Making Cinema Magic for Over a Decade: Exclusive Interview with Director John Murlowski and Screenwriter Steven Palmer Peterson
When I walked into John Murlowski’s office, I noticed the movie posters adorning his walls. Unlike some production companies who frame their own films’ posters, John’s walls had The Exorcist and A Clockwork Orange over his desk. He followed my eye line and smiled.
“Some of my favorites,” he said. I sensed John was someone who humbled himself with the accomplishments of others rather than his own.
And he’s accomplished quite a bit, having produced, directed, and written over three-dozen feature films and television movies in genres ranging from family, horror, thriller, drama, sci-fi, and comedy. Some of his work includes Amityville Horror: A New Generation, the HBO sci-fi action Automatic, and Black Cadillac for 20th Century Fox, starring Randy Quaid and Jason Dohring.
When Steven Palmer Peterson rushed through the door of John’s office, there was a bond evident between the duo. These two had been in the trenches making films together for a decade. John first discovered and hired Steve on InkTip in 2007. They created Cop Dog, and the pair have been working together ever since.
Steve has written over 16 produced features and recently directed his own, Consensus Reality. I was excited to delve into their latest film Assimilate with them and find out what they loved about their new project.
Assimilate stars Joel Courtney (Super 8), Calum Worthy (American Vandals, The Act), and Andi Matichak (Halloween). The movie was released in May 2019 and had a theatrical run. It is now available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, Red Box, and cable.
Chris: Can you tell me about the story for Assimilate?
John: It’s about two boys doing a web series where they are uncovering the truth of their town. They are like the Holden Caulfields of The Catcher in the Rye - “Everyone is phony, and we are going to show people who they really are.” Of course, that’s a good jumping off point for an alien invasion movie where people are pretending to be other people. They realize people are acting differently. The town is changing, almost Invasion of the Body Snatchers-ish. But it starts out funny. These kids really want to put their stamp on their view of the world and uncover what they think is the truth of their town, people pretending to be who they are not. But they stumble into something larger and more nefarious.
Chris: Who came up with the idea?
John: I go way back to loving the alien invasion motif and specifically doppelganger stories. I have twin daughters, and I would see people’s fascination with twins. I think it goes back to this primal fascination of, “If I met myself, is that person like me?” It’s a mirror to ourselves. These alien invasion stories where they are taking over other people’s bodies are another version of a doppelganger story. I remember thinking about that and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Steve and I thought maybe it’s time for this generation to explore the alien invasion motif with something they connect with. That got us started.
Another thing that happened while we were writing it: Trump was running for office. We started to see people getting pissed off at people they knew. This divide and notion of “the other” came in. That’s part of the tropes [of the genre] as well. Is my neighbor really my neighbor? Can I trust him? Is he dangerous?
We didn’t want to hit it too hard, but there are definite motifs in there of seeing the priest who is the nicest guy, and then flipping it around. Once he’s taken over, he’s an asshole. Really a bitter, evil guy. These kids want to reveal who the town really is. When these people are turned into doppelgangers, our notion was you would see their real self underneath. They’re pretending to be these nice people. Kayla’s dad pretends to be this affable, cool dad, but he’s really this sort of old-fashioned guy who thinks he owns her. There’s a line in the film.
Steve: “You belong to me!”
John: Yes, “You belong to me!” Who would say that? Kayla (Andi Matichak) has that response of, “I don’t even know you.” What was interesting to us was it wasn’t out of character for them. It was what was lurking underneath. The aliens brought it out, and they didn’t need to lie about it.
Steve: What happens is this little creature bites you and then it runs away because now it has your DNA. Then it cocoons itself, and while it cocoons itself, it turns into the whole version of you. It is basically a clone, but it doesn’t have your memories. Then the replacement version of you chases you down. The heroes are being chased down by their replacements, and they’re going to be murdered. The [aliens] stick their fingers in their [victim’s] heads and suck out their memories. It’s a nice visceral moment with scenes with the person fighting themselves.
I get focused on the technical details of plot. If you look at some of these older films we are drawing from, they have a slower pace than what we have in a horror film. Nowadays, you open with something scary and have scary thrills throughout; otherwise, people turn the channel or switch to a different streaming service.
John: 28 Days Later was such a great spin on the zombie genre where all of a sudden these things were not the living dead, and they didn’t move slowly like a mummy. These things were scary, and it completely reinvented it
Steve: Assimilate has quite a bit of action.
John: Which you don’t tend to find in alien invasion movies. Usually, they’re a much slower burn.
Chris: You both are credited with screenwriting credit on Assimilate. How did you two collaborate in regards to the writing?
Steve: I will write the first draft, and then I’ll hand it off to him, and he will write second. And we go back and forth like that for a little while. We were doing this, and then we were doing rewrites for a while. Then it started to smell like we were going to get the movie made about six months prior to it. Then we said, “Oh wait this is real, let’s go back and take a look at it.”
