“Don’t wait for permission to make something.”
While covering The Tribeca Film Festival this spring, Lights Film School’s Courtney Thérond had the opportunity to chat with writer, producer, and director Vera Miao about her upcoming digital series, Two Sentence Horror Stories, which premieres on Stage 13, an original digital content brand under Warner Brothers Digital Networks.
Inspired by the viral fan fiction of two sentence horror stories, Vera’s anthology series is a collection of short films that features tales of horror and haunting for the diverse digital age. It “taps into universal primal fears – death, abandonment, and loneliness – filtered through the anxieties of the most connected and racially diverse generation.”
Vera’s work has been a part of The Film Independent Screenwriting Lab as well as the 2015 Sundance Institute/Women in Film Financing Intensive. She was also a fellow of the inaugural year of The Tribeca Film Institute’s Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program (2015). All of this to say that we’re very excited to break down Vera’s latest project!
Hello, Vera! Congratulations on this upcoming project; I’m glad we got a chance to catch it early at Tribeca. The first episode of Two Sentence Horror Stories so masterfully puts us into a world that’s at once mesmerizing and unsettling. What was the inspiration for the show? Tracing its origins even further back, what’s the history behind the two sentence horror story format, and what drew you to this kind of storytelling?
Two Sentence Horror Stories originated on a Reddit thread. I’m a lifelong lover of horror, so I ended up reading some of the horror stories posted on the Reddit thread for pleasure. I loved their creativity – they do so much in so few words! – and the blending of classic, old-fashioned ghost stories with new virtual communities. They manage to be evocative and open-ended at the same time, and they instantly inspired a bunch of stories in my head.
One thing led to another, and I pitched an anthology series inspired by the form that would grapple with contemporary social issues and reflect the diversity of today’s audiences. The folks at Stage 13 responded to the idea immediately.
Congratulations! How was writing a series different from writing a feature? What were some new challenges you faced while creating in this format?
It’s very different and obviously, since this is an anthology series, it even diverges from how you would approach a traditional episodic series. Both a feature and an anthology requires you to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Of course, achieving that arc well in a 15 minute episode versus a 90-120 minute feature requires a specific focus and leanness that is different. It’s a challenge to craft layered characters, complex relationships, and intelligent story in a compressed period of time, but it’s a fun challenge to have.
Did you always intend to tell this story in the series format? Why or why not?
Yeah, this was always a series. It just screamed it. I’d love to take specific episodes that make sense to explore in feature format, but as an overall concept, this had to be told episodically.
How do you bring your own experiences as an actor to your writing and directing responsibilities?
Being an actor is how I first got into filmmaking overall and completely informed me as a director. I studied at The Atlantic Theater Company’s conservatory program in NYC, which is based in David Mamet’s and William H. Macy’s methodology. So story is paramount. It was drilled into us that an actor is there to service the story, the writing, the characters. So that theater-based training was instrumental to understanding drama, conflict, character, motivation, subtext.
For the series, I really enjoyed the casting process, tried to demonstrate my gratitude and respect for the actors coming in to read for me, and loved working with actors in rehearsal and on set. I hope that they felt that. I tried to apply the lessons I learned – good and bad – in front of the camera to how I gave direction. For instance, notes like “make it faster” or “ do it this way” don’t really support actors or respect their craft, but taking the time to discuss what the character is trying to achieve in that moment so your actor feels clear in that does.
Well said, Vera! On a technical note, we’d love to hear about some of the special effects used in the show – particularly the levitation in the first episode. How much of it was built into the script?
The levitation as a power was baked into the script. Some of the scenes were written as you see them, while others were vague about the actual effects. That way we could figure out what we could execute on our budget!
We tried for practical effects as much as possible. In the climax, we mixed practical effects with CGI. I’m a big fan of practical effects not just for lower budget reasons, but also aesthetic ones. I just prefer the rawness and texture of it and having actors react to something that is actually happening.
What was it like working with Stage 13, coming from an independent film background? At what stage of the project did you begin the collaboration, and what was the workflow like creating a show within a studio?
This was my first time working with a studio. Let me just say, as a filmmaker whose biggest resources are often willpower and prayer, having the support of a studio from beginning through distribution is AMAZING.
Stage 13 is a division of Warner Brothers Digital Networks, and it’s intentionally filmmaker-friendly and creator-driven, so the experience was really supportive. It was a new experience for all of us – indie filmmakers getting notes from the studio; studio executives working with writer-directors used to a DIY approach and a lot of creative autonomy. But there was tremendous respect, good faith, and a shared commitment to making the best series possible, so we had a lot of common ground. Plus, we always tried to have fun!
The collaboration started at the very beginning, since we moved forward with just a pitch. In the development phase, I would submit drafts, receive notes from Stage 13, and make revisions until we had scripts the studio felt good about moving forward with. A similar setup was in place during editing of the episodes.
Fascinating. Sounds like a healthy relationship! What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers working in the digital sphere?
I’m not sure I have anything specific to the digital sphere – I think it’s best to approach storytelling with as much passion, rigor, ambition and craft as you can, regardless of form or medium. Mostly, I would just say, don’t wait for permission to make something. And in that respect, digital has a lot of benefits, especially for young filmmakers.
We’re curious – which episode is your personal favorite?
Don’t make me choose, I love them all!
Haha. You’ve worked with Tribeca before, through their Women in Film program. What was it like to screen your new show at the festival this year?
I was thrilled, especially because I’m a New Yorker now living the Los Angeles life, so to get to premiere the series in my hometown among family and friends was a dream come true. Tribeca has been super supportive of me and the work I make. They’re run by a bunch of strong women I admire, so it was great.
When does Two Sentence Horror Stories premiere online, and how can our students and readers watch it?
Those details are forthcoming but haven’t been officially announced yet. But it will be released this year most definitely!
What’s next for you?
We have started a second season of Two Sentence Horror Stories, which is exciting. I’ve got a few projects (feature and television) in various stages of development that I can’t say too much about. But stay tuned!
We most certainly well, Vera! Thanks so much for sharing your time and perspective. All the best moving forward and please do keep us posted!
Courtney Hope Thérond, with
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