INTERVIEW: Julian Terry On His First Feature Film ‘They Hear It’, How He Made Us Fear The Amazon Echo In ‘Whisper’, And Conjuring Up ‘The Nurse’
Around the time of the release of the latest Conjuring Universe spin-off The Nun last year I reached out to Annabelle: Creation Competiton winner Julian Terry to chat to him about his competition winning short The Nurse. Shortly after I began talking to him news broke that Legendary Entertainment had picked up his short film They Hear It to adapt it to a feature film – with It Follows and Under The Silver Lake director David Robert Mitchell signed on to pen the script.
With exciting times ahead for Julian, we chatted with him about his 3 horror-shorts, The Nurse, They Hear It, and Whisper, which have all now been optioned at different studios! We wanted to learn about his creative process and his approach to each short, his reaction to his shorts being optioned, and his advice for budding filmmakers.
Would you like to introduce yourself to our readers
Hey, I’m Julian Terry a half British half Puerto Rican filmmaker. After failing my intro to film class, I drove out from Chicago to LA. I worked on nearly 200 shorts while at BuzzFeed and learned vfx at Pixomondo. In 2017, I won The My Annabelle Creation Contest with my first horror short, The Nurse. Since then I have optioned all 3 of my horror shorts, The Nurse (New Line Cinema), Whisper (Amblin), and They Hear It (Legendary).
What inspired you to want to work in the film industry?
I grew up watching movies. I didn’t have a video camera growing up but I always dreamed of having one. As a kid, I used to sneak downstairs to hang out with my dad whenever I could. He was always watching old sci-fi movies that heavily influenced my imagination and my writing.
My dad was hardly around and eventually left. One thing I loved growing up was Friday night movie night with my mom and sister. I grew up recreating movie scenes with my little sister. I loved pausing movies and rebuilding scenes with Legos and Star Wars action figures. I remember when I found out Spielberg directed most of my favorite movies I wanted to have that job. I had no idea what kind of up hill battle I was in for.
Are there any filmmakers that really inspire you or influence you work?
No one has influenced me like Spielberg has. I grew up recreating Jurassic Park scenes with my younger sister. When I was five, I snuck downstairs to watch a movie with my dad who caught me hiding under the table. He said I wasn’t ready for this movie. I said I liked the dogs in it and I begged to watch it. Little did I know it wasn’t a dog movie… it was John Carpenter’s The Thing. It blew my mind. I had many rough nights unable to sleep.
Another influence was seeing Memento when I was a kid. Seeing a movie told in such a fascinating way influenced my writing significantly. I started experimenting a lot with new ways of storytelling. In high school I saw the midnight screening of The Dark Night. I remember walking out at 2am so excited to make movies.
Do you find that experience in cinematography helps when directing your shorts?
It really helps! I storyboard like crazy for my scare scenes just to help work out the pacing. For the short, They Hear It, my DP gave up after a bit and I had to take over. I was directing two children a dog. It’s easy to freak out when it feels like everything is falling apart. I wasn’t panicked due to my background in cinematography.
On set you need to be able to communicate to everyone. You need to be able to communicate what you want to your actors. You need to be able to communicate your framing and lighting to your DP. You need to understand time when talking to your AD. You also need to understand editing and pacing.
I was a 1st AD for two indie features which comes in handy here and there. For a year I just did sound mixing on sets. It’s important to be able to take on any job on set and know how to handle it. Hell I was a script supervisor for multiple shorts. Some of my biggest advice is work every position on set. I can’t do HMU. That’s a job I leave to the pros!
Can you tell us what your inspiration was for your horror short Whisper?
Ha! Whisper has an embarrassing story. I can scare myself very easily. At the time I was living with 3 other people in an apartment and on this particular night I was alone. I woke up and heard my puppy whining at something down the hall. I didn’t want to have to check what it was. Then I heard something from my closet next to the bed. I was so freaked out and thought wouldn’t it be scary if something was confirming your worst fears? What if Siri or Alexa told you there’s something in the room and you couldn’t see it.
