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A Horror Maven Speaks: An Interview with Screenwriter Barbara Marshall

Barbara Marshall

Image courtesy of Barbara Marshall.

Horror movies tap into primal instincts by helping us confront some of our biggest fears. “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Exorcist” and “Carrie” have all set the bar high for scaring the living daylights out of us. However, until recently, there hasn’t been much diversity in horror films. In fact, it seems to be a running joke that if there’s a black person in a horror film, they’ll be the first to get killed. With megahits like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” things seem to be changing, though, in front of the camera and behind it.

Barbara Marshall is an African-American television and screenwriter who’s responsible for some pretty solid horror fare. She wrote for the sci-fi/horror series Terra Nova (2011) and penned the features “Viral” (2016) and “Wish Upon” (2017). She recently spoke with us about horror films and her writing process.

Atlanta Black Star: How did you get into horror?
Barbara Marshall: I’ve always been a big Stephen King fan. He was the first author I read en masse when I was about 9 or 10.

ABS: What were your favorites?
BM: “It,” “The Gunslinger,” “Carrie.” Those were my top three. When you come to Hollywood, it’s hard to find a niche, a niche that can be produced and a niche that also speaks to your taste. I love horror. I love scares. I love writing strong female protagonists and that’s just something inherent in most horror movies. That’s where I’m sticking my flag these days. The great things about these movies is they get made. I’m not going to say all of my movies have been great, but they’ve gotten made relatively quickly, which is always a good thing in this town.

ABS: Do you find as an African-American horror writer you’ve faced any obstacles?
BM: I do feel like it’s important from outside of myself. I don’t necessarily always write African-American female protagonists. I write sort of everything. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said that I send scripts out with the initials B.J. so that people would assume that it was a white male writer who’s sending the script out. But I kind of feel like, nowadays, we’re embracing diversity more and it’s really exciting to see. Thank goodness for people like Jordan Peele …people who are paving the way with these huge hits.

ABS: What films would you say influenced your style the most?
BM: I’m a big Stephen Spielberg junkie. It’s just clear, clean storytelling. One of my favorite horror movies of all time is “28 Days Later” by Danny Boyle. Just a great film. Terrifying. Reinvented the horror genre completely. Reinvented zombies. I’m a big Clive Owens fan. People who can do a clean, clear, concise story is where I’m inclined.

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ABS: What makes your characters tick?
BM: Anyone who’s flawed. I hate the standard protagonist who’s a great guy and does all the right things. I think that’s really hard to write for and not particularly interesting. The people who are messed up and dirty and scared … who have issues. If you put those people in a desperate situation, that’s where you get the drama. Those stories, I think, are just so exciting.

ABS: What was your first writing assignment?
BM: I think it was my first movie. I wrote a spec a long time ago, back when I was 24 or 25. It was called “Triple Dog.” It came out and got a little bit of heat in town and landed a director relatively quickly. Five years later, it was shooting in Vancouver. “Triple Dog” was my first big paycheck.

ABS: How did the sale of “Viral” come about?
BM: I’d been on a show for a while called “Terra Nova” and I wanted to get back to my screenwriting roots. So, I took some time with the script and it ended up doing quite well. People seemed to like it. It made all the lists. I partnered up with Sherryl Clark of Busted Shark and we sold it to IM Global in a bidding war. Then, Dimension came on board to distribute and it was shot a year later. It was made relatively quickly. I was not the only writer on that project. When they got new directors, I was let go and they brought in Chris Landon. I really believe in the original spec, though, and am really proud of it. I’m glad that “Viral” got made.

ABS: What would be your advice to up-and-coming screenwriters?
BM: My advice would be to become a writer/director. I think it’s difficult to solely subsist on the writing because you’re in a vulnerable position. You can be let go at any time … replaced with another writer. The director could come on board and rewrite you. But, as a writer, we definitely have a vision of the story that we want to tell. So, maybe we should all just get up there and be courageous and tell our stories! I think every writer tries to feed what they’re writing. So, yeah, I would try to write and direct and/or work in television.

ABS: Do you outline before you write?
BM: I do. Always. Usually on boring yellow note pads, using pencil.

ABS: Do you have a particular time of day that you like to write?
BM: Right now! (laughs) I’m a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. kind of girl.

ABS: Any particular spot where you like to write?
BM: These days, I write in my dining room so I can have the news on, just in case there’s a breaking story! I don’t write in my office anymore. I have to write in front of CNN and MSNBC, just in case there’s a breaking-news flash.

ABS: How long have you been writing?
BM: I was a really dorky little kid who was always writing stories and always reading. I went to college, undergrad and grad school, with a focus on writing. So, I’ve been writing for a while. There’s no backup plan. (laughs)

ABS: What’s the last movie you saw in a theater?
BM: I just saw Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River” and I thought it was genius.

ABS: What do you think the film or TV industry should be doing for writers that it isn’t?
BM: I wish they would take a chance on new voices. That’s really hard for them, I get it. But when you see these massive $150 million tentpoles … I would really love to see a studio invest in maybe five $10 million movies from an untested and new director. I just think it would be great to see some new voices. Challenging, but you don’t get the Jordan Peeles if you don’t get the Jordan Peele money. Sometimes, that can pay off. Maybe they could use it as some sort of tax incentive or tax break? (laughs)

ABS: How long does it take you to complete a script?
BM: If I’m really rocking and rolling, I could probably get a first draft done in four to six weeks.

ABS: What, personally, scares you the most?
BM: Not living up to my potential …(laughs). We’re all here for a purpose and I’d really like to fulfill the purpose, which I think is just telling some good stories. I’d be sad if I couldn’t live up to that.

ABS: What are you currently working on?
BM: I’ve got a couple of projects in development. The one that’s on my computer right now is an adaptation of “Cluster,” which is a graphic novel that’s currently at film studios and Fox 21. I’ll be taking it out as a pitch in the next couple of weeks. I recently just finished rewrites to a Lifetime adaptation of “The Bad Seed.” I’m also working on a couple of projects that will hopefully be directing projects for me in the future.

ABS: What advice would you give screenwriters about getting an agent?
BM: The one thing I never really had a problem with was finding an agent. I came up through the festival world when I was in my 20s. I was entering a lot of festivals and I was winning them. I got my first agent relatively quickly and never really had a problem after that. I think that the way to do it now is … the festival route is a good idea, but you really need work in this business, even if it means interning somewhere a couple of days a week, just so you can meet people, because it’s really hard if you’re on the outside and you don’t know anybody.

ABS: My final question. What is one surprising, non-writing related fact about you?
BM: I don’t think there’s anything surprising about me! Maybe … that I like funny-looking dogs? (laughs) Dogs that look like crazy old men! (laughs)

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