By Donna Marie Miller.
Research about the origins of ancient Celtic myths and his own childhood memories of Halloween led rising Hollywood screenwriter Dan Kay to pen the script for the recently released Pay the Ghost.
The horror/thriller stars Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider and National Treasure) and Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) as parents of a child abducted by a centuries-old revenge-seeking ghost witch. Kay sets his story in New York City, and leaves clues in the graffiti along the walls of back alley haunts of homeless people.
The plot focuses upon a woman and her three children who burned at the stake during the 17th century. Taking his cues from the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials, Kay drew upon the history of witchcraft hysteria and superstition that spread throughout New England in 1692.
This horror/thriller is based on a short story written by Tim Lebbon that originally appeared in his October Dreams anthology. Why did you choose to adapt that story and how closely does the film follow Lebbon’s version of the tale?
Well, actually, Tim’s short story was given to me by one of the producers on the (Pay the Ghost) movie, Ian Levy. He had optioned the 10-page story and said to me ‘I think there’s something really cool here; I don’t really know what it is, but just take a read and see if it sparks anything.’ I read the story and it’s a real cool story. There wasn’t much in it that I thought would make a feature film, but I really liked the story and I loved the title, Pay the Ghost and there was a beat in the story that I really, really liked where – again, it’s been years since I read this story. If memory serves, the father in the story is out at a supermarket with his daughter and his daughter out-of-the blue says ‘Daddy, can we pay the ghost?’
So the child character was a girl instead of a boy in the original story.
It was a girl instead of a boy. If I remember correctly, the girl then vanishes – I believe later that day or later that night. The story itself doesn’t really have anything to do with Halloween.
You embellished that aspect of the tale, adding the carnival on Halloween in New York City.
Yes. Everything in the movie is invented; but it was all sparked by reading that story. That beat in the story just really inspired me to make the whole world that I created.
On Halloween, a child-stealing ghost witch takes the only son of a loving couple. The kidnapping epitomizes every parent’s nightmare of child abduction.
I was absolutely playing to every parent’s worst nightmare, particularly just the idea that you’re out with your kid and you hit a store or wherever you are and you’re keeping him right by your side, but you get distracted for a second and then if you turn around and you don’t see your kid, extreme panic sets in. So I was definitely tapping into that.
Within a New York borough, you juxtapose a dream-like carnival against a sinister realm of evil.
Originally the idea was that there was an abandoned warehouse that Nicolas Cage’s character comes to and he goes into this back room and he sees ‘Pay the Ghost’ and all these different hands and handwriting scrawled on this little wall.
The graffiti is so interesting; it’s like a doorway that leads to a portal for the underworld.
Right, so that wall where you see ‘Pay the Ghost’ scrawled over and over and all these different hands and different handwriting, that is supposed to be the spot where if you went back in time, Annie’s house stood.
The film’s flashbacks were riveting, especially when Sawquin hides her children beneath the floorboards of her home, when that angry mob with burning torches comes for her.
So basically Annie each year is taking kids to the other side and she’s putting them in her basement where her kids were taken from her. So the conceit was just that. It was relatively easy to write once I figured out how Annie was operating and why logically she would keep those kids in her basement. It was an extension of what happened to her own kids.
How did you research the details of the backstory for the antagonist, Annie Sawquin?
I had wanted to write a Halloween movie for some time. I’d never really come up with something that I thought was worth writing and then when I read Tim’s story I think I simultaneously did some research into the original mythology behind Halloween. I learned some things that I never knew about. It goes all the way back to this ancient Celtic festival, this harvest festival.
I read about the harvest festival and this idea that the Celts were basically celebrating a rebirth. The harvest festival came about at the end of the fall every year and they believed that as you got closer and closer to the end of the festival, the door to the spirit world opened wider and wider. That concept was pretty cool. I did a lot of invention myself, sort of elaborating and extrapolating from what I was reading, but just thinking about the Celtic festival and Halloween and how you can trace Halloween back to that was enough for me to sort of take that and run with it as far as creating my own mythology on top of this Celtic mythology.
Your antagonist, Annie Sawquin is so compelling. New York City colonists held witch trials modeled after those in Salem, Massachusetts, but one woman wasn’t burned at the stake, she was found innocent.
I was playing with that in the script. For sure. In an earlier version of the script, the movie actually began with a very sick little boy being run into an infirmary in 1692 in New Amsterdam. The idea was there was an epidemic and these colonists were searching for scapegoats. So they blamed this Pagan woman, Annie Sawquin and they took a cue from their colonists in Massachusetts who at that time were burning suspected witches at the stake. So I took a cue from that for what the colonists do to Annie.
