“Our Take On Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo'” Scott Beck & Bryan Woods Discuss ’50 States Of Fright’
Iowa-born horror Beck and Woods duet is best known for its dialogue-averse film A Quiet Place which cemented their place in the horror walk of fame. This time around, they share their scares in Sam Raimi’s state-set horror anthology on Quibi with their turbine-centric three-part episode, Almost There. We caught up with them to discuss how they continue to make great horror.
The screenwriters were actually working on another film when one of the producers of 50 States Of Fright casually mentioned Raimi’s anthology. Serendipitously, Raimi needed an episode set in Iowa. After creating an exhaustive list of potential screenwriters, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods were named the winners to write the Iowa-set episode.
“It was an opportunity to make something in our home state in the horror genre,” they said. It was a dream come true for them because they’ve admired Raimi’s work since childhood. They relish Raimi’s breadth of genre and scope of his work. “Just being in the same room as Raimi and breathe the same air as him, meant we could learn so much,” said Woods.
50 States Of Fright tapped into legends and folklore of each state in America. We asked Beck and Woods about the specificity of their episode, Almost There, to Iowa. It was a three-pronged approach.
“Iowa has a substantial Amish community. It was a part of our everyday life. We heard a story in our childhood of an Amish mother who went to a bridge outside Fort Knox and hung her three kids.”
Iowa is also relatively flat and windy, making it an ideal location for wind turbines. “Wind turbines are terrifying. Turbinephobia is real. They’re so tall and play on our fear of heights,” said Woods. This hybrid of green power and Amish folk tale formed the basis of their episode. “It was our version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” So they consulted their notebooks from decades prior and cobbled together a twenty-minute horror story.
Working With Sam Raimi
Screenwriters often work in isolation and the feedback process can daunting.
The traditional way of receiving feedback is via notes from various members of the development departments. The Raimi experience in 50 States Of Fright was more communal. “The writers of the entire series and producing partners got together and read the scripts out loud. Everyone in the room played a different character. Whenever there was a response, comment, criticism, or something unclear in our script, we stopped the room and collectively came up with a solution,” said Woods. This open conversation made Beck and Woods appreciate the “note beneath the note” during the development process.
Sam Raimi suggested for Beck and Woods to play themselves in each horrific situation. Not to simply visualize what a situation might be like. “We sought out an energy company in Iowa that would allow us to climb a three hundred foot tall wind turbine,” recalled Beck. “As soon we started buckling up with all the harness gear we felt the same fear as our main character Hannah (Taissa Formiga). Climbing the turbine was one of the best writing exercises for us. We built in our own physical responses such as shaking hands into Hannah’s character,” he continued.
Scott Beck and Bryan Woods typically write ensemble casts. “Writing a mainly two-hander between Taissa and Ron Livingston (Blake) helped us focus more on each character,” said Beck. It sharpened the process. “Hannah has a lot of trauma hidden underneath the surface, while Blake was the one with a dry sense of humor, the funny guy for want of a better term.”
Nearly There milked the tension of this character dynamic, especially for Blake, because putting a funny guy in a scary situation, elevated his fear, and in turn, elevated the fear of the audience.
Quibi as a platform was a new writing challenge for the screenwriters. “Long-form storytelling is our main writing language,” declared Woods. Writing in nine-minute chunks for Quibi was as difficult as writing a good short film of similar length. “Our episode told in three segments, tested our serialized storytelling skills. We looked at radio plays in terms of writing in chapters with compelling cliffhangers at the end of each one to keep the audience coming back,” added Woods.
Writing to a limited time frame meant that they had to escalate the suspense leading the jump scares and eventually the cliffhanger at the end in each scene. “We let the audience marinate in the buildup that leads to something thrilling,” said Woods.
Team Beck and Woods have built a career in horror genre films. This ironically clashes with their pre-fame interests while they were establishing themselves. Back then they wrote character-based dramas and comedies which they confessed where of dubious quality. Why did they settle on horror? “Genre sells. We’d love to write a comedy because there’s something incredibly human about the comedy of life, and the tragedy you find humor in,” mused Bryan. “Shyamalan and Raimi were our childhood heroes, so sticking with the horror, suspense, sci-fi, thriller genres was not a departure from our tastes.”
The screenwriters have certainly written an arsenal of material, much of which will never see the light of day. However, nothing written is every wasted no matter how bad the script. “The idea of using high-frequency pitches to kill monsters in A Quiet Place came from a terrible script we wrote after college,” claimed Woods. “There is always room to repurpose an old idea, but we don’t resurrect stories we abandoned.”
Beck and Woods certainly have a long career to proudly look back on. We asked them how they’ve matured as screenwriters over the past two decades or so.
“Writing is putting the right words in the right order. Good writing is about simplifying your idea and selecting the words you don’t use. When we were younger we tended to over-write. Now we write minimally. In many cases, we use images and graphics instead of words. That sparseness not only lies in the action and description, but also in the dialogue. Less is more makes us better writers.” concluded Scott.
Check out their previous interview with us HERE.
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