Writing the Stalker Film Screenplay

Stalking is an inherently cinematic activity and it crops up everywhere, in every kind of story. Following people around (with a camera) is what film-makers do, and as soon as the camera becomes a character, it’s a stalker. Whether it’s the cop watching the villain on a stakeout or the cold-blooded killer following a young woman down an alleyway, placing the audience in the stalker’s shoes and allowing them to watch someone who doesn’t ‘know’ they’re being watched, is a staple audience thrill. It’s a great way of drawing in an audience, suspending their disbelief and making them utterly complicit all at the same time.

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DEFINING THE GENRE

As defined by the likes of FATAL ATTRACTION, DUEL, ONE HOUR PHOTO, CAPE FEAR, HALLOWEEN, the Stalker genre is one where the relationship between the stalker and the victim drives the main plot. The classic story model usually begins with the antagonist’s obsession with the protagonist being sparked off by a particular incident/action. He or she then watches the protagonist, hounds them, invades their life and provokes them into increasingly violent confrontations that culminate in a battle to the death (where classically the protagonist must kill the antagonist to survive).

This basic plot has thrown up a range of different films. Changing the various elements (who’s stalking whom, why, how) has allowed film-makers to adapt it and freshen it up for every zeitgeist. Sometimes this finger on the pulse approach has meant that the movies date badly (FATAL ATTRACTION is as 80s as the Rubik’s cube) but that’s often a reflection of just how hard they hit a nerve at the time.

More modern iterations have combined the stalker theme with the teen horror. THE ROOMMATE follows the experience of a new college student paired with an obsessive fellow student in her dorm room, 2008’s PROM NIGHT charts the return of a sadistic killer from a high school girl’s past as she and her friends attend prom and HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET, starring a young Jennifer Lawrence, a teenager’s encounter with a traumatized and psychotic boy who lives in her new neighbourhood.

GENRE TROPES

Every possible relationship combination has been done: men stalking men (THE KING OF COMEDY), women stalking men (PLAY MISTY FOR ME), women stalking women (SINGLE WHITE FEMALE), men stalking women (SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY) and every motivation covered: for revenge (CAPE FEAR), for love (HE LOVES ME … HE LOVES ME NOT), because the stalker wants to be stalked  (SINGLE WHITE FEMALE), because the stalker wants what the stalked individual has (ONE HOUR PHOTO) and just because they’re an evil maniac (HALLOWEEN).

Most gender combinations and motivations have intersected at some time and as our awareness of the way real stalkers behave has increased, the psychological plausibility of their behaviour has become more important. The evil maniac excuse just doesn’t cut it in the way it used to. Once it was acceptable for the stalker to be a mysterious force of evil, sometimes to an almost abstract degree (in DUEL the human stalker is unseen inside a murderous truck). However it’s now assumed that there will be some sort of childhood trauma behind all that lurking behind bushes (CHUCK & BUCK, ONE HOUR PHOTO, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE).

In turn, more recent films have utilised enclosed, claustrophobic settings to differentiate themselves from the more traditional pursuit trope. P2 centres on a business executive trapped in a garage office in her company’s building on Christmas Eve, while THE RESIDENT sees a woman (Hilary Swank) learn the landlord of her new Brooklyn loft may have developed a stalkerish obsession with her.

COMPLEX CHARACTERS

While it can be sad to lose the more romantic, biblical trope of being stalked by evil, making the antagonist a cypher frees you up to concentrate on the protagonist’s problems (and bad guys unmitigated by childhood traumas are usually more fun). This increase in the complexity of antagonist characterisation has brought on another, more interesting change: stalker sympathy, even to the extent that the stalker becomes the protagonist. This was  most famously done in TAXI DRIVER, in which De Niro‘s Travis Bickle is a tightly wound veteran seeking an outlet, and begins to pursue a senator and a member of his staff. Bickle invites both sympathy and revulsion and arguably no stalker film has addressed this complexity better.

A good recent example of a film told from the stalker’s perspective is the low-budget indie CHUCK & BUCK. The incident that sets off Buck’s obsession with Chuck is a childhood sex game, one that seems to have retarded his emotional development at the age of eleven. The story deviates from the classic trope in many ways but is notable for the fact that Buck actually gets what he wants (sex with Chuck) and this makes it possible for him to let go of his obsession and move on. Not only does nobody have to die at the end, everybody has cake.

STALKER FILMS AS COMEDIES

Even with its relatively happy ending, Chuck & Buck is still a disturbing film, tonally it keeps with tradition. The stalker movies that have really inverted the classic model are the handful that have been executed as comedies. In WHAT ABOUT BOB? psychiatrist Dr Leo Marvin is so uptight and self-important that it’s fun watching Bob drive him crazy with his needy, neurotic attentions (and the escalating confrontations are very much played for laughs).

