I’m always interested in new ways (and platforms) on which filmmakers can create and share new and compelling horror projects, so when I heard about Stage 13’s new series Two Sentence Horror Stories, I knew it was something I wanted to check out. And I must admit, if you’re a genre fan looking for some short-form doses of terror, then you should check out TSHS now that the first episode has debuted on Verizon’s go90 online channel (new episodes hit every Tuesday).
Earlier this week, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with the creator behind this new collection of short films, Vera Miao, who helped bring together the talent for Two Sentence Horror Stories and also wrote each of the scripts and directed two of the episodes, "Ma" and "Singularity." During our chat, Maio discussed what intrigued her about the Two Sentence concept, spearheading the series, and much more.
Congratulations on this series, Vera. I would love to hear about how this came together, because it's such an unusual premise to do for a series of short films. I know this is a concept that has proven to be very popular online, though, so now in retrospect, it actually seems like the perfect idea to do something like this.
Vera Maio: You know, I came across Two Sentence Horror Stories as a bunch of people have, reading the ones that went most viral from the Reddit thread, and really just reading them as a fan. And I just loved them. It's such a simple concept, and I really loved them, and how they have a classic ghost story feel to them. Something about these stories felt very nostalgic to me, but that they were happening on this platform that only exists because of new technologies, so they’re still modern at the same time, too.
So it was sort of that mix, and as I read them as a fan, your brain just starts moving. The genius of these stories is that they give you so much in so little, so it’s like this adrenaline shot into your imagination. And that's really where it came from, for me. The sentences essentially, what you said, gave me a structure. Because the two sentences are badass, and then there’s the subversion of that setup, so it gave me all this freedom to think about characters, issues, fears, scenarios, and context that were interesting to me, but also there's this underlying scalable structure to it, too.
So that's sort of how it came together. And when I had the opportunity to pitch some ideas to Stage 13 and Warner Bros., they really responded to that immediately.
In terms of the episodes you directed, they were so very different from each other, but they did have that ghost story DNA to them as well. Was there something about those stories in particular that stood out to you, where you knew you wanted to direct them, beyond the fact that you wrote all of them?
Vera Maio: So, I'm starting point agnostic, which means that some of the episodes actually started with a sentence. Other episodes started with a scenario or a character or an issue in my brain, and whatever starting point I'd get from those, I'd just chase it down from there, knowing what my endpoint was. With "Ma" and "Singularity," they're pretty accurate reflections of some of my core interests. I don't know if you can tell with this series, but I'm really interested in loneliness and abandonment, grief, and loss. I'm Chinese, I have a very close relationship with my mother in the first place, I'm queer, and so "Ma" is something I like to call “emotionally autobiographical,” even though it's actually not literally autobiographical.
"Ma" was also a story that lived in me for a while, predating the series as well. The scenes, the characters, the situations have been playing around and bouncing around in my head for a while now. So that one, it was a happy meeting of knowing I wanted to tell this story, and knowing in its own way, that there was this haunting element to it that played in really nicely with the format of the two sentence horror story.
For Singularity, I believe the idea kind of spawned from the story itself. I'm also very heavily into sci-fi, so I’m always a very big fan of when sci-fi and horror intersect. It's just more about the “what if?” scenario for me, in that realm. There are really interesting things about when sci-fi intentionally intersects with horror that I'd like to continue to explore, actually.
Because you mentioned loneliness, "Singularity" really tapped into that isolation that comes from being on the Internet. George mentions to Nala that she should "go out and see real friends and not people from a chat room." And it's such a small line, but it’s so indicative of where a lot of us are headed.
Vera Maio: Yeah, it made me think about even how we started this project around the two sentence horror stories themselves. It's neither good nor bad. It's different sides of what technology affords us. I never would have come across two sentence horror stories if there wasn't a thing called Reddit. However, even though it makes me feel nostalgic, and it evokes the feeling of sharing ghost stories with each other, we're actually literally not engaging directly with any of the folks who wrote those stories and people could say to them, "That inspired me to think of my own stories and here are some of those."
But it is exactly what you're saying, which is what we explore in "Singularity," where technology gives us the opportunity and the facility to connect in ways that were never possible before. For those of us who maybe don't constantly feel that we are comfortable in the center of a thriving community, for a variety of reasons, technology gives us that opportunity. But at the same time, it doesn't actually necessarily solve the issue of disconnection, either.
You can see that with Nala. She is so committed to this desire to make the world better, to progress it, to move it along. She's so actively engaged with the community, but she's actually physically isolated, and that does really play with those real-life tensions. There’s something funny about the question of never engaging with the phenomenon of two sentence horror stories digitally, but then responding digitally to it with a series. There's a parallel there, maybe.
You’ve been so involved with this in nearly every capacity, from being behind the scenes on this, plus then directing two of the episodes, and then writing everything, too. What's your biggest takeaway from this entire experience? Whether it's something that shaped you professionally or shifted your own perspective personally? It seems like you really put a lot into this.
Vera Maio: This is going to sound funny, but I once watched an interview with Barry Jenkins, and someone asked him, "What was the most challenging thing about Moonlight?" And he said "Nothing." He said, "If I could be directing every day, I'd be happy, because I feel I'm my best possible self when I'm on set." I really connected to that, particularly in relationship to the experience of making this series. I'm very blessed. Warner Bros. and Stage 13 took a chance on me, because while I had written and produced a feature before, and I've written and produced my own independent web series many years before that, this was something very different. They were taking a big risk on me.
I thought that to be able to see this topic through from beginning to end was such a unique experience, I had to relish it. This was my idea, my pitch, my scripts, my words and I show-ran the series where I had the opportunity to really create and craft a tone and an atmosphere. Then, I was able to work on pulling a team together where we hired our department heads first. The DP and the production designer and the costume designer, they all knew what the universe was and what I was trying to create during the course of this series the minute they came aboard.
Then, the other directors came in during the middle of that process and they all came from the independent film world, and have really strong, distinct, unique voices of their own. So it was this process as a showrunner working with them, and that was a really interesting thing because it was full-on reflection of the way traditional television works, but then actually modified because I still wanted these independent film directors to bring in their distinctive voices, too. I didn't want to neutralize it all into one single tone.
Honestly, Heather, I learned everything on this, because I had the chance to play and to stretch and to work with incredibly talented people. I wish I could do that every day of my life. It was pure joy.
Image Credit: Image at top from Stage 13 video.