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Interviews
 
Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan
Monday, May 31, 2010
Author: Will Plyler
 
Patrick Melton hails from Evanston, Illinois, and attended the University of Iowa, where he met his writing partner, Marcus Dunstan. After moving to Los Angeles and working for various film companies, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Patrick attended Loyola Marymount University, where he received his MFA in Screenwriting. After that, he worked as a story analyst for the talent agency ICM. In 2004, Patrick won the filmmaking contest Project Greenlight, produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Moore, and Wes Craven, for the script he co-wrote with Marcus titled Feast.

Marcus Dunstan hails from Macomb, Illinois, and attended the University of Iowa, where he met his writing partner, Patrick Melton. After moving to North Hollywood in January of 1999, Marcus attempted to stay in shape by jogging in a nearby park. He found a gun in that park, ran back to his apartment and shortly thereafter gained 50 pounds. Odd job after odd job followed as Marcus watched his youth dim under the mocking gaze of his "communications degree."

Patrick and Marcus have penned two sequels to Feast and the last three sequels in the highly successful Saw series (Saw IV–VI) in addition to Saw3-D, which is due to hit theaters this Halloween. They’ve also performed uncredited rewrites on My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Piranha 3-D, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and Halloween 2. The writing duo are currently working on Saw VII, a sequel to the Dunstan-directed The Collector, a film adaptation of The Outer Limits, and a TV series with Clive Barker titled Clive Barker’s Hotel.

Where are you two from? Where did you grow up?

PATRICK: I’m from Evanston, Illinois. That’s where I grew up.

MARCUS: I was born in Boise, Idaho but I am from Macomb, Illinois. That was where all the trouble began.

When did you guys individually first become interested in films and screenwriting?

PATRICK: Well, I was always interested in it at a young age, but I was pretty clueless. When I was young, I tried to write a screenplay involving all the horror icons (Freddy, Jason, Michael, etc.), but I didn’t know how to format a screenplay or anything. In college, I tried to take a creative writing class, but it was full. So I took a screenwriting class instead. That was my first exposure, and reading Waldo Salt’s Midnight Cowboy was the first screenplay I read. I was hooked from then on.

MARCUS: The first image that stands out in my memory is from American Bandstand. Gene Simmons was painted as “the Demon” and with lights bouncing off of his monster boots and blood dripping from his painted mug. I thought, Yup, that looks like fun. That moment led to an interest in special makeup effects, Tom Savini, and ultimately, waking up to realize that the dark stories of horror films were the stories I loved the most.

Patrick, you attended the University of Iowa and got a B.A. in Communication Studies. You later received your MFA in Screenwriting Loyola Marymount. What were your studies like at Iowa, and how was LMU’s program?

PATRICK: At Iowa, I took some film/screenwriting classes, but the Comm Studies department was pretty wide open. It included tons of classes that had nothing to do with film or anything like that. The focus at LMU was solely on screenwriting. It was a good experience because I had been in L.A. for a couple of years and didn’t have much time to really focus on writing. Going back to school allowed me to write without having to worry about a job (student aid paid the bills, you know). It was a gamble to take on the debt, but it worked out in the end. Surrounding yourself with a support network or other likeminded people often helps you writing and moving forward. That’s important living in L.A. with so many distractions.

Marcus, you studied film at the University of Iowa. What was your experience like there? What type of films did you make?

MARCUS: The film projects from Iowa were, thank goodness, actual films. We shot on Bolex cameras, Arri SR II’s, the Canon Scoopic, Super 8 – anything that could chew up film and spit out an image. It was a last bastion of learning from the 8 mm or 16 mm film image versus digital technology. The experimentation led us to a mass of wonderful failures and a few things which shook out just right.

There was no tether on our imagination. We could make anything and that was a wonderful experience. Playing it safe didn’t pay off, it was a greater achievement to shoot for the moon and hit the barn than sticking a safe landing. Iowa allowed a freedom to push oneself as hard as possible, broadside into the end of a semester and watch actual film flicker in fits and starts as the first steps towards a life in art could maybe…just maybe…possibly…begin.

Did you two first meet at Iowa? How did you decide to write together?

PATRICK: Yes, we met at Iowa. We were actually in the same fraternity (which has subsequently been kicked off campus for being excessive jackasses – hurrah!). The first time we wrote together was Feast, which we did in 1999. We were both somewhat frustrated with not being able to get anything going, so we wanted to do something that could be made in one location with a small group of characters…and for about a million dollars. Marcus had the idea of a badass woman kicking in the door and holding a shotgun in one hand and a monster head in the other. That image sort of set the wheels in motion for Feast. However, soon after that I went back to film school, so that was the one and only feature we did together until we won Project Greenlight a couple years later.

