The Terror Trap had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Arywitz, screenwriter for the excellent 1981 backwoods slasher Just Before Dawn.
The talk proved a pleasurable one, yielding much insight to both the written screenplay versions of Dawn as well as the rocky and tremulous creative path that led to the final filmed version.
The Terror Trap: Mark, what's your background in terms of screenwriting?
Mark Arywitz: It was a process that had a number of transitions. I started out writing in high school, primarily poetry and some short stories. In college, I got involved in film...and those films were more avant garde oriented. They were more "poetry-like."
I graduated in 1975 and came to New York. By that point, I had gradually begun to lose interest in that form of filmmaking and gained interest in a more narrative approach, a more dramatic approach.
TT: Did you ever study screenwriting during your college years?
MA: No, I never really actually studied screenwriting in college. I learned it through the school of hard knocks, if you will. (Laughs.)
TT: Do tell.
MA: In '75, when I moved to New York, I knew people who had been to NYU and were writing scripts. That's what I wanted to try.
TT: What did you write early on?
MA: I wrote a bunch of real turkeys that didn't make any sense. I did not understand the form at all but I learned through failure. I don't think that's really unusual...but it was hard.
I didn't have any real guidance although the people that helped me were talented. Gradually, I worked my way to a script that did make sense - I based it on a real event and that gave me a clear storyline, clear characters...and a clear conflict. That was actually the script that got me the job to write what eventually became Just Before Dawn.
TT: Between your move to New York and your involvement in the film, it was just a few years.
MA: Well, the script that I wrote was called Small Game. A friend of mine had worked with a guy named Joseph Middleton on developing a few projects. Middleton was a guy who was making X-rated movies.
MA: Yes, a little bit reminiscent of some of the characters out of Boogie Nights. He wanted to get out of that and my friend had done some work for him...a treatment or something and he decided he didn't want to go further with it. He asked me if I wanted to check it out.
TT: Was Middleton a screenwriter?
MA: No, he was trying to be a producer. His X-rated history was directing and obviously also producing, since he was raising money for those films.
TT: He's given a writing credit for Dawn at the IMDb.
MA: He shouldn't be listed as a screenwriter. On the credits of the film itself, it says "story by."
TT: What was Small Game about?
MA: Basically, that was based on a kind of hostage drama. There was a shooting incident that took place in Oakland...I believe in the mid '70s. It was based on four guys going hunting with a lot of guns...they get drunk and wind up in an altercation with cops. One of them shoots the cops and suddenly they're on the run. So they take a family hostage as a way to get out of it.
TT: Tell us about The Last Ritual, which we understand is an earlier version of Just Before Dawn.
MA: That was not the original title. It was originally called The Tennessee Mountain Murders. Which almost sounds like a documentary.
I did a treatment for Middleton, which I still have. It's dated 1978. Actually, I want to get this in before I forget because one of you had mentioned an interview you read with Jeff Lieberman, the director...in which he claims he had come up with the idea of the twins.
MA: That's just patently false. I'm looking right now at page eleven of the treatment from 1978 - and there's something about the second mountain man being an identical twin of the first.
TT: That was in your draft of The Tennessee Mountain Murders?
MA: Yes, and then it was in the draft of The Last Ritual as well. In the third draft of Ritual, and my guess is that this is the one that Lieberman saw, in fact there is a graphic page, a kind of title page...with a drawing. I'm not sure who did it - but right there is a picture of two twins.
TT: So this was clearly your idea?
TT: Take us further along the evolution.
MA: Well, it was The Tennessee Mountain Murders and then it began to change and eventually it became The Last Ritual.
TT: What were the differences between the two? The major ones, if you can recall...
MA: Really, that was more structuring. And a character was dropped. Of course, the big difference was that one was in treatment form, written in a prose way. The dialogue was in quotations. The Last Ritual was a full-blown screenplay.
TT: Were there differences in the plot, aside from dropping a character?
MA: Well, there were changes in the order of the scenes.
TT: But the mountain twins were there...
MA: They were there and the last ritual was there. The ritual is a whole situation where the Connie character gets taken by the mountain family and is put through this ritual of snake handling.
