A crucial part of the writing process takes place well after the last word’s been put to the page. A writer formulates an idea; writes the piece; and revises it. Once that’s all been done, any writer worth his salt reflects on his piece. He asks himself question, derives opinions, and truly understands what he wrote and why he wrote it in the first place.
So when I finished writing a remake of THE BURNING about a month ago, I took a week or so without really thinking about it, and then I reflected on my script. Here are my reflections on my writing.
Writing a remake wasn’t hypocritical- I have just about every gripe about the current slew of remakes that everybody else has. So it would be too easy for you to say, “Hey Phil, you chump, you have some nerve writing a remake.” To which I say, you couldn’t be more off base. I’ve seen most of these remakes, and I know their flaws, inside and out. The challenge was to write a remake that sidestepped those flaws, one that would actually please audiences who loved the originals. THE BURNING is a response to all those unsatisfying remakes. So there’s no hypocrisy at all, just an effort to make the landscape of horror films better, one film at a time.
Create an 80s feel— One of the many problems with this slew of remakes is that they remake 80s horror, but they don’t feel like 80s horror at all. They’re slick packages, a little too self-knowing, and altogether too modern. My script feels like it was written in 1981. The dialogue is vintage 80s, without any irony or gloss. It’s the way I remember people speaking when I was a kid, and even more importantly, it’s how people spoke in that era’s horror flicks. I also made sure to follow the beats of an 80s slasher, something this crop of remakes altogether never does. Moving along the same schedule those films followed made for a vintage feel in the plotting, and that was crucial.
Create characters that people care about- One problem that both contemporary and 80s slashers suffer from is characters who are one-dimensional and deserve no sympathy. I can’t write like that. If I’m investing the time and love to write 90 pages, I’ve got to care about the people I’ve created. I’ve got to flesh them out, give myself and the audience good reason to care about them and want them to live. The original BURNING did a great job of that, and I owed it both to that film and any audience my remake might have to follow suit. You can accuse my script of many things, but you can’t legitimately accuse it of being home to folks churned out of the Generic Stereotype Generator. I wouldn’t do that to you.
Add commentary- I’m a disciple of George Romero, plain, clean and simple. My problem with slashers is that almost none of them have anything to say beyond, “Knife meeting flesh equals death.” So I decided to include commentary from stuff in my own life. THE BURNING as I rewrote it is really about two men who’ve been disenfranchised. One because he lost his job, the other because he made a choice that led to a bad outcome. These two characters come straight from my own experience. A few years back, I lost my career in teaching. I’m still trying to get back on my feet, and let me tell you, it’s not easy. I also made a choice to do something noble, and suffered greatly because of it. So I took those two experiences, and from them gave birth to my antagonist and protagonist, Cropsy and Todd. And in doing so, I created a slasher with depth.
Creative kills- Slasher films get all their juice from two elements: the slasher himself, and his kills. I went out of my way to be as creative with the kills as I could. Cropsy is a caretaker at a summer camp, so I made sure to include as many tools of his craft as I could. I’m pretty sure I did a great job in keeping things interesting. And let me tell you, lawn mowers can get really messy.
Follow the basic plots, but include the swerves— Current remakes go one of two ways: they either follow the original plot so closely, that a remake is irrelevant (THE HILLS HAVE EYES); or they go so far off base they might as well not even be a remake (FRIDAY THE 13TH). What I’ve always asked is, where’s the happy medium? In my remake. I had a plot to follow as a base, which made sense. But what if I threw in a bunch of swerves? I could adhere to the basic plot structure, so people who’d seen the original would be satisfied. But they’d also find fresh material that would play with their expectations, and keep them interested. Taking this approach was crucial, and I think I pulled it off.
Writing horror can get really grim— I had put down THE BURNING for almost two years before last month. 42 pages in, I’d hit a rut I couldn’t dig myself out of. Then I sat down and 44 pages in 9 days. Intense doesn’t begin to describe what I put myself through. The last third of the script is packed with deaths, and I had no idea just how depressing it can be to kill off so many characters I’d come to care about. It got so grim by the end that I couldn’t wait to finish writing. When I look back at some of the kills, I still wince. So it doesn’t surprise me that my new project I started writing yesterday is a nice little romantic comedy.
Catharsis—This is the most crucial part of any piece, for the audience and the writer. Through characters on the page or screen, we associate parts of our own lives with what they’re going through, suffer with them, and purge out our souls through them. I achieved this in rewriting THE BURNING. A nifty trick for a script that’s basically an 80s slasher.
Too often we go through life without really reflecting on what we’ve done. That’s unfortunate, because reflection is crucial in life, and in art. I thought you might find my reflections on rewriting THE BURNING interesting. If you glean anything from this piece, I’d reflect on that as a good thing.