August 26, 2008

CU: Eric Kripke

From Fight On! to Fright On!

By John Zollinger

Eric Kripke '96, creator/executive producer of Supernatural, directs a scene with Jared Padalecki.
Stop me if you've heard this one. There's this production undergrad. With a burning passion to direct. When he finishes 'SC, he knocks on every door in town armed with his student films. He gets a deal. But it's not to direct. It's to write. And write. And write again—straight into development hell.

And it's the best thing that ever happened to him.

Welcome to the world of Eric Kripke, '96, writer of the 2005 scare flick Boogeyman and creator/executive producer of the CW chiller Supernatural. With season four premiering on September 18, the one-hour drama about two brothers who battle demons both real and personal is a long way from the comedies Truly Committed and Battle of The Sexes that Kripke wrote and directed when he started out from 'SC. But though the road from Adam Sandler-esque scribe to Hollywood "horror guy" has taken a bunch of unplanned turns, Kripke's thrilled to be on the ride.

What motivated you to become a writer? As a teenager and in my first years at USC, I really fancied myself a director. I grew up having a video camera on my shoulder and shooting everything and making my friends act in these movies, which we pretty much made up as we went along. The idea of actually sitting down and tackling a screenplay wasn't something I attempted until my junior year. In a way, I fell into becoming a writer. The films that I had made during and just after school were intended to get me jobs as a director, but the films got me a writing job. They were offering real money, it was a real opportunity and you go where the opportunity leads you.

How did you get interested in horror as a genre? The Evil Dead movies, Poltergeist, American Werewolf in London were a big influence on me. But I really only came to horror as a fan. Anyone who knew me at USC or in the early years of my career, primarily knew me as a comedy writer/director. The short films I made around and just after USC were comedies. My first few gigs were as a comedy writer. The joke I make as I look back is that I started out as a comedy writer, but apparently I wasn’t a very good one because all of my comedies ended up in one form of development hell or another.

It wasn't until I wrote Boogeyman, basically as a therapeutic exercise and nothing else—I named every victim after a studio executive and killed them in the goriest ways possible—that I wrote in this genre. It was fun to write a script where I didn't have to be funny, that I could be terrifying. Then I put it on a shelf, forgot about it, and went back to my sub-par Adam Sandler rip-offs. Steve Hein (Critical Studies, '96), who produced my short films in film school, read the script and recommended it to Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. So after being in development hell for five or six years on multiple projects, Steve calls me and says they're buying your script, and we were in pre-production two months later. That all happened really fast and then suddenly I was "horror guy."

Though Supernatural deals with demons and ghouls, do you think of the program as a horror show or something else? The other producers and I realized from the very beginning that the best way to make a show about the supernatural was not to make it about the supernatural; to make it about relationships and family and real characters. The monsters and demons that they face are just metaphors for the internal conflicts and dysfunctional familial relationships that they are going through. There's a Richard Matheson quote that good fantasy is 99 percent reality and we took that to heart.

Over the past three seasons, the program has morphed from your original idea of depicting different urban legends to having its own mythology. What do you think of that evolution? I like the relationship between the two brothers, but we're always flirting with the same pitfalls that almost every genre show has. The later you go in the seasons, the more the mythology can overwhelm the storytelling. I don't want Supernatural to be so mythology-heavy that someone can't just turn it on and join the party. The emotional history is useful and beneficial. The mythology you run the risk of getting crushed under the weight of. That's a fine balance, that quite frankly, we're not always successful at.

By the way, what scares you? Tight deadlines, budgets, production realities. I used to have as many nightmares about something chasing me as anyone, but since the show started I almost never have them because every time I think of a ghost or monster I think of another production fire that I have to put out. When monsters become your day job, they're not scary, but they're a pain in the butt.

One last question: What did your 'SC experience do for you? I liked the curriculum, but what was vital about USC was making friends; having as a unit this group of close friends helping each other out and having this group of friends stay in the same city, which is a rare thing. We all stuck together and we all helped each other out and I think everyone has become more successful as a result.