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COMMITTED EXCLUSIVE: A Conversation Between 2 Headed Writers Edward DeRuiter and H. Perry Horton

For Committed's final post of 2-Headed Shark Week, I thought we'd host a conversation with the two men responsible for writing the film, Edward DeRuiter, who wrote the story, and H. Perry Horton (me), who wrote the screenplay. Outside of 2 Headed Shark Attack, Edward DeRuiter also wrote this year's 3 Musketeers mockbuster, in which he also acted in, as he did in Battle of Los Angeles. H. Perry Horton is best-known for penning A Haunting in Salem, and this blog. Two men, two writers, one two-headed shark. How did they do it? Let's see, huh?

P: How's this for a perfectly benign first question: How'd you come to work with The Asylum?

E: Well, about a million and a half years ago I was cast as one of the leads in a flick called The Source (which was later retitled The Surge). This was in the early days of The Asylum, and while they were already functioning as a distribution company for other people's films by then, The Source was one of their first forays into the production side of things. It was also one of my first feature film roles, and it was a crazy shoot. We filmed it in all in nine days nonstop, no off days and pretty much all in 120 degree heat. Unlike today where everything is shot on HD, this was shot on 35mm, so all of the camera setups took that much longer and you had even less time to shoot. We're talking serious indie pace back then, and everyone doing multiple jobs just to get it done. The Asylum senior partners (David Michael Latt, David Rimawi, Paul Bales) were all on set for every minute of it too, something that would be impossible for them today given how many projects the studio tackles at once. I think they got maybe 90 minutes of sleep a night between them. It was one of the most fun things I'd ever done in my life. And then I got paid on top of it.

I've done a few more films with them since then and have watched the budgets increase dramatically (and mercifully, the shooting days have increased too).

What about you? It's a big leap from being a cinephile and blogger about all things Asylum to writing a pair of movies for them. You can blog about The Dallas Cowboys too, but that doesn't mean they're gonna call you up and ask you to coach next Sunday's game...

P: New Years 2010, I'd had the blog up for about 4 months, and had been getting some positive feedback from The Asylum, creating a bit of a repoire, so I worked up the nerve to offer myself in whatever capacity they could use me. What I really wanted - my endgoal, as it was - was to write for them. A couple of days later, (Asylum partner Paul) Bales responded and gave me a chance to pitch. He'd been reading the blog - which at the time included a Potential Pitches regular feature - and graciously decided to give me a shot. The next day I received my first 3 pitch opportunities - the movies that would become Barely Legal, 3 Musketeers and 2 Headed Shark Attack. The first ended up going to Naomi Selfman, the other two to another writer (ahem). But a month or so after that, they came back to me wanting an idea for a haunted house movie, preferably one based on a true story. A few hours of internet research later, A Haunting in Salem was born. 

I know it seems a little out of the blue that I was asked to pitch, and believe me, there have been a lot of (rejected) comments on my blog questioning my abilities, and though I never bother to retort by listing my qualifications, I will say it's not totally random that I'm here. I am a writer, and have been since I was 11. For better or worse, it's all I can do. And I love it, every second of it. And of everything I've dabbled in, writing direct-to-DVD genre films is the most enjoyable, and the most representative of who I am not only as a writer, but as a guy; again, for better or worse. 

So long answer short, I got involved with The Asylum when they threw me a bone, which I then pounced upon like a wild, starving, rabid dog.

E: Ah yes, the harassment that writers get when the movie comes out. In defense of writers, a writer deserves a lot of the credit for a good script, but not a lot of the blame for a bad movie. People need to realize that just because you turn in a script doesn't mean they're going to film it as written (quite the opposite, really). On just about every feature film from the lowest budget indie to the biggest budget summer blockbuster, there are uncredited rewrites done by the producer, director, or in-house studio writers (not to mention production rewrites while filming) all which most of the time happen without the credited screenwriter being involved in the process. And that's all before they shoot the movie (which will be totally different from how the writer conceived it) and edit the movie together (which will be totally different from how the director conceived it). And even if it's the rare instance where the writer, director, and editor are all on the same page, you still have the producer - the person who bankrolled the entire project - who probably has a different take on how the movie should be, seeing as how they have to sell it and try to turn a profit. So guess who wins that creative tug-of-war? 

