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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.

Filmmaking: Making a Living

in Filmmaking by

A career in filmmaking

filmmaking predator horror
Behind the scenes on Predator. Back when filmmaking was profitable

Back before the 90s, breaking into the filmmaking industry was extremely difficult, but established filmmakers generally made an alright living. Even into the 90s, with the rise of independent film, filmmakers were still able to make okay money off of their craft. The same isn’t so true today. With the rise of technology, anyone can make a film. When you take a high-demand job and remove the restrictions, naturally you’re going to get a flood of newcomers, eager to get their work out there.

There are so many people trying to make filmmaking their career. I don’t say this to discourage you, but it’s important to have a healthy perspective on the industry. Just in Vancouver (where I went to film school), there are four serious film schools that take in large groups of students every year. The school I went to, The Vancouver Film School, has intakes of 30-40 students every two months. Sure, many of these students end up dropping out, quitting their film pursuits, or they end up working on sets across various departments. But most of them have dreams of making films. On day one of school, one of our teachers said, “With a show of hands, how many people here want to be directors?” Every single student in our class raised their hand.

Luckily for the determined, most people who set out to make a feature film don’t succeed, usually because of lack of confidence and/or lack of motivation. Still, thousands of films are made every single year.

The tyranny of distribution

filmmaking film markets
The American Film Market, crawling with filmmakers trying to sell their movies

Distributors no longer pay money for independent films. Thanks to over-saturation, they don’t need to pay. They have hundreds of filmmakers sending them films, all willing to give away the rights for a small cut that they may or may not ever get. Decades ago, before the Great Independent Film Flood, distributors would offer big sums of money as minimum guarantees, or MGs. These days, MGs are rare, mostly non-existent. Back in the day, you sold the film and the distributor did the rest. These days, filmmakers are expected to provide everything from artwork, posters, subtitle files, commentary tracks, and so on.

A typical deal goes as follows (and this is if you’re lucky): A distributor will take your film with no MG, and usually around a 70/30 split (in their favour). They will spend a small amount on marketing, usually around $25,000 (much of this is to pay themselves). Then, once the film is released, you aren’t paid until they recoup that $25,000. Not until then will you start to earn your 30%. If you want to learn a little bit more, read my article on the state of the film industry today.

film distribution filmmaking
If you really want money, look into a career in distribution.

Unless you raised all of your finances through crowd sourcing, or you paid out of your own pocket, you will have to repay your investors before you see a dime. Most filmmakers will even sell their movie to a sales agent, whose job is to take the film and sell it again to a distributor, or multiple distributors. They will take an additional percentage and will have their own marketing expenses that need to be recouped.

More often than not, filmmakers who are successful in making a film will never see a dime.

How you won’t make it

Hoping to make a living off of a film’s (or multiple films) royalties is nonsensical. It won’t happen. In making Black Mountain Side and Hammer of the Gods, I was lucky enough to meet some established filmmakers, with films I had both seen and enjoyed. I was shocked to learn they all had other jobs on the side that they worked between productions.

Many filmmakers pay themselves a portion of the film’s budget, which is fine, but you won’t (you shouldn’t) make enough to pay the bills. Even if you’re insanely efficient, making a film every year, you’re only going to be making about $5,000-$20,000 off of every film. For most beginning filmmakers, that money is better used on other things. I wasn’t paid anything out of the budget for Kankered or Black Mountain Side, my first two features.

low budget filmmaking
As profits shrink, so do budgets. Lots of film sets these days look like this

Here in Canada, we have decent tax credits. In BC, you can get up to 35% of labour costs back. During the beginning stages of Black Mountain Side, our accountant told us that this is how most filmmakers pay themselves, with the tax credit money. We used a portion of our tax credit to paid ourselves, but again, it was nowhere near enough to pay the bills.

If you pay yourself out of the budget, and you give yourself a bit of your tax credit, and you manage to make a chunk of money from royalties, you STILL won’t be making enough to live. So what can you do? How do people do it?

Finding work elsewhere

Most independent filmmakers have other jobs. Many work in the film industry. I worked as a boom operator for a few years, until it started to take a toll on my back. Some filmmakers have more standard jobs, in restaurants and bars, in retail stores, and so on.

Here’s the best advice I can possibly give: do not work in the film industry if you want to make films. The years I worked in film were my least productive years, and I regret them. There’s a stigma in the film industry, especially with those who went to film school. People seem to think working outside of the industry is, in some way, giving up on filmmaking. People feel they need to live in one of the big film cities and work tirelessly on sets. You don’t, and you shouldn’t.

filmmaking at home
Shooting Hammer of the Gods would not have been possible had it not been for my stay-at-home job.

Film industry pay is mediocre, even once you work your way up the ranks (which is difficult), and the hours are absolutely brutal. Working fourteen hour days, sometimes seven days a week, you aren’t going to have time to write scripts or plan your projects. When you do get downtime, you won’t have the energy. Set work is where aspiring filmmakers go to die.

There are arguments for working in the film industry but maybe that’s an article for another time.

Work part time, or from home

Two years ago, I quit the film industry and started working from home doing private graphic design work, mostly for publishers and web designers. I also do a good deal of ghostwriting and editing between design jobs. I get to work from home, I make far more than I was making working on sets, and my work week is only about 30 hours. Thanks to this work transition, I was able to make Hammer of the Gods, and I’ve been able to write multiple screenplays and do plenty of market research.

A filmmaker friend of mine works as a bartender. He sends his boss a text message when he needs two months off for a shoot, and his job is waiting for him when he gets back. I have the privilege of being able to e-mail clients that I’ll be away for a few months, and I know there will be work for me when I get back (I also make royalties from my ghostwriting efforts, which helps).

These days there are tons of ways you can work from home. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of discipline (which you should have anyway if you want to be a filmmaker). Working from home is low-stress, which is important for creativity.

You need to be stubborn

filmmaking child's play horror
Behind the scenes, shooting Child’s Play

The word stubborn has such a negative connotation, but I’ve found it’s actually one of my more valuable traits. If you’re going to make a living with filmmaking, you need to be stubborn. You need to be able to live off of very little, you need to put in hours when you sometimes don’t want to put in the hours. The truth is, you can’t finish a screenplay without being stubborn. Most people get ten pages into a script before throwing their hands up and yelling, “this story is crap!” Every script is going to suck in its first draft. You need to be stubborn if you’re going to see it through to future drafts and through to production.

Final thoughts

Don’t expect to be making money off of your first film. Don’t expect to ever make real money off of a career in film. It’s not guaranteed, and distributors will make it their goal to get all the money they can. The best way to approach it, is to treat it like a hobby. Find a job on the side to support your hobby, the way you might if you’re an avid skier. My brother-in-law is an avid mountain biker. For years, he went on mountain biking circuits and he tried to make a career out of it. Now, he makes a comfy living as a carpenter and he has plenty of spare time for biking. He’s probably the happiest person I know.

