Horror Screenwriting Tips from Neal Bell

(Pictured above: From the film, “Get Out”)

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari silent film
(Pictured above: From the film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: Why is the horror film genre so popular?

Neal Bell: Horror movies have always been popular – from the silent era (when “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” was a hit in both Germany and the United States), to the present (where Part One of Stephen King’s “It” becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.) Horror films in general have been cheap to produce, and because there’s always been a market for them, most horror films end up in the black.

So – ‘because they make money’ is part of the answer to horror’s popularity. The trickier part of the question is – why has there always been a market? Why do people love to be scared?

I think it’s because horror movies ask the most basic and puzzling questions: What does it mean to be human (what Frankenstein’s monster wants so badly to know)? What happens after we die – do we turn into zombies? Vampires? Ghosts? Why do we die?

Our mortality always haunts us – and horror stories confront this fear head-on… as the earliest epic on record, “Gilgamesh” did, three thousand years ago. King Gilgamesh travels the terrifying road to the Kingdom of Death, hoping he can return a beloved friend to the land of the living. The lessons he learns in his hopeless quest are still relevant now, as horror movies explore the fears and anxieties of their time. Get Out (2017), for example, tackled American racism in a way that was terrifying, but also exciting – because a popular movie was daring to look at a problem we’ve often been too uncomfortable to face.

Scene from the horror film, "Don't Breathe"
(Pictured above: From the film, “Don’t Breathe”)

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: What was one of the most important things you learned while working on a horror script?

Neal Bell: I think the main lesson I learned was a seemingly simple and obvious one: that the audience has to care about the characters you’re creating. They can (and probably should) have flaws – Marian Crane in Psycho, for example, starts the movie by stealing a lot of money, so she and her boyfriend can finally get out from under the debt they’re in. We may not approve of Marian’s desperate actions – but the script has made it clear that she feels like her life is a trap, and she wants to escape. That’s something the audience can identify with – so we wind up rooting for this thief, as she tries to get to the man she loves. (And realizes, a little too late, that she’s stepped from one trap into an even deadlier one.)

One of my favorite recent movies, Don’t Breathe (2016) has a similar strategy. The three young protagonists (two guys and a girl) have been breaking-and-entering houses, hoping to get enough money to run away from their dead-end lives. And then they target a blind man – making their actions seem even crueler… until they discover the blind man (a vet) is not at all as helpless as they’d assumed, and they’re trapped in his home, which locks up tight. As the trio fights for their lives – and the blind man shows his even more sinister side – we come to care a lot for these young people who’ve made mistakes, and now are paying for it.

One corollary to the ‘make us care’ rule: Making the monster/villain more dimensional is another way of grabbing an audience. The classic example is probably Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs. Unlike the faceless killers of the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, Lecter has an unforgettable (and spine-chilling) personality, that makes him a worthy opponent/colleague of the FBI agent who needs Lecter’s ‘expertise’. The “Blind Man” (billed as such in the credits) in Don’t Breathe is another great (and surprisingly powerful) monster; as the house-breakers learn more about him, he becomes scarier, but also someone we can almost empathize with, because of the traumas he’s lived through.

Scene from the horror film, "Lights Out"
(Pictured above: From the film, “Lights Out”)

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: A filmmaker has finished his or her horror screenplay – what do they do now?

Neal Bell: There’s no easy way I know of, to sell a script – especially if you’re just starting out, and don’t have an agent or manager. I got my first screenwriting job because a theater director I know was tapped to do his first movie; the movie needed a rewrite, the theater director remembered I was a horror fan… and two weeks later (the fastest I’ve ever written anything!), I delivered a page-one rewrite.

That was a fluke – but did show that making (and holding onto) contacts was important.

These days, it seems like screenwriting competitions are the way to go, for newcomers. I googled “horror screenplay competitions” and dozens of entries came up. Making a short film – as a kind of calling card – is another route to take. For example, David Sandberg wrote and directed the short, Lights Out (2013) for a contest called the Bloody Cuts Horror Challenge. Sandberg’s film was a finalist, and he won for best director. The movie was posted on Vimeo and Youtube, where it caught the eye of producers in Hollywood… and Sandberg was ultimately given the opportunity to write and direct a full-length version (2016) of his short film; the full-length version went on to gross almost $150 million – quite a return on a project that began as a no-budget short.

Scene from horror film, "A Quiet Place"
(Pictured above: From the film, “A Quiet Place”)

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: If you could share your Top 3 Horror Screenwriting Tips for aspiring filmmakers and storytellers, what would they be?

Neal Bell:

Tip # 1. Respect the intelligence of your audience.

Sure, there will always be an audience for your standard ‘body-count’ movie, where characters we barely know are dispatched in increasingly complicated ways. (Cf. the Saw movies.) But one reason horror’s so popular today is because the new movies are good – they tackle difficult subjects (like grieving, in Hereditary), and they don’t flinch. These new moviemakers seem to assume that their viewers are grown-ups, who recognize the horror (and the beauty, too) of simply being alive and aware.

