What it's like to be a horror movie director
Meet Hannah Macpherson, horror director extraordinaire. Hannah is currently ~slaying~ as a director in the horror/thriller genre, often using social media as a realistically eerie subject for her work. Hannah recently released the horror film Sickhouse, the first movie to be produced completely on Snapchat.
Right now, she is directing the suspense thriller t@gged. Hannah describes the series as a story of “three teenage girls who are tagged in a video of another teen being murdered.” You can watch the first season (eleven 15-minute episodes) on go90, Verizon’s free app — and season two will be premiering soon. Here are three days in her life on the set of t@gged.
6:20 a.m.: My alarm blares. It’s been a very busy week of prep and I’ve been working late with the Director of Photography, Corey, to storyboard the 210 scenes in our digital series t@gged, so I gave myself an extra hour of ZZZs. I hit snooze a few times, too — why not? I won’t get much sleep the next few weeks. As I lay in bed, I repeat my mantra to myself with my eyes closed: I’m strong, I’m calm and I know what I want.
6:50 a.m.: I climb over a pile of laundry to take a shower. I’ve been prepping to shoot this show in Albuquerque, New Mexico (which is where I’m from) for four weeks — finding locations and casting actors. Plus, I’m still re-writing the script. My personal life is a mess.
7:15 a.m.: On the way to work, I listen to a few song choices my music supervisor sent over. One of our new characters, Zoe, turns up the radio and dances for another character in a romantic scene, and I’m still looking for the perfect song — a blend of romance and power. I’m stoked because I think we found it, Comodo’s “Rescue.”
7:35 a.m.: I’m the first one to the office, and I enjoy the quiet before the storm. I work on my shot list (listing the shots we’ve storyboarded as a cheat sheet for myself on set). We’ve had several last minute stressful location changes. We scouted some locations yesterday, which was exciting because it’s all coming together. But we are still missing a few key locations, and the clock is ticking.
Every day making a movie is chaos, you have to expect things to go wrong because they will, and the only thing you can control is how you react. I use my team and resources to come up with solutions. We create a safe, trusting, inspiring work environment because that’s how I believe you get the best work from cast and crew.
7:55 a.m.: I quickly go over the hair breakdown for our main characters with our stylist. We ask ourselves — is her emotional state, stress level, relationship status reflected in how she did her hair that morning? — because it should be.
9:00 a.m.: Tension is in the air as we scramble before the production meeting. I sit with my Assistant Directors for a moment, and we strategize how to tackle what will be a very long day. We have a hard laugh about something silly. The printer jams. We promised we wouldn’t print scripts and schedules last minute like last year, but it’s happening again.
9:15 a.m.: I make a quick phone call to discuss the one big role we still haven’t cast. Casting is a hard process because you’re not only looking for the best actor for each role, but also looking for the right ensemble. We finally think we found the right guy and I’m elated.
9:30 a.m.: Everyone is stressed about their bagels because the PA forgot the cream cheese, so no one notices that we are still frantically printing schedules and scripts. I send a Snapchat to my best girl in LA with the dog filter, because it makes me feel like a human.
9:37 a.m.: We start the production meeting. I always give a pep talk — I think it’s very important for team building. I look at everyone and thank them for giving their time and talents to this story that is so important to me. We are going to work our butts off, and as the director, I am responsible for setting the tone on set. I want to remind the team they are appreciated and that we are doing something special and cool as a family. I’m in my element. So happy.
12:30 p.m: We break for lunch. It’s taking longer than expected to go over the full script. I use the half hour break to write emails, greet the arriving actors, send a bunch of texts, and make a list of all the meetings we have to have… (meet with special effects to make sure they’re clear on the size of the blood pool, etc.).
2:17 p.m.: Next, I meet with makeup to see examples of scarring, busted knuckles, bruises, etc. Special Effects makeup is tricky because I think it can look fake on camera. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s important to test everything before you are on set. I get to spend an hour catching up with each of my three lead actresses — Lulu Antariksa, Katelyn Nacon, and Lia Marie Johnson.
