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Friday, March 5, 2021

‘Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon’: David J. Stieve and Scott Glosserman Slice into the Unmade Sequel [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

With this installment, we’ll be taking a look at Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon, the long-discussed but sadly unrealized follow-up to the 2006 fan favorite meta-slasher Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. For this article, we reached out to both Mask screenwriter David J. Stieve and co-writer/director Scott Glosserman, who were kind enough to discuss the sequel’s origins, its comic book adaptation, and whether or not we’ll see more of Leslie Vernon in the future.

“When I was writing, rewriting, doing all of the work on Behind the Mask, I already had the idea,” Mr. Stieve reveals. “It was already there. And for the third. Everybody’s got a trilogy, right? So the story has always been there. Scott Glosserman and I started working on it in earnest while we were shooting Behind the Mask. We were sitting in hotels in Portland, kicking ideas around. ‘What would happen it we did that?’ I started working on it … not right away. We did go through all of the growing pains when Mask was released, and there was a little bit of that refractory period where you just have to walk away for a second and get your bearings again. The fact that Behind the Mask sort of landed with a thud and didn’t really catch on was disheartening. We’ve all been pretty open and public about that.”

“Right after the movie,” Mr. Glosserman explains, “we were thinking ‘Okay. If Anchor Bay somehow blows this up – and at the time, The Weinstein Company and IFC had made offers – if we truly get a good theatrical release and this thing gets some legs, maybe we just do Leslie Vernon horror movies. We go the New Line Cinema route, we go to Dimension, and we just make these great Leslie Vernon movies. And then for the uberfan, there’s an origin story just sitting there, this little found footage mockumentary. But what they really see is this intellectual property, where Leslie Vernon has become this horror icon, and he’s actually doing straight up horror films. So that was one road to take, but it obviously meant that the film would have had to have become ubiquitous.”

Unfortunately, the movie was not the massive financial success that was hoped for. “Certainly not enough for the movie to have subsequently warranted a studio type of [follow-up],” Mr. Glosserman continues. “We were trying forever to quantify the size of the horror community. I was trying to figure out, ‘What is the size of this audience?’ I can see that people online like it, the IMDb comments and horror site coverage. But if you take the monthly average Bloody Disgusting readers on, is it the same crowd who goes onto Ain’t It Cool, or do you add them together? How do you quantify the size, and does that therefore justify walking into Sony and telling them ‘I have this sizable community, and so you should make this at the studio level.’ And clearly, I couldn’t convince anyone at the studio level.”

“So there was a period there,” Mr. Stieve explains, “around 2007 or 2008, where it was just really tough to want to get back into that world. But you never stop. The story, the characters. As a screenwriter, they always exist in your head. I think it was around 2009 when I started working on it again in earnest. Scott and I were a lot more hands-on involved in crafting the story together. Like, ‘How are we going to do this? What’s the tone? Are we going to try and do the exact same thing again? Are we going to try to take a completely different approach and have it all be like a Blair Witch-type found footage thing?’”

“We were thinking about [the sequel] the whole time,” Mr. Glosserman adds. “[But] what’s the next move? I was pitching MTV Films around 2009 on this TV series idea, where Taylor goes on to run a school for survivor girls. This was when MSNBC still had ‘To Catch a Predator’. We thought it would be so great if we had Taylor doing the horror version of ‘To Catch a Predator’, where Taylor would lure a would-be killer into a frathouse or some party, and then all the lights come up and he’s caught. Taylor would come out with a microphone and interview the guy, and then he gets arrested by the cops. So that was going to be a TV series.”

“We were really in the weeds,” Mr. Stieve admits. “Not only in how it would look, and how we would present this, but how in the world are we going to get Taylor and Leslie back together again? Why would she ever be in a room with him again?”

Mr. Glosserman adds: “A number of people had come back to me and said, ‘Honestly, what you should do, Scott – you’re like some obscure Scandinavian film, that somebody does a feature adaptation of and casts it up. What you really should do is, you should walk into Dimension and get them to make the movie again for twenty million dollars, and cast Ethan Hawke as Leslie Vernon. You’ve made your proof of concept … and it clearly has a cult following, but now you should make it with a real, commercial budget and some notable cast.’ That was, and I suppose still is, a looming opportunity. But it doesn’t bring the band back together. It doesn’t bring back the soul of what we had when all of us went out and did what we did.”

The first draft for Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon was eventually completed in late 2009. As the story for this continuation was to act as a sequel, prequel and remake all at once, the script was referred to as a “spreemake”. But what tale would the screenplay have told?

Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon opens with a brief flashforward which reintroduces Leslie, Taylor, Doug and Doc Halloran as they’re all being grilled for an EPK-style video interview to promote the release of The Harvest Murders, a feature film dramatization of the murders Leslie committed during the events of Behind the Mask’s finale. It’s a sharp, funny sequence, with the spotlight being shone on an increasingly uncomfortable Leslie as he fields questions regarding his stance on medical marijuana and homosexuality as they relate to his profession as a traditional slasher. From this, we cut to a sequence depicting Leslie’s origin as a murderous young boy who is hunted down by a vengeful lynch mob and tossed over a waterfall to what should have been his certain doom. One of the mob is revealed to be a younger version of Doc Halloran, who had attempted to save Leslie from the boy’s killers.

This sequence is revealed to be a scene from The Harvest Murders, an in-progress production which has been suffering from a spate of suspicious accidental deaths. Just as a representative of the film’s investors arrives to suss out the likelihood of potential lawsuits or compensatory damages to be paid, Doc Halloran appears as well, revealing that Leslie (or someone dressed in his slasher garb) has been lurking around the production as these mysterious deaths have been occurring. The rep shuts the film down, telling its director Dylan Duchesne that Leslie Vernon will either need to be caught or killed in order for the production to resume.

To bait Leslie into coming out of hiding, Halloran and Duchesne seek out Taylor and Doug, who have been filling their time by busting other would-be slashers before they can do any major damage. The one time survivor girl agrees to help, leading the quartet to pay a visit to retired slasher/survivor girl couple Eugene and Jamie, who promise to contact Leslie on Taylor’s behalf. Before long, Leslie reappears, knocking Duchesne’s production (“It’s opportunistic tripe! It’s got no soul!”) and professing innocence to the murders. After making amends with Taylor, Leslie agrees to board the production to prove that he isn’t killing anyone involved in the film’s making.

Meta humor abounds in this section of the story as the production resumes. The characters meet their actor counterparts, moments from Behind the Mask are restaged in hilariously overwrought ways (just imagine a kung fu fight between the film’s Doc Halloran and a buff, mute version of Leslie in costume), and Leslie can’t help but continually pick apart The Harvest Murders’ failings in adhering to realism. Along the way, Leslie takes a long overdue therapy session with Halloran, even as an unlikely romance blooms between he and Taylor.

It all culminates in a third act reveal of the killer who’s been plaguing the production from the start. No spoilers here, but the answer to this whodunit aspect of the story is genuinely surprising and clever, and leads to a shocking bloodbath which sees the film’s true threat laying waste to numerous victims in a setpiece that’s just begging to be committed to film. The story ends on a cliffhanger, promising more tales of our heroes to come…

Given the story, it certainly appears as though the intention was to bring everybody from the original film back for this second go-round. “Absolutely,’ agrees Mr. Stieve. “Every character [from Behind the Mask], unless they were killed, had a function in there.” Without spoilers, it’s worth noting that Before even manages to bring some characters back from the original who had initially appeared to have been killed off. “Standard horror stuff, right? I do remember that we were feeling bad that Kate Lang Johnson, who played Kelly Curtis … she was the only one where we couldn’t figure out how we could bring her back. The supposed survivor girl of the first one is the only one who didn’t survive, which is kind of perversely funny.

“At that point, it was all about what was going to happen one year later. Leslie had done his part, but what had happened to Taylor? What happened to the boys, and even Eugene and Jamie? What have they been doing while Leslie’s had to lay low, and what will happen when the one year anniversary comes around? We even debated doing a Halloween II, and pick up right where we left off.

“The setup of the genre overall … we’re already trained to expect the sequel to have that Halloween II type of situation, right? We’re all primed for that. [Before] was all a metaphor for any artist who’s just trying to succeed in something. Leslie is no different from somebody who wants to be an actor, or singer, or a baseball player. Whatever. You’re trying your hardest in a field that is set up to make most people fail. Is he going to do it? Is he gonna be a one hit wonder, or is he going to be a band that goes on to have a long career and gets in the Hall of Fame one day? Unfortunately, we know how that goes…”

Indeed, Before the Mask would ultimately go unproduced. Once the screenplay had been written, potential studios were approached, though none of them would wind up biting. “I think the real issue was, at the end of the day, we kind of missed our window,” Mr. Glosserman admits. “There was one hot second where Adam Goldberg, who went on to ‘The Goldbergs’ fame and is a super horror aficionado, had agreed to shepherd the project. We walked into several different studios, where he’d be the executive producer. Even with Adam’s weight, a season or two into ‘The Goldbergs’, we just couldn’t get anybody to bite.

