“Amateur Night,” about a trio of guys who pick up a strange girl and bring her to their motel room, only to discover that she’s more than meets the eye, was an audience-favorite segment from the 2012 horror anthology V/H/S.
Now the short, which was directed by David Bruckner and written by Bruckner and Nicholas Tecosky, has been adapted into the feature SiREN. With “Amateur Night’s” Hannah Fierman reprising her role as the creepy Lily, it marks the first (to our knowledge) adaptation of an anthology segment to a full-length feature. We asked SiREN director Gregg Bishop and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski to talk about their singular process.
The Writers: Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski
Our manager first presented us with the “Amateur Night” segment from horror anthology V/H/S as a directing sample for director David Bruckner. We were blown away by the craft and intelligence that went into the entire production, and even joked that the conceit benefitted so much from the short format that it was near-impossible to imagine it as a feature. We met and became friends with Bruckner and later, when the opportunity became available to us, we fought hard to get the job and started the long process of determining exactly how and what a feature film adaptation might look like.
While it could be argued that Bruckner’s use of the POV camera technique is one of the strongest in the entire found-footage subgenre, we quickly recognized that the biggest strength of the short would be the greatest hindrance to a feature. And so, very early on, we decided to dispense with cameras and/or found footage altogether, and explore all the other aspects that made the short so effective.
This meant that the intention could not be to straight-up adapt the V/H/S segment. “Amateur Night” is a short story and it’s perfectly told. It sets the tone, relates a single event and then scares the shit out of you with the reveal. The end. To expand on that particular narrative would only lessen its impact.
The key was to look at what made the property feel special, what made it unique. The answer? Sex and violence. Sure, most horror movies contain sex and violence, but David Bruckner and his writing partner Nicholas Tecosky made a horror movie that’s actually about those things, and the relationship between them. The themes are rich, evocative… and troubling. Just like the character of Lily (Hannah Fierman): half beautiful woman, half vicious monster, she blurs the line between what’s terrifying and what’s a turn-on. Sex is often seen as the ultimate expression of love, but there’s something undeniably animal and predatory about desire and, just as often, it’s a disruptive, even destructive force in people’s lives, particularly when it comes to relationships.
We knew right away that if we were going to craft a new scenario for Lily, it would have to be sexually charged. We explored several different paths before Bruckner finally brought up the idea of a bachelor party. There’s something vaguely threatening about the tradition: this bizarre rite of passage where the groom is forced to participate in rituals of temptation and debauchery. Dancing, chanting, drinking strange concoctions, all in celebration of a sort of willing sacrifice, a symbolic loss of freedom? It certainly seemed like fertile ground to explore similar themes on a grander scale. The guys Lily comes across in the short represent a very specific and aggressive brand of toxic masculinity. They’re after one thing. But a groom just days before his wedding? What is he after? And what does he fear?
This scenario helped give the feature an identity and agenda of its own. It ceased to be a spin-off of a V/H/S segment and simply became a horror film about a bachelor party. What’s the nightmare version of a bad trip? Of a blackout? Of a misguided hook-up? What’s the supernatural horror movie answer to the question “What happened last night?” Those became our guidelines during development. It wasn’t about “Amateur Night” anymore, it was about SiREN. The ties to the original are there and they’re fun for fans, but we made the conscious decision to not be beholden to anything. From tone to perspective to mythology, it was all up for grabs. That said, we did take pains to ensure that, in the end, nothing in one story contradicted the other.
As writers, what we tried to respect more than anything wasn’t what came before, but rather the character of Lily herself. She’s a powerful image but potentially a problematic one. When your horror film revolves around the idea of a naked woman who is literally a monster, you’ve got to tread carefully. Lily isn’t human but she is undeniably feminine. We had no interest in crafting a film that characterized femininity as villainous. Quite the opposite, if anything, but even that’s too simple. In the early stages, it wasn’t so much about knowing what we wanted to say, as it was about making sure we weren’t saying something that we didn’t want to say.
In the end it was about marrying the confrontational power of “Amateur Night” with the thematic concerns of the bachelor party setup of SiREN to make a fun, scary, original movie that blurs lines, just like Lily. Is it better to control or be controlled? To restrain our desires or release them?
The Director: Gregg Bishop
When I was approached about directing SiREN, David Bruckner had been developing the script with the writers for over a year. “Amateur Night” was one of my favorite shorts from the V/H/S series, but I had no interest in just remaking it into a feature-length film. The set-up of a group of guys picking up a girl at a bar and bringing her back to their hotel room only to discover that she’s not what she appears to be was a perfect, simple story for a 20 minute short. But in order to expand this concept into a feature-length movie, it needed a new story engine that could drive a 90 minute narrative.
Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski created that new story engine with the premise of Lily being locked up in a strange, supernatural sex club and the groom-to-be rescuing her on the night of his bachelor party, which leads to a three-way chase between the bachelor party guys, the proprietor of the club and the creature.
Since I was stepping in to direct a movie that was based on a short film created by Bruckner, it was important to me to first get inside his head, before I imposed any kind of vision on the material. David was extremely generous and handed over his “Amateur Night” file packed with notes, several drafts of the script, photos that inspired him and creature designs. I then took him and the writers out for beers and picked their brains for hours. Once I had a sense of what drove them to make the creative decisions that they made, I felt I could get in sync with them and play from the same sheet of music. It was a wonderful collaboration and we were all fast friends.
The primary element that we carried over from the short was, of course, the character of Lily, who is a fascinatingly misunderstood monster in the vein of King Kong or Frankenstein. There were always questions around what Lily actually was: Was she a succubus? A harpy? A demon? Bruckner always said that she was her own entity, but when the writers brought the idea of the siren song to him, he felt it spoke more clearly to what she was, and we all felt it really worked for the feature story.
Eighty percent of my job as a director is casting. The suits were pushing to look at other actresses for the role of Lily, but I knew we just couldn’t make this movie without Hannah Fierman. She was absolutely irreplaceable and the reason that the character was so iconic.
The bro characters in the short film were designed to be a bunch of irredeemable jackasses who got what they deserved. Characters this abrasive would be unbearable for an audience to endure for 90 minutes. With SiREN, it was important to all of us to empathize with our heroes for the duration of the movie, keep the characters smart and pull for them to survive. We were able to ground the supernatural elements of the movie by casting talented actors who evoked empathy and were capable of intense human emotion.
Dropping the found-footage format that was used in V/H/S was a decision that was made early in development. The traditional narrative style allowed us to open up the scope of the story and make it more cinematic and expansive. However, I did echo some shots from “Amateur Night” by shooting most of the coverage of Lily in our hero’s point-of-view, versus a standard over-the-shoulder shot. There is just something intimate and unnerving about Hannah Fierman as Lily looking directly at the camera and into the audience’s eyes.
The horror movies that resonate with me were built around personal or social anxieties that elevate the genre aspects of the film. Genre elements by themselves usually aren’t that interesting. Everyone knows that succubi or zombies or vampires or werewolves aren’t real, therefore they aren’t really that scary. On the surface, SiREN is a fun, heart-pounding roller-coaster ride of a monster movie packed with scares, twists and dark fantasy. But on a foundational level, it is a relatable human story that deals with the fears of losing one’s freedoms and the anxieties of commitment. MM
SiREN opened in theaters and VOD, Digital HD and DVD December 2, 2016, courtesy of Chiller Films.