Just Chilling - UI alumni find success in horror film industry

University of Iowa alumni Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan make their living scaring people.

The horror filmmakers wrote the three most recent installments of the Saw series, the most profitable horror franchise in history, including Saw VI, which is set for release just before Halloween. They wrote and Dunstan directed The Collector, released in July. Now they are developing the pilot for an ABC series called Clive Barker’s Hotel.

Melton (BA ’97) and Dunstan (BA ’98) shared the gory details of their careers with Spectator@IOWA.

How did you meet at the University?

Patrick Melton: One of the first times I met Marcus, he was filming a short called The World’s Slowest Zombie Chase. He had an assignment to shoot a chase scene, and rather than doing a fast one like everyone else, he filmed an old man being chased by a zombie. The man escaped by hooking his cane onto a car passing by. So Marcus dressed up as an old man and tied a bumper to his hip. When I saw him, he was being dragged down the street with sparks flying behind him.

Marcus Dunstan: We had a lot in common. We’re both from Illinois, we belonged to the same fraternity, we both served as Herky, and we both worked at movie theaters in Iowa City.

You also both studied film in the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. How did you launch your careers after graduating from Iowa?

Melton: We didn’t know anyone when we moved to Hollywood. We just had ideas and the will to work hard. In 2004, we wrote our first script together, Feast, for Project Greenlight, a film contest established by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It was a web-based contest and the selection process was the topic of a reality show that started on HBO and moved over to Bravo. Wes Craven was the mentor for Season three, and we won for screenwriting.

Dunstan: Feast was released in 2006 by Dimension Films, a genre company within Miramax. That was our big break. It led to the writing gigs for the Saw series.

What’s the general story of the Saw series?

Melton: The story centers around a mastermind killer named Jigsaw who punishes people when they take their lives for granted. He puts them in bizarre traps and they have a set amount of time to escape, or die. It’s supposed to be a moral lesson because they learn to appreciate life.

Was it hard to start writing Saw scripts partway through the series?  

Dunstan: Most of the characters and the structure were already established, so that was helpful. But a lot of themes had already been covered. And we started writing at a difficult point in the series. The original writer killed off Jigsaw and his apprentice Amanda at the end of Saw III, intending to end the franchise there. We had to jump in and start writing with both villains dead.
Melton: We were able to do it because the series has a broken timeline. This gave us a lot of freedom to do flashbacks. We could go back to full scenes with Jigsaw.

Tell us a little about The Collector.

Dunstan: It’s about a handyman who befriends families and then burglarizes their homes when they go out of town. While breaking into a mansion, the thief realizes the family is being tortured in the basement. He faces a choice: be a hero and save the family, or get the heck out of there.

Marcus Dunstan (BA ’98), above left, and Patrick Melton (BA ’97) before the premiere of their film The Collector in July 2009. Top left and below, images from that film.

How do you come up with different ways to kill and torture characters?

Melton: It’s essentially creative writing. We try to use items you could buy in your local hardware store. We also consider what we’ve done before and try to think of different twists.

Dunstan: Irony plays a big part in what happens to characters in the Saw series—for example, a ruthless banker has to give up “a pound of flesh.”

Why do you think people enjoy horror films?

Dunstan: I think there’s some kind of inherent joy in seeing someone have a worse day than you.

Melton: They elicit a reaction the same way comedies do. Some people like being shocked or scared. And often a scream is followed by laughter—people think it’s fun and come back for more.

How did your UI experience contribute to your career?

Dunstan: It was easy and fun to make a movie in Iowa City. We didn’t have to deal with permits like you do in L.A. or bigger cities. In Iowa City, you pull out a camera and people are still excited about it; other places, people ask for your permit and want to get paid. I really just want to extend a huge thanks to Iowa for being there. The University of Iowa set us on the path, gave us the tools, patience, and drive to take a shot at this, and we could not be more grateful for that experience.
Melton: I never considered myself the best student, but I learned while at Iowa that if you work hard and put in the time, you will be rewarded. That lesson came into play a lot in Hollywood. A lot of talented people come to L.A. to be filmmakers but they give up too easily. They’ll be here for a couple years, then go home with their tail tucked between their legs. It takes a lot of perseverance but if you work the hardest, you’re going to be the last one standing.

What projects do you have planned for the future?

Melton: We’re working on Saw VII, which will be in 3-D. It will be released next Halloween.

Dunstan: We’re also staying busy with Clive Barker’s Hotel, a weekly show about a hotel of the haunted variety. People show up carrying a burden that the hotel brings out. They will be helped or hurt during their stay. The idea is that anyone can check in—but not everyone checks out.

Nicole Riehl

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© The University of Iowa 2009