In anticipation of this Friday, March 15th’s Conversation in Film in Partnership with Dallas Screenwriters Association: Writing for Horror, with Mick Garris and Steve Niles, AFF e-sat down with Garris and Niles for a preview of what attracts them to the horror genre and how they broke into the industry. For more information about the upcoming Conversation, click here.
Award-winning filmmaker Mick Garris created and Executive Produced the MASTERS OF HORROR series, an anthology series of one-hour horror films written and directed by the most famous names in the fear-film genre.
Steve Niles is best known for works such as 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, CRIMINAL MACABRE AND SIMON DARK. He is a writer of comics, novels and films and is the creator of Bloody Pulp Books Publishing.
AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL (AFF): What is it that attracts you to the horror genre? When did you know you wanted to write horror movies?
MICK: I started writing seriously when I was 12 years old, and my first stories were horror stories. I was brought up on the Universal classics on TV, and then the big bug and sci-fi horrors of the 50s and 60s, again on TV. They stood out from the “normal” stuff that was rife.
STEVE: I’ve never really been able to figure out my attraction to the genre. I wouldn’t even go as far as to say I’m attracted to all horror so much as monsters. I love monsters. They are the outsiders and I’ve always related to that. I think what I love about horror is the same thing I love about comedy, when it works it’s a complete surprise and it’s exhilarating.
MICK: I was attracted to dark fiction and film from my earliest years. I think much of it has to do with being the outsider, about not being a part of the clique mentality, about not being “popular”, about identifying with those on the fringes. My family life was not a jolly one in childhood, coming from a bit of a hardscrabble upbringing when my parents split up. The secrets, the underbelly, was always fascinating to me, especially if I could explore it safely.
AFF: How did you break into the industry?
STEVE: I wrote comics for 20 years, then wrote 30 Days of Night and became an overnight success. Same old story.
MICK: My first opportunity as a writer really was a chance to do a draft for a project they were putting together at Avco Embassy when I was doing specialized genre publicity there, after having done a small interview show on the Z Channel pay-TV show. But my first real opportunity was when Steven Spielberg asked me to write the first script commissioned for his series, AMAZING STORIES.
AFF: Who were some of the writers/which were some of the films that influenced you the most as a writer? What did you learn from them that helped you turn into the successful writer you are today?
STEVE: Richard Matheson had a huge effect on me as both a writer and a person. He was the writer I fell in love with years before I found out his name. So many of the great Twilight Zones were his. Then I read I am Legend and it basically changed my life. I wasn’t much of a reader when I was a kid. I am Legend changed that. Then when I was 19 I wrote Matheson and asked if I could do a comic of I am Legend and he responded asking me for $100 dollars for the rights. Amazing man. I would not be here if not for him.
MICK: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and even Edgar Allan Poe were huge horror influences, but as fiction authors, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, John Irving, Joseph Heller, lots of other “mainstream authors”. And as far as screenwriters go, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, David Cronenberg, the Coen Brothers, and a ton of others certainly lent a guiding hand without knowing it.
AFF: What is one of the most frightening scenes you’ve ever seen on film?
MICK: There are lots of them. Perhaps when the Mantle twins are putting their newly-designed surgical implements to work in DEAD RINGERS. It is so real, so possible, so convincing.
STEVE: The simplest things are always the most frightening. There’s a BBC version of Woman in Black and there’s a scene where she just appears in a graveyard. It’s one of the most chilling shots I’ve seen.
AFF: What is the most challenging part about writing for this genre?
MICK: The drama. Good horror, in many ways, has to be BETTER than good drama. Because it not only has to embrace good storytelling, compelling characters, and believable, fascinating drama, it also has to build tension and suspense, and take you to uncomfortable places. Good drama comes first, and the horror is woven into it. The same rules apply, but then you have to frighten the audience.
STEVE: It’s always tough trying to scare people because everybody is scared by different things but the hardest thing for me is finding a fresh take on something we’ve seen a million times.
AFF: How do you feel the horror genre changed over the years? Where do you think it’s headed?
MICK: Well, it’s enjoying a bit of a creative outburst now because it’s being delivered so ubiquitously via streaming and on-demand and online and every which way. The tools make it less expensive to produce than ever, and a good horror film does not have to rely as much on highly-paid actors as more mainstream material. But it is stuck in a gross-out mode, which is getting a bit tiresome. So many filmmakers, particularly in this genre–which is not a beachhead for telling stories of psychological depth and complexity–make movies based on movies and TV, rather than upon life. With luck the found-footage sub-genre, which has been so overdone because it’s cheap and easy, is on its way out. I’m hoping storytelling will replace it.
Austin Film Festival’s “Conversations in Film” program was created in 2007 and is sponsored by The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences®. It is a year-round series of film seminars and script readings that provide the public with the unique experience to meet and work with local and visiting filmmakers.
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