MEET ME THERE: An Interview with Screenwriter Brandon Stroud
The story of a young couple whose problems between the sheets leads them on a harrowing voyage of self-discovery through a weird little backwater town, Meet Me There blew both myself and Dave Wain away after we were privy to director Lex Lybrand’s early festival cut (you can read our thoughts on it HERE and HERE). Smart, scary and totally unique, it’s one of the absolute highlights of this year.
Continuing our coverage of this terrific flick, I recently caught up with Meet Me There’s scripter Brandon Stroud for a quick chinwag…
UKHS: So where did the movie come from? When I talked to Lex back in January he said you formed the screenplay from “a lifetime of stories”.
Brandon: I did. Destiny Talley gets our “based on stories by” credit because almost everything in the film is based on something horrible from her life. She grew up in a town called Atwood, Oklahoma, a town of 74 people that is nothing but a church, a few intersecting streets and a shit-ton of nightmares. She’ll just randomly drop stories about her hometown into conversation, like, “when I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go into the woods because of druids having ceremonies,” or, “one day a guy in town killed a bunch of dogs and lined them up along the street.”
UKHS: That’s nuts. So there is stuff in there that has actually happened?!
Brandon: Yeah, a lot of it. I think the scariest thing in the world is real life.
Back in 2003 I wrote a novel called Seven Hill City, and I managed to get it optioned for a film twice. Both times it lingered in pre-production hell, so I got tired of not having a movie and decided to write something quick and easy I could just make with my friends on the cheap. Total throwaway horror movie. About fifteen pages into it I thought, “shit, wait, I could make this good,” and started throwing in all of Destiny’s stories. Eventually it became a story about her life, about our lives, and about the desperate effort to cope with that feeling like everything bad that’s ever happened to you has stuck around and started closing in for the kill.
I’m happy with where it went. It went from something I was going to shoot as easily as possible and throw up on YouTube into something I wrote from the bottom of my heart and all the best parts of my brain, made with people I love, admire and respect, playing film festivals. It’s crazy.
UKHS: I really think you can tell that there is a lot of thought and a lot of heart behind it. Meet Me There is just so rich in its characterisation, which is something that doesn’t happen all too often in the horror genre. From what you’ve said then, I take it it was important for you to give your characters as much depth as you did? Obviously after you decided it wasn’t just a goofy DIY shocker!
Brandon: I probably put too much thought into the characters I wrote! Ada and Calvin [the protagonists] have entire back stories in my brain that I didn’t come close to exploring in Meet Me There. Marlow has an entire life we don’t see her living. I think every character is an opportunity, you know? If you can make them matter, make them real, you should. Some just sorta breeze into the story and leave, but the ones you spend time with should be able to hold a conversation.
UKHS: So how much of you is in Meet Me There?
Brandon: There’s a lot of me in it. That Smurfs story in it is totally true, by the way. It happened in Virginia and not Ohio, but yeah, I’m that dude who misses out on an absolutely pointless amusement park opportunity and regrets it for the rest of his life. The way-too-many wrestling references are me, too.
UKHS: Are you a horror fan, Brandon?
Brandon: I am, but I got into it late in the game. I grew up in a video store. My mom managed a place called “Video USA” when I was little, so before and after school I’d sit on a stool behind the counter and watch VHS tapes all day. I stayed away from the horror because the box art scared the shit out of me, and my imagination would always take me somewhere darker than actually watching the films would. I got into horror as an adult, actually, when I realised there was an art to it beyond putting gross faces on a box. I’m a huge fan of older psychological horror. It’s almost therapeutic for me now that I’ve lived a chunk of life. You know, and I say that as someone who still totally owns the Friday the 13th blu-ray boxed set. I like it all.
UKHS: I ask because I said in my write up of Meet Me There something like how it was both familiar and completely different all at the same time. There’s the characters with a troubled past, a town with secrets… It’s a classic set up but executed in such an unexpected and almost anti-genre way.
Brandon: I think a lot of horror tropes are born from something real. The unknown, not being able to come to terms with the past… Towns full of people you’ll never understand, and the paranoia that comes from that. What makes them tropes is how people lean on them. It’s easy to put jock, cheerleader, black guy and a stoner into a crazy town where everyone’s trying to kill them, but I think it’s much more entertaining to put somebody like ME in there, explore how they’d naturally react to what was happening, and play with it.
Calvin and Ada could exist in any film, and that’s what I love about them. I care about them because they were around before the film, and could be around after it. The genre is one that provides endless possibilities for creativity and interpretation, and damn, if I had forty million dollars and a franchise opening every October I’d sure as shit be swimming in the freedom. If something worked before, make it work again, but make it work differently. Make it work like your brain wants it to work, not like you think it has to. Even if you fail miserably.
UKHS: Looking at the film, was Lex’s visual take on the material close to how you saw it whilst writing?
Brandon: It’s hard to say. Lex’s visuals are something I can’t understate the importance of. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to work with him… He can take something from my brain, filter it through his and make it truly beautiful. That’s an incredible talent. In a perfect world, I get to filter my stuff through his brain a few more times before he’s too famous to talk to me.
