As I watched Netflix’s recent horror release “Before I Wake,” I felt the millennial urge to tell the late-night tweeterverse how excellent I thought the film. To my pleasant surprise, the film’s screenwriter, Jeff Howard, messaged me in response.
“Before I Wake” is Howard’s fourth collaboration with director Mike Flanagan, after “Oculus,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” and “Gerald’s Game.” All these films are excellent, although criminally under-watched.
I asked Howard if he’d do an interview. He graciously agreed. So a week later I found myself anxiously driving out to Studio City.
You never really know what you’re going to get with film types. They can be unbearably arrogant and pretentious. Jeff exhibited none of these things. Besides being open and kind, he exudes a wonderful balance between thankfulness to have a career as a screenwriter with confidence and competence in his craft.
“Flanagan’s directing career taking off has been the best thing for my career,” he says. “He’s a true renaissance man, involved in every part of the film-making process. Generalism is discouraged today, ya know. Today everybody needs to be a specialist in something. Back in the old days, everybody knew how to do everything. Mike still edits his films. And this one time in a scoring session with the Newton brothers [with whom Flanagan regularly works], Mike got behind the piano and was like, ‘Something like this.’ And I thought, ‘Great, exactly what can’t he do?’”
Most people seem to think screenwriters either make it big or don’t make it at all. But the vast majority of career screenwriters make their living by regularly selling scripts that will never see the light of day. Jeff is no exception.
“Before I Wake” had been in distribution hell for approximately three years after it had been essentially completed. Relativity Media, the production company Flanagan and Horward were working with at the time, was going through bankruptcy when “Before I Wake” was supposed to premiere. So until now, it was only available on home video overseas. Netflix acquired the streaming rights, but due to legal complications couldn’t stream the film in the United States until January.
“Netflix is such a great place to be,” Flanagan says.
“What’s working with them like?” I ask.
“What do you mean? They’re completely hands-off?”
“Well, they transferred the money to an account and Mike went off and made the film!”
I had heard rumors that this was how Netflix operated, but it was shocking to hear it stated matter of factly. Typically, studios interfere with films. The more money they invest, the more they interfere. The less money a studio spends, the less they tend to interfere, but usually there is still some kind of interference.
Howard continued: “Yeah. They’re just yes or no. They work with people that they think are going to bring them something they want. They don’t develop stuff, they leave it up to the creators. And really they’ve brought back the mid-level film. Because they have essentially a captive audience with their subscribers, who obviously want new content all the time, they can take risks on films that aren’t small but also aren’t these ridiculously expensive ventures.”
It’s clearly working. Variety reported: “Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos confirmed plans to release as many as 80 movies, both acquisitions and its own productions, in 2018 that will range from ‘tentpole’-sized movies like ‘Bright’ to much smaller titles including ‘I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore,’ which was well received at the Sundance Film Festival last year.”
Unlike the studio model, where they need to make money off sales, Netflix’s goal is maintaining and growing their subscription base. For Netflix, a film doesn’t have to be marketed or even be “marketable” by traditional standards. This has created unprecedented freedom.
“When shopping scripts around, the worst thing to hear is, ‘This is really smart,’” Howard says. “That means you’re gonna die poor. Smart has a ceiling.”
Apparently not on Netflix. All Flanagan’s films could be described as complex and smart. With a few exceptions, they’re available exclusively on Netflix. Clearly Netflix’s secret numbers are coming up big for these guys, because their next project is a horror series, an adaption of the 1959 Novel “The Haunting of Hill House.”
Howard says it will be a full series but the extent ultimately depends on audience reception: “It could be a regular series depending on how many fans the first season gets. Doing horror on television is really difficult, but thanks to ‘Stranger Things’ there is real interest now where there wasn’t much before. They kinda paved the way.”
Howard had told me on Twitter that his personal experience with in vitro fertilization influenced “Before I Wake.” Since my wife and I have also experienced infertility, I asked him for more.
“How many times did you guys try IVF?” I asked.
“That was with my first wife. Probably about ten times. It’s just exhausting. And it can feel like snake oil. If it works for you, I’m sure it doesn’t feel that way. But some of these doctors—I mean, they’re working with people who are struggling with one of the worst things in life all the time, so they probably can’t muster up sadness and sympathy for everybody. One of the better ones told me that each failed IVF feels like a funeral. It’s like losing a child. And that actually made me feel better. Because the feelings are just so dark and I was constantly surprised by how awful it felt. But that made sense of it.”
This is one of many reasons that my wife and I haven’t pursued IVF. We’ve already got the heartache, and spending money we don’t have would just make our lives worse. Howard says that heartache, however, has fueled his creative work.
“We wrote the script for ‘Somnia,’ what became ‘Before I Wake,’ in about four days. And we spent the last two days just crying. This is what I personally brought to the film, and Mike has something else in it. It’s like the Beatles’ song ‘Hey Jude.’ I heard that at one point [Paul] McCartney said, ‘Oh, this song is about me,’ and [John] Lennon was like ‘No, it’s about me.’ And the truth is that the film is very personal for both of us.”
Howard recently became a father for the first time.