Screenwriting Secrets » Interview with Dan O'Bannon: The Terror in Between
Dan O'Bannon converses more like an experienced college professor than one of the most prolific and successful screenwriters in the action, science fiction and horror genres. However, while the educated and soft-spoken scribe of such films as Alien, Total Recall and Blue Thunder enjoys discussing academic theories of narrative and film history, he knows a little about constructing an entertaining movie, too!
In his more than 25 years in the entertainment industry, O'Bannon penned some of the most popular cult sci-fi hits in film history. He broke through in 1973 with the script to Dark Star, a strangely comedic sci-fi, horror flick. He also wrote two segments to the animated anthology film, Heavy Metal (Soft Landing and B-17).
In the 1980s, he wrote the horror spoof, Return of the Living Dead. The inventive zombie movie took more than a few swipes at the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead. He continued with that bizarre style with 1985's Lifeforce, a strange tail of space vampires almost destroying Earth.
In a recent interview, O'Bannon managed to analyze his career, his abilities, his industry and his life. While most often identified with expensive, technically advanced thrill rides and fright fests, O'Bannon didn't necessarily set out to become a big-budget action or horror writer.
"That's the way it worked out," O'Bannon said. "When I started inventing stories, they were expensive to do."
He explained, "Other writers write good scripts that don't cost a fortune to make. They get their dramatic value from a few characters. I get mine from advanced technology or an expensive location."
He said that the differences in story-telling aptitude match the temperament of the writers involved: "I have difficulty thinking up a low-budget idea. I've written horror, comedy and melodrama, but the action, sci-fi and horror were simply my most successful areas."
O'Bannon invents fewer amazing worlds and writes fewer screenplays these days. He explained that he is satisfied by his film writing achievements by now.
"I have a low boredom threshold," he said. "Some writers can write the same thing over and over again and remain happy with that. However, I only enjoy doing something that I have not done before. If I've done it well, I don't want to do it anymore. Once I know how to do something, it loses interest for me. I don't care anymore."
"I still do assignment work as a screenwriter," he said. "In those situations, you more or less just clock in. On assignment writing, they hire you to do what you've done successfully in the past. They essentially hire you not to stretch."
Among his original stories, O'Bannon identified two screenplays as especially gratifying to him: "Alien and Total Recall were very enjoyable to write. I managed some good turns in those stories that satisfied me."
"The world doesn't always get to see some of those turns because other people kick them out of the movie. But, as scripts, those two stories were satisfying."
The writer identified one of the most important lessons he learned while writing his modern horror classic, Alien. O'Bannon recounted the theory and repeatedly stressed how horror writers these days need to rediscover its use.
"With Alien, I figured out quite simply that, as an audience member, what you DON'T see scares you more than what you see. In horror films, the scares that really grab the audience and build the tension for them don't come from the monster jumping out of the shadows! The terror comes from the slow times in between those pay-off scenes in which the characters are talking and planning -- waiting for something to jump out at them!"
O'Bannon bemoaned the inability for most modern horror and sci-fi writers to figure out that lesson: "They often fill the movie up these days with the monster doing terrifying things, but there ends up being too much of it. The terror still comes from the 'in between.'"
"Plus, the movies need to have smaller scary moments during the down time between the monster's appearances, not just lulls so the audience can catch their breath! You need to use that time for something."
But, having explained "the terror in between" concept, what scares the writer of Alien?
"The Thing scared me as a child, but I don't think it holds up as well as frightening for today's audiences," he said.
Howard Hawk's 1950s masterpiece (originally titled The Thing from Another World) was based on the short story, "Who Goes There?". It tells the tale of an alien creature creating havoc on an isolated arctic outpost. O'Bannon identified the film's sense of isolation as one of its greatest strengths.
"Hawks obviously understood the whole idea of the 'Terror in Between' because the creepiest moments of that film arose from the interaction of characters between appearances of the monster. You weren't sure of what the people trapped in that camp would do to each other when faced by the threat from outside."
O'Bannon also credited Hawks' outstanding direction and sense for dialogue as one of The Thing's strong points.
"Some people are surprised that a legendary director like Hawks was behind a film like The Thing," O'Bannon said. "But, other than Billy Wilder, I can't think of another director with such a diverse palette as Hawks. He made great dramas, westerns and mysteries. But Hawks made a great horror and sci-fi film with The Thing."
However, O'Bannon added, "The movie that I think is the scariest film ever made is The Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
"In that film, the monster wasn't there to be seen -- and it didn't do anything! The horror came from the abstract notion that your friends had been replaced. That was terrifying for me! Most efforts to accomplish that theme were pretentious, but Body Snatchers was genuinely scary."
O'Bannon explained that he feels a need to enjoy the unfolding of the narrative along with the audience: "You can't just write the story dry. You need to enjoy it along with the audience!"
"It's been said over and over gain by writers of scary stories that a writer can't scare a reader unless that writer scares himself or herself first. So, you can't excite anyone in the audience unless you're excited writing the script! You're taking yourself for a ride before you take the audience for a ride!"
