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.
Meet Sam Watson, a Black, biracial television writer who grew up on pierogies and collard greens. During his upbringing, he saw many clashes between his African American and Ukrainian sides of the family. Because of this, he went through an identity crisis in high school, his writing explores the theme of identity in all of its messy, traumatic, and hilarious glory.
He is currently a finalist in the Nashville Film Festival with his dark comedy pilot Sofia & Dan vs. and his horror short The Grave Digger has been selected for the HorrOrigins Film Festival. Sam is also the co-writer and producer of a short satire called Woke that was selected to various 2020 festivals. He can be found on the Imagine Impact App.
Your script Sofia & Dan vs. is a finalist for the Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition this year! Congrats! Tell us a little about it. How did you come up with the concept?
Thank you! Well, my partner suggested that I write something based on my family, and I thought, well, yes! So, this is the show: A mixed-race couple, who move in together, must finally reveal their secret relationship to their families and face all the absurdities that racist neighbors, family trauma and 1980s Philadelphia throws their way. My family is racially and culturally mixed. My father's side is African American, while my white mom's parents immigrated here from Ukraine. I thought it could be fun to write a series loosely based on my parents and how their two very different families came together. There are so many interesting characters and stories in my real-life family. Everything from WWII PTSD to playing music at the Apollo to a weird connection to a famously corrupt Philadelphia politician. I just had to find a way to explore all of it on the page.
2. In Sofia & Dan vs. there are some scenes that bring up the sensitive subject of interracial dating/marriage, but you were able to bring levity to those moments. As a screenwriter, you must feel proud to speak on sensitive topics and not feel you're beating your audience over the head with a lesson on ethics and morals. When writing Sofia & Dan vs. was it your intention to bring light to such a sensitive topic?
Writing about identity is something that I really love to do. Tackling a story that explores race and culture is right in my wheelhouse. These things aren't necessarily the point of the story. The point is the characters and how they navigate their racial and cultural differences while trying to keep their love and individual goals intact. Hopefully, that's why it doesn't feel like I'm beating anyone over the head with this stuff. And comedy also certainly helps with that. I think that comedy is a great way to talk about dark and sensitive subjects as long as it’s done from an authentic point of view. Dealing with racism in real life is already so damn exhausting. It can feel like a relief to take all of that and put it on the page through a funny lens. My favorite character in the entire script just might be Ku Klux Cat and Dan's reaction to this racist feline. Why just cry at all the terrible things happening around us when you can cry and laugh? It's why I love films like Sorry to Bother You and why I co-wrote a short film call Woke that's a satire about a pill that claims to be able to cure racism.
I can see Sofia & Dan vs. becoming an amazing series with robust characters and storylines. Take us down the rabbit hole, just a little bit, and tell us what the series would have in store for us.
Sofia and Dan are two characters that I care a lot about. Sofia is this huge horror fan but is filled with so much anxiety and fear when it comes to her actual life and goals. Dan channels all his anger into his punk music, but he and his awesome band are trying to break into a Philadelphia punk scene that's mostly white. I'm really looking forward to exploring them as people and how they face their inner and external challenges to get what they want. But I'm also looking forward to all the insanity of the characters around them. Sofia's parents try to pass their trauma and PTSD (they escaped famine in Ukraine, only to wound up in Germany just as WWII broke out) on to their children so that their kids don't become soft in America. Sofia's brothers are all a trip in of themselves. One of them has done everything from running away from home to work in a traveling carnival to almost defecting to China to be with his mistress when he was in the navy (all based on my very real uncle). Dan's older sister Gwen is another favorite character of mine. She's so fiercely protective of him and is part of the band. She's a single mom who's trying to provide while also giving it all she has in this band that could be the answer to a better life. She's really funny, and I can't wait for Gwen to eventually meet Sofia's parents. Because Gwen has zero trust for these white folks who haven't earned any. And it'll be truly hilarious for Gwen to try and unpack their Eastern European sensibilities. In a way, I see this show as Atlanta meets Broad City and I think it has plenty of room to be just as funny and weird as either.
What is your favorite script you have written thus far and why is it your favorite?
I would say my short script The Devil And His Blues. The script is a play on the Robert Johnson myth. I don’t think I need to use an explanatory comma for that Blues legend. My protagonist- Ash Vinson- is a budding, but terrible guitar player, who makes a deal with the Devil to give him real musical talent in order to rise himself and his brother out of poverty in 1930s Southern Louisiana. This script is all about how the white folks in Ash’s life either hold him back or underestimate him, because of his Blackness. I write a lot from the themes of identity and trauma. For this script, I wanted to explore how a Black character experiences something horrific but then comes into his own power and isn’t shy about exacting vengeance on those who put him through hell. I think that the horror in this script comes mainly from the real-life horrors that Black folks experience in a white supremacist society. It’s very grounded on that level. The supernatural bits are used as a threat to the protagonist, too, sure, but are eventually used as a means to seek justice for the terrible things done to him.
This script is also my favorite because I absolutely love music. There’s a rumor in my family that we’re somehow related to Ella Fitzgerald. I don’t know how true that is, but I can sure feel the music in my genes, and I loved making the Blues such an integral part of this story. There’s a scene in a graveyard between Ash and the Devil where the dead determine who can play the guitar better, and I want to watch this on screen so much. I just can’t get it out of my mind.
