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Directing Horror: A Case Study With Karen Lam
Friday, March 22, 2013

Reviewed by: Dana Keller

It’s 10 am and uncharacteristically gorgeous outside as a small group of us make our way into the Vancity Theatre for Vancouver director Karen Lam’s workshop on directing horror. Any misgivings we had about spending such a beautiful day inside vanish when Lam, a petite elfish thing with mid-length dark hair dressed in jeans and an off-white satin blouse, bounces down the steps and up to the podium, nervously speaking into the mic, "Inside this dark theatre with the sun shining outside: you must be my people."

After one of the festival organizers briefly introduces Lam, who has sixteen years of industry experience and has been featured in Fangoria and Diabolique, we jump into the workshop. It begins with the question: “What is the definition of horror? What makes a film a horror film?” Answers range from scares, to blood, to violent intentions, but nothing seems quite right. As it turns out, it’s harder to define horror than one might think. Lam takes her own definition of the genre from horror lit, arguing that the word applies to anything that creates a sense of fear or dread…a sense that something is just around the corner. It’s not about blood, but about a sense of sheer unpleasantness. In short, “It’s all about making you feel bad,” she says.

What may at first seem like a didactic exercise becomes much richer once Lam explains the importance of definitions when it comes to selling your film. To illustrate her point, Lam shares with us the trials and tribulations she faced while marketing her first feature, Stained, as well as the questions she’s already having to consider as she enters the editing suite on her latest feature, Evangeline. This insightful blend of practical advice and detailed personal anecdotes infuses the workshop from start to finish (and if you think I’m overselling it, I have eighteen pages of notes as evidence).

Our first hour is spent focusing on the genre itself as well as the position of the director. Beyond considering the definition of horror, Lam provides us with some tips and tricks that apply to directing horror specifically, as well as directing films in general. I could fill several pages alone with her advice, but I’ll limit it to five key points for brevity’s sake:

- Lam notes that as a writer/director, it’s important to know when to take off your writer hat…the moment you begin directing.

- At first Lam thought of the position of director as creative, but in fact it’s more of a managerial position, and as a manager, it’s important not to micromanage. It’s a matter of inviting people to come play with you, and then letting them do their thing.

- On a similar note, Lam notes that filmmaking is collaboration, and teamwork changes things. She emphasizes that it’s important to be flexible and open to suggestions from your team.

- On the topic of location scouting, Lam says she doesn’t storyboard, and is guided by locations, sometimes even reworking the script to reflect a location that she feels better suits her scene. A case in point is a torture scene set in a garage that transformed into one set in a warehouse, which Lam felt provided a stronger atmosphere. Related advice throughout the workshop emphasizes Lam’s concern for affect, which she values even over technical perfection.

- In horror specifically, rhythm is hugely important. A fitting rhythm can be achieved through editing, sound design, and score. Generally you want to aim for longer beats to create dread.

In the second hour of the workshop, Lam brings in Brant McIlroy and Scott McKay (aka Brant FX), to answer “all blood-related questions.” Sitting on the stage in armchairs, explaining their effects as film clips of their professional work roll behind them on the big-screen, McIlroy and McKay are like magicians revealing their tricks. Of course, they aren’t your usual tuxedoed magicians: McIlroy wears a leather coat, fitted jeans, and sunglasses on his head, and McKay complements his t-shirt and jeans ensemble with a string of home-made intestines around his neck.

The two men alternate between walking us through the effects we see onscreen and answering questions from the audience. Among all of the indispensable wisdom they impart, a few notable tricks stand out:

- The intestines around McKay’s neck are made from sausage casing and appropriately coloured gelatin, then smothered in fake blood and a cattle lubricant called J-Lube in order to give them that bloody, slimy look.

- Want fog and/or steam in your movie? Good luck getting it without a fog machine. For instance, a steamy shower scene does not actually involve a steamy shower (the steam would make it impossible to shoot). Instead, it comprises a cold to luke warm shower complemented by a fog machine. Want your fog to stay in one place? Don’t shoot in a wide-open field, or on a clear day for that matter. Cold air with particles in it is ideal for shooting fog. Oh, and once you’ve figured out that you need fog, your job doesn’t end there: Brant has 15 to 20 different types to choose from.

