The movie-going experience is one of the most popular forms of entertainment there is in pop culture today. And what you, as a filmmaker, want to do, is keep them satisfied. And if you want to exceed all expectations, you just want them to be on the edge of their seat during the entire film. So here are a few tips for you to do just that.
1. People like to be scared
What you have to know is that everyone likes to be scared -whether they know it or not. We’ve all got this friend who always says « Horror is not for me ». They’re lying. They have a bigger degree of reluctance than those who actually pay for a movie ticket to go and see horror flicks. Or as master storyteller Stephen King has put it: «We’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better. » The psychological process behind this has been explored since time immemorial, all the way back to the days of Aristotle, who explained the phenomenon of catharsis. The basic premise is that everyone has violent urges, and seeing them carried through by someone else will actually make you feel better and relieved. Know that everyone is a potential viewer, your choice is just how large you want your audience to be.
2. Build dread
Nowadays, the audience is used to the grammar of filmmaking. It’s definitely unconscious, but the fact that movies have been touted as the main form of pop culture entertainment, TV using that very same grammar, whether it’s for TV series or news reporting, and even in the ads with which we’re showered daily. This is an opportunity for you. We’re used to seeing a narrative with an average shot length of about 2 seconds. The trend had already started a few decades ago, and Stanley Kubrick used it to great effect in The Shining. Of course, the soundtrack helped. But more importantly, he famously used longer takes so as to make the audience uneasy. That’s apparent with the famous Steadicam shots, but never more so than in the iconic bathroom scene. That’s a perfect example of building a sense of dread and uneasiness for the audience in using long takes and a creating a textbook example of crossing the line.
3. Put a bomb under the table
Horror is not all about severed heads and gigantic spiders and blood splashed across the screen. Those are very useful in your story, but you should probably display them at the appropriate moment. For instance, Hitchcock’s psycho showed -spoiler alert!- Mrs Bates’ corpse only at the very end. Having seen shapes of a woman throughout the movie, the (reasonable) assumption was that that woman was alive, and it gave us one of the most shocking twists in film history. But we’ve been left wondering during the entire movie who that woman was, so that shot is not merely about shock, it’s about satisfaction of the viewer’s expectations. The twist then exceeded them. Here’s the Master of Suspense explaining how setup and relief work for the audience.
4. Suspend disbelief
Horror is one of the genres where suspending disbelief goes to further extent than usual. As in any story, you’ll have to set a certain number of coherent elements in place, about the characters and their environment. You’ll keep people on the edge of their seat only if you manage to engage them into an emotional process. Intellectual processes allow your audience to be one step ahead, and that’s not what they’re in for. Once again, listen to what Hitchcock has to say about that.
5. Information is key
This might be a tip from any HR/management course (and it is), but it definitely applies to writing and directing, or storytelling in general. The information you give to you viewers will give them clue as to what is happening. But you may not want to reveal it all at once. On the contrary, you might want to distillate in a more or less obvious fashion throughout your script. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given was that everything you write should either give information about the character, or about the story and move the plot forward. One of the great examples of this is Christopher Nolan’s Memento.
Also check out the article specifically about the horror genre, and why it’s a perfect start for an indie filmmaker such as yourself.
We also produced a movie that people are finding pretty scary: Deadly Virtues: Love.Honour.Obey., which will be released in the UK 28th October.