The 13th Floor

CINEMA IN EXTREMIS: Writers David Bond & Scott Swan Are Changing the Rules of Horror

The mission of this column is to challenge your definitions of horror film — and even the nature of cinema itself as a transgressive art form. That means not only shining a light on disturbing, challenging productions operating deep beneath the surface of what we consider mainstream [here are six prime examples], but also offering you a peek into the creative process behind the artists who craft these provocative outsider works.

Many of these writers, producers and directors have worked almost non-stop in their fields, often working well outside the studio system in order to avoid compromising their visions, relying on creative ingenuity and cinematic sleight-of-hand to instill smaller indie projects with slicker production values. Prolific as some of them may be, they usually receive far less coverage from mainstream horror sites.

I’m hoping to change that in my own small way, beginning by turning the spotlight on the screenwriting team of David Bond and Scott Swan — a pair whose names you may not have heard of, but who have been attached to some of your favorite genre works… and whose current collaboration may soon be pushing every possible boundary in extreme horror cinema.

I had a lengthy chat with Swan and Bond recently, during which they opened up about their views on horror, art and their collaborative process… and also dropped a few hints about EXTREMITY, their latest project now in production in Edmonton, Alberta with acclaimed director Anthony DiBlasi (LAST SHIFT) at the helm. The film promises to delve deep into the current trend toward extreme Halloween haunts, and depicts the horrific results of pushing the “game” in horrific directions no one could have anticipated.

BLUMHOUSE.COM: So how’s production coming along on EXTREMITY?

DAVID BOND: It’s going amazingly!

BH: Based on what you’ve shown me so far, it looks very disturbing… but I’ve also seen some glimpses of real beauty.

BOND: Well, we’re just getting started… we’re about to get to the really good stuff!

BH: Tell me a little bit about the genesis of this project.

BOND: Well, I’ve always been a fan of what they’re doing with extreme haunts like Blackout and McKamey Manor, sites like that… and now I’ve been noticing a trend over the last year or so in North America — where even local and regional haunts are being influenced by that extremity, and starting to go much darker. I became curious about what might happen if one of these groups was building a haunt along those lines, but wasn’t quite as knowledgeable about what they’re trying to do, and how that would impact the relationships of people both inside and outside of the haunt.

SCOTT SWAN: It’s basically a perfect storm — it involves a lot of people who are broken, for a lot of different reasons, who shouldn’t really be connecting at this intersection on this night.

BH: It seems that each year the founders of these extreme haunts try to push the envelope just a little bit further, in terms of what people are willing to subject themselves to… this story seems to depict the natural conclusion of that idea.

BOND: Exactly.

BH: I’m always expecting one of these haunts to cross the line and get somebody seriously hurt or killed. There’s not a whole lot of oversight.

SWAN: That’s right. There’s no OSHA for haunts, and most of them don’t even have EXIT signs. At some point the industry is either going to be heavily regulated, or just shut down altogether. We’re kind of in the Wild West period of haunts right now, so it’s hard to tell. That’s the world EXTREMITY is set in — it’s pretty much anything goes.

BH: With horror entertainment in general, there’s much less distance now between the content and the audience, don’t you think?

BOND: You know, it’s interesting… I was at FantAsia this year, and all the VR demonstrations were going on with UbiSoft and companies like that, giving us this glimpse of “the future of VR horror.” It’s a very curious place to be, when you consider that people have actually died playing video games. It’s that powerful need to escape that draws us in to extreme experiences. A few decades ago, FRIDAY THE 13TH or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET would have provided that, but we’re at the point now where the escape experience is inside your head. People want to know what it’s like to be the Final Girl, to truly experience that. You’re going to see a lot more of that in the near future.

BH: Do you think a lot of this is also a byproduct of this culture of fear we’re going through right now?

SWAN: Yes, and there’s a lot of that addressed in EXTREMITY. Speaking of where the lines are drawn, I think our actors have been put through a similar ordeal to their characters. It’s not an easy shoot, and not easy for these actors to bring this kind of story to life.

