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My interview with Dan Kay posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

29 Sep

Pay the Ghost: Playing to Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare | CreResearch about the origins of ancient Celtic myths and his own childhood memories of Halloween led rising Hollywood screenwriter Dan Kay to pen the script for the recently released Pay the Ghost.

The horror/thriller stars Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider and National Treasure) and Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) as parents of a child abducted by a centuries-old revenge-seeking ghost witch. Kay sets his story in New York City, and leaves clues in the graffiti along the walls of back alley haunts of homeless people.

The plot focuses upon a woman and her three children who burned at the stake during the 17th century. Taking his cues from the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials, Kay drew upon the history of witchcraft hysteria and superstition that spread throughout New England in 1692.

This horror/thriller is based on a short story written by Tim Lebbon that originally appeared in his October Dreams anthology. Why did you choose to adapt that story and how closely does the film follow Lebbon’s version of the tale?
Well, actually, Tim’s short story was given to me by one of the producers on the (Pay the Ghost) movie, Ian Levy. He had optioned the 10-page story and said to me ‘I think there’s something really cool here; I don’t really know what it is, but just take a read and see if it sparks anything.’ I read the story and it’s a real cool story. There wasn’t much in it that I thought would make a feature film, but I really liked the story and I loved the title, Pay the Ghost, and there was a beat in the story that I really, really liked where – again, it’s been years since I read this story. If memory serves, the father in the story is out at a supermarket with his daughter and his daughter out-of-the blue says ‘Daddy, can we pay the ghost?’

So the child character was a girl instead of a boy in the original story.

It was a girl instead of a boy. If I remember correctly, the girl then vanishes – I believe later that day or later that night. The story itself doesn’t really have anything to do with Halloween.

You embellished that aspect of the tale, adding the carnival on Halloween in New York City.

Yes. Everything in the movie is invented; but it was all sparked by reading that story. That beat in the story just really inspired me to make the whole world that I created.

On Halloween, a child-stealing ghost witch takes the only son of a loving couple. The kidnapping epitomizes every parent’s nightmare of child abduction.

I was absolutely playing to every parent’s worst nightmare, particularly just the idea that you’re out with your kid and you hit a store or wherever you are and you’re keeping him right by your side, but you get distracted for a second and then if you turn around and you don’t see your kid, extreme panic sets in. So I was definitely tapping into that.
Within a New York borough, you juxtapose a dream-like carnival against a sinister realm of evil.

Originally the idea was that there was an abandoned warehouse that Nicolas Cage’s character comes to and he goes into this back room and he sees ‘Pay the Ghost’ and all these different hands and handwriting scrawled on this little wall.

The graffiti is so interesting; it’s like a doorway that leads to a portal for the underworld.

Right, so that wall where you see ‘Pay the Ghost’ scrawled over and over and all these different hands and different handwriting, that is supposed to be the spot where if you went back in time, Annie’s house stood.

The film’s flashbacks were riveting, especially when Sawquin hides her children beneath the floorboards of her home, when that angry mob with burning torches comes for her.

So basically Annie each year is taking kids to the other side and she’s putting them in her basement where her kids were taken from her. So the conceit was just that. It was relatively easy to write once I figured out how Annie was operating and why logically she would keep those kids in her basement. It was an extension of what happened to her own kids.
How did you research the details of the backstory for the antagonist, Annie Sawquin?

I had wanted to write a Halloween movie for some time. I’d never really come up with something that I thought was worth writing and then when I read Tim’s story I think I simultaneously did some research into the original mythology behind Halloween. I learned some things that I never knew about. It goes all the way back to this ancient Celtic festival, this harvest festival.

I read about the harvest festival and this idea that the Celts were basically celebrating a rebirth. The harvest festival came about at the end of the fall every year and they believed that as you got closer and closer to the end of the festival, the door to the spirit world opened wider and wider. That concept was pretty cool. I did a lot of invention myself, sort of elaborating and extrapolating from what I was reading, but just thinking about the Celtic festival and Halloween and how you can trace Halloween back to that was enough for me to sort of take that and run with it as far as creating my own mythology on top of this Celtic mythology.

Your antagonist, Annie Sawquin is so compelling. New York City colonists held witch trials modeled after those in Salem, Massachusetts, but one woman wasn’t burned at the stake, she was found innocent.

I was playing with that in the script. For sure. In an earlier version of the script, the movie actually began with a very sick little boy being run into an infirmary in 1692 in New Amsterdam. The idea was there was an epidemic and these colonists were searching for scapegoats. So they blamed this Pagan woman, Annie Sawquin and they took a cue from their colonists in Massachusetts who at that time were burning suspected witches at the stake. So I took a cue from that for what the colonists do to Annie.

