SAW Films Writer Patrick Melton MFA ’02 Talks About Writing Horror

SAW Films Writer Patrick Melton with Marcus Dunstan.
Patrick Melton (r) with co-writer Marcus Dunstan. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Melton)

With the imminent release of “SAW X,” the latest in the SAW horror film franchise, we’re reposting our December 2010 interview with Patrick Melton MFA ’02, who with co-writer Marcus Dunstan, wrote four installments in the series: “SAW IV,” “SAW V,” “SAW VI,” and “SAW 3D.” We talked to him about writing for the horror genre. Melton was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

What kind of movies did you love watching when you were growing up? 

When I was a kid, I loved watching all types of movies. Believe it or not, I loved the Disney stuff — “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” etc. — and broad comedies like “Trading Places” or “Ghostbusters.” When I was young, the VCR caught on, and I was able to see older films that I came to love, like smaller horror films: “The Funhouse,” “The Brood,” etc.. I suppose some people expect me to admit to loving movies like “Faces of Death,” which I did see … all four of them, but the truth is that the movies of my youth were pretty normal.

Was there one film that made you say to yourself, “That’s what I want to do”?

This sounds kind of corny, but when I saw how Tim Burton’s “Batman” wowed a packed theater in my hometown, that’s when I said to myself, “That’s what I want to do!”  Of course, “Star Wars” and “Tron” and movies like that influenced me as a youth. But when I saw “Batman,” the seed was planted about making movies as a career. The farther I went along, I honed that focus, but that’s the one that really opened my eyes to the coolness of a career in film.

Getting a scare in a movie is just as tough as getting a laugh.

You’ve been writing screenplays in the horror genre since your first film, “Feast” (2005). What attracts you to the genre?

As a youth, I watched a lot of horror films. I liked the feeling of being scared or shocked. At the same time, “Feast” was written as an attempt to gain access to the film industry. Marcus Dunstan and I wrote it with the intent of it being a million dollar movie; limited locations, limited characters, with a sellable hook. Since that’s the script that broke me, I was automatically perceived as a horror writer.

Did you know when you started your studies at the LMU School of Film and Television that writing horror films appealed to you?

Not really. Nothing I did at LMU was in the horror genre. Really, what film school did for me was to further focus on and teach the fundamentals of the filmmaking process and the business. I worked in Hollywood for a couple of years before school, so I was pretty focused. But film school simply exposed me to concepts or ideas that I hadn’t been exposed to before. It’s a bit Zen, but everything we do aids us in some way, so even though I didn’t write any horror stories at LMU, my time there certainly helped me hone my craft.

Many moviegoers, especially those who do not like gore and horror films, probably think you’d write other kinds of movies if you could. Is that so?

Well, Hollywood is no longer a studio system, so I can write anything I want. However, that doesn’t mean that anyone will buy it. In fact, no one wanted to buy anything like “Feast,” a horror/comedy, after we made that film. Yet, after we started writing more serious horror films like “The Collector,” which led to the “SAW” films, we haven’t stopped working since. Once you’re successful in a genre, you can branch out. But until then, you’ll just confuse buyers — meaning, if Marcus and I suddenly started writing bubbly romantic comedies, the buyers would be confused as to what jobs they should be pursuing us for. That being said, Marcus and I are writing the feature version of “The Outer Limits,” which is sci-fi and not horror (but not as far removed as a romantic comedy would be). Everyone wants to write Oscar-type films, but the truth of the matter is that this is a job, and you write what buyers will pay you for. The average life of a professional screenwriter is roughly five years. I’ve been writing for six, and I intend on writing for many more. 

Do you worry about spending your entire career writing nothing but gore and horror films? Are there other subjects you hope to address?

Why would I worry about that? Is there something wrong with horror films? There’s this strange social stigma about horror films, that they’re lowbrow and easy to do. But if that were true, there would be a lot more people working consistently these days. Getting a scare in a movie is just as tough as getting a laugh. I understand the question, though, and there are subject matters that I’d like to cover. But, again, unless I’m paying for my own movies and distributing them myself, I have to make movies that buyers want to spend millions on and an audience wants to see. Marcus and I have several unsold screenplays. We’ve tried to do other things and flex other muscles, but if you can’t find a buyer, you’re out of luck. That’s just the nature of the business.

A common element of the SAW films is a God-like protagonist who exacts a gruesome form of vengeful justice: Deeply sinful characters pay for their mistakes. They are offered redemption — the opportunity to appreciate the true value of life. But if they fail to redeem themselves, they usually lose their life or cause the death of those they love. So, I have to ask: Are you a religious person?

Somewhat. I’m certainly interested in religion and its history.

Elaborate painful traps are part of every SAW film. Do the screenwriters have to imagine them for each film?

Thinking up new traps is pure creative writing. And speaking of religion, some of the most brutal torture devices came out of the Spanish Inquisition. Look it up. We draw from tons of sources to think up new traps. From midnight walks through Home Depot to afternoon strolls through the local zoo, a new trap idea can come from anywhere.

In our interview in LMU Magazine with Mark Evan Schwartz, “Imagining Violence,” we discussed what he calls responsible violence — violence that has consequences. Does that way of thinking apply to slasher films? Or are slasher films basically movies of a unique kind, like some movies that are based on comic book character, say “The Hulk”?

Well, quite literally, most violence I know of has consequences … it hurts! Seriously, though, there are a lot of different subgenres in horror that handle violence in different ways. If we’re talking about slasher films, violence is usually heightened and rather ridiculous, as in “Terror Train” or “Sleepaway Camp.” People often disregard moves like that as silly fun, but films within the torture subgenre are what polarize many. Films like “SAW” or “Hostel” can be too much for a lot of people. I understand why, but horror films are cyclical in popularity, and the current torture horror films are born from the hardcore ’70s horror films like “Last House on the Left” and “I Spit on Your Grave.”

There has long been debate about the impact of film violence on viewers. We asked Mark Evan Schwartz if violence in films affects the writer? Does imagining the scenes that you write affect you personally?

It’s called creative writing. As an adult, imagining horror scenes doesn’t affect me any more personally than imagining love scenes. They’re all part of a story, and once they’re done, they’re done. I do, however, think that certain images can affect viewers. There is a desensitizing that takes place when viewers see horrific images over and over again. The shocking things I saw as a youth were mainly on VHS, and they were sometimes difficult to find. But today, the Internet is a 24-hour freak show. With a few clicks of the mouse, kids can see anything. How they’ll be affected, I don’t know, but I suppose we’ll see with the next generation of horror films.