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SXSW 2010: Genre Directors Spill Their Guts

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Saturday afternoon in a conference room at the Austin Convention Center, FEARnet film critic and Cinematical Managing Editor  Scott Weinberg hosted a group of horror filmmakers at a panel entitled "Directing the Dead: Genre Directors Spill Their Guts." Weinberg steered the discussion through a variety of subjects integral to the genre, and solicited comments and observations from a group of emerging standard-bearers in horror moviemaking, including Ti West (The House of the Devil), Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror), Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), Neil Marshall (The Descent), and Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) as a capacity crowd hung on their every word.

Weinberg opened the panel by asking each of the filmmakers to recall some of their battles with the MPAA, the organization that sometimes seeks to keep fans from their favorite gore. Check out the comments from Rodriguez, Reeves and Fleischer after the jump.

Rodriguez: I was pretty lucky because for some reason, the tone of my movies is so comical. In Dusk Till Dawn, we thought we'd have more problems, and the trick is - there's tricks – right up front, the guy is burning in the popcorn in the opening scene when his legs are kicking like that guy in The Thing, I let that go on for a really long time. He's kicking and dying and burning and roasting, and because it gives them something right up front to be shocked about, they would say, "you have to cut that down," and it's probably the first note they make. From then on, there's so much going on, and you do that [one] note. And then I do this trick where I de-saturated the blood in the second half, but just for their copy. Then, once I got passed, and I made it really dark, once it goes in the theaters, it's really bright again.

Reeves: In Cloverfield, initially we had gone through the script and at one point I was like, "You know, it would be really great to do this and make it R," but then there was a directive from the studio that they really wanted to make it PG-13, and I was like, "Well, you know it would be a shame to make the movie exactly the way we want to and then end up getting the R anyway and then cut out the stuff that I wanted." There's a moment when Marlena explodes and it was the same thing – the first cut got an R. I was like, "Well, this is exactly what I thought was going to happen," and we did the same thing – we de-saturated the blood. But the thing is they kind of give you a reason that your movie is rated R – it's not so specific, but one of the things we were rated R for in our first cut was "monster intensity." Just having a monster makes it R-rated? There was one battle scene in particular that really bothered them, so we just turned down the sound effects, and of course later they got much louder, and it did it. That and de-saturating the blood.

Fleischer: We were R just kind of inherently, because you shoot a zombie in the head, which you basically have to do. [Laughs.] But somebody gave me a piece of advice to [not] have a soft R. Although ours is a comedy as much as it is a horror film, we put in a lot more "fuck"s and things just to boost the R, so that 17-year-olds that get to go to an R movie, it's exciting for them that they hear one more "fuck" [laughs]. But one thing that was consistent when they would show the movie and people would fill out forms in the testing process was a recurring comment that they didn't like that there were, quote, not enough boobs [laughs]. I didn't want to put gratuitous nudity in it but I forgot that when you're a 17-year-old boy and you go to see a movie and it's R, you want to get more bang for your buck. So maybe in the sequel or something – who knows.

The discussion eventually, perhaps inevitably, turned to male genital trauma. But after Ti West talked about his surprise at some of the more disturbing shots that went into his ultimately-disowned final cut of Cabin Fever 2, including a close-up of a penis discharging pus, Weinberg moved on to the subject of nudity in horror films, a no less essential element in many classics that seems to have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. Rodriguez indicated that it may just be a product of a certain puritanical time period among MPAA members, while West explained that the reason he doesn't include more bare flesh is because it makes him feel like a jerk to shoot it…

Rodriguez: A lot of it is the times. There was a time when I saw a shift where they didn't care about the violence and the gore, but no nudity. You could not have any nudity. Anything that was sexual at all, they wanted that out. You can kill as many people as you want, it can be as gory as you want, but it was a very conservative time period. I don't really know where it's at now, but there were times like that.

West: I've really not done much nudity in my movies, and I feel like if you're going to do sex in a movie, you should have something to add to it – it should be a really interesting, important sex scene for the movie. I've never had that, which is why I don't have the gratuitous nudity, but in the cases when I've done the gratuitous nudity, and this is just me personally, I felt like an asshole when directing. If I can see that the person doesn't really want to do it, then you feel really shitty. It bummed me out, so I was like, "To do it again I'd really have to believe in it being in the movie." Otherwise, it is like you're just telling some girl, "We just need to see your boobs." It sounds great in theory and then when you actually say it to someone, it's like, "Eww."

