Interview with Screenwriter Brian W. Smith
edited by Sam Kolesnik
Screen Fervor talks with Brian W. Smith, the head of the New York City Horror Film Festival Screenplay Competition, about his work as an award-winning screenwriter and about his love for the horror genre.
How did you get started as a screenwriter?
In high school, I received the script for Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula for my birthday. It was published and filled with production notes and photos. Very cool to see the film as written. I later learned the difference between shooting script and spec script styles. Dracula was in shooting script format with camera directions and I started writing my own scripts in this way, visualizing every tracking shot and angle.
You primarily write horror and comedy screenplays. Is there anything in particular which draws you to those two genres?
I was an 80s kid in New York, so a lot of my movie-watching experiences were in theaters with audiences. I began to realize the roller coaster aspect of these moments of both fright and/or laughter and how interchangeable they were in certain ways. I keep those memories in mind when I sit down to write a new script. I want the reading to be as fun on the page as if it were playing in a theater.
Your feature horror script, Hallow’s Point, has had a lot of success on the festival circuit in various screenwriting competitions. It won first place at the Los Angeles International Film Awards and has been a selection of many other competitions, including Shriekfest and StoryPros International Contest, among others. How have screenwriting competitions impacted your career?
Placing in screenwriting competitions can be encouraging. In recent years, festivals with live events and screenings are a great way to heighten the social aspect of being a creative. Screenwriting can be a lonely venture. Most of us spend time in our heads with our characters, dialogue and story ideas. Competitions or festivals that have networking opportunities are recommended. I was honored to be a part of a recent screenwriting panel at GenreBlast. I must be doing something right, because it was such great company to be a part of — people I admire and who continue to do well at international festivals.
You co-write sometimes with fellow screenwriter, Vincent Viñas. How did you two start writing together and what is that collaborative process like?
I met Vincent in high school and we became friends over our mutual appreciation of pop culture. Vincent, who is an author now, was heavily into books and writing back then. He also schooled me on death metal music. My first concert was with him and his friends to see Slayer. That was an experience. I was definitely like the accountant of the group while they all went and moshed. I would say 1999 was a pivotal year. We saw The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project. Both inspired us to think about the stories we wanted to tell and the movies that scared us as kids. Our script One Good Scare was written out of that. It’s a teen supernatural thriller in the John Carpenter and Stephen King vein.
I suppose we were kind of reflecting on the whole 80s nostalgia thing before it became insuff…er, popular now. The script has done well in festivals and contests, so that’s cool. We’re open to all forms of inspiration. Music can instantly give us ideas for characters, tone or a full premise and we’ll start pitching ideas to each other.
Can you name a screenwriter or multiple screenwriters who have inspired you?
Kevin Williamson, Charlie Brooker, John Carpenter & Debra Hill, Jordan Peele, Alan B. McElroy, Frank Darabont, Taylor Sheridan, Paddy Chayefsky, Larry Cohen, Jeffrey Boam, Aaron Sorkin.
I realize it’s mostly a bunch of dudes, but it’s more about their prolific skills as writers and ability to churn out entertaining content that I admire and aspire to. I tend to live with my scripts for a bit.
Have you been confronted with obstacles as you’ve pursued a career in screenwriting?
I am based in New York so location is probably the biggest challenge (laughs). I love Los Angeles, though, and I feel more creative when I am there. There were times when I felt out-of-place in the horror genre. My idols were Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. The culture is changing and the idea of writing scripts for directors is becoming old hat. Many directors are choosing to write and direct their own material and put it out there. Great on the one hand, but also widens the gap of collaboration between dedicated writers and visual directors.
What is some advice you can offer screenwriters out there who are just starting out?
Read film and TV scripts to get a better sense of rhythm and timing on the page. Plenty of more resources are available now than when I was starting out. Read fiction books for internal thoughts, subtext and character motivations. Read non-fiction books about people you admire to keep you motivated. Watch movies and TV shows. Take acting lessons or partake in script readings. When you have to memorize dialogue, you’ll start trimming your own exposition scenes out of sympathy for actors and readers. Study subjects that are outside of your wheelhouse or main genre of interest. Incorporate them into your scripts. We need more science and technology stories. More cyborgs.
Where can people stay updated on your future work?
I am begrudgingly on Twitter (@brianscribeNY), Facebook (Brian W. Smith) and Instagram (@briansmithnyc). I am also a Film and Screenplay Judge at the New York City Horror Film Festival. We’re trying to find the next generation of creative writers and filmmakers out there, so wow us on the page and on the screen.