HorrOrigins is focused on recognizing indie talent on the verge of breaking out. We will be searching for new screenwriters and filmmakers to spotlight. For this interview we have the honor of interviewing Lisa Jay. Lisa is a screenwriter who has found success at Stowe Story Labs, The Bitchlist, WIF Blacklist Labs (finalist) and the Austin Film Festival, just to name a few.
What was your first introduction to horror?
I grew up in a poor Midwestern household. We lived in a tiny ranch house that had some kind of haunting, or demon, or some evil force that terrorized my sisters and me. Yes, I’m serious. It would tug and poke at us in our beds, things would disappear for months and reappear in odd places, we would hear something dragging across the floors at night; it was honestly terrifying. I’ve been intrigued by horror stories as long as I can remember, and it’s probably been as a way to process those childhood fears.
Wow, that sounds like you would have some great source material right there for a story. Have you ever written about your experiences in the ranch house?
Yes I have! But I have become so accustomed to the screenplay format I found it hard to write narrative fiction. I do write some poetry, and eventually I'd like to discipline myself to write in novel format. My script The Domovoi deals with some of my emotions of growing up in that environment, even though the story is very different.
How did you get started in the industry?
I have a BFA in painting and worked in the art world for a while. I wanted to get involved with film when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico about eight or nine years ago, so I took on the role of Art Director for a little indie film. Then I did another. Being on set inspired me to start writing stories of my own.
What keeps you interested in the genre?
I’m big into symbolism, spirituality as explored through altered consciousness, religion, and meditation. Horror addresses all these things, as horror and religion deal with the same questions. It’s such a dynamic, challenging, and under-appreciated genre. At its core lie these spiritual questions about existence, morality, death, what scares us, and what is reality. Horror is also a powerful vehicle for telling socially relevant stories in a symbolic way.
What is it about screenwriting that you enjoy?
In my view, nothing creates social change or molds public opinion as powerfully as storytelling. I want to make the world a better place by expanding perceptions (through horror haha!) I guess that sounds a little odd, but it’s true. I frequently write about women and their roles in society, but hopefully what you’re focusing on is the monster after everyone. I like to think through questions of what is real? Why do we perceive reality the way we do? How do we fight back against the things that overwhelm us? I also just really like sitting alone and typing, as boring as that sounds. I really enjoy researching for my projects and I do a lot of reading in advance.
You mentioned you like to sit alone to type and research. What else does your writing process look like?
When I get an idea I’ll usually think it through for a month or so just in my head, maybe even do little doodles or write some notes in a sketchbook. I often do dreamwork and meditation on my stories to work out ideas as well. I don’t outline, or even know where I’m headed when I start writing. I do not recommend this, but I really need to start writing in order to think through the story. It’s a chaotic process but it’s the one that works for me. I take my time with the first draft and edit as I go so that by the time I get to the end it’s pretty much where I want it to be with minor polishing.
That is great advice and social media is definitely something I think more screenwriters should take advantage of. You have been a finalist in a lot of prominent festivals and I think that is why your advice is important. Can you describe your experience with those festivals?
No matter who you are, you’re going to fail as a writer a lot more than you succeed. If you’re doing it for success you aren’t going to be able to stick it out. Let the writing be what motivates you and makes you happy. This year was the first time that I’ve actually WON anything. And it was such a surprise because I’m so used to never making it further than the finals! Most fellowships or writing programs will ask you for a biography or an essay. I avoided these for a long time because I felt like I couldn’t write a decent one, so I didn’t even try. But you’ve got to start doing it or you’ll never get better at them. A lot of the big organizations are really working hard to reach out to writers and be supportive - Final Draft, ISA Network, Script Pipeline, Roadmap Writers, Coverfly, and ScreenCraft to name the big ones. If you’re following on Twitter, these organizations frequently offer discounts for entering competitions and lots of other benefits.
Do you have any advice/suggestions for up and coming or hopeful screenwriters?
Read all the books, listen to all the advice, but realize it’s not all going to apply to you. When I started I read “write lean, only put down what needs to be said." But the thing is, I was a lean writer to begin with, so I was seriously underwriting. I needed to learn to expand. Not everyone is the same, and you’re not going to find what works for you until you pretty much make every mistake at least once. You just have to write a lot. And then write some more. Another piece of advice - build your support network and your community. Get on Twitter, it’s a great place for screenwriters now. Get your work out there and let people read it and give you notes. And do the same for them. You learn a lot by reading other writers work.
Can you tell us more about The Domovoi?