5:15 p.m.: When I get to my office I see my mom has stopped by and left me a sunflower in a little vase. My family is very supportive and I feel very lucky.
5:17 p.m: The DP, Corey, and I start the storyboarding process again, trying to make sure we have a specific plan for all of our scenes. It’s difficult because I’m distracted every few minutes by department heads asking various questions about the production.
5:45 p.m.: I meet with our costume designer, Mallory, to go over the awesome new looks for our character, Elisia, this season — played by the The Walking Dead’s Katelyn Nacon.
7:07 p.m.: Corey and I finish storyboarding for the day. We have worked together for a long time (ten years on independent projects, short films, and music videos — eating cheap pizza for dinner and no one getting paid), and it’s so cool we are getting paid to make a digital series with a real budget together. Usually, we are pretty focused, but today we make too many jokes to get much work done. You can feel the excitement in the air since we are about to start shooting…
7:31 p.m.: I’m the first one to arrive for our cast dinner, so I take a second to breathe deeply. I look out over the garden outside the restaurant. I admire the dwindling New Mexican sunset, and I feel grateful. New Mexico has the best sunsets.
7:45 p.m.: The rest of the guests show up and we have an amazing dinner. It’s all women at the table. We mention being proud, powerhouse women, raise a glass, laugh hysterically, and reconnect. I am both scared and excited, but these relationships make everything come together, and they make all the hard work worth it.
10:17 p.m.: I drive to my sister’s house. She’s my best friend, and she’s been babysitting my tiny wiener dog, Stan (a girl pup with a boy’s name). Stan and I crawl into my bed at my rental house and indulge in my favorite guilty pleasure of late — trolling the Twitter feed for mentions of t@gged. I make sure to go to sleep before midnight. I have a big weekend of rehearsals with the actresses before we start shooting for five weeks.
12:05 a.m.: It’s just after midnight and we are filming a romantic scene between two characters. We are putting together a really cool, very noir shot in order to accentuate the tricky tone between fear and romance. We are really behind schedule, and I’m taking too long to try and get this scene just right. Our schedule is very ambitious and we have to move very fast to shoot as much as we do every day.
2:00 a.m.: I get us back on our desired schedule. I was an editor for a long time, so I have a good sense of exactly what we need to shoot. It’s been a hard day overall — we were delayed by bad weather, but I’m staying calm. And now I’m standing on a balcony overlooking the city with the producer, Melanie, and 1st AD, Smash — we are standing in for the three actresses. It’s a nice moment.
3:52 a.m.: We are wrapped for the night! I get locked in the upstairs bathroom — I forgot the door is broken and I can’t get out. I text our actress, Lia, because she locked herself in the same bathroom earlier that night. She comes to my rescue, and then tweets to her million followers what a dumbass I am.
4:11 a.m.: I eat two breakfast tacos and have a couple laughs with Smash, Corey, and our awesome L.A. producer, Jina, who read my script over a year ago and got the show greenlit at AwesomenessTV. We like to decompress together.
5:16 a.m.: Crawl into bed. I’m actually pretty emotional from this long week and from the pace at which we are moving. We had to fire someone this week and it was a very hard decision, but ultimately necessary in order to keep the show functioning at this level. I felt I had to compromise on a few scenes due to time restraints, and I’m frustrated, but I vow to sleep it off.
10:07 a.m.: Stumble to the bathroom like a zombie, and check my phone — one of our producers had her baby last night in L.A.! It’s inspiring to know women in the business who also have families. I don’t understand how they juggle both, as I barely find time to brush my teeth. I go back to sleep.
2:12 p.m.: I read an email from my lawyer about another project I am hoping to work on after I’m done shooting this. And I text our actor, Tim Granaderos, to make sure he got his tetanus shot. He cut his hand on a chain link fence in a scene two days ago — these actors literally bleed for their work and it’s so inspiring to collaborate with them.