Filmmaking doesn’t need to be your job. In fact, you shouldn’t want it to be. If you try, you will just end up becoming jaded and you’ll begin to hate the process. Filmmaking should be fun. It’s an art. There’s a reason it’s such a sought-after career choice.

Orchestrating the Perfect Jump Scare

in Filmmaking/Horror/Writing by

The jump scare: cliche or useful tool?

jump scare mirror evil dead
A take on the mirror gag

If you’ve seen Black Mountain Side, then you know I’m not a big fan of jump scares. In fact, there isn’t a single jump scare in the whole film. That was intentional. When making that film, I was totally convinced that jump scares lessened the value of a horror film, and that the state of modern horror was in ruins solely because of the overused gimmick.

Was I right? Maybe to an extent, but I’ve since come to believe that jump scares can, and do, have a very important role in horror films. A successful jump scare is more complex than you might think.

Why do we need jump scares?

alien jump scare chestburster
No one saw this one coming. Not even the actors.

What is the point of a jump scare? It’s not simply, to make your audience jump. The goal of a horror filmmaker should be to leave the audience with a lasting sense of dread and, of course, fear. Yelling “Boo!” and making someone jump will get a rise, but it’s not enough to leave a lasting impression. If you rely on jump scares as the only form of horror in your film, you will undoubtably end up with a bad product. Feel free to read my article on “scary storytelling”, which may echo a lot of what I’m going to say here.

Jump scares serve a single purpose: to break through your audience’s defences. It makes them pay close attention, it makes them fear what is going to come around every corner, what is going to be in every reflection, and so on. People don’t like being jolted into jumping (which is why films that rely heavily on the jump scare aren’t so good), so they’re going to do their best to try to see the jump scares coming. A good jump scare makes them vulnerable to the real horror–the content of your story. This audience vulnerability will allow you to unravel the real goodies, unnoticed, so that you can hit them with a real surprise later on.

The importance of character

the shining jump scare
Jack Torrance is strangely relatable in The Shining.

A jump scare will never work if we don’t care about your characters. Again, I touched on this in my piece on scary storytelling. There is nothing more important in storytelling than strong characters. As soon as an audience begins your film, they will subconsciously begin the process of trying to relate to the characters. They will decide quickly who they like and who they’re rooting for.

And when I say they will attempt to relate, that doesn’t mean make your characters as relatable as possible. Make your characters interesting and unique and people will relate to them more than if you make them boring and standard. No one actually sees themselves as boring and standard.

Jump scares should be natural

When you sit down to write your script, don’t write it around those wicked jump scares you have in your mind. You should be focussing on your story, on your characters, on your plot–on good writing. If you end up with a great horror script without a single jump scare, great! Don’t go and add one in for the sake of having one.

jump scare it follows gimmick
The beach scene in It Follows

Jump scares should only end up in your script if they serve the story. Interjected scares will stick out like a sore thumb and take your audience right out of their trace. Because that’s what it’s all about: the trance. Horror is a unique genre in that you need to keep your audiences on the tension train, constantly rising them up and lowering them down, within your control. If they fall off the train, it’s almost impossible to get them back on.

I liked the movie It Follows up until the scene where the invisible monster starts throwing the kids around. To me, the scene felt forced, as if the filmmakers felt they needed to up the ante. They had a great tension going, and then they lost it, and I just couldn’t get back into the film after that. I started noticing little flaws here and there because I was no longer absorbed into the plot.

Don’t be cheap

jump scares japanese horror
After the Japanese got into the game, it became the game of jump scares.

You know that scene in that movie where the guy hears something outside, so he looks out the window, leans closer and closer, and then a bird slams into the window? It’s not just in that one movie, it’s in hundreds of them, and it’s cheap. Its intentions are good–the filmmakers are trying to lower your defences and get you nice and vulnerable early on. But what are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to make you fear stray animals flying into windows?

These failed attempts are actually working against the filmmaker. They’re conditioning the audience into knowing when to expect the jump scare. They’re giving away the music cue, the buildup, the timing, everything. Now the audience knows when to cover their eyes. The whole point of a jump scare is to surprise the audience. Now you’ve lost it.

Use your jump scares sparingly

jump scare the gift 2015
The Gift (2015) is highly recommended

One of my favourite horror films in the last five years has only one jump scare in it. I won’t spoil it, but the film I’m talking about is The Gift (2015), with Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton. There’s only one jump scare, right in the middle of the film, but its affects are tremendous. After the scare, you can’t help but sink back into your chair every time someone turns a corner, every time someone looks out the window. The tension, at times, in unbearable.

When you hit the audience over the head, over and over and over, with your jump scares, you lose the potential power of the jump scare altogether. You only need one well-placed, well-timed scare, and you’ll have your audience on the edge of their seat.

Not too early

One big mistake many modern horror films make is they blow their scary load too early. If it’s ten minuted into the film and we’ve had three birds, a cat, and the jokester buddy fly at us with sharp music cues, we’re going to be numb. When the real content comes our way, it will have little affect. Contemporary moviegoers know what to expect. They know about the music cue that is followed by the long silence, which is followed by the sharp sound. Make an effort to bring the audience into your story, so they can forget about their programming.

The music cue, silence, sharp noise gimmick

Jump Scare modern king James Wan horror 2015
Director James Wan and his creature on the set of The Conjuring

Some people like these kinds of movies. There are reasons dozens of them get stuffed into theatres every year, and people continue to pay big money to sit through them. There are two kinds of horror fans: the ones who like to be afraid, and the ones who like to be thrilled. There’s nothing wrong with either group. But there’s no reason your film can’t appeal to both crowds.

If you’re interesting in making that kind of fast-paced horror movie, then it’s important to know how to orchestrate your jump scare. It’s important to wait until your audience is drawn into the story, invested in the characters, and they aren’t expecting it. Your first scare is the most important. It needs to take them by surprise. If you insist on including a “false scare” (a cat in the closet), then don’t give it all away. Include the rising music cue, the long silence, but don’t throw in the sharp noise. Save that for when you really want to make an impact. Don’t let your audience be expecting it when it really matters.

Don’t rely on the formula. Have a few scenes where you take your audience by surprise completely, without the music cue and the long silence. Go straight for the sharp noise and the jump scare. It’s important you vary it up so your audience doesn’t start to predict your hand.

 

Focus on the horror, not on the gimmick

Predator jump scare horror action
Scary or not, Predator is just an awesome film.

In the end, content is king. Think about those haunted house attractions at amusement parks. Do you really think a long hallway with lots of turns and lots of people waiting around each one, yelling “Boo!” is going to leave much of an impression? Sure, it may make you jump a few times, but it won’t be a memorable experience. A horror film is no different.

