At This Horror Movie Sleepaway Camp, Nightmares Are the Ticket to a Dream Job
Richard Kodai lays out three glossy photos of a young woman locked in a basement. Like the actress in the pictures, the 39-year-old filmmaker looks nervous, but he's doing his best to hide it. Across the table sits Peter Phok, a producer of indie-horror movies like The Sacrament and The House of the Devil. Surveying the images with a combination of curiosity and skepticism, something isn't sitting right with him. And it's not the spinach and cheese lasagna we were served for lunch.
"I've seen the 'chained-up girl' in many movies," says Peter. He furrows his brow.
What can Richard, a Jacksonville, Florida-based director who moved to the US from Hungary in 2000, and started making short films at the age of 32, do to make his film Be a Good Girl, a captivity thriller with a werewolf twist, stand-out in a crowded marketplace? That's the larger problem, but Peter has more questions: Does he have a team of collaborators he works with regularly? What about a line producer to keep the production in check? It sounds like the script requires a great deal of nudity -- could that be an issue when trying to find a lead? Will he cast locally? Has he thought about finding an actress with an unconventional body type? Should the werewolf transformation use practical effects or computer-generated fakery? Either way, they both agree it all comes down to the eyes. Yeah, you gotta have good werewolf eyes. If the eyes are wrong, Richard is fucked.
This scenario wouldn't be out of place during a mentoring session at the Iowa Writers' Workshop or a coffee-fueled pow-wow at the famous MacDowell Colony where writers like James Baldwin, Michael Chabon, and Alice Walker worked on their novels. Like many aspiring artists, Richard is meeting with a more experienced professional in his field and looking for advice.
Encouragement. Real talk. The only difference here at the second edition of the Shudder Labs, an incubator for future horror talent launched by the scary-movie streaming service Shudder, is that the stories have werewolves. Or teams of demented hackers. Or a dominatrix teaming up with an IT tech who transforms into a monster when he's aroused. You won't find that at Yaddo.
Is it possible to combine the meditative, hippy-dippy tranquility of an artists retreat with the gritty, blood-and-guts DIY ethos of horror filmmaking? And can you get a big cable company to fund the whole experience? The brochure for the four-day Shudder Labs promises a "place of creative support." But, right now, Richard fights to survive a one-on-one producer session.
"Should I approach certain names?" Richard asks at one point, wondering if his project might attract some celebrity talent -- the type of stars who you can put on a poster and make your movie more viable in foreign markets. Peter's response is blunt and decisive: "You need to finish the script."
Almost everyone at the Shudder Labs makes a comment about how their home for the week, New Paltz, New York's Mohonk Mountain House, reminds them of The Overlook from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. At least in our group of cheery horror geeks, everyone is a writer, it's at a giant hotel, and to get there you have to journey up a long, winding mountain road in the Hudson Valley. (Spooky.) There are no TVs in the rooms. (Scary.) Literature in the wood-paneled lobby warns of bears. (Run!) It'd be easy to get lost on your tricycle in the house's corridors -- and it'd be a beautiful place to go insane and hunt down people with an axe.
Despite writer Stephen King's insistence that his novel was inspired by The Stanley Hotel in Colorado, which briefly hosted its own horror film festival from 2013 to 2015, that doesn't stop residents from New Paltz, New York from speculating that the story was actually spawned by one of his family trips to the 1,325 acre property. "Let the Stanley have its tours, its new hedge maze, its official endorsement," reads an article on Hudson Valley One from earlier this year. "We locals still have our legend."
But that schlocky comparison doesn't really do the place justice: The Mohonk Mountain House, a historic landmark built by Quaker twin brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley in 1869, casts its own eerie spell. Rich-looking men in T-shirts, golf shorts, and wraparound sunglasses wander the lobby. The Victorian buildings reflect off the lake, giving the place a regal air. ("There is grandeur, but it is not grand," noted a recent Town and Country profile.) But the area itself resembles a rustic summer camp. Think Camp Crystal Lake meets Club Med.
It's easy to see why Sam Zimmerman, the retreat's excitable curator, jumped at holding the event at the hotel when he was recruited by his boss Shudder GM Linda Pan and AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan to dream up what "Shudder Labs" could be. He had family in the Hudson Valley and knew the Mohonk lore from them. "Obviously, a lot of people come up here," he says. "It’s a really successful place -- but it still felt like there wasn’t a general awareness out there. It felt like a secret."
Shudder itself can feel like a secret, too. Along with sites like FilmStruck, Seeso, and Brown Sugar, the service is part of a wave of streaming platforms that cater to a post-Netflix consumer who wants to burrow into a specific obsession. Horror, with its long cultural history and intense fans, might be the genre that's best suited to this type of micro-programming. Shudder, which launched in 2015, isn't even the only horror streaming service you can subscribe to -- a site called Screambox promises "fresh new horror every week" -- but it's the only one bankrolled by a cable network still riding high off the success of the Walking Dead.
