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Exclusive: We Talk Lovecraft and Amazon Studios With Writer Alex Greenfield

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No longer content to just sell movies, Amazon has started making them. Well, funding them.  With Amazon Studios, you can submit your original scripts and pitches, get feedback from the community, and win development money. 

Screenwriter Alex Greenfield is a veteran of the Amazon Studios system. He started his career at the WWE (sorry folks - it's scripted) then went on to write made-for-TV movies like Street Warrior for Spike and Meteor for NBC. He has found success with Amazon Studios, all with genre projects. His biggest success so far has been The Temple, a Lovecraftian tale about evil in the Afghani desert. With The Temple, Alex won July 2011's overall Best Script Award - then Amazon gave him a bunch of money to create a "test movie." Alex took us through the process of working with Amazon Studios, and tells us about his upcoming genre projects.

Give me the Cliffs Notes version of what Amazon Studios is.

About a year and a half ago, Amazon.com decided they wanted to become a film studio. And it's sort of a natural outgrowth of their business model. They have distribution, but they had no original content at all. In their first year, they arranged it as a contest. First a screenwriting contest, then "test movies." That is a key part of their business model: it is really hard to set original movies up [at studios] - it's why you see so many sequels and unoriginal properties. What I think they are hoping these test movies do is act as a proof of concept. You can test them with audiences - which is what they are doing with mine and a handful of others - by putting them on Amazon Instant Video and seeing how many people watch them, and for how long and that sort of thing. And it works as a template for directing the film. That is what we are hoping for with The Temple: that they dig it enough to finance the whole, live-action feature version. 

So they ran this screenwriting contest for a year. My writing partner Mike Eitelman and I won their best screenplay prize in August. Basically, they wanted a proposal on how you would do a test film. They were offering a $40,000 prize to go make the movie however you want. So I put in a proposal, and they really dug our proposal for The Temple. We had a really good artist on board - we always knew it would be a motion comic - and a great post-production crew. And they gave us the financing - and increased the budget to $50,000. Sounds like nothing, but it gave us a lot of freedom. By doing it as a motion comic, as opposed to a hackneyed live-action version, we were able to give it this scope that we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. And I got to direct the movie exactly how I wanted to.

Tell me about The Temple.

I first discovered H.P. Lovecraft when I was very, very young. My dad first read to me The Rats in the Walls while we were on a camping trip. I was probably five or six years old, so we could probably talk at length about what that means about my dad. But I was hooked on Lovecraft before I could actually read or really understand the language. When Mike Eitelman and I met at an industry mixer, back when I was working in development, we ended up drinking and talking about how we hadn't really found any Lovecraft on film that really made us happy. We've wanted for years to do a project that was Lovecraftian, and we finally gave it a shot with The Temple. We actually wrote it a few years before the Amazon thing.  

Long story short, it is the story about a group of soldiers in Afghanistan who track down a high-value target and follow him deep into the mountain range to this ancient temple that basically acts as the wellspring of human violence. They always call Afghanistan "the graveyard of empires," so we sort of answered the question of why with this Lovecraftian old one, who has been trapped in this temple and calls men of war to her because she loves to feast on them. It tells the story of this group of soldiers who wander in. At its core, it's a haunted house movie. They wander into this "haunted house" and one by one their minds are devoured by this unknowable monstrosity, buried in the bowels of the earth, who loves to play with little boys. 

We wanted to make a broad-appeal Lovecraftian horror movie, and I think we did a reasonable job. We hit the common touchstones of Lovecraft, and we tried to make it accessible to a broad audience who knew nothing of the Lovecraft mythos.

How do you go about directing a motion comic, as opposed to a live-action film? Is there a big difference?

Yeah, there really is. I've never directed a live-action feature, but I did a lot of live-action directing when I was working for the WWE, and advertising for MSNBC and CNBC. It is a dramatically different process. I did the voiceover sessions first, then a whole lot of it was working with my artist. When you are writing a script, you don't have to write out everything about how a scene looks because that is treading on art department territory. I figured all of that out. Our lead artist was Rich Koslowski - he has been nominated for an Eisner Award three times, he has worked for Marvel and some really killer indie comics. We spent a lot of time on the phone, and a lot of time going back and forth on email talking about how the forest inside the  temple looks like "the twisted spines of creatures that never existed" and things like that. And he would come back with amazing drawings and I would say, "What about this?" It became this really fun colloquy, hammering out what every room, every character, every action set piece felt like. We would take that raw art and composite it together and add motion and effects and that sort of thing. In a cool way, we were creating an entire world. Which is damned awesome. It's totally different from directing on a set, because instead of directing actors, you are directing artists.

