Jeffrey Blake Palmer's Lovecraftianesque The Sleeping Deep screenplay is winning a lot of film festival awards these days. Before his head swells bigger than a blowfish--what with all those kudos and attention--I thought it best to snatch him away from his busy schedule and lock him in the closet for a bit, until he answered a few questions about his work and his inspirations.
Tell us about the young monsterkid who grew up to be Jeffrey Blake Palmer.
Ooohh, perhaps my mother would be better suited to answer that question…
I was born and grew up in the quaint New England mill town of Dover, New Hampshire, which I would later capture on film in my feature On the Fringe. It was idyllic, charming, safe. I was fond of dismantling anything electronic (radios in particular), doodling in my notebooks, goofing off around the neighborhood. Seems I was always lost in thought, my head cluttered with artsy-fartsy ideas all vying for attention. Definitely was a bit of a daydreamer. But I never terrorized the neighbors’ pets, only my younger brother.
I do have fond memories of spending Saturday afternoons during the summer watching Creature Double Feature on Channel 56 in our cool basement entertainment room. Man, those were the days.
Where does your ambition to film and script movies come from?
I think my ambition really boils down to embracing an artful life. Film and filmmaking is a collaboration and combination of so many disciplines, from composing musical scores to special effects to acting, costume design, writing… it’s truly a celebration of the spice in life.
The deal was sealed when I stumbled onto a film class in college and was surrounded by freaks, nerds, weirdos and misfits. I immediately decided to pursue a film degree at Keene State College, a small state school in south-western New Hampshire and I’ve been at it since.
You just handed me a loaded gun.
Let’s see. Believe it or not I used to be a huge Woody Allen fan, not so much anymore. Ridley Scott’s Alien certainly gave me chills. But in all fairness, I was part of the Star Wars generation; the 1976 film, not Parts I-III. That was quite the mind blowing event, a seminal experience in the small world of 7-year-old.
The original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder had quite the impression on me, and not in a good way: kids getting sucked up into chocolate tubes, swelling up into giant blueberries, floating into whirling fan blades? Boy. Now that I think of it, that film had some seriously terrifying scenes that have stuck with me all along.
I remember seeing Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire in college and falling in love with the film’s poetic and lyrical beauty. Anytime a director can pull you out of the world you’re living in and transport you into their vision via striking imagery and a compelling story is almost like a magic trick. In many ways, filmmakers are magicians. Except instead of smoke and mirrors we’re using Adobe After Effects.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention filmmaking heroes like John Sayles, for being a one-man storytelling machine or Hitchcock for his life’s work; Kubrick for illuminating the human condition and Fellini for an unfettered imagination; Peter Greenaway for his one-take shots stuffed with lavish set design and of course, David Lynch for daring to be different in so many amazing ways, in and outside of film.
I could go on, but I must show some restraint.
Name one film we absolutely must see.
Gosh. There are so many “must sees” out there. One of my recent favorites is David Lynch’s Lost Highway. It’s dark, mysterious, confusing, beautiful, haunting… just a fantastic thrill ride through the mind of one our living film legends. In my opinion it trumps his Mulholland Drive, but you be the judge.
Oh, and Amelie is a must-see, too. But that makes two! I digress…
How about authors?
Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, John Nichols, Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac. I recently finished reading Katherine Dunn’s carny epic “Geek Love”, an absolutely enthralling, sweeping and wholly original novel. I will probably look into more of her books soon.
Just picked up a few short story compilations of Algernon Blackwood. Ghost stories and the Supernatural… what’s not to love?
I guess it was a calling, a path that was paved for me early on. Cinema is such a wonderful celebration of so many art forms: writing, costumes, music, sound, acting, cinematography, set design… it goes on and on. The possibilities are boundless. And whatever you can’t do with live-action film (which is next to nothing these days) you can certainly find a way with animation, whether it be stop animation, cell or digital. It’s all there.
Plus, I still want to surround myself with the freaks, the weirdos, the misfits, the art class denizens, the theater nerds… I’m one of them and proud of it.
You’ve said you hate producing but love making movies. Why?
We all want to throw a party, but who wants to clean up, right? Maybe “hate” is too strong a word. I’ll go on the record as saying that I don’t have the right personality for being a producer. It’s just not my strong suit.
Producing is the necessary evil of filmed entertainment. That’s just my opinion. Someone has to make the calls, pull the strings, line up the ducks, and manage the scheduling, locations, yadda yadda… And there are folks who LOVE it. They’d prefer to be behind the scenes, so to speak, making it all come together. God bless them.
This is not to say I don’t want to do the hard work because that’s not true at all. I have produced a fair share of projects over the years, mostly out of necessity. I’d simply rather be doing what it is I’m more suited for than trying my luck at putting a project together from the ground up. I’ve found that when I play to my strengths, the results are satisfying. That said, I still have much to learn when it comes to directing.
With every opportunity comes a new chance to ratchet up the skill set and produce better work than before. In time, I’d like to find the right fit with a producer who understands my brand of storytelling and vision. He or she is out there, somewhere. With any luck they’re looking for a script like The Sleeping Deep.
Can you describe for us the emotional and practical aspects of submitting your films and scripts to festivals and contests?
I liken it to gambling, only you’re betting on something you absolutely believe in, something that is close to your heart, instead of a lark or a hunch. The key is to submit to the appropriate competitions and keep the long shots few and far between.
You gotta pay to play. You can’t win if you’re standing on the sidelines watching other writers on the field passing around their scripts and running for the end zone. At the same time, just because you nab an award or two doesn’t mean producers or investors will come a knockin’ on your door asking to read the script. And if they do they’ll be wanting to read other scripts you have, so as the saying goes: Don’t rest on your laurels. Keep writing, or at least be prepared with some outline of what you’d like to do next.
Of course, your script must be in top form and ready for the most scrutinizing reader before submitting it to any festival, but how can you know when it’s really ready? That’s a difficult question and one best answered by the individual writer. When I finished a first draft of The Sleeping Deep I nearly missed the deadline for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Several weeks later I got the announcement that it took top prize for best screenplay, so you never know what can happen. Sometimes you just have to run it up the flag pole for the world to see. That can often be the best form of getting feedback. But don’t expect it to all be positive. Prepare yourself for, yes… disappointment.
It can be a roller coaster so the trick is to not get too involved, too invested in what people think of your story. Not everyone likes science fiction. Not everyone digs documentaries. There’s a movie out there for just about every personality, hence the specific genres that target certain demographics, lifestyles, enthusiasts.
I happened to write a genre mash-up, a mutt, a hybrid. There’s no doubt that some readers have rolled their eyes after page 5 and vote to “pass” on The Sleeping Deep. That’s okay. It happens. It’s not great, but what can you do? I think certain competitions are looking for a particular brand of material and if it’s not on the page, forget it. Cut your losses and find another contest.
I did a lot of research on Without a Box.com and combed through dozens and dozens of contests, festivals and competitions before submitting. I mostly stuck with the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy festivals, but there were a handful of general contests that I took a chance with just to see what would happen. You never know. It’s all a game.
The main goal is to put your best work out there and I felt I have done this with The Sleeping Deep. Even award-winning screenplays will be edited and tweaked and rewritten before going into production – and they should be. No script is 100% perfect despite what some producers in Hollywood will have you believe. They are blueprints for the main attraction: the movie.
Which influences helped shaped The Sleeping Deep?
Easily the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, but I’d also add films from writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker and David Lynch. For me, I love a movie that unfolds like a puzzle, a mystery that unravels into a Mobius strip. And when the audience becomes wrapped up in that curling, winding story it doesn’t get any better.
Spectacle is one angle you can take in film – Go big! (Transformers…ugh) – but intimate, intricate, dark storytelling that is subtle and seductive, almost secretive in nature is always a good time. I love to feel that there’s something hidden, lurking, just under the surface, waiting to pounce. There has to be some element of suspense. Every scene should have us wanting more while keeping us peering through our fingers. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a film that explores obsession, fear and weaves it into a compelling mystery. It’s not a horror film, but these themes work on a psychological level that almost feel horrific and shocking.
American Indian lore, legends and classic Greek mythology also helped shape elements of The Sleeping Deep. Again, it’s about telling an amazing story to a captive audience. This is what great lore did for people long ago and still do in countless cultures; sitting around the blazing fire, telling stories of hunting wild beasts, powerful spirits, demi-Gods, visions of the past, the future… it’s in our fabric as humans to tell stories and explore our imagination. Perhaps this is what influenced me the most.
Scripting The Sleeping Deep must have presented some challenges. What were they and how did you overcome them?
