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SXSW '07 Interview: "Severance" Screenwriter James Moran

by Scott Weinberg

The "Severance" Pitch: Working nine-to-five is a real killer, but team-building holidays can sometimes be even worse. A coach lurches out of the hustle and bustle of Budapest and heads towards the mountainous border. Aboard are seven employees of the international weapons manufacturer Palisade Defense, global suppliers of innovative weaponry for the past 75 war-torn years. The lucky group are being treated to a team-building weekend at the company's newly built luxury spa lodge by their president, George Cinders. But things quickly go awry as the colleagues find themselves faced with the chop when their corporate weekend is sabotaged by a deadly enemy. Forget office politics; only the smartest will survive this bloody office outing.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
A group of bickering office types go teambuilding in Eastern Europe, and start getting picked off by a violent psychopath with a personal grudge. Or: Office teambuilding, murder ensues.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
Never been before. My only other festivals so far are the Fantastic Fest in Austin, which is like suddenly being crowned King of the Universe for ten days, and the FrightFest in London, which is a great fun weekend in the company of other horror geeks like myself. I love the whole festival experience, meeting new people (fans and people I'm a fan of), hearing a rowdy, clued-in audience pick up on the jokes and references, and being crammed into a small space with lots of like minded folk. Least favourite is the occasional misbehaviour of guests, who either think the staff are their personal slaves, or that they're Really Really Important and should be kowtowed to. I can't stand people like that - you should always be respectful and polite to your fans and to people who have invited you to their festival. If I meet anyone who isn't, I'll have a quiet chat with them. And then take them out the back and stab them in the head with a fork.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
Weirdly enough - a stuntman. Really wanted to be one. Then I saw a documentary about stunt people, and realised that you needed to be really brave, a bit crazy, and not worried about getting injured regularly. So I changed my mind. After that, I wanted to be a firefighter, but then I saw a movie where a fireman got burned alive. Then I wanted to be a special effects technician, was fascinated with making-of shows. But that's hard work too. Gradually I realised that writing was the least amount of work, and other people would have the problem of having to make the movie a reality.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I won a short film competition, and had my short script made into a ten minute film. It wasn't very good, but it made me realise that I might be able to get into the business, it wasn't just a pipe dream. After that, I sent some stuff to an agency, got representation, and started work on Severance.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Not really, although I did worry about some of the jokes when I knew it would be showing in America, in particular the 747 joke - I worried that it might be perceived as an anti-American film, which it isn't at all. Luckily the US audience really got it, even more so than the UK audiences, which surprised me, given the amount of what I thought was specifically British humour. Now I'm even more proud of it, and can't wait to see what other countries think of it.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Animal, because I've always had a really bad temper, that I lose very easily. I totally identify with his constant frustration, and relentless search for WO-MAAAN. Although part of me is like Fozzie, that endless struggle to be loved and desperately trying to come up with material that people will enjoy. But ultimately, Kermit can always reduce me to tears with his sincerity and warmth - I aspire to being Kermit, but am really a bastard child of Animal and Fozzie. Fozzimal, if you will

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
In a very vague, nebulous way. It was always at the back of my mind, but I always slapped the thought away, thinking "no, stop that, don't be ridiculous, that's impossible". It didn't feel real until the day I sat in a café with my friends going through every single newspaper on the day of release. And even then, I didn't quite believe it.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

