Want to direct horror films? Shudder Labs is here to kickstart your nightmares

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Similar to the famed Sundance Labs that have helped foster the careers of such future A-list filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Cary Fukunaga, Shudder Labs — which held its inaugural edition earlier this month — invites a group of select filmmakers to attend a week-long retreat with established industry names to take their works-in-progress to the next level. The difference? Shudder Labs focuses its mentorship efforts on filmmakers working in the horror genre, providing them with the guidance of such genre vets as writer/director Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, The Last Winter), Snowfort Pictures CEO Travis Stevens and Lindsay Peters, Industry Director of the genre-centric Fantasia Film Festival and Director of the Frontières International Co-Production Market.

Shudder, for those unfamiliar, is a streaming service that focuses exclusively on horror films, and at $4.99 a month it’s an agreeably cheap way for fans of the genre to gain streaming access to films they probably won’t find on Netflix. In addition to mainstream classics like Hellraiser and An American Werewolf in London, the service is a treasure-trove of lesser-known efforts, from the 1974 Spanish zombie flick Let Sleeping Corpses Lie to Tourist Trap, the bizarre 1979 supernatural slasher that does telekinesis miles better that Friday the 13th Part VII ever did.

Just like the service that spawned it, Shudder Labs focuses its spotlight on a perennially under-appreciated genre; specifically, those who aspire to work within it who might otherwise be shut out of more established mentorship programs like Sundance. In the words of Shudder co-curator Sam Zimmerman, “there wasn’t anything like it specifically for genre, at least that I was aware of.” This year’s retreat brought a total of 11 filmmakers representing 10 projects out to the Mohonk Mountain House spa and resort in Hudson Valley, New York to workshop their percolating creative efforts. One of those fellows was Melody Cooper, a longtime playwright and screenwriter who’s currently employed as a Director of Talent Acquisition at BET Networks. Cooper’s project The Sound of Darkness, about a blind musician and a deaf sculptor who are haunted by the spirit of a woman only they can see and hear, centers on a diverse cast of characters and a theme of racial violence.

“As a woman, and also as a black woman, I think that there’s a lot I wasn’t seeing on the screen from the horror perspective that I wanted to…what we can bring to the genre is often overlooked,” Cooper told me via phone. “And then as a black woman, there’s a whole aspect to supernatural and to horror that has been unexplored and unexamined. I’m very interested in those who are unseen and unheard.”

Like essentially every genre produced in the Hollywood system, horror has historically championed the voices of predominantly white male filmmakers, and indeed, the industry’s most prominent purveyors of fright include such names as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, Eli Roth and the late Wes Craven (though it’s worth noting that Saw and The Conjuring director James Wan — arguably the 21st century’s most notable horror director — is a man of East Asian descent). Nonetheless, Cooper finds herself undaunted by a system that continues to overlook, to a just slightly-lesser degree, stories told by women and people of color.

“I’ve been writing and producing and involved in genre films, both sci-fi and horror, and I haven’t seen it as a struggle only because I’m going full speed ahead and just writing the stories that I want to see,” said Cooper. “There is a traditional way of looking at the genre that is the purview of men and white men, but that’s changing.”

It is traditionally undervalued voices like Cooper’s that can benefit from programs like Shudder Labs, and audiences too; though horror remains largely the territory of white male writers and directors, exciting genre filmmakers like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation) have helped to change the perception of what a horror director can look like, and with increased visibility and success comes the opportunity for an increasingly diverse pool of stories and perspectives that will only make the genre richer for fans. Not only are four of the program’s 11 fellows women (two of them black women), three of its nine “Masters-in-Residence” are also women, adding a more diverse bent to both sides of the equation.

The Masters-in-Residence not only provide a valuable networking opportunity for the Shudder Labs fellows, but it also brings an industry veteran’s perspective to bear on their creative process. One of the goals of the program is to offer pragmatic advice to the fellows on the business fundamentals of an industry that has successfully snuffed out more than a handful of dreams.

“It was sort of a two-headed thing, where how do we create a great creatively invigorating space, and how do we get more practical knowledge into everyone’s head?” said Zimmerman, who tapped professionals like Stevens, Peters and Glass Eye Pix producer Jennifer Wexler to provide a clear-eyed, brass-tacks perspective on the industry.

As far as fellow Chris LaMartina is concerned, it worked.

“[I learned] how to make content that sticks out,” said LaMartina, who wrote, directed and produced a handful of shoestring genre films before being chosen as a fellow. “What [horror projects] are people buying, and why? What is the psychological reasoning why certain horror films are more successful than others?…We got to have heart to hearts with people who are older and more experienced in the industry, but they weren’t bullshitting us and they talked to us as equals rather than like students, which is incredibly rare.”

LaMartina was accepted on the basis of his feature-length script What Happens Next Will Scare You, which centers on a group of “click-bait journalists” in danger of losing their jobs who discover they’ve inadvertently unleashed “malevolent forces” while researching viral videos for a Halloween listicle. While the logline sounds like a shallow high-concept exercise, it grew out of a real, current conflict from LaMartina’s life that echoes the experiences of anyone who has ever been forced to make creative and artistic compromises in order to hold on to their jobs.

“My full-time gig is I am a creative director at a marketing agency…literally, I was driving from [the shoot for] a commercial for a credit card company before I got on this call,” said LaMartina. “It’s [the movie premise] timely, but also because it’s thematic about where I am in my filmmaking journey, right? Right now there’s tons and tons of horror films being created, just like an incredibly oversaturated market, and you’re constantly doing jazz hands, so to speak, to get people to look at your movie. And to come to this moment where you’re making stories and you’re like, ‘are we doing things just to be sensational? [And] while we’re doing that, are we still producing meaningful work?’ The character in my story is caught between two worlds: trying to get eyes on their content but also [to] be a true artist.”

It’s a quote that could easily be used to sum up the appeal of Shudder Labs, a program that aims to coach horror filmmakers with smart, unique visions how to thrive in an industry that tends to prioritize profits over all else. For LaMartina and Cooper, it seems to have provided the extra confidence boost they needed to get their respective projects off the ground: Cooper is filming a “proof of concept” short for The Sound of Darkness this August, while LaMartina is slated to being shooting What Happens Next Will Scare You in the fall.

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