Thursday 18 September 2014

Interview with Devin Watson

Devin Watson is an American screenwriter and filmmaker who lives in Tennessee. He is the author of A Practical Handbook for the Screenwriter and Horror Screenwriting: The Nature of Fear. He also publishes The Dklon Daily, a filmmaking/computer programing/general interest digest of current events. On top of that, he helped build and run several other websites, including Screenwriter’s Utopia and, a Civil War history site. He is a screener for the Seattle Shorts Film Festival and, with a less obvious claim to fame, a descendant of Wilhelm of the Brothers Grimm

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Brunswick, Georgia. Spent the first ten years of my life there, then moved to Vermont, then Maine, then Virginia.

Where did you go to school?

I went to school at University of Vermont. My course of study was Computer Science, something about as far removed from the English Department as you could get. The geeks were segregated away in the Electrical Engineering building on the other side of the campus.

When did you first take an interest in movies?

I'd been interested in movies since I was very young. A good portion of my childhood was spent ill and confined to the house, and there was cable in the living room and a nice couch for me to recuperate on. It's also what introduced me to horror; I can remember quite clearly having a fever and watching Poltergeist for the first time. 
    Around the time I was fifteen I started wondering about the process and what went into it. Bear in mind that this was before the time of the Internet as we know it, and I was living in a small town in Maine. If I was lucky I'd find a newspaper clipping here or a magazine article there that helped raise the curtain up just a little bit. When I got to college, that's when high-speed Internet access came into play. This was 1996, which is difficult for me to imagine being eighteen years ago. That's when the first bits of real knowledge about the whole process were out there. That was when I said, "By the time I'm thirty I'm going to make a movie." I was eighteen. We shot The Cursed, my first movie, shortly after I turned twenty-nine.

What was your first paying job (in any field)?

My first paying job was as a short order chef at a local arcade/restaurant. I'd make pizzas, philly cheesesteaks, and french fries. Not the most glamorous job in the world, but it helped me buy a used car so I could drive to high school.

What do you do to keep the wolf from the door?

I've made use of my degree to build sites for people, and the occasional desktop software job comes along. I recently built the latest version of Screenwriter's Utopia, which launched back in January. That's something I've been working on since the early 2000s.

You’re a screener for the Seattle Shorts Film Festival. How did you land that job and what does it entail?

Daniel Hoyos
A few years ago I'd connected with Daniel Hoyos on Twitter. At the time he was running the shorts festival for
Seattle True Independent Film Festival (STIFF) and I was one of the screeners for that. Fast forward a little later and Daniel is now running Seattle Shorts. He asked me if I'd be interested in screening again and told me his big plans for it. How could I say no?
    We spent the first part of this year screening entries, all the way up to the final deadline. It might seem like it's a fun idea: watch a bunch of short films for fun. It is fun but not in the same way most people think. There's a strict set of criteria set forth early on by the festival director. When you're screening, you're analyzing the film to make sure it meets the criteria, including aesthestics and story. In fact, story is one of the biggest criterion you weigh against. Telling a complete and engaging story is especially challenging in shorts because of that tight time limitation.
    You're also taking notes. You have to justify why you think that something is either good or bad. Those notes would then go to Daniel with the up or down vote. Rather than take the notes at face value, Daniel would also screen them just to make sure. And then we would have meetings over Skype to discuss the current batch we'd watched. It's an arduous process, but it guarantees that everyone gets a fair shake, especially for such a competitive festival.

You’ve written books and screenplays, but you also publish an internet newspaper. What was your inspiration for setting that up?

That came about almost purely by accident. It turns out that I had been following a lot of other fellow screenwriters on Twitter, which ended up dominating the stories that got pulled out. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. If it had been 1996 I would have killed for that kind of access to the information that is now so easily found and shared.

We’ve had a saturation of horror movies over the last few years. Do you think that trend is coming to an end?

Horror tends to follow about a three-to-five year cycle. Right now I think we're on the downward slide of one of those cycles. It will pick back up, but when it does it will be some other subgenre that gets mined. Witness the supernatural films like Paranormal Activity, then slashers made something of a modest comeback. Then vampires and zombies were huge. All it takes is one big breakout hit in that subgenre and all of the other studios will be dusting the scripts off their shelves looking for one of their own. 
    I think the recent reboots of franchises has left something of a bad taste in many people's mouths. The one thing studios forget when signing off on these enormous budgets is that many of the original horror film's elements were born out of necessity. They had little to no budgets, the actors were just starting out, and darkness made up for the lack of any money to put in front of the camera. That's what made them fun and scary. Of course there's always going to be the hardcore fans that want to see more. And for that there's always the independents, struggling every day to make their films and get them out there. For that you have to dig around a little deeper to find those hidden gems.

Why are you so interested in the American Civil War? Are you involved in reenactments?

One of my friends, Chris Wehner, is a huge American Civil War buff. He has a degree in History and it's his personal obsession. One year I was quite broke and Christmas was coming around. So instead of sending a gift I made for him. It was a good match because I'm a data hound and he has the historical background. 
    It ended up becoming one of the larger free resources online now cataloging the people, places, dates, and events on the war, much to my surprise. The site helps feed the data hound in me. I don't do reenactments myself, but I have seen a few. It's hard not to where I've lived. It can be fascinating to watch how close to accurate they try to be, right down to the buttons on the jackets and who gets shot when. It's like watching a live-action movie unfold right in front of you.

What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting when you were starting out?

1. Your first few screenplays are not going to be good. Don't give up because of that. Learn from them.

2. Go lean and mean in your writing: Use verbs that are descriptive to show intent without long descriptions. Introduce the Big Problem in the first five pages.

3. Get in on a local film production. Volunteer some time and hold a boom. See how films are made from scripts. This will inform your work more than any class or book could ever hope to do.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?

Screenwriting 434 by Lew Hunter.

The material is easily accessible for anyone and it's a fun read. It was the first and, for the longest time, the only book on screenwriting I had read. I still go back and reference it sometimes when I'm stuck. It always has an answer you're looking for.

What are your ten favorite (favorite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

In no particular order:
Alien (1979)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Hellraiser 1 & 2 (1987)
Jaws (1975)
The Warriors (1979)
Poltergeist (1982)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The Exorcist (1973)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

What’s next for Devin Watson?

We're currently mixing sound for a web series pilot called Asphalt She-Wolves, which I co-wrote and produced. It's a different take on werewolves, with an all-female ensemble cast. Whether or not it finds an audience remains to be seen, and won't be answered until October 8th.
     I'm also finishing up a book on Short Films You Can Watch for Free Online. Having watched so many of them, I felt it might be helpful for someone else to have not just another list with links, but reviews and interviews with those filmmakers. 


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love these interviews. I feel like I'm meeting an active participant in the screenwriting world, who has been generous with time and honesty and is showing the way for other screenwriters.

Best quote: "Go lean and mean in your writing: Use verbs that are descriptive to show intent without long descriptions. Introduce the Big Problem in the first five pages."