Director | The American Film Institute
Q & A
Name a Horror character you relate to on a spiritual/personal level?
Evelyn Idyllwild. Don’t know who she is? You’ll just have to wait and find out. Okay, shameless plug / big market tease aside, I’d say Keller Dover, Hugh Jackman’s character in Prisoners. Now I know that that’s not a horror film necessarily but, as a filmmaker, I consider myself more often attracted to and inspired by crime thrillers so I’m sneaking into that genre for this question. I’m often terrified by the thought of something horrible happening to a family member or someone I love so I can identify deeply with Keller’s descent into vengeful madness when his children are kidnapped. I question what I would do if someone did something awful to my loved ones; do I think I could or would go to lengths that Keller did in that film? I don’t know, probably not, but I can certainly identify with why he’s acting the way he is. He’s a great example of the age old idea in filmmaking that you don’t have to like what a character is doing, but you have to be able to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. So I relate to him in the sense that I can identify with his motivations. Who knows if I would ever go to the lengths that he did but storytelling allows you to embody characters that share your beliefs or motivations in situations that you might never explore in your own life. People love their favorite movies, not necessarily because the film tells them something new, but because it reflects and bolsters beliefs that they already have. So I can certainly relate to Keller Dover on a personal level, even if I don’t love him as a character. I think I’d also become a little unhinged if I was trapped in the Overlook hotel for four months straight.
You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?
I’m sure every film that’s ever been created is a treasure trove of terrible ideas before they were worked through and workshopped until the final idea came to fruition. I mean, that’s how writers speak to each other when they’re coming up with possible solutions to a problem in the script, “here’s the bad pitch of the idea”. It’s always the starting place and eventually the idea that ends up creating the film started in some place that most filmmakers would be embarrassed to admit. But I think the bad ideas are entirely necessary and writers have to be comfortable pitching their bad ideas because once they’re out in the universe, they start to take shape and can evolve into the good idea. I know every film I’ve directed started in a completely different place and, looking back at the original idea compared to the completed film, they’re often worlds apart from each other. The example that stands out to me is, in an undergraduate directing class, I made a dumb comedy film about college students having a duel over a girl that satired Tarantino-style Neo-westerns and my professor and mentor at the time, months later, said “I regret letting you make that film”. He was totally right. As my professor put it, “it was a waste of your talent to spend so much time making that film”, a film that more-or-less operated like a dumb comedy skit that had nothing to say. It was cringe-inducing, full of dumb jokes and I won’t watch it again. Films are so difficult to make that every opportunity you have to make one should be a chance to try and understand who you are and what you’re trying to say as a person and as a filmmaker. But like I said, all bad ideas are worthy because I’ve learned far more from the films I directed that were terrible than the films that were successful. You can’t discover who you are or what trying to say as a filmmaker without failing a couple times.
Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?
Not necessarily. The horror community is a very tight-knit and specific community that I’ve never fully identified with. I often find myself more attracted to and inspired by the thriller or crime-thriller genre, but admittedly there is a lot of overlap between the two. I think some of the greatest films ever made are horror films, like The Shining and Hereditary, but for me, great films within the horror genre are few and far between. I’m not a fan of slasher films, body horror, jump scares, gore, etc. When the horror is so blatant and over-the-top, it does nothing for me. While I am a fan of many horror films, I don’t naturally put it at number one on my list. That being said, I am hugely fascinated by fear, the passage of time and the concept of death in a philosophical way, and by extension, the evolutionary traits ingrained in our subconscious by fear as a survival instinct. I read, what the authors called, the first scholarly study and definition of the word ‘creepiness’, which they defined as ‘anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of not knowing if something is to be feared or not'— and I find the ambiguity that arouses fear to be much more exhilarating than straight-up terror. That’s why I’m often more influenced and attracted to the thriller and crime-thriller genre. Thrillers/crime thrillers, I think, deal more with people’s psychologies, particularly in regards to those whose actions we can’t fully understand, like serial killers. Monsters and demons and ghosts can be scary, but to me, there’s nothing more terrifying than another person, which is why films/series like True Detective (Season 1), Se7en, Prisoners, Mindhunter, The Shining, reach the top of my list. I like to create a feeling of eeriness or uneasiness in my films, where something feels off but you’re not sure why. That gut instinct you feel around a predatory person or in a dark alley way, you know something feels wrong but you’re not sure why you feel that way. That is your unconscious, primal instincts kicking in before your mind is able to process the danger, and that type of sensation is what I’m fascinated by and try to capture in my films. That being said, that can have a lot of overlap with the horror genre, but unfortunately I think the horror genre has garnered a bad reputation at times because it’s such an enormous umbrella that anything that can be assumed as ‘scary’ can fall under. And unfortunately there are a lot of films that I don’t enjoy under that umbrella. But I do entirely reject the opinion that a horror film can’t be a great film. Just because it can be categorized as a horror film does not mean real, substantive, deeply human themes can’t be explored. I’m attracted to the horror films whose subtextual themes are universal, such as Hereditary or The Shining dealing with mental health or Get Out dealing with racism. I subscribe to Ari Aster’s thinking when he was creating Hereditary, which he describes as ‘a family drama that slowly unravels’. He says he tended to the natural drama of the family and the degradation of the family system before he tended to the horror elements. Terror or dread should arise from the circumstance created, much like good comedy, and not be shoved in just for the sake of being scary.
