In this series, we will talk to up-and-coming Horror Screenwriters, find out their writing process, what projects they are currently working on, and get some tips of the trade.
Lisa Jay's horror at sea script The Seraphim won Grand Prize in the Stage32 Search for New Blood competition. Her horror fairy tale The Domovoi landed on The Bitch List 2020, along with winning a Stowe Storylabs Fellowship. She focuses on supernatural and psychological themes. She’s been heavily involved in the supernatural her whole life, growing up poor in the Midwest in a haunted house, in a family of psychics. The first in her family to attend college, she has a BFA in Painting and Ceramics. She began in film answering a Craigslist Ad for an Art Director in New Mexico. After a few experiences in the art department, she began writing and directing her own shorts and teaching herself to write feature screenplays.
What was the very first scary story that you wrote about?
I think the first scary script I wrote was called Cuckoo. It was about an art student in grad school, who starts having a breakdown. And she's living with her grandmother and her grandmother has an old cuckoo clock. The cuckoo clock starts talking to her. She has a professor, and the professor part is based on a lot of art professors and gallery owners that I knew in my years in the art world. You know the Weinstein-type guys that were creepy and powerful and tried to use their power to get you to do things for them, the art world is full of them. And so, she has this art professor that she idolizes, and he uses his power over her. He brings her to this point of an emotional breakdown and then she starts talking to her grandma's cuckoo clock, and the cuckoo clock talks back to her. The cuckoo clock convinces her to murder this other art student. This other guy that's she's competing with in class is a real asshole guy, this privileged guy, that seems to be winning everything and harassing her. She lures him to her house, and she murders him, and puts him in the basement in her grandma's freezer.
What is your favorite script you have written thus far and why is it your favorite?
I don't have favorites, my favorite is always whichever one I'm looking at, but as soon as I start looking at them, they become my favorite again. But if I were to not have one open and be thinking of it, like it would probably be the Seraphim just because it's about the ocean and about ships. That whole world meant so much to me, and much of it was based on the sailors’ journals, the real journals that I researched and read, and it became real to me, really personal when I read their real stories. I spent all this time in the whaling museum reading their journals and news. It was so incredible. I would read their handwritten journals, and you could tell on days when there were storms because their handwriting would be shaky. Then you can tell where there were days when it would be pleasant because their writing would be smooth. These journals would be like three years long because that's how long the voyage was. They would record when people were sick, when they were angry, when they would go to port, when they caught whales and when they wouldn't and when they were bored and when they were angry at people. Then one day there would just be no more, you would turn a page and there's just nothing. And then you think about what happened to them after. And they're dead now.
What typically inspires you when it comes to writing horror stories?
About Seraphim, I'm not sure. I know with Homestead, it was very well thought out, I thought I wanted to write a haunted house story that hasn't been written before. Where can I place a haunted house story that nobody's ever put a haunted house story? Nobody's ever put a haunted house story in a log cabin on the prairie in the wild wild west. So, I was specifically trying to find a haunted house that had never been a haunted house.
Who are your favorite horror writers or screenwriters?
One of my favorite horror writers is a modern novelist, Paul Tremblay. He is amazing, and one of his books is A Head Full of Ghosts, which I think is one of the most brilliant novels, and is being made into a film right now. I think it's one of the scariest books I've ever read, and I can't stop thinking about it, so I'm so excited. Then there’s Michael McDowell, who is also a screenwriter, he wrote a book called The Elementals, which is also I think one of the most terrifying novels I've ever read. I love that book. The imagery is so beautiful, and it's so frightening. I’m much more inspired by books than I am by screenplays. I almost always turn to books, instead of other movies. I always turn to horror novels first.
What would you like to see more of on-screen that you're working toward in your writing?
More women's stories. Oftentimes that just makes guys go, ‘well I can put women in stories.’ I want women telling their stories. I don't want just more women actresses on screen. I want women's viewpoints. I want men and women telling their side of the story, and from their own viewpoints, which is an entirely different thing. Especially, in the world where we don't see it very much at all. And now, not only do I want to write those stories, but I want to direct. I really want my films to have not just my voice but my look, just like directors Robert Eggers, Ari Aster and Oz Perkins get to have in their films. Where you instantly know, ‘oh that's theirs.’ I want to be able to have a chance to do that, where you can look at the film and instantly know it was mine, because it's not just my voice but it's my visual look. Those are some of my favorite directors by the way.