Whisper is about 2 minutes long, but how long were you working on the short as a whole?
Well we learned a lot from our first one. The Nurse had been thrown together very fast. We treated it like a BuzzFeed banger video. At BuzzFeed we had to crank out a viral video in one day. I learned about the contest very late in the game and it was very rushed. I had to make it around my full-time job as an intern at Pixomondo. I didn’t want to rush anything like that again.
It was October and we had won the Annabelle Creation contest. We were awaiting our meeting with David F. Sandberg and the New Line executives. It was very thrilling! I wrote a dozen 1 page stories to pitch them. Last second, our New Line meeting got pushed past Halloween.
It was a week before Halloween and I wanted to show I could make another horror short. One that was my style of horror. I had very little money so my best friend, Alex Anderson, and I started getting everything ready. Alex and I met when we were interns at BuzzFeed and knew how to work fast. I remember I had so little money that I had to return the Amazon Echo to Best Buy after. I never actually owned one!
We filmed it in half a day but I really wanted to spend time with the sound design this time. Not to mention it was shot during the daytime so Alex spent time cleaning up the shadows in the background. All of these shorts were tricky because they were edited after our full time jobs. Alex and I pulled a few all-nighters to make it ready for Halloween. We had a crew of 2 people on that one! The BTS photo on instagram is the whole crew!
Whisper received a lot of attention when you released it Halloween 2017 with the likes of CNET, Reddit, and Mashable talking about it. Did the attention you receive surprise you at all?
It did! Though coming from BuzzFeed you learn how to hit an audience at the right time. I knew people would get creeped out by smart devices always listening to them.
I recently pitched Whisper to the studios. Like Jaws made people terrified of the water and Psycho made people fear the shower I wanted to make people scared of their own smart device. I pitched it to Amblin and it landed on Spielberg’s desk. Amblin picked it up and we’re moving forward with it!
It’s literally been a dream come true!
I don’t know about anyone else, but Whisper has made me think twice about getting an Echo! Has Amazon eve commented on your use of its product in the horror? Did you have to get permission beforehand?
Well… about that…. I haven’t heard from them yet. Nervously waiting for the day Jeff Bezos corners me and beats me up.
Another short you directed was The Nurse, which won Warner Bros’ Annabelle: Creation competition for the US entry. How did the idea come about for this short?
It was wild! I was sleeping on Alex’s couch and I felt like the world was against me. I was in a breakup and was told by a producer at work that I didn’t belong on a filmset. It was tough. I couldn’t sleep and saw the contest on Facebook. I had a fun idea for a new setting in the Conjuring Universe. Seeing it from the eyes of a child who ends up becoming a medium. The villain was a fun creepy throwback. It was all about building tension in that James Wan style.
I remember it was Monday morning and the contest was over at 11:59pm on Thursday. Alex and I knew how to work quickly from our BuzzFeed days. I was casting on the go. I drove around trying to get a script and locking a location. Alex and I went everywhere. We got food and I called my buddies to see who was free and had equipment. When we got to the spot to film it didn’t match what I imagined. So we made most of it up on the spot. It was a little crazy because of the little time with had with Aria Walters. Thankfully her mom, Dawn Walters, was very supportive. The Nurse was played by roommate, Hannah Palazzi. Both of them knocked it out of the park!
I remember wanting to make sure our short stuck out from the rest. Everyone submitting mostly had a woman in her 20s being attacked in her apartment. (Funny enough that’s what Whisper became). I was adamant on getting Aria because I knew she could take our short to the next level. I had seen her act and I was blown away how she could take direction better than most adults. I changed the gender of the main character in They Hear It just so I could work with her again!
The Nurse is incredibly tense and well made, how many people did you have working behind the scenes with you?
We had two people who helped us. One brought a camera and another brought 2 kino lights. So I made one the DP and the other the gaffer!
