Comic book writers Micah Ian Wright and Jay Lender recently released a feature-length horror film, They're Watching, to streaming services.
In the film, an American home improvement show interrupts a sacred ritual in a remote Eastern European town, and homicidal villagers may be the least of the crew's worries as things start to get weird…
You can check out our interview with Wright and Lender below, along with a gallery of storyboard art to give a sense of how the comics writers translated their craft to the screen.
You can check out They're Watching on streaming services including Amazon.
The first thing I'll ask you guys is what your kind of elevator pitch for people who have no background on this film?
Micah Ian Wright: It is an episode of House Hunters International gone terribly, terribly wrong. It started as a workplace comedy and then dissolves into a sinister, slow-burn thriller and then becomes a full blown horror movie.
You guys are comics people. Visual story-telling wise, what lessons can you take away from comics, because obviously there's two very different media, but everybody always says, "Oh, well it's the next closest thing."
Jay Lender: I think the obvious lesson is learning to choose your images. It's much harder to do that in comics than it is in feature films. We write a screenplay and we'll say, "The cars raced down the street, one of them turns left, the other one smashes into the building," and it's easy to write that, it's a few sentences, but when it comes time to make a comic book, you really have to pick what those images are actually to be.
Having come from comic books, both of us, we're sort of use to that kind of thinking, and it really helps you when you get on the set, because you've got 80 people standing around in the dead of night in 30 degrees in the forest in Romania, and they want to know what to do. You better have some idea what it is that you want to capture on film, or you're paying them to do nothing. We barely had the money to pay them to do something. We needed to make sure we knew what we were doing when we got out there.
Do you ever have that moment when you're writing, of saying like, "I've got to stop here, because even though I'm in a groove, I have goddamn idea what this is going to look like...and if it's live-action, then I have to know?"
Lender: Yeah, I think that that's always the job of a writer. It's a shame when there's a writer out there who isn't thinking about those things to some degree, because at some point, your work needs to be filmed. It needs to be realized. You don't want to put anything down on the page that can't be made in the real, or that can't be done on the kind of budget that your movie is going to deserve. Coming out of comic books and coming out of animation, we're always thinking visually. That's the first thing in your head, is what is this going to look like, and where's it going to take place and all that stuff.
Honestly, like I said, those are things that every writer should be doing, but people who deal exclusively with words on the printed page means and understand that, because they're not really dealing with the film making side, but Micah and I have. I wrote and directed, storyboarded, did animation for years, and Micah was the creator of his own TV show at Nickelodeon. He had to think that way. I had to think that way, and we carried that right into live action film making.
When you kind of make that transition, live action obviously comes with restrictions that you don't have in comics an animation, just because like you can't literally do everything. Do you sometimes have to kind of back up and say, "Whoa, is this something we can actually realize?"
Wright: Yeah, I think that we were very cautious about trying to come up with imagery that we wouldn't be able to realize. It's easy in comics to say, "A guy explodes into a million pieces," then when you start planning that shot in the real world, you realize that it's a hell of a lot easier to write. It is to film, and it's even easier to draw than it is to film.
We did some 15 to 20 illustrations by one of our comic artists from Duster, two of our comic artists actually. The producers liked what kind of effects we had in mind and like to have some sort of imagery to show to the special effects team. The special effects team looked at those illustrations and they were like, "Uh ... That'd be expensive, and what you should maybe do this, this, and this. Would you mind if it was more dark when this happened?" And we were like, "No, that would [be fine]."
They had suggestions the whole way through, but in the end, there's the end result of those is pretty close to what we had written and what we wound up with on film. It was interesting to see, using comics sort of as an intermediate step between film and script. Putting it down on paper helped the film people realize what we had in mind.
Lender: We learned some interesting things as we were doing this. There was one scene, I feel like talk about this now without giving anything away, there was a scene at the very end of the movie where someone in our storyboard had been impaled, and when we started talking about what it was going to take to accomplish that and make this happen the way it was drawn on the storyboard, it just proved to be too expensive and complicated. So we ended up substituting a shot where we literally set a human being on fire in the real world. It wasn't computer effect or anything like that. That turned out to be cheaper and easier and far less complicated than showing this impaling.
Planning like that is key. We had lot's of things in the storyboard, I shouldn't say lots of things, there were several things in the storyboard that just couldn't be done on our budget, but we designed everything at the end of the movie to be modular, so that if something went away, it wouldn't break the movie. In the sequel we'll be able to do a little more.
Funny enough, that was my next question was, it's horror, so everything is always presumably designed to be a franchise. Do you guys already have 16 ideas for this, or is this kind of a take it one at a time and hope that we get the sequel?
Wright: Well, and it's for sure let's take it one at a time and hope it becomes a sequel, but that said, we were shooting last night at 3 in the morning filming this ending sequence that we are talking about and that we can't give too much away about. We turn to one of the actors, the only character who lived to see the second film theoretically, and asked this person, "Hey, would you be interested in doing another one of these? Here's my idea for the second one." They smiled really big and said, "I would love to do that. I'll do 26 more of them."
We had solid ideas for a second one and a third one, and then we're just going to see what happens. We don't want to get pigeon-holing guys who can only do this kind of film. At the same time, we also don't want get pigeon-holing guys who can only make horror movies. I think that was part of why we put so much comedy in it in the first place, because we just tend to think funny to begin with, and then secondly, why get yourself pigeon-holed too intensely.
Having seen the feedback, with the next film, we'll probably get to the mayhem a little faster and we'll probably do a lot more of it with a lot more gore, and then maybe our horror films will be more happy. At the same time, we're not going to sacrifice the story-telling and the character building that we did in this film. I think that was the thing that a lot of people were not expecting from the movie and are very, very pleasantly surprised by it.
Lender: I think the good thing about doing something as different as our movie is, is that if we get pigeon-holed, it's our pigeon hole. At least they're just pushing us back into the box that we like to be in. These guys can only do this weird thing that nobody else has ever done before. That's a pretty good place to be. We'll see how it goes.
When you read what the high concept for this is, it felt to me kind of inspired by The Wicker Man. Is there anything that's kind of in your language like that, like what are the things you guys were kind of intentionally/unintentionally evoking a little bit as you were writing this?
Wright: We watched The Wicker Man before we wrote it. We watched The Wicker Man, we watched both versions, and oh boy, that second one is no good. Straw Dogs, both versions again. Any [John] Carpenter we could get our hands on. Movies about people who are outsiders in small areas where they're really not supposed to be. That's what our movie is.
I'm trying to remember what it's called, I can't remember what it is, there's that I watched, I don't think Jay watched it with me, but it was about a bunch of National Guard guys who go down into the Bayou and piss off all of the Cajuns and get hunted to extermination. We watched Deliverance. We had all of those films in mind, and many of them are 60's and 70's films, and they spend a lot of time building character and building the world and showing you the world.
Times were different then. We did not have two hours to have Christopher Lee sit around and talk about strawberries for half an hour, like in the original Wicker Man. We try to take our time and set up the characters so that when the mayhem started happening, you were actually scared for them, and were hoping that they would all live. It's really unusual for a horror movie.
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