Yellow Fever: Sean Keller on Writing “Giallo” for Dario Argento

The fan of ’70s & ’80s Italian horror-thrillers scripted an homage, little knowing that the reigning king of the form would choose to direct.

Adrian Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner
Adrian Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner

Giallo (plural – gialli) is Italian for ‘yellow’ and the term comes from the lividly coloured covers of pulpy crime thriller paperbacks popular in Italy throughout the fifties and sixties. Giallo films were famed for their highly stylish and breathtaking combination of sex and violence and were rife in cinemas throughout Italy during the seventies and eighties. An exclusively Italian phenomenon, their legacy and immense influence can still be seen in the horror genre today, particularly in the latest slasher revival.

Mario Bava directed what is widely regarded as the very first giallo film: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). This film would boast characteristics that would become commonplace in the subgenre: long periods of exposition, artfully shot scenes punctuated by extreme and sudden violence, flashbacks seemingly spliced into the narrative at random, Freudian undertones, a killer with psycho-sexual hang-ups and usually clad in dark raincoat, fedora and black leather gloves, an abundance of red-herrings and the misinterpretation of a vital clue by the typical ‘outsider’ protagonist.

BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE launched a wave of giallo films.
Dario Argento's BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE launched a wave of "giallo" films.

The giallo really came to prominence with the release of Dario Argento’s debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970. Argento took the blueprint laid down by Bava and added his own unique vision and idiosyncrasies to the mix in order to create a startlingly beautiful, hypnotically violent and heady cinematic cocktail. A slew of imitations ensued and soon Italian cinemas were overflowing with darkly sexy and deliriously violent films sporting all manner of bizarre and cryptic titles such as Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and The House with the Laughing Windows (1976). Argento himself would set the prescience for these lurid thrillers and continued to trail-blaze and trend-set with elaborately stylised giallo films such as Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and what many consider to be the definite giallo movie: Deep Red (1975). The genre became even more popular in Italian culture when Argento’s series Door into Darkness (1973) was broadcast on prime time television. As with most cycles in genre cinema however, the giallo would inevitably run out of steam and give way to the next craze.

The currently popular ‘torture porn’ and splashy sadism evident in the likes of Hostel (2005) and Hostel II (2007), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Captivity (2007) and the Saw series (2004-2008) has bled into a resurgence of ‘grind-house’ styled films and remakes of old seventies gore-fest exploitation flicks such as The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Last House on the Left (2009) and Friday the 13th (2009). Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007) also went some way to spark an interest and re-appreciation of niche exploitation films from yesteryear. Countless remakes of Asian horror films such as The Uninvited (2009) and One Missed Call (2008) have also been extremely popular of late, though these Westernised re-imaginings are becoming increasingly tired and less effective.

This is precisely what inspired screenwriters Sean Keller and Jim Agnew as they set about writing what has become Dario Argento’s new film, GIALLO. Tired of seeing the same old stuff, they believed they knew exactly how to inject some much needed style and substance back into the jugular of the horror genre. And who better to reignite interest and perhaps introduce a whole new generation of film goers to the subgenre he helped create and has become synonymous with, than the Maestro himself – Dario Argento.

The forthcoming GIALLO follows the sordid tale of a woman who hires an eccentric detective to track down her sister who has been kidnapped by a serial killer calling himself Yellow. The film stars Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner and promises much of the typical stylistic flourishes and opulent grandeur Argento is famed for. As well as gallons of the red stuff. And I don’t mean Merlot…

When I caught up with writer Sean Keller recently, he explained what the genesis for GIALLO was. ‘Jim and I were trying to come up with the next good idea’, Keller reveals. ‘We were tired of little girls with wet hair and ghost stories. We both loved the gialli of the sixties and seventies and thought that a super-stylistic homage to the work of Argento, Bava and (Sergio) Martino etc, would be a refreshing change to the horror scene. We wrote a script that was a kitchen-sink giallo. It had everything: opera, cats, black-gloved killers, flashbacks, red herrings, jazz, beautiful women dying horribly… And we called it ‘Yellow’.

It was only when they began peddling the script around Hollywood that they were reminded of just how exclusively ‘Italian’ the giallo film was. ‘

Dario Argento directs Adrian Brody.
Dario Argento directs Adrian Brody.

No one in Hollywood understood it’, Keller muses. ‘They had no concept of what we were trying to do until Jim gave the script to a European producer he knew and things took off. We got the script to Dario and he agreed to direct it right away.’

Already a great admirer of Argento’s blood-soaked and elegantly perverse oeuvre, Sean Keller explains why the director’s nightmarish visions have captivated him in the past.

‘Argento’s films balance the grisly and the beautiful in a way that knocks you off centre. The violence is always repellent and attractive at the same time, which causes a level of discomfort that heightens the horror. Tenebrae (1982) is my favourite because it is so completely other-worldly. Every scene is over-lit; there is no place to hide in this film. And the dog that climbs fences freaks me out!’

Keller explains that he was equally as enthralled as he was stunned when Argento became involved with the project; and working with one of his favourite filmmakers proved a fruitful and rewarding experience. ‘It was a dream come true!’ exclaims the upcoming writer.

‘Dario’s films formed my love for horror as a kid, and to have a man I respect and admire actually say that I have talent is tremendously rewarding. We wrote the film as an homage to Dario. We never dreamed he would read it, let alone like it enough to direct it. There are clear differences between this film and his past work, but I can’t say what without spoiling the fun. We collaborated very closely. Dario had lots of ideas and we shaped the script to suit his take on the material.’

