Steven DeGennaro is a writer/director whose latest project is Found Footage 3D. He was generous enough to take time out of his busy post-production schedule to take part in this interview. After chatting with Steven and watching his short film First Date, I have put him on my directors to watch list, and you should too. His work is genre-bending and original. Enough of my yammering let’s get to the conversation.
Where are you from?
I was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey, and then moved to Fort Lauderdale, FL, when I was 10. I went to college in Houston, and then moved to Austin shortly thereafter, which is where I’ve lived now for almost 15 years. So I consider Austin home and don’t plan on ever leaving.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Rice University in Houston for my undergrad, and got my Masters and PhD from UT Austin.
What is your earliest film memory?
Honestly, I don’t remember a time when film wasn’t a part of my life and my world. Growing up, we had Star Wars and Superman II on VHS, and they were in constant rotation in my house. We had taped them both off of HBO, and I guess that my parents or my brother had failed to get the tape in in time for the beginning of Star Wars, so the version that we had began right as Darth Vader blasts into the Rebel Cruiser for the first time. So I don’t think that I ever saw the opening crawl or the iconic opening shot of the film until well into adulthood.
One of my first memories of watching something in a theater was Return of the Jedi at 6 years old. I got so wrapped up in the story that when the Emperor was blasting Luke with bolts of lightning at the end, I stood up in my seat and shouted “No Luke!!!” So, like most filmmakers of my generation, I was very much raised on Star Wars.
When did you decide to pursue film making as a career? Was there a film that made you say “yeah I can do that”
I always wanted to be a director, from the time that I was a little kid. And I was involved in theater all through school and college very actively. I made a couple of short documentaries on VHS my senior year in college, but somehow the idea of pursuing it as career is not something that really occurred to me at the time. I’m a musician and a sound engineer, so when I moved to Austin, I spent the first few years here working various jobs and trying to get a band together. When that didn’t really pan out, I went back to school and started the PhD program in Astronomy at UT. All the while, I dabbled in writing some (pretty terrible) scripts off and on, but I never really pursued it too seriously. It just always seemed like something that you had to know people to break into, or else move to L.A.
And then one day I was working my way through the extras on The Lord of the Rings DVDs, and there was a moment where something just clicked. It was like a switch got flipped, and I decided that it was time to take the idea of working on movies much more seriously. The experience that they went through making those movies just seemed so intense and amazing, and I remembered how much I loved doing theater in school. How exhausting and intense it was, but how incredible it felt to be creating something with a group of people and how they always ended up feeling like family in a few short weeks.
So I went down to my bedroom and I started to write. And three weeks later, I had my second (still terrible) feature script written. And I bought every book I could find about screenwriting and I joined some online writing groups and I worked at it and by script number three, I felt like I was getting pretty good at it.
While I did that, I started volunteering on student movies doing sound, and I learned a lot about filmmaking just by being on sets and seeing what people were doing right and what people were doing wrong.
I was in the last few years of my PhD at that point, and I still wasn’t sure whether I could or would pursue filmmaking as a career. But there came a moment while I was working on a short film at the same time as I was going through the referee process on my first published journal paper. It occurred to me that this paper that I had spent 3 years writing would be published in the top journal in the field and then would be of interest to about 6 people in the entire world, 5 of whom were co-authors (3 of whom probably hadn’t read the whole paper all the way through). Meanwhile, I was working on a mediocre student film that might play two or three festivals, but I was having the time of my life. And being on set was the most alive I had felt probably ever, even when I was tired from lack of sleep and irritated because the DP kept making my life difficult and all the other petty frustrations that happen on a film set. So it was suddenly obvious to me that if I had to spend the rest of my life writing scientific papers that no one ever reads, or working on movies that no one ever sees, I’d much rather do the latter. Of course, I ultimately want to work on movies that everyone sees, but if that never manages to happen, I’m content to keep working because I love the process.
And then, of course, I ultimately realized that if these people were making their own movies, then I certainly could, too. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked on some really great stuff in my career as a sound guy that I’m very proud to be associated with, but I’ve also worked on some real stinkers. Stinkers that costs hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars. So once I felt like I had some stories worth telling, I started making my own shorts and eventually worked my way up to producing and directing a feature.
