Danny Draven

Producer / Writer / Director

Danny Draven - Discovery Channel Magazine Interview - FULL INTERVIEW

Discovery Channel Magazine
August 2014 issue

Danny Draven Interview Questions:

1.) What are you currently working on? And what's the best horror you've seen recently?

I’m currently developing a sci-fi TV series and writing a new horror feature. I have also been in a mentorship with executive producer Mark Ordesky (Lord of the Rings trilogy), who’s also executive producer with his Court Five partner Jane Fleming on a new series called THE QUEST premiering on ABC on July 31st. I’m learning from some amazing pros and redirecting my efforts to reach a wider audience with my work as a writer-director.

The best horror film I’ve seen recently was James Wan’s THE CONJURING.

2.) It seems like with the horror genre, more than any other, good editing is crucial, as you mention in your book. I'd imagine changing the timing of a scene by a second or two can completely negate the scare. Would that be fair to say (and do you have any examples)?

A film starts with the writer but ends in the edit bay. In fact it often gets re-written in the edit bay in the form of cutting out scenes, repetitive dialogue, crosscuting, flashbacks, and the re-arranging of sequences. I started my career as an editor primarily in horror and sci-fi, and I can tell you first hand that an editor can make or break a scene. One misstep and an actor can look foolish or a story setup or scare can fall flat. When I edit a film I didn’t direct, I actually don’t look at the script until it’s time to cut the scene. I cut the scene first, and then I read the scene as written, then I go back and make adjustments. I try to put my mind in the place of the audience, so when I cut a scene for the first time it stays fresh.

On a film I edited for SyFy Channel called ICE SPIDERS, I often had to retime scenes in order to make a “jump scare” work. I’ve found it’s best to edit a scene in a way to give the audience time to let their guard down for just enough time to “scare” them back to attention. For instance, I could start a scene and show a spider hiding in the room, and build tension as characters enter the room and the spider moves around all while the characters don’t know they’re in danger, but the audience is aware. Or, I could edit the same scene where the characters enter the room and don’t show any spider threat at all and then in a safe moment have the giant spider attack and scare the audience back to attention. Editing is like putting together a big puzzle so you just need to find the right pieces that click.

3.) Most audiences now think of the ol' pop-up/jump cut scare, like when a ghost jumps out of a corner, as simplistic. But I'd imagine setting up a good shock is rather complex; could you detail what it takes to create a good shocking scare?

The best scares come when the audience least expects it. Part of the craft is to set this up and then pay it off. Masters of the craft sometimes pay it off more than once.

4.) If we get into the nitty gritty, how do you use the camera to maximize fear? What angles work best/worst? Any insider tips you've picked up over your films would be great! (You mention in your Filmmakers Book of the Dead, for example, that handheld cameras should be used sparingly — is there a hard and fast rule you adhere to? "No more than ten seconds at a time," for example?)

Camera placement is very important and should always be decided upon by what method best facilitates the storytelling on screen. It’s never a good idea to use flashy camera moves and “interesting” angles if there is no dramatic purpose to justify it. It can often have the opposite effect on the audience and quickly jar them or cause them to lose their suspension of disbelief mindset. The director and the director of photography should always discuss lens choice, frame composition, camera movement, and shot coverage plans because all of these factors contribute to how an audience will experience the emotion of the scene. For instance, during a vicious fight, you may want to go handheld and keep the movement frenetic, for a solo piano performance you may want to use a camera dolly and do a slow push in to reveal the performer’s face then tilt to his fingers in motion, or better yet invent a new way of doing it that is personal and unique to you as an artist. It’s all very subjective and depends on the personal taste of the filmmakers, but for me, there should be no camerawork on screen that doesn’t serve the story. Cool shots alone don’t make cool movies.

5.) On that note, do you have any examples when you found a scene in your films wasn't working, and you changed a small detail that suddenly made it click? It could be making an actress scream less clearly, changing the colour temperature of a shot, making a monster costume three inches shorter; whatever!

It happens quite often on set. It comes with the job, but it’s how you handle it that counts. The director is the captain of the ship so you must always have a solution.
I once had an actress in full monster makeup show up drunk just before the scene. The scene involved a complicated ritual, which after I blocked it with her, I could tell it wasn’t going to happen. I realized that all she could do is swing her arms and go crazy in a drunken rage, so I decided to make it a fight scene instead. After talking privately with the sober actors, I called action and let them duke it out for real. I shot it. We wrapped on time. No one got hurt. The actress had a bad hangover and still doesn’t remember shooting that segment. What is on the page doesn’t always end up on screen.

6.) Are you surprised at how little it takes to scare us, budget-wise? 

I’m not surprised at all. You can scare people with no money at all or with the biggest Hollywood budget you can find. If the story is great and the characters are compelling, the scares oftentimes invent themselves in the moment. I’ve found the best scares were by accident on set. I remember on one of my films, I didn’t tell the lead actress the monster would jump out with the axe during the take, so she did the scene as usual then he broke though the door and chased her off the set. BEST SCARE EVER. She claims to have peed her pants after and then every scene with the monster from that point forward she was genuinely scared because she never knew when I might surprise her like that again. So each creepy set and dark corner became a possible scare for her and it translated on film very well.

