How Horror Taught Me What My Job Is

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.

Why do I Love Directing?

It’s the people, both real and imagined.

I love the actors. I love actors. I am an actor, I lived and breathed it for a time, and it hasn’t gone away. But after a while I became disillusioned with acting. Directing changed that. It made me realize what bright, mad, wonderful humans actors can be (and volatile, maddening creatures as well, but it’s all part of the fun).

I love the crew. I love the creativity and talent and perspective and power that a team of real creatives brings into the world. They make a process more than a process. I love seeing the connections made between people on those teams, as one idea bounces off another.

I love producers. When they’re good, my god, they’re good, they do things and make things happen in a way that I admire in the same the way I admire, I don’t know, superheroes.

I love the audience, I love the fact that they’re smart, emotional, and have high expectations. And when they’re engaged, I can feel that this is the completion of the work. When it works, it’s like we’ve built an invisible bridge from our hearts to hundreds, thousands, even millions of hearts in the human audience.

So I must tend to my own heart, that something worthwhile can cross that bridge.

And why do I so often want to sit in the middle of all these, as opposed to take some other role?

Maybe I’m just a glutton for both love and punishment, because as much as I love all these people, each of them have, through choice, or mistake, or the high demands of their own excellence, ripped me to shreds. And that’s just the good times.


I think it’s also because I love the stories, and the characters. And when I know I can see them, really see them, then other people will too, and it becomes a sensation, a momentum, a crazy interplay of the fictional and the real, that culminates in that bridge.

I think it’s because I love building bridges.

Be Patient, Keep Writing, Be Patient, Stop Writing

There’s a saying somewhere that it takes 15 years between the knowing and the doing.

I’ve known for a long time that if I want to be writer, it’s the habit that counts. Even if it’s a few hundred words a day, consistency is what compounds to create a body of work.

But my less mature self, the one that still thinks heroes perform in blazes of glory and bursts of divine inspiration, is in fact what prevents the habit from forming. Because 100 words, for that little self, is not enough.

Yes, I’ve had days where I knocked out 10 solid pages — they were even good pages! But the danger is in creating cycles of burnout.

On the other hand, trusting that today’s work can end because tomorrow’s will begin is an act of faith, an act of knowing that I won’t cease to be a writer simply because I only write a little bit today, I won’t cease to be a director simply because I only spent $50 on the latest film.

Hemingway was able to leave off writing mid-sentence, because he trusted his future self to return to that page.

Building a creative habit is about building trust with myself. So a habit of writing, for example, is as much about the stopping of the writing as it is the starting.

Starting to write, at a consistent time, is the habit, it’s where the barriers lie.

Directing regularly, despite limitations of time, space, or budget, is the habit.

But maybe the stopping is just as important, because consciously stopping sends a message to that inner self that I trust myself to return.

And trust, in turn, motivates me, so tomorrow’s return might have a little bit more energy.

Who is Qualified to Write About Directing?

Let’s get a little impostor syndrome out of the way here.

I think directing, like a lot of our art forms in America, is the subject of so much love and hate. Much like actors, who are a joke (waiters) until they are adored (ohmygod the FRIENDS cast is getting back together!!!), directing in America is on a madly swinging pendulum of approval, disdain, adoration and disgust, when it comes to how people seem to look at you.

(how YOU, aspiring director, think people are looking at you)

But if you want to be an artist, that whole thing of “how most people look at you” must cease to matter. Because it’s not about you, it’s about what you make. How you are making.

Am I a Great Director, who has been given the laurels of Director by some grand committee, so now I’m approved to bloviate about Directing?

I highly recommend reading Finite and Infinite Games. It creates a really valuable distinction.

The game of titles is a limited game. The game of doing is unlimited.

I direct. That’s something I’ve done and will continue to do. And I think it’s worth writing about how it’s done well, and how it’s done poorly, and I’ll be wrong sometimes and right sometimes and that’s fine.

I direct. I write. I act. I choreograph fights and design action. I produce.

Whether someone else wishes to bestow the titles along with those actions isn’t up to me. What’s up to me is what to do with my time, my creativity, my effort, my heart.

So I direct. And I think it’s worth my time to write about that experience. I hope it might even be worth someone’s time to read about it.



ITERATE or…What is Up With Storyboards Anyway?

When I was rehearsing a show with Synetic Theater, we’d often stumble upon a novel idea or concept – usually a potential solution to a problem we were having with the story. Because theater is a risky act, even in rehearsal, we’d often start chatting about an idea for a while. Eventually someone, usually Paata, would throw up their hands and say “let’s just do it!” and we’d try it out and usually the answer of whether it was valuable or not would be made apparent.

A few minutes in rehearsal to show off a simple idea can save lots of discussion time.

As the technical demands grow, this kind of showcasing becomes more costly. Films are full of technical demands, and most of them are quite expensive – so often the idea is “whatever lets us do it more cheaply in advance will better guarantee the product.” The many forms of director’s preparation are all lumped into this “pre-making” concept, from script analysis, to rehearsals, to pre-viz and storyboards and shot lists and pre-shoots and overheads…and more. Some people hate some of these things and love others, and for some it’s vice versa.

