Written by: Sean Wesen '22
"As a writer and as a creator, you have to have the willingness to not quit, to fight until death." ~John Hulme
This week, I got to know a professor whose work I had the pleasure of reading all the way back in elementary school. I had loved the Seems, so taking a documentary creative writing class taught by John Hulme was like a dream. I was surprised by how tall he was, and certainly surprised at how much of a window into his life we got in that class. He's the kind of professor who genuinely wants to see you succeed and help you make something you're really proud of. So, when I had the chance to interview him, I was more than happy to do so. This interview with Rutgers lecturer, novelist, and filmmaker John Hulme was incredibly inspiring.
John Hulme is a writer and filmmaker from Highland Park, NJ. He is the co-author of five books, including The Seems, a trilogy of fantasy novels from Bloomsbury Children’s Books. He directed the award-winning documentaries Unknown Soldier: Searching For a Father (HBO) and Blood, Sweat & Tears: A Basketball Exorcism. He also co-created the original radio drama, Vanishing Point (NPR, XM Radio). He is currently building the Highland Park African American History Project — a multimedia oral history of his hometown's black community — which is being funded by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. The project’s first documentary, Blacked Out, won the Best Youth Film award at the 2018 Harlem International Film Festival. Hulme's first feature length horror screenplay, Bagman, is being produced for Lionsgate by Temple Hill Entertainment in the spring of 2022.
Hulme is also an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches Documentary Filmmaking and Digital Storytelling.
Q: How did you start teaching at Rutgers?
A: I've always worked with students on some level and I've always been a coach for basketball. I remember my first office hours working at Rutgers, I felt like I was talking to the 21-year-old version of myself. To be able to support and collaborate with folks in that situation, frightened but excited, super creative and inspired but not sure how to direct it, to be able to be of assistance to that process is an incredible privilege. That's why I'm so grateful for the opportunity to work here. It's just an awesome experience.
Q: In 2005, you made Unknown Soldier, a documentary about your father who died in Vietnam and in 2007 you published the first book in the YA series The Seems, and right now, Paramount Pictures is producing your first feature length horror screenplay, Bagman. That is a huge swath of different genres and mediums. What was that journey like for you?
A: I've never been smart enough to achieve success in one medium and then be like “why don’t I do more of that so I can keep making money?" I've always followed the muse. For me, it's such an emotional experience to write any of these things, sometimes a grueling, but inevitably fulfilling experience that I need to be wildly passionate about a thing to do it, and to go through what it takes to get those things done.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired Unknown Soldier?
A: I never wanted to make a movie about my father until the day I started making it. I had actually started another film about pickup basketball, but then I got into a fight with my girlfriend (now my wife) about why I couldn't tell her about how my father died or what he was like, and because of that fight and how uncomfortable I got in it, I was like “why am I being so hostile to her, she just asking me these questions?" That was the moment I realized that I was embarrassed that she was going to think I had father issues and I hadn't come to terms with his death, and that's where this shame came from.
So, I picked up the phone, I called the guy who I knew had witnessed my father die in Vietnam. I identified myself, and then there was a pause and he said, “My God I've been praying 30 years for you to call me." When something like that happens, it’s pretty easy to drop everything and say, “This is what I have to do”.
It was a powerful life experience, and it was obviously a stressful experience to shoot my own film, to edit it independently, to be rejected by every TV network and film festival. Then out of nowhere HBO comes and buys it. I always liken it to being rejected by all your safety schools and only Harvard says yes, or only Rutgers says yes.
Q: On the topic of films, I know it's still in production, but what could you tell us about Bagman?
A: Bagman, which was originally titled Mr. Allen, is in an odd way a sequel to Unknown Soldier. When I was a little boy, I had nightmares about a boogeyman figure hiding in my closet, stuffing me in a sack and taking me away. The dreams were so vivid and so bad, I needed therapy, and I came to realize that the nightmares came from grasping at the age of 6 or 7 what it meant that my father was dead.
Twenty years after that realization, my son was born, and the nightmares came back. Only this time, the boogeyman wasn't after me, he was after my son. I began to develop the fear that I had been lucky as a child and I had escaped the boogeyman's clutches, but now he was back to take my son. And that's what Bagman is about. I wrote that script as a way of working out the horror that death or the boogeyman was really out there.
Q: How did this idea get traction into a film?
A: Michael Wexler and I developed a screenplay for the novel we wrote called The Seems and sold it to 20th Century Fox to be directed by the guy who made the Night at the Museum movies, and it just never happened. So, when I wrote Bagman, industry people were into it, and I was like you know what? I'm going to direct this movie. So, I held on, I refused to part with it or give up control to another director. The problem was that I had never directed anything of this nature. So, people would buy in, and three times, the deal fell apart because they didn't trust me to make it. It took me a long time to accept that. Each time I sold it, I thought this was the perfect place, and each time it disintegrated.
The last time it didn't come through, I walked away and started working at Rutgers. It felt like my career ended that day. It's the first time where I was kicked in the teeth and tried to pick myself up and couldn't. It was a real crisis moment that teaching got me out of, frankly.
