The recent global success of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook in 2014 put the focus on Australian women filmmakers, and simultaneously gave voice to horror’s status as a unique space for women to talk about the somatic reality that governs their lived experience of contemporary gender politics, particularly in regards to the omnipresent threat of violence. Horror film affords these women a space to think through feminist and other ideological issues in ways that are both creative and urgent, in a number of different ways. This roundtable is a forum for discussion between three Australian women horror directors from notably varied backgrounds and artistic approaches, but who have united under the auspices of the international Women in Horror movement, culminating in Australia through a number of groups and events but particularly Hobart’s Stranger With My Face International Film Festival.
The participants are filmmakers Heidi Lee Douglas, Isabel Peppard and Donna McRae. Writer/Director Heidi Lee Douglas came to genre film production with a wealth of hands on practical production expertise and rich life experience gained through a career in documentary filmmaking. Her gothic thriller short Little Lamb screened at festivals worldwide, picking up awards and a broadcast deal; and has been selected for a “Women in Horror” anthology feature. Heidi is developing a feature set in the same world which was recently shortlisted for the elite Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Isabel Peppard is a multi-award winning horror director and stop-motion animator. Her 2012 short animation Butterflies (voiced by Rachael Griffiths) screened at over 50 international festivals including the Melbourne International Film Festival, Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, and the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and was purchased by SBS Television. Isabel was a recipient of The Directors Acclaim fund from Screen Australia, allowing her to undertake a writing/directing mentorship in Los Angeles with horror director Jennifer Lynch (Boxing Helena, Chained, The Walking Dead), and in 2015, Isabels’ feature horror script Silk won a project award at Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea. Donna McRae is a filmmaker that holds a PhD and is a Lecturer in Film & Television at Deakin University, Melbourne. Her first micro budget feature film, Johnny Ghost (2012) was selected into numerous film festivals locally and internationally, winning seven awards including Best Female Director, Best Feature and two Special Jury Prizes. Currently she is involved in a female-directed horror anthology film, in post-production on a feature documentary about a chimpanzee called Cobby: The Dark Side of Cute and in development for her next feature film Kate Kelly, a western about Ned Kelly’s sister which was selected for Frontieres Co-Production Market in Montreal in 2016. Donna is now in pre-production with her second feature film Lost Gully Road.
To begin with, how do you see yourself and your practice fitting into a broader conversation (or conversations) about Australian women horror filmmakers?
Heidi Lee Douglas: My background is in documentary so I come to my genre work with a focus on real world experiences that I tapped into through the first 15 years of my career. My meta theme across documentary and drama is usually connected to David and Goliath issues. In horror writing I am drawn to writing about women evolving into leadership positions or empowering themselves through strong emotions like anger or grief. I started writing horror in 2005 after I got sued by logging company Gunns Ltd for my filming in Tasmania. I wrote a feature script about a man-eating mermaid as a way to channel my own difficult personal experience. After the long court case was over and won, I have been able to focus more on my genre film writing and unpack some of the big life lessons I’ve learnt. So my genre film writing has been very character driven, focusing on women arming themselves to survive both emotionally and physically. I don’t see ftories like this onscreen enough, and so want to contribute to that.
Isabel Peppard: I started out as a SPFX makeup artist and Creature Technician in the late 90s as I always had an intrinsic attraction to blood, gore and monsters. The technical skills I learnt in the industry allowed me to branch out and explore the horror space through a wide variety of creative practices from performance to sculpture, painting, costuming and animation. Beyond filmmaking, horror has always been an integral part of my identity and is the genre in which all of my creative explorations has been based.
Donna McRae: I started out as an actor and for a few years after drama school got some work in theatre, TV and short films. One film that I was working on really inspired me to explore story worlds and situations borne in atmospheric horror. With that particular director we started working on screenplays and when he left to live in the USA I was on my own. I really enjoyed writing but was forced to take on the directing role so went to the VCA film and TV school to study and made my first ghost film. The horror genre which spans so many sub genres really allows for exploration, atmospherics, inventiveness and fun and a chance to examine themes in a palatable (to some) way. It certainly allows for high art to meet low art! Johnny Ghost was my first micro budget feature film and I have other projects that I am working on concurrently.
