Interview by Greg Chapman.
Screenwriter and novelist Aaron Sterns is the co-writer of Wolf Creek 2 (winner Best Screenplay, Madrid International Fantastic Film Festival), as well as author of prequel novel Wolf Creek: Origin (Best Horror Novel 2014 Australian Shadows Awards), which has been described as “one of the best serial killer novels out there […] destined to be considered a classic in future years”.
Melbourne-born and based, Sterns has worked in the horror field for over twenty years and is currently writing screenplays in collaboration with Greg McLean, Matthew A. Brown, Jamie Blanks and other genre masters, has served as script-editor on McLean’s Rogue amongst others, and is a judge for such awards as the AWG John Hinde Award for Science Fiction.
As well as such film work though, Sterns is also a fiction writer and former academic—the author of various Aurealis Award-nominated and Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror recommended short stories, including ‘The Third Rail’ (which appeared in the World Fantasy Award-winning Dreaming Down-Under) and the dark werewolf-bouncer world of ‘Watchmen’ (the basis for his upcoming vicious and visceral werewolf novel Vilkači), a former lecturer in Gothic & Subversive Fiction, editor of The Journal of the Australian Horror Writers, and Ph.D. student in postmodern horror. He’s also acted, appearing in a little cameo as Bazza’s Mate in Wolf Creek amongst other fun shoots.
His novella ‘Vanguard’ appears in the recent anthology Cthulhu: Deep Down Under, and he is currently adapting the screenplay through Film Victoria. His article ‘Screenwriting: The Compromised Art’ appears in the groundbreaking collection Horror 201: The Silver Scream, and he has just returned from presenting a workshop on screenwriting structure for fiction writers at the Horror Writers Association StokerCon in Las Vegas.
You’re primarily a screenwriter. Apart from Wolf Creek 2 what other films do you have in the pipeline?
I wouldn’t consider myself primarily a screenwriter at all. I come from a fiction and academic background actually, and have published short stories in a number of the recent genre anthologies published in Australia (such as Dreaming Down-Under and Gathering the Bones), and have written novels. I’ve been writing screenplays alongside for the last fifteen or so years (really, since fortuitous meetings with Greg McLean and Adam Simon encouraged me to do so), but since the release of Wolf Creek 2 many people seem to be associating me with my work on that film and as a screenwriter. Ah well, it’s not a bad thing to capitalize on, though I do intend to continue writing fiction and screenwriting simultaneously if possible. For the last year I have admittedly been working mostly on the film scripts — I really need to start saying no as I think I’m up to juggling about fifteen different projects, and I’ve somehow written about nine of those in the last year. It’s exhausting, but you have to take the opportunities as they come. I’d say four of those are close to production, though you never know in film so I never announce anything until we’re shooting. I also garnered some interest in a TV pitch while in the States recently, so as soon as the current script I’m working on is finished I’ll switch to the pilot and story area of that. Here’s hoping.
You recently revealed you wrote several screenplays back to back. How did you keep your sanity and your head straight diving in and out of each story?
Well, I recently read that Ken Nolan wrote more than ten drafts of Black Hawk Down in three months. That’s almost one complete draft a week. Now that’s crazy, but that’s kinda the screenwriter’s life by the looks of it — juggling between various things, or obsessively honing something close to production — because it’s so hard and so unlikely to ever get anything up you have to put your whole life into it. I think my best is four different scripts in one month: last October. I had extensive outlines/treatments, and one was a rewrite of another writer’s draft, but it still nearly killed me. My daughter starting calling my writing office my “jail” because I worked every weekend and most nights. I’m currently hitting about one script a month at the moment trying to clear the slate, but I keep getting offers rolling in, and if they’re interesting enough I generally can’t say no — and it’s always nice to be asked. As for keeping sane, it’s probably harder to shift between prose and screenwriting as they’re such different techniques. I have a bit of a gut approach to structure, and that initial flash tends to stick with me with each story. I just keep coming back to that and that somehow focuses my work. So somehow that makes it possible to keep multiple ideas in my head at any one time, something I never thought was possible.
What are you working on right now?
In the last month or two I finished the latest draft of Vanguard, an adaptation of my novella, which has been optioned for an Australian director. We hope that’ll go out to market soon. Then I did a draft of a crazy New Zealand script I’ve been working on, after spending a weekend with the director and tearing the entire structure apart. It’s a very timely idea that could set NZ up as an altogether-different location for horror other than its current comedic offerings. And a director in LA I’ve been working with on other things asked me to read his latest script a week or two back on top of all this. After I told him how much I loved the setting and the world, but had a few suggestions on how to improve the structure, he said ‘Great. Can you rewrite it?’ So I’m madly staying up nights and working weekends yet again before he goes out with it. It’s already an amazing script, so I’m loving working on it.
What is it about screenwriting that motivates you?
I started reading from a very early age and was making up stories and writing them as soon as I could, by all accounts. I think it’s the chance to express my view of the world — whether in the form of film or fiction or art of some type — that continues to obsess me, as I’m sure it does for most writers. I know that many of the great novels and films I’ve read or seen throughout the years changed my perception of life, or carried me through dark times, or unearthed truths about myself I never understood, so I’m compelled to attempt the same effect on others. Film specifically is an interesting way of achieving this, in that it reaches such a mind-numbingly larger audience than fiction and in many ways is such a visceral, immediate experience. It’s also where a lot of my current offers for work are, so I’m happy to purse that for the moment. And of course you can often write a screenplay a hell of a lot faster than a novel.
What Aussie horror films/books or authors have impressed you recently?
In film The Babadook was an obvious standout, though there have been other promising films such as The Infinite Man and Arrowhead (SF, I know, but I’m fairly eclectic in my tastes). I can’t say I’ve read a lot of Australian horror fiction lately (I have a three-year old as well as trying to work from home so there’s not much time for anything anymore!), though I’m looking forward to Kaaron Warren’s and Angela Slatter’s latest novels, and I’m hoping to get Brett McBean’s recent home invasion novel too. If I’m lucky I’m hoping to take a week off in October. Maybe I’ll get to read something then! Or I’ll collapse under a blazing sun somewhere.
Which author living or dead would you like to sit next to on a plane and why?
As an Australian I don’t tend to deify others. And authors tend to often be a socially-awkward lot, so we’d probably spend the whole trip trying not to touch each other’s elbows and sneering at their choice of paperback without ever speaking or realizing the other person was a writer. But it’d be cool to sit next to William Burroughs in some alternate reality and ask what the fuck was/is going on in his head.