Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.
Just in time for the holidays, Better Watch Out, directed by Chris Peckover and starring an all Australian cast, is a black comedy/horror film about a babysitter who has to defend a 12-year-old from intruders only to discover it’s far from a normal home invasion.
Peckover, who is half Canadian, half Australian, and was raised in Rockwall, Texas, started out as a pre-med student majoring in Psychology at Yale University before turning to film.
“I switched to film studies when rote memorizing plant zygote parts got boring,” he explained. He then went to the Peter Stark Producing Program at University Southern California (USC). A year out of USC, he sold the script for his first feature, Undocumented.
“It took two more years for the stars to align to make it,” he said.
Better Watch Out, is available for home viewing on iTunes, Amazon, Playstation, Xbox, and BluRay.
He now lives in Los Angeles. Script magazine interviewed Chris Peckover over email.
How did you get into film and screenwriting?
I went to college wanting be a neurosurgeon. But about halfway through, I realized that pre-med was all rote memorization, and I have a terrible memory. I wasn’t enjoying myself. My mentor asked where my passion was, and I surprised myself by saying “movies.” I grew up in Rockwall, the smallest county in Texas, as a Canadian foreigner. Most people didn’t take kindly to outsiders there. I used movies as an escape, and a way to express my feelings. So, my mentor said, forget medicine – and I did. In the end, I got both things I wanted, because crafting a film requires a certain surgery on the audience’s brain, predicting what effect you’ll have at any given moment and turning that on them to create a rollercoaster. I’m glad I made the switch.
How did your studies at Yale prepare you for a career in film?
To be honest, the film studies program at Yale is more academic than practical. Even the production classes I took were abstract and dogmatic. It wasn’t until I met Marc Lapadula, Yale’s screenwriting professor, when I really started to get how it works out there. I still write him all the time — he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. I wanted to be a director, so I’m really glad I got such great schooling in screenwriting. It was an early and important lesson that nobody gives a flip about your cool action set pieces and original details if there are no characters to care about and no heart to center your story.
Is a solid academic background in film and/or screenwriting a must for every screenwriter or filmmaker?
Absolutely not. As Stephen King said, the only way to learn how to write is to write. Same with directing. An academic background isn’t worth anything if it isn’t inspiring.
What makes a good screenwriter and filmmaker anyway?
Depends on whom you ask. A fan of the Transformers franchise might say, whoever can make the biggest BOOM. A fan of the Saw franchise might say, whoever can make you squirm the most. Personally, my favorite filmmakers are magicians. On the surface, you’re watching their thrilling/scary/mind-bending premise, but a good filmmaker is secretly working on your subconscious, winning you over with characters and relationships you connect with, so when the story comes to a head, you’re that much more thrilled or scared — because you’re invested.
When did you realize you wanted to be a screenwriter?
Senior year when Marc Lapadula half-jokingly accused me of plagiarizing. I was a natural at writing action scenes. It took me another decade to begin to understand the importance and way more difficult nuances of character.
How long have you been screenwriting and directing?
Really, since the beginning. I wrote and directed my first short in college. But it wasn’t until 2009 when I made my first feature, Undocumented.
Variety loved Better Watch Out, describing it as “a clever black comedy-cum-horror pic in which the apparent home invasion that traps a babysitter and her charges turns out to be something else entirely.” How did you come up with the idea?
I didn’t. The original idea of Zack Kahn’s, my co-writer. He wrote this absolutely sickening/shocking story that everybody loved. I like to think I contributed to the fun of Better Watch Out — the character, tone, banter…and the movie’s big homage to Home Alone.
What are some of the challenges, if any, that exists in directing your own script?
Directing your own script is way easier because you’ve already mulled over every scene a thousand times over. So, you know where all the characters are coming from. And it’s easier to problem-solve when something needs to change during the shoot. The only negative I can think of is that it’s more pressure — everything’s coming from you, so it had better be good.
What were some of the challenges in making this film?
What surprises people most is that we shot Better Watch Out in Sydney, Australia on a sound stage. The whole house is a set. The backyard is a set. The snow is gelatin and paper. Our shoes were constantly tracking wet shredded paper into the set. Keeping the set clean was a nightmare. We were a rather low-budget film, so we could only afford two hours of air-conditioning a day from Fox [Studios, Australia], even as temperatures outside were creeping well into heat wave. Under the hot lights, in the dead of summer, no air-conditioning, and on top of that the poor actors wearing winter coats and having to pretend it was cold.
That must have been a nightmare. What did you do to endure?
Me? I just sweat like a pig and tried to take showers regularly. There’s not much you can do when somebody’s money is draining away at a thousand dollars per hour. Just grin and bear it.
How did you choose to shoot in Australia? Your cast is Australian as well, sporting American accents- why?
My American producers and I met some wonderful Australian producers who wanted to elevate Better Watch Out to a serious indie production. You don’t say no to that. So, we shot in Australia, with Australian actors doing American accents on a stage at Fox. The only non-Aussies associated with the film were my two original producers and Luke’s parents, played by Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen.
Who are your favorite screenwriters and directors?
Caroline Thompson and Charlie Kaufman and I would’ve killed to have shook hands with Melissa Mathieson before she passed. Talk about shocking, original voices that found the heart within the darkness.
I have different reasons for loving my favorite directors — Spielberg, Zimmeckis, Oz, Hitchcock, Fincher, Luhrmann, Burton, Demme, Jonze — but the common thread is they each find ways to visually enhance our connection to their characters. It isn’t hard to create an impressive camera move that makes you go “whoa.” It is much harder to be visually exciting in ways that invest you even further into the relationships unfolding on screen.
What’s next for you?
You can definitely expect something supernatural from me next, and not sharing the stage with comedy as much. I just finished a script involving a doppelgänger, and I’m having a hard time going to sleep right now…