful ideas to bring to the table that I think made the film a lot smarter, and it was interesting. I’ve never done that thing where it was rebuilding a film from inside.

Shock: When the DVD comes out, maybe there’ll be some interesting alternate versions of the movie on there.

Susco: Well it could. There are some subplots and recast characters, so if they wanted to they could really beef up the DVD.

Shock: Were a lot of the secondary characters that flushed out in the novel, like the fathers of the boys who shoot Avery’s dog?

Susco: Yeah in varying degrees. The father obviously was a very central character because he was a tough force to be overcome. And there were some characters that had to be toned down actually, Ashley Laurence’s character, his wife had a larger role in the film, and there was also a maid at the house that had a bit of a role in the film that we ended up sort of merging into one character and reducing. It’s like anything else. You have to play a lot of games and then figure out what you can keep, and what you have to lose, and how long you want the film to be.

Shock: If we had talked to you at Sundance, you would have been in the middle of the writers’ strike and not been able to report on any progress on your various projects, so how have they been progressing?

Susco: It’s tough. I had a lot of projects that just lost momentum with the strike and I think that’s universal, I think that happened to a lot of people. Now that the strike is over, I have a lot of balls back up in the air, which is good, and I like to have a lot of balls up in the air because you never know which one is actually going to hit.

Shock: At one point you were going to direct a movie yourself, is that still on the horizon?

Susco: It’s on the horizon. I wrote a movie for Rogue Pictures called “White” to direct, and I might be looking for a new home for that, but Rogue and I are talking about something else right now. It’s sort of nice to be exploring that avenue because I’ve been writing for twelve years. It’s an interesting job where you have to sit with people and in a way sort of be an arbiter, bring in people’s opinions, incorporate a lot of things, and sort of subsume yourself a little bit more. Whereas the stuff that I write for me to direct, I can just be very specific, and I can take stronger stances, because I really see something and the way I want to execute it. So I’m enjoying that process and with any luck it will lead to me having features in the next couple years.

Shock: Are you writing more stuff to direct yourself these days?

Susco: Very specific projects. There’s just a few things that I’m developing on sort of a slow burner, a slow cooker, because I really know exactly what I want to do with them. What I’m doing a lot more of now too is producing and trying to get smaller movies off the ground, some that I’ve written, some that other people have written. I really love working with writers and just having a couple of writers sit around a table and developing scripts. So I’ve kind of branched out. I just started a production company with a guy and we actually just set up our first movie which is hopefully going to be shooting in the next few months.

Shock: Is one of those projects “Sanctuary”?

Susco: Actually “Sanctuary” is a movie I wrote a while back. “Sanctuary” is a lot like “Red”, it was a book that I found that I loved and I found some producers who could put up some money to option the novel and then we sort of developed it together with me producing it. It’s interesting because I’ve written so many moves for studios, but most of the movies that have gotten made like the first “Grudge” and “Red”, and now “Sanctuary”, they’re all sort of independent films. It’s interesting and like “Red”, it was a book that I worked with some producers, and we optioned together, and produced it on a slower pace, and we got a great director named John Stockwell to come on board. So with any luck, we’re hoping to be shooting that in the next couple months. What we’re doing is we’re sort of locking down the script, and we’re going to be going onto actresses in a few weeks if everything is nice and tight.

Shock: I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who’ve gone on to direct their own scripts, like John August and Tony Gilroy, and it must be frustrating to spend all that time on a script and then hand it over to a director and have no further control over it. Is that one of the reasons you’ve been wanting to direct?

Susco: Absolutely. I certainly know a lot of writers who are totally fine just being screenwriters, and they don’t mind it, and I love screenwriting, but yeah, that’s a massive frustration for me. I admire the guys that make the conversion to directing like John who directed the movie “The Nines” which was really, really cool, and really unique, and I think more people should see it. It was a film that probably wouldn’t survive a standard development process, but because of the way that John did it, he was able to say, “This is my vision, and I’m putting it out there.” And I think that’s really cool. It’s great to see more writers doing that and I certainly hold that up as inspiration for some of the things that I’m slowly pushing forward as a director.

Shock: As someone who’s worked very heavily in the horror genre, what do you feel about the current state of horror? “The Grudge” started the Asian film remake trend, and there’s been a lot of other movies remade, plus there’s also the “torture porn” wave. Where do you think things are right now in Hollywood?

