ENTRY SEVENTEEN: DIRECTING HORROR

Welcome foolish mortal to the second entry into our #HORRORMONTH. Following on from last week we decided to tackle the subject of ‘DIRECTING HORROR’. Horror is the genre that has really allowed SuperfreakMedia to develop an audience and myself learn and grow as a Director/Filmmaker. Through the years I have learnt a hell of a lot, and although there is a huge way to go I thought it might be useful to offer some tips to other filmmakers out there who are considering dipping their toes in the genre.

As a side note I really hoped you guys enjoyed the post we put together last week. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, check it out HERE. We still have plenty of ‘Horror’ themed content on the way and we really hope it helps you to gain an insight into how we operate and come up with the content we put out there.

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Beginning this entry in a similar way to last week. I do not profess to be an expert at what I do. I still have a lot to learn and a long journey ahead of me in the industry (hopefully). I have learnt a lot from fellow Directors along the way and I think that is something that should be embraced no matter what stage of your career you’re at. It’d be nice to think in a few years that people look at the work we put out there as a source of inspiration. There are plenty of other creatives I certainly looked up to when starting out and still do to this day. As a Filmmaker you never really stop learning, each project brings with it it’s own set of challenges and rewards. As a Director I work hard to push myself further with each piece of work I create, so there you have it TIP #1 – always be open to learning something, no one is ever above that.

SO WHY DIRECT?

When I think about the main reason that I love to direct it is because I am a storyteller, that and a total control freak. I love to create worlds and take people away from reality, whether it be for just a moment or something a little longer. Horror is an incredibly immersive genre and really allows people to step away from their everyday lives. The genre has always appealed to me because I love that feeling of being scared. It’s not something I experience often or day to day (luckily), watching a horror film allows me to experience it from somewhat of a safe distance. Making them however is even better because it’s almost like pulling the curtain back on a Ghost-Train and seeing all the mechanics behind the puppets that reach out at you. Not once have I thought that making the type of films I love to watch has ruined any enjoyment. If anything it has just increased my admiration for the Directors out there who have really put their own mark on the genre throughout the years.

Directing is a gift as a creative as it allows you to bring a team of like minded people together to bring your vision to life. One of the most rewarding experiences is to have a team around you that believe in the film you are making. Then to go on and see that project entertain and scare audiences is incredible. I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do and I couldn’t encourage people enough to try it for themselves. I still have a hell of a long way to go, but the building blocks are falling into place for our first feature and we have plenty of ideas in the pipeline to keep our short and scary content coming. Take stock in your achievements and appreciate those people around you that help you do what you do.

WATCHING OTHERS WORK:

One of the best ways I find to learn more about the craft is to watch others in the industry at work. I have learnt a hell of a lot from being on other peoples sets. Seeing how other Directors approach a scene, particularly one that packs an emotional punch, is incredibly insightful. I do however understand that it isn’t easy for everyone to get onto a film set. If that’s the case and you’re struggling to get experience on set, another underestimated asset we have as filmmakers are the Special Features on the films we love. Films more recently, especially those released on Blu Ray, come with a ton of special features that really break down and shed light on nearly every aspect of the production, including Directing. Of course this will not always be the case, and some of the films I personally love have come with lacklustre ‘special features’. There are however some gems out there and nearly every film these days comes with a ‘Directors Commentary’. I know it might sound obvious but watch the film and listen to what the Director has to say, there will be some really useful tips and often heaps of crazy trivia in there. Usually you’d have to had been on the set of the movie itself to watch the Director work and see how a scene was shot, but now it’s possible to take a peek from the comfort of your own home. Horror especially is a genre that has a huge fan base that is hungry to find out more about how our favourite flicks were made – this usually means kick ass special features.

Just recently I spent a good couple of hours watching all of the ‘special features’ on the ‘BLAIR WITCH’ Blu Ray. I know that the film wasn’t that popular amongst horror fans but I loved it and I was keen to see what Adam Wingard (The Director – who also directed THE GUEST and YOU’RE NEXT) had to say about the film and how it was made. I have a huge respect for Winged and his entries into the genre, getting to learn more about how he works was incredibly inspiring. The ‘special features’ went into great detail about the production and sound design, both of which I thought were incredible. One technique I took away from one of the featurettes was the use of an air horn on set. This allowed Wingard to generate really authentic moments on screen, placing the actors in a scary scenario he heightened it further by genuinely scaring them during takes. Audio, etc can be corrected afterward but the real emotions are so apparent on the casts face when the horn was used. This is something I will be sure to try in one or more of our up and coming shorts – we will have to let you know how it goes. Even simple things like that can develop your craft and improve the performances you capture from shoot to shoot. More than anything the ‘special features’ on the films you love allow you to see how the Directors you admire handle a situation similar to what you might find yourself in on set. Learning from that and employing some of the techniques you see will only make you a more accomplished Director.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION:

