I'm unfamiliar with the genre of "horror." I loved "Scream," and "I Know what you did Last Summer," in high-school when they came out, but somewhere along the way my interest piqued and hasn't come back again. I don't know, I like happy things.
So last night I was excited to see inside an unfamiliar world at the Shriekfest opening night party. I talked to filmmakers about their work, horror as a genre, and the state of indie filmmaking. My wingman Cubby and I ordered Heinekens and eyed the busy party. "Jameson on the rocks," I heard to my right. I turned and introduced myself to mostly editor / new director Micah Levin, who's first feature "Opus" opens Shriekfest at 7pm tonight. Levin and crew have been working together since their college days at Emerson (Levin couldn't have been much older than me- 25). "We didn't have that lag of trying to figure out how to work together... It's so much more enjoyable when there's a shorthand. I never had to worry about anything besides what was going on in the frame." The friends made this film with an interesting approach -lots of improv. They worked loosely from a 3 act structure and a 25 page shooting script, and they found many of the actors via Craigslist ads that simply offered the chance to be in a horror movie.
"Opus" is filmed from a killer's perspective, and is more of an art film-- emphasis on style-- than anything: texture, visual motifs, HOW it was filmed as opposed to being character or plot driven. The idea is that the audience experiences the film visually. Some entire scenes were filmed in one shot. Levin was inspired by shows like "Dexter" that "play with the aesthetic beauty of death." Levin directed and edited it. "I wanted the editing itself to be a character," said Levin. His approach was to get extra footage and then go into the editing room with too much to work with (I know from my own experience that's the best scenario an editor can be in).
An improv approach creates a space for the film to feel closer to reality. Since the actors from Craigslist had little if any rehearsal and preparation time, things on set were unpredictable (and more realistic ie. actually being scared rather than figuring out how to act the perfect fear). Levin says that was his biggest concern with production: that the improv would make it tricky to achieve the high cinematic look they wanted. But he knew he trusted his Director of Photography, Elie Smolkin. Smolkin said the improv approach meant the "lighting of a space rather than a person...then letting them walk through the light." And overall it was a lesson in letting go of control.
Improv meant letting go for "Opus" actor Brian Norris too. "It's fun not knowing. You don't get the opportunity to think about what you want to do. Sometimes that's more pressure, sometimes it's less...All I could do is prepare myself by watching 100 horror movies."
As far as I'm concerned, preparedness + an easy going attitude (letting go, rolling with it) can be the the key to success. Maybe that's why "Opus" has already won awards. Now Levin is hoping now for some sort of theatrical distribution. But "the reality is that we'll probably make most of our money on Video on Demand," he said. Beyond that? As a director Levin's goals from this are to get more work, and to be taken seriously as a director. And "ultimately just getting it out there, having people see it."
Levin says what they were able to do with the amount of money they had was great. "Opus" was made on "lots of favors" but the crew was all paid. I asked him how he felt about the recent lawsuit filed by unpaid interns on Black Swan who feel they were taken advantage of by not being given enough learning opportunities on set. Levin has interned a lot, some of which have been more fruitful than others, but thinks overall they are what you make of them, and it's largely about your attitude. "I think it [the lawsuit] is just gonna take away opportunities from people. Because studios will say OK, we can't do unpaid interns anymore."
Opus opens Shriekfest tonight at 7pm.
Check out the trailer.