Here's an uncut interview I did a few years back with writer/ director Christopher Smith about his film Severance.
For the record, if you haven't seen the movie, we talk about some SPOILER-ish stuff here, so... be warned. You also might not understand some of the questions, soooooo... double-warned.
So, let's do the basics. How did you start writing?
It’s quite nice to be asked about this. Even when I was young I used to be able to sort of write funny stories and stuff, and then I started it in school, writing different dialogues and things that I thought was funny. And it’s kind of weird, isn’t it—you can sense that you can come up with stories. I went to film school—I did a year and a quarter at Bristol University-- and managed to write two films that got selected. I just wanted to make a feature film, and I knew that I’d probably need a short film to do it. So I was writing to get those things done. I’m not a person that enjoys writing, and I’m very jealous of people who do. Literally, I will think of anything other to do than write, anything possible. (laughs) I’ve just spent nearly four years writing my new film that’s going to be coming out soon. It’s taken me that long because, weirdly, I wrote one film and it took me four years to finish, and then I pretty much finished another whole script at the same time which it took six months to write.
Okay, that being said, do you like the security of directing your own work?
Yeah, I do. First of all, I like rewriting a lot. I like rewriting what I’ve already done. It’s the first draft I hate. There is a security in writing your own stuff and weirdly I’m finding myself not going into that zone of, y’know, “don’t let them have your script because you’ll just change it all!” I think mostly what it is is that I’m not reading stuff. I’ve read a few scripts now that I think are terrific. One I went for and I think Spielberg’s making it. (laughs) How it ever landed on my desk... (chuckles) When you read great writing, you read great writing, and you just think “I’d give anything to direct this.” And when you read stuff like Severance, so much of it is just really great and cool and the other stuff you know you want to do stuff to, that’s still great as well. I think it’s very rare, at my level, that you get to read a script that you just think “that’s finished,” because those scripts are going to the big cheeses, really.
Being the writer, do you like to see ad-libs? How much freedom do you give your cast with a script?
I love a story I heard that Meryl Streep had been working with Robert Benson doing Kramer vs. Kramer and he was encouraging freedom. And she went away one night and wrote that whole speech, y’know, in the court case, and all she’d written was “I’m his mother.” And then the next week she’s making Manhattan with Woody Allen and she’s rambling away, free-libbing, doing what her character would say, and he looks up and says “Meryl, there’s a comma between those two words. Could you use it please?” I like to quote that to the actors on set when they start ad-libbing (chuckles). No, I do encourage it when it’s needed. I think stories get better through the process of directing. Great little moments that happen, for example, in Severance, like the bear trap sequence, that wasn’t like that in the script. That came when we were on set and I just went “y’know, the only way to get this leg off with this bear trap is to do about fifteen times.” So that’s what we did. If I’d’ve just stuck to the script there, it wouldn’t’ve worked, it’s a great moment lost. I think the idea of rewrites in production is to raise everything to a level. What was great about working with James Moran is that we just pulled it up real quick.
So, since you brought him up... James came up with the original idea for Severance, yes?
No, James Moran entirely wrote the script. The script came to me. I then read it, I then had a significant load of little things I wanted to do to it, keeping the basic thing the same. I added in the war on terror stuff, the three stories being told in different ways, the prostitutes. And then we just started to write and before we knew it we were passing the thing back and forth between the two of us into a situation where it became very much a creative partnership. A point where you just go ‘we’ve done this together now, really.’ I didn’t get paid anything for it or anything like that—it was all James’s fee. We just split the credit and gave James a “story by” and the first lead of the writing credit. Clearly, as a screenwriter, I can do certain things better than James, James can do certain things better than me. I think that sometimes I have a tendency when I look at something to read it in a certain way. And when I take a step back, which is what, as a director, what I’ve learned to do with scripts, other people’s scripts, is to read the other way as well and try to make that work before I just bulldoze in with another idea (laughs).
Working with James as a writing partner, has it made writing a little easier for you?
Yeah, very much so. I mean (laughs) ultimately you still gotta sit at a computer and hit the keys. I’ve written Triangle, my new film that I’m doing next, on my own. I’m writing a film with James Moran called Dog, which is actually enjoyable because it allows me to feel like I’m doing rewrites when I’m actually doing ‘writes’. What we’re doing is he e-mails me five pages, I e-mail him five pages, he e-mails me five, so that when you e-mail the script to the other person, if he hasn’t sent it back to you it’s on him to finish the next five pages. And you can send him texts saying “where’s those five pages, you lazy bastard?!” (laughs) It beats what we were doing which was sitting in a room together. We ended up going on the net and making a YouTube video because we got so bored (laughs).
Were either of you ever corporate guys? Severance really reeks of a hatred of team-building weekends... even past the murders and all.