BH: How do they manage to separate themselves from their roles on a film this psychologically grueling?

SWAN: As a writer, I try not to interfere in their thought processes, but as an observer on set, it feels like they’re fully submerging themselves entirely into these characters and this scenario… it’s actually kind of harrowing watching them work. It takes a lot of decompression for them to turn it off when the cameras stop rolling, and come back to themselves.

BOND: One thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that even when you go into these darker kinds of stories, there’s still a community created during the process of making a film. On EXTREMITY, we’ve become a very close-knit family, so we always support and look out for each other.

BH: Speaking of which… Anthony DiBlasi seems to take a very character-centric approach to direction. How is he working out this kind of psychologically grueling concept with the actors?

BOND: Anthony really works closely with actors, but in the end he encourages them to make their parts truly their own; in this film, that means from the people running the haunt to the ones going through it, it’s their stories and perspective we want to explore. We’ve also got a great cast — both from the US and Canada — who really committed themselves to those stories, and we’ve already gotten some amazing performances from them.

BH: Let’s back up a bit to your first collaborations together. What tipped you off that you were on the same creative wavelength?

BOND: It started back when I was working on an anthology film, and I had written one segment I wasn’t quite happy with. One of the directors on the project mentioned that his friend Scott was a good writer, and I should call him. We must have spent about 2-3 hours talking about my global vision, and we just connected over the course of that phone call.

SWAN: David was friends with Larry Fessenden, who directed “Skin and Bones,” the episode of FEAR ITSELF that I wrote, so we were connected in a way before we met. David pitched me the whole concept of this anthology film, and he asked me if I could help him with one of the chapters he was writing. I agreed, and he liked the end product so much that he asked me to write another segment. In all, I think I might have written something like 13 segments.

BOND: Yeah, and 11 of them ended up being in the film.

SWAN: Even though we were mainly collaborating over the phone at the time, we discovered that we worked very well together, and very quickly.

COOKERS (2001)

BOND: You know, when we look at the history of this film, I realize I came to work with Anthony very much the same way: I was involved in a little film called COOKERS with a group of amazing people in both Kansas and Los Angeles, and we had this incredible actor named Brad Hunt; Brad went on to work with Anthony on THE PLAGUE for Clive Barker. So there was this weird pre-existing connection between all of us.

SWAN: It is weird… I actually worked with Anthony for the first time in 2003; I was one of the original writers on DREAD when it was still at Fox. I wrote three drafts with Anthony, who was both director and executive producer, and Clive was one of the producers. Finally getting to work with him again 15 years later has been a treat, because he’s a great director and I have total confidence in him creatively.

BH: I’m glad to see that Anthony is getting a lot more press lately, and gaining that “auteur” status in the genre.

SWAN: It’s definitely well-deserved. I worked with John Carpenter on his two MASTERS OF HORROR episodes [“Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life”], and I see a lot of the same signature qualities in Anthony’s work. It’s amazing.

BH: As writers, you’ve been these dependable “secret weapons” in a lot of genre filmmaking… do either of you have plans to direct, and take your storytelling to the next level?

SWAN: Back in 2009 I co-directed a little film in Pittsburgh with Toe Tag’s Fred Vogel called MASKHEAD… it’s an interesting career arc from MASTERS OF HORROR and writing studio features to working on this gritty underground film, but I feel like I’ve brought my learning experiences from that into this new movie — I like to think it’s both mainstream and extreme. It’s a very interesting cocktail.

BH: How was the whole experience of co-directing MASKHEAD?

SWAN: I saw Fred’s AUGUST UNDERGROUND movies, and I reached out to him because I knew I wanted to work with that guy. He was very receptive, because he was a big fan of “Cigarette Burns,” and when he learned I was from Pittsburgh, he said “Let’s make a movie together!” So I came out there to work on MASKHEAD, which oddly enough is kind of a comedy. Then the script that I just wrote for him, THE FINAL INTERVIEW… I would not even call it a horror film at all. It’s intense, but it’s built almost entirely on dialogue. For someone with this notorious underground reputation, Fred’s trying to reach out to the mainstream with new and different kinds of stories, and I applaud him for that.


