SHUDDER LABS 2016
Notes by Melody Cooper
Arrived at Mohonk Mountain House. Gorgeous day and stunning mountain and lake views. Met Sam Zimmerman, the Shudder Labs curator at check-in. The hotel is family owned since mid-19th century and is old, sprawling and yes, Stephen King did actually come here to write The Shining. In room 666. My room has a porch with rocking chairs and overlooks the lake. Two things that get me going as a writer: time to write and being in a beautiful natural setting.
Met L.C. (Lucy) Cruell, in from South Carolina! We've spoken on the phone during ORIGINS conference calls, but this is the first time we've met. Met the rest of the other Fellows at a cocktail reception overlooking the lake. Good people, all so happy to be here. Love tthat there are four women (two are the smart, fun Adujar twins, one with orange hair and the other green, and I couldn't love them more).
Dinner was in a hall set up just for Shudder. We had to keep all the great conversations going and headed to the bar. When you're with fellow writers and directors of the same genre who have just as much passion as you do about it, who can go to bed?
The work begins. Breakfast in a cottage devoted to Shudder and a great, inspirational talk from director Larry Fessenden who made HABIT. The big take away for me that aligns with who I am and what I write: make horror movies that mean something. Surround yourself with people who have a passion for your work. I went for a short hike up to the Sky Tower. Stunning panaoramic views.
Jenn Wexler gave us producing talk that was great not only becasue she's a woman in horror, but becasue she is all about getting it done yourself, creating community, diving in. Jenn is my first one-on-one and I love talking through contracts, the pitfalls, what to make sure to do, what to avoid. Nicest moment: Jenn has been chosen for Frontieres (like a Canadian IFP) with her film THE RANGER, and we commissterated about the fact that as women, too often we downplay ourselves. We vowed to embrace our power.
Dinner was in the West Dining room, which meant a view of he sunset over the Catskills, and stimulating conversation with two of our Labs Masters, screenwriter Clay Chapman and Toronoto Film Festival programmer Colin Geddes. Colin's wife, Kat, would have also been there, but she was with their two month old baby. I learned she'd helped make sure the Shudder Labs selection of fellows were inclusive of women. Thanks, Kat!
The group hit the bar again to discuss everything from personal ghost stories to our favorite obscure horror movies. I skipped billiards to get back to my room before midnight to work on my shot list for the film. An earlier discussion had led to some ideas about how to handle shooting one of hauntings scenes in my film that has a lot of blood in it. And I had an emails to send out to start securing locations for the shoot.
We got to meet Josh Sapan, the iconic CEO of AMC who fostered Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. With a great sense of humor, he asked thoughtful, insightful questions about the nature of horror, why people want to see it, how AMC can be cutting edge with it. Larry Fessenden joked "Are we getting paid for this?" Sapan joked back, "Do you like your hotel room?" I had a few responses, one was that horror is a way for us to process all the negative things happening in our world that are pressing on our psyche. Sapan agreed.
He challenged us to come up with a particular idea, and being big on ideation, I immediately started thinking of a Big Idea and started making notes (no, I will not spill it here). I ended up pitching this idea at our BBQ dinner to one of the Masters, Lindsay Peters form Frontieres, only becasue she asked me to. I couldn't tell if she liked it or not, because she has kind of a calm, poker face, but she smiled. More importantly, I had spent the day telling people how easy it is for me to pitch in writing and I get great responses, but I'm horrible pitching in person. The dinner pitch (perhaps aided by confidence imbued by a really well made martini) was easy, smooth, I felt confident. And then I realized why: I had a real belief in the idea and a true passion for it. Light bulb.
Can I just say I adore Colin Geddes. His pure love of the genre and what we create is so palpable. He seeems like the most generous guy who really wants to see writers and directors like us succeed.
We ended the night in truly Shudder fashion with a group trek in the dark to a hedge maze, under a frosted moon, where the wooden gate to the maze creaked loudly, and a bunch of us hid from the stragglers to jump out and scare them. We then proceeeded to scare the hell out of each other with more ghost stories. One was about a Ouija board (I hate Ouija boards) that ended with an evil spirit spelling out "Eat Shit" over and over. And then we all stopped as we heard something outside of the hedges. It built as if something massive was moving towards us and became a thunderous crashing sound of a huge tree falling in the forest not far from us. I kid you not.
