by David Toth
Sergio Casci and lead actress Rachelle Lefevre on the set of “The Caller” in Puerto Rico. Directed by Matthew Parkhill, the thriller was released in 2011.
A few years ago, I stopped by a Redbox in a New York supermarket and browsed through its selection of horror movies. Intrigued by the synopsis, I swiped my credit card and a dollar later, the vending machine spat out a DVD of “The Caller”. I was optimistic, but, like many horror movie fans, I’ve been hurt before. Many times. Shlocky premises. Bad acting. Non-scary scares.
I was pleased that “The Caller” offered none of these staples. In fact, it was the kind of film where the plot doesn’t move with the predictable lumber of the undead. I couldn’t predict the story’s hairpin turns and the intersection of past and present timeline gave it an otherwordly creepiness that propelled the story forward.
I dropped Sergio a line on Facebook, telling him how much I enjoyed his movie and he replied with a graceful note.
Fast forward seven years and I see his name, credited to “The Lodge”, a horror film which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month. The film boasts both old and new street cred: Alicia Silverstone stars and Austrians Veronika Franz and Severin Faila of “Goodnight Mommy” fame co-direct. I have yet to see the film (it hasn’t hit New York City yet), but keep your eyes peeled for a review.
Displaying his earlier grace, Sergio agreed to an interview and we sat down on our respective sides of the Atlantic to engage in a Q&A sessions which I hope sheds light on the craft of screenwriting.
You started out working for the BBC as a journalist. Is there anything from journalism that you found applicable to screenwriting?
I think my training and experience as a journalist have been very useful to my work as a screenwriter. Newspaper journalism taught me to write clearly and economically, and working for television news got me used to writing to pictures.
How is being a working screenwriter in Europe different than being one in the U.S.? One traditionally thinks of screenwriters as based in either New York or L.A. based. In 2019, does it even matter where a screenwriter lives?
That’s difficult for me to answer, never having worked in the US, but living far from your industry capitals can’t be a good thing from a purely professional point of view. It’s harder to make contacts and connections, and people who are living in the big centres think there must be something odd about you. I face a similar issue in a UK context, living in Glasgow rather than London.
Your ancestors came to Scotland from Italy. Has that influenced your outlook on life and perhaps the subjects you are interested in writing about?
Being Scots-Italian has definitely influenced my outlook and the subjects I write about. I’m very interested in identity. One of my first shorts (St Antony’s Day Off, directed by the wonderful Don Coutts) was about a group of Scots-Italians trying to watch a football match, and my first feature (American Cousins, also directed by Don) dealt with an Italian family whose members had emigrated to Scotland and the United States. Food and cooking also feature prominently in many of the scenes I write, and I’m sure that has something to do with my Italian roots!
How is writing for television different than writing for film? What are the commonalities? Peculiarities?
You could write books in reply to that question. I’m sure people have! I think, ultimately, you have to ask which television and which film. Is it the US market or the UK market? Is it Director X or Director Y? I suppose a general truth is that television is less of a “director’s medium”, so the work you do as a screenwriter carries more weight.
You seem to enjoy working in the darker genre of thriller/horror. What draws you to it?
It’s escapist and cathartic. We’re unlikely to meet a monster or a ghost in real life, so the feelings of fear and anxiety are easier to deal with. It’s simultaneously terrifying and fun in the same way that riding a roller coaster is terrifying and fun.
Watching “The Caller”, it seemed to me that you love playing on the hidden fears of an audience. How conscious are you of an audience (or the reaction you want to get from it) when you are writing?
100%. For me, screenwriting is all about eliciting emotion. As one of the great screenwriting gurus said (I can’t remember which one!): People don’t go to the cinema to see actors portraying emotions; they go to feel those emotions themselves.
Could you talk about the journey of “The Lodge” to production? How did you connect with Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala?
When the screenplay for The Lodge was finished, my agent Nigel Britten suggested we send it to Hammer Films. I was delighted – it’s an iconic company with an unmatched heritage in the world of horror. I was blown away when they said yes.
Veronika and Severin had received international acclaim following their brilliant, multi award-winning feature film Goodnight Mommy (original title: Ich Seh, Ich Seh) It was clear that they would be a perfect fit for The Lodge, which would be their first English-language film. Luckily, they agreed!
Do you often collaborate on screenplays? What was the process in the case of “The Lodge”? I understand you collaborated with one of the directors on it.
I collaborated with both Veronika and Severin on the screenplay. The joy of working with talented directors is that they take your best work and make it better. They apply a different set of talents and abilities, and I find that process very exciting. Having said that, I generally don’t collaborate with other writers while writing the first draft of a script. I prefer the first pass, at least, to be my own. The one exception is my wife, Helen, who is a novelist. I ask for her advice and feedback from the first germ of an idea to the final polish of the script.
