Monday, March 8, 2010

Interview with Screenwriter and Producer Brian Patrick O'Toole

Brian Patrick O’Toole is an accomplished screenwriter and producer who has had a varied career from video game designer to literary agent to Fangoria correspondent to screenwriter and producer. Brian has worked on such genre films like Cemetery Gates, Dog Soldiers and the recent indie hits Evilution and Basement Jack. Evilution and Basement Jack are part of a trilogy of films that will be completed with upcoming The Necropolitan, a film Brian is currently working on.

I had a chance to chat with Brian about his love of the horror genre, how he pushed to get Dog Soldiers made, the challenges of independent filmmaking and his passion for video games. Read on, Fatal Fiends!

Fatally Yours: What are your first memories of the horror genre and how did you fall in love with it?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: You always remember your first good scare. Y’know, that scare that defines every phobia and nightmare that haunts you all of your life. Mine happened in 1968. My parents decided that it was a good idea to take a five year old to see a horror triple feature at the local drive-in. The midnight show was Night of the Living Dead. You have to know that the only two films I can remember seeing before NOTLD were The Love Bug and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was put on the roof of our blue station wagon alone with the speaker as the movie began. My five-year-old mind couldn’t separate between what was happening on the screen and the shuffling movie-goers crossing the gravel in front of the car. In the vehicle ahead of us, a couple started making out but all I saw was a man attacking a woman. My mother used to love to tell people how they had to pry my fingers from the bike rack after the movie. I didn’t sleep for almost three days. This was the genesis of my love of horror films. The next three movies I saw right after NOTLD were Destroy All Monsters, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and Planet of the Apes. I was hooked. Horror was everywhere for me after that experience, even on TV where I would run home from school to watch Dark Shadows, stayed up late on Friday and Saturdays for WGN Chicago’s Creature Features where I was first introduced to the Universal Horror Classics like The Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula and grinded sleepovers to a stop so we could watch The Night Stalker. To date, I have yet to match the horror I felt that night in 1968 but I keep trying. The closest I’ve come was playing the original Resident Evil game. You never forget the first time those mutant dogs crashed through the hallway window.

Fatally Yours: What continues to keep you in horror’s thrall?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: The horror film is a true interactive experience. Comedy and drama are so subjective. Some people thought Airplane! is genius and others think that it is the stupidest movie ever. Some people cried at Jack’s death in Titanic and some people, like me, were wishing Rose would move her fat ass over and let Jack share that board. There was room! Some people were inspired by The Passion of the Christ and some people, like me, were yelling lines from Monty Python’s Life of Brian “He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!” But a scare is a scare. You can cover your eyes but you can’t cover your ears at the same time. Fear is universal. We love to be scared – in a safe environment. I love to be the puppet master that orchestrates a good scare. Unfortunately, all these soulless remakes of classic horror films are making it hard for new horror films to break through; and when one finally does, like Let the Right One In, Hollywood jumps on it and remakes it. And they usually miss the point, the heart of the original, and just make the remake bigger – not better. I’m finding the best scares lately are coming from video games not movies. The reason for that is that video games give horror fans that one thing movies couldn’t – they let the player be the hero who controls the action and his fate. Doom, Resident Evil, Castlevania, Silent Hill, and Alone in the Dark were the games that originated the gaming genre of “survival horror”. Survival horror is where the real scares can be found lately.

Fatally Yours: You’ve had quite a varied and impressive career, from video game designer to literary agent to producer and screenwriter. Tell us a little about your career trajectory and what you are doing now. 

