The horror anthology film XX (opening at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto this weekend and March 3 on iTunes and VOD everywhere) is a project that has been near and dear to the heart of Canadian filmmaker, screenwriter, journalist, and horror movie scholar Jovanka Vuckovic for quite some time, so it’s understandable that she’s extremely bummed out to have come down with a nasty case of the flu just as it comes time to promote the film’s release in her hometown.
While myself and actress Natalie Brown, who stars in Vuckovic’s entry in the anthology, are chatting at a downtown Toronto pub, the filmmaker and producer finally feels well enough to sit up in bed and take some questions over the phone at the same time. It could have waited for a time when she was feeling a bit less under the weather, but Vuckovic’s dedication for XX runs deep, and her enthusiasm for the project as a whole comes through with only a handful of audible sniffles.
Vuckovic isn’t just a writer and director for XX (which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival), but also one of the associate producers on the long gestating and groundbreaking project: the first all female driven horror anthology. Bringing together some of the biggest female names in genre filmmaking and boasting the big screen directorial debut of Annie Clark – best known in the music world as St. Vincent – all of the four shorts (and the animated wraparound story produced by Sofia Carrillo) contained in the final film are written, directed by, and starring women.
Clark’s film is a cheeky, stylish tale of a mother (played by Melanie Lynskey) trying desperately to hide the body of her daughter’s father before guests start arriving for the child’s birthday party. Fiilmmaker Roxanne Benjamin (who helped produce the V/H/S anthology franchise and directed an outstanding segment for the underrated anthology Southbound) spins a yarn of four friends out for a hike and a mysterious ancient force that overtakes one of the group. Veteran filmmaker Karyn Kusama closes out XX with the story of a mother worrying that her eighteen year old son is transforming into what might be the spawn of the devil.
But it’s Vuckovic’s Toronto shot chiller “The Box” that opens the film, casting Brown as a mother who watches her family gradually stop eating for unknown reasons that might be tied to a chance encounter with a mysterious figure carrying a large Christmas present on the subway. One by one, Brown’s concerned mother and wife watches in horror as her family members discuss something that she’s not privy to, and that familial secret is tied to why none of them are eating.
We chatted with Vuckovic and Brown about the lengthy process to get XX made, why female perspectives in film are more important than ever, how the director helped Brown overcome her squeamishness towards horror, and much more.
You’ve been involved with this project and trying to get it off the ground for a while now. When did you first get involved with XX and when did you know exactly what this anthology was going to be and who was going to be involved with it?
Jovanka Vuckovic: Todd Brown, our producer, and I kind of had the same idea at around the same time. I had been thinking about crowdfunding an all woman horror movie anthology, and almost out of the blue he called me up and asked me if I wanted to do one with him, and because he’s a film producer he was able to bring financing for the film to the table, and that’s a lot easier than crowdfunding. His concept was better than mine. His title was better than mine. (laughs) I quickly abandoned what my ideas were and decided to join forces with him. Todd is kind of like the white, male feminist hero behind this project. (laughs) He knew that he couldn’t and wouldn’t be the public face of something like XX, so that’s why he called me to produce it with him. He really wanted a woman shepherding the project.
That was four years ago when we first talked about doing this, if you can believe it. My segment of the film has been finished for over two years now. Karyn’s has been finished for over a year, and the last two came together rather quickly in the summer and fall of 2016, just in time for the Sundance deadline, so it all worked out in the end. (laughs)
When you were trying to bring other filmmakers and cast and crew on board, how did you guys approach them and tell them about what made XX so special and how that feminist voice was to be maintained across all the shorts?
Jovanka Vuckovic: We made a list of all the directors that we wanted to approach, and Sofia was at the top of the list. Todd and I were big fans of her animations that we had seen at film festivals, so there was never any question about her. From there, we just started calling people that we admired, and it was actually extremely difficult. Part of the reason why it took four years was because there were so few women directors that are either available or able to do the project within the timeline. It would have been so much easier to just find a group of dudes than to find a bunch of women, but we remained committed to the concept.
The only controlling idea was that they had to be directed by a woman, written by a woman, and starring a woman in the lead role. When we reached out to people, it wasn’t hard to be interested in the concept of an all women horror anthology because, being women directors, they already know about the problems of representation in the industry. They’re well aware of the “seven percent problem,” and by that I mean the DGA – and I’m not sure what the DGC’s recent diversity report was – said in its most recent diversity report that out of all working directors just seven percent are women. This is a big problem with no easy solution, and despite all of the efforts of the ACLU investigating Hollywood hiring practices last year and various social activists and bloggers working to underscore this problem, we’ve actually somehow taken another two percent slide. The bigger picture is that things are not getting any better, and it’s actually getting worse.