When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?
That’s a good question and a tough question to answer. Like I said, I’m interested in films and making films that create a world of uneasiness, so I think inspiration comes from source material that makes me feel a certain way. Often that can be a novel, it can be true crime podcasts, almost always it’s a number of references from other films, or it’s just putting myself in a scenario, embodying the film’s characters, where that uneasiness presents itself naturally. I like to make period pieces; if every film I ever make is set in bygone era, I’ll be happy, so I’m hugely inspired by history and generations past. I try to dig into the details of whichever era the film is set and bring out those intricacies that cater to the world of the film. There is so much fascinating character and texture to be mined from history and so I go down deep rabbit holes studying the era of the film, from the clothing, architecture and modes of transportation to the way people thought, the daily occurrences that were normal to them but no longer exist, and the way the time period affected who they were as a person and how they thought. Particularly in the crime thriller / horror genre, I find there’s an endless wealth of inspiration just from the circumstances of the day and, by setting the film in another era, one that the audience doesn’t live in and know firsthand, you give yourself the ability to add layer upon layer of texture to the story. We already live in today’s world, we see how it operates everyday on social media and on the news, so to subscribe to the Coen Brothers thinking, what reason do we have to not explore another time period and learn about a new world, a world that helped create the one we live in now, which can only help to bolster the story already being told?
What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?
Honestly, I’d probably die. I like to think I’d be good in survival scenarios but if I woke up in the den of a serial killer, who knows how I’d fare. My inspiration for Rosie, the protagonist, was myself at that age, but that was more in regards to her motivations before the serial killer presented himself. Maybe I could maneuver my way out of his grasp but a lot of her actions are based on the fact that she’s 12-years-old and I wonder if, at 30, I would react differently. Maybe I’d try to fight back earlier to save my best friend and that would end in ultimate demise for both of us. But that’s the question of the film, she survives but at what cost? Is it a good thing that she saved herself but her best friend didn’t make it out alive? Who knows how I would be influenced by the sociopathic psychology of a serial killer. I don’t think I’m as bold or fearless as Rosie is, to go back into the serial killer’s den, I’ll say that much.
Who would be on your ultimate horror villain squad?
•Voldemort •The Joker from The Dark Knight •Jack Torrence from The Shining •Calvin Candie from Django Unchained •Black Phillip from the Witch •Coraline’s Other Mother from Coraline •The Yellow King from True Detective, Season 1 •John Doe from Se7en •Betelguese from Beetlejuice
Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?
•Freddy vs. Jason? I never really got into these films. I’ll choose He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. •Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Stephen King. It’s one of my lifelong goals to direct a Stephen King novel someday. •Practical or CGI? Practical, no question. The world is more believable, the physics are more believable, but above all else, the performances are always better. It’s really not fair to expect an actor to have some incredible, authentic emotion in a green room looking at a styrofoam ball with two X’s for eyes. I’d like to get to a place where I can shoot everything, even the biggest action scenes, practically, in the way of Christopher Nolan. •Pre-Apocalypse or Post-Apocalypse? Pre, also no question. I’ve never been attracted to post- apocalyptic films and, like I said, I’m deeply fascinated by history. Let’s visit the past, not the future.
