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Tuesday, March 12, 2024 | News


In IMAGINARY, the fears of childhood and how we hold onto them are explored and expanded upon to colossal effect. The film, written and direted by Jeff Wadlow and starring DeWanda Wise, Taegen Burns, Pyper Braun and Betty Buckley, features a variety of scares, ranging from the classic jump scare to the moody slow-build to the anxiety-inducing action sequence. But how do these sequences work? What’s the process of shaping tension, mood, tone and suspense into a final, terrifying product?

RUE MORGUE spoke with Sean Albertson, IMAGINARY’s editor and co-producer, about the process of bringing the film’s larger-than-life fears to fruition and the importance of post-production.

You were heavily involved in the development of IMAGINARY, and you wore a number of hats throughout the production. When and how did you jump into the making of this film?

So, I have a long-standing creative relationship with Jeff Wadlow, who is the writer-producer-director. I think this was our sixth project together. And,o as I do on every film that I work on, I started at the script level . Because I have a long-standing relationship with Jeff, that starts really early – like, as soon as there is a draft of the script, he sends me a draft.

I read a very early draft of [IMAGINARY] probably more than a year before we got started. And that’s where I begin. I give copious notes on the script, story and characters; I ask questions. I’ll read something like the last act of this movie and have a lot of questions. like, “Well, how are you planning on implementing this? What’s it going to look like? What’s the tone, the shape, all the things?”

I start my creative process very, very early, and then, I have all kinds of thoughts and ideas. And again, on story and character, also, I often come up with things that may turn out to be issues in post-production just based on my experience of like, “Hey, this is a question that I think the audience is going to be asking” or “You’re opening the door to a question that you don’t need to open.” Things like that. So, I start really early there.

I get involved in any design element. And again, with Wadlow, we’ve been doing this a long time, so he will get me involved in monster design, creature design and any visual effects things that are coming up in pre-production. I get involved in all the creative parts at that point.

Also, sometimes, well, often, particularly with Blumhouse and lower budget stuff, he may come to me to talk about budgetary issues in post-production. Sometimes, you have to hit a budget number to get a movie made – to get a movie green-lit. Jeff is a real producer and comes to me as sort of a producer of post-production to help, to say, “Look, I need to hit this number. Can you help me in post-production figure out where we’re going to start moving things around?”

That’s a great collaboration. It’s great to have you on both sides of this, where you can work together from start to finish and feed each other this assistance to come out with a great final product.

Yeah, it’s really good, you know, like I said, we’ve been together a while now. It’s a really great collaborative relationship. And there’s a great trust that’s been built between us both creatively and logistically.

The film balances frights with a few comedic beats. I want to talk about that. I always say horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin because they elicit a spontaneous reaction you can’t control, right? Laughter or a shriek. How do you manage the delivery of a scare compared to a comedic moment? Is the setup similar?

Very, very similar to me. I agree with what you just said. And I often state that. When people ask me about delivering scares, I often say that to me, the importance of timing in horror is very much like editing comedy.

And, you know, I believe that there are usually at least three ways to deliver a scare, and I feel the same way about a joke, right?

What is funny for an audience – a laugh-out-loud moment for an audience in a joke – is sometimes the delivery from the actor or the words coming out of their mouths. Sometimes, it’s the pause and the non-reaction from the other character. Sometimes, it’s literally just whatever the other character is thinking or a tertiary character in the background.

Of course, that’s all about timing, right? And it’s the same thing for scares. You know, in this movie and every other horror movie I’ve done, it’s all a matter of degrees and how something plays out for your audience.

Every scare that we work on and put together is a study, right? So, like, I put it together the first time by myself the way I think it plays best, the way I think it’s scariest. I will show that to my crew and say, “How does that work for you?” That’s my first test audience. And then, the director comes in and he says, “No, no, no, no, no, I want to try this way. This was my intention.” And we tried that and then we show it to our group of people. Obviously, the big test is when we start putting it in front of real audiences. [It’s] better to have 200 people – that gives us the true test of how we succeeded.

Very often, we’ve succeeded – but not quite enough. We need to make a tweak. We try, let’s say, the number three version of how to present this scare, and sometimes, we then go ahead and play it for another audience, and it’s amazing, and it’s a jump-out-of-your-seat [scare], and it’s wonderful. Sometimes, it didn’t get any better, and it got a little worse, and we go back to the drawing board. It really, really is all about timing, and like you said, it’s so similar to comedy for me in that respect.

