Beijing-Born USC Filmmaker On The Unifying Power Of Slasher Films: “Fear Is Universal”

Hulu Into the Dark Mike Gan School Spirit Blumhouse

This is a big month for young filmmaker Mike Gan, a USC graduate and Beijing native who is notching writer-director credits on two film projects, one for television and the other an indie film for theatrical release.

First, on Hulu, Gan has the just-released School Spirit, a campus horror film with an outsider-kids-in-detention plot (written by Gan, Patrick Casey, and Josh Miller) that is equal parts Breakfast Club and Scream. The slasher is the newest installment in Blumhouse’s Into The Dark showcase series on Hulu and stars Corey Fogelmanis (Ma) and Annie Q. (The Leftovers).  

Second, on Aug. 23, Gan makes his feature film theatrical debut with Burn, a thriller set in a gas station where a would-be bandit portrayed by Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) is captured by employees. The eOne and Momentum Pictures production (which was shot under the name Plume) also stars Suki Waterhouse, Tilda Cobham Hervey, Harry Shum Jr., and Shilo Fernandez. 

Mike Gan director writer School Spirit Burn Blumhouse Beijing USC

For Gan, the back-to-back projects may be his ramp to a bright future but they already represent a legacy connection to the past and his earliest years in the United States. Gan’s parents immigrated to the U.S. when their son was five and they were hard-pressed to find child-care options so they often left him at local movie theaters where he spent solitary hours soaking in the cinematic sights, sounds and stories of his new nation.

DEADLINE: This is such a golden time for horror films. What is it about the genre that appeals to you as a storyteller or as cinematic thinker?

MIKE GAN:  Horror is my favorite way to convey an allegory about an issue or topic. I think we’re inundated with so much information everyday, it’s easy to become numb. Horror films are a great way to inject some life back into the audience. Fear is a powerful emotion, and if you use it to say something meaningful or tell an engaging story, it’s an incredibly effective genre.

DEADLINE: What’s the best moment you’ve had on the set so far? Maybe something that was surprising, inspiring, or funny?

GAN: I wanted a balance of dark humor and terror in the film, especially in the final 15 minutes. When you see School Spirit you’ll understand what I’m talking about. We all thought it would be the hardest scene to pull off, but it was one of those magical moments where everything seamlessly fell into place. Everyone on set was on the exact same page. We had two days to shoot the scene, but we finished early on the second day. It really boosted the whole team’s morale.

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DEADLINE: You spent a lot of time at movie theaters as a kid, not unlike Quentin Tarantino. Can you give me a snapshot memory of that time in your life? 

GAN: As immigrants, my parents didn’t know better and allowed me to stay at movie theaters as day care during the summer and on weekends. It was spectacular. I pretty much saw every movie that came out from 1992 to 1999 on the big screen, including Rated-R films. I’ll never forget seeing Terminator 2 with my mom in the theaters. I was six, and thought I died and went to the next level of life.

DEADLINE: Is there a scene from a classic film that you consider your North Star influence? One that you hold up as an example of the type of filmmaking you want to put on the screen yourself?

GAN: The scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train where Bruno playfully follows Miriam through the carnival until he eventually strangles her. It’s awful and so unsettling, but in terms of filmmaking? It’s incredible. The two strangers are in a crowded place and never exchange dialogue, but so much is communicated between them. It’s a foundational scene for me in terms of suspenseful visual storytelling.

Burn Mike Gan Josh Hutcherson

DEADLINE: You’re working in film and TV and both are in a state of change and churn these days. Do you think the movie-theater-going experience still has allure to young people? What’s the most exciting aspect of either medium for you right now?

GAN: The movie theater experience is becoming even more special in my opinion. It’s like an event, and I love stepping up to the challenge of creating a story that is more meaningful when shared. I love the speed and parameters of TV, which I find liberating in many ways. There’s less time to be neurotic or precious, so I really have to use my craft as a storyteller.

DEADLINE: Unless I missed them, I don’t think there’s a lot of Hollywood slasher history with Asian-American stars. That’s a frontier of representation movement that doesn’t get a lot of attention…

GAN: There definitely isn’t, but I’m excited to help change that. The great thing about the horror/slasher genre is that fear is universal amongst every race, culture, etc. Intellectually, we all may have different reasons to be afraid of different things, but we all can feel and recognize fear. In a horror/slasher film, you’re going to be scared no matter what, so telling diverse stories in this genre can only make it more interesting.


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