And it was an idea I liked a great deal. I'm sorry it did not get done although I can see certain reasons from a "shooting" point of view. You need to get a snake wrangler or something like that. (Laughs.) And maybe the actors don't want to deal with the snakes...but you could get close-ups of hands and you could use other hands.
I think the real reason they dropped the scene is that Middleton kept wanting all this stuff about God in the script.
TT: Like what?
MA: Well, the two things he kept insisting on, no matter what pages I brought him, were that he wanted more dialogue about God...and he wanted to lift any number of things from Deliverance. Those were the two big things that he kept pushing.
I look at the Last Ritual script now and I'm glad the snake scene was dropped. I think the idea was good but I'm glad they dumped it because I was put in a position where I had to write a lot of really forced, messagey, awful dialogue.
TT: For the snake handling scene?
TT: That was the climax?
MA: Oh yeah, big long speeches about God...and another thing, he wanted to call Connie "Constance."
TT: Sounds a little heavy.
MA: It was heavy only if you took it seriously. To me, the message was just so obvious. He made me sell the religious angle too hard. I kept wanting to try and be subtle about it. It wasn't necessarily an idea I liked but there were subtle ways to do it. And he wouldn't buy them. He wanted the stuff really up front and of course...it doesn't really go with the tone of the movie or what the movie was about.
That was a difficult problem. There were big, long speeches...hellfire and brimstone by these mountain crazies who wanted her to pick up the snake and become one of them. If it doesn't bite her, she'll become one of them.
TT: Besides Connie, where is everybody else in this climax? Have they all been killed off?
MA: No. In Last Ritual, Warren is running around getting the ranger. In the original Mountain Murders, there were some land surveyors around because Jonathan's family owns the land. That's who Warren was originally getting...but by the time we got to Ritual, there was a ranger who was just off the property.
TT: So the ending we see in the finished product replaced the snake ritual, correct?
MA: Right. I still like the idea of the snake but I didn't like the speeches. Not only did I have to write fire and brimstone stuff - but I had to write lines of dialogue for Constance having philosophical arguments with the mountain people. "God doesn't want this" - things like that.
So I can't exactly blame Lieberman for getting rid of it. It could have worked if there had been very little dialogue because it was so intense. Having to pick up a poisonous snake was sort of like a version of Russian Roulette.
TT: But the chronology of who's killed and how they're killed...
MA: And who the characters are and what the situation is - that all comes from Middleton and me. The ending, of course, is the huge change. Frankly, I think when Lieberman read about the snake ritual, he said, "This won't work." There's just all this bad dialogue.
Rather than looking at the dramatic possibilities, he just was put off by the dialogue and I don't blame him. But I think there was a way to really reduce the dialogue to practically nothing and make it a very visual and intense kind of scene, intercutting with Warren getting the ranger and then trying to rescue Connie. It could have been a very good scene.
TT: Joseph Middleton received credit for the story. Besides you, there is someone named Gregg Irving who received a writing credit.
MA: I was hired by Middleton, who had a general story, and slasher movies were popular at the time. Plus, it was a way for him to get out of X-rated films. He took story credit but basically, he really should have just taken story idea credit. Not story credit.
We worked out the story together and I wrote the draft. When it came to Picture Media and Lieberman came on board, obviously they wanted to change things. That's just the process. They did it to Shakespeare, so certainly they did it to me. (Laughs.)
TT: What about Irving?
MA: I don't know who Gregg Irving is. I had a hunch that it might have actually been Lieberman because he expressed these ideas in some of the meetings...what he wanted to do with it, what he didn't like and how he wanted to change things.
And those things ended up in the film. He could have gotten another writer but it's also possible that the producers were not guild signatories and so Lieberman couldn't use his own name.
TT: Were those meetings in person or by phone?
MA: There were a couple of conferences, as I recall.
TT: Do you recall the changes that Lieberman wanted to make?
MA: Well, they're mostly there. The biggest one of all is taking the ritual out, of course. I'm not crazy about his ending.
TT: The "knuckle sandwich"?
