Interview: Spiral screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger talk to The Coachella Review
By Katie Gilligan
I was lucky enough to sit down (via Zoom) with writing team Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger to talk about their new movie, Spiral, the ninth installment of Saw, one of the most successful horror franchises of all time.
The latest piece of the puzzle (pun intended) follows police veteran Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock), and rookie detective William (Max Minghella) as they fall into a grisly investigation of murders eerily reminiscent of the city’s violent past.
We talked about the challenges of satisfying die-hard fans, the effects of COVID on the industry, and of course, what it was like to work with comedy legend Chris Rock.
TCR: I’d like to start by talking a little bit about your background. How did you guys initially get into writing horror, and how did that eventually lead to becoming involved in the Saw franchise?
Pete Goldberg: I got this one. It allows me to puff up Josh. It’s all Josh; that’s the whole reason we got on this path. What happened was, we started off in comedy. We knew each other in college and we’d worked together on a couple of animated things, written a couple of comedy screenplays . . . But what happened in 2004 or 2005, there were two big hits that came out that were remakes: Dawn of the Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They were big hits. Josh came to me and was like, “They’re gonna remake all these horror movies. We gotta get our hands on whatever sort of obscure titles we can and write ’em.” One that we did was Sorority Row, which was a remake of a lesser known one, but the bigger known one was Piranha. We managed to secure the rights to them—not secure them but we found the people that had the rights to them—and we wrote ’em. I had never had anything produced in my life that was legitimate. Josh had. And there was this one moment where both got green-lit in the same day. I joked to Josh that I had now written one more horror movie than I’d seen. That’s probably not true. Halloween and The Shining, I loved. But I hadn’t seen much more than that. But to this day, if I pitch something to Josh he’ll be like, “Yeah, feels a little Leprechaun 4 . . .” For Josh, it was a passion movie because he loves horror. For me, at the time, it was sort of a business move that turned into a career, and I’ve now seen—
Josh Stolberg: Now he’s fallen in love with it.
Pete: I have. I didn’t understand the way that people pursue it, not in a realistic way; it’s more meant to be funny. Josh always thinks these movies are funny. They never really affect him or disturb him the way they do others. So it’s all Josh. I attribute all of our horror success to Josh.
Josh: That also plays into the kinds of movies we make, too. My partnership with Pete and our horror career—yes, he’s right; I was the horror freak growing up, where I had the poster of Michael Myers on my wall as a kid, and Pinhead, and all these other crazy creatures. But when Pete and I started to figure out what our voice was going to be for this genre . . . one of the nice things about it is that, because Pete was coming at it from kind of a different place, I think it informed our own work. Our stuff, even though it is firmly rooted in the horror genre, you know, they’re not Rob Zombie films. I’m not saying Rob Zombie films aren’t fun; they are. I love Rob Zombie films. But our style is much more fun; it’s a little more tongue-in-cheek, and some of the movies go really far in that direction. There were how many Saw movies before ours? And we’re just now starting to put jokes in the thing, and we had to fight the producers to be able to do that too.
Pete: It was really helpful when working with Chris Rock. That’ll add a little more humor.
TCR: Yeah, if you want to inject some humor, having Chris Rock around is probably a pretty good thing. And with eight Saw movies having come before yours, you have to be really aware of everything that’s come before, right?
Josh: And also trying to figure out a way to kind of bring fresh blood to the franchise as well. You know, when you’re on number eight and nine, like you said, you’re constantly trying to figure out how to stand out and make it different.
Pete: Also, when you have that many, like 30 percent of the real estate of the script is used up reminding people of storylines they may not remember, and it can often slow things down. And that was one of the big pitches when we came in. We were like, ‘How do we do this for people who have never seen the franchise and still honor the people that have?’ That’s the hard part.
Josh: And we definitely get beaten up from the people who are die-hard, crazy fans because they’re mad that we’re not bringing back all of these other actors, and the truth is it’s not completely us, and even if we were to, writers aren’t able to make those kinds of decisions all the time. But we get beaten up by the fans because they’re mad Hoffman’s [the secondary antagonist of the Saw franchise after Jigsaw] not coming back or whatever.
Pete: If you want to beat us up you gotta take a number.
TCR: It must be challenging to try and put your spin on something but still being obligated to carry all this other backstory through.
Josh: Completely right. And I think for Spiral we did it better than we did for Jigsaw. I think for Jigsaw we were still trying to hold onto the past.
Pete: Also, the producers weren’t sure: ‘Is this a [Saw franchise antagonist] John Kramer movie?’ Because you’ve got to have John Kramer. In the one coming up, it’s so much less about him that it allowed for more creativity and new stuff.
