Showrunner Vera Miao On Meaningful Horror, Inclusivity, And TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES

A look at the new horror anthology series.

There’s a moment in the very first episode of creator Vera Miao’s new horror anthology series, Two Sentence Horror Stories, when you know you are watching something special. It’s when Mona (Wei-Yi Lin), a young Asian-American woman, uses her mysterious telekinetic powers to pull Erica (Ayesha Harris), a young African-American woman with whom she’s falling in love, closer to her and keeps her from walking out the door. It’s a scene that is as tender as it is frightening. Not just because it’s a blend of two very distinct tones, but also because we rarely get to see an interracial lesbian romance within a genre narrative.

It’s something that will strike audiences who’ve been craving a more realistic reflection of the world we live in, one that’s not controlled by a white male gaze. But while Two Sentence Horror Stories, which begins its five-episode arc exclusively on Verizon’s mobile entertainment destination go90 on October 3, is helping to normalize the presence of people of color, LGBTQ characters, and other marginalized communities, while exploring contemporary issues like cyber-bullying, racism, and youth obsession, it was never Miao’s intention to make any specific political statements. “I wanted to present characters that feel close to me, that I know and love,” she says. 

Two Sentence Horror Stories is a thrilling introduction to Miao’s vision as a showrunner, who also directed two of the episodes (the first one “Ma” and “Singularity”). It’s also an effectively unsettling look at some of our deepest fears both as individuals and as a society. I recently caught up with her to discuss her process, inspiration, and the impact of bold storytelling in genre fiction.

Prior to seeing the first episode, “Ma,” at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, I had become jaded about horror anthologies. I love the format, but I hadn’t seen anything that was really exciting me up until this point. So when I saw “Ma,” I was like, what is this? Like, where did this come from? It was just so thoughtful, so relevant to what folks are talking about. But also so frightening.

Thank you! That means so much. I’m such a horror fan. I was just trying to make the stuff that I would like to see and don’t get to. I feel horror is like a family and I’m like the fourth cousin, and I just wanted to be a part of the barbecue.

I think that’s something a lot of creatives say, when you don’t see something that you want to watch, that excites you. Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns and create it yourself.

Yeah, it’s a dream come true to be able to make something from beginning to end. I’m happy that it’s going to be out there, and I am nervous to see what the reaction will be.

What drove you to do Two Sentence Horror Stories in this particular format as opposed to a full length feature?

Both the stories that are in the first season, and those that didn’t get produced, all have the capacity to exist in different forms. The short form is exciting and also a bit of a challenge in terms of getting a lot of story and a lot of character in the period of time that I had. Warner Bros/Stage 13’s interest was in short form. My series was always a little bit on the longer end of short form. I think some of the episodes would have been on track to be 20 minutes and above. But some of the process with Stage 13 was how do we get this as lean as possible. It’s always interesting as a storyteller to think about how much time you have to plug them out. A big part of my focus is in long form, and hopefully some of these stories will play out in that form as well. Either TV length or features.

There’s so much opportunity to really turn any of the five episodes in the series to full length. They’re very satisfying. They’re short, but I felt like I got everything that I needed. Character development is there. You care about where the story is going. How do you condense the full-bodied themes you have in each of these narratives in order to fit this format?

For me as a genre filmmaker, I am not preoccupied with the terror. Where stories start for me is a central fear, conflict and character. That’s where I always want to make sure I am doing some justice. Spending some time so that the audience is feeling the character and that we see the arc. I am always going to look at a story and constantly interrogate myself, Am I doing justice to the arc? You do have to pay attention to mood and setting. I wanted every episode to have moments that serviced the plot and how we might feel about the character. So you’re juggling many things.

But it was always important to me that there was a structure—a beginning, middle, and an end. With Two Sentence Horror Stories, you can see the architecture within the stories themselves, where the first sentence is a setup. So in a lot of ways the short form has helped facilitate that. I knew that I wanted to set up the story, and within the timeframe that I had to play with (which is about 15-20 minutes max), I needed to subvert the setup, see the twist, and then close it out. The closing out of it isn’t complete closure. I wanted to get the juice of it. I wanted to have visual stuff. It was hard. There are iterations of these episodes in my brain that are longer, but making it short taught me a lot as a filmmaker. I go in there and I’m like, Can I say this in fewer lines or no lines at all? There are scenes that I shot between Erica and Mona in “Ma” that are beautiful and I actually cut them. While I’d loved to have them in, the episode works without them.

