Kevin Lehane interview: Grabbers, Twitter, and filming in the rain

With the Irish sci-fi comedy Grabbers out on DVD and Blu-ray now, Sarah caught up with writer Kevin Lehane to chat about its making...

Seen Grabbers yet? The Irish monster movie captured our hearts last year, and we’ve been singing its praises ever since. Now that it’s out on DVD (and Blu-ray), we decided it was time we stopped tweeting at writer Kevin Lehane and actually picked up the phone to talk to him about the film.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, there might be some mild spoilers contained in this interview, so if you’re intending to see it, you may want to bookmark this and come back later. If you have seen it, or if you’re just cavalier about spoilers, though, read on. It’s pretty fascinating to hear about how things changed between Kevin’s original script and the finished movie, whether you’re a fan of this film or just of indie filmmaking in general…

Where did the idea for Grabbers come from?

I was backpacking in the Cook Islands and getting bitten by mosquitos, and I kept being told to eat lots of Marmite. Apparently, this urban legend is that Marmite has lots of vitamin B in it, and the mosquitos can smell it in your sweat and they won’t bite you. I was having a few beers and I thought, wouldn’t it be better if I could give them alcohol poisoning?

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So, wait, does the Marmite thing work? Did you try it out?

I did. I spent weeks on it, and I was moaning that it wasn’t working, and as I was having a beer there was a mosquito on my knuckle and the two things collided. I was island hopping for a while and any time I’d get to an internet café, rather than checking my emails, I’d start Googling “vampires allergic to alcohol” and “drunken vampires”. I was shocked that it had never been done before. The initial idea in my head was about a vampire getting completely pissed by feeding off a drunk dinner party situation, and it expanded from that, but I was really just surprised that no one had landed on this fun conceit before.

I spent the next year backpacking, and when I got back I wrote the script in about six weeks. 

How did that idea evolve into the script for Grabbers?

Well, I had been writing for a long time in Ireland and trying to get things developed through the Irish Film Board, and I had sort of plotted out this course for myself which was to write these really viable projects that were easy to shoot and wouldn’t cost a lot of money. There wasn’t really anything special about them, but I was trying to tap into that whole Zach Braff Garden State mindset. And then I realised that I was writing films that I would never actually go out and see, and that was a huge wake up call. I thought, “what am I doing? I’m putting all this effort into a script that I have no interest in watching.”

I wasn’t really sure I’d continue on as a screenwriter, to be honest with you. I thought I’d have to get my house in order and think of another career path, but I’d always been obsessed with film. When the idea for Grabbers came, it just sort of flew out of me. I wanted to write an Irish film that I’d never seen before, and a monster movie like the films I grew up watching, and it all came together.

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If it was going to be set in Ireland, it needed to tap into everything about Ireland that is known throughout the world and – you know, I used to work in a video shop and films like Laws Of Attraction and Leap Year, they’re known for being really offensive for the way they portray Ireland, and I wanted to do the opposite of that.

How much was changed between your initial script and the finished film?

Not a lot, to be honest with you. The story’s exactly the same, the characters are exactly the same… it really didn’t change until we got to pre-production, where we had a film that was coming in around £6 million and we had to take nearly £2 million out. That was challenging, but fun, because I knew the film would get made if I pulled it off. It was just removing some characters – we had some teenage characters in the film, so I just got rid of them. Rather than special effects being the most expensive thing in the film, it’s actually the cast, so we pulled out those two characters.

And we got rid of some of the bigger set pieces. Like the cave scene in the film is maybe the third alternative to what was originally there, which was this big set piece out on the water where Paddy had caught the female grabber in his lobster trap, and it was a big chase sequence with a rubber dinghy with O’Shea powering a motor boat and Lisa in the back of this dinghy trying to hang on with tentacles reaching out for her from all sides. It was over the top, really fun, but it was almost half our budget!

There were some other things, like there was originally a blackout on the island, and that makes it really difficult to light, so that had to change. The creatures were originally buried in cement at the end. That construction site you see in the film, rather than them stripping out an oil tank they were originally setting an oil tank into a big concrete pit, and you know when Lisa steps out of the Jeep into mud in the film? Originally she steps into wet cement, and that became a motif that went through the film, so her boots were crusted and when they got back to the original location her footsteps had set rock hard. It all led up to this scene where they bury the grabbers in cement, like that scene in Gremlins 2. But it was impossible to shoot.

It all just comes down to what you can pull off with the budget, really. A lot of time when you’re writing, you’re completely free from constraints, and then you get to the actual production, it becomes about making choices which are the best for the production. Screenwriting is a weird craft, really, because you’re being creative but you also have to be a bit of a producer, and things change because they’re more economically viable rather than creatively the best you can do. 

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Were you involved throughout the whole production, then?

It became a really tight foursome between myself, Jon [Wright], and Kate [Myers] and Tracy [Brimm], the two producers. I guess the fifth member of that core unit was Paddy Eason, the visual effects supervisor, and we were in tandem throughout the whole production. It was really easy; I mean, the script didn’t change much until we got to pre-production, and then at that point it was just a case of wanting to get the film made. It was a lot of fun. I had a really easy ride on Grabbers, usually writers have it really bad, and end up resenting people involved in the film, but I was just really excited to be riding this rollercoaster alongside everyone else.

We were actually quite worried that we liked each other too much – you know they say the best films are born of terrible turmoil, but it was just such a joy to work with everybody. I’ve probably been spoiled and it’ll never happen again!

I think the important thing is that you all care about what you’re doing, really.

