While not really being on anyone’s radar before 2012, Steven C. Miller entered the Maya-year with a bang – or rather with three of them. Shot almost back-to-back, „The Aggression Scale“, „Under the Bed“ and „Silent Night“ got released only months apart from each other and quickly turned the spotlights on the only 31yo director from Georgia. Working with quite some pace and talking fast enough to make Scorsese and the Gilmore Girls look pale, Miller surely never wastes any time or shot. With us he discussed his approach on filmmaking, working with legends, the restrictions of tv, remakes and why his daughter is sometimes creepy.
screen/read: When I watched your movie for the first time I had a really great idea for a tagline which would be something like „Home Alone on Acid“ and felt quite proud of it. Then I read a few reviews and rather felt like an idiot since pretty much everyone said the same. Was that something you thought of yourself when you started out on the movie?
Steven C. Miller: Yeah, definitely. When I first read the script it was kind of different and then I really tried to enhance the „Home Alone“ aspect. It had that kind of trait to it but I felt like it didn’t stick close enough to what I wanted it to. I really love kids movies that take on adult problems, and the 80’s and 90’s had a lot of them. I thought we had an opportunity with this movie to do that again but also being far more aggressive than those movies were. We just tried to take it to another level. I was actually surprised that no one had done this before and so it was exciting for me to go there.
screen/read: Just like in „Home Alone“ the main character is a young boy and I guess it’s quite a challenge for a filmmaker to work with children in the lead. How was the experience with Ryan Hartwig here – who totally looks like a young Dexter Morgan by the way.
Steven C. Miller: [laughs] I had a great time. Luckily I shot „Under the Bed“ right before „The Aggression Scale“ and so I had dealt with kids for three or four weeks because in that earlier movie it’s all kids in the cast. And Ryan was just such a great kid and his parents were so great. So it was really easy to just go in and have a fun experience. We had countless stare-off competitions to try to really get him to bring emotion across with his face and his eyes and reactions because obviously he doesn’t speak. So it was about how do you get the audience to care about a character that doesn’t talk at all and what ways are there for him to express these emotions. It was really fun to come up with that with him. And on set he was really professional in addition to being a kid and having fun with what he did. So it wasn’t that difficult for me but we also didn’t have much time and just like everybody else Ryan was one of those guys who’s on set and does his job. We shot the movie in 12 days and really didn’t have time to think about anything other than: let’s get this movie made.
screen/read: 12 days is a tight schedule. I guess you didn’t have much of a chance to do rehearsals.
Steven C. Miller: No, exactly. It’s always been one or two takes. But I guess that’s really where my background comes in. I started out as an editor. So I go into a movie with it already edited in my head. There’s not a lot of extra shots going on. I’m very meticulous when it comes to how many camera set-ups we do because if I feel like we’re not going to use it then we’re not going to shoot it. So it’s very planned out like that and we didn’t really have a lot of time for any kind of rehearsal at all. It was rather like, look, this is how we’re going to do it, and then we did it.
screen/read: Especially today and with digital around it’s pretty rare for a filmmaker to restrict himself to only the necessary amount of footage. Do you consider it a waste of time shooting stuff that you don’t really have in the back of your mind?
Steven C. Miller: Yeah. You know, a lot of the problems being on set is that you have actors that get frustrated because they feel like doing the same thing over and over and over again. But especially with these small budget movies you want your crew and your actors to be happy and excited. They don’t make a lot of money and I want them to have a good time. And I want the pace to keep moving. So for me it’s important to not be dwelling on one scene only because I might think some shot could be cool.
screen/read: You must be a pretty fast worker with having made two films almost back-to-back. Is that your style of approaching things?
Steven C. Miller: Yes, there is something about making movies quickly that I enjoy and it’s something that I happen to be good at. We’re making these movies for a small budget and have to be fast and if I can make them very cinematic, that’s a challenge. Also, if I’m only given 10 to 17 days to make a movie, I will make as many of them as I can. But also generally, I love the idea of a pace. And anytime a movie has a certain pace I connect with that. I definitely feel like I move at a quick pace and everything about me is sort of in that speed world. I think I’m naturally gravitated towards action films and how they move.
screen/read: The movie itself is pretty fast and at only 85 minutes it never loses its pace but you also don’t get the feeling that anything is missing.
Steven C. Miller: A lot of that goes to how I feel what the audience’s attention span is like and what kind of audience I’m trying to reach. I think you have the kids out there who are just watching YouToube videos that are two minutes long and you’ve got to compete with that. You’ve got to compete with them watching something that they instantly gravitate to in the first one or two minutes and then want to keep watching. A movie like this doesn’t need to be any longer than it is. You get the story actross, the characters and their arcs, and when you can keep the pace while you’re doing it I think you have something very special.
screen/read: You also did a number of music videos before you entered feature filmmaking.
Steven C. Miller: Yes, I used to do music videos and that’s probably where I finetuned my style in filmmaking which is sort of aggressive but still trying to have that cinematic look and setup. So when you look at „The Aggression Scale“ it’s almost like a short film where you have to get everything in and have the audience entertained in quick five or six minutes. It really felt like a big short film to me. I had to get the story, the character and the audience on the same page very quickly. And what was exciting about it was to leave the audience thinking, I want more, but at the same time everything ended perfectly. And that’s the key.
screen/read: It is a great ending indeed and it includes a fun punchline but on the other hand it pretty much delivers the option of an interesting sequel idea. Is that something you have in mind?
