Writer Career Success of Elizabeth Butler: an Interview with the Writer

Published: 2021-09-10 10:05:09
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Elizabeth Butler, up and coming screenwriter who recently wrote the television drama The Gouache Massacre, is here to talk about her work in more detail. The Gouache Massacre has been described as an alternative piece of writing, which has come to life on screen. Strong visuals are used throughout, with a strong sense of aesthetic, pulling inspiration from various directors and writers such as Wes Anderson and Tim Burton as I will be exploring in more detail.
So, firstly what actually made you want to write? What events lead to the moment in which you say, “sure I want to become a screenwriter”?Elizabeth: I’ve always been told that I’m good at writing. I have always been interested in reading and writing from an early age. Going to the cinema and watching films has also always been a passion of mine. I‘ve always had an overactive imagination, that’s why it’s so hard for me to fall asleep or struggle to wake up from a vivid dream. I like this in a way though, as it’s made me who I am. I was never very good at Maths or Science at school, English and Art were always the obvious direction I was going to take. I studied art at college and then went to study Film at university. I never thought I’d want to write scripts, but screenwriting just came so naturally to me, it was an obvious choice. I then started to believe that I could fuse my love for cinematography and film, with writing. It was the perfect combination.
Coming from an art background, do you think it has moulded your writing and why? Which kind of art influences inspired your writing?
Elizabeth: My favourite subject at Art College was art history. I enjoyed learning about different artists and different art periods. My two favourites were, Surrealism, an art movement that originated in the 1920’s that focused on the unconscious mind through visuals and writings and Dadaism, which is an art movement created during the First World War creating visual art and poetry labelled as nonsense and comedic.
This has definitely influenced how I write, and when researching surrealist authors, such as Leonora Carrington, and Alasdair Gray, I think having background knowledge is useful. I enjoy practicing automatic writing from time to time, to understand exactly what my unconscious mind is thinking. I do find this difficult, but it is beneficial to let my thoughts wander. I also like to create my own dada artwork. The lifestyles of the Dadaist movement intrigued me. Everything around them had meaning. Both the Dadaists and Surrealists became their art, for example, Salvador Dali walked around all day in a scuba diving outfit, to represent a dive into the human subconscious. In my own writing, I try to apply this in a milder form. For example, I try to embody the personalities of the characters I’m writing about, to think how they would react to a situation.
What are your daily rituals? What sets up the perfect time and place for you to start writing?
Elizabeth: At night, mostly anyway, I find just before I go to bed, between ten and two in the morning, is when my mind is most active. Generally this is when my mind imagines crazy plot lines and scenarios, just before I sleep. As Jonathan Manor, a dating and self improvement blogger says; I thought that writing was an all day event. From the moment you got out of bed, you were supposed to be sitting in front of your computer, until the moment you were heading back into bed. That’s simply not the best way to go around with writing. (Cited in Goins; 2016.)
Writing during the day just does not seem to work for me. I suppose this is a form of surrealism in a way. My most creative, surreal ideas come during sleep or when I’m about to sleep. As much of the material I write about is anything but ordinary, I like to remember these thoughts and note them down to write about later. When I’m asleep, I feel my best ideas arise and they often happen to be surrealist. I usually write my screenplays on my ipad, in a darkened room with only the screen for light, wrapped inside my duvet, listening to music through my earphones. As I write, I like to stop from time to time and act out the dialogue with myself, this way I know if the words spoken, sound as if they would actually be said in real life. If the dialogue seems too “cheesy” or “jarring” I will cut it out.
You say music plays a big part in your writing process?
Elizabeth: I like to listen to instrumental soundtracks. I choose ones that fit the tone of the screenplay I am writing, and whether I am writing an emotional scene, an action scene or a comical scene really depends on which soundtrack I listen to. I often choose really creepy video game soundtracks such as What Remains Of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017), Alice Madness Returns (American McGee, 2011) and Mystery Case Files (Big Fish Games 2005-), all instrumental, all with something slightly creepy but beautiful about them. My story ideas are all influenced by the music I listen to, and the mood they put me in.
The best way to listen to music while writing depends on what you are writing and the mood it brings, When you really get into whatever you’re working on, the world can fade away. The scene you’re writing starts to play out in your mind as if it’s projected on a screen in front of you. The soundtrack swells like the orchestra that drives Willem Dafoe through a crime scene in “The Boondock Saints.” (Sitar; 2017.)
What else has been an influence on your writing? You mentioned video games can you expand on this?
Elizabeth: Video Games with narrative, inspire my writing, games such as What Remains Of Edith Finch (2017) and Blackwood Crossing (PaperSeven, 2017), I like the way the games are told in a simple way but have interesting storylines. Mystery Case Files, a puzzle gaming company on PC, has also influenced my storylines.
