So You Want to Make a Horror Film?

Updated: Feb 23

As #horrorfilm festival season approaches - you may dream of seeing your own nightmares hit the screen- but how do you make your film-making dreams a reality?

Don't scream - you can make your indie horror dreams come true!

I have spent decades binge watching horror as a happy fan with no ambition to create my own film. Yet one day an idea popped into my mind. A short scene set in a lift and a clear vision of a movie poster. It had all the hallmarks of the J-Horror films such as The Ring and The Eye. I was excited.

Lets call it 'The Project' for now. Because its story is all too familiar for many would-be film-makers.

I wrote the screenplay. But I got distracted with other ideas. 'The Project' fell to the bottom of the pile. I had put making a film by the time I was 40 on bucket list. But with a full-time job and spending way to much time and energy on unsuccessful dating - the big 4-0 came looming with no sign of any of my ideas making it to the screen.

Fastforward to Grimmfest 2019 where I drunkenly confessed to Loom creator - Kevin Rothlisberger - that I was working on a short film of my own. Kevin encouraged my ambition:

" If you have a story and a vision for your film, then direct it".

I allowed life to get in the way and once again my ambitions got side-lined. Yet my vision was brought sharply into focus by my devastating diagnosis in April this year.

I needed to make this film.

But where to start?

There are a wealth of books, blogs and videos telling you how to make your film. Its overwhelming to be told by cheap e-books that you need to invest in a camera and learn guerrilla techniques for filming before you even start.

Despite what the books tell you. You don't need a camera.

I took myself to Saturday Film School at Raindance where the basics of creating a and directing your first film was explained in simple terms. Turns out you don't need to run out and buy an expensive camera but a good script, storyboard and clear vision is essential.

Well I had those. So what next?

I reached out to Film Twitter and Film-maker friends and asked:

What is the one piece of advice you wished you had received at the beginning?

See your film as an investment in yourself.

Making films cost money. Your first film is likely to be funded out of your own pocket. For those of us with bills to pay this can bring us out in a nervous sweat. Yet why do we think like this? Surely the pursuit of our dreams -and the learning that comes from it - is money well spent?

"We live in a world where, without thinking, people spend an exorbitant amount of money on their daily Starbucks before mindlessly going into work. But when it comes to betting on yourself, those same people are terrified to take a risk and drop money into their own career. However, if you took to that self-investment the same way, you'd be able to see film finance as a calculation. In other words take your budget as seriously as your Starbucks addiction".

Tom Botchii Skowronski, Writer/Director of Artik (21 awards, 6 nominations)

I have to confess I felt a pull of regret when I spent savings on a holiday rather than making my film. The pandemic gave me a second chance as my holiday got cancelled and refunded. Whilst I have the challenge of working within a micro-budget - this is not a barrier to making a great film.

But the anxiety! I want to make a great film! One that catapults my career in the direction of Hollywood.

Okay maybe I am being unrealistic.

But I would not be the first person to fall under the weight of their own expectations.

Gigi Saul Gurrero - described as one of the top emerging horror directors had some down-to-earth advice:

"When you are starting out, you can't be afraid of failure. Embrace your beginning mistakes. Even if only your parents or friends are the only ones to see your first short film in your basement then GREAT! Consider that your first sold out screening. Grow with every project."

Gurrero's 'Culture Shock' was featured on Hulu as part of its 'After Dark' series.

Pay attention to the Hallmarks of Quality

Good cinematography, sound, colouring and editing are so important. If you cannot do them yourself then make sure you factor these in when gathering your crew.

I was fortunate to chat to Ryan Krugar ahead of the UK Premiere of Fried Barry at Grimmfest in October who highlighted that a point which is often overlooked.

“Get your film scored, it makes all the difference”

Kruger worked with South African DJ producer “Haezer” for both the short and feature length version of Fried Barry to give it’s adrenaline-pumping soundtrack. He has got a point. A horror film hinges on building tension and the score is a key part of that.

Don't forget to subscribe to be the first to read more about how Krugar brought his vision for Fried Barry to life.

