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Developing Original Horror: Jeffrey Grellman on Writing Mermaid Down

Writing in a genre like horror is a balancing act between striking all the traditional chords and finding a new way to engage — and frighten — your audience. There are certain plot points that more or less must be reached, but how that’s done is where the audience gets all its enjoyment and where all the writer’s creativity comes into play.

There’s been lots of engagingly original horror films coming out lately — The Conjuring, You’re Next, etc. — but to specifically discuss the writing process I wanted to talk with someone who’s still at the development phase. Jeffrey Grellman is an emerging filmmaker who’s still putting together the production package for his film Mermaid Down. The project certainly has the originality side of the coin going for it: it features a mermaid that’s hauled from the sea, has its tail chopped off, and is thrown in an insane asylum where no one believes its — her? — story. In doing so it takes mermaids back past The Little Mermaid and Splash to their more ancient and lethal versions in stories like The Odyssey.

The Belgium-born, California-based Grellman has worked as an actor, in special effects, and in many other areas of production; Mermaid Down will be his second film as writer-director. Though not fully funded, the Mermaid Down screenplay is already garnering attention, like at the BlueCat Screenplay Competition and Shoreline Scripts Screenwriting Competition, where it was just named a quarter-finalist for 2013. The project is online on Facebook and Twitter, and a short conceptual scene on Vimeo tantalizingly hints at how the film will go about creating its horror.

Filmmaker: Your first film, Whiskey Blue, was significantly different from this project. Can you talk about that film and what your experience creating and distributing it was like?

Grellman: At the time I created the idea for Whiskey Blue, filmmakers were all making small, quirky independent films so I thought I’d go down the road less traveled by making something massive on a shoestring. It was a test of creativity and ultimately of endurance. I wrote, directed, photographed, cut and sound designed that film. We built sets in my garage, created every prop from scratch and designed a kind of graphic novel world from three years of notes I took while working at a video store called “CinemArt” (it was during that transition time when half the store was DVD’s and the other half was VHS tapes gathering dust). Whiskey Blue was the byproduct of years of pent-up filmmaking studies, and I wanted to express all of it in that first film. An absurd, daunting task but so much damn fun. The film did pretty well at festivals, and we had a couple offers for distribution but we’re going to hold out for a better deal. Someone much more successful than me in the industry advised us to sell it as a sort of follow-up to my next film — as my original, backyard, first movie kind of thing. I don’t really care how people find it, whether by festival or YouTube trailer, I’m just anxious to have more people see it and make my original investors proud to have been involved. Those people were the first people to believe in me so I owe it to them to finally package and release Whiskey Blue in the best way possible. The company I’ve been working with recently is already thinking about how they’re going to acquire it and do just that. I can’t wait.

Filmmaker: So coming from there, what was your goal in writing this screenplay?

Grellman: Well, Whiskey Blue was an incredibly complex film in that it’s an adventure picture with a near-intellectual story, layered with so much invented history that it became very ambitious to try and cinematically navigate through the world of that film. The finished film is something I’m proud to call my first movie — especially since it was a garage-band style crew of three, maybe four if the coffee was in good supply — but on Mermaid Down I just wanted to tell a very tight story that gives you that weird, electric feeling like you’re back under the sheets cradling a flashlight between cheek and collar, reading that scary story you couldn’t put down. The glaring shift in spectacle over substance in studio films everyone’s talking about lately motivated me to write Mermaid Down with the emotional cues and verisimilitude I miss from earlier eras of filmmaking. I’m using everything I’ve studied and learned from my filmmaking experience to get the audience to cling to the arms of their chairs again and actually feel transported — obviously a cliché sentiment but still rarely accomplished these days, I think. That bridge from screen to viewer is so damn important to me. I obsess over that elusive thing. Whether the bridge is built from vulnerability in characters, realistic reactions to unrealistic events, pacing, structure, dialogue, foreshadowing or “inevitable surprise” (as David Mamet would say), it has to be there and it has to reach out and connect to the audience in that final draft of the script. The challenge for this script is that we know mermaids are unreal so the goal was to make the reader invest emotionally and actually care about a mermaid’s plight.

Filmmaker: Tell me where the initial idea came from to make a horror film about mermaids — and set it on dry ground in an insane asylum.

