Signe Olynyk understands the pain of screenwriting more than the average producer. For starters, she’s a writer herself. She’s also the creator of the Great American Pitchfest, an annual event held in Los Angeles dedicated to connecting aspiring writers with production companies and producers. Running the Pitchfest with her is Bob Schultz. Schultz is Olynyk’s partner in crime for Twilight Pictures, a production company that focuses on horror movies in the $1 million dollar range that feature smart scripts and recognizable talent.
Which leads us to the movie Below Zero. And the literal pains of being a writer that Olynyk knows firsthand.
Below Zero is screening this weekend at the Toronto Independent Film Festival. (It’s also making U.S. appearances throughout the fall in Boston, Chicago, and more.) The movie stars Eddie Furlong, Michael Berryman, and Kristin Booth. Furlong plays the main character — Jack the Hack — a frustrated writer who has himself locked in a slaughterhouse freezer in order to meet a deadline. Needless to say, as one would expect in these situations, things don’t go as planned.
In our interview with Signe Olynyk, who acted as both writer and producer of Below Zero, she discusses how the movie is based somewhat in reality: she locked herself in a meat freezer to write the script. She also has a butt-load of interesting things to say about writing, a call-to-arms for our readers to pitch her, and her insights on how to get a quality movie made when you have a talented cast and crew… but not a lot of money or time.
SCARS: What came first: the idea for “Below Zero” or the idea to lock yourself in a remote slaughterhouse to write?
SIGNE OLYNYK: Definitely the idea. I had a low budget concept about a guy locked in a freezer. And that was about as far as I got. wrote that idea out as much as I could, but writing stories with a limited number of characters, locations, and with a tight budget is an extremely difficult thing to do. In order to trigger more ideas, I used this incredible tool called the internet. I started googling “slaughterhouse,” “locked in freezer,” “meat freezer,” etc., and that’s how I came across the slaughterhouse where we shot the movie.
The freezer was located near a small town called Edson (Alberta – Canada) about four hours away from where I live, so I called and asked if I could come out there and “hang out.” The place was for sale and the woman who owned it said sure. When I got there, I asked if she would lock me in the freezer and not let me out until the script was finished. We shot the film in the same location. It was literally an abandoned slaughterhouse in the middle of nowhere. Cell phones didn’t even work – real life can be so cliché!
SCARS: Explain what your five days were like in there. In “Below Zero,” we see a moment for Jack when the door first shuts where he goes into a panic. Did you stay calm or have any moments of regret?
OLYNYK: As soon as she slammed that door on me, I had this moment of sheer terror as I realized what the hell I had done! What if she was some kind of crazed lunatic who had no intention of letting me out, and I had completely handed myself over to her? Fortunately for me, she was lovely and eventually let me out again. For Jack, the character in “Below Zero” wasn’t quite so lucky. I would say the terror he depicts was very much like the horror I felt when I was first locked in the room and realized I could not get out. There was no going back.
The best way to distract yourself from problems sometimes is to put yourself to work. So I got busy. I wrote the script in five days from that freezer, just like my character. I ate crackers and mostly dry food. I camped on a camping cot, and wrote using the light from my laptop and a headlamp. I ran an extension cable into the room to power my laptop, and to boil water for soup, oatmeal, and tea. There’s nothing like literally immersing yourself in a story to get to the heart of a script. I do wish the food had been better though. Frankly, I didn’t have much of an appetite. Sleeping in a slaughterhouse can do that to you.
SCARS: When Jack first gets set up in his room, we see him post a note: Writers write. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the concept of “writer’s block,” especially as someone who works with a lot of writers through the Great American Pitchfest. There’s definitely a camp out there that think the whole idea of writer’s block is a myth. That, as Jack’s note says, writers just write. What do you believe?
OLYNYK: Screw anyone who says that writer’s block is a myth, or an excuse. Writing a great script is bloody hard work, and getting the film made and out there is even harder! There are thousands of people – more likely millions – who claim they want to write. Anyone who actually puts the hard work and dedication into crafting a great story should be celebrated. There are far more stories that are abandoned or never started in the first place because it is so difficult.
Writer’s block is very real, and can be completely crippling. The story and characters haunted me, and I felt guilty every minute I wasn’t working on it. It became quite an obsession. Locking myself in a freezer may seem like a drastic move, and I suppose it was. But it was the best thing I could have done. It helped me to really identify with my character, and truly understand what he would have been going through. And because I was locked in there, it allowed me to personally draw from my experiences. Many of the moments I experienced became plot points in the script. I think we have a stronger movie because of it.
I work with a lot of writers through the screenwriting conference I run (www.pitchfest.com), and we often talk about the struggle and expectations we face as writers. Writers aren’t machines, and creative work can’t always be forced. The key to overcoming writer’s block is to keep going. Keep writing, keep reading work that inspires you. Write something easier to get your juices going. Write a monologue from your character’s points of view, or take a scene in a completely different direction and see what happens. Your characters will often surprise you, and say or do things you aren’t expecting. When you become a conduit for your characters and are simply channeling the words, that’s when writing is the most fun. You have to be a little bit crazy to be a writer. You are literally hearing voices in your head, and trying to catch them on the page. Sometimes it’s all you can do to keep up, and that’s a joy. But most of the time, it’s hard work and you have to write regularly to have those moments. And if that doesn’t work, you lock yourself up in a meat freezer. Having that much uninterrupted time to write for five days straight was an absolute luxury to me. No emails, no phone calls, no distractions. You do what you have to do.
SCARS: For me, I thought this movie was especially timely. In the last month or so alone, we’ve been hearing all these stories about writers cracking. (I’m thinking of Jonah Lehrer at the New Yorker, who recently resigned for fabricating parts of his book “Imagine” — and the defense for his actions that young writers are under tremendous pressure right now to produce.) Do you see a lot of this sort of stress from the writers you work with through Pitchfest?
