Sundance Interview: The Directors Of XX

Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic and Sofia Carrillo discuss working in the horror genre.

Horror anthologies have long been a thing, but of late they’ve certainly come into vogue, offering a fine arena for both upcoming and established filmmakers to showcase their talents and in one film find numerous voices contributing to the general conversation about the genre.

The latest anthology XX is the brainchild of XYZ’s Todd Brown (who’s also my boss at ScreenAnarchy), who, along with Toronto-based director and former editor of Rue Morgue Magazine Jovanka Vuckovic, purposely advocated for an all-female group to tell the stories they wanted to tell. After shifts in participants (the Soska Sisters, for example, were among those who were at one time attached to contribute) the project ended up with five remarkable filmmakers given the liberty to tell their stories the way they wanted them told.

The film is tied together with stunning animation by Mexican filmmaker Sofia Carrillo, providing thematic interstitials for each segment. Jovanka Vuckovic’s film, The Box, tells of the withering nature of child rearing and the toll it takes. Annie Clark, better known to music fans as St. Vincent, makes her directorial debut with The Birthday Party, a darkly comic story involving fest-darling Melanie Lynskey planning an event while trying to mask a horror from her kid. Roxanne Benjamin helped produce the V/H/S series, co-wrote Clark’s film, and wrote/directed her own sequence, Don’t Fall. The final filmmaker, Girlfight’s Karyn Kusama, missed Sundance to attend the Women’s march in Washington.

In a wide ranging conversation, we talked about films that shaped these filmmakers, the nature of collaboration and whether they’d tackle a studio project if offered.

What was the first movie you saw that scared you?

Annie Clark: Full Metal Jacket when I was six.

Because of the violence or because of the impact of the ideas?

AC: It scared me because Vincent D'Onofrio got beaten with pillow cases filled with bars of soap and then he blew his brains out. That was scary at six.

Roxanne Benjamin: Night of the Living Dead. I saw it when I was four years old and I grew up north of Pittsburgh so it felt very real to me. I have been in the Evans City cemetery where it was filmed. So that sense of death coming for you and there's nothing to stop it? I learned that at four and that's kind of where I've been mentally ever since.

Jovanka Vuckovic: For me it's kind of a blur. I remember the Poe cycle of the Corman films being on TV a lot when I was a kid. I have very vivid memories of being really young and not being able to sleep in my room because of this one image from Fulci's Zombi of the hand in the window behind the lady while she's in the bathroom, you know? Olga Karlatos who gets the twelve-inch spike in her eye. When I was eight, I saw The Exorcist and that put a permanent wrinkle in my psyche. I was never the same. I don't think anybody who's eight years old should see that movie. I thought it was a documentary, I thought it was real. That fucked me up for a long time and it certainly didn't do anything for my sleep problems.

Sofia Carrillo: You're going to laugh. I saw IT and then I couldn't sleep. When I was taking a bath I couldn't see the drain and I was so scared. And also I saw Chucky and I couldn't sleep.

Here you all are making movies that extensively are meant to scare. What kind of audience do you hope to get and would you show your films to kids?

JV: No, absolutely not, they're not appropriate for children. Children should watch age-appropriate stuff.

Are you being sarcastic?

JV: Uh no, I'm being dead serious.

So you would not subject kids to what you were subjected to?

JV: No. Not at all. I used to go to horror conventions and people used to come up to me to try to impress me by saying, "I showed my five-year-old The Exorcist", and I'm like, "You're a prick!" You shouldn't do that to kids because they're not ready for that. It's conceptualized violence but they're still in that fantasy stage. Their magical thinking is very real and they believe this stuff to be true.

You saw these films and they fucked you up, but they also changed your life and made you lifelong fans. By preventing and trying to discourage kids from horror, are we preventing them from getting something they might deeply love?

JV: Oh I see what you mean.

AC: Well it's kind of like the Louis C.K. joke where he's talking about this country, "When should we tell little Timmy about war?" That's a very privileged position to be in. If you're Syrian, nobody has to tell you about it. Your family gets blown up or whatever. But I see what you're saying. Oftentimes very dark experiences you have as children are very formative, but I think that comes to a question more about the resilience of the human spirit to be able to put dark experiences somewhere and thrive.

There’s an idea that the female audience would be too fragile for the horrific, yet they were at the forefront of developing the genre. While films have been long dominated by men, in literature women have been absolutely critical to driving its development.

JV: Ann Radcliffe and [Horace] Walpole, they were the progenitors of gothic fiction as you know it, which eventually became horror literature as we know it. The primary audience for that stuff was women. Those were the readers, and it was always a woman trapped in a castle, this combination of magic realism. A damsel in distress and weird things happen and she ends up being saved by someone. Women have always loved horror stories. Bela Lugosi has that famous quote about it. [“It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out – and come back for more. Women have a predestination to suffering.“]

AC: Do you think it's because it's been more socially acceptable for women to display emotion? If you're watching a horror film women have been given “permission” by society to be more vocally reactive? That is maybe a sexist thing, I have not unpacked that, it was just a thought that came to me.