Now picture this: you walk into a haunted house and there are little hints suggesting that there is someone following you, but you keep turning the corner to see nothing, except maybe little clues as to who is in the house with you, what he might do to you. You keep looking back, but there’s no one behind you. Little noises keep you on edge.You hear an inhuman gurgling noise and your imagination starts to create an image of the fiend. Finally, you turn a corner and there he is, inches from your face. That will have an impact.

Filmmaking: Compromising Integrity for Political Correctness

in Filmmaking by
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing

Diversity in Filmmaking

Filmmaking has never been more diverse in terms of race and gender than it is today. Still, it’s just not good enough for some people. As filmmakers become more and more inclusive, more and more rules are thrown into the mix. Vanity Fair even suggests we need to see more leading characters with disabilities. But why? They complain that only 12.2% of characters in American films are black, and that’s just not enough. Is it not enough? Blacks make up 13.2% of the American population. They are only underrepresented by a single percentage point. Still, they want more, and not just in front of the camera either. Did you know that less than 8% of directors are female, and more than 92% are male.

But is this really a problem with filmmaking? Do we really need to do better?

Filmmaking: Will Smith Academy Awards
Will Smith was nominated twice for the Academy Awards.

Back in 2014, my film, Black Mountain Side, was criticized for its all-male cast. The critic wrote:

“There are plenty of lady archaeologists and medical doctors, and the fact that this still needs to be stated in 2014 is my frustration […] I do see it as shortsightedness on behalf of the filmmakers.”

In pre-production, diversity was the topic of conversation multiple times. Many of the people involved in the making of the film urged me to change one or two of the characters into females. I said, “We can, but it means rewriting the script,” which had some people scratching their heads. “Why can’t you just make them females instead of males? Why do you need to rewrite anything except for their character name and description?” This had me scratching my head.

Ignoring Facts

Men and women are different, it’s just a fact. There is a strong contingent of people who would like you to think otherwise, but facts are facts.

In 2016, the struggle for diversity and equality reached its crux. The Oscars were all about addressing the diversity issue, and shortly after, all anyone could talk about was the “wage gap“. Amy Adams decided to speak out about how she was paid much less than her male co-stars in the film, American Hustle. This, of course, outraged many people, mostly feminists who saw it as blatant proof that the wage gap was real. But they were all (and still are) ignoring the facts. The reality of Amy Adams’s situation is that Amy Adams was paid less than her male co-stars because she was billed lower than her male co-stars, she worked far fewer days on set, she had far less screen time, and, most importantly, Amy Adams is not as big of a household name as Bradley Cooper or Christian Bale.

Amy Adams, filmmaking, American Hustle
Her performance wasn’t even that great.

Jennifer Lawrence on the other hand — she is on par with those big hitters. It was leaked that she too was paid much less than her male co-stars, and this further infuriated feminists and the like. If you’ve seen the movie, you know she’s only in a handful of scenes, and was probably on set for less than 10% of the shoot. Jennifer Lawrence was reportedly paid 20% less than Bradley Cooper, but she most definitely worked far less than 20% of the shoot days. It’s the same as working four days a week at your job and complaining that you didn’t make as much as the guy who worked five. If you calculate the days worked of each actor, both Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were actually paid more per day than their male co-stars.

An unrealistic fantasy

The problem is, what these people want is utopian fantasy. They don’t care about the facts. Going back to the critic who slammed Black Mountain Side for having no women in the cast, calling it “shortsightedness on behalf of the filmmakers” — What she doesn’t know is that we actually auditioned women for one of the roles in the film. We considered casting asians, blacks, first-nations, Indo-Canadians, and whites for many of the roles. In the end, we chose the strongest actors.

Filmmaking is in trouble

In making Hammer of the Gods, there was once again more pressure to add gender and racial diversity to the cast. The pressure was even greater than before. Another project we had in development, a comedy, was also criticized for its lack of female protagonists. It’s a shame that film has become a political battleground.

Michelangelo Racist Painting
Look at this racist garbage!

My fiancee and I were recently watching the new Netflix series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and couldn’t help but notice that not only were characters from the source material changed to accommodate greater diversity, but their backstories were completely changed in order to make it happen. This means that the production team actually went out of their way to make the show more diverse. That’s bad filmmaking. Diversity shouldn’t be forced into art. You wouldn’t tell Michelangelo to paint more blacks and asians into his paintings so that people would feel more included at the museum. Diversity should happen naturally. People should be rewarded based on talent, not the colour of their skin. Filmmaking shouldn’t cross over into politics.

The diversity myth

Some people reading this might think that I’m suggesting that white men are better actors than their non-white, non-male counterparts, but that’s not at all what I’m suggesting. For Black Mountain Side, when we put out the casting call to men and women for the role of the Professor, we had an astounding two women show up to audition. We probably had about fifty men, if not more. For Hammer of the Gods, we had two blacks and one asian show up for the characters Eric and Mitch, and many, many more whites. For the single female character we cast, we had hundreds of white girls submit, and very, very few non-whites. The role ended up going to one of those non-white actors simply because she was the strongest actor of the lot.

Filmmaking diversity Friday the 13th
The Friday the 13th remake with an almost perfect diversity. Much better than the horribly oppressing original.

Forcing diversity into fillmaking is the real crime. To give someone a role because of the colour of their skin is the real injustice. And despite what Google says, it is possible for whites to be the victims of racism. If you have thirty white people audition for a role, and one Vietnamese person, and you pick the Vietnamese guy in the name of “diversity”, not only is that borderline racism as far as I’m concerned, but you’ve effectively made your film worse by ignoring potential talent. Hard Boiled has almost exclusively Chinese actors, and when I watch it, I don’t feel oppressed because there are no white guys in the flick.

People are different

Men are different than women. They have different hobbies and interests. The big news of 2016 was that women, on average, make 78 cents for every dollar men make, but this isn’t because of oppression or inequality. It’s because women tend to prefer jobs with lower pay. Women tend not to take jobs in construction or waste management. Out of high school, ladies tend to take jobs at clothing stores and pet stores and other jobs with low-stress environments. Men tend to go into trades and higher risk occupations. Despite what feminism wants you to think, many women still prioritize time with their children and families, while men are more likely to work longer hours and over the weekends.

Filmmakers who deny these real differences are compromising the quality of their films. They’re substituting realism for equality. I still stand by my claim that 99% of women wouldn’t take a job at the fictional outpost in Black Mountain Side because of its horribly harsh conditions and labour intensive environment. In defending this claim, I compared it to an oil rig, where female workers make up only 4% of the workforce.

In Black Mountain Side, a female character would have not only been unrealistic, it would have changed the whole dynamic of the cast. It’s a scientific fact that men act differently around women. Had we cast one of the women who auditioned for the professor role, I would have rewritten her scenes. The line, “I just want to settle down with a bottle of whisky and a box of porn,” probably wouldn’t have made the cut, and the characters wouldn’t have proceeded to cheers “to whisky and porn”. Black Mountain Side is a movie about men, and I find that interesting. I didn’t set out to make the most politically correct and diverse film I could make, I set out to make the best possible film I could make.

The goal

filmmaking diversity star wars
FINALLY, some female and non-white Star Wars protagonists. Notice how all the bad guys in movies these days are white. Hmm…

The filmmaking goal should be to make the best possible film without compromise. You wouldn’t make a film about the Holocaust with a perfectly diverse cast, nor would you make a film about the Rwandan genocide with a perfectly diverse cast — because it would be offensively unrealistic. The real world isn’t some perfectly diverse utopia, so your fictional world shouldn’t be either. Chinatowns exist in every city because Chinese people prefer to surround themselves with Chinese culture. People prefer same-race neighbourhoods. Art should reflect the world it is created in. When I read a Dostoyevski novel, I want to get a sense of what life was like in Russia, pre-Russian Revolution. Let’s leave utopian fantasies for fantasy and science fiction and embrace the world we live in now for the sake of future generations who will look to our work to get an understanding of where they came from.

 

Horror Filmmaking: Reasons You Should And Reasons You Shouldn’t Dive In

in Filmmaking/Horror by
Bruce Campbell, shooting The Evil Dead

Horror filmmaking is a great path into the industry of movie making. Plenty of today’s top filmmakers got their start in horror, including Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and so on and so on. It’s arguably the most accessible genre, with a large, hungry audience that never seems to be satisfied with the quantity of films that gets put out. But just because it’s convenient for your hopeful horror-creating career, doesn’t mean you should dive in head first. Here are some reasons you should, and some reasons you shouldn’t create horror films.

No One Wants to Watch Your Boring Melodramatic Movie

The Babadook is melodramatic horror filmmaking
The Babadook was a pretty melodramatic movie

Why are beginning filmmakers always so melodramatic? In film school, everyone wrote these ridiculously melodramatic screenplays about dysfunctional families and drug addict fathers and everyone cries and sobs and says very deep things and there’s always a note in the script about the timing of a very somber piano piece that should be included. I recorded sound for one project about a woman in an abusive relationship, and it was just five minutes of a guy beating his girlfriend and another five of her crying and then black frames with “A film by so and so”.

Who cares? No one wants to watch that crap–especially a feature-length version of that crap. There’s a reason that all of those movies that go to Sundance don’t end up in theatres or even on DVD half of the time. Sure, some of them are good films with something interesting to say, but even still, it’s not entertaining. There’s no effort to create something entertaining. The filmmaker’s goal, nine times out of ten, is to make the viewer feel like they watched something intelligent and sensitive. Who cares? A movie should be entertaining. I have using the word film when referring to my own movies because it reminds me of all those melodramatic filmmakers that wear scarves and say the word “film”.

So instead of making that melodramatic crap, consider a career in horror filmmaking.

Horror Sells

The Asylum is terrible horror filmmaking
The losers over at The Asylum make their living exploiting horror fans

Horror has a very large and passionate audience. Distributors are always looking for horror flicks to fill up their rosters. Just look up a few random distributors and then look into their film catalogue. I can almost guarantee it is loaded with horror films–maybe even more than half. There’s a reason distributors stack their catalogues with horror. Because they sell. Unfortunately, they even sell when the quality is terrible and the budget is next to non-existent. I’m not advocating making terrible movies, but it helps back up my argument.

Last year I was approached by a company looking for directors to attach to a slate of projects they hoped to shoot in 2016. After meeting with them, I discovered this small production company shot about ten feature films every year. I asked how long their shoots were and what kind of budgets they dealt with. Each film had a budget of $10,000 each, with a three-day shoot. Can you believe that? I turned the offer down for a number of reasons, but that company is still going strong, and all of their movies sell.

You Don’t Need Name Actors With Horror Filmmaking

horror filmmaking without name actors
The actors from the original Paranormal Activity are still no-names!

Dramas don’t sell unless you have A-list actors. Comedies don’t sell unless you have at least B-listers. Science fiction will sell if the production value is very high, which means you need a good budget. The same goes for fantasy and action.

I suppose with comedy, you might be able to get away with having no big names if you have an incredibly funny screenplay. But you don’t. I’ve read so many unfunny comedy screenplays by writers who are convinced their work is the crux of hilarity. Half of the comedies that make it to theatres don’t even have hilarious scripts, but they do have the comedy talent to make the film work. For example, I read the script for Funny People (Judd Apatow) before it was produced. It wasn’t very funny. I think there were maybe a dozen mediocre jokes and the plot was mediocre.

The film, however, was hilarious, because it had the comedy talent to bring it to life. As you set out to make your first or second or third indie film, you don’t have the comedic genius that Apatow has at his disposal, so do yourself a favour and put your comedy on the back-burner for when you have the money/resources to do it properly.

Good horror filmmaking, on the other hand, is a combination of concept, plot, characters, and an array of editing/filming techniques used to create suspense. Those things, while hard to master, are available to anyone who wants to make a film. There’s no price on a solid concept (unless you’re not writing your own script, in which case there is a price on a solid concept), and there’s no price on good characters. But hey, if your characters, concept, and plot all suck, there’s (unfortunately) still a good chance your horror movie will sell (see above).

If You Don’t Love and Respect Horror, Don’t Waste Your Time

More bad horror filmmaking in The Last Exorcism Part II
The Last Exorcism Part II: More cliches and more garbage. Written by a guy who didn’t want to be writing horror (He went on to write Whiplash)

There are enough losers trying to exploit the genre and the fanbase. We really don’t need one more jumping in on the action. If you’re looking for a quick buck, consider a career in finance or look up courses offered by your local trade schools. A real frustration has been growing inside of film fans over the past decade as more and more crap is being squirted into their faces. Lazy filmmakers see vets like Sam Raimi and Spielberg and thing, “Hey, that’s how he did it, so that’s how I should do it!”. These idiots don’t realize that Raimi and Spielberg and Scott and all the others loved the horror genre when they were starting out (and I can only image they still do, Raimi especially).

They will watch anything, but they’re a tough crowd

Sure, you can fake your way through some pile of garbage that will probably sell to one of the many distributors looking to snatch up anything remotely horror-related, but it won’t do anything for your career. At the end of the day, the horror fans who go out of their way to give your film a chance have eyes and ears and they’re actually really good at telling the difference between what’s genuine and what’s crap. They can see through you’re guise and they won’t give you another chance–and neither will the investors and distributors who end up losing out on your bid.

Apparently, Horror Filmmaking Is Just Too Convenient To Pass Up

horror filmmaking the witch robert eggers hates horror
Don’t get me wrong, The Witch looked stunning and had a great score, but if you ask me, Eggers should have stayed away from horror filmmaking.

