Video Blog: Viewing Conditions for Horror

When Paranormal Activity came out, a lot of people were absolutely terrified by it. The flick’s reputation nowadays isn’t really up amongst the horror greats, and I think an awful lot of the reason for this can be put down to the conditions under which we experience horror movies.

Here’s the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series of short rants about filmmaking, screenwriting and whatever else is on my mind. Hope you enjoy it, and don’t forget to subscribe.

Gigging FEAR & FILM

Last week I did a bit of a landmark FEAR & FILM gig, in that it was my first ever non-festival solo show.

I’ve spent quite a lot of my adult life talking to groups of people. I’ve done this in a bunch of different contexts: from stand-up comedy, academic lecturing, festival shows and one-day masterclasses through to last year’s TEDx talk. What I’ve never done, until last week, was have a show that was unconnected to a festival or event and consisted of me standing on stage for two hours.

Well, cross that one off the list.

I had no idea if anyone would turn up (they did) and whether they’d enjoy it (apparently they did). I’m massively glad I took the leap, and I’ll book up some more shows throughout the rest of the year until next year’s Horror-on-Sea rolls around and I’ll unleash the 2019 show (which I’ve already started working on and is tentatively called Pat Higgins vs The Scissors Man).

At this point, I’d also like to give an absolutely massive shout out to Three Wise Monkeys in Colchester, who provided an absolutely wonderful venue and were flat-out amazing through the whole gig. Go and visit them, because they rock.

So the next date for FEAR & FILM is the Ruined Childhood evening in Downham Market Town Hall on Sunday, May 27th. Tickets are on sale already, and I hope you can make it. It’s a double-bill with David Lawrence and Stephen Brotherstone, who wrote the brilliant Scarred for Life about terrifying kids’ TV from the Seventies. It should be a great evening.

Oh, and I’ve had a couple of people asking whether we’ll be making a filmed version of FEAR & FILM available. The short answer is ‘yes’, but we’re going to hold off until we’ve finished doing gigs with the show (hopefully avoiding that problem of audiences watching the filmed version then going to see the live show, which messes things up a little for everyone). Having said that, the filmed version is in the can, so if there’s any bloggers or horror websites out there who think they’d be interested in the show but aren’t going to be able to make it along to any of the dates, get in touch via Twitter and I’ll sort it out for you to watch the recorded version.

Likewise, if there are venues or festivals who really want a show about horror and screenwriting (now available in 1 hour or 2 hour versions! Wooo!) please give me a shout.

I bloody love doing this stuff.

 

SCREENWRITING TIPS: Embedding Your Theme

I spend a lot of my time teaching screenwriting in both classrooms and on one-day masterclasses (with webinars coming soon – see the note at the bottom). This means that I often end up studying concepts related to education that aren’t necessarily directly associated with screenwriting. One of these has been the concept of SOLO Taxonomy, which is a way of judging a student’s understanding of a subject. It begins with a very basic and uncertain level of comprehension of the subject, but gradually builds up to a far more nuanced and complicated understanding. One such model of SOLO taxonomy, as first developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis, is used below. Although this exists, as I mentioned, primarily as a method of gauging levels of complex understanding, I have come to use it as instead a method of embedding theme in a meaningful way throughout a narrative.

As a bit of background information, I’ve been working on a screenplay about a masseuse trapped in a room with a mutating corpse. Yes, I use academic models to deepen the thematic content of splattery horror movies. That’s me. Let’s investigate my idea using a SOLO Taxonomy and see where it leads us.

Level 1 is prestructural. The concept in rawest, wooliest form with no further analysis attached. In my case: the concept of flesh.

Uni-structural is level 2. One single meaning of the concept. Flesh is the meaty stuff on top of the skeleton. We’re covered in it. I always was crap at biology.

Level 3: other uses and meanings start to come into play at this multi-structural level. At this juncture, we might well be thinking about not just our own flesh, but the other meanings and associations that we have with the concept. Sexualised flesh. Corrupted flesh and concepts of beauty. Eating the flesh of another to survive. Flesh as home to a parasite. Here is the level where I might be able to include different concepts within my own narrative. For example, if the central theme is going to revolve around flesh from the point of view of massage, we can start to mess around with these other concepts as parallel concerns.

