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EXCLUSIVE: An Oral History of 'XX,' the Horror Anthology With a Killer Feminist Agenda

by John Boone 12:00 PM PST, February 16, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

If the saying "no guts, no glory" holds true, then there's a serious discrepancy happening in the world of horror. Though women -- your scream queens, your final girls -- have so often offered up their guts to genre films, men are still predominately pulling the strings behind the scenes. That's not the case with XX, a horror anthology featuring four killer tales by four female directors: Annie Clark (aka rocker St. Vincent, making her directorial debut), Jovanka Vuckovic, Karyn Kusama and Roxanne Benjamin. The story of how XX came to be -- and how it hopes to upend the horror industry -- is best told by the women behind it.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

A director and student of horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, Vuckovic conceived XX after noticing that despite the horror anthology's extensive history, female creatives have been virtually absent. She partnered with producer Todd Brown of XYZ Films to change that.

JOVANKA VUCKOVIC (writer-director The Box): I had the idea at the same time as [Brown], about trying to do something about it to try to make it better, to create opportunities for women rather than just complaining about the fact that there were no women being hired for jobs. So, we created one and hired a bunch of women. Even on our segments, we encouraged people to crew up with as many women as possible. I think I had, like, 80 percent or something like that. I'm pretty proud of that. Women don't get the same opportunities that men get in the film business. That's where this all comes from.

KARYN KUSAMA (writer-director Her Only Living Son): Todd Brown and I worked together on my last movie, The Invitation. When they approached me, I was really interested in the opportunity to just make something small and fast and completely my own. It was a different disciple to make a short film, so I was interested in that challenge. Also, the creative freedom that we were given to develop any story we wanted, that excited me.

ROXANNE BENJAMIN (writer-director Don't Fall, co-writer, The Birthday Party): [Annie and I] were both approached separately. Annie and Todd had a mutual friend from a long time ago--

ANNIE CLARK (co-writer and director The Birthday Party): Yes, Sufjan Stevens.

BENJAMIN: I knew him basically through the film festival circuit. He had approached me about producing her section. We got together and started working on her section and we wrote it together. Then I was supposed to produce another section, but the director got really busy with a lot of TV work, so I ended up directing the last segment as well.

CLARK: Writing and directing!

BENJAMIN: Writing and directing and producing! [What attracted me was] someone was going to give me money to make something. I mean, honestly!

CLARK: I'd never done it and someone was going to give me money to do it. And I didn't have to pay it back!

BENJAMIN: Anything where someone will give you the toys to play in the toy box, you're going to be like, "Let me at it!" Also, it's cool people and a cool project, so that doesn't hurt.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

Each director helmed a 20-minute segment that proved radically different from one another: "The Box" explores psychological horrors, while "The Birthday Party" includes pratfalls and a panda costume. "Don't Fall" unfolds like a campfire urban legend, while "Her Only Living Son" reimagines a classic film. All four are loosely connected by way of stop-motion animation.

VUCKOVIC: Having worked in the horror genre for a very large part of my adult life, I've seen everything, and the stuff that I want to see now deals with issues that really matter to me. And things that go boo, I don't really feel like I need anymore. You know, just because they're horror films doesn't mean they can't be art, right? Some of my favorite films of late are Under the Skin and Denis Villeneuve's Enemy. Those, to me, are horror films. They kind of defy traditional categorization, but those are the kinds of movies I like and the kinds of movies I want to make.

The story that I chose for this turned out to be an existential horror story that was written by Jack Ketchum in the '90s. It could've made a great episode of The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery, and I saw this as my opportunity to make an episode. Because I can't go back in time! So, I feel like that's really what it is, minus Rod Serling talking in between the interstitials.

KUSAMA: For me, I was really interested in a domestic horror story, and I felt like the story between a mother and son was fertile ground for that. I thought a lot about stories and narratives in both film and literature that I love that are about a boy's transformation to manhood and how, for some parents, that's actually a really terrifying transformation. That, combined with my appreciation and reverence for the [Roman] Polanski film Rosemary's Baby, put me in this direction, to imagine a speculative, new outcome for that story. I wanted it to be a really psychological, parental horror story.

CLARK: One of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen is Todd Solondz's Happiness. And I feel like that was kind of lodged in my brain as an inspiration, even though it is not a genre film. And then I was told a true story about a person who woke up with a body in the house and had to make a split second decision about how to protect a child. I was also looking at Toiletpaper Magazine and there was this incredible shot of this immaculate Italian living room and there is a rug, and from under the rug there are two feet sticking out. The picture just sort of summed up my view of life, and that was the "Magna Carta shot" of the movie.

BENJAMIN: It's interesting, because everything in it is very poppy, color-wise, and clean and immaculate, but underneath is dirty and f**ked up and decayed.

CLARK: Deeply destroyed.

