ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - WOMEN IN HORROR
Interview by Nate Ludwig
NL: If I'm not mistaken, you started off as a musician and then added filmmaker to your repertoire after that. Is that accurate? Tell us a little bit about your music life and how that jives with your world as a filmmaker.
SC: Yup! I moved to Boston (my idea of a big city at the time) at just shy of 17 to pursue music. All I wanted to do at that time was to write songs and perform. Everything was DIY. I taught myself every instrument (guitar, bass, drums) and I found my tribe to make music with. I put out records, put on shows, toured the country.
And luckily, every aspect of that experience and DIY lifestyle directly applies to filmmaking. I like to say I’m “set-taught” on directing, camera, and sound. Putting on shows and working with people is just like planning a film. I travel now to make films, and tour the festival circuit. I had always been interested in image, photography, and video (was the only girl in the AV club in high school) and that came in handy when doing elaborate band photoshoots and making music videos. After my first slew of music videos, it really was a very natural transition into short films and features.
NL: We interviewed Izzy Lee for this series, a good friend of yours, and like herself, you moved to Los Angeles from Massachusetts. You've been there a little longer than her, though. How is life and work there for you and what were your expectations compared to reality?
SC: Los Angeles has been amazing for me! Next week, I start work on the fourth feature I’ve been involved with since moving here a year and a half ago. One was my own, and the others I’ve worked in the camera department (as assistant camera and camera operator, mostly). I’ve also gotten to make a few shorts and music videos for people. I’ve met so many great, ambitious people and that drive pushes me to go harder and be better constantly. It’s been really great for me to be around industry, and to be able to work on productions and to hold out hope that one of my meetings will lead to actual funding for one of my projects. I’m learning a ton and getting to a place where my skills match my vision. I also can’t complain about the weather, it’s just very comfortable to be here.
NL: What do you feel is your number one strength as a filmmaker? Is it writing, directing, cinematography? Anything you feel you always need to work on to stay sharp from shoot to shoot?
SC: This is tough, since I come from a place of having to do it all! I guess number one is directing. I love getting the production design and shooting style and lighting and casting to all line up to get the exact frame and shot I want. I’ve made a lot of period films and I love going crazy about props and wardrobe and all of the details that end up in the frame. I’m good at having a lot of plates up in the air and making the day work despite challenges. I would say that I am not an actors’ director, and I don’t love emotional/drama-based movies, so for me, a lot of the actors’ directing comes down to finding the person that matches the character in my head and letting them have a lot of freedom with it. I haven’t directed much for others, but I do do cinematography for others a lot and it’s something that I really love. It goes back to the obsession with what is in the frame, getting the perfect symmetry, and capturing the moments. Screenwriting is probably my weakest skillset of the positions I often find myself in.
After coming from songwriting, I’m more of a short-form writer. I can write scenes and outlines well, and I have tons of ideas, but as far as writing the script myself, I usually work with collaborators. I’m always wishing for the placenta thing from Existenz to plug into my spine so I can just download all of my ideas and voila! I’m done.
NL: Your frequent filmmaking partner is also your life partner. Michael J. Epstein has co-directed three feature films with you. You've also collaborated with him musically. What is it like to be married to your creative partner and what are some of the challenges of keeping both relationships fresh?
SC: Speaking of collaborators! With us, our entire relationship is built around helping each other achieve our creative ideas and dreams. We were in bands together long before we entered a romantic relationship. So, that creative foundation was already established. Our typical day is sitting at our long desk side-by-side working on writing or editing or planning (or working on one of our dozen side-hustles!).
When we’re planning a movie, we hash out the ideas together, talk through it over meals, sometimes for months before we start writing. Once we have a solid outline, Michael is more interested in the detailed aspects of screenwriting and usually writes the first draft. Then I go through and edit and suggest changes.
