A major thesis of this blog is "Screenwriting means writing for anything with a screen." As many of you know, Haunting Melissa is a project developed exclusively for the iPhone and iPad, and unlike a movie or television program, it has been designed specifically for the way viewers interact with these devices. Its chapters and chapter fragments are released in sporadic and unexpected ways. Episodes are not the same upon second viewing. The storytelling is so inventive that many reviewers have suggested that director Neal Edelstein (producer of “The Ring” and “Mulholland Drive") has "re-invented filmmaking." (See: App-Only Horror Movie “Haunting Melissa” Challenges Traditional Storytelling)
Intriguingly for both filmmakers and screenwriters, Edelstein told Tech Crunch that his company Hooked Digital Media is funding a wide slate of these kind of projects. “We want to empower creative filmmakers to use these devices and this technology. We will help them with that and financing,” says Edelstein. “I think it’s an interesting time in Hollywood because not as many films are getting made, but people are looking for different opportunities. We’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of that.”
I'm always on the lookout for ways for screenwriters to get their stories told. But how does one write the screenplay for an App?
In order to find out, I spoke to the screenwriter of Haunting Melissa, Andrew Klavan. Andrew, also known by his pen name Keith Peterson, is an writer of mystery novels, psychological thrillers, and screenplays for "tough-guy" mystery films. Two of Klavan's books have been adapted into motion pictures: True Crime (1999) and Don't Say A Word (2001). As readers of Genre Hacks know, I encourage writers to work their craft in a variety of mediums, whether novels or teleplays, blockbusters or webisodes. Andrew is in many ways the model of a writer successfully adapting to radical changes in the entertainment business and emerging technology, so I had A LOT of questions for him:
You have written novels, screenplays and teleplays. How was writing a serialized story for an app different?
There are elements in your screenplay for Haunting Melissa that one would never find in traditional TV or movies…the recorded phone messages and web-chats in particular. Why did you decide to include these?
The intimacy of the medium mostly. You have someone sitting there with his iPad or iPhone - it's a very intimate experience. It's still something you watch, like TV, but it's just more like the experience of reading, just you and the story one on one. It sometimes made me nervous to do things that weren't strictly visual or film-like, but under the nervousness, I was pretty sure it would work because of the close relationship between the viewer and his device. Plus it gave us new ways of scaring people, scares no one had ever really used before. You know, a haunted social media feed - that's pretty cool. You can't really do that as well anywhere else.
Sound design is extremely important to the experience of Haunting Melissa. To what extent did you consider sound while writing.
Only a bit of that was me. As far as the writing goes, again, I depended on the intimacy for sound effects. I figured people would be wearing earphones and so on, so I knew I could do pretty subtle things: the whispering under the music and static and so forth. But so much of the sound stuff is down to Neal and his tech magicians too. I mean, this is true in any scary movie - sound is fifty percent of the effect - much more than the average audience member realizes - and that's not something a writer can supply. Neal was endlessly creative in providing a frightening sound atmosphere and he could take even ordinary moments and make them nerve wracking. I remember visiting him in the editing room, seeing how hard he worked on that stuff - it was amazing. I'll take some credit for the plot points that depend on sound, but that overall ambience was created after my role was largely over.
In what ways did fiction writing inform the way you conceived and structured Haunting Melissa?
It might piss some people off for me to say it, but it's just true: novel writing is far and away the hardest form of fiction writing and the one that, done well, requires the greatest number of skills and the greatest depth of skill. With the possible exception of cheap, jump-out-at-you boo-scares (although actually Joe Hill does those brilliantly in his novel Heart-Shaped Box), almost everything that's in film is or can be in novels, and there are some things in novels that don't appear anywhere else. Sure, some people can't translate their novel-writing skills to the various visual forms because they just don't get the structure or can't make the leap from read dialogue to spoken dialogue or whatever. But if I can say this without sounding too much like a pompous ass (maybe just a little like a pompous ass!) if you can write a good novel, you have a lot of tools with which to build any other story well.
Screenwriters are used to writing in tradition three-acts for movies, or 4 Acts with a teaser for hour drama. Haunting Melissa seems to explode those conventions. How did you structure Haunting Melissa?
Man, that's a smart question. I hate those! Make it stop! No, seriously, that was the thing that required the most thought: the structure. It wasn't TV and it wasn't film and it wasn't a novel, so how do you orchestrate the highs and lows, the climaxes and exposition and so on, at the same time drawing it out while making every moment compelling? I finally settled on an extremely modified three act structure with each act containing several inner acts like Russian boxes or like the spiral structure of some of those old epic poems. But then, because I knew the act movements would be so stretched out, I tried to attach each one to an idea, you know, so the audience could keep something in mind as we moved toward it. Neal had come to me with the idea of a girl in a house with a locked door, so I used that: Each act is keyed around the opening of a door, and each door leads us deeper into the mystery. I'm really proud of the structure, since I had to invent it and I love inventing stuff! But that said, I've got a totally new structure to use next time out that's much more complex and, in my humble O, even cooler.
How many pages was the Haunting Melissa script. How did the time and effort compare to writing in other forms (feature, TV, novel, etc.)
I can't remember what the page count was on my last draft - 130? 140? Something like that. The draft before that was much longer because I wanted to make sure there was enough material, then I slashed it back because it was just too long. It was harder to write than a movie, because of the length but also because of the thought that had to go into the structure. It wasn't as hard as a novel. Nothing is as hard as a novel. Calculus. Brain surgery. Climbing Everest using only your teeth. A novel is harder than all of them. So this was a bit more difficult than a regular screenplay, but easier than a novel. About the same as brain surgery - at least the way I do it!
How specifically does Haunting Melissa exploit the genre conventions of horror?
Well, this is the part about it I love. If Neal had come to me and said, "I have this idea for an app, and it goes beep when you press this button and bleep when you press that one," I would've been completely uninterested. But Neal loves ghost stories as much as I do, and his idea was that this was a way to tell a traditional ghost story in an original, non-traditional way. I mean, between the intimacy of the medium and Neal's innovative ideas for story delivery and dynamic elements, it was almost like we could turn your ipad into a haunted device, so you wouldn't just hear the story or see it, you'd almost live it. Neal and I also both share a love of a certain kind of eerie atmosphere, the shadow in the hall, the thing you see out of the corner of your eye. We're both less interested in shock and gore and boo-scares (though we'll use them if they work) than we are in things that are scary to their core, you know, ideas so scary that even when you just describe them, they make your flesh creep. Neal and I have worked on several projects together, and sitting around with him saying, "This is scary, this isn't, this is fresh, I've seen this before, how can we push this envelope?" is always one of my favorite parts of the job.
Would you write another app? What kind of story do you would best match the platform?
In a heartbeat, sure. I would say the platform lends itself most readily to genre, but then I'm a genre writer. Still, ghost stories, mysteries and eerie science fiction seem to me the best way to take advantage of a genuinely new technology, you can see the way the new elements can become a part of stories like that. Drama, romances, sweeping adventure — not so much, you know. But then, if a writer sets his mind to it, who knows? It's a brand new medium. It could be boundless.
Haunting Melissa is available for free download the Apple App Store. Watch the teaser below...