Anthony Jaswinski has spent nearly two decades honing his craft writing screenplays that tingle your spine and make your skin crawl. His breakthrough came with the Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST) directed VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, which starred Hayden Christensen and John Leguizamo.
His new film, THE SHALLOWS (Columbia Pictures; Opens June 24, 2016), is “unequivocally the best shark movie since JAWS” according to Indiewire. The film is a gripping thriller in which a surfer (Blake Lively) finds herself stranded on a rock 200 yards from a secluded beach as she is hunted by a great white shark.
OnWriting spoke with Anthony about THE SHALLOWS, his writing process and his other summer film, SATANIC, which opens July 1, 2016.
How did you break into the film industry as a screenwriter?
After I graduated from NYU, I was working retail. I started to enter the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriting competition. After a few times, I finally won it. I sold a pitch to Warner Brothers on my Nicholl’s week out in Los Angeles and that ingratiated me to the business. With that and a couple of scripts under my belt, I was fortunate enough to work with directors like Brad Anderson on movies like VANISHING ON SEVENTH STREET.
To make a long story short, I’m always in the wilderness. I’m not huge on doing rewrites. I like adaptations, but for the most part I tend to be self-generating. I work from New York. I write specs. I’ve been doing that, professionally, since about ’98, ‘99. I put KILLING TIME together myself in 2002. It was a coming of age story and was fortunate to get into Sundance. I tend to write thrillers bordering on horror or elite horror. I’ve been lucky enough to make a decent living in the business and do what I want to do.
What attracted you to first writing thrillers?
Horror is the bastard stepchild of great drama. One of my favorite films is THE EXORCIST, not because it’s one of the scariest films of all time, but it’s a great story about underdogs. When you break it apart, it’s about outsiders who band together to fight a greater purpose. I always felt some of the best dramas were ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SHINING and the abstracts like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Those are films with a lot of psychological undercurrents to them. I feel like horror and thrillers were some of the only dramas that you could get emotion and impact out like that.
I was always a big admirer of Stephen King and his short stories when I was in high school and college. I never set out to write movies. I was trying to write short stories and I fell in love with the model of writing scripts because it forces writers to focus on pacing. Prose gives you this dramatic license to do what you want and let your mind roam, which creates a wonderful sense of creative expanse. But for the most part, I needed a certain sense of structure and precision. Scripts gave that to me. Horror and thrillers gave me the vision of writing great drama but under this guise of terror and threat and dread. I’ve always stuck to that.
I branch out occasionally. I’ve written a coming of age high school movie for Paramount and I’m about to work on a fight drama. All of that stuff can bridge from a horror/thriller or neo-noir element. I love the drama that comes out of horror and thriller, so I always go back to that.
Tell me about THE SHALLOWS. Was this written on spec?
Yes it was. I was trying to figure out what my next movie was going to be. I had written a vampire script previously because I felt that vampires were starting to get sidelined into comedy/romance. When you go back to SALEM’S LOT, NEAR DARK or even NOSFERATU, the vampire used to be this horrifying element.
I was watching SHARK WEEK, almost two years ago, and everything was about SHARKNADO and cartoon sharks and sharks getting punched in the face. I was asking myself, “When did the shark not become scary anymore? When did this beautiful, primal weapon of nature become this kind of laugh-in joke?” Then the next day, Spielberg’s DUEL was on. (An early film of his from Matheson that I absolutely adore). I started to get inspired by it. I’m thinking there must be a minimal approach for the shark movie to return to the days of JAWS and the days when there was something under the surface and you don’t know what it was? The highway mirage is the unknown lurking beneath. The windchimes on some shitty roadhouse porch is the crisp lap of late-day tide. There is something about the unsettling creak of water.
