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SU's Devin Watson Interview: TENEBROUS

SU's very own Devin Watson has his first film in the can. It's titled TENEBROUS, a supernatural thriller set in a cozy Tennessee town where Sheriff Jimmy Muldoon and younger brother, Deputy Lloyd Muldoon, have a firm grasp of law and order until a stranger, Denny White, comes to town and horrible things begin to happen. SU columnist Harry Caul got the chance to catch up with Devin after filming wrapped.

How long have you been writing and what got you started?
I started writing short stories and poetry when I was fairly young, around five or six. I'd type up cute little kid stories on this ancient ribbon-fed manual typewriter my babysitter gave me. My parents would take them into their offices and hang them up to show everybody. I didn't really get into screenplays until college, around 1996. At the time I was studying Computer Science. That's a subject far removed from the world of creative writing.

It was a strange animal, coming from writing prose, but it intrigued me how someone could write something to entertain an audience within 120 pages or less, acted out in front of cameras.

When I started working on screenplays, it was mostly to learn as much as possible. It was the mid-90s and the Internet as most people know it was still in its infancy. In addition to my regular CS studies, I picked up learning basic HTML, then went into database design and programming. I felt that I wanted to get into the film, but at the same time I loved programming and helping others. So I thought I could use one skill to help me develop another.

From that point, I did a lot of editing and script doctoring of other writer's scripts, while at the same time working on my own. That helped me see the mechanics and styles out there, and it ended up helping me immensely in finding my own style and voice.

How did you develop the story idea for TENEBROUS?
The idea behind TENEBROUS came from a lot of my own experiences. A common expression I kept hearing was "write what you know." I knew what I had just been through and how it felt, and I knew horror movies. I've been watching countless horror movies since I was about eight.

At that time I had just moved to Tennessee from the D.C. area. Coming from such a large, urban sprawl to the country led me to sit back and learn about being out the country, how different it feels. It had been more than 18 years since I lived in a rural area, so it was like discovering the country all over again. Plus, I was the new guy in a small town, so I had to go through that, too.

After a few months here, a lot of different ideas began coalescing. I'd get in my car and drive around to clear my head and figure out how to solve a problem. I was driving home one very foggy night and the final pieces came together. I rushed into the house to get them all down.

Oddly enough, my programing job is what contributed most to TENEBROUS being written. The weekend right after Thanksgiving was when I sat down to write it, because I had a new programming gig coming up that Monday, and that was all the time left to get it out. So it was a now or never kind of thing. A good writer observes. No matter how tiny and insignificant things might appear to others, there's stories in everything around you. You just have to find them by observing.

What is it about?
TENEBROUS is about a guy that moves in with his friend, ostensibly to help heal from the many emotional wounds that have been inflicted on him in recent months. He's lost his job, his girlfriend, gets evicted. All he wants is to start up a new career and get on with his life. At that point, it's really about the friendship between the two, and about trying to get over the past and move on.

Just when he thinks he's doing just that, he finds himself in the middle of a series of fairly gruesome murders in the town, with a lot of fingers pointing at him being the culprit. He ends up discovering that things in the town aren't as tranquil as he thought and the people he knows have secrets they're trying to keep.

I don't want to give too much of it away because there's a lot of nuances in the story that I'd love to tell you, but it would just unravel the whole story.

Did you write it with any sort of budget in mind?

When I went into the the first draft, I didn't consider a specific budget, other than I thought I'd like to shoot it myself, mostly as an exercise in filmmaking. But Phil, one of the other producers, saw something in the first drafts and was able to get the investor funding for it.

So suddenly we had something that was a bit bigger than just an exercise. This was going to be a full-on, serious but fun production. A real cast, a real crew, a real director.

As time and drafts went by, we had to adapt the script to work with the budget that was set forth. I say we here because by that point I was working closely with Joel Bender, the director. We were lucky that many of the biggest things in the script that were effect-intensive we managed to keep and film.

What is your writing process like?
Getting the first draft done is paramount to me. So I try to pour everything into the first draft that's key to the story, the characters, all of it and the kitchen sink. If you can't get your story across in the first draft, it's going to be incredibly difficult if not impossible to "find" it later.

In order to get all of it across in a short number of pages, I ended up being very conscious of my word choice. The bulk of the script is short but active sentences and the dialogue was tuned towards that.