The great clichéd assumption about horror is that it’s predominantly a ‘boys terrain’, but of course this has been undermined greatly with the emergence in recent years of the Women in Horror movement and festivals like Stranger WIth My Face, the Scream Queen Filmfest in Tokyo and genre events like Etheria and the Ax Wound festival in the United States. What is your personal relationship to the genre, both as a fan and as a filmmaker?
Heidi: All the ideas that have come to me for fiction films are genre. I loved Grimm’s fairytales growing up and would beg my big sister to retell the horror films she had watched, so spent a lot of my early childhood with monsters lurking in the shadows. As an adult I discovered the original folk tales behind the Grimm retelling, the more matriarchal versions, and this had a big influence on the stories I began creating. In terms of modern horror I love films like It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014), The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015), and The Babadook, films that have an underlying line of enquiry but have a fantastical, suspenseful element. It was really Stranger with My Face Film Festival that gave me the kick up the arse I needed to write and shoot genre when I won Best Script for Little Lamb at a script writing competition they held in 2012. Donna was one of the judges and she encouraged me to make the film, which I hadn’t even considered until that point because the script was pretty ambitious. So it helped me immensely to be encouraged to contribute to culture in your own unique voice. Since then the women in horror community that has grown out of that festival and the women in horror international film network including Etheria and Scream Queen is like a petri-dish of supportive creativity for me.
Isabel: I always was attracted to the imagery in horror particularly the imaginative, world building work of people like Clive Barker that were not just sticking with established tropes but rather creating their own original mythologies. After learning special effects, I was inspired to apply my skills to my own work. I had my first half assed attempt at directing horror in my early 20s but it was basically just an excuse for me to roll around in blood and guts for a week or so and I never finished it. At that point I had no idea about making films or anything, it was just a compulsion to do it. Probably my earliest links between women and horror was not from films but from books. I was raised in Japan in the early years of my life and so I was immersed in Japanese mythology, ghost stories etc. which have many fearsome female characters who are driven by strong, visceral emotions such as grief and vengeance.
Donna: For me the Women in Horror movement has opened a door that I thought I never would experience, let alone make it through. I have seen, in recent years, the power behind women’s stories being told through genre that was absent for me growing up. To have women in leading roles telling stories directed and written by women really turns the genre on its head. Everything is different. They are human stories with character arcs and they speak to me in a way that I haven’t connected with before. To see Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution (2015) at the Stranger with My Face International Film Festival in April 2016 was a revelation. It was such a beautiful film that encompassed beauty, grief, atmosphere, horror, science-fiction and mythology but was made with a light touch really summed up this potent blend that you speak of.
To say that Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook was a watershed moment for Australian genre film internationally is an understatement, but of course it’s journey here in its country of production was less than a total success story – it was only after it succeeded overseas that people back home finally clicked as to a solid horror film could also have something important to say. For women filmmakers in Australia, it feels the success of The Babadook is even more significant – what are your thoughts about this?
Heidi: It’s great The Babadook has laid that foundation of “yes there is an audience for sophisticated horror films” even if it’s not in Australia. I’ve heard Jennifer had a really hard time getting it made through Screen Australia, and I have found many of the assessors for funding bodies see horror as paint-by-numbers and don’t really understand if you want to push the genre like international horror does. Which is very frustrating. Having Little Lamb selected for Fantastic Fest in Austin in 2015 was therefore a watershed moment for me: going there and meeting all these great people who are totally committed to making interesting, cutting edge genre films really helped me to stay motivated because I know the audience is out there, and they are hungry for the types of films I have always dreamed of making. I have been getting recognition through festival screenings and awards and have some great producers who are really supportive and excited about my work, but getting funding here is still very hard.