Tell us about writing your first script, either separately or together. What was your approach? What was it like working together?

PATRICK: My first screenplay alone was done in college. It was terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. The Fugitive, Silence of the Lambs and Pulp Fiction were just out, so I sort of ripped them all off and made one giant muddled mess. It was so stupid with the pretentious title Castles Made of Sand (ripped off from Jimi Hendrix no less). As for working together, Feast was the first. It was kind of a learning experience to do it together. We didn’t really sit in the same room and write. We just tossed drafts back and forth. I think the first draft was like sixty pages and then it ballooned up to like one hundred thirty pages. Pretty ridiculous. When we returned to the script years later, we both had a better handle on what a screenplay like Feast should look like (short, fast-paced and wild).

MARCUS: The first screenplay I ever wrote was probably typical of a lot of first screenplays. It was: Too long. Too strange. Too expensive. Absolutely personal.

It was fun to keep banging my head against those pages until I had worked out most of the impulsive decisions and began to open up a door to a journey more people could potentially share. I followed that effort up by collaborating with another writer on a WWII adventure. That screenplay was a great experience in adapting, using research and history while not forgetting a good dose of fiction always helps a strong story stay on track.

Working with Mr. Melton has been a grand jolt of adrenaline. There is nothing like sharing a lifetime of references. The same horror movies I was caught watching were the same films he was sneaking into. That is kismet. Feast was like watching a childhood come to life. Hopefully we sent out this little bastard of a movie that some future kid can get into trouble watching. Plus, Patrick is very easy on the eyes, ladies.

Project Greenlight was really your big break. I’m sure you guys have talked about it endlessly at this point, but briefly, what was it like for you when you watched it all back and the film was released? And looking back now, have your feelings changed about the experience and contest?

PATRICK: Yes, that was obviously our big break. We were plucked from obscurity, paid for our screenplay, put on TV, and our film was made. It was really overwhelming, and really strange at the same time. I didn’t like being on TV very much because people draw conclusions based on how you’re edited. We wanted to be taken seriously as filmmakers, so we were very careful how we acted. Today, everyone seems to want to be on reality TV to be total morons and get on the cover of Us Weekly, but our ambitions were a bit different. We wanted to keep on making films thirty years from now. But if we were seen as idiots or reality show personalities, people wouldn’t have taken us seriously. Looking back, though, the contest was great. It was our big break. But we had to work very hard to get out of the Feast perception. Writing new and differently toned material (meaning, more serious material) is what propelled our career to that next level. Luckily, Feast turned out well in the end, so people looked fondly upon us, but others haven’t been so fortunate. Staying relevant and keeping your head above water is tough in this town. You can’t let your guard down. You always have to keep moving. Otherwise, you’re easily forgotten or pushed aside.

MARCUS: Patrick summed it up perfectly. I remember the day we signed a contract to appear on the reality show. One line of that contract allowed the use of “Franken-biting” which means the editors of the reality program can legally replace any words we actually said with other words that would “help” the goals of the show. If that goal was “drama,” we gave them permission to swap out our personalities, which was terrifying. There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not grateful we weren’t portrayed horribly. The vulnerability of that situation is haunting. However, there is eternal gratitude for that entire experience. We were literally handed a golden ticket.

How did things change from there? What was life like over the following months and years? Did you have a lot of meetings? Offers?

PATRICK: This is a long story. We got meetings, but no one really took us seriously because we were essentially Internet contest winners. A lot of junior executives dug Feast or the show, but no senior executives had a clue of who we were. Not until we wrote the script for The Collector did other things take shape. That script is what got us involved with the Saw franchise, and a subsequent spec called The Neighbor, which Dimension Films bought, is what reintroduced us to the town as serious horror writers. From then on, we got involved with a ton of studios and producers who had no clue about Feast or Project Greenlight, but had heard that we were hot. Offers come with hype, and we didn’t have hype until we were selling specs and opening horror films to $30 million dollars (re: Saw IV). At that point, we were able to get in the room with heads of studios. Those are the people who do the actual hiring and greenlighting of films. A lot of red tape can be cut through when dealing with the real decision-makers. But it was a long, difficult process to get to that point.

MARCUS: The biggest change was probably mental. Just because the door is opened for you the first time doesn’t mean it is going to stay open for long. Thank goodness for the Midwest. Thank goodness for yard chores. Thank goodness for rejection. And, man, thank goodness for thick skin.