Meat eating, for example.

My lead character is Lauren. Maybe I’ll make Lauren a carnivore, and another character (maybe my mutating corpse, before their unfortunate demise) a vegan. Maybe I’ll make Lauren sexually voracious on a superficial, physical level (seeing lovers as ‘meat’) which not only plays with some interesting textures, but also gets away from the virginal ‘final girl’ paradigm that we’ve seen on way too many occasions for it to be anything other than a bog-standard trope (albeit a useful one that’s often fun to play with). At this multi-structural level, however, we don’t need to join these different elements. The relationships between them is not what matters; at this point we’re just looking for different examples, and different ways to emphasize a central theme. We don’t need them to relate to one another yet. That comes next.

The next step is a relational level. Here’s where we start to feed these concepts into one another. Is it possible that we can use Lauren’s attitudes towards meat or sexuality to inform and deepen the central problem in which she is locked in a room with a mutating corpse? Might it be possible that the only way to dispose of the fleshy invaders in her room (which have erupted from the mutating corpse, as such horrible things often seem to) is to eat them? Questioning attitudes towards flesh in all of its aspects is where this relational idea comes in. If we can tie in ideas of flesh as food, flesh as sexual object and flesh as comfortable home both for the creature who wears that flesh and, indeed, for any invading parasite, our script is likely to become thematically richer. Every element starts to reflect back that central concern with flesh in a way that compliments and interrogates every other element.

It’s at this point that we might want to start thinking about how to state the theme of our movie in just one sentence. By progressing down the taxonomy and coming up with interlinked ideas of the different meanings of the central theme, we can perhaps produce a question that sums up the attitude of the film and the themes that will be interrogated. In this case, for lack of anything else at the moment, let’s go with giving an unsympathetic character the line “I don’t care whether it’s hanging on a human being, on my plate or torn up on a slaughterhouse floor, flesh is just flesh. Just a collection of atoms like anything else.”

By having a character verbalize this theme somewhere in the first act, we can proceed to pull that idea apart in whatever ways we can, whilst giving the audience confidence that, thematically, this is going somewhere.

Finally, we have the extended abstract level. This is where our different concepts are not only brought together, they are combined and used as a springboard for increasingly abstract thought or the different ways of looking at that central theme. For example, it may be that we can introduce the themes of flesh in ways other than just the ones that we have already discussed. How about visually? Could we introduce a colour grade onto the final film to make the movie itself look more like skin texture? OK, this kind of idea is likely to be out of the hands of the screenwriter, but it’s the sort of visual prompt that can work its way subtly into a script and find its way into the final movie. Perhaps themes of flesh as a canvas could be brought into play with ideas like tattoos? Perhaps the other career that Lauren is dreaming of following might be a tattoo artist rather than a masseuse, which would introduce the interesting idea that she is effectively trying to change her relationship with flesh itself?

Take the time to make your way through the SOLO Taxonomy from that initial blunt, unthinking statement through to a more complex, interconnected and abstract way of dealing with your central theme. You might end up looking at it in a whole new way. Even in writing up this exercise, I’ve grown rather fond of that tattoo idea (which certainly hadn’t occurred to me before I’d thoroughly examined the whole ‘flesh’ concept).

Have a good writing day. My name is Pat Higgins, and my conscience is clear.

Note from Pat:

LIKE THIS STUFF? Please follow me on Twitter (@zcarstheme) and share this article to people you think might enjoy it. After years of teaching screenwriting to people face to face, I’m setting up a series of webinars via jinx.co.uk which will range from simple Q&As to more complicated, focused classes on specific aspects of screenwriting and filmmaking. Hope you can attend. My first book, Bloody Screenwriting: Write a Killer Screenplay in 30 Days will be out later in 2018, so if you’re reading this in the future go and buy a copy. Thanks!

 

Pat’s Halloween Letter

Hey folks

Some of you will be reading this on Halloween night 2017. That’s when I’m writing it. This isn’t a post I wrote a while back that’s been stored in a buffer. I’m sitting typing these words with a lit Jack O’Lantern outside our door, and the sounds of kids laughing in the street outside.