One of the most influential is a Mystery Case Files game, called Ravenhearst (2006). I played this when I was 12 and it really stood out for me. During the 1800’s, a young woman named Emma Ravenhearst, originally from America, travels to Blackpool, England to become a teacher, although she doesn’t know anyone there. During a Spring Ball held in the town, Emma meets an older man named Charles, who is extremely wealthy. He likes her and they both go on a few dates, during this time people keep disappearing and dying. Charles proposes to Emma and decides to build a manor house to show his love. Emma rejects the proposal feeling that everything is moving too fast, but once the house is completed, the couple move in. Everything is fine for a few months, until Emma receives a letter from her father saying that he is very ill. With this news, she knows she must travel back home but as she attempts to leave she falls ill and is unable to get out of bed. Charles hires a nurse named Rose to look after her, as she is becoming weaker everyday. Emma has strange dreams about being in her wheelchair wearing a wedding dress, finding that when she wakes up the exact wedding dress is in her cupboard. One day while Charles is making Emma soup, Rose sees that Charles is putting poison in her food, stopping her from recovering and leaving. Rose warns Emma, and they both try to escape. Charles, knowing what has happened, tries to attack Rose with an axe, and pulls Emma down into the cellar, locking her in a room until she eventually dies. Charles feels he can be together with Emma, forever.
As Evan Skolnick, a former writer for Marvel Comics turned game writer, discussed in an interview, “As you might expect, the main thing that makes game storytelling so different from every other kind is the introduction of the player into the equation. This has three major implications. One, the player isn’t just watching the main character; he or she is the main character. Two, the player expects to be able to influence the game world, the characters and, of course, the story. And three, during gameplay, stories that weren’t planned by a writer or anyone else on the development team can emerge spontaneously”. (Skolnick cited in Ceros 2017).
What About Films or Television?
Elizabeth: Regarding television, The Santa Clarita Diet (Netflix 2017-) and The End Of The F****ing World (Channel 4 2017), have really inspired the tone for The Gouache Massacre. The way humour is used in dark situations, such as death or illness, interests me, and shows how comedy can be used effectively. A Series Of Unfortunate Events (Netflix 2017-) has also been a big influence, as the tone suited how I visualized the look of my screenplay.
Film wise, the themes and style of Wes Anderson and Tim Burton are what I based my screenplay on, when writing the dialogue and imagining what it should look like visually. As Renee (2018), says, there are many stylistic trademarks that can be pinpointed in Wes Anderson’s work, but perhaps the most important aspect of his filmmaking, which is something that can’t be claimed by any one filmmaker, is his ability to capture humanity in the artifice of his constructed world.
Wes Anderson can create his own world through his films. Just by reading the scripts alone, the audience is transported to his fantasy world, which is similar to our own world but bright and organised, often unlike our own lives. The short, snappy dialogue used in Wes Anderson films is seen in The Gouache Massacre. The films are jarring and the dialogue can often be unusual.
For example, in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), this dialogue technique is used and can be seen in these examples from pages 3, 21 and 115 of the script:
ETHELINE
I’ll hold, thank You
CHAS
I need $187
ETHELINE (Pause)
Write yourself a check.
ETHELINE
What do you mean?
HENRY
I mean for tax purposes.
ETHELINE (Pause)
But I thought it was –
HENRY ETHERLINE?
ETHELINE
Yes?
HENRY
Will you marry me?
CHAS
What’s his name?
ROYAL (Quietly)
Sparkplugging.
CHAS
Thank You.
ROYAL
You’re welcome.
The dialog Anderson uses, such as in these examples, shows fast paced talking, getting to the point in a direct way. Even without watching the film, I can visualise how it would look on screen because of Anderson’s auteur writing style.
During my own writing, especially for A Gouache Massacre, I was inspired by how he writes dialogue. By researching Wes Anderson’s screenplays, I could see similarities between his work and my own and tried to build on this.
Tim Burton has always been another inspirational film director and writer for me, ever since I was a young child, when I watched Batman Returns (1992). Even at a young age, I could appreciate the music from Danny Elfman, and the stylistic approach that Burton brings to his films.
Children’s programmes also still appeal to me, because although they might be aimed at children, dark topics are often explored in a creepy way. Although the language used is often simple, I feel the dark undertones help set the mood. Examples of this would be Creeped Out, (CBBC 2017-) a programme set around children’s fears and television shows such as Are You Afraid Of The Dark (Nickelodeon 1990-96 & 1999-2000) and Goosebumps (Fox Kids 1995-98). The topics covered are scary but often shown in a comedic way.
What was your internal thought process when planning The Gouache Massacre?