MA: (Laughs.) Yeah, I didn't find it a very successful ending. I wasn't crazy about what he had done with that although I liked some of his other changes.
TT: Doesn't it make a completion of a journey for Connie though?
MA: Well, her journey was always there. That too was in the original drafts...that she was going to be someone who was originally very peace oriented. That was the Deliverance angle.
Middleton wanted her to be kind and loving to the mountain people and there's a lot more interaction with the them in the original script than there was in the movie. Yet at the same time, by the end, she was gonna realize she had to knuckle down and deal with self-defense.
There's a whole long sequence in the script where there's a fight between the ranger and one of the twins and they roll down a hill. And you can hear one of them die but you don't know which one. So here's the Deliverance rip-off. She had to climb down and find out who died.
And Warren is lying there wounded. It turns out it's the ranger who's dead so now she knows the other guy is lurking around. And she's got to get the gun, climb back up and confront the twin with the gun. So it was always her journey. That was always there. They just changed the way it was done.
TT: It sounds like they tried to encapsulate it into one move.
MA: Yes, they condensed it more. Some of it made more sense because I didn't like the Deliverance rip-off. The climbing down and up like Jon Voight did in that film. But I just didn't buy into the arm down the throat bit. I found it a touch comical.
TT: Well, it's possible to kill someone that way, would you agree?
MA: I don't know. The guy would have to have an awfully large mouth. And in the meantime, while she's got her arm down his mouth, I don't understand why he just sits there and flails around and chokes. As opposed to just taking her head and ripping it off.
TT: Good point.
Did you have any kind of relationship or friendship with Lieberman?
MA: No. I think if I had, maybe things would have been a little different. We had some conferences but there were a lot of people around the conference table. One of my favorite stories is I remember we were sitting there and I was the only writer in the room. There were probably fifteen people and they kept saying they wanted to make a really good movie.
And there was somebody who started talking about "what if someone cut a chicken's head off and the chicken ran around sprinkling blood all over the place?" This suggestion came from the lawyer! So I thought maybe I should go to the window and open it and ask if there's anybody down there on the street who would like to join in on the conference...because obviously it didn't matter who was there. It was just a very funny scene.
TT: So it was a difficult process at that point?
MA: I was working for Middleton. In this situation, he had hired me already to write another script and he wanted to get moving on that. He was not getting along with Lieberman and the whole thing just kind of fell apart. That's where somehow Gregg Irving came in. Whoever he is. So Lieberman and I unfortunately never really got a chance to work together without these other influences.
TT: Have you seen, either by design or by accident, anything else he did?
MA: I think I saw parts of Squirm but I never saw the whole thing. It was around that time. I might have seen it because the guy that optioned my first script Small Game was in some sort of contact with Lieberman.
TT: We're jumping around here a bit...but have you ever seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
MA: Yeah, of course. I had seen that. Sure. That was not really a direct influence though. It was really more indirect. It was in the general sense. There was a market for these low-budget horror movies and for these kinds of killers who were almost nameless and faceless. In The Last Ritual actually, the twins were characterized a lot more. That was another change that Lieberman did. He made them faceless.
TT: It's great how you don't find out there are twins until Megan is killed.
MA: The way they were first shown in my script, and frankly I still like it better than the movie, was on the rope bridge. Jonathan is trapped on the bridge. The one guy slashes him...he starts going the other way and he almost gets to the other side.
All of a sudden, the guy rises up again. Jonathan wonders what the hell is going on. He turns back the other way, starts going in that direction and as he gets towards that end again, somebody rises up and it looks like the same guy.
TT: That's good.
MA: Lieberman's placement of where the revelation should be was good...but I think my scene was better. (Laughs.)
TT: You said earlier that you dropped a character. Was it someone who was important to the story?
MA: There was a character named Eileen. By the time we got to Last Ritual, she was gone. That wasn't Lieberman's change. That was ours. That's why Daniel ended up being a fifth wheel.
TT: Was she supposed to be his girlfriend?
MA: No but there was sort of an attempt at a romance. Daniel was conceived in the screenplay as being heavy...he was chubby. And the others were always trying to match make the two of them. But one of the things that was revealed about Daniel was that he was gay.
