A gothic romantic thriller set at the turn of the 20th century, about a young doctor who travels to a remote asylum in the Scottish Highlands to do an internship… only to discover that the inmates have overthrown their keepers shortly before his arrival and are now masquerading as the staff.
Stonehearst Asylum is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Was it you to chance upon those pages and decide to turn them into a script? What happened then?
Back in 1998 I stumbled across a lesser-known Poe story called The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether that piqued my imagination. The story itself is very short, and survives only as a single scene in the movie. But from that kernel of an idea—about lunatics overthrowing an asylum and masquerading as the staff—I grew the story that eventually became a spec script called, at the time, Eliza Grave. I sold the script to Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions in early 1999, after which commenced a very long development process that spanned three different directors and any number of stars. At one time everyone from Johnny Depp, to Heath Ledger, to Nathalie Portman and Ian McKellan were attached.
What’s the core of your story — the main theme?
The most obvious is about the fine line between genius and madness—and how love and lunacy are closely related. But neither of these themes especially interested me when I first wrote the script, or honestly now that the movie if finished. For me the more resonant theme was one I find myself exploring again and again in different works, including novels: What it’s like when you are young and naive and susceptible to bad advice from dangerous mentors. Don’t know why this has become a preoccupation of mine. Perhaps an Alienist—which is what Psychiatrists were called in the 19th century—would be able to tell you.
How did it go with Brad Anderson? Do you think that a close collaboration between a writer and a director is critical to make a good film?
I don’t know Brad well. We only met once in person prior to shooting, and thereafter via Skype. Our relationship was friendly and professional. We definitely had our disagreements—I’m outspoken, and have learned that it does nobody any good to withhold my professional opinion—but they weren’t anything out of the ordinary. I do think the closer the collaboration between writer and director, the better the film, generally speaking. I try to make myself available as a story resource, sounding board, and cheerleader for directors, because I know how hard their job is and they need someone in their corner whose motives are purely creative. (Not budgetary, etc.)
Brad is a brilliant director. The Machinist, Session 9, and The Call are all gripping, pretty interesting movies. Besides, he’s directed some of the coolest shows on television (Fringe, The Killing, Person of Interest, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, The Shield). What was your reaction once you learned he would direct your film?
I was very pleased. Both because his body of work is very stylish and intelligent. But also because he’s worked with such incredible actors—everyone from Phillip Seymour Hoffman to Sir Ben Kingsley to Halle Berry—that I knew he must be good with talent and able to attract cast. Which certainly proved to be the case, since you’d be hard pressed to assemble a more gifted cast than the one we have inStonehearst Asylum.
You wrote this film by yourself. You’ve written other works with a writing partner. What do you enjoy the most? Pros and cons?
I consider myself primarily a solo writer—but you are right, I have done a fair amount of collaboration. Usually I enter into those partnerships as an excuse to spend time with a friend whose work I respect and whose voice I feel both compliments, challenges, and elevates my own. So the pros are many. The cons are mostly administrative—trying to coordinate a complicated project with someone living in another city, or even on the opposite coast. And of course managing disagreements so they don’t damage the friendship.
Which are the strongest points of your screenplay?
I’d rather answer a different question: How has Stonehearst Asylum‘s screenplay gotten stronger over its 15 year development? I had the surreal experience of rewriting my younger self, since I first sold the script when I was in my late 20s and now am in my early 40s. And I’m pleased to say that I’ve gotten better at my craft! (One of the few consolations of aging.) I could see my younger self struggling on the page with obstacles that now seemed easy to overcome. One thing that got better in the script over the years is the tension created by the practical concerns of running this isolated asylum. Thematically, it’s about the difficulties of utopian thinking. It’s one thing to lead a revolt; another to keep the lights on. That never occurred to me as a young write, though now it seems like an obvious source of dramatic tension which we could exploit for suspense.
Would you give us your favorite scene as a gift? What is it about?
One favorite that comes to mind is the confrontation between Dr. Lamb and his former keeper Dr. Salt, who is now imprisoned in a cage in the asylum’s dungeon-like basement. It’s a simple scene but has a nice cadence to it, and offered this film fan a wonderful opportunity to watch two old lions and acting legends face off against one another. It’s a scene I only wrote recently, in the year before we made the film. I’m not sure I would have been able to write it back in ’98, even if it had occurred to me.
If you want to read the scene, click here: STONEHEARST SCENE
Honestly, did you ever think of meeting some kind of target (read: audience) while writing your screenplay?
