Director Vera Miao Talks Bringing Representation to Horror Film

Director Vera Miao Talks Bringing Representation to Horror Film

During the Tribeca Film Festival, the director addresses her love of the horror genre, her new online horror series, and what happens when stories reflect all types of people.

During the Tribeca Film Festival, the director addresses her love of the horror genre, her new online horror series, and what happens when stories reflect all types of people.

Text: Truman Ports

Aspiring filmmakers and directors hop off flights at JFK and LAX every single day, all hoping to get their big break in large cities like New York or Los Angeles. The film industry is competitive and in no way an easy field to enter, regardless of what side of production a Hollywood hopeful is aiming for. But for Guam-born director and writer Vera Miao, that big break is coming with the Tribeca Film Festival at Tribeca N.O.W. (new online work)—a program that features and celebrates short films and shows streaming on the internet, arguably the direction in which all media and media consumption is heading.

Miao’s new show Two Sentence Horror Stories derives from the popular Reddit thread where online horror heads, a term for fans of scary movies used by Miao herself, attempt to tell a spooky tale in only two sentences. An avid fan of the genre since she was a small child, Miao found herself reading the best posts from the Reddit thread for entertainment purposes, which helped form the seed that eventually grew into her show. “I found myself thinking, imagining the circumstances around the story: what led up to those two sentences, and what was going to happen following those two sentences,” Miao says. “That sparked so many images and ideas and characters and concepts. It felt very fertile for my imagination.”

An often dismissed genre, whether it be from utter fear or the belief that no good horror exists, Miao breaks down her love for a scary flick by finding a way to humanize what she says most ghost stories are about; grief. “[Horror films] are about loneliness, they’re about abandonment and longing. I love the whole strain of horror that explores those feelings,” Miao begins. “Horror can scare you on a whole bunch of different levels. It can be immediate fear, like by making you jump...it can also really poke at our deepest fears of being alone, or about being left. Or about dying. Or about being helpless.”

An actress-turned-director, the 41-year-old Asian American filmmaker is now back in her home state of New York from LA to premiere her new online show, which explores the themes she mentioned. As a woman of color, however, getting to the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival wasn’t exactly something that was handed to her the moment she arrived in LA from her Long Island hometown. Working as an actress in the City of Angels for a number of years, Miao, a self-described impatient person, wasn’t going to settle for the typecast roles typically offered to Asian women in Hollywood. “There’s just no roles for Asian women that aren’t basically background or just moving the plot along,” Miao says, adding, “I started writing and producing my own stuff relatively early on, and directing kind of evolved out of that.”

And now Miao is the creator, writer, producer, and primary director of her own Two Sentence Horror Stories, an anthology series heavily influenced by shows like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, and horror directors such as Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tomas Alfredson, the director of the Swedish film Let the Right Ones In, which Miao hands down cites as her favorite film. To wear so many hats in the production process requires extreme dedication, and Miao says she hardly slept at all during the making of the show. Like the true visionary and restless artist that she is, it didn’t matter much. “It’s probably that happiest I’ve been in my life,” she says about working on her soon-to-be-released online series. “I welcomed the fatigue and the crazy schedule. I know that sounds unhealthy, but it’s a passion and you’re powered by that passion and it feels like you have unlimited energy.”

A big indicator of this exact passion that Miao talks about is evident in “MA,” one of the episodes she directed herself from the first season of her show. “MA” is the story of a Chinese mother and daughter living together, and what happens when the outside world enters into their strained relationship and home in the form of the duo’s female neighbor who hits it off with Mona (Wei-Yi Lin), the daughter. Half of the episode’s dialogue is in Chinese, and Erica (Ayesha Harris), the neighbor, is a black, masculine-presenting lesbian.

With much of the episode in another language, and with a budding, queer, interracial relationship at the forefront of the story, it would be easy to think that Miao feels some duty as a woman of color and a child of immigrant parents to represent a vast array of people in her work. However, Miao says she doesn’t start writing a story by thinking of the elements of identity that she wants to capture and represent. “It doesn’t quite work that way, and if I started there, I think I would actually write a pretty shitty story,” she says surely. “That feels too intellectual, and it’s not rooted in inspiration—in a feeling sense. That’s from the head, and not from the heart.”

Miao, on the other hand, agrees that by supporting storytellers who come from immigrant, queer, and people of color backgrounds, an audience will inevitably seep into whatever variation of universal stories are being told. It’s not an intentional process however, Miao reminds. “[Representation] is something that ends up happening as a byproduct of just being able to use my voice.” And in an industry that is increasingly being called out for whitewashing characters originally written to be people of color, or even simply not casting any people of color in television and film at all, it’s about time we had different voices and storytellers such as Miao providing their perspective and existence.

Two Sentence Horror Stories has yet to announce an official release date, but will be streaming on Stage 13, the show’s host site, sometime this year.

Credits: Photos courtesy of Prime 360 Photo.

UP NEXT

Harry Styles Releases Second Solo Track, “Sweet Creature”