Wow. We could not have had more different reactions to the same material. If anything, going through the “Appendices” on the Lord of the Rings DVDs made me realize I could never make a film on that scale. It reminded how stressful the little shorts I made in high school and college could be. You know in an abstract way the number of choices that go into those films would be overwhelming but when they actually start laying out all of those choices, it was such a massive undertaking its amazing they even finished those films.
Your film First Date is a comedy but it certainly has horrific moments. Will your latest project – Found Footage 3D – have a similar tone or will it be more straight forward horror?
In some ways it’s similar, in some ways it’s totally different. First Date is a comedy that uses the traditional rhythms and structure and shot choices of a horror film for comedic effect. Found Footage 3D kind of does the opposite. It uses humor to lull you into a false sense of security and then essentially sucker punches you with all-out horror. I consider FF3D a horror movie, not a horror-comedy. Yes it has humor and can be very funny, but at the end of the day, its primary purpose is to scare you.
From the beginning, the movie that I set out to make was sort of the Scream of the found footage genre. Scream was brilliant because it made fun of the very genre that it was part of and simultaneously showed you how effective that genre can be when it’s done right. It’s one of the scariest movies ever made, in my opinion, and the humor and commentary on horror movie tropes is woven into the story so well that it never feels like a joke that’s winking at the audience. So despite its obvious sense of humor and playfulness, I don’t know many people who would classify Scream as a horror-comedy in the same way that, say, Evil Dead 2 or Shaun of the Dead are.
So that’s really the kind of tone that FF3D is trying to hit.
Scream was a great movie. It unfortunately was so good that it screwed up mainstream horror films for a couple years. Most of the Scream imitators winked at the camera and forgot to be scary. It seems like its a difficult balance to achieve in that not many film makers have pulled it off. Of course movies like An American Werewolf in London or Excision pulled it off beautifully but how do you make somebody laugh without sacrificing the scares?
To me, horror and humor are inextricably linked. Evolutionarily speaking, laughter is meant to be a signal to other members of the group/tribe that even though something scary just happened, everyone is fine so don’t worry. Think about where a lot of comedy comes from—especially physical comedy. Someone bonks their head really hard or trips and falls down the stairs. Those things could easily cause serious injury or be fatal, in which case: horror. Or the person could be totally okay, in which case nearly everyone’s first instinct is to laugh. The line between the two can be incredibly close.
There are a lot of moments in FF3D that really try to walk straight down the middle of that line. Moments that play with the idea of not immediately knowing which reaction you are supposed to have. If we’ve done our jobs right, there are several moments in the film where I really want people to get one chuckle out before realizing, “Oh shit… this just got real.” Or the opposite: “Wow, that was intense. Ha ha ha!”
From a filmmaking point of view, comedy and horror are both about subverting people’s expectations and surprising them. They are all in the timing and in the reactions of the characters in the world giving you cues. So it’s definitely not easy to combine the two, but when you have a group of actors that are as amazingly talented as the ones in our movie, it makes your job much much easier. These guys did such a great job and I’m really proud of the work they did.
At the end of the day, I think that’s the most important thing in any movie, but it’s especially important when you are trying to walk that fine line between funny and scary. You have to have characters that people care about. You have to be genuinely frightened for them when scary stuff happens, and you have to always be laughing with them rather than at them when they are being funny. If you treat your characters with contempt for a cheap laugh, then you aren’t going to convince anyone to care about them enough to be scared when the shit hits the fan, and that’s where I think a lot of horror movies go wrong.
FF3D combines two elements that at one time would have been considered gimmicks but are now fairly common storytelling devices. Did you decide to make a found footage movie in 3D and use that as your starting point or did you have the story in place and decide that telling that story would be better serviced by using the found footage and 3D devices?
The whole “Scream of the found footage genre” came first. It wasn’t until several drafts into the script that I came up with the 3D idea. By that time, the characters were fairly well established, and the idea that the guy who is producing their fictional movie Spectre of Death would think it was a really clever idea to make a found footage movie in 3D, even though that makes no real sense on the surface. So he does it for all the wrong reasons, which allows us to introduce the “gimmick” in a very organic way.
