Penner, Storyteller

The Bye Bye Man’s Jonathan Penner talks about his love of horror, surviving Hollywood, and the joys of making terrible things happen to nice people.

Photo: ©2016 STX Productions
Douglas Smith in The Bye Bye Man.
January 20, 2017 Written by Deb Loftis
Jonathan Penner

Somebody was telling me...‘You put your foot on their neck [in a horror movie] and you never take it off.’ And I’m like, ‘That sounds awfully uncomfortable. That’s not my idea of a good movie…sitting there for two hours with somebody’s foot on my neck?’

Tomorrow is Friday the 13th, and Jonathan Penner is excited. His movie The Bye Bye Man is about to go wide, and if the filmmakers are lucky, the word of mouth alone will literally slay audiences. Because, when you say, or even hear, his name, the Bye Bye Man has you. Your mind is his. He preys on your deepest fears and exploits your flaws, until you can’t tell the difference between the actual and the illusory. Then the bodies start piling up. And that makes Penner happy, especially when it’s funny, too.

The Bye Bye Man, an adaptation of Robert Damon Schneck’s short story “Bridge to Body Island,” is simultaneously familiar and new territory for the aptly named Penner. He’s a longtime horror fan and genre expert who co-authored Taschen’s Horror Cinema. Stacy Title, his wife of 25 years and frequent writing partner, directs the film. Plus, as a three-time contestant and fan favorite on CBS’ Survivor, he has an edge on separating reality from fiction when the Bye Bye Man comes calling.

What’s new is that, for the first time in Penner’s career, he has a movie opening on 2,220 screens. A producer, filmmaker, and actor, he’s no stranger to the life of a “working writer,” but this is something special. Bus shelter ads, national commercials, celebrating at Musso & Frank before the L.A. media screening and Q&A—that doesn’t happen every day.

Penner spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about his life as a storyteller, what a gift it is to work collaboratively, and the joys of making terrible things happen to nice people.

You’re a steadily working writer but not one you see on every magazine cover.

Yeah, that’s true. I mean, people sort of say that to me. It’s funny, [Survivor Executive Producer] Mark Burnett was, “You’re a writer? How come I’ve never heard of you?" And I said, “Well, it’s not for want of trying, Mark.” I’m a working writer. I mean, like R&D. Hollywood has, for better or worse—and maybe this is changing—an atmosphere [where] working writers will come up with an idea, and somebody supports them, and for whatever reason, it may not come to fruition. I gotta tell you, I’m in my mid-50s, and this is the first time that I have had those bus shelter [ads]. This is the first time that I’ve had a wide release of a movie I wrote. As an actor, I had some of those movies earlier in my career. But this is like a dream come true. And it’s not like I stopped trying for a couple of years and came back to it. You know, I’ve been at this trying and supporting my family and having a wonderful time and career, and finally, and hopefully not for the last time, I’m in this position. By the time everyone reads this…the movie will have opened, and maybe even opened and closed, I don’t know—but I’m certainly trying to enjoy every minute of the ride towards an opening night on 2,500 screens nationwide, and worldwide—it’s playing in theaters in almost every country around the world.

Can you talk about the development process behind making the…I don’t actually want to say the words The Bye Bye Man, but I just did, so now we’re all doomed.

The development process came from Trevor Macy, who’s a dear, old friend of ours, and a very successful producer. He had this property. It was almost five years ago that we had those initial conversations. It’s interesting—five years ago, the things that we proposed might have not been as well trod. Some of the elements of the Bye Bye Man story itself were more unique. There’s this séance, for instance. There are these college kids, who move into a new house, and Paranormal Activity had already come out, and we were really in the shank of [that] string of movies. I’m not just talking about that franchise; there’s Insidious, and there’s Sinister, and there’s The Conjuring. Many of those pictures hadn’t come out yet, certainly hadn’t been “sequelized” yet. We were really just right there with our fingers on the pulse of what was quite exciting in horror at that time, but as we developed it, we watched things were working on show up in other movies, and we’d be like, "Shit!" And we’d sort of change it, or we’d be like, “Well, that’s what the movie’s about. You have a séance, we’ll have a séance." So the development took quite a bit of time for us.

You talked at the media screening about having mostly nice characters.

I was quite determined, hopeful to make a movie that didn’t have any bad guys besides the Bye Bye Man. I thought it was important to make all the characters as identifiable as possible, and have the audience understand that they were all being worked on, and that their worst selves were being encouraged. That’s what turns them on each other: the influence of the Bye Bye Man, and nothing that they were doing. Through no fault of their own, it was just their own small weaknesses that he could find, like, chinks in their armor, and start to play and prey upon them.

Like jealousy for [Douglas Smith’s character] Elliot?

