Eric Bress On His Horror-War Film “Ghosts Of War”
Eric Bress is best known for writing in the horror/thriller genres, penning popular films including The Final Destination and The Butterfly Effect. Recently, he wrote and directed Ghosts Of War, a story about a group of war-weary American soldiers guarding a French Chateau during World War II which is possessed by the ghosts of the Helwig family which Nazi troops tortured and killed. He spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about why this genre hybrid needed to be made in the current climate.
The mental and emotional scars left on both soldiers and countless civilians killed is something that still affects us today. It will always affect us.
The wars and locales may have changed over the years, but the searing scars on the psyche of the soldiers remain. “I think it’s never-ending. In World War I we called it being ‘shell-shocked’, in World War II we called it ‘battle fatigue’, and today we call it ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ [PTSD],” said Bress. The world still has to deal with the effects of those soldiers who are “undertreated and under-addressed.”
Eric Bress has always been a fan of war stories and the physical horrors that occur. (His first feature Blunt was a comedy before he changed genre lanes).
His love of war movies is understandably influenced by other war movies. He referenced Tom Hanks’ shaky hand trying to open a can of peas in Saving Private Ryan or a furloughed soldier having an anxiety attack and meltdown in The Hurt Locker because he’s so overwhelmed with the number of choices of breakfast cereal in the supermarket. “Most of the time it’s not talked about. We just see the effects.”
“Ghosts of War was my way of trying to give to an audience something that can’t be explained to them, but a feeling, a visceral experience.”
Bress thoroughly researched the physical and physiological effects of PTSD before writing his screenplay. It wasn’t simply a way to fuse his favorite film genres, but rather an intelligent use of metaphor. “I felt the best way to convey the experience of PTSD was to put our characters inside a horror movie. A recurrent, waking nightmare where the boundaries between reality and fiction were blurred.”
The filmmaker neatly weaved the horror elements of World War II into the narrative of Ghosts Of War by deftly grafting supernatural horror elements over the metaphorical horror of war. “What if you could make the audience feel the horror rather than explain it to them?” he pondered. “What if you could connect the two mindsets and we could live through a panic attack the same way as a soldier? Why not make a horror movie and make the audience experience the same horror, dread, or even discomfort?” This was Eric Bress’ way of grounding the natural story with supernatural elements.
Bress also heavily drew stylistic inspiration from the final episode of The Sopranos, “Where the screen goes black mid-sentence and you don’t get a definitive answer to what happened.” He cited the memorable final episode of the series. Time is running out. Will Meadow (Tony’s daughter) get killed parking her car, will Carmella (his wife) get killed listening to a jukebox, or will Tony himself get killed while ordering fries?
All the outcomes invoke a potent feeling of dread and paralysis. Every option was dire. The story could pivot in any direction during the final minutes of the series – only to have the screen turn black on us. “After watching it, I knew exactly what it was like to be Tony Soprano all the time. I was having a panic attack and a meltdown.”
As he wrote the screenplay of Ghosts Of War, Bress looked to Saving Private Ryan in terms of the opening ten minutes being a straight war film before the supernatural haunted house elements were progressively folded into the story. He made the creative decision to make horror the primary genre of his film early on. The war introduction was a setup, not a distraction.
“As we progress through the film we’re introduced to genre hybrids which are normally frowned upon by the screenwriting establishment.” Despite this prevailing wisdom, Eric Bress was meticulous in maintaining a solid narrative throughline to offset the genre transitions.
“Ultimately, I weaved the stories together and kept them cohesive through strong characters.” His characters were bold and familiar. They weren’t overly complex nor did they change over the course of the story. “I created trope characters that an audience would be able to easily identify and run with. A selfless hero named Chris Goodson (Brenton Thwaites), a bookish know-it-all named Eugene (Skylar Astin) and a musclebound non-thinker named Butchie (Alan Ritchson).” This decision created space for the nuances of the theme to flourish.
The 1940s French Chateau where Ghosts Of War is set is a bona fide character in itself. It is reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining which further reinforces “the undercurrent of dread.”
Bress also researched other films and documentaries from the era to authenticate the 1940s dialogue in Ghosts Of War. “I could hear about the horrors of war through their mouths of people who were there. I listened to their language and the way they spoke.”
Ghosts Of War isn’t a peculiar cinematic beast that couldn’t decide if it was going to be a horror or war film. Bress knew it was going to be a war film told through the lens of a war story. It also garnished the genre-hybrid with sci-fi elements to explore the soldiers’ psychological trauma in the end through Dr. Engel (Billy Zane).
Bress’ writing process began with a scene from a war movie. In this case, it was Saving Private Ryan. Then he asked how this scene of a soldier’s experience could be reworked into a horror movie. “I have a motorcycle and drive along the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles]. After about forty minutes, my left brain will shut down, my motor skills will become involuntary, and my creative brain will go into overload.”
He likened the experience to being in a sensory-deprivation tank. “It’s like a creative shower that lasts for hours where my creativity would run amok.” He’d ride his motorcycles for several hours and put all his thoughts on paper when he got home – from memory in no particular order.
“I had to incorporate a dual reality on Ghosts Of War with horror and war that tied to other events,” he said. In some respects, he was simultaneously writing two movies in one screenplay.
After he laid down his thoughts in writing, “I would sit in front of the computer and write a list of setups and payoffs. What is the original sin here?”
Then Bress would take another motorcycle ride, “To fill the canvas. I had to find the right connective tissue and the tone to make the story work. I would listen to my favorite score to enhance my creativity.” He noted the importance of background music in his non-linear writing process. “Sometimes a beat or a note would spark my imagination, even movie ideas from other things I wrote.”
During the second motorcycle ride, “I would fill in bits of dialogue or other scenes in my head. I would feel what happened next. I keep doing this until I had no more excuses to take a motorcycle ride and head back home so I could sit down and do the work,” he added.
Since much of Eric Bress’ writing process is scattered, he reiterated the value of a solid outline. His outlines typically range from twenty to twenty-five pages. “To me, the outline is far more important than the screenplay. I used to write a script from a half-completed outline hoping that it would somehow come to me.”
Despite the importance of an outline to the screenwriter, there are some things that are better left until the screenplay. “I don’t want to write an action sequence in an outline. But for the major character beats, notes, and arcs, I need a full outline. When do major changes happen?”
He keeps writing until a first draft is completed. “My first drafts are to get the characters and the main story on the page. After that, you’re going to need air to let the screenplay breathe.“
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