Halloween is coming up in a few months (yes, I know everyday is Halloween around these parts), so it’s time to start preparing. I’m sure you’ve got your costumes ready, but why not put them to good use – not just for the party you’re planning to attend with that special person you’ve got your eye on. But, for your very own horror short film.
Making horror is the most fun you can have filmmaking – I’m not kidding. It’s like getting permission to go back to Kindergarten class and playing with the paints and play-doh again. It’s that much fun. And if you do it right, you get to do it with your friends (and possibly make some new ones). While watching horror can be scary at times (at least it should be), making horror is anything but (unless you forget to take proper precautions). It’s literally like being put back into nursery school and being allowed to play with your imagination again.
What are my credentials you say? Boom!
I’m probably most well-known for producing and co-writing the Silent Hill fan film “Silent Hill: Stolen Heart,” but I’ve also made the award-winning short film/music video “Silence” (aka “The Last Time”), which has played around the world on the film festival circuit. Most of the short films and music videos I’ve worked on have had either no-budget or minimal budget. The biggest production budget I’ve had for a horror film was “Pieces of 8” and “An American Piano” (not a horror film). My latest film, “Lost Hope,” a POV horror film, was made to promote DJ Mistress Macabre’s new album, and the video had a zero-budget. So, I know what I’m talking about.
Now, you are probably saying, Hamish, I don’t have any money. I don’t know where to start. I have no connections. Well, if you think you need tons of money to make horror, you’re going about it the wrong way. Horror is all about the chance to be creative, and that starts with the budget. The following is a step-by-step guide to making your first horror. Let’s get to work!
First, let’s do an audit of what you have at your disposal. You’ve probably got a phone with a camera (possibly even 4K). So, that’s camera and sound. If you have better, that’s great. If you’re friends with someone at film school you can probably borrow their equipment. But then, you probably wouldn’t need this article!
You need some actors, and that’s where your friends come in. They are the most likely to be willing to work for free. And they probably already have their Halloween costumes. Once you know what they are, then you can build the story around them. If you can’t find friends willing to work on the film with you, then you’ll have to hire real actors. I’ll give you advice on that later, because if you are hiring actors, the script should – scratch that – must come first.
Now, costumes. Have they got their Halloween costumes ready? Great. That’s wardrobe sorted. If not, then have them dressed in their regular clothes, or get some from the second-hand store – at least then you’ll be able to get them dirty without worrying about someone’s feelings getting hurt.
Now we need a location. Did someone mention your house? Great. An abandoned house down the road – even better – just make sure to be very quiet, and be very careful of broken glass and other objects. Steel-capped leather shoes for everyone – no exceptions.
What about the story? That’s the most important part. That’s why we did the audit. No sense creating a million dollar budget story, when you’ve only got two cents to your name. Work with what you’ve got. That’s the fun part – horror is your chance to be at your most creative.
Remember that a short film is a story generally set in one location between two opposing forces (characters). For a look at what I mean, check out Paul’s Horror short “Pieces of 8” or my new short “Lost Hope.”
Here’s Paul talking about how to craft such a story within limitations:
“Script to screen in two weeks”
Remember those Halloween costumes your friends had planned? That’s how we find the story idea. Let’s say one person is planning on being a sexy nurse, and the other is planning on being a zombie. Well, you could go for a Silent Hill type story, where the sexy nurse is the villain (like our film, “Silent Hill: Stolen Heart”). Or, you could go for a Resident Evil type story where the zombie is the villain. If you only have regular clothes, you could go for something like “Lost Hope,” where a serial killer stalks and kills an innocent young girl. The options are endless, it’s your first decision as the writer/director to choose one.
So, now you’ve got your idea. Write the script. Write it first without dialogue, then sprinkle in some dialogue only when necessary. Make sure each character has an agenda. Including the female ones. Characters with apposing agendas is what makes a movie interesting. Maybe the boy wants to go explore that noise because it could be his lost brother. Maybe the girl doesn’t want to explore the noise because she wants to go home and kiss the boy. Whatever. No one ever does anything purely because they want to help you – we all have agendas. Give that complexity to your characters. Including your monsters. Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield because he wants revenge on all the bullies and mean girls who tormented him in school (who can’t relate to that? Well, maybe the bullies – but I digress).
Okay, you’ve got your script now. Go over it with your friends a couple of times, and see how it gels. You might have to rework it (you probably will – writing is rewriting).