I was really disappointed recently when I heard that Robert Eggers, the fellow who directed The Witch, said he didn’t like the horror genre. He only made a horror because no one wanted to make what he called his “genre-less” movies. In other words, he wanted to create pretentious crap and no one cared so he decided to make a horror movie. Like I said, this disappointed me, but it really didn’t surprise me. I wasn’t a fan of The Witch. As someone who went to film school and subsequently worked at a film school helping film hundreds of student films, I couldn’t help but see a pretentious student film trapped in a big budget feature’s body, another film student who wanted to give Andrei Tarkovsky a blowjob. Eggers even said that he’s glad now that the film is out because it means he never has to watch it again.

Maybe it’s my big ego, but I love watching my own work, even the not-so-good stuff (sorry Kankered). I’m able to find elements I like about everything I’ve ever done and watching my old work fills me with pride.

Horror Forces You To Understand And Learn The Art Of Filmmaking

the evil dead horror filmmaking at its finest
The original Evil Dead scared the living hell out of people

Big-league Hollywood producers only look for one thing when deciding whether a filmmaker will make the cut: can he coherently tell a story? It sounds so simple, but it’s really not so simple. How to coherently tell a story is a topic for another post (another slew of posts, really) so I won’t get into it here.

Your goal with horror filmmaking is to scare your audience (and no, that doesn’t mean making them jump). In order to effectively scare your audience, you need to utilize filming and editing techniques that force your audience to focus on the right things at the right time, playing with their expectations, stripping down their defences. You need to create tension and you need to build tension and you need to maintain tension and you also need to release tension so that you can build it up again, even higher.

It Requires Practice

There is a science to it, but it’s also an art, which takes lots and lots of practice and careful analysis to get right. You need to understand editing and pacing and your actors need to be believable in order for the audience to sympathize and care about them.

Horror is a genre that completely relies on your audience’s state of mind, their emotions, their feelings, and their expectations. All of those famous filmmakers I mentioned earlier didn’t just use horror as an easy door into their filmmaking careers. The reason they’re so good at what they do now is because they honed their skills in what might just be the most technically demanding genre.

Hammer of the Gods Behind The Scenes Gallery

in Filmmaking/Horror by

Hammer of the Gods Behind The Scenes

An image gallery full of behind the scenes photos, taken from the sets of Hammer of the Gods. Lots more coming soon!

[SPOILERS] Black Mountain Side Behind The Scenes Gallery

in Filmmaking/Horror by

Black Mountain Side Behind The Scenes

An image gallery full of behind the scenes photos, taken from the set of Black Mountain Side.

The Problem With Your Protagonist

in Filmmaking/Writing by
Josh Collins on the set of Hammer of the Gods

We get a lot of scripts sent to our script submissions inbox over at A Farewell To Kings Entertainment Company. You can always tell the experienced writers apart from the newer, aspiring writers from one simple thing: their protagonist. With the weaker works, it’s almost always the same exact problem–an incredibly easy to identify problem, but a problem that isn’t so easy to remedy. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between well written protagonists and ones that may need some work.

The Protagonist

MacReady, the protagonist in The Thing
John Carpenter directs Kurt Russell in The Thing

Your protagonist is arguably the most important aspect of your screenplay. Too often people outline their entire plot before even defining their main character–maybe they’ll give her a name, but they just think they’ll figure the rest out later. For the sake of your writing, do not approach your script this way.

Plot-driven fiction is boring fiction. It’s inevitably predictable and worst of all, it’s limiting to you, the writer. If you’ve already plotted out your story’s main beats before you’ve even chosen and defined your protagonist, you’ve got a big problem.

So what’s the problem?

Your Protagonist is Doomed to be Uninteresting

The problem you’ve created is, you’ve already made all of your protagonist’s key decisions for her. It’s a character’s decisions that define them as a unique individual. Too often do writers assume that character comes down to dialogue, gender, ethnicity, background, etc. Those things can affect (and should affect) your characters’ decisions, but it’s your characters’ decisions that define them as individuals and drive your story in interesting directions.

A story’s beats should be consequences of a character’s decision, not a consequence of fate or luck. That makes for boring fiction. I’m sure you’re thinking of a bunch of examples to disprove this statement. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but they’re exceptions, and I’m sure they were made by professionals with a deep understanding of the craft, who know what they can get away with.

Though, there is one major exception to this rule: your inciting incident should be from forces outside of your protagonist’s control. Your protagonist should be forced out of their comfort-zone and into the story. And that brings me to a perfect segue.

Your Protagonist’s Comfort-Zone should not be their Boring-Zone

Will Ferrell, the film's protagonist, brushes his teeth
Will Ferrell brushes his teeth in Stranger than Fiction. This scene actually serves a purpose.

This is the biggest issue I see from new writers. “The Everyman”. The guy who wakes up and brushes his teeth and goes to work and comes home and makes a microwave dinner and watches The Sopranos and goes to bed. There are other versions of the everyman, for example, “the every-stoner-man” — the guy who sleeps in and smokes a bunch of pot and plays video games and probably lives on his friend’s couch.

Starting out (with my first half-dozen screenplays) I was guilty of this to varying degrees. It’s one of the toughest concepts to really grasp: making interesting characters. I’ve experimented with character traits, adding them to pre-existing characters like a lasagna that needs more salt. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. The reason being, the characters’ decisions have already been made for them. Once their decisions have been made, everything else is superficial.

Here is the number one biggest example I find in amateur scripts: the group of friends consisting of at least one quirky friend, and the down-to-earth, everyman protagonist. It’s always the down-to-earth everyman who ends up being the protagonist. Why is that?

The Relatable Lie

Jack Nicholson makes a fantastic protagonist
Not the everyman

Your teachers lied to you. Relatable is Boring. Relatable characters don’t survive the test of time. Think Ash in the Evil Dead. Even in the first film, before he’s reimagined into a badass, takes-no-names monster killer, he’s not the everyman. He’s a bumbling romantic and kind of a sissy. It’s the decisions he makes as a consequence of his character that drive the direction of the story.

Think MacReady in The Thing. He’s a takes-no-shit dude who is completely unsympathetic to the people around him, only really concerned about his own survival. I don’t need to tell you why Jack Nicholson in The Shining isn’t an everyman character, and I shouldn’t have to tell you why Ripley in Alien isn’t an everywoman.

Don’t Write What You Know

My God, do I hate that advice. “Write what you know”. It’s the biggest letdown in any creative writing class. Teachers love to spew it out to their classes, “Just write what you know!” Without naming names, there is a writing instructor at the Vancouver Film School (where I worked as a teaching assistant for years) who would tell this to students before they set off on writing their mid-term projects, which we would make into short films.

