How to Write a Thrilling Horror, from 'Silence of the Lambs' Screenwriter and More
It's all about economy.
The best films from the horror and thriller canon manage to weave together the rules and intricacies of both genres into one suspenseful, terrifying experience. More than anything, this blending of genre provides filmmakers with the opportunity for playful experimentation. Plausibility takes a back seat to the pursuit of messing with audience expectations.
As we learned from the Horror and Suspense Screenwriters Panel at the WGAE Lower East Side Film Festival last week, however, the most important part of a successful part of a horror/thriller may be the humanity of its characters.
Those that imparted this wisdom are certainly names to be trusted. The panel was chock-full of generation-spanning masters of the genre, from Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) to Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin and Green Room) to Ingrid Jungermann (whose film Women Who Kill marked the invention of "lesbian horror") to Chris Sparling (the man responsible for putting Ryan Reynolds in a box for two hours in Buried).
Most of moderator William Cusick's questions were preceded with a quote from François Truffaut's legendary interview with Alfred Hitchcock, which would later make up the basis for his book Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock. Here are a few of the highlights.
“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” – Alfred Hitchcock
William Cusick: Hannibal Lecter has been voted the greatest villain of all time by AFI, but he’s only on screen for about 15 minutes. I’m interested in your approach to the "less is more" of having the villain on screen. The economy of how often we see the villain himself.
Ted Tally: He’s only on screen for 15-20 minutes, but the effect is as if he’s on for an hour because so many scenes are about him and he’s not there. The whole movie revolves around him, because he’s the key to the plot. The better the villain, the better the hero. The better the villain, the better the plot, because the villain is the one who’s usually driving the plot. I was very, very, very lucky to inherit that character. I could not invent him to save my life. He’s a great villain because he’s so unpredictable, because he’s so smart, and because he’s funny, because he’s witty. Hannibal Lecter like the Sherlock Holmes of evil.
Chris Sparling: With Buried, I wanted to make a movie and I only had $5,000. I couldn’t afford to show the villain. So, it was more of an economic reason, but I found that limitations are what force creative decisions. These constraints, are what force you to find a creative solution. That ended up being the driver. I wish I could speak to a more artistic reason behind it, but in this case it was financial.
"The unseen can be much scarier than the seen."
Ingrid Jungermann: The unseen can be much scarier than the seen. I think the audience filling in their own information is much more suspenseful than you feeding it to them.
Tally: It’s so important in a suspense film to have the audience complete the storytelling experience. There’s nothing you can make up [that's] as good as what they can make up while they’re watching it. What’s going to happen? What’s going on right now offstage? You don’t want a passive audience; you want to actively engage their imagination.
William Cusick: In The Silence of the Lambs, there are many victims, but the one victim that Clarice manages to save is actually pretty ungrateful. Can you speak to that?
Tally: Well, the girl that’s been kidnapped and kept in the pit, Katherine Martin, is a great character because in 99 out of 100 films like that, the victims are just there to be killed. They don’t put up much of a fight. They don’t have any imagination. They don’t have any spirit. But she refuses to be just a victim. She refuses to be a cipher. She fights for her own life. She’s not waiting around waiting to rescued by Jodie Foster. And when Foster finally gets there, she’s pissed that she doesn’t rescue her right away. "Get me out of here, you bitch!” It’s very human. It’s a great release of tension.
"You need to put yourself in the perspective. You need to be the villain; you need to be the victim. It has to make sense."
Jeremy Saulnier: I think it’s about them being human. If you want tension, there’s no recipe, but if the people aren’t human or relatable in a very direct way then you’ve got nothing. You’ve got a slasher flick. Some of them are great. But, oftentimes we get angry at them because we know that they’re doing things narratively just to lead to a cool kill and not something that we would do ourselves or that our friends would do. You need to put yourself in the perspective. You need to be the villain; you need to be the victim. It has to make sense. The challenge is to humanize the villains; the challenge is to make it seem like this could actually happen.
“In the mystery and suspense genre, a tongue and cheek approach is indispensable.” - Alfred Hitchcock
Jungermann: I think it’s about the build up and release and keeping the audience engaged. For me, I can’t not write comedy. I find pain to be hilarious. To give the audience release is kind of a gift to them. I’m always writing jokes when I’m writing the script, but I think the last layer is really working the scene to find every funny moment I can find.
