Happy October! At New 32, it’s horror month as we prepare to launch our crowdfunding campaign for our upcoming feature film, Biters & Bleeders. For the month of October, we’re celebrating our favorite genre by talking about what makes horror so great. Spoiler alert, it’s what makes every genre great… it’s the creators. A few months back, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of Dylan Clark, an absolutely brilliant filmmaker. I was blown away by all his work, but I was particularly impressed by a short film called Portrait of God, which is available on Youtube. if you like horror and haven’t seen it, go watch it before we continue. It’s fine. I’ll wait.
Okay, you’re back? It was amazing, right?
Dylan brings an incredible thoughtfulness to all his work, and Portrait of God is no different. I love hearing the way that he conceptualizes what he does. I learned a lot from talking to him and I think you will too! Let’s dive in.
Introduce yourself! I’d love to hear about who you are and how you got your start in filmmaking.
My name is Dylan Clark and I’m a 22-year-old filmmaker from Northern Virginia. I started making films when I was nine years old while my family was living in Germany. My first short films were about superheroes and, as you can probably imagine, they were cinematic masterpieces (hardly). I loved making these projects with friends, but I never really felt satisfaction watching the finished projects. They didn’t quite live up to the bombastic spectacles in my head. Probably had something to do with the fact that our costumes were made out of duct tape and cardboard. Shortly thereafter, I started watching horror films and getting really into the genre. There’s something sort of taboo about horror films that’s exciting as a kid. I watched more and more and began to realize that some of these films were incredibly barebones productions. The Blair Witch Project, in particular, inspired me as a filmmaker and made me realize how much more I could do with so little in this genre. That’s really what lead me to the horror shorts I’m still doing today. I began to upload these short films to YouTube and enter them into local film festivals, and slowly, I grew from there. I decided that this was what I wanted to do for a career (writing and directing specifically), so I applied to film schools and found myself in upstate New York pursuing a film degree. I’m now in Los Angeles, learning more about the industry side of things and continuing to write and direct horror films.
One thing that I really loved about Portrait of God was the storytelling; it was simple and effective, and it wasn’t a story I’d seen anything like before, although, of course, religious horror is a space a lot of storytellers work in. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
Religious horror is one of my favorite subgenres. While this is the first short I’ve done that I’d fully qualify as religious horror, most of the writing I’ve done for feature-length projects has occupied that space. The idea for this project was originally based on an assessment of our resources. I knew that we had access to a room with black curtains and a projector. My goal was to figure out what the best and most frightening use of that space would be. There’s something really scary about barely being able to see someone (or something) in the dark. To make things even more frightening, what if only some people were able to see that thing? I ran with these ideas and settled on the portrait. It was only then that I realized how well religion meshed with these ideas. On such a tiny scale, with practically no budget, that’s usually how I’ve evolved ideas. They’re born out of our limitations and grow from there.
What’s your favorite horror movie and why do you love it? Did that movie influence Portrait of God or any of your other work?
It’s almost impossible for me to narrow down my favorite horror film, but one of my favorites that I think most closely influenced Portrait of God is The Blair Witch Project. Growing up in a house surrounded by woods, The Blair Witch Project naturally freaked me out to no end as a kid. On top of finding it incredibly scary, it proved to me that there was nothing holding me back from making a horror film in my backyard. I didn’t need equipment, I just needed a simple idea and the conviction to see it through. The minimalism that Blair Witch proved can be successful has shaped all of my projects including Portrait of God. It’s all about assessing your resources and finding a story that can let those things shine.
More broadly speaking, who or what inspires you as a filmmaker? Do you have favorite horror movies or directors whose work really speaks to you?
One director that I really admire is Guillermo del Toro. The beauty of his visual style speaks for itself, but it’s the way he injects so much heart into horror that really stands out to me. Mike Flanagan is a newer face that does this quite well too. Flanagan and del Toro both make sure that the quality of their style matches the quality of their substance and that’s something that I’m really striving for. Flanagan’s Midnight Mass in particular struck me as an incredibly interesting meditation on the beauty and horror that religion can breed.
What is your process for developing an idea for a short film? All indie filmmakers work with limitations–budget, time, crew size, etc–how does this inform your process?