As we’re talking about audiences and as social media becomes further embedded into our lives, attention spans are changing. Do you find that in editing you have to make quicker cuts throughout your process? What is that like on your side of things right now?

It’s a really interesting question, I mean, sometimes, I go and I watch old movies. I was a kid of the ’70s, right? And I’ve worked for some amazing older filmmakers – a guy named Mike Nichols, who made some incredible movies back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. But I’ve gone back recently and looked at a film like The Graduate, which was an amazing movie, and I watched that movie, and every time I watch a movie from that era – and there are a lot of brilliant fuckin movies from that era. Even a movie like Scarface, which has a lot of energy, you couldn’t make it that way anymore because you would hold on shots and sit with people not doing anything specific. Not a lot of energy in the shot, not a lot of movement happening, maybe sitting on somebody just for their reaction, which I know Nichols did a lot in The Graduate.

In that regard, yes, it has changed. In the ’80s and ’90s, they called it the MTV generation of all those music videos coming out and everything was faster-paced. And now, my kids are watching TV shows and movies on their phones. That also has something to do with it. When you’re looking at a much smaller screen, you do have just less of an attention span. It’s gotta be moving quickly because you’re looking at this tiny little thing, and the rest of the world is happening around you. It’s gotta capture your attention.

All of that absolutely is part of what my job is as a storyteller for the screen, which is to really understand how audiences take in our product. How they ingest them. And, yes, the answer is, for sure, I’ve found that over the years, the pace has to come up.

However, there is definitely a fallacy, and I think it’s why I get a lot of calls to fix movies. A lot of people talk about pace, and they think that means faster, faster, faster. And what’s really important is accelerating the pace to get to a climax. Once you hit that climax, for me, it’s usually very important to slow down again. Let the audience ingest – receive – what they’ve just learned energetically and informationally, but also, you’ve got to start again. If you keep that pace up for an hour and a half or two hours, you get audience fatigue. It’s just too much.

And so what’s really important to me as a storyteller, and I think we really accomplished it in this movie, is [that] when we’ve got those big moments and we’re cutting faster and faster to get to the climax of that moment, but then we step back; sit. And that, for me, was important.

One of my favorite parts in the movie is when Dr. Soto (Veronica Falcón) is sitting and interviewing Alice (Pyper Braun). It’s the first time we’ve done this in a Jeff Wadlow movie: I sat in one shot – a side 50/50 of the two of them, face-to-face – for almost a minute. I just put a very slow push on that shot. I love that we were able to do things like that in this movie because it feels meaningful. It feels true. Then, I think it allows the audience to be pulled into this false sense of calm and security, and they know you’re doing it at the moment, They know why you’re doing it, and they understand that they’re gonna be, hopefully, pulled into a scare.

It’s what I love about the genre of horror. I’ve never been a horror connoisseur. I was not a huge fan of horror – other than things like The Shining, you know – until I did my first Blumhouse movie with Jeff, and I’ve learned so much about the genre and learned what I love about that genre that I feel like we were able to work with in this particular movie.

When you’re building an on-screen scare, do you find it to be more effective to showcase the character’s reaction to the scare or to show the thing that’s scaring them?

When I’m building a scare, it’s a study. Each scare is so different. Each scare works differently. Some scares, you don’t want to ever see. Sometimes, we’ve completely taken out the thing – the scary thing – and just gone to a reaction, and then, maybe, you get out before you even see the thing.

It’s just super dependent on how it’s written, how it’s shot and then, of course, we end up rewriting it once we put it together and say, “Oh my god, that scare does not play the way it was intended to on the page” or the way it was intended to on the day that it was shot. There’s definitely no one way to put a scare together.

Again, I usually think there are at least three ways to do that. Sometimes, we like to lead the audience by showing the bad guy before – get in front of our main character [on camera] – and that’s usually not gonna give you a jump scare. Sometimes, it does give you a little jump scare, but more often than not, if it’s a jump, if you really want people to jump out of their seats, you’re not going to show the thing until our main character sees it at the same time, the same reaction as our main character, but there’s really just no rule about it. It is all a study of the moment.

Then there are technical beats to follow, but it sounds like part of this is intuition and personal artistry.

