Interview: Frazer Lee, Author of PANIC BUTTON

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One of the better British horror thrillers of the last 12 months has been Panic Button, released on DVD in the UK last November (and was reviewed here). It's the story of four complete strangers brought together by their common obsession with a social networking site and plunged into a nightmare scenario which finds them fighting for their very lives. Panic Button warns us that if something's free and it seems too good to be true it very probably is. Starburst recently spoke to Frazer Lee who co-wrote the film's script as well as the currently-available tie-in novelisation (reviewed here).

Don't Panic! - An Interview with PANIC BUTTON Writer Frazer Lee

Starburst: Can you tell Starburst a little about your own background and how you became a writer?

Frazer Lee: I’ve been a movie and book aficionado for as long as I can remember. Showing my age now, but I actually had a subscription to Starburst back in the early eighties – I used to love reading about films I was then too young to see, stuff like Battle Beyond the Stars and Halloween II. I studied English and Media at school, then Theatre, Journalism, Film and Screenwriting at college; all of which prepared me for writing professionally. In my twenties I spent eight years working on film sets for little or no money to learn the production side of the film business. I then got my chance to write and direct my first short film, On Edge (adapted from the amazing short story by Christopher Fowler) and since then I have been lucky to work steadily as a freelance screenwriter and script doctor. I wrote and directed another short, Red Lines, and the Discovery Channel promo campaign for True Horror with Anthony Head. Concurrent with the film work, I am also a published author of short fiction and novels including Bram Stoker Award™ Finalist The Lamplighters and the movie novelisation of Panic Button.

SB: How did you get involved with the Panic Button project? What inspired the original idea?

FL: The producers at Movie Mogul Films had read one of my spec scripts and invited me in for a chat about a project they were developing, originally called All2gthr (the name of the social networking site in the movie), which was at the time a nine-page story outline. All the core ideas and characters were there and I was hired to turn the ideas into a full-length feature screenplay. The initial idea was apparently inspired by a dream that the producer had. As I worked on the development drafts, real-life horror stories from the world of the internet also became sources of inspiration along with twists and turns from our own depraved minds. During that process, we discovered the new title Panic Button and everything fell into place.

SB: How involved were you in the making of the actual film?

FL: Not at all. My work on the screenplay done, I handed over to the producers, director, cast and crew who set about the difficult task of actually making the film while I got on with my next commission. As a screenwriter, I believe you ‘let go’ of a project twice; first when you hand over to production, and second when you hand over to the audience.

SB: Were you pleased with the way the film turned out?

FL: Very. I think everyone involved gave it their all and achieved a lot on a low budget. It was a thrill to see the world premiere at Film4 FrightFest on the huge screen at the Empire Leicester Square in an auditorium packed with fellow horror fans!

SB: Film novelisations are few and far between these days. How did you come to write the novel of Panic Button?

FL: I agree there should be more of them! But in a plugged-in world where photos from the set are posted real-time for all to see perhaps the movie novel is seen as being a little redundant, which is a shame. Although there are a few titles out there and it’s really great to see tie-ins from the genre giants like Ramsey Campbell and Tim Lebbon. For Panic Button, the producers touted the idea of a movie novelisation while they were in the later stages of post-production on the film itself. We had a couple of calls and batted some notes and ideas back and forth and, contract signed, I got cracking. That was July 2011, and the novel came out four months later. It was an insane schedule but I really enjoyed the process. And readers seem equally to be enjoying the book.

SB: The book obviously follows the general story of the movie. What did you think you could bring to the novel to make it a worthwhile accompaniment to the film?

FL: Well, the obvious advantage of a novel is that you can go into the characters’ minds and explore what makes them tick. That’s not to say the characters aren’t writ large on the screen in the film version, they absolutely are, but the novel allows you to hear their thoughts, to feel how they are feeling. It’s a sensory experience, like a movie is, but as a writer you have a whole set of different tools and techniques to use. In addition to the character side of things, there was an opportunity to broaden the scope of the story. The novel format allowed me to reinstate a couple of deleted scenes and moments that were dropped from the film for time/budget reasons.

SB: Panic Button is a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of social networking. What’s your own view of Facebook and co?

