KEN WHEAT -- HE KNOWS WHAT SCARES YOU
by William C. Martell
He has co-written and directed a STAR WARS sequel, created follow-ups to hit films by Alfred Hitchcock and David Cronenberg, and critics are already calling PITCH BLACK "the MATRIX of the new millennium"... this year's big break out science fiction film. Ken Wheat and his brother Jim have written over a dozen films in the science fiction and horror genres; notable for their clever plotting, surprising twists, and complex characters. Their thriller LIES is a sleeper classic, and one of my favorite films.
His new film PITCH BLACK opening on February 18 follows the survivors of a space transport ship crash who must set aside their differences and band together on a hellish barren planet with three suns. There is no darkness in this world, except for the darkness within the characters. There's the tough female captain Fry, and egocentric marshall Johns who is transporting a clever criminal Riddick to prison, and a handful of other survivors. But this land-of-always-day is about to change as a rare three-sun solar eclipse creates a surprising turn of events. Vin Deisel (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), Radha Mitchell (HIGH ART) and Cole Hauser star in the film and David Twohy (THE ARRIVAL) directs.
If you've ever asked a screenwriting question on the misc.writing.screenplay boards, there's a good chance that Ken provided an answer for you. For a guy who has worked with George Lucas, he's surprisingly accessible. The kind of writer more interested in actual screenwriting than in deal making. I first met Ken when he dropped by a Scriptwriters Network meeting to offer moral support when I was fighting my fear of public speaking by appearing on a panel on Killer Bs and Indie films. He was friendly, funny, and instantly put me at ease... even though I kept thinking "This guy's worked with George Lucas." With PITCH BLACK about to open, Ken time from his busy writing day to share some of his experiences with Script Magazine.
Ken and Jim Wheat broke onto the scene in 1980 with the horror film SILENT SCREAM starring Rebecca Balding as a college student who moves into a seaside mansion turned into a boarding house for college girls by creepy matron Yvonne De Carlo and her son Brad Reardon. When one of the college girls is murdered, Detectives Cameron Mitchell and Avery Schreiber investigate... and discover a secret past that threatens Rebecca and the surviving college girls.
"SILENT SCREAM was our first produced script, but the third written," Ken explains. "After getting a bit of attention with a short film called STUCK ON THE SCREEN, my brother Jim and I tried to put together a low budget feature we could produce ourselves. We wrote a story, raised a little development dough, and used that to hire a 'professional' screenwriter. We stumbled across an investor interested chasing tax right-offs, found a very talented guy to direct, and set up an exciting cast and crew. Then, over the course of a couple of days, a change in the tax laws killed our financing and our writer turned in a totally unusable script. Our entire package dissolved. Back at square one, the only thing we could do then was become writers ourselves.
"We did a bunch of drafts, then while trying to set it up again, Jim and I wrote another screenplay. The new one never sold, but it was noticed by commercial director Denny Harris, who hired us to rewrite and produce SILENT SCREAM."
SILENT SCREAM (1980) was directed by Denny Harris, and stars Rebecca Baling, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Steele, Yvonne De Carlo, Avery Schreiber, Steve Doubet, Brad Reardon and Jack Stryker.
"While that was in production, we sold our earlier script for about two cents," Ken says. "Parts almost played by Sarah Miles, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Lee were filled instead by Cybil Shepard, Jan-Michael Vincent, and Raymond Burr. I don't think it ever played theatrically, but it showed up on video as THE RETURN and TV as THE ALIEN'S RETURN. Oh, and it's bad enough to be funnier than embarrassing."
In THE RETURN (1980) two children and an old man in New Mexico are affected by a close encounter of the third kind. Greydon Clark directed and Martin Landau, Neville Brand, and Brad Reardon joined Shepard and Burr in the cast.
"As far as SILENT SCREAM goes, it proved to be both a unique and educational experience," Ken says. "We got involved after three quarters of low budget horror film had already been shot, and our job was to write and produce 20 or 25 minutes of new scenes that would glue it together. In the end, we eliminated all but 12 minutes of the original footage, and for the same money that was going to be spent on a few bits and pieces, we put together an essentially new film. All but four parts were cut or recast, and we hired Yvonne De Carlo, Cameron Mitchell and Barbara Steele to do a couple of days each. It was guerilla film making, with 12 days of principal photography, then several months of no budget inserts and doubles shots." How creative do you have to be on a budget that tight? "In the big climax, I'm both Yvonne De Carlo firing a gun and Barbara Steele reacting to the firecracker... I mean, the bullet-hit blasting the wall beside her," Ken laughs.