TCR: So, watching the trailer, this one seems like it’s a little more of a crime film than a horror film, and I’ve read that the blood and guts is toned down . . .
Pete: Our marching orders from the beginning were “it’s a new world; let’s tone down the blood,” and I thought we had. I thought we had turned down some of the gore, and then we found out oh, no, you have not.
TCR: What was it like getting Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson attached to this? That must have been a big moment. Chris Rock is apparently a big fan of the franchise, so he wanted to be involved immediately, right?
Pete: We were so shocked to hear that, but, yes, he did. He said something that was really interesting. One of the things he said was he doesn’t necessarily want it to be different because he’s in it. I didn’t know this story, but supposedly Sylvester Stallone is supposed to be in Beverly Hills Cop, and thirty days before, he dropped out, and that’s when they got Eddie Murphy, and it changed the whole thing. He said, “I don’t want a story that’s for me. I want a story that I will be dropped into but will not be a Chris Rock vehicle.” And as far as Samuel L. Jackson? We got Samuel L. Jackson because of Chris Rock, end of story.
Josh: Yeah, as a matter of fact, it wasn’t even in our minds that this would be a huge star when we were writing it, so we then had to puff out the character a little bit after we cast him. And, of course, add in a “motherfucker” or two because you can’t have a Sam Jackson movie without him saying the word “motherfucker.”
Pete: It was really funny actually. The first take he did, he put in a “motherfucker” and when they stopped rolling, he said, “Alright, so we got that out of the way.”
Josh: But yeah. So the way that it kind of came about was Pete and I got a phone call. We’d been working on another Saw script for close to a year and had a couple drafts of it, and we thought that was gonna be the next Saw film, and then we got the random phone call, while we were sitting there working on our script, from one of the producers, and they basically said, “Yeah, Chris wants to do a Saw movie. Come up with something for him.” So we were like, “What?” because that was shocking to hear that he loved Saw and wanted to do a movie. So Pete and I went away and came up with some ideas. We wound up meeting with the producers, meeting with Chris, and then everything kind of gelled, as far as the idea went. And then we wrote a script, and it was the fastest we have ever had anything green-lit. That’s the wonderful thing about having a star attached.
Pete: And I just have to say: as smart as you think Chris Rock is, he’s smarter than that. He really knows his stuff and everything. He was great. Much like [John Kramer actor] Tobin Bell, he made our writing better, by his adds and his suggestions and general knowledge. It was great.
Josh: And this isn’t just for horror but for all film. It’s such a collaborative process. Getting a chance to work with a writer of Chris’s caliber, who knows himself—I mean, he’s been dissecting himself for twenty-five years onstage as a comedian. So for us to be able to sit in a room with him and have him tell us what he’s good at and come up with ideas and lines, all these things. . . . It was a fun, fun time.
Pete: He could have easily directed this movie if he wanted to. He literally could have. He chose not to.
Josh: It was a conversation in the beginning.
Pete: He said, “I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know.”
Josh: Directing horror set pieces in particular, it’s a very different beast from comedy, but there is something very mathematical and scientific about horror movies, where creating a jump, creating a scare, you have to wire your mind in a certain way to put those pieces together to create an emotional response in the audience. And Chris just didn’t have that experience, and now he does because he was on set and was a producer on the film. And being on a horror set is the most fun you’ll have in your life. We’ve been on sets for comedies and . . . being on the set of a comedy, everyone is always so worried about whether the joke works, and . . . “this joke’s been in the script since day one.” They start worrying because they’ve heard it five times or ten times and no one’s laughing anymore because they don’t want to make noise on set, and then the actor’s thinking it isn’t funny anymore, so they start making up lines. It is a brutal environment. Being on a horror set is just fun. You go to the lunch room and everybody has like skin flaps falling off their face, and it’s just the best. So much fun.
TCR: So then what’s next after this? What are you guys excited to work on when we’re all working on things again?
Pete: We’ve got a lot of things in the hopper. I just don’t know which ones we can talk about.
Josh: We’re writing another remake right now. It’s a horror movie from the eighties that we’re really excited about. We can’t say the title, but that’s a lot of fun. And then we wrote a small indie horror movie called The Red Wedding that we’re hoping to get up and running whenever quarantine ends and we can kind of safely start making independent movies again. You know, the big studios right now, they have the ability to spend out the butt for COVID protocols, and you just can’t do that for the indie movie world right now.