Limitations are the best and worst parts of indie filmmaking. At times (often), these limitations feel nothing but constricting. It feels like there’s always some unforeseen problem hurdling toward you. On the other hand, if you assess your limitations and turn them into strengths, your best ideas are likely to spring forward. I’ll usually start developing an idea by writing down all the locations I have available to me. From there, I’ll figure out what kind of stories seem appropriate for those locations. Usually, that shrinks the canvas significantly, which isn’t a bad thing. For these horror shorts, I’ll usually try to figure out what the scariest moment or idea is that pairs with these locations. For instance, in Portrait of God, the projector was fundamental in constructing the scares for that script. From there, things get a little easier because you know what you’re working with. It’s all about assessing your resources and pivoting appropriately.
When you wrote the script, what scene were you proudest of? Did that change once you saw the final product?
The moment that I was proudest of in the script was when the projector screen is raised. I loved the idea of the figure continuing to appear in the dark even after the screen is gone. I think that moment translated most seamlessly from script to screen. There was a moment in the original script that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped in the film. Originally, we wanted the light in the figure’s throat to turn into the light from the projector in the room. That was meant to be the transition back to reality, rather than the image of her standing in front of the projector. I’m happy with how it turned out, but that parallel to the projector light was lost in translation sadly.
Your work is exceptional, but one thing that makes it stand out, even more, is the fact that you do so much of it yourself and work with such a small crew. What is that like? Are there ways in which it pushes you to be a better artist? Does your work as, say, the VFX artist inform your work as the director?
It’s the biggest blessing and curse to work with such a small crew. On the one hand, it ensures that everyone is totally on board and involved at all times. We’re moving fast, we’re thinking on the fly, and we have a lot of freedom with that. It helps all of us understand each other’s roles, we’re all wearing a lot of hats. On the other hand, we’re limited in what we can do, which can be frustrating at times. As for VFX, I think a basic understanding of visual effects is extremely helpful for projects like this. It helps me know exactly how we’re going to accomplish any given task and it helps me write projects around what I know is achievable. I’m of the mindset that a director should know at least a little bit about every department’s job and working on small projects like this helps with that.
Speaking of VFX, I’m obsessed with the design of the figure in the painting. Can you talk me through how you achieved that? What practical or special effects did you use?
The creature was a mix of practical and visual effects. We used a mask we bought online as a base for the creature’s face. I then added details, removed the seam, and made the shape of the figure far more skeletal in post. All of this looks hilariously dumb on camera, so it takes a lot of faith in the final product to see it through.
What made you decide to upload your work to youtube, and what has the reception been like? Do you have any advice for other filmmakers who might want to share their work online?
YouTube has become an amazing place for filmmakers to share their work. I uploaded my first project in 2013 (possibly earlier) and have continued to do so ever since. It took years and a stroke of luck for any of my projects to get attention. I think YouTube has a reputation for toxicity, and in some cases, that’s definitely true. The short horror community is really strong though, and audience reception is usually quite friendly. Every once in a while you’ll get a nasty comment, but you quickly learn to ignore them, and in the event that they include constructive feedback, that can be helpful (even if it hurts). Filmmakers have several options for distributing their films these days. There are two main ways to take it. The first is a festival run, which can be an excellent choice for getting your film in front of the eyes of other creatives and producers that you can meet in person. A festival run usually limits your ability to release your film online to a wide audience though, and that can be frustrating. When you spend months/years working on a project, you want it to be seen by as many people as possible. There are pros and cons to both options. I know other filmmakers who have only done festival runs, and much of their success has come from that. On the other hand, all of my professional luck has come from making connections and contacts on YouTube. There are pros and cons to both. There’s no one right answer to which is the better route to take.
More generally, what’s your best advice for filmmakers who are just starting out?
There are two things I’d suggest keeping in mind with any given project. The first is that your story deserves all the resources it needs to be made, but make sure you assess your resources first. You want to write a story about a haunted house but you can only shoot it in your apartment. Maybe reassess and configure your story around a haunted apartment. Play to what you have and turn what you have into something special. The second thing is that every project is going to feel like the most important thing you’ve ever worked on. It’s important to treat every project like it’s special, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s good to keep other projects alive in your head so that you have a heading when this one’s finished or once you need to move on. If you want to do this professionally, there will come a time when people ask you what you’re working on. Make sure there’s more than one thing. It’ll keep you busy and it’ll ensure that you don’t grow too attached to any one project.