“The self-awareness, the meta of it all, began to feel a little trite because of all the subsequent content that had come out. From Final Girls to Happy Death Day. So there were just all of these self aware things, it was just trod upon. So five, six, seven years later, the script itself didn’t seem to be something that studios wanted to put money into, because it would feel old hat, even though in many ways we trailblazed in that area.”

Once the production realized it wouldn’t be securing a deal with any studio, a Kickstarter campaign was set up to collect $500,000, which was then to be matched by an interested investor. “That would have given a million bucks to make the movie, and then if I made it in Canada and took advantage of tax breaks, I could have stretched the budget out to $1.3 million. But probably, if I’d gotten that money in hand, I could have found a second investor to bring in another quarter of a million dollars at that point. Setting it at $500,000, I knew I had set a pretty big bar. Nobody up until that point had ever raised that much or more for a movie. I knew it was a tall order. So we got up to $250,000. Which, in retrospect, if we’d done it through IndieGoGo, I would’ve had [that money] in hand, and probably could’ve gotten my initial investor to be good for five hundred, which would’ve gotten me to seven-fifty. Then I probably could’ve gotten an executive producer and raised the money. But regrettably, it was Kickstarter. It wasn’t enough, and I lost all of the opportunity.”

“It was frustrating for all of us, Scott in particular,” Mr. Stieve says. “We had all of this fodder. ‘Look at these reviews! People love this guy! We have people who are getting tattoos of Leslie Vernon on them, and people are independently making action figures. We’re parading all of this stuff around, calendars and pins, and nobody bit. I don’t know why. It’s just another one of those incredibly frustrating things. There seemed to have been an audience, there was a willing cast and crew. Had somebody just stepped up, I think it would have done better than the first one, and would’ve driven people to go back and watch the first one. There’s no other way to say it – it’s really, really frustrating and disappointing that the system failed us the way it did.”

Mr. Stieve points out that, had the film franchise continued on, it might have inspired the type of fandom and long-running series that other horror properties have enjoyed over the years. “The passion for the characters would’ve been the same. And sure, there’s a trilogy there … and then all these spinoff stories. There could’ve been a seventh Leslie Vernon film, there could’ve been a Taylor Gentry spinoff. Everything seemed to have been in place, and it just didn’t catch fire.”

Still, is it possible that Before the Mask might yet be produced as a film? “It’s never going to be a film now,” Mr. Stieve admits. “Too much sand has gone through the hourglass for us to be able to film that. Obviously, Scott Wilson has passed, and frankly we’re all fifteen years older. It would look pretty bad to recast the roles, which would be blasphemy, and none of us would ever want to do that. Or, how do you logistically and realistically put Nathan and Angela in front of a camera and say ‘Hey, this is a year later.’ That ship has sailed.”

However, while Before the Mask may never be a film, it does currently exist as a six-issue comic book series. Faithfully adapted from the screenplay by artist Nathan Thomas Milliner and boasting gorgeous illustrations throughout, the comic book series stands as an absolute must-read ( for fans. “It was Scott’s idea,” Mr. Stieve reveals. “He had been shopping it and trying to secure financing for a while. It was always part of our backup plan to say, ‘What if we could generate enough fan interest in other ways, and then maybe these people would finally sit up and take notice?’ So it was Scott’s idea to do a graphic novel. Nathan Thomas Milliner had done some poster art for us, and is just immensely talented in his own right, so Scott approached him and asked if he’d want to [adapt the sequel script]. I worked with Nathan on it, and we had some conversations about the script. Obviously, you couldn’t get it all in there, so we worked together, figuring out ‘What are the core elements here?’ I think he did a great job with it.”

Mr. Glosserman adds: “We had been rather secretive with the [sequel] script … [but] in that script form, it was just clearly not going to happen. The final call on the movie was with Shudder, where they wanted to do it for a half million dollars. Like twenty episodes or something. But even Shudder was saying, ‘But this script, it’s too self-referential. Let’s do something new and fresh.’ So we thought, even if we make a sequel, it’s not gonna be this script. So why don’t we do a graphic novel adaptation, and let everyone finally read the script that was never to be. We wanted to give the fans the thing in some art form, so they could see something that otherwise didn’t have a prayer of being produced.”