Find the Right Cast & Crew

"Building a good team is really key. says Chee Keong Cheung, who wrote, directed and produced award winning zombie action thriller RedCon1 "Film-making is a collaborative process. It is important to find people who will support your vision and voice but also compliment your skills. Enjoy the process and be open to allowing the magic to happen on set. If things don't go as planned, don't get disheartened. Its part of the creative process.

Given many would-be directors are severely lacking in technical skills and experience, then it makes sense to look for crew that are supportive but know their jobs. In my interview with Lawrence R. Harvey, the Human Centipede 2 star highlighted a good quality film starts with the crew

"Get yourself a good DOP (Director of Photography). Lots of British films look like sh*t due to poor camera work. Great editors are necessary too."

There is a lot advice aimed at the budget film maker that empathises that many enthusiastic crew and cast may be prepared to work for free. I would say it is worth bearing in mind that many working in the creative industry are freelancers who still have bills to pay. You have to strike a balance between gathering crew who support you fully whilst making sure you keep your eye on the bottom line.

It is a sentiment that is echoed by David Malcolm - whose own short film Mannequins - was shown at Frightfest in 2018

"A lot of people in the creative sector, it is their job and can be as exciting as going to work in a call centre. Its an everyday grind. Few people you will come across with have the aptitude or technical know how to get something done, regardless of experience."

In case you have overly enthusiastic friends desperate to appear in your film, it is perhaps best to politely decline. As David says:

Cast Actors. Not friends. Not someone who has done a couple of turns in a local produced zombie dinosaur movie that is on the shelves of Asda. Go deep. Find Someone New. Audition. Audition. Audition.

Take care of the Small Print.

"Take an interest in learning about fundamentals of business and law. This really helps when it comes to raising money as well as creating and delivering viable projects."

Toby Watts, Writer, Producer and Director of Playhouse You can see the World Premiere of this Gothic Chiller at Frightfest 2020.

"It is obvious but something I always tell everyone is, no matter how small the project, even if you are working with friends, do not let anyone on set without a contract. "

Lisa Ovies, Director of Puppet Killer - which has scooped up over 65 awards and nominations since its release in 2019

Whilst it is easy to get swept away in the creativity of it all. But keeping your eye on the fine print is essential when creating your film. Having a contract for all involved may seem unnecessary at the time and you can easily feel guilty for asking friends to sign on the dotted line.

Imagine the owners of your perfect location backing out at the last minute?

What if your actors leave part way through filming - forcing you to shoot the entire project again?

There are some real life horror stories that arise out of the film industry. Having a clear contract means everyone knows where they stand - and you protect both you and your project should things go wrong.

But it's not all bad. Understanding business and basic legal principles will come in useful should your film be a success. Even short films can make money if they are featured in an anthology or are distributed on a horror channel.

With this in mind, Producer & Director of My Bloody Banjo, Liam Regan, had the following advice:

"Don't sign away worldwide rights for a back end percentage of profits after initial sales. Always negotiate the duration of a license to a distributor and make sure you get a healthy advance up front before distribution!"

Just do it.

Just in case the inner gremlins - or anyone else - was still convincing you that your ideas would never make it. Some final thoughts.

"There's never enough time, there is never enough money and everyone - and I mean everyone - will have a different view on what your film should be." David Malcolm, Mannequins (2018)

"You will tell yourself you cant, everyone will join in and then you wont. Well just tell yourself to f**k off and get it done." Tom Botchii, Artik (2019)

So with all this great advice in mind - you maybe glad to know that I have finally found the courage to make my own project a reality - with shooting starting within a few weeks. Maybe I will see you on the festival circuit next year.

In the meantime - it is time to celebrate those film-makers who have brought their vision to our screens. Grab your tickets to Frightfest ( 27-31 August 2020) and Grimmfest ( 7 - 11 October 2020) to watch the Best in Horror.

On building a team

I was about to jump on the lockdown creation bandwagon when I considered my original vision. If I was going to make

So here is some advice that

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