Halloween used to be shit when I was a kid, growing up in the UK. We knew it COULD be good. We’d seen E.T., and marvelled at the kids roaming around in costumes. There was NONE of that for us. There was a vague awareness of the holiday, in that the TV would show a horror movie or two (I fondly remember watching the airing of Ghostwatch in a hotel TV room packed full of terrified students a few years later, when I was at Uni) but that was about it.

Britain just didn’t GET Halloween, and the first Trick or Treater who ever knocked on my door was in 1994. Just one angry looking teenager in a non-costume. I was a bit surprised, simply because it had never happened before. I gave him an apple, (which was all I had in the house except beer and cigarettes: I was only 20 myself) and he sprayed the words ‘fuck off’ on the side of my house. So, not the greatest initial Trick or Treat experience.

It kind of carried on like that for a good few years, with the only people roaming around being older kids who really wanted to throw stuff at peoples houses whether treats were forthcoming or not. And that kind of sucked even more than when nobody knocked at all. It was a rocky start to the holiday.

Slowly but surely, though, the nation started to get it. More kids started Trick or Treating, and the majority of the angry late-teens kind of vanished in embarrassment, not wanting to be seen doing something that kids a third of their age were doing. Nowadays, frankly, the whole thing rocks. At least round these parts: I imagine that mileage may vary depending on where you’re based.

Anyway, this Halloween we decided to make my mysterious ‘lost’ movie, THE HOUSE ON THE WITCHPIT, available for one night only. The links are up (at the time of writing) on the front page of the Jinx Media website – Choose your option from Amazon or Vimeo. Come tomorrow, we’re deleting the movie and the Halloween 2017 version will never be seen again, just like the version that we premiered in at Horror-on-Sea in 2016 (which I promptly destroyed onstage after the premiere). We do this stuff because it’s fun. If you choose to spend Halloween night with our film, I hope you enjoy it. We’re very grateful for your support, and hope you find our odd little spookshow a worthwhile diversion on this crisp autumn night.

Witchpit 34 artwork

But that’s enough plugging stuff. After all, an awful lot of you will be reading this after Halloween has long passed. Besides, I’m in reflective mood and don’t want to launch into endless sales pitches.

Still haven’t decided on exactly what flick we’ll be watching ourselves this evening. Probably Boys in the Trees because I keep hearing amazing stuff about it. Either way, I’ll be curling up with a glass of red and quietly cheering the fact that Halloween isn’t shit in the UK anymore.

I’m going to be taking a little while off from my social media accounts after tonight, so if you follow me on Twitter (or Facebook or whatever) you’ll probably find I’ve gone silent.

It’s ok. Don’t worry. Just like every good Halloween boogeyman, I’ll be back.

My name is Pat Higgins and my conscience is clear.

End of Part One.

Sun Rocket Films – The First Presentation

Last night, we had our first business presentation for our mighty new organisation Sun Rocket Films at the Metro Bank in Southend.

It’s always an awesome experience to talk to people about a new venture for the first time, especially one with as much drive, potential and focus as Sun Rocket. I’d like to thank the staff at the Metro and the rest of the Sun Rocket team for making such a great first impression.

Can’t wait for the stuff that comes next. If you want to get involved or hear more, don’t forget to register your interest on the site.

Here’s to the next step on this stupidly exciting adventure.

 

‘IT’ isn’t a horror film? Get Out!

With the movie IT smashing box office records for an R rated release all over the place, there are a number of think-pieces floating around on the Internet suggesting that IT is not really a horror movie after all.

The emergence of Jordan Peele’s frankly brilliant Get Out earlier this year also showed signs of this phenomenon, with some critics falling over themselves to suggest that this was somehow more than “just” a horror movie. A Guardian article tried to float the tag of ‘post-horror’.

This seems to happen with monotonous regularity, whenever smart horror films with good characterisation cross over to a new audience who don’t consider themselves to be the “type” of audience who routinely watch horror movies. It’s a subject quite close to my heart, as I have worked in horror all of my professional life and am heavily involved in the launch of an exciting new company called Sun Rocket Films which also deals largely with genre releases.