Brian Patrick O’Toole: Up until 1977, my career plan was to be a paleontologist. I still loved horror films and disaster movies but I wanted to dig dinosaurs. Then, I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind and everything changed. I wanted to make magic that affected people like I was after seeing that film. I actually snuck a tape recorder into the theater and taped the movie. Then, I went home and typed out the movie in what I thought the script would look like. I actually wasn’t too far off in my formatting. Next I started writing my own scripts but they all lacked something that I couldn’t put my finger on – that is, until I saw Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. That something was subtext, meaning. Dawn of the Dead changed my life and it remains my favorite film of all time.  However, I didn’t seriously think about a career in filmmaking until 1979. 1979 was the year of Alien, Phantasm, The Amityville Horror, Prophecy, The Warriors, Tourist Trap, When a Stranger Calls, Zombie and The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Biograph Theater – where Dillinger was shot and killed. I was sixteen and sneaking out to see midnight shows of films they would never show at the local mall theater.  It was the year that I swore I’d be a filmmaker and I have lived everyday since making that dream come true.

The video game designing part of my career spawned from a time when horror films were a tough sell and the company I was with, Intrazone, needed to expand their horizons. We were working with LIVE Entertainment at the time and they expressed interest in getting into the PC gaming arena. They had the video game rights to Speed Racer and a BMX magazine character called Radical Rick designed by Damian Fulton. When I was a kid I wanted to be Speed Racer so it was a special opportunity for me to make a video game based on his adventures. I met with game maker supreme Voldi Way, owner of WayForward Technologies, who came aboard to help us bring my game designs to life. We premiered the games at the very first E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) and the buzz was great. Then, as fate would have it, the CEO of LIVE and his wife were shot and killed by their two sons (you might remember those nutty Menendez Brothers) and everything changed. LIVE became Artisan and Artisan didn’t want to get into the video game business so two cool, complete games were shelved forever. Members of Guns ‘n Roses even recorded a version of the Speed Racer theme song for the game. Such a shame.

Fatally Yours: Did you consciously choose the horror genre for most of your projects or was it just coincidence? Do you have any plans to work in other genres?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: My training is actually in comedy. I attended the Player’s Workshop of the Second City in Chicago for a while. I love comedy. Actually, horror and comedy share the same rhythm: set-up and reaction. All of the films I have been involved with do have humor in them, twisted as it may be. The closest I’ve come to a comedy is with Cemetery Gates. It was originally written as a straight Jaws-in-the-woods but when I saw the mutated Tasmanian Devil suit I didn’t think it would be taken seriously. The suit makers did an awesome job but I didn’t think that they based it on the real creature but rather on a drawing I had made that was done in an Anime style. So, I decided to embrace what worked and re-wrote the script with a more outrageous twist. Let’s face it, seventeen people die in 90 minutes. It’s a party movie!

Another “comedy” I was involved in was Van Fisher’s Neo Ned. The original screenplay was slanted more toward the dramedy side and told the story of a reluctant neo-Nazi who is placed in a mental heath hospital where he falls for a black woman who believes she is harboring the spirit of Adolph Hitler. The final film slanted more heavily toward the dramatic side but I am still very proud of that movie. The film stars Jeremy Renner who is a nominee this year for Best Actor for the film The Hurt Locker. Jeremy is an amazing talent and I am so excited for him. I hope people will check out Neo Ned and see another example of Jeremy’s great work.

Fatally Yours: Can you tell us more about being involved in producing Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers. I understand people were hesitant to push that this film to get made until you came along. 

Brian Patrick O’Toole:  I absolutely put my job on the line recommending Dog Soldiers for production. Neil had been trying to get it made for eight years before I got it. The script we got moved at a glacial pace with more than a nod to Night of the Living Dead and had a lot of references to soccer embedded in it. The sad thing about script reading is that you are almost encouraged to skim. I never skim. I read the whole script because you never know what gem you’ll find in the rough. That’s how I found Dog Soldiers. I took the time and read the whole script. Everyone at the production company didn’t see the same gem that I saw so I put my neck out and staked my job on the success of the script as a movie. In 2000, horror was a tough sell because the genre had become mostly self-aware films like Scream. In fact, no one was saying horror. They were calling them Dark Fantasies at that time. We, the American production team, put a lot of time, effort, and money into Dog Soldiers to get it right. Producer Christopher Figg, who did Hellraiser and Trainspotting, was a real gentlemen and I consider him the driving force of the production. Dog Soldiers played theatrically throughout the world except in the US because we had our first screenings for distributors right after 9/11. No one wanted movies about soldiers or werewolves. We eventually sold the film to the SyFy Channel who broadcasted the movie as a SyFy Original. It is still one of their highest rated films. The fans really embraced Dog Soldiers and I really enjoyed traveling to film festivals across the US, meeting them and showing the film on the big screen. The thing I was most proud of was getting an action figure made of the werewolf. That was pretty cool! I’m looking for a company to do an action figure of Basement Jack right now. So, if you know someone…

