ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - WOMEN IN HORROR
Interview by Nate Ludwig
The writer/director of the enchanting short film "Bride of Frankie" which was an official selection at GenreBlast in 2017. I reached out to Devi with some questions about her life and career as a filmmaker and she did not disappoint with her responses.
NL: What's your story? When did you get the filmmaking bug and how has it shaped your life?
DS: I was raised by a family of rabid film buffs. When we weren’t watching movies together, we were talking about them or making our own in the backyard (on Super-8, no less.) So film has always been a medium close to my heart. Nevertheless, ballet was my true love for the first 20 years of my life, until a bum knee forced me to shift gears. Though it was devastating, I was soon struck by a similar realization as Scarlett O’Hara at the end of GONE WITH THE WIND, only instead of “Tara, Tara, Tara!” the voice booming in my head echoed, “film school, film school, film school!” So, off I went and fell instantly in love. I’ve been writing screenplays and making films ever since. To quote my beloved Capra, “It’s a wonderful life!”
NL: Bride of Frankie is such a lovingly crafted short film. It can be hard to get into film fests with a 20-minute short, but your film has been quite the success. Were you worried at all about the run time at any point?
DS: Was I ever! The script for FRANKIE was only 9 pages long, so I was stunned and horrified when the film came out to a whopping 19 minutes– d’oh! And I suppose it has hurt us in some ways, evidenced by an abundance of personal notes from programmers telling me how badly they wanted to program it but couldn’t squeeze it into their line up. A number even offered me a waiver, encouraging me to resubmit next year. But the fact it’s doing as well as it is (113 fests across 30 countries with 19 awards and 20 additional nominations in under a year), suggests we made the right choice. Some stories just take a bit more time to tell.
NL: One of the things I love about BoF is how deftly it addresses social issues and gender politics without hitting the viewer over the head with a sledgehammer. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to make the film and your thoughts on how the film turned out in the end? Was it what you envisioned or was there a lot of compromise?
DS: Thanks, Nate! That means the world to me. My favorite kind of horror plays on multiple levels, and I strive to achieve the same in my own writing. BoF is especially dear to my heart because I’m obsessed with Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN and disappointed by how few of the hundreds of cinematic adaptations touch on the poignant feminist issues addressed in her novel (an ironic exception is FRANKENHOOKER, so good on you, Frank Henenlotter!) Also, I love, love, LOVE James Whale’s queer take in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and have always longed to do more with his ballerina homunculus character (like breaking her out of that blasted jar!) Besides, we’re coming up on the bicentennial of FRANKENSTEIN (on my birthday in June!), so it’s high time for a feminist Frankenstein film, don’t you think?
As for my personal thoughts on the film, when I watch it with an audience, I relish the laughs, groans, gasps and occasional happy tears wiped away during the credits. I love seeing it through other spectators’ eyes. Alas, if I try to watch it alone, too often I obsess over the shot we didn’t get, the edits that could be tighter or the performance that might have benefited from one more take. But I’m like that with all of our films. There’s always room for improvement.
The greatest setback we encountered was our sound guy who turned out to be a complete hack. Dude supplied us with what amounted to world’s priciest scratch track. Not a second of what he recorded was usable. We had to ADR every single line of dialogue and foley the entire film. Mercifully, a fabulous sound artist in Chicago, Tom Haigh, swooped in and saved the day. Only 2 people so far, both sound guys, have inquired if we did a good chunk of our sound in post; looks like we got away with it, phew!
So, compromises were indeed made, though I’m mostly very pleased with the results. A film can never compare to the vision in one’s head, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The collaborative nature of filmmaking demands a fusion of different artists’ visions, and I was blessed with a talented team that contributed gems I never could have conjured on my own.
NL: The end credits proclaim there is a feature version of BoF upcoming. Is this still true? Where are you at with the feature and what can we expect from it?
