Gregory Plotkin first made his mark on the horror scene by editing Paranormal Activity 2 for Jason Blum, the uber-successful producer behind The Purge and Insidious films. Since then, Plotkin has edited a number of Blumhouse projects such as smash hits Get Out and Happy Death Day. In 2015, he made his directorial debut with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. With his sophomore feature, Hell Fest, a love letter to ’80s slashers and amusement park haunts, he seized the opportunity to collaborate with Gale Anne Hurd, the iconic producer behind The Terminator, Aliens, and The Walking Dead. In the following exclusive interview, Plotkin shares his horror influences, how to design the perfect scare, and the secret to Blumhouse’s success.
Hell Fest feels like a love letter to ’80s slashers. Was that by design?
100%. Halloween is one of my all-time favorite films. I love all the Halloween films, the Friday the 13th series, A Nightmare on Elm St. When I got the opportunity to be involved with Hell Fest, I had reservations with the original script because I felt it wasn’t enough of a love letter. It felt very much opposite of that. I wanted to bring back the slasher genre, which I think has been overlooked. Luckily, they let me do it. I hope audiences feel the love I have for these films.
Were there any slasher clichés you set out to avoid?
The biggest one I wanted to avoid was the helpless final girl. Strong female characters are important to me. Luckily, I got to work with Gale Anne Hurd, who created with The Terminator a strong heroine (Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor) and again with Aliens’ Ripley. I used Ripley as my role model. I wanted to steer away from girls needing the guys to help them get out. I also wanted to keep it as real as possible—to have it not be as fantastic as some of the slasher films towards the end of their run.
During the planning process, how did you set out to differentiate Hell Fest’s killer from a long line of iconic slasher villains?
All those iconic killers became iconic after the fact. I didn’t want to be weighed down by “we have to make this person iconic.” What I wanted to do was to make the Other—our killer—an everyman. I tried to make him as grounded in reality as possible—somebody that could blend in or be your next-door neighbor. I’m hoping that from the mask to the character’s movements that we were able to find our own niche and create something unique.
How has your experience as an editor informed your abilities as a director?
It gave me a tremendous sense of confidence. Once I have shot something, I know what coverage is going to work. It’s great sometimes to shoot a scene four different ways and figure it out in post, but I didn’t have that luxury. But I also had the confidence to know that I could shoot it a certain way and it’ll be effective. Fortunately, I have worked on enough films with jump scares, that build tension through atmosphere, that I had a good sense of what I wanted to do. I was able to maximize my time on set, and not feel like, “Oh, shoot. I didn’t get what I needed.” I knew the shots that I had to have.
As an editor, you’re in a unique position to be able to break down a scare, frame-for-frame. How does a filmmaker design the perfect scare?
The perfect scare is like the perfect joke: it is all about setup and payoff. If you don’t set it up properly, you lose the impact. For me, it’s a gut feeling. It’s a timing thing. I like to subvert expectations. If your audience thinks something is going to happen at the five second mark, I like to do it at the eight or ten second mark. I like to keep them squirming. It’s one of those gut things I have developed over the years as an editor.
Hell Fest boasts a rich setting: a horror-themed amusement park. What appealed to you about the setting?
I love horror parks. I’ve been going to Fright Fest for years. I go to Knott’s Scary Farm and Universal Horror Nights. It’s part of our lexicon now. It’s an industry. It’s not only nationwide but worldwide. But what if it’s real? What if these people took their jobs a little too seriously? What if someone actually had a real knife? What if somebody had a real chainsaw? I wanted to play on those fears.
What was your direction to the cast?
I wanted them to be relatable, first and foremost. When I got Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, and Bex Taylor-Klaus in the room together, they felt like best friends. A guideline for most films I’ve worked on is, if you like your characters and you care about your characters, you’ll be scared for them later on. I wanted the audience to say, “I know those guys. I relate to them. They could be me.” As soon as we started our first rehearsal, it was like they had been best friends for years. Also, I try to keep the performances natural. I also try to keep the set light, and keep them bonded like a family. As a result, I got great performances. They’re all wonderful and super talented.
If franchised, where would like to see the Hell Fest series go?
I’d love to explore our killer more—who he is and what motivates him. Tony Todd is in the film. He plays the barker, the owner of Hell Fest park. I’d really like to explore his character more. He’s phenomenal, just an amazing actor and an amazing human being. Gale and I have discussed a lot of ideas for both sequels and prequels to explore this killer.
You made your directorial debut with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. What was it like directing your first film for Jason Blum?
It was great. I’ve known Jason for a number of years, having edited every Paranormal film but the first. It was a natural transition, like working with family. Jason is very supportive. He empowers people and is obviously extremely smart. It felt like a natural step to jump into the director’s chair. His input throughout my career has been wonderful. I love it.
What is the secret to Blumhouse’s success?
Jason’s strongest trait is that he empowers the right people to do their jobs. He doesn’t try to get in the way. He just supports. He’s created this very smart model. He had the foresight to say, “You don’t need to spend a ton of money. You don’t need the biggest actors in order to make a successful film.” He empowered us. People are going to look back in twenty-five years and say, “I got my start working for Jason Blum. Jason Blum gave me a chance.” He’s a visionary. He also had the foresight to know that people like horror. It’s not that thing you have speak about in the corner—it can be out front and center.
As the editor, did you realize what a massive impact Get Out would have?
The movie had a tremendous impact on me. I knew how much the movie would mean to me, but there was a part of me that felt, “Will America get this? Will the world get this?” For the opening night screening, I went to the Arclight in Sherman Oaks, which is typically a quiet audience, but by the middle of the movie people were screaming, shouting, talking at the screen, and having a good time. That’s when I knew. That’s when I knew people got it and will get it. But you never know. I’m stuck in a room for ten months editing and although I love it, will people get it?
Hell Fest is in theaters September 28. Watch the trailer below.