All in all, Dog Soldiers was a very bittersweet experience for me but I’m encouraged by its fan base. Oh, and by the way, I get a lot of emails asking me why the Blu-ray of the film is so grainy. The reason why is that Dog Soldiers was filmed in Super 16mm, which is a naturally grainy film stock. So, the print used is not bad. The Blu-ray is the best Dog Soldiers can look. I don’t know why the new distributor didn’t put out a Special Edition because there is a material from the UK DVD and I did record a commentary for the North American release.

Fatally Yours: Your recent films Evilution and Basement Jack were received well and we here at Fatally-Yours enjoyed them very much! A third film that will complete the trilogy is in the works. Can you tell us what’s in store for us with The Necropolitan and where you’re with it right now? 

Brian Patrick O’Toole: I cannot tell you how appreciative I am for all the positive reviews we have received on both films. First, I’m glad that most people “got” them and had fun with them. Black Gate Entertainment is, in every sense of the word, an independent film production company. Our bosses are the fans. I never want to let a horror fan down because I am one and I know when a film is not being sincere with its audience. It was awesome that we were able to premiere the films at the Fangoria Weekend of Horror conventions in New York, Los Angeles, and my hometown CHICAGO. We took the films to the fans so their feedback was immediate and very encouraging. I’m also very encouraged by the emails asking about the third film, The Necropolitan. The Manager character has really taken off and fans are telling me that they are looking forward to his film in the trilogy. The Necropolitan script went through a few re-writes but I believe we have the story we want to tell now. It will be done in 3D. It won’t be gimmicky 3D. I want to use 3D like Hitchcock used the process in Dial M for Murder. All I can tell you now is that it is a creature feature and that all answers will be questioned. We are currently seeking financing, but the film is ready to go before the cameras – hopefully by the end of this year.

Fatally Yours: Why did you choose to make a trilogy with the three films, especially since they are so loosely connected?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: When I joined my producing partner and friend Eric Peter-Kaiser at Island Gateway Films, we wanted to start a horror division, which became Black Gate Entertainment. We planned on doing three horror films to begin and chose to do a zombie film, a slasher movie and a creature feature. Eric came up with the brilliant idea of linking them all together with a common story thread. It was tough coming up with something that wasn’t like a narrator character that bookend the movies like in The Twilight Zone, Creepshow or Tales from the Dark Side. I like the idea of a puppet master who had a hand in guiding the fates of the characters in all three films. The Manager was born but I had my doubts of it working. Eric and I wanted the stories to stand alone so I was worried that the Manager would just be a gimmick. Enter actor Nathan Bexton. Nathan completely understood the character and made him his own.  Nathan as The Manager was the perfect storm of an actor developing a character.  I’m so glad fans of Evilution and Basement Jack are embracing the Manager as a new horror icon. I hope they like what we have in store for the Manager in The Necropolitan.

Fatally Yours: You were the screenwriter as well as producer for these films, but also wore many different hats because they were independent films. What were your biggest challenges when making these films?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: The best part of independent film is that you can wear many hats. It really is a family of people working together for a common goal up against numerous odds. I’ve found that less money equals more creativity. I think audiences appreciate the honesty behind our films. As the screenwriter of both Evilution and Basement Jack, I think the toughest challenge is keeping the original vision for the movie intact. However, unless you are directing the film as well, once you hand over the shooting script your job is done and it becomes the director’s show. Evilution originally was more of a Poseidon Adventure with zombies but slowly became a smaller, more claustrophobic film. Basement Jack has to be the best time I ever had on the set of any of my films. The director, Michael Shelton, came to the production with a clear vision and brought some digital magic that we never hoped to get on our modest budget. As a producer on any film, your work really comes at pre-production and post-production. During production, once the word “action!” is yelled, it is the director’s film. You hope that every problem was taken care of during pre-production and you’re only there to put out little fires, like keeping everyone on time and on budget. I love everything about independent filmmaking and feel very lucky to be able to do what I’ve always dreamt of doing.