"What made the experience worthwhile was that SILENT SCREAM was number one at the box-office the week it was released, and went on to become a minor video hit," Ken says. "What made it suck was that we put in almost a year of solid work for five grand each, with zero back end. Live and learn."
Ken and Jim have six sequels to their credit, including NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, THE FLY 2, THE BIRDS 2, and THE STEPFORD HUSBANDS. How do you write something new that also satisfies the fans of the original?
"With great difficulty," Ken admits. "The ones Jim and I have done were all sequels to films we were big fans of, so we've always concentrated most on trying to please ourselves. Sometimes we've managed to do it. Other times, we've been just as unhappy as the next fan. Fortunately, we have rewriters and directors to blame for some of our more serious misses..."
How tough is it to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock and Evan Hunter (THE BIRDS), George Lucas, William Goldman and Ira Levin (THE STEPFORD WIVES), and David Cronenberg (THE FLY)?
"It's impossible. But hey, somebody has to do it," Ken laughs.
Which brings us to the big sequel... The best of the two STAR WARS TV movies, EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR (1985) with Wilford Brimley, Warwick Davis, Carel Struycken and Aubree Miller in a tale of high adventure about a girl, a hermit, and an overly-cute teddy bear who search for a nasty witch on the magical planet of Endor. Ken and Jim Wheat worked from a story by George Lucas.
"Lucas guided the creation of the story over the course of two four hour sessions we had with him," Ken explains. "He'd just watched HEIDI with his daughter the weekend before these took place, and the story idea he pushed was having the little girl from the first Ewok TV movie become an orphan who ends up living with a grumpy old hermit in the woods."
"We'd been thinking about the adventure films we'd liked as kids, like SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, so we suggested having space marauders, which was fine with George -- as long as they were 7 feet tall, of course!" Ken quips. "The rest of the brainstorming was done along those lines. Joe Johnston (the production designer and second unit director) and Phil Tippett (the creature supervisor) were involved in the second day's story session, and they contributed an assortment of bits and pieces."
"George's main involvement was in the design and the editing stages," Ken explains. "During pre-production we would go in three times a week to get his thoughts on the set, costume and creature designs. Sketches and models would be laid out on a table, and he'd quickly voice his approval or disapproval of each one. Actually, after a few sessions, he didn't even have to voice it, because Joe made up a set of stamps for him that read: 'Great', 'CBB' (could be better) and '86'. He was like a kid with a new toy when he saw those. Not only did it make it fast and fun, but there was no way anybody could ever be confused about his choices."
After the pre-production stage, Ken and Jim began directing the film, one of the most lavish made for TV movies ever made. How "hands on" was Lucas during production?
"He was barely around through the shoot, but his true love is editing, so he took part a lot during that stage," Ken smiles. "He'd given almost no notes on the script at all, but after our first cut, he came up with an assortment of new scenes and shots for us to film and cut in. Apparently, that's the way he likes to work, and although we hadn't been tipped off in advance, producer Tom Smith had scheduled and budgeted this 'George Factor' from the beginning."
"Everything about working with Lucas and the people at ILM was fun," Ken says. "Even when things got completely crazy, it was still more like play than work... Not the norm, I'm afraid."
If Lucas gave no notes on the script, it must have been pretty good. What do you think are the most important elements in a screenplay?
"Well, character's certainly up there. And I'd put surprise in the top five," Ken adds. "Jim and I are also pretty fanatical about presenting the reader (and hopefully the viewer down the road) with an opening scene that really grabs their attention. But no matter how good the characters and story and dialogue might be, those values can be severely undercut if a screenplay doesn't flow for the reader. This can be a delicate balancing act. There has to be enough detail to generate a mental movie in a reader's head, but it has to scan smoothly enough to avoid tripping brains on dialogue or description that doesn't track."
How do you and Jim outline and structure your scripts?
