Lost & Found: On the Production of “the Picco Incident”

[Photos credit: Nika Jasic]

[Screenwriter Brad Abraham has worked the Sci-Fi beat before, pounding the pavement of a futuristic Detroit in RoboCop: Prime Directives, and engineering the end of the world in Stonehenge Apocalypse. But he found his newest project, The Picco Incident, to be the most challenging yet.]

When is a “found footage thriller” not a “found footage thriller”?
When it’s called “The Picco Incident.”

January 2012: I’m freshly back from Paris, France and back on the clock when I get a call from producer/director Ben Mazzotta. I’ve worked for Ben (and his producer Maria Kennedy) before, on a TV pilot and two feature films. As of January 2012, none of them have been produced, which is par for the course in a biz that feels like a marathon run at a sprint (case in point – a screenplay I wrote 16 years ago went into production last year). But Ben and Maria have another project they want me to work on: a “found footage” Sci-Fi thriller they’re calling “The Picco Incident.” They said they would send me their rough draft and asked me to give it a look and “let’s talk.”

Found footage? Ugh, I think. Not a fan. They’ve become the cheap and easy way to spit out a horror movie. There are so many of them out there, too, which only makes it more difficult to make a good one, one that transcends the genre. But, as I like Ben and Maria, I agree to read the script. And I’m glad I did, because I realize it’s not a “found footage” story, at least not what I’ve come to expect from a found footage film. No, The Picco Incident is different.

Very different.

We’ve all seen them: The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and a host of others. I re-watched those three (and many other less distinguished ones) in anticipation of reading Picco, studying them like I was cramming for a Physics exam. And what I found was they all pretty much fit the same pattern. Mundane day-to-day stuff gets a shot of adrenaline when The Other occurs. Pretty soon, it’s all night-vision and screams, the cast picked off one by one until the final shock ending, followed by somber, white-against-black text explaining that this tape/camera/disc was found at the site of Something Awful. Naturally I expected the same with The Picco Incident, so when it delivered something not at all what I was expecting, I knew I wanted to be involved.

We talked about the script and I had to tell them truthfully that the script was pretty solid as it stood (not what a writer-for-hire usually tells his prospective employers – if it’s that great, they don’t need me). We could have left it at that – me providing some notes and ideas on how to improve things – but they insisted they wanted me to “work my magic on it.” The script had to be in the best shape possible when they commenced production in May and –

Hang on. May 2012? That’s when we’re shooting?

That’s when we’re shooting. See, Ben and Maria had come to the conclusion that the normal channels for making a movie – shop the project around, find production partners, find broadcast partners, raise funding, lose funding, raise funding again, and finally, like, three years later, be able to film it – had changed. Was still changing. Pro tools are in the hands of indie filmmakers now, so why not take those tools and use it? They were rolling in May – was I in?

Oh, hell, yeah, I was in.

The Picco Incident marks the third Sci-Fi (now Syfy) project I’ve scripted, after 2000’s RoboCop: Prime Directives and 2009’s Stonehenge Apocalypse. Of these three, Picco was by far the most challenging, but not for the reasons one would think. You’d think the usual suspects – budget, schedule, location – and you’d be right. Picco is a low-budget film with no recognizable names, shot fast and furious around one isolated location. Those were the challenges for production. But for the write, the biggest challenge we had to overcome was the challenge of expectation.

With a RoboCop or a Stonehenge, there’s expectation, and those expectations were written in the titles: The Future of Law Enforcement, the End of the World as we know it. They’re large-scale stories with big things happening and the titles of them tell you pretty much what you’re in for.

Picco is…well, it’s a mystery. Call it the antithesis of a RoboCop or Stonehenge: a small story about small, ordinary people who don’t go looking for trouble, only to have trouble (in this case, a packed passenger plane) crash on their property in a hellstorm of fire and debris. People who see this massive crater and burning property and think:

  1. Oh, those poor people.
  2. I hope our insurance covers this.

But, as things go from bad to worse, it becomes apparent that the cause of the crash is not of this earth and is loose on their property somewhere. Teenage son Jack Picco has his camcorder and records what happens next. Pretty cut-and-dried, right?

Well, no, not really. All the tools one has in a “normal” film – rousing speeches, big set pieces, cutaways, subplots, etc. were denied us on Picco. That became the challenge: how to tell the story and make it dramatic, without being completely artless. We had to

incorporate subtext and theme in a way that wasn’t obvious, putting ourselves in Jack’s shoes as an observer, sharing his own realization that there are deep problems in his family, that the life he thought was comfortable and boring was anything but. Inspiration for The Picco Incident became less Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch, and more A Married Couple: Alan King’s incendiary 1969 documentary, chronicling a marriage in conflict and providing a front row seat to its implosion.

The more I thought about Picco, the more I knew it had to have that documentary feel – that authenticity. Fact is, most found footage (heck, even a good number of non-found footage) films feature characters sketched in at best. There’s no sense of history, that these are actual people with lives, with hopes and fears, outside the confines of the 90 minutes we spend with them. They exist to give us someone to watch horrible things happen to.

Picco had to look and sound real, and anything that felt other than natural human response was a grave mistake. We constantly had to check ourselves at the door when we were getting too “cinematic” with our writing. The second you become aware of the writer’s hand, you’ve lost the audience. The second you realize it’s not Jack behind the camera, you’ve failed. We had to avoid that repetition, that formula – that familiarity that pretty much every FF film follows. Real life isn’t as cut-and-dried as a movie – it doesn’t follow a tidy three-act structure. Characters had to say selfish, awful things and had to make mistakes that threaten to undo everything. They had to react based on genuine human behavior, not the God-like whims of the filmmakers.

That was the fine line we all had to tread with Picco and, through four intense months of drafts, re-drafts and rewrites, we honed the story, rearranged scenes, rewriting multiple times before reverting back to the original and moving commas around until satisfied. We’ve nailed it. The script is done and we can start shooting.

* * *

The Picco Incident wraps principal photography on June 23rd, and my work is, for the moment, done. But there will be tweaks and fixes to come, possibly reshoots and rewrites, as new ideas come through editing. But eventually, the picture is locked and the film is done, and we all sit back and give ourselves a hearty pat on the back.

And then we start the next film.

Bio: Brad Abraham is the screenwriter of Stonehenge Apocalypse, RoboCop: Prime Directives and the upcoming Fresh Meat. He is also creator of the acclaimed comic book series Mixtape. He can be found at his official website: www.bradabraham.com.