It's a common refrain in the industry, if you're looking to produce a low-budget film with the highest potential of success (or at least a good return on investment), go the horror route. That's exactly what former studio executive turned writer/director David Jung did.
Getting his start working crew for six Roger Corman films, Jung floated around Hollywood, eventually landing at Walt Disney Studios working for various production companies within Disney, including Mandeville Films (George of the Jungle, The Sixth Man). He then jumped to animation studio Film Roman (The Simpsons, King of the Hill) and eventually landed at Paramount Studios as a development executive.
Looking to branch out on his own, Jung left Paramount with his writing partner at the time and had some success selling various screenplays to a number of studios. (He even wrote an unproduced Dirty Harry video game for Clint Eastwood.) Unfortunately, while the scripts were selling, nothing was being produced, which, according to Jung, was incredibly frustrating.
Wanting to direct, Jung decided to work on a low budget project that he could produce on his own. Utilizing the "documentary-style" concept, Jung wrote, produced and directed the horror film, The Possession of Michael King. Originally conceived as a horror version of Memento, Jung took a more personal approach and tackled such themes as spirituality, religion, faith and the very existence of God.
The film follows Michael King (an incredible performance by Shane Johnson), a documentary filmmaker who, suffering from the grief of losing his wife, goes on a journey to debunk the existence of the supernatural, which he believes was the cause of her death. He makes himself the guinea pig in a series of experiments with demonologists, necromancers, and various practitioners of the occult, in the hopes that they will fail and he'll have debunked the very existence of religion and spiritualism. Unfortunately for King, things don't work out as planned.
Jung recently spoke to Script about coming up with the concept for the film, how his personal beliefs helped shape the screenplay and the challenge of ending a horror film on a high note.
Script: I saw the film this morning. Thank goodness I didn't watch it last night like I originally had planned. It's a hell of a film.
David Jung: Yeah, it gets pretty dark too, huh?
Yeah, it's pretty dark. I honestly didn't know what to expect. I didn't watch the trailer or any clips before viewing it. I had no preconceived idea what to expect.
Jung: Right, you're expecting maybe it's another movie where we have a family and [Michael] is the brother or the dad and we're kind of going at it from that traditional aspect.
Right. It was completely untraditional. I think that's the best way to describe it. Take me back a little bit to the inspiration behind the film.
Jung: There's probably a lot of answers to that question.
Give me the one you haven't given yet.
Jung: Even back to when I was a kid, I always had a fascination with monster movies and horror movies and this type of stuff. I've always been interested in the genre. I came out to Los Angeles from upstate New York in the late '90s and started working in the film industry. I was working on Roger Corman sets at first and made six movies with him. Then I became an executive at Disney for a while, then at Paramount Pictures, and then I started writing stuff. I have a writing partner and we sold scripts to just about every studio in town for a number of years. I decided that I really wanted to go at it on my own and direct a movie. A buddy of mine and I made a handshake pact that we were each going to write low budget horror movies and do them in such a way that if we had to finance them ourselves somehow we could just make them.
So part of the genesis of The Possession of Michael King was finding something specific that I could make happen for a really low budget on my own if need be. The whole documentary-style thing really fit that. If you shoot something doc-style it doesn't have to cost a lot and people expect it to look like shit. It comes with the territory. In fact, some people even go out of their way to spend more money to make it look shittier!
So, I had an idea, before I arrived at the doc-style one, to do a horror version of the movie Memento. I had a guy that wakes up in an alleyway covered in blood that's not his own. He has no idea who he is or how the hell he got there. And as the story unfolds you come to find out that this guy is possessed by a demonic entity and that he actually did this to himself for some reason. So I had the whole thing worked out and I pitched it to a buddy of mine and he said, "The coolest aspect is that you've got this guy that purposely went out and did this to himself. That, to me, is really interesting." The more I thought about it, the more [I agreed]. This guy that goes out and explores for proof. This guy that's an atheist that wants to prove to the world that it's bullshit. If I can prove that none of this stuff - the deepest, darkest spells or rituals that I can find - works or exists, then aren't I also proving disproving God? And maybe the world can make a leap forward in our belief system. So I started going down that route.
I was inspired a lot by a few of my all-time favorite films. I love The Shining. I started thinking how interesting it would be to do The Shining from the point-of-view of Jack Nicholson's character. How cool would it be if we were seeing it through his perspective? Is he just going insane or is there some outside force that's really working on him? What would it be like to be him starting to question his own sanity and the things happening around him? I thought that would be great fodder for a documentary filmmaker. To sit and be able to talk to the camera and be able to tell the audience this is what's happening to me.
Speaking of great performances, you really got a tour de force performance by Shane Johnson as Michael King.
Jung: Yeah, he's amazing.
It's a one-man show, really. And it's an amazing performance.
Jung: It's funny, on set we called it The Shane Show. (laughs) He's in practically every single frame of the movie. And every day, he was so prepped and ready to go. And he had to be. We only had 19 days to shoot the movie.