Tell us about your current WIP?
My current WIP is an hour-long supernatural drama called The King Of Ukraine. It’s kind of like King Arthur meets The Americans. A supernatural threat moves to take power in Ukraine as the country’s people suffer from growing poverty and hunger because of orchestrated political chaos. My protagonist discovers that he’s the descendant of this long-lost royal bloodline and he has the power to fix the situation. But he’s also a Black guy. And that doesn’t sit well with others.
This pilot and series are all about self-discovery and identity, while also pulling from Eastern European mythology for the horror elements and the show’s world-building/backstory. It’s about this Black guy who was raised in America finding out and exploring the truth of his identity and whether or not Ukraine will accept him as one of its own. He certainly already has acceptance issues in America. There’s a lot of me in the protagonist. My maternal grandparents immigrated from Ukraine, and I’ve always wanted to better explore those roots. But I’m so disconnected from that country. I know very little Ukrainian, I’ve never been, and I’ve never talked with the family I do have there. And then a few years ago, I had read a magazine piece about the racism that Black Ukrainians face in their country. It made me doubt even more that I would be accepted there. I think that’s the real emotional core of my protagonist. On a side note, I really enjoy going to local Ukrainian events and speaking some Ukrainian. The surprised look on people’s faces always crack me up.
I see Ukraine’s position in the world as one of being stuck in a tug-of-war between the West and the East. Each has their own views of Ukraine, and that plays out in the politics, while the citizens pay the price. There’s a lot of questions about what it means to be a citizen, and my series explores loyalty to country versus loyalty to your fellow citizen and whether or not that’s an actual “versus.” There’s a lot here that mirrors America’s own political and racial turmoil today.
What are three tips off the top of your head you would tell a new horror screenwriter?
Watch horror movies/TV. Read horror stories. And learn the rules of the genre. You may be a great drama writer, but I think there’s a difference between writing a dramatic scene and writing a dramatic scene that flows with a horror POV.
If your search history were checked right now what would be the most chilling/scary thing your personal FBI agent would find?
I have no idea! I’ve searched for so many things like information on certain deadly weapons and how the body decomposes, and right now it’s steeped in Eastern European mythology. But honestly, I think an FBI agent would be surprised at just how boring my searches are too because there’s a lot of research on things like the rules of Homeowners Associations in various states. You never know what random thing you’ll have to research for a script. Though, now I’m sitting here thinking about how an HOA would force its rules on Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house.
Besides writing what other skills would you think a screenwriter should have?
I think having good research skills is really important. I have a journalism background so I’m always up for researching whatever I have to for a script. Whether you’re writing about 1860 Philadelphia, Eastern European mythology, or mundane HOA rules, research will make your work feel authentic. Plus, you never know what other great ideas you’ll generate due to research and discovering information you hadn’t known. You never know how research will reshape your story, which I think is both exciting and frustrating at the same time, especially if you already had a lock on how you wanted your story to play out. But I don’t think you can get away with faking authenticity in your work.
Who is your go-to person when you’re ready for fresh eyes on your script? Why are they your go-to person?
I have a few awesome people who are my go-to. I have a small writers group filled with folks who I’m constantly awed by. There are also a couple of great people outside of the group that I trust very much. I think it’s really important to have folks who understand what it means to give proactive feedback on a script. Folks who understand that they aren’t trying to rewrite your work into something that they’d write themselves. I’m lucky to have people who aren’t shy about giving constructive criticism and who genuinely give notes in hopes to improve upon the story that I’m trying to tell. I don’t think there’s a single script of mine that would be as polished as they are without their help. I think everyone should find a person or a community of people who they can rely on for notes. I know that my own writing certainly didn’t start to improve until I found mine.
Who was the person who you would say influenced your foray into writing?
Oh God, I’m going to go back to the second grade! I was a huge fan and reader of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. And the first thing I remember ever writing was a sequel to my favorite Goosebumps book, “The Blob That Ate Everyone.” It was only fifteen pages but seemed so long to me at that age. I was really proud. So as far as I can remember, reading R.L. Stine was the first time I read something, and was then inspired to sit down and write. And it was a horror story, which is why even though I’ve written drama, sci-fi, I always find myself going back to horror. Even as a second-grader, I felt like this genre is where I most felt at home and inspired. Then it was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer that made me think about writing television for the first time at a young age. And finally, it was learning Latin in school that made me love language and writing even more.
If you had the power to make changes in the screenwriting industry, what changes would you make?
I hear so many horror stories from writers of color in this industry. These stories have not lessened after the whole “Oscars So White” thing or the racial reckoning of 2020. Racism is systemic and its grip on the industry is strong. For one, there needs to be a focus on telling stories about diverse communities that actually include people from those communities. The stories of white folks have been centered since forever, and it’s nice to see some stories featuring non-whites being told, but a lot of these are still being written by whites. That is beyond frustrating, because these diverse stories are told through the white perspective and that is neither authentic nor honest. So, in effect, diverse stories are told but still for white audiences, filled with stereotypes and biases based on how white people see us. It’s ridiculous. The screen- big and small- shapes how the larger society views different communities. The people from those communities need to be in control of that. Diverse writers also need to be in legit positions of power. Nothing changes as long as diverse writers are held back in lower levels. It is more important for diverse folks to do the hiring instead of white folks getting lauded for their diversity hires.