My friend called from inside the theater. He whispered into the phone: “I’m so scared.”
I could barely hear him.
He said, “It’s not fair. They’re breaking the rules. They’re breaking the rules. You’re supposed to give the audience a break.”
He believed in the rules of cinema. He believed there was an honor code amongst good directors. You relent.
We all buy the ticket to the horror movie, the house of terror, the haunted hayride fully invested in being scared. But we also expect the creator of the scares to follow an unwritten rule that you give the audience a break. You terrorize them for a period of time, and then you chill out, you give the audience a chance to breathe. Then you frighten them again. It’s a give and take. A good horror movie is like a good symphony. You don’t go to listen to an orchestra only to hear the crescendo.
That’s why my friend called me from inside the theater. He couldn’t take it any more. The movie refused to let him off the hook.
There was more. We had both begun to work on Sacrifice together by this point. We took the two-page treatment and we were trying to create a screenplay. I had just returned from Los Angeles after securing representation. I pitched the treatment to a company called Bohemian, and they jumped all over it. The problem was now the two of us had to figure out how to write a screenplay. And we had to learn fast. We didn’t want the company to forget about us. They were excited, and we wanted to strike while the iron was hot.
So the first thing we did was watch every horror movie we could get our hands on.
At the time, the two of us were bartending at a nice inn on the corner of the Santa Fe Plaza. (We were desperate to quit our job. So we didn’t want to waste any time.) We also had a plethora of time during the days before we had to show up for work. So we would get together at my apartment and crank though one or two movies a day. I can’t remember why I didn’t go to the movies with him the night he called from inside the theater. Hearing his voice over the phone, I was glad I didn’t go. I still haven’t seen that movie.
But we decided something that night after he left the theater. We decided that was the kind of movie we needed to make. We needed to make a movie that broke the rules. We wanted to make a horror movie that changed the way people thought about horror movies. Coming out of the gate we had an advantage. We had an idea nobody was doing. The story of the Los Hermanos de Penitente was untapped. A western, horror, neo-noir was a newish category.
What we didn’t anticipate: A new kind of horror movie was about to explode into theaters. The entire landscape of horror was about to be upended in 2005. And we didn’t even know it.
The truth is Sacrifice began in the Santa Fe Public Library. At a table piled high with books. Last light of evening faded outside the window.
All books begin with other books. Cormac McCarthy takes the idea a few steps further: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” So any book that doesn’t actually being in a library begins under the shadow of a bookshelf. If not, it begins in some person’s memory of some book they once read. Books do not spring forth fully formed. They are the bastard child of someone else’s scribbling.
It took me a long time to understand that ideas don’t belong to us. Stories are living things with free will. Even our own stories don’t belong to us. They are born out of stories that happened long before we stumbled down the dirt path. They are the property of the people who carry them with us once we are gone. The longer they carry our stories the longer our shadows darken this world. They are transient. They move through the daylight and the darkness like itinerant preachers—always searching for a new congregant. They stop in random towns to share their woes. Sometimes they pick up some new something on their way out the door and bring it with them to the next town.
At this point I had no idea Sacrifice would ever be a book. Sitting in the Santa Fe Public Library the story I conceived was for a movie.
I spent three weeks hunched over a stack of books, folios, and artist renderings of Los Hermanos Penitente. During those three weeks of research I produced a two-page treatment for a movie. That’s when everything changed for the first time.
I had no intention of ever writing a horror story the first time the idea for Sacrifice was presented to me.
At the time I dedicated myself to the lofty pursuit of writing literary fiction. I wrote short stories--the noble calling.
I had completed a semi-autobiographical novel about a minister's son struggling with his faith. I was halfway through a second, desk-drawer novel about a woman who has to escape an abusive husband who has her trapped in a house in Maine.
I was invited to Los Angeles to pitch some of my short stories to a producer who wanted to develop a film. He was interested in funny short stories that he could develop for Vince Vaugn and several other people on the up-swing of their careers. This was a long time ago.
I met the producer at a sandwich joint in the valley. We took our lunch onto the large back patio shaded by robust balsa wood trees. We chatted about the stories. He told me his concept. We finished our sandwiches. And like a zillion other lunch meetings with producers it ended amicably, but with no plan for the future.
The next day I flew back to Santa Fe and my real job and my laptop where I would sit and write more stories.
A week or so later he called. He said the money fell through for the comedy he envisioned. However, he wanted to know, did I have any ideas for a horror movie?
But being a good writer, I lied. I told him I had an idea. He said he had some money and if I could get a script together he might be able to put the package together.
So I left my apartment and did what I do any time I run out of ideas. I went to have lunch. I met my friend at a breakfast burrito place we ate at about twice weekly during those years I lived in Santa Fe.
I told my friend someone in Los Angeles was interested in me writing a script for a horror movie. But I had no ideas.
That's when my friend introduced me to Los Hermanos de Penitente...
That was the day I jumped into the rabbit hole. And for a decade I have been falling...
SACRIFICE begin at a burrito joint in Santa Fe, New Mexico.