Donna: With the arrival of The Babadook everything was on the table. Suddenly there was an Australian horror film that defied all odds by getting it through our funding bodies intact, being made by a female filmmaker who didn’t have a long track record, and finding an audience overseas that transcended niche. I felt that we all had a film that we could refer to when industry discussions came around to the dominant male audience; questions that still didn’t address that women are interested in horror and comprise a large part of the viewing demographic. Overseas, however, is a different story. The Women in Horror networks are actively pursuing membership and are possibly one of the most supportive networks ever. There is an unspoken code in this space which is to encourage each other, and I believe most people adhere to that. It’s such a relief to know that there are other female filmmakers out there that actually like you and support your work and want it to be seen. With my first micro budget feature film Johnny Ghost, I knew that the only way for it to be visible was for it to travel first. Just like The Babadook – once you have overseas approval, the local industry take notice. I don’t know how this can be changed: Screen Australia and Screen NSW are doing their bit, but other gatekeepers need to acknowledge that horror films (and especially female-led horror) have commercial and artistic value and are a valid contribution to Australian filmmaking. Perhaps when international sales agents and distributors are female led, then we may have change.
Isabel: I think The Babadook has certainly proved that there’s a commercial market for female driven horror in which the protagonist isn’t sexualised in any way. She does have a sexuality but it is not played for titillation and she is allowed to look weathered and exhausted in a realistic way. That is important I think. The fact that the story of an ordinary woman grappling with motherhood and grief could have such a significant impact in the horror world and beyond proves that there is an audience hunger for these types of stories and that is always going to create opportunities for other directors.
This question of sexualisation is a really important one. For a genre so traditionally considered the domain of misogyny (in particular relation to the sexualisation and glamorisation of violence against women), this is a very pervasive trait: even if horror films directed by women that do have a degree of ‘sexiness’ to them, they are complicated in very direct, very sophisticated ways. One of the most important scenes in The Babadook, for example, is the vibrator scene: it is, in many ways, a very brave decision to include it in the way Kent does, because it reduces the act of masturbation to a kind of biological necessity, it’s a strangely perfunctory, everyday moment that avoids being sleazy or exploitative (and the moment that we first really start to connect with the desperation of the protagonist’s sense of isolation and loneliness). How do you think sex and sexuality ‘fits in’ in a general sense into the kinds of films you like and make?
Isabel: I think that vibrator scene in The Babadook is particularly powerful because it takes a character where the focus is on her maternal role and her relationship with her child and allows her to have a sexuality, but not in an exploitative way. The character desperately reaches for a small pocket in time to have her own moment in the face of caring for a demanding, troubled child. When she is interrupted by the boy it is almost as if her needs as a human are trumped by her duty as a mother and the juxtaposition of the sexual and maternal role make the scene quite loaded and unusual. This is a great example of female sexuality through a female lens, and sexuality as opposed to sexualisation.
Heidi: If I’m writing about female sex and sexuality in my work I do it in a very conscious way, so it’s not wallpaper dressing.
Isabel: Personally, I am always attracted to sex and death in my writing and subjects. The female body is fascinating because it is viewed in so many different ways, as a sexual object, as a bringer of life, but also, as a woman, you know that your body can be kind of visceral with all its lumps and bumps, blood and fluids. I think the fact that women bleed from their sexual organs once a month means that there is an intrinsic physical link between blood/horror and female sexuality. I am really attracted to this kind of feminine body horror, allowing women’s bodies to be monstrous and slightly gruesome instead of sexy and titillating. In terms of recent films, there is a weird otherness or mystery to the female sexuality presented in Hadžihalilović’s Evolution that Donna brought up earlier. A very strange and powerful film that works almost on a subconscious level.