We worked on that, and there’s a sequence in the end, the climax that the picture builds to, that I had an idea about based on the way the Bye Bye Man operates, like the ultimate version of his evil…to build to that sequence, so that the audience could understand it. Because that was something that I’d never seen in a movie before, and I thought was an interesting, fun, diabolical way to operate on his victims. There’s certainly no great, deep message to the movie. My favorite horror movies that work on quite metaphoric and thematic levels are Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, or The Fly, you know, these classic movies; but given the material that we had to work with, the original story, we decided that we would play a little bit differently and not be quite so profoundly thematic. The other thing that those movies, and that all of my favorite horror movies have in common, is that they’re all so funny and wildly entertaining. It’s up to the audience to decide to what degree we succeeded in that way, but we didn’t want to make just a grim, killing machine kind of movie. We wanted an entertainment that had suspense, terror, horror, humor, sensuality, all of those things, and we had a hell of a lot of fun making the movie. I had a ball writing it, trying to find what would make the audience jump, or make the audience go "Ew!" or make the audience go, "Holy shit, no!" and showing them to Stacy, and [hearing] either, "That’s wonderful" or "Are you insane? That’s awful." Or, "I’m not going to shoot that, that’s disgusting. That’s really way too far."

You and your wife Stacy usually write as a team. How did you end up with this division of labor?

I’ve been blessed to have a partner in life and in work. We’ve been married for 25 years, and we’ve worked together that whole time. We’ve produced together, and I’ve often acted in movies, too; I have a small part in [this] movie. So this time she said, "I’m going to get all the credit as the director, and you write this one." She was able to keep her eye strictly on the directing of it, and I was able to be there kibitzing and help as a creative producer and as an on-set writer. And, I mean, what a gift. I was there for every meeting and for every minute. It’s really just unbelievably fun.

I was going to ask if you got to give feedback as the writer and producer, or were they, just, like “You be Mr. Daizy [Penner’s role in the film] and just be cute and be quiet.”

No, keeping me quiet is very difficult, as you’ve probably now realized, but no. Stacy is quite an extraordinary person, and as a director, she is smart and competent enough, but she always says, “I don’t know where a good idea is going to come from… if you have a good idea I want to hear it. It’s up to me to decide if it’s going to be in the movie or not, but please don’t be shy.” Which makes for an incredibly collaborative, fun atmosphere, right? Everybody’s invested, and everybody’s watching out to do the best they can. And so, people love her as a leader and as a director, and people feel very, very free to collaborate, which is the most fun way to work, instead of in a dictatorial way. I was lucky enough to be a part of that, and usually what I would say is, “You know, when I wrote it, it was supposed to be funny,” or “When I wrote it, I didn’t think it was funny. So, if you don’t want it to be funny, we might have to come up with something else.” Once in a while, I would think of a shot, or something she hadn’t thought of, but for the most part, I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

With regards to the humor, what was written in and what organic during the shoot?

Almost all of it was written in…Stacy and I are dedicated to trying to [create] people that are as real as possible, especially when the situation is so outlandish; the fact that the movie’s called, The Bye Bye Man, it’s insane. So you want people who are going to behave in a real way, and the truth is that most people, and certainly people who are talking [to] people that they are comfortable with, make jokes, and have fun. And the other thing is, if you’re faced with something outrageous, you often will deal with it a humorous way. Like [the] Cleo King [character, Ms. Watkins], has a great line…or she delivers it great, "Well, obviously he was batshit crazy." She just teed up and just launched that line, but the audience is feeling the same way. So if you have a character who is saying the same, “I can’t believe what I’m going through…This is fucking crazy,” the audience goes along with the ride much more than if you pretend that what you’re going through is not out of this world…it helps the audience to feel that they can laugh and scream, and that these are real people that they get invested in. Somebody was telling me, “You can’t do that, in a horror movie. You put your foot on their neck and you never take it off.” And I’m like, “That sounds awfully uncomfortable. That’s not my idea of a good movie…sitting there for two hours with somebody’s foot on my neck?” They’re going to scream and jump anyway if you do it right. They’re going to be scared, and we’re going to get them to think about things that are really scary and suspenseful, but if you can make them laugh and have a good time in the movies while you’re doing it, how could that be bad?

And, like you said, you like the characters and you care about what happens to them.

These are not drips or killing machines. These are people that have relationships and sense of humor, like everybody that anybody loves. There’s nobody that’s loved in the world that does not have a sense of humor.

You have a background in horror as a writer and aficionado, but you as the screenwriter, what’s your process, what do you like to write, how do you create?

I love to sit and write. The hardest thing is really getting tucked away, quiet enough, for long enough, that you can just let the characters start to talk. I tend to write long. I probably write for every 100 page script, a 200 page script. Not in one go, but what happens is, I’ll write, and it feels great, and the next day I go back to reread what I’ve written, and most of it is junk. Most of it is getting you to the core of the scene. A lot of it is what we call “clearing your throat.” Then the scene really ends, but you kept writing, and you realize, “Oh, there’s one line in the extra page or two that you wrote that you need.” So I’m constantly refining and refining, and cutting away. I’ve done it for long enough to know that that really is at least my process. I never just write a perfect draft of a scene, but there is that—I don’t know how other writers do it—but there’s that spark or that image, or what the scene wants to be. There’s some core, fun thing that comes to you, and then you try to write the best version of that. Usually that stays. Like that last sequence, it changed, of course, but for the most part, that is what I had in my mind. So, my craft, I try not to use “ing”—I try to use “s” more than “ing” for my verbs, make them as active as possible, and I just really try to write…scripts that are page turners. I don’t know if that makes them good movies, but I like to make them good reads. Was that crafty enough?

