I’ve always loved October. It is a perfect month. I am a big horror fiend, and October is clearly a globally designated Spooky Time for everybody. All month long, spooky music, books, movies, costumes, decorations…it’s all one big, glorious celebration of the genre I’ve been obsessed with since I was a little kid watching the EVIL DEAD movies over and over.
Most people, they use October as an excuse to consume horror every day. It becomes a tradition. I was the same, except this year I did something a little different in October.
I made a horror movie.
Well, okay, I was one part of many people who made a horror movie.
This October, my novella, WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING, was adapted into a film. I also wrote the screenplay and served as an executive producer. Here’s the Hollywood Reporter press release.
To quickly summarize, WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING is set almost entirely in a residential bathroom. A family seeks shelter from a tornado, and things…uh, get out of hand from there.
As I write this article, we are currently in post-production. Sean King O’Grady directed, Shane Patrick Ford edited, and Jean-Philippe Bernier was our brilliant cinematographer. Dan Rebert Creations handled the practical effects. Our entire cast consisted of Sierra McCormick (THE VAST OF NIGHT), Vinessa Shaw (HOCUS POCUS, EYES WIDE SHUT), Pat Healy (CHEAP THRILLS, THE INNKEEPERS), Lisette Alexis, and John James Cronin, with a crew of something like 32 people.
At this point you’re probably wondering how the hell this even happened, especially during one of the weirdest years in recent history.
Well, I’ll tell ya.
Sure I’ll tell ya.
That’s the whole purpose of this article, ain’t it?
I mean, if I don’t tell you, then I won’t get paid.
And if I don’t get paid, my family will leave me. They’ve told me that before. The moment I don’t have any money, they’ll find someone else to love. They’ll abandon me in the woods with the knowledge that I’ll never find my way home again, because I am terrible with directions and also easily distracted.
So, okay, yes, the movie.
Why I decided to write a screenplay
A couple years ago, I had lunch with my screenwriter friend Shane McKenzie. He was telling me about some of the projects he’d been involved in, and some of the companies he’d written for, including one indie production company I won’t name here. He told me they were hungry for new scripts, and that I was an idiot for not exploring the world of screenplays. So I said, “Hey! That’s a rude thing to say, Shane,” and ran home to start working on an original screenplay so I could prove him wrong.
And, yup, you guessed it, that screenplay ended up being WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING, which is now an actual feature film! Hooray! But wait. It’s more complicated than that. Stop getting ahead of yourself. The company Shane sent it to, we never heard back from them. I quickly gave up on the idea of the screenplay getting made. I moved on to other things. A few months passed and the story from WNTDS still hadn’t left my brain. There was something about it that I knew people would really enjoy. I realize that last sentence sounds insane and egotistical, but let me remind you my ego is the size of Eugene Levy’s eyebrows.
Let’s be real, here. To assume ANYBODY would like a movie set entirely in a bathroom is pure lunacy. There is no way to elevator pitch this idea to anybody without immediately getting slapped in the face afterward.
But still. There is something about single-location horror that really gooses my egg. Is that an expression? I have no idea. I feel like I’ve heard someone say it before, but the longer I think about it the less sure I become, and I refuse to Google it. Let’s just say it’s a common expression and if it isn’t, maybe you’re the stupid one and I’m the smart one, how about that?
Why I turned the screenplay into a novella
Wait. Back to the screenplay. I kept thinking about it and decided I really wanted people to experience it in some fashion, and the screenplay seemed less and less likely to gauge anybody’s interest, so I pulled a sharp 180 and returned to the one dumb thing I know how to do in this world: I made it into a book.
A novella, to be exact. 34,000 words, exactly 150 pages in the paperback version. By the time I finished it, I found myself feeling eternally grateful for this decision, as the story itself evolved in such a neat, unexpected way. If you’ve read the book, I’m almost embarrassed to reveal how shitty the previous first-draft screenplay was. Maybe shitty isn’t the right word. But, compared to the final result, it definitely feels that way.
