So, you want to be a filmmaker - and not just any kind of cinematic savant, but a semi-genuine, wholly independent, self-styled artist who reinvents the various genres they attempt while maintaining one realistic eye on the ever-changing moods of the mainstream. You long to see your name in lights, or if not that, as the headline on some web critic’s blog, and you bask in the imaginary glow of your own creative epiphanies, struggling for a way to share them with the rest of the world. Well, thanks to DVD, and the accompanying wave of handy homemade moviemaking sciences, your long dormant living dead extravaganza is just a few simple steps away. And SE&L is here to help. Call it an instructional guide or a series of procedural stereotypes, but almost all the no name homemade horror movies follow a concrete collection of logistical laws.
Certainly, some of you aren’t interested in tripping the terror fright-tastic. You’d rather work out the longstanding issues between yourself and your parents, your sexuality and its uncharted truth, or the world and your passionate personal political agenda. Now, there is nothing wrong with said subjects, and well received examples of same pepper the emerging underground scene. But if you want some cash to go along with your chaos, fear is a solid first rung on the inevitable ladder of legitimacy. It’s easily marketable, instantly recognizable, and occasionally profitable – or so the interviews with established genre veterans frequently state. However, you’ve got to get past a few hurdles before becoming the next Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. Let SE&L provide the blueprint for your approaching success with these 10 simple steps. When applied, they provide the shortcuts that others had to struggle to discover. While not foolproof, it’d be foolhardy to ignore them, beginning with:
Step 1 – Ignore the Conventional Wisdom RE: Technology
It used to be that, if you wanted to make movies, you had to know film. Not just know film, but study celluloid in a way that suggested a scientific handle on the subject. You had to make every reel count, taking exposure, lighting and shutter speeds. And talk about expensive. You had to pimp yourself to every dentist, local real estate magnet, and businessman with a hankering to play producer just to get a minimal amount of scratch. Well, Grandpa, digital is your deliverance. On the cheap – or cheapish – you can get a good camcorder, a collection of tapes, and – Viola! – you’re a director. Of course, mise-en-scene and other aesthetic artform considerations are optional. You’re a rebel. Screw the language of film, right?
Step 2 – Reminder: Stay Firmly Within the Homemade Horror Movie Subject Areas
Of course, creativity will not be your strong suit, initially. You just figured out how to download and access editing software on your laptop. No one expects you to be George Romero after that. Still, there are limits to your potential premises, dogmatic dictations about subjects you can and cannot tackle. Here are the three acceptable areas of horror that you are allowed to explore – zombies, vampires, serial killers. Prohibitions exist on anything involving science fiction, ghosts and/or haunted houses, and first person POV Blair Witch rip-offs. No one, not even the experts in said genres, can avoid those potential motion picture pitfalls consistently. They’re deadlier than a store bought monster mask and an aging porn star cameo combined.
Step 3 – Hire only Friends, Associates, and Random Well Wishers
They say a film crew is like a family – one big, dysfunctional and incestual hillbilly clan. So remember to keep your employees intimate. Avoid the local colleges and high schools and hire only actors who will tolerate your first time filmmaker hissy fits. There’s only room for one overly dramatic diva on set, and it’s YOU, baby. Besides, theater majors make lousy scream queens. As for costumers, cinematographers, and special effects technicians, look for members of your immediate sphere of influence and target individuals with a penchant for thrift stores, a relatively steady hand, and a collection of self-made taxidermy specimens, respectively. They will elevate your production value ten-fold.
Step 4 - Don’t Skimp on the Storyline
Remember, you may never get another chance at making a movie. No matter technology’s ease of access or the fervent desire of those around you, creating cinema can literally kill your inspired drive. It’s that whole “dreaming vs. doing” ideal. Anyway, since this may be your single shot, use it as a means to work out each and every one of your narrative agendas. Always wanted to feature a mass murderer who plays in his own feces while watching female victims go lesbian for his enjoyment? Make that a major subplot. Do you think Eddie Deezan like know-it-all nerds with creepy, whiny voices have been marginalized in the last few years? He’s your hero! Remember, there are no bad ideas, just badly written ones.
Step 5 – When in Doubt, Throw Blood on It
Of course, you may be one of the unlucky multitude that actually stumbles upon one of those rare lame storylines. It happens. If you discover that your re-vampire saga about extraterrestrial neckbiters who want to impregnate the females of Earth as part of some master race plan just doesn’t have the heft you imagined, gore it up. Bring on the body parts and offer up the offal. Even the most discerning fright fan will cut you some slack if you, in turn, cut up some corpses. Of course, don’t go overboard. Ample arterial spray is one thing. Autopsy like vivisection is reserved for sluice experts like Tom Savini only.