O'Bannon speculated that many writers do not understand that concept. He feels that explains the lack of progression made in action movies over the last few years. O'Bannon described about 9/10s of today's action, horror and sci-fi films as "pseudo-exciting," with maybe one 10 providing genuine excitement.
"I never really considered writing an action movie as an intellectual challenge, but there is a challenge there," O'Bannon said. "If you do it poorly, the story is just mindless sludge. The real challenge is to keep the level of inventiveness up from scene to scene and keep the excitement mounting from scene to scene, all the way to the end."
O'Bannon identified common threads writer can follow while constructing any narrative without regard to genre.
"The way I look at it, all stories have a common unity or a common element. Whether they're action, comedy, drama or horror, they all have very common element of dramatic structure -- three acts and a conflict. Occasionally, a story arrives that was sent by the gods and defies this concept, but it usually applies."
O'Bannon added, "Action movies require a lot of work and a lot of inventiveness. It's as much an emotional and psychological challenge as it is an emotional challenge because you need to push yourself and challenge yourself constantly."
That can be a daunting challenge when Hollywood doesn't always place an obvious premium on creativity. O'Bannon identified the creative cycles Tinseltown goes through -- and stressed a need for other writers to do the same.
"Cycles do go around," he said. "For example, Hollywood is going through a Jane Eyre cycle now. And, for years, science fiction replaced westerns. Sci-fi has legs now like westerns used to have, and they serve the same purpose for the audience. One completely childish fantasy replaced another as westerns became sci-fi."
He added that these cycles could be accredited to the invisible development of a group or cultural psyche.
"I never was completely convinced of the group psyche concept, and it was a scary thing for me when I was confronted with it."
O'Bannon used the name of his young son as an example. He chose to name his son Adam, believing that it would prove an unusual enough name to distinguish his child. He later learned that approximately one third of the boys born at that time received the same name!
"That proved the existence of a group consciousness to me, and that I was a part of it!"
O'Bannon added that writers need to call upon the aspects of the group psyche to generate fear. Often, what frightens the writer will frighten the audience. He admitted that those cycles drive the amount of acceptable variety down to a minimum, but he acknowledged they also clearly identify challenging opportunities for writers.
Writers need to meet that challenge, according to O'Bannon, who marveled at the opportunities writers have now to invent incredible stories and see them make it to the screen. Since Hollywood is now willing to spend hundreds of million to make their mega-budget movies, writers face fewer and fewer limitations to restrain their imaginations.
"Never before has Hollywood put all its resources into action like it is now," O'Bannon said. "There's no corner cutting anymore in production or technology. It's spend, spend, spend!"
However, he was quick to point out that this big budget attitude applies primarily to features in a constantly developing and confusing market place.
"There is obviously a proliferation of different forms of storytelling in television, cable and theatrical. I'm having a hard time making sense of the marketplace. But, with the proliferation of outlets, the studios and producers make more money. While producers used to make their money just off domestic movie ticket buyers, now they're earning revenue from worldwide ticket sales, cable and video. That offers writers opportunities they didn't have in the marketplace before all this development."
O'Bannon identified a handful of films that influenced him as a young moviegoer.
"When I was young and excitable, I had a handful of films that served inspirations," he said. "I admired Hitchcock. He was the master of suspense and he knew what I needed to learn. I admire some of his masterpieces, such as North by Northwest and Psycho."
O'Bannon also identified individual films and filmmakers that inspired him and influenced his work. He tapped obvious classics like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. He identified Billy Wilder as a filmmaker with the broadest palette, with Howard Hawks finishing a close second. As for films close to O'Bannon's most successful genres, he identified the adventurous The Great Escape and the suspenseful Psycho and Witness for the Prosecution as three films aspiring writers should study.
And, "study" was the precise word O'Bannon used -- that sage teacher's tone returning to his voice. To further his lessons to young scribes, O'Bannon is currently at work on an advanced, practical how-to book.
"I'm looking to call it O'Bannon's Rules of Writing or The Principles of Screenwriting by Dan O'Bannon," he said. "I see a lot of screenwriting books on the market, and some are better than others. But, very few of them are written by successful screenwriters -- writers who have actually done what they claim to know in the books! So, I decided to write this book and share what I've managed to figure out in this business."
In the book, O'Bannon promises to include passages on structure, dialogue and character development. He may also include passages on pitching, studio notes and other essentials on keeping one's sanity as a writer in Hollywood.
O'Bannon reported that he is done with the core of the book now and is incorporating examples from his favorite plays and movies to demonstrate his points. O'Bannon also plans to include his favorite and most effective passages from his own canon of work to illustrate his points.
Finally, the book might even include an entire, original spec screenplay penned by O'Bannon. He plans to illustrate how that script was developed from conception, through outline, to treatment, first draft and revision.
But, O'Bannon added, "I did keep a couple things to myself. You can't let all your secrets out of the bag!"
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