Donna: Isabel, I agree that it’s quite strange to view female bodies on screen when used as something different to an objectified male gaze. It’s like a glimpse to the real world and can be quite uncomfortable – therefore these particular films are branded genre. I’m actually sick of watching sex scenes portrayed in such a neat, panting, no-bodily fluids-were-lost way – this conditioning through film that we all had as children which we all know is a fantasy. I think that this has shifted, but women in horror are hell bent on pushing this boundary as far as they can. The scene of the main character dancing on stage in Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012) was provocative in this way – it was odd rather than sexy, even though it contained all the hallmarks of a ‘showgirl’ fantasy. It was a rupture in the flow of the film that reminded us who was in charge. If it had been made by a male the scene would have been portrayed very differently, however the Soska’s engineered it to be successful without objectification of the actor’s body (and added bodily fluids just to press the point).
The Soska twins are a very useful point of reference here, and their success has been emblematic of the broader Women in Horror movement. One of the things so fascinating here is the overlapping and intersecting of different kinds of filmmaking, and motivations for filmmaking: even when women’s horror filmmaking isn’t consciously political, it seems the very act of encouraging these different stories is itself fundamentally ideological. Is there for you at least a political dimension to your own horror filmmaking practice?
Heidi: Making films is incredibly hard work, an uphill battle, and so for me to commit to what it takes to see a film through from beginning to end means I feel like it is important to have something deep within that story that I want to say. And they are the types of films I like to watch anyway. I am a political animal, though the types of politics I work with now is not about who is in government but bigger social issues that underscore our society. To open up dialogues and change the way we see characters, subjects and in particular female narratives really excites me. But to do this in an unexpected way, through drama rather than documentary, working in the metaphysical plane, feels more potent, like making magic.
Donna: Having recently attended the Frontieres Co-Production Market (with my next feature project Kate Kelly) which was part of Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal in 2016, the female filmmaking community collective is really strong. One of the founders of the WIH movement, Maude Michaud, had organised a Women in Horror night at one of the local pubs and the turnout was unbelievable. The place was packed with women filmmakers at every professional level. From film students to the most frighteningly successful financiers, the magic that Heidi alludes to was palpable. When you are sitting in a room full of women that all want to crash through the filmmaking ceiling, it is very empowering. It felt like an even playing field for once.
In very different ways, you all make films that clearly have something to say about the broader social and cultural climate. Do you think horror specifically be utilised more in Australian in terms of current urgent political debates?
Heidi: It is hard to have any feature film that focuses on urgent political debates as the length of time it takes to develop a feature means that whether the films comes out and the issue is still topical is a bit of a fluke. For example, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) dealt with race issues and happened to come out in the middle of the outcry over #blacklivesmatter, but even Tarantino was shocked at that timing. But I do think horror in this genre films in this country could be more political, and I certainly aim to do that myself. The feature I’m developing reflects on how convict women in this country were treated and that will raise discussions about how that background still affects women’s place in Australian culture today.
Isabel: I personally think that some of the best horror plays with big ideas both political and philosophical. Going back to The Babadook or even We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011), these are films that have taken on serious themes invoking social taboos around the sanctity of motherhood and forcing audiences to engage with women who struggle to connect with their child or may possibly even be a threat to their child. This uncomfortable territory makes the horror much more real but also shocks us into a conversation. I think exploring Australian politics within the framework of genre is very powerful because horror is a tool to expose and interrogate the inherent darkness of these issues.
Donna: I really can’t understand why horror isn’t embraced here like it is everywhere else. To make a film that explores social issues but wrapped up in a successful genre envelope answers two things: firstly, the film has something to say, and secondly, it can make a return on spend. Why aren’t our audiences embracing these pictures? Perhaps it’s not really about horror as such, but more about the Australian films that have come before that turn audiences off. The term “elevated genre’ is used at the moment because some decision makers can’t fathom “horror”, but perhaps that high art perspective is at the root of it: they perceive horror to be a low art folly. Every time I speak to anyone who has been in the film industry a long time about this, they glaze over. Why can’t an Australian horror film be both? Films like The Babadook and The Witch prove that. Hopefully attitudes will change.