Alex was with me every step of the way, so he became a producer and writer. And that was it! 3 people was all we needed. I’ll never forget calling my DP and asking him if he wanted to shoot the short. He was excited and said he was free next week. I asked him if he was free in an hour to drive down to Anaheim.
We created a crew that worked on all of our horror shorts. Alex produced each one with me. Christina Gonzalez was my sound designer who taught me so much! She had a small computer setup in her bedroom where we mixed everything. I got very picky over every little sound. We would just spend nights making the weirdest sounds we could come up with. We recorded audio with our phones and ran around barefoot on her wood floor for They Hear It. Christina was the creepy sound of the monster in Whisper. We had many late nights having fun coming up with weird sounds and testing them.
Alex Winkler was the other teammate who never gave up. He composed all of our scores. He threw together The Nurse overnight. For Whisper, he had a much bigger score. I felt it was a bit scarier just hearing the sound design. I still feel bad cutting so much of it. He’s an amazing composer who puts up with me even when I don’t know the lingo. I’m able to just communicate through the emotions of the scene.
Independent and short filmmakers are under a lot of pressure to work with little to no budget, to create something original and eye-catching, what advice do you have for people working in these circumstances?
There is a lot of pressure. But I wouldn’t worry about it! I would just make something fun with friends. It’s so easy to put something off because you don’t find it’s “good” enough. Just make stuff.
When it comes down to originality I just look at the scare mechanic and the monster. Lights Out had the hook of the famous light switch. Night Swim has the mechanic of the pool. Larry has the iPad scare mechanic. That’s all you need. That’s what people will remember. They Hear It is a sound that only kids can hear and lures certain kids to the woods. A mechanic should sit in peoples heads. Mechanics can build to amazing set pieces.
The other thing I would do is look at movies and find the proof concept scene that would make the movie. For ET it would be the infamous Reeses Pieces scene. It’s a tease for something bigger.
I was interning the whole time I made these 3 shorts. It was either on weekends or after work. It’s tough to balance it all. I lost a relationship of 4 years. When driving to shoot They Hear It I had 4 dollars in my bank account.
What saved me was having friends and family supporting me. My mom reads everything I write before I send it out. The morning I was contacted by The Picture Co about They Hear It I was talking to my mom saying I was mentally exhausted. Make sure you have a support team around you. It can be tough and lonely sometimes.
I’ll never forget when I slept out of my car in LA feeling so stupid for chasing this dream. Feeling like I’ve either made an incredible mistake coming to LA or I’m on my way to making my dream come true.
It was announced a couple months ago that your short They Hear It has been picked up by Legendary Entertainment and The Picture Company to be turned into a feature, with your talented self sat in the director’s chair. First of all, congratulations, and secondly, what was your initial reaction when you received the news?
Thank you! It’s been insane. In June I had a finished cut of They Hear It. My colorist gave up on me due to the pay and I had to learn coloring myself. I had uploaded it privately to Vimeo and a lot of friends had doubts about it. My relationship was ending. One morning, I spoke to my mom on my way to work about what was going on. She helped get a ticket for me to go back to Chicago.
At work I was sent on a coffee run and I got a notification from Alex Heineman and Andrew Rona. They had seen Whisper and were really impressed and asked if I was working on anything else. I flipped out. I sent They Hear It with the logline for the bigger movie. They Hear It was an 8 minute short based off an early scene in the feature.
They loved it.
Jacob Chase loved it, too. I ended up turning in a treatment, getting agents at Paradigm (Scott Henderson, Valerie Phillips, and Gabriel Mena) and everything in less than a week. I flew to Chicago and rewrote the treatment every morning. I ended up with a 3 page document that we sent to the studios. Pitching was terrifying and exciting.
I was on a coffee run at Pixomondo when I got a call from my manager, my agents, my producer and my new lawyer. I paced around outside of work. My heart was racing. I couldn’t believe it. I was an intern, completely broke, and sleeping on my friend’s couch with a deal to direct my first movie.
