‘Creepshow’ Writers on Adapting Stephen King’s “Gray Matter” and Keeping It Fun

     September 26, 2019

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Now streaming on Shudder is the new horror anthology series Creepshow, a modern take on the classic 80s movie franchise. From showrunner Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) comes this weekly series featuring nightmarish short-form adaptations of some of the top horror writers around. The whole thing kicks off with a sequence dubbed “Gray Matter”, based on a short story by the one and only Stephen King, and adapted for Creepshow by Philip de Blasi and Byron Willinger (The Commuter). And that segment just so happens to be the one Nicotero & Co. were filming when we visited the set.

In case you missed our “Things to Know” from said set visit or our chat with Nicotero, feel free to check them out now or bookmark them for later, because our interview with de Blasi and Willinger follows below. (And as for the review of Creepshow‘s premiere, you might want to read up on our own Vinnie Mancuso‘s unbiased take here.) We picked the writers’ brains for their process in adapting King’s material, keeping the tone of Creepshow in mind, and how their writing morphed through collaboration with other departments throughout the entire production. See how their original pitch made its way on screen in Creepshow‘s premiere here.

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Image via Shudder

So adapting a Stephen King story, no big deal. What was that like?

Philip de Blasi:  It was pretty cool. I mean, this is a story that was published in ’73 and when we dug into it, we realized there was a lot more below the surface than it first appeared. But like all Stephen King stories, there was something arresting and primal about it, but also something that as screenwriters, we found characters that we can expand and dig below the surface and get us in their shoes as we follow their journey, which as you went into that set ends in a very dark place.

Byron Willinger: I was totally excited. I mean, growing up with Stephen King.. My wife is a die hard Stephen King fan. So, scored some points with her. And it just, it was surreal. I was like, “Wow.” And it was just a thrill, just to be able to do this. It’s fun.

How did you come to the project?

Willinger:  Well, one of the producers we knew, a guy with a name of Jordan Kizwani. We happen to write, we write other things, like features and we work at this cafe in Santa Monica, 18th Street cafe, and we see Jordan all the time. And a while ago he said to us, we were like, “Hey, what are you doing?” And we’d say it all about the producers, writers, “What are you working on?” He’s like, “Oh, I got the rights to Creepshow.” We’re like, “Creepshow.” All of a sudden we got excited like. And he’s like, “Yeah, we’re trying to get this to go.” And this went on for a few years and we’d always ask him about Creepshow, Creepshow. And when it finally came to fruition, we were like pretty much begging him like, “Can we pitch some ideas to you guys? Because we’d love to get on this.” I mean it’s like a part of our childhood. We pitched an idea that Greg [Nicotero] responded to, really liked, and we wrote an episode.

de Blasi:  Yeah. So we wrote a script that Greg loved, that you’ll probably see in Season Two, they couldn’t do it this first season. But then he said, “Hey guys, I got this Stephen King story. Would you want to come on board and adapt that?” And we were thrilled of course. So that segued into “Gray Matter”, the Stephen King story. That’s how we got it going.

Can you guys talk a little bit about your process of how you take a short story and work it into a television project?

Willinger: Yeah. So when I read the story I was trying to–we both were–were trying to look at what’s the central conflict? What’s the central relationship of the story? In the original story, there’s a narrator and you don’t know who that narrator is, and there’s this boy character who comes into the story and he kind of tells a little bit of a story and he disappears. And so we decided, well, since the narration worked great in the medium of a short story, but since we’re working in film and it’s a visual medium, we had to do something with that narrator. And we thought the real character there was the relationship between the boy and his father. So we kind of took that narrator character, and we found that central relationship. There are two great relationships to play on in the story.

de Blasi: The other relationship is a former tutor, this woman by the name of Dixie Parmalee and she runs a 24-hour store called the Night Owl. And since this story has a little to do with Timmy–the main character, the 17-year-old, his mom died a few years ago–this Dixie woman woman becomes kind of a surrogate mother character. And so we wanted to flesh out that relationship and those emotions, and the kind of the trust that they had, and we wonder how honest a narrator Timmy becomes in describing his relationship with his father. And so yeah, we try to find the essential relationship.

Willinger: And there were two really good relationships. and then thematically what’s going on in the story that we can just sort of embellish and bring out and try to figure out visual ways [to show it].

de Blasi: Well, cause there are two fundamental stories going on without getting into too much detail. There’s a flashback story which teases out Timmy’s relationship with his father. And then there’s the relationship with Timmy and Dixie Parmalee, as he describes how his father begins changing, and why, and where that leads.

Willinger:  And then we see how these other characters, the chief and the doc, are sort of in the middle of all of this.

de Blasi: Yeah, they’re like old timers who want to check on Timmy’s father, because there’s some questionable activity going on …

Willinger: Questionable parenting, yeah.

de Blasi: … in a very small town. Questionable parenting. And these old timers go on this journey, but they don’t expect what they’re going to find.