John: It is this abstract idea when you’re writing in a vacuum; it puts a different lens on it when it is going to get made.
Steve: We met every day for two months. We’d go through page by page. When we were doing that, we were sitting there together and we’d have an idea and then go write it. We’d sit and ask, “Is this the best way to do this scene? Is there a better way?” This is one of the rare opportunities to make a movie at this scale, so let’s make sure we give it as much as we can.
John: There are writing teams that will write in a room together. “How should he come through the door?” and “Let’s tweak it together.” We are talkers, so we talk things out theoretically. Then one of us goes and takes a shot at it. Then we bounce it back and forth.
Steve: We didn’t do much rewriting on set.
John: I asked the young actors, “If something feels like it wants to come out of your mouth a different way, let’s talk about it. We’re open to everything.” I found on set that they liked the way it flowed. They didn’t change all that much.
Chris: That says something about you being able to write natural dialogue.
John: The director in me was like, “Come on, make it your own.” But they liked it the way it was. The writer in me was like “OK.”
Steve: One of the great things about the actors, even though they were very young, they were all very professional. They were talking about what they were going to do next when they were waiting for the lights to be set. They were doing theorycrafting off set. These kids are going somewhere for sure.
John: Also, being on location, the crew and the cast got especially close. Mississippi where we shot rolled out the red carpet for us. We went to a little town called Kosciusko, Mississippi, where all the exteriors were shot. The interiors were shot in Jackson. We went scouting in this small town and said, “Can someone point out where we can find the mayor?” They were like “That’s Jimmy over there!” You’d never get this in a big city. I said, “We’re interested in shooting your town. What would it take to do that? Permits? Cost?” He said, “It won’t cost anything. We don’t need permits. Show up!” We took over their town for a week. Hired all locals to be extras.
Steve: People came from all over.
John: Our pitch was, “We’re going hire all your caterers and restaurants.” I think we filled up their hotels. The takeaway is there are pluses and minuses leaving production centers. It’s more difficult, but the plus is the locals roll out the red carpet for you.
Steve: Calum Worthy had been in Austin and Ally, so he had a huge fan crowd. And he was the nicest guy. After he was done shooting for the day, there were 50 families who had brought their kids. The word got out, and he was signing autographs for all of them.
John: He’s just the nicest guy in the world. Any young actor contemplating being an actor needs to study him because he’s the best.
Chris: Speaking of Calum Worthy, this film has great talent for audiences to keep an eye on: Calum, Andi Matichak, Joel Courtney, and Katherine McNamara from Freeform’s Shadowhunters, What did the cast bring to the film?
John: We went to our casting directors, the team that does American Horror Story. My partner in this, William Fay, talked about who would be the best casting directors. We figured for any up-and-coming kids, television casting companies would have their finger on it. They did. We saw hundreds of people for each part. They’re one of the biggest television casting directors in town, and they knew all the people. They’re going to look at who’s involved. It helped to have Bill Fay, who was the president of Legendary Pictures since its inception, producing. He did 300, Independence Day, The Hangover, and more. To have him involved with top notch casting directors, the agencies were open to us. And the script! Everyone liked the script so they sent us all their best 20-somethings.
I grew up in a small town and thought the unpretentious “every man” and “every young woman” archetype would be good for a story like this. For movies that go into the fantastic, it’s nice to anchor it with real people.
The cast did a great job. They were such grounded people, and their characters were grounded and real. They brought a fearlessness to what they were doing. Just physically, it was not a comfortable shoot, and they were always game. They brought everything, and they were fantastic. In a sci-fi film like this, you don’t expect going in that the cast was going to be one of the strongest things. But in this one, that’s been the case. The cast makes you believe it.
I remember watching The Exorcist, and as a little kid, I remember wondering, “Why does this movie work so well?” For the longest time when I was young, I thought it was the cool effects. The older I get, it’s because those guys are committed. They completely believe the scenario they’re in, so we believe it. In our film, the three kids believed it and are quite good. Andi was an intermittently working actress living in NYC, and after this she starred as Jamie Lee Curtis’s granddaughter in Halloween. And now she’s very much on the map. Calum always works.
Steve: He’s made a big transition from doing television to a lot of serious film. He was in The Act. He’s up for Emmys now.
John: And Joel found his fame in The Kissing Booth.
Steve: That’s the fun thing about working with younger actors; you get to see what happens with them.
John: We got lucky with the cast. They were fantastic.
Chris: What’s one thing you absolutely love about Assimilate?
Steve: I’ll steal from John. The cast. I feel so lucky with our three young leads. They had great chemistry together. Part of that is intentional because John made sure they had chemistry. It’s fun working with them because you can see them grow up a little too afterwards, so you see where they’re going. They were super dedicated. They loved working with John because he’s a very good director to work with. He is supportive and runs a fun set. At the end of the day, all these stories and the characters are what people going to connected to and what’s going to make the story work or not. The characters are only what the actors bring to it. They bring a great vibe. And now I left you with nothing.
