Interview: Brad Abraham

Today, we talk with screenwriter, Brad Abraham, who wrote the SyFy Channel’s Stonehenge Apocalypse, starring Misha Collins, Peter Wingfield and Torri Higginson. Stonehenge Apocalypse repeats tomorrow at 7pm on SyFy:
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IFP: How did you get started in writing? What got you into screenwriting?

BA: Throughout public school, I was always writing short stories and plays, more for myself than anyone else. When I studied film at Ryerson University, I, like most of my classmates, wanted to direct and I saw screenwriting as the shortest trip to the director’s chair. But I found that the process of “just being the writer” was a lot more fun than being the guy on set tearing his hair out trying to figure out how to put it all together. Throughout school, I was directing my own projects and co-writing projects for other people and just found that writing was the part of the process I enjoyed the most (and it helped that I had an aptitude for it). Following school, I wrote many screenplays and beat the bushes with them, forcing them into the hands of every producer and agent I could find, and eventually I hit pay dirt, landing my first professional job not long after graduation.

IFP: Please tell us about your past projects.

BA: My work crossed the desk of Producer-Director Julian Grant, who was seeking writers to tackle the scripting chores of his TV miniseries/reboot of the RoboCop franchise, called “Prime Directives“. He read and liked my work, and ended up hiring me and my then-writing partner to pen the miniseries. Following Robocop, I produced an award-winning animated short film called “Hoverboy” (which can be viewed at www.hoverboy.com), did a season of a children’s TV show called “I Love Mummy“, and spent a year and a half writing the remake of the 70s slasher classic Black Christmas (though the script was ultimately dropped because new producers came on board and decided to go in a different direction). Amidst all of the above, I optioned and sold screenplays and wrote several more “for hire” that have yet to see the light of day, which is probably the most frustrating part of the business. It’s great to get paid to do what you love, but having your work actually produced and seen is ten times better.

IFP: Is it harder writing a novel or a screenplay?

BA: I wouldn’t say harder; just different. A screenplay has to be clear and precise in every detail – essentially, a set of instructions to the cast, the crew, and the director. A novel, as I’m finding, forces you to open the world up a lot more. You’re more privy to the characters’ thoughts; you can take story digressions that you can’t get away with in a movie; you’re not as tied to the three-act structure of a screenplay. Because I’m more seasoned as a screenwriter, writing a novel has been a wonderful challenge, as it takes a different set of tools to craft a novel over a screenplay. On the flip side of ,I’m sure many novelists will tell you that writing a screenplay is just as difficult for them, as they can only detail what you see and hear; the inner thoughts of the characters can’t be communicated outside of a voice-over, which is anathema to the film and TV business.

IFP: How did you receive the offer to write Stonehenge Apocalypse? Is this very common for screenwriters? That they’ll be thrown a concept and told to run with it?

BA: The production company had received a tentative “green light” from SyFy on the concept – that “Stonehenge is a clock; the pyramids are bombs, and the clock is ticking.” What they needed was a writer who could take that concept and run with it, so I was approached to furnish a take on it. I reviewed the material, did my research, and came up with an approach that I liked, touching on conspiracy culture, fringe radio, and what would happen if a “conspiracy nut” was proven right for once. Maybe a month or so later, I received a call from the producers saying that both they and SyFy loved my take on Stonehenge Apocalypse and hired me to write it. Then the real work began as I had to figure out a way to make a one-page synopsis work as a 95-page script. That’s a fairly typical experience with a hired job; they have a concept and an overall vision for the story, and you’re the one who has to execute that vision, and still bring your own ideas to the page.

IFP: What kind of research (historical, scientific, etc.) did you do for writing the script?

BA: I began by reading everything I could find about Stonehenge, the science and the myths behind its purpose. The mythology of Stonehenge was interesting to get into, as was the notion of the Pyramids in Egypt being somehow tied into the same ancient civilization that constructed Stonehenge. I also researched (and listened to) conspiracy radio shows, just to try and get into the heads of these guys who fervently believe in “the real story” as Jacob does in Stonehenge.