Step 6 – Nudity is Nice as Well – With One Caveat
If you can’t say it with blood, naked bodies will work just as well. As a novice filmmaker, you may not know this, but horror is the heavy metal of cinema. It plays directly into an adolescent’s angst, sense of social worth, and desire to see things die. So pander to this populace a little and toss in some tush. Just remember this one important fact – most of the girls who’ll agree to get wild have their own body issues they’re dealing with, and aside from random cutters, most have chosen tattoos as a way of expressing this pain. Exposed breasts are always a fright film plus. Said mammaries with large Middle Earth maps across them tend to be antithetical to arousal
Step 7 - Reminder: It’s not Stealing, it’s a Homage
Don’t be afraid to copy. This isn’t high school math, or the Bar Exam. Peeking at previous auteurs’ efforts is perfectly acceptable in the world of outsider cinema. After all, you’re supposed to benefit from the trailblazing of those who came before, but it’s not an inferred process. There is no celluloid osmosis. So you have to watch the work of others, and if something they’ve done inspires you, go ahead and borrow. If it works, you’re a studied apprentice of past masters. If it doesn’t you’re merely offering a tribute to those who came before. In the realm of horror especially, plagiarism is permitted. In fact, it’s how many macabre maestros earned their wicked wings.
Step 8 – Out of Fashion Musical Trends are Your Film Score Friends
Unless you’re going wholly retro and returning to the days of silent scares, you will need underscoring to set the mood and tone of your narrative. Some experts have even stated that motion picture dread is 10% story, 40% image, and 50% sound. In that regard, you won’t be able to afford some slick orchestral composer ready to channel Bernard Hermann and Danny Elfman. Nor are you John Carpenter or Robert Rodriguez, capable of making your own scary movie noise. While licensing fees can eat into your limited fiscal means, remember this – forgotten tune trends can bail you out every time. Scare standards include ska, death metal, techno, and navel-gazing alt-folk acoustic fare.
Step 9 – Post Production is Cinematic Salve
There’s an old saying on Hollywood film sets – “We’ll fix it in post”. Nowhere is this maxim truer than in the realm of outsider filmmaking. Something that looked remarkable the day you created it can feel sophomoric or ever silly when buttressed up against a supporting set of shots. Even worse, an actor or actress you admired tremendously when they emoted in person may resemble a lumbering lox once the viewfinder focuses on them. Thanks to all the advances in after production retrofitting, you can CGI out a bad performance, or rerecord a lisping thespian’s dialogue. Even better, colors can be moderated and details clearly defined with a series of keystrokes. In fact, the only trouble untweakable is your own lack of talent.
Step 10 – Distribution is only a DVD Drive Away
So, you’ve spent six consecutive weekends at your grandfather’s ranch filming in his abandoned chicken coop. You’re friends are tired, your significant other hates you, and you’ve got fake blood, Vaseline, and way too many Hot Pocket drips staining your wardrobe. You’ve sacrificed time, learned (and then relearned) cutting style and narrative clarity, and that local punk funk fusion band you commissioned is three weeks late delivering its “Devil’s Suite” for your climatic chainsaw orgy. Now imagine what such a circumstance was like when you had to rely on a theatrical release of a VHS company to carry your vision. Now, all you need is a computer, a pile of discs and the desire to burn baby burn. It may not certify your international acclaim and untold wealth, but at least you’re guaranteed some level of audience.
And there you have it – 10 simple lessons, 10 foundational rules of thumb that will start you off on the right film footing. Violate/ignore/reinterpret them at your own, and your directorial future’s, risk. Pay no attention to those who’ve completely avoided any or all of these guidelines and still managed to make stellar homemade cinema. There’s freaks after all, the exception that never bears out the actual rule. There are only so many Eric Stanzes and Scott Phillips in the world of outsider auteurs, and even they fall into parts of this determinative Decalogue now and again. While some would like to think this is a New Wave for motion pictures, a kind of digital self determination, viewers and commercial success continue to impose their own archetypes and clichés on the burgeoning format. Before the pool of popularity dries up, you better jump in and start swimming. The water may be murky, but the currents are completely in your favor – for now.
// Notes from the Road
"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.READ the article