Interview: ‘The Snare’ Writer/Director C.A. Cooper on the Screenwriting Process, Building Dread, and Alternate Endings

January 7th just saw the theatrical and On Demand release of  C.A. Cooper’s psychological horror/thriller The Snare, which we praised as “90 minutes of disorienting dread.”

Starring Eaoifa Forward, Dan Paton, Rachel Warren, The Snare follows, “three friends headed to the seafront for a drunken weekend, only to be imprisoned on the top floor of their holiday apartment by a malevolent paranormal force.”

To celebrate the film’s introduction to American audiences, we spoke with screenwriter/director C.A. Cooper about storytelling, his writing process, and the darlings he had to kill for the sake of the narrative. Check it all out below.

 

C.A. Cooper Dan Paton Rachel Warren The Snare Horror Film 2017
Director C.A. Cooper onset with Rachel Warren and Dan Paton

 

The Snare is your first full-length feature film, and you’ve written, directed and produced it. But you’re no stranger to storytelling, you’ve been making films since you were 14 with a camcorder. What kind of stories are you drawn to?

I’m drawn to content whereby, once you’ve experienced it, it makes you see the world in a different way. Stuff that affects you long after it’s over, and makes you feel changed by it in some way or another.

When watching the movie, I caught vibes of everything from Alice in Wonderland to The Shining to Japanese horror films like Ringu running throughout. What was the inspiration for The Snare? Did it start with a setting, a character and grow from there?

It absolutely began with the setting. The apartment that’s seen in the film and the area where the film takes place, by the coast, all of that, it’s all a real place. So yeah, I’ve been there a few times, and I’d always have a funny feeling about the apartment. And I’d kind of start thinking, you know, it’d be interesting if it really was haunted. It was just a weird place, and it kind of reminded me of The Shining, so it got me thinking about it.

In terms of Alice, that kind of developed over time. When developing her character, I knew that something happened to Alice, there was something very wrong deep down. Something that was making her feel the way she does in the film. It was a process of discovery, really. I remember that there was a point about three-quarters of the way through the process of writing the first draft where everything came together: “Oh my God, she’s been sexually abused!” That became the core of it, and then I started to notice things dotted all over the story elsewhere that pointed towards that. I’d think, “Oh, okay, here’s why she has such anxiety when she’s around other men and why she’s so awkward around Carl.” It just all sort of clicked into place at that point and I then rewrote the screenplay with that in mind, after I discovered what it was really about.

Absolutely, I noticed that every interaction Alice had with men in the film was unsettling.

Yeah, exactly, that’s what I noticed too as I was developing the story, and I literally got to a point where I thought, “Ah, THAT’S why she’s behaving that way and that’s why she’s so funny around men.” Writing has always been like that for me. There’ll be an aspect of a character which I don’t fully understand yet and I know there will be something there, an experience they’ve had, something that makes them tick, a trigger that defines their intricacies and is connected with all the anxieties that they have. With Alice, it was the same thing: knowing that there’s something there, something wrong but not knowing exactly what it was until I’d reached a certain point in the development where everything connected. I kind of like that, going into a story and not having all of the answers to begin with. Exploring things about your characters as you develop it, looking at how those characters might respond to certain situations and exploring it.

The claustrophobic nature of this story demands great characters, which it does very well. Those of us watching The Snare come to know Alice, Carl, and Liz very, very intimately. What do you feel is the most important aspect of building a character?

When it comes down to it, when you’re writing a story, you want conflict. So, Alice came first. I thought, who would be someone that Alice wouldn’t want to be trapped in an apartment with for an extended period of time? That’s where Carl came from. I tried to ensure that each character, at their core, had some sort of defining major flaw. Something that would trigger conflict with the others. Carl, for instance, is a really slimy sort of womanizer. He gets off on the idea of going on the trip with the two women so he can get high and fool around with the both of them, regardless of his relationship status. Lizzy’s flaw is superficiality. She just wants to have a good time and show off. They don’t have a signal or network in the film, but you know she’s just someone who’d be busy on social media, tapping away (on her phone) broadcasting her social life to all her friends. There were actually a few scenes cut from the film that went into that a bit more, like scenes showing Lizzy’s image deteriorating and how that affected her mentally. She’s a very vain person. For me, that realism was important. They’re all a group of people who you’d see in a social scenario, people who might be okay in small doses to go for a drink with, but you know if they were confined together for an extended period they would definitely clash. Their personality flaws would be magnified to an extreme. 

The main character in The Snare, Alice, is dealing with some serious issues from her past. The film itself seemed to be a meditation on the effects of trauma on the psyche. Was there any research on your part when creating that character?

The short answer is yes. It came in phases, I knew from the beginning that she was depressed and there were a lot of complex things going on with her, but I didn’t know what there were at the time. So it was an ongoing process and once I realized that it was the sexual abuse that triggered her trauma, I spoke with people who I knew had been similarly abused and got their perspective, in an effort to bring some authenticity to Alice and her development as a character. A friend of mine is also a psychiatrist and so I talked to him about Alice and what happened to her, so he advised me on how her state of mind might be and what she might suppress and how she might suppress it. Myself and Stuart Nurse, the actor who plays the father and Eaoifa Forward (Alice) created this whole extensive backstory for Alice: when did the abuse begin? How old was Alice when it started? Does it still go on now? How frequent is it? What does Alice do now if he tries to initiate the abuse?  We spent quite a lot of time on that because it was important to us because, like you said earlier, the story is a kind of meditation on that topic.