In short, haters gonna hate. 

P: Haters are indeed going to hate, and truthfully, having seen how people respond to B-movies online, I expected to be told how lousy I was. But you're right about the validation; I count myself luckier than I deserve everyday I wake up and these films exist. For me, I prefer to go with Kanye's frame of mind: "Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it;" at least I got work out there for people to hate.

And I also agree with you about the path from script to screen. My role in this, ultimately, is small: I sit at home and write in a quiet room. It's not easy by any means, but it isn't as hard, in my opinion, as others' roles. Because from there, all these things I've put down on paper have to be made real, or as real as they can, and that takes a sort of coordination and organizational prowess I can't even wrap my head around. I just wrote the thing that became the movie, is all, and that's how I've been trying to think about it, because sometimes it's hard when your intent isn't translated as literally as you'd hoped. It's odd for me to watch the movies I've written, because I don't see the things that are there, I see the things that aren't, whether it's because they've been cut out or changed or because I left them out in the first place; sometimes I like these things, and sometimes they befuddle me a little, but I understand that my participation in the project is just the first rung in a tall ladder that includes contributions from dozens upon dozens of others, all of whom leave the thing a little different than they found it. 

Regarding Salem's transition from script to screen, there were some lengthier explanations and stretches of exposition whittled down, altered or cut out, but in the end I was happy. Who am I kidding? I was beside myself with glee. I mean, it was my first produced script, and it all happened so fast - no more than five weeks from pitch to production - I'm just happy I didn't choke. I was so nervous, so distracted by trying to get everything about the story right, I don't think I realized they'd given me a chance to write the script before I was halfway done with it. But that process, getting the idea from pitch to script, that, to me, is the best part about the whole filmmaking process. I've been writing alone a long time. My work wouldn't see other eyes, if at all, until it was what I considered to be a final draft. So to have other people - development heads, directors, producers - giving their input from the germination phase all the way through to the final polish, that was rad. I felt like I was in a writer's band.

What about you? What were your thoughts on how 3 Musketeers wound up?

E: I think the big thing to remember is that the screenwriter on most movies is there to provide a rough framework for the filmmakers to then play around with. The script I turned in was a lot bigger in scope, characters were a lot more “grey” and there were a lot of carefully choreographed action sequences, which in hindsight I realize were never going to be filmed… But you’ve still got to put it in there. You’re asked to write a $100 million dollar movie and then THEY figure out how to realize it for less. The end result is that character motivations and relationships to one another change; scenes are rearranged, combined together, or deleted; new characters are added while others are cut; action set pieces are altered because of safety/cost/the laws of physics. Sometimes discrepancies do happen, and conveniently located items or characters can seemingly appear out of nowhere... BUT THIS HAPPENS IN EVERY MOVIE THAT HAS EVER BEEN MADE. As you said, the writer notices the differences because they're aware of the changes, but really all that matters is if the audience is entertained.

P: You mentioned you started out as an actor. At what point did writing enter your wheelhouse? Did you come to Hollywood an actor/writer, or is it something you developed after entering the industry?

E: Well I've always had stories I've wanted to tell so that's always been there in the background. I'd also been in enough films where I found myself thinking how I would have written them differently, so that was building to a head too. I'd say the straw that broke the camel's back though was really the current state of the Hollywood landscape - Movie stars are doing TV, TV stars are forced to take guest starring roles, and guest stars are lucky to get two lines now. So I started writing... and not only do they pay you for that, they throw you a part in this movie or that as a bonus. Had I known the secret to getting acting jobs was actually to be a writer, I'd have started a lot sooner.