MA: Yeah, but they dropped that too. He always had the glasses but they got rid of the rest of it.
TT: The gay aspect would have been an interesting twist. You don't often see gay characters in these types of films.
MA: No - and we thought it was interesting too. The way it's done in the movie, Daniel and Megan don't have time to talk outside the church. Suddenly, the murderer appears. In our script, Megan thinks it's Jonathan and she's trying to make him jealous by coming on to Daniel. It turns out Daniel can't respond and he admits he's gay. And he was also caught prior to that, looking at a muscle man magazine!
TT: Was there anything different about Megan's death in the script?
MA: Actually, the way she dies in the script is that the twins go to the edge of a cliff and they're playing catch with her. They're throwing her back and forth and then one of them drops her. She falls to her death. The twins lack any sensitivity to other human beings. Everything is a toy to them so they kill and it doesn't mean it's murder to them.
TT: Did you spend any time on the set?
MA: No, I did not. By that time, I had moved on to work on another project for Middleton and Gregg Irving had come on the scene...whoever he is.
TT: As the writer, were you curious when it came to casting?
MA: Of course. But at that point, there's a parting of the ways. The script had been sold. It was theirs to do with what they wanted.
TT: Do you have any feelings about the actors in the film?
MA: I'm not sure I had imagined Megan as a redhead. I pictured her more as raven tressed. And Connie was always a blonde.
Daniel is the main change. We envisioned him as a little overweight and that he was also gay...this was something he was hiding. And this came out during the course of the film.
TT: Was Connie the focus in terms of character development? Or did they all have something? Like Daniel had the gay thing.
MA: I guess I would call Connie the protagonist. Warren was very important too because he was seen as somebody who was her opposite. He was out for himself. He almost gets into a fight with Jonathan because Jonathan is this spoiled rich kid. Warren had sort of a working class hero quality about him.
And yet he wasn't quite a hero yet. He was still pretty much selfish and looking out for number one and so when he gets away, we were supposed to think that he never comes back. Of course, he gets the ranger to help them so there is a sign that he had really fallen in love with Connie. He had something of a change in the character arc as well.
Megan was always sort of the cock tease and that didn't change a lot. Jonathan was always the spoiled rich kid. They're a little kinder to him in the movie, maybe because Chris Lemmon played the part.
In the scene where Merry Cat, the daughter of the Logan family, has run off with the make-up and Jonathan is trying to find it and encounters her...in the script, he tried to take advantage of her. In the movie, they reversed the roles and Merry Cat seems to be coming on to him.
TT: And you said there was more development of the family as well.
MA: A lot more. They had names. At one point, Connie is up there with the family and arguing with them on Merry Cat's behalf because Merry is wearing the make-up and Ma and Pa are pissed off. Because it's like the "devil's paint" and this and that. Connie is trying to tell them it's her fault. The parents even cut their daughter's hair off in punishment for the make-up.
TT: In those scenes, are the twins around? Or is it just Merry Cat and Ma and Pa?
MA: In the third draft of the Last Ritual, the one that was actually bought, the only time you realize the connection for sure is when Connie has been taken by the family and she's upstairs in a room and they're dressing her down so she can go to the meeting...half of that time, she's still unconscious.
They lead her downstairs and sitting at the table are the two twins, Lucas and Luther. Their hair is plastered down. Now that I think of it, the thing that leaps to mind for me is Bloody Mama - the Roger Corman produced movie about Ma Barker and her killer sons.
TT: So Lucas and Luther are the names of the twins?
MA: Right, and the whole idea of the ritual was that if the snake doesn't bite and kill Connie, she was accepted into the family...and she was gonna be handed over to one of the twins. And they were always like, "I'm gonna get her. No, I'm gonna get her." Back and forth, like Neanderthals.
TT: Do you know what kind of budget Dawn had?
MA: I don't know for sure what it was but it was somewhere around $1 million.
TT: To get people like George Kennedy and Mike Kellin...and Jack Lemmon's son.
MA: (Laughs.) Well, I don't think Chris Lemmon would have commanded a lot. Oddly enough, I remember seeing his father on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson back then and Chris came up in conversation. Jack mentioned that Chris would be in a movie called Just Before Dawn coming out soon.
