Raimi, Stone, Del Toro
Raimi, Stone, Del Toro

At CinemaCon last year the Filmmaker Forum included Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee, while this year directors Oliver Stone, Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi submitted to questioning by moderator Elvis Mitchell. Not surprisingly, all three reveal very different takes on how to please audiences--or whether to please audiences. And when Stone complained about bad conditions in some theaters around the country, the exhibitors weren't offended: they applauded.

Elvis Mitchell: What was the first movie you saw in the movie theater that scared you?

Sam Raimi: "Night of the Living Dead," George Romero’s classic. My sister snuck me in under her coat. The joke was on me because I was so terrified I thought the world had come to an end. It was mind-blowingly scary.

Oliver Stone: Scariest film I first saw was in 3-D, "House of Wax," 1953, Vincent Price -- remember him? -- it was pretty scary... They remade it.

Guillermo del Toro: "Wuthering Heights." I was very very young, I remember the gothic atmosphere. I went with my mother... it was a really grainy, haunting, beautiful story.

SR:  I find sometimes that setting up suspense and expectations for the audience and delivering a scare is similar to setting up a joke for an audience. Setting up expectation and delivering the punchline, they’re really similar, so sometimes I put a comic edge to the scare.

EM: Did you try to recreate the experience of the horror genre in your pictures?

OS: I did two horror films and neither were successful so I realized at that point I was not a horror film director, so I moved away from it. You’ve got to be willing to stick with it, like a CIA torturer, and stick it to them right between their eyes.

EM: You brought a paranoia to 'Midnight Express' and 'Scarface,' political dramas with a horror edge. What is the thing you get that brings people together in terms of scares?

GDT: The three emotions you can experience in a theater, one of them you cannot experience, because that would require an overcoat. The other two you definitely can enhance by experiencing with a group. What makes you laugh and what scares you? That effect is why humor, when somebody says that's their kind of humor, is the same thing as someone saying 'I hate that movie.' It's the same thing with horror, it defines who you are and what you like with the genre, communally what is great when you can literally let go because you are in a group, and you can laugh or react in the appropriate way. It's almost like a reaffirmation when you belong to a huge community of misfits.

Sigourney Weaver and Ian Holm in "Alien"
Sigourney Weaver and Ian Holm in "Alien"

Especially when you're watching a horror movie with a horror crowd, it's almost like when the inmates in the prison are running from the bad guy to escape. Same with watching a horror movie with a crowd like that.

EM: You don't want to watch a horror movie by yourself because you want to be in a room and feel it.

SR: The horror movie is a group experience, like comedy. In a good horror movie there's a fear that's generated and you start picking it up from the people around you, and you get more frightened, that roller coaster feeling when you start screaming and get caught up in what is a wonderful, primal experience. You're dealing with the same thing, you're seeing the same thing, moments of comedy when you're laughing or just being terrorized.

EM: Oliver, what you've done is apply that to drama. If you miss a single moment, you're gonna die.

OS: The idea is you've got to get them in and you have to keep them in their seats. If you go to the concessions stand or the bathroom you're gonna miss something, and that's the problem with a lot of new technology, turn it on, turn it off. I'll see 30 minutes now and tomorrow I'll watch more. The spectacle of being in a combined space with 300 plus people and sitting through something one time. I like tension over horror. Tension is what keeps them in their seats. I don't go to horror movies anymore, I'm too scared. I really don't. My son made it clear to me, I couldn't handle all those things he went to like 'Saw.' Too much. Even 'Scream' I gave up on. True horror for me is displacement, the displacement of things that don't make sense. Whether it's Hitchcock doing 'The Birds' or last year 'Life of Pi,' which was an extraordinary film with the best use of 3-D, when that tiger comes out of the ocean, that's real displacement. It's like 'The Birds.' That kind of horror is what works for me. I was scared of that boy, and that goat and that tiger, that was a horror film.

EM: Tension is one of the things people want to experience in the theater. I was trying to define as an audience member what people commit to, you want to just grab somebody's arm, it takes you back to being a child and that sort of primal experience of what theaters really do.

GDT: I remember watching three movies where I went under my seat. It was the first 'Alien.' Back then the movies came out in America, and then Mexico. We were in the theater with my Dad and my brother and we were watching it and told everyone about the movie. What was exciting, when you get that communal sort of sound, there's nothing better. It's as close as we come to being in a performance.

OS: I once heard a story that Cary Grant, he had come to New York to see one of his movies at Radio City and he loved to stand in the back. 5,000 people would come to one screening. When they laughed and they responded, he loved it, it was a supreme moment.