Director Steven C. Miller has spent the past several years amassing an impressive stream of projects in the horror genre ranging from “Automaton Transfusion” to “The Aggression Scale” to “Silent Night “. It was his unique style and impressive flair for gorgeous camerawork, allowed him to rise above his peers and have continued to turn the heads of critics and fans alike. Not one to rest on his laurels, Miller continues to challenge himself as an artist as he branches out into new territory. His latest project is no less impressive and serves as the next existing chapter for this star on the rise.
‘Submerged’ is Miller’s first foray into action cinema and one that continues the tradition of Miller’s method of rogue storytelling while upping the ante of his sleek, polished aesthetic. The film focuses on an ex-soldier turned bodyguard (Jonathan Bennett of “Mean Girls”) who has been hired to protect a young woman. While cruising with a group of friends one night, their stretch limo is run off the road and underwater by a gang of ruthless kidnappers who dive in to finish the job. Suddenly it’s sink or swim, as the bodyguard engages in a tooth-and-nail fight for survival to keep the vehicle from becoming a watery grave.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Steven C. Miller to discuss journey as a filmmaker, the challenges he has faced along the way, his evolution as an artist, the making of ‘Submerged’ and what the future may hold for this director on the rise.
What were some influences that had a big impact on you early on and how did you get started on a career as a filmmaker?
I really have my parents to thank. They really always pushed my creative side. They just weren’t filmmakers or musicians or anything like that. They just believed you should do what makes you happy. They really pushed me in that regard. I really looked up to filmmakers like Sam Raimi, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and a few others. Then I discovered the horror world. Joe Dante and guys like him had a really big influence on me, along with ‘80s movies in general. That is the world I came from. I made my first movie in film school, which was a crazy little zombie movie called “Automaton Transfusion.” I brought it out to California, because I had gone to film school in Florida. I probably spent a year sleeping in my car trying to get the film finished before I got lucky and sold it to the Weinstein Company. From there, it was a process of trying to find projects that would help me grow as a filmmaker, that I found exciting, kept challenging me and pushed the envelope a little bit, all still in the indie space and hopefully moving up into studio films. I am really just trying to find projects that are fun for me!
Your latest project is an action film called “Submerged.” What made this a project you knew you had to pursue?
I had just finished a Christmas horror filmed called “Silent Night” and I was looking for something more thriller based to get out of the horror genre a little bit. One of the guys who was in the horror scene, Scott Milong, had a script called “Submerged.” The director had fallen off and I thought it was a project I could do extremely well with. It was very contained and I thought I could have a lot of fun trying to figure out how to make this film exciting. That was the reason I came onboard. It felt like a challenge!
What goals did you set for yourself with this project? Was there anything you were anxious to do that you might not have done in the past?
Yeah, I really wanted to try and keep the camera moving in a tighter space. I have always had the camera moving in my other films and there has been more space to do it. In this film, I thought, “How can I keep the film interesting and exciting in a world of short attention spans? How can I keep these kids involved, keep the movie moving and have some sort of kinetic energy to it?” That was a goal of mine, to keep the movie moving. That was a challenge, especially on a set we had to build and have these actors in the water. I wanted to continually keep the camera moving to give an energy to it, as opposed to just point and shoot, but get some movement and the film have a great pace to it. I think that was a really big challenge for me and something I set out to do right at the very beginning.
Jonathan Bennett isn’t someone we would have thought as the lead in an action film. It turned out to be a great choice.
Jonathan was attached to the script before I got it. It was really interesting for me because, at the beginning, I didn’t see it either. I was like, “Jonathan Bennett in this role? I don’t know.” I had a meeting with him. In that meeting, we really connected and had a lot of fun. He is really passionate about movies in the same way I am but he is also passionate about breaking out into something different than what he has been typecast in before. I felt like this was a great opportunity to show a different side of himself and what he can do as an actor. We put him in a situation he had never been in before and he was really excited about it. I think he really gelled with it very well.
When we spoke with him (Read the interview with Jonathan Bennett), he touched on something I found very interesting, which was the shorthand you developed in the form of a number scale for intensity. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah. We were shooting the film in order, so whenever you are moving a fast pace. Whenever you are shooting in that amount of time, you have to develop a system that works for the actor. It was easy for him to go to 10 and I was often trying to bring him down and trying to keep the movie building. We wanted to assign a number of intensity for each scene which came in handy, especially for the scenes where he is underwater. We didn’t want to be at a 10 right off the bat. We wanted to make it more of a roller coaster ride.
Did the script evolve when you started shooting the film?
