Directing the Macabre: A Conversation with Horror Directors

Directing the Macabre: A Conversation with Horror Directors

October 28, 2020 A Special Projects Committee Virtual Event

From the very dawn of film and television, horror has been a mainstay and the genre has shown no signs of waning in popularity. Just in time for Halloween, DGA members seeking more input about how Directors craft what goes bump in the night got a glimpse behind the dark curtain during the DGA Special Projects Committee’s virtual event, Directing the Macabre: A Conversation with Horror Directors.

In a conversation moderated by Director Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead), Directors Ernest Dickerson (Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight), Gigi Saul Guerrero (Into the Dark: Culture Shock), Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) and Sophia Takal (Black Christmas) discussed the work that Directors do behind-the-scenes to make something scary, as well as the individual inspirations behind their work.

“In any collaborative medium, many pieces have to align to get a scene just right,” said Nicotero in his welcome to the online audience. “This is especially true when creating the atmosphere for horror pictures. What makes something scary? What inspires us as Directors? What tools do we bring to the table and how can we hone our skills to craft scenes that generate genuine chills for the audience? We’ll discuss all of this and more today.”

Speaking about how editing can be used to heighten the experience, Takal said, “In terms of building dread, I always feel like any cut you make in a movie releases tension, in a way, so I think it’s so fun to watch really long takes where the camera’s going back and forth, back and forth, and then it shows you the scary thing. Something where the audience is just with the character the whole time without cutting, I think is also a really effective way of building tension.”

Saulnier revealed how being open to performances that went beyond the script gave him other opportunities. “When the actors started to just talk over each other, it wasn’t about the words that I had written. It was about the performative elements of just shouting, and it was more about moments of tension. And people just interpreted that. And when they feel the tension from the actors, then you can bring in the big guns with the gore and have it pay off.”

Guerrero spoke about how the use of temp music can guide her process in post-production and change an earlier viewpoint. “This [temp score] is really giving me a better sense of what kind of style to go to and it’s really cool when, in post, you had a thought at first, and then you start seeing it so differently. Sometimes the music can really change a perspective and that’s always a really cool part of the process.”

On the subject of effects, Dickerson revealed it can be about finding the balance. “Sometimes you’re shooting scenes where you have the aftermath of a big, gory effect and then you have to get an idea of what the gory effect is gonna be five days later. And sometimes, the effect might be bigger, or less big, than the one that you put the aftermath on the actor for. So, you have to sometimes even that out with a little bit of practical and a little bit of visual effects.”

During the conversation, Nicotero also regaled the panelists with stories from his own work on various films and television projects.

See video from this event in the gallery below.

Ernest DickersonErnest Dickerson
A DGA member since 1992, Dickerson’s directing credits include the feature films JuiceSurviving the Game, Tales from the Crypt: Demon KnightNever Die Alone and Double Play; and episodes of television series including The Wire, The Walking Dead, Dexter, Bosch, House of Cards and Man in the High Castle. He is an eight-time nominee for the NAACP Image Award, winning their Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series award for his 2009 Lincoln Heights episode, “The Day Before Tomorrow” and his 2011 Treme episode, “Treme: Do Watcha Wanna.” 

Gigi Saul GuerreroGigi Saul Guerrero
Guerrero started her career with several genre short films including El Gigante, Luchagore Christmas and Evil Dead in 60 Seconds. In 2014, she participated in the horror anthology, Barbarous Mexico, with its Día de los Muertos segment.  Her other directing credits include episodes of The Purge and Into the Dark: Culture Shock. Her series with Warner Bros./Stage 13, La Quinceañera, won the Golden Skull International Audience Choice Award at the 2017 Morbido Fest. Guerrero has been a DGA member since 2019. 

Jeremy SaulnierJeremy Saulnier
Saulnier cut his teeth on corporate videos and indie shorts before directing the self-funded Murder Party in 2007, which won the Audience Award at the Slamdance Film Festival. His other directing credits include the features Green Room and Hold the Dark; and episodes of True Detective. His feature Blue Ruin won a FIPRESCI Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. His latest film, Rebel Ridge, is scheduled to shoot in the spring of 2021. Saulnier has been a DGA member since 2014. 

Sophia TakalSophia Takal
Takal’s debut film, Green, which she wrote, directed and starred in, premiered at SXSW where she won the SXSW Emerging Female Director Award. Her other directing credits include the feature, Always Shine, which received a Gotham Award nomination and the January 2018 installment of the Into the Dark Hulu horror anthology series, New Year, New You. Her latest film is the Blumhouse/Universal feature, Black Christmas, which she directed and co-wrote. Takal has been a DGA member since 2018.

Greg Nicotero Greg Nicotero (moderator)
Nicotero is a master of horror with experience in directing, executive producing and special effects makeup. He began his career working under George Romero and has since worked with countless filmmakers including Sam Raimi, James Cameron, Wes Craven, Frank Darabont, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Nicotero began directing and producing the hit show The Walking Dead for AMC. Along with providing all the Special Effects Makeup, he has directed 33 episodes. His other directing credits include the pilot episode of Galyntine; episodes of the anthology series Creepshow and episodes of the online series, The Walking Dead: Webisodes. Nicotero has been a DGA member since 2006.

About The Special Projects Committee

Special Projects is the educational and cultural arm of the Directors Guild of America, providing its members opportunities for creative exchange to advance their craft and celebrate the achievements of directors and their teams.

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