Fatally Yours: Has the “digital revolution” made independent filmmaking easier, more difficult or both? Why?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: Change is always good. But change always brings new challenges. When we were in pre-production for Evilution, I was totally against filming digitally. Then I met cinematographer Mathew Rudenberg and saw his reel. To say I was blown away by what he could do with a digital camera would be a great understatement. Mathew taught me that the secret of good digital filmmaking lies in the lights. He is a very talented individual and my greatest fear is that the studios will scoop him up before we can work together again. He is the next Dean Cudney.

As far as digital making everything easier or more difficult, my experience during Evilution and Basement Jack was that it made production easier but the time and money saved there was spent in post-production. Digital offers a lot more freedom and that’s what edges it up over traditional film.

Fatally Yours: Do you feel that CGI has affected horror films for the better or for the worse?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: I am totally against CGI characters. And this is coming from someone who was there in CGI’s infancy. I did a film in 1994 called Sleepstalker: The Sandman’s Last Rites and we did some computer morphing scenes that looked more rubber than sand. The thing about CGI is that no matter how talented the digital artist is, their work will never take the place of the organic. For example, let’s take the 1933 King Kong and Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Sure, the original King Kong was an eight-inch model but he was organic. There was something very real about him and the prehistoric beasts that he battled. Now look at the digital Kong and friends. There is no weight to them, nothing natural. Watch each film with the sound off and tell me which giant ape makes you believe… and cry at the end. Now having said that, we did have some digital shots in Basement Jack. The director, Michael Shelton, is an excellent visual artist and has worked on such films as The Passion of the Christ, Invasion, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Pirahna 3D, Mirrors, My Bloody Valentine 3D and the American Godzilla. Michael gave us some great shots but I remain a fan of the practical effect.

Fatally Yours: What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter, producer or filmmaker?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: When I was pitching scripts as a literary agent I had the opportunity to meet some real Hollywood movers and shakers. I once asked a famous director that same question: “What advice can you give an aspiring screenwriter, producer or filmmaker?” He said to me: “If you are good at something else, do that.” That was like a lightning bolt to my brain. Thankfully, I am a very stubborn person and challenged his advice.

Producers: Film your ending and nudity as close to the beginning of the shoot as possible. Really believe in your project because you’ll be pitching it to many, many people. Worry when a department head says, “I want to surprise you.” Learn to know when to shake hands, hug or bump fists. Your investor is the only person you need to answer to – No one else is your friend.

Screenwriters: Learn your craft. You don’t wake up one morning and say “I’m going to be a brain surgeon today” and go and do it. Anyone who is willing to read your script and give you comments is a friend worth keeping. If five people read the script and have different opinions, leave it alone. If everyone has the same comment, time for a re-write. Get people to read your script aloud (table read) – You won’t believe how that helps with dialogue. You will never sell an original screenplay but your original screenplay may be a writing sample that gets you the opportunity to write a producer’s idea. Spec Scripts are a necessary evil: Write a sample script in every genre.

Filmmakers: Everyone can buy a digital camera but not everyone has connections to talent. Casting agents are your best friends. NETWORK! Mentors are worth their weight in gold. Write emails to people you’ve met and join their Facebook/Twitter pages. Hollywood is always in chaos but remember that a wave makes all boats rise. Be brave enough to ride the wave. This is a great time for Independents because of the Internet. For very little money, you can successfully do your own marketing and sell your films on-line by personally contacting your target audience through blogs, websites and social websites like Facebook and MySpace.

Fatally Yours: What are your thoughts on the current horror climate?

