Exclusive Modern Masters of Horror Interview Series: A Talk with Writer / Director Adam Simon
Adam Simon is hard to keep up with. He has the dizzying intellect and spellbinding rhetoric of a well caffeinated university professor.
The depth of Simon’s knowledge of the craft of horror filmmaking is far more indicative of his level of expertise than his filmography might lead you to believe.
Simon is best known for writing the 2009 film The Haunting in Connecticut, which was an unexpected success for a haunted house thriller. He is also known for his 1990’s B-movie classics Carnosaur and Brain Dead. With over 30 years of experience under his belt, Simon originally began in production and moved on to establish himself as a writer. He now makes his living writing horror for network television, a transition that has thus been very good to him.
One of last ‘graduates’ of the Roger Corman School of Film, Adam Simon has spent decades absorbing the ins and outs of creating a good film. With a particular pension for horror, Simon can talk for days about the genre, and he almost did. In this week’s installment of our Masters of Horror Series, Dread Central sits down with Adam Simon for a lengthy discussion of his theories on the guts of the craft.
Dread Central: Let’s start by talking about writing. What do you think are some of the more fundamental things you have come to understand about crafting a script?
Adam Simon: When people say, “write what you know,” it’s one of the most misunderstood pieces of advice that writers are given. It doesn’t mean that you can only write about your own experience, it means clothe whatever you write about in the reality that you’re writing. It means use the truth, and use what you know to make whatever you’re going to write about work. I have an axiom off of that, which would be ‘the farther out you want to go, the stronger your tether to the ground has to be. The more extravagant the events are that you are writing about, the more grounded and real, and even ordinary your writing needs to be.
DC: What about The Haunting in Connecticut? What in that script was real to you?
AS: Lots, at almost every level. And I would have to credit my writing partner Tim Metcalfe. I think we took lots of different things from each of our own lives; issues in our own marriages, issues in our families, the terror that any parent feels when their child is sick. All of those kinds of things. These realities may create specific moments, and I can find all kinds of moments how the behavior of the adults or the fights that happen, or of just the anxiety of your emotions, that come from absolutely specific things that either Tim or I would have experienced… I very consciously poured a lot of the anxieties, as a dad, that I was starting to feel about supporting my household, into that script.
DC: Do you feel like it was effective using the cliché of a haunted house in order to tell this story?
AS: There was nothing in new in 2009 about connecting the disintegration of a family with the idea of a haunted house. That is one of the solid tropes about it. One of the most common criticisms of that film, like of every haunted house movie, is the idea that it repeats certain things over and over again that have been seen in cinema before. People claimed that the whole movie was written by cutting and pasting.
That’s like saying “oh my gosh, Crossroads, it’s a blues song, but it has the exact same chord progression as any other blues song.” But that’s the blues! The blues is defined by a set of chord progressions. And then it’s a question of how are you going to use a strict form, maybe to say something different, or maybe to not say anything at all, but just to really, authentically, express the emotion of the blues.
The haunted house in particular, is a very strict parameter of horror. But much horror, and many other genres, like the blues, or for that matter a sonnet, in poetry, have very strict rules. That’s the whole point of them. And the form of your originality is not going to be a question of whether or not you re-invent those things, but rather, can you instill your take on the form with some truth.
DC: Where do you start when creating a script?
AS: Someone once told me that there are only two kinds of stories. It’s either the fish out of water; you as the viewer have been transported to this new place. Or a stranger comes to town. Meaning, we’re the townspeople and something’s coming. That’s one way of looking at every narrative. Certainly one question that I often ask when I’m starting a story is “which perspective am I taking?”
DC:How have you noticed that audience expectations have evolved over the years?
AS: I’ve seen a huge shift in my own lifetime. I was at a prestigious university in the early 80s, and with great ambivalence about the genre, as you could expect. I stuck around for a year [after I graduated] to teach with a guy named Tom Gunney… we were both very passionate about the horror movie, and programmed a series of horror films. There were a couple, that at the time were kind of pushing buttons a bit, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, things like that. But it also had a lot of movies that we had just accepted as classics, films like Psycho.
