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Horror Business: Filmmaking Advice from HELL FEST Director, Gregory Plotkin

Editor, director, and Blumhouse veteran, Gregory Plotkin, has had a multifaceted film career. Having edited most of the films in the Paranormal Activity franchise, even directing The Ghost Dimension, Greg went on to edit Happy Death Day and Get Out. Opening this weekend is his newest directorial horror entry, Hell Fest – a horror theme park, slasher extravaganza, staring the Candyman himself, Tony Todd! 

We sat down with Greg to discuss Hell Fest and his career path to directing.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uz2Sw9usKXk]

As always, here are Gregory Plotkin’s 3 keys for aspiring horror filmmakers:

  • Be a PA. Greg’s experience as a PA (Production Assistant) was so educational, he claims he would go back to doing it if he could find the time. Being a PA gave him a very thorough understanding of what everyone on a film crew does which enabled him to confidently navigate every set he was on and effectively collaborate and communicate.
  • Say yes to everything.  When Greg edited Paranormal Activity 2 for Blumhouse, his friends frowned on the project, claiming that the budget was too low to be taken seriously. He ignored them and today cites the opportunity as one of the greatest gifts of his entire career since it paved the way for larger projects and ultimately directing. Greg was given 16 different endings to cut for Paranormal Activity 2, but he cut 17 (the 17th being his own idea). Guess which one was chosen. As editor, Greg demonstrated his reliability, talent, and inventiveness, all qualities that producers seek in directors. He then went on to direct Paranormal Activity 6 and edit huge movies like Happy Death Day and Get Out.
  • Find strategic opportunities to up your production value. When Greg was filming Hell Fest, his favorite haunted attraction, Netherworld was switching locations and put their entire setup in storage. Greg struck a deal with them to use their props, mazes, and sets for Hell Fest. This let him inexpensively fill his movie with elaborate and authentic sets, without having to build them from scratch. Always be on the lookout for inexpensive opportunities to enhance the scale and production value of your projects.

Dread Central: Greg, first of all, congrats on Hell Fest, can’t wait to see it!

Gregory Plotkin: Thank you!

DC: Is it partially inspired by those extreme haunts (haunted house attractions) like Black Out, where you have to sign a waiver?

GP: Absolutely … Haunts have become so popular for the last few years. I’ve been going and just loving them … I got to go to them all around the country as research for the movie. And they paid me to do it. So that was great!

DC: Whoa! Talk about living the dream!

GP: Netherworld in Atlanta was in the process of switching to a different location and because they were in transition, all their stuff was taken down. So when we were shooting I was able to go and actually pick and choose what I wanted from their storage house for the film.

DC: Oh nice! Any particularly good haunts that people should check out?

GP: Definitely Netherworld, it’s phenomenal, The Mortuary Haunted House in New Orleans is also amazing … They all change their stories every year. So, it’s a whole culture, they’re really smart about it, they write a script and treat it like a movie.

Screen Shot 2018 09 24 at 12.30.47 PM - Horror Business: Filmmaking Advice from HELL FEST Director, Gregory Plotkin

DC: So what was it like working with Mr. Tony Todd?

GP: Awesome. He’s so cool. I was really nervous because I didn’t meet him until we got on the set. Because of schedules and whatnot, I didn’t have a chance to talk to him. I had a whole backstory for his character, and he shows up on set and he had the exact same backstory in his head!

DC: Whoa!

GP: But his was better because he’s Tony Todd, and he’s super smart. He had way more layers and he started telling it to me, and I was like ‘yes, yes, yes, yes!’

DC: So cool.

GP: He has such a great sensibility, is the nicest guy and really is a phenomenal actor.

hell fest trailer - Horror Business: Filmmaking Advice from HELL FEST Director, Gregory Plotkin

DC: And now you guys are doing a partnership with Six Flags.

GP: Yeah. We shot at their water park in Marietta, Georgia. And, now there’s a Hell Fest inspired maze at Fright Fest. So yeah, it was cool because we developed all these mazes for the movie and they called and said they wanted to make them. So we had to pick and choose the mazes and rooms we liked the best, and they rebuilt them and now people get to go get scared. 

DC: Could you give us a sense of how your career began? 

