He was one of our fellow journos, a friend and a long time member of LA’s online junket group. But Mark Wheaton had bigger fish to fry, longing to escape from junket journalism to screenwriter. Now at last his dream has been fulfilled as the Texas horror fan get to unleash his own imagination on the new Pang Brothers project, now called The Messengers, due for release next August through Sony.
In Mark’s first ever interview, DH correspondent Paul Fischer journeyed far to Regina, deep in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, to visit the set of what was then simply known as the Pang Brothers Untitled Project. And over breakfast, Paul and Mark reunited for this interview.
Question: How did you get this gig in the first place?
Wheaton: I’d written my first horror script called Feral. for Robert Cort who just did Something the Lord Made on HBO. And I just pitched Senator(1984, so they’d read me, and then with Blue Star I’d done this thing called Unfinished Country in South Africa. So when they were looking for a writer I was already kind of in their orbit, and I went in and talked to Jim Miller at Mandate and then kind of gave him a take and then the next day I had to go pitch Sam and Rob at Sony, and only two days later I started working – this was in January – worked on treatments all through January and went to script in February.
Question: How surprised are you that you’ve been able to do this – I mean there are so many writers trying to crack it. Has it come almost a shock that you’ve got a screenplay that is actually in production?
Wheaton: It’s twofold. There are a lot of screenwriters who work and work and work and make hundreds of thousands of dollars who have not had a film in production… My very first year as a screenwriter to have film go into production that’s shocking in and of itself, but to have it be with people like Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert – I mean the first DVD I ever bought before I even had a DVD player was the Army of Darkness thing. and to be working with people like that, and then the Pang brothers, has just been unbelievable. I didn’t think it would be this horrifying…
Question: Do you feel the pressure that you have to deliver the goods?
Wheaton: When you sit in a room… I mean the worst thing is, the office at Ghost House you have the poster for Darkman, Evil Dead II – through the door there’s a poster for Army of Darkness, and you’re sitting there surrounded by movies that got me interested in horror in the first place. So, yeah, when you’re talking to Tapert about, like, a scare you’re like ‘this is the guy who went out and made Evil Dead. So, yeah, you feel immense pressure to bring your A-game every damn day of the week.
Question: You used to review films when you were a journo.
Wheaton: Damn right.
Question: …and you used to say how horrible films were …
Wheaton: All the time.
Question: You are going to be reviewed.
Question: How prepared are you for being on the receiving end?
Wheaton: I don’t have any credentials to be a critic whatsoever. I was just some schmuck who got a job and started reviewing films. And I was just like an audience member – slag off on one, love another, seldom any middle ground, and it was just kind of a thing. And with this it’s like, yeah, probably people might just hate the living hell out of it, might love the living hell out of it, that’s fine. I mean I haven’t really thought about it. I’m sure the day like you’re being reviewed that will be the day of reckoning where everything changes and you start thinking about it, and that’s one of the reasons to be like, you know, fuck it, I’m not going to read reviews. I don’t know – I have no idea.
Question: You may have to do a junket circuit when this comes out. How prepared are you to face the journalists who you used to sit with?
Wheaton: Having been a junket reporter for a long time I know the reach -the publicist walks in the room and it’s like ‘here comes the screenwriter’. Half the room reach over, click off the tape, the other half are polite and kind of let it run and then rewind it later. No one gives a fuck about a screenwriter.
Question: But the difference is that there aren’t a lot of screenwriters who’ve been in that position before.
Wheaton: I don’t know – I think there are a lot of reporters making the jump so…
Question: Is it everything you imagined it to be?
Wheaton: Yeah. I think if I hadn’t been a reporter I might not have known as much about the process – specifically with The Messengers because we’re going right into production so it’s working also with line producers and stuff, on budget and a lot of stuff like that. If I hadn’t had experience as a reporter for a long time there’s a lot of like shorthand that I might not have known about the ramp up and pre-production and stuff like that. So I’m actually glad I was a reporter, it was like going to film school a little bit.
Question: Do you bring any of your own interests, your own passions, your own sort of concerns into a screenplay like this or you’re a writer for hire and you do basically what they ask you?
Wheaton: Well they knew they wanted to make a movie about a family from a big city that goes to a small farm and all hell breaks loose, and that’s pretty much what I was given. Because it is something that you want to wake up and be happy about everyday and like want to come to work you have to make it personal. So my grandparents were from small town Texas, everything in the movie is named after stuff from Jim Thomei novels – small town Texas. And it’s based on places in Bell County Texas. And I really had that visual aesthetic growing up in Texas, and it was set in Texas for a long time and then when they scouted in Saskatchewan they were like, okay, we’re going set it in North Dakota and we just kind of changed the things in the script to make it Dakota. But for me I was creating something that takes place in central Texas.
Question: How do you think you make a horror film interesting, I mean because it seems to me to be a genre that people write because it’s a good way to break into screenwriting because it’s a very commercial genre… but yet if you look at the Ring 2 or if you look at other films that didn’t work, it’s a tricky genre to pull off isn’t it?