Elizabeth: Coming from an art background, I often worked with different kinds of materials, and one I enjoyed working with, was gouache paint. Also, I thought Gouache sounded better than The Fine Art Massacre or The Acrylic Massacre. I also wondered what it would be like to paint with blood. Many artists have tried, such as Vincent Castiglia and Maxime André Taccardi, but I wanted to make this artist bloodthirsty and murderous, killing the victims for her art. I didn’t want the dynamic between Cane and Agatha to be a sexual relationship but more of power over another. At first, I wanted the main characters to be brother and sister or husband and wife but decided against this. The relationship between a woman in her sixties and a man in his late twenties was more appealing to me, as I wanted Cane to be manipulated and trapped in a situation he couldn’t get out off, by an older woman.
Agatha and Cane’s relationship is a strange one, which changes slightly throughout the series. When they first meet Cane is polite, always on his best behaviour, as this is someone he has looked up to for years. Agatha takes advantage of this, seeing how far she can push him to do her bidding.
Once they have killed Agatha’s brother Henry, the dynamic changes slightly. Agatha continues to be the boss of the two but Cane tries to see how far he can push Agatha to commit further crimes.
Why is dark humour appealing to you when writing?
Elizabeth: I’ve always enjoyed it and usually enjoy the programmes and films that fall into this category. They are normally quirky, dark and different. According to The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2018), it is described as such:
Black humour, also called black comedy, is writing that juxtaposes morbid or ghastly elements with comical ones that underscore the senselessness or futility of life. Black humour often uses farce and low comedy to make clear that individuals are helpless victims of fate and character. Although Andre Breton wrote “Anthology of Black Humour” in 1940 the term was not widely used until the 1960’s.
TV programmes in this category, such as The End Of The F****ing World (2017), The Santa Clarita Diet (2017) and A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017) as previously mentioned, but also Pushing Daises, (ABC 2007-2009) American Horror Story (FX 2011-) and Scream Queens (Fox 2015-2016), all joke about death, murder or both, which are often considered taboo subjects for comedy. That’s why this sort of genre appeals to me the most, because it is not expected. Films that are labelled dark humour, which I enjoy and am often inspired by, are Heathers (1988) Death Becomes Her (1992), The Addams Family (1991) and Fargo (1996) written by the Coen Brothers. Other examples are The Lady-killers (1955) and Suburbicon, (2017). These films again, focus on death and murder in a humorous way. Making light of dark situations to break down the topics seen as taboo, examples such as murder, rape and cannibalism.
Who else has inspired your work?
Elizabeth: The author Neil Gaiman has also influenced the way I write. His style is usually dark and humorous and I can see links between the novels he writes and my own screenplays. His work includes; The Graveyard Book (2008), a children’s book in which the main character sees his parents being stabbed to death by a man when he is a baby. The story is all about him trying to find out why his parents were killed, and The Ocean at The End of the Lane (2013), which deals with death and suicide.
Other macabre authors that have influenced my work are, R.L Stine, The author of the Goosebumps series of books, Agatha Christie and Stephen King, from my mum’s influence, as she always had a book of King’s in her hand when I was growing up.
I have always enjoyed traditional fairy tales and I find that children’s gothic story telling, whether it be for screen or novel is often much darker without too much being said or shown. In 2012 Philip Pullman retold 50 classic Grimm fairy stories to celebrate 200 years since they were first published. Writing in The Guardian, Pullman explained why the reimagining of these tales was so appealing.
“Conventional stock figures”: there is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in “The Three Snake Leaves” inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious. (Pullman; 2012.)
This basic level of good and evil in characters appeals to me. In The Gouache Massacre, Agatha appears to have no more motivation for killing people other than wanting to create art.
Where did the ideas for the name’s Agatha and Cane come from?
Elizabeth: Well, I choose a personality for a character, whether they be mean, shy or outgoing and look at name books and their meanings to see if a name matches their personality. However, Agatha means “Good Woman”, which I found ironic, seeing as the audience finds out she is a serial killer. The name Cane meant Possession; or possessed. Cane’s character is like a possession to Agatha, someone who she can easily manipulate and control.
Regarding research, how did you decide where you wanted your script to be set?
Elizabeth: I wanted the screenplay to be set in the Lake District, as I only live an hour away, and I’ve always found it to have areas of seclusion and loneliness. I wanted somewhere in England that I recognised, somewhere I could visit to visualise and help me to picture whilst I was writing.
Oxenholme Station, just outside Kendal, is where Agatha picks Cane up at the start of the screenplay. Visiting the station helped me to visualise how the scene would work. I also visited a small, independent art gallery in Grasmere, which would be a perfect location for the art show the couple attend in the script. It was exactly how I pictured it looking, in my head. They sold Gouache paint too, which I found amusing, and that helped to make visualising the concept that much easier. I took photographs of the station and art gallery from different angles, this helped me to visualise the locations as I wrote.

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