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100 Pounds of Horror in a 3 Pound Bag

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I get asked all the time how I’ve managed to put more horror in 2-4 minutes than many features manage in 90 minutes or more. I think, because I started out in long form (features and TV) and then created horror shorts, I felt the need to concentrate more storytelling into less time. It’s like a distillation process. I hook up a feature to a few tubes, put it over a Bunsen burner, and distill the bare essence of the thing into a tiny little decanter. That’s the short film. That’s how I think about it. 

It’s all about stripping down as much as you can for every scene in a story. Movies, obviously, as it’s been said many times before, are a visual medium, and the more you can fit into the visual part, the stronger the film. There are those who argue for great dialogue, and they’re right too, but to a lesser degree. For instance, look at the works of Neil Simon or Quentin Tarrantino or Robert Altman (great dialoguists) versus the works of Stanley Kubrick (a dialogue minimalist) and you can see what I’m talking about. 

At their heart, movies are visual. And the bare essence of their existence is their fundamental look. If you turn the sound off on the film and watch it, does it still engage you? Does it still make sense? Can you still feel the flow? Does it still make you FEEL something?

One thing that always struck me, even before I began doing horror or short films, was the fact that Kubrick was obsessed with these French Nescafe commercials. He said there was more story in these 30 second TV coffee ads than any English speaking film he’d seen. And he was so obsessed that he’d get copies of the coffee commercials and trim the dialogue down even further, as if to say, yes they’re short and nearly perfect, but I can make them more perfect through distillation. 

So that’s how I went into my horror shorts. I thought, how can I distill every bit of terror and character into 3 minutes. How can I do everything that good old Syd Field taught me to do in 90 minutes, but do it in just three? 

It’s not as hard as it sounds. Thirty seconds can be a long time if edited and shot correctly. A simple hand reaching for a door handle or box lid can be a deliciously excruciating eternity if you set up the dramatic question properly. If, for instance, the audience knows what happens to people who open that door/lid and the character does not, you’ve created an unbelievable sense of dread and expectation. They’re begging the protagonist not to do what he or she is doing. And suddenly that 30 seconds feels like forever (in a good way). Clive Barker made a fortune and a career out of this single principle.

So, if you’re looking to create terror (or any kind of narrative, really) in short form, remember these few tips.

Film is visual and visuals will always be stronger than dialogue in the world of film. They can tell in a second, more than a thousand words of characters speaking. 

  1. Dramatic question is king. Give the audience a really good question to chew on and it will enliven your entire scene. Just make sure that your answer is worth their time or they’ll feel cheated. It also works really well in short form if the answer to the dramatic question is the opposite of what they expected, and thus even more satisfying.
  2. Keep it short and sweet. A tedious short film has to be one of the greatest cinematic sins a director can perpetrate on his audience, and they will never forgive you for it. So use visuals, tell the story in pictographic shorthand, have a good question for them to think about, and once the story is over, get out. Don’t overstay your welcome.  

Believe me, I still get stuck. All the time. And when I do, I turn to the masters of cinematic storytelling, living and dead. There are some people with filmic storytelling in their DNA and those are the ones to look to. Those are the ones to watch. Now go make your short film!

Gaudium per atrox.

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