Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thursday Thirteen -- 292 -- 13 Questions for Stephen MacLean, Screenwriter for Wisp

It's October, and as the leaves start to crisp and curl and blow in chilly gusts along the streets, it's time to revel in all that sets our hair on end.

Please join me for the first in my second annual Spooky Stories Author Series, running all month on Thursdays here at A Piece of My Mind.

Or in this case, Spooky Stories Screenwriter Series. Please welcome my cousin-in-law, Stephen MacLean, shown above with his wife Julianne and daughter (and their dog, curled up) during one of our classic musical Christmas Eves.

1 – How long have you been a fan of spooky movies? What sorts of scary films are your favorites?

I love scary movies, been a fan since I was a kid. Some of my favourites are the Night of the Living Dead, Amityville Horror, The Shining (I often use the quote “all work and no play make jack a dull boy”).  Sam Raimi was brilliant, loved Bruce Campbell and the Evil Dead, loved Darkman. Poltergeist was one of my first vivid memories of movies that really freaked me out.  I went with three other friends, and at the end when they dropped my brother and I are off at our house. Ken (my bro) talked to the guys, while I snuck into the house and got a creepy ape mask. I crept up next to the passenger window and screamed a banshee cry. They were TERRIFIED, then REALLY upset and threatened me with serious bodily harm. I ran away :-)

The Exorcist is one that still gives me the creeps to this day, one that has stood the test of time. Watched it again a couple of years ago with my daughter… she thought it was really scary too.

For our film Wisp, which is a so-called “found footage” thriller, the original Blair Witch (Blair Witch 2 was bad) and the Paranormal Activity films are definite influences. Met Jason Blum, producer of Paranormal franchise at a talk he did a couple of years ago in LA. He was very inspiring.

2 – What was the original spark for Wisp? Did it come to you as a story idea to Writer Steve, or as a great project concept to Producer Steve? 

The story came to writer Steve at first of course, it always starts with story and characters, much like in books.

My business partner Ben Stevens and I were in Los Angeles in June of last year, and were inspired by being in Hollywood, the world Mecca of filmmaking. We were meeting with potential co-producers and a story editor for one of our Telefilm supported projects (called ENDGAME, a vigilante/revenge thriller).

Raising money for larger budget films can be a slow process at times, so we decided we wanted to get back on set. We had a short window of opportunity in the summer. Ben came up with the Wisp idea (based on folklore related to the Will-o’-the-Wisp legend, where lights in the forest guide unsuspecting travelers deeper into the woods where they meet their doom).

We wanted to play with the legend, and focus it around a group of inexperienced students (fish out of water) who set out into the woods to figure out if the Wisps were real and what causes them. That was our setup.

We had a marathon session over a few drinks and hammered out a very rough outline, with a teaser, inciting incident, important beats, act enders, midpoint, and knew what our climactic scene was going to be. Ben took the reins and took the first kick at the screenplay, and had a rough draft within a short period of time. We bounced it back and forth over a few weeks and to our surprise, had a decent workable shooting script. It was hectic and stressful, and we still had to do writing in prep and even tweaks during production.

Pre-production, casting, location scouting, insurance, negotiating with unions had to be all done very quickly. Ben’s family graciously allowed us to shoot around their family home in Canning, Nova Scotia. They are surrounded by some 100 acres of woodland, so we had no shortage of forest to shoot in!!

We were yelling “QUIET ON SET” and “ACTION” within two months of having the nugget of the idea in Hollywood.

3 – Once you began writing the script, were you thinking in terms of story only, or were you keeping the upcoming film shoot and distribution possibilities in mind? 

We had a few parameters we had to follow. We knew our location. We knew we’d only have our leads for 10-12 days maximum.

I personally love the found footage genre. It also allows for more forgiveness in quality of sound and footage, and doesn’t allow having dozens of camera angles. Jump cuts for instance, normally not used in most of our projects, work and are expected for the genre. So in some ways, it is easier to shoot logistically (but in no way easy!!).

