Blood, Guts, and Budgets: Kim Sherman
The producer with credits include V/H/S, You're Next, and A Horrible Way To Die talks about the challenges of overnight shoots, blenders to the head, and real cabins in the woods.
Crossbow murders and stabbings through the throat are a typical day on set for Kim Sherman. A producer whose horror credits including A Horrible Way to Die, V/H/S, and You’re Next, an indie slasher which scooped up 16 film fest awards, Sherman has produced some of the most gruesome indie films of the past few years. A strict departure from her other projects—Sherman has also been a producer on festival darlings including Wild Canaries, Sun Don’t Shine, and A Teacher —horror comes with its own unique set of ghoulish challenges she says. Here are the scary realities behind producing award-winning thrills.
Get In Media: Are there challenges that are specific to horror movie production?
Kim Sherman: I’ve shot a lot of films that happen have a lot of gore and gags and even stunts. I don’t think that’s particular to horror. You see that in action films as well, but, for instance in You’re Next, we had to troubleshoot … there’s a scene in which one of the characters is ultimately destroyed by a blender going into his head. You have to cleverly come up with and work with a really great special effects team that can build these apparatuses that are safe for the actors to do this effect that someone’s head is being annihilated by a blender. A lot of things that are not real, that are purely imagination, and that would likely never exist in real life, you have to kind of come up with them and fabricate them. That’s not something I come across very often in the other dramas and comedies that I’ve worked on.
GIM: Does that affect your role as a producer when there’s an effect like death by blender?
KS: From the beginning as a producer, you go through and you do a breakdown of the script and you identify costs; my role starts there and then as the film goes on and as you work with prep and you work with your team, you identify people that you think are going to be the best at fabricating and working with your director and carrying out the vision that your director has for that particular item. On set, it’s really just making sure that the director has checked in with the special effects team and making sure the special effects team is carrying out the wishes of the director. Just letting people do their jobs and trusting that they will and checking in with them to make sure that they have what they need to actually carry these things out. It’s getting out of the way at times too. I think that one trick of a producer is knowing when you need to be really hands on and really guiding everyone, and knowing when you need to step back and let people do their thing and figure things out.
GIM: What was your biggest challenge on You’re Next?
KS: Battling overnights. We shot mostly overnights and that was really hard on the crew. It was a hard set for many reasons. We had very little in the way of resources and we had very few shooting days, but we had a pretty substantial script to get through, a lot of dialogue and a lot of stunts and a lot of gag effects. People needed energy to be able to keep up with the pace and the amount of work that we had to tackle every single day. That was made very difficult by the fact that we were shooting every night overnight. We were going into work at 4 p.m. and we were leaving at 4 a.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The lack of sunshine and the lack of a regular sleep schedule really started to get people.
GIM: Indie horror films especially are often on a very small budget. What challenges does that present to you as a producer?
KS: It makes you rely more on time. Because you don’t have the money to spend to do things in a particular way, you sometimes have to take more time and plan in a different way or take more time to figure things out. The hard part comes in when you don’t have either, you don’t have enough time and you don’t have the resources. You have to find people that are really great at their work and can carry out the director’s vision in the right way, but that are willing to work for less than maybe they would get on a normal job.
I think actually horror films tend to have a little bit bigger budget nowadays than other films because they’re easier to sell and they’re easier to get people to come to theaters to see. There’s a bigger audience for that kind of cinema. Some of the smallest budgets I’ve worked on have been things like comedies and dramas because it’s harder to show the distribution plan for those things. It’s harder to show that there’s a built-in audience for that.
GIM: I spoke with Rob Zombie a few years ago and he said that one of the most difficult things is to get a brand-name actor or actress to sign onto a horror film. Is that true in your experience?
KS: Actors are the quickest way to have a built-in audience: the more famous, the more valuable your film [will be] because you’re guaranteed that people are going to come see this movie just because it has so-and-so in it. I would echo what he’s saying. It is really hard when you’re making a horror to find people who are interested in making those kinds of movies that have some kind of value attached to them as an actor.
GIM: In that case, it’s somewhat surprising that even with larger budgets than typical indie comedies or dramas, it’s still tough to get a recognizable lead actor.
KS: I do think that it’s easier to get actors to take a smaller paycheck if they really believe in the work and the work challenges them in some way. I think that horror doesn’t always come across as the most challenging for an actor even though it can be incredibly challenging and incredibly deep. Some of my favorite films just happen to be horror films that really challenge the actors to depict some kind of deeper psychology that is universal to humans in general.
GIM: You mentioned in a previous interview that Hannah Fidell [director and writer of A Teacher] wanted to add horror elements to that film, even though it’s a drama. With your background, do you find that you’re using the same elements of horror production in other genres?
KS: I think there are some techniques … again, the things that I’m drawn to in horror are more the psychology of a horror film. For instance, Rosemary’s Baby is a really good example of a film that I love and it was received very well by critics as well. It’s a film that depicts a pregnant woman who should be the most joyful creature on the planet, who is completely devastated by paranoia and fear and can’t enjoy this really blissful moment with her husband who’s becoming more and more distant from her as he’s being pulled into the more sinister elements of the neighborhood that they live in. It does have its outlandish moments, but for me, it’s a really great film that shows the depths of human psyche and the horrors that we can create on our own, that our own brains come up with. I think in Hannah’s film, A Teacher, she tapped into some of that, some of the darker elements of the human brain. We come up with these things like jealousy and fear and paranoia. We can let those things consume us. She used those things to her advantage in that film to really make people get inside the head of the protagonist. She used other techniques like music and camera technique to punctuate those psychological beats.
GIM: You did a panel at South By Southwest this past year on lessons learned in the production field. Would you mind speaking to some of the more common mistakes new producers make?
KS: [On that panel], we talked a lot about things that didn’t actually make it into the film that wasted a lot of time and resources. I think that is a pretty common producer mistake. For instance, on A Horrible Way to Die, we shot in a cabin that was, look-wise, the perfect look for the feel of the film. An isolated cabin was exactly what the script ordered. The day we showed up there, it snowed. It had been springtime and very warm, so it was this unseasonable really lucky thing that it snowed for us because it turned out to be one of the more cinematic shots in the whole movie. However, that snow also locked us into this cabin and it made it really difficult to get equipment to the cabin. It made it a very cold and kind of scary experience for all of us. It was a director I hadn’t worked with before and I wasn’t familiar with the way that he framed up shots, but in the end, when we looked at the cabin footage, the interior of the cabin could have been shot anywhere. It could have been in someone’s basement and we could have just put plastic up on the walls and you never would have known that it wasn’t in that same isolated cabin that we shot the exterior. We ended up using a lot of time and resources and being very cold and tired out in this cabin when we could have been in the city somewhere in a warm house and a lot more comfortable and a lot more connected to civilization.
GIM: For students who will be graduating soon and moving into production, what do you recommend they do in order to get started?
KS: Look around and find people that really inspire you as a filmmaker. I think there’s this habit of not looking at producers as creative people, but you went into filmmaking for a reason. It’s likely because of some creative impulse, so look at people that inspire you as a creative being and that you have the most faith in and stick with those people. Learn everything you can by doing. Throw yourself into it, work as hard as you can, and keep working.
Kim Sherman’s latest film, One and Two, will hit the festival circuit in 2015.
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