IN 2005, a single day before Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds invaded multiplexes, a suspiciously similar film quietly appeared on video store shelves. H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds starred C. Thomas Howell instead of Tom Cruise; while Spielberg's epic cost $132 million, this was made for an estimated $1 million. And it was everywhere: Someone at Blockbuster—who was maybe canny, or maybe confused—had ordered 100,000 copies.
A lot of people rented it. And the fledgling production company behind it, the Asylum, realized they had a sure-fire formula: the mockbuster.
So right before Michael Bay's Transformers came out, the Asylum put out Transmorphers. When Disney released their second Pirates of the Caribbean, the Asylum's Pirates of Treasure Island treated viewers to Lance Henriksen instead of Johnny Depp. Enjoy Paranormal Activity? Try the Asylum's Paranormal Entity! The Day the Earth Stood Still? The Day the Earth Stopped. Sherlock Holmes? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (which, unlike the Robert Downey Jr. version, featured a Tyrannosaurus rex). Next month, when Battleship comes out, so will the Asylum's American Battleship, starring Mario Van Peebles and Carl Weathers. That's a casting coup the likes of which hasn't been seen since the 2011 Asylum classic Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, starring Debbie Gibson and Tiffany.
Yes, the Asylum does standalone films, too: There's Mega Shark versus Crocosaurus, starring Jaleel White, AKA Urkel. Bikini Spring Break. Dragonquest, Dragon Crusaders, and Merlin and the War of the Dragons. Nazis at the Center of the Earth. #1 Cheerleader Camp. MILF. Titanic II.
Since 1997, the Asylum has released over 100 films. Not a single one of them has lost money.
"For the record, the egregious sunbathing in 2-Headed Shark Attack did not come from my pen," says H. Perry Horton. The bearded, affable Horton is 34, talks fast with a North Carolina drawl, and gets genuinely excited talking about film, which serves him well for his job at local video store Movie Madness. And during his lunch breaks, evenings, and weekends, Horton writes movies for the Asylum—like the horror flick A Haunting in Salem and 2-Headed Shark Attack, which features Carmen Electra as sunbathing aficionado Dr. Anne Babish and Hulk Hogan's daughter Brooke as one of many bikini-clad pieces of shark bait.
"You do not want to know how much of 2-Headed Shark Attack was written in my car, on my lunch break," Horton says. "Just sitting there with Post-its everywhere." Which isn't to say he can take credit for the brilliant concept of a two-headed shark.
"With the Asylum, you're never pitching original material to them. They're pitching the idea to you. Sometimes you get a title—in the case of 2-Headed Shark Attack, that's what we got," Horton says. "It was a pretty self-explanatory title."
The idea of coming up with a title before a script isn't new—B-movie godfather Roger Corman cranked out about 10,000 movies that way. The Asylum tosses out concepts to a stable of writers like Horton, and then decides whose pitch is best. "Sometimes they bring me the story," Horton says. "The most recent one I completed for them is called Shark Week, and they came to me with the idea fully formed. Essentially they wanted The Hunger Games with sharks! They wanted a madman who kidnaps people and makes them fight sharks. That one wrote itself!" Horton grins. "Took three days to write 110 pages on that one."
"I started writing to be a writer when I was 11," Horton says. "I've never tried to do anything else." When I ask him what, at age 11, made him want to write, his instant answer is "Stephen King."
"I was a big reader as a kid," he says. "And it was Stephen King that made me realize, 'People do this.' This thing that you have in your hand that you love so much? Someone's job is that. Your dad goes to work? Stephen King goes to work, and this is what he does."
After majoring in film studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Horton made his way to Colorado, where, as "the only non-Buddhist, non-hippie, and Southerner" at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, he got his MFA in fiction. About seven years ago, he moved to Portland to start a literary magazine. "Tremendous failure!" he remembers. "I sold a house to finance this magazine—done in 18 months! On my ass, completely broke, and working at Movie Madness."
Soon, however, a certain studio's work caught his eye. "I've always loved B-movies," he says. "I grew up on the Corman stuff. After a while, I started noticing the Asylum. This was when all the mockbusters were hitting—your Transmorphers, your Snakes on a Train. And I just kept laughing at these things, and then I started noticing they were all coming from the same place! So I did what any overly desperate writer would do: I started a blog."