P: Let’s talk about 2 Headed Shark Attack for a bit, what was the genesis of that idea?

E: The Asylum asked me to pitch a movie called 2 Headed Shark Attack. That was it, that was all the guidance I had: Three words and a number. Which means it was pretty open as to what I could do with it. I had a couple of different ideas, but I knew wanted to stay away from the beach community getting terrorized by sharks, which you see in 99% of these shark attack films. I don't want to see another one of those movies and didn't think anyone else did either.

One major problem with shark attack movies is that once the characters realize there is danger in the water, just don't go in the water any more... problem solved. So I had to figure out a way to a) give the shark legs, b) force the characters into the water for some reason, or c) take the land away from them. I was on the island of Penang in the Indian Ocean during the 2004 earthquake and tsunami and saw how far and how quickly the land can be covered by water, so the inspiration for the quake causing the island to flood came from there. A few days after the quake all manner of strange creatures were driven up from the deep and started washing ashore, so I knew I had to incorporate that too as you never see it in movies.

Another thing you never see in shark movies is electroreception (for those that don't know, sharks have a special organ in their head which lets them detect minute bioelectrical impulses given off by living creatures). This same ability makes sharks very susceptible to electric fields produced by machines, so obviously those both had to go in. 

P: What about the characters, where did those come from?

E: I had originally wanted to use a small group of Navy Seabee’s as the heroes, basically a bunch of engineers and construction workers in uniform. The story would have been them MacGuyvering the island against the shark, brains against Brawn taken to the extreme. But a production note I was given early on was to ditch the military and try and get some scantily clad teens in there, so I figured a semester-at-sea ship loaded with college students was an organic way of doing this without it feeling tacked on. I dumped them on a deserted island out in the South Pacific in order to give them no one to turn to for help, not to mention it kept the cast small. After that, it was all about coming up with some unique ways to kill people, emphasizing the two-headed nature of the shark. The beast needed to do things that a one headed shark couldn't, otherwise it would just be a bit boring.

P: Soldiers become bikini wearing co-eds, probably for the best I think. Any other key differences from the original concept?

E: I had originally had an abandoned WW2 Japanese outpost on the island, which the kids would take refuge in during the flooding but which the shark would also find its way inside of as well. After having the shark annihilate people outdoors for the whole movie I thought it might be fun to put a shark indoors for the finale, the last place you'd expect to find one. Sadly this would necessitate the construction of a floodable soundstage, and that would have sent the budget skyrocketing. So it had to go.

By this point we had a pretty solid treatment going when it was turned over to you to handle the big task of actually writing the thing. What was that process like?

P: The first thing they had me do was adjust how the island came to be underwater. You had written the treatment before last year's Japanese earthquake; owing to sensitivity issues, they didn't want the island to be flooded because of an earthquake or tsunami. So all I could think to do was sink it, which meant adjusting it from an island to an atoll, which doesn't sound like much, but structurally it changed things. There were some elements of scientific mumbo jumbo attending to just how and why the atoll was sinking (which mercifully were cut before production; science ain't my strong suit), things like that to tweek. 

The second thing I had to alter before I could start writing - which you've already mentioned - was the WW2 Japanese outpost. Interiors were going to be too costly, so I had to adjust the setting to a seasonal fishing camp, abandoned at the time our characters discover it. This actually changed a lot: all scenes had to be reset, which meant reestablished with their own context and backstory, character reactions et cetera, new things had to be explained and utilized, but this only took a few exchanges, and three or four days after getting the treatment, I started writing the script.

E: Yeah, my treatment involved a tsunami flooding the island, but this was about a week before the Japanese quake and tsunami. It validated the concept for sure, but given that one of the big markets for Asylum moves is Japan, it's best to play it safe. I don't know what other choice you really had than to sink the island. And I hear you on the technobabble, I'm not a big fan of it either and roll my eyes whenever I hear it. But if one of the production notes is to add more "science mumbo jumbo" as you put it, it's going in the script. The only real option is if you write it or if someone else does.

