Happy Halloween, everyone! Today, I’m chatting to Chris O’Neill, Los Angeles based Screenwriter/Director. Chris is currently in production on his new indie film, horror thriller HEADSHOTS.
L.M: Happy Halloween from the U.K, Chris! Thanks very much for taking time out to chat. So, give us a little bit of your back-story. Could you start off by telling us about how you became a screenwriter?
Chris: Thanks for having me, and I hope this is helpful. I started writing short stories in primary school because I loved books, comics, film and TV. At first, it was to create my own stories, sometimes set in the same universe as things like STAR WARS or a 2000AD comic (JUDGE DREDD was a favourite), and from there it moved on to my own original ideas. Partly out of impatience to wait for the next comic book edition to come out, or film in a series, I just suddenly started writing down full stories with a beginning, middle and an end. And a baddie. Always a baddie. Because, for me, they were the interesting ones.
L.M: How do you feel about the first screenplay you ever wrote versus your most recent work?
Chris: The first full length feature script I wrote was called FEDERAL WARNING, when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. It was an action comedy about two young brothers in their twenties, who were dodgy market dealer types trying to make money selling pirate videos. They walked into a deal that ended up being a set-up, and took off with a bag of pirated VHS tapes that gangsters and cops wanted. The cassette cases, unbeknown to them, were hollowed out and being used to transport drugs. One liners, car chases, shoot outs and the realisation crime isn’t worth the effort in the end. It was fun and I loved writing it as it was inspired by '80s action films with a '90s twist. I haven’t read it in about 20 years, but I think the story is still decent (though it would have to be a “period piece” now with everything being streamed). The latest feature script I wrote is for the film I’m currently shooting called HEADSHOTS. HEADSHOTS is about a British actress who comes to LA to be a star and crosses paths with a serial killer using her acting class to find victims. How I feel about the two scripts? Obviously the genres are different, and FEDERAL WARNING is nothing more than beer and pizza Friday-night entertainment, whereas I’m doing something different with HEADSHOTS, in terms of structure and execution. FEDERAL WARNING is very much generic, HEADSHOTS is designed to be its own beast.
L.M: Can you fill us in on your experience as a screenwriter during the film-making process? Do you often find that changes are made to the script often? If so, what are the reasons?
Chris: My experience having written, directed, edited and been hired by production companies simply to write scripts is that each one of these stages is completely different and unique. This may not apply to everyone, but my experience has been that if you think of writing as a totally separate job to making a film (the shooting, the post production etc.), that’s a handy way to start. Your job as a writer is to write a good story. It’s not your job to please everyone, worry about how much it would cost to shoot, or who you can get to be in it. I would say just focus on your story and characters and just write. Be about writing, first and foremost. It’s like sneezing--get it out of your system, clean it up afterwards.
Working as a writer for some big production companies in the US and UK film markets is basically a political exercise. One person loves something you did, the next one comes in and wants changes because the 'Power-Stick' has been handed to them. It’s a useful exercise to make said changes as you never know if someone might actually be able to make it better through suggestions. Be open to changing it. Because once you decide to let this out in the world and try to get someone to pay for putting your words on screen, it’s not yours, and you must realise it becomes a collaborative effort, for better or worse.
Now, it’s a different thing altogether if you’re writing, directing and paying for everything yourself. You can make all the changes you want or, moreover, NEED to make because now it’s your wallet. Making changes can lead to amazing things. For example, we had a time limit thrown on us for the shooting of the finale for HEADSHOTS. We understood we had hours to shoot our big climactic face-off involving multiple characters, fighting and lots of blood. Faced with a new schedule of only having two hours at the location, I had to come up with a way to make the ending work and still get our face-off. This was where being the writer director and money-man came in handy as I could make the decision myself, and take the blame if it didn’t work. I came up with a way to do everything in one take--go handheld, run it multiple times so we had master shots and close-ups, and do the inserts of the blood-effects later at a different location. The new start to the finale involved a shot that was almost identical to an earlier introduction of a villain, so, now it had a nice symmetry to it, and it announced the beginning of the sequence by setting a tone. Had we not had that time crunch, this shot wouldn’t have happened and, personally, I thought it worked better than what we had originally because it said so much, visually.
Changes are usually made because of money. You can’t afford a location so you have to fold that scene into another one you CAN shoot by distilling the point, or bit of information, that was going to be in the scene you now have to chop. That actually makes your story tighter and it’s a nice surprise when you realise you can do it. And now you’re a director/producer.
L.M: What inspired you to write HEADSHOTS?
Chris: My Mrs loves horror films. After making my first film, the LA Neon Noir black comedy, ABSOLUTE DEBAUCHERY (which is a MIDNIGHT RUN/TRUE ROMANCE type crime comedy, in the style of Tony Scott and Shane Black), she demanded I make a horror thriller.
I had written several horror scripts before, and the novel I wrote, THE SKETCHER’S MARK, was in the horror thriller field. Writing a novel is a much different exercise and I’ve done many screenplay adaptations of THE SKETCHER’S MARK for different industry people who were into it, but being able to do something smaller, something I could actually go out and shoot, was the aim with HEADSHOTS. In THE SKETCHER’S MARK, the entire thing is set in Paris. There’s an utterly insane villain, a driven female LAPD Detective chasing him through the streets... Maybe on the next one we can do that, but for now, we have HEADSHOTS, which I get to shoot in my stomping grounds of Los Angeles.
