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June 2017

Developing Style as an Artist

in Filmmaking/Writing by
Hammer of the Gods 2018 horror movie

Developing style as an artist

Stanley Kubrick filming Spartacus.
Stanley Kubrick filming Spartacus. Kubrick had one of the most distinct styles in film.

Anyone facing a career in the arts, be it writing, filmmaking, or whatever, will face the issue of style: where it comes from and how to get it. A quick Google search brings up hundreds of articles on developing style as an artist. As someone who talks to a lot of artists, I hear the topic come up a lot. As someone who reads tons of screenplays, I can see that people aren’t quite getting it.

The articles all say the same things: don’t force it, let it come naturally, experiment, try imitating but don’t copy. It’s all fine advice but it’s not helpful to someone who feels like their work is lacking an identity.

Watching the rough cut of Hammer of the Gods, my third feature film, I realized I’ve been developing my own style. Some elements I can pinpoint to inspiration from other filmmakers, and some are of unknown origin. Yet somehow, it all works as a coherent unit, as if it’s just one style — because it is. Led Zeppelin’s music has a perfect synthesis to it but you can still hear the Celtic and blues inspirations.

Style doesn’t come naturally

There’s a myth that certain artists were born into their style, that Quentin Tarantino sat down for the first time at a typewriter and produced Pulp Fiction. People see The Grand Budapest Hotel and think Wes Anderson has always had that quirky style. It’s not true and it’s a harmful assumption to someone starting out with their art career. Even Led Zeppelin was actually Jimmy Page setting out to create a supergroup of already well-established musicians with distinct styles of their own. They weren’t school buddies who got together in their parents’ basements to write Stairway to Heaven.

John McTiernan directs Arnie in Predator.
John McTiernan directs Arnie in Predator. His style was just emerging.

Nomads vs Predator

I love the movie, PredatorJohn McTiernan’s second film. Until last night, I’d never seen his first film, Nomads. I was curious to see what McTiernan came up with before Predator and Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, so I checked it out.

Watching the film you can see lots of hints at what would become McTiernan’s masterful style, but it doesn’t seem like a McTiernan film. It’s flawed in many ways, and there is a good deal of experimenting. The film isn’t great. McTiernan is doing so much experimenting that it’s hard to follow. He was trying to push boundaries before he understood what boundaries he could push and the film suffered as a result. Luckily Schwarzenegger loved it, so McTiernan got the director’s seat for Predator.

McTiernan experiments with style with his debut, Nomads.
McTiernan experiments with style with his debut, Nomads.

McTiernan approaches Predator differently. The artsy experimentation of Nomads is gone. Now, he’s simply trying to tell a good story. He’s focussing on relaying information to the audience clearly and efficiently. He isn’t using the camera in an attempt to create style. He’s using it to create tension. He’s focussed on doing his job as a director: the job of a storyteller. Predator isn’t a stylized film, and neither is Die Hard, but you can tell a John McTiernan movie when you see one. Why is that?

Style doesn’t mean stylized

My film school classmates all wanted to be Wes Anderson. Half of the final projects were blatant Wes Anderson rip offs. I even heard one student tell her actor, “That was good but this time, be more like Bill Murray.” I can’t judge — meanwhile, I was busy being a Sam Raimi wannabe.

Stylization happens when you’ve mastered your craft and developed a style. Once you’re able to look at that style and see what makes it unique, what the audience enjoys the most, that’s when you can start exaggerating certain elements. But first you need to develop a style, which needs to happen naturally.

wes anderson behind the scenes
It looks like Wes Anderson’s stills photographer may have been one of my classmates

Focus on telling the best, most clear story you can, and then look at your finished product. Decide which elements you like most about it. Take those elements with you into your next project and leave the rest behind. Do this over and over enough and eventually a style will emerge. Everything you like about your own work is an element of your eventual style. Bottle Rocket isn’t anything like The Life Aquatic, but you can see the little things that will eventually become Wes Anderson.

Don’t worry about your work being ordinary. Your personality will show through your work once you stop forcing style in to cover it up.

You don’t get to choose your style

This is the hardest fact to grasp for the emerging artist: your style chooses you, not the other way around. You might obsess yourself with Sam Raimi and wish your style was filled with crash zooms and over-the-top performances, but if it’s not you, then it’s not you — though some of that influence may still creep in.

You need to be honest with yourself. Embrace the unexpected. You may be casting a film, looking for a certain performance, when someone comes in and does something you never thought of. Go with it. A light might burn out on set and you end up with an interesting lighting setup and you like it. If you like it and think it can work, go with it. Don’t try to analyze or define what you like about it, just trust your gut.

A still from Black Mountain Side
A still from Black Mountain Side

In my own experience

The long following shot of Jensen (Shane Twerdun) in Black Mountain Side wasn’t what I expected it to be, but during the camera rehearsal, the camera team went down the wrong path in the snow and the shot ended up being framed completely differently. I decided to go with it (it’s one of my favourite shots in the film), and I ended up doing a similar shot in Hammer of the Gods. Embrace the accidents. Had Black Mountain Side turned out exactly as I’d envisioned in my head before sitting down to write the script, it probably would have been a glorified Shining rip off, but as I wrote, ideas with seemingly no origin came to mind and I rolled with them. When we were casting, amazing actors came in that didn’t fit my original mental image, but I went with them. Budgetary restraints forced me to be creative on the day, and at times I put my trust in other people. Good things happened and I took those good things along with me to Hammer of the Gods.