For sure. I believe that to be a good, talented editor, I have to be a writer, a director and editor. So, I don’t look at my footage as though, okay, this is what I got, so I’m going to put it together the way the director wants, and that’s it. If it doesn’t work, well, he’s going to have to go shoot more footage. I’m constantly writing, and I study writing, so when I come at a scene, I certainly have to have an understanding of what the director’s intent was. Sometimes, the footage will just tell me, and it comes together beautifully. Sometimes, I put it together, and it’s not working. It’s not working for me in the moment. That may change when the director is sitting with me and says, “No, no, no, no, no, this is how I intend it.”

What I love about that process and with a guy like Jeff, who says, “I don’t want to tell you too much about what I’m thinking. I just want you to find it.” Sometimes, I put it together, and I don’t find it. It’s not working, and then, I start writing. Okay, how, would I want to see this as an audience? As a filmmaker for the screen, I want to be an audience member, suspended in time. With every cut I make, I’m thinking, “Well, as an audience, what if I saw this? What if I did this? Will that elicit the reaction that I’m trying to put to our audience?”

I often rewrite dialogue. Sometimes, I’ll write a new version of the scene, and I’ll put it together with what I have, and I’ll even show it to my director the first time. I just say, “Just so you know, I change things up here. It’s just an idea.” I love that process.

As I said, we have to be part director, too, because there may be a scripted moment that I’m not finding the truth of in a performance from an actor. I feel like my job is to find a way to direct that performance out of that actor through editing. Through cutting away at a particular moment, finding a piece of another actor’s performance as a reaction to tell my audience, “Oh, this is what that character is thinking or wanting at this moment.”

And so, sure, there’s an enormous amount of intuition in the art and craft of editing. Over time, you learn the tricks, and then, you also learn a new confidence of, like, I can do something here that nobody was thinking about. I love that creativity. I love that about what I do for a living.

When and how is the best way to reveal a creature?

For me, it always starts with, how did they write it? Again, I love how you put horror and comedy together because those two genres, moment-to-moment, are so similar in how they’re made. Certainly, every time I’ve worked on any kind of creature thing, it’s always a big question. It’s something that I generally believe, as a filmmaker, that it’s better to hold off to reveal that creature, right?

In this movie, we have a creature. We have the Entity, [which] was sort of a last-minute addition to the script, and I didn’t like it. And I gave my notes, and I think Wadlow, very smartly, every time he shot a scene with the Entity in it, he shot it without the Entity as well. We had the opportunity through post-production to play with that. He probably shot it, I don’t know, in fifteen scenes, and maybe it’s in like three or four. Again, it’s a study. We have to find it, and you find it by trial and error.

In the first cut, I’m gonna show the creature when it was scripted; when it was shot, but invariably, we’re going to get to a point and find that we’ve shown the creature too early, which takes the power away from it. I like to not show a creature until toward the end of act two, if that’s possible. Obviously, in this case, I don’t consider Chauncey a creature. He sort of develops into a creature. So, in this case, you have to show Chauncey early on, and he has a real arc in this movie.

Showing a creature is all about developing the sort of creature arc and figuring out when is the right time to show the creature so that you’re not putting your audience too far ahead of your main characters because that can also cause audience fatigue.

IMAGINARY speaks to childhood fears and how we process them. What were you most afraid of as a child?

Hmm. Well! Wow. [Laughs] Okay, so therapy, I guess.

It doesn’t have to be that deep!

I had a lot of nightmares when I was a kid. I’ll say two things. One is that I knew when a nightmare was coming because, before a nightmare in my dream, I would literally float out of my bed and down the hallway of the house I grew up in. And those nightmares usually were some version of somebody saying, “He’s here,” and I turn around, and there is, like, the silhouette of a scary person in a window or a mirror. So, that’s one big scary thing for me.

It’s interesting because it sort of speaks to the timing of a scare, right? That’s one version of a scare in a movie that I love, and it’s probably because I used to have this nightmare of somebody seeing something that I don’t see, and they just say, “He’s here,” you know? And then, like, you see this thing, and it’s really off-putting and scary.

The other thing is that I used to have fever dreams when I was sick. It’s sort of hard to explain, but I would be in a room, and there would be this massive ball or balloon just getting bigger and bigger and pushing me like there was no space in this room, and that scared the living daylights out of me. And I suffer from claustrophobia now, so that makes sense, too.

Ricky J. Duarte
Ricky is a writer, actor, singer, and the host of the "Rick or Treat Horrorcast" podcast. He lives in a super haunted apartment above a cemetery in New York City with his evil cat, Renfield, and the ghosts of reasons he moved to NYC in the first place., @RickOrTreatPod