George Henry Horton discusses his career in horror and sci-fi filmmaking

George Henry Horton discusses his career in horror and sci-fi filmmaking
Director, writer and producer, George Henry Horton. Photo: Supplied

George Henry Horton is a UK born director, producer and writer who initially began his career with a popular comedy focused YouTube channel. Having graduated from the American Film Institute, George has an impressive background in the study of film and has an impressive portfolio of work behind him as well as several projects currently in production.

George answered some questions about his background and current work.

How did you begin your YouTube career and transition into professional film-making?

Whilst I was at university at King’s College London I got involved in a comedy group called the JesterLads. We would go around campus and shoot these fun little videos. I quickly found myself much more excited about shooting these than studying for my actual degree in theology!

Things really changed when one of our videos, called ‘Star Wars Elevator Prank’, went viral – we were featured all over the internet, and even invited to go on Good Morning America. Unfortunately, we all had exams, so had to miss it! I don’t think any of our parents would have been very impressed if we’d missed those!

Shortly after the video went viral, a producer called Chris Branch got in touch, asking if I might want to manage the social media on a horror film he was producing. I ended up doing all sorts of things on set, and being so close to him I learnt a lot about producing.

My original plan was to go to grad school for politics at NYU, but he ultimately convinced me to apply for film school in LA! I wasn’t sure of what my decision would be until I got the offer from the American Film Institute. I knew immediately that was the way to go, and that was really the moment where my life moved firmly in that direction. Four years later and I’m still here in Los Angeles, which I consider my new home. Five years ago I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams this is where my life would have taken me.

What did your experience with YouTube teach you that you didn’t necessarily get to experience in film school?

It taught me that any amount of planning and preparation sometimes can’t beat decisions which are made in the moment, and it’s often these spontaneous decisions which really add the most value to a project. It kept me flexible and adaptable, and absolutely willing to pivot on a dime if the situation calls for it.

Even with the YouTube stuff, the [Star Wars] idea that ultimately got us all the exposure was one I came up with completely randomly. Most of our ideas were developed over several days or weeks. This one was ultimately developed, prepared for and shot in under an hour total. I still love to work like this. I think under high pressure you can be your most creative. And since I primarily do low budget films with tight schedules, the pressure is always on! It’s exhilarating.

As a filmmaker, what attracts you to the horror and science fiction genres?

I think of all the genres, they have the least rules. That’s not so say that you can go totally bananas with them, but you can take a lot of liberties and push the boundaries in ways you often can’t with other genres. I love the world-building aspects of both of them, and I also love that some of the most visceral audience reactions come with horror and sci-fi. In a nutshell, I just think they’re the most fun!

Also, notably with horror, the financial barrier to entry is often comparatively lower, and that’s a big deal for me. I don’t want to spend years trying to get a multi-million dollar action or drama film made when I could spend that time making several smaller genre pieces.

Can you describe your two current projects, ‘Ground Floor’ and ‘Project Dorothy’? What themes are you exploring with each film?

So Ground Floor we shot in both the UK and the USA throughout 2018 and 2019. It’s a story about a young woman named Sophia who is staying in this beautiful peaceful English house in the countryside. She’s been sent there by her psychiatrist to get her out of her grim life in the US. According to her psychiatrist, Dr FitzGerald, many of her clients have gone there and returned with hugely improved mental dispositions. Needless to say, being a psychological horror, things don’t go so well for poor Sophia! I don’t want to give too much away, but one day she wakes and finds that an entire floor of the house has vanished. Most inconveniently for her, it happens to be the Ground Floor, so she can’t actually leave the house. Then more and more parts of the house start disappearing. The film is really about what we do in order to try to make ourselves feel whole and complete, psychologically speaking.

Project Dorothy is a sci-fi horror about two guys on the run who break into this massive abandoned scientific facility. We actually shot in a vast abandoned facility out in the Midwest in Illinois, it was amazing. Anyway, they break in to hide from the cops, but whilst exploring inadvertently manage to awaken this monster that’s been dormant for years, which traps them in there. This film is very inspired by sci-fi movies of the 80s, with the writer, Ryan Scaringe, being something of an 80s film nut. It was a great experience to work with him as the director.

We’re still deep in post production, but I’m really excited to see what we can do with that 80s sci-fi vibe infused with a very horror-y atmosphere. The theme of this story is that of selfishness vs selflessness – these two guys aren’t what you’d exactly call moralistic, but faced with something truly evil they have to really step up as heroes or risk letting this monster loose on the rest of the world. I must say I really enjoyed working on a movie with stakes as big as saving the world! I just hope the audience agrees!

What is the status of your future projects, namely ‘Cellmate’, ‘Muse’ and ‘Church’?

So all three are slowly moving forward right now, and it’s anyone’s guess as to which will go into production first.

Cellmate is the story I’ve actually been working on the longest of any project, even longer than the two features I’ve already shot. But because it’s a little bit of a bigger budget it’s kind of had to wait its turn in respect to funding etc, which goes back a little bit to what I said earlier about the importance of working on projects which can be made more easily, especially earlier in your career.

Muse and Church are both much smaller projects. With Muse I’m working with a fantastic writer Jess Kohs, and Church is something I’m working on myself. It’s funny, I realised the other day that much like the two movies I’ve shot, all three of these also involve the lead character(s) being trapped in one way or another. That’s probably something I should talk to someone about!

What would you say is your formula for filmmaking? What are the most important things to establish early on terms of narrative and production?

I think it’s important to collaborate as much as possible and foster an environment in which input from everyone is respected and appreciated – I try and establish that immediately. I must confess I am a rather restless person, and so a big part of my formula has been developing projects that 1) are feasible in scope and budget to be made this year rather than years down the line and 2) are commercial in nature – so that I can keep making movies and not have the well run dry.

Fortuitously, horror films are probably the big winners on both those counts. Unlike a lot of people, I actually love low budget and micro budget filmmaking. I think having a lot less money riding on something creates the perfect environment for taking creative risks and really pushing the boundaries. Big movies stick with what they know makes money and don’t try new things.

I’d also rather have three small films in varying stages of production than just one big one moving forward. Not a big fan of putting all my eggs in one basket. I mean, studios have a slate for this precise reason, why shouldn’t you? I actually studied producing rather than directing at the American Film Institute, and I think [and hope!] I’ll always retain the producer’s mindset in this regard.

What advice would you give to novice filmmakers looking to make a name for themselves?

It’s a total cliche but it’s true – shoot stuff. Doesn’t matter how big or small. One YouTube video shot in half an hour got me where I am today. We live in a time where technology has democratised an industry where you once needed to be rich as hell to break in. Sure, it’s meant that we’re now kind of oversaturated with content, but ultimately the best stuff will rise to the top. Don’t be disheartened, don’t give up. Don’t make excuses for yourself for any reason whatsoever. Most people who don’t make it in film don’t make it because they’re too scared to try to, or they fall into a comfortable situation/lifestyle, and will just keep promising themselves they’ll do what they really want to do next week, next month, next year, never…