ALL ABOUT STEVE, a Sandra Bullock/Bradley Cooper comedy, looked to add to that tradition in 2009 but was widely panned. Stalking is rarely successfully played for laughs in Hollywood, with the honourable exception of THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. While encompassing many different comedic themes and motifs, the film is fundamentally about stalking; the harmless Ted Stroehmann’s (Ben Stiller‘s character) and the more creepy Pat Healy’s (as played by Matt Dillon).

Perhaps the most unusual stalker story of all is the redemptive romantic comedy ADDICTED TO LOVE, where stalker Sam learns the error of his ways and finds love with fellow stalker Maggie. Despite all these attempts to pervert the traditional relationship between stalker and victim, the classic model still thrives (CAPE FEAR, SWIMFAN), probably because a stalker is such an easy and powerful way to personify a character’s demons and have him fight them to the bitter end.

UNDERLYING MOTIVATIONS

What does the protagonist fear the most? A threat to his family (CAPE FEAR)? To his sanity (ENDURING LOVE)? To his life (DUEL)? That his past will come back to haunt him (CHUCK & BUCK)? Or his sins (FATAL ATTRACTION)? What would he be prepared to do to protect himself if he were completely on his own?

Aside from fear, the other guiding emotion in the protagonist’s journey is usually guilt, which is often triggered at the same time as the stalker’s obsession. The action that connects the protagonist to the antagonist doesn’t have to be serious but the protagonist always does something and feels some sense of responsibility or culpability, even if the antagonist isn’t the focus of those feelings. In ENDURING LOVE, for example, Jez’s obsession with Joe exacerbates his mental deterioration but the underlying problem is really Joe’s guilt feelings about his part in the ballooning accident.

Sometimes the guilt arises not from the obsession-causing incident itself but from the way in which the protagonist finds himself reacting to the threat that the antagonist poses. As brutally as Max Cady behaves, the genuine dark element of CAPE FEAR is how quickly respectable lawyer Sam becomes corrupt and acts outside the law in order to protect himself and his family (and the dramatically satisfying ending arises from his realisation that punishing Cady in a civilised way is the greatest revenge).

The reason for a stalker’s obsession makes surprisingly little difference to his or her behaviour. Love is every bit as dangerous as revenge and, sadly, it’s all become rather predictable. Some clichés are inevitable (looking in through windows, standing outside in the rain), some are durable (the POV shot) and some should be pulled immediately (I’ll get to the dogs later).

There’s surprisingly little variation in the way that movie stalkers ply their trade so the clever ones stand out. In ONE HOUR PHOTO, Sy Parrish has a lazy start as a stalker because the objects of his obsession, the Yorkin family, actually bring all the surveillance material to him (in the form of the films they take in to be developed). In ADDICTED TO LOVE astronomer Sam knocks up a camera obscura that projects cinema-sized images of his ex-fiancé on the wall.

Some recurring moments remain creepy after repeated use: the moment when the protagonist pretends to return the stalker’s affection so they can catch him/her off guard (SINGLE WHITE FEMALE) or when the stalker convinces someone close to the victim that they’re the one with the problem (ENDURING LOVE) and the point where the protagonist appears to be completely over-reacting to the threat in a public place is normally essential (DUEL).

WHAT TO AVOID

One of the most over-used tropes is that the dog always gets it first (CAPE FEAR, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, SWIMFAN, HALLOWEEN). If there’s a dog in a stalker movie, try not to become too attached to it. Very famously, FATAL ATTRACTION managed to get some new mileage out of the dog trope by boiling a bunny but, in general, unless you have an issue with canines or an ingenious spin on the idea, it’s probably best avoided.

The final cliché in most stalker movies is usually the antagonist’s ability to be back on their feet a minute or so after being shot, stabbed, drowned or subjected to some other event that would comfortably kill anyone not blessed with superhuman powers. I’m not sure whether this cliché originated in the stalker story (probably not) but FATAL ATTRACTION does seem to be the one that made it de rigeur and, sadly, this now means that we live in an age where the audience would be disappointed if the killer didn’t come back to life at least once.

The stalker story is best when it bypasses the logical mind and heads straight for our deepest, darkest, most paranoid fears. There’s a rich seam untapped here in that it’s probably about time that the stalker story was suitably updated for the surveillance camera zeitgeist. Better keep the curtains shut.

Written by Faye Jackson.

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Writing the Stalker Film Screenplay
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