Today, I interview Signe Olynk, a North Hollywood- based screenwriter. Signe tells us the origins of her new movie, 'Below Zero'. She also introduces us to the interesting scenario she put herself in to while writing the script, and offers us a look in to PitchFest.
Ryan Sprague (RS)
Signe Olynyk (SO)
RS: How long have you been writing for film? Do you write in any other mediums?
SO: I’ve been writing my entire life, but writing for film and television for most of my career. I love story characters, and soulful writing. Often that means writing a script, but sometimes a story is better suited as a novel or short story. I even write poetry from time to time. Professionally, I am a screenwriter. At heart, I am a writer of everything.
RS: How many films have you had made from your scripts?
SO: ‘Below Zero’ is the first feature film I wrote and produced, but I have also written a number of other projects. I have written children’s programs, documentaries, one-off television specials, as well as a tv series. I also work with a number of other writers to develop their projects to a point where we can produce them further. I love writers!
RS: Did you attend school for screenwriting?
SO: I attended a film school, but after being in this business for a while now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone going to a film school unless you want to learn the technical aspects of film and television production. To me, you can get largely the same education by just going out and volunteering on a film set. Jump in and help out wherever needed. There are always indie films looking for crew. Google for local film coops, or filmmakers in your area who need a hand, and volunteer to come out. You’ll learn just as much from jumping in, and the connections you make can help you get onto other films and paying jobs from there.
RS: Is 'Below Zero' your first dive in to the world of horror writing? Or have you worked in the genre before?
SO: I am a big believer in story, and usually write really sweet, coming of age stories. ‘Below Zero’ is a twisty dark thriller in the vein of ‘The Shining’ or ‘Misery’, and was a bit of a departure for me as a writer. But I think it is good to push yourself and try things that you don’t think you can do. That’s how you grow as a person, and as a writer.
(Cast & Crew of 'Below Zero' during filming)
RS: How important do you think it is to pitch your screenplays in a certain genre?
SO: Writers are wise to consider writing a horror or thriller because fear is universal. What is scary here, is also scary in Germany, and Japan, and Norway, etc. That’s great if you want to write romantic comedies, but it is much more difficult to sell as a new screenwriter, than if you write a horror or thriller. Romantic comedies don’t always translate into other languages or cultures as well as horror and thrillers do. Action films are generally more expensive to produce, which can make a producer hesitate on you or your work if you are an unproven writer. Your best chance of success as a screenwriter is to write a great, original horror or thriller that brings something new to the genre that audiences have not already seen.
RS: Can you give us a synopsis of 'Below Zero'?
SO: ‘Below Zero’ is a twisty thriller about Jack the Hack, a screenwriter paralyzed by writer’s block who is struggling to meet a deadline. Trapped in an abandoned slaughterhouse freezer, he sinks into a claustrophobia-induced paranoia, where he can’t distinguish what is real from what is written, and is tormented by a horrific serial killer of his own creation. It keeps you guessing until the very last page.
I call ‘Below Zero’ an autobiographical horror movie. I had a low budget concept about a guy locked in a meat freezer, and that was about it. I developed the worst case of writer’s block imaginable. So I arranged to have myself locked in the freezer of an abandoned slaughterhouse. I spent five days, locked inside, writing the script. I asked the woman who owned it to ‘not let me out, until the script was done’. It was the best thing I could have done because it helped me to not only get past my own writer’s block, but to really understand what my character would have gone through. A lot of my own experiences .
RS: What made you want to write this story?
SO: I was trying to write a low budget story that we could produce ourselves on a limited budget. This meant a limited number of characters, locations, and special effects. I would encourage all of your readers who are interested in writing a movie, to look at the resources they have in their own lives that they could access, and they could do the same thing. Do you know someone who has a sports car? Or a cabin in the woods? Or some other element that would bring production value to a movie? It’s like mixing up a cake. If you took all those ‘ingredients’, and mixed them together, what kind of story could you tell? And for the missing ingredients, what else could you use or where could you find them? That’s the magic of low budget indie filmmaking. You just keep asking those questions and finding the answers, and moving it closer and closer towards reality until you have a finished film.
RS: You put yourself in to a very interesting scenario while writing this script. Can you explain your process of writing?
SO: You might say I am a ‘method writer’. I am a big believer in research, and that you need to use whatever tools possible to write your best script. Locking myself in a freezer was a way to block out all the distractions of emails and phones ringing, and just concentrate on my character, and their story. It was quite luxurious to have dedicated writing time actually. I should write all my scripts from the freezer of an abandoned slaughterhouse! Maybe my next script will be about some guy trapped in Club Med.
