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What does it take to be a professional writer – an interview with screenwriter Jeff Howard

Whether it’s a family movie night, or watching a comedy show with your friends, visual entertainment has always been something that brings people together. It can be an influence on who you are and who you grow up to be. But who is behind those movies? Who is the creator of those TV shows that we all love? Screenwriters provide the fundamental pieces that tell the story for a film or television series. 

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Jeff Howard, screenwriter and producer. (Photo from IMDb)

As part of my interview project, I was able to talk to Jeff Howard, a screenwriter and producer that has worked on many horror themed films and tv shows. His work includes Ouija: Origin of Evil, Oculus, Gerald’s Game, and The Haunting of Hill House, a Netflix Original Series. Howard decided to pursue screenwriting because of a “lifelong love of movies and television.” Howard began his career as a pastry chef, but he “wasn’t passionate about it,” and decided to pursue his true passion of screenwriting. Howard started out writing comedies until he met Mike Flanagan, a screenwriter and director, and together they proceeded to work on horror projects.

His most recent work, The Haunting of Hill House is a Netflix series about a family that suffered from a paranormal experience as children. Now that they are adults, the paranormal events and spirits begin to reappear, making them relive what happened to them at Hill House.

Jeff Howard was one of seven writers for the ten episodes in the Netflix series. We talked about the process of writing the show and how it all started. He stated that, “We (the writers) all sat in a room together for a couple months and just broke out everything…you know, like we broke out every episode and everything that would happen in every episode.”

For the first season, it took around twelve weeks planning the episodes, then four days to write the actual episodes. Once the script was completed, the next step was filming. When asked if the script ever changed while filming, Howard stated, “Everything changes a lot of times, usually it’s for money.” For example, Howard said that they created four sections explaining the backgrounds of the different ghosts in the show, but because of financial reasons, it was cut from the final product. Even though some parts of the script were cut, Howard was able to include real moments from his childhood, in the show.

He shared with me that in the second episode, there was a scene where the children are taking care of a litter of kittens, and then one day they realized the kittens had died. Howard said that it really happened to him and his sister as kids. He realized later that he never told his sister about the inclusion of the event in the show, until she called him one day surprised that the worst moment of her childhood, was on screen.

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Howard gave some insights about screenwriting and how to create certain aspects of a project. For example, his method of creating a show, and the steps he takes to get to the script. He starts with a three-page outline, then a 10 to 12-page outline, and then before the script he writes “something that’s about 20-25 pages long.” Also he discussed creating a good character, and how “you should stick to you and what you know.” Howard recited an old playwright adage, saying, “If you want the audience to cry, first you have to cry yourself,” and that you have to get emotionally involved with what you are creating.

You can’t say you want to be a writer, you have to be a writer.

Mr. Dan Peightel

He explained how you have to get used to the idea that all people won’t like your work, and that “most of your life you spend rewriting things.” To get another view about what it’s like and what it takes to be a successful writer, I sat down with Mr. Dan Peightel, who is a published author. We talked about his experience as a writer and if he had any trade secrets to developing a successful story. “I don’t think any form of writing is easy…Thomas Mann said, ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’” Mr. Peightel added. 

Howard has been working on a action-comedy project in the past year. Also he just finished a “writers room” for another Netflix series called Midnight Mass, with Mike Flanagan who is directing the episodes in March. He added that this series is based off a small town in Maryland – Tangier Island. Meanwhile The Haunting of Hill House, season two, is in production, with a new title, The Haunting of Bly Manor.

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Season Two cover art.

Whether you are an author, a poet, or a screenwriter, there will be struggle. Even Mr. Peightel believes it’s not easy to be a writer. “You can’t say you want to be a writer, you have to be a writer. And that means you have to write and have to sit by yourself and write.” So when you are watching your favorite movie or television show, or you are in binging on a new show over the weekend, keep in mind those responsible for things that will stick with us forever. Remember those who write time and time again to create a new world for us to enjoy through watching.

Ethan Webber is a sophomore member of the Multimedia Journalism class, and a member of The Quill.

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