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Horror Screenwriters on the Verge Spotlights Screenwriter Jeremiah Lewis

In this new column, Script contributor Nanea Taylor speaks with up-and-coming Horror screenwriters about their writing process, what projects they are currently working on, and shares some insider tips of the trade.

Meet Jeremiah Lewis, an award-winning writer, and director of short films and a web series. Jeremiah has also produced a feature film that saw theatrical distribution before moving out of Los Angeles forever. He now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his wife and two fluffy dogs. He enjoys writing complex characters and morally ambiguous stories in which history (personal and national) collides with present-day social issues leading to conflict and growth and change in intimate and intimate, often challenging ways. He loves writing in all genres but is especially interested in horror as an incredibly versatile engine for galvanizing yet entertaining stories.

He also has a horror film based on one of his scripts in post-production. He gives insight on how that came about, his current works in progress, and what changes he would make to the industry if he could.

What is your favorite script you have written thus far, and why is it your favorite?

You start with a tough question! Of all the scripts in my arsenal, the one I have a sneaky love affair with is not even horror! It’s a Usual Suspects style cryptocurrency heist/thriller called Arbitrage, and if that doesn’t make you salivate, then it’s probably a big reason why I’ve had trouble selling it! Everyone who’s read it and given me feedback has told me it’s a Rubik's Cube + Swiss watch of a plot with crackling dialogue and a devilishly charming cast of ne’er-do-well characters. It’s about cryptocurrency but does not bog the reader down with weird jargon but instead uses a tightly wound cat-and-mouse game and devious character motivations to drive the narrative and hold the reader’s attention. Plus, it’s got a fun twist that I think deserves its own slice of pound cake.

Tell us about your current WIP?

I have two features in second-draft state. One feature is an adaptation of my short period horror, The Rickety Man, which just wrapped production! The other feature is a sci-fi/horror called Godhand, about a dystopian world in which society trains mutants to hunt a group of outcast people, who the government says is trying to overthrow them, but the protagonist--a teenage girl--discovers the outcast people are innocents being used as a means of social control, so she has to overcome all this latent brainwashing while learning to wield her power. Her power is the ability to manipulate localized time. It’s pretty fun, and very gory, but also has a pretty important thematic message.

Jeremiah Lewis

Jeremiah Lewis

Tell us some more about Rickety Man, how does it feel to have one of your scripts come to life?

There is a profound sense of joy seeing this brought into living color by talented and enthusiastic people with a shared vision. There’s also a strange sense of imposter syndrome, which at this point sounds cliche, but it’s hard to escape the fact that this script “made it” while others that are equally as good or even better have not yet gone into production. But on the whole, I also know that it’s more than just quality; it’s about the meeting of like minds, a shared vision, a passion for the subject matter, and not to put too fine a point on it, but the time and resources to make it all come together. I got lucky, but I had to put in a lot of work to get to that luck, and I’m grateful for all that’s occurred to get the script into production.

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Give us the juice, what did it take to get Rickety Man into production?

Rickety Man started out as a short script I wrote in which a father confronts his daughter, whose behavior and mannerisms are disconcertingly bizarre and perturbing. That got shaped into what eventually became the draft that I submitted to Killer Shorts in 2019, and by that time the story had become about latent grief and the way children and adults process the alien experience of seeing someone you love die. It was the THEME that resonated with Cameron and Zach, who had seen the logline on the Killer Shorts website and requested to read it. They connected with this emotional story of this girl whose mother had died and how her response to it leads to this very primal and visceral explosion of violence. But after that initial connection point, it came down to sharing the vision for the type of story we wanted to show and then it became a logistical process. Raising the money through Kickstarter was its own rewarding challenge, and I’ll be forever grateful to the screenwriting and filmmaking communities who stepped up and gave generously and whose enthusiasm helped drive us over the finish line above our original budget goal. After that, my role was fairly peripheral as we rolled into pre-production. But I was able to consult on significant decisions like wardrobe, props, and physical creature FX, as well as getting to see audition videos from talented performers. But truly, Cameron and Zach took the lion’s share of responsibility for the overall behind-the-scenes stuff and then, of course, the five-day shoot itself. And now that we’ve wrapped and are going into post, I’ll be getting more involved again as we discuss creative decision-making for the film as well as marketing and next steps.

What would you like the audience to walk away feeling after watching Rickety Man?

I want them to want more, but also to feel satisfied; if you finish it and can imagine a feature-length version, then we’ll have done our job. But mostly I just want viewers to enjoy the mystery and terror and feel like they saw something truly special.

What are three tips off the top of your head you would tell a new horror screenwriter?