Susco: With horror, I think everyone is waiting to see what’s going to happen next. I think it’s such a cyclical genre, and it’s really distinct from almost any other genre of film because I think it comes in a direct conflict with the Hollywood system. I think the Hollywood system is all about replicating what worked last weekend and the good horror films to me are the ones that you’ve never seen before, that really take risks. I look at the stand-out movies and the ones that generally are also commercially successful, or at least the ones that are remembered years later as being a standout movie, and they all took something different. Whether it’s “The Ring” or “Session 9” or “Blair Witch Project” or “Cloverfield” or “The Others”, these movies that just leap out, you remember because of what made them different, and Hollywood again is all about what worked last week. I think what happens is a new thing breaks out and then it gets beaten to death, and then everybody says “horror is dead.” I think “The Ring” really launched the Asian thing, and I think “The Grudge” just sort of cemented it. I think “The Ring” launched it and everyone was like, “That might have been a fluke,” then “The Grudge” hit and everyone was like, “Okay, Asian horror!” I think there were a million Asian horror projects, and I think it’s the same with the darker, more violent stuff, between “Saw” and “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel” from Eli Roth, it had this terrific launch, but you know again after a while its like, “Okay, we got it now. What’s next?” I think that’s why horror is such a compelling genre, because it just forces you to keep pushing the boundaries. The down side of it is that it’s definitely the hardest thing to do in Hollywood I think because you’re working with people who generally say, “Well can’t we make this more like ‘The Ring’ or ‘Hostel’ or something else?” and you’re saying, “But I want it to be something different.” “The Sixth Sense” was completely out of the box, it was the kind of film that defied studio convention and it was a tremendous hit… and it’s absolutely a horror film. A lot of people say it isn’t. I just think that horror should have a very, very high bar. I think “Cloverfield” kind of showed that there is a big budget avenue where you can do larger scary movies.

Shock: That wasn’t even a very big budget for that kind of movie if you compare it to “Godzilla.”

Susco: Yeah, for that kind of movie, absolutely, but to have the whole weight of the studio behind it and to make it a gigantic monster movie that would otherwise be sort of a fringe rated ‘R’ movie, but it really hit general audiences. I think horror always still has avenues there, but horror is a fun genre because you’ve got diehard horror fans who are actually in different camps: you’ve got people who want just the gore, people who want the subtle creepy stuff, you’ve got people who want the monster movies, you’ve got people who want the Asian stuff… and you have all these factions within it, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’ll all go pay to see anything scary (laughs) and then they’ll argue about it later.

Shock: A lot of horror filmmakers cite the movies of the seventies as one of the better eras of horror. Those were mainly low-budget indies that are now being remade by studios for much bigger budgets. What are your feelings about that? I know you haven’t been as involved as much in that aspect of horror movies.

Susco: I honestly think it’s a bit of a shame. I’m not completely against the idea of re-makes, however I’m not a huge fan of the idea of re-making classic horror films. I don’t understand it conceptually, why you would actually do that, especially because there’s a lot of new talent out there who have a lot of new ideas. Like you said, in the heydays of the seventies, it was John Carpenter and Wes Craven and George Romero, and these guys came out of nowhere in the late sixties, early seventies and were doing these movies entirely on their own. If you think about it, that’s what “Blair Witch Project” was, too. In the late nineties and early on, the films that really hit like “The Others” and even “The Ring” to a certain extent–even though that was a big studio movie–these were people that were taking pretty big risks. I truly believe that’s what horror needs to stay alive. It needs a combination of the guys like Eli Roth who will get a few million dollars together and put his vision down and make a hundred million dollars out of it, and you need studio executives who will say, “I will spend a low budget for the studio (which is twenty, thirty million bucks) and I will take a flyer on somebody who has something different to say that’s not a serial killer with a knife who isn’t going to kill a bunch of scared girls.” They’re going to take a real chance because the audiences are out there. They want to be scared in a way they haven’t been scared before and I think “Cloverfield” most recently proved that.

Shock: There are also a lot of great foreign horror directors, who get mistreated when they make their Hollywood debuts and try to work within the system like the Pang Brothers or the French directors of “Inside” who haven’t been able to get an English language project going, even though they were supposed to remake “Hellraiser.”

Susco: The European horror guys, those guys who did “Ils”, they are Spanish directors, are just mind-blowingly good. I think it’s partially because there’s even more of an independent feeling over there so that when it comes to horror, they can take risks, they can go places that are either a.) more bizarre and surprising, or b.) more extreme like “Inside”. I mean goodness gracious, who is going to make that here in the states?

Shock: I love that movie and I tell people all the time to check it out and they always get mad at me and say, “Why did you tell me to see that movie?”

Susco: (laughs) And you’re like, “Okay, well is Warner Brothers going to make that?” It doesn’t happen that way. So it’s challenging. It’s really challenging, but again, I think that the horror genre is sort of a definition of necessity being the mother of invention and what happens is every few years something hits, and then it dies, and then everyone goes, “Horror is dead,” but you know the people who are paying more attention are going, “I can’t wait to see what horror is going to do next.”

Red opens today, August 8, in New York at the Cinema Village, and in other cities soon. ComingSoon.net will have an really interesting exclusive interview with the film’s lead actor Brian Cox next week.

Source: Edward Douglas