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Terraform

A Terraform Story Has Been Optioned for the Big Screen

Geoff Manaugh’s tale about a modern, viral ghost story is being developed by Legendary, with the director of ‘Happy Death Day’ on board.

Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant

Image: Google Street View/Manaugh

News broke earlier this week that Geoff Manaugh’s story ‘Ernest’, which first appeared on this very glowing blogroll, had been optioned by a major motion picture studio, Legendary, with Chris Landon of Paranormal Activity and Happy Death Day fame attached to direct.

There have been plenty of highs over the years that I’ve been editing Terraform, Motherboard’s future fiction depot—our stories have been chosen for the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology, gone viral via Reddit and Digg and so on, and even dominated a local news cycle in Portland, Oregon—but one hallmark remained elusively in absentia: one of our predictive shorts making the voyage to the big screen.

Thankfully, Manaugh, and his razor-sharp, timely tale, a social media-driven ghost story (brilliantly illustrated with haunting Google Map images) have stepped up to check that box for us. It’s funny, trenchant, and certainly ripe for cinematic adaptation. Somewhat randomly, I think Manaugh and I were actually doing a hike around Tahoe the day the story ran, and he mentioned he’d love to see the piece head to Hollywood. A month or two later and, well, here we are. So, I thought I’d check in, see how he was processing.

Motherboard: This was your first published piece of fiction, right? How's it feel to have it optioned for the big screen?
Geoff Manaugh: I've published a few things here and there that I would consider to be speculative fiction, but this is my first published short story in the literal sense. Working with you and everyone else at Motherboard to get this out there was a blast, as well, which helped me get past the jitters of publishing fiction on such a huge platform. But I always saw the story of Ernest, the ghost, very cinematically—the scenes played in my head as if I was watching them on screen—so it's been incredibly exciting to see this level of interest and to have it optioned.

What was the inspiration for 'Ernest'? Social media ghost stories don't immediately leap to mind as the next natural step for someone who's perhaps best known for his architectural writing.
You know, I've always been a horror fan. I grew up on movies like Poltergeist, The Thing, Evil Dead 2, Fright Night, Return of the Living Dead, and so on, and I was a voracious reader of horror as a teenager, as well. Writers like Clive Barker and James Herbert were favorites of mine—in fact, when I was even younger than that, I tore through books by John Bellairs, a really under-appreciated author of supernatural mysteries for kids. Aside from bank heists, though, haunted house stories are the most architectural genre of all, so my background in architectural writing definitely wasn't left by the wayside here.

More specifically, I'd say a ton of things inspired the story. The central image for me—the thing from which the whole story developed—was this vision of a family discovering a ghost in their house, a malevolent spirit used to terrifying people, but they just stand there laughing at it, filming it on their smartphones. They're not intimidated at all; they want to show it to their friends. It's like a particularly weird pet. How would a ghost react to that? The prospect of a ghost getting depressed because no one respects it anymore seemed really rich to me. I thought about that for several weeks—even several months—before I finally decided to write the story. Out came "Ernest."

Did you always see its potential as a film?
I suppose so—it was always really visual in my head. And, because of the way I wrote it, it's not filled with long internal monologues, and I think that helped give it a visual feel, as well as a lot of forward momentum.

One of the most fun parts of the story, actually, came after I was done writing it and you and I were already going through the editorial process. I came up with the idea of taking images from Google Street View, cropping them at a widescreen 2:1 ratio, and then filtering those through Instagram. I chose a house in suburban Chicago, a shot of the St. Louis Arch, and even a hotel in Tulsa so that I could have locally sourced images that would correspond to the appropriate scenes in the story. I wanted the images to be accurate, so to speak: actually from the sites that I describe in "Ernest." I should be embarrassed to admit how much time I spent doing that, in fact, but I spent hours and hours just looking through Google Street View until I found the places that looked right.

The director tapped for the project, Chris Landon, is known for his clever remixes of horror tropes—do you think Ernest will play as horror in some capacity on the big screen? Or a blend?
I am absolutely thrilled to see Chris attached to this. His early screenplay for Disturbia is still so fresh—that movie is really overlooked, in my opinion—and I can't wait to see his take on "Ernest." What I especially love is that Chris wrote most of the Paranormal Activity films, and it's precisely those sorts of movies that I imagined making the father in my story, a guy named Frank Presley, resistant to being scared by ghosts. Frank is blasé partly because he's seen so many horror films: ghosts don't scare him anymore.

What's next? More fiction?
Definitely. I've got a lot of articles—that is, nonfiction—coming out in the next few months, including an entire book on the subject of quarantine due out next year, but I am hoping to transition more into fiction. I am actually writing a novel set in New York City, so there's also that. In fact, seeing the response to "Ernest" has been a huge inspiration to get that novel finished sooner rather than later.

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