1. In every scene, make it harder for your protagonist to do what they want, even if it’s something simple. They want to make a sandwich, take away the knife. Make them run out of mayo. Have someone try to kill them, that kind of thing.
2. What is the strange attractor that makes your concept hype-worthy? Define it. Make it clear on the page. And then go all out on it. Don’t hold back.
3. It’s not just about scares. A horror film is far more interesting if it begins life as a character piece. It’s about letting us connect with your characters--especially your protagonist--and letting their emotional journey be a mirror of their external circumstances. Make it mean something! Make your audience feel for your characters.

If your search history was checked right now, what would be the most chilling/scary thing your personal FBI agent would find?

Dark web stuff. Human skinning techniques. Blood rituals. Nothing too surprising.

[In the Writer's Corner: Social Media Etiquette]

What would you say is an interesting writing quirk you have?

I don’t know if it counts as a quirk, but I have no set writing routine, method, or approach. On any given script, I may or may not outline or write out beats. Some projects I create a lookbook. Others I don’t. I may not even have a clear sense of where the story is going initially. The last three scripts I wrote without a plan, and in some ways, they are some of the most intriguing and audacious scripts I’ve written, while also being extremely raw (with all the messy flaws that come from that rawness). The three scripts before that were written to a blueprint. Which is better? There are pros and cons to both styles. I like to think it gives me range as a writer.

Besides writing, what other skills would you think a screenwriter should have?

In no order, I’d say pitching, relationship building, and business acumen. Screenwriting and filmmaking is a business, and understanding how it works, how money is made (and lost) and why logistics matter even as early as the concept stage, is invaluable. It’s an industry built on relationships, and forging creative partnerships is the key to whether you get remembered or forgotten. It does not do to self-serve in this industry--and by that I mean, don’t just connect with someone because of what they can do for your career. It has to be a genuine connection, built on trust and mutual admiration; that isn’t forged in a day and certainly shouldn’t be broached with a random DM pitching your latest script or film project.

Pitching is a necessary adjunct to writing, a piece of the business side which helps validate and sell a concept and you as the creative force behind the project, but also is part of the relationship building side. Pitching is almost as much about selling YOU as it is about your script. The more you do it, the more you practice it, the more comfortable you’re going to be. It’s a good skill in any situation, and while it may not seem fair to the introverts (let’s face it, most of us are)--and for some with disabilities it can be an even larger challenge--embracing it and getting over that fear is only going to push you further and deeper into a position of possibility.

How do you balance your personal life and writing?

Some days I get fifteen minutes of writing in. And there have been some days I’ve written for eight glorious hours. My work schedule is a pretty constant eight-hour job plus the occasional freelance gig, which can take up several additional hours every day. Subtract sleeping, eating, general hygiene and of course spending time with my family, there often isn’t much time left in the day for writing. I do wake up at 5 a.m. or earlier every weekday and attempt to write for at least an hour. Is this balance? I’m not entirely sure yet, but it’s how I do it. Early mornings aren’t for everyone, though.

If you had the power to make changes in the screenwriting industry, what changes would you make?

We have a clear issue with a lack of--or a perceived lack of--diversity, despite the very public “efforts” made to increase diverse voices within various portions of the Hollywood ecosystem (I put efforts in quotes because sometimes those are merely lip service, without true, good-faith intentions). There is also the ladder-and-pipeline problem, whereby underrepresented voices, by virtue of being underrepresented in larger society, often have less access to the lower rungs of the ladder, whereby they can gain an initial foothold. This applies to everything from general education to focused screenwriting access points. With fewer underrepresented voices on the ladder, the talent pipeline is a flood of homogeneity. That’s not to say those voices aren’t talented! But it’s like the old adage--how many diverse Einstein’s and Pollacks never got noticed because of lack of access? And to a certain extent, that’s a larger, societal problem that Hollywood itself isn’t going to fix on its own. But to the degree, it can do better, here is one thing I think would be interesting to try out, if I had the power.

[LEARN: Writing the Low Budget Horror Feature]

I’d go back to the old studio model of hiring talent pools vs. individual talent. This means less money going to individual writers, but more money gets spread around to a wider array of writers. It means budgets can support bringing multiple voices on for any given project to make sure it’s got the best possible perspective, especially with regard to sensitive issues or topics outside the mainstream. Imagine having five or six writers on every feature, or a writer’s room of twenty. Imagine those not all being white men. And yes, this would impact credits, which currently are the coin of the realm. I’m not sure it’s a system designed to maximize the artistic possibilities, however. And I say this wanting my own credits!

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