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Exclusive: Director Arkasha Stevenson talks schizophrenia and cannibalism in Channel Zero: Butcher's Block

Contributed by
Mar 12, 2018

Channel Zero gets crazier and more horrifying every season. Butcher's Block, the third season of the anthology series, continues that trajectory. A young woman, Alice (Olivia Luccardi), and her schizophrenic sister Zoe (Holland Roden) move to a new town in order to escape their mentally ill mother and get a fresh start. But it's hard to get a fresh start when your new home is in an economically bankrupt town called Butcher's Block. Alice is desperate to keep her sister safe while maintaining her own sanity, even as stairways appear mystically in the park and lead to another world, filled with the manic, cannibalistic Peaches family, who founded this town a hundred or so years ago.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Arkasha Stevenson, the talented filmmaker who directed all six episodes this season. She reflected on how she got her big break, working with screen legend Rutger Hauer, and handling all the gore.

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Alice realizes she has no choice. And goes in after her.

This is your first major directing project. How did you get involved?

Yeah, definitely my first major project. I had written and directed a short film called "Pineapple" that premiered at Sundance. Nick Antosca, the showrunner, saw it and thought I would be a good fit for Season 3. He was so supportive and so encouraging, and I was scared to death at the thought of going from a six-day shoot -- which was the longest I had ever done -- to a 45-day shoot.

It ended up being wonderful. It was both harder and easier than I expected, if that makes sense.

How so?

Maintaining such a fast past for 45 days is a mental and physical challenge that I hadn't really experienced before. But it was a lot easier in the sense that you are completely surrounded and supported by professionals who have been doing this for years. I was given such an incredible team to work with. It was very manageable -- even though I almost choked on my lunch when Nick first told me it was going to be a 45-day shoot. It ended up being great. You get invigorated, because going from indie, guerrilla filmmaking, there are certain ideas I've had that I've never been able to try because I didn't have the crew or resources or time. So it was very much like 45 days of supported experimentation in filmmaking. Like, I had never worked with a TechnoCrane before. I got to work with a TechnoCrane five different days! It was like going to film school again.

It sounds cheesy, but this is really like "the dream," being discovered.

It really was kind of like a Cinderella dream. After the lunch with Nick, I went home and Googled my name to make sure I was the only Arkasha Stevenson in the area who made a short film called "Pineapple!" This is absolutely insane.

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The opening scene of the first episode opens with the Cannibal Holocaust theme music. It's such an obscure bit of trivia. Was that put in there to link the cannibal aspects of both projects?

To tell you the truth, that was Nick's idea. He loves that music, and it was the perfect place to start introducing it. We used it again later in the series. But I definitely think it was purposeful.

Can you talk a little bit about how you developed the character Zoe, and the schizophrenia that runs through the entire family?

This is something Nick and I talked about a lot, and my creative producer Tim Smith. The thing that I was so attracted to with these scripts was that it's not just Zoe. Zoe's kind of a window for us to enter this frame of mind where you can't really trust what you're hearing or seeing. We wanted everybody to experience this disturbing element of surrealism infiltrating our daily reality, to where Zoe is kind of stuck in this gray zone of not knowing if something is her illness, or if something more sinister is taking over her daily life. Visually, that was a very exciting arena to play with, because that meant that we got to really start building on the visuals in a more stylistic way. I originally started in photojournalism, and so a lot of my visuals were originally grounded in reality. This kind of gave me the chance to play and explore in all sorts of different directions. That was mostly stemming from Zoe, from trying to take on Zoe's POV more often.

Did you do any research on schizophrenia? I thought it was a very sensitive portrayal of the disease. Not warm and fuzzy, but it was a fair look at schizophrenia, and I'm always curious about how people approach representing mental illness.