I think I finished the novella around October of 2019. At the time, I did not have any representation (and, as of the writing of this article, I still do not have a literary agent–so, uhhh…hit me up, lit agents). My next goal in publishing was (is?) to snag a deal with a big press, as I’ve spent most of my career dealing with indie publishing. I do not consider indie publishing a negative thing. Depending on the company, it can be very rewarding. Hell, I even co-run my own company, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, with Lori Michelle. I understand what it takes to run an indie press. It’s very hard work. But, with that said, I’ve absolutely had my share of emotionally damaging experiences with certain small presses. I’m not going to get into the details here. This article is meant to be a positive article. However, I can’t claim every small press I’ve worked with has been a good company. Many still owe me money that I doubt I will ever see, and a good majority of them did nothing more than I could have accomplished myself if I’d self-released through my own company.
So yes. By the time I finished WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING, I was ready to try (again) at getting my writing published with one of the Big 5 (or maybe it’s just a Big 1, at this point???). However, to do this, I knew I would need a lit agent, since these bigger companies usually won’t read submissions from authors without representation. Right away this proved to be an issue, because agents aren’t exactly in the business of reading unsolicited novellas. They’re mostly interested novels. At least when it comes to first signing on a new author (at least in my experience). The problem here was I did not have a full-length novel finished. I just had this 34,000-word novella about a family stuck in a bathroom. What the hell was I gonna do with that?
Then I saw Tor’s new horror imprint, Nightfire, was planning to briefly open to unsolicited novella and novel submissions the following summer, and I figured this would be a perfect opportunity to potentially find a home for WNTDS. I had no problem with waiting until June 2020. What could possibly happen between then, right?
Anyway, so, a plague happened.
Why I self-published the novella with zero promotion
And is still happening, as I’m sure you are aware.
It kicked in around the same time I started working with a film and TV manager named Ryan Lewis, who also represents my friend, Josh Malerman. Ryan got involved with me after a TV company expressed interest in my novel, TOUCH THE NIGHT. I did not know how to answer their questions, which led to Ryan stepping in and lending a hand, which eventually led to him becoming my actual manager. I am not going to explain what a manager does. If you’ve seen CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, then just visualize Jeff Garlin’s character. Or maybe Princess Carolyn from BOJACK HORSEMAN. That’s basically Ryan. We started going through my previously released work, and some other stuff I was in the process of writing, and forming various plans for how to hopefully sell them to Hollywood.
Meanwhile, the plague was still going on, and I was still working full-time as a hotel night auditor. I’d been at the hotel since 2012 and, honestly, hated every single second of it. With COVID, the job took an unexpected turn. Most hotels shut down temporarily, but ours stayed open. However, they did furlough or straight-up fire a good majority of our staff, including our laundry and kitchen people. Which meant, on top of my regular night audit duties, I now had to handle both the laundry and kitchen roles. It was, uh, a lot, and very stressful, and very thankless. My hotel managers were very cruel people who lived on gossip and passive-aggressive comments. At a certain point, I assumed my hotel would also shut down. I started wondering how I would continue paying bills. I did not have any money saved up. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, for Christ’s sake. You can’t save money when it’s constantly being drained to survive.
So I said fuck it. Might as well release this novella I’ve been sitting on through my company. This way, any profit gained wouldn’t have to be split with anybody else, and the money from webstore orders would hit my account immediately. I couldn’t afford to wait until the summer when Nightfire opened, and even then, it was a pretty slim fucking chance they’d even accept it, right? So I did something kinda insane, and–with zero pre-promotion–I self-released WNTDS on a Saturday night (during a tornado warning!).
Why I turned the novella into a screenplay again
Not too long after that, my manager got a chance to read it, and he saw the film potential immediately. After a month or so, we banged out a new screenplay based on the novella (I’d send him a draft, he’d send me notes, I’d send a new draft, and so on).