From the outset, I looked at The Sleeping Deep as a puzzle. Since the story contains elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, dreams and lore, it was a real challenge keeping all of these puzzle pieces or “ingredients” fresh and mixed together in the right ratio. The idea of two characters sharing the same dream (the same dreamworld, really) was the jumping point that got me going. Once those two story threads came into focus, I had to figure out exactly how they collided and coalesced with one another. This proved to be very tricky, but loads of fun as well, and the end result was quite satisfying.
Then there was the Maknaki Indian lore, which I loosely based on the Abenaki Indians who lived in New England and Maine centuries ago. Since I wanted more creative flexibility with their history, I thought it best to respect what was real (the Abenaki) and fictionalize the Maknaki Indians. Days were spent poring over historical facts, events, archeological finds, rituals and stories. This research proved to be very time consuming, illuminating and well worth it.
While I arranged and rearranged all of these intricate puzzle pieces, I never stopped thinking about the audience that would be watching this sort of film and was determined to deliver a story that was as entertaining as it was evocative, inventive and most importantly fun – an ingredient most horror movies have forgotten about these days. Although I thought Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell was a great time and definitely had some laughs thrown in with all the terror. That’s important.
So, yeah, I guess with The Sleeping Deep I had to twist the story up into a ball then slowly unravel it, smooth it out, and hammer it into shape. I’d love for people to be wanting more by the end credits. Time will tell if I did my homework correctly.
Describe your writing process for us.
For me, it all starts with a singular image or, rather, a collision of images. On the Fringe was born from two scenes in particular. The first visual was four guys sitting around a card table arguing about who wanted or didn’t want a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie. The second image came to me at a stop light when a man in a hooded sweatshirt rode by on an adult-size tricycle with baskets full of trinkets and trifles. Those were the seeds that sprouted, took root and drove me to write a feature-length script. I kept asking questions about the characters: who were they, how did they meet, who was that guy on the tricycle?
For The Sleeping Deep, it was more about dreams and delving deep into the psyche. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” got my gears turning with its premise of going on a journey into your dreams (not an uncommon theme in literature; Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland) to find answers to a riddle that haunts your waking life. That was interesting to me. Once I decided there were two characters who were each connected by the same dream, things started to take shape and one question lead to another. The hunt for the script within the story was on.
So I suppose, for me, the concepts behind the story have to be infectious, almost needling me to stay awake and write that next page. My dreams and waking life should be plagued with the urge to get the story onto the page. If this obsession isn’t present or the story feels half-baked, it just doesn’t happen for me.
I also believe that stories choose their writer as much as a writer chooses a story. When I wrote On the Fringe I was compelled to tell the story of these four misfit characters, complete strangers, who come together at a crossing in their lives to share their hardships with each other. The Sleeping Deep was like a worm inside my brain, chewing away at the gray matter, eating my mind… consuming my will to live! I had to rid it from inside, perform an exorcism if I was going to survive. Well, I’m here to tell the story so I guess it worked. In the end, great films inspire me to aim higher. I want to impress my mentors. Time will tell if I achieve any amount of success with that.
What’s your favorite food to eat while watching a movie?
For a good time, pizza is the way to go. And beer. Lots of both, please!
So...What's on your plate for the future?
I’m glad you asked. Currently I’m in the midst of editing promotional scenes for The Sleeping Deep to premiere at this year’s H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been working closely with John Tulin, a D.P. out of the San Jose area, a small crew and a smaller cast, but the work that we’ve managed to create is top-rate. I’m really happy with it and I think the audience will be, too. After we premiere it I will make it available online and will let you know when it’s live.
The goal is to have the promotional materials ready and available on a DVD to show producers so that we might secure funding for the actual feature production down the road. Motion pictures take so much time and money, two things I can never seem to find enough of these days! With any luck a producer interested in sci-fi/horror/fantasy films will appreciate the materials enough to get on board and help with the next step.
Besides The Sleeping Deep, I have several screenplays in the works and a book of short stories that need to find a home. It’s all about making the right connections, meeting like-minded people and sticking with it long enough for relationships to grow and become solvent. Thankfully I have no shortage of creative property; it’s time to find the most effective marketing methods to get it all out there.
At the end of the day, filmed entertainment is a business and financial expectations must be considered before a screenplay gets the green light. I’d like to think that The Sleeping Deep is both commercially viable and has the potential to become a memorable genre film franchise. Wish me luck!
Thanks for having me in Zombos’ Closet of Horror. Uh… can you unlock the door now?
Okay, I guess so. And thanks for the interview!