Film is one of my favorite storytelling media. I minored in film studies, have written many papers on film (including an analysis of WALL-E based on postmodernism), and frequently go to the movies.
I was thus very excited when I saw that one of the contributors to Quoth the Raven was also a filmmaker. Susan McCauley, author of “The Cask,” has an extensive background in film. Read on for her thoughts on the overlap between film and literature, as well as what inspires her writing.
Bio: Susan received a B.A. in Radio-Television with a minor in Theater from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. in Text & Performance from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King’s College in London. Susan also studied acting at Playhouse West with Robert Carnegie and Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day) in Los Angeles.
While living in Los Angeles, Susan wrote the story for and produced a short film, which won awards at the Houston International Film Festival and the Seabrook Film Festival. In London, her stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” was performed at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre; and, scenes from her play The Prisoner: Princess Elizabeth were performed at HMS Tower of London. After returning to the United States, she was a producer on the Emmy Award nominated Civil War short film Now & Forever Yours: Letters to an Old Soldier. In 2016, she wrote and produced the award winning short film, “The Cask.” In addition to the publication of short stories, she is currently writing her fifth novel and has two feature film projects in development.
Sonora: You are a screenwriter, producer, and actress, as well as a writer. What overlaps do you see between filmmaking and writing? Do you find that one influences the other for you?
Susan: I don’t act much anymore, but I still enjoy doing it from time to time if the right part presents itself. I see myself first and foremost as a writer. I just happen to write fiction and write for film. I’m quite visual, which is probably why I started as a screenwriter and later moved into fiction. I see a lot of overlaps for screenwriting and fiction in terms of “show don’t tell,” using dialogue, and story structure. The major differences in film and fiction are the formatting, how much detail you can give, and the fact you can really dive into the head of a character in fiction, which you can’t do in screenwriting. For film, you can give clues to character emotions, but the main focus must be on sound, light, and movement. In screenwriting, you have to get images across succinctly in very vivid, condensed descriptions so the director and cinematographer can translate those to the screen. In fiction, you have more time to explore what things look like, feel like, and smell like with words. You can even share a characters thoughts in fiction, which you can’t in film, unless you’re using a voice over to capture what a character is thinking.
In terms of being a producer, I am working to produce things I’ve written or have co-written. I have to be passionate about the story I want to tell if I’m going to put all my energy into seeing a project produced.
Sonora: What are some lessons you’ve learned from filmmaking that can be applied to writing?
Susan: Film, in general, is a quicker paced medium than fiction. You have to keep the viewer’s attention or they’ll change the channel or turn the television off. In fiction, they can certainly close the book — but once a reader has bought it, chances are they’ll pick it up and keep reading at some point. They are also mentally prepared for a slower pace.
Of course film is a visual medium. I recently watched the horror film A Quiet Place. The opening shot of that film establishes so much of the world we’re entering in a few seconds: a broken, desolate, post-apocalyptic world. In fiction, it might take the author a paragraph or a page to describe it all. So it comes down to showing with words over showing with visuals.
I find that I’m a bit more sparse with description in my fiction than most fiction writers and, personally, I like the pace and think (hope) my readers will like it, too. My use of more condensed description in fiction probably comes directly from my background in screenwriting.
Other than strong plot, dialogue, and screenwriting techniques that focus on keeping the story visual and active, I can’t think of anything else I apply to fiction writing — at least not consciously. Filmmaking itself is a totally different animal than writing a book. Filmmaking is a monumental team effort. With a book you work with editors and the publisher, but people tend to do their work individually, and then regroup. With a movie, you can have five or ten or fifty or more people all working together at the same time to make the script come to life. Books are more personal in how they’re written and consumed; films are more of a group experience in their execution and consumption.
Sonora: Film and literature have an intimate relationship. What are your thoughts on film as a storytelling medium versus books? What’s been your experience creating both?
Susan: Obviously books and the written word are much older than film; but, historically, storytellers would act-out or dramatize some of their stories, and film is a modern extension of that. So they definitely go hand-in-hand. I think books and films impact the human brain differently. Books are slower; we can read and use our own imaginations to visualize what the author wants us to see and imagine how the characters feel. In film, we see what the director wants us to see and move at the pace the director (along with the editor) have set for us, which is usually much faster than sitting down to read a book. Modern film in the western world is typically fast paced with stimulating visuals and quick cuts. Most of us have probably heard doctors warn of too much screen-time because of the impact it’s having on our brains. I do think there is something to that. But I think there is a place for both books and screens. I enjoy watching television shows/films as much as anyone, but I know I can’t watch them right up until I go to sleep. My brain is too stimulated. So, at least an hour before bed, I turn off the TV and read. I definitely sleep better when I do that.
As for my experience creating both, I have to have a different mindset when I sit down to work on fiction versus when I sit down to write a screenplay. And when I switch into producer mode, that’s yet a different mindset: calls and emails with directors, other producers, attorneys, accountants, guilds and unions, etc. I’m definitely more at home writing, but there are aspects I like about producing. I haven’t directed theater or film in years, but I’m planning to get back into it in the next couple of years. As a film writer, I want to be able to control the full vision of some of my works by directing.
Sonora: People often say “The book is better” when a film adaptation comes out. Is there a movie you think is better than the book? What makes it better?
Susan: Not that I can think of. However, when a film or television show is done first and then a book comes out based on the show, I’m not usually a fan of those books. The few I’ve read of those don’t seem to have the depth or fluidity of original novels. I do think that The Lord of the Rings adaptations were extremely well-done. I like The Lord of the Rings adaptations because they were fairly true to the books, and the world-building and characters created by Tolkien in the books were beautifully captured on screen.