Otherwise, we definitely concentrated on the story, character development, and reworking dialogue. We also had to do a fair amount of research on the legend, which helped give the story a more believable feel (I think).

4 – While you and co-writer/director Benjamin Stevens were in California, where were you on Wisp at that point?

Before our trip to LA, Wisp wasn’t on our radar at all… funny how things just fall into place.

How hard is it to juggle your focus during the different aspects of pre-production/production/post-production? 

Producer Steve was (briefly) complaining we didn’t have enough time to get everything done. But when you’re on a time crunch, you have to put your head down and just do it (to quote Nike).

We only had time and money for a ten day shoot, NOT a long time for a feature. We had to plan very carefully, with little room for error. Post production took a number of months. The CGI scenes were very time consuming… (thanks Ben!).

5 – What was the most difficult shooting day on Wisp? What was the easiest or the most fun?

Easy for worst day: Day 2 (of 10 days on set). We were rained out and didn’t get part of our day. There was that sinking feeling in my gut when we tried to wait it out, only to realize it the torrential downpour that wasn’t going to slow down.

We were drenched, cold and demoralized (temporarily).  I was very worried, as we didn’t have a lot of extra shoot time. We decided there were a few pivotal and crucial scenes that had to be redone. We had to call one of the actors back for an extra day and thankfully managed to squeeze it in (the dead cow scene).

-Best time also an easy call: when we yelled out “we are wrapped!” That was a huge relief.

-Most fun: easily the “birthing scene”. We were on the muddy shores and in the middle of a shallow though swampy lake. Our lead actors were head to toe in muck. There was blood, there was ear piercing screaming, there were flies trying to sneak into any orifice they could find. It was a blast.


We only had one take, so it was also terrifying. If we didn’t get it, we were in trouble. It would take hours to reset and it was pitch black late at night and would have had to go overtime. The one take with three iPhones and our main camera, and we got it (phew).

Our actors were forewarned of our plans, thankfully they LOVED it and bonded through the entire experience.

6 – How did it feel to premiere the film during the Atlantic Film Festival? Take us through that day for you as a filmmaker.

Also terrifying. I bought industrial strength antiperspirant… didn’t work :-)

Ben is normally one of the calmest and coolest guys I know. He was as nervous as me (though he didn’t show it).

We had tried to pre-screen the film on the big screen prior to showing it to an audience, which didn’t happen, so we were worried about possible technical glitches. Ben was able to do a sound check about 20 minutes before we screened, so that allayed our fears a wee bit only.

Thankfully, it all went very smoothly. It was a relief, like a massive weight had been lifted when the end credits rolled. I was spent.

7 – Well, you both looked and sounded like everything was under control, and that's all that counts. If you had to name your top three supernatural creatures, what would they be?

1-I love zombies, they’re my number one. Love the Walking Dead series. Though I only like the slow “walker” zombies, not crazy about the World War Z zombies who seem to be using steroids and/or crack.

2-vampires (I have to admit thanks to the influence of my daughter, that I’m a Twilight fan. Read two of the books, watched all the films). I’ve written a spec script on a vampire series that hasn’t gone anywhere. Interview with a Vampire (adapted from Anne Rice’s novel) was the first time I saw Brad Pitt and Kirsten Dunst. I hear they’ve both done very well since then.

3-The monster under my bed as a kid…

8 – Have you explored these character types in your scripts so far?

Yes. I spent 12 years of my life in University on route to my MD degree. It was an important part of my world, so I’ve written other spec scripts about university and medical students. I also like stories where likable normal people end up being thrust into abnormal situations, and exploring how they react when their regular, everyday lives spiral beyond their control. There’s always huge potential for conflict, and lots of potential for story arcs. The knucklehead jock who becomes noble and even sacrifices himself for his friends at the end, the timid bookworm who ends up growing as a character to become a leader that people listen to and respect. Lord of the Flies and Orwell’s Animal Farm had a huge influence on how I look at these types of stories.  ALIVE, a film about a rugby team that ends up in a plane crash and stranded for several weeks in the Andes in 1972. The fact that it was based on a true story made it even more disturbing. It was thought provoking with intense moral dilemmas that they were forced to face head on (i.e. cannibalism). What would I have done in their situation when faced with certain death otherwise? I don’t know, and I hope I never have to find out.

