The room was packed as these four screenwriter panelists took their seats, and it’s no surprise. Horror is one of the most popular movie genres, translating better to other countries and cultures than other movie genres do. Horror has fans worldwide, and many aspiring screenwriters seek to break into Hollywood by building on familiar horror concepts – and adding a fresh twist to come up with something that audiences haven’t seen before.
Interestingly, the panel started by trying to define the meaning of the word “genre.” They all seemed at a loss with that, so here’s the definition.
Genre: A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. Taken from the latin root, genus, which in our case would be defined as: a class, group, or kind with common attributes.
Since we’re talking about Horror films here, we must assume the common attribute would be films that scare us, right? That was the next discussion: why do we like films that scare us? Why do people flock to theaters to be scared? The consensus was that the frightening things we see on the screen are always much worse than the fears we carry during our typical day. In this sense, a scary movie is cathartic. We get to scream and release our fears in a safe and mutually supportive environment, and that acts as an emotional release. That’s why people love scary movies.
And what scares us the most? The panel as a whole felt that fear is more profound when based on real or grounded possibilities. A normal day, a normal room and an old lady crawling like a fly on the ceiling sort of thing. It’s creepy. With the supernatural, the panel felt that content is more frightening when the events are grounded in reality. The panel cited the recent movie, Paranormal Events, but personally, that movie bored me, and was only scary during the last five minutes. That’s not structure that works for me, but you get the idea. For me, The Exorcist was much more effective as a supernatural thriller.
Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver spoke at length about how they came up with the idea for Rise of the Planet of the Apes by extrapolating on a character (Cesar) from the original movie Planet of the Apes, and using that character as a protagonist for a prequel story on how the chimps got smart to begin with through laboratory experiments, and how they escaped. They said it was really fun to devise a protagonist that could get an audience cheering for the apes instead of the humans.
Alvaro Rodriguez said he considers his genre (Dusk ’til Dawn/Machete) more exploitation than horror, and said he enjoys writing in that genre because he finds it very freeing. Everything is possible. You can throw everything at it – even the kitchen sink.
Rhett Reese (Zombieland) commented on how his latest is more of a comedy than a zombie movie, and that was what he intended – to make a comedic zombie movie as a way to reinvent the genre. He also cited the convenience of using what has been done before in the sense that nobody has to explain what a vampire or a zombie is before getting into the story, so you can build upon the past, and use it to launch right into your new ideas.
And the last bit of advice to writers trying to break in was one of those that I heard repeatedly throughout the conference and from many panelists.
RULE #1 FOR NEW WRITERS: Make sure that your first effort is a genre you love writing, because if it succeeds, you’ll be riding that genre wave for the next several years of your screenwriting career.