Murder most filmable!

Love horror movies? Have a passion for filmmaking? Rodman Flender '84 will share his professional lessons in a JAMS workshop during Harvard's Wintersession 2017. 

By Cherie Hu '17

As a film director, Rodman Flender ‘84 wears many hats. He is known for documentary films such as Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which follows the life of O’Brien (‘85) after his departure from NBC’s Tonight Show, and also for directing episodes of acclaimed horror and thriller shows such as Tales from the Crypt and Scream: The TV Series.

In January, Flender will share his knowledge with the Harvard community, leading the workshop “Murder Most Foul – And Filmable” on January 18 and 19, as part of Harvard’s Wintersession and the Office for the Arts JAMS! January Arts and Media Seminars. His workshop will focus on the murder set-piece, walking participants through the fundamental tools for creating tension and suspense, with history as a guide, and ultimately giving them the tools and platform to stage and film their own murder scenes.

I chatted with Flender about his creative process, his experience as a Harvard undergraduate and his thoughts on modern horror and storytelling. An edited version of our conversation follows.

How did your experience at Harvard influence your approach to filmmaking?
I was a VES concentrator, and the department's focus at the time was primarily on documentary filmmaking. The only studio classes available were VES 50 (Introduction to Non Fiction Filmmaking) and VES 150 (Narrative Tactilities: Intermediate Film Production). At first, I knew very little about documentaries. I thought they had to be either a political history lesson on a public broadcast network or something like a Disney movie about the migration of leopards across Africa. Ed Pincus and Ross McElwee, two of the VES professors at Harvard at the time, really opened my eyes to the world of personal and autobiographical documentary filmmaking. That was a game changer for me.

What is it like to engage with both documentary and fiction filmmaking as a director? What are some important similarities and differences between the two styles?
Whether it's a scripted narrative or a documentary, it's all about storytelling. One of the differences is where the script is written. With television or fiction filmmaking, you write the script prior to filming it; for the documentaries I'm more interested in, the script is often written in the editing room. Also, with television, you have to know about staging a scene, whereas documentary filmmaking is all about capturing a scene.

How, if at all, do you think storytelling in film has changed over time?
A compelling film is a compelling film, whether it's made in the silent era or last week. I don't know if storytelling has changed, or if attention spans have gotten shorter. Before movies became digitized, the chance to see them was a real investment. Now five minutes into a movie or TV show, we can just push a button to skip or fast-forward if it's not interesting to us. In this way, I think audiences have gotten a lot more impatient. The upside is that I'm challenged as a director to make everything I do as compelling as possible, as quickly as possible.

What exactly is a “murder set-piece,” and what do you hope to accomplish in your workshop this January?
The murder set-piece is a movie within a movie, a two- to five-minute story within a thriller film that has its own beginning, middle and end. In the workshop, we'll look at murder set-pieces throughout the history of film, from both fiction and documentary, and try to unpack the elements required to tell such a story and keep the audience engaged and in suspense. I’m particularly excited about this workshop because there were no horror-specific studio courses available while I was an undergrad. The closest thing we had was a VES class taught by Bill Rothman that studied three different directors, one of whom was always Alfred Hitchcock, but we never had any course that looked specifically at horror.

Rodman Flender '84 is an American actor, writer, director and producer.
Are there any common misconceptions about what makes a good horror film?
Relying on blood and gore alone isn’t always sufficient for a horror scene. When used solely for a sensational effect, it can actually be a disservice and a turnoff for the audience.

What is your opinion on the horror genre today?
There are a lot of really exciting things going on in the independent world. Adam Wingard has directed a lot of great horror films, like You're Next and The Guest. He's working as part of the mumblecore community, which was actually started by a Harvard alum (Andrew Bujalski '99) and embraces super low-budget filmmaking and improvisatory acting. Some of the best recent horror films are coming from outside the U.S., like The Babadook, which came out of Australia in 2014; Under the Shadow, an Iranian ghost story taking place during the Iraq War; and the Austrian film Goodnight Mommy. So, I think you have to look hard for the really good horror movies. They're not going to be playing in 3,000 screens across the country in big chain multiplexes. You have to do your homework and see what's playing at the Brattle Theatre, the Harvard Film Archive, Coolidge Corner and other independent and repertory theaters.

What advice do you have for Harvard students looking to go into film and entertainment?
Try a lot of different things while you're at Harvard, and find out what you love. The most important part is to figure out what exactly is motivating you, because passion stems from that knowledge. The ones who are the most successful in entertainment are the ones who are truly passionate.