But then, as I played with the idea more in my head and started to work it into the script, I realized that it makes a lot more sense than I gave it credit for. And by the time I finished the final draft, it was an essential part of the story, not just from a plot point of view, but in how we decided to use the 3D to enhance the storytelling.
We just posted a video on our website that does a better job of explaining it that I can fully do in words, but the basic idea is that a 3D camcorder like the ones we shot on have a practically limitless depth of field. What that means is that everything in the shot is in focus at the same time, whether it’s close to the camera or really far away. And what that does is it allows the viewer to choose what to look at, the same way you would in real life, rather than be forced to only look at one plane in the depth of the shot because that’s the only thing that’s actually in focus. So it’s immersive in a way that a more traditionally-shot 3D film can be. And that really plays perfectly into the entire raison d’etre of found footage, which is feeling like you are actually there experiencing events unfold the same way that the characters do.
And then we have our evil entity, the “Spectre”. Since the Spectre is explicitly a creation of the film that they are shooting, and since it only exists inside the footage, it has abilities that wouldn’t make any sense in a non found-footage movie. So it can do things like move between different computer monitors by coming into or out of the plane of the screen. It can appear to the audience in only the left eye but not the right eye. It can cross the boundary between two different shots when they are split-screened. Combining found footage and 3D gives us opportunities to do things that no found footage or 3D movie has ever been able to do before, which is really exciting to me as a filmmaker and a storyteller.
Last year was a hell of a year for found footage horror with Willow Creek, The Sacrament and Afflicted all being personal favorites. What attracted you to the found footage genre?
I haven’t seen Willow Creek yet, but The Sacrament is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. To me, it’s up there with Blair Witch among the best the genre has to offer. I’ve been a fan of the genre ever since I saw Blair Witch in the theater. It scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t one of the people that got tricked into believing that it was actually real. I knew it was fiction. And yet, sitting there in the theater I got absorbed into the story in a way that had never happened before. Because it was so incredibly good at maintaining that level of realism, after about 20 minutes, I forgot I was watching fiction. Part of my brain knew that these were actors, but I got so wrapped up in the moment that a much larger part of my brain really felt like it was real. That, to me, is the real power of found footage when it’s done right. There’s a certain buffer that disappears. Obviously any good movie has the power to absorb you in the story and make you feel for the characters, but there’s still always some part of you that is consciously aware that what you are watching is fake. Found footage doesn’t allow you that comfort, which is part of the reason I think that most found footage movies are horror movies. Because breaking down that barrier makes you so much more vulnerable. There are so many things that would be terrifying in real life that get treated in such a trivial way in the heightened reality of movies. Found footage, when it’s done well, makes those things scary again.
You are currently in post production on FF3D. When do you think the film will completed?
We are currently aiming to have a cut ready to go by the SXSW deadline, which is mid-November. After that, it’s up to our audience. If they want to see the movie, then hopefully a big distributor will get behind it and get us a wide release. I really want people to see this in a theater, because the 3D is so important to the experience. Of course it will still make sense and be enjoyable to people who can only see it in 2D, but it will definitely lose something awesome in the process.
Your film is from “The producers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre“. What’s it like to see those words above the title of a film you wrote and directed?
It’s pretty cool. It’s funny how quickly you get used to some things, though. When I first met Kim [Henkel] I was all star struck and nervous around him. This was the guy who invented Leatherface, for crying out loud! So it was a little intimidating. But then we spent the next 6 or 8 months meeting every few weeks and really honing the script, and I hung out at his house to watch boxing. So now he’s just Kim, which is awesome.
But from the beginning, Kim has believed in my abilities as a director, which is humbling and gratifying. He’s fond of saying that he has “complete faith in my ability to translate from script to screen”. I mean, this is a guy who’s worked several times with Tobe Hooper. And he decided to put his name on my film because he believed in the film and he believed in me, and the movie probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So I’m really grateful to him and I hope that he’s proud of the finished product when we are done.
I also really hope that he’s willing to keep working with me in the future, because there is no one in this business that I have ever gotten more detailed, thoughtful, and dead-on script notes from than Kim. The dude knows his stuff, and he read every single draft with the same care and attention as if he were reading it for the first time.
What are you working on next?
Next? There’s a next? I have to get through this one, first.
You can find more information about Stevens work on: