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Christopher Webster [Celluloid 04.29.16] post apocalyptic zombies scifi horror action



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Earlier this month, John Suits' first-person apocalypse thriller Pandemic saw release. While in my review I lamented that it's becoming harder and harder to impress with zombie fare in a world jammed packed with it, I still found the film's POV approach did add an interesting new flavour to the sub genre and there were some punchy moments of both intense action and creepy suspense that stood out.

After seeing the film, I reached out to writer Dustin T. Benson to ask some questions about how his script caught fire in Hollywood and some of the challenges of bringing the unique approach to life on the page.


Enjoy!


Pandemic is your only credit online. Was it a spec, or an assignment, and how long have you been working as a writer to get projects off the ground?

Pandemic was a spec screenplay originally titled VIRAL, something I wrote over a 10 day period as an experiment. It was on the top 10 of Tracking-Board.com's annual "Hit List", a list featuring top spec screenplays in Hollywood, and also on The Blood List, a similar list focusing on dark genre material. It caught fire pretty quick and was acquired by Ian Bryce (World War Z) within five months of writing it, but things beyond my control fell apart and we couldn't set it up at a studio. It then sat on the shelf for a few years.

I've been writing on and off since 2008 and I've optioned, sold, or worked on many different projects, but I live in Norway, and it's hard to have the same persistence on a project as a writer in LA with the resources available. I've even lost a few projects because I'm not "in the room" as much as other writers. I could have had more produced credits in independent film, though I really want to focus on studio fare. Add to that, learning the craft, finding my voice, studying various elements to create a solid screenplay, I don't think I've been truly "ready" for the film industry until this year. Paying my dues, so to speak.



Was the helmet cam,"POV" technique always on the page, or was it a decision made later?

The POV was there in the initial concept phase before starting the draft. I wanted to combine the feel of a survival horror video game with a feature film, but didn't know how to execute it. After watching CONTAGION, I thought it would be cool to show a bio-thriller scenario after an outbreak yet before the apocalyptic pandemic, somewhere in between where everything is in a contained chaos. I wanted to stay away from recent "found footage" films that used the randomly placed news crew or some teenager filming on his phone, so I implored the biosafety suit helmet cam. It was originally told from one suit's perspective during a hectic ninety minute extraction run.



What were some of the writerly challenges in conveying the first-person aspects on paper?

One challenge was timing. In the original draft, everything was in real time and uncut, and one screenplay page typically translates to one minute of screen time. So my character's distance, travel time, vehicle speed all had to correlate with what was the page. For example, if they're on a three minute run through the city, it had to be described over three pages, including all conflict, obstacles, and dialogue.

The other challenge was description. Once again, the original draft came from that one perspective, so I had to write EXACLTY what they were seeing in their field of vision and it had to stay true to the location. I wasn't cutting shots, so the environment had to match the timing. And every head movement, up-down-left-right, had to be described.



Which character was your favourite to write and why?

I'd say Wheeler (the driver) because he was an ex-con, car thief just using these missions to stash food, but he was more of conspiracist to the big picture going on inside the compound. Through his dialogue and actions, you get a better feel of what's really happening around them.



What would you say are the elements needed to elevate a screenplay that's working in a genre like this?

The most important element of any story is character. When you toss a motley crew together, especially in this sub-genre, they're usually thin and underdeveloped, even in Pandemic. If I had a second chance, I'd focus the story more behind one or two main protagonists, what they have to overcome, and use that to drive the film. Other elements are rising action with elevating stakes and scene variation. You want to keep outdoing yourself, set pieces, reveals, twists, until the climax.



Some viewers have pointed out homages to films like [REC] and 28 days Later. I'm curious what your influences when writing the screenplay?

There were no influences pulled from other sources, at least from when I wrote it. I don't think I've ever seen a "zombie horror" movie outside of the classics, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Because it deals with infected people, or "zombies", it'll follow the same trends as other films, there's no real escape from that. A lot of things changed from the original script to the produced film -- night vision, mutated creatures, and the gore -- wasn't really there at the beginning. It was more of a visceral, survivalist, bio-thriller developed from the environment where the story took place. For screenwriting, I like to try different things. Writing a feature from one POV was different for me and the execution just happened to fall in this story.



Do you watch The Walking Dead? What did you think of the finale (no spoilers) and what do you think of the show in general?

I hear it's great, though I'm not really into the genre and have never seen the show. I don't really dedicate that much time to television and I'm very selective of what movies I'll watch. If I have a free moment with a digital screen, I'm usually writing something.



Are you working on anything next you can talk about?

Last year, I was building a new house, my daughter was sick a lot, I had a few serious weightlifting injuries, lost a cousin, a close uncle, my dad died, and I was physically and mentally burnt out. I couldn't focus on writing screenplays, so I used the downtime to further study the craft, strengthen my weaknesses, and become an overall better writer.

This year, I'm really attacking the spec market from all angles. I've got a hot action-drama spec set on an offshore wind turbine that's going to studios very soon.


Pandemic is out now.




Recommended Release: Pandemic




Follow Christopher Webster on Twitter.



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