BH: Tell me more about your creative process… how do you work together on a new script?

BOND: It’s very different from what you’d consider the traditional writing process. At this point we’ve worked on about 20 projects together, if you include feature films and shorts. This past year has been very fruitful for me and Scott; our next script, which deals with the subject of post-partum depression, will also be directed by Anthony; we have a script coming up with Eduardo Sanchez [BLAIR WITCH]; we have this dark Mexican film we’re working on with Richard Stanley [HARDWARE] and a Japanese project with Yoshihiro Nishimura [TOYKO GORE POLICE]. Then, through the company we’re currently working with, Dark Elegy, we’ve got three more projects coming up over the next two years.

SWAN: David is always the one who comes up with the ideas. My favorite part is just getting on the keyboard and just making pages.

BOND: Once I come up with something I like, I’ll think about it for a few days, and then write up a treatment. That typically takes one or two days, depending on how complicated the concept is. On EXTREMITY, for example, it took about a day to write the treatment so that we could move forward from that.

SWAN: Then I do this sort of hard push, where I create about a 100-page rough draft in roughly 10 days. Then we move forward in about 15-page increments.

BOND: I’m really good at concept and dialog, but I really hate story structure and naming characters.

SWAN: Your concepts are great, but your names are horrible. [Laughs]

BOND: But we did keep one of my names: a character named Phil, as a tribute to my first mentor Philip Nutman — one of the greatest writers at Fangoria, and a key figure in the “Splatterpunk” movement. Phil was the one who brought me into horror, and I wanted to have that connection to him.

SWAN: When we turn out this rough draft, I turn it out so fast that I know it’s wrong… but at least it gets us somewhere on the dartboard. Then together, we begin to revise.

BOND: At this stage, no idea is too crazy… and so we just go back and forth, give and take, until we can say “Oh my God, this is brilliant!” We can usually get to a third draft within 14 and 20 days.

SWAN: Those three movies you just mentioned that we wrote for this company, they called me up and said, “How would you like to write three more movies, real fast?” I said “Okay, how fast?” and he said “Three months.” So we just buckled in and wrote three 100-page drafts of these new screenplays in three months… and I love them. They’re among the best work we’ve done.

BOND: One interesting thing we do is that once we’ve finished one of these 100-page rough drafts, we then immediately jump onto another script so we can purge ourselves of that last project. That way, when we return for the second and third draft, we can look at it with new eyes, like the way a studio would look at it.

SWAN: Yes, it’s very refreshing.

BOND: In the case of EXTREMITY, we had finished the third draft and Anthony came in and said, “Hey, I have some ideas.” What happened was we all got on these three-way calls and went through the script page by page, line by line, for three days, doing all of Anthony’s changes… and he gave us an amazing amount of insight into our characters, which we didn’t see because we had been so involved with cleaning up the script and focusing on the stuff that we liked.

SWAN: He connected a lot of the dots that we hadn’t connected… and I told David, “I’m so glad he came onboard… this guy really gets this material.”

BH: He sounds like a screenwriter’s dream director.

BOND: Yes, and the tough part is that at some point we really have to move on and work with other people!

BH: The climate of mainstream filmmaking has become a lot more accepting of extreme content lately. Do you feel like the time is right to bridge that gap between the mainstream and the underground?

BOND: I believe it is. Look at something like RAW, which just came out theatrically in the US. Studios wouldn’t have dreamed of releasing a film like that just a few years ago. It’s kind of sad that a lot of filmmakers who have come before us haven’t been able to profit off the new acceptance of darker, more extreme stories.

SWAN: I don’t mind extreme visuals, as long as you’ve got the drama and characters to go side-by-side with it… and we’ve got exactly that. In fact, for me the scariest aspects of this film are tied to the drama and the characters. You can say that we write horror, and that’s a badge we happily accept, but I like to think of us as creators of extreme drama… and I mean really extreme drama. Don’t get us wrong — we love to get messy. But it always starts and ends with the story and characters.