You also created several haunting moments without the need for special effects. For example, something as simple as the scene when the protagonist Mike Lawford lets go of his son’s hand in a crowd.
You just really have to rely on your own tastes. For me, I just have to have the most strict bullshit meter that I can. Whatever it is, if I write something, if I even think it sounds hokey or if it plays hokey, I just cut it and a rewrite it until I feel like the beat can play organically. It’s really just instinctual and you hope that your instincts are right. At the end of the day, you rely on everyone else who’s reading it. If I turn in the script to a director or to the actors and the producers and if there is a certain beat that they don’t think is working, then I adjust it to try to make it work.
The visual images delight as well, such as when Cage dons a cowboy costume and his son, Charlie, played by Jack Fulton, dresses as a pirate. However, this is not a children’s movie. How did those costumes kind of fulfill your own feelings about Halloween?
Well, as most Americans who grew up celebrating Halloween, it was the greatest night of the year. I loved dressing up, I loved going door-to-door, I loved just gorging on candy. So it was always a night growing up that had a special meaning for me. I was really just tapping into memories of my childhood when I was writing those scenes of dressing up and going out trick-or-treating. It was just something that has always been a special memory for me.
The release of the movie in theaters and On Demand precedes the month of Halloween, serving both the plot and the theme of the movie. There are advantages to writing a favorite holiday-themed movie that might be shown during the same month again year after year.
Yes. Definitely that was part of my thinking. Like I mentioned before, I really always wanted to write a Halloween movie because growing up every Halloween me and my friends would get together and we’d watch Halloween, the movie. I thought that it would be really fun to write something that kids today – every Halloween when they get together – that this might be a movie that they might watch. That was definitely in the back of my mind when I was creating this.
You also wrote the horror/thriller, Timber Falls. How different was writing that script?
I guess the writing process was not all that different. The biggest difference with Timber Falls was that it was the first horror movie that I wrote. So it was a lot of fun just to sort of play in a new genre for me. I hadn’t written anything like that before, but creatively, the process was probably pretty similar.
You also worked on the Disney screenplay, Tinker Bell. What did that writing experience do for you in terms of your writing career?
Well, actually the experience of working on Tinker Bell is what led me to writing Timber Falls, because I enjoyed working on Tinker Bell, but I was living in a sort of little girl’s world for however long it was, six months to a year, I don’t remember exactly. However long I was working on that, it was every day you try to capture the voices of Tinker Bell and her friends and I had never written anything like that before. So after living in that kid’s space for so long I think I really wanted to have a polar opposite experience and that’s what inspired me to write Timber Falls. If I never wrote Tinker Bell, I don’t know that I would have ever written Timber Falls.
You also wrote the TV pilot, Diabolic, that also focuses upon the supernatural. How different did you find the experience of writing scripts for television as opposed to writing a script for a movie?
Well, the difference is that for television, especially when you’re writing a pilot, you want people to read that pilot and have a really great sense for what the show could become, but you’re also holding a lot of your cards close to your vest because you want to hint at certain mysteries and mysteries behind certain characters and plot points, but you don’t want to reveal too much because you want the audience to be intrigued and to come back and watch next week, and the week after that, and the week after.
With a movie, you don’t want too many loose ends that would frustrate the audience; you don’t want them to leave the movie with loose ends where they go ‘Oh, my gosh I wish it would have tied it up. I’m dying to know how that story line ended or where that character ended up.’ So, in a movie you really have to bring the whole thing to a close. You have really bring some closure. Whereas in a TV pilot it’s the opposite, you don’t really want closure at all, you want the reader – in a sense that you’re writing it – and later obviously the viewer of the pilot to say ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait until next week when I can watch the next the episode.’ So philosophically, it’s pretty different.
You grew up in New York and received a bachelor of sciences degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania. What breaks did you receive early in your career that helped you to get started in the movie industry?
I guess the biggest break for me was that I wrote and directed a movie, when I was living in New York. The movie was called Way Off Broadway, it was a character-driven coming of age movie. After making that movie I got to travel the film festival circuit on and off for about two years with the movie. That eventually led to me getting representation out in LA and then I moved to LA. That was probably my first break, writing and directing Way Off Broadway.
You also serve on the staff of the New York Film Academy. What is one tip that you have often given your students about writing?
One tip in particular?
What’s one tip that you always give them.
That’s a good question. There are so many tips. I think the biggest tip that I will always stress to a student is that the business of screenwriting or television writing can be brutal and challenging and just very, very hard. So, you’ve got to love it to do it. There’s got to be nothing else in the world that you think you would want to do. If you feel that way and you’re passionate about it, you’ll get there, but if writing is not necessarily the thing that you’re absolutely compelled to do then maybe you should reconsider. Maybe that’s one of the tips that I give my students most often.