Writers on Writing: Stevan Mena on Bereavement

Writer-director Stevan Mena on the set with Alexandra Daddario (as Allison) (photo: Scott Krycia/K Studios)

For this Writers on Writing installment, Stevan Mena writes about his latest film Bereavement and his approach to writing horror.

by Stevan Mena

Many modern horror films think pushing boundaries means more blood and guts. But what gets me engaged is the level of peril. And the only way I know to increase that level the audience feels is through empathy. The more the audience cares for the characters, the worse they will feel when those characters are in danger. That central idea was the core of my approach in writing Bereavement, a prequel to my debut feature Malevolence. While Malevolence was a love letter to my favorite slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s, I wanted Bereavement to be more of a character study.

Malevolence was very reactionary in that it employed external forces to drive the narrative, showing how the characters reacted to immediate danger, and revealing them through those choices under duress. I wanted Bereavement to be more layered, so that the audience could learn more about the characters from inside-out. This way, when confronted, we knew what was at stake, what choices we expected them to make, and could then be surprised when their actions didn’t match our expectations. I think this unpredictability makes the horror more palpable, and draws us in. Random violence to strangers rarely gets people’s attention. But violence against people we know, that’s different. So Bereavement became a very character-driven piece.

A common motif that runs through the film centers on people being trapped. The main character, Graham Sutter, a psychotic recluse who is tormented by his past–his inner demons externalized into what he believes are real entities telling him what to do–is trapped by his own delusions. He kidnaps a boy, Martin, and forces him to clean up after he murders his victims because he can’t bear to do it himself. Sutter keeps Martin trapped through fear, convincing the boy that the scarecrows surrounding the perimeter of the farm are real, and will never let him escape.

Allison, who is the main protagonist, comes to live with her uncle when her parents die suddenly. She becomes trapped by her situation. She meets a boy named William, whose father is an invalid in a wheelchair. William’s father relies on him for almost everything, leaving William little chance to escape to a better life. I used these techniques throughout, some obvious, some subtle. Here’s a sample scene:

               INT. WILLIAM'S CAR -- NIGHT  

               ALLISON and WILLIAM are parked in his Mustang convertible by
               a scenic overpass. But the view is dire and barren.

                                   	WILLIAM
                         I restored it piece by piece.
                         Thought about opening my own body
                         shop one day, but ... 

                                   	ALLISON
                         Why don't you?

               William offers her a beer, but she refuses. He takes a sip.

                                   	WILLIAM
                         My dad, he's ... not so good on his
                         own. 

                                   	ALLISON
                         Has he always been, um, you know
                         ...

                                   	WILLIAM
                         He used to work construction. Lost
                         the use of his legs in an accident.
                         In Chicago, actually. 

                                   	ALLISON
                         Have any brothers or sisters?

               William caresses the steering wheel, as if driving.

                                   	WILLIAM
                         Just me and my dad. My mom took
                         care of him until she got sick.

               Allison waits.

                                   	WILLIAM
                         She died two years ago. Pneumonia.

                                   	ALLISON
                         Isn't there anyone else to help
                         out?

                                   	WILLIAM
                         We get by okay. When he's not
                         drinking. He loves to watch
                         Jeopardy. But he's always wrong.
                         Shouts at the TV a lot.

                                   	ALLISON
                         Ever think of leaving?

                                   	WILLIAM
                             (resolute)
                         He's my dad.

               Allison rubs her arms. William notices and puts the top up.

                                   WILLIAM
                         What about you?

               She takes a moment, hesitant.

                                   ALLISON
                         My father always wanted a boy. He
                         was a track star, just missed
                         qualifying for the Olympics in '76.
                         He tried to correct that failure
                         through me. Trained away my social
                         life just to make him proud.

               It begins to RAIN.

                                   ALLISON (CONT'D)
                         It was their anniversary. They were
                         driving home from dinner just a
                         mile from the house. An SUV blew a
                         stop sign.

               She tears up. William is still.

                                   ALLISON
                             (distant)
                         It's funny how everything can
                         change in an instant. A stranger
                         can come along and in the blink of
                         an eye just... destroy everything.

               EXT. WILLIAM'S CAR -- CONTINUOUS
               We pull back a far distance behind the car. A TRUCK rolls
               into the foreground. It idles there a moment ... WATCHING. 

               INT. WILLIAM'S CAR -- CONTINUOUS

                                   WILLIAM
                         So you came to live with your
                         uncle?

                                   ALLISON
                         I have a grandmother in New York
                         but she's agoraphobic, never leaves
                         the house, has her groceries
                         delivered. Real freak show. It was
                         her or my uncle.

                                   WILLIAM
                         Bet you wish you went to New York
                         now, huh? 

               Allison looks out at the barren landscape, then at William.

                                   ALLISON
                            (shrugs)
                         I hate New York.

               He leans over to kiss her. She leans back at first, then lets
               him.

