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How to Make a Low-Budget Horror Film (from ‘Insidious,’ ‘Paranormal Activity’ Producer)

How to Make a Low-Budget Horror Film (from 'Insidious,' 'Paranormal Activity' Producer)

How did you get into film producing?

I got into film producing after publishing some books on horror cinema from around the world. This was an area of interest of mine while I was working on my MA in Cinema Studies at NYU. A couple of producers in Hollywood, in particular Roy Lee, reached out to me at that time to see if I had any suggestions for potential horror remakes.

READ MORE: “Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity” Producer Jason Blum on the Secret of His Success

You also have a degree in philosophy. What’s the connection between philosophy and horror films?

As for the connection between philosophy and horror films, to put it too simply, I would say that both explore deep issues and themes of humanity such as our mortality, our spiritual beliefs and the nature of our very existence. Of course they do this in very different ways!

How have audiences changed, if they have, in terms of what they are looking for in a horror film? Do you think elements have changed in recent years due to the internet and the way we’re viewing movies?

I try not to be overly concerned with whatever feels like the latest trend, because horror is a very sort of cannibalistic genre. If a movie in the genre works, it seems to spew out an abundance of imitators right away.

To be ahead of the curve can very quickly become sort of [laughs]… behind the curve. Having said that, I think that at the very least I can point to some things that are no longer working the way they were, even a couple of years ago, and that is the traditional mock-documentary or found footage film. I also think there were a ton of exorcism movies that came out in a short period of time, including one of my own, “The Devil Inside.” I think that’s a cycle that’s maybe overstayed its welcome… But the same stuff always tends to come back. It’s a cyclical genre but I feel like we’ve seen a whole bunch of those types of movies — the traditional Catholic iconography, and exorcism rituals. I feel like something new is being called for.

Is there a changing aesthetic in the market?

The edge has gone and movies can appeal to non-horror-obsessed, young movie goers, the people who just want to be entertained and to get a more recreational scare, not be so terrified that they can’t bear the thought of going home or not. I think there’s a slightly gentler aesthetic in the market place right now.

Could you speak about how to create an authentically scary movie on a low budget?

What matters most of all, I personally believe, is crafting a good story — and that involves crafting characters that are sympathetic and believable and that have motivations and dispositions that we can relate to. So the basics of good storytelling have to apply.

So getting stars involved is not as essential.

Getting A-list actors, usually, you’re not relying on them in the same way as maybe a big-budget studio film. And so have a fresh concept, something that has a great hook and is original, even if there’s a branded element to it. It has to stand out in the marketplace and the other thing it needs is concept and then execution. There has to be an attention to craft and detail which is not necessarily a matter of budget, but of getting a great crew to surround the director — if you have less resources, you have less room to fuck up. [laughs].

Right. That makes sense.

You can’t fix things as easily, so you try to plan for contingency in a smarter or more effective way when you’re dealing with movies of this budget level. Building in opportunities to shoot new stuff as opposed to shooting what’s on the page, and being stuck with only that footage. There are some tricks. I think getting people who are experienced working on this budget level really try to focus on crafting really strong characters and putting them in situations where there’s an original element and where the scares and the sequences are really thoughtfully crafted. So, no short cuts, but keep in mind that in the horror genre, what you don’t see is absolutely capable of being more terrifying than what you do see, because our imaginations are much more powerful than any image. Budget shouldn’t be a problem, if you pick the right project and the right people to work on it.

“The Houses October Built” is out in select theaters, VOD and iTunes now.

READ MORE: Why “Oculus” is One of the Scariest American Horror Movies

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