RB: No, that's a really good question.

JV: That's probably true. So the readers of the early gothic fiction were women. The readers of the Penny Dreadful pulps were primarily women.

Are there limits as to what you’d do to provide a scare?

AC: It all depends on the manner and the framing. [Take] the latest Paul Verhoeven movie, Elle. I've never seen rape portrayed in that particular way.

That’s a film that you responded to?

AC: I loved it and I thought it was hilarious; mordantly funny. So funny.

JV: Super fucked up funny. I mean I have my limits. I think that however conceptualized, exploited abuse of children in any movie is totally unnecessary and a cheap move. If you have to rely on that to get your scares then you probably aren't a very good storyteller.

And yet your film involves the suffering of children.

JV: Yeah there's a difference between making children suffer and telling a horror story in which they are reacting to something that's happening to them. I don't want to throw anyone under the bus but, does the world really need to see a close-up of a man raping his son? Does anyone need that?

AC: *emphatically* No. No.

JV: I don't want to point any fingers in particular but I think that's very juvenile. I'm not saying that you can never tell the story of sexual abuse of children. But there's ways of doing it without being exploitive to the children themselves. It's just gross and disrespectful. So that's my line, right? I'll walk out of a movie like that if it's being deliberately disrespectful to children and abusive.

AC: Yeah. I don't want to see that.

RB: To me, I don't know what my limits would be until I see them, but I think the main thing is if the person is active or passive. I am showing you something that is happening to a person and they can't control it, and that's the element that you're supposed to take from this that then builds that person and is an effect of the story. That's one thing. But if you're doing it just for shock, it's kind of like, "Dude, you're amateur hour".

JV: Can I give you one more example? I went on the set of a movie years ago where this woman who was an actress, they brought her baby on set who was maybe a year and a half or two years old. They had the baby walk into the kitchen where the mother was butchered on the floor and filmed the actual reaction of the child.

AC: *gasps* What?!

JV: And I consider that child abuse.

AC: Yeah. Abso-fuckin-lutely.

JV: I consider that child abuse and it's wrong and movies like that should absolutely be banned. You cannot get consent from a two-year-old child to have them walk in on an image of their mother being butchered, even if she gets up and goes, "Ha ha! It's a joke!" It's not fuckin' funny and it's not okay. So that's where I draw the line. They're like, "The kid isn't going to remember that", and I'm like, "How do you know that? Are you a child psychologist? How do you know that kid is not going to be traumatized by that?!".

SC: I have a very different answer about my limits. I worked in 2013 on a short film called The Sad House. I did this film [animating] objects and I was collecting antiques. I was trying to bring them alive by animating them. One night I was working with the head of a doll and [the articulation] was strangely smooth, like it was moving by herself. At that point I thought, "Whoa, this is my limit!" I do want to go there, I'm attracted to some things that scare me so much. Yet I don't want to go there today. Tomorrow, maybe, but that day was enough. That's my limit, I guess. It's different. Not a political limit, maybe, but it's a kind of a limit.

XX in its entirely shows the benefits of community. Within a community of people you're trying to make art and trying to actually support one another, but you surely also find people who should absolutely be your allies dismissing you.

AC: Interesting. I think it's a question of being raised matrifocaly or seeing strong women around you. I grew up with super type-A sisters. My Mom is super "you can do anything you want!” Walking into the world and understanding sexism in a way was confusing to me. Your reality is crazy because obviously women can do anything and that's self-evident. I think the march the other day really showed that what needs to happen is solidarity among women, rather than this idea of scarcity. It's set up that "we tried to have a woman director once but it didn't work out" and so everyone is competing for one slot, then unfortunately that might bring out the worst in people. But ultimately, collaboration and community and support is the way to break through, in my opinion. The film world is not my primary world.

Do you find it fundamentally different in the music world?

AC: I find it less sexist. I don't have that much experience with the film world so I can't speak to it too much. [With music] I've always been in charge of my thing. And I'm a small business owner and a boss. On my tours there are lots of women.

RB: This is the fifth anthology I've worked on now, and it's always been a very strong sense of community within all of those filmmakers, and it came from being on the independent film festival circuit. That's where you meet all these filmmakers and you're all struggling through the same thing. In terms of limits, you read a lot of stuff -your submitted projects or you just read things that people send you. "Would you want to direct this?" or "Would you want to produce this?" Unless it speaks to you as an artist in some way, you're not going to be drawn to it or want to do it regardless of what the subject matter is. So I don't think it necessarily has to do with how dark something goes or doesn’t. It's if I don't have a way into that story, I don't know how to tell it. So I might not be the right person for that.

There's a twofold danger - Assuming because you're a woman you're going to like certain things.

RB: That's a big danger I think, especially for horror stuff.