That blog, Committed: One Inmate's Appreciation for the Films of the Asylum (observationnotes.blogspot.com), included a feature Horton called "Sounds Like an Asylum Film to Me," in which he took current events (like when that cobra escaped at the Bronx Zoo) and fashioned them into Asylum pitches (Horton's cobra idea was Island of the Cobras—"for added holiday flair, make the island Ireland and call it St. Patrick's Day"). "About four months after I started the blog, [the Asylum] contacted me to say, 'Hey, thanks for the attention.'" In response, Horton offered to run their official blog. "They said, 'We don't have any work. But we've read your pitches. If you want to join our writers' pool, we're cool with that.'"
Horton grins. "That's all I ever wanted! I wanted to write scripts for 'em! So it was the only thing in my life that worked out exactly as I hoped. From there, it went really quick—by the time the blog had its one-year anniversary, I had two films in post-production. Shark Attack was done shooting four days before the blog turned a year old. So it worked! I'm still not sure how. And I'm still not sure it's real."
Now that he's on the inside, Horton's kept his appreciation for the Asylum. "They don't give a fuck if you don't like their movies," Horton laughs. "They love their reputation—they embrace it. You just gotta have fun with it." Horton has the same attitude when it comes to his IMDb page. "I mean, it's a two-headed shark," he says. "You can't make a serious movie about that! There's no way in the world! There's less way when they cast Carmen Electra to play a doctor."
"I'm not a Hollywood screenwriter," Horton says. "I'm like a mechanic: Somebody gives me a vehicle, and I tweak it to make it run, and then if they don't like the way it runs, they give it to me and I tweak it more."
Once Horton gets that vehicle, it's a frantic rush to finish the screenplay, with Horton having "three-and-a-half, four weeks max" to complete a script. "I think every film they shoot is on a 12- to 14-day shooting schedule," Horton says. "In and out, done. And then they'll take another two to three months to clean up the visual effects and edit it and get the score on. I pitched A Haunting in Salem in March of last year. It was done by the end of May. That's all done. Ready to ship.
"It's very quick, which can be really, really nerve-wracking," he says. "I'm getting notes at 12:45 at night. They're saying, 'Okay, we need you to re-edit the first five pages of act three, and we need it by 6 am, 'cause we've got people on a boat ready to start shooting. Carmen Electra's here! Are you going to keep Carmen Electra waiting?'"
And—as was the case with Ms. Electra's sunbathing montage, which really does go on for quite a while—Horton's never sure what'll end up onscreen. Generally, he says, "I send off my final draft, and then four or five months later, I get a DVD in the mail"—at which point he and his "very understanding" wife watch the movie. "Overall, what I intended to do is always there," he says. "It's just some of the details that've been tweaked." Take 2-Headed Shark Attack's scripted ending, in which Horton imagined the ungainly creature "chasing an unmanned motorboat into a big rock that causes a massive explosion."
The film's actual ending is somewhat less bombastic. And a lot cheaper.
"If my writing was super serious and the message was something I really wanted to get across, I wouldn't be writing two-headed shark movies," Horton says. "I've been struggling for a long time trying to figure out the kind of writer I am, and the kind of voice I have, and what I have to say that's different. And I think, for better or worse? I think this is the kind of writer I am."
Horton declines to tell me exactly how much money is in the shark scripting game ("I'll put it like this: To quit my day job, I would have to write more movies than I am physically capable of doing, and I can write seven or eight scripts a year"), but he writes a
lot—in the four-month period between scripts for 2-Headed Shark Attack and Shark Week, he wrote "a script and a half, 16 treatments, and about 45 pitches."
"I spent a lot of my 20s taking two or three years to write a book, and I don't have that kind of patience anymore," he says. "I'm ready to start a family. I'm ready to not work retail anymore. I need to go where the interest is. If at 75 years old I'm the screenwriting equivalent of Roger Corman, I would be honored and thrilled."
But for all of Horton's familiarity with what makes B-movies tick, that doesn't mean he'd turn down an opportunity to try something else. "I do have ideas for 'legitimate' scripts," he says, adding he'd be "immensely qualified" to adapt Cormac McCarthy. "I did my masters thesis on the guy. I've read everything dozens of times. I wholeheartedly believe I could be the guy to get that Blood Meridian script down."
If that doesn't pan out, the Asylum seems more than happy with his work. "I officially turned in my last draft of Shark Week," Horton says, "and then the next day, the director of development said, 'Remember that Noah's ark movie you pitched four months ago? They want it. Can you give us a treatment?'"
So Horton's next project is a Bible-inspired disaster flick—for now, anyway. "Who knows?" Horton says. "I could get up from this interview and check my phone and have an email that says, 'Ehhh, we decided to change everything about this movie. Make it involve alien squids and Donna D'Errico."