How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?
I don’t necessarily use props that are unreal since I operate more often in the crime thriller genre, but for example, in A STRANGE CALM, the film hosted on Alter, I use taxidermied deer heads as an element of surrealism. I do love subtle surrealism in filmmaking, I think the show Atlanta does it brilliantly, and I believe, personally, the best way to accomplish subtle surrealism is practically. There is enough terrifying, off-putting, unsettling things that already exist in the world, why not utilize and highlight them to elicit the tone that you’re trying to accomplish. Although relatively common, taxidermy is still highly unnerving, particularly poorly- made taxidermy. When choosing the props for the film, my team and I went to an enormous taxidermy shop that sold but also rented dead, unmoving animals to the film industry and, I’ll tell you what, just being that room made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There was just a heavy, unsettling air in that room; it’s as quiet and still as the night but you’re surrounded by twenty foot walls covered in once-living, completely frozen, dead animals that stare at you with unblinking, black eyes. If your props can have that feeling of strangeness in real life, hopefully it will help you capture that tone in the film. The same goes for the sets I’ve used. I haven’t necessarily used totally unique sets yet but setting my short film, A STRANGE CALM, in the 1970s on a small budget was a challenge. What we did to accomplish that was find a location that had the least amount of modern-day interference we could find. That was the countryside in Santa Clarita, a small town north of Los Angeles. From there we had total control over the time period because all we had to do was outfit the characters with period appropriate clothing and use a picture car to get across the 1970s aesthetic. And sometimes, the more real and familiar a location is to the audience, the more strange the unsettling elements of the story might feel to them.
What scares you, and does it inspire your storytelling?
Being trapped in a small space with a bunch of other people. Flying. Heights. Failure. When I’m really stressed, my stress dreams come in the form of being chased or being stuck in a room with a lion or a tiger. But no, to answer the question as it relates to filmmaking, I think Professor Dumbledore said it best, “it is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more”. Sincerely I think that’s the best way to encapsulate what I’m attracted to as it relates to fear. To go back to the scholarly definition of creepiness, it is 'the anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of not knowing if something is to be feared or not’ that I find to be the most exhilarating form of terror. The moment before we know what the monster looks like. The discomfort, dread or unease that your imagination conjures up before you find out what the source of your fear is. I do really like the sensation of being scared, I believe you are most alive, most in touch with your instincts, thinking about nothing else, when you’re in a state of true fear. I don’t mean fear like you’re barreling down the freeway out of control at 90mph or your airplane’s engine just exploded. No. I don’t wish that type of fear on anyone. I mean the type of fear that comes when you’re sitting on the couch, home alone at night, and you hear something move behind you, or when you sprint up the basement stairs because you feel something behind you, or your dog is barking at the dark corner of the room for no apparent reason. It’s the fear of what’s hiding in the shadows, the fear of the unknown. For this reason, I like to believe in the supernatural or unknown forces that have terrified and perplexed people for centuries: folk lore, forces of nature we can’t comprehend, alternate universes, demons, ghosts, undiscovered forms of life, the darkness the human mind, etc. Have I ever experienced any those things? No, but do I have reason to say that any one of them categorically don’t exist? No, so I choose to keep my mind open to the possibility that they might. And I think as a filmmaker or a storyteller who explores themes that might involve the supernatural or the unknown, you have to be open-minded about their existence or you can’t tell a story about them with any real conviction. Above all else, I find human psychology to be endlessly fascinating and often times, deeply terrifying and that is what I aim to explore in filmmaking. So certainly, what scares me inspires my storytelling. The exhilaration of fear combined with exploration of the unknown is exactly what I aim to explore in my filmmaking.
And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’
Hmmmm. Obviously there can be a difference between what you think is the best scary movie and what you consider to be your favorite scary movie. Free Solo is probably the scariest movie I’ve ever seen but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here. In terms of horror movies, I think I could boil it down to The Shining and Hereditary. In terms of thrillers, True Detective, Season 1 and Prisoners. In terms of my favorite movies to watch around Halloween, Coraline and Beetlejuice.