Everybody loves horror films, right? Everybody rushes to the theater to see horror films, right? Have you ever wanted to make your own horror film? I'll stop with the questions and get right to the point. If you want to make your own horror film, Sara Caldwell's book "Splatter Flicks" is a must-own. This book will tell you everything you need to know before you even pick up a camera. This book will inspire you to get off your butt and make your own horror film. As Sara explains in her book, it's easier than you think. With that said, you need to be passionate, dedicated, and hungry. I recently sat down with Sara Caldwell to discuss her book and the horror genre in general.
If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, please visit ...
TONY: What inspired you to write this book and how long was the writing process?
SARA: I've always loved horror so after completing my second book (Jumpstart Your Awesome Film Production Company) I wanted to do something in that genre. I researched titles but didn't find that many books specifically about making low budget horror. I also thought about what makes horror such a unique genre – a key feature being you can make something highly successful on a microscopic budget and star power isn't a necessity. Look at Blair Witch or any of the classics. The low-budget aspect is in fact part of the appeal. Horror genre fans are unique and I'm sure many have thought of making their own films, so I wanted to make the book very accessible for the novice filmmaker, though there is a lot in there for the more seasoned sorts.
It took me about four months to write the book, which is similar to my previous books. Lining up and conducting all the interviews took at least a month, then transcribing them, sorting good quotes for the various topics, etc. There was a lot of research and then just pure writing followed by the whole editorial process. This was obviously not a full-time occupation because no one can make a living on an advance for a niche book, but I spent a LOT of hours working on it.
TONY: Outside of the horror genre, do you think this book can be helpful to any young filmmaker?
SARA: I think the book is useful to aspiring filmmakers in any genre. While the focus is definitely on horror, most of the concepts or information crosses all genres. The filmmakers and other experts I interviewed gave really great advice that applies to any low-budget production. If I tried to write a similar book for another genre, I'd probably end up repeating myself quite a bit.
TONY: You mention in your book the pros and cons of going to film school and not going to film school. If you were starting out today as a filmmaker, what approach would you take?
SARA: Ideally you'd do both. There's certainly value in education and getting some basic practical and theoretical knowledge. I teach at a community college where students often don't have the money for a prestigious film program. But they learn how to use the gear, understand concepts behind story telling and film structure, and just test the waters to see if this is what they really want to pursue. The big advantage of courses is free access to equipment. I've known students who only signed up for a film lab class, less than $30 for a semester, just to be able to access the equipment for a project. The advantage of the bigger schools is that you're getting top notch faculty that work in the field and can mentor in a pragmatic way. They also have great contacts. Bottom line, you don't need to go to film school to make films, but your films will probably be better with knowledge, however you seek it.
TONY: Do you think the horror genre is one genre that helps out fellow filmmakers more than other genres? It seems like one big happy family. You don't see a lot of egos in the genre.
SARA: I totally agree. I think a lot of it stems from the fan base. It's so unique as fans really support small independent horror on many levels. Science fiction fans can be similar in nature, but who makes low-budget science fiction films? The same connection isn't there between filmmaker and audience. This already creates a warm and fuzzy. There's also the humble aspect. It's not exactly the most respected genre in the industry so people in it tend to stick together. One filmmaker's success gives the others hope. There is camaraderie in the trenches when you're on the same side! And anyone who's worked in the low-budget end of the genre has gotten his or her hands pretty dirty, working insane hours with ludicrous budgets and production stories more terrifying than the story they're creating.
TONY: The horror genre seems to go through so many highs and lows. It seems like right now the horror genre is at an all-time high in popularity.
Do you think right now is the perfect time to work on your horror film? Also, why do you think the genre goes up and down so much?
SARA: It's not just horror that's cyclical, it's any 'specialty' genre. By 'specialty' I mean those with more specialized audiences than your broad drama, comedy, action base. Science fiction, adventure, fantasy, westerns – those all have had their share of cycles. Sometimes a few innovative filmmakers propel a trend. Look at the recent Asian influence that crossed to our borders. Filmmakers like Hideo Nakata (Ringu), Takashi Miike (Audition), and Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on: The Grudge) kick-started a new wave of horror with their fresh takes on the genre. I think there will always be a market for horror whether or not it's at a high-point of popularity. Right now it's pretty good, but who knows about tomorrow. But as a filmmaker, if you have a story you desperately want to share, market trends shouldn't be the influencing decision. If it's good, it will find an audience, whatever the genre.
TONY: Do you think horror fans get a bad reputation? They are all very friendly and polite. Sadly, it seems like a lot of critics and industry types look down on them.
SARA: Sure, but maybe it's what makes the genre so unique at the same time. If horror was more critically accepted, would the same fan base exist or those innovative independent filmmakers that keep the genre so fresh compared to what Hollywood dishes out? The fan base is critical to their ability to make low-budget films. At the same time, serious recognition and financial reward is always nice!
TONY: I'd like to talk to you about the Saw films. Why do you think they are so popular? They just seem to keep growing and growing in popularity. Most sequels don't do better than the original.
SARA: I have to admit I'm not a big Saw fan but I think a lot of the popularity stems from having the same screenwriter (Leigh Whannell) for all three projects to date. The same director, Darren Lynn Bowman, was responsible for Saw II and III, while James Wan is certainly recognized for the original. Too many times the original writers/directors are replaced in sequels as studios know they can profit on titles alone if they reduce budgets significantly. Sequels were looked down on as a result and bigger name directors/screenwriters were reluctant to do them. But the perception of sequels has changed, like acting for television. Bigger directors/screenwriters are willing to make sequels now. Wes Craven and his son Jonathan recently teamed up to write The Hills Have Eyes 2. Hollywood is taking sequels fare more seriously if the potential is there.