I got excited about making a very small movie about a person stranded on a rock island, where she can see the shoreline the entire film. The more I thought about a woman’s point of view, the more excited I got. It’s not because I tend to like to write women, but I think that a woman’s thought system is a lot different, more complex. The idea of this animal versus human survival story, with the Hitchcock-ian ticking clock feel, sounded really good to me. I also loved the idea of the shark being a battle-tested survivor, an old man still fighting. Young vs old. I started working on that, and maybe three and a half weeks later, I had a pretty durable first draft. Sometimes they take a while to write and sometimes they tend to, which is the cliché, write themselves. It feels that way when you have an idea that you’re really excited about. Keeps you up at night grinding your teeth.
That’s how that came to be. I gave it to my reps and I got a call at six in the morning the next day. Valerie Phillips and David Boxermbaum, my agents flipped for it. So we went out with it and sold it very quickly.
How do you build that suspense into a script that essentially is all set in one location?
It’s all about the set pieces, isn’t it? I was trying to figure out how to do close calls and near misses in the realm of the shallow waters right off the beach. I figured you could get the audience hooked by having the shark attack and the woman, Nancy, stranded in a certain area that becomes a perimeter of sorts. But after that, you can’t have her talk the shark to death. I was trying to figure out how to realistically present certain obstructions for her so that she can use her mind and her body.
I never throw notes on a wall and try to figure out scenes. I have a pen and a paper and I try to do a two pager that will have bullet points. “Here’s the first act. Here’s the second act. Here’s the third act.” If it goes correctly, I can have the parameters of the story and I can see where it begins and where it ends.
People in our business know the big filler is the second act. For that, all the set pieces are there so I was very precise in trying to figure out where she has to be and where she has to go and how do you change it up to where it doesn’t become both redundant and derivative. I started to put the machine together by designing the first and third act. Then with the second act, I tried to figure out what the set pieces were. They all came together with the high tide. Sooner or later you’re going to have to jump off the rocks because the high tide will come. There’s a great gag piece about a whale that can be used as part of her plan. There’s a bunch of things that I was able to figure out, but it was a puzzle. I was able to sort those elements out by designing the first and third act like bookends, which is what they are.
I wanted to keep a pace where she has to keep moving because I think when things slow too much in one location, you’re demanding a lot out of audiences. Attack attack attack. I get that we needs hills and valleys, but I’m very suspicious of giving too much lull, unless it serves an effective purpose for building character or preloading one helluva scare.
When you’re writing a specific scene, how descriptive do you make it?
Technically, I’m sort of a director’s writer. It all starts with the director’s eye, honestly, and having a good place where he can visualize. I try to make the reading as easy as possible for the readers and for the director if what I always set out to do.
I’ll write a paragraph instead of saying, “She’s on the rock. A lot of shit is happening. Oh, a seagull crashes.” I figure out what works, what doesn’t. I will print the page out, take a pen and cross certain things out. Fifteen minutes later, I’ll design a half-pager of the scene to see if it’s working and then—if I did my homework correctly—within an hour, I have a pretty good scene.
I usually try to think as a director. When I’m writing about the visual cues and the close-ups, I don’t want to get too much into the directors face about how the scene should be. But it helps me when I’m writing visually for those scenes, not only because it brings me into the world and helps me figure out set pieces, but it gives me a sense of pace into what these characters would do.
I graduated NYU’s dramatic writing, but had many close friends in the film department and the two were very hand-in-hand. It gave me a technical aspect to the craft. I’ve had a lot of advice from friends and I had to do a lot of courses in film. The best advice I can give writers is obviously to watch films, but also try to get on a production. Look around and see how the production goes. A lot of things that are important when you write the script have to be rearranged in the process of production.
I think the director is always keen on making sure that he has the spirit and the root and the bones of the script into his production.
Was there any particular scene in THE SHALLOWS that you felt translated particularly well—or completely different—from the page to the screen?