I believe you once said in an an interview that you don’t like most horror movies. Why is that?
Most of them just don’t scare me. That wouldn’t be so bad if they were otherwise engaging as stories, but too many of them aren’t.
A loaded question connected to my last one: What advice would you give to a novice filmmaker about to embark on making (yet another) bad horror movie? What I’m getting at is, that it seems to me many filmmakers believe that horror is easy, or at least easier than other genres.
My one piece of advice would be this: don’t worry about making a good horror movie, worry about making a good movie. If you get the basics right – story, characterisation, motivation etc – you’ll find that the scary stuff will come more easily and will pay off more effectively.
Can you give an example of a time you were working on a script and you hit a wall? I’m talking about a time where you said to yourself “I’m completely f—-ed.” What strategies (if any) did you use to get out of it?
Tons of times. Sometimes you just have to put the script away and do something else for a while. I think we can get trapped into thinking that writing only happens at a desk. It also happens when you’re shopping or watching Love Island. As I’ve gained experience, I’ve spent less time typing and more time thinking.
Another really, really useful thing is to have someone you can bounce ideas off. A good bouncee is a precious gift and should be treated with care. They can ask questions or make suggestions that transform the way you’re thinking about your script.
Sometimes – rarely – you have to accept you can’t take the script any further forward. It sometimes happens when too many people have a say and you end up writing draft after draft after draft. There comes a point when you realise the script isn’t improving. You’re just mixing and remixing the pot and you can’t even tell what works any more. When you reach that point, it’s time to have a frank chat with the producer.
Do you have an overall trajectory for your career, or do you take things one project at a time?
At the moment I have two principal strings to my screenwriting bow: scary movies and children’s drama. It’s an unusual combination, but it works for me. I just want to keep working on projects that excite me. And win an Oscar.
Do you have any plans on directing? You mentioned in an interview that when you’re on the set of a film being made from your screenplay, you don’t offer advice to the director. It’s his (or her) baby now, essentially. Any craving for that kind of responsibility?
I’m not a director and have no ambition to be one. I think I’d be really bad at it.
Who are your favorite screenwriters (or filmmakers) and why? Is there a particular movie that you keep returning to, either as a source for inspiration, or just for enjoyment?
If I had to name my top three movies, I’d say: The Godfather, The Sixth Sense and Jaws. My favourite screenwriter is William Goldman. Nowadays, I spend more time watching quality TV drama series than I do watching movies. I love the space they give you to get to know and care about a character.
With Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and other digital platforms entering the production (and not just the distribution game) it seems there are more opportunities than ever for both emerging and established screenwriters. Do you agree? How is the landscape different for writers today, than ten, twenty years ago?
I hope there are more opportunities. There must be, surely? Having said that, I haven’t seen any facts or figures.
I think the explosion of online content has changed the landscape for writers today. There are far more ways of putting your work in front of audiences.
What shows do you watch on the new platforms? Which ones would you like to write for? Do you have any plans, or ideas for a episodic series?
I’ve got mainstream tastes. Shows I’ve enjoyed recently include The Americans, Peaky Blinders, Game of Thrones, The Office (US) and The Walking Dead. And of course The Cry, the BBC drama series based on my wife’s novel of the same name (It really is superb!)
I have a few ideas for episodic series, but nothing at an advanced state of development.
Screenwriting (and writing in general) is a skill that takes years to master and is built on insights gleaned from long-term effort. What is one thing you now know which you wish you had known when you were starting out?
Another quote whose source I can’t remember: “Sometimes your first idea isn’t your best idea – it’s just your first idea”.
What does it mean to take risks in screenwriting? For you personally?
I think it’s a mistake to always try and second-guess the market; to only write what you think other people will be interested in. You should write what YOU are interested in, because that’s how you’ll do your best writing. I’ve written screenplays that I knew would be a hard sell due to the topic, but I also knew that they were stories I really wanted to tell and knew I could tell well. Maybe that’s self-indulgent, but it’s a self-indulgence that makes me feel better about myself as a writer. Of course, you also have to make a living, and when it comes to making a living you make decisions and do what you have to do. You write for shows you may not like, and you convince yourself you DO like them, because that’s what you need to do to produce good work. But put aside a little time to write the stuff you care about. That’s not really risk-taking, though, is it. The real risk is that you neglect the reasons why you became a screenwriter in the first place, and end up burned-out.
What projects do you have in the works now?
I’m currently working on a new horror movie that I’m really excited about and I’m at the early stages of a new children’s series.
Sergio Casci’s latest film, “The Lodge” premiered at The Sundance Film Festival in January 2019.