Exclusive: The XX directors are forging a path for new female horror voices

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Jan 8, 2019, 11:00 AM EST (Updated)

Someday in the hopefully not too distant future, entertainment headlines and articles won't mention gender or ethnic disparity in key roles like director, lead actor or producer positions because there will be just as many of those minorities working in parity with those in the majority right now.

We're definitely not there yet. However, every step toward that goal is forward momentum and a win for new creative voices getting a chance to be discovered and hired for bigger things. Case in point, the recently released anthology film, XX, which was conceived to shine a light on female voices in the horror genre.

XX is the brain child of writer/producer Jovanka Vuckovic and producer Todd Brown, who came up with the idea four years ago. "We were trying to address the woman director problem by creating jobs for women and opportunities where there were very few," Vuckovic tells Fangrrls. "We had three rules: it had to be written by a woman, directed by a woman and star a woman in the lead role. Other than that all of the directors had complete freedom. We didn't even talk to each other about what we were doing."

The final list of directors ended up being Vuckovic for her adaptation of Jack Ketchum's "The Box," Karyn Kusama's "Her Only Living Son," Annie Clark's (aka St. Vincent) "The Birthday Party" and Roxanne Benjamin's "Don't Fall."

We talked to Vuckovic and Benjamin about their segments and how they see XX impacting the industry.

Roxanne Benjamin

You're known for producing horror anthologies with the V/H/S series and Southbound. How did you get attached to XX?

Benjamin: It's the first one I didn't produce overall. I was just brought on as a hired gun originally as a producer for Annie Clark's [film]. The other two sections were done and the [connecting] animation was done so they had their aesthetic. I ended up co-writing with Annie and after they wanted me to produce the last section. But the director got really busy with TV work, so then they had me direct the last section as well, which was really cool.

The anthologies you have worked on often have connecting themes. Was there one presented to you on XX?

No. With the first V/H/S the directors didn't know what the other folks were doing. With V/H/S 2 we had everyone sharing their ideas and edits and giving notes on each other's stuff. With Southbound, it was literally like TV where we set up a writers' room and came up with a world and split stories and passed the baton back and forth. This felt more like a traditional anthology where each feels like an island in the collection.

Looking at XX as a piece it seems like motherhood is an overriding theme?

They are all so different and it's such a weird coincidence that three of them happen to deal with female characters who are mothers. I keep hearing that mine is not about mothers, and I'm like, "Was it supposed to be about mothers?" (Laughs) I'm not [a mother] and Annie isn't either. The reason "The Birthday Party" is dealing with a mother is because it's dealing with suburban horror, and it was based on a true story that we modified. The kernel of the idea came from the true story of a friend of hers who had someone pass away and they were trying to keep that knowledge from their kid for a couple more moments.

How did you help foster Clark's debut directorial effort?

It's the same as working with any other director, but it was my first time working with a first-time director. I think the only difference was educating her a little more on the overall process. Once they have the basics down, they're off and running. And because she's a very visual artist, it was a very easy transition for her.

So when did they come to you about directing "Don't Fall"?

We had just finished Annie's which is much more of a black comedy. I wanted to make something that was very much a roller coaster, old-school, Creepshow-esque thing you would find in an anthology. Just a short story morality tale. The meatball down the middle is these kids are not where they're supposed to be. They're tromping on all this sacred stuff. This will surely end well for no one. I'm not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes on what this is. There are only so many stories and it's just finding a fun way to tell it is what I was going for.

Was there a cinematic inspiration for how you approached your story?

I think Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary is a big inspiration. I loved those movies and they scared the shit out of me as a kid. They are so over-the-top. I ultimately feel horror films are made for kids because that's when our imagination is so fertile, that anything that goes bump in the night is the worst thing. I'm still that way but that's probably from years of watching horror and reading horror scripts so there's always someone behind the curtain and the door is always left unlocked and someone is under the bed. We just try to pass that along because misery loves company, so to speak. (Laughs)

Where did you find Breeda Wool, who plays Gretchen?

