The Black Horror Revolution is among us, by way of award-winning speculative writers Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, whose short film adaptation Danger Word, is set to go into production this Memorial Day weekend. But that’s all dependent on if they raise the $15,000 crowd-funding goal to make the project, which you can help make a reality. The film, based on a short story written by Due and Barnes, centers on a 13-year-old girl and her grandfather who have survived the zombie plague in his wooded cabin–and how her birthday goes badly awry.
Due, whose speculative fiction works My Soul to Keep and The Good House were optioned by Fox Searchlight, and Barnes who’s written for The Outer Limits and Baywatch, bring an extensive writing background and familiarity with filmmaking to the project. Directed by Luchina Fisher (Death In the Family), and starring famed actor Frankie Faison, the project will be the first in a long line of horror films that the married couple hope to release. I spoke with both writers about their hopes for the project, their writing process as a husband and wife team, and how they’re helping to sustain an indie horror revolution with Danger Word.
To make a contribution to their fundraising campaign and learn more about the film, visit their website. They’ve got about two weeks to raise the remainder of their goal, with $6,669 raised so far.
Shadow & Act: Why did you choose this story to adapt into a film, as opposed to other works that you’ve both done?
Steven Barnes: This is the first published story that Tananarive and I have done together as a team, so it’s very close to our hearts. It’s our first baby. It’s a simple story of love, trust, family, and zombies, and when I think about zombies, other than the weird dress that they wear, they have no personality. Our zombie story is about the nature of society, and where the society will go in the face of death, and in this particular story, the family is a grandfather and his grandchild, and the transfer of faith, hope, knowledge about the world.
Tananarive Due: It’s our first collaboration, and from a practical standpoint too, it’s fairly self-contained to adapt in the sense that it takes place in a rural cabin in the woods, and there’s a trading post. Our special effects are emptiness, so it’s something that we both saw potential to grow because like a lot of filmmakers, we’re making a short now, but we’d like to expand out into a feature. So, it’s a good launching point and it’s a story that supplies larger worlds.
S&A: I actually was going to ask about the decision to make the short film rather than make a feature film, which a lot of filmmakers jump to.
SB: When people come to us and say they want to be a novelist, we tell them to start with short stories because if you don’t do that it’s like running the Boston marathon when you never ran around the block. So by the time we’ve done this, we will be different people. And we’re studying everything we can on filmmaking, it’s excellent information and resources, and it’s a trial by fire.
TD: We’ve observed, learned and studied that it’s smart to start short with a much smaller budget before you’re trying to handle a budget of ten times that size. Also, I love horror and Steve loves horror, so conventional wisdom also says that if you want to enter filmmaking, horror is a way to reach audiences.
Did you have any involvement in the casting for the film?
SB: Frankly, I don’t like working in Hollywood. I’ve done a lot of work in Hollywood in television and in film, and I am tired of sitting across the desk from people whose first question is, “Can we make the characters white?” So, while I want to work in Hollywood, I understand that I’m not going to be able to create the images I want without having to filter other people’s sensibilities who are not necessarily my ally, if you know what I mean.
S&A: Yes, I do.
TD: I characterize myself a little bit as a reluctant filmmaker. I learned from watching my friend in college stay up late at night, at 2am just to get the lighting right and I thought, you know what, if that’s what it’s going to be like, I think I’m just going to write, and I did that. I’ve been a novelist since 1995 and have had novels in and out of option, and watching that process just made me realize that I have to live by what I teach my students, because I teach screenwriting at Spelman. I tell my students based on my experiences in Hollywood, sure you can always move to LA and try to work with the system and people do that, but chances are if you want your story in film with characters of color, you will have to make that movie yourself. Find a way to make it yourself. Not just screenwriters, but also producers.
So, that’s what’s happened with Danger Word. I’ve always wanted to work in casting, so when the director came with this 12-year-old actress Saoirse Scott, who is so phenomenal, I’ve always wanted to say, “Yes, we’re going to make you a star,” but I actually feel that way now. And with Frankie Faison, we went through a process and looked at a lot of actors, and we’re really just thrilled to have Frankie Faison and then a newcomer who’s done a lot of work on One Life to Live but there aren’t a lot of parts that come along for 12-year old black girls, so it’s a real joy to be able to give the actors an opportunity to shine as well.
