Writer-director-cinematographer Sophia Cacciola wants to make genre film a space that focuses on women. It's extremely evident in all of the projects she tackles with long-time collaborator and husband Michael J. Epstein, from old-school murder mystery TEN to '70s lesbian vampire tribute Blood of the Tribades to the upcoming horror-comedy Clickbait, which doesn't condemn the evils of social media as much as it satirizes the growing landscape of online personalities.
As part of our ongoing Female Filmmaker Friday series, SYFY FANGRRLS had the opportunity to speak with Cacciola about how she first started working in film, why she enjoys telling stories in genre, what the film industry can do to be more inclusive, and her future projects.
I know you started your career in music. When did your transition into filmmaking take place, and have you noticed any kind of overlap between music and film in terms of what you draw inspiration from?
Absolutely. My main band was called Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling and it was inspired by the TV show The Prisoner, which was the 1960's insane TV show. Basically, I would watch an episode and then write a song about the show and that was kind of my writing process. I took a lot of style inspiration from the mod '60s looks of the show. In 2011, we made a music video and it took us a year to recreate the opening sequence to The Prisoner. Through that process, 11 days of shooting, I really learned a lot about filmmaking.
At least, I thought I did, because my music had been so visual anyway and I had an interest in film and photography in high school but had pursued music instead, basically. I really got into the idea of making music videos, so I started buying cheap cameras and just making as many music videos as I could. And then, very quickly, [that] led to making a feature film. I did a Kickstarter, got a bunch of friends together, rented a mansion, shot a weird Agatha Christie whodunit, very strange movie, and that was really the beginning of the end for me. So since then, it's just been awesome in film, and I hope to get a side track of music going again because I do miss it.
I feel like that's 50 percent of the movie sometimes, an amazing soundtrack. So it's not that disparate, and I feel like creative people are always pushing themselves to do something a little bit harder. To me, [filmmaking] is almost that much harder than producing music so it's kind of a natural extension, but it's the next step for me.
I love that you talk about your films as sociopolitical and refer to them in that sense. And I know you've worked both as a writer and director, both in partnership and by yourself. When you set out to write or direct a story, what types of messages are you most often trying to communicate? Or do you like to leave your movies open to a wider interpretation?
I think there's always a wide interpretation of movies because different people get so many different things out of film. But for me, it's always important to showcase women doing things that advance the plot and matter in a film. So that's number one for me. It's always just going to be a woman who is a person.
For instance, my second to last film, Blood of the Tribades, is super 1970s genre of vampire film. It's about this group of women that are being hunted by a group of men and basically, they need to overthrow this patriarchy that's in place. It's very literal, but you could miss it with just pretty images of pretty women, for a while, because that's the style. But what they're doing is just overthrowing this male society and installing a new regime. So it's there, but it doesn't need to be the only thing you get out of it, I would say. But it's very important to me that there is a message there.
It really does feel like Blood of the Tribades is a love letter to that lesbian vampire subgenre. What was it about that era specifically that made you want to revisit it for a contemporary audience?
Funny, because I think some of those films are accidentally feminist. They have these very strong women — like Ingrid Pitt. I think she's one of the stars of a lot of the Hammer movies. Just one of the strongest female characters. She just vibrates on screen. I love her so much. But then those films have these crazy extended rape scenes. So they're feminist and then they're really not, so I really felt like if you actually approached it from putting the women first and their needs first, it can be really interesting. And it's a very visual, beautiful genre that didn't take much to push it into something feminist.
They are very female-focused, a lot of those movies. I thought it would be interesting to actually make an effort, make it not as male-gazey. They did have a lot of male nudity, too, but showcased male nudity in the same range as the female nudity. There's a lot of room there to play with it while still staying very true and accurate.
Your work has been mostly genre, albeit different genres like sci-fi and horror and, like you were saying, a murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie as well. What do you think it is about genre in particular that allows you to tell the types of stories that you want to tell as a filmmaker?
I love sci-fi and horror because you can say something about the current world and be as over the top as you want. Put it in your commercial, like Robo-Cop. Say everything you want to say about how horrible society is going and then give people another perspective, or say that this is the dystopian version of this, or this is the optimistic version of this. You can really say a lot about what's going on in the world with it still being fun, still being fantastic and ridiculous and enjoyable. It doesn't need to be a drama. It can be fun and still have that message, and that message is packaged a little more subtly.
Your latest film Clickbait isn't really set in a far future but definitely feels like a reflection of social media culture and online personalities. Why did you want to satirize this aspect of the internet and explore those themes via a horror medium?
I think that there is a lot of horror coming out exploring this idea of social media and what it does to us. But a lot of my films explore identity and performative identity, like "Today I'm gonna go be this person," or, "On this phone call I'll be this person." The starting idea behind it is because women especially, and all young people, are putting these personalities out there trying to have a future for themselves, and I wanted to explore why. What are the pressures on young women to do that and to become famous on the internet and try to build a career that way? So, of course, it goes kinda badly.
Basically, as she's being stalked, she's realizing her popularity is going up because these videos are appearing online and she's getting more and more famous and she's like, "Well, I should let this continue" and it goes from there. So it's about how much it corrupts them, but I always wanted to show it's not necessarily their fault. This is the pressure that's happening now through the internet and through society to be that person and put that out there. I didn't want it to be a condemnation of young women or millennials, because those are my people and I'm right there with them. We're all building these personalities for the world and that's gonna be our legacy when archeologists dig us up.
You've worked in the indie film industry in various roles. What do you think are the biggest hindrances for women trying to pursue a career in indie film and what do you think needs to happen in order to affect some positive changes?
It just comes down to giving women money. That's what I've finally zeroed in on. There's a lot of talk about supporting women and getting women there, but the women are here. We're trying to work. I've worked a lot in the camera department and 99% of the time I'm the only person. And I'm the only person some of these men have ever worked with that's a woman. It's really bizarre because women are going to film school as much as men. Somewhere, they're disappearing. It's weird, and there's a lot of talk of finding female directors and whatever. We're here, just give us $100,000 and let us make something, and let's make something bigger the next time.
It's the same thing with hiring crew. I'm part of a lot of groups out here that want to reach parity in film crew because we're an extreme minority unless there's extra effort. Because if you're just hiring your friends, you're just gonna hire the same guys you've always known. If there's an opportunity, you should try to look a little bit outside that box and see these other viewpoints. What women can bring is another perspective.
Can you talk about any other genre film projects or anything else you currently have in the works?
Right now, Clickbait is going to be premiering soon and it's going to be doing its festival run for the next nine months or so. Hopefully, it'll be coming out eventually. I'm trying to get a couple projects up off the ground. There's one called The Caul that I want to do, a very 1970s folk horror witch movie about a good witch who's fighting evil and recruiting her next witch.
I've got an astronaut thing I'm trying to get off the ground, too, because I really want to do another sci-fi film. I did a movie called Magnetic a few years ago, which is very retro, '80s, analog technologies. Basically, she's in a time loop where the earth gets destroyed at the end of the week. She has to decide if it's worth continuing the time loop to keep the earth alive. I'd love to do another time travel thing. Getting more into sci-fi would be awesome again. Just keep rollin'.
This interview has been edited and condensed.