The protagonist in Adaptation, played by Nic Cage
Adaptation already nailed it. Time to move onto new ideas.

I filmed close to 200 of these shorts. Easily a quarter of them were about a writer struggling to come up with an idea for a script. More than half were about a struggling writer in some situation or another. Almost all of them were about the Everyman.

The Everyman

I can’t tell you how many scenes we shot with two roommates sitting on the couch watching television together, or scenes where the protagonist brushes his teeth. Why does everyone feel the need to include a teeth-brushing scene?

If you think you know a good film with an everyman protagonist, I challenge you to think about it harder. Remember that, in real life, people try very hard to look and act normal. You can’t sit on a city bus without wondering if everyone around you is some robot clone, but they’re thinking the same exact thing about you. In Taxi Driver, for example, De Niro’s character is quiet and soft-spoken and he can be charming, and it could be easy to mistake him for the dreaded everyman. But he’s actually a character suffering from degrading PTSD and crippling loneliness, and those traits are what determine the direction of the film’s plot.

How to Create an Interesting Protagonist

In Hammer of the Gods, the film's protagonist is played by Josh Collins
Josh Collins prepares to shoot an intense scene in Hammer of the Gods

Interesting protagonists can be created in many different ways. A truly interesting protagonist is not an easy thing to create — it’s not just a matter of pulling up a list of character traits off of Google and picking a couple of them. Characters, like people, aren’t just a couple of character traits. Think about the interesting people you know in real life. How would they react to an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse? What would they do if their girlfriend dumped them? What kind of situations might they get themselves into that other people (the everyman included) might not?

Try to find conflicting traits and combine them. In Hammer of the Gods, the protagonist is the outgoing life of the party, always the last one up, drinking heavily, doing drugs. But he’s also a morning person, the first person awake. He’s already been out fishing by the time you’ve woken up. On the outside he’s a total womanizer, but he’s also a sort of hopeless romantic. And notice how I said he’s “sort of” a hopeless romantic. This is important, and a good segue to my next point.

Try Not To Define Your Protagonist With Adjectives

When you go to outline your script, don’t write down: “Jake: 25 years old, funny, smart, charming.” You’re destined to get a cardboard archetype this way. It’s not a simple matter of writing out a list of traits. You need to be able to imagine your character as a real person. You need to be able to think: “What would Jake do here?” and not “What would a funny, smart, charming person do here?” I know a lot of funny, smart, charming people in real life, and every one of them would react differently to a life threatening danger.

Tom Cruise plays the protagonist in Eyes Wide Shut
Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut is much more interesting than just ‘charming guy’

Not to mention, most adjectives can be seen in different ways. Funny, for example: Is his humour crude? Do people laugh whenever he talks? Does he laugh at his own jokes? Is he aware that he’s funny? Is he trying to be funny? Or let’s look at charming: In what way is he charming? Is he charming to women or to men or to everyone? I know a guy who is somewhat crude and blunt but everyone says that, the way he presents his crude bluntness, is a sort of charming quality. Charming doesn’t necessarily just mean he’s suave and he smiles handsomely when he talks. (And did you notice the return of “sort of”?)

Be More Interesting

Your protagonist doesn’t need to be more intricate, but she does need to be more real–less of an archetype (or a combination of archetypes). And by more real, I do not mean more normal–I do not mean make her into an everywoman. Adolf Hitler was real. Hunter Thompson was real. Charles Bukowski was real. Lady Gaga is a real person. None of these examples are “normal,” but they exist. I’m sure you can think of some pretty extravagant personalities in your own life.

Don’t Make Your Protagonist a Reflection of Yourself

People (yourself included) don’t see themselves as interesting or eccentric. It’s very, very hard to see your own personality objectively (arguably impossible). That’s not to say you aren’t interesting or unique or different in any way, because you are. You just don’t see it like other people can. When you go to borrow from real life, don’t borrow from your own real life, unless you believe your life contains something exceptionally interesting. If you were a spy during the Gulf War and you survived a plane crash, then you might be the exception.

Don’t be a Victim of Falsehoods

The Evil Dead remake's protagonist was a woman playing a man
Feminism has lead to a string of films where women are playing men. Here’s a BTS shot from the terrible Evil Dead remake.

Unless you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, it’s important to be realistic. Society will tell you that realistic isn’t “politically correct”. With Black Mountain Side, we got a particularly negative review from someone who was disappointed that none of the characters in the film were women. Writing the script, I considered making some of the characters women, but it didn’t feel realistic. The reality is, women and men are different in many ways, both physically, the way they think, and with the jobs they take. It’s just reality, nothing to be offended by. I just couldn’t believe a woman taking a job at that outpost. In the end, I figured it would be more offensive to women to force a female into the script than it was to just write the thing organically.

Realism is important in film, unless you’re intentionally making something unrealistic.

You want people to believe your characters. They won’t relate to your characters or care about their wellbeing if they don’t believe they’re authentic. All of a sudden, you’ve lost your connection with your audience because you wanted to be more inclusive.

I have a friend who strongly believes the opposite, who took a script he wrote and flipped the genders of every character in his story without changing anything else but their names. He was convinced that it was just as realistic after the gender-flip. At the end of the day, it’s all subjective–maybe you believe the same thing. That said, I think he turned a strong script into a weak one because I found myself struggling to believe the characters. The piece, to me, read more like feminist propaganda than a genuine story.

 

Find and Hire a Concept Artist For Your Horror Project

in Filmmaking by
horror concept art scary cool

How to Find and Hire a Concept Artist

There are thousands of incredible artists in the world, hundreds of whom are dying to work on your horror project. For whatever reason, artists (and concept artists in particular) are drawn to the horror genre. Maybe it’s the freedom it gives them, letting their imaginations run wild, creating all sorts of fantastic beasts and monsters. But how do you find a concept artist? How do you go about hiring a concept artist? How much should you pay? I’m going to try to answer all of these questions in this article.horror concept art

I’ve commissioned art from dozens of artists. I love feeding a talented artist an idea and then seeing what he/she can create. Sometimes a concept artist can breathe new ideas into your project that you may have never considered before. Or maybe you’re just looking for someone who can perfectly translate what’s in your head into a visual representation. Either way, the artist you’re looking for is out there.

First, determine what you want.

Before anything, you need to know exactly what you want the artist to do, and that may include coming up with ideas. You don’t want to approach an artist and be like, “Well, I think I want something like this but I don’t really know.” As with anyone who works on a contract-basis, you need to provide a clear direction.

What you can say is: “Hey, I’ve got this cool idea for a monster, but I have no idea what I want it to look like. In the story he does this, this, and that. Does this give you any ideas?” Artists love this kind of creative collaboration, and in my opinion, it makes for the strongest work. That being said, approaching your artist like this means you need to be open to different interpretations of your idea–because I guarantee you won’t get exactly what was in your mind when you created the idea.