Grellman: I was putting together another film that had theatrical distribution, had a hedge fund ready to finance and an interested star when funding kind of reached a tipping point that I couldn’t quite tip in favor of a “go-picture” just yet because we needed a producer with a viable track record. I was even given the go-ahead from Kristin Kreuk’s people to say she was interested in the project, which landed me some great meetings. (I’ll never forget her doing that for me — it seems like a lot of stars aren’t there to support up and coming writers anymore, but she lent me her name, which is generous, artistically motivated and very cool.) From those meetings came valuable advice from executives: write a one-location horror film that could be shot quick and cheap and raise my viability as a filmmaker, thus satisfying any hold-ups on my other pending film. I’ve always wanted to make a powerful film about a mermaid — they’re sexy, mythical creatures with an aesthetic that’s ripe for human metaphor, yet they’re almost always portrayed in this banal and childish way. I thought it’d be great to see those old clichés turned upside down so she’s still a beautiful and exotic half-woman/half-fish, like the traditional mermaid, but she looks weathered by the ocean with old faded tattoos, her hair a muddled and tangled mess that never saw shears, her eyes fish-black and her voice box doesn’t generate a sweet, siren voice but moans and growls like something that actually came from the ocean. Finding her in an insane asylum where no one believes she’s a mermaid was born out of talking about the concept with a psychoanalyst who was game to treat the mermaid mythos seriously with me. We both just fell in love with the idea and I became very passionate about the character.

Filmmaker: How has your early experience with miniature models and special effects played into the writing of this screenplay?

Grellman: Before I wanted to write and direct I was up to my ears in rubber cement, foam latex and special effects books and FX magazines. I just loved the textural feeling of optical illusion in cinema — the old ’70s pics of super-smart hippies wiring up spaceships and the idea of the people in the shadows pulling monofilament. The smell and feel of the special effects world was romantic to me and still is. One of the greatest thrills of my life was becoming familiar with the guys at the Grant McCune Design FX house (which is the original Industrial Light and Magic warehouse, where they made Star Wars) and looking at hundreds of models in their shop. The degree to which I felt at home there was the impetus to write a film that could be shot 99% practical. I love CGI and I don’t turn my nose up to it at all, but to just throw CGI at every shot feels like you’re insecure with your movie, I think. Trying to dazzle an audience will only do just that: dazzle them. It won’t invoke all the emotion carefully orchestrated to build suspense and tell a really good yarn. I don’t want to just witness a shiny spectacle, I want to really believe in the spectacle. That feeling never left me when I wrote Mermaid Down because I’m striving for a gritty story that doesn’t feel like it was created by a studio or the corporate interest fueling so many mainstream movies now. I think proper use of effects can help make that happen.

Filmmaker: You actually co-wrote this script. What was the writing process and specifically your collaboration like?

Grellman: One of the dark alleys I went down early in the story creation process was: What if a film started by pulling a mermaid up out of the ocean violently? Then: what if this extremely beautiful and extremely realistic mermaid was thrown down onto the deck of the blood soaked fishing boat and her tail was slowly and brutally chopped off with an axe? The image was so disturbing to me, I knew I had the start of a potentially good horror script. It came to me when I was driving with Kelly (Lauren Baker), a doctoral student graduating at the top of her class in psychology. I was thinking out loud about that imagery and she started adding ideas. We just kept playing off each other until virtually the entire thing was mapped out in 45 minutes. What happens naturally, I think, when you share a seed of an idea, is people will want to jump in and help it grow. Creating a story communally can be such an irresistible playground. Kelly saw the concept from a female psychological perspective which led me to come up with the idea of throwing our poor mermaid into an insane asylum after the fishing boat scene. A creepy, natural environment for a horror picture where I could have her be misdiagnosed as “crazy.” That sets up instant tension and keeps the environment simple and filmable (one-location scripts have a better chance of getting made). Kelly then came up with the idea of seaweed laced into her hair and that the on-site psychologist at the mental home would be the threat, which is an idea I loved because I’ve never seen a horror film where the supernatural element was the protagonist and the realistic element was the antagonist. It felt fresh to me. That 45-minute car ride was the best collaborative experience I’ve ever had. It worked because we simply had a relaxed “don’t try to make the best movie ever” motto that kept the plasticity of imagination — no pressure to make it intellectual, only visceral.

From then on it was up to me to go off and write the script. The first day I wrote nothing. The next day I had a glass of wine at noon and only wanted to make myself laugh so I wrote a scene consisting of two drunk fishermen discussing the existence of mermaids and how in the hell to catch one. It was never suppose to be in the film, I just wanted to have fun with two old, craggy archetypes but it became the opening scene and the one readers most often comment on generously. The rest of the script was a battle with my compassion for the characters. I fell in love with each and every patient in the asylum to such a degree that no one was dying! Not exactly a thriller/horror way of treating characters but I went with it because it resulted in more well-defined relationships that the audience could actually care about, which would make harming them that much more horrific. It was the first revision where I finally went back in with a sadistic pen and tried to find poetically appropriate ways of abusing those characters. I usually know where my story needs to go or where I want it to end up but my characters don’t, so I try to live through their eyes and experience things with them — surprise myself with thunderous, shocking events — which makes it so much more fun for the audience as well, I think.