Willinger: Well, you saw all the sets. So they don’t know that’s coming. So, yeah, we start from there. We start from the central relationship, the central complex. What’s the theme, and how do we embellish that? What’s the best way to bring it out, and make it fun? This is Creepshow. If it’s not fun, we’re not doing the job right.

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Image via Shudder

What’s it been like to see your words translated into the physical, practical sets and then be right next to the director?

Willinger:  Oh, it’s incredible. And Greg has been amazing. He’s incredibly collaborative. He’s got incredible ideas. And it’s, yeah, you can just pinch me. Because I mean, you see someone like Greg.

de Blasi: It’s cool the way Greg will bring out certain subtext that maybe in a way you didn’t quite imagine or you had one thing in your head, but he finds, you know, an even better way of bringing something out, whether it’s a look or a gesture between characters. So that’s pretty cool. And then there is a little improvisation going on with our actors …

Willinger: The scene you guys just walked into, it’s funny cause we had some dialogue that goes in there, like “Richie, Richie,” and like, wait a second, we didn’t really envision this and so they would have more of a reaction than what we’ve put on paper and they’re bringing it out, they’re, you know, and I was like, “Wow, yeah. We didn’t think of the right lines for that.”

de Blasi: And then, well today we had some line changes.

Willinger: Yeah, Adrienne [Barbeau] came up to us and she was like pointing out some lines and making us aware of like why that wasn’t working.

de Blasi: Right, right. It really is collaboration. I mean when you have really good actors and the directors, I mean everyone is finding the spine of the story, the spine of the character.

Willinger: It reminds you that writing, in this medium, is constant rewriting. It’s rewritten, with the camera work it gets rewritten, the actors, it goes to the editing process and that’s the way it is. It’s just a process and it’s really cool.

Any major changes, script to screen? Or just kind of minor?

Willinger: No. No.

de Blasi: No.

Willinger: Just minor, minor tweaking.

de Blasi: Nothing major at all.

Willinger: Scenes that were indoors are now outdoors. You know, things like that. Just like you know, also with production there’s logistics that changes things. So things like that happen all the time in production.

You were mentioning earlier about the importance of making sure that it’s fun.

Willinger: Absolutely.

And also the horror aspect. How do you balance those two? Is there ever a point where you can go too far, one way or the other?

Willinger: Oh, that’s tone. Yeah. I mean, when you’re talking tone, like if it’s too campy, or pushed one direction too much or… I think it’s just finding the tone. And I think that’s also when we work on a draft, and then Greg reads the draft, he gives notes, and it’s about just working through multiple drafts and making sure we’re all on the same page for the tone. And I think the director really dictates that. When he’s out there and he’s putting it together, he’s got to deliver that tone. And Greg always, you know, he has this fun pass on the script. He was like, “Let’s make sure it’s fun.”

de Blasi: I mean, so for example, like the other story that we were working on, that was probably more of an outrageously fun, shocking.

Willinger:  Yeah, it was a little lighter, maybe.

de Blasi: A little lighter. I mean there’s real drama going on in these scenes, in “Gray Matter.” And the fun will come with the real unpredictability and the primal emotions that come at the end. But there is a dramatic under card, I would say, to this episode.

Willinger: And with this story, we wanted to make sure as best as we could to preserve, the feeling of the original story. We didn’t want to deviate too far from that. I mean people want to see Stephen King.

de Blasi: Whenever we could, we used Stephen King’s dialogue.

Willinger: There were parts in there, we’re like, “Oh, should we keep that or not?” like, “No, that’s a great part of the story.”

de Blasi: We don’t just change things to change things. You know what I mean? If something is working, then my god, use it. You know, [King] knows his craft.

Willinger: I see adaptations and I say like, “Well, why did they get rid of that great dialogue?” Why? Why?

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Image via Shudder

But, there’s a big change from the story, in the setting. Like that was in a blizzard, now you’re in a hurricane.

Willinger: That’s a logistical thing. We would’ve put it in a blizzard if it was [a different location].

de Blasi: Location, shooting in Georgia.

Willinger: I mean they would’ve had to go outside, and snow, and it just…

de Blasi: So now it’s an evacuation. There’s a storm brewing in the distance. So the idea of the town, most of its residents have hunkered down. That has remained the same.

Willinger: Yeah. We want them to stay true to the intent. So we’re like, “Okay, we can’t do that.” But you know, hurricane wind, rain, more sound effects, that’s something that we can pull off, and still get some of the same feeling.

de Blasi: Trying to create a similar ambience to like Stephen King, his stories.