Horror is poised to have its very best year ever at the box office (and was even beforeIT came along and ripped through even the most optimistic expectations of box office returns with a taloned clown-hand), so I expect this particular drum to be drummed again and again, as people who don’t like horror wriggle and squirm to avoid facing up to a cold, hard truth.

Yes, they do. They do like horror. They might not like the label, but they like the contents.

My next movie is KILLER APPS, which will be shooting through Sun Rocket next year. It’s another horror, certainly, but throughout the scripting process I’ve taken a great deal of care with the characters and I’m hoping that my dark little story of Kayla Frost and her cellphone addiction will be able to stir emotions in the audience other than just fear. I love my characters on the page, and try as hard as I can to make sure that those characters survive the sometimes bumpy journey from page to screen.

I’m proud of my genre.

When horror is done well, it can change the way people think and feel in a way that few other genres can. It can prompt empathy where none previously existed, and point out injustices in a way more visceral and involving than any number of well meaning but funereally-paced dramas.

And even when it doesn’t do these things, that’s fine too. Sometimes, just fear is just fine. Even when the genre doesn’t reach the heights of Get Out or IT, a glimpse into a fictional inky darkness can make us truly appreciate the sunshine in the lives we have.

FOOTNOTE: Horror represents fantastic opportunities in terms of ROI and tax incentives for investors. Sun Rocket Films are holding a presentation in Southend-on-Sea on September 27th for those interested in film production, business professionals or those looking for tax-efficient investments. Places can be reserved via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/film-as-investment-tickets-37731400635

For more information about Sun Rocket Films, please visit sunrocketfilms.com and follow us on Twitter @sunrocketfilms

The One Thing Film Students Need

For the past decade, I’ve spent my working life in two areas: education and film.

I’ve got a lot of love for both. With that love, however, comes the knowledge that both areas have some issues. Not just the big ones that make headlines, but smaller issues which undermine all the good stuff.

In the education sector, there’s a real issue with talented students getting the work experience and the breaks that they deserve. The focus on practical experience (for courses in the FE sector in particular) mandates that most students on Film & TV production courses undertake meaningful work experience as part of their qualification. The government has recently doubled-down on this aspect of 16-19 education, with the Chancellor referring to ‘high quality industry work placements’ as being a requirement for technical routes rolled out from 2019/20. Initial indications are that the duration of these placements will be significantly longer than those required already, on a basis of “no work placement, no certificate”.

This would be a great idea, of course, if there were enough good placements available to fulfil the requirement.

The risk here, of course, is that the definition of a ‘high quality work placement’ gets watered down to meet the tick-box requirement, and students who are looking to forge careers as directors of photography on major feature films end up working unpaid in high street photography shops or whatever in order to tick the box. Everybody loses in that equation (well, except the high street shop, I guess), and whether it’s a meaningful experience from which the student genuinely benefits is certainly open to discussion.

There’s also a largely unspoken gender issue at play here. In the majority of graduating classes I can think of over recent years, I’d say that over 50% (and in some cases more like 70% or so) of the very top performing students are female. I’ve been in education long enough to have had the pleasure of seeing some of my former students go on to forge very successful careers in the media, but the vast majority of students who seem to ‘get the break’ after graduating are, for whatever reason, male.

So, the driving need here would seem to be for work experience placements to be a genuine beneficial professional experience (resulting in a recognisable professional screen credit) in order for students to get a foot in the door of the industry, and for those placements to be allocated based on skill and capability rather than any other factor.

Elsewhere, over in the UK film industry itself, there’s another issue in a similar area.

Since the advent of digital filmmaking in general, films as a finished product have been devalued in the marketplace. The middle-tier of independent filmmaking has largely collapsed, leaving only no-budget movies put together on favours and pizza (for which very few of those involved ever end up seeing a paycheque) and massive budget blockbusters of £100 million or more which are incredibly risk-averse and usually based on existing intellectual properties so as to guarantee an audience of a certain size. There are exceptions, of course, but the bread-and-butter mid-level projects upon which experienced professionals relied to pay the rent, largely, no longer exist.