Yes to both. The first 15 minutes felt straight out of the page, in a way, which was great. I wouldn’t say I was worried, but I was concerned about how the director would keep the audience glued to her and to her point of view as she goes into the water. I was really encouraged by what I saw worked from what I had written. It felt like it was right off the page all the way up to when she gets attacked by the shark. Because of certain production issues, we couldn’t have everything we wanted. That’s the concession you make when you’re making a film.
I envisioned, for example, that the rock island would be a little bigger. A lot of it was due to production. I wouldn’t say I was bummed, but I was wondering how it was going to work. Then I saw Jaume’s entire cut and I saw how small this island gets. I’m like, “Oh well shit, that actually makes it better.” I never foresaw that version to where she really had to cling to this small part of the island. It’s not some kind of safe haven that I had imagined it originally. A lot of that credit goes to the director, Jaume Collet Serra. Whether it was because he couldn’t get everything he wanted, or he saw something different, he saw that as an advantage where I saw it as a disadvantage. That’s the wonder about collaboration.
What kind of rewrites did you do for on THE SHALLOWS?
I had to rewrite some scenes based on who the characters were and the geographics, with respect to the production and Nancy’s A-to-Bs. Originally, Nancy’s mother had recently passed on and she didn’t know what she wanted to do in life. She was a lot younger. When Blake Lively signed on, I had to write Nancy slightly older and a little wiser. It was a bit tricky for me because I was sort of used to living with this younger woman, right out of college. I had to put on a new persona for this character and figure out what her back story was. At the end of the day, it’s pretty close to the original script. I guess it threw me for a curve because I was terrified, as a writer, to go into the back story and look for something else I thought was working quite strongly.
Things change and back stories have to change. As far as the visual set pieces and budgetary concerns for the production, we couldn’t get nights that I wanted to get. There was a set piece on a buoy that had to be turned down a little. Again, they didn’t tarnish the spirit of the script, it was just you have to make concessions when you’re shooting a movie.
With THE SHALLOWS, did you initially set out to have a film focused on one character through the whole film?
I did. I initially, and I think it stuck to that in production, produced a few other characters, but essentially it’s the 127 HOURS model. Basically, it starts with a few meet and greets. Then it ends with this one character. GRAVITY did this to a certain extent. I was worried about the audience starting to feel like it’s getting redundant. GRAVITY did a very good job about going from point A to point B and making something happen without the entire focus being on getting from a point A to point B. The biggest point is you have to like the character. I think they did a really good job at the end of the day to have the audience embrace who Nancy is.
Now, whether some people might still feel like they need to see more people in the film or they need to go more places, I can’t do anything about that. I know, from my point of view, this is a kind of a movie that I had set out to write. I was worried, a little, about spending too much time with Nancy, but all of those seeds have to be planted in the first act. The other writers cliché, which I think happens to be very true, is if you write a character people care about, they’re going to follow them for a while.
Nancy has an arc in this very small amount of time. I credit, again, the director, for being able to bring that out in Blake. I always wanted to give her this one big monologue without making it feel like a big monologue. It’s something a regular person would say. I think that was a strong component in the film that’s going to make audiences understand this is what happens when it is life and death, even though you don’t really know it is life and death yet. It’s these little moments that count.
I am a big fan of the ‘60s minimalistic films (Godard, Jules Dassin) or where we follow a day in the life or Gus Van Sant films where you’re following people to their death. I was saying to myself, “Could that be done in a more genre thriller while keeping the same spirit and soul of films like that?” Hopefully I accomplished that. That’s what I was always trying to do. I wanted to give a lot of meaning to one person’s simple story and at the same time have the audience enjoy being in their point of view throughout the entire movie.
Tell me a bit about your actual writing process. What kind of space do you like to be in when you write? How do you surround it? What kinds of materials do you surround yourself in?
I have a little office here in Santa Monica. I put little dark curtains on the windows and I put myself on the wall and write. I need to be immersed in a way. I have friends that can go to coffee places and I think that’s great. I couldn’t do that.