DS: Man, I sure hope it’s true. I have a 96-page, award-winning screenplay that’s gotten some mighty promising coverage from professional consultants. But like most everything I write, it’s also mighty quirky with its genre-bending and occasional song and dance number. It’s also a period piece with LGBTQ protagonosts, and to exacerbate matters, will require a minimum budget of $6M — no way I’m raising that chunk of change on my own. Still, the success of Guillermo Del Toro’s SHAPE OF WATER has inspired my confidence. FRANKIE’s cut from a similar cloth.
The story picks up 5 months after the short leaves off, on July, 2 1937, the day Amelia Earhart vanishes (and yes, she makes an appearance, offering an alternate theory as to what really happened on her final ill-fated flight.) Incidentally, 1937 is also the year of the first U.S. lobotomies, which likewise comes into play in this feminist piece.
In case you’re interested, here’s the logline:
Circa 1937, Frankie, an underground scientist, lives an unconventional life with a Bride of Frankenstein-esque pinup girl whom she’s created in her lab. However, when Frankie reveals their taboo lifestyle to an untrustworthy colleague, the two are split up against their will between a freak show and an insane asylum and must fight their way back to one another.
More info is available at our website:
So far, I’ve got a screenplay, proof-of-concept short and a lookbook. Once my fest travels simmer down, I’ll hunt for the right producer. I’m also tempted to pen a novel adaptation. Time will tell.
NL: What other projects have you worked on outside of BoF? What does the near future hold for you as a creator?
DS: To date, I’ve written/directed 10 darkly comedic shorts, a micro-budget feature, a web series and a documentary. I have a stack of award winning feature screenplays, most which have placed in major competitions (Slamdance, Nicholl’s, PAGE Awards, etc.) that either get optioned and never produced or languish on my shelf because I can’t stop revising them. Granted, I’m not very dedicated about marketing my work. I’m rarely in one place, addicted to travel, and prefer devoting my energies to the creative process as opposed to endless, boring meetings with execs making promises they never intend to keep. I’ve also turned down a few offers that didn’t feel like the right fit. But when the time’s right, I’ll bite the bullet and do my due diligence to peddle my wares.
As for my future, I hope it holds the opportunity to bring at least a few of my larger-budgeted feature scripts (i.e. more than I can raise on my own) to life. In the meantime, I’m adapting several of them to novel form, which has become another great new passion for me. One medium informs the other and it’s making me a better storyteller. Besides, it’s a blast. One needn’t worry about budgets and douchebag sound guys and cutting scenes due to time restraints.
And who knows? If the novels fare well, perhaps they will open new doors for the film adaptations. Works for me!
I’ve honestly no clue what the future will bring, but I’m digging my present endeavors, so as long as it continues to feel right, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and see what pans out. It’s worked well for me so far.
NL: What's something funny or interesting you'd like everyone to know about you?
DS: Jeepers! The funniest and most interesting things about me are those I’d prefer that everyone NOT know. Ah, but here’s a little something -- when I’m not writing, making films or teaching, I’m often chasing monkeys around the world with my anthropologist partner. I highly recommend it. Monkeys rock.
NL: What has your experience with BoF been on the fest circuit? Any anecdotes or interesting experiences? How about set stories?
DS: The BoF Festival experience has been especially rewarding because we’re playing to such a diverse array of audiences: horror, comedy, sci-fi, LGBTQ, feminist/women and mainstream. The most surprising screening was at the magical OUT CT Festival in Hartford. It was my first time watching the film with a packed house of strangers (300 or so, we opened for the closing night feature), and it was also the first time I saw it with an LGBTQ audience. It was a whole different experience. Given that it was programmed as a “lesbian short,” folks knew from the get-go where the story was headed. Most audiences don’t pick up on that until halfway through the story (in fact, we were disqualified from several LGBTQ fests we submitted to, suggesting they did not watch all the way through — grumble, grumble.) But I think in some ways it made the experience richer. There were more knowing chuckles earlier on and the groans and cheers of solidarity flew me to the moon. Meanwhile, horror audiences embrace all the classic genre tropes and sci-fi fest programmers keep saying, “Well it’s not really sci-fi, but we couldn’t bear to not program it.” Then I remind them it’s inspired by the first ever sci-fi novel and that, in fact, the technology of creating a lab-made human still falls within the realm of science fiction. Feminist audiences go gaga when (spoiler alert) Tina breaks out of her jar and saves the day. I love how BoF becomes a different film with each new audience that watches it.
