Q: What do you get if you put Ben Wheatley, James Moran, Corin Hardy, Neil Marshall, Simon Oakes, Rupert Preston & Paul Hyett in a room together?
A: A bloody good time.
Had the huge pleasure of organising a Horror Day a little while back with some amazing, extremely kind and generous speakers. Here’re a few of their tips on creating great Horror….
James Moran, writer of (amongst other things) Severance, Tower Block and Cockneys Vs Zombies, explained how crucial it is to create the right kind of monster/antagonist/villain –
“The first thing I do is figure out who the bad guy is – what’s their plan? Is it believable? I spend more time on the villain’s plan than the hero’s sometimes. It’s not enough for villains to turn up and be bad. So I figure out who the bad guy is, what their plan is – it can be a stupid plan, but it’s consistent all the way through”
And at the same time, to create empathy for characters –
“Ten minutes into a Horror film you should want the characters to survive and for it not to become a Horror film. If it’s a load of annoying people you want to get killed – that’s not a Horror film. If you’re not scared for them, wanting them to survive, then you’re not going to be scared at all. To be frightened you want to be rooting for them. That’s my main rule – that you want the people to survive, you want them to make it”
A sentiment echoed by Simon Oakes, head of Hammer films –
“The thing I feel strongly about with Horror is you need to care about the characters – so that therefore what happens to them becomes something the audience is emotionally connected to.”
He said it was something James Watkins, who directed The Woman in Black for Hammer, does so well: “He understood that to make a great Horror movie you’ve got to tell a great story and get the audience involved in the characters, with proper jumps and scares.”
Concluding, “The best Horror movies have an emotional arc, where you identify in some way, positive or negative, with the characters, the best horror films have got to connect with an audience emotionally.”
Rupert Preston of Vertigo Films stressed the importance of thinking about marketing, what makes the film stand out, preferably in a memorable and striking poster. – “One thing you’ve got to have if you want to make a Horror film is a great hook to it that sets it apart from all the other Horror films that’re made every year”
Looking at some of his favourite Horror films – Jaws, Alien, The Thing, American Werewolf in London, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Evil Dead 2 and Return of the Living Dead he explained, “What they have in common is that each one is very true to what it’s setting out to do. Whether that’s a very intense, almost true documentary style, Horror movie or a film about a monster in the ice, they don’t betray themselves at any time in story with these crazy twists that get put into films sometimes that undermine the whole movie.”
And he discussed the art of not showing too much –
“Done with the right balance, depending on what kind the movie is, you can build up more tension with what you don’t show. It’s important to look really closely at the story in terms of the trajectory of the reveal of the creature – what you do or don’t see.”
Writer-director Ben Wheatley, whose films include Sightseers and Down Terrace, described some of his process when he began writing Kill List:
“I thought about my own fears and I wrote them down and that was my starting point for writing a Horror film. My fears are: I don’t like enclosed spaces, I don’t like bad things happening to kids, I used to have nightmares about seeing strange people in the woods doing ceremonies and then chasing me, I don’t like dinner parties. Then I wrote them into a script. We figured if it was genuinely scary to us then it would scare other people.”
He talked about working up a script from incident points, “so that you can see what sags or where you’ve run out of things to say, so you can see where the problems are. If you don’t like it at that point you can bin it and you haven’t wasted months writing a script, but if you like it you can expand it, 5-6 lines for each point and then you’ve got a screenplay.” Adding, “Remember it’s not a radio play – it’s not about talking it’s about seeing”, concluding “The main lesson is to keep it moving and don’t repeat yourself”.
Special Effects artist and director Paul Hyett talked about what he’d learned about the importance of meticulous planning from doing effects on films such as The Descent for Neil Marshall, before moving into directing his own film The Seasoning House:
“There’s a lot to think about with stunts and VFX, prosthetics and so on. Neil Marshall is the loveliest director – always quiet, always calm, lovely to the crew but he knew what he wanted and that’s why his films turn out so well.”
All of the speakers were indeed lovely as well as insightful and inspirational. They kindly also chatted to students over lunch, coffee breaks and afterwards, some of them having been there since early in the day, belying the day’s first speaker James Moran’s opening line: “I guess the definition of true Horror is getting a writer to make sense before noon.”