GP: I started as a PA (production assistant) which I recommend to everybody. I was born the day before Halloween and have always loved horror … I went to UCLA, studied English. I always knew I wanted to work in film. My dream was always to direct. I loved editing as well. After college I was a PA on a movie called Weekend at Bernies 2.

DC: A very under-appreciated zombie movie…

GP: That’s right! One of the first, great, zombie, underwater zombie movies. 

DC: After Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.

GP: Right! So, I got into editorial from that. As I was working my way up, I got a call one day about a movie called Paranormal Activity 2, asking if I would be interested in cutting it. I busted my ass to get the job because I loved the first one. Eventually I got to edit the second one.

I got to set the first day of shooting and they had a two page beat sheet. There was no script, there was nothing planned, just a two page beat sheet … They pretty much shot that beat sheet in like 24 hours … with two 12 hour days.

DC: Wow, that’s a quick shoot. 

GP: They had all the security cameras up around the house. The director, Kip Williams, would come in and say, “My kid got out of his crib last night, so I want to see the baby walk around the house. And maybe we’ll do something with it.” But they had no idea what the end game was.

DC: So, a lot of Paranormal 2 was improvised?

GP: A lot was improvised. So they just gave it to me and said, “What can you do with it, as the editor?”

DC: Make sense of this somehow.

GP: Yeah, and it was great. I tend to watch a lot of my dailies, without sound. I like to watch the actors’ mannerisms, and see what they do. I remember watching a sequence on Paranormal 2, where Kip was in the garage telling the actress, “Go to the couch, go to the kitchen, go to the closet. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, just do it.”

So every time he would tell her to do something, she would pick her head up to listen, and then she’d walk over to wherever he wanted her to go. So as I was watching without sound, it struck me … every time she puts her head up, she should be hearing a scary noise … There was a mobile above the crib and I asked the crew if they could shoot it moving, and because it was a locked-off camera, I was able to comp it in so the mobile could move whenever I wanted.

So I did this whole sequence where, I had her walk around the house thinking she was hearing something. Then she walked in the baby’s room. As soon as she turns her head, I start the mobile moving, as if this demon is around. And then she turns her head back towards it, I stopped it. So I created a whole scene out of something that wasn’t there.

DC: That’s really cool.

GP: We made it up as we went along. But we went with the idea that the demon needs to scare you in order to gain power …  I took that mentality and ratcheted up each scare, as if the demon was getting more and more powerful. I told myself that story as I was cutting. They shot 16 different endings and, I had to cut all 16 versions. I showed them all 16, they didn’t love them. And I cut one for myself, the 17th. I showed them that, and they said, “Great. That’s the one.”

And so from there, it just sort of sky-rocketed. Paranormal Activity 3 did super well, I came on as producer for that one and Paranormal 4 and 5. Then I got to direct 6. They knew I wanted to direct, they enjoyed what I did so they offered it to me. Obviously, I was working closely with Jason Blum, and had his support … I just kind of worked my way up. I took a little bit of a break, cut Get Out, and Happy Death Day, which both did well, and piqued some more interest.

DC: Big fan of both.

GP: And here I am at Hell Fest!

hell fest trailer 1 - Horror Business: Filmmaking Advice from HELL FEST Director, Gregory Plotkin

DC: Is your path an approach you’d recommend to aspiring filmmakers?

GP: I started as a PA. I learned so much as a PA. I learned what everyone did on set. So I can walk on a set now, and be completely comfortable and know what everyone does. I don’t feel like I’m going to step on anyone’s toes. Plus, I have a lot of respect for what everyone does.

Unfortunately, some people come out of film school, they’ve never worked on a set, they don’t know. They get on set as a director, and all of a sudden they’re barking at people. They don’t understand how hard everybody’s working. I know exactly how hard everyone’s working. That’s where I come from, I still feel that’s who I am. I’m not  above getting someone coffee, or driving someone around, doing whatever I have to do. Because for me, it’s just fun. We’re all making a movie!

DC: Right.

GP: I definitely recommend it. Learning editing for me was great because obviously I got to get a sense of story, pace and angles I like. So when it came time to direct, I had a lot of confidence. We only had 23 days to shoot Hell Fest … I knew I had to really maximize each and every day, and I really wanted to make it feel big. So, I knew editorially what I wanted so I was able to build it in my head before I shot it.

DC: It sounds like an editing background gives you the mental framework of how to put the story together so when it comes time to shoot, you already have it all lined up in your head.