"You need to give the audience at least some moments of release."
Sparling: Very early on I used to write comedy, so that’s kind of what my focus was. When I made the shift to focusing more on thrillers, I struggled at first with incorporating comedy, because I wanted it to be completely relentless. Just so tense from start to finish. I learned pretty quickly that you need a little bit of the comedy; you need to give the audience at least some moments of release. If nothing else, it just gives some contrast. Give them a moment to breathe. And then when you grip them, there’s something more to it as opposed to being just a one-dimensional feeling the whole movie.
“I’m not concerned with plausibility; that’s the easiest part, so why bother? We should have total freedom to do as we like just so long as it’s not dull. A critic that talks to me about plausibility— that’s a dull fellow.” - Alfred Hitchcock
William Cusick: How much are we beholden to plausibility?
Tally: Only in the moment. You don’t want the audience to say, “Wait a minute.” I had this discussion with Jonathan Demme one time. We see the SWAT team coming into raid the house and I said, “Wait a minute, that house isn’t big enough to have that cellar, we’ve seen this enormous cellar, and now you’re showing us the exterior of this little tiny broken down house. That doesn’t work.” Demme said, “Ted, that’s a refrigerator question. You go to the movie, you have a good time, you go home, you open the fridge, you grab a beer and you say, 'Wait a minute.'" I’m only interested in plausibility to that extent.
Jungermann: I think spending time to build your characters can make anything plausible.
Saulnier: Sometimes the most implausible things are real.
Gore and violence
“I don’t care about the subject matter, I don’t care about the actor, but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that make the audience scream.” - Alfred Hitchcock
William Cusick: Jeremy, you refer to the way you use violence as “gorescore.” How specific do you get when you’re writing your gore and violence?
Saulnier: I come from a production background, so I’m extremely specific. I think I was first enthralled with filmmaking through gore and cinematic violence. I was watching Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th Part 2 when I was 8. It was traumatic, but it led to reverse engineering. It inspired me to deconstruct it, to do it in my backyard to overcome the trauma.
There’s a lot of talk about violence in my films, but the body counts in my films are actually relatively low compared to any action movie out there. It’s about utilizing the suspense and impact of violence. People remember when people get killed in my films because it means something and it’s terrifying. That’s when people start saying, “This is terrible; I want to walk out.” The violence is often brutal. Technically, when I write it— having practiced the art myself, as I’m a makeup effects technician— I know what needs to be done to execute it. It’s very important, especially at the indie film level, to communicate the keys to what we’re doing, so when it gets broken down and budgeted and scheduled they’re not going to miss something. It’s very important to keep it technical.
"It better be real and ugly—what violence really is—or it’s fake."
William Cusick: On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s very little violence or gore in The Silence of the Lambs.
Tally: To me, less is more with violence, especially gore. All I can think about is the makeup effects. I wonder, “How did they do that thing where the blood is shooting that way?” It pulls me out of the movie because I know that it’s a movie. It pulls me out of the story and into the filmmaking. I think it’s such a fine line. An audience gets turned off in a hurry by violence being too gratuitous, in my experience. It better be really, really earned and not done with a nod and a wink, like in a Hollywood action movie, where someone's quipping one-liners. It better be real and ugly—what violence really is—or it’s fake.
Sparling: I think you can get away with a couple of gory moments, but it has to mean something. It’s like if you say "fuck" every three seconds, no one’s going to care you’re saying it. It’s just another line. Gore is just the same thing. If it's just gore after gore after gore, you’re kind of just like, “Now this person gets shot. Now this person lost a leg. So what?” Not only do you have to earn it, but it has to mean something in terms of the narrative.
How do you describe violence in the screenplay?
Saulnier: Most of it takes place off-screen. My general rule is if it’s a gratuitous shot, it's non-fatal, but if it’s a life that is lost, it is supposed to be disturbing and coupled with an emotional impact in the narrative that makes it impactful and suspenseful. The hardest part of Green Room is the full hour with one off-screen death. That is where the tension is built. And then gore acts as a release. The performance and flexibility are also very important— if you can dangle your wrist, you’re just a simple prostethic away from having a very impactful effect.