I was very interested in doing something about LA and the entertainment industry that wasn’t glamorous or fantasy. It focuses on the every day grind that these thousands of young women come to LA every year and experience. And with that comes the grimy, nasty, threatening and dangerous element. A lot of actresses are looked at and treated like objects. To say you’re an actress before you're famous is almost like saying you have a contagiously awful disease. People tend to look down on you, consider you less of a human than, say, a bank teller, whose existence is just counting down the time 'til they go home. There are lots of predators who prey on these actresses, both financially and physically. It’s such a different business and scene to be in than those who are outside of it, I think. So, when I sat down with the cast, who are primarily female, I was even more inspired when I heard their stories of situations they had escaped from and things that had happened to them and their friends. HEADSHOTS became something a bit more than just a horror thriller now, it was something that might serve as a cautionary tale for any young lass who comes to LA with a dream. Beware the nightmare lurking out there!
L.M: What draws you to this particular genre, and do you think you’ll continue in this genre?
Chris: I’ve come to admire the sandbox the genre presents, and I watch almost every horror thriller that’s available on all streaming platforms. I give every film a 15 minute test, so, if I’m not engaged by that point then I go to the next one. Going deeper into that 15 minute cut off, it became fascinating to me to figure out why a film wasn’t grabbing me and what I felt would have. Execution of intrigue, characters, dialogue and pace, if these are your principle considerations, I think you’re in the right place.
Having spent literally the last two years watching every horror thriller out there, I felt I should do my version of one. I was interested in making a film that would be a bit meatier than the usual offerings, something that would hook an audience in its simplicity and keep them there through the execution. And terrify my Mrs. If this one works then, yes, I’d love to do another. I’ve written about five or six but they’re completely out of my budget range at this point. But, if HEADSHOTS connects with audiences, someone might give us a shot at doing one of these other scripts.
L.M: Whose work inspires you?
Chris: I have an eclectic taste in movies, books, music and all the creative arts. Having studied Film at university for four years, I have the appreciation of the usual suspects of the French New Wave, the '70s Movie Brats of Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma (my favourite of the lot) and Scorsese. The British class acts like Powell & Pressburger (PEEPING TOM), Hitchcock, of course, and Freddie Francis (Hammer horror films). The list is endless because it’s basically a mixed-tape of all the people who’ve done something you loved that stayed with you and made you excited about telling stories.
For writers, I love Shane Black, Lawrence Kasdan, Richard LaGravenese. On the British side of things, it’s still hard to beat the genius of Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais. They wrote PORRIDGE, Richard Burton cockney gangster film VILLAIN, and did all of Sean Connery’s scenes in THE ROCK. I don’t know how you top that.
Directing--David Lean is the granddaddy of all of them put together, in terms of creating pure cinema, and making everything from the smallest moments between people, to the largest set pieces like the train scene in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Nobody’s done it better than him. Ever. And he didn’t have any CGI.
L.M: Your favourite story ever told, book or script, and why?
Chris: My favourite script is probably MIDNIGHT RUN by George Gallo. It masquerades as just another buddy movie with car chases and one liners, but it’s a genuinely affecting film about two people who cross paths and these different worlds they live in. It has humour, heart and when you step back, you see how massive a story it is because it literally goes coast to coast, from New York to LA. It’s hugely underrated and a brilliant piece of work. SE7EN, by Andrew Kevin Walker, is a tie for me because it is just expertly crafted, lean, smart and ahead of you. I got a copy of the script when the film came out, and the copy appeared to be one that had been circulating in Hollywood. It included photocopies of Dante’s levels of hell to add to the reading experience. I’d never seen visual aids included in scripts before, and it was so cheeky and assured in doing so. Of course, it’s amazingly bleak and depressing, which is why MIDNIGHT RUN wins out by a small margin.
L.M: Could you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?
Chris: ABSOLUTE DEBAUCHERY should be available on Amazon streaming by Christmas. We recently got banned in China for being too amoral! So, I immediately put that on the website because it made me very proud to have had my first film premiere at a film festival in Beverly Hills, and just months later, be banned in an ENTIRE COUNTRY. You can check out the trailer and keep up with the release (and future bans) here on our website.
HEADSHOTS is still in production. The goal is to have it out to horror film festivals in 2018, which gives us lots of time to execute it to the required level of terrifying my wife. So far, it looks fabulous and it’s genuinely creepy. You can follow us on Instagram under “headshotsmovie”, and the teaser trailer is on our crowdfund site GoFundMe.
As for the novel, THE SKETCHER’S MARK, I recently got the film rights back to it, and believe it’s a very creepy and fast paced thrilling ride which would make a great movie. It’s also a rather unnerving book, perfect to read this time of year. Just leave the lights on and lock the doors. You can check it out on Amazon Prime.
L.M: And finally, any words of wisdom for getting started in the indie film-making world?
Chris: Stop talking about it. Stop thinking about it. Go do it. Write something you can shoot. Take stock of what you have--a phone, a camera, some lights, locations for free, actors, catering... Maybe you live somewhere we haven’t seen on screen. Go put it on screen. Experiment with your camera and lighting. Don’t be afraid to get started. Learn everything you can by doing it. The only thing stopping you is you. There is no failing, just learning. The more you do, the better you'll become. Start now. And good luck!
L.M: Many thanks, Chris! Very much looking forward to your upcoming projects!