We also have really figured out how to work together well on these kinds of projects. As I had mentioned, I am not really big on working with actors on their acting, and our latest film, Clickbait, was really a great division of labor between Michael and me. He has gotten very interested in working with actors and focusing on that while I manage the crew and production as a whole. It’s quite a good complementary relationship and it really allows us to create efficiently. Once we’re on set, we can work very fast because we’re used to each other and we both have a very clear idea of what needs to be accomplished for the big picture, so we easily go off and subdivide tasks or direct separate units when useful.
I think if we stopped making things together we’d probably stop being together at all (though we’re both happy to loan each other out to other projects!).
NL: You've directed three feature films and have one in post-production. GenreBlast played Blood of the Tribades, your third film. Each one of your features has a distinct genre and style that ensures you remain unique and relevant as a filmmaker. You've done everything from an Agatha Christie-style Murder Mystery to Euro Vampsploitation to Doomsday Sci-Fi. Tell us a little bit about each one and how you feel you arrived at each one creatively and stylistically.
SC: Totally! I think the only thread of styles is that they are all “genre” films! I love so many styles of horror and sci-fi, and I also like concentrating on one niche for a project. Now we’re gonna do Agatha Christie; now we’re going to blow up the planet; now we’re going to do 1970s vampires...it keeps each project really unique and grounds it with an identity. The real trick is, those are just frameworks for creating films with a perspective and a voice. I think the films have a lot in common, even if it’s not surface. There are recurrent themes about identity, feminism, religious oppression, and existentialism. We’re always telling stories in ways that interest us and lend strength to our voices.
TEN (http://tenthemovie.com) was my first feature, and I really learned how to make movies with it. I sometimes call it my thesis film. It was super ambitious. We wanted to take the classic murder-mansion trope and turn it around to make a commentary on the performative roles of women in the world and on film. We rented a mansion for a week and had 17 cast and crew staying there working around the clock to make the movie. It was an amazing experience, and we definitely went a little bit insane.
Magnetic (http://magneticthemovie.com) is a retro-apocalyptic, hard sci-fi film starring only one person who is stuck in a clone-creating time loop. It’s up to her to decide if humanity is worth saving or if she should just let the planet blow-up. It has long music-video-like sequences and Alice-in-Wonderland-themed visions. I was also recently interviewed extensively about the movie for the forthcoming book, Indie Science Fiction Cinema Today: Conversations with 21st Century Filmmakers, which also features Magnetic on the cover.
Blood of the Tribades (http://bloodofthetribades.com) tackles the crumbling patriarchy of a medieval vampire community. It was inspired by my love of the lesbian vampire films from the early 70s made by production companies like Hammer and filmmakers like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. We wanted to play with some of the exploitative nature of those films, but flipping the script of who was being exploited. This was our largest cast to date and had our most expansive locations. It was an adventure trying to recreate a crumbling version of medieval France in modern New England.
We’ve been really lucky that all of our films have gone to screen at great festivals and they are all out via various distributors/distro models.
Our film in post is called Clickbait (http://str33ker.com). It’s our first film shot in Los Angeles. When we started the project, we thought it was going to be our least-weird film, and it probably still is, but a lot of our crazy style definitely seeped in! It’s a giallo-inspired, dark-comedy-thriller about two college-aged vloggers; when one starts slipping on the vlogging charts, she’s desperate to claw her way back up. My personal goal with it, was to show some of the pressures put on young women to seek popularity at any cost.
NL: I've spoken to you about a few dream projects you are working towards, and if I remember correctly, they will be your solo directorial debuts (if two can be a debut, that is). They sound pretty amazing. Care to share some details about them with us? Are either one of them close to fruition?
SC: Here’s the thing. While Michael, my partner, and I make a great directing team, we’ve both noticed that he gets most of the credit for our work, despite putting my name first and working to make sure I act as the spokesperson whenever possible. A male name just seems to trump my name over and over again. This bias goes all the way back to being in bands together. I’ve had people ask me if he wrote my songs for me, even when he had nothing at all to do with the songwriting in projects.