Audiences don’t need elaborate artifice, to be frightened. (Compare the 1963 version of The Haunting with the bloated 1999 remake, for a good example of ‘less is more’.) Today’s writers can build tension and suspense with the simplest and most economical of means; I’ll never forget sitting in a theater, watching Hereditary – and hearing the audience gasp at a simple (and quiet, off-camera) sound effect. Get Out works similar wonders of economy with its beautifully crafted screenplay, where an early startling moment – a car accident involving a wounded deer – keeps paying off, as we learn more and more of the backstory of the protagonist: The cry of a wounded animal becomes a haunting throughline that pulls the whole movie together.

Tip # 2. Make us care about the fate of your characters.

I covered this, in the question about what I learned, from working on horror scripts. But it bears repeating: You can have a terrific story, but if the characters in the story aren’t intriguing on their own, you’re losing out on a chance to involve your audience more deeply (and scare them more!). The low-budget Creep (2014) is a great example of how to draw the audience in. A professional videographer gets an assignment shooting a day in the life of a man with a terminal illness, who wants the video as a kind of farewell-note to his (off-screen) child, who he’ll be leaving behind. The videographer needs the work, even though the set-up – a long drive up to a ‘cabin in the woods’ is a little ominous…and the ‘dying man’ is eccentric enough that we start to wonder if he’s even sick at all. If he’s not, what kind of game is he playing? The relationship between the two men (the film’s only characters) gets more and more tense – some kind of cat-and-mouse is going on, but we don’t know why, or how dangerous the ‘sick’ man may be… and the movie builds to a truly shocking climax. And this movie works so well because we’ve gotten involved in the very unusual interplay, between the two men – as one tries to simply do his job, and the other starts to reveal a mischievous side that keeps getting more threatening.

Tip # 3. Write about what you care about.

This is standard advice for any kind of writing – and seems obvious, but I’ve often seen a bad movie and wondered: Why did they bother to make this thing? What was it – about the story or the characters – that grabbed them? A lot of times, the problem is that the writers/directors love the story idea they’ve come up with… but then don’t spend the time creating strong characters to people the story. So, you have an intriguing plot – but it’s filled with familiar stereotypes… and the end-result is always flat. A good counter-example is A Quiet Place (2018), a hit when it opened, with a sequel on the way. John Krasinski was approached to direct the movie (which is about an invasion of Earth by creatures who locate their prey with super-sensitive hearing.) What attracted Krasinski to the script was not the movie’s gimmick (aliens with hyper-hearing), but the story of two parents trying (and not always succeeding) to protect their children; Krasinski’s second child – by his co-star Emily Blunt – had just been born, so this story of parents and children in peril spoke to Krasinski personally, and he ended up doing his own rewrite on the script (original version by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods.)

The advice you often get, early on, is “Write what you know.” I’d revise that to, “Write what scares you.” In my horror-film class, for example, I start the semester by asking, the students to list ten things they’re afraid of. Some of their fears are classic: spiders, heights, enclosed places, the dark. But others feel more personal – like the fear of failing, or losing a loved one. Those more personal fears are the ones that give us unforgettable movies, like They Look Like Humans or Audition – and those are the fears screenwriters will find most rewarding to explore.

How To Write A Horror MovieBook Spotlight

How To Write A Horror Movie
By Neal Bell

Book Review:

“Here is a book that teaches how to think like a horror writer, that demonstrates how a deep knowledge of the literature can influence a modern script, and that thoughtfully conveys the craft necessary to write the artform.”
~Terry Curtis Fox, Chair, Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing, NYU Tisch School of the Arts

How to Write a Horror Movie is a close look at an always-popular (but often disrespected) genre. It focuses on the screenplay and acts as a guide to bringing scary ideas to cinematic life using examples from great (and some not-so-great) horror movies.

Author Neal Bell examines how the basic tools of the scriptwriter’s trade – including structure, dialogue, humor, mood, characters, and pace – can work together to embody personal fears that will resonate strongly on screen. Screenplay examples include classic works such as 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie and recent terrifying films that have given the genre renewed attention like writer/director Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed and financially successful Get Out. Since fear is universal, the book considers films from around the world including the ‘found-footage’ [REC] from Spain (2007), the Swedish vampire movie, Let The Right One In (2008) and the Persian-language film Under The Shadow (2016).

The book provides insights into the economics of horror-movie making, and the possible future of this versatile genre. It is the ideal text for screenwriting students exploring genre and horror, and aspiring scriptwriters who have an interest in horror screenplays.

Order your copy of the book, “How to Write a Horror Movie,” at the StudentFilmmakers.com Online Store today.

Neal BellNeal Bell is a writer and professor of play and screenwriting at Duke University and has received grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Winner of an Obie Award for sustained excellence in playwriting, he’s been a script consultant for HBO, and also received an Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play for Spatter Pattern.

 

Jody Michelle SolisInterview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis. Jody serves as Associate Publisher for StudentFilmmakers Magazine (www.studentfilmmakers.com), HD Pro Guide Magazine (www.hdproguide.com), and Sports Video Tech (www.sportsvideotech.com) Magazine. She enjoys content creation, shooting/editing video, and teaching dance/yoga.

 

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