BOND: If you don’t have that, and you don’t have a strong narrative structure, then it’s basically just pornography, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to tell human stories at their absolute darkest moments. That’s one of the ways Scott and I work together: we start with these stories of regular people, whom everyone can identify with, and then we turn up the intensity.

BH: I think it takes a brave artist to internalize horror like that… the kind of horror you take home with you.

SWAN: Yes, things like not having enough money to feed your children… that’s real horror. Once you start weaving that in with elements of more traditional horror, it’s an amazing thing to see.

BH: It’s rare that the writers are on-set during production, but you’ve said this project created a kind of on-set community. How does it feel to see your stories and characters come to life and see these extremely dark situations play out?

SWAN: When you see that happen, you recognize a little bit of you in every little moment, and it’s always like that… but one thing I learned a long time ago is that when the script is done, you have to let it go and trust the filmmakers. I was fortunate enough that John Carpenter invited me and [co-writer] Drew McWeeny on the MASTERS OF HORROR set, because he was very giving in that way. But it’s never a good idea to have too many cooks in the kitchen, so I’ve always stayed low-key on set.

BH: If I can segue from MASTERS OF HORROR to FEAR ITSELF (which is kind of unofficially MOH’s third season)… I have to throw in that “Skin and Bones” is one of my all-time favorite horror TV episodes.

SWAN: Did you know that Drew and I wrote that in just 4 days? It happened right before the Writer’s Guild strike of 2008. We were sitting around waiting for them to hire us for the show, and finally we just called them up and asked… and they said “We’ve only got 4 days. Can you write it in 4 days?” So we did! To this day, it’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I finally got a chance to know Larry when he screened his final edit for me and Drew.

FEAR ITSELF: “Skin and Bones” (2008)

BH: I think Larry’s one of the greatest genre filmmakers working today.

BOND: Yes! He’s also of the great mentors in modern horror, and a lot of the people who come out of his company Glass Eye Pix are going to be the ones we’re looking at over the next 15 years.

BH: Speaking of horror legends… was EXTREMITY partly inspired by David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME? There’s a similar philosophy at work there, and I believe we’re all pretty much living in the future Cronenberg designed.

BOND: First, you have to remember the most important part of VIDEODROME: the signal comes from Pittsburgh! It all makes sense when we look at horror history — the content doesn’t come from some far-off, exotic place; it comes from Pittsburgh. That might explain why Romero and Savini, Fred Vogel and all those creative horror people sprung from there.

SWAN: I was born in Pittsburgh… so it all fits.

BOND: But the whole point behind what we’re doing is that we’re all Max Renn from VIDEODROME, and we are now living in the age of the New Flesh.

BH: Horror media is changing on a daily basis, along with every other medium, so it’s hard to predict what direction it will go next. Do you think the time is right for your particular hybrid of horror storytelling to rise to the top?

BOND: Filmmakers in any genre have to change with the times. Your own studio is an example of this: you’re making films under $5 million that are grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s today’s market — there’s the sub-million-dollar independent films, then the $1-5 million films like Blumhouse produces… and the next step is the big $200 million studio blockbusters. There are no middle-tier budgets anymore.

SWAN: What’s interesting is that we’re now in one of those moments of great change in the history of the movie business… and it’s in those moments of uncertainty that great things can happen.

BOND: I think we’re in the right moment, and the right system to make it happen… but we as filmmakers also need to be pushed harder by better-quality product. I’m glad when great horror films like RAW come out, because they push us to become better, to get smarter, to push those boundaries harder. As filmmakers, we have to rebel against the norm… but the strange thing about it is that the rebellion becomes the norm after a while.

SWAN: Then you have to find something else to rebel against.

BH: The goalposts keep moving, but do you think at some point filmmakers will reach the absolute edge of what’s considered art?

BOND: Because our stories explore the human condition, I think we’re there already. When you, as an artist, start exploring the dark corners of the psyche… you’re eventually going to find the edge.

[You’ll be hearing much more about EXTREMITY soon… so keep checking my column for updates.]