Persona Cracked is a series that explores the intersection of artists, their work, and social media. My next guest, Peter Malone Elliott, lives in Brooklyn and works as the director of operations for Book Pipeline, a discovery platform designed to connect writers worldwide with publishers, agents, and the film/TV industry.
Peter wrote the screenplay for Wired Shut, a home-invasion thriller released in November 2021, which he produced with partner and director, Alexander Sharp. Wired Shut follows a famous novelist, Reed Rodney (played by Blake Stadel), who is recovering from reconstructive jaw surgery when Reed’s estranged daughter (portrayed by Natalie Sharp) arrives at his mountain home and forces him to face a life-threatening secret.
When I watched this film, I was reminded of the claustrophobic anxiety, fear, and paranoia I felt when I first saw Misery. Could you tell me about what inspired this story?
Thank you! Misery was certainly an inspiration for this. To be honest, it all started when Alex and I watched Cape Fear (1991) for the first time together on a Thanksgiving holiday. We were a couple of years out of film school, and we had done a short film together, but we were really chomping at the bit to try and tackle a feature. So that was percolating in the back of our minds when we sat down to watch Cape Fear. I had never seen anything quite like it—it walks such a brilliant tight rope of heightened, uber-stylized tone, psychologically complex character work, and a slow-burn narrative structure that crescendos to a frenetic climax. After it finished, we both turned to each other (with essentially the same expression on our faces) and said, “Let’s do something like this, yeah? Yeah? Great. Cool.” So, that was the jumping off point.
We also knew that there were limitations on what we were going to be able to achieve, practically speaking. It had to be something in one location, with limited characters, and not a lot of dialogue—a film that realistically could be shot for not a lot of money and a (very) small crew. Alex and I are both huge fans of the home-invasion thriller genre—things like Panic Room, Hush, and Rear Window are staples for us, master classes in slow-burn, crackling suspense. And there’s nothing more terrifying than not feeling safe in your own home, right? But we wanted to find a unique point of view into the home-invasion trope—a spin that would make it feel fresh to audiences. Admittedly, we were having some trouble cracking it. Then, someone in my life told me that she was going to be getting major reconstructive jaw surgery, her mouth would be wired shut for weeks, and that she wouldn’t be able to talk. And that’s when the light bulb went on…and Alex and I were off to the races.
In addition to the film’s slow-burning suspense, I was comically relieved by the humor played out at times by the actors, their characters, and dialogue. What do you think was gained story-wise by making sure your thriller was not just unnerving, but also amusing?
I’m so glad that you found moments of it funny! It was a very conscious decision to inject little bits of humor throughout the script. I’m very much of the opinion that, even in the darkest of stories, there MUST be some moments of levity—even if they are super subtle. If a piece is unrelentingly dark every single minute of every single scene, it loses its vibrancy and feels flat. After all, if a painting was the exact same color on every inch of canvas, you probably wouldn’t find it very interesting, right? It’s all about adding different shades, textures, and nuances that complement and elevate one another. And I think those moments of comedic respite mixed with the thriller-tension achieved that—although, granted, I am a bit biased!
The story’s minimalist setting and overall modern, to-the-point aesthetic felt to me a lot like a Soderbergh film. How would you describe the atmosphere you are trying to evoke with your particular style of noir?
A massive influence, in terms of visual aesthetic, for Alex and Martin (our wonderful director of photography) was Ozark, but he would be able to speak to that better than I would. For me, it was all about immersing the viewer in a perpetual sense of sparseness and claustrophobia. That’s why we started the film with Reed capturing the spider in the glass, a visual motif that mirrors how trapped and isolated Reed feels—and thus the audience, too. In every single scene, I wanted to, slowly but surely, tighten the proverbial grip the film had on the audience’s neck. That feeling—that immeasurable sense of impending, creeping dread—was the only way that the third act and all its glorious frenzy was going to land.
Also, the heart of the film, even amidst its genre trappings, is a father-daughter story. It’s about two people who desperately want to reconnect with one another, but for various emotional (and physical) reasons cannot bring themselves to do so. By putting two characters with such a frayed relationship in a life-or-death scenario, my goal was for it to serve as a crucible—they had to work together, and thus start the healing process, or they wouldn’t survive the night. A recurring theme throughout most of my work is familial trauma and how characters choose to cope (or not) with it. And, hopefully, with Wired Shut, I was able to explore that theme through Reed and Emmy in a cinematic, entertaining fashion.
In the capacity I know you—leading writing discussions on Twitter under the hashtag #pipelineauthors—you always strike me as calm and collected. Poised. Can you describe the process how Wired Shut was financed and organized? Was there ever a point before, during, or after production when you grabbed the hair on your head and screamed, “What the hell am I doing?”
Oh gosh—that was happening…all the time. This was a complete crash-course in all aspects of filmmaking for me. The script was finished in late 2018, and we were lucky enough to raise the money we needed through a combination of private equity and crowdfunding. The original goal was to shoot in Summer 2019—thus taking a good six months or so for pre-production. But then the location we wanted fell into our laps with a very specific window: two weeks in March 2019. And it wasn’t going to be available any other time. So, we took a deep breath and…dove in headfirst. Alex and I did everything ourselves (budgeting, assembling a crew, coordinating equipment rentals, facilitating the production design, casting, etc.) in a two-month window. It was…a vast undertaking to say the least. I have such respect for line producers now in a way that’s hard to articulate. I never want to fill out film production insurance paperwork again. Ever. Ugh.
It was truly a pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps endeavor, which is something that extended itself on-set during production. Alex and I each had several different jobs we were doing (in addition to our director, writer, and producer hats) simultaneously at all times while shooting. Just check our IMDB page! But honestly, as intense as it was, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. And while I don’t know if I would want to necessarily do all of it again, I am such a better writer for it—the experience has informed every single script I’ve done since.
You’ve mentioned in your posts that you’ve completed a novel and will soon be looking to publish it. What can you tell us about this story? Are you finding your voice? Is it also noir? Between screenwriting and novel writing, which form do you prefer to express yourself?
I have indeed! It is currently out on submission to agents. The title is Blue Ridge. It’s a psychological thriller set in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains about a man who is framed for the murder of his identical twin brother that plays out over three different time periods. Writing in a gritty, Southern voice made my heart happy—I’m a Virginia native, so it was, in a lot of ways, a return to my roots.
Writing a book and penning a screenplay are COMPLETELY different experiences, which I found both challenging and exciting. Crafting a novel is much more of a marathon as opposed to the sprint-like endeavor that is screenwriting. Blue Ridge took me a year to complete, while most scripts take me somewhere around 3-6 months. So that was probably the toughest aspect of the process—keeping the momentum of the narrative thread fresh in my head for that extended period of a time. And, through writing Blue Ridge, I’ve discovered that I love the two mediums equally! So much so that I’ve decided that I want to continue toggling back and forth between them. Some might say that’s unorthodox—and I guess it is to a point—but screw it. Nobody got anywhere by playing it safe, right?
Thank you for sharing your story!
Ryan Hyatt, February 21, 2022