I put it aside, started working on teaching, started working on another documentary that worked out well, and after a couple years of sitting on the shelf, somebody called me out of the blue and was interested in it. The deal was thought that they had to find another director.
Q: Where does the film stand now?
A: In March of 2020, Lions Gate was supposed to shoot in Cape Town, South Africa, but the universe had one last little joke on me. When COVID hit, South Africa was the first country to shut its borders, and that movie was still on hold a year and a half later. Knock on wood, they're telling me spring of 2022.
Q: For myself and other students interested in writing horror, what advice do you have for keeping the tension and dread alive within a narrative? How do you keep it deeply and genuinely upsetting and horrific?
A: Trust that what's scary to you is scary to other people. What scared me as a little kid really still scares me now. When I go out into my backyard in the middle of the night to put the grill cover on because I forgot to do it, I can feel the presence of something looking at me, something malevolent. It's been that way since I was a little boy in bed staring at the closet hearing someone whispering my name. The core of your idea has to be some primal childhood thing that you remember and allow yourself to experience as an adult.
Q: Will those childhood fears be enough to scare an adult?
A: Aside from putting them in physical danger, it's hard to scare adults. As research for this project I did a lot of interviews about what scared adults, and I found that half of the people said they weren't afraid of the supernatural, and other people who are like "I believe in ghosts and demons and they scare the hell out of me." So just write what scares you and you'll hit half the population.
Q: How do you go about structuring a horror narrative?
A: When it comes to constructing the narrative, I remember in the early draft of the Bagman I just didn't scatter the breadcrumbs properly. You've got to hold enough back and layer the mystery so that the audience can't predict what's going to happen. Every horror fan has seen so many scary films that with every clue makes them think, "that's like The Exorcist, that's like Blair Witch, that's like The Ring,” so you have to use their knowledge against them a little bit. Create red herrings. Unlike any other genre, in horror bad shit just happens, and in the best movies the less explanation the better.
Q: How do you keep your story realistic when you're writing about the fantastic?
A: You pretend like there's actually a ghost in your house and ask what would I do? And then you write what you would do for real---the smart thing, not the dumb thing that characters in scary movies are always doing. You can't make story choices out of convenience. You have to make story choices that are character driven.
The best piece of advice I ever got was from the legendary screenwriter Scott Frank, who has done too many things to list here. He read one of our scripts and told us that one thing he liked about it was the plot came from character, not the other way around. He said to keep going down that path. If something happens because the character would act this way and it's still frightening, then it's even scarier because the character's own actions or behavior are part of the reason she's in danger, instead of being a pawn on the way to the next jump scare.
Q: Now I want to talk about The Seems. I still remember that scene where the characters were finally able to fix a drought and rain started to work again. Do you remember how you came up with that particular moment?
A: The big hold up on The Seems was we couldn't get past the first few pages. We couldn't find the voice. I remember we were over in Mike's apartment really in the heat of the struggle, then we figured out it had to be built around this family in Portugal who was about to lose their farm.
I remember describing what I wanted to happen to Michael, and I got choked up in the explanation. I believed in their situation so much that I was moved by the situation itself as if it was a true story and ever since that day, that's how I know I got something right, when I describe something or I'm editing, when I have an emotional response, there it is.
Q: Unknown Soldier and Bagman were both very personal stories that had pieces of yourself all over. Do you see any part of yourself in the Seems?
A: What was really at the core was the character Becker Drane, who like me, had lost someone while very young. Now I didn't know my father, but I suffered that loss, and it compromised my relationship to the universe. I always felt like the universe had screwed me from day one because I never met my dad. Our main character was like that.
He knew this entity called the Seems was building the world that we live in, otherwise, why would they allow his best friend to die at the age of 12? What kind of world are we creating? And we created villains called The Tide who said "no, you're crazy we should build a perfect world, no pain, no suffering, just goodness." So, our main character was always wrestling with that faith, trying to believe his mission was a good one, and I think that's a story worth fighting for.
Q: Where is The Seems today?
A: We just opted for a television company to turn it into a TV series, and I still truly believe we need that kind of story. It's really easy to craft dystopia, you just take the negative trends in society and extrapolate. It's really hard to imagine the world working as a magical hopeful thing in a way that's not boring.
Q: Now that you're on the other side of these vastly different writing experiences, what would tell someone who is also looking to get their work published?
A: This journey, like all of them, had a lot of perseverance attached. When you're trying to get something published and sold you just get kicked in the shins and in the face and in the teeth again and again and again. But the only thing that anyone has as a writer and creator is the willingness to not quit, to fight until the death. Both of those cases really worked out. There were a million times where I believed it's not gonna happen, but you just have to dust yourself off and make it happen.
All of these journeys are bound by one thing. It's challenging to make an idea from scratch, to fight and claw, to put it out into the world, and to get paid for it. Those have been valuable journeys for me. But again, the only thing you've got in your control beyond the idea itself, is your willingness to fight tooth and nail to get it out according to your vision.