Interview: Alex Ross
– Alex Ross, writer of Hexen (2014 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition Winner)
Hexen was your first script—but for a screenplay this well-written, one worthy enough to win the Script Pipeline Grand Prize, “first script” is a bit misleading. How much time and energy did you put into the project before submitting to the competition? What was the impetus behind writing this type of story?
I never considered myself to be a writer to be honest–not a good one, anyway. I’m mostly interested in exploring ideas and feelings through the image, not the word. I spent years looking for a project to direct, but nothing spoke to me, and it was frustrating. Then I heard Quentin Tarantino talk about how if his mother and father hadn’t gotten together, Reservoir Dogs would not exist today, and I took that as: we are all original, we all have things to say, we just have to find a way to get to that creative state.
Writing, for me anyway, requires a tremendous amount of thought, and deep thought requires time, and for most people, for whatever reason–family, work, money–time is limited, and to be able to sit under a tree for an entire afternoon and do nothing but think is a true luxury. And what do you do with all of those thoughts afterwards, are you just wasting your time? Talent obviously helps, but what is talent? Everyone has some kind of talent, the real question is, how can you get your talent out into the world and share it with others? Work ethic and persistence. Hard work can pay off. And if you have a dream, you owe it to yourself to at least try, I can’t imagine a greater regret in life. One of my favorite quotes: “Write what you know, but you don’t know what you know until you start writing.”
So I quit producing reality TV, moved to the desert, and tried to write. And once you take that leap, once you’re faced with nothing to blame, no distractions, when you get to have all the time in the world–that can be a very scary thing. Now you’re faced with yourself. Do you have what it takes? Is this really the life you want?
So yes, “first script” certainly is misleading. I could have written a bunch of scripts, but I chose to keep working on the same one instead, and for a while there, things got very rough, the writing was terrible, the same results, draft after draft. The true definition of madness was becoming a reality. And it took a few years, money ran out, bills weren’t being paid, and it was time to go get a job again. But I always believed. And my friends, my family, my fellow writers, they were all very supportive. They helped me every step of the way.
What made you decide to submit to the contest? Were there certain elements of the script you knew would likely garner the attention of judges?
I felt the script was ready. Friends and family can only take you so far. I needed objective feedback. Script Pipeline was the very first competition I entered. I think there was an hour left before the final deadline. There was a part of me that wondered if the script would even be read at all after page five–there’s no hook to speak of, few twists and turns, very little plot. It’s a slow burn, a single situation. Would anyone have the patience to keep reading? And our protagonists, their motives, their intentions. . . it’s all very ambiguous. I also wrote it with budget in mind, I was writing something out of necessity, a movie for myself to make, so I followed all the requirements for a low budget: one main location, few characters, little action, etc.
But to answer the second part of your question, no, I had no idea what kind of reaction the script would get. I just tried to write the movie that I would want to see. And I can’t imagine writing something that’s not somehow personal to me. That’s a dangerous road to take, there needs to be passion behind the words. And there’s obviously a certain amount of luck involved, and luck is not just preparation meeting opportunity–sometimes it’s just luck. But to win the grand prize, for my work to go up with thousands of other talented, hard-working writers, it’s obviously tremendous validation. And when I got the phone call telling me I was a finalist, I was overwhelmed by a feeling: I am not alone, someone gets it. Suddenly all of those afternoons sitting under a tree weren’t a waste of time after all.
Modern horror/thrillers: some thoughts on the state of the genre? Hexen is almost a throwback to the moody, surreal thriller we don’t see as often anymore, a la Stanley Kubrick in a way. Why do you think that trend has generally declined? Marketability? Is it simply easier to draw an audience with easy scares or gore?
Horror has never been given much respect. And rightfully so. Most horror films, now more than ever, are dreadful, they insult our intelligence, and scares and gore just aren’t enough anymore. And what’s frustrating is that it’s never been easier to make a movie. The equipment, the costs, the things you can do. . . it’s pretty unreal. But at the same time, it’s never been harder because everything’s been done–the shark, the found footage, the creepy child, vampires and zombies, the chick in the tank-top, the CGI, every city on earth getting blown up. We’ve seen it all, and the image itself has lost its power as well. Does anyone really care about a 10-minute steadycam shot anymore? In other words, we have more tools than ever at our disposal, yet we don’t have much to say with them anymore.
There have obviously been filmmakers who took things to a different level. Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick. . . their work transcended the genre. Rosemary’s Baby remains a master class in filmmaking. But again, would that film work today? I’m not so sure. The world is way more cynical today. Some of the European artists from the past–Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson–I see moments of true horror in their work, I can’t imagine what they could have done if they’d tackled the genre more, maybe horror wouldn’t have such negative connotations.
Your overall intent with this project, a written breakdown of the themes and style you envisioned, caught our attention as well. What came first? The story, the theme, the look. . . ?
I feel that we, as artists, have a historical responsibility to know what’s come before us, otherwise we’re not really adding anything new to the conversation, and the work just ends up being disposable entertainment. So I specifically chose a genre that relies strictly on manipulation and spoon-feeding the audience. Because all of the techniques that have been mastered to lead an audience down a path–cinematography, music, sound design, CGI–have lost their power, they’ve become gimmicks, and they just end up canceling each other out. There’s no point of reference grounded in reality anymore, and as a result, we’re not truly moved or shocked by anything. We’re entertained perhaps, but are we effected at all? I see few filmmakers today who choose to reject that kind of manipulation. Michael Haneke is one of them. He just tries to present you with a situation as transparently as possible, then how you feel about it is up to you.
In terms of what came first, I can tell you, without a doubt, that the story came last. It was like a puzzle, how can I fit these pieces–the look, the feel, the theme–how can I fit them all together within a story? I guess I worked backwards. I would think story comes first for most writers, and then you work on everything else to support your story. But for me, plot is secondary, things don’t have to be explained fully, let ambiguity linger, give viewers the opportunity to figure things out for themselves. But it’s not so much about understanding something on an intellectual level, it’s about feeling something. The feeling is everything. My theory is that film should be like good music, like a Radiohead song. I don’t fully get what they’re singing about, but for whatever reason, I’m touched by it.
Ideally, what are your near-term goals as a writer or writer/director?
There’s only one goal: to make Hexen. I was able to translate images and feelings in my head into words, and now I’ll have the opportunity to translate them back into images for others to see. But something else is happening–and it’s because of Script Pipeline. I’m starting to look forward to writing another script.