Life's a scream for local writers

Growing up three blocks apart, Richard Chizmar and Johnathon Schaech spent their teenage days hanging out at a supposed haunted house in Harford County, trying to frighten each other and their friends with scary stories.

More than 20 years later, the duo from Edgewood is still telling horror stories - this time on television.


An episode called "Eater," written by Chizmar and Schaech, airs at 10 tonight on NBC's 13-episode summer series Fear Itself.

Tonight's episode is about a rookie police officer (Elisabeth Moss) who spends her first night in the precinct watching over a serial killer known as "The Eater."


"The Eater is a serial killer who sometimes eats his victims," Chizmar said. "It's a subtle story about paranoia. It's The Thing meets The Silence of the Lambs. There is blood, but it's the psychological horror that makes it work."

Chizmar and Schaech also penned another episode for Fear Itself called the "The Circle," based on a short story about a group of 30-somethings who meet every Halloween to tell horror stories and discover they're living in one. That episode airs later this summer and is being shot in Edmonton, Alberta, where Schaech was on set this week.

Schaech, 38, who starred in Tom Hanks' 1996 film That Thing You Do!, 1998's Hush with Gwyneth Paltrow and the 2001 vampire flick The Forsaken, appears in "The Circle."

He and Chizmar, 42, grew up in a working-class neighborhood and attended Edgewood High School. After a few years apart, they teamed up to write screenplays.

"Both of us coming from the same town, the same kind of upbringing, is a huge plus," Chizmar said. "John and I have always been able to just sit down and do the work."

Asked what childhood memories shaped his interest in the suspense and horror genre, Schaech wrote in an e-mail that there was "all the mystery surrounding what they actually did over there" at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground and "the real life horror stories from my father being a Baltimore City cop." A big imagination also helped, he added.

Chizmar had a different take. "My neighborhood was like The Wonder Years," he said. "We played until 10 o'clock at night. We used to tell scary stories. I was the one scaring them. We used to play football by this place called the Myer's House. It was a big, spooky house with the gables, we'd hang out there and scare each other."

After high school, college and Hollywood pulled Chizmar and Schaech in different directions.


Chizmar was a lanky athlete who played lacrosse at what was then called Essex Community College and at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was an avid reader with a penchant for Stephen King, prompting his coaches to joke that he was the only lacrosse player with books. He later transferred to the University of Maryland, College Park to study journalism and started a magazine in 1988 called Cemetery Dance, which published suspense and horror stories. That turned into a full-time publishing career. The company now prints magazines, comics and books.

When Schaech was 19, he left UMBC to break into acting. He landed roles in the '90s TV series Models Inc. and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and appeared in movies such as How to Make an American Quilt and Finding Graceland.

Years after the hometown buddies lost touch, Chizmar recalls driving in Harford County one day in 2001 when he spotted his friend jogging.

"He was running, and I pulled over and talked to him," Chizmar said. "He came back for another visit. He called me and said we should do something, and mix publishing and the movie world."

They penned their first film - a short, independent film called Heroes in 2002, which starred Djimon Hounsou (who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in another film that year, In America), Schaech and his ex-wife, actress Christina Applegate. They shot the film over three days in Los Angeles with Schaech directing.

"We did it the East Coast way. We financed it ourselves," Chizmar said. "It's a dark fantasy story about a guy whose father is aging, and he doesn't want to lose him. It was accepted into film festivals. We got the experience and found out we worked well together."


Their joint venture, Chesapeake Films, was born. The film production company does not have a Web site, an assistant or an office. It only has two people on staff: Chizmar and Schaech.

Chesapeake Films' next project is adapting Stephen King's From a Buick 8, and another project is expected to star Samuel L. Jackson.

Chizmar and Schaech originally wanted to call their production company Edgewood Films, but the name had already been taken. They frequently pay homage to their hometown roots by dropping a reference in their projects - they named a street Edgewood in an episode they wrote for the Showtime series Masters of Horror. They also hope to shoot films in their hometown someday.

"We want to make films at home around our families," Schaech wrote. While he travels from set to set, Chizmar lives in Abingdon with his wife and two sons.

"He's the family man. I'm a wannabe rock star," Schaech wrote.

With so many miles between them, their partnership relies on e-mail.


"People say we're like two high school girls," Chizmar said. "We're always e-mailing, texting or on the BlackBerry. We just trade the script back and forth till it's finished. There are days when we're in hell working on a project. We just remind each other, hey, we just got paid to write a story about a crazy serial killer."


Fear Itself airs at 10 tonight on WBAL, Channel 11.