For example, one of the lines "He walks up to the door, opens it, and closes it hard" became "He slams the door shut." It gives you an information-rich piece of action, but in a smaller amount of space. The rhythm of the story really lent itself to this kind of writing and it was a fun challenge to see how much I could get into the story without going over the page limit.

I read a lot of scripts, books, poetry, business signs, just about anything. I also watch a lot of movies. There's no real replacement for any of those. You have to love what you are doing and for a screenwriter that's becoming immersed in the visual language of film and how it's constructed. It's not a hard barrier to get through, as long as you're willing to put in the time.

The world of TENEBROUS was built around the characters. I sketched out the backgrounds of each character on a steno pad before a single sentence was written. Once I felt that each one had a strong background, the plot became more apparent because I saw how they interacted and talked with each other.

As crazy as it sounds, the characters started telling me what they would say and do, with me just sitting there almost taking dictation.

I have a very simple litmus test for scripts. I ask myself, "Is this something I'd want to go to a theater to see?"

Tell us about the pre-production. How involved were you?
Very. We (the production team) ended up wearing a lot of different hats during the course of pre-production.

Our pre-production time was from early March to mid-May, so we didn't have a lot of time and a lot of work needed to be done. If there was something that needed to be done and one of the team were available, they would step in and do it.

It was decided that TENEBROUS would be shot here where one of the other producers and I live, since it really was written about this area and places that I had been. Because of this I ended up doing most of the location scouting and also the location management until someone else could be brought on-board to handle it, which was much closer to principal photography.

I ended up taking about 2,000 pictures of locations from all angles, downloading them, indexing them, and uploading them to a secure server for the rest of the production team to look at and evaluate. At the time, half our team was on location here and the rest were scattered about in L.A. and the east coast.

Maintaining the secure server was another one of my jobs. I ended up using some excellent free tools that come with KDE and Linux to help speed up the job and automate certain time-consuming tasks.

I was also working on the new drafts of the script with Joel during pre-production. Eventually he came out during pre-production, so we were able to work face-to-face. Fortunately by that time we hammered out the rough parts of the script and we could concentrate more on the production aspects such as choosing and locking locations.

I remember writing up the character breakdown for casting. If you don't know what a breakdown is, I'll explain.

You take all of the characters in your script, including the ones that don't have any speaking roles, basically every person that is going to be in front of the camera except extras. You write a paragraph describing each character both physically and emotionally, their age and gender. The breakdown is sent to a service, which sends it out to all of the talent agencies. Then the agencies send in candidate resumes for review.

We worked on casting right up to the last week before shooting. We already had a lot of the key characters cast but a few were still not there yet. Once it was done, we all breathed a short sigh of relief and went back to the other thousand bits of minutiae you have to handle before you film.

Auditions were in Tennessee and out in L.A. in several sessions, and it was a lot more arduous than I had previously thought. That's another one of those areas of filmmaking I didn't know a lot about until TENEBROUS.

Being a producer I sat in on some of the casting sessions here in Tennessee, and the others in L.A. we watched on tape. Hours and hours of tape. After awhile, you start to get a feel for what you're looking for and it then becomes a little easier, but it's also very draining. The one big casting session in Tennessee was about 10 hours straight. It was very enlightening.

Did you have to do rewrites and what was that process like?
We went through about fifteen drafts, but those were not full rewrites. Joel Bender and I worked on the script throughout pre-production and even during principal photography. A lot of subtle things were changed on a daily basis during filming, such as dialogue for the actors.

Fifteen drafts is actually a low number to get to a locked production script. Twenty to twenty-five is closer to the norm from what I learned. But I think that we had the bulk of the story down and what we wanted to say early on, so there wasn't a need to go back and re-wicker a lot of the story.

I came in expecting daily changes on set. Dialogue, no matter how practiced and well-written will be handled differently by every actor. Each actor also brings their own experiences and opinions to how their character will be handled. I didn't take their advice or suggestions as insults or an attack on my work, and I think that helped out a lot.

For the most part, the story didn't change. We ended up reordering a lot of the scenes to make it more cinematic and increase the tension. You'd be surprised what simply changing the order of scenes can do to a script. We would have discussions where Joel would offer up another way to handle something and explain why and ask me what I thought. At no point did I feel like I was being kept out of the loop with the script.

