Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“It feels more natural to tell a human story and then have the horribleness come out of that than it does to have some horrible thing that’s just there.”
Screenwriter Jeff Howard has found much success scaring the sh*t out of mainstream audiences with his frequent collaborator Mike Flanagan since OCULUS debuted back in 2013. With OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, he and Flanagan craft a sophisticated, throwback-vibe horror gem that involves a family in crisis, a popular parlor game and a possessed little girl (Lulu Wilson).
Before I go on, full disclosure: I’ve wanted to speak with Jeff for a few years now, not only because I adore his films, but also because he shares the same name and profession as my husband – writer of PLANES and TINKER BELL — Jeffrey M. Howard. I pictured them swapping stories, laughing and discussing things only writers named Jeff Howard could understand. So when the opportunity finally presented itself to speak with him (i.e. when I reached out on Twitter like every other weirdo does), and he proved receptive to my dorky tweet, my wish became fulfilled.
We discussed everything from his prequel philosophy, to how he and Flanagan collaborate, to GERALD’S GAME and the remake of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER.
And oh, yeah, the two Jeffs spoke, but didn’t touch because TIMECOP, you guys. I may have had to fight the urge to give him a “honey do” list, but I kept things professional.
What feelings on prequels? They are tricky.
“The problem that we didn’t have with this particular prequel was that most prequels, all the actors are three or four years older than they were in the original movie. Since we had an entirely different cast we kind of missed the giant misstep that so many of those movies make when they look weird. I think that the idea of a prequel with this one wasn’t a bad idea because there was a sort of mythology that Stiles [White] and Juliet Snowden set up that we were able to go back and play with – to see from the beginning that it suggested its own entire world and story. It gave us a chance to do new things that you wouldn’t expect, even though based on the first movie we all knew where the mythology was going to take us.
It became more about, can we tell a story about a single mom and her kids in a context that we can all know and appreciate? And also about a teenager struggling to break out and figure out who she is – start having fun in her life and get started. And then this disaster comes in a pretty package.”
How much did the script evolve during this? Were there major changes/ edits?
“No. Mike and I have been lucky. The way he’s directed, they’ve all got to the screen almost exactly the way we laid them out in the very first draft. We go back and do changes, but there’s never been anything too excessive. Everybody here was really excited about the movie. Everybody at Blumhouse, Platinum Dunes and Hasbro were very excited that it was a group of engaging characters that people would get involved in this world and that it would slowly unfold.
I guess the biggest change from the first movie to the second movie is the first movie follows the teenage body count formula of scary movies. This one is more character, get to know people in the situation before it all goes to hell – classic kind of situations.”
Was there a challenging scene or sequence to nail in the writing process?
“It was the ending. So much of the story was dictated by the mythology of the first movie. There’s a hugely unsettling moment that has to happen to get to that. Emotionally working ourselves into a way where we can explain that and still recover from that as an audience is really the hardest part. Getting to the end point without losing the enjoyment of the characters beforehand was really important to us.”
In terms of the genre, you two don’t go for the cheap jump scares. There’s something to be said of crafting smart, earned scares. Is that something that comes easy to both of you or do you work on it?
“I think it’s our natural mode of telling stories. We both come at them from a place of character and people we’ll come to know. Our trick is that we always try to make it so that you can spend 30 minutes with one of the movies we write and not necessarily know what genre you’re going to be in. It could go any number of ways.”
What is it about this genre that you love? Do you feel at all pigeonholed?
“The most favorite experience I’ve had yet, in all this Hollywood business, is there was a preview screening for BEFORE I WAKE – a test screening – and about three-quarters of the way through, I hear this constant sobbing. This full grown man weeping. Two rows in front of me and a little over was this 300 pound guy openly weeping. We always go for the emotion and try to stick it to the real emotion. That way when the horrible things start to happen to the people, they are happening to the people we’ve come to care about. So we feel their pain.
When it comes to the jump scares, in OCULUS, BEFORE I WAKE and OUIJA, the only ones in there are the ones mandated by notes after the fact. We always try to wait and build character. We give them 45 minutes of character so they’ll cut it down to 30 and then they’ll feel like they’ve put it into place. It feels more natural to tell a human story and then have the horribleness come out of that than it does to have some horrible thing that’s just there and the people are secondary.”
