Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
Although the film industry is in something of a transitional phase right now, one genre is still flourishing like a zombie that refuses to die (again).
Modern horror movies are, generally, relatively inexpensive, have built-in audiences, and tend to do well internationally. And because of easier access to equipment and distribution than ever before, the playing field for making these movies has been leveled. Such opportunities are of little consequence, however, for those who don’t possess the talent, creativity, and drive to bring something new to the scary movie table. Fortunately, there’s a crop of independent filmmakers right now collectively performing disfiguring cosmetic surgery on the face of fear–and doing it on the cheap.
Writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard are among a group that also includes Ti West, Joe Swanberg, and others, who have made modestly budgeted indie horror movies that make their studio counterparts look relatively tame. All four worked together on 2012’s V/H/S, an anthology film now streaming on Netflix, that also serves as a mission statement for the kinds of innovative scares this new guard has up its sleeves.
With the sequel V/H/S 2 now in theaters and VOD, and the much-buzzed-about You’re Next poised to do well in its wide release on August 23, Co.Create spoke with Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard about how to scare the living daylights out of viewers the lean way.
Simon Barrett: I definitely advise people now not to go to film school. You could just buy one of those SLR cameras, get a decent editing program and a laptop and start making professional films that you can get into festivals. When Adam and I went to film school, it was different. We shot our first stuff on 16 mm and you really had to go to film school to shoot and edit 16 mm. Now, everybody is shooting on video as opposed to film, and it’s a separate series of technical talents that you have to learn to become a filmmaker.
Adam Wingard: Really, the only way you can learn to be a filmmaker is through trial and error, and we definitely have a lot of that under our belt. We’ve been working at this for over a decade now, and it’s only through accepting all of our faults as filmmakers and all the mistakes we’ve made up until now that we’re actually improving. There’s a hugely different practical application to actually making a movie that you can’t prepare for in film school.
Barrett: One of the many things that unites us in our values is that we always want to be making as many movies as possible, and we want them to be as good as they possibly can be. The trick to working on multiple movies at a time is that there has to be two of you. It’s almost like having a designated driver. I’ve learned that I can’t switch back and forth from one script to the other, I have to feel like I exist in the world of one story before I can move on to the next one. I kind of have to immerse myself in the movie to make sure that I’m making the right creative decision. If I take a break from it, it takes me a while to get back into it. But since there’s two of us, I can be writing another project while Adam’s editing the last one.
Wingard: You want each film to have a unique visual style and a unique perspective, too. There’s always an element of finding what is the perspective of the narrative that we’re telling here. Are we following one character or two? There’s gotta be rules you have to set up. Once you start setting up rules of your movie, it’s different every time because it’s always got to be related to the story. Figuring out these things makes the audience think, on a subliminal level, that you spent more time and money on the movie, and it makes them think of it as a more legitimate film.
Wingard: We work separately. We like to surprise each other with what we’re doing. We get to an agreement on the kind of movie we’re making. Simon goes off and writes it and then I read it as a viewer would. During the making of the movie, he’s there if I need him, but he’s not looking over my shoulder. Ultimately, I’ll go in the editing room and make a cut of the film, so that way he can judge it based on what it is, and what I wanted to make of the script.
Barrett: It’s important to not just know when to give each other notes and push each other, but also when to give each other space. That allows us to approach these projects with objectivity. I assure you that when you lock yourself in an apartment and work on a script for six weeks straight, you do not know at the time you are done with it if it’s a good or bad script. You might have an idea, but there’s a very good chance that you’re wrong. Having someone constantly getting you out of your own headspace and your own ego can save you from making a bad movie. By giving each other space, there’s always someone on deck who can be objective about the work.
Wingard: It’s all about maximizing your production value on-screen and creating an aesthetic. Basically, cinematography is one of the key elements of making the movie feel bigger. With You’re Next, I wanted to do something that had more of a mainstream kind of cinematic language to it. And to do that, I watched a lot of Hollywood movies again, and I realized the main throughline is just having lots and lots of coverage–having the ability to film and film and film and then cut to wherever you want to later.
Wingard: Making a movie feel more expensive is about having all the tools and using them in motivated ways. if you watch student films, it’s the first time kids have a lot of equipment, and they just overuse everything they have, and they use them in these obvious, bad ways. And also be able to sculpt your lighting from the perspective of story and realism, as opposed to just, “I want this to look really cool.” You can have really expensive gear and stuff like that, but if you overuse it, it ends up having strangely the inverse effect, and you end up making it look cheaper.
Barrett: A lot of filmmakers don’t have a realistic idea of what costs what. I see $10 million horror movies all the time that look much cheaper than You’re Next, and I think it’s just because they tried something too ambitious. Because of that, it looks low-budget. It really is about finding a style you know you can make work and being flexible. Not being like, “No, we have to do it this way because I read that’s the way David Fincher does it.” Dude, you don’t have David Fincher’s budget, and you’re not David Fincher. It’s about finding your own style.