The creatures in Hammer of the Gods turned out drastically different than what I originally envisioned–so much so that I went back into the script and made changes to accommodate the artists’ designs (we combined two designs together for the final piece).

horror concept art practical
A more practical piece

You need to decide what style you want, and you need to decide the purpose of the art. Do you need a blueprint for a special makeup effects team? Is this a piece for an investment proposal? You may want your artist to create a visual representation of a scene from your project, or you may want something that breaks down your creature into understandable pieces for re-creation later.

So what do you need?

For Black Mountain Side, we needed a few pieces to bring our investment proposal to life. We gave our very talented artist, Sean Patrick Thurlow, the script and some photos of our shooting location (which we had just scouted a week earlier) and asked him to create some very atmospheric pieces that would grab the attention of potential investors.

With Hammer of the Gods, we needed a design we could give to our special effects team, so they could turn it into a full creature suit. When we were producing Black Mountain Side, we searched through many, many artist profiles until we found Sean’s, and we knew his style was a perfect fit for what we were looking for. With Hammer of the Gods, we wanted options, so we contracted many artists to create rough designs, and then we picked a couple we really liked to have fleshed out into finished pieces.

Black Mountain Side Concept Art
One of the pieces done by Sean Thurlow for Black Mountain Side

You also need to decide whether you want colour, whether you want something with well-defined lines versus something more realistic or stylistic. Furthermore, you need to decide if you even need a fully-finished piece, or if something rough will suffice. I know that some special effects people will take your design(s) and redo them into a blueprint that works better for them.

Where to start

So you have a good idea of what you’re looking for. Now what? You need to start looking into artists.

The way I’ve always done this is using ConceptArt.org (and no, I have no affiliation with the website, I just think it’s fantastic). You can post a job posting for free. Full disclosure: I’ve never posted a listing looking for free work, though they do have that option. I can’t comment on the quality of the artists or the number of submissions you will get.

I usually post into “Small Freelance,” which means I’m looking to contract a piece under $500. You should be clear with your budget in your posting. I suggest using a profession e-mail account (not your Hotmail account) and looking at a few other job postings before making your own. Please, for the love of God, revise your posting, and if you suck at grammar/spelling, have your English major friend take a look before you press ‘submit’.

Kristian Nokaj concept artist
Work by Kristian Nokaj – You can get a concept artist for your costume and character design, too

Warning: especially if posting a paid gig, you will get tons of e-mails from artists. Their e-mails should include their portfolio and/or relevant pieces they’ve done in the past. From this point on, it’s a matter of picking an artist (or multiple artists) that you like and contacting them. You can initiate a conversation on Skype to get a better idea of what they’re capable of and what they’re willing to contribute to your project.

Some questions to ask

Ask your artist(s) about their workflow–how long they usually take to complete a piece, how many stages they go through, what to expect from each stage. Every artist I’ve worked with has been different. Some send hand-drawn sketches first, before sending finished pieces, while Some send what they call ‘thumbnails’, which are collections of small rough drawings. Others won’t do colour until the very final stages, some will send their thumbnails in colour. Make sure you know what you’re getting into.

concept artist thumbnails hotg
Some thumbnails by artist, Kristian Benson.

Make sure they are clear with your budget, and make sure you agree on a currency. You will find lots of artists living in different countries that may not share your form of currency.

Ask if they’ve done concept art for film before. This is important to know. We hired an artist who created an incredible design for us, but it turned out to be useless because it was impossible to make into a reality. It’s important that the artist understands what is possible and what is just a cool design.

Ask how they would like to be paid. I strongly recommend PayPal and nothing else. Don’t do bank wire transfers, and don’t, for the Love of God, send money in the mail. PayPal is safe, easy, and every working artist should have it set up. I generally do a half now, half when the piece is finished kind of deal, though I’ve done weekly instalments before as well.

Some artists will charge by the hour, and I personally recommend you don’t go down this route for the sake of accountability. Unless you really trust this person, insist on a flat rate.

The Art Test

I hesitate to even tell you about this, but lots of artists will be willing to do an art test. An art test is essentially a ‘tryout’. Before you agree to pay them, they will create you a rough design (and some artists will go above and beyond for this). This is good if you are looking for different interpretations of an idea, and you can’t get a clear enough idea from the artists’ profiles as to whether they will be right for the project. This is also good if the artist doesn’t have any relevant experience but is keen on working on your project. With Hammer of the Gods, we had a few artists who had never done anything in the horror genre, but were eager to prove they were capable. We had them do an art test.

Don’t exploit the art test

I asked one concept artist if he was willing to do an art test, and I got a very, very angry e-mail in response. Some artists find the art test offensive. You’re essentially asking for free work, and it should only be done if absolutely necessary. Some artists may even beg for an art test (that’s how I learned the term), and most artists who aren’t well established in the industry will agree to one. This really should not be exploited. These are hard working, talented people who have bills to pay, just like the rest of us.

Get your paperwork together

Even if you insist on having a dozen different artists do an art test, get them all to sign NDAs (Non-disclosure agreements) and an art release. Before any artist starts a project, get both of those documents signed and saved onto your computer. You can find releases and NDAs online for free with the help of Google. This may require some re-wording to accommodate the specifics of your project. If you have the money, get the agreements from a lawyer.

concept artist Matthew Donnici
Art by Matthew Donnici, one of the submissions for Hammer of the Gods

Be sure to include the rate on the release. In most cases, a creature design is a major spoiler for your project. You don’t want your creature design to end up on a public portfolio before you’ve even raised the funds to shoot your film. Make sure all of your bases are covered.

Be courteous

I make a point of e-mailing everyone back, which takes a long time. Even when I don’t use a concept artist, I always thank them for their submission and their interest in my project, point out something I like about their work, and encourage them to resubmit in the future. They’ve got a tough gig with tons of competition. Some of these people dream of being working artists and you never know when a little bit of encouragement is all they need to push themselves to the next level. You will get submissions from artists who are just starting out, and their work may not be up to your standard. Remember that their are no age restrictions on using ConceptArt.org, and some of these submissions are teenagers looking to get a glimpse into their dream industry. Don’t be a dream crusher.

Avoiding Clichés

in Filmmaking/Horror/Writing by

Avoiding Cliches — What just isn’t scary anymore

Like I said before about crafting a genuinely scary script, horror should be inherently scary, and you shouldn’t “chase the scares” when you write. The scariest things here on our planet are scary because of what they are–what they represent, not because of what they look like. That being said, something can look unsettling, disturbing or even disgusting. That isn’t “scary”. A scare is an emotion. It’s something you feel. Sharks are scary because of what they represent–a giant creature capable of ripping you to shreds, which could be just inches below your feet at any given moment. Freddy Kruger is scary because of what he represents, not because of how he looks, how he sounds or how many times he jumps from around corners. Sure, all of those other things add certain elements to it, but Freddy is genuinely scary because of what he represents–a sense of helpless vulnerability. When you sleep–when you are your most vulnerable, he strikes, and you can’t do anything about it. Want to write a good horror script? Avoiding cliches is the first step.