I never write to a specific audience, at least not in the marketing sense. (e.g. Males between the ages of 18-24.) I suppose if I think of an audience at all it’s of a theater full of people who share my humanism, taste for melodrama, and perverse sense of humor. I don’t write to convert new fans to my particular worldview; really I write to entertain people who are as discriminating and easily bored as I am!
How many script changes (if any) needed to be made while filming? Were you told about them?
There were relatively few script changes during production, mostly dialogue trims for the sake of schedule. I was consulted, and did my best to make any cuts as artfully as I could. The biggest cut wasn’t dialogue, though, but an actual scene that was filmed and was wonderful—but wound up on the cutting room floor for reasons of pacing. I hope someday the scene—a showdown between Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine—is made available as a DVD extra, because it really is one of the better scenes in the story.
Were you present on set? Do you believe that a writer should always attend the filming?
I visited the set in Bulgaria for a little more than a week. I think it’s always beneficial for a writer to be on set, if the budget and schedule allows. Though if a production has been well-managed there usually isn’t much for the writer to do, besides eat craft services and stay out of everyone’s way.
Recently, your new show Red Oaks debuted on Amazon. It’s a coming-of-age comedy produced by Steven Soderbergh. How did you come out with this idea?
I had worked with Greg Jacobs [Red Oaks co-creator] and Steven Soderbergh before; Soderbergh had produced a Sony film I’d written called Wind Chill, which Greg directed. Greg and I became good friends and wanted to work together again, which we’ve managed to do. (Our adaptation of the novel Go With Me begins filming in November, with Anthony Hopkins starring.) Over the years Greg has regaled Soderbergh and I with funny stories of his summer job during college working as an assistant tennis pro. When Soderbergh retired from film and began working in television he encouraged Greg to develop a series based on these tennis stories. Greg approached me to help, both because I’m a friend and we are close in age—both children of the ’80s, when the show is set—and also so I could bring some outsider perspective to the stories and help them evolve from autobiography into good drama. It was a real challenge to write, especially since it’s lighter in tone than most of my prior work. And I’m pleased to know we seem to have pulled it off—Amazon’s customers responded enthusiastically to the pilot, and we were just greenlit to series.
What’s new in Amazon’s way of creating pilots?
In America, when television networks and cable channels commission a pilot, that is shot and delivered for review behind closed doors solely by network executives—who then decide whether or not to order a full season of further episodes (typically 23 for networks; 12 for cable channels and subscription services like HBO.) Amazon does things quite differently. Once you deliver your pilot to them, they make it available free of charge online for a period of time for their customers to view and review. Amazon then bases its series orders on their customers’ response to a pilot (along with critics’ reviews and social media “chatter”). For a writer this is particularly heartening because you at least know family and friends will be able to see your pilot. Also because you know the audience helps decide whether your show has merit and warrants a series pickup. It’s a more meritocratic system.
We created the Writers Guild Italia to defend Italian writers’ rights and interests. Unfortunately, our profession is not much protected and recognized in Italy. WGAW President Christopher Keyser recorded a video-message in support of us. What do you think about the work that the guilds do?
I’d prefer not to comment since I’m out of my league when it comes to labor history. But I will say I’m grateful the WGA exists, because without it my family wouldn’t have good health coverage—or I’d be forced to pay a great deal more to purchase it. (A problem unique to the U.S., sadly, though perhaps not for much longer.)
Are there any Italian films that you consider fundamental for your artistic development?
The work of Dario Argento comes to mind. In fact his ‘giallo’ films like Profondo Rosso and Suspiria and Phenomena were a big part of my adolescence. In fact, I recently sold a horror TV show to ABC called Strega that includes among its characters a world-weary Roman police inspector named Dario—which is my little homage to the maestro. Another more recent one—released theatrically here in the States, though I understand it was a television program in Italy—was La Meglio Gioventù, which completely captivated me.
‘Stonehearst Asylum’ is part of a section called ‘Mondo Genere’. What do you like in genre films?
I wasn’t aware of that genre classification—I’ll add it to my Italian glossary! I enjoy genre films because they were my entry point to storytelling, as they are for most people. (Do you have the term “gateway drug” in Italy?) Though I’m not sure what genre Stonehearst Asylum belongs to—Is it a thriller? A romance? A horror film? A dark comedy?—because its tone contains elements of each. I’ll leave it for viewers and critics to debate.
What are you expecting from the International Rome Film Festival? Are you going to Rome?
Sadly I won’t be attending—though Rome is one of my very favorite places. (My wife and I lived in Tuscany for a while and made many trips there.) My hope is that the film captivates an international audience, and takes its humble place on the filmography of its very talented cast.
Thank you very much, Joe!