P: Once I got into it, things went well. The only real struggle I had was with the number of characters. Dumping people on a South Pacific Island (or Atoll) should have meant a small cast, but there was a need to justify the existence of the semester at sea, so six or eight kids weren't going to cut it. So I threw in, like, a dozen more, which gave up plenty of bodies in the end, but called for establishing a plethora of different personalities; it was a lot like juggling, only with 20 flaming bowling pins instead of three. But overall, writing this was - for lack of a better word - easier than Salem had been, both because I wasn't as nervous, and because I really wanted to write this movie. Shark movies are my favorite sort of movie, always have been, and it was a dream of mine to write one. Odd dream, I know, but it is what it is; I fucking love shark movies, and I wanted to be a part of the canon. So writing this script was fun for me, but more than that, it was important to me. And I feel like even though it was based on your story, I got a lot of myself in there, a lot of what I think makes a good shark movie, the suspense, the surprise, the hopelessness of going up against something so primal, the uselessness of all our distinctive attributes - strategy, communication, technology - when it's just you and the beast in the water, the fierce intelligence of sharks, their sheer evolutionary superiority...

From there it was the usual routine: notes from producers, notes from the director - the majority of these were practical things once locations were arranged - until production started and put an end to my involvement. I was intrigued to see how the story had changed from your treatment to my script and my first draft to my final, just as I was intrigued to see how the film itself varied from that draft. I think in this initial phase of my career I'm just absorbing everything I can, trying to inform the next script with the things I've learned from those before it, both about the process and about how to tell a good and effective story in this medium. It sounds hokey, and perhaps a tad arrogant, but I really do want to be the best damn B-movie writer in film history, or at least the best I can be. I just want to write fun, thrilling, chilling, interesting, hair-raising and imagination-stretching yarns for the masses. If I can fashion a living doing that, I'll be perfectly happy all of my days.

E: I know that another big change from my version of the story and the end product was flipping the gender of one of the protagonists from male to female, which cut out not only romantic tension with the heroine and altered the conflict with a male bully character, but undoubtedly created a lot of other changes in the cascade. I'm curious to know what some of those changes were and how you handled them.

P: Flipping "Dan" to "Dana" was another significant change. The biggest effect of this was, as you said, the elimination of the primary romantic tension. I tried to work a slighter, nerdier sort of relationship between Dana and Paul, but that didn't really make the final cut other than a few awkward glances, which I don't mind. While it's a tried and true staple of this sort of film to have two of the characters emerge from this uber-intense experience with romantic feelings, given the sheer number of characters in the film, not to mention that it takes place over the course of one day, there wasn't a lot of room for backstory so any romantic subplot I pushed would have come off as hackneyed. It was one of those, "if I can't do it right..." situations. 

The bigger adjustment for me was the elimination of the good-guy student lead. For every bully there's a geek, for sure, and we have that in Paul, but in the best social structures there's also another male outsider who isn't as weak as the geek, though not as strong as the bully, but blessed with enough intelligence and brawn to come off as formidable. That's who Dan was supposed to be, and that guise didn't really fit on Dana. That's where "Kate" (Brooke Hogan's character) stepped into a bigger role, taking on the bravado that Dan would have had, the stand-offish swagger. This also changed the structure of the leads from a pair to a trio, which was something I really liked, because it gave me a chance to define the leads based on their specific group dynamic, Kate as the muscle, Paul as the brains and Dana as the heart. I think in the film these attributes and actions have been spread out among other cast members to give things a more ensemble feel, which given, again, the sheer number of characters, is perhaps a more balanced solution.

E: It's funny that you mention changing the structure of the leads from a pair to a trio, because a heroic trio was always my intent. I had also tried to incorporate a number of character flaws into Dan/Dana that if anything made him the weakest link in the team at times, which I thought was an interesting thing to do. I'm also a huge fan of playing with expectations, and in these sorts of films it's often the nerd character who comes up with the plan to save the day and gets killed by the monster at the end, while the male and female leads get to live on and presumably make uber-babies to defend against future attacks from the monster... And I just hate that, so from moment one I knew Paul had to survive.

