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Director of SYFY's 'Bring It On: Cheer or Die' on bringing the chills to the hit cheerleading franchise

Director Karen Lam explains how she brought the chills to the cheers in Bring It On: Cheer or Die.

By Tara Bennett
Bring It On: Cheer or Die

There's a first time for everything in this world, so never say never. Take for instance horror director Karen Lam being asked to helm the latest installment of the long-running Bring It On cheerleading franchise. A sincere, "Wait, what?" offer until producer Griff Furst explained to Lam that the franchise wanted to try out a horror title with Bring It On: Cheer or Die and they thought she was the right woman to make it happen. 

She said, "Y.E.S.!" and now Bring It On: Cheer or Die premieres Oct. 8 on SYFY. Curious about how the cheer-tastic franchise transitioned to a completely new genre, SYFY WIRE got on the phone with Lam to discuss turning mean girl cheerleaders into horror scream queens.

Since the world of cheerleading was new to you, how did your research influence merging the sport with the horror genre?

I wanted to really capture, if possible, what cheer felt like now. What I really noticed was how athletic it's become. I honestly thought it was pom-poms and girls who are a size zero. But they are athletic. They're all different sizes, ethnicities, and gender. It was just amazing to me how acrobatic it's become, and that it's a sport. My respect for the sport actually went up as I was doing more and more research. I was lurking on people's cheerleader Pinterest boards. When I got the script, I didn't know half of these positions. What are they doing? The more research I did, the more I wanted to make sure that the film honored the spirit of what modern cheer is.

Were there any creative mandates on how far you could go with the horror in Bring It On: Cheer or Die?

The first thing that was top of mind was the fact that this is PG-13. All of a sudden, I can't go gory with this. I can't just throw on the usual horror tropes that we use. But to me, if you don't care about the characters, it's not scary. It was really important for me to really lean into "team ships," which are the important friendships, and that they're loyal to each other. 

There's always a physicality required from the performers in all horror movies. Did you lean into the athleticism of the cheerleaders to inform the physical scenes?

I was consistently going through the whole script asking, "Can I physically do these things?" Like, if I was an actual athlete, and I could actually be coordinated and not knock myself out, what am I capable of? How do I really fight back? Am I into like, ninja moves? I worked with choreographer Tony Gonzalez, who has been with the franchise for the entire thing. He's amazing. What I wanted and worked with him on was that I wanted every defensive move to be a cheer move. I wanted to make sure that all the fight sequences, everything that we did, was actually something that the cheerleaders would have in their arsenal. When it came down to it, everything ties back to the fact that this is a cheer movie, and that I wanted to respect the fact that whatever they were struggling with would be their salvation at the end. 

The movie takes place in an abandoned school. Did you build one on a soundstage?

No. The good thing was that we were shooting literally in an abandoned school. Literally, that helps. And then the second thing that really helped was because of COVID times and shooting, we were doing opposite hours. I think our four weeks that we had to shoot, three weeks of those were night shoots. It was night for night, so that definitely helps because you're already in a heightened state because of the weird hours. 

How did working in that real space influence how you framed the look and feel of the film?

As a horror filmmaker, I love suspense. I love those low, weird tracking shots; that's my favorite thing to do. Our production designer, Nick Richardson, really gave me weird atmospheres that I could play with. We were limited in space, but I wanted the school to feel like a labyrinth. There was like two hallways that we got to work with. We just kept redressing it and it was lot of fun to do that. I wanted to create atmosphere more than just relying on the gore sequences and the blood. It's like toothpaste in that once it's out of the toothpaste tube, you can't put it back in there.

Check back after the premiere of Bring It On: Cheer or Die Oct. 8 on SYFY for Part II of our spoiler-filled interview with Karen Lam.