- On the all-important topic of blood (Lam, McIlroy and McKay can’t emphasize this one point enough), get all of your coverage BEFORE shooting with blood, because once the blood flows, it’s next to impossible to clean up. McIlroy notes that there are types of non-staining blood, but these are significantly more expensive than the regular stuff. Lam throws in a fun fact: want it to look coagulated? Add blueberries!

The team finishes the Q&A with one last important piece of advice: when speaking to your visual effects people, be sure that you’re telling them what you want to see, not what you think you want to see. Being as specific as possible makes all the difference, and can save you some money too! For instance, a fire in a car that hints it will explode is about $6,000 cheaper than actually blowing up a car.

We break for lunch. I wander outside into the blinding sunlight in search of a hot chocolate, confident that if I wanted to, I could already make my own film just based on the lessons I’ve learned in the first half of the workshop. An hour later I re-enter the theatre and settle into my seat as Lam explains to the three men sitting beside her on the stage that she’s not Splat Pack like Eli Roth, and that she aims more for a blend of Kubrick and…I miss the other name, but throughout the workshop she cites Michael Haneke, Takeshi Miike and Asian horror in general as sources of inspiration, explaining, with reference to a famous Haneke quote, that she wants to “rape the audience’s mind.” An admirable and appropriate goal for any horror director.

Once everyone is seated and attentive, Lam introduces the three men onstage as co-workers from one of her latest short films, Stalled: writer and lead David Lewis, co-star Simon Chin, and stunt coordinator Raymond Chan. Lam and the three men walk us through the script beat by beat.

They begin with a read-through, then stand up and act it out, slowing down for the fight scene that comprises most of the film. Chan steps in and begins to explain the process of coordinating a fight scene. Most notably, both he and Lam emphasize the importance of treating a fight scene like any other dramatic scene in a film. A good fight scene, Chan explains, should fit and help express the characters and the story. Lam adds that, not everyone fights like Steven Seagal, in fact, she grins, most of the fights she’s seen in real-life are pretty lame, with a lot of awkward struggling and little to no punching or kicking. In Stalled, the fight scene is just that and it works.

The three men spend a bit more time demonstrating various elements of fight scene construction to the audience as Lam narrates her own position as a “weird satellite,” orbiting the scene that unfolds in front of her, looking for the perfect shot. She notes that fight scenes require a lot of coverage, and it is necessary to return to a wide shot often so that your viewers can maintain a sense of what’s going on.

Our third hour concludes with applause and Chan rushing off to his next gig. Lewis and Lam remain onstage, and now Lam’s editor Jeanne Slater joins the group, lending emphasis to Lam’s repeated assertion that filmmaking is collaborative work. We begin with some dailies from Stalled accompanied by editing tips and tricks, behind-the-scenes trivia, and responses to audience Q&As. At some point local actor Mackenzie Gray pops into existence, as if by magic, at the back of the theatre. He adds a question and comment or two to the discussion and then seemingly vanishes just as quickly as he appeared.

We transition into a screening, the world premiere, in fact, of the entire eight-minute short. The cinema is dead silent as Stalled plays on the big screen, and even for a moment afterward before filling with applause. Thankfully, the film is good.

Lam spends the final 40 minutes of the workshop fielding questions that lead to insightful and instructive anecdotes about her experiences securing high-quality shooting locations, the art of creating dread in horror films, and the always popular topic of female vs. male horror directors. Lam speaks quickly and often in a self-deprecating manner, but don’t be fooled: she is not only a bright and talented artist, she is also a conscientious and efficient instructor. She has packed more into a four-hour workshop than many would learn in a four-month film course.

The workshop ends. I nervously wander up to the front to thank her before making my way out of the theatre. The notes I have taken feel like gold bars in my bag (part of this might be because my notebook is fairly heavy, too). I can’t wait to get home, make some fake intestines and create a fight scene that ends in a disemboweling.

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