However, in the horror genre there’s a small movement of women directing independent horror films. I think that there’s a demand from the fans for these kinds of stories. Horror fans always want to see films from new perspectives. The horror genre is badly in need of these perspectives, and the fan base is hungry for new content, so within the horror community, that’s very promising.
The line-up for the film has changed a lot over the last four years since we started. We lost some directors because they actually got too busy working either on TV shows or on features, and because of the reasons I just stated, that’s great! And in some cases, we lost them for more tragic reasons. We lost Antonia Bird to cancer.
This project has faced a lot of challenges. We shot in three different countries with multiple unions. (laughs) It has not been easy. At one point, we lost our financing one week before I was supposed to go to camera on my segment. (pauses) I’m not sure if Natalie knew that. (laughs)
Natalie Brown: (laughs) I didn’t know that! I’m listening here very intently now!
Jovanka Vuckovic: (laughs) Yeah! We lost our financing a week before, and it was completely demoralizing.
Natalie Brown: I can see why you wouldn’t tell everyone in the moment, but it would have been their loss.
Jovanka Vuckovic: But Todd, who never gave up on this project, said “Dont worry! I’ve got a lot of other financiers who would love to be behind something like this.” He brought Magnolia Pictures to the table, and they have been amazing. They let us have complete creative control. They didn’t give me any notes on my script. All the women just went and did whatever they wanted.
The story for your particular short is based in part on a short story by Jack Ketchum, so how did this material catch your eye, and Natalie, what was your first reaction to “The Box”?
Natalie Brown: The premise of the project really struck me at first. Really, just the idea of an all female horror anthology was such an intriguing thing to hear about, and after working on The Strain, which was a Guillermo del Toro project, I started getting projects of a more horrific nature coming my way with a lot more frequency. And although horror wasn’t initially my forte – I scare pretty easily and I worked mostly in comedy prior to that – the premise of this project and the opportunity to work with Jovanka really made me want to be a part of this. I had known about Jovanka’s work because Guillermo had executive produced her short film The Captured Bird, which I had seen and I just loved her aesthetic and storytelling sensibilities, so I really wanted the opportunity to work on this project so I could work with her in particular.
Jovanka Vuckovic: I had an idea for something that I originally wanted to do, but that would have been too expensive. I just realized that while I was writing it, and during that process I realized there was no way I could of pulled it off with the resources that I have. So I started thinking about short stories that I had read, and I read “The Box” years ago when it first came out in a collection called Peaceable Kingdom by Jack Ketchum. It really stood out to me because his stuff was usually splatter fiction, and here was this little existential horror story that I felt could have made a very good episode of The Twilight Zone. When I chose it, I toyed with the idea for a minute of shooting it in black and white, but there was a scene that I added in that wouldn’t have worked like that, which is the Christmas dinner scene, which Natalie was such a trooper for that scene. (laughs)
Natalie Brown: I had no choice! (laughs) I was literally and figuratively stuck to a table.
Jovanka Vuckovic: So I thought of “The Box” as my opportunity to do an episode of The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. I’m a big fan of both of those shows. I watched them growing up. Also, the story was originally about a man, so I had to change the protagonist to fit the mandate of the anthology. And it was weird, because with that tiny little perspective shift it opened up whole new storytelling possibilities for me. This is one of the benefits of women writing and directing. We bring with us this potential for new perspectives in storytelling. Instead of becoming about the dad who’s working everyday and incapable of connecting with his children in the story, this time it’s the mom who’s incapable of making meaningful connections. The mother plays the part, but she’s not really there for her family in any meaningful way, and to some degree, that’s what ends up saving her from what happens to everyone else. When she discovers that she wants to make those connections, it’s too late. If this were The Twilight Zone that would be the point in the story when Rod Sterling would show up smoking a Camel and talking about the choices she made in life and why she would be doomed to this fate. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and so is Jack Ketchum. I stayed true to the story and what was important about it to me while changing the gender of the protagonist.
It has to be hard on a short film with a limited amount of time and resources to create a family dynamic that this story would hinge upon, so how did you guys all work in tandem to try and create this sense of closeness?
Natalie Brown: It starts with really good casting, and I don’t mean that because Jovanka cast me, but because she cast the right people in the right roles all around. When you do that and you get that right from the start and you have people who know their parts inside and out, a sort of alchemy is created that makes everyone’s job a lot more fulfilling. I hadn’t worked with any of the cast before. I was aware of Jonathan Watton’s work, and I was excited to work with him. And Peter DaCunha and Peyton Kennedy, who play our kids, are such talented young actors who have careers even I aspire to at times. I think that casting also speaks to Jovanka and this kind of “trickle down” effect, where when you have a great creator at the helm who knows exactly what they want to achieve, there’s this passion that’s infectious. We were all excited to be there. The three other members of the family also all LOVED the horror genre, but even though I have worked in the genre before, I’m a little bit more tentative. I scare a lot more easily. (laughs) We also shot in the middle of a snowstorm, which just brings you all closer together. It was a great synergy both in front of the camera and behind.