By July, Ryan and I were having a zoom meeting with Sean King O’Grady and Bill Stertz of Atlas Industries. Ryan was already acquainted with these folks from another film they’re in the process of developing (an adaptation of Josh Malerman’s BLACK MAD WHEEL). I don’t know the specifics of how he convinced them to read my screenplay, but they did, and in our zoom meeting Sean told me he wanted to make the movie. Not just produce it through Atlas Industries but also direct. He’d directed documentaries before, but he was hungry to direct his first narrative feature, and WNTDS seemed like the perfect opportunity with recent COVID-restrictions in place. It’d be a hell of a lot easier to make a movie set in one location with a limited cast than something more expansive.
And that’s exactly what WNTDS was: one location, limited cast. They could make the entire thing on their personal soundstage in Detroit. Completely control the environment and make it as COVID-proof as possible.
But of course, we still needed a cast. And, ya know, funding. I don’t know, at this point, if I am allowed to discuss the specifics of our budget, but I think it’s okay to tell you it wasn’t very much. I mean, it sounded like an impossible number to me, personally, but compared to most movies, the targeted budget seemed easily obtainable to everybody else involved. And…after a couple months, we obtained it. Along with a dream cast (not to be confused with a Dreamcast).
Why I quit my terrible fucking job
Midway through August, I’d decided the hotel was probably going to kill me or, at the very least, break me forever. After a long talk with my spouse, I decided to put in my two weeks’ notice with the intention of making a living as a freelancer (speaking of which, thanks for this writing space, Film 14!). One week after putting in my notice, I was driving home from Whataburger when Ryan called to let me know we’d gotten fully funded. I was so stunned that I nearly wrecked, but somehow I managed to get home and share a meal with my partner and try to understand what something like this would mean for our lives going forward. The stress of whether or not I’d be able to survive as a freelancer slightly loosened, as I would now have a decent paycheck coming my way once filming officially began at the end of September.
After eight years of working a night job I despised, I left on September 1st and never returned. On October 2nd, I drove from my own in San Antonio, TX to another hotel in Michigan, but this time as a guest instead of an employee. I stayed in Michigan until October 27th. For almost an entire month, I witnessed my movie get made. It is, without a doubt, one of the best things to ever happen in my life, and I will cherish my memory of it forever.
It is also one of the scariest things to ever happen in my life, but more on that in a bit.
What it was like on the set of my first movie
I grew up obsessed with DVD bonus features and director commentaries. I knew, before driving down to Michigan, sort of what to expect. I knew how long it could take between takes. I knew scene setups could take a while. I knew to bring a book or notebook with me to fill that time. I also expected to be awestruck the entire shoot. All of this ended up being true. The moment I walked in on set, I could barely talk. Being an executive producer on the project, I had been involved in discussions for how the set should look, but even with that type of preparation I was still shocked to see it up close. It was truly…surreal. Then meeting the cast and crew? Holy crap.
When I made it to set, it was Day 2 of filming. Here is a picture I snapped on my phone of the set as director Sean King O’Grady gave me the grand tour (Atlas Industries was kind enough to grant me permission to post it here on Film 14). That’s right, baby. Here is some exclusive BTS.
I still get excited looking at this picture (along with the dozens of other BTS images on my phone that I am not allowed to publicly share). But this one is perfect to include here at this early stage of post-production. We don’t spoil anything from the story, but we also manage to get a cool peek at what the bathroom looks like minutes before a scene started filming.
I hesitate to get into too specific of details when it comes to the set and how it was filmed. As I previously mentioned, we are still in post-production at the time of this writing, meaning nobody has quite reached a marketing or promotional mindset just yet. This is also my very first production, and I have no idea what’s appropriate to talk about and what’s best kept a secret. But, with that said, I think it’s probably safe to talk a little about the dreams, since they don’t actually have anything to do with the film itself. Or maybe they have everything to do with the film. I’m no longer sure.
How I met the grinning man
So, okay, yeah. At a certain point during filming, I started experiencing the most intense dreams of my life. Dreams that would wake me up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. So drenched that I had to ask housekeeping for extra sheets the following morning. It wasn’t just one incident, either. Once I started having the dream, I didn’t stop. Any time I fell asleep after that, it was the same thing, over and over again.
What I can remember now about the dream is this: there was a tornado, and it was coming straight for me, destroying everything else in its path. The ultimate reminder of how truly small I was in the universe, that–in the grand scheme of things–I was merely waiting in line for total obliteration.