SB: The idea here is if we do this, and we do it at the level that we’re trying to, we’re going to open doors, and we’re creating a calling card so people can have an example of what we can do. So we’re documenting every step of the process and after we’re done, we’re going to share it and exactly how we did with people like you, organizations like yours.
S&A: In terms of Luchina Fisher the director, how was she chosen and what was your prior relationship?
TD: Luchina is a very good friend of mine and we worked as reporters at the Miami Herald together years ago, and I published a novel long before she had made a film. I watched her make a short film called Death in the Family in 2011 and she finally decided, “I’m just going to do it.” It’s like she woke up one day and decided she just wanted to make a movie, and that kind of spirit is so infectious; when you’re best friend is making a movie.
I’m also the Cosby chair in the Humanities at Spelman. The first guest I invited was Ava DuVernay and she addressed Spelman and it was a memorable night and you can only imagine how inspired I was after that because she is so brilliant, and she is blazing such a trail. So between watching my best friend make a movie and watching a titan like Ava DuVernay not only writing, directing, producing, but distributing- and also a couple of horror shorts were really influential. One was Wake by Bree Newsome, it’s a 15-minute horror short but its really scary and then there was another web series pilot called The Abandon by Keith Josef Adkins, and I included both of those films in a black science fiction film festival that I just hosted at Spelman as part of our Octavia Butler celebration. A combination of all of those factors made Steve and I just think, why aren’t we making movies? It’s just that incredible spirit.
SB: I’ve been involved with Reginald Hudlin on developing projects and we’ve had long talks about that fact that there’s a phenomenal amount of talent available in Black Hollywood and its necessary for people to network. He knows everybody and he works in the studio system and runs into the same issues. If we can prove who we are, show what we can do, with virtually no resources, and there is a community willing to donate their time and money to creating images, we can take this because there’s so many actors and actresses and so many technical people who are ready and willing, and eager to create images.
The question is, why horror? Well, horror is simply a fairytale and fairytales are about how you deal with fear and death and maturation and loss. White audiences have these images, and white filmmakers create these images for their children and they are available 24-7, 1,000 times a day and this would not be true if these were not important images. There’s something important about learning how to deal with the fear. These things are critical to the maturation process. Every culture in the world controls their own mythology except black Americans, and we have our own images for the maturation of our own children. So we’re simply saying, we’re prepared to do what it is to leverage our images, and let’s do this while we’re still working in the system and let’s do it a little bit guerilla style.
TD: And those of your readers who know me or my work, know that I’ve been trying to develop a feature version of my book, My Soul to Keep, for three years. It was at Fox Searchlight for many years and Blair Underwood optioned it many years ago and that’s really the project that’s been in my heart down the line. I don’t know what our first feature will be but I do know that everything I do is working toward creating a feature version of My Soul To Keep, gaining the allies, and just crossing over that film threshold.
One thing I know that’s true about horror fans of any color is they like to be scared. And the easiest place to be scared is in a new thing. So, you look at the phenomenon of Asian horror and you can relate to it, it has different cultural references and the scares come from unexpected directions, and I do think that we’re not as self-contained a culture obviously, but there are aspects of Asian horror phenomenon that can translate to black horror because it will be coming in new flavors with different skin colors and filmmakers sensibilities will be different, and cultural references will be different and horror lovers love that.
S&A: Would you say there’s a black sci-fi or black horror aesthetic? What would you say are the defining characteristics of this aesthetic in literature, film, and other art forms?
TD: Black horror filmmakers are still emerging, and we’re a diverse people, so I think the overall “black horror aesthetic” in film has yet to be observed. But Danger Word was first published in the DARK DREAMS black horror anthology edited by Brandon Massey, and we can see evidence of an aesthetic in fiction. Black horror writers like me, Steve, Terence Taylor (our editor and A.D. on the Danger Word film), Qwantu Amaru (an associate producer), Brandon Massey, N.K. Jemisin, Chesya Burke, Maurice Broaddus, Linda D. Addison, the late L.A. Banks and others tend to incorporate African and/or black Southern mythologies, folklore and image systems, often with a nod to history, especially buried history.
