How difficult is it to surprise your audience without jumping the shark? The answer is: very difficult.
Adam Randall's third feature film is a SXSW horror/thriller called I See You. The movie stars Helen Hunt, Jon Tenney, Judah Lewis, and Owen Teague, and it has quite a few twists and turns throughout. The story follows a family in a small city where there have been several mysterious disappearances, while at the same time strange things begin occurring in their unhappy home. What are these strange things? You'll have to see the movie to find out.
In the meantime, Randall has some tips for nailing the horror atmosphere and creating surprises in a film.
Getting the tone right
In a horror movie, so many elements must work together to create a sense of unease and discomfort as characters move through the story. Randall said he spent a long time with Devon Graye's script and broke it down to get an idea of how best to attack its various sections.
"For the first part of the film, it was really about wanting to create a sense of foreboding, a sense of dread, dripping from the screen," he said. "So I approached that first of all, the way my mind naturally works, in shots, and thinking visually the best way to approach that -- which was having a visual plan that was slightly removed from the action on screen. So you felt slightly distant from it in a way that allowed you to sit and watch and observe. Almost saying to the audience, 'Keep an eye out, because there could be something anywhere in this frame that's going to be a hint at what's to come.'"
"For the first part of the film, it was really about wanting to create a sense of foreboding, a sense of dread, dripping from the screen."
Randall hopes that the way the film is shot and its visuals will encourage viewers to ask questions about the characters' backgrounds and what their motivations are.
What he's looking for in a script
Randall worked as a script reader when he was starting out, so he has a good idea of what he wants when he picks up a screenplay. One thing he needs is for a script to grab him immediately, which is more difficult that it sounds. The script then must maintain that interest.
"It varies on projects, but [I See You] is so much about structure and the puzzle-like nature of it," he said. "I found it so clever and so satisfying in the end that everything comes together. It answers a lot of questions. I think often with these films or stories, the answers aren't as satisfying as the questions."
In fact, I See You had such impact on Randall that he was still thinking about it for hours and days after.
In writing your scripts, do have unique ideas and strong characters, but also consider structure and whether all your narrative threads have been tied off in a fulfilling way.
The challenges of location
The film was shot in Ohio, where producer Matt Leipzig is based, and much of the story takes place within the characters' large lakefront home. Randall said this location posed several challenges for the crew.
Initially, Randall was determined to build part of the house to control the set, but budgetary restraints killed this idea.
"I had three things that I set out to the location manager and to the producer," he said. "Which was it needed to be a big house, it needed to be open plan, and I wanted it to be on the water."
"Like the structure of the film, the house wants to be a bit of a puzzle, as well."
The house they landed on satisfied all of these requirements and also provided opportunities for new ways to shoot the movie and stage the action.
"Like the structure of the film, the house wants to be a bit of a puzzle, as well," he said.
Although it wasn't exactly what Randall had wanted for the project in the beginning, finding a new location made him think creatively about how to utilize what they had.
"The other thing that the location did was it changed the script," he said. "Because the script was so specific in terms of the location, in terms of where things are placed."
Entire scenes and sequences had to be reworked to make the house work for them, and the team's flexibility paid off in the end.
Handling a twist
There is a point in I See You that turns the plot on its head quite surprisingly, and takes the story in a completely new direction. Randall's goal on this project was to not be hesitant or afraid, but to really go for the surprise.
"My feeling with it was that, if we're going to go there, we should go there absolutely and really jar the audience," he said. "And really take you out of that moment in a way that's so unexpected and almost uncomfortable. I just thought that would be interesting and fun and a fresh way of doing it."
There are no spoilers here, but let's just say this twist brings up new questions even as it answers others. Telling a story this way forces the audience to be active viewers as they put together clues to figure out what is going on. It changes the moviegoing experience.
"My feeling with it was that, if we're going to go there, we should go there absolutely and really jar the audience."
It's about perseverance
Randall said he knows his best advice sounds like cliche, but that doesn't make it less true.
"It truly, truly is about perseverance in this industry," he said. "Everybody who I went to university with, those who are still doing it, in whatever field it is, it's just through keeping at it. Because it's tough."
More practically, Randall said he wishes someone had told him that he needed to supplement his income while pursuing his artistic dreams.
"That shouldn't hopefully sound like it's taking away from the dream or the aspiration," he said, "but it would almost allow you to carry on focusing on that. Because it can just take a long, long time to get things going."
I See You premiered at SXSW on March 11 in the Midnighters section.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.