Jovanka Vuckovic: Yeah, you don’t have a lot of time or a lot of money, but our producer on our segment, Karen Shaw, begged her parents to let us shoot in their house. (laughs) This is how you get around those things.
Natalie Brown: It really was a family affair.
Jovanka Vuckovic: It was, and that was even though the cast didn’t have a lot of time to get to know or jive with each other. We were thrown into the melee of trying to film on an active TTC train during rush hour at one point to do a key scene. That was our FIRST SHOT of the movie.
Natalie Brown: It was complete baptism by fire for this shoot.
Jovanka Vuckovic: Yeah, man! But you just get the shot, get out, and make it work, and thankfully everyone did great. Natalie had the right balance of distance to her character. I think that was one of the biggest pieces of direction I gave her, which was not to play it as a mom, but as a mother playing the part of a mother. The kids were great, too. I remember I told Peyton to just be natural, which was sort of my nod to Alice Guy, who was the first woman director. She used to have these big signs in her studio that would just say “BE NATURAL” because she was shooting films in a time when everyone was really over emoting because that was the style at the time. I told Peyton to be natural, and she said “But I can’t be natural [playing someone who isn’t eating] because my mom says I eat like a slob!” (laughs) And at a certain point after she told me that, I found a way to work that in, and that moment gets a lot of laughs.
Natalie Brown: She basically got to eat everything that Peter didn’t. (laughs) There’s also something to be said about creating that dynamic on a film without a huge budget. Not having trailers or a ton of different dressing rooms behooves projects like this. It brings you closer. You’re not so separate between takes. We were all huddled in the basement of Karen’s parents’ house, and that’s not only a great way to get to know each other, but to also stay connected and be ready to go at any time. There was no disconnect in terms of scheduling and how tightly constructed the shooting was. We were always literally together.
Jovanka Vuckovic: We had so little space to work with that we were literally working out one scene while make-up was being done. That isn’t totally unusual, but I took every spare moment that I had to talk to them together about what we were going to shoot. We didn’t have a lot of time to block, and I had to figure that out quickly, or I would risk losing shots that were precious to me or that I thought were key to how the story was being told. It was a really great experience and a really great challenge for me.
Natalie, you said you aren’t into horror as much as her other castmates, and when you say that it seems like you would be the perfect type of person to play this matronly figure who’s trying to uncover what’s happening to her family. When you were reading this did you approach it in a similar way?
Natalie Brown: In a timid way? (laughs) I mean, as an actor, I don’t think it benefits you to be timid at all. You really have to jump in hands, feet, and head first. But Jovanka was actually the most helpful. I had reservations for a while about watching horror and playing a part in it. Jovanka was kind enough to give me some reading material, which was one of the books that she had written on horror, and coincidentally my boyfriend had just given me a book on the psychology of fables and why feeling these feelings and emotions can be important and helpful when it comes to exorcising unconscious feelings that you might have. Before Disney got their hands on them, horrific things happened in fairy tales. In the same way that we like comedies to make us laugh in ways that we don’t normally do in our everyday lives, and how drama can allow us to feel sad in ways we don’t allow ourselves, horror allows for us this place where you can fear and be scared within a safe place. I am still a bit more squeamish than most of my cast members, especially when it came to one certain moment in the film (laughs), but I’m getting better, Jovanka.
Jovanka Vuckovic: (laughs) I think that watching horror films and reading horror stories is actually one of the most normal and natural things that someone can do. It’s one of the oldest genres of storytelling. Guillermo once pointed out to me that every since we’ve been huddled around fire, we’ve been telling stories about the dark and what’s inside it. Horror helps us know the unknowable. It’s a great space to exorcise bad feelings, and if you look at the history of horror, it provides a great roadmap by decade of what we were culturally and collectively afraid of during that year. You just need to take a cursory glance at films in the 50s and see that the horror films of that age were about alien invasion, the loss of personal autonomy, and all sorts of themes tied to the fears of the Cold War. We were all afraid of Russian spies back then. It will be really interesting to look back ten years from now and see what has emerged out of the Trump administration.
Natalie Brown: We might be in for some really dark movies. (laughs)
Jovanka Vuckovic: (laughs) Well, I mean, not to get too political, but a lot of people are scared, and sometimes when that many people are scared, one of the best ways to spite things is to make stuff. If we make horror movies, we’re exorcising those fears and putting them into art. Horror films are really valuable. They get dismissed a lot, but people tend to forget that Ingmar Bergman made horror films. It’s not the red headed stepchild or the film world anymore.
XX opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, February 17. It hits iTunes and On Demand on March 3.