P: I sensed that nerd-hero element in your treatment, and I think that it survived through my final draft, and to a certain extent it is apparent in the film. Other tweaks to other characters might have softened the edge of this a little, but in my head, Paul is as much a hero as this story gets.

The biggest cascading effect of these changes, to me at least, was that it altered how I looked at the script: what had been something I was envisioning as character-driven now became creature-driven: there were a lot of people and not a lot of time with them so aside from surface attributes and a few deeper delvings into the leads, you weren't going to get a lot of non-panicked interaction between them. The script then became about the situation, the shark, and he became my lead, the people my supporting chum. There are, after all, more deaths in 2 Headed Shark Attack than all four Jaws films combined. That didn't leave a lot of time for much more than killing, so it was only right that I come at it from the point of view that the shark was my lead. It's his name in the title, after all.

So knowing what we know now, what advise would you offer budding B-movie screenwriters? 

E: It's not your script. I keep saying that but it's really important to get this across. You sold it and it belongs to someone else. Distance yourself from that emotionally and don't argue the notes. The changes are going in there one way or another, so just smile and say "yes sir, yes sir, three bags full".

Jump the gun. You are going to have a shockingly brief amount of time between getting the greenlight to start writing and when the first draft will be due, so you need to start writing ahead of time. I recommend outlining the hell out of it if you can. One page outline, then three pages, then ten pages, then 25 pages. Your 25 pager should have already have all of your scene headings as well as loose dialog and action, so you can turn it into 100 pages lickety split. Make your action not tied to location. At the speed indie films move at they just don't have the time, so keep it quick and light and don't make anything dependent on specific location details. The action involves a room with exposed pipes in the ceiling? Your hero low crawls down a long glass hallway? Those location details probably won't be available assets to the film crew, so not only did you waste your time writing it, but you waste the director's time coming up with a workaround on the day of filming, time they could otherwise be using to make the movie.


P: Let's see, first off I'd say know your market. If you're writing a shark film, watch other shark films to make sure you're not rehashing material or treading on too familiar territory. Just like a novelist has to read, a screenwriter has to watch. I watched a steady regimen of shark movies while writing 2 Headed, and it paid off: one night, well into the second draft, I watched Sharktopus and realized I had used a line similar to one of theirs at a climactic moment. If I hadn't been versing myself in what else was out there, I would have made a huge (unintentional, I swear) kerfuffle. 

Second - and this is branching off your Work Ahead tip, which I 1,000% support and endorse - know your characters. The pitch and treatment processes happen fast - real fast - and the one element that isn't naturally included is extensive character work; you're on your own there. The second I send off a pitch, the very next thing I do is go back and expand the characters, figure out who exactly they are, beyond surface attributes and professions; I delve into their personalities and backstories, stuff that probably won't make it into the script, but will still serve to further my understanding of each character, making it that much easier to dive head first into the script. 

And lastly, keep working even when you're not working. Since I finished 2 Headed, I've written 16 treatments, two spec scripts and 50+ pitches, all for myself, to both keep my practice sharp and to build a reservoir of material ready to develop. Writer's block doesn't really exist, I'm convinced, so long as you plan ahead, be it as a treatment, an outline, a notepad of random dialogue or even just an idea book to ensure you're never at a loss for words.

What about aspiring actors? What words of advice would you offer those looking to become the next mega shark slayer or alien defender?

E: No one wants to spend the next ten hours reading my extensive thoughts on the acting side of the business, but I can give you some advice on what to expect when you DO land a job on one of these movies.

1. The script? That's a guideline. Chances are it got rewritten between the time you got it and the time you shoot the scenes, and no one gave you the latest draft. So learn to memorize new lines VERY QUICKLY. 

