It’s probably not too many screenwriter’s dream job to write a feature length script for cable tv. But the fact of the matter is that dozens of made-for-tv movies get made every year, and there’s quite a bit of money in them. Rick Suvalle, writer of the new SyFy original movie Roadkill gave this interview on the topic:
In advance of April 23rd, 2011, debut of Syfy Original Film Roadkill, Dread Central had an opportunity to chat with screenwriter Rick Suvalle about his approach to this project and how he managed to make it slightly different than the average Syfy Original entry.
I can tell you from personal experience writing a Syfy Original Film is not easy. You know going in budgets are thin (transparent even), the special effects aren’t going to be very good, and casting is always a game of Russian roulette with four bullets in the cylinder. So, as a writer, you have to try and compensate for all of those hazards up front: use modest locations, limit special effects screen time, and include no complex dialogue or characters which require too much acting muscle. Yet, you still have to deliver the goods and tell a compelling, visually interesting story even though you don’t have the luxuries afforded even the most modestly budgeted theatrical release. As we know all too well, many fail in this endeavor.
But Suvalle manages to pull off all of the above with Roadkill. He finds creative solutions to the problems faced when penning one of these movies, and while his script definitely benefits from solid casting in the final product, as screenwriter William M. Akers says in his awesome book on screenwriting, Your Screenplay Sucks, if you haven’t written a quality script, you won’t attract quality talent.
DREAD CENTRAL: Roadkill (review here)revisits the well-used premise of a group of young people heading out for a weekend of fun and partying, only for it to go horribly wrong when they run afoul of backwoods locals. Knowing this, how did you approach it differently?
RICK SUVALLE: Roadkill has a certain action movie element to it. To me it’s kind of like a horror version of Speed where you’ve got this group of kids, trapped in a speeding RV, and they can’t stop or slow down or the Roc will get them. I felt like this was enough of a departure from your typical horror movie that I wasn’t afraid to use tried-and-true horror conventions like a group of kids heading out for a weekend of fun only for it to go horribly awry. In fact I purposely tried to sprinkle in various classic horror moments throughout.
The backwoods locals – in this case Irish gypsies – were a different story. I initially only had them in one scene that led to the kids getting cursed. But Syfy really loved the gypsies and wanted to see more of them, and I think they were absolutely right. The gypsies added a whole new level of terror to the story. And it didn’t hurt that they cast Irish native Ned Dennehy as the lead gypsy. He is one creepy villain in this movie.
DC: Was the Roc always part of the premise? Or did that come later?
RS: The Roc actually came much later. The story was originally conceived with a demon-type creature on the roof of the RV that remains there for the entire movie, trapping the kids inside. You would only see glimpses of the creature until the very end. I saw this as a way to make the film on a micro budget. But when Syfy got involved, they wanted Roadkill to fit into their Saturday Original Movie line-up, and that meant having a really cool creature that you could actually see. We went through dozens of potential creatures. We even whipped open the Monster Manual from Dungeons & Dragons for inspiration and eventually realized that the perfect foil for kids in a speeding RV would be something that could actually keep up with them, like a mythical bird of prey. Once we locked in the Roc, I tweaked the mythology to make it work for the story.
DC: Most regular genre viewers will relate what happens to the protagonists to other movies like Pumpkinhead and Drag Me to Hell. How is your take different?
RS: In both of those films, as well as in Roadkill, the protagonists get cursed, resulting in a creature or supernatural force coming after them. But in Roadkill not only do you have the curse and the creature, but you’ve also got the gypsies coming after them, too, and the gypsies are almost more scary and menacing than the creature itself. What also differentiates Roadkill is our core concept, that it has an action movie element to it. Our heroes are always on the run, whereas in Drag Me to Hell Alison Lohman’s character is gradually stalked while she goes about her day-to-day life.
DC: In most of these films the order in which characters are killed off is usually predictable. What’s interesting in Roadkill is the way some characters come to the forefront, then kind of step back for other characters to emerge, which kind of shuffles the expected kill order. Was that hard to structure without losing focus on whose story this really was?
RS: This was actually my first venture into horror so after watching a bunch of these films as research, I did notice the predictability of the pecking order and thought it would not only be fun to change it up a little, but I thought it would also help keep the audience engaged and on their toes. Wondering for a change, “Who’s going to die next?” And surprisingly it wasn’t that difficult to achieve. I knew from the start exactly who I wanted to make it to the end, someone we wouldn’t expect. After that a new pecking order kind of emerged naturally.
As for keeping focused on whose story this really was, I purposely made several characters potential heroes so that whoever stepped up or whoever died next, we would root for them or be bummed out when they got a talon to the face.
DC: Most Syfy Films tend to use a lot of humor. Roadkill is different in that it plays like a straightforward horror film. There’s not much levity. In fact, it gets downright dark in the third act. Was there a sense from the beginning that this film was going to be different in that regard? Or is that something that just sort of happened on its own during the writing process?
RS: In the early drafts of the film there was actually a LOT more humor, partially because I come from an action-comedy background, but I ultimately found that some of those jokes were undercutting the really scary moments in the film so I scaled it way back. But I have to give credit to the director, Johannes Roberts, for taking the darkness to the next level.
DC: This is your first foray into horror; any other genre projects on the horizon?
RS: Yes! I’ve been hired to write a new horror film that I’m really excited about. I can’t say more, but I’m trying to once again flip some of the genre’s conventions on their head.