It is always important, no matter what genre you are working in, to allow for collaboration with the talent you have brought on board to bring your characters to life. A good Director is one that listens and actively seeks opportunity. Although it is important to remain firm and keep continuity with the direction you choose to take, there is no reason why you cannot take other peoples’ ideas on board. More often than not, as mentioned in our previous blog post, I will often see a project through from conception to completion. For me it is more important to listen to other peoples feedback and ideas, without it there really isn’t much outside influence and that can sometimes make for a terrible film. There is room for collaboration with everyone involved throughout the whole filmmaking process, take advantage of that.

Before any project, at the very least I will have a conversation with the actors I have involved to discuss their character and their motivations within what we are set to shoot. Due to time constraints and our productivity as an Indie Studio, I don’t always have all the time I’d like to talk with the talent before a shoot. I am very lucky in the fact that I have an ever growing network or professional and extrememly talented actors in the Midlands who often agree to work with me on the shorts we produce. It’s important from the outset to establish your passion for the project and that you take what you do seriously, this will only create a great working relationship for the remainder of the project. First impressions do indeed count for a lot, especially in this industry, so always be wary of that.

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In preparation for the ‘MR CREAK’ shoot I met with our lead actress Julia Damassa, an incredibly talented lady, and spoke to her in depth about the character of Penelope. As there really wasn’t much dialogue and this was the first time we had worked together I wanted to make sure we were really on the same page. As mentioned in the post last week (read it HERE) I made a character profile for our protagonist while I was writing the script. This allowed Julia to fully embody the character and find aspects of Penelope on her own. I also spoke to Julia about what scared her and any moments of real terror she had experienced in her life. This gave me great cues I could call upon on the shoot. I’d mention moments of the stories she’d told me, this heightened the tone in her voice and ultimately created a performance I was incredibly happy with. The more work you put in, the better the results will be. When you are collaborating with someone who takes what they do seriously, it’s so exciting to see the performance you create together unfold on screen.

ESTABLISHING A TONE:

Knowing what tone you are trying to establish with the film you are creating is an essential piece of information you should know going into any project. When working with actors, particularly in the Horror genre, it is easy to slip over into the realm of theatrics. Praise should be given where it is due and I do not think it is any easy feat trying to approach a Horror movie from an actors standpoint. Although once having an interest in acting, there is a reason why I remain behind the camera these days. Often the characters in the narrative are placed in very heightened situations that your actors should not really find themselves in in their day to day lives. There are no real life experiences for them to draw from, Horror is a genre that really is ‘play pretend’. I think when Horror films are deemed to be bad or the acting is considered to be hokey it is because the heightened performances do not gel well with the already heightened stakes of the narrative. With every horror project I direct I aim for realism. The performance should be grounded and the audience should be able to easily identify with our protagonist. For example, looking at ‘SANDMAN’ the short we released last Halloween, the situation our lead character Sandy finds herself in is a bizarre one. I encouraged Esmee (playing Sandy) on set to play things in a subtle way, to never go too far with her reactions. I encouraged this as I wanted her performance to be realistic and grounded, not at all over the top, as it would have clashed with the insane situation Sandy was in. I am reluctant to encourage theatrical performances as I often want to juxtapose the immediate situation with a subtle interaction from the actor I am working with. Of course this isn’t always the case. Our faux trailer for ‘NIGHT OF THE DERANGED VIRGINS FROM HELL’ is the perfect example of where knowing the tone you want to establish is key. Just take a look below.

BE IN THE KNOW:

I think in Horror, as I said, actors have one of the toughest jobs of all. They have to take some very unbelievable situations and make then identifiable. Ultimately this is where your horror film will fall flat if the connection cannot be made between the audience and your protagonist. Never under estimate the power of performance and how easily it can remove your audience from the moment if something is off. We will be touching more upon the acting side of things within Horror in an upcoming post. This is also not to say that the performances captured on screen are the only things you need to worry about as a Director.

Try to make it your mission to learn as much as possible about all aspects of production. Learn about lighting, lenses and camera. Form a solid forum of communication with your DOP (Director of Photography) to ensure that when you’re on set you know the realistic constraints you face, the capability of the production and also why you might have to wait that extra 10 minutes to get the next shot set up. Again ‘Shooting Horror’ is another avenue we will be exploring in a future entry of #HORRORMONTH – next week in fact. You really need to be able to communicate your vision with your DOP effectively otherwise the film you shoot will look nothing like it does in your head.