Also, co-directing is still somewhat of a rare concept. So it seemed that it would maybe make sense to not co-direct and potentially be hindered by the confusion about what we’re individually capable of. We also both had a few ideas of our own that we each wanted to dive into. Clickbait, for instance, was going to be his solo-directorial debut, but it turned into us co-directing once we got on set (he ended up concentrating on the actors and I handled everything else). So, he has a bunch of great scripts and ideas, and I have two that I’m working towards!
The Caul, is a feminist coming-of-age folk-horror witch movie. It takes me back to the 1970s-style stuff I love - lots of animals, good vs evil, a whole witch mythology-you know, all the good stuff! The script is done, and I have a pitch / look-book for it as well. I’m hoping to get some funding to make it as it has a whole town and many townspeople and special effects that I want to do well! It can’t be made with money scraped together and credit-card debt this time!
My other project is still in the outline stage (I need to download my brain to get the script done!), but it’s a post-apocalyptic action-sci-fi about a female astronaut returning to earth to find that civilization has been destroyed, and it's now a desert wasteland. It’s “A Boy and His Dog” meets “Gravity” (keeping in mind that I don’t really like either of those movies very much, ha!). This is a movie that is flexible based on budget. I think I can pull it off at a microbudget if I have to, but the scale, effects, and casting will be different if I find other funding sources. So, the plan is to try to go into production on this later this year if The Caul is still in waiting!
Before these two (probably), I’m currently working on a Women of Rock Oral History Project documentary (http://www.womenofrock.org). This is a project I’ve been involved with for several years as the head videographer, collecting interviews with women who have been hugely important, but who often have not necessarily received their due accolades/interviews/awards/credit. The focus is on women who were in early rock bands, obscure but influential punk bands, bands that were huge in the nineties that kids don’t even know about anymore, etc. The project is hugely important to me. There is something special about creating these primary sources, documenting their stories in their own words and putting whatever they choose on record, while they are still around. The interviews are fully public and usable for research, but cutting the interviews (each one is 2+ hours) into a succinct 90-minute documentary will hopefully bring a spotlight to the project and encourage people to check out the full interviews. There are also few documentaries tackling women’s broad range of experiences in music.
For example, we just released our interview with Shirley Manson (https://vimeo.com/255644203), and she had a wonderful perspective on making sure that women don’t lose their voices and authority (“fold up their wings”) as they age. I am really proud to be able to help get those kinds of inspirational stories and perspectives out to people.
NL: Tell us some of the other projects you've enjoyed working on. Shorts? Music videos?
SC: One of the shorts dearest to me, Thirteen (https://vimeo.com/166827315), was a commission from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for a creepy Friday the 13th event they had. I somehow convinced my mother to be in it, and I shot it at my childhood home. I play my mother in her dream, locked in a labyrinth of candelabras and skeleton keys that has to fight off a bird-demon (also played by me). It's a super weird experimental art film and I really loved the chance to work with my mother.
Weekend Vampire (https://vimeo.com/164946568) is also special, as it's the last collaborative project I made in Boston. I wrote and directed it with Allix Mortis, the star of my second film, Magnetic. It follows an ancient, confused vampire, painting the town with a party-girl millennial. It’s super fun, and we got about 30 of our friends to come out and dress as goths and flappers. It was just a super great set and a fun farewell to making art in Boston.
Last year, in LA, I also directed a Weekend-Vampire-shared-universe short called, Hipster Ghost (https://vimeo.com/201968621).
NL: Why aren't women represented in genre feature film directing as much as they should be? Is it a fear of letting them tell their own stories? Is it simply money is already stretched too thin and the ones holding all of it would rather give it to a man? Or is it something else entirely?
SC: To paraphrase Virginia Woolf a bit, women need some money and room to work. There is a lot of built-in privilege to getting to make a movie. You need access to equipment, people, and time, and many people just aren’t going to be able to get there without some influx of cash. The problem isn’t going to fix itself, and I think people with money still somehow believe there isn’t enough interest in “women’s stories,” but the box office keeps smashing that belief over and over again. It’s going to take someone just handing millions out to women, and a lot of them, to really find the auteurs who will rise to the top. I’ve also noticed that when women get to direct, suddenly there is a lot more diversity in front of and behind the camera.
