As far as many folk are concerned there’s only ever the finished movie. We tend to look further than that, of course. We know that before there’s a film, there’s that long chain of long days of long-winded production. And before that there’s a script, inked in blood, sweat and tears.
But before there’s a script?
In the case of Grabbers, there was a real life encounter with a vicious blood-sucker.
I asked the film’s screenwriter, Kevin Lehane, to take us back to that moment of callous vampirism and pick up the story there of how and why the script came to be just the way it was.
So, let’s start with the trailer, then Kevin can take it away afterwards.
I was sitting on a veranda in the Cook Islands drinking a beer when it hit me. ‘It’ being a mosquito. As it flew off before I could kill it, I made a joke that I hoped it would get alcohol poisoning off my blood and that was it. Grabbers, as a concept, was born. Well, conceived. The next morning I woke up in my bunk, hungover and covered in fresh bites, and wrote in my travel journal: ‘Get drunk to survive.’
I had an idea for a film. I had no idea what that film would be, but I wanted to see it.
I began with deciding to set the film in Ireland. I did it for a few reasons. 1) Setting it anywhere else didn’t make sense to me as the idea of an Irish setting elevated the concept and set the story apart in ways nowhere else would. There had never been an Irish monster movie, for one. 2) It would allow me to write characters I knew, based on my family and friends. 3) I really wanted to see a cool Irish movie.
Knowing the film would be a monster movie, I wanted to create creatures that were formidable and frightening. In a horror-comedy, as I imagined this would be, the trick is to avoid turning the villain of the piece into a figure of fun. If you fall into that trap, you end up with a film that’s neither funny nor frightening. On the page, the Grabbers (whatever they would be) needed to be primal and predatory and attack-attack-attack at the first chance, leaving the comedy to come from our heroes reaction to them.
Having grown up on monster movies, I wanted to create a new creature that was distinct with its own set of rules and characteristics. I also wanted to make sure I was mining every opportunity Ireland as a location offered me, so much so, that if the story wasn’t set in Ireland, it wouldn’t work as well.
So, the creatures became dependent on rain, a staple of Irish life and another chance for me to subvert a cliché and yet tap into it at the same time. Just as werewolves only appear when there’s a full moon and vampires only come out when the sun goes down, these creatures would only turn out when it’s raining. This would also give me another villain to play with: rain.
Now, whatever the ‘Big Bad’ is dependent on to survive is almost always their Achilles’ Heel. I had no idea how that notion would play itself out, but I knew it had to build towards the characters being forced to do the impossible, namely dry the creatures out in the midst of a rainstorm. Fire was too easy, so I avoided it. In the end, spoilers for the script, not the film I decided to bury them in cement. Somewhat reminiscent of that scene in Gremlins 2, but taken to an extreme.
I now had a monster that drank blood and breathed water but not much else. I decided if I were going to rely on an animalistic creature the best place to look for inspiration would be in nature. I incorporated attributes of vampiro-toothis squids, lungfish, turtles, frogs, leeches and even house cats into the behaviour of the Grabbers.
Knowing that the Grabbers were at home in the water as they were on dry land, I took the idea of tentacles and ran with them. ‘A slimy, spidery black mess’, or ‘a tornado of tentacles, tumbling and swirling’, ‘Medusa on a bad hair day’, I had no idea how they could be created, but I liked the imagery of an eel crossed with a spider that had a bullwhip barbed tongue and a serrated mouth, rolling like a tumbleweed and flaring up like a huntsman spider to attack, all 35 foot of ugly. Nice and icky and different.
I also felt that the tougher the Grabbers were to kill, the more impressive the win would be in the end, so I made them indestructible, impervious to anything the characters could throw at them. Raising the stakes as high as I could, adding a black out on the island and a gale force storm, with creatures that couldn’t be burned, cut, or wounded in any way.
There are many ways to tell a story like Grabbers but I tend to prefer the one with heart. I wanted Grabbers to feel like a throwback to the more innocent films I grew up watching, ones that took everything seriously, making it all the more fun. An Irish Amblin’ movie, subversive yet sincere.
I wrote chase scenes, farcical sequences, and intense set-pieces. I wanted underdogs rising up, and characters that felt like a beloved football team in a story that felt like a cup final, and a showdown that gave you the rush of a penalty shootout after extra time. I wanted ‘smile-you-feckin’-sonovabitch’ moments that would leave me, as an audience member, grinning.
To do that, I felt it best to hang the story on two unlikely heroes, a pair of self-destructive police officers with everything to gain from a film about breaking the law. Characters who would also be in conflict with the concept. A man who’s lost his fight and a woman who’s terrified of letting her guard down; an alcoholic and a workaholic. Simple arcs that wouldn’t bog the story down or grind it to a halt, yet would offer enough of an evolution to serve up a sense of achievement beyond the superficial ‘we slayed the monster’ high of a climax. I wanted the win to really be about them putting to bed their demons, by proxy of the monster.
I also wanted to tell as much about the characters as I could through their behavior, rather than their backstory. I never wanted to explain why O’Shea drank so much, or why Lisa pushed herself so hard. I wanted the script to have subtext rather than soliloquies. To deliver the goods, without spoon-feeding its audience. Fun, breezy, but with enough going on under the surface to feel satisfying.
I wrote the initial spec script to Grabbers in six weeks. Some of the ideas in that draft don’t appear in the film, but all were present in the script and crucial to getting it made.
I’m so glad that mosquito bit me.
Even though it was heralded by John Landis, horror-comedy’s own booming-voiced Santa, as the best monster movie since Tremors, Grabbers is coming along just a little too late to be your Christmas gift to yourself. It’s in UK cinemas this Wednesday, then released on DVD and Blu-ray next Monday.
Goes without saying, really, that you might want to hunt it down in cinemas first, while you can. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in Ireland, the disc is out now – just don’t forget to take an umbrella.
And a bottle.