Going to Extremes: To Create Horror That Shatters the Senses, Be Sensitive to Emotional Extremity

Everyone who knows me well knows that since I was very young—five, six years old—I kept saying, “I want to be a director!” But mostly, I wanted to be a horror director.

I have always been obsessed with, and deeply invested in, horror cinema. Horror movies were my company in the solitude of my early childhood through adolescence. They gave me the strength to face the unthinkable, and the freedom to conceive of ideas that in normal, everyday life would have you labeled an outcast. 

One of the first of what the French call “shock” films that I saw was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Though it wasn’t a horror film, I was terrified as I watched the creatures of Jason and the Argonauts. At age seven, Psycho was my first ever Hitchcock film… good lord, how much that film has stuck with me! When my parents took me to see Apocalypse Now, I was subjected to another non-horror movie that nonetheless induced a heightened, horrific experience. After enduring these primal shocks, I started to look for more, more, more—from Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, to the films of George Romero, all of which became important influences.

Later, I discovered another of the genres I love most: melodrama. Both horror and melodrama are about a sense of heightened reality. They both exemplify how to use emotion and exasperate it to allow your audience to reach some immediate understanding. In horror, that comes from a sense of fear, anxiety, and the threat of violence. In melodrama, it comes from a sense of commotion, of impossibility, and of a separation between people.

Red Flag: Dance director Madame Blanc’s (Tilda Swinton) eccentric methods raise eyebrows among her students at Suspiria‘s shadowy Markos Academy. Photograph by Alessio Bolzoni, courtesy of Amazon Studios

At the time I saw Dario Argento’s Suspiria—the tale of an American ballet student who attends a dance academy run by witches—the emotion I felt was one of bewilderment, displacement, and at the same time, familiarity. At 13, 14 years old, the movie was essential in developing my understanding of powerful women. It depicted an environment full of oppression, and yet there was a beauty to it. It was seductive, had a kind of singularity, and a command of sound that affected my nervous system.

Because screenwriter David Kajganich and I were so invested in building properly layered, nuanced characters in our version of Suspiria, we focused on making the extremities horror brings with it more bearable by rooting them in the emotional extremity of melodrama. A member of an audience watching a horror movie cannot escape the experience, and for that reason, seeing a horror movie is already sentimental: As you sit in the theater, you decide to either look at the screen or not look at it. But I wanted to explore whether one can perceive a horror film in its truest sense—as a humanistic experience. How would that feel as an audience member?

Argento’s movie is a self-contained realm of phantasmagoria, separate from the rest of the world. It’s not open to dealing with a reality beyond the story he tells. My crew and I decided to set our Suspiria in 1977—the year Argento’s movie came out—and in the same town in Germany that Argento’s film is set, somewhere north of Berlin. But because we wanted to bring our movie into the reality of that time and place, we took the complete opposite approach: We didn’t build our world in a fantastical way, but rather upon the traditions and social and cultural dialogue of ’70s Germany, to explore the people who lived during the period. 

This meant that cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, production designer Inbal Weinberg, and I had to think of the film’s visual language as something reflective of German autumn—a season that exists in muted browns, blues, and greens. In a way, these colors mourn the catastrophe of that post-war society, and reflect the ways in which its people deal with what happened to them just a few years prior, and what was destroyed in the process. All of these layers, once intertwined, are what work to create an unsettling feeling.

Another precise choice my producers and I made: Whatever happened in Suspiria was to happen in one single location, and the ambiance of that location had to be experienced by the audience in a fulfilling way. To achieve this, you can’t shoot with a sort of stage-y feeling; to do so would be to reduce the physical space you’re trying to explore. 

Learning the Ropes: Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, C) and her fellow dancers master bewitching choreography under the direction of the Markos Academy. Photograph by Alessio Bolzoni, courtesy of Amazon Studios

For the location that became the Markos Dance Academy, I settled on the The Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori—a hotel that’s been abandoned for almost 45 years on top of a mountain overlooking the city of Varese, Italy. The hotel was built by an important Art Nouveau architect, and was one of the hottest spots for high society to dine in of the last century. The Germany we were looking for was the Germany coming off of the modern art deco movement—from which there developed a rigorous, schematic sense of what an artist, and architecture, should be. We completely transformed the spaces I chose to focus on within the hotel, recreating the flourishes, curls, and rigid, German art deco style that started by the great Austrian architect Adolf Loos. 

Our task was to make sure that the audience would feel that they’re in that building all the time. The way we shot the windows of the hotel was instrumental in this process, as we could see both East and West Berlin through the windows constantly, and we called upon many photographic references to recreate Suspiria’s Berlin Wall as close as possible to its actual counterpoint. Throughout each phase of production, all of these design elements serve as a guide in locating your horror film’s look and sense of place. 

When directing scenes of violence—like the brutal dance sequences in our version of Suspiria—it’s always important that the position of your camera never gives the sense that you’re abusing your power over your characters and audience. That means not being sadistic—showing violence for what it is, which is something very abominable, and not making it too complex. A movie I love—one of the greatest of the ’90s—is Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. In that film, protagonist Nomi Malone, played by Elizabeth Berkley, is asked to audition to perform in the chorus line of Goddess. The producer seizes her and executes a crushing, objectifying act of violence against her, as he says, “You don’t have your nipples erect.” He asks her to pinch herself and put ice on her nipples so she can get them hard. Showgirls is infamous for what is considered to be lewd content, but if you look closely, you’ll see that this moment never shows Nomi’s breast to depict the violent intent of this man toward her in his effort to empower himself. Instead, the scene is all about the way the ice she’s holding reacts to his violent advances. That’s a lesson in direction, and a lesson in directing violence. You could find a lot of examples of bad direction of violence—of something that makes you happy to experience violence. But I don’t want my audience to be happy experiencing violence. I want my audience to feel bad about violence, and at the same time, to feel bad specifically because of what is at stake.

Gast and Crew: Luca Guadagnino (R) directs Ingrid Caven (L) in the role of Miss Vendegast on the set of Suspiria

Whether you’re working in horror or in any genre, great moviemaking is about making sure you always shoot precisely. Moviemaking is about how each action has a consequence, and as a writer, as a director, during the editing process, and in your marketing, you must behave in a very consequential way. The consequence of Suspiria is a powerful effect that’s stayed with me 34 years after I saw it: It showed me that a horror movie could be something deep—something capable of making me associate what was in my imagination with a world that goes beyond the reel of the film. It made me believe that in cinema, everything is possible. MM

—As told to Max Weinstein

Suspiria opens in theaters November 2, 2018, courtesy of Amazon Studios. All images courtesy of Amazon Studios. Featured Image: Street-Casting: Guadagnino was exacting in his location choices to set the stark, cold tone of Suspiria‘s 1970s Germany backdrop. 

This article appears in MovieMakers 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.

1 Comment

  1. Marcus Kempton

    November 2, 2018 at 9:38 am

    Interesting observation on the severely underrated SHOWGIRLS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.