This industry runs on personal friendships and nepotism. We all fall into this! Of course we want to work with our friends, especially when it's creative and the hours and pressure are brutal. I think men need to learn how to be friends with women and then, bring those women on to their projects. As it stands, 99% of the time I'm hired on a set, I'm the only woman on the camera or the G&E team. It’s not for lack of interest, experience, or passion. There is a disconnect in hiring. Half of film school graduates are women, so what happens to them? I would love to see some self-imposed requirements, like 25% of crew must be women. I think the Bechdel test, however much it simplifies the reality, had a big effect on how people think about and view movies. Maybe if there were a certification you could slap onto the end of your film that showed you made an effort with hiring, that would have a similar effect.
That all said, we even go into our films with the intent of hiring women and people of color for technical roles and most of the time, fall short of our own goals because of what our network of collaborators looks like. It really requires a lot of widespread growth and a concerted effort.
NL: When you make movies or make music, what are some of your influences that drive you? Do you try to consciously separate your own vision from homage or just go with the flow and create whatever feels right?
SC: All art exists as the contextual culmination of everything that came before it. Everything is influenced by and built on the past. I come from the world of folk songwriting and rock music, where you work within very standardized tropes to create something that, if it is good, is uniquely expressing your perspective and carrying your voice. When I’m making movies, I love referencing the films I love or working within specific genres or tropes, but I’m always doing so as a vehicle for my voice and perspective and with an eye towards modernizing the content and message. I particularly like to play with recontextualizing the once exploitative and making it feminist and empowering. Nothing is sadder than when someone does a beautiful ‘80s homage and it’s just as racist and sexist as it would have been had it been made in the ‘80s. Take the good parts and bring it up to speed!
Tropes and homage aside, the most important thing to me, is that a work has something to say. Making a movie is an opportunity to share your ideas with the world. It should be more than just a stream of cool images or snappy dialogue. People should walk away with new ideas.
NL: Seen any good movies lately?
SC: I went to a double-feature of Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and My Bloody Valentine this week! That’s another thing that I love about LA! There are so many theaters doing repertory screenings of classic and obscure films on 35mm, often with the directors/cinematographers/composers/actors present. Sometimes you’re seeing the last existing print of a film, and it’s totally faded red from degradation. I’m watching thinking that I am probably one of the last people who will ever see this movie in a theater on film. It’s a weird time to be alive, watching formats die and getting to experience the final gasps of their good qualities and their flaws.
NL: One of the things I love about talking with you or seeing you speak at a film festival is that you are not afraid to say what's on your mind and express how you feel things should be, regardless of who's listening. What do you think is the number one thing that needs to happen immediately in order to ensure the current widespread exposure of the awful underbelly of the entertainment industry isn't a temporary bandaid and ends up being a permanent sea change?
SC: I laughed so hard when I read this question! I’ve assessed where I am in history, and I know things aren’t going to change fast enough for my taste, so I might as well be loud about it (honestly, it’s probably my rock front-person-performer personality coming out). I have a lot of opinions just from having been around a while, and I see the injustices of who gets to have a voice, and who gets to keep working. If women have a blockbuster failure, they might never have a chance taken on them again to make another film, whereas men keep getting opportunities to fail bigger and bigger. When one women fails, it reflects on all women.
I am working on the Women of Rock project because I see who gets remembered and who doesn’t (some of the first directors and cinematographers were women, but we don’t often hear their names). I figure that I might as well bulldoze a path for younger women coming up, and be visible and say, hey, we’re here, we’ve always been here, and I’m going to do my best to make it easier for you. I’ve really got nothing much to lose.
What’s the number one thing? Put women in positions of power. And lots of them. There can’t be just one women at the top, there has to be a bunch, and then things will start to shift toward parity.