John: I’ll add an anecdote. I had seen this movie ten gazillion times with making it, editing it, mixing it. At the premier last month, there was nothing to do but watch it. It was the first time I sat in a theater and just watched it without being critical. That part of my brain got to take a break. I found myself feeling for these characters and tearing up and rooting for them. So, if it can work for me, the characters are working really well. These three kids are kind of how they are in the movie, and their relationship to each other is how they are in the movie, and they have stayed friends.
Steve: It was really fun on the red carpet. Calum and Andi were here in town. Joel is filming a sequel in South Africa. Andi and Calum Skype him on their phone, wake him up at 4:30 in the morning, and bring him out on the red carpet on his iPhone, bedhead and all.
John: He was very gracious.
Chris: John, what do you look for in a script as a director?
John: A voice. A point of view. Somewhat like a good novel. When you dive into a good novel, you are being transported into somebody else’s view in life. That’s probably the first thing.
Knowing their cinematic grammar. Especially if you are working in genre pieces. If you are doing a thriller, knowing what the traditional beats are of a thriller and hopefully finding a new take, turning it on its ear, finding something surprising in that.
Steve: You have 300 some pages in a novel to tell a story. Screenplays are really short. They have one-third as many pages, and they have fewer words on the page. Some of those words are just things like the name of the character and the scene heading. You have to get down to business. Back in the old days, your second act started on page 33. Nowadays, the second act starts on page 20, more or less.
John: I once heard someone say, “If your scene is only about one thing, you’re not trying hard enough.”
Steve: And one of the reasons for that is you don’t have any space, so you have to make sure it’s about more than one thing.
John: When you view a movie, you are able to soak up a lot more in 90 minutes.
Steve: If you look at a lot of the movies that are adapted, say, from Stephen King books, the short stories are the ones that adapted well because you don’t have to leave a bunch behind.
It’s such a world of difference after you’ve been working with a producer. Oh look, here’s what we have to do to make your movie, to turn your screenplay into a movie. Or if you see your screenplay turned into a movie and you say “Oh, I should’ve done something different.” Having that experience of seeing of a how a scene translates to the screen makes a difference.
John: I remember reading somewhere that for every screenplay sold, the average writer had six or seven in his drawer.
Chris: Steve, can you tell us about your writing process and when you know your script is ready to post on InkTip?
Steve: While I’m writing one thing, ideas come up for something else. So, then I’ll write the idea down. Eventually I have this big, long list of them. Sooner or later, I have to write this idea I had because I’ve had it for a long time. Stuff starts to gel and comes into place. I do quite a bit of outlining. I make sure I have all the structure planned out. I did a couple lately where I’ve done so much thinking in my head, I go in and there will be more exploration in the story. Normally, I like to have a structured approach and know what the story is going to be. When I’m writing a first draft, I’m basically just filling out the scenes in that outline. Then I’ll show it to a few people, get comments, and do a rewrite. Then I send it out because I’ve got to move on to the next one.
John: Steve is one of the most prolific writers I know.
Chris: Steve, you moved from screenwriting to directing and producing with your film Consensus Reality. How did you make that transition?
Steve: Well, “moved from” is overstating. I made my own little movie because New York is ultra-friendly to low-budget productions. You don’t need a film permit to film on the streets. On the sidewalks, you can kind of do anything. You can shoot in all the public parks. So, I said, “Can I build a story around shooting on the streets and sidewalks of New York?” I had this idea for a while. In grad school, one of my professors was talking about schizophrenia. There is this book called Memories of My Nervous Illness by an Austrian judge in the 19th century where he describes his world view and what the world is really like from his perspective. He thinks he is just telling the truth. He’s deep in the throes of schizophrenia. He’s hearing voices. Like Lord of the Rings, he thinks he’s in the epic battle to save the world.
I built this story about a homeless person in New York who is in the throes of schizophrenia. I watched Primer. I watched Christopher Nolan’s first film Following. And one of the things these sorts of movies do is you have very few actors, maybe two or three characters that you kinda go around. So, I could build a story around this, so there’s this one guy who is interacting with this imaginary character. It would be like a science-fiction story in some ways. But also tell an internal human story about what is going on. The science-fiction story is a metaphor for his own coping or failure to cope with his illness. Then I could just shoot that.