"In great detail," Ken says. "Not that we don't make massive changes as we go, but we like to have a pretty clear roadmap before we set off. We generally tape our brainstorming sessions, transcribe and edit what comes out of them, then create cards for every potential scene, bit, or character. A lot of time is spent selecting, sorting and shuffling cards, which form the basis for a line outline. Then all the relevant notes and dialogue sketches are stuck into a sometimes long, always sloppy document that becomes the 'master' we really start working from."
What do you think is the key to a good screenplay?
"I could say things like character and conflict, which are the concrete and vital elements, but it's a little more abstract than that for me," Ken explains. "The real key is whether it feels like it's a movie I'd like to see. When a story really works for me, I can feel my smile broadening, or my eyes brightening, or my senses tingling as images and emotions race through my mind."
THE FLY 2 (1989) is the sequel to a hit film, but is at its core a character study rather than a science fiction film. What is the most important thing to know when creating a character?
"What he or she is afraid of," Ken says. Fear is the key to character.
PITCH BLACK features an ensemble cast with some great rapid fire exchanges. Do you have any techniques for writing great dialogue?
"This is where a tape recorder really comes in handy. Jim and I like to act scenes out, (both together and on our own), improvising potential dialogue, then experimenting with variations," Ken explains. "This is transcribed and pruned, then used as a jumping off point for the more traditional writing of scenes."
A film like PITCH BLACK or THE BIRDS 2 or EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR are filled with special effects sequences. What are the challenges involved in writing a special effects film and how do you keep effects from overpowering the story and characters?
"You have to believe in them," Ken says. "If it feels real as you write it, there's no problem."
You and Jim are best known as genre writers. Many of your scripts have been science fiction or horror -- Is that typecasting or by choice?
"Those are the genres we first sold," Ken notes. "They're the genres people will hire us to write. And they're genres we can do pretty well, when things work out right... I suppose it doesn't hurt that these are also genres we like to watch!"
You and Jim both direct and write -- what's it like having someone else direct your script?
"Sometimes painful. Often frustrating, at the very least," Ken admits. "PITCH BLACK was definitely our best experience yet. For once, nothing about the final film was disappointing to us. In developing and shooting his take on the material, David Twohy made great choices, improving rather than screwing up characters and scenes. That's much nicer than when it goes the other way."
"PITCH BLACK grew out of an idea suggested by David Madden at Interscope," Ken explains. "Travelers visit a planet where multiple suns mean perpetual daylight, but when an eclipse brings darkness, ghosts emerge. The ghost element only made it as far as our first draft, but that wasn't what was most important to us."
"What we were after, and what David Twohy captured in his film, was the spirit of the classic 'castaway survivors' type adventures," Ken says. "The kind of movies where an unlikely group is thrown into great jeopardy together as a result of a plane crash or other travel crisis. They always end up battling the elements, some deadly 'natives', and most of all, each other. FIVE CAME BACK, THE SANDS OF THE KALAHARI and STAGECOACH were our prime models. That's what we wanted to see, and that's what Twohy delivered. So it was a very positive experience for us."
You and Jim are not only brothers, you are writing partners. What are the benefits of working with a partner?
"Writing with a partner is the only way of doing it either of us knows, so it seems pretty natural," Ken says. "The main benefit is having somebody to brainstorm with. Also, it's sometimes hard to prod yourself to work harder/longer/better, so it can come in handy to have someone there to give you a kick in the ass now and then."
Your script for NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER is credited to some guy named Scott Pierce. Who the hell is Scott Pierce?
"The pseudonym Scott Pierce was formed by combining our middle names," Ken explains. "It came to be used as a result of production politics, misunderstandings and most of all, the '88 strike."
Writers are always getting story notes from producers. Without getting yourself black-balled from the biz, what's the worst development note you've ever had on a script?
"'More eye candy.' This was the number one note on a script we did about some blue collar characters," Ken laughs. "We were told the network's audience wouldn't want to watch these people unless they lived in nicer neighborhoods, drove nicer cars, and had nicer jobs. Needless to say, almost everything in the script had to be changed to accomplish this."
Ken thinks for a moment, then adds, "But then, there's never a shortage of wacky development notes out there!"
Last Question: What's the best way to prepare an Ewok? Broiled? Deep fried? Barbecued? Do you have a favorite Ewok recipe?
"Hey, I like Ewoks! They've been very good to me!" Ken laughs.
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