Sean Robert Daniels’ original screenplay “Killers” is a taut, finely crafted thriller that won him a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. And for those of you toiling away on spec scripts outside the United States, Sean can be an inspiration for you as he lives 10,364 air miles away from Los Angeles, all the way in Centurion, South Africa.
I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week.
Today in Part 3, Sean digs into “Killers,” the screenplay he wrote that won him a Nicholl fellowship.
Scott: Let’s talk about your script “Killers” which won the Nicholl screenwriting competition. How did you come up with the idea and why did you think it was a strong enough story concept, one worth working on?
Sean: After I’d done the 190 page behemoth, I was thinking of doing something a little bit differently. I wanted to do a story like Robert Altman’s “Shortcuts”, an ensemble piece, lots of characters. Each of the characters would be involved in a murder in some ways. Either someone would have to kill someone out of a crime of passion, someone would be planning to kill someone, and then there would be someone who was paid to kill. I didn’t end up liking that script but I liked the character of the Hitwoman so she stuck with me. Then I constantly asked myself that question of who would be the last person that she would kill? It came to me that it should be her mother and the whole topic of euthanasia came up in Killers. I guess it came to me a lot and speaks to me because when my aunt was about 19 she had a car accident that left her basically a quadriplegic the rest of her life.
I guess one of the uncomfortable questions that was never openly asked but was always around was would she have had a better life if she hadn’t survived the crash? That very much drove into that.
Scott: It’s really the emotional, even philosophical core of the story. The protagonist, who is a hired assassin and, therefore, has a certain attitude toward death on a professional level, is confronted on a personal level with this request on the part of her mother in terms of her own physical state.
Sean: Yeah. It’s something I’m always fascinated about. As a writer, two of the things that fascinate me a lot about people is people’s let’s go with spiritual beliefs or theological beliefs as well as their sexuality. With rare cases, you don’t wear your religion openly outside or your theology openly on the outside. The same with your sexuality. These are two parts of you that are relatively hidden from the naked eye but guide and dictate a huge amount of your choices in life. I’m sure you would have picked it up in “Killers” but one of the little things I was trying to do there in the discussion is it’s only the Hitwoman and the Priest who actually believe in a higher power. Everyone else is kind of atheistic except those two characters. There was that little irony attached to it.
It’s something that I am fascinated about, that idea of if you have someone, for example, that’s extremely evil what would cause them to do a moment of good? Just as you say, what would cause this Woman, for whom killing isn’t that important, to refuse to do it? In essence, the first attempt at writing “Killers” my initial goal was to actually have the Woman and the Mother reconcile, but every time I tried to write that version of the script it just felt false and it fought me until I realized that they hated each other too much.
Scott: I don’t know if you’re much of a fan of Carl Jung at all, but this idea of a shadow that is repressed aspects of the psyche. I could see what you’re saying in terms of your protagonist, that it would have been a false ending had she not been confronted to go through with this thing all the way because, really, what her destiny is, in terms of her psyche, is to confront the opposite of what she does. She’s a hired killer. What is a situation here where she would be called upon to do something on a personal level with her mother? There’s almost an inevitability or destiny to that, don’t you think?
Sean: I completely agree. It’s one of those ‑‑ fate has an unnerving manner of bringing these moments of confrontation into your life and this was hers. It seems to echo in real life, as well. Your hubris catches up with you.
Scott: The protagonist is a female. At the time you made that choice, I’m sure you’re aware that males dominate roles in genre movies. Had you been influenced by projects like Salt, Hanna, or even The Hunger Games, or did the character just came to you as a female assassin?
Sean: When the character first came about in my mind, none of those movies had even been conceived. I actually haven’t seen Hanna or the The Hunger Games. I’ve only seen Salt, which I wasn’t a big fan of. I think, actually, for me, it’s one of those things. I have a fascination with women. I realize that I’m saying this with my girlfriend in the kitchen, listening to us as we chat. I find women fascinating. They think differently to men and there is an enigma to them. I always found a lot of the times, when I was writing, that I would ask myself would the dynamics of a scene be different if instead of two men there was a man and a woman or how would this scene read differently if this person was a woman instead of a man.
Quite often I find I might start an idea with a male protagonist and I find I get more interested when I change it to a woman.
Scott: You have a wonderful moment at the very end of the script where the protagonist intersects with an old woman and they have a conversation about clouds, and a story about children in the clouds. It feels like a very female driven moment, very intuitive and evocative, so I’m curious where you came up with that idea.
Sean: That is actually a conversation, something that is a rare thing in my writing, that is almost, verbatim, a conversation I had with an old woman on a plane. I was flying from South Africa to Botswana and that moment, the last part about the children in the clouds, happened to me. It was this lovely old Dutch lady. That conversation, as I said, is almost word for word. The thing is, in the original draft of “Killers,” the first draft was only 70 pages long. Then the Nicholl script was 80 pages. The current draft is now 103. Initially, it just ended with the woman sitting alone in the airplane. I just knew that there was something missing from the script and that conversation that happened to me just rolled around in my head. I sat down and I wrote it.
I’m never entirely sure what it means but I know it fits and I think, for me, it lends itself to this idea of innocence, that somehow innocence still exists. The Old Woman that sits next to her can sit and talk about this magical innocence of childhood which, in many ways, has been robbed from the woman.
Scott: In the script, no one has a proper name. It’s Woman, Doctor, Mother. What was the inspiration behind that choice?
Sean: I used to write for theater before I started writing films and when I wrote stage plays the very first thing I would do is come up with the play build. Captain Jack Donkey, a 70 year old Lieutenant, et cetera, et cetera. I would write those and have my characters’ names and biographies well thought out before I started to write the script. With film, I wrote more intuitively and a number of my scripts will actually start where it is just man, woman, child, dentist until the name comes naturally. With “Killers,” one of the things that I really wanted to do was to have readers, and eventually, I guess, an audience, take the characters for purely who they are. I found that if I named the woman, if I gave her the name Chloe, then the name Chloe would bring all sorts of connotations to whoever was watching the film.
They might be married to a Chloe. They might have had a sister called Chloe. It brings the aspects of the Chloes throughout their life to this woman.
I wanted the audience to just treat her for who she was. By leaving the characters unnamed they, I think in a way, become a purer version of who they are.
In the same manner of speaking, it’s the same type of reason why the reason the Woman and the Mother hate each other is never fully defined. Because I felt that if I pinpointed a reason then half the audience would sit there and go, “That is a perfectly justifiable reason,” and the other half would go, “No, that’s not good enough.” Then you’ve lost half the audience.
Scott: You also kind of demythologize it. It’s like one of the powers of the Hannibal Lecter character in The Silence of the Lambs. We know that he is a psychopath, that he’s a cannibal, but we don’t really know why. That mystery adds to the mythology of the character, the power of Hannibal Lecter.
Sean: Oh, I agree. I think what someone said…There’s a skill to lying. If you’re going to lie, you give short answers so that the person you’re lying to fills the story in their own way. If you give too many details then they can start picking holes in what you’re saying.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Sean talks about what winning the 2012 Nicholl Fellowship was like and how it enabled him to break into Hollywood.
Please stop by comments to thank Sean for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
To see Sean’s acceptance speech at the Nicholl Fellowship ceremony, go here.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
Sean is represented by Kaplan/Perrone.