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The critically praised and fan-favorite horror documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror, from AMC, made its season three premiere on October 1, 2021.
The showrunner for Eli Roth’s History of Horror, Kurt Sayenga, is an established television documentary series director, writer, and executive producer, who’s best known for the science television documentary programs Through the Wormhole, Microkillers, Origins: The Journey of Mankind, and Breakthrough. Sayenga is a film buff and dedicated horror film fan, who, combined with the talents of horror master Eli Roth, created a program delighting both staunch horror movie fans and casual viewers.
Sayenga shares with us what it takes to develop a horror documentary series, the films that make the series, and the impact of horror cinema.
Bonilla: When you’re developing the episodes, is it the film topics, or the films of interest that come first?
Sayenga: It’s a little of both. We come up with general topics that fit into the template that we’ve established with the network, then think of films that will appeal both to film buffs and casual viewers, who mostly know newer or the most famous horror films. Then, we run about a dozen potential episodes past the network, and they tell us what works for them. We have a very long list of films we love and want to cover, and we’re steadily working our way through it.
Several episodes this season lean into relatively newer films, like the “Holiday Horror” episode, which has a lot of slashers. That genre did not exist until Black Christmas and Halloween.
The “Mad Scientists” episode has more classic horror and traces certain themes across time. For instance, you see that it’s a straight line from The Island of Lost Souls to Ex Machina. And in the case of Frankenstein, we focus on the doctor and not so much the monster, which right off the bat makes it unusual in the pantheon of horror documentaries. The Colin Clive Dr. Frankenstein is a very different man than Dr. Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing, in the Hammer films. Cushing is the star of those movies, and in many ways, he’s the real monster.
Bonilla: How did you pick the topics for the series, such as “Vampires” and “Nine Nightmares”?
Sayenga: The “Nine Nightmares” episode happened because somebody at the network had the idea of making an “Eli’s Top 10” episode. That was a problem because we had already covered a number of Eli’s favorite films in season one. And Eli, was not thrilled with the idea of doing a top 10 for many other reasons, partly because it’s very reductive. Ask him to just name his top 50 Italian horror films and he’d be frustrated because he loves so many of them.
We wound up putting together a bunch of films that he likes that would be hard to fit in any other category, like Cannibal Holocaust. There’s no way in hell you’re gonna get an entire cannibal episode on AMC, which takes advertising, but we could smuggle it in by making it part of the broader category.
Bonilla: What was one of the biggest challenges of filming during COVID?
Sayenga: Conducting the interviews. I thought that with COVID, nobody would come out. And then, if we were lucky, we’d get remotes. Before the vaccine when we started shooting, there was maximum fear, justifiable fear. But we were able to get a lot of great people as it went along, and things got slightly better. Most of the interviews were conducted on set under very strict COVID protocols, and several others were remote interviews, which is something I would ordinarily not condone. But went along with this season because there was no other choice since people weren’t flying and the borders were closed.
There is an element of the person-to-person interview that just gets lost when we’re communicating through Zoom. I was fortunate that I had already interviewed a number of these people, like Edgar Wright, who I talked to at a great length in season one and great length this season. Though he was in London at the time, Edgar and I had met before. So, we already had a connection. It helps to meet someone and sit there sharing some space. Overall, the interviews came out much better than I expected, despite the weirdness of COVID.
Bonilla: How are guests selected for the interviews?
Sayenga: We reach out to all the key creatives in front of and behind the camera, if they’re still alive, and we try to work it out with their managers and their schedules. That is a very challenging process, particularly with actors. We can usually get directors and writers on board for the show with no problem – if they’ve seen the show, they know we’re approaching it from the creator’s point of view. Once we’ve made those connections, the actors are more inclined to come in. For instance, Christopher Landon, who directed Happy Death Day, was one of the first people we lined up this season, and that helped get us Jessica Rothe, the star of Happy Death Day.
I’m not sure why, but we had trouble getting women, especially actresses, for interviews. This season was just the opposite – it’s very gender-balanced. Fortunately, Eli’s making a movie with Cate Blanchett and Jamie Curtis in it. Thus, we were able to get Cate and Jamie.
Bonilla: How do you decide which films to interview guests?
Sayenga: I interviewed 60 people this season and have a bed of another 160 interviews done for the first two seasons. There’s some material I can use from the earlier interviews, but not a lot. We cover about 80 or 90 films a season, and there are very few people who can talk about everything. We break it up – and usually, I will run the list of films past the interviewees, and they can tell me what interests them. I also have a group of people like Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Rob Zombie, Rebekah McKendry, and Quentin Tarantino, who has seen every film you can think of and can talk about them at length.
I am particularly happy when I run across actors who are also film enthusiasts. You would be surprised at how many of them aren’t.