Shudder Labs was conceived as a genre-specific alternative to the Sundance Institute Lab, the long-running indie film program that helped launch the careers of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Miranda July. But here the unstated but likely goal is to find the next Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, or George Romero. More than anything, Zimmerman says they're looking for stories with new perspectives -- like Richard's project or Switcher, a DePalma-sounding thriller from director Kristen Hansen about a man who murders a "promiscuous" woman and then wakes up the next day as her -- and they want to connect these artists to industry folks who can help them realize their visions.
"I wish there was something like this when I was coming up," says Mike Flanagan, one of the event's guest speakers and the director of films like Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil. "It would've saved so much time. Just getting that kind of authentic feedback, especially at that stage where a lot of writers are, where you don't have reps and you don't know where you're going to get financing and you're operating blind. You're trying to shape what you think will be an interesting movie without any context of how it would fit into the market place. Something like this is an invaluable thing."
According to Zimmerman, this year Shudder Labs received around 800 submissions from filmmakers all around the country. Potential fellows submit short pitch videos for their projects and from there applicants are chosen for an interview process and eventually whittled down to a final 10. Where last year's reward was just having the chance to attend the Lab -- where you get to hang out at Mohonk, attend lectures from filmmakers, catch a couple screenings, and get one-on-one feedback for your project -- for this year's contest Shudder has teamed with Project Greenlight Digital Studios to inject a little competition into the proceedings. One lucky filmmaker will be selected to have their project produced at a $300,000 budget. (The eventual winner, Wither from Chicago-based director Danny DelPurgatorio and writer Anthony Williams, is about a doctor who grows tired of being haunted by ghosts and decides to bring them back to life.) But Zimmerman doesn't want the directors obsessing over the prize money. This isn't supposed to be like a reality show or a cut-throat competition, and most of the contestants I speak with don't seem obsessed with walking away with a bag of money. They're after something more elusive: a career as a horror filmmaker.
It's worth asking what is going on here exactly? Specifically, why would a big company like AMC fund an event like this? The Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization founded by millionaire Hollywood actor Robert Redford. Television networks like NBC, ABC, and Comedy Central offer writing programs and scholarships to aspiring talent, but it'd be odd to find out Spike TV was whisking away potential action filmmakers to a spa resort to dream up the next John Wick. HBO doesn't have anything like this. Neither does Netflix.
Zimmerman acknowledges the Shudder Labs isn't purely an altruistic endeavor. "At some point we’re going to start having an eye going, 'Are there any of these that are right for us?'" he explains. Shudder has recently gotten into releasing original content like Primal Screen, a documentary about fear from Room 217 director Rodney Ascher, and Kuso, a hallucinatory thriller from the musician Flying Lotus the company picked up out of Sundance. "I think that would be silly of us not to do. At the same time, when Shudder started, the idea of a platform is that it's curated and we wanted it to be hand-made and reachable. Not faceless... For my bosses, it was important to do something that was supportive for the community of the genre we’re entering into."
He smiles in the shade of the quaint (and not at all sinister) gazebo we've been sitting in just outside of one of Mohonk's free coffee-filled conference buildings. "That’s really cool because I come from that genre," he says. "I love it more than anything."
Megan Rosati did not take the conventional path to the horror genre: She had a social media job at an LA-based health & wellness company, but when she would send in her ideas to her supervisors -- pages and pages of proposals -- they'd tell her she didn't have the tone right. She'd ask what the tone was. They'd say it was hard to explain. Eventually, she was fired.
Luckily, that didn't happen before Rosati logged enough anxiety to channel into a movie script called Bloom, about a young woman who works for a trendy wellness company and starts to suspect there's something unseemly about the organization's heavily hyped "all natural" supplements. To make the pitch video for her body-horror-for-the-Goop-generation project, she booked a DP, asked a friend with a cool couch if she could film in her apartment, and shot a trippy dream sequence in the park while the super-bloom was happening in LA. It came together fast and cheap.
Luckily, she still had a ton of free products from the job to use as props. The pitch impressed the Shudder Labs judges enough to get her a spot. "I was so stressed out at the time that I was like, 'I'm going to make a horror short out of this,'" she says. "I just had to for my own sanity."
A combination of purpose and desperation drives most of the directors at the Shudder Labs -- from the fellows to the special guests. During his keynote presentation, Mike Flanagan detailed his own slow and financially shaky climb from editing reality shows to shooting his first low-budget feature and eventually helming an upcoming 10-episode adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix. "In retrospect, people are like, 'Well, it's because you were persistent,'" he tells me later. "But it's like, 'Yeah, but up until a certain point it wasn't persistence. It was delusion.'"