Earlier in the day I sat with Clay Chapman, who wrote THE BOY (the SpectreVision sociopath kid version, not the doll boy film). He had a great story to tell about his trajectory from NY theater writer to comic book, short story and musical writer to screenwriter. We're cut from the same cloth, since I also write plays, did a musical, have my eye on collaborating with my brother to adapt his Marvel comic book, produce and direct as well as write. Sometimes I worry that it seems scattered, but Clay assured me that when I work that way, I am a Content Generator, and that's good. He gave me the great compliment of telling me THE SOUND OF DARKNESS was thrilling and many other nice things about it. We discussed how to get it funded. I told him about Origins and the need for unheard stories to be made.
I sometimes wonder: if I wrote as a man with a pseudonym, would my sci fi and horror scripts have gotten even more attention, especially from producers? I kind of know the answer is Yes, because in several competitions, I am often the only woman placing or winning in genre categories.
I wonder too, if I wasn't writing about women or PoC protagonists, would there be interest in my work? In other words, can a Black woman write about a White man or Japanese teenager or anything I want? Is a writer of color only considered to be authentic if wrting about "their people?" Are we being "allowed" to work on BLACK PANTHER? Do we have to prove ourselves on a SELMA before getting a crack at A WRINKLE IN TIME?
Felt a bit in a calm daze today. Learning so much, taking it all in, internalizing it all. Trying not to feel like I have to trot out all that I've done to show why I'm here. They chose me. For a reason. What is helping: I know what I don't know. I ask questions. I'm a little stunned how many of the Masters have either read my script or loved my submission packet. Most of them seem to think I'm in a really good place with the pre-production. I want to scream, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing! I've never done this before!" Actually I do scream that. It's met with smiles and "Yes, you do." I'm glad they have such confidence in me. It is very encouraging.
I'm getting my pitch down and able to talk through the story of the film better. What people love about THE SOUND OF DARKNESS most: the uniqueness of the story and characters. The new p.o.v. on horror. The imagery. A story not heard before.
Paddle boat with Travis Stevens the producer of CHEAP THRILLS (another nice and helpful guy: Shudder has done an exemplary job of pulling together great mentors). Loved that he said the old adage that films focused on Black people don't do well overseas is just narrow thinking. "The obvious huge appeal of Black films in the U.S. market offsets if there's reluctance elsewhere." More long dinner conversation with Colin Geddes, programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival...extraordinary performance of his short story "Late Bloomer" given by Clay Chapman...FX advice from SOUTHBOUND's kick ass FX team, the married couple Josh and Sierra Russell (Below, Josh's showed us his phenomenal horror tattoos). Screening of Fessenden's early film HABIT. That, and then some...all priceless.
I had a One on One with George Schmalz from KickStarter to figure out how and when is best to do my crowd funding. George is another great resource and he reiterated how wonderful the horror community is, and how once you're networked in, the small world is very supportive.
We got a free day to write and meet. L.C. and I sat by the pool and brainstormed on that pitch idea I have. We talked about the challenges of staying true to our vision in our work while outsiders (Black, White and Other alike) all impose whtat they would like to see from Black women in the genre. We agreed: we need to listen and be aware, but stay true to our own voice, whatever that is.
The team had another wonderul dinner outdoors on the warmest night yet, and as often happens towards the end of wonder workshops, I learned even more about each fellow: like Will and I are both huge fans of Sondheim, and Will personally knows one of the members of King, the group whose music I desperately want to use in THE SOUND OF DARKNESS.
One more night in the bar. We commandder it and yes, MORE ghost stories. We can't seem to get enough of scaring ourselves and each other.
I'll add here that we call Sam Zimmerman, who, along with Colin Geddes, is the curator largely responsible for all that is Shudder Labs, Shudder Daddy. He's young and ambitious, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Horror. The moniker makes him smile.