I also listen to a bunch of podcasts to hear like who’s good at interviews. So, I poach a lot from the Trailers from Hell podcast, The Movies That Made Me podcast, and Mick Garris’s Postmortem podcast. They get a lot of good people on their shows.
Bonilla: What inspired the episode topics for this season?
Sayenga: The “Mad Scientist” episode is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve made a lot of science films in my career, and I think part of came from watching mad scientist movies in my childhood. I was fascinated by the figure of the genius rebel going their own way, no matter the consequences, perhaps going too far in their pursuit of truth.
“Infections” is a great episode, and I’m sure the inspiration for that is fairly obvious. Besides, where else would we get a chance to cut from Dustin Hoffman throwing his coffee against a whiteboard in Outbreak to Kate Winslet poking her finger at a whiteboard in Contagion?
“Psychics” gave us a good way to dive into some of the better Stephen King adaptations, Doctor Sleep and The Shining. That’s an all-star director episode with films like Scanners, The Dead Zone, The Fury, Beetlejuice, and The Frighteners. Also included, is The Gift, an underappreciated movie directed by Sam Raimi, starring Cate Blanchett.
“Sequels (That Don’t Suck)”, was an idea that Eli and I were banging around for a while. It starts with Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and ends with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. There is much mayhem in between. I think that will be very popular and so does the network. They made it the season premiere episode.
“Holiday Horror” is another idea we’ve been wanting to do for a while. It runs from the low-budget holiday-themed slashers like Black Christmas, Silent Night Deadly Night, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, and Mother’s Day to slick modern movies like Halloween 2018, Happy Death Day, and Krampus.
“Apocalyptic Horror” gave us a way to cover some zombie films we couldn’t get into back in the season one “Zombie” episode, like Zombieland and Train to Busan. But it also has some of my favorite films, like War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m particularly fond of a segment on The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend, which stars Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith. These films were all based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. It’s one of the most influential horror stories ever written, even though it’s never been faithfully adapted.
Bonilla: What is your favorite episode this season?
Sayenga: It’s tough to choose, but I’ll go with “Mad Scientists”. It’s probably the darkest of the six episodes.
Bonilla: After ‘History of Horror’, would you consider writing, producing, or possibly directing your own horror content?
Sayenga: Yes, of course. I’d love to do that.
Bonilla: What are your current go-to horror films?
Sayenga: Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Psycho, The Haunting, Dead Ringers, Audition, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Bride of Frankenstein, The Silence of the Lambs, Cat People (1942), The Cabin in the Woods, Train to Busan, Godzilla (original Japanese version, 1954), and Quatermass II.
Bonilla: When you watch a horror movie, how does it engage you?
Sayenga: I’ve seen so many horror films and films in general that it’s difficult to watch them purely as entertainment. I’m very conscious of the craft, or lack of craft that’s going into the film. I am way too conscious of how special effects are created. Any movie that can get me past that is a movie I will return to because it made me put my dispassionate technical brain to the side.
But to be honest, a lot of horror films frustrate me, because the characters are rock-stupid and blind to their situation. I watch how people act in horror films, and think, “Don’t do that. Don’t walk into that room. Why are you not turning on the lights? What’s wrong with the lights in this house? Why are you staying in this creepy house where the lights don’t work? Why do you not pick up a weapon of some sort just in case a serial killer is on the loose?” I’m not a fearful person, but I am a person who believes in being prepared for the worst.
Bonilla: In Psychology Today, they are suggesting that Horror (horror) fans are coping better with the pandemic. Why do you think?
Sayenga: Yeah, horror fans are coping better with this. Anyone paying attention to horror films saw all this coming. If anything, horror fans were prepared for a much more worst-case scenario than what we just lived through. For some people, me included, horror is rehearsal and preparation. And ultimately, horror addresses our fear of dying and coming to grips with that.
I’ve made several films about pandemic diseases for National Geographic, including one that had a “what if” fiction component. It conjured up the crazy idea that there could be a zoonotic transmission of disease from a bat to a pig to a human in a pig market in China. We shot this with an actress in Hong Kong who then flies to London, and along the way spreads this highly contagious airborne virus everywhere she goes.
Contagion of course tells a similar story in a masterful way that tracks closely to reality. Things were worse in Contagion, as far as rioting and stuff like that. I’m surprised that it wasn’t worse here. But the virus in Contagion had a higher lethality rate, so that makes a difference in how people respond to it.
Bonilla: What can audiences expect for season three?
Sayenga: Season three is a big crowd-pleaser. It has a lot of ‘80s horror, classic horror, and modern horror. It has movie stars, brilliant writers, directors, and a new batch of film scholars with fresh takes on the genre.
By season three of anything, usually, everybody’s in the groove. They know what the series is and know how to make it work. That’s certainly been the case with season three. People seem to really like the second season and this season is very much in the vein of the second season. We know what we’re doing and we’re having a good time doing it.