If at this point, you don’t have actors, ask the local community theater. Be kind when you ask. Actors are always asked to do free work, and if they do free work for you, it’s a privilege not a right. Don’t be a dick and act like your short film is going to make them a star and they have to hop on a casting couch just to be even considered. Be grateful. Don’t start the conversation with “you have to get your boobs out,” because that’s never going to go well (even with AV stars). Believe me, I know this from the bitter experience of working with an inexperienced director on a film that I had to work very hard afterward to restore my reputation in the filmmaking community with afterward. Remember that you have no money. Be grateful for who says yes, and work with them. Sure, some of the commenters on YouTube might lament your actress’s lack of a sizeable chest area, but you need to work with what you’ve got. On “Lost Hope” I had no time or budget to find a man to play the killer, so I ended up choosing myself. If you audition actors, remember to thank everyone, no matter how terrible they might be.
Now that you’ve got your actors, choose a day to shoot. Any day works (because, actually whatever day you choose, someone is going to drop out and you’re going to have to replace them at the last minute (trust me, it’s going to happen).
Shoot your film. Do the most difficult scene first. First time filmmakers always try to go from page one to the end in order. Don’t do that. Do the big scenes first when you’ve got time. Save the less important scenes to the end of the day when it’s not so bad that you’re burning through scenes at a lightening pace. Most first-timers do the opposite and end up with nothing decent to edit with. Don’t be afraid of shooting over more than one day – but the more days, the more difficult it will be to get everyone together.
Because you’re not paying anyone, it’s important that you pay for their transportation, and decent food. If you have a make-up artist, pay for the make-up.
If you don’t have professional actors, you might find that they will either be too wooden, or overact. One tip would be to write that into the characters. Make one over-the-top, and the other stoic. The other would be to give them the opposite advice. Tell the wooden one to “overact” – go bigger. Their fear of going too big will counter-balance the overacting and it will end up somewhere in the middle. Tell the person overacting to imagine that they are as small and timid as a mouse. The other thing you can do is to mix in at least one professional actor. The pro will lift the performances of all the other actors. Acting is reacting, so it might be worth shelling out the money for a pro. If you just want to make a fun film to show at your Halloween party. Tell everyone to overact. Literally take their performances out into orbit. The bigger the performance, the campier it will get, and not only will your friends have a great time laughing at the movie, you might even get a following of camp fans. Comedy horror is just as worthwhile as straight horror.
Time to edit the film together. Ideally the person who does this will have nothing to do with production and have a more objective view. Most likely, you’ll be editing it yourself, so you’ll need feedback from trusted friends. Watch them watch the movie, and learn where the boring bits are and cut. Cut with your gut. For help look at this channel. This guy edits. Specifically, look at this one:
What software should I choose? iMovie or Windows Movie Maker will do. If you want to get pro – Adobe Premiere offers a one week trial. That should be enough. iMovie will make very large heavy files at the end, so I’d probably advise using Premiere Pro as the compression software is much better.
Get a local musician to provide the score. Offer to help them with their music video. Go on Reddit – student composers are all over the place throwing their stuff at young filmmakers. If you’ve got any money, please give it to them. Sound and music provide atmosphere and is probably the most important thing in horror in creating suspense.
Put it all together, and choose the YouTube setting when you export.
Upload to YouTube, and share with your friends. Good or bad, you can all laugh together at the fun of it all. After all, you made something. Most people just dream of getting to this level. You made it.
Show it at your Halloween party. Friends love seeing people they know doing something out of character in a movie – no matter how good or bad the actual performance is. Sometimes a bad movie is better, as you can all gather round with your friends and have a good time with the mistakes.
If you’re proud of your work, write a press release and share it with websites like this one (TGGeeks is very supportive, as is Big Gay Horror Fan, and We Are Indie Horror). Timing is everything with Halloween. You want to film done about 4 weeks before and the press release to go out. Put it up on Reddit. Send it to me @hamishdownie and I’ll retweet it, and use the hashtag #halloweenlove – hey, send me the production photos, and I’ll retweet them as well!
Dealing with feedback. The worst reaction is no reaction. Whatever the comments say, you can learn from them. Horror, comedy and beauty are all in the eye of the beholder. What’s funny, scary or sexy to you, is not necessarily going to be for other people. So, expect negative feedback. It’s going to happen. Even the best videos on YouTube get negative comments. You’ll get positive feedback as well. Horror probably has one of the (if not the) most supportive film fan communities on the web. So, for the most part, you’ll get pretty decent feedback. If you want to know how vicious film fans can get – try making a comedy film!
If you only get negative feedback, just remember that everyone’s first film is generally bad, and it can only get better from there. To quote the famous drag queen Sharon Needles, “Boos are only applause from ghosts.”
In the immortal words of RuPaul, “Good luck, and don’t fuck it up!”
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