TONY: Speaking of the Saw films, I think it's amazing what James and Leigh accomplished with the first film. Why do you think the first film was so successful?
SARA: I think the major key to the success of the first Saw film was the premise. Wan and Whannell's original concept was filmed as a nine-minute short. The premise worked well enough to get funded as a theatrically released feature. As a writer and screenwriting teacher/consultant I can't stress the importance of premise enough. Like a story is the foundation of a good film, the premise is the foundation of a good story. It's a fundamental building block. As Saw demonstrated, the premise doesn't have to be huge or complex to build a story around it. It's usually fairly simple but there's an originality of some kind, even if it's a spin on an old tale or theme.
TONY: The horror genre lately seems to be fascinated with what a lot of critics call "torture porn." Do you think horror films have been trying too hard to be gross?
SARA: I've never found gross-out that appealing and it rarely scares me. I'm more into suspense -- what might happen is often far more vivid in our imaginations than what actually happens. But that "torture porn" trend was perhaps inevitable. Horror has always attracted attention for its violent and sexual tendencies, since the advent of cinema. Early horror classics like Tom Browning's Freaks, made in 1932, seem tame by today's standards but that movie became one of the most controversial in cinematic history for its sense of 'perversity'. There's a conservative fear associated with horror and it is easily criticized as a result. But like any other genre, boundaries have to be pushed and tested to grow forward rather than stagnant and in horror those boundaries are often about violence and sexuality. Some testing works, some doesn't, but the forward momentum is what counts.
TONY: What do you think about horror films that use a lot of messages and themes under the context of the violence? I was impressed with how Eli Roth did this in Hostel. What did you think of Eli Roth as a filmmaker?
SARA: I think it's
important for any film to have underlying messages and themes as that adds substance and is the stuff audiences connect to. Eli Roth is certainly following in Quentin Tarantino's steps in his uncompromising depiction of gore and sadism, not a surprise given their working history. The themes in Hostel are interesting and certainly a reflection of American paranoia of an unknown enemy. I always love films that explore the sense of isolation in a foreign land (one of my favorite novels is The Comfort of Strangers by Ian Mcewan). It's very unsettling with language barriers adding to that sense of isolation. I think Eli Roth shows a lot of potential and it'll be interesting to see how he expands his concept in Hostel II.
TONY: What current horror filmmakers impress you the most?
SARA: There are a lot of filmmakers who impress me and I have my personal preferences in types of horror so that probably prejudices me a bit. There's a really talented though lesser known filmmaker in New York, Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) who's style I like as it's very psychologically driven and leaves many open ended questions. I'm really curious to see his new film, The Last Winter. Conversely, I really liked Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects and its 1970s revenge western style. Zombie's just such an interesting character, I'm sure he'll present many more controversial surprises in his lifetime. I do like filmmakers who take risks, even if they don't always work..
TONY: Since your book has been released, have you heard any success stories from young filmmakers who have read your book for inspiration?
SARA: I always love getting email from people who have read my book and said it inspired them in some way. I've had a lot of positive feedback on this book and people have told me they've pulled practical ideas from it. I can't think of any particular success stories but the book hasn't been out that long. We'll see!
TONY: Why do you think it's so hard to find a horror film that does well with fans and also with critics?
SARA: I think many critics watch horror films with negative perceptions to begin with. Critics are reluctant to be 'wrong' of general audience perceptions, like the weatherman predicting sunshine and it rains, so it's a double-edged sword – their reputation versus a more objective review. Fans are far more generous, fortunately, and ultimately they're the ones buying the theater tickets.
TONY: The MPAA seems to be a lot more relaxed with their ratings in terms of the horror genre. A lot of films that are released today would have never been released a couple of years ago. Why do you think the MPPA has calmed down with horror films?
SARA: As I mentioned with Freaks, what seems over the top one day is tame the next. That speaks to our culture in general of course, but at the end of the day I think it smacks of money. Like politics, special interest groups will find a way to open doors if there is something to gain, like it or not.
TONY: You also help teach students about film. What's the most enjoyable part about teaching?
SARA: The pleasure you can get from teaching is hard to describe. It was something I never intentionally pursued, it just happened, though I had done a number of workshops and tutored inner city children so loved the student/mentor connection by the time I started formally teaching in 2005. It's really a two-way street – the students get knowledge and encouragement to pursue their dreams and as a teacher, when you get a student enthused and excited, there's a strong sense of reward in it, especially when you see a normally apathetic student come to life on a project.
TONY: Finally, thanks for your time, Sara. What do you have planned for the future? Also, anything you want to say before we go?
SARA: You're welcome! I'm currently working on a very exciting project for a group in Sweden. They're designing a whole e-course around horror screenwriting and recruited me to write about fifty percent of a book that will accompany the course. .They also interviewed me and many other experts, from psychiatrists to independent filmmakers, to discuss all facets of horror screenwriting and the psychology behind fear. It's due to be launched in the fall and I think it'll be an amazing resource in a lot of ways. Between that, freelancing, screenwriting, teaching, consulting, and chauffeuring my kids around town... who knows what else is next. Opportunities often present themselves.
Last words of wisdom are tricky without sounding like a cliché. I would like to reinforce that if you're setting out to make a horror film, make sure the story is really there, that it's fresh and says something new. It's so important as everything builds from it and if it's weak, things are likely to crumble and fast.
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Tony is an Oak Lawn, IL based film reviewer and columnist looking to have fun and share his unique views on film with everyone. Tony also has an unhealthy obsession with Vanessa Lengies, but that is neither here nor there.|
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