Don’t feel like you need to force style into your project to be noticed or interesting. It’s hurting your work and it’s hurting your potential. Be excited to meet your style. Enjoy watching your style unfold from project to project. It’s one of the more satisfying parts of the job.

My Thoughts on Alien: Covenant

in Horror by
Shooting Alien: Covenant
The poster art for Alien: Covenant
The poster art for Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant: A sad lesson for storytellers

I love the original Alien, it’s one of my favourite films ever, in my top three. It’s a great movie on so many levels, from the practical effects, to the sound design, to the acting, but most of all, the story. It’s such a simple idea, and one thing I’ve noticed with every great film is that they all have nice, clean, simple ideas. Alien can be described with so few words: An alien gets onto a spaceship. Alien: Covenant on the other hand…

Predator, maybe my favourite film ever, is a great film for lots of reasons, but again, I believe it’s great because it’s a nice, simple concept: a crew of the deadliest mercenaries are hunted by an alien hunter.

When these movies came out, the ideas were fresh. Now, there have been a thousand alien slips onto spaceship movies. Just a few weeks before Alien: Covenant came out, a film with the same exact plot as the original Alien was released.

Aliens did something different with the idea. I’m not the biggest Aliens fanboy, but I have a lot of respect for the film. Again, it was different and the idea was fresh. It was what a sequel should be. Likewise with Terminator 2, the film was taken in a different direction and it felt like its own movie, not stuck in the shadow of its predecessor.

Shooting Alien: Covenant
Shooting Alien: Covenant

Progressive decline

Alien: Covenant is a film that is stuck in the shadow of the shadow of the shadow of Alien. There’s nothing fresh in the film. The same old plot lines were revisited, with nothing new added to the mix — plot lines from Alien, from Aliens, and from Prometheus. Even the main character was really just a re-hash of the lead girl in Prometheus, who was a re-hash of Ripley from Alien.

The big problem with the film, and I’m starting to think that it’s the problem with modern-day Ridley Scott, is that the film is reaching too far. There seems to be this idea that bigger is better, that the film will be better if the world is bigger, the themes are bigger, the effects are bigger, the everything is bigger. I’m trying to think of how to describe the film’s plot in a single sentence, but I can’t even think of how to describe the film in a single paragraph. There’s so much happening in the worst way possible.

I love aliens, I love spaceships, and I love horror, so this film really didn’t have to do a lot to impress me. I just wanted a good story, but it wasn’t there. The plot was terribly convoluted and it got more and more unbelievable as the film dragged on. But this post isn’t supposed to be a review, so I’ll leave it at that.

The original Alien, infinitely better than Alien: Covenant
The original Alien, infinitely better than Alien: Covenant

Originality and simplicity

There’s a lesson to learn from the Alien franchise, which has been crashing harder and harder since 1992. As the plots get more outlandish, the films get worse. The same lesson can be learned from other franchises, like Predator or Jaws. As the plots take longer to describe, the movies get shittier. There are six Alien films, and each one is worse than the last. If you’re setting out to make a film, make sure your idea is nice and simple. A single sentence should be more than enough. And in my opinion, the film should be just as interesting on a $50,000 budget as a $5 million budget.

Originality and simplicity: the best part about them is that they’re free.

The Game From Black Mountain Side

in Games by
A screenshot from the game, Stay Alive.

The Game From Black Mountain Side

After listening to A-Z Horror’s latest podcast discussing Black Mountain Side, I realized there may be some demand for the game from Black Mountain Side, the game Jensen (Shane Twerdun) is seen playing in the film — mostly because the game is discussed in the podcast. A-Z Horror puts on a wonderful podcast and I recommend it highly.


Some people have asked what the game is. I actually created the game seen in the film back when I was in high-school, when I was stuck in a hotel in Quebec for a few days. It’s called ZOMBIES!!! and it’s a platform survival game where you need to defend a little house from an endless horde of zombies. It was the only source of entertainment while we were filming Black Mountain Side, and Tim Lyle (who plays McNaughton in the film) was the only one who beat the game.

An updated version

ZOMBIES!!! only runs on Windows, but after filming Black Mountain Side, I created a much smoother and shinier version called Stay Alive, where you can actually play as characters from Black Mountain Side, and one of the playable levels is Station 9. The Black Mountain Side content must be unlocked. However, because of my lack of programming skills, Stay Alive only runs on Mac OSX.

A screenshot from the game, Stay Alive.
A screenshot from the game, Stay Alive.

So if you’re running Windows, enjoy the game from the movie, and if you’re running OSX, enjoy a more complete game. Some day I will try to figure out a way to make Stay Alive run on Windows as well.



Note: Don’t try to fullscreen Stay Alive. It seems to get buggy (I just gave it a test run for the first time in three years). Just enjoy it in the little window, as if you were playing an old Gameboy.

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