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At Montreal’s just-concluded Fantasia film festival, Fango got the chance to chat with THE GRUDGE and RED screenwriter Stephen Susco, who was there with his change-of-pace, very funny stoner comedy HIGH SCHOOL. That film’s director, John Stalberg Jr., is also Susco’s collaborator on the long-mooted ZERO DARK THIRTY, a remake of Bob Clark’s cult classic DEATHDREAM (pictured left), and Susco reveals that that project is finally achieving fruition this year.
In DEATHDREAM, a.k.a. DEAD OF NIGHT, a young soldier named Andy who was supposedly killed in Vietnam turns up apparently alive in his hometown, but proves to be a bloodthirsty ghoul. ZERO DARK THIRTY, which updates the confict to the Iraq War, was originally set to be directed by Eli Roth for Cosmic Entertainment, a banner run by Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn and her children Kate and Oliver Hudson. But then, Susco (pictured right) tells Fango, “Cosmic Entertainment folded, and the project seemed in doubt. Then I had lunch with John, who had picked up the option personally and said he really wanted to direct the movie now. He always had a very unified vision of what the film could be—both the great horror of it and also the potent message behind it.”
The project next got set up with Odd Lot Entertainment as part of its Dark Lot package of genre features, which also included films like Robert Kurtzman’s BURIED ALIVE and Glasgow Phillips’ UNDEAD OR ALIVE. “We were prepping the movie,” Susco recalls, “and we were ready to move to New Mexico for a couple of months, and we started getting weird phone calls like, ‘Can the budget be cut in half? Could the whole movie take place in an insane asylum?’ All sorts of things. It turned out that certain production issues had arisen, and they were really gracious about it and said, ‘Look, if you guys don’t think you can pull of what you want with this movie within these new constraints, we’ll give it back to you.’ We talked about it and decided it wasn’t enough, so they returned the rights to us.”
And ZERO DARK THIRTY, like its protagonist, wouldn’t die. At the same time they were working on HIGH SCHOOL in early 2008, “John and I were trying to build an independent company through which horror directors could make low-budget movies, and not be answerable to anybody and have final cut. We were talking with people like [THE MACHINIST’s] Brad Anderson, and there was a Richard Kelly script we were kind of kicking around. Along the way, we had given the ZERO DARK THIRTY script to Michael Douglas to see if he wanted to play a role; I had been working with him on a FLATLINERS TV series and thought he’d be great for it. Then I heard from [Douglas’ Further Films partner] Bobby Mitas, who said, ‘Michael wants to know if he could produce this film.’ Of course, we were floored—the guy’s legendary, an Oscar-winning producer, so he came on board to produce.”
After enjoying his experience helming HIGH SCHOOL, though, Stalberg decided he didn’t want to take on such a dark story as his next directorial venture. Discussions began about who should take his place—and then Susco attended a screening of the horrific-motherly-love opus GRACE. “I was blown away,” he recalls, “and literally left the theater and immediately called the Further guys and said, ‘You have to see this movie, this guy Paul Solet is one of the best directors I’ve ever seen.’ I couldn’t believe what he did on his budget. They saw the movie and loved it, so we reached out to Paul, and it turned out he’s a huge fan of Bob Clark and DEATHDREAM. So now Paul is our director, and he has revised my script and done an absolutely brilliant job—he took a few things that I thought were strengths and revealed that they were in fact weaknesses, and made it even better. If things work out, we might be shooting by the end of the year.”
Although there have been any number of changes in the Mideast situation since ZERO DARK THIRTY was first conceived, Susco says that the script rewrites “were actually less based on that and more on some of the character issues. One of the things that has been important to us from the beginning is that this is not a war film, it’s a horror film, though it has a lot of subtext that people might read one way or another, depending on their particular vantage point on politics in general. We’re not going to comment on that; we want people to have their own interpretations. Over the last few years, Hollywood has produced incredibly didactic movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, none of which found financial success, because I think the majority of people don’t want that. They don’t want to be hit over the head. And even if this movie has something to say—which it does—we’ve always been adamant that it’s mostly designed to terrify people more than anything else.”
Part of that approach has involved beefing up the role of Andy, the soldier turned ghoul, himself. “In the original DEATHDREAM, Andy kind of shambles back into town and there’s clearly something very wrong with him from the get-go,” Susco explains. “The emphasis is on the other characters around him, and what we’ve done is shifted it a bit so you’re actually with Andy a little more, and he’s not like that initially when he shows up. He’s disoriented, but you’re with him in private moments and he’s much more human for a while. We thought that was really important, because Paul’s style is more about that Kubrickian sense of dread that slowly builds to a gigantic horrifying moment. And that, to us, is where the power of this story lies. And we have an awesome actor—I can’t say who it is right now—who really wants to play the role. It’s someone of incredible strength who I think will knock people’s socks off, and who they haven’t seen in a while.”
We’ll keep you informed as ZERO DARK THIRTY gets closer to shooting. Susco also has a couple more new horror projects in the works; check back at this site soon for his comments on those, plus a look back at his GRUDGE experiences.
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