UKHS: How do you think actors Lisa Friedrich and Micheal Foulk took to their parts? Were they what you envisioned when you wrote Ada and Calvin? What did they bring to it? Considering their backgrounds in improv, did they and Lex do much improvising or did they stick pretty rigidly to what you wrote?
Brandon: Micheal and Lisa are amazing. They’re both great actors and talented comedians and improvisers, so they basically took fictional versions of me and Destiny and brought them to life. They’re not “versions” of anyone now, they’re unique, fully-formed characters, and that’s largely thanks to their input and thoughts on the story. I’ve made sure to ask their opinions throughout every stage of the film, and it’s helped tremendously. The best part of working with talented people is utilising those talents… Why work with a genius if you don’t want to learn from them and make yourself better? I feel like I’m a better writer now having worked with these people. Lisa, Mike, Megan, Dustin, Jill, Lex, all of them.
There are a few scenes in the movie that are totally improvised, yes, but they stuck to the voice we set up in the script, so it’s hard to tell which ones. That’s killer. I fully expected Lex and the actors to take the script and say, “okay, we’re gonna throw out pages two through forty and do this,” but they didn’t. The respect they gave the story was tremendous, and tremendously flattering. I couldn’t have worked with a more constructive crew.
UKHS: You said earlier about the wrestling connections, so let’s touch on them a bit. You and Lex are both big wrestling buffs, right?
Brandon: Oh man, wrestling… I write about it for a living and work in the wrestling business now. I do a column called ‘The Best And Worst Of WWE Raw’ over at WithLeather.com – my day job, unbelievably – and ring announce for Inspire Pro Wrestling in Austin. Everything I write, EVERYTHING is full of wrestling references. When I wrote this, I challenged myself to not put any wrestling references in, and in the script, there are none. Then we thought, “Oh, we should cast Dustin Runnels for this,” and suddenly Goldust was in the movie. And when we cast roles, we ended up with Jack Jameson. He’s the guy in the cold open with the beard. He’s a pro wrestler.
And then when it was time to cast extras for the druid scenes we were like, “Who do we know?” And we ended up with a woods full of pro wrestlers. Folks like Leva Bates, Evan Gelistico, Addy Starr, Thomas Shire… These are all people who wrestle, all around the world, and they’re also people we know who are free to put on robes and mess around with blood and goats. Oh, and when it came time to pick wardrobe, whoops, suddenly Lisa’s in a Daniel Bryan shirt, or an UltraMantis Black shirt. I have a sickness, I think!
UKHS: Completely! So what was Dustin “Goldust” Runnels like to work with?
Brandon: Working with Dustin was… I still haven’t totally been able to put it into words! This guy’s been a favourite of mine since I was eleven. He’s legitimately one of my five favourite pro wrestlers ever, and somehow he read a thing I wrote and liked it enough to want to be in it. It was serendipitous for us, too, because he’d shown up in the previous January’s Royal Rumble, but he didn’t have a WWE contract.
He shot our film, and then a few months later got his WWE job back. He’s forty-five and seemingly entering the prime of his career. He’s as good in the ring as he’s ever been, doing hurricanranas and Yoshi Tonics to guys and I get to say, “I made that guy wade around in a cow piss pond for a scene in our movie.” It’s unreal. Dustin’s an artist, man; he came in prepared and blew everybody away. His talent is absurd. We didn’t start writing Woodward with him in mind, but when he was sitting in that church saying the lines, we couldn’t imagine Woodward being anyone else.
UKHS: You said that Meet Me There is a project you’re passionate about. You must be thrilled then that now it’s starting to get out there it’s connecting with people in such a way. It’s got some real buzz behind it.
Brandon: I’m very happy with it. I had a moment during the New Orleans première about ten minutes in when people were laughing and reacting where I went, “Oh my God, this is real.” I don’t think I’d let my brain process it before then. One day I’m in a field outside of a church getting eaten up by chiggers, the next I’m in a theatre wearing a bow-tie, watching a movie I helped make. It’s my guts, and now you can see them!
UKHS: What’s your plan for it now?
Brandon: Lex handles a lot of the promotional stuff, but I’m happy to talk to anyone I can about the film. Getting it out there, getting it into festivals. We’ve even talked to distributors already, which is amazing seeing as we’ve had one official screening. Probably two by the time this goes up. I’m going to try to make sure I make it to as many of our festival screenings as I can. We’ve got one in Austin on the 20th that is kicking my ass, I can’t wait to show the film in the town it was born.
UKHS: Finally, how’re you going to follow up Meet Me There? Do you have any other film projects on the horizon, specifically any genre-friendly ones?
Brandon: The goal I’ve always had in mind is to make a movie, and have it do well enough for me to make another one, and just keep that going. There’s so much I’d love to do. The Seven Hill City adaptation will happen one day. If Meet Me There blows up and we sell out, I’ve got at least three great sequels in the tank before we’re doing a half-assed 3D reboot with Dustin throwing spears at the camera or whatever! There’s a really great part two in my head I want to get out. I’ve also talked to Lex about us collaborating on a sci-fi project, so that could be fun. Lots of stuff waiting to exist. I couldn’t be more excited.
Follow all the news about Meet Me There on their Facebook page HERE
Read the UKHS Lex Lybrand interview HERE
Follow UKHS’ Matty Budrewicz on twitter @mattybudrewicz