My goal is to create universal characters who will remind the viewers of themselves, no matter what their race or background, and weave cultural touchstones within the horror/fantasy element. My immortal character in My Soul to Keep, Dawit, is Ethiopian. In my novel The Good House, Gramma Marie is a practitioner of vodou–but her character was written with respect and research, not for exoticism or shock value. I look forward to seeing what the “black horror aesthetic” in film will evolve into, but I have no doubt that it will be distinctive because of it won’t feel overly familiar.
S&A: On your website you give contributors a chance to be a part of the indie horror revolution? What is the indie horror revolution?
TD: I’m talking about black horror and obviously there are a lot of independently made horror movies out there but this is the segment of the independent horror revolution I’m taking about where there’s horror featuring actors of color who get to be the heroes and heroines, instead of the first guy to die, the guy who doesn’t get the girl, the spiritual guy, and the magical negro.
SB: A movie like the The Green Mile which I consider to be a beautifully made film in one sense but its insanely offensive in another because we have the combination of the sacrificial negro and the magical negro tropes where this guy is innocent, Tom Hanks knows he’s innocent, but does nothing to try to save his life and he is executed for the audience’s entertainment, and that’s not the way it was in the book. What happens is that people become oblivious and if the images work to the benefit of your group, you don’t notice until it’s brought to your attention. So, the reason we’re so delighted to be talking to you is there’s actually enough capital to change this.
S&A: Can you describe the process of bringing the story into the screenplay form. You both work between literature and screenwriting. Do you see them as a continuum-
SB: No, they’re not a continuum, they are part of the same thing called storytelling and storytelling is ordering based on their emotional resonance so whatever dominant emotion you have in there- every event, every word, every image has to lead up to a particular emotional pay-off at the end so when you’re writing a book that’s words, internal monologue, but when you’re doing something visually, every single critical element of the story has to be conveyed visually, so you need to be able to turn the sound off and still follow the story. The first thing you do is you write a silent movie. You come as close as you can to conveying every single thing with elements that are visual alone before you add the dialogue, and you go to the next step.
We went over the story, Danger Word and also Devil’s Wake, and we selected the scenes that we wanted to do and we created a stack of 3×5 cards and I put every major event on a separate 3×5 card, to make sure they were all visual, then after that’s done we talk through it because Tananarive sees things differently than I do, she feels them differently, certain elements of the poetic texture are different so it’s her skills and my skills and its our skills, and once we’re there its about creating a draft of the screenplay in Final Draft, that’s purely visual. Then once we have that, we go back through and we add the dialogue.
Then we get into the considerations- how many sets, how long will it be, how violent do we want it to be, how sensual do we want it to be. So you start with emotional impact it’s going to have and then you add visual images to release that emotional dynamite, and then you add the dialogue.
TD: My favorite part is when we add the dialogue. But it does makes sense to wait and Robert McKee teaches this and I believe it too, you could fall in love with pages that structurally don’t work or visually don’t work. It’s good to work out the structure first, then the dialogue. That’s when the film really starts to come to life- when we’re writing the dialogue and hearing the actors talk.
S&A: Thank you for the insight. I’m always interested the writing process. When Danger Word is completed, what do you envision for the life of the film?
TD: Right now, we proceeding with film festivals but when other opportunities come along, we’ll go with them.
SB: This is a stepping-stone to make a feature, so making this short film is a way to the Devil’s Wake feature film.
S&A: I know your fundraising campaign is under way. Is there anything you want to share with Shadow & Act readers about that?
SB: We’d like every reader to go to the page to see if this is something they can support with their prayers or with their wallets, or by tweeting to get the word out. Cross your fingers, good thoughts, I appreciate that very much. If they can donate at any level, it makes a difference because they are voting with their dollars. They’re saying I want to see this in theaters. Its an act of faith, and I have been so grateful for the people who have supported us so far, just tweeting it, letting people know about it, if your organization and people can conceivably get behind this, bless you. The more people know about it, that every dollar helps. We’re going to make this, and then we’re going to do the post-production, and we want to open doors and we are documenting every step of this path to teach you guys how we did this. So, everyone out there who has the heart and the mind to do something, we’re going to show you how it can be done.