It requires a ceaseless effort to create and see anything to completion. It is far too tempting to rest on a moment of success. Mr. Melton knew instantly that if we were to stay at the adults’ table out here, Feast was to be seen as the first step of a marathon. Training and busting our knuckles was to never let up if we were to ever look back upon a career out here and not just a flash of attention.

If ya love it, ya might have to bleed for it.

How did the Saw gig come about? I read you went in and basically pitched the next three films. Was this a series you were drawn to? How’s do you like being identified with it? Also, what are your thoughts on pitching? How do the two of you handle a pitch? Who talks?

PATRICK: When Leigh Whannell indicated that he didn’t want to write the films anymore, we stepped in. When we first met with the guys over at Twisted Pictures, we did pitch a three-movie arc. We had these poster boards with the characters and movies all charted out. I think they were a little overwhelmed at our enthusiasm. I liked the first films. I mean, we saw each of them opening night at the Arclight in Hollywood. That first teaser trailer of Billy talking from the dirty old TV was fantastic. It was very different from anything else at the time. It’s always good to be associated with something that is as successful as the Saw franchise. In terms of pitching, we pitch together like two used car salesmen going back and forth. It can be very effective at keeping the energy up. And if one of us forgets something or stumbles, the other can jump in like nothing is wrong. For pitching, it’s great to have two people.

MARCUS: Pitching is a daunting task, but a grand opportunity to dissect a potential employer in an instant. Turning over a document that presents an idea is void of the spirit of the completed material. Rarely could a two- to five-page document summarize the emotional impact of what hopes to be a ninety-minute film. The pitch allows us a chance to puppeteer the emotions of a listener and slam some volume into a concept that can create an instant reaction that validates the concept’s emotional goal. If you are putting the listener to sleep, chances are the idea ain’t so good. If you make them pale, scare them, make them jump, you might be on to something.

There were two sequels to Feast – one in 2008 and another in 2009. What was different about doing the sequels versus Project Greenlight? Were there challenges you didn’t expect? Requirements for the projects?

PATRICK: The Feast sequels were very difficult. The budgets were very small and the production began the day of the WGA strike. So, we weren’t able to help on set. That made John Gulager’s life hell, but he pulled it together.

MARCUS: Those sequels were a gladiator academy for the soul. Gulager’s talent and passion for filmmaking kept those projects from imploding. The budgets were just slashed to ribbons and the strike cost us the opportunity to refine anything. It was very, very hard and those films are a testament to “never say die.”

Interspersed with the Feast sequels were also the Saw sequels – V, VI and VII. Was it hard to get excited about continuing with the storyline? What difficulties did you guys face while writing the scripts?

PATRICK: Each year is different, so each year presented a new set of challenges. Since we initially pitched a three-movie arc with Saw, our minds were always working in the trilogy mode. This year with VII, we weren’t sure at a couple of points if we were going to do it, but it came together in the end. VI ended with a few unresolved issues, and we just picked up there and tried to tie up all the loose ends by the end so the full seven come together nicely. The biggest problem we faced during the process was the director being replaced two weeks before principal photography. It was difficult getting the new director up to speed, but thankfully, he was a true pro and able to assimilate very quickly.

MARCUS: The first three Saw films are wonderful, macabre and brought the idea of a twist ending to new fright-heights. The challenge is to raise the bar creatively and not just in terms of violence. Saw’s grunge aesthetic changed the look of horror. It felt real as if your eyes needed a tetanus shot just to watch them. Patrick and I really loved and cherished the fact that the stories also dealt with adults. Not teens. Not anonymous mall goers. It was a terrific asset. The difficulties usually involved hiding our enthusiasm!

I know you guys have talked about how all the traps in the Saw films actually worked and were not done with CG. You also mentioned there was a crew in Canada that made the contraptions. How did you work with them when writing the scripts to coordinate the devices into the stories?

PATRICK: It’s a process that’s always evolving. We come up with ideas and then they read them and make suggestions and change things around. Not until the traps are built do we really have a final product, and they don’t always resemble the original idea. The Saw films are very collaborative, and the best ideas usually win out, regardless of where they came from.

Marcus, you took on directing for The Collector. You directed projects in college, but how was this different for you, besides the obvious? What challenges did you face? Also, what did you really learn from directing a project you’d co-written? And did you guys rewrite much during production?

