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Master Class

How To Make A Horror Anthology, From The Creators Of "V/H/S" And "Southbound"

The filmmakers at Radio Silence talk to Co.Create about how their latest anthology came together.

How To Make A Horror Anthology, From The Creators Of "V/H/S" And "Southbound"
[Photos: courtesy of The Orchard]

Creepshow. Twilight Zone. Tales From The Darkside, Crypt, and Hood. Horror anthologies have long proven a rich vein to suck blood from, and many have the word "Tales" in the title. While this format may have waned after the '80s and '90s, it's been having a kind of resurgence over the last few years. At the center of this vanguard is a group of filmmakers collectively known as Radio Silence. (You know, like the noise you make once you're dead?)

After making the memorable final sequence in the first V/H/S film, the genre-galvanizing indie horror anthology that helped launch Ti West and Adam Wingard, Radio Silence went on to make a film of their own. Devil's Due, colloquially better known as "the demon baby movie" scared up $36M in theaters on a shoestring budget. Instead of immediately diving into making the next Radio Silence film, though, the crew started masterminding a horror anthology of its own. The group created the new Southbound, which features intersecting stories that take place on the same literally damned stretch of highway, with the intention of getting back into the collaborative spirit.

"Often times on a project, you can find yourself getting fatigued with the idea," says Radio Silence's Tyler Gillett. "You have to live with a project for so long and it’s easy to lose sight of what is and isn’t working. On an anthology, though, there's always a new discovery to be made and it's always interesting and fun because there are so many voices in the mix."

As Southbound makes its way into theaters today, and on VoD February 9, Co.Create talked with Gillett to find out how to keep everybody on the same creepy page when creating a film with so many moving parts.

An Overarching Mythology

"We were really fascinated by the idea of building a larger world where things are off-kilter or strange—where the rules and logic are always shifting and always seem elusive—and inserting very real and grounded characters into this world," says Gillett. "So not only is there the immediate mystery of "What the fuck is going to happen to these characters?" but there’s a larger, 30,000-foot-view mystery of "Whoa, where the fuck are these people and will they ever get out?" We were really excited by the idea of designing a story that, as each segment unfolds, you pull back another layer of the onion and reveal a bit more about the mythology/backdrop and, hopefully, in the end leave people with a fun reveal and a bit to ponder."

Anthologies Are Like Relay Races

"We were really excited early on by the creative possibilities in the relay race or 'zipper transition' idea that brings you in and out of each segment," Gillett says. "This device drove us to design the structure of the film early on—we knew that with these specific transitions we couldn’t just change the order in post so we had to make some very clear choices about what was going to happen when and develop each piece to do its job the best it could. With this new way of stringing things together, we felt like we weren’t just doing a rehash of what we’d seen before but that there was something intrinsic to the design of Southbound that presented an opportunity to push the format in a new direction and explore the anthology concept in a fresh way."

The Problem Of Multiple First Acts

"A common pitfall of anthologies is something we call the 'first act problem'—where, by design, you have to introduce the audience to new characters and a new story every 17 minutes or so," Gillett says. "So you can end up with a series of great crescendos that are immediately followed by another slow, introductory first act. The pacing of this can be a really tricky nut to crack and we wanted to embrace the idea of structuring the overall film like a more conventional feature free of these first acts. This approach really forced us to choose the most interesting and immediate way to dive into each character’s individual story. No long set ups or exposition—we wanted to drop people into the mystery/action and really let things chug along. By design, the only true first act we have in Southbound is in the last segment."

Making It Whole

"We made the decision early on in Southbound that we were going to run the shoot kind of like a TV show—with each segment slotted into a 22-day production schedule," says Gillett. "As part of this design, we hired the same department heads to work on all of the stories, and while each segment is distinct, there’s an overall sensibility with these things that remains the same throughout. For these stories to exist in the same world and because there were specific moments of actual visual overlap between them, it was important to all of us that the segments looked like they belonged together. While we all continued to spend time on massaging these elements in our specific segments separate from each other, the final stages of both the color and sound were done with the entire team in the room to ensure that things felt unified.

This cohesion was made so much stronger when we brought on composers Louis Castle and James Bairian from The Gifted to create our score. As we were nearing a rough cut of the film, we all sat down with them and talked at length about the themes we were tackling throughout the film and the emotional beats that were similar from segment to segment. Based on that conversation, James and Louis designed a road map of cues and musical themes that they tweaked to fit each segment but sprinkled throughout the movie. Whether anybody notices it or not, the music is designed to help bring it all together."

Giving In To The Chaos

"The circumstances surrounding every project are always so different that there’s really no way to anticipate what’s going to go smoothly and what’s going to be a pain in the ass," says Gillett. "You do your best to align the things that you have control over and give your process the strongest engine, but at some point you have to let go and give in to the chaos a bit. The inevitable problems or challenges that arise are really opportunities to make interesting choices, and new ideas are always born out of this friction.

There were so many variables at play, so many things that could’ve gone wrong but didn’t, that we are still amazed we were able to pull it off. We were shooting in the middle of nowhere with a very small crew, no backup equipment, shooting incredibly tight days using a 1976 Ford truck that had to be in working condition the entire time and, by some miracle, it all worked out. Our ambition and our naiveté always seem to travel in tandem. For an anthology, you get to multiply all of these variables by X—however many segments there are. One of the most interesting parts of producing something like this this is that you’re essentially making a series of movies that all have their own unique variables. Dealing with these unpredictable elements of shooting on the various locations sometimes reveals ideas you never would have had otherwise."

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