FL: Oh, that’s a jumbo, family-sized, ‘3 for the price of 2’ can of worms right there. I have a complex and frustrating relationship with all things social networking. On the one hand, I hate Facebook and everything it represents. The people behind it have a cavalier attitude toward users’ privacies to say the least, often making changes to privacy settings without warning or consultation. Obviously their asses are covered by their T&Cs, so I think Panic Button makes a pertinent point in flagging up the importance of checking the small print. “Have you checked the Terms and Conditions?” as the movie tag-line goes. But as the character ‘Dave’ says in the film and book, nobody does check, because the T&Cs always require a Law Degree if they are to make any sense. That said, as a writer I understand that social networking sites like Facebook are a necessary evil through which to help get your name and your work out there. I’m a total hypocrite because I have a ‘Page’ on Facebook, a Twitter account, and use them to promote my work. And Panic Button even has its own Facebook page – oh the irony! At best, such sites can be powerful promotional tools and vessels for societal change. At worst they can simply be filled with “amusing” photos of cats and awful “inspirational messages” photoshopped onto cheesy images that look like they’ve been lifted from 1980s Athena posters. I find all that stuff terribly depressing, which is perhaps the opposite of the emotion they are meant to invoke. I suppose in that respect social networking sites are simply a reflection of human life and culture both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But I think it’s worth remembering that they are only websites, nothing more. I think we’re in very real danger, as a culture, of depending on them as the ‘empathy machines’ described by the late, great Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. They facilitate, through us, a facsimile of human emotion and connectivity that we project from behind the cold, unfeeling masks of our avatars. That, and endless ‘Memes’ and ‘LOLcats’. We are becoming a global herd of electric sheep. Maybe one day the Internet will explode in our faces and we’ll be left blinded and trying to open tins of coffee in the hope the contents are baked beans, just like in ‘Day of the Triffids’. I, for one, am ready.

SB: Clearly! Which discipline do you prefer, script-writing or prose-writing?

FL: I love both! I enjoy the different sets of challenges posed by both disciplines. The process of drafting, editing and rewriting is common to each of course, so it’s a pleasure to be able to switch between a novel and a screenplay at any given time during my working week. This generates a natural rhythm between projects, meaning that whatever development stage they are at, each has time to gestate and evolve. And that process keeps me on my toes as a writer. In my experience, screenplay drafts happen faster but there are usually a greater number of drafts than a novel or short story – anything from 5-8 script drafts on average for a feature project with decent development funding. Novel drafts are fewer, around 3-4 on average, but they take much longer to write.

SB: The Panic Button book is published under the All2Gethr Industries banner. What's your opinion of the self-publishing/online publishing revolution? Is it the way forward?

FL: I think it is the way forward if the same approach to quality control exists, whatever the sector you are publishing in. The Panic Button novel was subject to the same rigorous editing and proofing process as my other works. Some of the self-pubbed stuff out there is maybe not as polished as it could be, that’s fair to say I think. But a lot of what the small presses, for example, are putting out is very exciting and original stuff. I read dozens of film novelisations when I was a kid, with the excitement of ‘8 pages of color photos from the film!’ inside - back in the day when an Alan Dean Foster title was on the shelf of any self-respecting movie nerd. I find the idea of indie producers publishing their own movie tie-ins very exciting indeed. It’s a potential additional source of revenue for the producers, so they can hopefully develop more scripts and ideas. And it’s another credit for the writer(s) not to mention a fun sidebar to the movie for fans of the film. Exciting times.

SB: What projects are you currently working on? Any more film scripts in the pipeline?

FL: I have a new horror novel in the works called The Jack in the Green, with a novella and a further novel to follow. Screenplay-wise, I have been working on a slew of horrors and thrillers, one or more of which I hope will see the light of day and the dark of cinemas. I can’t give details of those away for contractual reasons, but I can say the projects occupy a broad spectrum from action-thriller to full-on, gory horror. I am also attached to direct a couple of stonking feature film projects. That has been the toughest nut to crack so far, as I’ve spent the past decade trying to get several rather ambitious feature film projects into production. Finding a producer who has the belief in you as a first-time (feature) director is one thing, but finding investors who have the same faith and vision as you and your producer is another thing entirely. For a business built on risk, the film industry is incredibly risk-averse. Hence all the remakes and reboots we are seeing, as tried-and-tested makes far more money sense than untried-and-untested. So, directing another film might be something I am never privileged to do again. A shame because I feel I have a lot to offer in that arena, given half the chance. But I shall keep trying nonetheless; as William Goldman reminds us, “Nobody knows anything” and it is accepted industry wisdom that the film biz is 90% luck. And I consider myself very, very lucky to have been able to work on some of the projects I’ve done so far. Hopefully this is just the beginning. Maybe I should Photoshop that sentiment onto an old Athena postcard and post it on alongside all the bloody LOLcats!

Frazer Lee's Bram Stoker Award nominated first novel The Lamplighters is published by Samhain Horror and his short stories have appeared in anthologies including the acclaimed 'Read By Dawn' series. His other screen credits include the award-winning short horror movies On Edge, Red Lines and Simone. Find out more about Frazer at his official website. The Panic Button novel is reviewed here.

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