Understand the importance of sound and try to establish an essence of how the film will flow once in post. A lecturer of mine once said that “Sound is 75% of what you see when you watch a film…” However strange it sounds (no pun intended) it really does ring true. Horror relies heavily on the power of sound to establish atmosphere and often heighten the scares you experience when watching. Getting clean audio on set is paramount. Technically you don’t want any aspects of your film to detract your audience from the tension you are trying to create. I love to edit as well as direct and pretty much all of the content we put out on SuperfreakMedia I edit as well as direct. Having that knowledge about the post production process is so beneficial as I really do shoot my projects for the edit. With experience and practice you too will find that your mind begins to work one step ahead of the game and the shots you capture will form a timeline in your head you know you will fill out in the edit. Having a passion for Directing or even practicing it does not mean that you can’t find out more about what everyone else is doing around you. In fact I’d consider it essential, you’re the captain of the ship, you want to know exactly what everyone on board is doing, with out it you pose the risk of sinking (ooooh the metaphors!).

WORKING ON SET:

Whenever I make a film, particularly a Horror picture, I always try to keep the atmosphere light and bubbly on set. Of course there will be times of focus, before a particularly emotionally exhausting scene for example. I do however think that you don’t need to be a jack-ass to get the job done. In between takes as long as the work is being done, try to have a laugh, appreciate the time and energy that everyone is giving up to be there with you. With Horror the narratives and subject matter you are tackling can be extremely dark, so it’s important to keep the energy light off camera. More often than not we will be shooting at night too, outside in woodland, cold and wet. There are a lot of factors to consider when trying to keep a team motivated and fully behind the film you’re trying to shoot. I have never once shouted at anyone on one of my sets, nor do I intend to. I never understand the need for aggression or harsh words in a creative space. I know that people work differently, I have seen it myself on other sets. When the Director’s frustrations become apparent it can filter through the crew incredibly fast. So a tip would be to always bear that in mind and try to keep the creative space safe. Let people try things and be approachable, you’ll often find that’s where the greatest results will come from.

Be open to requests too, on some of our shoots the actor has requested time alone to consider how they will tackle the next scene. When filming ‘THE COPY-WRITER’ our lead Tony Gibbons remained locked up in a cell between takes before his crazy final scene at the sanitarium (#spoileralert). When filming ‘THE FINAL-GIRL’ our lead Jessica Messenger again wanted some time alone before a take, walking alone in the woods she got into the mindset she needed to be in to deliver a killer performance. As a Director you must also accommodate and encourage those sort of requests. Acting in any film is an incredibly vulnerable experience, I have the utmost respect for anyone who steps in front of a camera and acts. Demonstrate that respect and work to get the results you want.

THE RISKS OF DIRECTING:

Directing does come with it’s fair share of responsibility. One of the first things I was told when I expressed an interest in Directing at University was that the Director is ultimately the name and face associated with the success of a film. This goes two ways. If the film is a success, great, you can reap the rewards and more often than not will form connections that will lead to a future project or venture. If the film you have directed however isn’t well received, that responsibility still falls to you. For me it is always important for me to know the reason behind making the films I make. I need to believe in each and every project I work on 100%. The moment you don’t, that’s when you will begin to fail at what you are trying to achieve.

No matter what the project don’t be afraid to try something new. Horror is a genre that offers a whole lot of avenues for experimentation. The harder you push your craft and stretch your ability, the more likely you are to be noticed for the right reasons. Practice really does make perfect. I have done the academic side of things, I have read book after book on directing, but where I have learnt the most has been on set. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid questions. The more you know the better equipped you will be when it comes to your next project. Take inspiration from the other Directors that are working out there and work on improving yourself project to project.

Horror is one of the most fun and rewarding genres to work in. So if you’re thinking of making a film, why not make it a horror? Try something new – we’re all still learning after all. If you do end up making something send it our way, we’d love to see it! I really hope this Blog post has helped, if even only a little. It is true that more often than not the Director does run the show, for sure you’re the guiding force behind the project but I can tell you now I would be nothing without the great people around me that support me and elevate me to be the best Director I can be on each project. If I could offer one last tip it would be acknowledge everyone around you and ensure you are working together to create something you can all look back on and say ‘Yeah…We did good!”

The Blog will return next week for another Horror Filled Entry – this time ‘SHOOTING HORROR’.

Thanks as always and until next time…

– LIAM

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