Bad commute to work brought about frenzied hatred for yuppies. Decided to write them into a horror, and kill them. Did a rough draft, made a mess of it, started again. Made the characters more likeable, and started rewriting, trying to fix the ending (you really should know the end before you start…) That took a year, trying to fix it, slaving away evenings and weekends, while holding down a full time job during the day. A year later, I was exhausted, but had a good script. My agent sent it out, it sold within 2 weeks, and I started the rewrite. Did that, the director came on board, I did a rewrite for him, then we both did one together, we cast, and it started filming. I was on set for a week, watched some shooting, saw some editing, sound, post, etc. Did a couple of test screenings, edited and tweaked some more. Got a finished version, got a release date, had a cast and crew screening, and eventually it was released in the UK. Great reviews, did very well here, is now doing well in various countries. Soon to be released in the US, where I hope it will find an audience.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Make sure you know the beginning, middle and end, even vaguely, before you start the script. Don't outline it to death, but know where you're going. It can always be shorter, you can always trim stuff down. And never trust horned demons, no matter how much ice-cream they offer you.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
Kubrick is my favourite director ever, I love every frame of his movies, his attention to detail, his symmetrical shots, his tracking shots, his weird repetition of certain themes and images, his willingness to go anywhere, his discipline, and refusal to compromise. A Clockwork Orange is my favourite movie, I think it's perfect. I always sneak in a Kubrick reference into everything I do. My other favourite movie is The Blues Brothers - music, action, comedy, style, madness, and just the sheer sense of having fun. I love John Carpenter movies, Spielberg, and Scorsese. Writing heroes are Shane Black, Larry Cohen, William Goldman, David Mamet, Charlie Kaufman, David Koepp, Lawrence Kasdan, Kevin Smith, David Peoples, the daddy of them all, Ben Hecht, and Joe Eszterhas (because he's a damn good writer, principled, hard working, doesn't take any shit, and proves that you can be a wildly successful writer without having to roll over and beg).

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
No, because I was really trying hard to do something as different as I could. Which is why it's a horror film where a bunch of people get killed in a cabin in the woods… But different! No, I realised that essentially everyone who makes their first horror feature pretty much does a version of either The Evil Dead or Night of the Living Dead, it's unavoidable, so I tried my best to stay away from any moments that would be too similar. I did have a crisis of confidence though when I saw Switchblade Romance, because it was so scary and tense, at the time I felt that I just wasn't doing anything good enough.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
You could never get a lookalike, so you'd have to treat it like a biopic, and get someone who could carry off the spirit of the character. Maybe Nathan Lane in Oliver Hardy mode (as in Mouse Hunt), or Jack Black when he's a bit older.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
Adaptations: I'd kill to do a full-on, balls the wall version of Preacher. Do the first two or three collections in one go, with the intention of two follow up movies to continue and then conclude the story. You can't start it unless you're going to have *that* ending, it's just the most beautiful, resonant ending ever. It's going to be a TV show now, so I can't do it - but the TV format is probably the best place for it, they'll be able to do all of it, properly, and really go for it. I'd also love to do a big, fun version of the Stainless Steel Rat books, and can't believe they haven't been made yet, they're a supercool franchise waiting to happen.

Sequel: You know what? I think we're okay for sequels. I think there have been enough now. I'm all full up. But never say never. It'd be nice to see a proper Alien 5 or Predator 3, for example. But I doubt that's going to happen, if they didn't want James Cameron and Ridley Scott to do Alien 5, then there's probably no hope for anyone.

Remakes: Honestly can't think of something I'd like to remake. Not against remakes in principle, you just have to bring something new to the table. I loved the Dawn of the Dead remake, because it was its own movie, and you can enjoy it alongside the original. But lately remakes are simply an excuse to churn out some bland, uninspired nonsense, a watered down imitation. And that make Hulk want smash. Smash!

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Danny Dyer. He deserves it, because he's shown his gift for comedy, and is the perfect bloke to have in a horror film, because he feels genuine. Someone needs to give him a big action movie.