What’s the collaborative writing process with like with Mike? Do you now have a shorthand? What’s your deal?
“It kind of morphed. When we did the first bunch of them, we’d talk and talk forever and then we’d go seclude ourselves into a room on like a Monday morning and emerge on a Friday afternoon with a draft. We did that for OCULUS and SOMNIA – BEFORE I WAKE, as it is now – and a few other scripts that are out there floating around still. We loved that technique, but Mike’s directing career began to kick in and we had to come up with a new, innovative technique. So now we get together and talk story as much as we can. We do really long outlines. One of us will put together a 25-page outline that is pretty much everything we’ve talked about. We try to outline for weeks and weeks and draft very quickly just to stay in the zone. I miss that old technique of locking in and disappearing for five days and suddenly appearing with a draft.”
5 days! Wow!
“It’s deceptive because it’s five days of being in final draft and two months of walking and talking.”
Do you think you want to direct at all? Or are you happy writing?
“Very happy doing writing. Very ready to direct.”
Would you like to direct your own material or branch out and do what comes across your path first?
“I think whatever I do first is something Mike and I will write so I have the crutch of Mike Flanagan there. And the shot listing assistance and the editorial assistance. I think I’ll make a scary movie first just to establish and then cross over. We’d really love to expand and get into family movies and docu-drama. Never lose or leave horror because it’s been amazing to us – and it really is Mike’s passion and love. But before this, I had done comedy and biopic type stuff. I’m really anxious to do more of that.”
What’s your I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER remake going to be like?
“It’s definitely more of a reboot than a remake. It’s very much in the spirit of the first movie. The consequences of your actions and the morality was very important to Neil Moritz but it is a different story for sure. When Mike talked about it on a podcast, we both got a bunch of calls and attention. It was the first time people realized that it wasn’t going to be the same cast of characters from the first movie or from the book. And why would you do the exact same thing? And what do you do? Add a strange twist to make it a little different? When Neil Moritz came to us and asked us to do it, he said we could do whatever we wanted. He stayed very true to that. He let us do a story in the same vein with the same kind of consequences. It’s a very satisfying thriller. I think people are going to like.”
I remember speaking with Trevor Macy when OCULUS came out about y’all getting to work with Stephen King on a project, that was later announced as GERALD’S GAME. What’s the status of that? I can imagine that’s mind blowing to be able to work with him.
“Mike Flanagan is in Alabama right now.”
Have you had any contact with Stephen?
“No. It’s funny. Stephen King is Mike Flanagan’s biggest hero. In the first conversation we ever had about working together, Mike said, ‘I wanna do this book Gerald’s Game, by Stephen King.’ And I was like, ‘Dude. We’ll never get a book by Stephen King. Seriously.’ [laughs] In my savvy, pro ways. That’s what’s so great about a naive genius. Flanagan is a naive genius – to not know any rules to hold him back from doing things. He’s just done it his way and it keeps working. Mike is in heaven to be able to play in the Stephen King world. He needs to exorcise this movie from himself because he’s been watching this movie for a long time.”
If I remember correctly Stephen isn’t usually on board with film adaptations of his work. But maybe this has changed.
“Well, I know he’s read the script. We got one of those dollar options that you hear about from him. In order to make it work, we had to write a draft, that he then had to approve, and once he liked that draft, we were able to move forward with the chosen people. He’s been on board from the beginning. It’s a book that everyone says is an unfilmmable book. And I’ve met a couple directors who’ve come up to me and said they had it at different times and that it would never get shot because it’s unfilmmable. [laughs] And it’s Netflix, too.”
So when you guys hear that are you like, ‘challenge accepted!’
“I think that was him entirely. I mean, would I spend 85% of a movie finding out different ways to shoot a woman handcuffed to the bed? It’s a wife in her 40’s and a husband in his 50’s and they have a stale marriage. Their sex life has gotten dull. They rent a cabin on a really remote lake with nobody around. He’s brought handcuffs and he handcuffs her to the bed to try to heat things up and they get into a huge argument. She kicks him in the chest and he dies. Other things happen. I think there are four costumes in the entire movie.”
I watched HUSH and that’s a fairly insular film. So if anybody can do it…
“I think HUSH was a warm-up for GERALD’S GAME in a lot of ways.”
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL opens on Friday, Oct. 21.
Header Photo: Lulu Wilson peers through a planchette in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.