IFP: What were your fictional inspirations for the movie?

BA: I’m a big fan of paranoia cinema, like The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. I’m also a fan of the work of Nigel Kneale and his Professor Quatermass character was a definite inspiration for Jacob, as was a little bit of Fox Mulder. But as far as the story is concerned, there weren’t any direct fictional points of reference and inspiration; I just wanted to tell a fast-moving story with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I’ll be the first to admit the concept is a little ridiculous, but I chose to embrace that, not run from it. I think too many genre movies, of this budget level and higher, take themselves way too seriously and miss the fun aspect of it.

IFP: Had you previously worked with the SyFy Channel? If so, when? If not, how did you come to work for them?

BA: This was my first time working with them directly; the Robocop miniseries aired on the then-SciFi Channel, but was independently produced. My work had been circulating around their offices and the team that hired me for Stonehenge were fans of that work. So, when they were planning out their next batch of movies, I was one of the people they approached.

IFP: What was it like working with co-writer Paul Ziller?

BA: I didn’t work with Paul directly. I worked on the screenplay for about a year, and when he was hired, they gave him access to everything I wrote, from the initial story treatments and outlines to the subsequent drafts. During the creative process, decisions were made to take the film in a different direction and some ideas were taken out of the screenplay, but Paul went back and decided to use some of the pieces that were in earlier drafts, which was a surprise to me that he went back, and the final movie is a combination of drafts that I had written.

IFP: We hear a lot about “the pitch”. Have you ever had to deliver a pitch and how did it go?

BA: I don’t know any writer who looks forward to giving a pitch; it’s like those speeches you had to give in school – they’re just uncomfortable. You basically have to outline the story you want to write to a room of executives who’ve already heard a dozen takes on the same material, and hope you have an insight that nobody else has, or that strikes their interest. I’ve pitched a fair bit and in one case landed the job, not because of the pitch itself, but the producers thought that I would be “fun to work with.” With a “work-for-hire” project, you have to pitch. If it’s an original idea of mine, I’d rather just sit down and write it, rather than go around pitching it. That’s what a writer should do: write, not talk. There are writers who go around and pitch ideas but never write them if there’s no interest. In my experience, producers are always more interested in seeing a finished screenplay rather than hearing you talk about it.

IFP: There’s a lot of angst sometimes among writers about not changing a comma of their work. But screenplays go through numerous rewrites and Stonehenge Apocalypse is not the exception. How do you deal with something like that?

BA: John Sayles said that you make a movie three times: when you write it, when you film it, and when you edit it. Nothing is ever carved in stone and certainly not the script. Stonehenge Apocalypse was written in 2008, was filmed in 2009 and was released in 2010; the story’s going to change as new ideas enter the mix. A lot of changes are made because of scheduling and budget issues, or decisions are made to center production around one location and rewrite to include it. That’s just a part of the business and you have to expect it. That said, if a change being suggested is one you think severely harms the film, you have to stand up and fight for it, but you have to fight for the idea, not your ego. You also have to know what battles to fight. If someone has a genuinely good idea, it shouldn’t matter whose came up with it as long as it makes its way into the movie.

IFP: Can you walk us through the process of writing a script for the SyFy Channel? Were you involved in other aspects besides the writing?

BA: When I was hired, one of the first things I was given was a breakdown of the structure SyFy expects you to adhere to: the number of acts in the story, what each act was to accomplish, and how they were to end. They are very specific about their structure and format and they write their movies with the commercial breaks in mind, so if it’s a disaster movie, before you go to commercial, disaster has to strike; if it’s a creature feature, the creature has to attack. But as long as you work within those parameters, you pretty much have free rein to do your thing. Budget wasn’t an issue with them, at least not at first; they just wanted good ideas. A lot of stuff had to be dialed back because it would have been too expensive, but at least the “Cadillac version” was there to dial back.