Speaking of the cast, you’ve been described by the actors and crew as a bit of a perfectionist, doing take after take until the result is to your satisfaction. Is there anything that didn’t make it into the script/film? Were there any darlings you had to kill?

Yeah, we actually shot various different versions of the ending to see what felt right. So (SPOILER ALERT) when Alice returns home at the end of the film, most audience members thus far have assumed that things go back to the way they were and that the abuse from her father continued. But the original ending of the film actually had Alice murdering her father.

Now that’s what I thought she was going to do, as she trudged back to her home! It could still be speculated that she does that eventually, it’s just not shown onscreen.

Exactly. The (discarded) ending was intended to show that she had grown and changed as a result of her experiences in the apartment. Ultimately we pulled away from that in an effort to be more ambiguous. So now, when that door closes in the final moment of the film, it can be read a number of ways, as we don’t see what happens once the door is closed. Things may have gone back to the way they were with no real change, or perhaps Alice decides to fight back one day like she did with Carl in the apartment.

There were lots of scenes that were also pulled because they didn’t sit right with the, mood, tone and atmosphere we were trying to create and maintain throughout the film. We’d often ask, “Would you see a scene like this in The Shining or The Exorcist?” If the answer was no, then the scene was usually cut. There was an extended sequence where they try to lower each other down the balconies so they can climb down the side of the building to escape. It played out like a sort of fun action sequence, but ultimately felt off-tone. We’d been building this atmosphere of dread, and we got to this scene, and the whole thing suddenly slipped into an action movie. We felt the audience would dial out and both the atmosphere and sense of dread would be compromised. The scene stayed in the edit for a really long time but was literally cut days before finishing the film as we knew that it would ultimately have to go.

It sounds like you made a good choice, difficult as it might have been. What are the worst and best parts of the screenwriting process for you?

I find the initial development of ideas to be the most challenging part for me. What I tend to do is I try to clash things together until I find something that excites me. When I find something that excites me I’ll start toying with it until it works within a short paragraph, and I try to discipline myself to the point where if it doesn’t work as a single sentence, it won’t work as a film. I have a fear that I’ll miss a fatal flaw in an idea that was apparent from the beginning and will end up hitting problems much further down the line that could have been addressed much more easily at the beginning of the process. I try to be disciplined in the early stages to make sure that something is really working in a basic form before I develop it further. Once I feel I’ve got a strong idea, the rest of the process for me is then mostly problem solving, which is something that comes more naturally for me. The hardest part is always trying to walk that fine line. Trying to come up with something that’s original, but not inaccessible. But once I’ve got something that works in its most basic form, then I’ll feel much more comfortable exploring it in greater depth and sinking much more time into it.

When telling a scary story, what’s the most important part of building dread?

What I did was try to explore that myself, by repeatedly re-watching The Shining and The Exorcist during the early stages of writing. Really. I found that EVERYTHING has to work: the core idea, the execution of that idea through the screenplay, the performances, the lighting, the makeup, all of it. If you compromise any bit of it, it won’t work. Every compromise you make chips away at the overall impact. In The Shining, the atmosphere was what made it work so well for me, and I tried to do a similar thing with atmosphere in The Snare. Photographic composition is very important for me and contributes largely to the overall atmosphere so should never be compromised. It all had to feel consistent, which brings me back to those scenes that ultimately didn’t make it to the final film. Anything inconsistent with the tone, the atmosphere, it was cut.

You seem to be quite comfortable within the genre, will you be staying with horror in your future films? What are you working on now?

Yes, I think so. Not exclusively, though. Moving forward, I’m working on several projects, two of which are horror. The other is more of a psychological thriller, but has a dark tone with and a few horror elements and influences in places. All three are still in the writing stage, but I’m collaborating with screenwriters on all of them this time. Moving forward, I’d like to be slightly more removed from the writing process. I find it becomes so difficult to remain objective when writing, directing and producing at the same time. I also find it to be a faster and more efficient process when collaborating with others as opposed to working alone.

Alright, I’m gonna wrap this up by asking a question that divides writers everywhere. Outlining before writing: yay or nay?

Ah, that’s tough. For me, it depends on the project. Sometimes when I’m developing something, I’ll plan out every moment on index cards and will write up a story treatment in a very structured way, and I’ll delay the actual screenwriting process for as long as possible until everything is outlined. But sometimes, other projects manifest rapidly and I can visualize the entire film beat by beat, and I just have to write to get it out. I tend to find this happens a lot less often, and I typically lean towards planning more often than not. I’m not too strict about it though, sometimes I’ll come up with a scene halfway through a pre-planned screenplay which takes the story off in a completely different direction and this is something I usually like to explore. I wouldn’t recommend being absolute about it; pre-planning can give you structure, but it can be fun to just explore and see where the story takes you.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk horror and writing. Looking forward to the release over here in January!

Thanks for having me, this was great.

 

 

The Snare is out nationwide in select theaters and On Demand now.

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