…Then there's an assumption that because you're a woman, it's your responsibility to nurture rather than compete and rise, and thus not have the mettle.

RB: I think it is my responsibility to help good people, regardless of race, gender, whatever it is. I think that every woman I've worked with within the independent film community, man and woman, has all been very supportive. I've had a rose-colored glasses experience with the stuff that I've worked on. All of the people that I've worked with have been such good collaborators in that way, that everyone does feel that they're trying to lift each other up.

I'm trying to wrack my brain to answer your question of where I feel that hasn't been the case, and the only place I can say that is outside of the actual artistry, outside of the creative side of it and into the executive side of it. That's where the sort of biases come in more. There have always been lots of women on my sets, even when we did the V/H/S series. We didn't have any female filmmakers, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. That had very much to do with the fact that it's a budget-level - it's a non DGA project, it's a non WGA project, it has to be done in this amount of time, who's available, who wants to work on this project with us. We had a very small community and a very limited budget and time.

That was also just a group of friends. I worked on the first film making those movies together, and then the second one we did very much look for that. I know that there are female filmmakers out there who we could have gone after it but we didn't know them personally and we didn't have a way to get in touch with them. It's like you take a small pool and you make it smaller and smaller when you put these restrictions that it's got to be this, this, this.

That's a microcosmic level look at what might be a macro problem in this industry. We do have to seek people out who are different from us to get some sort of parity in all of these different ways. I think the more we draw attention to it, the better. But I don't feel like I've seen any great advancement in the last year of everyone saying, "Yo, this is a problem!" All the studios made these statements of "We have grants now. We have shadowing programs!", but it's like did your bro dudes have to go through all your shadowing programs to prove that they can fuckin' walk without diapers? Like what the fuck. That shit drives me crazy.

AC: Can I also interject about this idea of gender essentialism, that because we're women we're going to tell a similar story? The point is the multitudes and not the singularity of not a quote unquote "female voice". It would be absurd for anyone to say, "Well you know, it's kind of a male point of view". But people say that about women all the time and it's absolutely ridiculous and they should be spanked.

JV: I know plenty of male filmmakers who also have ethics and morals and I think we're confusing the word limits with ethics sometimes because my limits were at child abuse. I know lots of male filmmakers that also don't want to abuse children so I don't think that makes me any less qualified because I have ethical limits.

What I would suggest, perhaps hypothetically, is the inherent bias of some executive who thinks, "Well here we have a story about a child really going through a point of suffering and this woman has maternal instincts, well she's not going to be the one for the project. We're just trying to tell this story here, we're not trying to deal with all that baggage, so let's just get somebody to do the job that we need them to do."

AC: That sounds like a horrifying movie. Let's get somebody who's not sensitive in any way to the needs of children and watch them…

JV: …Let's find somebody who is not sensitive to the needs of women and have them them direct a movie. That's the history of fuckin' filmmaking in a nutshell, you know what I mean? Not everyone has to be a transgressive filmmaker. It's like we have to be extreme just because we're telling horror stories. It's not necessary. We can be Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg or somebody else who's just doing their own thing. I hate when people suggest that because women are sensitive to the needs of children or other women that we are somehow unqualified or don't have tough enough skin to tell horror stories.

RB: It is a weird thing though where I have seen more of an expectation of "Oh, rom-com! We should get a lady to direct the rom-com".

JV: I hate rom-coms! *laughs*

RB: A rom-com to me is true horror.

AC: I agree. I agree completely.

RB: I have talked to funds, I won't name them, but they are specifically geared towards working with female filmmakers and they've reached out saying "We want to get genre stuff". A lot of the stuff that was submitted by agents and managers is this indie, romantic, finding my way in my twenties, female-oriented stuff.

AC: “ I'm a woman but I'm also a baby!” Fuck off.

RB: Yeah. It's a "We're a female-driven fund and that's the kind of movie we want to make", and it's a very weird kind of bias that that's the viewpoint.

AC: Condescending and infantilizing.

RB: Yeah.

Kathleen Kennedy, one of the most powerful people in Hollywood right now, has been very vocal about suggesting that she wants a female director on a Star Wars film. At the same time there is another unfounded assumption based on bias that many female filmmakers simply don’t want to absorb a personal vision into a larger franchise, that they only want to tell “personal stories”. So, given a chance, would you direct a film like Star Wars with all that entails?

AC: There’s this idea that everything a woman does has to be emotional and coming from a personal place. Women have imaginations. Like I can't believe I'm fucking saying that.

*laughter heard around the table*

RB: Yes. I would take that on. Sounds like fun.

JV: Well yeah, I'd do Star Wars if I was ready for it. I'm not ready for it though, you know? I need some more time. I need to make some more movies. I try not to bite off more than I can chew. But yes I'd do it. Why not?!

AC: Are they asking?

RB: Are we getting the offer right now?

AC: Is this it? I'll sign!