Every thriller writer knows you must never, ever kill a pet in your novel. You can torture and mutilate any number of human beings. You can slice and dice women, massacre men on a battlefield, and readers will keep turning the pages. But harm one little chihuahua and you’ve gone too far. The readers will let you have it.
I learned that lesson the hard way when I wrote PLAYING WITH FIRE, about the fate of a Jewish-Italian family during WWII. What upset readers wasn’t the tragic fate of the doomed young lovers, or the fact the family perishes in a Nazi death camp. No, what really outraged them – and boy, did they vent their outrage in emails, reviews and reader forums — was the death of a fictional cat. In a novel about the Holocaust.
I was certainly aware that animal deaths are a trigger point in fiction, even for hardcore thriller readers, but I assumed horror movie fans were a tougher bunch. After all, they’re accustomed to zombie apocalypses and oozing brains and fountains of blood. Surely they can handle the death of a yappy little terrier.
Or so I thought when my son Josh and I made our low-budget horror film “Island Zero.” Set on a remote Maine island at Christmas, the movie’s about a small fishing community that finds itself cut off from the outside world when the ferry suddenly stops coming, and no one knows why. The phones are dead, the power’s out, and every fisherman who tries to make it to the mainland vanishes. When horribly mutilated bodies start to turn up along the water’s edge, the survivors realize that someone – or something – is hunting them. Without the budget for big-studio CGI or elaborate creature effects, we focused instead on a character-driven plot. Inspired by wintry Scandinavian films, “Island Zero” is very much about the villagers and their personal crises. The story is a slow but inexorable buildup to terror. Would a horror audience sit through a film where the blood doesn’t start spilling until the second half? How could we goose the scare factor early in the story?
We chose to add a cold open before the opening credits. This introductory scene is the equivalent of a prologue in a novel, and it gives the audience a taste of the scares to come. We had access to a sailboat and our producer found a scene-stealing terrier named Henry, who made his big-screen acting debut playing the very first victim. Henry happily dove right into the job, yapping on cue as we filmed his gruesome cinematic fate. Problem solved!
Or so we thought.
Not long after the film was completed, I got an urgent call from my friend Dan Rosen, a screenwriter who’d watched “Island Zero” at a film festival. “You can’t kill the dog! You’ll piss off the audience and they won’t sit through the rest of the movie because they’ll still be thinking about the dog!” He implored us to get rid of the cold open before we officially released the film.
I worried that Dan was right, but the rest of the “Island Zero” team adamantly refused to cut the cold open. They told me that horror audiences are tough, they want a jolt of adrenaline in the first three minutes, and a focus group who’d watched the film never raised any objections to the dead dog.
Reluctantly I agreed to keep the cold open.
A few months later, our distributor Freestyle Media released “Island Zero” on multiple streaming platforms. The very first week, it hit the top ten in horror films on iTunes, which was astonishing for a low-budget film by first-time indie filmmakers, and it picked up review attention from dozens of horror film critics. But it soon became clear that the dead dog was shocking viewers. Even gore-hardened horror audiences have trigger points, and one thing that really triggers moviegoers is dead pets. It’s such a sore point there’s even a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which warns audiences which movies to avoid.
With our very first scene, we had broken one of Hollywood’s biggest taboos – a taboo so universally known that Blake Snyder’s classic book about screenwriting is called Save The Cat. When the fate of a dog named Boomer is unclear in the space-alien movie “Independence Day,” audiences sent an avalanche of angry letters in protest. (The alien attack wipes out entire cities and millions of people, but it was the dog’s fate that really upset them.)
While “Island Zero” was already available on multiple North American platforms, the DVD had not yet been released and it had not yet hit the international market. Could we somehow salvage the situation and save “Island Zero” from the eternal wrath of pet-loving viewers?
There was only one way to fix the problem: shoot a new cold open. It’s a desperate measure, akin to writing a new prologue after the book’s already out in stores, but we didn’t want one dead dog to sink our baby. Heading back to the drawing board, I wrote a new opening scene that wove in a crucial element from the main story. We dove back into the filmmaking process. It was like shooting an entirely new film and we started from scratch, scouting and securing a boat as the location, hiring new talent (actress Kelly McAndrew) and crew, collecting props and costumes, blocking scenes, and experimenting with special effects. For a crucial blood splatter, Josh and I spent days tinkering with corn syrup and dye to get just the right consistency and color to make a cinematic splash. What worried us most: our unpredictable Maine weather. The two-day shoot had to be scheduled a month in advance; would the seas be calm?
On the day of the shoot, the weather gods were good to us, Kelly was a dream to work with, and everything came together, right down to the blood splatter. The new cold open also makes the storytelling richer, showing a past event that is referenced multiple times throughout the film.
Two weeks later, the new cold open was ready for release, just in time for the DVD and Blu-Ray. We also insisted on having it replace the old version across all streaming platforms. Now if you stream “Island Zero” on iTunes or Amazon, the scene with the dead dog is gone. Instead what you’ll get is a dead woman. (Which audiences apparently find perfectly acceptable.) The new version will be on all other streaming platforms soon.
Sometimes, the best way to learn filmmaking is to simply dive in, do it – and make mistakes. And one of our mistakes was forgetting that the principles of storytelling are universal. Whether they’re reading a book or watching a movie, all audiences want their emotions tweaked by a great plot and engaging characters. Give them drama or comedy, thrills or tears. They’ll forgive you if you kill the hero or heroine, if you level cities or wipe out mankind.
But never, ever, kill the dog.