Willinger: And also the desolate town, the sense of a dying town, which is kind of thematic of Stephen King novels.

de Blasi: Right. We did retain some of the illusions and Easter eggs that Stephen King put in his story. I mean, we didn’t want to give them all away. And there’s even more actually, that Greg put in, little visual references.

Willinger: Lots of fun things. You’ve got to watch the episode.

We’ve talked a lot about the Easter eggs that are like physically, practically on set, but you had a chance to include more. Any other things from the King universe that you worked into the script?

de Blasi: Well, there is a monologue.

Willinger: Well, that’s for the original story. There’s a monologue and this is kind of fan theory stuff, that like, there’s a character that’s … Tobin talks about, this guy named George Kelso who saw something in the sewers.

de Blasi: And it’s changed him forever.

Willinger: So, a lot of Stephen King’s fans they go, “Hey, is that a reference to It?” Even though this was written before that, but there’s like possibly, maybe it was in Stephen King’s mind at the time and only he truly knows.

de Blasi: I mean, the reason also why it’s in that story, and it’s retained in the TV script is essentially it’s doing a number of things: This little story about George Kelso, it’s creating tone, it’s creating expectation that something horrific is out there. And it creates the verisimilitude that we’re in a universe where the impossible, the evil, can happen. And so it’s a little of what we call a map, or a point, or scene to what can come, what harvest can come.

Willinger: From King’s universe.

de Blasi: Yeah.

You’re adapting the Creepshow brand. Did you go back and watch the movies over and over again?

Willinger: Oh yeah, I watched the movies. I was looking at the comic book.

de Blasi: It’s funny because the original movie, I would say it’s very much a comeuppance kind of structure where not very nice people get what’s coming to them.

Willinger: Right. That’s why you can end really dark, you know. It’s like you want to see that guy get it.

de Blasi: I mean I don’t think we’re limited to that template anymore. I think there’s some very good people in “Gray Matter” who don’t [deserve] what’s coming to them…

Willinger: But they get it anyway.

creepshow-writers-interview-philip-de-blasi-byron-willingerThat was Creepshow in the 80s; this is Creepshow of today. But I think the key is having the characters turn into their comic book panel version of themselves at some point.

Willinger: Right. The comic books that King grew up on, and read, and inspired him, and all that fun pulp.

de Blasi: I think there’s going to be a variety of episodes with different tones.

Willinger: I think the tone isn’t, from what I understand, it’s not all going to be the same. So there’ll be a wider range than I think the original movie. Some might be just funny, some might be just more scary.

de Blasi: And some will scar you, or haunt you forever.

So while you were writing the scripts, were there any parts that really freaked you out?

de Blasi: Yes, there was a part… I mean, I don’t know if I should give it away, about the floorboards being hungry and there’s some revolting stuff in there that you’ll have to wait and see.

Willinger: Yeah. It’s a little bathroom scene, that, you know, it’s kind of freaky.

de Blasi: That’s when I stopped sending photos to my daughter.

Willinger: My kid who’s just gotten into horror, and actually watched The Shining recently, he’s only 11 and loves this stuff. I mean, just like, I’m sending stuff to them, but I think I’m like, “Okay, those like, no, you’re going too far, you can’t send them that one.”

Now that you’ve adapted a Stephen King story, that means very often people will keep going. It’s like a gateway to do more.

Willinger: Gateway to the Stephen King drug. I would love to, yeah. I think we both would.

de Blasi: Yeah, we respond really well to Stephen King’s writing, and how he brings out a story.

Willinger: It seems like he has an endless supply of material.

Was there ever any collaboration with any of the other writing teams? Was there ever any talk of having a connective thruline?

Willinger: No, no, no. The segments are totally separate. I mean, all the development was basically between us and Greg.

de Blasi:  I mean, initially he said, “Here read the story. What do you think?” “Oh, it’s great.”

Willinger: He said, “Now let me see what’s your take.” We pitched our take back. He loved it and he said, “Okay.” And then it’s just, it’s very collaborative, and just going back and forth.

de Blasi: Yeah. So we don’t know if there’s a Creepshow consistent universe in the way that Marvel has it, but, maybe we could develop into that. I like that idea.

Have you guys had any feedback on the script from Stephen King, or do you anticipate maybe he’ll see the episode?

Willinger: I hope so.

de Blasi:  I mean, I know that we’re approved as writers from the King estate and ironically enough, Stephen King really dug our featured film, The Commuter with Liam Neeson. He gave us a nice tweet. And so we thought that was kind of fortuitous and serendipitous.

Willinger: Yeah, it was weird because, that was last year, there was no connection. We don’t know him, but yeah. And then this came around and I was like, Oh, it’s kind of full circle.

It was meant to be.

Willinger:  Yeah. But Greg is the one that would probably know better, cause Greg knows him.

de Blasi: Right. And, but we knew he approved it. I believe he approved of us to write.

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