Setting and detail
“I make it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a character or a location.” - Alfred Hitchcock
Sparling: It’s very important for you to go and scout locations as you’re writing because you’d find things that you normally wouldn’t think of. By visiting these locations, it does a lot of the work for you. It’s kind of like an escape room: if I were in this situation, what would I do to get out? Alright, well there’s a trash can so I’ll try to smash the window with it. If you’re just trying to imagine the space, you might not even know if there’s a trash can.
"It’s very important for you to go and scout locations as you’re writing because you’d find things that you normally wouldn’t think of."
William Cusick: In The Silence of the Lambs, each of the serial killers has their own lair. In terms of designing those on the page and handing them off to the production department, how much of that is happening on the page, how much of it is happening in the translation of the collaborative process?
Tally: You can be pretty sure that whatever’s on the page is going to change when you get to the physical location. I had Lecter’s cell described as having bars and rope netting, which is basically the way it is in the book. Jonathan and his production designer, Kristi Zea, were following the script beautifully and set it up on the set we were building in Pittsburgh. We got to the first scene when we were shooting with the actors and Jonathan said, “I can’t see their faces; there are bars in between them, there’s netting in between them.” So Christie said, “Well his cell will look different from any other cell. It will have sort of big plate glass.” So, overnight they had to make this change. Then the next day Jonathan said during rehearsal, “They can’t hear each other, and they can’t have mics on because we’ll see them.” So Kristi says, “Okay, he’s got breathing holes!” That look, which looks so brilliantly thought out in the movie, is the result of desperate improvisation on set. That’s what makes filmmaking exciting.
Saulnier: I try to deviate from standard structure. Green Room was an exercise in tension-building. I try not to meet expectations or check the boxes off of what happens in each act, but swerve very violently away from what you think would happen, dig into that and write myself into corners. The challenge isn’t the overall “how should I make this intense structure?" It’s "how do I keep going with this?" and when I find myself without a solution, just sit there and invest in it. That’s when people die in Green Room. Because I couldn’t think of a way out.
Jungermann: Mine was a dark romantic comedy, so I wanted to use formula. And then each time something happens in the formula, I try to turn it upside down a little bit.
"A screenplay is not a literary form. It’s a craft. It’s a blueprint. It’s not a novel."
Sparling: I think it’s important to establish the normal world. You need to have the normal world first; then you can go off the rails with it. Just to give, if nothing else, context to the suspense.
When you’re writing a tense scene, how do you write it to make the reader nervous, without all the music and visuals? How do you make it jump off the page?
Saulnier: I believe that if many of my screenplays got out on the market, they would not sell. Because for me, its all about execution. I keep it sparse, so it’s only what you see and what you hear. You want to try and engage [the audience] just with what they’ll eventually see onscreen without describing every detail. You have to keep it flowing and keep the momentum on the page, which for me just means write what you see and hear.
Tally: Screenplays are usually pretty boring to read because they’re so spare. You don’t have time for much description, and if you write a lot of it, the director's just going to end up ignoring a lot of it anyway. It’s what they say and what they do, as sparely as you can describe the action. You can allow yourself an occasional tweak of poetry that might make it come alive to a reader, but you have to be fairly conscious of that. A screenplay is not a literary form. It’s a craft. It’s a blueprint. It’s not a novel.
Sparling: On the page, make it read as if it’s a campfire story. Try and get people to really lean in, think about how people tell those stories. They’re usually just very short sentences and to the point. It’s all building towards something.
If you could give one piece of advice to a screenwriter who’s writing their first thriller or horror that you wish you had been given, what would that be?
Jungermann: Understand that a lot is going to be depressing and accept that the process is really challenging. But try not to forget that its supposed to be fun. Take the pressure off yourself and recognize that the process itself is never going to change. And if you can accept the process, I think it’ll be a little easier.
Sparling: Don’t be afraid to write shit. That’s it. Seriously. People are only going to read what you show them. So, if you sit at your computer and write absolute garbage, who cares? No one's going to see it. Early on for a lot of writers, what’s holding them back is this fear of writing poorly, so as a result you feel crippled.
Tally: When I was in drama school, I started out in theater, we were always being told, “write what you know.” I don’t know anything. I think that’s paralyzing advice, because what I know is pretty boring. I get up in the morning, I brush my teeth. It’s not a good story. I would say a better challenge would be, "write what you want to learn about." Write about something you don’t know. And figure out how to get there. Then you might have an interesting journey.
Saulnier: It’s all about failure. Keep going. Just stick together. Make movies. See what happens.