Brian Patrick O’Toole: Studio remakes are killing the genre. Horror belongs to the independents. Let’s take horror back with great original material, then let the studios remake them and we can use their money to make more original films. I’m hoping that Saw VII, rumored to be the last Saw, is also the end of the sub-genre of torture porn horror films.

Fatally Yours: I know studio remakes are the bane of existence to most of us horror fans, but if you had the opportunity to remake one horror film, what would it be and why? 

Brian Patrick O’Toole: I had an awesome idea for a Dark Shadows movie that I actually had a chance to pitch to Dan Curtis before he died. Now I hear that Johnny Depp owns the rights. I had a pretty clever idea for a Planet of the Apes sequel that would take place between Conquest and Battle from the original series. But I read in Variety that Fox is doing a Planet of the Apes film called Caesar. So I’m hesitant to mention this but I have a great idea for a remake of The Car and a re-imagining of Grizzly. But I’ll look at any remake project a studio wants to throw our way.

Fatally Yours: Besides being involved in film, you’re also a big video game fan who has written a column for Fangoria. What horror-themed video game releases are you looking forward to in 2010? 

Brian Patrick O’Toole: I’ve been writing the “Horrorcade” column for Fangoria Magazine for five years in May and I really enjoy it.  It was always a dream of mine to write for Fangoria since I bought the first issue in 1979. In fact, that issue is my good luck charm. It has been with me on every film shoot since Sleepstalker. I almost lost it during the filming of Cemetery Gates when the Griffith Park cave we were using flooded during a rare L.A. rainstorm but luckily my backpack protected it.

This year has started big for horror games with the release of Dante’s Inferno and Bioshock 2. I am really looking forward to the new Castlevania reboot, The Calling, Splatterhouse and Dead Rising 2.  Aliens vs. Predator looks like it’ll be an awesome multi-player on-line game. I am always open to a challenge so if anyone wants to friend me on-line my XBOX 360 gamertag is “Dog Soldier BOT” and my PS3 gamertag is “wereBOT”.

Fatally Yours: What are your favorite horror-themed video games of all time?

Brian Patrick O’Toole:  Hands down, Resident Evil 2 is my favorite horror game. Castlevania is my favorite series, even those Nintendo 64 3D games. I love Left 4 Dead 2 on-line. Demon’s Souls is my favorite horror RPG. My favorite horror games that no one played are Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad and Earth Defense Force 2017 for the XBOX360 and Deadly Creatures, Ju-On – The Grudge and Madworld on the Wii. My guilty pleasure is the Friday the 13th game on the NES – there is no way to win that game but it’s always scary when Jason pops up. That game needs to be remade with this generations processing power. It would rock!

Fatally Yours: Speaking of favorites, what are your favorite horror films and books? 

Brian Patrick O’Toole: My favorite film is Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I love B movies and watch them all. I actually just sat through Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus on Netflix. The shark put the bite on a jet airliner in mid air and bit the Golden Gate Bridge in half. Beat that, Jurassic Park IV! Godzilla movies are my guilty pleasure.

Reading so many screenplays really doesn’t allow me time for much personal reading. My favorite book is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The books I recommend most are Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Mark Twain’s Letters From Earth and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided. I’m reading Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography I Am Ozzy right now.

Fatally Yours: What upcoming projects can you tell us about? 

Brian Patrick O’Toole: Eric and I are developing several projects. We have The Necropolitan for which we are currently seeking investors. We are also co-producing a film I wrote called A Necessary Evil, which is a modern take on the Elizabeth Bathory story. We have a musical dramedy that I wrote with Basement Jack star Sam Skoryna. Currently, I am re-writing a ghost story called Outside the Eye of God. And, as always, we are looking at other projects. One of the great joys I have in filmmaking is the ability to give talented people their first opportunity.

Thank you so much for this opportunity to speak with you and Fatally -Yours’ readers.  Eric and I hope you all get a chance to check out Evilution and Basement Jack through e-tailers like Netflix and  Please visit the websites at: and

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