               EXT. WILLIAM'S CAR -- CONTINUOUS

               A boot steps out into a puddle. We slowly approach the car.

               INT. WILLIAM'S CAR -- CONTINUOUS

               They get a little heavy, as William slips his hand under her
               shirt, exposing her breast. She pushes his hand away gently.

               A loud KNOCKING startles them. Allison fixes herself as
               William curiously rolls down his fogged window. 

               Standing silhouetted in the rain is –

In most horror films, this scene might end up on the cutting-room floor because it doesn’t necessarily move the main plot forward, aside from a few character payoffs later. But what it provides is a glimpse into the characters life that creates a bond with the viewer. Allison is no longer a stranger. We know about her, and her situation.

Brett Rickaby (as Graham Sutter) and Chase Pechacek (as young Martin) (photo: Scott Krycia/K Studios)

The (evil) joy I get as a horror writer-director is similar to a child who loves to kick over a house of cards after he spent hours building it. That’s what horror writing is: We set up these people, put them in peril, watch to see how they respond, then (possibly) destroy them. The more we care, the more frightened we are when they are alone and something is lurking behind them, and the more upset we are when they die. No buckets of blood or big bang sound effect can replace that, in my opinion.

Michael Biehn (as Jonathan Miller) in Bereavement. (photo: Scott Krycia/K Studios)

Every great horror movie has a central character that we care for. Your hero is only as good as your antagonist. The bigger and scarier the bad guy, the more your central character must rise to the occasion to do battle and survive, testing his or her limits. If the emphasis is placed solely on the antagonist (as it often is in horror), it creates an imbalance in the storytelling.

Bereavement takes a huge risk for a commercial film in that it doesn’t include the typical Hollywood ending. But as writers, I feel we should test those boundaries. Verisimilitude goes a long way in horror, but if you employ it, you can’t chicken out at the end and say, don’t worry, it’s only a movie, see, everything worked out okay. Because in real life, it often doesn’t.

Bereavement, a Crimson Films release, hits theaters February 18th (limited).

4 thoughts on “Writers on Writing: Stevan Mena on Bereavement

  1. Barry J. Moskowitz

    Hi Stevan! Your director’s approach in regard to effecting a horror movie which avoids gratuitous blood-and-guts is – to this screenwriter – the essence of creating a literate and truly suspenseful horror story! Like yourself, I understand that the heart of drama is conflict. So, as I begin writing, I am very consciously aware that I should create protagonists who possess admirable qualities and antagonists who don’t – those characters in conflict with each other. I, as you have well-advised, intersperse – especially in the beginning – scenes of dialogue, flashback and action, for example, which effect the audiences’ perceptions of the protagonist having very admirable qualities: intelligence; wit; daring; courage; kindness, etc. My intent being that the audience will become emotionally involved with him/her and be put on the edge of their emotional seats when he/she is in danger, which is the essence of suspense. In some horror stories, the screenwriter can also create an antagonist [-s] who possesses admirable qualities like intelligence and wit but who uses those qualities for nefarious purposes. In the movie version of Interview with the Vampire, Lestat – who is evil incarnate – displays high intelligence, wit and charm, yet, inevitably, does so in pursuing mortal human beings for their literal blood. Thus, Louie, the narrator in the movie – a man victimized by Lestat into becoming a vampire – is in an ongoing conflict, indeed, battle with an imposing adversary. A formidable antagonist [Physical strength, intelligence, cunning, duplicitous creativity], then, keeps the audience most anxious and concerned for the protagonist’s safety! Moreover, just as in real life, we are more fascinated by an antagonist who is intelligent, mysterious and dark than by a “wooden” one. I should add that Charles Dickens had a great formula for writing scenes in which his protagonist was in danger: ODTAA – One Darn Thing After Another or, if you will, unanticipated complications which arise, putting the protagonist[-s] in various and seemingly continuing danger. Oliver Twist is illustrative of Dickens’ formulaic approach. His formula ODTAA is, obviously, very applicable for us screenwriters and directors writing and directing horror films and/or suspense thrillers, today. Steven Spielberg very consciously employed the formula ODTAA in his Indiana Jones film-stories; he had said that in coming up with the idea for the Indiana Jones movie with George Lucas, discussing it and formulating the story, he remembered loving the old 1940s Serials – like Clyde Beatty and the Bat People – which placed the protagonist in one unanticipated dangerous situation after another, ending each installment of the serial with a cliffhanger! Implicit in your well-articulated approach, Stevan, is that – ironically – what scares us and concerns us the most is a horror story which is believable, because we realize the horror could happen to us. I would assert that Jaws is a modern-day “horror” story which scares us and concerns us far, far more than our fear of vampires and werewolves because of its verisimilitude. I, especially, concur with you that if the screenwriter imbues his story with verisimilitude, he’d better not “… chicken out at the end …” with that proverbial “… everything worked out okay….” In real life – in contrast to that reel life which sometimes does not possess verisimilitude – the “good guys” often lose, even, die. Regards, Barry

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