I think what we’re often chasing, as directors, are ways to iterate our way in to the story. A script is an iteration of a story, and shot list is an iteration of the points of view of the story. A set of storyboards is also an iteration, though often it’s interpreted as though it is a blueprint, rather than an iteration of the story with some of the crucial parts missing (like, say, sounds and actors and motion).

Iterations, even those with flaws, allow us to step back and see not “what we’re working with” but something like what we’ll be working with when it comes time to shoot (or edit, or write…).

And when something is working, you can sometimes see it in these “pre-iterations.” They’re not the thing itself but versions that you can quickly re-do.

So I try to get better at pre-iterating, and seeing the opportunities and pitfalls of a production within those iterations, but also trying to remember this:

The map is not the territory.

The script is not the play. The play is the play.

The screenplay is not the movie. The storyboard is not the movie.

The rehearsal is not the movie. The dailies are not the movie.

The movie is the movie.

The Problem of Talent

Talent is wonderful. Some people find easy and enjoyable things that others find difficult and scary. At an early age, I found that a few things that other people thought were hard, I found easy.

But there’s limits to (most) talent. There comes a point where raw talent will not take you further, whether it’s in athletics, acting, singing, directing, mathematics…anything.

Education and practice must step in. The more talented get further more easily, and perhaps can enjoy training more readily, because there’s an inherent joy in doing something you’re good at.

But therein lies the danger of talent. At a certain point, something stops coming easily. The enjoyable part is over, and the work must begin.

For me, and for many of the talented, I suspect, it meant that when the going got tough, I thought to myself “ah, that might be the limit.”

For those with less initial talent, but more determination, however, hitting the wall is a familiar feeling. They know that if you keep leaning on the wall, keep pushing, it starts to break. Tenacity is the first order of business.

For those who have never met the wall…they can be stymied, and decide it is impenetrable.

Talent does not guarantee tenacity – even as the fullest realization of talent REQUIRES tenacity.

Stanley Kubrick on Actors in Studios vs. On Locations

I’ve been reading The Stanley Kubrick Archives, and stumbled upon this little gem from Stanley Kubrick’s Director’s Notes on Spartacus:

“For a psychological story, where the characters and their inner emotions and feelings are the key thing, I think that a studio is the best place. Working on a set provides the actor with much better concentration and ability to use his full resources.” (Dec. 4, 1960)

This is also why I don’t think that motion capture work and VFX-heavy shooting in the studio is as difficult for actors as people may think. Actors do the majority of their training with only the essential pieces of the whole reality around them. A fully artificial environment is sometimes less stimulating and distracting than a real-world location. Yes, replicating a full reality for an actor can help them “act” less, but if that full reality is accompanied by a thousand distractions…you’re not getting the advantage you think.

Again Kubrick: “When Spartacus was being made, I discussed this point with Olivier and Ustinov and they both said that they felt that their powers were just drifting off into space when they were working out of doors. Their minds weren’t sharp and their concentration seemed to evaporate. They preferred that kind of focusing-in that happens in a studio with the lights pointing at them and the sets around them.”

For me there’s a similar sense of imaginative concentration available in two more places: the theater, and the wilderness. Isolated wilderness is very different from shooting on a city block with passers-by and bystanders. It replicates the sense of freedom of being a kid playing in the woods, where I have memories of being utterly free and creative.

It still comes down to the ability to dance and shout and wiggle around by myself, or with my favorite collaborators. And sometimes we have to generate that sense of freedom in front of other people. Lord knows, live theater demands it, but that’s a different phase of the creation.

Isolation, focus, contained joy and struggle and experimentation. It’s a theme of creativity that I keep seeing repeated in the work of the people I most admire. Bon Iver came out with a new album on August 30. Faith and Hey, Ma are two of the most uplifting, exciting things I’ve ever heard from Juston Vernon – he seems to have tapped into something new with his collaborators.

I can’t say I was surprised when I read this from Vernon, referring to their time recording i,i at the Sonic Ranch in Texas:

“It allowed us to feel confident and comfortable, to be completely free of distraction. I don’t think I left the property in six weeks. And in many ways the story of the album is the story of those six weeks rather than the almost six years of some of the songs.”

What Makes Interesting Acting?

Spending serious time away from acting has been something of a boon. I’ve come to realize how, when I was concerned primarily with my identity as an actor, I was caught up in issues of self-respect and a lot of feelings of inadequacy, both in relation to being a performer and even more so in relation to living in the so called “real world.”

I have gained a lot of new respect for actors ever since I stopped being one (impossible, but I hope you know what I mean), in part because it wasn’t until I let that go that I was able to get a real perspective on the actor’s contribution without it getting caught up in my own ego. And thereby I’ve been able to start differentiating between performance and acting.

It’s one thing to perform a monologue, it’s another thing to act it. I know, semantics, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that the purest acting is bereft of all performative elements except those necessitated by the medium (film, television, theater, particularities of sub-media).

