Danial Donai: Top Tips on Horror Filmmaking

October 29, 2019
Ex-Arnie stunt double creates new lease of life making horror films; and this Halloween, he’s sharing his five top tips on horror filmmaking and how to ‘kill it’.

Since the age of 4, I’ve always been gifted as a story-teller which has come in very handy these days as a writer and director.

I remember in detail every set I ever worked on over my career in Hollywood, and whenever I had the chance to watch and learn from the director, or any of the heads of departments or even the cast & crew, I would watch intently to what they all did to make the story of the movie come to life. If they didn’t look busy, I would ask questions about what it was they were doing, and why? I even remember getting the courage to ask Clint Eastwood a question on his movie The Rookie and he politely gave me the answers, which I’ve carried with me to this day.

As a filmmaker, I believe you need to know everyone’s job on and off set and what it is that they do exactly. That way, when it’s your turn to make a film you’ll know that it takes a collaboration of talented people to tell a story. Now, as a director I’m able to relate my thoughts and vision to my cast and crew and they will be able to relate theirs to mine; and doing all this has helped me better understand how to tell a story and thrill an audience, either through reading one of my screenplays or a novel or movie I’m making or have made.

With six thrillers on my slate of films that I have written, and two more which are sequels to my film released earlier this year, Chiroptera, I’m the type of storyteller who loves the thrill of films that can entertain as well as scare – and I’m sharing my five top tips on how to nail horror films if you’re going to try your hand at this.

Danial directing Actor William Wensley on Bat Outta Hell

#1: You need a great villain.

Think about every horror film you’ve ever watched, like some of the classics Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining or It. Every single great horror film has an awesome villain that takes the story to the best it can be. If it’s not a sole character, it’s an entity, or something (anything) ‘evil’ that makes for a great story. Whether they be a real, living and breathing character or something more supernatural, that’s totally up to you – but make sure they have a story and a reason why they are the way they are.

Speaking of great villains, one example can be taken from a film I’m currently working on called Scarface; an ocean thriller based on true, gruesome events. Picture my villain ‘Scarface’ – a Great White Shark terrorizing the east coast of Australia, while two shark hunting brothers chase the monster as it continues its killing spree up the Queensland coast, in hopes to capture Scarface for a handsome reward. Our shark villain promises to blow classics like Jaws and Dead Calm out of the water.

#2: Remember the story alone isn’t enough – you need great and interesting actors.

This may seem like an obvious one, but something to remember about horror films is that the story alone isn’t enough to carry it into success. A talented cast is needed to bring it to life and help viewers become immersed in the thrill of it, through the perspective of characters that are convincing, and that they can relate to.

#3: Plan your ‘scare moments’ carefully.

Strategic planning of your moments that shock and scare viewers can help draw your audience into the most tense scenes of the film. Creating scares when they least expect it (in other words, ‘jump scares’) is another way to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

#4: Find interesting and creepy locations.

Don’t underestimate the simple power of the locations of your film. If you don’t know where to start, think of your film and the best horror movies you’ve seen before – and how the environment can easily play into the scare factor of the film. Invest in taking the time to find the best locations suited for your storyline and go all out.

#5: Remember that directing and shooting a horror story is just the first part of filmmaking. You need to also prioritise a creative edit.

Have you ever found yourself watching a horror film and turning the volume down in anticipation of a jump scare? Doesn’t work, right. The second part of nailing horror movies is the creative edit, while the third (and my personal favourite) part is the sound design and visual effects. I always make sure I’m part of this process. and using products from Blackmagic Design has helped my team and me to create Hollywood-grade movies within a humble budget, but without skimping on the quality of our work.

Danial Donai has written and produced two bone-chilling thrillers, Bat Outta Hell and Chiroptera, based on the novel he wrote entitled The Night Flyers. He’s currently working on an ocean thriller (think Jaws meets The Shallows) called Scarface, based on true, gruesome events that took place on our shores. 


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