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Interview: Corey Mayne and Barbara Szeman Discuss Adapting the Stephen King Short “WILLA”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018 | Short Films

By BRYAN CHRISTOPHER (@eviltaylorhicks)

Stephen King adaptations have made a roaring comeback over the last couple of years.  With the big-screen success of It and Netflix-released films like Gerald’s Game and 1922, people are clearly ready for a resurgence of King’s work on the big and small screen.  King also has a very generous policy of offering independent film makers an opportunity to purchase the rights to his stories for just one dollar. 

So when writer/director Corey Mayne and writer/producer Barbara Szeman teamed up to adapt “Willa,” a short story about a group of people in the aftermath of a train wreck, they saw it as an opportunity for two fans to show love for a legend in horror and get their names out there.  Little did they know that word of mouth would spread among their network to blow the production up into one of the biggest independent short film productions in history.

The pair’s relationship goes back a long time to their first collaboration for a film with a coincidental connection to King’s story:

Barbara Szeman:  We met in high school making our own film together, our first film project.  It was in high school, and it was a horror film!  Oddly enough, the main character was Willa.

Corey Mayne:  We made the movie before Stephen King wrote “Willa.” It was more of a spoof horror movie.  It was an excuse for us to recreate scenes and recreate special effects.

Szeman: Corey really put his talent to work back then.  They still show the film today at our high school and that was fifteen years ago.  

As they both progressed in the film business, Mayne and Szeman each developed skills that would prove to complement each other well for future collaborations, with Mayne focusing on visual effects and post-production while Szeman cut her teeth on production sets.

Mayne: I was way into Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.  Those things really stuck with me as a kid. I was obsessed with how to achieve those effects.  They were so groundbreaking, and they still hold up great. At the time I thought that visual effects work was a good way to get into the industry because it was part artistic, part technical. And I would get to see how studios and big shows operate.  And then eventually get back to wanting to direct my own stuff.

Szeman:  I worked at a TV network for a bit.  I started as a Production Assistant and I’m Assistant Director now on some major motion pictures.  I think part of it is because I do want to make my own films and I need to learn more about it so being an Assistant Director really gives you the opportunity to see the film environment but also to know how every department works together to make the films.

Mayne:  She specializes in production basically so she’s in the trenches everyday.

Szeman:  Yeah I’m on set and he’s doing post-production behind the scenes there.

As their working relationship has continued to grow, they saw “Willa” as an opportunity to adapt a King story with romantic and camp-fire ghost story elements.  But they also saw a chance to make it their own.

Mayne:  The important thing is just trying to…the words [from King’s story] evoke the images that I tried to put on the screen or at least how they made me feel. I would say it was a fun process because we had to make some changes due to technical reasons but also there were a couple things in the book that we were like, well, since we’re doing a movie we can actually provide an answer to some of the questions it raises and give it a little bit of a fresh take so that people who are familiar with the story will still feel like it’s familiar but we’re also giving them something new and building off what Stephen King already did.  So we were faithful with every decision, which was the thing that was most important to us. But we also wanted to surprise a few viewers and make them see why we love Dave and Willa as our lead protagonists so much. And why out of everyone else on the train, this story was about them rather than the dude in seat 5A, 5B, or whatever.

Szeman:  And we really did have to be to the point with everything because the story itself was what…55 pages, 60 pages. So we did have to condense it and make sure the story worked.  And we did want to make sure that people were a little surprised seeing it.

This was particularly difficult given that this was a short rather than a feature-length film.

Szeman:  [In a feature] you can really go in depth with characters and get people into it, and create suspense, but if you can do it in ten minutes I think that’s a real challenge.  For me I think it’s just making sure that you have the interest of your viewers in mind.

Mayne:  Yeah I feel like it’s a bit of a cheat to say oh this is just a slice of life or this is just a proof of concept, because give me the whole thing.  

Szeman:  I think too that we’re so used to working on such high productions that we wanted to make that ourselves.  And we’re used to working a different way, and I brought on the same crew that I worked on with Suicide Squad and Poltergeist.  So I think the only difference with that is we really did need to try and fit everything into two days of shooting so our hours were extremely long.  But we had the same crew from Poltergeist and the same equipment.

“…the words [from King’s story] evoke the images that I tried to put on the screen or at least how they made me feel.”

In fact, the crew grew beyond both of their expectations as word got around about their project.

Szeman:  I was working on a movie called A Simple Favor last summer.   It was just out recently in theaters. Word got out that I was putting a short film together.  I remember one day suddenly the camera operator came up to me and he’s like, “Do you need help?  I’m available and I have equipment.” Then the technocrane operator came up to me and he was like, “Do you need any technocranes?”  And I’m like, “Oh yeah OK.”  All of a sudden our film, which started out this small…you know and we had to maintain the quality of it with all of this equipment. 

Mayne:   That was probably the worst part because the lead up to it you’re trying to account for everything that could go wrong.  And this is where Barbara really shines, really trying to think of everything that can go wrong and then preparing for it.  Which is usually what a producer does while the director is just concentrating on the story and the actors and the performance and stuff…and the look.  But she had to account for all of the logistics. If things went wrong it could have been a disaster. When you look back on it, it could have been the worst thing ever.  But everything went off without a hitch.

Szeman:  Lucky me, because I’d have to go back to work with these people!

The prep work really seems to have paid off, as Mayne and Szeman recollect a great experience on set.

Szeman:  Actually we had crew who have said they’ve never seen anything like this.  They said it’s the biggest short production they’ve seen in Toronto. It really is comparable to the sets that they work on.  I was just like, oh these people are here, on their weekend, it’s freezing. Nobody wants to be here. They’re probably all mad at me.  And people all went up to me, some of them I didn’t even know because they just came to help out, and they were just like, “It’s amazing what you’ve done.  I’m so happy to be here and be a part of this.” And afterwards when I went back to work after we’d already shot this everybody was talking about this. So I think we pulled it off.  

Mayne:  We got lucky with everything, too. It was a bit cold when we shot but it was also…it got really foggy for real.  And it got kind of frosty on the ground so it provided a really cool look. And there was a full moon.

Szeman:  It was all meant to be!  But the support was overwhelming.  

As Mayne looks to wrap up post-production, he teases a sequence he’s particularly proud of for the film’s finale.

Mayne:  We saved the best til the end.  Barbara used her connections for production and I used my connections for post-production. And so I think the very final sequence is when everything is culminating, so sort of this grand finale. And I ended up getting to use some very early technology.  It was developed by these guys from Weta [Digital], which is Peter Jackson’s company.  And it’s amazing. It’s so realistic and easy to use, and allowed me to match the lighting perfectly. And they let us use this new software…I mean it’s not even out yet…I hope everyone enjoys it though, because it was meant to be a good, fun ride.  And if you’ve read the story, I think you’ll be surprised. But even if you haven’t read the books, I think it’s still a fun ride.  I’m really proud of everyone’s work.

The pair are looking to have Willa in the can by December with the hopes of hitting the festival circuit in early 2019.  If you want to keep up with updates on the movie you can visit any of the following:

Bryan Christopher