One of our central ideas in setting up Sun Rocket has been to tackle both of these issues. Sun Rocket Films works by having heads of department (experienced specialists paid at standard industry rates) overseeing departments featuring significant numbers of high-performing students, who work on the project to fulfil the mandatory work experience element of their Film & TV production courses. Rather than working unpaid in a retail shop which has precious little connection to their career goals, students get a genuine experience of their chosen specialism (be that cinematography, design, sound, post-production or whatever). The experienced professionals at the head of each department get to do the job they love whilst whilst getting paid a realistic rate for their hard work and expertise (which seems to happen increasingly rarely, sadly).

Hopefully, a few years later down the line, we’d be looking to see those former work experience students coming back as heads of department themselves. It’s a sustainable model for creating strong genre movies with high production values in a changing marketplace.

We’re trying to make things better. We’re genuinely looking for a set-up in which everybody wins.

As someone who loves both education and the film industry, I can’t wait to get started.

FOOTNOTE: Sun Rocket Films are holding a presentation in Southend-on-Sea on September 27th for those interested in film production, business professionals or those looking for tax-efficient investments. Places can be reserved via:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/film-as-investment-tickets-37731400635

For more information about Sun Rocket Films, please visit sunrocketfilms.com and follow us on Twitter @sunrocketfilms

The launch of pathiggins.me.uk

We’re still working on this site, which will hopefully end up as a one-stop-shop to keep updated with all my stuff. This year has been more than a little insane, to be honest, and it felt like a good time to launch a new presence to keep everything (or, at least, the links to everything) in one place.

Please bear with us whilst we get it perfect.

All FOUR Early Jinx Movies Now on Amazon!

When Amazon Video Direct launched last year, I was hopeful that it might finally provide a workable and user-friendly platform for people who make movies to get those movies into the homes of people who watch movies.

Check this out: I was actively moaning that the industry as it previously existed was broken back in 2008. Back when I wrote that article, Blockbuster was still a high-street fixture (albeit a fading one). I considered the biggest threat to the indies to be Bittorrent, mainly because file-sharing had sunk more than one distribution deal for me and my company, and knew full-well that the days of DVD/Blu-Ray releases bringing in decent coin for the people who made the movies were behind us.

What didn’t exist at that point was a viable alternative.

Nowadays, there are quite a few. We’ve tried more than a couple. We dabbled with Distrify, but never really got any results. We’ve set up a Vimeo page, enabling us to sell versions of our movies with the kinds of special features that we’d previously have produced for the DVD releases. The Vimeo set-up has worked well enough for us to continue with for at least another year, but it lacks the straight-to-your-TV integration needed to reach the casual movie fan.

This is why Amazon Video Direct looked like such a winner when it was first announced, and I’m happy to confirm that all four of our early movies (TrashHouse, Hellbride, KillerKiller and The Devil’s Music) are now, finally, available on the platform.

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It hasn’t always been the easiest route to get them there, and Amazon’s T&Cs do seem to change by the day. Whereas last autumn they were blocking any content that was ‘self-rated’ any higher than 13+ from the Prime streaming service, (meaning that we had to go and get a BBFC rating for The Devil’s Music before putting it on the service) they now seem to allow content providers to self-rate as 18+ but still have their movies included in the Prime package. They do seem to be pulling more extreme content, and we’ll have to see where that particular line gets drawn as the years go by.  And whether it moves around, which is the most frustrating situation of all.

We did experience a blip after Christmas, when two of our titles got pulled from the service due to ‘issues with the artwork’. We were never quite able to work out what those issues were, so it became a bit of a ‘make a change and hope for the best’ situation. We got rid of the partially visible buttocks from The Devil’s Music artwork and deleted some of the smaller text from the Hellbride image and that seemed to do the trick, but it did serve as a reminder that the service does leave you somewhat at the whims of a massive company from whom it’s not always easy to get answers.

That said, the pluses seem to massively outweigh the minuses, and it’s great to have a platform that takes the movies (via Amazon Fire TV, PS4, Xbox and many more platforms) directly to the living rooms of potentially millions of customers. So, go and watch our movies. Support independent filmmaking. Spread the word, and tell us what you think.

And when you’ve watched all ours, go and watch the awesome output of our friends at Mycho Pictures, who have also just got their back catalogue up online.

So much awesome, fiercely independent horror, so little time.