Laura Harris should be too, although she's pretty much already big-time and famous and stuff. She kicks ass in Severance, pulls out all the stops. And Claudie is a gem, too. Okay, ALL of them.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
In prison for murdering my co-workers at a previous job. Clock tower sniper. Dahmer-esque loner with 15 bodies in the kitchen. Really? I'd be a miserable drone harbouring murderous feelings on my daily commute. All I'm really good at is writing or working with computers. And I hate doing tech support.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Kurt Russell and Kevin Bacon. I think they're the finest fucking actors working today, and I would kill a small dog, a large dog, and several members of my family to work with them. Kurt in particular, because he made the climax of Dark Blue one of the most exciting movie endings in history, and it's just him TALKING. And Kevin always knocks me out, whatever he does I believe it's real, even in Hollow Man - not a great movie, and you couldn't even see him, but he was still electrifying. Both guys are always criminally ignored come awards time.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
It's weird, I kind of have, in that I've had a movie made and am writing my 2nd (which has sold), but kind of haven't, in that I can't live off my writing earnings yet. I'd need to be able to quit the part-time dayjob (both me and my wife together), and either buy a house outright, or put down a decent deposit on one. When I feel I've "made it", I'll have a US agent and US-based movie on the go.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Severance got mostly amazing reviews across the board, which is unusual for a horror movie (it's usually 50/50). We did well in the UK, but didn't take off like, for example, 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead. You, Me and Dupree got universally terrible reviews, everywhere, but made more in the UK in its opening weekend than we made in our entire run.

I still think critics are important, in that people like to know about upcoming movies, what the buzz is, etc etc. But for a large portion of the movie going public, all they give a shit about is "is Owen Wilson in it?" It's sad, but true, and not a slam on film critics, just a harsh reality about the movies in general. If Severance had had Owen Wilson in it as Richard it would have been exactly the same movie (not as good, because Tim McInnerny was so amazing as Richard), but would have probably made ten times what it did. Which is fucking stupid, and annoying, but that's how it works these days. But then, any time you define a rule like that, it gets broken, so who the hell knows?? I do like Owen Wilson, by the way, he's very funny.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
If it means I get free samples?? Jim Beam or Jack Daniels.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
Either: replace the scene with a talking heads scene where someone describes in gynaecological detail what happened, making it even more explicit.

Or: Do a Hitchcock, and take it away, wait, give it back to them without altering a frame, and see if they're fooled into thinking I've changed it.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
It's fucking tacky and insulting. I would never pretend that I'd made up everything in a movie, that never happens, and I freely and happily tell people what bits in Severance came from other people. It's a total collaboration, every single person in every single department contributes. People using "a film by" are basically saying "I did ALL of it", which is impossible. If you shot it yourself, on your own fucking camera, edited it on your own computer, did the music yourself, acted in it, did the catering, and did every single job - then yeah. Otherwise, fuck off. Stanley Kubrick oversaw every single tiny detail of his movies, nothing happened without his say-so or input, but even he refused to take the "film by" credit, because he knew it was just preening bullshit. I just don't like it at all, it's an extra credit - they already get one credit, that's just being greedy. The only person I think could have a good case for it is Robert Rodriguez - because he writes, directs, shoots, lights, scores, does the effects - and I think he actually does the catering, too. Seriously. If you feed me well, you can do what you like, man.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
Because it's a nice surprise, starting off as a gentle British comedy-drama, and gradually transforming into a splatterfest of mayhem and chaos. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll - okay, you won't cry, but you might get a bit teary-eyed at one of the deaths, cause it's quite tragic. You'll laugh, you *might* cry, you'll get some good scares, some gore, some witty banter, some Brits and Americans getting slaughtered, plenty of bodily violence, gratuitous nudity (male and female), and a fat guy disemboweled to the sound of a cheerful 60's song. Oh, and an explosion. Two, in fact.

But really, if you don't see it, I will find you. I will find you, I will come into your house late at night, when you're asleep in your bed, and I will sneak up to your room, and fart in your face. And then kill you, flay you, and run around the room wearing your skin. Believe me, neither of us wants that to happen. So just watch the movie, okay?


Severance, which was written by director Christopher Smith and the certifiably insane James Moran, will grace the 2007 South by Southwest Film Festival 'Round Midnight slate. Magnolia Pictures will release the film theatrically later this year. For more information on the flick, click here. And check out BSide.com for even more info!

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2095
originally posted: 02/21/07 14:50:27
last updated: 03/06/07 17:28:19
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