When I’m in New York, I don’t have an office so I go to the 42nd street library and work there. I do it because it’s one of the few places that they’re not going to charge you any money to write. You can get your work done. I usually come to write to get my work done. My agreement with myself is I have to write at least five pages a day. Five pages might not seem like a lot, but it can take hours when you’re trying to tinker things out. I never take a day off. I’ll write five pages a day. I will have 20 pages by the end of the week. I’ll spend the weekend going back into those 20 pages, reworking those, making them 15 pages because certain things feel like bullshit and don’t work.
The only way I can have that life is if I shut myself in somewhere and I just work. I guess you could say I get inspired sometimes by things on the street, but usually it’s about the story I’m writing. I live with that story 24/7. You’re completely immersed in it. You talk to yourself a little, you’re not the greatest company around people—at least I’m not, because I think about the story. It’s not something that I can turn on and turn off; that’s why I usually have to work hard on it, get it done, and be able to breathe a sigh of relief after. Some people love writing, they have a great experience with it. I would say I love writing, but it’s like that lover that you love but you fight with all the time.
At the end of the day, you have this script that’s before you. You’re seeing your 95 pages. All those 95 pages come with hours where you wake up at five in the morning, you’re figuring out if this scene you wrote sucked. Or you have these great inspirations about seeing something and realizing that can work. It all sounds a little narcissistic, but you’re creating a world within a story within a script. You need all those bits and pieces. When I finally put the computer on and write, hopefully half the work is already done in the back of my head. It’s about facing a wall and getting that on the screen.
Is there any character throughout the history of cinema that you wish you could write dialogue for?
The whole GODFATHER series was near perfect. (I even defend some of Three). There’s so much complex stuff going on with Michael Corleone’s character, and Kay’s too. I would have loved to have been around that time and sort of got my hands on that idea and created more of that world. There’s a lot to be said for the film noir period of the 40s. I was born a little too late, but I would have loved to have written during that time, even though it was hard for a writer back then. I think that was such a beautiful time for film noir and creating drama out of thriller. Even though I take a lot from those movies, it would have been a great era to live through and build worlds upon when that genre was at the top of its game.
Can you tell me about the other film you have coming out this summer, SATANIC?
That was always a smaller film. The director wanted to do a heist film. I wasn’t a heist guy. I thought about it and I’ve always been trying to find a way to do a good “B” movie horror, but do it for a price and be able to have the liberty to what we want to do. The film was originally called FINDING THE TATE HOUSE, which is more or less about looking for evil because you have nothing to do, or looking into the dark sides of the world. I think SATANIC was a better selling title for them. It was a small little horror that we had fun making and the whole thing was shot around Los Angeles.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but the devil is hardly in the film. It’s following these young kids heading to Coachella music festival and they deviate into L.A. because one of the girls is goth and wants to visit some of the sights that Ramirez was at and the Cecil hotel and all these things. They wind up getting themselves inadvertently over their heads and unleashing something real. It’s kind of a big idea that you can do in a small scale.
I was a big admirer, and people either love it or hate it, of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. What they were able to do for $30,000—it was probably a little more than that—they were able to take that movie and create these images in your mind about what is out there and give you the bigger broad strokes of this world without going over the top with it. I was inspired by that and set out to make about the devil where things are kind of really happening.
It was a challenge the same way a shark movie was a challenge to me. How do you write a minimal idea about a shark film? I thought, how do you take the devil that’s larger than life and bring it down to a grounded scale size? That’s what we executed in SATANIC.
Any final advice you’d like to share?
Stay hungry and find your own process.
I like challenges, but I don’t like Rubik’s Cubes. My greatest fear is writing myself into a corner, so unless I can see light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t take on a project.
My process is I have to be excited about an idea, I guess you can call it passion, before I jump into it. Once you have that idea that you’re excited about, just finish the script. That’s my process and that’s what’s kept me alive so far. When you know that idea in the back of your head is an idea that still excites you, I think that’s the thing worth taking the trip and launching out into the deep water.