“Write fearlessly, collaborate with your director as if you two are the only ones who will ever read or see this story, and it allows you to be brave.”
With What Josiah Saw dropping on Shudder this week, we sat down with writer Robert Alan Dilts to discuss his screenplay for one of the standout horror films of the year…
What Josiah Saw is your first feature screenplay to be shot. What was that journey like from writing to production and beyond?
There was a lot of waiting at the onset. I think patience is probably a writer’s best tool for maintaining sanity. I knew this wasn’t a spec script and it wasn’t a work for hire. It’s an impossible pitch, this story. Luckily, I knew where it was going from the start and from script to screen took over 7 years. A whole lot of ‘no’s’ and some ‘there is no way we can be a part of this’ were the norm early on. The story scared a lot of people and I get that. Vince Grashaw, the film’s director, is a bulldog though and kept pushing onward. The movie was financed twice and both times fell through. Each time something like that happens, it’s a dagger in the heart.
The 7 years was a blessing though. It allowed Vince and I to really get a grasp on what kind of story we wanted to tell. I have 11 or 12 drafts of the script, the early ones different from the final shooting script. We laugh because the shocking moments in the finished film are nothing compared to some of the stuff we had in the early incarnations of the script. If one of the early drafts got made, we’d probably never work again. But that’s the process, I guess. Write fearlessly, collaborate with your director as if you two are the only ones who will ever read or see this story, and it allows you to be brave. You can always dial back the story later. The folks at Randomix Productions were looking for something different, something they hadn’t seen before and wanted to make a statement. They were the perfect match so patience paid off.
I wasn’t on set but the production was a bit of a nightmare. The production truck was stolen, the storms set in, everything on the location sunk in the mud and then the freezing cold took over. Vince had a bit of PTSD after the shoot. In the end it paid off and I can’t thank the cast crew enough.
The response to the film has been overwhelming. As a writer you want to at least put something different out there. So, love the film or hate it, both Vince and I as creatives can at least say you’ll be discussing this film after you’ve seen it and that’s all we can hope for.
The film has a really interesting structure, with interlocking chapters that recall multi-narrative films such as Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. How did you arrive at this as a framework for your story?
It was self-preservation really, for both myself and the screenplay. The opening salvo of the film is about Josiah and his son, Thomas. In my real life, I didn’t know my father very well, he left when I was 9 years old. Later in life he fell ill and I became his caretaker. We literally lived in an old farm house surrounded by fields that I had rented. Something very strange happened. I found myself reverting to my 9-year-old self, trying to please my father and gain his respect and saw him as this looming figure. It really messed with my head so I started to write about it. This led to the opening chapter of What Josiah Saw but the story quickly became too personal and I realized I was merely writing the story as therapy for myself. I was adamant about not finishing it.
Vince Grashaw and I have known each other for many years. He is the only person I trust creatively. We are constantly throwing ideas and scripts at one another. He asked what I was working on and I told him about Josiah. I only had 30 pages and sent them but told him I wasn’t going to finish it. 30 pages was all it took. Vince immediately said “we’re making this”, but I didn’t want to go any further on it. He’s persistent though. Finally, I told him I would finish it but I needed to deviate from the father and son story. I wanted to write 3 stories, different in tone, and that I would tie them together in the end. I had the Eli storyline that I was working on as a different script and though it dealt with gypsies and Nazi gold, I thought we could make it work.
You have to be careful as a writer doing this because it isn’t just making the stories tie together in the end. You have to scatter clues throughout the storylines so that everything actually points to the conclusion. Watch the movie a second time and you realize that the answers were always there no matter how different the stories seem.
And you have to be sure you aren’t writing a gimmick in splitting a screenplay into chapters. For Josiah it worked because it allowed us to show how trauma affected this family individually, how their very different lives are still shadowed by the dark cloud that hangs over the Graham family. This was the most important task for me in writing the script and for Vince, directing it.
There are some really weighty themes tackled in the film, such as familial trauma and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. Can you talk about what drew you to these ideas?
Well I think words like trauma and abuse paint a broad stroke. Same as tragedy. I think everyone in some way has experienced tragedy or trauma, no matter how large or small. In many ways, this allows a writer to go as wide on these themes as he or she wants because there’s always the opportunity to have the audience relate no matter how outrageous the story is.
For me, life was not easy and I’ve experienced tragedy and grief on a familial level on a scale a lot of people may not be able to understand. My writing may come off as Faulkner-ish in this regard but it’s how I have been shaped as a writer, through my own experiences. But again, everyone has experienced these things on some level and so it enables a bond to be created between writer and audience. Putting it on paper is one thing, the real trick is having it come across the screen and that’s where Vince really shows his genius. He understood early on the relatability of this story and knew he could connect with the audience.
Which makes me think of something regarding this story and film. I always saw this script as a long walk down a darkened and empty hallway, knowing that when I reached the end something would jump out from the darkness at me. And when that happens, it’s scary. But the real horror is the walk down the hallways. That is What Josiah Saw. The walk down that hallway. Because of the relatability of the story having – hopefully – tapped into something the audience has experienced on some level. As they walk down that hallway, they understand the terror of it.
No spoilers, but the ending lands in a really ambiguous place which is equally uncomfortable and provocative, eschewing easy closure. How important was it for you to avoid tying things up too neatly?
Ha. Yeah, so that. Midway through the screenplay I realized I had to answer the question (no spoilers). Vince asked me as well where it would land. But I kept thinking it could land a few places and when he and I agreed we should do that; the tricky part was writing a story that could be construed in a few different ways and that anyway the audience sees it is correct. Watching a movie should be as creative as making a movie. The audience will see how they choose, discuss and argue over it but in the end, each interpretation can be correct.
I don’t recommend this way of writing unless the story supports it and What Josiah Saw leant itself to this kind of ambiguity. When you settle on this type of storytelling, I think the important thing is to have it all make sense, no matter the interpretation.
What’s next for you?
I have another film called Anatomy that is up and running now and am looking forward to seeing the end product. It’s dark, but unlike Josiah, is ultimately, I hope, beautiful. I’ve been fortunate because of the job Vince and the cast and crew did with Josiah I have several film and television projects in the works and without the job those folks did, I wouldn’t have the opportunities that have presented themselves.
I’ll leave it with this. Trust everyone on the other end of your scripts. It’s hard but when you find creatives who share your vision, then it will lead to more in the future. This I’ve learned. You just need to be patient.
What Josiah Saw is out on Shudder from 4th August 2022. You can read our five star review here.