Filmmaker Vera Miao wants to scare the pants off you and teach you about social issues in the process.
The 41-year-old has appeared in bit parts on TV (she played Jill Becker in “State of Affairs”) and starred in “Best Friends Forever,” the indie apocalypse film she co-wrote currently available on iTunes. Now, Miao is taking on the role of showrunner for Stage 13’s upcoming series, “Two Sentence Horror Stories.”
“It feels like there is a real momentum around high quality, cinematic, intelligent stories that don’t assume short form digital means cheap or dumbed down.”
Based on the Internet phenomenon of the same name, the anthology series is comprised of short films whose plots can be explained in just two sentences. Each episode is sandwiched by two sentences over a black screen — an ominous one at the beginning and one at the end that provides the twist.
“I'd followed the two sentence horror stories phenomenon like any fan and loved the creativity and that they are a blend of classic, old-fashioned ghost stories within new virtual communities like Reddit,” Miao told NBC News. “They manage to be evocative and open-ended at the same time."
Born in Guam to Taiwanese immigrants, Miao grew up in New York City, where she had a long career in the social justice nonprofit sector before transitioning into filmmaking. “The [change] made sense to me, because stories are the main way we make meaning as humans and shape and influence how we think and see the world,” Miao said.
She initially focused on acting as an entry point to the industry, but quickly found that roles available for Asian-American women were few and far between. That frustration pushed Miao into directing, she said, which she found was her real passion.
Miao’s variety of previous experience has eased her transition as a showrunner, and, for a self-proclaimed “genre nerd,” an anthology horror series like “Two Sentence Horror Stories” was the perfect opportunity to display her talents.
Miao found herself pitching the show on the Warner Bros lot to Stage 13, a “mobile-first” streaming site, after responding to “a vaguely worded posting on a listserv for female filmmakers.”
"I pitched an anthology series inspired by two sentence horror stories that would grapple with contemporary social issues, and reflect the diversity of today's audiences," she said. "The folks at Stage 13 responded to the idea immediately.”
The two sentence horror story telling form is popular on websites like Reddit, where users post haunting fiction such as: “My fitbit logs are scaring me. Why does my heart stop every night at 3AM?”
Miao was an early fan.
The first episode of her the series, “Ma” premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. A fifteen minute short, “Ma” follows a budding romance between neighbors Mona and Erica, which is stymied by Mona’s overbearing Chinese mother – with a horrifying twist. The second episode is scheduled to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival later this month as part of the "Episodes: Indie Series from the Web" program.
Addressing the topic of representation in media, Miao explains that she isn’t “keen on the term, diversity.”
“I think it’s empty,” she said. “You can have a zillion people of color in the background, and the main characters, experiences, and gaze still white. That can still qualify as diverse. I’m interested in true representation in front of and behind the camera, and centralizing the specific experience of people who aren’t typically seen as protagonists.”
Miao also noted that the Asian-American community has some distance to go in their own discussions about race. “For too long we have coasted on the supposed benefits of the model minority myth that eludes the poverty within our communities … and the racism and especially anti-blackness perpetuated by our own families and communities,” she said.
Miao hopes to use work like “Two Sentence Horror Stories”to create intentional counter narratives to damaging assumptions.
She does, however, worry that the success of a smart, social horror like Jordan Peele’s recent “Get Out” will convince Hollywood that there is “some kind of winning formula that you can just copy.”
“Social issue, check. Horror, check. Box office dominance, check. What that misses is the specificity of the point of view, the craftsmanship, the heart and the love that went into [Get Out]. That’s not a formula at work. That’s a visionary,” she said.
Miao said that while some of the best horror movies deal with major social issues such as racism, capitalism, and misogyny, she also enjoys those that deal with loss, grief, and loneliness.
Her own favorite horror films range from "The Orphanage" to "Rosemary’s Baby" and "Alien."
“Mad props to ‘The Thing’and ‘The Descent,’" she added. “’Dumplings’ just tickles the hell out of me.”
“I'd followed the two sentence horror stories phenomenon like any fan and loved the creativity and that they are a blend of classic, old-fashioned ghost stories within new virtual communities like Reddit.”
It’s the specificity of works that impresses Miao most. She isn’t afraid that an audience won’t pick up on cues in films.
“What I love about ‘Get Out’ is that a lot of the cues were explicitly for black folks … If you make a good film, each person hopefully can find something familiar and something new when watching it," she said. "That’s true for all films, not just those that are still relatively rare for featuring people of color leads.”
Miao said that the lowered bar of entry for filmmaking means that there are more chances for underrepresented creatives to go out and make what they want. “Don’t wait for permission,” she said. “Just do. That way you’re always growing, refining your craft.”
And, despite working for years in the industry, Miao is still learning with every opportunity. “I feel like a real newby to the digital realm, particularly short form,” she said.
“It feels like there is a real momentum around high quality, cinematic, intelligent stories that don’t assume short form digital means cheap or dumbed down,” Miao added. “Episode length, season length, all of it can be determined by what serves the story best.”