I really appreciate you saying that. The writers did a lot of research, and Nick, Tim, and I did a lot of research. I read a lot of personal accounts of what it feels like firsthand to experience this. Holland Roden did a lot of research on her own. We spoke with doctors. The thing that was most relatable to me with both characters, Zoe and Alice, is this feeling of losing control over yourself and having this deep fear of losing control over yourself that you almost [keep] it in. We spoke a lot about affective schizophrenia and how that manifests in your daily life. But a lot of it was just talking about moments in our own lives where we just felt like we completely had a lack of control over mind and body.

Can you talk about working with Rutger Hauer?

He is such a beautiful man! He is a wild unicorn. He is probably one of the most creative people I've ever met in my entire life. He is constantly thinking and constantly imagining... it's almost like dream logic sometimes. He's a very intuitive and empathic person, which is very interesting to work with, because any time I felt stressed and I thought no one could tell, he would pull me aside and say, "It's okay." He could just feel whenever the vibes were off. It was really very nice.

A lot of things that ended up on screen were his ideas. He always came to set with a new element he would want to add, or he would tweak the writing of things. He very much made the Joseph Peach character him. He added his personality to it. Always adding jokes, or these kind of mystical images. It was his idea to have Smartmouth with him all the time. He kind of created the relationship between Smartmouth and Joseph Peach. It was really humbling and really inspiring to work with him. Very intimidating, also. I was petrified!

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He touches a part of her brain and Alice remembers seeing her mother stab her her sister in the stomach, and then he tells her that she has schizophrenia in her brain. He says "come up and join the family. Bring your sister." Because, they remind him of his dead daugthers.

The representation of schizophrenia in Alice's head reminded me very much of Radiator Girl in David Lynch's Eraserhead. Was that intentional?

Yeah [laughs]. Yes, very much so. I am obsessed with David Lynch, and I am obsessed with the Radiator Girl. David Lynch was the reason I went to film school. I was going to be a photojournalist, then I saw Wild at Heart and I thought, "Oooh, okay, I'm in the wrong field!"

This season of Channel Zero seems to be quite a bit gorier than the other two seasons. Were you comfortable with that? How did you get into it and decide how gruesome to make it?

It is quite gruesome. We wanted to be very particular about how we represented violence. We ended up dividing it into two categories. One category was the type of violence and gore that adhere to horror tropes. The other category was more reality-based, psychologically based, which I categorized as, like, any time a parent was attacking a child -- which happens twice this season. For me, one of the most horrific things I can imagine is a parent running after me with murderous intent, or seeing my mother inflict any sort of pain on herself. That was almost more psychologically terrifying than any other violence. We wanted to separate those two, be very cognizant of which violence was which, and treat it as such.

So the more Freddy Krueger-type horror, that could be just fun, as long as we weren't being gratuitous or going overboard. But the other, more sensitive elements of violence... it's such a personal line, it's very subjective. On set, for example, when Nora is stabbing herself in the hospital, I thought maybe we could shoot like five stabs. But the first time she did it, I was like, "Oh, gosh, I can't watch that anymore!" Maybe we just imply or maybe we ease up on the sound design, or maybe we cut a little sooner.

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After Louise and Alice bump into Officer Luke in the woods, they return home to find her co-worker Nathan poking around and asking about why Alice hasn't come to work, and Alice talks to her sister and finds out…uhm…her leg is bloody. But why?

Where do you go after this? This was quite a large project. What are you working on now?

My laundry. [Laughs] I have fake blood on everything! Tim Smith, my creative producer and writing partner, we are pursuing a couple more projects. One, we are developing a TV show that we are very hopeful for, and possibly doing a feature together. We are definitely exploring the horror genre a lot more than we were before Channel Zero.

Are you a fan of the horror genre?

I am, because it's so diverse and flexible. It gives you so much space. I think subjects that are important to talk about, that are in the national zeitgeist at the moment... it's a genre that lends itself easily to cultural commentary. So many people fit within horror, it's a wonderful genre.

When I was signed by an agent, they asked what I wanted to do. I said, "I want to do social realism meets surrealism. They looked at each other, then said, "So... horror."


The season finale of Channel Zero: Butcher's Block airs Wednesday, March 14, at 10 p.m. on SYFY.