Finally a real win.
I actually recorded my reaction when I got the news when Whisper had landed on Spielberg’s desk. I was crying with joy.
The premise of They Hear It is there’s a mysterious sound that attracts people to it that results in dire consequences. Can you tell us your inspirations for this film and how this concept came about?
Well, I was an intern at BuzzFeed and I heard on the radio that there was a sound no one could explain. I thought about it for awhile. I originally imagined it as a children’s movie. The idea would come and go. I remember as a kid I would sleep with the window open. We lived near the woods and I would hear creepy sounds outside. I wanted to make something that captured that feeling.
After The Nurse was made I had multiple meetings with managers. I remember going into GoodFear Management and talking to David Baggelaar about this idea of a haunting Sound. He really dug it and ended up becoming my manager nearly a year later.
As far as prep goes, it was the day after our meeting with New Line. I wanted to make the ultimate horror short. I wanted to prove to the execs I had what it took. I wanted to make something that had not been done yet.
The Sound was incredibly challenging to make scary. We had to get creative. I spent many nights in Christina’s room coming up with different Sound iterations. She threw out so many versions. I knew the Sound worked when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
The other issue with a monster being a sound is how do you make it scary? You can’t give it a Jaws-like theme because you needed to hear the sound. Alex Winkler and I started with scores like There Will be Blood. I wanted this to be really different and unpredictable. I wanted the audience to feel like anything could happen in these 8 minutes. So I asked Winkler if he could take a violin and play it wrong. I wanted to hear something that was unpredictable as the story.
He played the violin wrong and broke the bow as well as the violin. The result was amazing. It sent shivers up your spine. I made sure to place it sparingly in the short so each time it hit you wanted to freak out.
My friends Alex Anderson and Will Neff all love big sci-fi horror. Will and I worked very hard on coming up with ideas. We tossed around tons of fun Lovecraft ideas. It’s important to have a solid writing group that you can test run crazy thoughts. Will and I are working on writing a project as we speak!
We imagine your lips are sealed tightly with anything revolving this film, but we hear that David Robert Mitchell, who directed It Follows, has signed on to pen the big screen adaptation of your short. We imagine you must be very excited to work with David and see your concept adapted?
Oh man David is so cool to work with! I was geeked when he first liked the short. He’s an encyclopedia of movie knowledge. I can reference any old horror movie and he’s seen it multiple times. We even discuss camera moves while working. It’s so nice to work with a director that shares the same visual language. They Hear It is a hell of a script!
After They Hear It, the world of Hollywood may well be at your feet. How do you approach this next big step in your career and beyond? Where do you hope to be in 5 years time?
5 years!? I can barely predict this year! I’m slowly shaping up Whisper to follow up They Hear It. I love going to Amblin. It’s where my favorite movies came from. I want to do more Amblin movies in the future. Before The Nurse, all of my stories were kid’s adventure stories. My dream is to make a kid’s version of Jurassic Park. Something to bring back wonder to the screen.
In 5 years I would love to be taking risks in other genres. I think I’ll always have a sweet spot for good horror movies. I’d love to be helping other filmmakers break in the industry. My dream is giving people a chance that haven’t had it in the past. I’d like to bring in identity stories similar to what I did at BuzzFeed but for movies! Imagine seeing everyone represented when you go out to the movie theater. That’s the dream.
And finally, we like to end our interviews with the most important question of all… Does pineapple belong on pizza?
Listen… I can support all groups of people…but I grew up on Chicago pizza. Those heathens who enjoy pineapple pizza are the worst. Sadly my producer/roommate, Alex Anderson, is one these sad pineapple pizza people. There’s no hope for him.
Thank you once again to Julian for taking the time to chat with us despite his very hectic schedule! We’ll be keeping a close eye on his upcoming work and will be covering They Hear It, The Nurse, and Whisper upon their release.
If you’re not afraid to live in fear of your smart speaker, you can watch Julian’s short The Whisper below!