4:07 p.m.: I arrive one hour early to set. I’m nervous for the first time in two weeks, and I don’t know why. I’ve gotten much better at controlling my emotional response to things, but this fear is eating away at my confidence. I think it’s because we will have two hundred extras present for the next scene, and it feels like I will have a large audience watching me direct.
5:33 p.m.: First shot is up. I get up on the dolly to watch the shot, and I find my confidence again – I know that I can do this because I have a great team and a strong vision.
6:16 p.m.: The head of marketing shows up on set — another inspiring woman. She’s coordinating all the press materials and photo shoots. She has exciting news: The Hollywood Reporter is going to exclusively announce t@gged season 2 the following morning. We are all thrilled! I take a private moment to celebrate internally. Then back to work!
9:20 p.m.: Everything is going really smoothly. Unlike most of our intense days, we are able to take our time with this scene.
10:54 p.m.: My sister texts me a picture of our dogs sleeping next to each other on her couch and it puts a smile on my face.
11:32 p.m.: Flipping through my Instagram feed while the camera guys swap lenses, I see a post that resonates with me — DON’T LET YESTERDAY TAKE UP TOO MUCH OF TODAY. We are doing great work, and we have to keep moving forward. Sometimes I can get stuck thinking about something I should’ve done differently. I don’t have time for that; we still have another six hours of shooting. I am strong, I am calm, I know what I want.
7:50 a.m.: I wake up naturally in my own bed and feel rested for the first time in a while. After we finished five grueling weeks of shooting, I flew to Vermont to speak on a panel at the ITVFest, which was an awesome opportunity. I did not let myself do any real work for four days. After a twelve hour drive from Albuquerque to L.A. with my mom, I’m ready to edit this show.
8:24 a.m.: From my favorite work station (my couch) I catch up on what feels like hundreds of emails. I snuggle my weiner dog, Stan. It’s great to have her back.
9:34 a.m.: My neighbor helps me move my entire life out of my car and back up into my apartment. Then I drive over to the AwesomenessTV office to do some editing. I call my manager on the way — it looks like my next project is falling into place! I never put all my eggs in one basket, so we talk about other things I will keep working on, but it’s exciting! I also call our Visual Effects Supervisor, who is the mastermind behind all the text and video graphics that live on screen in our show. We will be working together closely through post production.
11:05 a.m.: I sit down with my editors and we dialogue about our ridiculously ambitious schedule, our concerns, and the note-giving process. If anything in the episodes feel false — performance, camera work, music choices — we have to fix it or remove it. You make a movie three times — when it’s written, when it’s shot, and when it’s cut. When I switch from writer to director, I act like the script is garbage and I approach it with no sentimentality — and now I have no emotion about the footage I shot a week ago. Our only goal is to tell the story in the best way possible. I have no ego about it.
1:24 p.m.: I sit with the editor who is cutting episode 1, which we will deliver for producer’s notes in four days. I then work on slowing a romantic scene down — instead of constant dialogue, we see the the character look, bite her lip, bat her eyelashes, say a line, look, side smile, say a line, laugh shyly. And it’s coming to life.
2:14 p.m.: I catch up on future projects and everything else going on in my life, get a little writing done, organize myself, etc. My desk is in between the trash can and the printer, and my chair is literally in someone’s office doorway, but it already feels like home.
4:45 p.m.: I sit with the editor as he cuts episode 2, watching as he tries to make a moment scarier. I know we will find the exact pacing, and the right terrifying music will make it perfect.
5:34 p.m.: I go to Trader Joe’s and see some adorable couples. I wonder if I’ll ever make time for a boyfriend. I get a tiny lumpy pumpkin to put beside my door because it’s October (I always pick the lumpy pumpkins no one else could love). I adore autumn.
7:57 p.m.: I make dinner with my mom who will fly home to New Mexico in two days, and I’m so happy for her company.
9:11 p.m.: On my computer, on the couch, still answering more emails; plus, I have to watch two more rough edits and listen to some new music from the music supervisor. I love this job. It’s the job I wanted ever since I carried a VHS camera around when I was 12. I remind myself to go to bed before midnight.
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