Pete: To answer your question, the dust is not settling on what the world is gonna look like after this. We just don’t know. We’ve already seen a big shift from feature films to television, and I think it’s gonna get even bigger. . . . There’ll always be a space for movies; we just don’t know how it’s all gonna settle.
TCR: Josh, you wrote Good Luck Chuck, which is very much the opposite end of the entertainment spectrum. Can we please talk about this for a second?
Josh: That’s the real horror.
Pete: It’s a horror if you read the reviews.
TCR: So do you find it easy to jump back and forth between writing stuff like that and writing stuff like this? What tools are in your writer’s toolbox that you’re able to use in both the comedy and horror genres?
Josh: In a lot of ways, the way that we write a joke is the same way that we write a scare scene because it’s all about set-up and punchline. And the audience, their body is reacting in a similar way; one is a burst of laughter out, the other is sucking in of air in anxiety. But as a writer, they are very similar in the way they are kind of constructed. If you don’t have the set-up for the joke, the punchline’s not gonna land in the same way that if you don’t build that suspense in the horror film; the scare’s not gonna land. And this is something Pete talks about a lot when we’re working on films, is that it’s really all about the character. It’s almost like the genre is placed on top afterwards, in a way. You need compelling characters that you’re gonna care about. In the romantic comedy, you care about them getting together and in a horror movie, you want to care about them so that when you kill them, the audience feels emotionally traumatized.
Pete: If you look at Taming of the Shrew all the way to present day and before, it’s all about opposites. And the thing about a horror movie in terms of relationships, a horror movie is the quintessential opposite: good guy, bad guy. That’s it. And you’re gonna find those things in romantic comedies, too. This is based on fake math, but I think that 50–80 percent of every film you’ve seen is exactly the same. There’s a first act, there’s a second act, there’s a third act. There’s somebody whose life is gonna be completely changed right around page twenty. So the formula itself of writing a movie is 50 percent of the movie, then there’s what you do with it.
TCR: This being a lit mag run by an MFA program, what advice do you have for new writers trying to break into the industry?
Pete: There’s no surefire way. The most common way is you have to know somebody, sorry to say. I didn’t get my WGA card until I was thirty-seven, so rest assured, this can take a little bit of time. There’s that old saying, a writer writes, and that’s really true. I can think of so many examples of people who were discovered with completed films in a desk drawer, and then their dad submitted them. Don’t let anyone tell you your movie is a failure. Don’t let that discourage you. If you want to know how sometimes a movie gets made, look up Death Bed, the movie, and Patton Oswalt and listen to Patton Oswalt talk about it. So much of it is being in the right place at the right time and getting it in the right hands. Because ninety people could say no for ninety different reasons, and then you just get it in the hands of, like, somebody’s grandfather who wants to make a movie, and then you’re in business. So don’t get discouraged on the projects that you’re writing, and don’t let one person’s feedback say no. You’ll quickly learn. Thirty years ago when I submitted my little movie about two kids trying to get to opening day, when I submitted that to the producer of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and they passed, I put that script in a drawer because I didn’t know that he would no sooner make that movie than a lawyer would practice medicine. It’s just finding the right people.
Josh: I’ll piggyback on what Pete was saying. There’s no one way that it happens. You look at someone like Diablo Cody who writes one script and it gets nominated for an Academy Award and you’re like, ‘I’m doing it wrong’ . . . The other piece of advice Pete didn’t say is that what happens to a lot of new writers is that they write their script that they are passionate about and then either rely too much on that script and get caught up in the wheels of trying to get that thing sold, as opposed to trying to continue to write. Because I would be embarrassed if my first three scripts got out anywhere. At the time, I thought they were spectacular, but I look back at them now, and they’re embarrassing. They’re horrifically written, really embarrassing. And it just takes time. It’s a muscle.
TCR: But they’re embarrassing because you’ve now learned so much since then, right?
Josh: Yes! And you just feel like, ‘Oh, now I understand,’ and it is really just a muscle that has to be worked out in order to create in a real way. And the other thing Pete said that I completely agree with is you just can’t let anybody stop you. No one’s gonna like all your stuff and the majority of people are not gonna like your stuff until they know they’re supposed to like your stuff, then they all of a sudden jump on the bandwagon. So you just have to bite down on the leather strap and just know that you’re in for some miserable moments of people tearing apart your work, but it’s just gonna make you better as a writer.
TCR: That is a realistic yet encouraging take, so let’s stop there.
Katie Gilligan is a screenwriter, playwright, editor and occasional bartender. She received her MFA in screenwriting from the University of California, Riverside—Palm Desert’s low-residency program, and currently resides in Palm Springs with her husband and their dog, Scout.