IFP: What do you see as the basics for a good story/script? What do you absolutely need? What can you let go, or should avoid?

BA: The basics for a good script are a good story and interesting characters – you can’t have a successful story without them. You’re asking the audience to give you their time, so you have to deliver for them, but to do it in a way they don’t expect will play out. But to me, any great story has to be more than just surface detail; there should be an overall theme to the work as a whole, whether you’re aware of it from the start, or whether it reveals itself to you through the course of writing it. In the case of Stonehenge Apocalypse, the big theme I was dealing with was about Belief: why people believe what they do and how those beliefs are tested.

IFP: Inquiring fans of CSI: New York, Supernatural, Stargate: Atlantis, and Highlander will undoubtedly want to know: did you get a chance to meet (or give input on casting for) any of the actors, and if so, what were they like? Did they match how you saw the characters?

BA: I had no idea who they had cast in what roles until I saw the cast list and I have to say I was impressed with the talent they’d managed to attract. Usually with a SyFy film, you get a “name” to carry the show; in Stonehenge, we had four of them, all of whom brought something to the story that wouldn’t have been there, otherwise (and I’m not just referring to their substantial fanbase). All actors carry the baggage of their previous work, whether deliberate or not, so seeing them play against type, particularly in Misha Collins’ and Hill Harper’s cases, was really interesting, given I already had a mental image of their characters. What pleased me about the casting was, with so many well-known actors in the key roles, you couldn’t sit there and predict the outcome: who lives, who dies, who wins, who loses.

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft/Mythos monster, which one would you be?

BA: I don’t want to say Cthulhu, because everybody says Cthulhu. But he’s badass.

IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraft/Mythos story?

BA: “Pickman’s Model”: it’s a nice, simple, moody story about the creative process, about dreaming monsters (which is what any artist does), only Lovecraft gave his own unique spin on it.

IFP: What future projects are you working on?

BA: I’ve been branching out into non-film/television work, but I have three movies and a TV series in various stages of development. The one I’m most interested in is the one I’m doing with Rue Morgue Cinema, called “Weaver Island“, which is an original screenplay of mine. In essence, it’s a “what if H.P. Lovecraft wrote children’s fiction” story, about an orphaned boy sent to live with his relatives on an island off the New England coast, who learns of a century-old curse that afflicts members of his family; a curse that, because of his arrival, has now fallen onto him.

IFP: What is your dream project?

BA: There are several screenplays I have written that would be a dream to see on the big screen, but if I could only pick one, I’d have to go with the biopic I wrote about Billy Bishop, the World War I flying ace. He downed 72 enemy airplanes by the time he was 24; he fought the Red Baron to a stalemate; and he became, for a time, the most famous Canadian in the world. But thematically, it’s about a young man who finds his place in the world and must deal with the fact that his place is as a cold-blooded killer. It’s a big project and an expensive one, but it’s an amazing human story and I think that’s what draws me to tell any story: the human angle. You can have all the special effects and spectacle at your fingertips, but if the story that you’re trying to tell isn’t, at its heart, a human interest story, all you’re doing is making noise.

Bio:
Brad Abraham’s career in film started with the Super-8 Star Wars movie he made in his sandbox at age seven. Since then, he has become a successful writer of film, television and print, and is broadening his reach into the world of graphic novels and books. As a screenwriter, he is best known for RoboCop: Prime Directives, I Love Mummy, and the recent SyFy Original Stonehenge Apocalypse. His upcoming projects include the black comedy Hell For Breakfast, the medical drama Emerge, and the dark fantasy Weaver Island. In addition to his film work, he is writing a graphic novel about the rise of the Alternative Music scene of the early 1990s, and is finishing work on a murder mystery set during the Italian Renaissance. A graduate of the Image Arts Program at Ryerson University, he makes his home in New York City.

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IFPInterview: Brad Abraham