Jung: Yeah, and he has a lot of dialogue. He has a lot of scenes where he's just sitting and talking to the camera. So every day we'd finish shooting and I have to go home to my family, we had a baby two days into shooting. So I would go home at night - my mother-in-law was staying at our house to help with the baby - and I would try to find a place just to sit down and do my shot sheet for the next day and try to figure out where I was going to get some sleep that night for a couple hours. And Shane would be going home and diving right into rehearsing his lines for the next day, because he didn't have downtime, you know?
Jung: The downtime he had was just between shots and resetting stuff. But he had to have that movie in his mind almost as much as I had that movie in my mind.
Going back to your inspiration, you mentioned the Memento concept but you obviously didn't go that route. You went more personal with it. Instead, Michael King starts off blaming these supernatural phenomena on the death of his wife. That's where this film starts. And then he goes on this journey to debunk it, maybe out of revenge or justice. Where did that choice come from?
Jung: In terms of the story that arose from this, it did become more of a personal story. I do have a bone to pick with religion. You know, they say, "Write what you know." And this was, for me, I look at the disasters religion has caused to mankind over the course of history. How it still continues to ravage our society. Look at what's happening in the world today with these radical groups like ISIS. Look at what's happening with Israel and Palestine. The list goes on and on. Most of the great, bloodiest wars throughout history [were based on religion].
It's very evident in the beginning of the film with how personal the opening scene is. Michael King goes through this monologue and talks about religion and it almost seems preachy. I guess some people could take it as preachy. I was curious how close to the bone the character of Michael was and how similar your belief systems were.
Jung: I would say it's very close. I feel like it is a bit preachy, but it works for that character to be preachy, because he's got something to say about this because it's personal to him, as well. I'm not religious. My wife is Jewish, so we definitely have had conversations of spirituality versus non-spirituality. There are millions of couples that have that same scenario. We're pretty laidback about all of it. But I thought it would be interesting if you had a character that feels this way and you put him in a position where this belief system interfered with their lives in a way and tragedy came out of it. That it would really amplify in a gigantic way his feelings towards spiritualism and religion.
It's set up really well in the film.
Jung: It's like when Michael Moore picks a fight with someone, he really has a strong point of view. He really goes in and bowls you right over with it. And it's like, "This is why you're an idiot for not believing this way. And this is why you're a fool. And I'm going to show you all of these things." It's the same to a degree with Morgan Spurlock. I thought, let's let this guy be really opinionated. Let's let this guy be a great documentary filmmaker who's become consumed by this. And consumed because he's grief stricken. All of the great scientific madmen throughout the history of monster filmmaking, starting with Baron von Frankenstein, they're consumed with their pursuit of the thing that they're trying to say or prove. And they lose track of their humanity along the way. Some people would say, well, isn't Michael King irresponsible for doing this? Or irresponsible because he has a daughter? Of course he is. But in the grief stricken stage that he's in he becomes that way. It's a classic motif of so many great horror films. I think it's the very nature of humanity, to some degree, that we see this happen in a minor or major degree in people's lives every day. This is how people like lose track of what's really important and become consumed with disastrous outcomes. It's a story as old as time. With Michael King, he realizes too late that this was a big mistake.
As a writer, I wouldn't be scared of doing any of these rituals. I wouldn't be scared because I know it's not real.
In my notes, and I'm reading it verbatim to you here, it says, "Holy f--k, that ending." What prompted the choice, without revealing too much of the film, to open and close it with the home video scene? It's so shocking.
Jung: Yeah, it's interesting. I think the original script had that scene all taking place in the beginning. It was when I was editing the movie with our editor Jake York that we kind of stumbled across the idea of what if we didn't give this away at the beginning. What if we held on to it and we held onto the symbolism of the quarter? We let that quarter be something we see in his hands over at the beginning, and then we immediately see it in his hand as he's talking to the psychic, tapping it on the table. We realize that there's some importance to it. And then we reveal at the end what happened to his wife. We tried it and really liked the way that it worked.
What happens though is that you're given this whole gut punch at the end of the movie. You know, you see that and then the movie's over. So originally the end credits scroll was just going to be a typical scroll at the end of the movie. I felt like I couldn't let that happen because it was just so dark and bleak. I needed something to bring the audience back up a bit after that. So I decided to cut that music video montage at the end with that song to take you back into the fun, rock 'n roll spirit of this movie and bring you up a little bit from that.
I think that was such a smart move on your part to do the ending the way you did. Because had you ended it the way you originally described, on such a shocking, dreary note, I think I would have been so depressed the rest of the day.
Jung: (laughs) Oh for sure. It lets you know that this is just a movie. Have fun. We did some messed up shit. We watched this guy contort around and saw some demons and, at the end, we get you back into the fun spirit of the movie.
'The Possession of Michael King' is in theaters now.
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