(Michael Berryman & director, Justin Ostensin during filming)
RS: Was it your intent for the story you were telling to mirror your process in writing it? What was the process of writing it?
SO: My only reason originally to lock myself in a freezer was because I needed to get this story on the page. I knew I had a story here, but my writer’s block was crippling. It was the only thing that seemed to work. I had tried tying myself to a chair, but even that was with mixed results as the emails kept coming in, and the phone kept ringing, and everytime, it took me away from the world I was trying to create for my characters. Locking myself up was simply a tool to overcome my own writer’s block, but it ended up becoming the impetus for my character’s story, which works really well in the film.
RS: You secured some very noticable people in the casting of this movie. How did they come about?
SO: Edward Furlong was perfect for the role of ‘Jack the Hack’, partly because the character is a lot like who he is in real life. Eddie looked exactly how I imagined the character, and his name carries a lot of recognition for audiences from his ‘Terminator II’ and ‘American History X’ performances. It was a miracle we were able to shoot this film because Eddie is on 101 pages of a 104 page script, yet we only had 12 days to shoot with him. He had just wrapped on CSI NY, came to do our film, and then was racing back for another feature. It was a really tough shoot, but Eddie really captured the character.
Michael Berryman was the perfect butcher for us, and we were so lucky to have him. He is often cast for his physical appearance, and not always for his acting abilities which is such a shame. He is a tremendously gifted actor, and his performance in ‘Below Zero’ is the best work he’s ever done. He is terrifying and sympathetic, and fabulous all at once. Fans know him for ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Weird Science’, but they will remember his for this role. People are even dressing up like him for Halloween after seeing ‘Below Zero’ – he’s amazing!
RS: You also run something called PitchFest. What is it all about?
SO: The Great American PitchFest & Screenwriting Conference is a massive event that has become the ‘must attend’ event for anyone interested in screenwriting. I started it as a way to help other writers learn more about the craft, their legal rights, how to write great characters, dialogue, etc, and it has become an important part of the industry, especially for new writers and those trying to break in. We offer dozens of free classes to anyone who wishes to attend, and the next day is a full day pitching event where writers meet with agents, managers, and production companies. The conference is free, and the pitching is available for a reasonable fee. I know I’m biased, but it really is an exceptional experience. I tried to create the event that I wanted to go to as a writer, and it is a very special event. If you don’t know anyone in Hollywood, you certainly will by the end of the weekend, and you’ll have new writing friends and partnerships from around the world. It’s incredible, it really is.
RS: What would be your advice to a new writer trying to break in to the world of screenwriting?
SO: Just some of the advice to any new writer would be:
1.) Meet everyone you can. You never know who you will meet who can help to further your career.
2.) Be your own protagonist: while you develop your work, also learn how you can do it yourself
3.) Don’t do it alone: find a team of peers and work together to get your work produced. Join writing groups and meet other writers so you can support one another as you go.
4.) Learn from the masters: read their books, take their classes, study interviews and blogs
5.) Read scripts so you can learn how yours compares, and how a professional screenplay reads
6.) Come to the free classes at the pitchfest. You’ll meet so many awesome people, learn a ton, and you’ll take some important steps towards becoming a professional screenwriter.
RS: Do you have any favorite film-makers or writers who really inspire your work?
SO: Looking at the list above, my fondness for Stephen King and Steven Spielberg is apparent, but I also love writers like Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) because he writes such original material. I read a lot of scripts, and so many are filled with characters and storylines where you know exactly what they are going to say and do before they say and do it. Why would anyone want to watch that movie? It’s like so many horror films. Probably half of all horror pitches I hear are about a group of kids going to a place (a cabin, a haunted house, etc.) and bad things happen. We’ve seen those characters and those storylines so many times. If you are going to be a writer or filmmaker, bring something fresh to the world, and do it in a way that only you can. Like his work or not, Quentin Tarantino is an original. So is Woody Allen. Be your best you.
RS: Are you working on any other screenplay right now? Any other films being made?
SO: Yes! I’m busy writing a couple new scripts, and we go into production this summer on a zombie thriller that my producing partner wrote. After that, we will have another film we are shooting in St. Louis that I’m excited about. It is looking like a very busy, awesome year ahead of us! I might need to lock myself up in a freezer again to get my writing done!
(Official Trailer for Signe Olynyk's 'Below Zero')