MARCUS: The best weapon a first-time director can have is a script they believe in. Patrick, who is practiced in going above and beyond, pulled a Babe Ruth on that script. The killing challenge of filming the script was when it was budgeted for four million and I was allowed two and half million to make it. That was rough for the half year of storyboarding went out the window, the script that took three years to fine-tune now had to be edited on the fly, and the thirty-six days we needed to film it became nineteen.

Holy SHI*$! That was scary.

However, having worked on the script and knowing it down to the bone marrow, I was able to create on the fly, and all those old world history video projects I made with two VCRs in high school and all those short experimental films from Iowa came back in to save my life as a director. Not one single day of professional experience came to the rescue. Not a one.

The rules of that shoot changed. It took film school rules to shoot. It took high school rules to finish…and it took every lie I told as a kid to keep people thinking I wasn’t absolutely freaked out the first two weeks of photography.

There was no time to rewrite during the shoot. It was rewriting while on set in the middle of the damn shot! I began to love it. It took a while, but after that experience, the next thing that scares me is going to have a much tougher time getting my flesh to crawl.

Not to put you on the spot, but what do each of you bring to the writing team? How do you complement one another in terms of writing?

PATRICK: Well, what young writers learn, writing is just part of the overall equation in becoming a working screenwriter. You have to be able to pitch and brainstorm ideas, and you have to be able to work with others in a productive manner. Additionally, you have to harvest relationships, and at the end of the day, you have to deliver scripts that the person who signs the checks likes. We complement each other in a lot of ways. I’m probably more practical and understanding of the rules of screenwriting, while Marcus has a wealth of film knowledge and is able to spitball ideas with the best of them. Additionally, he’s very good at pitching. For reference, if you can tell a campfire story, then you can pitch. All you’re trying to do is captive with a concept. If you can do that, you’re golden.

MARCUS: And right up there with all of that, this guy is my friend and confidant. There have been a number of days where I look over at the guy I remember going body-bowling in a frat house basement and thinking, “Man, never saw this comin’.”

It is a thrill. Patrick’s wealth of story knowledge and writing is Fort Knox. The best captain is a person that can build a boat. Mr. Melton is able to stretch and push structure based on his understanding of it. It is a sight to behold. We’re fortunate as hell.

You’re represented by David Boxerbaum, Sheryl Petersen and Debbie Deuble at APA and managed by Trevor Engelson at Underground Management. How did you find representation? What does each group bring to the table in terms of helping you as writers? Is it tough working with three agents?

PATRICK: We found representation when we won Project Greenlight. Or, I should say, representation found us. Writers having managers is kind of a new thing. Their job is to work more closely with you and help you crack ideas and stuff. Also, it’s helpful having one more person in town talking you up. As for three agents, they each do their own thing. APA works as a team, so there aren’t any problems.

MARCUS: We are very lucky to have the representation that we do. We’re all around the same age, with the same goals and the same enthusiasm. It makes a huge difference. It creates a foundation of trust and confidence. That team has changed our lives.

You’re both also repped by attorney David Feldman at Bloom Hergott Diemer. How important has it been to have an entertainment lawyer? What has he specifically helped with (vs. your other reps) that new writers should be aware of?

PATRICK: I guess in the old days, writers only had agents, which have a business affairs department to handle all deals. However, there’s often a conflict of interest there (especially in TV), so writers began getting independent lawyers. Lawyers negotiate your deal, and they get five percent of everything you make. Some more established writers and directors only have lawyers, saving them about twenty percent in unpaid commissions.

Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? And if so, what do you do?

PATRICK: The research all depends on the subject matter. Adapting a book can be easier since the author already did all the research. Horror has a lot of elements of fantasy, so much of the research is just making sure the real-life stuff makes sense. For example, researching how a SWAT team acts or talks in a real situation came in helpful on Saw VII. Whenever we’re starting a new project, I’ll end up ordering a ton of books from Amazon just to have them. They always come in handy in some way. The difference between a good and great script is often authenticity, and that only comes with researching your subject.

How do you guys handle feedback on your work? From your representation? Producers? Friends? Do you read through the notes and decide what’s important or “right” to change? How do you gauge things?

PATRICK: That all depends on the script. Something we’re doing for a studio or producer we usually won’t show to our reps because they don’t have an idea of what the studio or producer wants. For specs, we show them to our reps and take their notes. Often, their focus is on selling it, so their notes are geared towards marketability. The goal is to always get something made, so you have to take a lot of feedback into consideration. Using people you respect is the key. An opinion can be good, but it can also be bad, so roping in people you respect helps you build confidence from the inevitable disappointment.