BENJAMIN: Disturbed. Degraded?

CLARK: Deeply degraded.

BENJAMIN: I'm out of D words. [But] Don't Fall -- that's a D word! -- I had just completed a job where the story I told was very much a slow burn, tense, almost like gaslighting kind of horror. I really wanted to make something that was the complete opposite of that, that was a really fun roller coaster, jump scare, old-school camping story that's, like, very pulpy, very kind of '80s.

SOFIA CARRILLO (animation): When I began to do my work, people said that I was doing creepy and freaky stuff. And I never intended that. I was trying to do some melancholic, sad things. When I got this invitation, it was like, I really have to face the fact that half my stuff is kind of scary. [Laughs]

Photo: Magnet Releasing

XX debuted during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival's Midnight section. Kusama was absent from the premiere -- opting instead to attend the Women's March in Washington D.C. -- while Clark represented two films. (She also wrote the music for Kristen Stewart's directorial debut, the short Come Swim.)

CLARK: I had been [to Sundance] one other time, probably six years ago. It was funny because, after all of the work and the [jokingly] triumph of the human spirit in making the short, scoring felt like cream cheese. I did it in a day. It was so easy in comparison. It was very exciting to go back as a filmmaker. You got free snacks. Free wine. Free coffee. And free shoes. And a jacket! I was like, "Wow! I understand why people want to be in the film industry. I get it now. You get a jacket."

BENJAMIN: There are always those moments where you're like, Are they going to think this is funny? Is this going to work? And when it does, it's such a weird validation. That's the drug of the whole thing, that validation of the audience. It's exhilarating, but at the same time it's this weird melancholy. You're like, "I'm really happy this is doing so well, but I want to be back on set and doing something else right now so that I can get this validation that I'm getting right now, because I'm an addict."

CLARK: That's why I play rock music.

VUCKOVIC: I had not seen the film together as a whole in a theater. That was my first time seeing it in a big group -- 500 people -- and it was amazing! We had no idea how the shorts were all going to come together, because we didn't talk to each other about what we were doing. The only person that had any clue what we were up to was Sofia. She would get a single sentence--

CARRILLO: [Laughs] And I had only that!

VUCKOVIC: It would be like, "Jovanka's segment is about a family that stops eating. And Karyn's is about a woman whose son is demonic." It was very simple loglines. So it was a real pleasure to see them all coming together and working really well. I think Annie's is a black comedy, so it helps lighten the mood a bit in the middle. [To Kusama] That's probably why they separated our segments and put mine at the beginning and yours at the end, because they're the bleakest and the heaviest.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

Though the filmmakers hope that the release of XX (out Feb. 17) leads to more opportunities for women within the genre, they're not so sure there is anything about being a female director that necessarily makes someone uniquely qualified to direct horror.

BENJAMIN: When we bleed, we really know how close it is to be to death, because we give both life and then death comes from us, so really I tried directing from the womb... Although to feel the male gaze, I do wear a prosthetic penis on set as much as possible -- and show it to most of the crew ahead of time. [Laughs]

You don't want to feel that you're the representative of all women everywhere, but you feel like you're almost put in that position because only 7 percent of feature directors are women, currently, which is a whole thing. [But] I don't think there are any horrors that are particularly female-centric so much as it's like--

CLARK: Maybe women live more in fear of sexual violence than men. Although it obviously happens to men.

BENJAMIN: There's that. But I don't necessarily see a lot of, like, female-directed sexually violent movies.

CLARK: It's just all Gaspar Noé. [Laughs]

KUSAMA: I mean, I feel really attuned to my struggle with vulnerability. I think that that's actually all of us, struggling with an emotional life, with our own frailty, with the fact that we're going to die. There are so many facts about life that are actually really sobering and upsetting facts to have to confront. Women have just a perspective on those facts that we haven't seen enough of. So, it's not that I even think I'm speaking for anyone but myself, except a sense of attunement to human frailty and how many scary things come out of that.

VUCKOVIC: Somebody asked me in a previous interview how I felt about the fact that some people would perceive my sensitivity to children and women as a handicap as a director. And I thought that was the most absurd thing I've ever heard, because I know lots of male directors who are sensitive to the needs of women and children who have very healthy careers directing horror films. I don't think because I'm a woman that I'm more or less capable than anyone else. It's just a job. It's telling stories, regardless of gender or whether I'm born without the benefit of a penis. I just don't think any of that matters at all. I guess that's kind of the point that we're trying to make.

CARRILLO: I would like to say that I felt like a fish in the water, because in my childhood, everything had to do with a feminine world. Because I have three sisters, I [thought of] you like my sisters, so I was just making something for my sisters. I want to think that I gave a very honest work that is a very feminine point of view, which is not different or better than others. But it's new and it's fresh and it's very honest.

KUSAMA: And it's yours.

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