SXSW: Horror Filmmakers on Directing the Dead

By  · Published on March 14th, 2010

I am not usually one for covering events. My niche is film review and that is really all that I have ever been asked to deliver. But when SXSW put together a panel discussion on horror films not only did I know that my attendance was a moral imperative, but I swallowed my reservations and accepted the task of covering it. This panel had suffered a pair of setbacks in days proceeding it that would have crippled any other panel of this ilk. Two of the attached guests, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, inexplicably pulled out without much notice or explanation. As the two biggest draws for a number of attendees, I anticipated scores of perturbed festival-goers would decline to participate. Which, if they did, would have been at their own detriment because it was a fantastic event.

Let me introduce the panelists. First we have Ti West, the director of the low-budget Fantastic Fest V darling House of the Devil. Beside him sat Neil Marshall, the British director of The Descent and Dog Soldiers. Next in line was Robert Rodriguez who, apart from being the local celebrity, was a last minute substitution and the most established name on the list. To his left sat Ruben Fleischer whose first major film project, Zombieland, made a considerable splash. And occupying the opposite anchor position was Matt Reeves who also enjoyed immense success with his first film: Cloverfield. Moderating the panel was Cinematical managing editor, and frequent Reject Radio personality, Scott Weinberg. As you can see, it was a formidable lineup so my expectations were understandably elevated.

With one exception, whom I will address momentarily, the panel was just as insightful, just as passionate, and just as entertaining as you might expect. The questions prepared were relevant and probing and prompted some fantastic responses. A few of the topics were; battles with the MPAA, 3D in horror films, horror remakes, and international horror-loving venues. Some of the highlights of the discussion included learning that a clever trick for manipulating the MPAA is to desaturated the blood in your film just long enough for them to approve it and then returning the blood to full-color gory glory for the release. Also there were several great quotes from soft-spoken Neil Marshall; everything the guy said sounded like he was writing profound epitaphs. On the subject of the 3D craze, he reminded us that, like anything else, 3D is a tool and in the right hands it can be wonderful, but it can also be dangerous in the hands of an idiot. Timid though he was, and clearly intimidated by the panel, Ruben Fleischer, whose Zombieland sequel is set for a 3D release talked about taking the gimmick aspect out in favor of adding depth of frame to the film; taking his writers to 3D workshops so the script would be organically incorporating of the technology.

I have to say my favorite moment was during the discussion of remakes. Matt Reeves’ next project is a remake of the Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In that took the horror community by storm after its initial screening at Fantastic Fest IV. I would have to count myself among the voices of descent when I heard this film was being remade in America. The film is so perfect that I found myself hating the corporate machine of Hollywood that would most assuredly bastardize the story and neuter its emotional impact. But as Reeves wove the tale of how it can to be his project, and his feelings toward the book on which the original film was based, my pessimism began to retreat. Reeves talked about how the book spoke to his childhood as it spoke to the childhood of the director of LTROI and how he rejected the studio’s idea of making the children older; a point of contention for fans as well. His passion and obvious commitment to the material put to bed any further doubt I may have had. I mean come on, the first time this guy meets Spielberg and the first thought on his mind is to ask him about directing children to improve the remake? He deserves this project and he has the capacity to create something truly beautiful.

The one negative I took away from the panel was that not all genre directors are able to maintain that celebrated connection with their audience. As I examined the arrangement of the panelists on the stage I wondered why Robert Rodriguez was not sitting on the opposite end of the table from Ti West. That would have been the more apt assignment as Ti West is someone who, in the dawn of his career, is still hungry and passionate about creating creative horror films for discerning horror fans even if he has to scrape by on meager budgets. Meanwhile Rodriguez, who has all the money and clout to do whatever he wants, has completely lost touch with his audience. As I watched him up there, checking his emails every few minutes, forgetting the questions, and name-dropping James Cameron every chance he got, it became harshly apparent that he had grown to comfortable on his pedestal.

The worst part of this for me was when he denied that he’d ever made a straight horror film; funny because I’m pretty sure From Dusk til Dawn, The Faculty, and Planet Terror are all textbook examples of horror. It was a bizarre position to take that I cannot decide if it came from a lack of knowledge of the genre, which is frightening, or a self-serving bias that his films are too good to be labeled as such, which is even more frightening. But then later he talked about being proud to count himself among the supportive horror filmmaker network; which is it dude? And you know what Robert, it’s really great that Cameron helped you throughout your career and now your films command budgets the rest of these guys can only dream about, but maybe you defer a little more to the guys that are still on the grind, busting their asses to give us the films we love. Oh, and please stop mentioning Spy Kids 3 at the horror panel; even if it is your platform for taking credit for the resurgence of 3D.

More from SXSW 2010

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.