When you go in offering your services as a writer to a project and working and expecting that your idea will change and accept the fact that it will, then you'll get along much better and not be asked to leave. It's a team effort.

The only thing that was in flux up to locking it down was the ending. We knew what we wanted, just not where it would happen or some of the specifics, so we kept multiple versions of the ending handy as the production went on.

You were on set and were also a producer, what was that like?

It's a surreal experience, if you haven't ever done it yourself. Seeing everybody doing their part to contribute to a finished product made me realize how much really does go on at any given moment. You can read books about how a movie is made, but it's nothing compared to actually experiencing it.

Being a producer means that I was there to help in any way possible. On an independent film, the producers are there to fill in and do as much as they can to serve the crew and the movie. I ended up being transportation coordinator for the talent. That meant picking up actors and some crew from the airport, taking them to and from the hotel to set, etc.

While that also meant missing some time on the set, it also allowed me to get to know the actors. Some of them were quite surprised to see the writer at the airport holding a sign with their name on it and picking them up at the hotel.

Producers are also there to listen to everybody on the set if they have a problem. They come to you because you're in charge. You have to know everybody there, what their job is, and be able to make decisions quickly that can possibly affect the entire film.

We shot TENEBROUS in HD, which gave us an instant feel for how it would look while we went along. I got to sit in at the video village with Dan Zimbaldi, the HD engineer, during some of the takes of the scenes and it was an incredible experience.

I can remember one scene in particular which basically took about an hour to set up and we could only do it once. We managed to pull it off, and I saw from one of the monitors it looked exactly how I saw it in my head. There were a lot of those, and it gave me a little bit of affirmation that I wasn't just hacking my way through a story.

There were a few times I got to speak with the director between camera setups about how we saw things differently. The two biggest differences came down to, I think, my own personal idiosyncrasies.

For one thing I'm left-handed, and I saw a lot of the scenes being shot reversed from the original concept. Not a real big difference, but it stuck out in my mind. I don't know if it had to do with being left-handed, but it made sense to me because of my right-brained dominance.

The other difference was that I didn't write the script in terms of coverage. Everything was written as I saw it: a long shot, with everybody in the frame. It's a big leap to go from nothing but long shots to something with different setups all cut together to form a scene.

The director was always asking me what I thought of how the scene came off on the screen. He was genuinely interested in my opinion and it helped further discussions later.

What advice would you give to writers interested in writing for the independent market? Is writing for the independent market different than say trying to write a large budget script?
I'll say this up front: studios are not necessarily a bad thing. However, they do tend to work within a formula so constrictive at times that good stories simply do not get told because they don't fit within it.

When you work on an independent film, you're in charge. There's a lot more focus on bringing a good story to the screen, despite how it doesn't fit into a formula. I can honestly say that, with some of the subject matter and the ending we have for TENEBROUS, it would not have been made by a studio.

But that freedom is also a two-edged sword; the disadvantage is trying bring your vision to life on a much lower budget without that massive pull and support of the studio behind you. In spite of that (or because of it), you also end up getting creative during production to get the same shots you need. Those scenes that are simply too expensive can be reworked to fit within your budget and still achieve the same effect. If they end up looking too hokey by the time you edit, they get dropped.

We only dropped eight our of the one hundred thirty-six scenes in TENEBROUS during shooting. That means that what you'll end up seeing on the screen is a fairly close interpretation of the script.

I had this theory going into TENEBROUS: a screenwriter can only help their craft by participating in the filmmaking process. I was my own guinea pig for this, and I think it did indeed help. When you're there working on set, you get a lot of advice from professionals that a writer doesn't normally get access to because they're usually the first ones asked to leave.

You have to be a little crazy to do this. Filmmaking is a crazy business. But it's also the most fun, challenging thing you will ever do in your entire life. It takes a strong constitution to survive, but if you've got the nerve and will to do it, go for it.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on two scripts right now. One of them I started before TENEBROUS went into production, so I want to get that done. It's an action/drama. The other one is an action-based love story that I'm collaborating on with Brad Thornton.

After that, I'd like to get back into programming. It's something I enjoy doing, and I've got a lot of ideas for some software that I've been neglecting.

Having gone through this part of the process, I'd like to try my hand at directing sometime in the future too. But not before I've done this a few more times and worked with a few more directors.

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