We were astonished to get a letter from the dean of the college maybe a third of the way through the season, talking about the complaints he had gotten, and saying that he was worried we were risking the artistic and intellectual reputation of the art department by showing this kind of material. What saved it, and we had nothing to do with this, was that a day or two after, that same dean received a letter thanking him for the series from Nobel Prize winner and novelist, Carlos Fuentes, who was an artist in residence that year and was passionate about horror movies. It was a perfect example of how horror films were totally in contention with the point of view of the academics at the time. [They thought] that this was not a legitimate thing to be showing.
One of the interesting discussions that came out of this series was when we showed Psycho, we wanted to put it back into some context. I think it’s hard for people to grasp how astonishingly shocking that movie was. I continue to believe that if you can pick one movie that altogether changes the direction of the genre it would be that one. It was really interesting to pull up all this press material from then about how that movie was reacted to. Again it’s a movie that we take for granted now but it’s a serious artistic and important movie. But again, people are talking about it at the time as if it’s almost pornography. They felt as if it was wrong and absolutely not something to be discussed seriously.
Another change that I’ve noticed is that the horror I’m doing now is for network and cable television. The genre has exploded onto TV. If you would have said to somebody 10 to 20 years ago that the most successful show on television would be about zombies, and that it was a serious show on a serious channel, and that the show would get numbers, they would have said you were crazy.
DC: Why do you think it’s working on television nowadays?
AS: Television, more than movies, is actually our dominant medium for drama right now. I would argue that movies essentially are not a dramatic medium anymore. And I love movies still. But its primarily returned to its roots which was actually a spectacle. Just pure spectacle. Movies were originally developed not to be in theaters but to be on boardwalks and on side shows and in amusement parks. In many ways cinema in the 21st century has returned to that; to huge 3D spectacles and CGI.
Whereas television, has certainly in the last 10 years become the main dramatic medium. And, as Aristotle would remind us, the purpose of drama is precisely to work over and ritually deal with the deepest issues for us. And again, back to Aristotle, the core paradox is: in dark times, a lot of people need dark media. In the heart of the 1930’s Depression you got Busby Berkeley musicals and Fred Austaire, but you also got Dracula and Frankenstein and all of the universal horror movies.
Particularly when times are tough and/or scary, and we’ve now been doing twenty years straight of scary times; starting particularly with 9/11, and then all the craziness after that, and then seven eight years after that you get hit with basically a worldwide depression that, too, really scared the shit out of people. Well yeah, horror is one of the main ways we deal with that. It’s a kind of homeopathy.
DC: What about something more practical? What is your theory on jump scares? How do you imagine them? How do you know when you’re using too many or not enough?
AS: Jump scares are more akin to say what composers and arrangers do, or what music producers and mixers do when they are controlling levels and when they want to achieve a certain climax. A jump scare comes and it goes. Everybody laughs and almost gets humorously angry at the screen. But what’s actually happened is that your physiology has been changed. Your heart rate just changed. The hormones in your body just changed, because someone just scared you.
Now, the next seven minutes, is how long it takes for the adrenaline to slowly return back to its normal levels, and for your heart rate to come back. So now, for the next seven minutes, because you have been scared, the filmmaker has a chance to do different things to you as an audience member, which will be felt differently because of these changes in your body.
DC: Can you offer some practical advice for up and coming writers with regards to just getting started and breaking in? What sort of techniques worked for you?
AS: Well, a lot of what specifically happened in my early career kind of just isn’t possible anymore. It was a specific moment, which I was both the beneficiary of and the victim of in some ways. I started out like almost every filmmaker I was interested in from the previous generation, by getting to go to work for Roger Corman… At the end of [Corman’s career], I was one of the last, and I was arguably the last, in that I got the last theatrical release his films ever had, which was Carnosaur. Brain Dead was also one of his very last theatricals.
The real question is: is there any equivalent today of the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking? There’s a lot of debate about this. A lot of people say that it’s YouTube, and it’s true because the entry cost of making a film now is essentially zero. But, the easier it is to make a movie, historically, the harder it is to get anybody to look at them. Now, anybody can make a movie, but how are you going to be able to get anybody to notice that it’s there?
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