When you’re doing it like that, you are able to go out there and scout all your own locations. When we go and make a “real” movie, we are like, “Can we rent this, is it going to be available, is it in the right location, and can we find parking?” If you are just going to shoot on the streets, you can walk around with your phone, which I wound up using to film it, and do shot lists by taking photographs of the locations where I was going to shoot. On top of that, once you have the actors you just go and show up there. The production coordination winds up being complicated. Normally, you have a video village, or a camp, but we don't even have enough people for that. I had a friend who worked as a producer on a couple films, and he lived in New York. He co-produced this movie with me. He’d stand with all the gear so nobody stole it while we went off and shot our scenes. It was me, the DP, a young girl, and the sound guy—that was our crew. I had the idea for a while and knew the resources I had, and crafted the script to fit into that.
Chris: What are your favorite films, and how have they influenced you?
John: I love psychology. I’m a volunteer crisis counselor. It’s good for writers. Anyone who wants to write about suffering, drama is conflict, doing a hotline puts you in the frontlines. It’s very good for the world, my soul, and my writing. There’s this idea in developmental psychology that when you are about 12, when adolescence kicks in, the synapses in your brain start to come together, and there’s this idea that whatever you liked when you were 12 solidifies as that’s the most awesome ever. Whatever movie you loved when you were 12-
Steve: Star Wars.
John: Mine was The Exorcist, Clockwork Orange, Jaws.
Steve: You watched Clockwork Orange when you were 12? What was wrong with your family?
John: I’m a huge Kubrick fan. He was the man. Never repeated himself. He was just the most thoughtful, the smartest.
Steve: The range of genres he worked in.
John: And every one he defined as the best. Is there a black comedy better than Dr. Strangelove? Kubrick for sure. French Connection. The Exorcist. Very daring, very committed. I’m very much into the grammar of film and how it changes over time. I’m into directors who are into the film grammar like Danny Boyle. He’s consistently very interesting. A little bit like Kubrick in that he’s always trying something different. How about you?
Steve: When I was a kid, Star Wars and anything with Harrison Ford in it. I like a lot of weird independent films. Primer. Coherence. This genre of really cerebral, low budget sci-fi. It ranges up to more expensive ones like Ex Machina or Annihilation. They’re exploring some strange ideas. That is the kind of stuff I like to do, and it’s hard to do.
Chris: What are you guys working on right now?
John: I have two strands of my business. We do lots of thrillers. Always looking for thrillers. Then I decided I wanted to do a personal story that’s been in my head for a long time, and it’s about the right time for that. It has to do with the suicide prevention hotline. I’m working on a TV series based on a field psychologist.
Steve: I’d like to do another boy and his dog movie. I really wound up enjoying it. So much so, I wrote another one, but they’re hard to get made. I think because it used to be a blockbuster video story. When you’re at the video store, certain genres do better because families walk in together and mom and dad get their movie and kids get their movie. There were those films like Shiloh. Kids would see the dog, and that’s all they’d need.
Chris: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting your career?
Steve: Start younger. For me.
John: Yes, go back in time. Start younger. For me, I would’ve put more emphasis on the business in show business. Lots of us are starry eyed; we’re going to change the world and take Hollywood by storm by our sheer brilliance. Successful writers, producers, directors do that, but they also do their homework and discern what the business part of it is now. Don’t write in a bubble. See who is buying what.
Chris: Speaking of knowing who is buying what, you both have used InkTip’s service for a decade now. What about the service keeps you coming back?
Steve: That first success. I might as well stay. I get the newsletter too with the leads each week. What I like about that is even if the leads don’t apply to me, it shows me what people are looking for. And a lot of times when you are operating in an empty world: they don’t have websites, they don’t have phone numbers. InkTip is where they are.
John: For me, InkTip is so well laid out. It invites you to disappear and lose an entire evening roaming through this field of ideas. I was working on a Christmas movie for Mar Vista, and the producer called me, “Got another Christmas thing?” This was in the summer, so they wanted to try and get a movie shot so they could have it for that Christmas. In Hollywood, when a producer asks “Do you have X,” the answer is always, “Yes!” I had nothing, so that night I went on InkTip searching for a Christmas concept that had a good hook. I found it, and I doubt I even had to go through ten scripts. I found one called Christmas Mail. I had Lorene Lacey, the writer, send it to me that night. In the morning, I offered her an option. Sent the producer a treatment that I whipped up that morning. He said “Great!” She and I had a deal before the end of the day. We were shooting six weeks later. Less than 48 hours, I found it, we had a deal, and we were shooting.
Chris: Amazing! Anything you want to add?
John: Get comfortable because it will suck a bunch of your time up. Use the InkTip interface because it is so well done. Let it work for you and benefit from all the work InkTip has done on it.
Steve: Be willing to spend the time to look through all the stuff [on InkTip]. There’s like two different kinds of films being made right now: 200 million dollar movies and $400,000 movies. Writing a $400,000 movie is a trick. You find writers and see if you can work with them.
John: My big surprise when I first went on InkTip is there’s a lot of amazing talent out there and the world is shrinking in a good way. Work is work, and talent is talent.