Filmmaker: What’s your revision process like beyond that one example? How many complete drafts are there? How closely does your finished script resemble your initial concept?

Grellman: My first draft is usually written novelistically so I’m freed up as a writer and not thinking about format structure, only story structure. I also usually share the first draft with my closest friends. Once I hear a little feedback and bring up certain scenes with them, trying to read their faces (seeking the truth), I tend to know where the script gets a little bogged down and indulgent. The second draft is the one where I make the most changes. I strip the script down to its most essential elements (getting it to that insane industry-standard brevity) and completely rewrite anything that isn’t having the impact I want. After that there’ll be a new draft almost every week up until the film is made, always layering in more levity in contrast to the gravity of horror and finding new ways to tighten the laces. The revision process is really enjoyable because if the story is sound and holds water then all I’m doing is making it scarier, funnier and more suspenseful. The 11th draft of Mermaid Down is the one that went to some of the script festivals. I’m up to draft 13 now. The initial concept is almost exactly what the final draft ends up being because I write pretty fast. Gary Lucchesi (producer of Underworld and Million Dollar Baby) once said to me, “Time is your enemy,” and he’s right. I find that the more time you hem and haw, the more the initial concept that got you so excited will dissolve into an over-complicated mess. The faster I go the more I can listen to those inner whispers guiding me to something that feels new and right.

Filmmaker: What’s the best feedback you’ve received?

Grellman: The best feedback I received was from screenwriter Gordy Hoffman’s (Phillip Semour Hoffman’s brother) festival, BlueCat Screenplay Competition. I was so sure it was going to be negative and ugly because I’m always prepared for that soul-crushing review of my work, but to my absolute shock the feedback was outrageously positive and generous. I actually teared up (and called my mom, like a grown man does, in less than 24 frames to read it verbatim). Then my girlfriend made me frame it — a policy she declared which I would highly recommend to all struggling writers out there who feel like they’re wading water in a sea of rejection. When those positive reviews come in hold on to them like driftwood because they will keep you above water! Sometimes the industry will skim through your script (because you are in a stack of 100 other scripts) and barely pick up on the nuances or the emotional underpinnings. BlueCat really digs into your script and they actually read it as a piece of writing. Even if you were to get a bad review from them it would be empowering because they actually took the time to take you seriously. That means a lot to writers, and it meant the world to me. I’m trying to remember to never doubt the possibility of people out there “getting it.” I know so many writers who never let go of their work, never allow an institution or entity to read it for fear of rejection. I’ve had my teeth kicked in so many times I feel like a veteran hockey goalie in that department, but it’s made me so much stronger as a writer. A concept I try to live by is if I’m not being rejected then I’m not trying hard enough to put myself out there. Odd philosophy but it works.

Filmmaker: So the feedback can be instructive and even motivational, but are there other advantages of submitting a script to contests rather than just trying to find financing and move into production?

Grellman: Someone I’ve looked up to for years and someone who has kept my many starving artist stresses at bay with his eloquence and London Symphony of thoughts is Kevin Smith, who talks at length about the difficulty for today’s amateur filmmakers to cross over into the professional world because the film festival system is not what it once was. On the other end, I think script festivals are really coming into their own as an opportunity for independent filmmakers. If your script is working it’ll grease the wheels with casting and financing. If your script is lacking “oomph” then it’ll help you to find where it needs to be reworked or rebuilt. If you do well in script festivals it gives you the great gift of positive exposure to industry as well. It lends credibility to your weeks or months of suffering over the paper or keyboard and against the thousands upon thousands of other spec scripts floating around town. It’s very helpful to have a little festival street-cred. For example, you’re more likely to get your script read by a famous actor if it’s been recognized by prestigious competitions. No one jumps on board in Hollywood unless someone else does first, like a high school dance floor. Not to mention, it’s empowering to discover what you’re doing has the effect you intended.

Filmmaker: What happens next with the film as you move it toward production?

Grellman: Well, I have another script festival I’m waiting on (fingers crossed, always) and I’ve been filming a kind of sizzle reel. It’s like a trailer (even though this movie hasn’t been shot yet) so I have something engaging to accompany my pitch to different production companies.  I’ll release it in collaboration with a possible Indiegogo campaign. After that I’ll create three different budget proposals — allocating funds on a spreadsheet essentially — and get insurance quotes on those budgets before taking it to the American Film Market in November where there are opportunities to get picked up.

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