OLYNYK: When you put words to paper and craft a book, a screenplay, a poem, or anything creative, you are pulling from somewhere deep within you. But when you know in your heart that you are a writer, and you have these overpowering needs to see your work successfully published or produced, it increases the stakes significantly. You want so badly to achieve those dreams, and to face rejection when the odds are so high is extremely stressful.
I take those dreams very seriously because I share them. Every one of our writers who attends the conference and pitches to our executives is not just putting their stories out there. They are also pitching themselves. And that takes enormous courage and guts. Reaching dreams isn’t easy to do. But taking that first step is sometimes even harder. It is even more difficult because it means so much.
SCARS: One thing that struck me about “Below Zero” was that as much as it’s about writing, and kind of a movie a lot of writers/creatives will respond to, is how much it was also an Actor’s movie. (I think a lot of genre fans are going to be surprised by the range from Michael Berryman especially.) How was it for you, as the writer, to see Eddie, Michael, and Kristin take on their roles?
OLYNYK: It was magic to see these characters come alive on the screen, and we were incredibly fortunate to have such exceptional talent on the film. Michael Berryman is brilliant, and this is the best performance of his career. So often, he is cast for his unusual appearance and not always his acting abilities. But he is a tremendous actor and we loved working with him. He’s an incredibly talented man and we love his work on this film. He completely brought the character of “Gunnar” to life. And his costume is amazing. I expect we will see lots of people dressed up like Michael Berryman for Halloween!
With Eddie, we were also very lucky because he plays a character who is very much like who he is in real life. I think that really helped him with identifying to the character, and he did an incredible job. When you consider that we only had Eddie for 12 days, and he is on 101 pages of a 104 page script that is nothing short of miraculous. We were very fortunate to have him involved.
And with Kristin Booth, we just got lucky. She is a phenomenal talent who is well known in Canada, and her star is constantly on the rise. In fact, on the last day of shooting as we were driving her to the airport, she got the phone call that she had been cast as Ethel Kennedy in the controversial mini-series, “The Kennedys.” We loved working with her, and it is somewhat disgusting how incredibly talent she is. We want to cast her in all our films.
Did you notice the creepy little boy was actually played by a little girl? Sadie Madu is a young actress who was local to where we were filming, and coincidentally the daughter of the people who owned the slaughterhouse. When she first asked me if I had a role for a little girl, I had to tell her that I was very sorry but that I only had a role for a creepy little boy. She surprised us a few days later by showing up at the auditions disguised as a little boy. She had to have her hair cut and dyed for the role, but she was exceptional and really pulled off the role. What was also great was that because she was the daughter of the slaughterhouse owners, she was very comfortable there. She grew up having sleepovers and the most bizarre birthday parties you can imagine. And it was also great because she was great about helping the other talent feel comfortable in the slaughterhouse. For Eddie, who was somewhat uncomfortable and awkward about being in a slaughterhouse, she was able to help him adjust and feel right at home in his freezer. And Eddie was able to help Sadie feel comfortable about her first working on a movie set. We were lucky to have a really great, professional cast who just did what they had to in order to get this movie made.
SCARS: If I hadn’t read it, I wouldn’t have thought the whole production was shot in 18 days. I really enjoyed the look of the film from Justin Thomas Ostensen and Norm Li. What do you think contributed to you guys getting the film done as quickly as you did but still getting the right type of look?
OLYNYK: Our cinematographer, Norm Li has a fantastic eye and is a very talented cinematographer. Justin, our director, is also a talented Director of Photography and the two of them worked with our Production Designer, Michael David Carr, to develop a very specific look for the film. It was a very difficult shoot as we only had 18 days in total, and only 12 with Eddie Furlong. The days were horribly long and challenging. It was an extremely ambitious shoot, but we were fortunate to have a great crew and team of hard working volunteers who completely dedicated themselves to the challenge.
SCARS: What can you tell us about your and Bob’s next project, “I-15”?
OLYNYK: We changed the name recently because as much as we like “I-15,” it doesn’t translate into other cultures or countries where they don’t know the word “Interstate.” “Breakdown Lane” is a zombie thriller about a woman whose SUV breaks down in the desert during the zombie apocalypse. She has to push the car through the broiling hot sun during the day, and hide out in it at night when the zombies come. Her only connection to the outside world is through the On-Star type of device in her car. The script is brilliant, and definitely a fresh story for the fans.
Because my producing partner and I run a screenwriting conference we have access to a lot of great writers and materials. Like us, they are just trying to get their scripts made and to find audiences with their work. We have been working with many of these writers to develop a slate of projects, and we are able to raise financing for films with budgets around $1M.
My producing partner and I are trying to bring something new to the genre, and so far, the fans seem to be responding. We are writers AND filmmakers. We produce “Man In A Box” thrillers and horrors that can be produced for around $1M, that can be sold internationally, and that focus on telling great stories. We cast films using recognizable talent, and that can be filmed with a minimal number of characters and locations so that they can be produced on a low budget. To us, it’s not about the buckets of blood. It’s about telling original stories that we haven’t seen before, and great writing.
If any of your readers would like to pitch us (and I hope they will), they can send a query to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also check out a trailer for the film at www.belowzeromovie.com, and our screenwriting conference at www.pitchfest.com. The conference is completely free and anyone can go. It is held annually in Los Angeles each year, with approximately 2,000 writers and filmmakers attending. We also host a pitchfest the next day where writers can pitch to industry executives. Tickets and details for that are also at www.pitchfest.com.
Thanks Signe — for more information on “Below Zero” visit www.belowzeromovie.com