7.) It’s almost like horror is the purest form of cinema, in a way: Most films don’t rely on star names, they rely on creativity, cinematography… Would you agree?

There are a lot of films in all genes that don’t rely on stars. What makes it work is the storytelling and characters that we root for in the film. Movies like the Evil Dead and District 9 come to mind. I think the purest form of cinema is simply a good story, well told, truthfully told, and that could be a guy in Canada making a film with just his friends or a big budget flick in LA. If you start with a “pure” script and have a strong central conflict, the rest will follow suit.

8.) How would you describe the way you try to manipulate viewers in a film? Do you think of it rhythmically? A five minute build up here, a slow burn scary scene there, followed by a short shock…

I don’t see it as manipulation but as misdirection, like a magic trick. Cinema is just one big magic trick, telling a lie to tell the truth; that is real cinema. You need to keep the audience in the seat and hopefully on the edge of it. In order to do that you need to pace the story properly and deliver the goods. In horror, the fans are rabid about the genre and are far from stupid and the conventions are already well known and established. It’s very hard to give them an experience they haven’t already had in another film, but if you can just do it in a new and fresh way it can be a lifesaver. Don’t under estimate your audience because they’re usually much smarter than you.

9.) So many horror movies leave us with a sense that all is not well in the world — like the hand exploding from the grave in Carrie. How important is an ending in horror? 

The ending is crucial! Thank god monsters are hard to kill because the audience secretly wants them to strike again, just look at the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the Saw franchises. Evil can’t be contained for long!

In my own projects, I always write the ending first and then work backwards. When I’m directing a film, I usually want to shoot the ending early in the shooting schedule in order to make any adjustments to other scenes leading up to the finale. All of our hard work means nothing without a satisfying ending.

10.) How do you know when you’re on the right track when you’re working on a film?

First and foremost: Start with a great script! I’d say you know you’re on the right track when an audience watches your movie and they’re moved in some way and are left satisfied and hopefully with a new insight into life. In horror, maybe that could be something as simple as going into the woods alone is not a good idea, or betraying a friend could come back to haunt you, or conjuring the devil to do your evil deeds is not worth eternal damnation!

11.) What’s your acid test for ‘scary’?

In 1895, the Lumiere Bros. showed a fifty-second film called Arrival of a Train to an audience. It only shows a train coming at the screen but audiences were terrified and ran from the theater hall because they thought it would run them over. Also in 1897 in Paris was The Grand Guignol theatre, which gave audiences a naturalistic and graphic on stage performance of horror entertainment and often caused patrons to faint and vomit because of the violence. It was popular, even among celebrities and royalty, until it closed in 1962. Not much has changed I think, it has just evolved with the times.

Everyone has a different tolerance level for what is scary and what isn’t. Some people get scared when the music changes and they anticipate something is amiss, others laugh during a murder scene when it looks too fake, others jump at every moment they’re supposed to by design and have a great time. I think the audiences in our generation are desensitized to violent images and scary moments, but if you can find a new way to scare an audience, maybe you have the next
Arrival of a Train hit.

Directing horror films is a tricky business, since you’re often walking on a tightrope of what is actually scary and what is laughable. For me personally, what is scary is what is behind the closed door, the unknown, my imagination creates something that is far scarier. It’s deep in the subconscious, primal even. This is the most effective kind of horror.

12.) What’s the horror movie you’ve watched the most, and why? What lessons did it teach you about the craft?

I learned the most about directing from my mentor Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Fortress). I produced and directed a film with him in 2002. During pre-production I went to Stuart’s house with my director of photography Mac Ahlberg (Beverly Hills Cop 3, Innocent Blood) and we studied ROSEMARY’S BABY, REPULSION, and THE INNOCENTS, all favorites of mine and also landmark films that showcase masters at work. I think carefully watching and evaluating films you admire is one of the best ways to learn your craft. I spend a lot of movie time with Carpenter, Argento, Hitchcock, and Kubrick, as well as watching a lot of foreign horror films. Also Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre and Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror are wonderful resources.

13.) You write that "if you can't find the right sound you're looking for, create it yourself […] take a knife and stab a watermelon." What's the weirdest thing you've found yourself doing for your films?

I usually do whatever it takes to get the sound desired. I had to make out with my hand once in order to replace the make-out noise needed for a kissing scene. That was awkward. I’ve kicked in doors, punched potato sacks, screamed bloody murder at the top of my lungs in my apartment building at the time in order to record sounds I needed. The police showed up a few times and our neighbors thought we were all crazy.

14.) We think of people who understand comedy as "having a good sense of humour". What would you say makes for a good sense of horror?

A good sense of horror could be someone who wants to experience something that is taboo. If you can open up your mind and let the filmmaker take you on a journey into the depths of hell, or into the mind of a serial killer, then I think you may have a good sense of horror. Just be open to the horror experience and don’t be afraid to scream! Comedy and horror often go together. That is why you often laugh in horror movies because it relieves the tension. Everyone knows those moments when it was only a cat that jumped out, so you feel at ease again. In horror movies, laughter is the antidote to fear and when used well in the story is a great way to relax the audience until it is time to scare them again.