“My journey, like a lot of artists and filmmakers, is a little meandering.” Drew Leatham is absolutely correct that this is normal; very few filmmakers I’ve spoken to have had a straightforward approach to building a career in the arts. He tells me he’s always loved performing, from his time in a sketch comedy group to his work as a piano teacher. He’s from Phoenix, Arizona, and that’s where he lives and works now. As much as he’s always enjoyed performance, it wasn’t originally the goal. “Straight out of high school, I was studying electrical engineering.” That ended up not being the right path for him, so he moved out to West Hollywood, where he had friends studying acting. “It was just time to make a change for myself,” he tells me. Like his friends, he focused on acting. “After a year of cattle calls and red tape, I ended up going back to Phoenix.” In Phoenix, he had a core group of filmmaking friends, and together they started making a web series.
This experience–constantly shooting, learning how to work with friends–taught him many skills he’d rely on down the road. Then they began shooting 48 hour short films for competitions hosted by the IFP. “That helped me get better at collaborating,” he tells me. “We just kept making these shorts, and then we got… not tired of them, but we wanted to do something more.” That’s where Forever Home comes in.
Co-written by Drew and his collaborator and friend Sean Oliver, Forever Home is a horror comedy that is making its way through the festival circuit.
I ask him to tell me more about Forever Home. For context, he tells me about a short film he’d worked on after the 48 films, Imaginary Bullets, which his team crowdfunded for. It was recognized by the Red Cross at a film festival in Tokyo. This gave them a little bit of clout–and confidence–to do a bigger crowdfund. Sean and Drew used Wefunder to raise over $60k to make their movie. Drew tells me that almost a third of that came from strangers. “We were shocked. We were going to make the movie no matter what. […] Our initial goal was $20k. We were just going to make it happen. Having done all of the shorts, and having the experience with the web series, we knew we could.” He laughs for a moment. “I’m sure other producers would laugh. Like, sure, $60k.” In the grand scheme of film budgets, it’s a tiny amount of money, but for a creative, resourceful indie filmmaker, you can do great things with $60k. “It was refreshing. We paid almost everyone! Well, everyone but ourselves.” He laughs again. It’s funny, but it’s also the reality of so many filmmakers out there who fight to take care of everyone on their sets and then end up doing the bulk of the work for free, just because they believe in a project. The movie was shot in 2021, with about 19 days of shooting in Flagstaff and a few pick ups in the Phoenix valley. “I felt very lucky,” he says. Wefunder isn’t like Gofundme or Indiegogo; donors are actually investing in the projects they put their money into. “Now we’re trying to get our investors their money back,” he tells me.
Forever Home is about an engaged couple who invests their life’s savings, sight unseen, into what they think is their dream home, but their dream turns out to be a nightmare when it’s revealed that the house is haunted… and anyone who dies on the property can never leave. “Quite a few of the ghosts are very kooky and ridiculous. Sean and I are not blood and gore filmmakers.” Thus, a horror comedy was born. “We set out to write this horror script, but every other page we couldn’t help but put in jokes.”
As a horror writer myself, I’ve long believed the theory that horror and comedy, at their cores, are very similar. In both genres, you’re trying to provoke a very real reaction from the audience, one that can’t be faked. Laughs and screams of terror are both involuntary reactions that help the filmmaker gauge the effectiveness of the movie. They even use similar mechanics to do so; sound cues, for example, or timing, or using elements of anticipation and surprise and provoke a reaction from the viewer. All that should indicate that a project with elements of both horror and comedy is a pretty natural progression… but that doesn’t mean it’s not very, very difficult to strike the right balance. I ask Drew how he and Sean navigate the tension that exists in this in-between space.
“You have your hardcore horror fans. When someone gets stabbed, that’s the laugh. That’s the tension release. Trying to be witty, trying to have clever jokes can be counterintuitive as you’re trying to raise the stakes. One thing we were trying to keep in mind in terms of trying to balance horror and comedy was character, I think more than anything. This is a really stressful situation, so Peggy, our ridiculous ghost from the 70’s with a knife in her head, […] it would just make sense for her to leave the horror situation. Being able to know which characters are strongest in the moment, in the thrust of your narrative and where it’s headed right now, we found that to be most important to that balance.” It makes a lot of sense to use your characters to turn the metaphorical pressure valve that either increases or cuts the tension, either with a spooky, ominous line or a well-placed wisecrack. “People keep using the term cross-genre, but in a lot of ways it didn’t really feel like that. We were writing a haunted house story with our kooky bent to it.” He says this is true of the majority of their projects; they like to laugh. “We’re not Aaron Sorkin,” he says. “We’re not going to have a long monologue about how we can all be better humans or whatever. That’s just not our speed.” It’s funny to hear him say that, when the producer who connected us for this interview told me the character development in Forever Home made her cry. I’ve written a lot about finding meaning in horror, and it’s equally true for comedy, or in this case a blend of the two.
I ask about how he and Sean wrote the script. “I think Co-writer has a specific meaning with the Writer’s Guild, it’s where you go back and forth. Sean and I just literally wrote the script together.” I ask him what it was like to work on a project that closely with someone. “It was kind of refreshing,” he says. COVID quarantine was long and lonely and it was nice to spend time with someone else, to collaborate on a project they were both excited about. “It’s not like we could be out filming, so it became like a ritual, and it was so nice to just keep coming back to the script.” Doing the 48 hour film festivals together taught Drew and Sean how to work together in high stress situations. “In this scenario, it was actually really easy, because Sean and I had put in a decade of working together.” It sounds to me like the duo has their process down. “In terms of our writing process, we always have a beat sheet, kind of an act structure, we’ll have something that’s two to three pages that tells the whole story, and then it’s a lot easier to get it on the page.” They also spent a lot of time reading other scripts. “If you can think about their decisions, and then think about what’s actually on the page, and see how they made those decisions… I think that’s really empowering.” In a world that tells us that art needs to be solitary, it’s so exciting to see people with strong creative partnerships making cool things together.
“Sean and I have worked together for so long that we definitely wanted feedback from people outside of each other,” he says. That’s a big theme of our discussion; being in community with other artists is vital in creating a healthy and balanced creative life. Like any creative partnership, Drew and Sean didn’t agree on everything 100% of the time. “I remember a scene or two where we disagreed,” he says. “But that’s ten years of work, of being able to communicate with each other, being able to say I think we should do this, and it’s not about you, it’s just my instinct about the art. And that’s being vulnerable. And being okay with that, knowing these are my feelings and not a personal attack.”
I ask him for any words of advice on how to create and nourish a creative partnership that can last for the long-haul. “Keep doing things,” he says. “Relationships of all kinds can be difficult. From romantic, to professional, to just friendships.” He pauses for a moment. “To me, the biggest thing would just be keep making.” Not all of his creative partnerships have gone as well as his relationship with Sean. In the past, he had to stop working with someone after he received the feedback that they had caused others in the community harm. “They were a deep friend,” he says. “And it was like… well, we’re done.” He didn’t continue the friendship, nor could he have this person associated with his projects. “I think the two threads here are to keep going, and that not everything is going to work out.”
Thanks so much to Drew Leatham for sitting down with me to chat and share some words of wisdom!