Steven C. Miller: Definitely. I think there’s a lot of great places for these two kids to go and become bigger-than-life characters. It’s just a matter of does a sequel make sense and is there a fanbase out there for it. I think we’ll be able to tell that in the next couple of months and whether or not it really financially makes sense for the investors and those kind of people.
screen/read: Speaking of the kids in your movie: It’s an interesting phenomenon that the topos of evil children has become popular again in horror movies recently. Now the main character in „The Aggression Scale“ and maybe his sister too somehow belong to that category. Do you have an explanation for the current popularity of that motive?
Steven C. Miller: I don’t know, I think it’s sort of a wave. Horror goes through stages. In the late 70’s, early 80’s movies like „The Omen“ were really popular, it shifted towards teenagers in the 90’s and now it’s back to kids. But kids have always been creepy [laughs]. I mean, they do creepy things. When I think of my daughter, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and she is just staring at me. And that is creepy.
screen/read: Let’s move on to another creepy thing: Remakes. Accidentally, you just made one with „Silent Night“, based on a much-beloved 80’s slasher film. Now the horror crowd is usually very protective and not easily pleased with remakes. Fortunately, your film got a lot of praise and positive reviews. Were you scared of the fanbase when you approached that movie?
Steven C. Miller: A hundred percent. When you’re dealing with a remake, especially as a fan myself and not really a fan of remakes I already went into it with the idea that people will hate this movie. Or at least start out with the approach of not liking it because that’s just the way people are with remakes. So I considered the option that they would not like to have this one but also I felt like this was a movie that was able to be remade, allowed to be remade because it wasn’t really the greatest film. When you go back and watch it you will see it’s not „The Evil Dead“. It built a fanbase over time and to me it was something that felt like I wasn’t stepping on toes when remaking it. Also when I read the script it wasn’t just a shot-for-shot remake but instead did its own thing and that’s how it should be. A remake should take its own path and not try to be the same movie that it was in 1984 and that’s really what I loved about it.
screen/read: In this movie you had Malcolm McDowell, one of those really legendary villain actors who has become some sort of horror movie icon in recent years. When you work with someone like him or Ray Wise in the case of „The Aggression Scale“, people who are instantly associated with a bunch of memorable characters, do you approach them as a culmination of all these different Alter Egos behind a familiar face or do you completely abstract from that?
Steven C. Miller: I think you’re obviously seeing all those characters and I watched enough movies and have been engulfed in enough movies to think of one or two characters specifically. And so it’s interesting to see that sort of character in them and try to figure out what that character is going to be in your movie. It’s fun to talk to them and say, look, this could be different to what you did in the past. Or maybe similar. That’s interesting about working with those guys but with the caliber that they’re at you just let them do their thing. And I think it shows on screen that they’re having fun coming up with a character that they enjoy.
screen/read: Next to Ray Wise you also have Dana Ashbrook in „The Aggression Scale“, both of them „Twin Peaks“ veterans. You’re a fan of that show?
Steven C. Miller: Oh, I love „Twin Peaks“ and so does my producer Travis Stevens. I’m a very huge fan of Ray and Dana and so I thought it would be fun to get them back in the ring together even if it was only for a quick minute. It was cool to have them in one room and see what kind of chemistry they still had and it was just great to see them work together and reminisce on those old things they were doing.
screen/read: You made three movies so far for the big screen but also worked for tv with a film called „Scream of the Banshee“. Was the experience different working for either media and would you say that your fast way of approaching things is maybe even better suited to television?
Steven C. Miller: I think it works really well for tv. It was difficult for me working in the tv world though because there was much more control and there’s certain guidelines, there’s more of a formula than there is in the feature world. In the feature world I feel like I’m allowed to be more expressive. The visuals are much more intense, which I enjoy. The issue I had with tv comes down to how brutal some of my stuff still is. I sometimes forgot that I worked for tv and shot as if I was making a feature and so they cut a lot out.
screen/read: Which is quite surprising because when you think of shows like „The Walking Dead“, they don’t really look like they’re restricting themselves very much.
Steven C. Miller: No, you’re right. I think there’s a big difference when you’re talking about those kind of shows. I did „Scream of the Banshee“ about three or four years ago now and I think television has drastically changed since then. Even for mainstream television violence has become a little more acceptable. It’s one of those things that might attract me in the future again. I’d love to work on „The Walking Dead“ or the „Zombieland“-show that’s in the making right now. I think there’s plenty of room for filmmakers like myself to go back in there and make something that’s really cool.
screen/read: What are your next plans? You haven’t made a movie in 2013 yet and considering your working pace that’s rather unusual.
Steven C. Miller: [laughs] There are quite a few things that I’m trying to decide upon. I’m at a state where I need to make some pretty solid decisions about my career and where it goes and what movies I’ll make. And so I try to make sure that the next movies that I make are extremely well scripted and have some great characters that people are going to enjoy watching. I have two or three that I’m trying to get greenlit right now and I’m excited to talk about them when I can.
screen/read: Do you see yourself moving on from independent films to the big budget business one day and do you feel like doing it?
Steven C. Miller: I definitely think that’s the goal. When I look at people I want to follow I think of Sam Raimi who did „Evil Dead“ and then 20 years later did „Spiderman“. I would love to do something like that obviously much quicker, but I also enjoy what I do right now. I just want more people to see my movies. So I feel like the bigger movies I make the more people get to see them and that’s really the big thing for me. I think what I want to be making in a couple of years from now is probably something like the „Bourne“-series or „Taken“ or „The Grey“. Stuff that really allows me to have some great characters but also have the action and pace that I really enjoy.
[Thanks to Steven C. Miller for taking the time to do this. It was a pleasure.]
[Photo Credits: Steven C. Miller (portraits) | Sunfilm (The Aggression Scale) | After Dark Films (Scream of the Banshee) | Anchor Bay (Silent Night)]