On set, our big challenge was time. Two creatures with two distinct looks adds up to a lot of work for the makeup artists, and consequently the entire shoot felt like a race against the clock. But we had a very earnest team, all working for minimal or no pay because they were devoted to the project. We shot in a gorgeous, donated, 19th century mansion in which our production designer, Alaina Moore, created the most dazzling set I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on. Sadly, there were so many glorious period details that never made it to the screen — like the dining table hidden under a cloth for the dinner scene -- a genuine 1920s autopsy table! It was heartbreaking when we had to break it all down. I could have happily lived there (well, provided the plumbing was better maybe.)
NL: Seen any good movies lately?
DS: Always! I visit my local cinema, on average, 1-3 times a week. Plus, I’m gearing up to launch a feminist cinema blog, so for a unit I’m doing on the evolution of rom-coms, I’ve been watching a bunch I missed from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE is not a horror film, per se, but it sure taps into a lot of scary feminist issues that are every bit as relevant today. Of course, I’m stoked about GET OUT, LADYBIRD and SHAPE OF WATER getting the recognition they deserve. But there’s so much else out there that doesn’t. It seems far too few people I know have seen Bong Joo Ho’s wondrous OKJA. I was also blown away by Angela Robinson’s moving PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMEN and Colm McCarthy’s clever take on zombies with THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. Out on the festival circuit I especially enjoyed Preston DeFrancis’ playful RUIN ME, which is an impressively executed, micro-budget slasher of sorts. Granted, like so many others, it’s got a flawed ending (or 3), but offers a fresh take on familiar tropes in a highly engaging fashion. Besides, it’s worth it alone for the fabulously funny, feminist rant on fellatio (courtesy of co-writer Trysta A. Bissett, I’d be willing to bet). I’m also most excited about the Spierig Brothers’ WINCHESTER, which I plan to catch this week, and Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY, which sounds freakin’ amazing. How exciting to see horror films helmed by such extraordinary female thespians (and both considerably over 40 -- nice!)
NL: A young woman comes up to you asking advice about filmmaking, specifically indie filmmaking. What do you tell her?
DS: That’s an easy one. Work hard, learn your craft and don’t give up. Be relentless, but don’t rush it. When you know your work is solid — and be honest with yourself about that; it takes time and dedication to become competent much less exceptional — but once you truly believe you’re ready then don’t take “no” for an answer. Don’t wait for permission to bring your stories to life. Use every resource at your disposal and persist. Surround yourself with good people and treat them well. Also, learn to categorize rejection. When it’s warranted, learn from your mistakes, but also recognize when it’s a blessing. You don’t want to work with the wrong people or under the wrong circumstances. #metoo has surely taught us that -- as have numerous dreadful films that began as promising screenplays helmed by promising directors only to be destroyed by the misguided powers that be. It’s an unforgiving business. Fight for your vision. Don’t make compromises that will destroy it — or you. And don’t forget to enjoy it. If it’s not fun most of the time (it can’t be fun all of the time) then it’s just not worth it. Finally, be part of the solution. That means supporting your female peers and fellow indie filmmakers in general, making an effort to work with diverse cast and crew and telling stories that strive for the same inclusivity.
Oh, and don’t forget to apply to the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. It was an amazing experience that changed my life. It’s a beautiful sisterhood.
Thanks to Devi for answering our questions. For more information on Bride of Frankie, head over to brideoffrankie.com.