9 – Are there some earthbound, everyday aspects of life that you find scary?

In the odd time when my family is away, when I’m alone on my house in the dark, when things start creaking and cracking when the weather is very cold outside. I know it’s nothing, but still…

10 – Where is the spookiest place you’ve ever been? What made it so scary?

The monster I thought was under my bed when I was a young boy… what made it scary was I didn’t have the maturity to know that there wasn’t one there.

More recently, I was lost for a couple of hours in the woods while mountain biking (alone) a couple of years ago. My phone was dying, the sun was setting.

I wasn’t afraid of ghosts etc, more afraid of not being found and not surviving… I called my wife and said: “I don’t want to worry you, but I think I’m lost.” I said if I didn’t call her back within an hour, to send the police out to where I went into the woods. I finally made my way out. In real life, happy endings are good :-)

11 – If you could be a fly-on-the-wall visitor in a setting from a spooky book, TV show or film, where would you go?

Watch Sigourney Weaver kick butt in the original Alien… just as long as I didn’t have to face the creature myself.

12 -- Why do you think people like to be scared?

My theory is it’s a contrast thing, a balance of the Yin and Yang if you will. If we eat our most favourite food in the world for every meal without any variety, we’d get tired of it.

Our lives, thankfully, aren’t like the movies for the most part, and that’s a good thing. Movies and books look at character development and explore character flaws that aren’t always appealing in real life. Would anyone really want to hang out with Dexter, or Walter White, the lead character from Breaking Bad??  Probably not, but millions of people still tuned in weekly to find out what happened to these very complex and fascinating characters.

Certain character responses are purposely exaggerated in film to make them more engaging. In real life, I might say: “Julia, let’s go out for a coffee and have a chat” and you would say: “Sure Steve, that sounds great.” In movies, you have to up the stakes and add conflict. Your answer becomes (screaming as you break a beer bottle and hold the sharp shards up to my now bleeding neck): “Why the hell would I do that, you’ll just make me pay for the lousy coffee, just like last time!!!”

Example number 1 is what we expect in a civil society and it’s safe and comfortable, but alas, is kinda boring on camera. 

Example number 2, well… not so much!


Contrast… it makes us appreciate the positives in our own lives, because we’ve watched others scratch and claw and suffer their way to a happy ending (or not) in a film or book. It makes us appreciate that maybe our lives aren’t so bad. It gives us a feeling of comfort knowing that well, yes I do have to drag my butt out of bed and to go to work today, but at least I didn’t get my brains eaten out by some lame zombie like characters in the Walking Dead. What a great day!

13 – Could you provide a link to a trailer for Wisp or an upcoming project?

Sure, here it is on the AFF website:

Here’s our website with some of our other projects:

Thanks for dropping by!

Thanks Julia!


CountryDew said...

Terror and fear - great equalizers in the human equation. Interesting read! Thank you for sharing it.

Julianne MacLean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julianne MacLean said...

Wife, Julianne, speaking up. I laughed so hard at the ape mask prank after seeing Poltergeist. Stephen still does this to Laura and me regularly. Last night, in fact, while I was writing on my computer in the dimly lit dining room, he crept up beside me with ketchup spread all over his cheeks and howled. Scared me to death! Laura made a Vine video out of it. We're so mature around our house.

Julianne MacLean said...

Sorry, I had to delete my original comment because there was a giant typo I couldn't live with :)

Heather said...

Personally, I have never been a fan of scary/horror movies. I can read books about serial killers, but scary movies? Nothin' doin'.

Heidi Hamburg said...

Thanks to Stephen I'll know what to say the next time a rotten day rolls in. "At least I didn't get my brains eaten out by some lame zombie."

Anne said...

Fascinating interview, Steven and Julia. Horror used to scare me to death as a kid but now I love it.

Steven, reading some of the Twilight books and watching all the movies? More than I would do for my daughters. LOL.