Horror as a film genre has been evolving rather quickly over the past century. In that time, a lot of trends have come and gone. Today, in the twenty-first century, the art is evolving so fast, that it’s more important than ever to avoid those trends. By the time your script is picked up by a production company, filmed and distributed, those trends will be long gone.

A Farewell To Kings Entertainment Company has a script submissions inbox, which gets lots of scripts every week. It’s sad to see that most of the horrors that come through are glorified Paranormal Activity rip-offs. That movie came out about 8 years ago, and the endless sea of rip offs has sadly reduced it to cliché. If we look back a couple of decades, trends held on much longer.

I said that you shouldn’t chase the scares, but at the same time it’s unfortunately important to be marketable. The name of the game is still fear, after all. And although I still think that the best fear comes naturally and effortlessly though the fiction, the characters, and the world of your script, you still have an audience to cater to. Whether it be producers, distributors, investors or theatres full of people waiting for their cheap thrills, you need to deliver. And as you may remember, I don’t have a lot of faith in the film industry today, I still think you can still be “scary” on a contemporary level, without stooping to painfully overused cliches, like the “creepy” long haired child, or the burlap-sac mask.

Creepy Child

Avoiding cliches like creepy kids
A kid is incapable of hurting a grown human with an ounce of common sense, so why do we keep pushing this trend?

Enough is enough.

Unless you intend to bring something new to the game, kids just aren’t scary. I’m so sick and tired of the ghost or the demon turning out to be some “creepy” kid (mind the quotation marks around the word creepy).

It just isn’t scary anymore. When it first hit the main-stage in The Ring, sure–it was pretty scary. But that was a long time ago, and since then, there has been a “creepy” kid in every second Hollywood horror movie–and far too many indies as well. Let’s put it to rest already.

In case you need another reason to write that little ghost kid out of your script, consider this–In horror, your antagonist is your brand. Regardless of how prominently featured they are (or aren’t) in the movie, they will become your film’s brand. Distributors will use your antagonist to leverage your film. And while there are distributors out there looking to cash in on dying tropes, with the creepy kid as the face of your film, at best your film will be lost in a sea of creepy child movies, forgotten outright by even the most hardcore horror audiences.

The Old Lady

Avoiding cliches like creepy old ladies
Yes, when the Shining did it, it was scary… almost 40 years ago.

Same as the creepy kids, they just aren’t scary. Between the late nineties and the early teens (Let’s say 1998-2011), there was some strange fascination with horror filmmakers and things that were the complete opposite of harmful or menacing. People loved to turn convention onto its head in order to take people by surprise. And that was fine, but now its commonplace. And now that its commonplace, its counterintuitive. It’s no longer a surprise when the old lady turns out to be violent and disturbing, because its been done in a hundred different movies in the past decade.

So now that there isn’t the “playing with your preconception” angle, what is still making old ladies scary? Nothing.

Taking something harmless and making it into something to be feared isn’t new by any means. As a matter of fact, the most effective movies in the history of horror did just that. Before It (and John Wayne Gacy), clowns were no more than joyful entertainers. Horror writers and filmmakers used the clowns’ innocence and harmlessness to their advantage, in order to create something memorable and unique. Likewise, Chucky did the same thing to dolls. Turning something inherently innocent into a symbol of terror is part of the game.

Horror movies are unique for a number of reasons. One of which is that people tend to remember them because of their scenes, more than their plots (with some notable exceptions). People remember things that are unique. People are keener to remember the maiden voyage, than the subsequent voyages. For instance, I bet you can name more members of the first crew to land on the moon than you can of any subsequent Apollo mission. If you want to make a memorable film–a memorable script, you need to find that next clown. That next doll. That next old lady. The first person to turn a clown into a symbol of terror wasn’t sitting there thinking “I need something scary. What is something scary?”. No–He/she took the clown and made it scary.

The Burlap Sac Face

Think: The Orphanage

Avoiding cliches like burlap sac faces
Not scary.

I just don’t understand why anyone would want to redo something that’s been done one million times before. Just do something different for crying out loud! I understand why the burlap thing was so hot for a while. It has a lot of creepy properties. Like any mask, it hides any emotion. It adds anonymity and, going back to my rules to a scary script, it leaves plenty to the imagination, letting the audience’s mind create something more terrifying than any prosthetic face you could possibly create. The burlap adds a grunge and distortion, which can be creepy…

But it’s been done so many god damned times over!

There is nothing left to add to the burlap sac mask.

Just let it die. Enough is enough already. Time to start avoiding these cliches.

The Bad Guy Being… Creepy

Avoiding cliches like guys standing stupidly for no reason
What exactly is he trying to accomplish by standing there, in a perfect spot of light? Enough already.

I’m so sick of seeing this in movies–The hero walks out into the hallway, or into the empty park at night, and the antagonist is simply standing there, being creepy. Whether they are just standing straight, or in some weird pose–what are they doing? What are they trying to accomplish just standing there? Why is the antagonist putting so much effort into being creepy? Is it because he knows that he/she alone isn’t actually inherently creepy?

Even worse is when the hero completely doesn’t see the static enemy. Like when the protagonist walks across the hall, completely oblivious to the killer standing in the doorway. What did the killer just accomplish? Should we feel bad for his missed attempt at being scary?

Don’t get me wrong I understand the gimmick. I understand that there is a scare when the audience realizes they aren’t alone in the house. If you insist on using the “Killer in the house” gimmick, at least give the killer purpose. Have them doing something productive–Cutting the wires in the breaker box, smelling the hero’s panties, or… I don’t know—HIDING for Christ sakes. You want your audience to respect your antagonist, not question his/her common sense and ability to hide in a dark house.

Just use common sense

I mean, I could go on for hours listing more dumb and annoying tropes that will ruin your horror script, but all it really comes down to is common sense. Are you relying on jump scare gimmicks because your subject matter is weak? Does your story not stand-alone without cashing in on popular trends?

Just ask yourself “Has this been done before?” If so, “Am I bringing anything new and special to it?”

And then take a look through your scenes and ask yourself “What is the motivation behind this? Or did I just include it because it is scary?” Take a look at that scene where your hero closes the mirror and sees a man standing at the end of the hall–Now question that scene the way your audience is going to: “Why is he just standing there? Is he doing something?”

And while you’re at it, ask yourself “Has this mirror gag not been done to death already? What am I really adding to it? Or am I just too lazy to think of my own scare gags that I need to reuse this one?”

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