Unless you have a shtick that you do—you have to be sitting in a special room, drinking your fizzy water, with something…

No, I have an incredibly boring writer’s life. I am lucky enough to have an office in my house. It’s about the size of a converted closet, which is what it is. I get up, I have my breakfast, and I go downstairs. I probably spend 10 minutes too long on my email, Facebook, Twitter, whatever—I clear those decks, and I just dive back in and find very quickly I can get into the flow of things. Whether what I write is good or not—most of it isn’t—but I like to think that I have a hard enough eye that I can say, “That ain’t very good,” and cut it on a rewrite or on a revision.

On Survivor, you famously said, “I’m, like, a storyteller, that’s what I do.” And now you’re stuck with that quote forever.

Well, that’s what I do.

What’s the difference between the kind of storytelling you do as a writer, and the kind that happens in “reality,” and do you have control over it as a participant?

We can talk about it on a couple of different levels. Knowing TV storytelling structure, I was able to think about the season of Survivor in a three act structure. And it’s absolutely structured that way. The 16 hours are put together in three acts with a midpoint and plot points, and all that stuff—the merge, and the fake merge, and all of the elements that they have, and I was able to think about myself as the hero of that story, and say, “Okay, where am I in my narrative? If I’m going to survive for 40 days, day 10 is the end of the first act, and here we’re about to take a turn.” I was able to really think about it in that way, and see what they were going to do next. I knew that twists were coming, when they were coming, things like that. So that was very helpful. As a person in the industry, as a writer and a producer, I certainly had insight into how the show was being put together behind the scenes that other players might not have had, much to the producers’ chagrin. For instance, if you sing a famous song, then they can’t use it, because they’re not going to pay for the musical rights, right? So, whenever they’d piss me off, I’d start singing The Beatles. So, I mean, that’s a little bit of the power that—you don’t have a lot of power, they have the right to film you 24/7—but I always felt like, “You guys are fucking with us now so let’s put a stop to that and talk about how we can work together on this thing,” you know, if I felt they were taking advantage of us, treating us like chattel.

As a person, people would say, “Well, your character is this.” Of course, there is casting. They needed a middle-aged guy, and this is classic on Survivor; there’s usually a middle-aged urban person or urbane person, there’s also a middle-aged nutty kind of person, and there’s sometimes a middle-aged ex-jock, and there’s the sweet mom…They have these characters that are classic variations on that theme, almost every season. So, I was cast, because, whatever they thought I was—I still don’t know, I wasn’t a kid any more—but I do like to tell stories, and so that was something that they responded to. They never said, “You’re our narrator. Narrate good.” I would just talk the way I’m talking to you, for better or for worse, and they were able to get enough sound bites that they seemed to go to me. Or they seemed to feel that I could contextualize what was my experience, and what was happening around me in a way that made sense for the audience. So they started to use that. It’s not that I said, “Cast me, and I’ll be a good storyteller for you.” It’s just they cast me, and that’s what I wound up doing. On the show itself, I just did the best I could and had as much fun as I could, and that’s all you can do really. I never assumed any kind of role, I never tried to behave in any way I wouldn’t have normally. You’re getting an example of that, so I don’t know, you tell me.

People will always say, “You can’t really hide your true self once you go on those kinds of shows,” although sometimes people try.

Yeah, they try; it’s very, very stupid to do that. It rarely works out for them. It was never interesting to me, although, I said that I was a writer…At that point, certainly I was better known as an actor [but] I didn’t broadcast that I was, “Yeah! I was on a series for a couple of years. Yeah, I did this, that and the other; I did a couple of movies.” Nobody recognized me, which was why I guess I moved out of acting. It didn’t stop CBS from casting me, even though I’d been on a CBS series. So, I did hide that I was a “Hollywood screenwriter,” not because I was a famous or certainly wealthy screenwriter, but people think that you are…In the world, the idea of a “Hollywood screenwriter,” [they think,] “You must be rich! Even though I’ve never heard of any of your movies or seen anything you ever wrote, you must be.” So I said, “Oh, I wrote a couple of things, and I’m working on a thing, and I wrote a couple of magazine articles.” I don’t know if they believed me. Most of them didn’t read anyway. So, they didn’t know.

But, you are a “Hollywood screenwriter,” and now you have a wide release.

Well, that’s great. I don’t know what to say. I have no words of wisdom except, “Keep going.” You’ve gotta be in it to win it if you can afford to. If you can literally afford the money or the time to hang in there; I’m not saying it will happen, but it can happen. Whatever happens to the movie, I can—and it’s not even ego—I can finally kind of look myself in the mirror and say, “Wow, you had a movie that had that happen, that had hundreds of people and millions of dollars supporting it.” It just thrills me, honestly. It’s quite extraordinary.

© 2017 Writers Guild of America West

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