One of the benefits of having connections in the horror community is that every once in a while, you get to speak with someone about their work. Today, I got to speak with screenwriter Jerry Janda about his latest project, a found footage Lovecraftian horror film “Black Wake”.
I had the pleasure and honor of reading the original script for “Black Wake” before screenwriter Jerry Janda handed the script over to auteur indie horror film director Jeremiah Kipp, and let me tell you, it’s freaking AMAZING! It’s going to be a wonderful Lovecraftian film. (If you haven’t heard of either of these men, don’t worry. You’re going to be hearing a lot about them in the coming months. Trust me. They’re both top-notch artists with a serious talent for entertainment.)
Where did the idea for Black Wake come from?
In an online radio interview, Jeremiah Kipp (who directed “Painkiller,” a short film that I wrote, produced, and co-starred in) said he wouldn’t want to direct a found-footage film because he found the format limiting. He said he would need a really compelling script to do found footage.
That got me wondering: “Can I write a found-footage film that would interest Jeremiah?” I love a challenge, plus I liked working with Jeremiah on “Painkiller,” and I was interested in working with him again. So I decided to go for it.
Anyway, I knew I wanted to write a found-footage film, but I had zero ideas. Then in July 2014 “Painkiller” had wrapped, and was just about to enter post-production. I was on vacation in a tourist town near the ocean. I happened to watch a video on my phone of this weird worm come out of a praying mantis. In the comments, people were calling it an alien.
At first, I thought it was CGI; that it was a hoax. But then I read that it was something called a horsehair worm.
It’s a real thing.
They’re parasites that enter insects, affect the brains of the hosts, and force them to seek water to drown themselves so the parasites can return to water as part of their reproductive cycle. There are all kinds of parasites like horsehair worms that turn insects into zombies, for lack of a better term. It’s seriously creepy.
After I watched the video, I started thinking: “What if a human-like equivalent of horsehair worms infected people and forced them toward the water?”
I liked the idea, but it didn’t feel compelling (or original) enough. A relationship between organism and host was a big part of “Painkiller.” Bad enough that with my limited acting ability that people only offer me parts where I play a bad guy in a suit; I’m a z-level actor and I’ve already been typecast. On top of that, I didn’t want people to start thinking of me as a guy who only writes about parasites.
Also, we already had “The Bay”, a found-footage film that I really enjoyed about a parasite infecting a seaside town. I didn’t want to rip that off.
So… yeah. I’m on vacation. I know I want to write a found-footage film. I like this idea of these huge worms taking people over. And I’m stuck. But then I’m sitting on the beach — like you do when you’re on vacation in July near the ocean — and I’m looking out at the water. And bang! I start thinking of R’lyeh. I start thinking of Cthulhu. I start thinking that maybe the worms are somehow part of some larger alien intelligence. I start thinking of its motivations and its effect on people: hosts; worshipers; everybody. I start thinking of how a team of scientists might be documenting what’s happening and how the truth might start to unfold. And suddenly my idea for a found-footage film about worm parasites has grown to apocalyptic scale.
After that, I started telling people that I was working on a Lovecraftian found-footage film. That piqued interest before I typed a single word.
How long did it take you to write it?
That’s actually a tough question to answer. I have a tendency to write everything out fairly detailed in my head weeks, sometimes months, before I sit down to type. So once I get my lazy ass in front of my computer, the actual writing can be pretty quick because, in a sense, it’s already written.
I had initially intended to write it as a short film. But after I worked on it for a couple of days, I had sixty pages and I knew I had my first feature-length film on my hands.
So I’d say that the core script was written in a few days, not counting all the days I wrote it in my head. But then after the producer picked up the script, I got notes. I ended up writing several additional scenes. In fact, I got a request for a quick turnaround on a new scene to pitch to an actor’s agent in July 2015, while I was on vacation at the same place where I had the initial idea for the script almost a year earlier. Fate, right?
I didn’t have a computer with me, so I ended up borrowing my son’s iPad mini and banged out the scene as a note that I e-mailed to the producer.
Factoring in all of the additional scenes, edits, rewrites, and so on, I’d say I invested many, many days into the script. But don’t ask me to add them up. I got into writing because I suck at math.
Tell us about the monsters that are in this movie.
I may have described them inadvertently with my earlier answer. There are worm-like parasites. There’s an alien intelligence. I don’t want to say more and spoil anything.
There is something monstrous in the film that I’d love to talk about though. In the trailer, you’ll see a huge collection of filthy pages tied together. If you look closely, you’ll see the words “The Seas from Whence They Came” scribbled on the cover. That’s the name that popped into my head when I was getting inspiration staring at the ocean. It was also the original name of the script, before it changed to “Black Wake.”
In the film, “The Seas from Whence They Came” is a handmade book that’s my version of the Necronomicon. The Necronomicon comes up quite a bit in Lovecraft’s tales, and the writers he inspired have their own spins on cursed tomes. We know about these books, and we know about their authors, but the books themselves are ancient. They’ve been around for centuries before they show up in stories.