GP: One hundred percent … Some people will shoot a ton of stuff saying I’ll figure it out in post, and of course you do figure a lot out in post. But, I didn’t have the luxury of saying I’ll shoot this four different ways and see which way works. I had to pick a lane and stick to it.

DC: What’s it like working with Blumhouse?

GP: It’s great. Jason is so smart. He does a lot of high concept, low budget films — keeps the movie to five million or under, but he gives you full autonomy and says to do what you want. He just lets you do your thing. Obviously there’s an approval process and everyone knows what movie they’re making, and if it does well you’ll see it in theaters and if it’s not as successful or doesn’t fit the theatrical model, he’s got a million different ways to show it with Netflix, or HBO, or whatever it is. 

But, in some ways horror plays on our internal fears. So, you don’t have to go huge … the monster you don’t see is scarier than the monster you do see. He’s realized that in a really smart way and he’s proven to everyone that you don’t need a ton of money to make a really good film. I think Jordan (Peele) proved that in a big way on Get Out. He made a really, really smart film.

DC: People draw the very obvious comparison to Roger Corman because he educated his people in so many different ways, but also empowered them to go make their own films. It sounds like Jason Blum is doing something similar and all these amazing directors are being birthed out of Blumhouse because of the skills and empowerment that he’s giving them. Is that accurate?

GP: It’s one hundred percent accurate. It’s not just directors, it’s editors like me, it’s writers. Chris Landon who directed Happy Death Day, was one of the writers on Paranormal 2 and 3. Again, Jason empowered Chris, now Chris is directing for him … But yeah, he is definitely the modern Corman, and I think there’s going to be a lot of people in 20-30 years that are going to say ‘if it wasn’t for Jason, I never would have been in these lofty places.’

DC: That’s so cool.

GP: Yeah. And he’s a good guy.

DC: Is there any piece of advice you’d give to aspiring directors who are just starting out?

GP: I would say definitely work really hard, and don’t say no to anything … When I got Paranormal Activity 2, a lot of people said ‘nobody’s gonna care if you’re cutting a low budget, found footage movie.’ But, to get that movie was the single best gift I have ever gotten in my life. It skyrocketed my career, so don’t look down on anything. The great thing about making movies is that we get to make movies! Even if you go to film school and you think, ‘I should be directing,’ take a PA job. Take anything. I would go back to assisting if I could make it work.

DC: A lot of people hate to be asked what their favorite horror movie is, but…

GP: Halloween!

DC: That was easy.

GP: Hands down. As soon as Loomis comes in and says, “He’s pure evil,” I was hooked. I knew. And also, the POV through the mask in the beginning just sucked me in. It was so smart. And then Exorcist still scares me. Shining still scares me. And Pet Cemetery, the book, is the scariest book I’ve ever read in my life.

DC: Really?

GP: I read that at 13 years old, and I had to have every single light on when I slept. It freaked me out.

DC: So when it comes to filmmaking, there are all these how-to books and courses. Were there any books or resources that you would partially credit for your success?

GP: I would say just watching movies. Get a sense of the pacing. Get a sense of the cut. Get a sense of what you want. And I gotta go back to the importance of being a PA. You can read all you want, you can take all sorts of classes, but nothing beats hands-on experience doing it.

DC: Awesome. Well, this was a real pleasure, Greg. Thank you.

GP: Hey, thank you!

DC: Looking forward to Hell Fest!

GP: Thank you. I hope you enjoy it.

Horror Business is a series that profiles horror directors, producers, actors, writers and artists. Through conversational interviews, we distill the actionable techniques, tips, resources, and best practices that enable them to make it happen in today’s horror landscape.

Written by Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is a producer and journalist specializing in horror cinema. With a background in marketing and PR, in addition to writing for Dread Central Nick hosts a horror-filmmaking podcast called The Nick Taylor Horror Show. The interview-style podcast explores the techniques, strategies, and key pieces of advice for aspiring horror filmmakers, straight from the minds of some of the latest and greatest names in horror today (Joe Dante, Mick Garris, William Lustig, Joe Bob Briggs + more).

Nick is currently producing a documentary on Steve Johnson while working on Zombie Road, a feature-length immersive zombie movie on the Oculus Rift platform that integrates film & real actors into a cinematic video game platform in virtual reality.

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