Wheaton: Totally. My first paying gig was doing a Custer movie – this Son of the Morning Star thing with Tom Merrill and that’s a hard movie to make. I mean we just got a director. It’s like this one-year process. With The Messengers – I mean I wrote for Fangoria a lot time but the idea of getting a chance to work with that kind of stuff. I mean horror a lot of the time is like raw power really bugging with the audience, unlike drama. But horror is like high drama because there’s a lot at stake in it. And it’s just really fun to sit at your computer and just tear people apart and just make it scary because in the theatre after you see a hundred and fifty movies a year it takes a lot to make you move in the seat, not be bored, anything like that. Horror movies always get to me, I’m a sucker for the worst horror movies, I’m just a sucker for bad studio movies – because like the musical Do the Right Thing and they’ll make you look over here and they’ll jump – I always jump, I’m an idiot. And I like that. I like fucking with the audience and that’s what’s fun about horror.
Question: What about your own sense of humour, does that manifest itself in doing something like this or do you…
Wheaton: I tried writing comedy here and there… I’m really, really bad at it, and genuinely bad at it. If there’s anything funny in The Messengers it was that… it was born out of sitting in a room with the execs for like eight hours straight trying to get one joke line right. The horror stuff, the scary stuff, more easy. Coming up with anything funny whatsoever out of my mouth, not so easy. [Laughter]
Question: So I take it you’re not going to be writing romantic comedy anytime soon.
Wheaton: Um, no.
Question: Now do you want to confine yourself to horror or do you want to branch out?
Wheaton: I would be happy writing horror until doomsday. I love the genre. I’m working on a bunch of other horror projects right now – a couple of them with Ghost House – but… then there’s the other side. I’m working on a big historical thing at Universal. …
Question: What is that?
Wheaton: It’s with a director…
Question: Can you talk about what period it is so I can…
Question: How historical… well how far back do you go? I mean how do you define historical?
Wheaton: It’s historical?
Question: 20th century?
Wheaton: I can’t. I can’t talk about it.
Question: Well is it really historical or is it… is it pre-. Is it pre-20th century or is it 20th century plus?
Wheaton: I can’t talk about it. I totally can’t talk about it at all. But I like writing stuff about issues.
Question: It’s a drama, though, right?
Question: So it’s a historical drama, which you then have to deal with – which is not horror related…
Question: And how challenging has that been?
Wheaton: That is what I’m more naturally challenged by because when you work on horror, as I was saying, it’s like it’s high drama. With historical drama, or contemporary drama even, like you don’t have the escape valve of ‘and then a monster jumped out’…So you really have to work on it, and that’s why dramas are hard…
Question: And you have to also work on characters too…
Wheaton: Oh, yeah, totally.
Question: …which is not as important in horror I take it.
Wheaton: Good horror has good characters; some good horror has crap characters. I mean it’s two totally different things. I mean there have been plenty of horror movies where there have been plenty of memorable characters like Father Merrin in the first Exorcist who at the end of the day isn’t even in the movie that long – but he’s just a great character and you always remember him and stuff like that. And then like the Friday the 13th films with Jason Voorhees, who’s a great character but hopeless and one-dimensional – walking, talking.
Wheaton with DH’s Los Angeles junket man Garth Franklin
Question: What about 1984, what’s going on with that?
Wheaton: Deader than dog shit. Spent a year working with the Wahlberg group, trying to get it going and we had the full support of the estate, which was really cool, and they backed us because it was kind of a radical idea to do a new 1984 in America – pitched it everywhere, didn’t go anywhere. I met a lot of great people, I’m now working with a lot of people that I pitched 1984 to but it dropped dead; and I think we were always like… there was another person who was always right there, who is going to get the rights once we finished our cycle. I think it’s Tim Robbins got it and is specking a script version, because he was going to do a stage play version of it, and I think he’s doing a script version now. So… 1984 for me, great learning experience. I’ve started dragging a lot of themes from that into other projects I’ve been working on. But, sadly, I will not be there to make it.
Question: Is there another project that you can talk about or no? Do you know what you’re doing next?
Wheaton: Oh, yeah, I’m working on this project at Universal. I’m taking a TV show pitch out with Ghost House. I’m doing a movie with Ghost House. With Blue Star I’m rewriting Unfinished Country; we have a director now.
Question: What’s Unfinished Country?
Wheaton: The short version is it’s an American medical student who… if you go to Baragwaneth in South Africa it’s like the world’s toughest hospital. And if you do a two-year residency there you can pretty much write your ticket anywhere in the world – and it’s about an American medical student going to Baragwaneth in South Africa. It’s the largest hospital in the world – it’s Chris Hani Baragwaneth – it’s part of Witwatersrand University, and it’s about a kid who goes there kind of with his own preconceived notions about post apartheid South Africa and gets caught up in a lot of the stuff that went on with the Uganda protocols and stuff regarding getting around FDA testing of AIDS drugs. And the other director – I’m rewriting it with the director, as soon as I finish the Universal thing. And then there’s the movie for A&E called Wildfires.
Question: Also a horror film?
Wheaton: No, it’s about the 1988 Yellowstone wildfire that went out of control and burned like a quarter-million acres of Yellowstone.
Question: You are showing some diversity
Wheaton: These are dramas. I mean some of them have a little more action, and some of them have a little more drama.