TT: There's a Blondie tune in one scene. You don't often see original songs like that in a movie of this type.
MA: Yeah, Heart of Glass. When I say a million, I really could be off by a million. It might have been two.
George Kennedy was kind of past his prime. That's what happens. When someone is on the down slope of their career but they have a name...they'll be brought in for a movie like this and they're not gonna be getting the kind of money that they used to get. But they're working. He and Kellin were both good, professional actors. As far as the others, they were all newcomers. I thought everyone's performance was okay.
TT: We think there's something real and unassuming about Deborah Benson, who played Connie.
MA: I don't know who did the casting but Lieberman had input and I think he was trying to get someone who was a bit like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.
MA: A little awkward. The others, except for Daniel, are sort of a little fast and have outgoing personalities. Connie is very thoughtful. She does have opinions but they don't necessarily mesh with the group as a whole.
TT: So all in all, how much of the finished film is different from the original script?
MA: I would say somewhere between a third and a half. Certainly at least half of the dialogue was changed. Story wise, probably more in the neighborhood of a third.
TT: Who came up with the final title?
MA: Well, it went from Tennessee Mountain Murders to The Last Ritual to Just Before Dawn. And this was the title that I suggested before Picture Media was even involved. Since the ritual was taken out, they wanted other titles and we threw some old ones at them. They picked Just Before Dawn.
TT: Does the snake ritual happen pre-dawn?
MA: Right, exactly.
TT: Are you aware that across the board, this movie is pretty well regarded critically as one of those unseen but worthwhile horror films?
MA: I'm very pleased. It has been on TV and the listing in The New York Times had their little blurb. I think they said "good of this kind."
TT: Did you see it in a theater?
MA: No, I saw it in a preview. Picture Media invited us...Middleton and me.
TT: Do you remember what kind of release it had? Limited?
MA: I think it played in a theater here in New York. I don't actually have a Variety to prove this...but I'm pretty sure it wound up on the charts for a couple of weeks. It wasn't high up. Beyond that, it wouldn't be at the Ziegfeld!
TT: Of course not. These films often got shoddy releases anyway.
MA: Again, I would have to say it was a limited release. It was not a Hollywood studio. But those kinds of movies...the slasher films were very big in the late '70s and early '80s.
TT: Did you like them? Were you a fan at all?
MA: I liked some. I guess I liked Halloween. And I always liked Deliverance. I mean, I didn't want to rip it off but I always thought it was brilliant. I wouldn't call it a horror movie but it was clearly very intense suspense. I don't think that ending was the first time it had been done [where the hand comes up] but that became almost a convention after that. You had to have that twist ending.
TT: Brian De Palma was especially fond of that.
MA: We had something like it in our script and I was a little bit surprised that Lieberman didn't have that type of ending in the film.
TT: A hand coming out of the water?
MA: Actually, that one of the twins is thought dead and everything is fine, and all of a sudden the character rears up and you have to kill the evildoer one more time.
TT: What was your overall experience like with Just Before Dawn? Was it positive? Would you rank it as a learning experience?
MA: Absolutely. It was a mixed blessing though. I'm certainly glad the picture was made and I like a lot of it for what it is. I learned a lot. The one thing that's unfortunate is I wish I could have stayed on board until the end. I think that if I had worked more directly with Lieberman, things would have been different.
TT: What are you doing now?
MA: I'm teaching undergrad at NYU. I'm working on some fiction and some script ideas.
TT: So you teach screenwriting?
TT: Is there an example of a film in which the script blows you away?
MA: I've always loved Chinatown. I teach it sometimes. That's a brilliant script.
TT: Do you talk about Just Before Dawn with your students?
MA: It does come up on occasion. It's listed in my bio for the school. So sometimes they try and dig up the movie if they can find it. I've had some students come up to me and mention it. It may be that a lot of them know of it...but in terms of them approaching me, it's a small percentage.
TT: Well, Mark...thanks for taking time out to speak to us.
MA: It was great talking to you guys. I really appreciate the interest.