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Confessions of a Working Director - 6/24/2009


I have loved horror movies since I was a little kid.  Jim Henson and George Lucas provided me with my earliest entertainment passions, but then came Fangoria (and later, Gorezone magazine), as well as the 80s home video boom that first brought Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Texas Chain Saw Massacre into our home, much to the displeasure of my parents.  I guess they figured I'd be obsessed with muppets and wookies forever.

As a young lad, I practiced magic tricks and made my own puppets, so as my interest in horror films increased, these hobbies transitioned into more gruesome activities.  I made gory special effects and filmed them with the family Super 8mm camera, and I even did bloody stop motion "melt down" effects.  I was better at the effects creation than I was at operating the camera, so the vast majority of my early effects work is lost to hundreds of feet of underexposed film.

So, my initial interest in horror movies was fueled by my fascination with special effects illusions.  As I got older and became an amateur filmmaker, some aspects of the craft came easily to me.  I quickly, almost instinctively, understood how to shoot so that everything cuts together in editing.  Concepts such as screen direction, cutting on action, and avoiding jarring jump cuts seemed to be pre-loaded into my brain, as I understood them before anyone actually taught me about them.  I very quickly understood the basics of lenses and framing a shot.  The fundamental nuts and bolts of making movies were easy to comprehend.  Everything else took many years, and many heartbreaking mistakes, to learn.

Eventually, I began to have enough grasp of the craft to create a specific tone for each movie I made.  Lighting, cutting pace, and direction of actors were learned skills that gave each movie I made a distinct personality.  I've said in the past that I'd rather takes risks than make perfect movies.  I'd rather try something new and fail, rather than repeat the same success over and over again.  I think it is this attitude that led me to continuously learn from my mistakes and be ever-expanding my skill-set and grasp of how to direct motion pictures. 

Probably the most recent advances I've made are as a screenwriter.  In my student films, back when I was still simply in love with putting blood-soaked special effects on screen, I chiefly wrote to accomplish this goal.  Between the gore shots, the empty spaces in my scripts were filled in with bland regurgitations of what I'd seen in my favorite horror movies.  Not much personality in those pages.

Today, as an adult / professional filmmaker, I am happy with the progress I've made as a writer.  I am lucky enough to have written numerous features (half of which went unproduced) and that practice has done me a lot of good.  But more importantly, now that I've been on this planet a few years now, I feel I've got something of interest to say in my screenplays.

Now, usually, this would be the point where the pretentious screenwriter would say "I've grown out of my horror phase."  They would announce the beginning of their "legitimate" career and then write something bland about a musical instrument or a wild horse.  But not me - I still love horror movies.  And I am extremely influenced by the films of David Cronenberg and George Romero, who have proven repeatedly that you can make intelligent, insightful, and creatively daring movies within the horror genre.

I am interested in making non-horror films in my career (some would argue that Scrapbook and Ice From the Sun are not really horror), but I don't feel any desire to abandon the horror genre, or even venture from it in the near future.  I love watching and making horror movies.

I still desire to make horror movies that are, on the surface, a fun thrill ride of pulse-pounding entertainment.  However, I also relish weaving my personal interests and observations into the subtext of each screenplay.  Not to burden the movie with my personal agenda, but to provide a rich foundation of history, ideas, and/or reflection as nourishment for the fiction.  While my interest in doing this has been brewing for years (Scrapbook and Deadwood Park have a bit of this subsurface substance, and there is a lot for your brain to chew on in my yet-unproduced screenplay Butcher's Moon), I think perhaps Ratline (co-written with Jason Christ and currently in post-production) is my first movie to really have these intriguing additional layers beneath the chills and bloodshed.  Maybe the viewer will never really see these layers.  Maybe you will just enjoy the story and the action, and not notice what's beneath the surface.  That's okay.  Those additional invisible sub-layers still enriched the story, and they certainly made the screenplay writing process much more satisfying for me personally.

So what exactly is bubbling beneath the surface of Ratline?  What dark, hidden corners of our psyche did Jason Christ and I mine to create this screenplay?  I'll go into that in the next blog.

Thanks for reading.

Eric Stanze