You also created several haunting moments without the need for special effects. For example, something as simple as the scene when the protagonist Mike Lawford lets go of his son’s hand in a crowd.

You just really have to rely on your own tastes. For me, I just have to have the most strict bullshit meter that I can. Whatever it is, if I write something, if I even think it sounds hokey or if it plays hokey, I just cut it and a rewrite it until I feel like the beat can play organically. It’s really just instinctual and you hope that your instincts are right. At the end of the day, you rely on everyone else who’s reading it. If I turn in the script to a director or to the actors and the producers and if there is a certain beat that they don’t think is working, then I adjust it to try to make it work.
The visual images delight as well, such as when Cage dons a cowboy costume and his son, Charlie, played by Jack Fulton, dresses as a pirate. However, this is not a children’s movie. How did those costumes kind of fulfill your own feelings about Halloween?

Well, as most Americans who grew up celebrating Halloween, it was the greatest night of the year. I loved dressing up, I loved going door-to-door, I loved just gorging on candy. So it was always a night growing up that had a special meaning for me. I was really just tapping into memories of my childhood when I was writing those scenes of dressing up and going out trick-or-treating. It was just something that has always been a special memory for me.

The release of the movie in theaters and On Demand precedes the month of Halloween, serving both the plot and the theme of the movie. There are advantages to writing a favorite holiday-themed movie that might be shown during the same month again year after year.

Yes. Definitely that was part of my thinking. Like I mentioned before, I really always wanted to write a Halloween movie because growing up every Halloween me and my friends would get together and we’d watch Halloween, the movie. I thought that it would be really fun to write something that kids today – every Halloween when they get together – that this might be a movie that they might watch. That was definitely in the back of my mind when I was creating this.

You also wrote the horror/thriller, Timber Falls. How different was writing that script?

I guess the writing process was not all that different. The biggest difference with Timber Falls was that it was the first horror movie that I wrote. So it was a lot of fun just to sort of play in a new genre for me. I hadn’t written anything like that before, but creatively, the process was probably pretty similar.
You also worked on the Disney’s screenplay, Tinker Bell. What did that writing experience do for you in terms of your writing career?

Well, actually the experience of working on Tinker Bell is what led me to writing Timber Falls, because I enjoyed working on Tinker Bell, but I was living in a sort of little girl’s world for however long it was, six months to a year, I don’t remember exactly. However long I was working on that, it was every day you try to capture the voices of Tinker Bell and her friends and I had never written anything like that before. So after living in that kid’s space for so long I think I really wanted to have a polar opposite experience and that’s what inspired me to write Timber Falls. If I never wrote Tinker Bell, I don’t know that I would have ever written Timber Falls.

You also wrote the TV pilot, Diabolic, that also focuses upon the supernatural. How different did you find the experience of writing scripts for television as opposed to writing a script for a movie?

Well, the difference is that for television, especially when you’re writing a pilot, you want people to read that pilot and have a really great sense for what the show could become, but you’re also holding a lot of your cards close to your vest because you want to hint at certain mysteries and mysteries behind certain characters and plot points, but you don’t want to reveal too much because you want the audience to be intrigued and to come back and watch next week, and the week after that, and the week after.

With a movie, you don’t want too many loose ends that would frustrate the audience; you don’t want them to leave the movie with loose ends where they go ‘Oh, my gosh I wish it would have tied it up. I’m dying to know how that story line ended or where that character ended up.’ So, in a movie you really have to bring the whole thing to a close. You have really bring some closure. Whereas in a TV pilot it’s the opposite, you don’t really want closure at all, you want the reader – in a sense that you’re writing it – and later obviously the viewer of the pilot to say ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait until next week when I can watch the next the episode.’ So philosophically, it’s pretty different.

You grew up in New York and received a bachelor of sciences degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania. What breaks did you receive early in your career that helped you to get started in the movie industry?
I guess the biggest break for me was that I wrote and directed a movie, when I was living in New York. The movie was called Way Off Broadway, it was a character-driven coming of age movie. After making that movie I got to travel the film festival circuit on and off for about two years with the movie. That eventually led to me getting representation out in LA and then I moved to LA. That was probably my first break, writing and directing Way Off Broadway.

You also serve on the staff of the New York Film Academy. What is one tip that you have often given your students about writing?

One tip in particular?

What’s one tip that you always give them?