I was co-producer on The Devil's Candy which has Shiri Appleby in it, so I watched all of unReal and I loved Breeda Wool in that. For this, I always cast around one person and I wanted to work with Angela Trimbur so I cast around her. It's very collaborative process for me so I asked who she likes and she mentioned Breeda and so I asked if she was into it. We talked and she was up for hanging upside down on a wall for awhile. (Laughs) Everyone on this did their own stunts. All of the falls, the jumps and being on the wall is all them.

How long did you have to shoot?

We shot three days.

Are anthologies a viable conduit for emerging talent to get seen out there?

I think so. What I love about them is you get to showcase new talents. And they mostly get made while people are waiting for their other movies to get made waiting for casting or financing. There's less of a time commitment. And they get one more thing under their belt.

Jovanka Vuckovic

You were editor for Rue Morgue magazine, you've written books and screenplays. Why adapt a short story for XX?

Vuckovic: I had another idea at the beginning that I was going to do but it was proving to be too expensive so I started thinking of short stories I could adapt. "The Box" stood out years ago when I first read it in Peaceable Kingdoms. Jack Ketchum was more well-known for doing splatter fiction but "The Box" was an existential horror story that I thought could have made a tremendous episode of The Twilight Zone. When I chose it, in order to fit the mandate of our anthology, I had to change the gender of the protagonist to a women. So when I switched the gender, these new storytelling possibilities emerged and it became possible to tell a story about ambivalent motherhood, or how not all women are made to be mothers, or the subtle ways motherhood can grind people down.

We live in a weird mommy culture now with this "perfect mom" culture more than ever. It's so bizarre. Not every single emotion associated around motherhood is perfect. I had a woman in my personal life who said she made it to 40 and married the guy everyone wanted her to marry and had two kids because everyone told her the one kid would be lonely. She said I don't know why I did it because I don't like any of them. That honesty really stayed with me. We are more likely to fall into that trap. So just that tiny [gender] change in perspective made all of these story ideas! So it's not inherently that women make films in a different way, but the perspective shift creates a face for new storytelling points of view.

You have a disturbing body horror scene, and some great starvation looks for the cast in your piece. How did you execute them on a tiny budget?

The Christmas dinner scene is all completely practical effects. There's no computer generated effects at all. I was a kid in a candy scene shooting that scene. With Danny Jacobs (Peter DaCunha) [sunken look], I was worried because it's easy to build up on someone but very difficult to take away. We did it with practical and visual effects. He had these prosthetic cheekbones added and then we rotoscoped the scene and took away his cute chubby double chin and put him back into the scene with the actors. It was an enormous amount of work by the VFX team.

Is it your intention to continue XX with sequels to showcase more female filmmakers?

It was always the hope if XX did well there would be a sequel with the model of a few name directors as the sell and sneak in a couple people who can't get a break otherwise. XX opened number-one in the horror section of iTunes and broke the Top 25. It's a good sign because we need people to exercise their power with their money to say we want to see more movies directed by women. Making noise is great but the real change comes with buying them and renting them. So the prospect of a sequel is very good.

Would you open sequels up to different genres like sci-fi too?

No, I've been working most of my adult life in the horror genre, either books about horror or running Rue Morgue, so it's who I am. I have a bunch of horror movies in me but other stories too. Actually, the feature film that I'm doing next is a sci-fi action movie with kids. It's about children doing horrible violence to each other so there's that. (Laughs)

What's it called?

Riot Girls, written by Catherine Collins. She's currently writing the Lost in Space reboot for Netflix. She wrote a really great script that I connected with. It's set in a world where all of the adults have died off mysteriously and the children are left to fend for themselves. My version is more Mad Max meets Lord of the Flies. And both of the leads are queer. We need more of all the different lifestyles women lead and the spectrum we live on being represented. I want to keep those things in mind and make it very important.

XX is available now on iTunes and On Demand.

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