Exclusive Interview with James Moran, Screenwriter of Severance
By James Whittington, Monday 9th October 2006

ZONE HORROR: Have you always been a big horror fan?

Always, for as long as I can remember. Always been a movie fan, but horror stuck out as something I was particularly fascinated with. I was never allowed to stay up and watch the late, scary movie, so I tried to get my fix elsewhere, at friend's houses or if I was left alone in the house. At school we rented two videos every Saturday night, and we could get what we liked, so most of my horror education happened back then, between the ages of 12 and 17. I loved watching the TV shows that took you behind the scenes too, how they did the makeup effects, I used to tape them and watch them over and over.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Yeah, ever since I could hold a pen. I remember writing a story when I was 4, about a mouse getting the better of a cat, and the class enjoying it, and thought that was cool. I never thought I'd actually be able to make a career of it, but that it would always be a hobby. I was amazed to discover that people might actually pay me for it. I wrote short stories for most of my teens, then tried to write a novel, twice, but got bored with it - I hate having to describe every single thing: He walked into the dank, still room, dust motes dancing in the light from the window, pale ornaments on the mantelpiece etc etc etc. That's why I love scripts: He walks into the room. Bang, get on with the story. So I started writing scripts in my mid twenties.

An earlier script of yours won a competition ran by Sci –Fi, did this help you in getting an agent?

JM: Yes and no - yes, because I was about to give up writing, as I didn't think I'd get anywhere with it. Winning the competition made me realise that I might actually be able to get into the business, that it wasn't just a stupid dream. No, because as I've learned in this world, nobody will do anything for you. If you want an agent, you have to do the work and go and get one yourself. I thought they'd do everything for me, and of course they didn't, why the hell should they? So overall: yes. Sort of. Anyone who isn't totally confused now, please send in a postcard with the correct answer.

Severance is obviously an attack on business yuppie types? Did you have any experience of such people that made you write about them?

I've worked in a lot of offices, with a lot of petty, small minded people. It's a bit like school in a way, in that everyone there, at the time, thinks that what you're doing is THE most important f*****g thing in the world, when of course it isn't. They don't understand people who turn up, do the job, and go home at 5pm, they think you should spend every waking moment thinking about your work. It drove me mad - it's a job, I work there for money so that I can eat and have a place to live, we're not a family, you're not doing me a favour, it's employer/employee. One place I worked, when I left at 5pm, the office brown-noser would say "oh, leaving early are we?" No, I'm not, I'm leaving at 5pm which is the time my contract says I can leave, just because you stay till 8pm every night and pretend to work means nothing, I do my job and get my work done, that's all you pay me for. You can probably tell I'm still angry about those days.

The film has is a comedy/horror that works really well. Was it difficult to balance two very strong genres?

Extremely. There was actually more comedy in the first half originally, it was half and half, but we took a lot of it out during the rewrites, the shooting, and the editing, because it overbalanced things. So there's less comedy than horror. Not sure how that works, but it just did. Some really funny stuff had to be left out because it just tipped the balance too far. It's not a scientific thing, just a case of rewatching every new edit and seeing if it felt right. Our one rule was: no horror in the comedy, and no comedy in the horror. The horror was played totally straight, some of it becomes funny in a dark way (the bear trap scene), but not because we're making jokes, just because you can't believe things have gone so badly for the characters. Same with the comedy, we tried to keep it all realistic, no jokes, just amusing character situations.

Did the script change much from concept to execution?

Not really - it's the same story, same deaths, same plot, just tightened and shortened. The major additions were the framing sequence with the escort girls, and the playing up of the weapons company aspect which was only hinted at in the original draft. Chris spotted that and realised that we could have a lot more fun with it, so we worked it into the plot in a bigger way. I looked at the original draft I sold recently, having just rewatched the movie, and thought wow, this is way, way too talky! Seeing a script whittled down for shooting, and then trimmed in the editing stage, made me realise that it's not what you say, it's what you don't need to say. It's been an education.

Was any material taken out that you or any of the team deemed too much in the gore stakes?

JM: No, it's all up there on screen. Some scenes were trimmed down because they looked more realistic if you only got glimpses of the gore, and we wanted to keep it feeling as real as possible. Ironically, that made it feel much more gory and disturbing, as some of the full on gore shots felt too over the top and unreal. The longer a gore effect is on screen, the more you realise that you're watching a special effect - but if you just catch glimpses, you're thinking, oh shit, what was that, something terrible has happened. Having said that, it's pretty full on with the splatter when necessary. I'm surprised we got a 15 with no cuts, the BBFC are a lot more lenient and intelligent these days.

Did you have any input into any of the casting or the director? Were you happy with who was chosen?

They kept me informed of everything, but I didn't have any say really, which is fine, because I wouldn't have known where the hell to start. They showed me all the casting tapes, I gave my opinion, but that's ultimately down to the director and producers, which is as it should be in these situations. I think the cast is perfect, they took a long time finding the right blend of people, and it shows. I keep calling them by their character names, they're so good. Chris, the director, is an inspired choice, he brought so much to the movie. He loves his horror, knows the genre, respects it, and refuses to compromise on anything. I was worried in case they got someone who wanted to tone the violence down, but when I saw the "operation" scene in Creep, my worries disappeared. He's a sick, twisted man, thank God, and he did an amazing job, I couldn't be happier with it.