That’s a good question. There are so many tips. I think the biggest tip that I will always stress to a student is that the business of screenwriting or television writing can be brutal and challenging and just very, very hard. So, you’ve got to love it to do it. There’s got to be nothing else in the world that you think you would want to do. If you feel that way and you’re passionate about it, you’ll get there, but if writing is not necessarily the thing that you’re absolutely compelled to do then maybe you should reconsider. Maybe that’s one of the tips that I give my students most often.

Also please see my story posted on the Creative Screenwriting website at:


My Alec Berg interview posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

8 Sep

Alec Berg on Silicon Valley | Creative Screenwriting MagazineScreenwriter and producer of HBO’s current smash hit series Silicon Valley Alec Berg, who formerly worked on television sitcoms Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, unabashedly admits to using other people’s real-life stories. In fact, he has built a lucrative career writing TV scripts about the real things real people say and do. And since 2013, Alec, co-creator Mike Judge and a team of writers have scripted true stories to fit Silicon Valley’s fast-paced and funny comedy series about an incubator start up company, Pied Piper.

“We get credit for a lot of things that happen on Silicon Valley that are not things that we made up. There’s a joke in the pilot about how Peter Gregory drives this very narrow car. People would say that it is hilarious that we made up the car. We didn’t make up the car; it’s a real car. It’s a funny real thing. Those real things are always the most interesting, the funniest, and trying to think of what’s going to be funny is never as funny as funny things that have actually happened.”

Silicon Valley’s tall tales focus on a geeky computer genius, Richard Hendricks, played by Thomas Middleditch, who accidentally designs game-changing software known as a compression algorithm. The fantasy data compression tool makes texts, files, music and movies smaller and easier to transmit across the Internet. Hendricks leads a band of unkempt sidekicks, coder Bertram Gilfoyle, played by Martin Starr, programmer Dinesh Chugtai, portrayed by Kumail Nanjiani, and business development expert Jared Dunn played by Zach Woods. The four men live and work together in disagreeable harmony inside the home office of a cocky pot-smoking con man and philanderer Erlich Bachman, played by T.J. Miller. The sitcom’s story lines blur between leisure, video game play, and indulgence in food, alcohol and drugs.
Establishing Trust

The writers of Silicon Valley rely upon the tech community of Palo Alto, interviewing experts who help to provide content. “For Silicon Valley, it’s all just about research, meeting with a ton of different people. We’ve met dozens and dozens of different people – venture capitalists, lawyers, founders, coders.”

Initially, the writers faced some difficulty getting local tech people to talk openly about their covert and somewhat controversial activities. “People were very suspicious because there was a really not very done well reality show set in Silicon Valley a few years ago, and that’s what people kind of think of when you say you’re going to do a TV show about Silicon Valley. But since the first season aired and people kind of know what they’re dealing with, it has become massively easier to get insiders interested in sharing their stories.”

And maintaining accuracy has fostered a level of trust. “They know we’re not going to tell these fake salacious stories and we’re not there to undermine or take shots at anybody. I think we’re poking loving fun at that business. And it’s a nice thing to have story-wise where if you get stuck, you can always just ask, ‘What would really happen if?’ and talk to some people who actually lived things like this and steal their lives.”

Berg at SXSW 2015Art Imitates Life

One such example of art imitating life occurs in season one, episode five, “Signaling Risk,” when Bachman hires a graphic artist to paint a logo for Pied Piper. The finished mural painted on the outside of Bachman’s garage and home office featured the likeness of one company programmer sporting an enormous genitalia while simulating intercourse with the Statue of Liberty. Writers framed the episode after David Choe, a street artist who painted murals inside Facebook’s offices in exchange for stock.

“It’s actually a famous tech story. Choe spent a few days painting murals in the Facebook offices and he ended up making — I don’t know what it was in the end — a few hundred million dollars. Because Facebook didn’t have any cash to give him, they just gave him stock options.”

The fictional mural artist in Silicon Valley, identified as Chuy Ramirez, wants Pied Piper stock options as payment in exchange for his contracted artwork, but instead receives a cash-only 10K deal. “That’s a prime example of where we get our stories. We’ll take a few tech stories and we’ll kind of twist them and expand them and build them into stories for our show.”
Coping with Loss

The show suffered a great loss during season one, when actor Christopher Evan Welch, died at age 48 following a three-year battle with lung cancer. Afterwards, the writers had to figure out how to address the loss of his popular character Peter Gregory, Pied Piper’s eccentric investor.

“He was a great guy, he had a wife, kids and it was awful. He couldn’t have been more lovely. Also, we lost a brilliant character and an actor that we could have written about for years.”

Silicon Valley’s writers had to rewrite the series without Welch.