Sonora: Your short story for Quoth the Raven, “The Cask,” was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” What made you choose this story to adapt?
Susan: I’d taught “The Cask of Amontillado” to English composition classes when I lived in Northern Virginia, and something about that story captured my imagination. I’d heard true stories of people being bricked into walls alive on history tours in England and Europe, and those always bothered me. The horror of imagining what those people thought and felt knowing they were never going to get out struck a chord of terror in my heart. I still have a visceral response in my chest when I think about it. I suppose the true stories I heard made Poe’s even more impactful for me. And, when I lived in London, a disgusting, rotten smell started coming out of the wall of my flat … Eventually the smell faded away. (I think a rat died and decomposed in my bedroom wall). But I thought of that, too, when I read “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was also bothered that I never knew why Montresor killed Fortunato in such a horrific way, and I wanted an opportunity to explore Montresor’s motivation. So, when I saw a call for adaptations of Poe stories, I knew I had to adapt “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Sonora: “The Cask” is also a short film, which you wrote and produced. Can you tell us more about it?
Susan: I was teaching an online course for Margie Lawson’s Writer’s Academy about adapting fiction for film and, as I was pulling together material for the course, I adapted my short story, “The Cask,” into a short screenplay to use as an example. When I finished the script, I thought, “This would make a good short film.” So, with my background in film, I started reaching out to some friends in L.A. to help me make it happen. At the time, nothing came out of Los Angeles, but I was led to some filmmakers in Houston, where I live, who really loved the script and wanted to help me make it. In hindsight, I wish I would have directed “The Cask” since Hollywood really wants to see more women directors and it’s something I’m getting more interested in — but at the time, I was solely focused on getting the script produced. Long story short, I was the executive producer on the project. There isn’t money in short films so it wasn’t something I could go and seek out investors for. So, about half of the budget was my money, and the rest came from an Indiegogo campaign. I wish we’d had a bit more money since a couple pages were cut from my script … but we did the best we could with what we had (which is typical of filmmaking — especially indie filmmaking).
For those who are interested, here is The Cask on YouTube. (It did win an award for best film adaptation and played at several festivals around the United States.)
Sonora: Which short story of Poe’s would you like to adapt next?
Susan: I haven’t even considered adapting another Poe story. So many of them have been adapted, and adapted well. But, if I were to do another, I would likely do “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Sonora: What is your favorite film adaptation of a Poe piece?
Susan: I honestly haven’t seen any others than my own! I probably should, but I purposely didn’t watch any when I was adapting “The Cask” because I didn’t want my work to be colored (or attributed) to someone else’s.
Sonora: How long have you been writing fiction? What drew you to horror?
Susan: Armed with my dad’s video camera, I started making movies for fun when I was eight years old … but I didn’t get into screenwriting until I was in my early 20s. I dabbled a bit with fiction in graduate school, but I didn’t fully swing my focus to it until about 8 years ago.
I blame my interest in horror and the supernatural on my parents. LOL. They took me on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World when I was three. That’s the first time I knew I had any interest in horror. I hid by my parents ankles on the ride, but then begged them to take me again. I think I write horror because it’s a fun and engaging way to experience things I wouldn’t want to experience or do in life. I think it’s fascinating to explore what makes people do certain things, and what makes us afraid. To an extent, I think reading and watching horror fulfills a basic need we have as humans to feel fear. For hundreds of thousands of years (or more), our ancestors had to hunt and fight to survive. They experienced adrenaline on a regular basis. We’re much safer in modern times. And because of that, I think we still have a primal need to feel that fear — even if it’s in the safety of our local coffee shop with a book, or in a cinema watching a film.
Sonora: What are some non-literary influences on your writing?
Susan: Life. There is always something from my life in what I write. It could be a story I heard, history, a place, a person, an animal. But there are always grains of truth from life in my work. I think that’s probably true for most writers.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Susan: As a child, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series. Laura Ingles Wilder’s accounts of life on the prairie also fascinated me. As an adult, some of my major influences have been William Shakespeare, Shirley Jackson, Johnathan Stroud, and Mary Downing Hahn. Some recent favorite books have been Took by Mary Downing Hanh and the Lockwood & Co. series by Johnathan Stroud.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite directors? What are some of your favorite films?
Susan: Guillermo del Toro does some beautiful work. And Steven Spielberg is, of course, an icon. His films are extremely commercial, but he’s a master at storytelling.
I’ll admit, I don’t make it to the theater nearly as much as I used to because I have a nine-year-old son, but I watch what I can on Netflix and Amazon. As for favorite films, I won’t even try to explain why … but these have been some of my favorites over the years: The Color Purple, Star Wars, Alien, Ghostbusters, The Others, Quills, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goodfellas, and Silence of the Lambs.
Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?
Susan: I have a novel I recently “finished,” and is back in revision. It’s a young adult story called The Devil’s Tree, which is actually an expanded version of my short story of the same name on WattPad. It’s a ghost story about a teenager overcoming her life-situation and learning to accept herself.
I also have two feature films in development, for which I’m a writer and producer. One is a psychological horror, The Murdering Kind, which is being directed by my amazing, long-time friend, Academy Award winner Barney Burman. The other is The Lost Children of York, which is an adaptation of the play I wrote when I lived in London. The lovely and talented Edmund Kingsley is working with me on The Lost Children of York as a co-producer and lead actor.
Check out Susan’s books:
Visit Susan online at www.sbmccauley.com
Watch Susan’s short film, “The Cask”: