From Gore to Ganja: Horror Writer Stephen Susco Tries Something Different With the Stoner Comedy ‘High School’
Stephen Susco’s career illuminates one of the odder aspects of the screenwriting life—sometimes, a writer’s most familiar credits tell only part of the story about his or her artistic sensibilities. For instance, Susco’s first two produced movies were The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006), a pair of shockers that helped popularize American adaptations of the extreme-cinema trend known as “J-Horror,” short for “Japanese Horror.”
Furthermore, because Susco’s slate of upcoming projects includes the gruesome-sounding movies Hack/Slash, Scared of the Dark, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, one might reasonably assume Susco is only interested in tales of bloodshed and mayhem.
So how did he end up co-writing and co-producing the new stoner comedy High School, which is opening in limited release on June 1? (The picture stars Adrien Brody, Michael Chiklis, and Colin Hanks.) Well, as it turns out, Susco’s first professional screenwriting projects—including a book adaptation he wrote for New Line while Susco was still a student at USC’s film school—were mostly comedies. It simply happens that after several years of writing scripts that didn’t get made, the project that finally put Susco onto the map was a horror movie. In fact, Susco notes he accrued a staggering 24 unproduced screenplays before The Grudge went into production.
Therefore, it’s not surprising he wanted to seize some behind-the-scenes power over his own career. “I think becoming a producer is a natural instinct for many screenwriters to want to have a bit more control over what actually makes it to the screen,” he says. Ironically, however, it was frustration with a totally separate producing project that led Susco toward his involvement with High School. The story begins with John Stalberg Jr., the co-producer, co-writer, and director of High School.
“John and I formed a company called Zero Hour Films back in 2005 or so to develop unique independent genre films from the ground up,” Susco recalls. “We’d been cultivating our own projects—and several others with some guys and gals we’d been fans of for a while—but nothing had fully advanced into production. At one point we had a project fully financed for the third time, only to have the financing fall out in the middle of prep. We ended that year a bit down—and, conscious of the fact that all of our projects were rather dark, decided to develop a comedy just to cheer ourselves up.”
“John had developed a script for High School years prior with another writer—Erik Linthorst—and John pitched me the concept,” Susco continues. “I just about fell out of my chair laughing, and I wondered how it was possible no one had ever made that movie. John brushed up the script, sent it to me. I worked on it for a while, and sent it back. We kicked it around like that for a few months and it became the project that infused some fun into our horror-themed company. Next thing we knew, we had a script that actually worked, and a lot of interest from the film world. We were shooting four months later.”
High School tells the story of Henry Burke (Matt Bush), a straight-arrow senior who just got a scholarship to MIT. One afternoon, Henry’s stoner pal Travis (Sean Marquette) convinces Henry to lighten up with some weed. Unfortunately, that happens to be the same day uptight Principal Gordon (Chiklis) announces a random drug test of all students, threatening anyone who fails the test with expulsion.
Henry and Travis come up an outlandish scheme—they decide to dose all the brownies in the school’s bake sale with dope, so everyone will fail the test. Enter a drug dealer whose name says a lot, Psycho Ed (Brody). High jinks ensue, which the emphasis on the word high. With its combination of pratfalls and pot jokes, High School is a world away from the other movies on Susco’s filmography, and Susco says the change of pace was thrilling.
“It had been years since I’d tackled writing a comedy, and John and Erik’s idea was just so profoundly brilliant,” he says, adding that there’s less of a gulf between writing comedy and writing horror than one might imagine. “Comedy and horror are both about timing more than anything else. Comedy is just a hell of a lot more fun to shoot—especially when you’ve got Michael Chiklis cracking you up all day.”
The writing aspect of Susco’s High School experience was so positive that he’s begun work on additional comedy scripts, and the producing aspect of the experience confirmed that he was right to explore a broader role in filmmaking. “High School was the first movie I’d written where I was on set every day, not just as a writer,” he says. “It was a great lesson in learning how to swim by jumping into the deep end face-first.
“The experience left me encouraged to develop more projects from a ground-up position, and to sacrifice other elements in order to retain creative control,” Susco continues. “High School was a much more rewarding journey than other projects where I’ve been writer eight out of an eventual 16, or the myriad of scripts that I’ve got languishing in studio reliquaries.” (A reliquary is a shrine in which relics are contained, and every writer who’s been through the Hollywood mill knows what Susco’s talking about—the soul-sucking trauma of watching your script get thrown onto a shelf the way the Ark of the Covenant gets stowed in a warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
In addition to the charge he’s gotten out of adding a producer’s hat to his wardrobe, Susco stays enthusiastic about his job by remembering the sheer love of storytelling that compelled him to become a writer in the first place. Elaborating on this key concept, Susco wryly describes a family that might have something to do with his skill for writing horror movies.
“My dad used to tell me scary stories when I was a kid—stories based on movies he’d seen that I was too young to see, films like The Birds, The Fog, and Alien,” Susco says. “Occasionally, when my brother and I came home from soccer practice, our house would be the only one in the neighborhood with the lights off—my father had cut the power and hidden somewhere in the house to scare the pants off us. I’ve never asked him why he took such particular glee in such things, but I’ve let him know he’s responsible in part for the career path I’ve chosen.”