Definitely. When you are shooting a movie this quickly, some things work and some things don’t. The set wouldn’t cooperate half of the time, be it leaking or all kinds of other problems. You really have to start maneuvering around those issues and say, “OK, what is going to work in this scene? What can we get done in this amount of time? What is the most important part of this scene?” You focus on that to get the shoots. Luckily, I come from an editor’s background. I started out as an editor and I knew I was editing this movie. I had the movie edited in my head, so by the time I got there to shoot it, no matter what problems arose, it was easy for me to pick and choose what made the scene and would make the scene sufficient. There were definitely some challenges along the way!
What was the biggest lesson you took away from your work on this project?
The biggest lesson for me is that I tend to get very cutty-cutty and tend to have the camera shaking or moving quite a bit. What I found with this one was that I could allow myself to let the camera just sit, be still, let the characters do their thing in frame and not have to worry about moving the camera as much as I thought I needed to, to get the energy I wanted. That was something that was hard for me because I am very ADD but I felt I wanted to mature as a filmmaker and allow the camera to do something I hadn’t done in my previous films, which was just be there in some places. That is something I took away from this movie and will continue to try to do on my next ones.
As you mentioned, you are very involved with every aspect of the filmmaking process. Is there a part of the process you are falling more in love with as you grow as a filmmaker?
I really, really love the post-production process. The more I do movies, the more I am in love with the post-sound process, sound design and how it strengthens a movie so much. It’s unreal. I feel like most of my movies are built around sound, especially one like “Submerged” where there is an entire atmosphere that has to be created because we are shooting on a set in Santa Clarita. You are listening to this footage when you are editing it and by the time you get to sound design and hear what they create, an amazing world has been created. That is amazing to me, the world that can be created in the post-process that people don’t really take advantage of. I have really grown to lean on them.
Which of your past projects had the biggest impact on you and set the course for where you would head as a director?
I think one of the biggest things for me was a movie I did called “The Aggression Scale.” I think that movie had a lot of impact on me, simply because it was the first movie where I was able to flex my muscles a little bit and create an energy. All of my other movies had been really constrained and I wasn’t allowed to do a lot because of producers or whoever having a lock on them. “The Aggression Scale” let me loose a little bit. It really pointed me in the right direction as far as making the movies I wanted with these kinds of thrillers and action films. It was a project that really helped me define who I was.
With that said, how have you most evolved as a director through the years?
I really think I have started to become more focused and more in control. I think that is what I have been enjoying the most. I feel I am finding a rhythm in my movies where I can say, “I know I have this control. I can do this. I can focus on this aspect and not worry about five things ahead of time and can focus on this scene.” That is what I am enjoying right now about my filmmaking process, becoming more confident in the work I am doing. I can really stay focused and that has been very exciting.
What is next for you as a director? What has you the most excited at this point?
I just finished a movie with Bruce Willis called “Marauders,” which is a bank heist film. That will come out next year. I am really excited about that one! I have another one with Bruce Willis called “Extraction” and that comes out in December. I think I am most excited about finding a project that mixes the genres that I love, which are horror and action, and find something that gets me more into the studio system. Those are the kinds of movies I want to make, I am just figuring out how you get there.
Seeing that you come from the world of horror, I wanted to get your take on the current state of the genre.
I think the positive is that the filmmakers in that genre are very experimental. You can pick up a camera anywhere and make a movie. I think it has that late ‘70s, early ‘80s vibe to it where filmmakers were creating really experimental work. I think the negative is that you have kids who are growing up watching movies on YouTube rather than experiencing them in a theater. I think that is tough for horror films because, with horror films, I think you need that theatrical experience a lot of times to really feel the movie, the sound and get the scares. Even though many people’s home entertainment systems are better than what is in theaters, there is something about seeing a horror movie with an audience. I think it is unfortunate for today’s filmmakers that they don’t get to experience that. As far as experimentation and horror movies in general, I think they are actually thriving right now and there is some cool stuff coming out! I just hope people can get back into theaters and experience them.
You can serve as a great inspiration to young filmmakers. What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey so far?
It sounds cliche but there really is a don’t give up factor. I have been through ups-and-downs and through situations where every studio in town says, “Come make a movie with us” and it all ends up crashing and burning, having to restart, retool and figure out how to get back to that scenario. The biggest lesson for me has been to keep pushing, keep making movies, not sit around waiting for things to come but grab a camera and go!
Well said! I definitely dig the cut of your jib and can’t wait to see what you bring our way in the future!
I appreciate it! Thanks for the great questions and we’ll talk soon!
Sounds awesome! Thanks so much for your time!
Follow the continuing adventures on Steven C. Miller via his official website at thestevencmiller.com. Be sure to connect with him on social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. ‘Submerged’ opens in New York and LA on November 27th.