You worked with several other filmmakers throughout this series. What do you look for in a collaborator?

It was the same key crew throughout the series, creating a balance like a television show. So there’s a visual identity that makes it clear we’re in one series. This is challenging as an anthology in which every episode is different. I was looking for directors who had really strong voices. Each episode is its own planet, with its own ecosystem and its own life. But my job as a showrunner is to make sure it all hangs in the same universe. I was lucky to work with the three guys that I did, who were excited by the material. I feel confident that you can tell that the series is a series because it has its own identity.

You come from a social justice background. What made you cross over into film?

Social justice and non-profit organizations are led by people who are intensely creative. It’s all poets, and singers, dancers, and painters. It’s incredible. But I really wanted to be creative, and (this is going to sound corny, but I’ll own it) I made the transition out of running a national organization and helping make the world a better place in whatever way that I could. Stories were such a massive way of shaping who I was, how I thought about the world, and how I related to other people. Moving into storytelling would be an extension of what I was trying to do in my life already. Stories have the capacity to shape culture and how people think about the world. It didn’t feel like I was turning my back on the things I’d been doing for so long. I was a child of Chinese immigrants. Art school was not going to happen for me. But I wanted to be creative, and I had the epiphany.

I do think that’s represented in your filmmaking, film activism, and how the medium interrogates society, while also reflecting a society that we rarely see—and normalizing it. Was that something that you were conscious about, that you wanted to have a particular theme included in each of the narratives. Or was it more like, this is just reality and I’m just depicting it?

I think it’s a little bit of both. Things are always happening on subconscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious levels. Humans need stories to make sense of the world. That’s not an activist statement; that’s just a fact. The whole purpose of stories is to try to make meaning. So I feel like I’m just fulfilling my role as a storyteller. Storytelling is one of the most profoundly important elements that shape humans. On a very basic level, these stories are how I make meaning, and are being informed by who I am, by my desire to process and make meaning in certain ways that are not reflected on screen. My work is about centralizing people who we don’t get to see. Some of that is just selfish (because it’s what I want), some of that is just natural (because it’s what I see), and some of it is aspirational because I want to see more of it.

In an episode like “Singularity” [which has a transgender lead character], it’s not about gender. “Ma” has a queer love story, but it’s not a coming out story. She’s not stressing about being queer. She’s stressed because she feels once again like she’s being called to abandon her mother. Part of what I wanted to do here is to create full dimensional characters, acknowledging each part about them without making any one of them a problem.

I think the fact that these characters exist at all is a profound political statement. Though it sounds like it wasn’t something you wanted to include in a heavy-handed kind of way. But that doesn’t make it less impactful.

It’s a balancing act. There’s a level of intention to every story. I believe in horror as a really profound way for us to try to make meaning out of some of our most primal fears. Those fears include societal fears. That’s absolutely a conscious intention. For me, it’s important to always have characters that are central to me. Some of that is a deliberate process that I go through, and I hope that some of it is just being a true storyteller.

What inspires you to work in horror? Would you consider working in other genres?

Absolutely. I consider myself a genre person. I watch a lot of horror, but I consider myself a sci-fi nerd. I’m a pulp girl. As for working in horror, I think it gives us license to get into our archival fears without having to build another world. I can engage with toxic masculinity and fight about who has ownership of female bodies through horror. I can really throw myself into that. Because it helps me make meaning doing what I love. And it’s just so much fun!

Can you share anything about what you’re working on now?

I think that there’s a desire to have a second season of Two Sentence Horror Stories. The response will determine what that looks like. I’m working on a feature, and a few other projects in development, and a pilot.

Stage 13, the digital content brand that is part of Warner Bros. Digital Networks, will premiere Two Sentence Horror Stories October 3 on Follow Vera Miao on Twitter.