I think when people watch the motion comic, they will both see the movie and, what I am more concerned with, is that it is effective as a motion comic. One of the discovers I made is that it is a pretty different medium. It's not a movie in the way we think of movies. Motion comics are there own animal, and that's a pretty cool space to be working in. I would love to do another motion comic, separate from Amazon, because we were kind of learning and making it up as we went along. You can kind of see that in scenes from the movie we did first that aren't nearly as big as scenes we did later in the process, because we were figuring out how to bend Final Cut and After Effects to our will.

Where do you go from here with The Temple?

That is an entirely reasonable question which I don't have much of an answer for. Amazon digs the project, and they dig the movie. They gave it their Best Script prize and they financed it. But I'm not sure [what matters to them]. It could be the number of times it has been downloaded, or they could just be looking at the creative vision we represented. I'm not really sure. One of the cool things about doing a test movie first is that there are some things I would absolutely change, having made the movie once. If they came to me tomorrow with $10 million, the first thing I would do is a fairly substantial rewrite of the script. There are some things that really, really worked, and played out exactly as I hoped, and then there are some sections where I'm like, "Please, please Greenfield, stop writing exposition." Poor Bess Harrison, who voiced Samirah, the lead, had a lot of mouthfuls of "Who I am" and "Where I came from" and blah blah blah.  You are like, "Oh this is so tedious, please make it stop." That would have been a pain in the ass if we had gone ahead and made a $50 million monster/action movie. Here, we had a whole lot of freedom to play and experiment. Some of those experiments don't work as well, but it is easy to cut that stuff out.

So you are pretty much waiting to hear if Amazon will fund a live-action version? If they decide not to, can you take the project to other people?

Amazon financed the motion comic, so they own it. But since I wrote the script, while it is under option to them, I own the rights to the story. They paid for it, so I can't shop the movie we made. If the option expires and they haven't picked it up, I can absolutely take it elsewhere. That's one of the cool things about it. They have rights to it for 18 months starting from when we submitted it. So next January, we would get the rights back unless they extend the option or pick up the option. The coolest thing about it is the credibility that The Temple has given me and the group of people who worked on it. It's helping us out on other projects that we have outside of Amazon.

So what else are you working on? What are you shopping around?

Well, there is Open, which sadly is not a horror project, but it's pretty cool. It's a series I have set up at Fox Television Studios about a couple in an open marriage. So they have a kinky side, and it's about the conflict they have trying to keep that out of their professional lives, out of their kids lives, while still maintaining a satisfying sex life. It's pretty risqué, it's pretty out there, but Fox loved it and they are trying to set it up at a network right now. We're pretty excited about that. 

Ben Powell and I are shopping one around called My Father's House. It won the Best Script prize last October at Amazon. It's this Neil Gaiman-ish horror / supernatural / thriller hybrid. It has a very humanist ending - I don't think the red states will like it very much. We also just finished one that is a straight-forward exploitation teen horror movie, a low-budget picture called The Sand, about a group of teenagers who wake up one morning on the beach after their graduation party and discover that, if you step on the sand, you die. So they are stuck around the firepit and the lifeguard station.

It's like The Floor's Made of Lava! That game you played as a kid!

Exactly! We've got some financiers who are pretty excited about it. Travis Stevens and his Snowfort Pictures [The Aggression Scale] will be producing. We have high hopes that we will be in production on it by the end of the year. Between The Temple and The Aggression Scale, people are interested in what we have to say. This one is just a fun, exploitation horror movie, the kind of thing you can shoot in 24 days on the beach - and who wouldn't want to do that? We try to break away from the prototypical 80s-style slasher film with dumb kids - we have smart kids. They are pretty good at figuring out what is going on and finding solutions to what, essentially, a series of physics problems. Plus, the poster kind of writes itself: "Don't touch The Sand."

Watch The Temple online in its entirety for free at Amazon Studios.

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