With “The Seas from Whence They Came,” I wanted to explore how a cursed tome is actually written. Even something like the Necronomicon had to start with a single page. So what inspires a madman to try to capture insane truths on paper? How is this forbidden knowledge conveyed? And why does reading it drive someone crazy?
I don’t see it as a clean creative process. In my mind, these books don’t have a typical narrative, nor are they like encyclopedias that readers can use for quick reference. For a cursed tome, I imagine that the author scribbles, jots down notes, adds sketches, all on whatever is on hand with whatever is available. It’s feverish and ugly; a chaotic compulsion. That’s why “The Seas from Whence They Came” is such a mishmash of a book, all kinds of worn papers loosely held together. The secrets are in there, somewhere between the lines.
The book passes hands several times in the film, and it has an impact each and every time. In a sense, “The Seas from Whence They Came” is a character, and quite possibly the scariest monster in the story.
What made you decide to go with Jeremiah Kipp as a director?
A better question might be, “What made Jeremiah decide to go with me as the writer?” He encouraged me to keep writing after “Painkiller”, even though I was ready to throw in the towel.
I financed most of “Painkiller” myself, and I had problems — let’s call them personality issues — on the set that, as producer, I had to deal with. As much as I love the film (and I loved writing it and acting in it) the production part left a bad taste in mouth.
I wanted to stay involved in film, wanted to stay creative, so I decided I would stick to writing. Acting is fun for me, but I have no delusions about my limited abilities. Writing is my thing. I figured I would keep writing and share my scripts with directors. And that’s what I did. I’d send a script to a director and say, “If you’re looking for a project, consider this. I’m just interested in a writing credit.”
After I wrote “Black Wake,” I sent it to Jeremiah. He already knew I was working on a Lovecraftian found footage film, and despite his reluctance to do found footage, I believe the overall idea interested him. And he had some sense of my writing ability after working on “Painkiller.”
Also, we had a running joke on “Painkiller”; most of it was shot in a very cramped space that really wore people down, so Jeremiah said the next film has to be in a tropical paradise. I figured a film with a lot of beach scenes might appeal to him.
At the time, Jeremiah was talking to a producer in New York who wanted to work with him. But they needed a project. Jeremiah shared my script with him, and he liked it enough to produce it.
What can you tell us about the cast of the movie?
The film stars Nana Gouvea, a Brazilian actress. I believe this may be her first English-language film. She plays a scientist who is investigating a series of mysterious deaths , and she is slowly realizing what’s actually going on. It’s a fairly complex character, but from what I’ve seen, her emotional range is amazing.
In the trailer, there’s a moment where she stares at the camera, and it chilled me. There are a lot of moments like that in the trailer. It’s only 90 seconds, but in that brief span of time, you see these great glimpses of her capturing confidence; horror; madness; defiance; misery.
The cast names most familiar to U.S. audiences are probably Tom Sizemore and Eric Roberts. Roberts plays the leader of the science team that Nana’s character is part of.
Sizemore plays a detective who witnesses the effects of the “The Seas from Whence They Came” firsthand, and he’s determined to stop whatever’s coming.
Fans of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” may recognize Jonny Beauchamp, who played Angelique, Dorian Gray’s transgender lover, on the show. He’s also in “Stonewall,” Roland Emmerich’s film about the Stonewall riots. If people don’t know Beauchamp, I suspect they will soon. He has all the makings of a breakout star. In “Black Wake,” he plays a frightening homeless man who is also the author of “The Seas from Whence They Came.”
The film also co-stars Rich Graff, who plays Lucky Luciano in AMC’s “The Making of the Mob: New York” miniseries. Kelly Rae LeGault, the lead from “Painkiller”, is also in the film, as is Tom Ryan, a friend and indie filmmaker whom I’ll be working with on a few upcoming projects.
What kind of special effects or makeup were involved?
Beatrice Sniper is doing the practical effects for the film, and I’ve heard nothing but good things. She also happened to work on a project with a colleague at my day-to-day job, who is also an aspiring filmmaker, and he speaks highly of her. I can’t say more than that, honestly. I haven’t been on set at all, so I didn’t see her at work. But I have seen some of her effects in the trailer, most notably a split-skull effect. That was impressive and exactly how I envisioned it.
For CGI, I believe the director and producer are still looking for a visual effects expert. I’m curious to see how these turn out. In writing the script, I figured that some moments could only be handled with CGI. Imagine if someone tried to do “Call of Cthulhu” on a grand scale. You’d probably end up with unintentional laughs if a Great Old One turned out to be a guy in a rubber suit stomping on miniatures.
When can we expect to see Black Wake released, and where can people watch it?
It’s my understanding that the film will come out in 2016, but I’m not sure how it will be distributed yet. I’m not even entirely sure what will be distributed. While I wrote it, I don’t have any creative control, and Jeremiah and the producer will determine what the audience sees. So I’m curious to find out what makes the final cut. On the plus side, the trailers all show things I’ve written, so I feel that the film will stay true to the script. I’m looking forward to seeing it myself!