I think what makes interesting acting turns out to be the same thing that makes interesting people. And most of that has to do with being interested. Aka, invested in the reality of the situation. Uta Hagen and a million others have said it better than me in terms of acting, but I just think of the example of a cat. What’s more interesting to watch, a person trying very hard to show you something you may or may not care about, or a cat that is intently stalking its prey? One thing is trying to pull interest out of you, the other is purely existing in the world.

What’s more compelling – watching someone recite Hamlet beautifully, or watching a son struggle over the death of his father?

I know, it’s obvious. But it wasn’t obvious to me – I came to acting so young that I conflated performance and acting into the same boat, deeply in my gut. It’s taken a long time for me to really understand what lies beyond showmanship.

Directing Story with Light

When it comes to directing, isn’t the shaping of the light just…sort of shading pictures? Or just setting a kind of cool mood that helps the audience get to the real stuff: the performance of the story?

Well, I found out the answer is no. All stories, or almost all, take place in a human world, and our world is defined by light (at least for the majority of us who are fortunate enough to possess the power of vision…and therefore movie-watchers). Day, night, light, dark – light is the ultimate arbiter of information. How light plays over someone’s face, over a room, over an event, fundamentally defines not only our perception of it all, but the behavior of people WITHIN the story.

I ask myself: what do people do in dark places vs. light places?

Why are nightclubs lit low and gymnasiums lit brightly?

Why do shadows frighten us sometimes?

What happens before we recognize someone vs. after? When they step from dark into light?

All of these, and more, define behaviors, which create moments, which are the bricks of story.

When Kubrick was directing Lolita, the scene where Quigley pretends to be the German doctor is lit by a single lightbulb – which really annoyed the cinematographer. But Kubrick insisted. It wasn’t just to create a mood…but because it had to be believable that Humbert did not recognize Quigley. It was a matter of believability: how would Humbert behave in this light?

Light isn’t just about mood – it’s about story.

Is My Camera Cinematic?

Like any person crazy about telling stories with images and sounds, I often find myself digging around the blogs and forums regarding cameras, and, even worse, allllll the youtube channels. Now granted – there’s a number of youtubers who really do put out some quality stuff about the craft (Every Frame a Painting comes to mind, as well as Cooke Optics’ channel), but there’s always a lot of individual creators who are well-intentioned but keep using a phrase that I almost exclusively hear or see online. “cinematic”

Talking about a lens, or a camera setup: “the images are just so much more cinematic.”

“buy this lens, it’s so cinematic”

What does that mean?

What makes something cinematic? Shallow depth of field? I guess Orson Welles’ famously deep shots make his work “not cinematic.”

The funny thing is, this term “cinematic” almost never comes up in film school – I think I’ve encountered one discussion on the topic, and the answer came up moot. Everyone has a hard time defining it. And I think this makes perfect sense, because the discussion always seems to range around a particular IMAGE. Is the IMAGE cinematic.

I think it’s impossible for a lone image to be, or not be, cinematic, because cinema is, by its own definition, contextual. Cinema is NOT still images, though it can use them. It is the art of the moving image, combined with sound, over time.

Eisenstein’s oft-quoted theory of editing, that the human mind infers story from one image to the next, is the defining idea of film. It is the combination of elements over time that creates the immersion of an audience in a cinematic experience. I don’t say immersion in story because there are cinematic experiences that aren’t about story, or that keep you at arm’s length from the story, but are still complete cinematic experiences in and of themselves.

What the hell am I doing? Now I’m throwing around this term “cinematic” after I’ve called into question its definition.

I guess I’m trying to walk myself up to a definition. There’s a famous photographer, name I don’t remember, who makes famously “cinematic” images. He even shoots them like a film set, with a full crew and lights and performers. And yeah, it looks like you’re looking not at a still from a movie: it replicates the immersive feeling of watching a movie. It implies a before and after of the image, it is not merely about the image in and of itself but of the implied surrounding images.

A movie is a waking dream, it pulls us into an experience that is total, that turns off the rest of the world for a time. There is a flow of images that carries us along.

So why then, is shallow depth of field considered by some to be a “cinematic” quality? If I could hazard a guess, it is because it 1) abstracts the background and foreground and thus 2) points out what is important in the image. And if you point out what’s important, from shot to shot, that’s one way to achieve a cinematic flow.

Intent. Is it intended to induce the state of immersion that cinema can achieve? Is it intended to guide the audience’s experience on a visual and aural journey? And thus, any tool that helps us do this is a cinematic tool. I’m writing this because I’ve fallen into this trap, that of using the tool or considering it to be superior because it makes it look like I have intent. So yes, depth of field can be cinematic, but only if you are aiming at the audience’s experience, not what looks kind of like movies you’ve seen.

That’s the director’s job – not only to direct the cast and the crew, but to ultimately direct the audience. Look at this, now look at this, now we are here, now he is doing that, here’s something you can’t quite see – want to understand it? Keep watching. You can’t control how people are going to react to a movie, but you can control the way they experience it.

So. Is that lens more cinematic?

It can be.