There are many filmmaking workshops, hosted by institutions ranging from Sundance to IFP, that allow emerging directors to assess their next projects with a group of mentors. Shudder Labs falls in line with that tradition, but comes equipped with a special focus: The new creative retreat is exclusively designed for horror directors. Hosted by Shudder, the horror streaming platform owned by AMC Networks, Shudder Labs was run by former journalist and curator Sam Zimmerman and took place June 11–15 at the Mohonk Mountain House.
Seven filmmakers participated in the lab, taking guidance from mentors that included Sarah Adina Smith (“Buster’s Mal Heart”), Larry Fessenden (director, “The Last Winter”) and Lindsay Peters (Director of the Frontieres International Co-Production Market). The Masters-in-Residence were Mike Flanagan (director, “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Hush,” the upcoming Stephen King adaption “Gerald’s Game”) and Nick Antosca (screenwriter, “Channel Zero,” “Hannibal,” “The Forest”).
Since horror filmmaking occupies a unique niche, IndieWire reached out to this year’s participants for a window into their experiences in the lab and how they’re evaluating their next steps as genre directors. Their responses are below, along with short details on each developing project.
Next Project: “Bloom”
Plot Synopsis: When a young woman obsessed with beauty gets a job working for the trendy wellness company, Bloom, her obsession with their products plunges her into a nightmare world and sends her on a desperate mission to uncover what’s really inside their “all-natural” supplements.
There were so many amazing moments, but I think the most inspiring was when we were talking about “mainstream” versus “artier” horror movies, and Larry Fassenden said: You should never think about making a movie that is a “mainstream” horror movie. You should only try to make the movie you want to make. Larry said horror is inherently subversive. It’s a genre that finds a way “into the cracks and around the corners” because the point of horror is to disrupt, unease and provoke. I loved that so much, and it’s what I think all art should do.
I love horror because it’s one of the few genres where a female character can go on an adventure that is not about a relationship to a man. Horror also allows us to address the big questions, like why are we here, or what happens when we die, in a way that bypasses our intellect and hits us straight in the gut.
Also, I just naturally imagine the worst scenario in every situation anyway, so horror is a great way to channel that imaginative pessimism into art instead of my personal life. To some extent I think it’s something you’re just born with — I get a kick out of it! I just sent an email that said, “Can you make the fluid more pus-like than bloody?” and I giggled with joy. Making something scary can be really fun.
I look up to people like Mark Duplass, who writes, directs and stars in his work, or Amy Seimetz, an incredible actress and a wonderful atmospheric director. I like making up stories, and I like being in stories, and I love working with people who do the same. I want to be the Lena Dunham of horror. I want to take my shirt off and get killed, but have it be my idea.
Unlike comedy or drama where you can be a little loose and naturalistic, good horror in my opinion requires a lot of specificity: where the camera is, what the actors are doing, what music is playing, what sounds you hear. Everything needs to be serve the goals of increasing the tension and moving the story forward. In my favorite horror movies, nothing is wasted: Everything efficiently moves toward messing you up. It requires a lot of planning, and it’s so tough to pull off, but if you can achieve that goal, it’s the greatest feeling.
Next Project: “Disconnected”
Plot Synopsis: Everyone is now connected and empowered through devices augmenting the brain. But this technology turns against a couple when their hike becomes a fight for survival from a group of demented hackers.
I received such a wide breadth of perspectives at the workshop that it’s difficult to distill the experience down to one key moment, but a message from Mike Flanagan really stuck with me. I was debating where to focus my energy and he simply recommended that I work on the story that best represents me right now. Though it may have seemed obvious, the simplicity of this feedback helped me see past the cycle of worrying about logistics. Instead of debating the practicalities, identify the story that is right for you in this moment and put your full weight behind it. Make it happen one way or another. Don’t wait for permission.
Overall, I was surprised how invested each of the mentors were in helping me get a great story off the ground. It was a surreal experience to have filmmakers whose work you greatly admire come fully prepared to talk about your story and the next steps towards making it a reality. I got the sense that they believed in me — this type of encouragement is priceless. Coming back from Shudder Labs, I’m inspired to live up to the reasons people connected to our project.
I love horror because it explores social and political issues with a ferocity unlike other genres. It isn’t difficult to see how fear can influence the people and power systems around us. Horror is the perfect vehicle to challenge social constructs, because it forces introspection and confrontation with our worst fears. We need indie horror to continue pushing boundaries, making people uncomfortable and channeling frustration into something meaningful.
I’d love to tackle a variety of genres across multiple platforms, with a special focus on the dark arts of horror. Whatever path my career takes, I always want to be creating something new and challenging myself. I’m confident that no matter the situation, I’ll be making cool things. At times, the 9-to-5 grind can feel like a hindrance to creativity, but it also enables me to finance my own small-scale projects. In this way, my creative works are not beholden to anyone. As a working parent, I know life can be busy and overwhelming. Yet, if you are compelled to create, you can claim even the smallest corners of the day for yourself. Tiny projects can lead to big ones. You just have to start somewhere.
While the horror genre has some of the best fans in the world, it also has some of the harshest critics. One of the side effects of working in a genre that pushes boundaries is that it can draw a lot of negative reactions. Sometimes, I think this is because people are uncomfortable with the challenges and experiences that horror presents. Other times, I think people just haven’t found the right sub-genre of horror for them. Too often people think of horror as slashers or ghost stories, failing to recognize the deep gradients the genre has to offer. It can be a challenge to get people on board with supporting works in the horror genre, unless they already identify with fringe culture.