Do you have any future film projects in the works?
I'm getting to work with screenwriter Jennifer Dunn on her short film Grandpa. As soon as COVID allows her the lead actress to come back.
Tell us a little bit about Grandpa.
It is a horror film based on her family and it's a short. Plus, I might be directing a short for screenwriter Elizabeth Ditty, who recently wrote a vampire script called Blood Sisters, that's a horror short as well. And I'm hoping to direct a short of my own, that I wrote called The Cornfield. Which is kind of a supernatural short about some teenagers that call forth a demon in a ritual in a cornfield.
Not only are you just writing, you're going to be working on projects where you're also directing.
Yeah, I’ve directed thirteen shorts before. It’s my favorite thing to do. I actually started writing just to direct because directing was the thing I did first, and I just started writing so I'd have things to direct.
What TV show or movie would you have loved to have had participated in directing, and or writing?
There are so many. Recently, the one I would love to be in on the writer’s room for is White Lotus and it would have been cool to be a part of the show Midnight Mass.
I’ve just read your horror script Homestead. I never thought I would be so afraid of a root cellar and a spinning wheel. How did you come up with the idea for Homestead? And how do you make the most innocuous things scary?
Making innocuous things scary is one of the things I do a lot without even meaning to - I think it’s just a side effect of my anxiety. I wanted to do a western setting but have it be a totally different type of story. Over the past 20 years, we’ve moved for my husband’s work about once a year and it’s been hard. A lot of Homestead turned out to be my feelings about that - working through that - the giving up of things and moving on without a home or a foundation. I literally used a photograph of my grandma’s root cellar as inspiration for the root cellar. I was just looking through old family photos the other day and came across a picture of my Great Aunt’s living room with her spinning wheel in it. I used to visit her all the time and I totally forgot she had that. I put all these things in my scripts that I grew up with without even paying attention to the fact that I’m doing it - it kind of freaks me out sometimes!
In Homestead, there’s a couple making a trek across the country to make a better life for themselves, and things go a little awry. Not only is this script scary but you pull us into the angst of a couple who are trying to learn to trust each other. How important is character building in horror stories to you when just about everyone is disposable in order to keep the story and horror going?
Yeah, that’s weird, isn’t it? I ask myself sometimes why I write horror when I don’t want to kill anyone. I really want to write drama where everyone is just scared out of their minds. I don’t kill very many people in my scripts. My characters are extremely important to me. And dread, terror, dealing with fear… I guess I like to write supernatural drama around dread and anxiety. I don’t think of characters as disposable at all, and I have a very hard time killing off anyone in a script.
Who is your go-to person when you’re ready for fresh eyes on your script? Why are they your go-to person?
I don’t really have one go-to person. I have a writer’s group and they see my stuff as I write it but often, they don’t read the whole finished thing. I have maybe ten different people I will kind of hint to when I’m done with something and see who has time to take a look. Those ten are all so incredibly talented and insightful, so whoever can give me their time, I’m thrilled. Also, my manager reads for me right away and he’s amazing. He’s always on top of everything, I never have to wait.
Who was the person who you would say influenced your foray into writing?
Films influenced me to want to write, but I wouldn’t say people did. No one wanted me to write! No one thought I could! The films that first inspired me to write were probably film noirs and the neo-noir revival of the late eighties - early nineties. If I were to point to one movie in particular, which is a little later and based on a novel, I would say A Simple Plan. When I saw that film, I thought, ‘I wish I could write something like that. I wonder if I could if I tried?’
Besides writing, what other skills would you think a screenwriter should have?
I don’t know that there’s anything you should have, but there are definitely things that come in handy. It’s good to be able to make conversation and be good with people - be kind and friendly and make people feel at ease because people have to want to work with you, that’s a big part of the equation. Social media skills are helpful to promote yourself. Research skills, being a fast reader because there’s a ton of reading you’re going to have to do forever.