Interview with 2020 Fresh Voices Horror Division Winner Harry Aspinwall

Harry Aspinwall is a writer and actor who grew up in Scotland, but has been living the U.S. - currently Brooklyn - since he was 16. His historical horror script Henrietta was the First Place Winner of the Horror Division of the 2020 Fresh Voices Screenwriting Competition.Harry Aspinwall

MovieBytes: You describe yourself as queer and neurodivergent. How do those identities inform your writing?

Harry Aspinwall: It's hard to say what direction I'd be heading in if I were a different person. I think that having outsider identities automatically inclines you towards questioning assumptions about society and reality, and in that sense queerness and neurodivergence definitely influence my creativity. I love exploring historical eras through that lens, examining familiarity and otherness. In a way society never changes, even though the trappings become strange to us. One constant is a need to divide between normal and abnormal, and even then the manifestations of sameness and otherness are completely arbitrary and culturally specific. I find that there's a lot of rewarding subject material in exploring the unfamiliar ways in which different societies have created familiar divisions.

MovieBytes: Tell us about your screenplay, Henrietta. Where did you get the idea? What is it about the genre that you find compelling?

Harry Aspinwall: I was shooting a music video with my production company, and the concept involved fantastical and horrifying fey creatures in the woods, and a mother fighting to protect her child. The imagery was very evocative, and it got me thinking about what stories could exist in that world.

I love the idea of inescapable ties to an ancestral otherworld, and fantasy dreamscape as a manifestation of the subconscious. To me, there doesn't have to be a firm line between the internal world of the mind and the external world, and I like conceiving of the consciousness as a place with a lot of hidden passages, some of which may lead you somewhere entirely new.

With this seed of inspiration I started thinking about how a character who in a social sense is powerless - in the case of Henrietta, a young black girl in the 19th century - could stumble upon power which was at once an asset, since the dream creatures she encounters are (spoiler alert) determined to protect her, and a liability, since the society she lives in will use her frightening, deviant experience against her.

"I like to explore what can happen when someone who's already marginalized by society turns their back on conformity."

A lot of my scripts, horror or otherwise, pit a character who is socially powerless against a privileged antagonist. I like to explore how someone can find power by defying what society expects of them. Horror is a great tool for this, since it's not strictly literal. Already the constructs of reality are shaky, and you can make strange, fantastical, terrible things happen. Horror is very primal, and a lot of the fear it evokes is based on a dichotomy of safety and danger, and good and evil, and this lends itself to subversion. I believe that most of the time “evil” is a shorthand for actions or identities that don't conform in a way that reinforces a power structure, so in my own horror movies, I like to explore what can happen when someone who's already marginalized by society turns their back on conformity.

MovieBytes: Your script won the horror category of the Fresh Voices Screenwriting Competition. What drew you to this contest? Have you entered any other screenwriting competitions?

Harry Aspinwall: A friend of mine recommended me to Fresh Voices. “Henrietta” was also a finalist in ScreenCraft Film Fund and WeScreenplay's Diverse Voices, and just got accepted to Stowe Story Labs. Other screenplays have been finalists in a number of competitions and labs, including Sundance. But to give it some perspective I enter an enormous amount of competitions, maybe thirty already this year. It's a crazy numbers game.

MovieBytes: Did you gain any marketing traction from the win?

Harry Aspinwall: It was great to win some money, and it came with some subscriptions to some wonderful online services. Whether or not it'll move me forward in my career, the jury's still out. If I make a sudden break through from contests, I'll let you know.

MovieBytes: Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you outline before you start writing?

Harry Aspinwall: I've written about 9 or 10 features at this point. They're all in various stages of revision, which I think everything is, essentially, until it's actually been produced. One I wrote in a week, and two I wrote at writing labs, so I have a pretty solid process that works for me, though I'm always looking for ways to improve.

I start off in pure brainstorming mode, writing down a list of any old random idea that pops into my head - scenes, images, plot details, snippets of dialogue, historical research. When I decide I'm going to get more serious, I start creating a story arc and character arcs, and begin to fit the plot into a structure of acts and turning points. I like thinking of my stories in terms of eight sequences divided among three acts, and each sequence has its own arc and climax, which, when fit into the overall structure, become inciting incidents, plot points, pinch points, act turning points, reversals, story climax, etc. Then I write out a beat sheet and/or a treatment, and from there revise the structure, and go over this a number of times until I'm happy with the structure and I have essentially every scene mapped out. This process varies, but my longest notes and beat sheet document was about 120 pages, single spaced, and the shortest maybe 20.

Then I write the first draft in a few days or a week. Revising drafts is the hardest and most frustrating part for me, and it takes outside perspective to show me obvious weaknesses or oversights. I have a few longtime collaborators who are great at that. How much I revise really depends on how active I am with a certain script and how much feedback I get and how lazy I am, but I usually name scripts by version, with something like “3.06” being third big plot revision (swapping scenes around, merging characters, changing arcs), sixth minor adjustment version (tweaking dialogue, merging scenes, etc.).

MovieBytes: Beyond contests, what are some of the other steps you've taken to market your script?

Harry Aspinwall: As far as I can tell, ways to break through are very limited, and pay to play schemes are abundant. I don't make a lot of money, so other than entering competitions, I try not to pay for anything. This year I've been doing an enormous amount of cold emailing agents and producers, and out of those hundreds of emails a few have responded positively and asked to see the script. A few connections I've made with production companies as an actor have also been helpful in getting my scripts read. Other than emailing and hoping someone likes my idea, I've self-produced a few films, which is very rewarding, and, I hope, could also lead somewhere.

MovieBytes: Are you working on a new script now? How has "sheltering in place" affected your writing?

Harry Aspinwall: I just got back from two writing residencies in the fall, and the film and TV season (as an actor) was about to pick up again when everything got shut down, so this has been kind of an unexpected writing residency. My creative brain kind of goes in two directions, escapism versus tackling reality, so right now I'm brainstorming a couple more weird historical films (a convent horror and a story about a cult in the woods in the 17th century), and developing a feature with a collaborator exploring isolation and trust in a pandemic setting. I'm expecting a lot of pandemic-themed artwork to come out of this era, so the challenge is to explore something relatable but novel. I won't give away our twist, but I'm excited about it.

(Posted: 06/15/2020)