Welcome to Female Filmmaker Friday, a series from SYFY FANGRRLS, devoted to celebrating women in film in all of their various roles—both in front of and behind the camera. This week, we spoke to Ladyworld writer/director Amanda Kramer, whose debut feature film makes its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest this weekend.
Last summer Warner Bros. announced they have a genderswapped Lord of the Flies in development, which began a flood of tweeted jokes about how a fleet of girls left to their own devices wouldn't devolve into mania and violence, but instead Themyscira. Yet there's an insidious sexism to that assumption. Holding women up on a pedestal that way suggests we are all sugar and spice and everything nice and codes our violence, rage, and madness as a failing of femininity. It wedges women into the role of good girl or lovely lady. A ferocious battle cry against such pigeonholing of female identity? Amanda Kramer's Ladyworld.
Starring Ariela Barer (Marvel's Runaways), Annalise Basso (Slender Man), Tatsumi Romano, Zora Casebere, and Maya Hawke (Stranger Things), Ladyworld centers on a birthday party that steadily devolves into a nightmarish all-girl dystopia. When a massive earthquake buries the house of the birthday girl, eight teens are forced to figure out how to survive. Cliques divide into factions. Tensions rise. And growing suspicious of The Man, a stranger who might be lurking in the shadows, drives these stressed-out young women to some deeply disturbing behavior. Told in a theatrical style with a soundtrack made up of female gasps, yips, and howls, Ladyworld is a devastatingly trippy exploration of what it means to be a girl on the brink of womanhood in a world indifferent to the threats against you.
Explaining how her concept evolved, Kramer didn't cite William Golding's 1954 novel and instead said, "I set out to make a film about feminine tedium, feminine mania, female psychosis in the tradition of great films like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Repulsion. And this was what came out."
In creating her characters, she rejected easily identifiable stereotypes. "I think a lot of teenage female roles are trite, boring, hackneyed," she confessed, "And I really wanted to create something that felt like eight aspects of one female psyche that engage in all the things that a single female engages in. Everything from like competitive selfishness to manipulation, feelings of heroism, rationality and logic, fear, intensity, an intoxicating sensuality."
Chief among these fears in Ladyworld is the fear of The Man, a figure of sexual threat who may be real or imagined, but nonetheless terrorizes the girls. "The film, to me, started out in my mind as being about rape phobia," Kramer explained, noting she'd written the script well before the Me Too movement brought the conversation of rape culture back into the spotlight.
"I just was thinking about that time," Kramer said. "That era in your life when you're a young woman, where you go from riding your bike in short shorts and not thinking a thing of it, to the first day you wake up as [being] half nude and you go, 'Oh my god, I'm a sexual being. And men are projecting sexuality onto me. I just hadn't even considered myself someone to be having sex with.' And so this time in one's life where the idea of a man who's older might want to touch you or rape you. That's fear compounded that we feel internally, globally, whatever, as women."
"It's the fear of being touched or hurt that drives us insane," she said. "Sometimes as much as actually being touched can drive us insane. I mean, that reason why we all walk to our cars with our keys out like little knives between our fingers. Why do we do that? Where does that come from?" Essentially, rape culture is psychologically damaging to women whether or not they've been victims of sexual assault. "Because you become self-aware of it," Kramer continued. "You lose your innocence. It's another loss of innocence that has nothing to do with having sex, it's just the understanding that now you're potentially a victim. And that's scary."
Asked about the idea that an all-female Lord of the Flies would be free of violence and chaos, Kramer said, "We're humans. We're dark. We all have the propensity to violence. Sometimes violence is physical, sometimes violence is emotional and mental. Sometimes manipulation is as damaging as a punch in the face. I don't understand why we need to create these lines in the sand [between genders]. I think that the controversial aspect of creating an all-girl Lord of the Flies has far more to do with what's about to be said."
"Conceptually, it's important to ask what are violent urges in women, sure," she mused. "And to see if we think that a violent urge in a woman is a physical thing or a mental thing. But that project just seems ill-fated because it seems to come from that clueless Hollywood ideology of remake culture. Let's take something that we all know to be one thing and flip it on its head because it's somewhat casually exciting to be a woman right now. And it is!"
"It's damaging to be a woman and it's exciting and thrilling to be a woman right now," Kramer continued. "So naturally people want to grab on to that. And say, 'What if we make The Odd Couple, but it's women?', 'What if we make Stand By Me, and it's women?' That's going to be the happening for at least another couple of years. There's nothing wrong with that. Ocean's 8, fine. But it has way much more to do with corporate culture than it does thinking about what women do and actually creating great roles for women, which should be our goal."
Ladyworld makes its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22.