Seven years, mate. James still works in an office, he works two days a week, and I worked in an office for seven years before I went back to university to study film. There was something that occurred during the time I was there, when this “new initiative” came in for “health and safety” and “work in the workspace” and for regulations. We had this form to describe what we did every minute of every day. At the end of the day you’d put down “I spent three hours on this project, four hours on that project...” But I knew that no one was reading it, so I used to just write any old fucking bullshit. And I get caught doing it, and they said “what are you doing?” And I said “Well, no one’s gonna read it so what’s the point of me spending time on it? It’s a load of nonsense.” And I really feel that way about all of this team-building, middle-management crap. It’s absolute crap. I went on a team-building course, though, and my job was so boring that I loved it. I had the greatest week of my life. Did I learn anything? No, I just got drunk every night.
Speaking of which, there’s a lot of laughs in Severance. Even some of the really ghoulish parts, like the bear trap sequence, have a very high comedy element. Why do you think comedy and horror mix so well?
Well, for every one that works there are fifty that don’t. Shaun of the Dead , obviously, was great. But Shaun of the Dead had its very clear parameters of how they were doing it. It was playing for laughs, but it still had drama and still pushed this relationship aspect, but predominantly it was playing for laughs. Ours is the opposite of that. It’s predominantly a horror movie, first and foremost, and it has laughs in it, but the laughs are all coming from the characters. And the characters aren’t trying to make you laugh, they’re playing it straight. Where it goes wrong is when the comedy becomes the slave and one destroys the other, effectively. A character will say a funny line before they’re murdered and you just don’t believe in that character any more because he’s not taking his own death seriously. So you don’t care for the horror.
I think the reason the two things work, are cousins in a way, is perfectly demonstrated in -- and hopefully this will be on your school syllabus, but probably not (laughs)—if you look at the bear trap sequence, the first clang makes you jump, the second one makes you wince, and the third one makes you laugh. I think when you get a great script, great writing is when a writer knows what effect that will have on the screen. Sometimes you’ll read a script with great dialogue and terrible ideas on the action side, and vice versa. I mean, you know the first and foremost when people are reading a script is dialogue, and it’s really sad that you can get guys who are writing great ideas and prose, but bum dialogue. I did quite well at college because my dialogue read well, but other kids had great ideas, but never got their scripts made because they were visual directors.
How did the whole dinnertime-story element come about? Right in the beginning of this horror-slasher movie you’ve got these very campy, silly sequences with Nosferatu fingers and such.
Yeah, but it goes from campy to real horror straight off the cuff. You go from one to something that looks really real to something that looks silly again. We wanted to come up with a backstory that didn’t drown the movie in exposition, that makes the audience work. All of these three retellings of the story are all true to a certain extent. If you look at the first one, that character told it in a typical, gothic horror movie way but what she’s saying there’s a lot of truth in. The second one, the images seem more real because they look like it’s found footage, but his version is just as valid as her version, but because you read the images differently you accept that to be the truth. And then Danny throws both up in the air (chuckles).
The villains in Severance are interesting, because they’re not just, y’know, crazy cannibals in the woods. They have a real motive behind what they’re doing. What made you lean that way?
It was because they were arms dealer that I had to come up with a political idea. As soon as you start to say “they’re arms dealers, they deserve it,” you’re making a political judgment and I wanted to try to keep as far back from that as possible. So I couldn’t say they’ll get a taste of their own medicine. But I’ve made the characters likeable, and we’re dealing in real life because we’re dealing with characters who are taking it seriously. Then I have to say the bad guys are just foaming-at-the-mouth savages, or do I say they’ve got a reason, too? So I have to say they’ve got a reason, too, and I was bound by that political agenda that I had no choice, really. If I hadn’t of done that the movie would’ve some right-wing kind of movie and I didn’t want that.
There seems to be an underlying message here about war and the actual, economic business of war. How much of that was there originally and how much did you want to push?
That was all added in with my involvement, I’ll say that straight. It was all stuff that James was very much up for, thought was a great idea. I like a bit of politics, like to watch the politics shows. I like Bill Maher (laughs). So I wanted to do something like that. I felt that, you’re dealing with big business, the arms manufacturing trade... it’s a dirty business. And I just wanted to highlight that in a movie that I knew would be watched by kids. (chuckles) It’s not some immoral rant, it’s just basically saying, y’know, “where do people get these missile launchers that they can fire airplanes out of the sky with?” They get them from morons. They get them from us. I’m just saying that. These things do fall into people’s hands, kids do get hold of guns, and I think this kind of message in this movie is a positive message. Horror movies are accused of making violence seem attractive, and that’s thrown at horror movies a lot. I thought, let’s try to put something in there that’s gonna make us think a little bit.