The Domovoi is a low budget feature about a little girl that makes a wish to a Russian fairytale creature that lives in the oven. She wishes her stepfather was dead, which unleashes a world of trouble for everyone she loves. It’s a horror, but it’s also a comedy/buddy movie between this little girl and her Russian grandmother. The relationships between the three generations of women in this family are loving and funny which makes the darkness bearable. This script got a 9 on The Black List, won a place on The Bitchlist, and was a finalist in three fellowships before winning the Final Draft fellowship for Stowe StoryLabs this year.
Can you tell us more about Robot Dreams?
Robot Dreams is a sci-fi thriller about an AI designed for housework that commits a murder. Her creator covers up the crime in order to make her deadline for release. I just signed a shopping agreement with ISA Network with this one. It was also a Second-Rounder at Austin Film Festival last year.
That is great news with the shopping agreement with ISA Network. Congratulations! What other projects are you currently working on?
The script I just finished and I am entering heavily in competitions this year is called The Seraphim. It’s a psychological, mind trip kind of horror. It is about the wife of a captain aboard a whaling ship in the 1800’s who fears the ship harbors an evil presence, and she struggles to convince her husband the crew is going mad. It took me a year to write it because of the amount of research I did. I spent a week at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts reading actual journals from whaling voyages in spidery, it was really hard to decipher the handwriting. I went to visit the last wooden whaling ship in Mystic Connecticut, and I read dozens of books on the subject. After all that, I ended up having a very hard time finishing it. I couldn’t figure out the tone, or how I wanted it to end. I struggled with it for months. But I finally ended up really happy with it.
Also, I’ve started a new horror called Homestead about a newly married pioneer couple in the old west. They find a log cabin that’s empty now because the occupants were killed, and they move in without realizing it’s haunted. Basically a haunted log cabin story.
Those sound really scary and we love to hear about the amount of research that you put into your work. What has been your favorite project to work on and why?
The research I did for The Seraphim was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a screenplay. That said, the dark night of the soul I had over that script, where I was certain I had failed and it would never work out, was also the hardest thing I’ve ever been through with my writing.
You mention that you had trouble writing the dark night of the soul for The Seraphim. Does this mean you're an advocate for new screenwriters to read "Save the Cat?"
I wouldn't necessarily advocate for that book. I think reading lots of books is good. You should watch lots of movies and take notes, read lots of screenplays, get notes from everyone you can on everything you write. Just write as much as you can. I was obsessed with David Mamet’s memo to the writers of The Unit. I printed it out and taped it over my writing desk for years. Check it out here.
Lately I have really been inspired by Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass on writing.
That is great! Can you share something from his Masterclass that might be beneficial to screenwriters?
Yes! One of the quotes I saved:
What is the story? The story is anything that’s going to keep you turning the pages, and doesn't leave you feeling cheated at the end.
Here is another:
“And then what happened?” The four words every writer needs to hear. The most important words there are for a storyteller.
A gentler approach to storytelling. Looser. I understand the structure and rules better now and don't need to be reminded in the same way anymore.
What movies & filmmakers give you the most inspiration?
I am so obsessed with Robert Eggers and his films right now. I love the strangeness, beauty and attention to period details of his films. The Lighthouse is just a work of art in my mind. I’m also really excited by Ari Aster’s work. I’ve always been interested in films that show altered consciousness or explore an unreliable reality (Mulholland Drive, Color Out of Space, Shutter Island, Inland Empire, Mandy, A Field in England, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, Primer, Triangle, Altered States, Kill List).
Okay here is a tough one for you. You have the opportunity to hangout with one screenwriter or filmmaker from either past or present. Who do you choose and why?
I went to a private party in NYC several months ago because Robert Eggers was supposed to be there, and he didn't show. He’s someone I would love to talk to. I think we have similar interests and aesthetics.
What is your favorite classic horror movie?
The Shining. I watch that movie about five or six times a year, maybe more. The slow dread building to all-out horror is so masterful. The way the space itself and the quiet moments are used to make you feel uneasy, the withholding of overt scares through much of the early half, and the lack of jump scares, the music… I watch it over and over and just marvel at it.
What is something in everyday life that scares you?
I’m afraid of so many things! Driving on the freeway, answering phone calls and doing Facetime or Zoom interviews, spiders, black holes, the concept of eternity. That all scares me.
Inspiration for movie scares though? That’s a little different. When something should be one way and people don’t act the way they should - that terrifies me. Like the strangeness of so many of David Lynch’s characters. Deep feelings of dread are much scarier to me than outright scares. And monsters. And dinosaurs. Monsters and dinosaurs definitely.
What is your dream project?
My dream project is seeing my whaling script The Seraphim made. It’s big-budget and weird, which makes it a very difficult prospect. But I’d really love to find a way to make that happen.
Do you have social media that people can follow you on?
Yes you can follow me on Twitter @JLisaJay or Instagram @Write_Like_Hell.
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