What’s a typical writing day like for you? What is your process like in working together? Are you in the same room together? Do you both sit at the computer?

PATRICK: I have two little kids, so my day is very structured. I have a home office, and I’m at my computer at 8 a.m. I have lunch around 1 p.m., and then finish the day at about 6 p.m. I goof around a lot (check every website, Google myself, etc.), but when I’m working on a deadline, I’m pretty focused. The Neighbor was written in four days, and that doesn’t happen unless you’re sitting in front of your computer screen the whole day. From day to day, we’re not in the same space. We talk on the phone a lot, but we don’t sit side by side.

MARCUS: I am still a night owl. I love to pound the keyboard while the world goes quiet and the shadows begin to hiss.

When you’re starting a new project, do you outline? Write treatments?

PATRICK: We always outline. For projects you’re writing for someone, you have to outline so you know what you’re doing. When going to draft, outlines lead the way. However, once you’re at draft a lot changes, which is why I don’t like treatments. I often find them to be a waste of time because not until you’re in the script do you really know how people will talk and how scenes should flow. Our outlines are very detailed and specific, but they’re rarely more than eight pages. They guide you, but they aren’t as specific as a treatment.

Do you have to turn in an outline or a beat sheet for an assignment?

PATRICK: Usually we do, just to have everyone on board when we turn in a draft. There’s nothing worse than doing a ton of work on a script and then hearing nothing back from the studio because it’s nothing like they anticipated.

How much of the theme do you keep in mind overall? Scene by scene? And do you find yourself initially or eventually asking what’s the point of your story?

PATRICK: Yes, we focus on theme. The Saw films in particular use theme in a number of ways. For example, when thinking about traps we always try to tie in an overall theme that unites them all. Often, the concepts of theme come more into play with rewrites. The first draft is often about what feels right in the moment. But when we’re trying to tie everything together, we reach for theme to unite scenes and characters.

How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?

PATRICK: Well, writing is rewriting, especially in the world of film. If you’re getting paid, that helps with the reluctance to dive back into a draft, but in the end, rewriting usually improves a script. Focusing on sections of the script is helpful in handling rewriting a whole script. Meaning, focus on the first act, the first half of the second act, the second half of the second act, and then the third act. Breaking a whole script down just makes it more manageable. It also seems to make a rewrite go faster. And there is sort of a satisfaction of piecing it back together to form something new.

What things do you feel more writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? And what are some things you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out? Do’s and don’ts?

PATRICK: Well, what helped me was understanding a screenplay. I was a reader before getting our break, and I read well over a thousand screenplays. That helped me understand the differences between a good and bad script, and it helped me not make the mistakes I saw in so many bad scripts. Also, being in Los Angeles and in the industry really helped me understand how to act once I got into a room as a professional writer. Perception is a big part of being successful, and if you come off like a dope who doesn’t have a clue about the process of filmmaking or the players in the industry, you’re not doing yourself any favors. I know a lot of people can’t just pack up and move to Hollywood, but at least following the trades and knowing what’s selling and to whom will go a long way.

MARCUS: Seeing as many films as possible is an added bonus. The language of cinema is constantly changing and what engages the moviegoer differs from Friday to Friday. The power of writing is that no matter if the film is a historical epic or a micro-budget indie, the paper they were printed on is equal. What do you want to see? What is missing out there?

You have The Collector 2 in the works. How will this film be different from the original? What will you look to do to keep it interesting and fresh?

PATRICK: The biggest difference will be that there is a “2” after the title. Just kidding. This time we’ll have the resources and time we didn’t have with the first film. It’ll be bigger and more lavish, but we will also have the opportunity to make an even more suspenseful film on a larger scale. There are always challenges with sequels, but since the first one was so contained, I think we’ll have a number of opportunities to improve with the second film.

MARCUS: We knew with the cliffhanger-style conclusion of the first story that a second film was possible. With that in mind, we have a goal to earn the sequel with a story that propels the characters and terror from the first film in a new direction. Sequels are often treated to a predictable pattern of results. With a Collector sequel, we are fortunate to have the freedom to really push the style of storytelling into a more unconventional realm and take some bold risks with the production to make this project a frightening, shocking event that is worthy of the opportunity to make it.

What else are you two working on? Any assignments? Specs? Also, do you both see yourselves as doing horror forever, or are there other genres you hope to explore?

PATRICK: Well, we’re doing a film adaption for MGM of The Outer Limits. The original TV series had elements of horror, but it’s really a sci-fi concept. That’ll be a bit different for us.

 


 

 

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