Shaping Horror on the Screen: Paul G. Tremblay on Film and Fiction

Paul Tremblay

A couple of years ago, while on a trip to a city I’d wanted to visit in ages, I ended up with an extra night there due to a canceled flight. At least, I nominally had an extra night in town — but instead, I stayed in my hotel room because I’d just started reading Paul G. Tremblay‘s The Cabin at the End of the World — and there was no way I was going to put it down before I knew how it ended. Since then, I’ve sought out more of his work, impressed by both his command of dread and his ability to sustain narrative ambiguity across the space of a novel. Knock at the Cabin, an adaptation of the novel that first drew me to Tremblay’s work, is now in theaters, and provided the perfect backdrop to talk to him about his work, the movies, and the places they intersect.

You’ve incorporated filmmaking into some of your fiction, especially A Head Full of Ghosts. Speaking broadly, what had your impression been of that process prior to Cabin at the End of the World being adapted, and how has it shifted?

My understanding of the film world, particularly how it related to the process of making one, was very much an academic understanding (if academic is the right word; fan is probably more accurate). I’d read a bunch of books on the making of films as well as critical essays books, including many in the wonderful series that BFI publishes. Post-AHFoG, I’ve been lucky enough to have some Hollywood interest in my books and I have had many calls with producers which have ranged from the good, the bad, and the ugly. But mostly good. I’d never had direct experience with the making of a film, never been on a full set, prior to May of 2021, when I got to visit and observe M Night and actors and crew at work on Knock at the Cabin

Aside from the ow wow moments of seeing the cabin and weapon props and actors as the characters, the number of moving parts in a production of that scale was what first struck me. I spent quite a bit of time watching and chatting with the script supervisor, who seemed to be the glue that held everything together, as he checked for continuity, logged the shot numbers, and everything else. I also enjoyed and appreciated the collaborate atmosphere, particularly as someone who spends almost all his creative time by himself in front of a glowing computer screen. And as luck would have it, at the time of the visit, I was a few months into the writing of a draft of my next book, Horror Movie: a novel

A lot of your fiction embraces ambiguity — as well as the ambiguity that prose fiction lends itself to. Do you think that quality has been, paradoxically, something that’s drawn filmmakers to your work?

That’s a great question. My knee jerk reaction is to say, ‘no’ if only because there aren’t a lot of studio films that trade in ambiguity. But, maybe because of a story’s ambiguity it allows for more possible endings/interpretations, and a filmmaker who is drawn to the core concept can more easily find or build their own ending. Prior to your question, I thought/assumed some of the film interest is there because the stories are ‘grounded,’ to use a producer term.     

I’m curious — has the process of seeing your work being adapted for the screen had any effect on your own writing? The Pallbearers Club in particular seems like a book that, because of its structure, would be especially difficult to adapt, and I’ve been curious if that was intentional.

The prior two novels (The Cabin at the End of the World and Survivor Song) had some thriller DNA in their structures, I think, especially considering the compressed timeline within the stories, and I’ve had people tell me those books were cinematic (which I have to admit, I don’t know what that means? Ha!). Even prior to having the idea for Pallbearers, I wanted to write something with a totally different structure, something a bit more interior and took it’s time in the telling the story (both figuratively and literally). I cannot remember the author who said this (and my internet search skills are failing me) but she said, essentially, if you’re going to write a novel, make it so that the best way to tell the story is in the form of a novel. I love that idea/mission statement for a novelist. Now, that said, every decision I made while writing Pallbearers wasn’t to confound an adaptation, but was to tell the story in the best way I thought was possible. That said, I think the list of unadaptable books is very short and I’d be really interested in a film or TV riff on Pallbearers. Can I speak into existence Richard Linklater adapting The Pallbearers Club?

Is adapting one of your own books or stories for the screen something you’d be interested in tackling eventually?

Yes, I would, with the caveat that I hope I wouldn’t be so arrogant to assume that writing a screenplay would be something I could do without a lot (or at least some?) practice. I’ve been messing around a little bit with the help of filmmaking friends/collaborators as we’re working toward adapting/expanding a couple of my short stories. 

Some writers are famously protective of their creations and the adaptations of them; others are much more open to the idea of an adaptation being a distinct work. Would you say you fall into either camp, or somewhere between the two?

Somewhere between the two. I’m not egoless about the whole thing, particularly with the novels where I’d spent anywhere between 12-18 months dedicating my writing time/life to those stories. The reality is that the vast majority of people who know the Cabin story will know it as the film and not the novel. That’s a little weird to think about. Or it is weird for me to think about, anyway. 

But at the same time, it would be hypocritical of me not to embrace other writers/filmmakers riffing on my story ideas as so many of my own stories start with riffs on the horror books, movies, tropes that came before.  

Are there any of your colleagues who you’d say has a book that’s calling out for an on-screen adaptation?

The Fisherman by John Langan, Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez, Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan all need to be limited series, or just plain series. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the adaptations in the works for Stephen Graham Jones’s stories and Gabino Iglesias’s The Devil Takes You Home makes it to the finish line.


Photo: Allnn Amatto

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