Although the group generally agreed that 3-D technology is a useful tool as long as it's not purely gimmicky, Robert Rodriguez in particular was supportive of using it to expand and enhance the moviegoing experience – so much, in fact, that he not only originally planned to use it for one of his earliest movies, but hinted he might go back and retrofit 3-D to make it that much more exciting:

Rodriguez: I've always loved 3-D. Something people don't know is that if you watch the second half of From Dusk Till Dawn, I originally wanted to shoot it in 3-D so that once you got to the bar and put on the glasses, I'm always trying to think of something fun to add to the experience, and it's still framed that way; if you watch the movie, the arrow coming out of the guns and Clooney's always got the gun to the camera and heads are rolling into the camera. Now it's something that could be made stereoscopic, and I might do that because that was the original intention, but when I saw what the cameras were, the cameras were still the old-ass 65mm, gigantic things, and I wouldn't be able to get the shots that I normally do to get that stuff shot quickly.

When asked what film festivals or towns seemed most hospitable to horror films and filmmakers, Ti West offered his thoughts, which the rest of the panel subsequently agreed with:

West: Austin is definitely one of them. But that's actually a sincere answer. My first film, The Roost, premiered here in 2005, to such a warm reception at the Drafthouse. I had never been here before, and it was really an eye-opening experience how awesome things could be. And then when you go other places, you realize how not-awesome they can be. Between South By and Fantastic Fest, Tim League and Janet Pearson, it's really impressive and the people here and the way you support films in general, you may not know this, but it's not as good everywhere else. But on a specific genre front, me and Neil met at a festival that not as many people know about called Frightfest in London, and I can't say enough good things about the people that run it. I mean they're some of the best people I've met, ever. That was an experience where I almost didn't go because it was last minute, and I'd never been treated so well by the people and the fans in my life.

Another oft-discussed trend in contemporary moviemaking, much less in horror films, is the increasing use of CGI to augment or even replace practical effects. Weinberg guided Matt Reeves and Ruben Fleischer through their recollections of the original process of fleshing out their films and taking advantage of the latest technology:

Reeves: Combination of both is the answer. Tom Savini and Rob Bottin and those guys are amazing, but the thing about digital effects, what was interesting to me was that on Cloverfield, we built the parasites, and I was like "I'm going to take the arms and I'll attack the camera and it will be really great." It was bad, actually, it was really bad. Because that was something you can't do really well, but [the parasite] ended up being the model that was then taken by the CG people, and what's amazing is that computer graphics has advanced to such an extent that really what it comes down to is what works. What the CG people were saying is "Let's have something real in the frame," because the more that you can have something real in the frame, the more it will feel real.

Fleischer: For us, we went with real, practical make-up for the zombies and I think it's really hard not to, and I think that things like I Am Legend support that argument [laughs]. But the thing we actually had a lot of experience [doing] was on set shooting squibs; we had a lot of practical squibs for the blood splatter, and it was night so they weren't really showing up and they took forever to rig. At a certain point our stunt coordinator was like, "You know what? Let's just go digital." I didn't have any experience with it and he showed me the scene he did in The Departed, where they shoot in the elevator. That's all digital. I couldn't believe it. So from that point on we just did digital squibs and it changed the game.

As the panel wound to a close, Rodriguez, West, Reeves, Fleischer, and Marshall talked about their personal goals as filmmakers in general and within the horror genre. West summarized the panel's feelings most fully when he offered suggestions to audiences who are tired of seeing the same thing over and over again at the theater:

West: For me, I consider myself a personal filmmaker and I'm most interested in people who are personal filmmakers and making movies for certain personal or social or whatever reasons they've had to make the movie, and why it's important to them and that's why they're doing it. The people that make those movies generally have a specific voice, and I think everyone up here kind of has that. Those are the movies that I love to go see, because it's a movie that nobody else makes. Horror is kind of a bummer because it has become lowest common denominator because it's been so successful recently, and that's why all of the sequels and remakes come in. It's like, people just go to see this and it is what it is and there's not a lot behind it except the coolness. I think that's a bummer, because I love cool stuff as much as anyone else, but then you walk out of the movie feeling kind of empty. There is a little bit of responsibility as a filmmaker, unless you're not interested, to have some reasons to make the movie beyond coolness, and as an audience it's very important that we have some responsibility that the movie… If you know it's going to be stupid, don't go see it opening weekend, because you make it so much harder for the people that want to make the non-stupid movies. Because when something stupid makes a lot of money, more stupid stuff gets made, and that's just the reality. And people go, "What the fuck – why do they make so many remakes?" Because you keep fucking going to see them! Whether it's remakes or not, there is a responsibility on the audience, because Hollywood makes movies to make money, and filmmakers make movies to make movies, and when movies make money, you get similar stuff. I wish it was different but that's how it is. So if you like a movie, give it as much money as you can, but don't download the good movies. Go download something stupid. Please.

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