We had to, because none of us were getting paid very much! It was all done for love, not money. It was a really difficult shoot, don’t get me wrong. We had massive obstacles – the film was shooting during winter, right up in the north of Ireland, and there were blizzards and gale force storms, and it made shooting outside pretty much impossible.

I bet everyone was really glad you wrote that most of the scenes take place in the rain, then.

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I felt really guilty. We were on set in January, and you know the scene where they’re outside, and Lisa’s drunk, and they’ve just pulled a grabber off Dr Gleeson’s face? It was absolutely baltic, properly 10 below, and then they’d turn on these rain machines, and the drops are so heavy it was like hail hitting them. We were all under umbrellas and what have you, but Richard was wearing a v-neck and I thought he’d get pneumonia. It was, uh, interesting, to see what they had to go through to make the thing that I wrote look cool. I felt quite evil. 

Will everything you write from now on be set indoors or in beautiful sunshine, then?

No! It can be impossible as long as I don’t have to do it!

The creature effects in the film are pretty great; did they match up to the image you had in your head when you were writing the script?

Yeah, the main creatures look really similar to what I had in my head. The main thing we embellished was the mouth of the creatures, and that was down to Jon and Paddy adding in all these different appendages and what have you. I had no idea what the mouth should look like, other than having this razor tongue that was sharp like a barb. I just wanted them to be a big coil of black tentacles, like a cross between a spider and an eel, I thought it would be really creepy to have that spinning like a tumbleweed.

The thing that changed an awful lot was the grabblings – they were originally called jumpers and they had two little feet and they’d hop, like chickens. My thinking for that was that the facehuggers look pretty different from the xenomorph, so I wanted the jumpers to look quite different from the grabbers, and the way a tadpole would grow legs to become a frog, these things would lose legs to become grabbers. But it just sort of felt like they were different creatures completely, rather than the same species. So we made them like a coiled spring, and the jumpers became grabblings. That came down to a lot of concept design work with Paddy and Jon, where they’d show me lots of pictures. Really, Paddy and Nvizible just ran with it, they said the film was gonna be their baby, and they went crazy with it.

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You’ve been quite outspoken on Twitter about hating the fact that the twist about the alcohol was publicised before people saw the film. Do you still feel that way, and wish it had been kept a secret?

I wouldn’t say ‘hate’… I was very sceptical about giving that away. I’d never tell people that. The film is plotted like a mystery, like the Feck Files, with an Irish Mulder and Scully going on this investigation, and when you know what the outcome is you’re just waiting for the characters to figure it out. If you don’t, you’re with them. At the halfway point in the script, the plan is hatched and the second half becomes a raucous farcical comedy, where in the first half you’re expecting a standard monster movie, I wanted to throw in a huge twist that people would go “whoa, that’s different!” but if you already know that, you’re just thinking “why aren’t they drunk yet?”

I guess it comes down to whether it’s a twist or a hook. And I think a lot of people went to see it because of the hook of the alcohol. 

Since you are so accessible online, do you find that people want to come and talk to you on Twitter after seeing the film?

Yeah – well, we have a Grabbers Twitter account, and we used to be really active on that, going back to the actual production, we had a running commentary on the development and production of the film, and we were just very open and it just became a constant conversation with people.

We’ve been really lucky, no one’s said any nasty things to us. We’ve just had this banter back and forth with people who’ve seen the film and people who are excited to see the film.

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For us, Twitter has been our biggest marketing tool. People have become champions of the film after talking to us on Twitter. Grabbers really didn’t have any marketing budget outside of Ireland, it’s all been down to Facebook and Twitter, so we love social media.

Being a writer, do you find that when you’re watching movies, do you sometimes find yourself thinking “I could’ve written that better”?

Yes, but I think that’s something you think a lot when you’ve not gone through it yourself. There are a lot of films that I love the concept of and was frustrated by the film. And then when you go through it yourself with your own film, you realise there’s a lot you can’t really criticise without knowing the pressures and constraints they had, or why certain decisions were made.

But I love films that get it right a lot more than I used to. When a film doesn’t pull it off, you think, “I would’ve done that better”, but I just tend to leave it alone because I don’t know why things were done that way. It’s not always the case that the creatives are in charge of the film; sometimes it’s the money men.

You can’t assume that a film is the same sort of art form as a novel, just because it’s telling you a story; there are a hundred storytellers on a film, versus one on a novel. It’s not always the case that the writer’s in charge of the narrative; I mean, in the spec script, you’re seeing the pure voice of that writer telling you exactly how it goes, but then a director comes on and they change it, and actors come on and they change it, and the budget comes in and that dictates a lot, so how do you assign credit and blame? You have to just judge the film on its own terms, and treat it as its own individual thing. 

So what are you working on next?

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I’ve got about three or four things on the go, so I’m hoping one of them will happen. One I’m really keeping my fingers crossed for is called Legend Has It, and it’s with the same producers as Grabbers, and it’s kind of like an Irish Princess Bride. It’s the one script I had that makes people cry when they read it, but it’s a big sweeping adventure with a lot of heart to it. I thought, if I’m gonna do another Irish film, I’m gonna do the definitive Irish film, and take all these great mythological creatures, banshees and sluagh and clurichauns and put them all into a film in a way that has never been done before and create this big fable.

That sounds amazing. Okay, final question: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

I guess it would be Cellular. Because it was nice and high concept. I know he’s only the villain in that, but I thought it was a really smart film, I would’ve loved to have had that concept.

Kevin Lehane, thank you very much!

Grabbers is out on DVD and Blu-ray now. You can read our interview with Jon Wright here. 

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