ONUS PRE-PRODUCTION: WRITING
Through this series I’ll be discussing the process of making ONUS, from writing, pre-production, production and post-production. I’ll be touching on the hurdles we’ve had to overcome and the general experiences making this film.
The process of writing ONUS began about five years ago, before we’d begun work on Follow the Crows. Follow the Crows had a very organic start to life. It was brought about through necessity and by connecting the dots between several disparate ideas I’d had for films. It began life with an idea about shooting a film using the gorgeous landscapes so readily available to us and creating a film that would act as a group of shorts that, when put together, formed a whole.
ONUS began life as a theme. I knew I wanted to write something about the growing inequality in society and how people reacted to that. I knew that whatever I wrote I wanted it to touch upon certain feelings I had about our society and our class system here in Britain.
As a film fan I’m drawn to horror above all other genres. My feelings toward horror are well documented through my writing, but I really do love it. I believe no genre can create a reaction in quite the same way horror can. There isn’t another genre (bar maybe comedy, and no way am I going to try my hand at that) that taps into our most primal urges and emotions.
Horror as a genre is all about provoking a reaction. Because of this horror is the broadest of all genres. It encompasses everything from psychological thrillers through to out-and-out torture porn. You’ll often find elements of horror popping up in films that aren’t even close to being true horror movies. When people say they don’t like horror I struggle to believe them; frankly put, everyone likes some kind of horror, but they might not even be aware of it.
I’d been trying to write a horror film for as long as I’ve been writing. I’d approached the genre a few times through short films, but I knew that eventually I wanted to create a feature length horror, and I felt that these themes I wanted to explore would be best suited within that context.
Put simply, there’s a lot about inequality and the class system that frightens me. The way our country is structured like this is, to me at least, somewhat unsettling. And what better way to write a horror than to draw upon your own fears? So, knowing that I wanted to explore these themes and that I wanted to write a horror, I sat down and made a list of all the things that scare me.
Isolation, the feeling of being trapped and alone, the fear of people closest to you becoming untrustworthy, the fear of not fitting in. These were all things I started to think about, and slowly a story started to emerge. It was rough and unpolished and lacked a real ending, but I had a general idea of this was going to be.
I then began to immerse myself in horror films. Like I said before, I love horror, and so it wasn’t too difficult to do this. I watched all kinds of horror films, from the body horror of David Cronenberg through to the slashers like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. I took notes about the things I felt worked and the things I didn’t. I drew inspiration from all of these, and slowly but surely five films began to creep the forefront.
These films had the most positives, the things I liked and that I wanted to capture myself. They were; Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Terrance Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out.
I’ll be discussing just what it is about these films that I drew inspiration from in detail in separate posts but suffice it to say they all had certain elements that either frightened me, excited me or both, and I knew they were the ones to focus on.
With those films in mind I started researching the hell out of them. I read everything I could get my hands on. I watched all the behind the scenes stuff, I viewed them all with their audio commentaries. I even watched films about those films. And it was during that time that I really began to delve into the world of folk horror.
Folk horror, for those of you who don’t know, is a genre that’s hard to define. Most famously it is a collection of three films from the late 60s and early 70s collectively referred to as the ‘Unholy Trinity’. These films are Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and the The Wicker Man.
I was familiar with all of them before, but during my research I found myself more and more engrossed in the concept of folk horror as a whole. It’s such a fascinatingly unusual sub-genre and it’s almost impossible to define. It is much more than simply a slasher or a ghost story, instead it’s all about a feeling. About the landscape and the old world creeping up through the foundations of the new. And the more I read and watched and listened to things on the subject the more engrossed in it I became. I started searching for anything and everything folk horror related.
It suddenly became clear in my mind; I wasn’t just making a horror film, I was going to make a folk horror.
The work I had already done seemed to lend itself so well to the idea. There were certain elements that perhaps didn’t fit as well as others, but I knew where this was all heading now. I knew what I wanted the film to feel like, I’d even begun to get an idea of what it looked like.
And then Follow the Crows happened, and I stopped working on it.
As a person I love to write. I’m always trying to write something, and during this time I’d written countless shorts, stories, articles and so on. But almost all of that stopped when Follow the Crows happened. It took up basically all my time, and I was swamped with work related to that. The unnamed folk horror took a back seat, as did a lot of other projects, and Follow the Crows became the focus.
I’ve no doubt my new-found love of folk horror influenced Follow the Crows somewhat. As the film is set in the open landscapes of Wiltshire it has a sort of folk feel itself, but it is a wholly different film and a wholly different genre.
The time away was probably a good thing though, as it meant the project had time to sit and rest. And once Follow the Crows was finished I returned to it and found myself unhappy with a lot of what I had wrote.
So, I started redrafting the idea. I headed back to the treatment and started brainstorming again. The themes and the concepts remained mostly the same, but the structure and the characters and the overall story started to change into something else. Something born out of both necessity and the lessons learned while shooting Follow the Crows, but also out of new ideas and experiences.
And finally, I had a first draft, which I took and reworked and turned into a second. So, when Marc (Starr, producer of Follow the Crows and ONUS) asked me if I had anything we could work on as a follow-up, I pitched the film to him and he seemed to like it.
We began working off of that second draft, entering into pre-production proper, and we started putting together a cast list and looking at locations and things (these are all parts of the process I’ll cover in more detail at a later date). But the more work we did on it the more the idea felt unfinished.
It wasn’t so much that I was unhappy with it, it was that I felt like it could be better. I felt like it could say more.
The film felt too generic, too obvious and too clearly structured. It felt like it wasn’t doing much beyond the surface and that I hadn’t fully explored the themes and concepts I had wanted to. But we were already working on, and so I started to panic.
I started to redraft and rewrite in a mad dash to try and get it feeling right, but with every subsequent draft I felt it was getting further and further away from my original intention. There were bits here and there that I liked, sure, but it just wasn’t doing it for me. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable working on. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve even seen about writing came from Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse). In an interview I had read he said that once he’d got a draft finished he liked to find his favourite thing and cut it, and as a result he felt less precious about the rest of the work and it often opened avenues for change that would improve the story.
So, taking that piece of advice, I pulled all my favourite scenes I’d written, and I looked at the film in a different light. I started reconnecting the dots, putting things back into place, and suddenly…
Being able to look at the film in a different way helped me discover something I hadn’t seen before. It forced me to look at it from a different point of view and see a far more interesting story hidden within the one I’d already been telling. It was as if my eyes were suddenly opened and a path lay before that I’d been missing from the start. A path with much more to offer than any I’d taken before.
ONUS now is a film that I’m certain won’t appease everyone. It refuses to follow an obvious structure and it moves in a different way. I’m sure there are a lot of people who will simply hate it. One of the biggest learning curves on Follow the Crows was that some people will just straight up not like your story, especially if you’re telling a story that doesn’t offer up all the answers and doesn’t end with a happy, predictable conclusion.
Much like Follow the Crows, with ONUS as it is now I am sure people will think the same things. It’s a divisive film, some people will love it and some people will hate it, but I doubt there will be many sitting in between.
But it’s also a film that I am extremely proud of, and I am happy to work on. I’m truly excited to get it out there and have people judge it for what it is. I believe it says everything I wanted it to say and that it does what I wanted to it to do. I’m pleased with my script, and I look forward to setting it out into the world.