ASU film school welcomes new screenwriting professor
For novelist and screenwriter Brian McAuley, storytelling isn’t just a profession; it’s one of the building blocks of humanity, a way to interact with and make sense of the world.
“I can’t think of a more primal human activity than storytelling,” McAuley said. “It’s how we connect as a species, how we make sense of life. If you can master the fundamentals of screenwriting, you’ll have a foundational narrative skill set that will serve you not only in your filmmaking journey, but in every walk of life.”
McAuley brings his passion and expertise for good storytelling to The Sidney Poitier New American Film School at Arizona State University this fall as a new clinical assistant professor in screenwriting. McAuley previously taught at Columbia University, where he earned his MFA in film with a concentration in screenwriting, as well as Loyola Marymount University and Mount Saint Mary’s University.
McAuley is a versatile writer of various genres and has worked on projects as diverse as the Netflix family sitcom “Fuller House” and the Lifetime Network thriller “Nanny Cam.” He’s written feature horror films, including 2017’s “Dismissed,” starring Dylan Sprouse, and is the author of the grisly fun 2022 horror novel “Curse of the Reaper,” which pays satirical homage to beloved 1980s slasher flicks, and the forthcoming Christmastime slasher novella “Candy Cain Kills,” which hits shelves Nov. 14.
Question: What attracted you to teach at The Sidney Poitier New American Film School?
Answer: I’m a firm believer that educational institutions should be actively invested in community building, so I was immediately attracted to the collaborative spirit I sensed at The Sidney Poitier New American Film School. After meeting with some of the brilliant faculty and passionate students, I knew I’d found my new creative home. When I first visited the MIX Center, I was blown away by the Hollywood studio-level facilities available to filmmaking students. It’s not just an immersive training ground for industry innovation, but also a neighborhood hub that encourages civic engagement with the city of Mesa.
Q: What does Sidney Poitier’s legacy mean to you, and how is it relevant to current-day film students?
A: My first encounter with Poitier was through his outstanding performance in “In the Heat of the Night.” Given the powerful message of that film, it was no surprise to discover that Poitier was instrumental in paving the way for diversity and representation in Hollywood. This is an issue that I’ve been engaged with through my collaborative work with the Center for Scholars and Storytellers. I’ve written articles and co-authored research reports with social scientists investigating the positive impact that authentic representation can have on youth development. It’s so important for current-day students to understand Poitier’s legacy because there’s still so much work left to be done, and it’s up to the next generation of filmmakers to pave the way toward an even more diverse and inclusive future.
Q: You’ve written both screenplays and novels. How do you approach storytelling in different mediums and genres?
A: No matter what medium or genre I’m writing in, character is everything. A clever concept is all well and good, but if I can’t get you to care about the people in the story I’m telling, your emotional investment will inevitably wane. Once I’ve locked into a character who feels like an authentic human being, I can start constructing a plot that will challenge them to change and grow. Through my diverse professional writing experience, I’ve accrued a toolbox full of techniques that work to varying degrees in different mediums and genres. The fun of the process comes from exploring and experimenting with them in different creative sandboxes.
Q: What do you want students to know about you and your teaching style?
A: Whether I’m teaching a lecture, workshop or film studies course, my goal is to help you discover the story you’re most passionate about telling. By exposing you to a diversity of voices in world cinema and providing exercises to flex your storytelling muscles, you’ll discover your own voice along with that inner spark that keeps you coming back to the keyboard. I’ll give you the evergreen tools you need to bring your vision to life, along with the professional perspective to help prepare you for an ever-evolving industry.
Q: Who are your biggest screenwriting influences?
A: I grew up on a steady stream of classic horror cinema, so my early influences include the work of John Carpenter and Sam Raimi. I also love Billy Wilder for his ability to blend pathos into his comedies and melodramas, and Paddy Chayefsky for his sharp social satires. In the modern landscape, I find constant inspiration in the work of Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro, two storytelling titans who have helped the horror genre gain more of the critical recognition it deserves.
Q: You’ve written in many genres, but you’re most prolific in horror. What draws you to the horror genre? Do you think it’s misunderstood?
A: I think it’s very easy for people to dismiss the horror genre as somehow less-than. Ironically, that’s exactly what the genre is about: the capital-O “Other” retaking the spotlight. As film theorist Robin Wood said, the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses. For that reason, the horror genre is home to some of the most progressive and inclusive communities I’ve ever encountered. It’s a genre of catharsis that challenges us to push beyond our comfort zones, to dabble in the danse macabre and make friends with memento mori, and I believe there’s life-affirming value in that. It’s also just a bloody good time!
Q: What can you tell us about your new book, “Candy Cain Kills,” out Nov. 14?
A: “Candy Cain Kills” is the second entry in Shortwave Publishing’s "Killer VHS Series," which one reviewer dubbed “the modern day Goosebumps for adults.” These are standalone novellas that harken back to the VHS rental days with 1980s aesthetics and campy vibes. My story is about a struggling family who rents a cottage in the snowy wilderness over Christmas in the hopes of mending broken bonds. Unfortunately, their getaway was the site of a grisly crime 10 years ago … and the legendary Candy Cain is back with a vengeance. It’s a gory thrill ride that pays homage to holiday slasher flicks like “Black Christmas” and “Halloween,” but I’m especially proud that early reviewers are highlighting the strong character development with LGBTQ+ and disability representation.
Q: We have to ask: What is your favorite horror film and why?
A: How dare you make me choose! Honestly, it changes all the time, but there’s no denying that “Scream” shaped me in ways that few other films have. I was a child of the WB who religiously watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek.” With “Scream,” screenwriter Kevin Williamson effortlessly melded a teen comedy with a slasher mystery. It opened the door for me to discover a whole back catalog of scary movies I didn’t even know existed. Once I crossed that threshold, there was no turning back for me.
For more stories on The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, visit film.asu.edu/news.