“As a writer, that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – to go through those scripts and to delete that character from the script. It was so heartbreaking. There were a couple of scripts that we had already read with the actors at the table and so we heard a sort of table read version of what Welch was going to do with those scenes, and they were great, and I was really looking forward to shooting them and having them as part of the show.”
An Alpha Female

In season two, then, writers introduced actress Suzanne Cryer, who portrayed Laurie Bream, the idiosyncratic managing partner and numbers cruncher for Raviga Capital, Pied Piper’s newest investor. Bream’s robotic-like movements and failure to make eye contact portray her as a woman who behaves unflatteringly like the stereotypical version of a corporate man.

An associate partner, Monica, played by Amanda Crew, also grounds the show with beauty and brains while portraying the smartest female tech in California.
10 Episode Seasons

HBO has a policy of running only 10 episodes per season.

“We do the same number of episodes as Game of Thrones. They do 10 because their production is so sprawling and so massive; I think they’re killing themselves to do 10 episodes of that show a year.”

“HBO also need to have a certain number of shows on the air, so that when you buy a subscription to HBO, you’re not subscribing to one show or two shows, or three shows. You’re buying a subscription to the 12 or 15 or however many different shows they have on the air. These shorter order shows serve them because it just means that they have time to air more shows in a year. It helps the value of their subscription packets.”

Formerly, networks had to create 88 or 100 episodes before they could sell them in syndication in order to recoup their money. “Now, you know what? If you make 10 really good episodes or eight or six episodes of something, you can sell it. Look at True Detective. That was a phenomenon. That was a very short order and because it was short, HBO got better people to work on it. Oscar winning actors were willing to work on it because it’s not that big of a commitment.”

“People who used to say ‘I’m not going to get locked into shooting a television series for nine months a year for the next seven years.’ Now, the caliber of performers that you get who are willing to do these say ‘Oh sure, I’ll shoot a TV show for two and a half or three months every year and for the other nine months of the year I can off and shoot features and do whatever I want to do. I think you’re getting people who used to live in features where they could spend time to really craft something and get it right and now those people are coming to work in television.”

Short seasons means that Berg and his team can write the entire season before shooting begins. “So, if we come up with something in episode eight or nine, that affects or plays off of something from an earlier episode, we can actually go back and we can say ‘Oh shoot. We should have set this moment in episode nine up in episode two.’ There’s plenty of time to address that. It means that we really handcraft every episode to get it right.”

This is in sharp contrast to times when he did not have such luxury, writing multiple episodes for Seinfeld simultaneously while production crews shot two or more others. “Those earlier episodes were already locked and shot, sometimes edited, and sometimes aired already, depending upon how crazy your schedule was.”
Not Writing to Rule

“We don’t have a diagram on the wall that represents what the shape of each show should be. We certainly don’t conform things to any kind of rule of how they should look or how they should feel. That’s part of the joy of the show; we’re just finding it out every week.”

That said, by coincidence, several episodes last season ended with cliffhangers. “Somebody said ‘Boy, you’re sure doing a lot of cliffhangers as endings this season,’ and we hadn’t really thought about it. Somebody pointed it out and I said ‘Oh, are we?’ I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s certainly not by design. One of the unique things about Mike Judge is that he was a musician for years. So, a lot of the way he writes is very similar to the way a musician would play; he plays a lot of stuff by ear.”
Berg compares Judge’s writing style to music.

“It’s a little bit like jazz; it’s free-form. You know it when you hear it. You play certain notes and they don’t sound right, so you change them until they sound right. Then you go ‘OK, that sounds right.’ That’s kind of like how the show has always worked.”

Berg organizes all of the discussions on a white board, while the team decides structure and ideas for the season. Afterwards, he types the key words into a document and projects them onto a screen. Using the key words projected, individually selected writers create scripts for each episode.

“Having more than four people in a room tends to kind of water things down and you write jokes that 10 people think are funny with different comedy beats rather than what two or three people think are funny. It starts to feel ‘sitcomy’ and ‘jokey.’ Whereas you can do more nuance and more sophisticated stuff in smaller groups. I think if you’re doing stand up in front of 20 people you can do much more interesting stuff than you can if you’re doing stand up in front of 500 or 1,000 people. The sound of 20 people not laughing at a not sophisticated joke is lots less deafening than the sound of a thousand people not laughing at the same joke. It tends to affect the writing process the same way.”
Executive Trust

HBO executives don’t mess with the writers’ scripts. “It takes a certain amount of courage as an executive to read a script and not feel like you have to give notes on every page. They’re just smart. If there are big problems, they have a lot of suggestions and if things are working they pretty much leave them alone. They are smart enough to know the difference.”

Please see my article with photos posted to Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at:

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