As the writer of several other genre films such as Gryphon (2007) and Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep (2006), it would seem Keller is attracted to dark and subversive subject matter. Explaining what draws him to horror, Keller states:

‘No matter how you live your life, be it ascetic or indulgent, it ends the same. Life itself is a death sentence which has always fascinated me. When I started writing screenplays, I had sort of forgotten what a big horror fan I was when I was younger – I thought I had outgrown the subject matter. But when trying to find my voice as a writer I starting thinking about the human condition and death always kept popping up in my head. It is a universal theme. The more I wrote about it, the more I remembered my joy and horror watching the late-night ‘creature-feature’ in my bedroom as a child. Now I can’t get enough of it. Horror and science fiction allow us to tackle complex philosophical ideas in a way that is palatable and appealing to a mass audience.’

As a writer, Sean Keller has been influenced by an array of dark luminaries of disturbing fiction.

‘Poe made me love reading’, Keller reminisces, while shedding a little light on what literature has inspired him. ‘I started reading Poe when I was eleven years old and it instilled my love of language and of course, my obsession with the macabre. There is no other literary figure that even comes close in my eyes. I also adore Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs, Eddie Bunker, Jim Thompson, and a young writer named Michael Louis Calvillo has really impressed me with his first two novels, I Will Rise and As Fate Would Have It – he has the goods and is an exciting new voice in horror literature.’

As a writer, there are certain subjects and concerns that Keller is compelled to return to again and again. Addressing fundamental issues and primal fears in a provocative and stimulating manner is something the horror genre has allowed writers and filmmakers to do since cinema began. As he explains:

‘The subject of our screenplays is never really quite as important to me as the subtext. I love being able to present a specific and subversive point-of-view wrapped in the candy-coating of horror. Horror is the sugar that helps our medicine go down. Giallo brings up questions about masculinity and misogyny with a very pointed opinion. We’ve tackled religion and faith, karma, self-determination, existential angst, the high price of revenge, delusions of entitlement and the illusion of justice. These are the things that matter to us as writers and filmmakers. The fact that we weave these themes into a genre often maligned as idiotic or childish makes the process doubly pleasing.’

Before he was involved in screenwriting, Sean Keller began his eclectic career as a singer-songwriter.

‘I actually had a song-writing/publishing deal when I was a teen’, the writer reveals. ‘I was sure I would be the next big rock star… That didn’t happen. So, after a few years of bartending, a friend asked me to act in her student film. I loved it and started pursuing acting. I landed the role of Roger in the first National Tour of Rent and later played Buddy Holly in several productions (including the National Tour) of the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.’

That was soon to change though as Keller reveals. ‘Acting gigs were few and far between and I was starting a family, so I wanted to find a job that I could do from home. I started writing screenplays and, after many poorly written early tries, it simply felt right.’

‘The writing process for me is still a mystery, and I want to keep it that way,’ Keller claims. ‘My writing partner Jim Agnew is the genius who usually comes up with just the right concept at just the right time and we simply dive in. We like to find our situation and a couple of twists and then create characters that we really like and simply let the characters react to the situations we thrust them into. We never outline and we try not to over think anything. That’s reserved for the rewrite process. During our first draft we want to write as fast as possible and remain completely open to organic changes and happy accidents. It’s about establishing tone quickly and succinctly conveying emotion in a visceral manner.’

GIALLO was co-written by Sean Keller’s regular writing partner Jim Agnew. When I asked Keller about the elusive Mr Agnew, he replied ‘Jim likes to remain mysterious. I can tell you that he likes very sweet coffee and he bathes in the blood of the innocents.’

A kindred spirit, then.

Not content to limit himself to writing for the screen, Sean Keller occupies his time pursuing other creative outlets and ways to explore and hone his craft. ‘I write as much as I can in as many varied formats as possible’, he explains. ‘I am trying to publish a volume of creepy kids’ poems called Underneath the Bed, and I’m writing comic book scripts too. I have also published a couple of short stories and I’m writing songs for an upcoming album. While I write I like to listen to ambient music like John Carpenter’s film scores. Radiohead’s Kid A is always in heavy rotation, as well as Explosions in the Sky’s The World is Not a Cold, Dead Place.’

Sean Keller
Screenwriter Sean Keller

Keller, strangely enough, is also an ordained Minister with the Universal Life Church, and as such has performed no less than five weddings and a funeral. Eat your heart out, Hugh Grant.

On the challenges and subsequent rewards of writing for the screen, Keller explains that determination and hard graft is essential, as well as self belief and motivation.

‘Most things we write never find an audience. Every time we write, we risk making asses of ourselves, which is true of any artist. You have to be willing to be ridiculed in order to create anything of value. When it misses it is painful, but when it hits – the feeling is wonderful.’

Up next for Keller is his Cronenberg-esque body horror, Teratoma – set to be produced by the filmmakers who brought us Feast (2005). Keller and Agnew have also collaborated with John Carpenter on a couple of projects recently, and the writer reveals that the pair has also completed a new screenplay that they have high hopes for.

‘We have a visceral, tough-guy crime drama about to start pre-production called The Tokarev. This may be the best thing we’ve yet written, but I can’t say who is directing… The ink hasn’t dried on the deal.’

GIALLO is to be released later this year and will be sure to provide audiences who are less familiar with the titular subgenre, or indeed the work of Dario Argento, with a few pleasant surprises. The idiosyncratic traits of the giallo film are all present and correct here, as the blood-dark tale of murder and revenge entwines rhapsodic violence with twisted beauty, art house flair with grind-house shocks.