Though Mr. Stieve points out that the comic book series that comprises the full Before the Mask adaptation is very much a distillation of the original screenplay (“You couldn’t have a three hundred page comic book”), he does note that the comics do tell a complete story. “I think it’s really a love letter for people who know Leslie Vernon and want to be further immersed in that universe.”

But, should a second film of some sort come to pass, would Before the Mask and its graphic novel adaptation still be considered canon, or would it be rewritten or written out of continuity? “In my opinion, it would have to be canon,” Mr. Stieve answers. “We put too much time and love into it. To ignore that part of the Leslie Vernon arc, and the Leslie and Taylor … it’s a love story, at its core, just in a really bizarre and morbid setting. That story certainly continues. Theoretically, the third part of this could happen tomorrow. Without giving away any spoilers, you could just carry the analogy out. If you take the graphic novel as canon, and Leslie does come back as expected, and that is its own story. But the bigger picture still exists. Leslie Vernon aspires to be the next great killer. He wants to be Freddy, or Jason, or Michael. He is on that path. So what is the cost to him ultimately, as it relates to his relationship with Taylor?

“So that part of the story, the third leg of it, is still very viable. So we’d keep the graphic novel as canon. It’s too important to the story and universe we’ve created, and then there’s still plenty of mileage in these characters’ plights up to and including part three, and spinoff stuff.”

“I concur with Dave that it is canon,” Mr. Glosserman agrees. “But…if whoever comes along and says, ‘Alright. We want to do this, but can you set it in, y’know, Transylvania?’ There’s some give and take. But I think generally speaking, it’s canon. We don’t have Scott Wilson anymore. Or Zelda, regrettably. So we couldn’t do it if we wanted to.

“There was a concept we floated to Shudder, which was totally unrelated to the second one, but it didn’t matter whether or not the second one existed, because we’re further on down the road. So the second one could absolutely have happened, and would be canon. The third one doesn’t necessarily have to pick up where the second one left off, but it would still be in the same world.”

So where would the story go beyond Before? “With where the graphic novel and sequel script end, you see that Leslie Vernon has delivered on what he set out to do,” Mr. Stieve points out. “The point of the third story then is – ‘What’s the price of glory?’ So now if that’s true, this is where the real core of this thing starts to reveal itself. Yeah, maybe that part of his life is particularly going well, but it’s cost him the ability to ever interact with Taylor. You put your career first, or you put your relationship first. You can’t have them both, so what do you do? I think there’s a lot of incredibly great, rich metaphorical emotional ground to cover there.

“Even at this point, this much further on … we’ve entered this phase of Nathan’s career, Angela’s career, or my career, Scott’s career, where we have a lot of wisdom, and a lot of retrospect. I think that translates really well to an older Leslie Vernon, and an older Taylor Gentry, a la Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. I think there’s a lot of mileage there. The third part … I would have done it two years removed from the second one. But it still works, even fifteen years removed.”

In wrapping up our talks, the gentlemen offer their thoughts on the future of Leslie Vernon. “I don’t believe the end has been written for Leslie Vernon,” Mr. Glosserman says. “I consider success to be the progressive pursuit of a worthy goal or ideal. Therefore, every day, if we continue to pursue something new for Leslie Vernon, then we are being successful, and we’re moving it forward.

“The way I feel as though we could get to actual filmed content is by continuing to grow the brand equity, to create more and more underlying value for the intellectual property. That’s the way of the world. To boot, it would be super fun to develop, say, a board game. A meta, self-aware board game. We’ve done the action figure and the mask, all that stuff.”

Mr. Stieve concludes: “The story of Leslie Vernon – it’s life imitating art imitating life. Leslie Vernon doesn’t achieve his goal. He doesn’t become a franchise killer. He hasn’t become iconic, he hasn’t reached the level of Freddy, Jason and Mike. It’s so weird, because I haven’t really become some Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Nathan hasn’t gone on to become a household name … you know what I mean? It’s heartbreaking, but that all feeds the story. We’ve all lived this, why don’t we put Taylor and Leslie through this? It’ll resonate. It’ll have emotional weight to it, and people will instinctively respond to it because it’s every artist’s struggle. So it just becomes this snake eating its tail.

“I’m grateful that the story [for Before the Mask] exists in the universe, and that you can find it if you’re a fan. And I still have more of that story I want to tell.”

Very special thanks to David J. Stieve and Scott Glosserman for their time and insights.

Make certain to purchase the 6-issue comic series Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon at Vernon’s Farmhouse!


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