Rosati has her own list of setbacks and challenges. After studying theater in college, she moved to LA to be an actor but quickly got frustrated with the vagaries of the audition process. She'd always been a writer, but now realized she wanted to work on her own projects and gained some traction in the industry before the writers strike derailed her momentum. With a friend she met through an improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade, she started making a web series and began to find her voice more and more just by generating material quickly.
What keeps a young filmmaker like Megan Rosati forging ahead after the social media gig from hell? The need to examine her life through her creative work. "Whenever I experience extreme anxiety over something I have to convert it into art," she says. "I just can't process it until I tackle it that way." Turning your workplace dread into a feature film might be the healthiest revenge.
(And a potentially profitable revenge: Though Bloom did not win the contest, her project was one of two selected to be developed as TV series for Shudder. The other project, Evan Brace's Known Among the Mountains, is a thriller about "a rural town in the midwest, where its working class families must fight to survive a mysterious element after making a discovery in a rock quarry.")
In his 1981 collection of essays on the horror genre Danse Macabre, Stephen King attempts to draw out some distinctions about horror films. He identifies some works as "art" and others as "exploitation," but also recognizes that the best stories often blend the line between the two. They also speak to larger truths. "If horror movies have redeeming social merit, it is because of that ability to form liaisons between the real and unreal -- to provide subtexts," he writes. "And because of their mass appeal, these sub-texts are often culture-wide."
Every 10 years or so, a conversation emerges around a breed of "refreshing," new horror movies that "transcend" the genre. It's an inevitable tic in the discourse, more about branding and media coverage than the films themselves, but we're living in a moment like that now: The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, Don't Breathe, The Invitation, Raw, and Get Out. These are smart, stylish horror films that inspire feverish debate along with real scares.
With studios like Blumhouse (Get Out, Split, and the Insidious franchise) and A24 (The Witch, It Comes at Night) establishing distinct identities in the minds of moviegoers and television shows like American Horror Story, Bates Motel, and even Stranger Things spreading the genre elements across the airwaves -- or, more likely, your laptop -- it's difficult to deny that we're in the midst of an era of horror filmmaking that prizes subtext, mood, and tone over gore effects, elaborate kills, and jump-scares. All the projects chosen by Zimmerman and his team for the Lab appeared to have more ambitious goals than simply replicating a set of familiar tropes.
"Every time a movie like Get Out performs the way it does, you've got 10 studios in town that look at that and want their own Get Out," says Flanagan, who has teamed with Blumhouse for three of his recent features. "What's really kinda great is that the movies that are performing are smart and character-forward. That's always come and gone within the genre, but we're in a really exciting time now where the biggest hits in the box office for the genre are risky and interesting films."
But how do you cultivate "risky" ideas at a resort hotel? This is a place where companies like Google take employees for a week-long retreat full of meetings, team building, and corporate-approved fun. There's nothing subversive about it. Nothing dangerous. Nothing illicit. But maybe that's for the best: The idea that exciting art must emerge from chaos and dirt is itself a cliché. Sometimes a room without a TV and some tough love from a mentor can do the trick.
After his meeting with the producer, Richard is a little rattled but happy to talk about his experience. We go for a walk near the water, searching out some shade to hide from the sun. He tells me about the Jacksonville Short Film Showcase he's organized the last three years. We talk about his job as a server at a restaurant. Unlike many of the younger fellows here, he has two small children at home -- a six-year-old and a two-year-old -- and he's got bills to pay. This isn't a vacation.
He wishes he'd wowed Peter Phok more in their time together; instead, it felt a little brutal. "It’s funny because before you come here you think you’re prepared," he says. "I’ve been working on this project. I have tons of notes, I have like 50 pages of the screenplay written -- all kinds of stuff. And then they ask something and you feel like an idiot because it sounds so basic."
The process of making your first feature is one of relentless discovery: You learn how to make it by running into a million tough questions you can't predict. A filmmaker like Richard can only prepare so much. Not only does this truth shine through in Flanagan's talk, but in the smaller, more intimate conversations that occur throughout the day. At a time when the horror market, historically a channel for formally innovative directors looking to make a name for themselves, is potentially more open to new ideas and new voices than ever, how do you find that perfect concept? That next iconic twist? That perfect terrifying image?
Taking Peter's advice to heart, Richard isn't getting ahead of himself. "First things first, I have to finish a killer script," he says. He's gotta stay focussed on the task a hand. "Then if it’s good enough they might say, 'Oh Richard, this is pretty good. Let’s see what we can do.'"