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WRITES.CAMERA.AX-TION!: Jerry J. Sampson

By Mo Moshaty  April 14, 2024

Jerry J. Sampson is a screenwriter and film critic whose focus is strongly on the Horror and Psychological Thriller genre. Her feature screenplays have been award winners, finalists, and Official Selections at various film festivals including FilmQuest, Beverly
Hills Film Festival, HorrorHaus, HorrorOrigins, and Austin Film Festival. Jerry recently wrapped filming of her short supernatural horror script The Safety Games, directed by
Jeremiah Kipp (Slapface), and is developing the feature screenplay for the proof-of-concept short. She is currently in development on her directorial short film debut, In Dreams, a surreal meditation on grief, and her feature MOTEL is set to shoot in fall of
2024.

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1.  Give us the best elevator pitch on your work.

My stories explore the dark nature of generational trauma and the ways in which that darkness can manifest. I explore and question the shadowy nature of humanity and believe that oftentimes the monsters hiding in the shadows may not be nearly as terrifying as the monster that lives within those who are troubled.

2. Tell us about your first brush with the horror genre. 

My childhood was filled with “stranger danger” games and constant reminders of how terrifying and dangerous the world is for girls. As a result, I was always afraid. It wasn’t until my sister sat me down one day and forced me to watch the IT miniseries that my fears manifested into something recognizable (Pennywise) and tangible, giving me an anchor
within characters and storytelling to latch onto and fight against monsters. I was reading Stephen King at 9 years old, and writing short stories where families got tortured by clowns in amusement parks at 10, and all the while my anxiety and internal fear were weakening, losing power over me. It was the horror genre that gave me the strength to finally turn my
back on the dark corners of my room at night.

3. What about the genre pulls you to work within it? 

When I started writing in earnest, at 30 years old, I naturally gravitated to the horror genre. I had spent my life acclimating to fear, and my stories naturally took the form of horror. I did, however, discover that my craft was suited best for exploring generational horrors, those things that are passed from mother to daughter, that form the shapes of our fears
without ever having touched us – that was what my writing morphed into. I examine familial relationships in a way that I don’t always have the strength to in my real life, thereby allowing myself a certain amount of catharsis through the craft and genre.

4. On this horror journey have there been bumps or disappointments?

I’m surely not the first and I won’t be the last to say that the road is filled with tire-mutilating, soul-crushing potholes. All it takes is reading every announcement about remakes of classic IP and just how many of them (nearly all) are written and directed by
men to understand just how shut off women still are from the genre. For some reason, even though there is not a woman alive who doesn’t inherently know the feeling of terror simply walking to your car in a parking garage at night, we aren’t considered the “target audience” of the horror genre.

5. What was the first horror screenplay you’ve written? Any production, publishing?

My feature psychological horror script MOTEL was the first feature script I wrote and is what I consider my white whale of scripts. It’s the most divisive of my scripts and I have nothing but love for it, which is why I’m thrilled at the forward progression of the script with producers and a director I respect and love for the script, despite a few setbacks from last
year’s strikes, this is a fully indie production that I’m thrilled to see move forward in the fall of 2024.

6. What’s your process when beginning a screenplay?

It all starts with my opening scene. I have an image that sticks with me until I start building an idea around it, and from there, it goes to where it needs to get! Once the idea hits, I can’t sleep well because I’m haunted with scenes and characters who won’t leave me alone until I sit up and acknowledge them. Once I do that, I take that opening scene and build
upon it, finding the story behind the scenes, and the characters always take center stage.

7. World-building in horror can be as extensive or as contained as we wish. What comes first for you in the idea department, the plot, the character, or the atmosphere?

I’m always focused first on character. Shortly after that, I build the world around the character/s, which is based on atmosphere, aesthetic, etc. And after that, the plot takes form. I feel like so much modern horror film relies on plot first and foremost, and I tend to rebel against that by focusing first on the character, then on the visceral feel of the world of the film,
and the plot fills itself in after that.

8. Who and/or what are your horror influences?

Currently, I’m influenced by such directors as Ari Aster and Oz Perkins, with serious inspirations by Brandon Cronenberg and Rose Glass. What I’m seeking is a collaboration with producers who see the value in a real fucked-up time – those who appreciate the often-polarizing effects of taking chances in narrative storytelling and characters who might
just make you mad. My work aims for the NEON/A24 crowd, those who want to examine the evil in man as well as monsters.

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9. Is there a story inside that you have seeds of but can't seem to connect that's dying to get out?

To be honest, I’m writing that story now. My short script The Safety Games was filmed last year with the impressive direction of Jeremiah Kipp (Slapface) and the star power of Emily Bennett and Anastasia Lee, a phenomenal young talent. The script I wrote was the most personal story I’ve told. And I’ve told some personal stories. My childhood was wrought with a certain amount of fear and almost ethereal danger passed from my mother to me, and my script The Safety Games was the first time I’ve fully examined that feeling and narrative. The filming of the short was incredibly cathartic, but my current project is to
extend that short film into a feature film that captures the spirit of the short, which has proven to be quite the challenge!

10. How do you handle extensive notes or a rejected screenplay?

As a screenwriter, I’m more used to rejection than not. That said, there are certain projects that I’ve become ridiculously stubborn on, refusing to see the idea die off. And that is an ego-free aspect of the industry that realizes that there’s an audience for every story, but you may have to be patient and discerning to reach that audience. I’m happy to compromise on things when I’m given notes that make sense, but there are times when I must hold strong to my vision.  It’s all a game, love, and you have to choose the times you’ll be the player, and those times you’ll take control.

11. What has been the most difficult part of your screenwriting journey?

The most difficult part has been the best part, which is finding a way to advocate for myself as a writer, find my own path, and find a way to network that doesn’t involve representation. I’m grateful that I have the support of my husband, who withstanding support for years has helped my near soul-crushing impostor syndrome.

12. What has been the best/most rewarding?

Simply the art of storytelling and building my voice is rewarding. Developing the characters, and subsequently killing them, is incredibly rewarding. Throughout all the hard times, there is nothing more rewarding than finishing a draft, printing it out, and turning that title page face-up on the desk.

13.  Which horror element or creature from film/lit terrifies you and why?

Growing up, it was of course Pennywise, as he was my first glimpse of pure terror. But as the years have gone on, I find myself far more terrified by the inner darkness. The Babadook remains one of the most horrific manifestations of grief and shame ever filmed, and that film gets me every single time.

14.  What project are you looking forward to next?

My feature psychological thriller MOTEL is currently under option and on the way to be filmed (fingers crossed) in Q4 of 2024. That script is one that has been polarizing to readers, but those who get it have been amazing advocates for the story. I am also in the final rewrites of my erotic thriller feature PROBLEMATIC, which is a story I absolutely love and has great promise of finding its way on screen!

15.  Where can folks find your work?

I am on Instagram @thesleepermustawaken, and my film reviews and editorials, along with some amazing whiskey reviews and pairings, can be found on my site Whiskey & Horror (whiskeyandhorror.com).

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Mo Moshaty is a horror writer, lecturer and producer. As a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and life long horror fan, Mo has lectured with Prairie View A&M Film & TV Program as a Keynote, BAFSS Horror Studies Sig  and The University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Mo has partnered with horror giant, Shudder Channel, to co-produce the 13 Minutes of Horror Film Festival 2021 and 2022 with Nyx Horror Collective and her literary work "Love the Sinner" was published with Brigid's Gate Press in July of 2023 and her two volume collection, "Clairviolence: Tales of Tarot and Torment Vol. One and Two" will be published with Spooky House Press in the Spring of 2024

Mo is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of NightTide Magazine

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