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December 3rd, 2005

Three simple rules

Last night I entertained myself by reading Yvonne Tasker's "Modern BFI Classics" book on The Silence of the Lambs (which, by the way, I do recommend - Ms. Tasker managed to deconstruct the film from both queer and feminist perspectives without resorting to the usual masturbatory academic doublespeak, and proved why it was also a horror film, not just a detective thriller), then re-watched the film. By the time it was over, I was struck not just by how fine a film it is (we already know that, after all), but how unique it is simply by virtue of being an excellent horror film.

And that's sad.

If you look at what are (arguably) the three best horror films of the last forty years - The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs and Rosemary's Baby - you'll see certain common denominators among all three, and no, I'm not talking about the fact that they're all based on bestsellers, were helmed by exceptional directors, or had Academy Award-nominated (and winning) performances. I'm talking about how:
  • They're all told from the perspective of adults; even though The Exorcist centers on a child, she's not a viewpoint character.
  • They're set in contemporary, realistic, urban settings.
  • They back up their supernatural or psychological terror with history and logic, giving the horror authenticity and verisimilitude.
  • Their respective directors have approached them seriously, and all three incorporate both Gothic elements (Rosemary's apartment building, the churches in The Exorcist, the Baltimore asylum in Lambs) and modern subtexts (pregnancy, fear of the loss of faith, the meaning of gender).

So, it shouldn't be that hard to follow these guidelines to make another great horror movie. Right? Well, it shouldn't be…but in Hollywood it apparently is, since it's now been 15 years since the most recent of these films (The Silence of the Lambs).

And why is this so frustrating for me? Because I'm sitting on a script that I think does incorporate all those elements, and that I believe would make a fine film. While I won't be so arrogant as to suggest it would be in the same league as these films, it could certainly be the best horror film we've had in sometime. So why can't it get made?

First, let's pretend I have real agents (hey, we're talking Hollywood here - it's all about pretending, right?). Let's say they've read the script, seen its potential, and actually started doing their jobs and sending it out (which, in real life, they haven't. Or maybe they have and just haven't told me. I don't know.) Chances are, by the time it ends up on the silver screen it'll suck. It shouldn't…but it probably will.

Forthwith, then, for all you budding producers out there, here is Lisa's guide to producing a great horror film:

  • First, learn how to recognize a good script. Uh, really, this ain't rocket science. Does it have a plot you haven't seen done a million times already? (It doesn't even have to be completely new, just have a few new elements, or old elements recombined in a new way.) Does one scene flow logically to the next? Are the characters believable? And you know what, Mr. Producer? Don't fucking whine to me about how there are no good scripts out there; that's specious as hell, and you know it. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of great scripts out there; you just need to learn how to recognize them.
  • Buy the script because it's good, and then make the script. Make the script. Don't let some other writer or director come in and shit all over it. Don't decide to change it simply because your ego wants its bloody little fingers in that pie, or because you're too lazy to keep the other egomaniac from putting his bloody little fingers in that pie. Make the script you bought. Protect it. If it needs to be changed because of some technical or budgetary reason, work with the original writer to fix it. But MAKE THE GODDAMN SCRIPT. Do your job and be on the set every day to make sure actors don't trample all over it. Make sure an inept director isn't just plain forgetting to film chunks of it (believe me, I've had it happen). Don't let an oh-so-artsy editor rearrange it. JUST MAKE THE SCRIPT.
  • Hire good actors and good crewpeople to MAKE THE SCRIPT. Don't hire the guy who's never directed because his sister will give you a deal on craft services. Don't hire the good-looking babe who can't get a single honest line reading out because you want to sleep with her. Good actors and technicians aren't expensive; as with good scripts, there are lots of them out there; you just need to HIRE THEM.

Hey, check that out - three rules. THREE WHOLE RULES there. And I'm sorry, but IT REALLY IS THAT SIMPLE. Those of you haven't worked in Hollywood probably think these are common sense. Oh, wait - they ARE common sense! So why don't they get followed? Because of that nasty three-letter word that comes up in rule 2, "ego".

"Hey, c'mon now," I hear a few directors out there shouting, "isn't this just all about the writer's ego then?" Sure, maybe…but when the writer's ego wins, we get movies like The Silence of the Lambs and The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. And please note that only one of those films (Rosemary's Baby) was screenwritten by its director; in the other two cases, the directors/producers had enough sense to stand by the excellence of the written word. Also note that on both Lambs and The Exorcist, only one screenwriter is credited. No armies of hack script doctors scrambling for a buck here - ONE GOOD WRITER.

I'd like to think it could happen again someday; obviously it'd be nice if it happened to my script, but at this point, as a moviegoer, I'd be happy for it to happen to anyone's script.

And now, I'm going back to writing my novel.