Danny Dyer is such a character in the movie and anyone who went to the Zone Horror FrightFest will know he’s a born entertainer. What was he like on set?

He's a total charmer, he really is, you think he can't be that entertaining 24 hours a day, but he is. He's always cracking jokes, swearing, telling outrageous stories, but when he's on the job he's a total professional. I really rate him as an actor, and think he's done amazing work in the movie. People always say "oh he just plays himself", but he doesn't, it's unfair to say that if you've seen what he pulls off in Severance. He's got a really light comic touch, and I reckon he should do more comedies and straight drama roles now he's shown what he can do given the chance.

Severance is you first major picture, what did it feel like to see your name on the credits and have you been able to leave your normal day job?

Honestly? I got tears in my eyes, and couldn't believe it was really happening. My first couple of days on set were surreal, and I actually cried one of the days, I was so happy - and partly because Laura Harris actually sounded like she was screaming for her life in the scene, so I got slightly freaked out. It's the best feeling in the world, seeing people creating something you wrote on paper. As a first time screenwriter, I'm not quite yet a millionaire, so I'm still 2 days a week in my dayjob, to pay the bills. The movie money let me go down to 2 days so that I'd have time to write, so hopefully soon I'll be able to do it full time. I've just sold my next script, and am working on that at the moment, but I need to get another writing gig before I can quite the dayjob. So if anyone wants to buy my next movie for 100 million, send in a postcard to the usual address.

What did you think of the whole Zone Horror FrightFest experience? Did many people ask for your autograph?

Fantastic. I've been going to FrightFest for a few years now, and never thought I'd be going with a movie to show. When I was doing the rewrites, before it sold, when I was nobody, before anyone knew about it, I always imagined how cool it would be to show the finished thing at FF - but never believed it would really happen. So it was a dream come true, especially the moment when I transformed from an audience member to a film maker, merely by stepping out of my seat and jumping on stage when my name was called. Between five and ten people asked for my autograph, it was my first time ever. It was bizarre, I didn't know what the first guy wanted at first, then I thought "oh my God, he wants me to sign the brochure, who the hell am I, I'm nobody, but here he is and he's a bit nervous, of me, but I'm nobody" over and over, ad nauseam. Because ultimately, I am nobody, I'm just a bloke, no better or worse than anybody else. It was a total buzz, I felt like a movie star or something. I love the FrightFest, and it's really cool of Zone Horror to get behind a home grown horror festival like that.

Do audiences from other countries react differently to British audiences when watching the movie?

I just got back from the Fantastic Fest in Texas, where we had two screenings. The UK audiences loved the movie, but the US audiences loved it ten times more, they really went for it. They got all the British-centric jokes, loved Danny, and their favourite bit was the plane gag (don't want to spoilt it if you haven't seen it). They seemed to embrace it even more for some reason, probably because they've been force-fed a lot of lame, PG-13 horrors lately, and appreciated an intelligent horror that didn't tone down the shocks.

Have you had many people all of a sudden want to be you friend now you’re a successful writer?

Not yet, but as a writer I don't get the same level of fame as actors or directors. Professionally it's done me a huge favour, I can get meetings in places I couldn't before, I have a certain respect because I have a screen credit, I'm a proven source of decent writing. But outside of the business, I'm completely anonymous, which I like just fine. I can still go to the pub without people coming up to me. The only people that do recognise me are the die-hard horror fans, and I'm totally cool with them coming up to me and chatting, because they're all about the horror rather than wanting anything. I've got lots of emails from people asking about the movie and writing, but none of them have tried to be my new best mate.

What top 3 tips would you give to budding writers?

JM: 1) Read lots of scripts, (early and late drafts if you can, for comparison), watch lots of movies, listen to writer and director commentaries, don't bother with books about writing that are written by anyone who hasn't sold a screenplay. Talent only gets you so far, you need to keep pushing yourself, fighting for it, you have to really really want it more than anything else in the world.

2) Write a lot, tear it apart, get friends to tear it apart, find people who will be BRUTALLY honest with you, and keep writing. You have several shit scripts you need to get out the way first, so you can get good. Rewrite and rewrite until you can't possibly do one more - then do two more. If it can't be seen on screen, don't put it on the page - don't describe how they feel, show it.
3) It can ALWAYS be shorter, faster, and less talky. Trim it.

I realise I've crammed more than three tips in there, but I'm a big cheat and I don't care.

What’s next for you?

Curfew, which is with Tiger Aspect and FilmFour - a London-set horror, gritty, nasty, and shocking. Two other things at the outline stage with other directors, one a horror, one a mystery/adventure/horror. One thriller that is nearly a completed outline. And a comedy spec script I've nearly finished, set in an office, surprise surprise. I'll need to do at least one more office-based thing to get it out of my system. I'd love to do some adaptations, my dream project is to adapt the Preacher graphic novel - if whoever has the rights is reading this, I'm cheap, fast, and bring my own packed lunches.

Also, I think you should have a monthly feature on Zone Horror where special guests come on and pick the evening's movies from your catalogue, introducing them and explaining why they influenced them, and so on. The guests could be anyone well known, or perhaps up and coming people in the horror movie business, perhaps new writers, maybe one who has recently had a horror movie released in the UK, just picking a random example off the top of my head…

James Moran, thank you very much

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