I directed a horror film recently. The story itself had some bits of humor and absurdity, but ultimately it was an exercise in delivering the genre.
It was revelatory. And I mean that in the “oh shit it’s so obvious but I’ve always ignored it” kind of way. It screened in my class and people vocally reacted to moments in the film in a way nothing I’ve ever directed has produced. It actually achieved its objective.
Horror is about creating a feeling in the audience, it’s about cueing up primal emotions and fears, building a rollercoaster ride of tension and release. The audience comes to the theater expecting a rollercoaster. And if you don’t deliver, it’s pretty obvious. It demands that you use every tool available to you in order to produce those waves of emotions. And they’re obvious, primal sensations that boil down to a couple basic primal scenarios deep in our lizard brains: the fear of being hunted by something we can’t quite see, sometimes disgust (evolutionary fear of infection/pathogens), panic or terror at the loss of our own faculties, relief, even laughter, at momentary safety, and the emotion of horror itself, which I’d categorize as “the feeling of being a wriggling bug under the toe of an incomprehensible giant.”
The audience comes to the theater because they WANT to go through these emotions. Somehow the ups and downs of simulating these emotions is something people pay money to see. Yes, there’s story, and comprehension, you can intellectualize it, but at the end of the day the audience is paying for an emotional experience that it is your job to deliver.
(they aren’t paying for your drone shot, they’re paying for the experience and perspective of flight)
Horror makes the director’s job baldly plain. Produce the desired experience, or fail.
My little film achieved its objective because the genre gave me a comprehensible objective.
And that made genre clear to me. After three years of film school, all it took was directing one horror film to define something that I’ve struggled to define my whole life.
What the hell is genre?
There’s academic explanations galore. But for a DIRECTOR, for a WRITER, for a MAKER, a PRODUCER, there’s only one definition that matters.
A genre is a package of expectations. Yes, there are plenty of conventions in genre, having to do with characters, settings, structures, etc. But what’s important, to directors especially, is to consider that the genre is not the story the audience walks in expecting to SEE. It is the kind of emotional experience that an audience walks in expecting to HAVE.
And brilliant directors know this, intuitively. They know that they can stray outside the bounds of conventional expectations, as long as they deliver the kind of emotional experience people are coming to the theater for. A lot of films probably fail because they are fulfilling the SURFACE expectations, but not the deeper experiential expectations.
A lot of films transcend genre, or mix genres, but they almost always still deliver the genre.
Horror and comedy are extremely hard because they demand that you deliver a specific emotional effect. But my question for myself is: what if I could have that same focus of “deliver the emotional experience” on EVERY film, even non-horror, non-comedies?
Oh, right. That’s my actual job, whether I’m directing, producing, writing, editing, fight choreographing…
And it’s the producer and director’s jobs to see this MOST clearly, and guide the process towards that end.
I’m going to keep digging into this – mainly because I suspect there might be something primal to genre, and that we have genres that fall by the wayside, only to be rediscovered.