It’s probably also fair to conclude these dreams were only happening because of the movie we were filming. WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING, after all, is about a family stuck in their bathroom after a tornado passes through town. So yes. It makes sense that I would be dreaming about tornados.
We were at the halfway point of shooting when I learned other crew members were experiencing the same dream. Not a SIMILAR dream, but the same fucking dream. I clearly remember sitting in the cafeteria during lunch, overhearing another table as they realized they were all dreaming about the same tornado, and I approached them to announce the same storm was also plaguing my sleep.
Suddenly a lot of things made sense. Everybody–the cast, the crew–had developed an abrupt aggravation around this time. Everybody was cranky. Like they weren’t getting any rest. Which, it turns out, is exactly what was going on. Somehow, everybody involved in this movie who was on set, had gotten infected with the same dream, and it was driving them insane. Myself, included.
There, in the cafeteria, we each took a piece of paper and drew the tornado from our dreams. The tornados, for the most part, appeared about the same. There were some differences in quality, which is understandable, as not everybody involved in the movie is also an artist. I certainly cannot draw worth a damn.
However, there WAS something eerily identical found in every single drawing:
A face in the tornado.
A very specific face that we quickly started referring to as The Grinning Man.
Every drawing contained this Grinning Man. While the tornadoes may have each been drawn slightly differently, the Grinning Man always looked exactly the same, in every drawing.
And the weirdest part? None of us had any memory of including him in our drawings. We’d all set out to merely doodle a tornado, and afterward this…this omen of a face somehow conjured itself within our pencil illustrations.
He was also in our dreams, of course, even if it took a while for any of us to admit it.
Always grinning. Always staring.
Where did he come from, and what did he want?
In the cafeteria, it was agreed the smart thing to do would be to destroy our illustrations and pretend nothing strange was happening. After all, we were making a freaking MOVIE, right? The movie was most important, above anything else. These dreams, this Grinning Man, they were just distractions, and we couldn’t afford distractions, so we burned our illustrations out in the parking lot and stomped on the ashes.
Okay. Confession time.
I’m probably going to piss off the studio and my fellow crew members, but when nobody was looking, I maaaayybe took a phone pic of my own dream illustration. I thought it was a good thing to document, in case…in case anything happened, I guess? I needed some sort of evidence that this was real.
So, without any permission from the studio, I am sharing my picture. Maybe after the Grinning Man is exposed online, I will finally stop dreaming about him. Maybe after this article is posted, I can finally fucking get some sleep again.
So, yeah. Here is the drawing. Do with it what you will.
We tried to resume filming, but it wasn’t easy. Scenes were delayed. Equipment was broken. Nobody could focus on a goddamn thing. At one point, one of the cast members stormed off set, shouting, “What’s the point in making movies anymore? The Grinning Man will find us! The Grinning Man ALWAYS finds us!”
True story? Nobody ever saw that cast member again. We had to recast them and reshoot. No, I am not allowed to say which actor.
But whatever. These things happen on every film set, I’m told. It’s not that big of a deal.
By some miracle, we wrapped filming in late-October. Now we’re in post-production, and things are looking…really good. I don’t know what else to say about the experience. The entire month was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me, minus the bizarre dream issues. I hope I get to do it many more times in the future, to make it my new October tradition, but for it to have even happened once–holy shit. I feel immensely grateful.
Even writing this article right now, reliving such an awesome experience, I have the biggest grin across my face.
And it won’t go away.
* * *
I don’t know when this movie will finally come out, but until then, there’s always the book, which is available now. You can even buy a signed copy directly from my webstore.
Max Booth III is the Editor-in-Chief of Perpetual Motion Machine, the Managing Editor of Dark Moon Digest, and the host of two podcasts: Ghoulish and Castle Rock Radio. He’s the author of Touch the Night, Carnivorous Lunar Activities, and several other novels. Follow him on Twitter @GiveMeYourTeeth or visit him at www.TalesFromTheBooth.com. He lives in Texas.
More from Max Booth: The Devil All the Time Netflix Adaptation.
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