2. They shoot fast. You will have one or two camera rehearsals, then maybe two or three takes before moving on. So you will have very little time to get it right. Know your character well, make strong choices from the get go and keep working through any bloopers... They can cut around the gaff and it takes less time than starting from the top of the take again. 

3. Be cool. Even on big budget movies, creative people are high strung and film sets are stressful places... On indie films it's much more so. The people you are working with have gotten two hours of sleep tops for the last week, and they're got two more weeks left to shoot after you're gone... The last thing anyone needs is attitude from an actor of any kind. You might not think you have attitude, but trust me, you do. Be the easiest person to get along with on the set. These productions use the same people over and over again, and given the choice between the greatest actor in the world who gets into arguments over how to do the scene or a regular joe who can do the scene without being a diva, guess who gets hired for the next movie?

P: So what's coming up for Ed DeRuiter? Acting? Writing? Branching out?

E: On the acting side, I'm back at work for The Asylum, this time in "Air Collision" due out March 27th. I've also got a guest starring role in a new Cinemax sitcom called "The Girl's Guide To Depravity" due out this spring, which is billed as "Sex and the City" but with young, hot women as the leads… It’s a very funny show. Then I’m back to playing it serious, this time opposite Sean Astin and Brendan Fehr in the feature film “Adopting Terror” for Lifetime which will hit later this year.
On the writing side, I’m developing a big sci-fi feature for the Asylum right now but the details are under wraps so I’m not allowed to say much about it. I’ve also formed a production company with some industry friends of mine; we’re pitching some series ideas around town right now and are also putting together our own sci-fi action thriller that we hope to film this summer.
What can we expect out of you in 2012?

P: I am one of those ridiculously superstitious people who don't like to talk about projects until they're sure-things, lest I jinx them, but I will say I have an iron or two in the fire and plan to write as much as people will let me in 2012. And then probably a little more.

E: Great, now you've got me all paranoid that I've jinxed myself by telling you what I'm up to. Thanks a lot Perry. 

P: Umm-hmm. So where can people keep up with all things DeRuiter?

E: If you want to see some pictures of my ugly mug, you're always welcome to check me out on my official website I've been meaning to add a blog to the page, hopefully I can get to that sometime this decade. If you can't wait for that and need some brain nuggets ASAP, you can always follow me on twitter @edwardderuiter, provided you can handle how awesome my tweets are.

And of course, everyone should know that we can follow you on twitter @hperryhorton. 

P: I can personally attest to how awesome your tweets are. And yes indeed that is my Twitter handle if you just can't get enough of the witticism of H. Perry Horton. Mostly it's me with a healthy buzz on talking about whatever movie I'm watching that night, but whatever, that's what Twitter's for, right? Other than that, I'm always here to receive your questions and blistering criticism.

So there you have it, Committed's ridiculously thorough conversation with screenwriters Edward DeRuiter of 3 Musketeers and H. Perry Horton of A Haunting in Salem. Their joint effort, 2 Headed Shark Attack, for which DeRuiter wrote the story and Horton the screenplay, is available on DVD and Blu-Ray RIGHT NOW.


  1. Very interesting conversation! That's so amazing the circumstances that got you to where you are with The Asylum. I hope to find myself in a similar situation with any B grade movie company. Kudos to you, can't wait to see 2-Headed, I've heard splendid things so far!

  2. This was excellent! Nothing brings on a nerdgasm faster than reading about two writers living out their dreams and giving us insights on their journey!

    There were great teases about upcoming films and how the writing process can be frustrating but also a labor of love.

    Would either both or one of you do a follow-up post with a "master class" on scriptwriting, maybe using a draft Asylum pitch as an example? I know intellectual property rights may make that unrealistic, but I'm writing a story for fun and wouldn't mind some help?

    How about wrapping Edward's blog into this one? He'd be an awesome addition. If you guys teamed up, what a "2-headed" monster that could be!

    Hope you could reply?