Interview: Director Melanie Light On Her Vegan, Feminist Horror Film THE HERD

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British filmmaker discusses her acclaimed vegan, feminist horror masterpiece THE HERD.

One of horror’s unique qualities is that it can, through its fantastical elements, offer filmmakers great freedom to discuss complicated issues in a way that does not have to be explicitly clear. This can be seen recently in Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK, where the director was able to broach taboos of motherhood through the titular manifestation, issues that may have otherwise been written off as cruel or, worse, ignored in a straight-drama. Posing difficult questions through metaphors can, in turn, grant audiences the room to engage with topics they previously rejected of felt uncomfortable with. It’s a level of remove that benefits both parties.

For newcomer Melanie Light, horror proved the perfect framework for her latest short. A self-proclaimed feminist, vegan short film, THE HERD was certain to pose itself against such barriers. Oddly, despite the fact that the very mention of either feminism or veganism is sometimes enough to cause some to writhe with antagonism, there is often a disconnect between the movements. This chasm is exactly what is broached with THE HERD, with the film aiming to equate the everyday horrors of the factory farming and the dairy industry into a human reality.

Written by Ed Pope, the film follows a group of kidnapped women imprisoned in a facility for the sole purpose of sourcing milk from their bodies. Regardless of any viewers’ individual stance, the film is undeniably effective in its goals as a viscerally horrific experience. By the film’s conclusion, however, Light pushes the subject matter further through editing in unsettling images from slaughterhouses and factory farms. The juxtaposition equates the treatment of the women in this fictitious film to the treatment of animals in real life, a haunting atmosphere for audiences to wade through.

THE HERD is, with hope, the catalyst for a burgeoning career for the British filmmaker Light. In the film’s short twenty-minute runtime, Light develops a harrowing tale that is deftly guided by her strong visual eye. Light’s own assertion that her approach was to “treat the film like a feature” is evident, as there is not an ounce of shoddiness to be found. With a background in Art direction the film benefits from a beautifully seedy production design. The visuals are viscerally effective, assisting to promote the film’s central conceit. If nothing else, THE HERD will force you to think, something that is often lacking in modern cinema.

Following a successful run on the festival circuit, SHOCK caught up with Melanie to talk about the film, its politics, and the reasons why it can sometimes be difficult just trying to explain veganism to someone.

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SHOCK: So, what’s your background, have you always been attracted to film?

LIGHT: Well I studied sculpture — it was very loose sculpture — at Brighton University in the UK. I’ve always been drawn towards arts, you know, painting, drawing, photography. As I was coming out of University I was really getting into movies, mostly horror movies. I was also obsessed with rotten.com and Bizarre Magazine; all of these really fucked up, weird things, and my work was like that. Eventually, I had to go back home and get a really boring, crappy job at an office to pay off some of my debts whilst making horror prosthetics and props in my spare time. I didn’t know what to do with myself

SHOCK: At what point did you transition into actually working with film then?

LIGHT: Eventually, I found myself at a horror convention that only about 50 people were at. It was The Chiller Fest convention. It’s actually where I met Ed [Pope], the writer of THE HERD. But I also saw some people there that had worked on Harry Potter and they were talking about working in the art department, and my brain was like, ‘how do you do this?’ At the time, I thought that you only got into working on films through major film productions. I thought, ‘how the heck do I do that, I don’t know anybody.’ So I just started making these evil zombie bunnies and messed around with my own little projects. Eventually I found this website, mandy.com, and found an opportunity to work on a horror film called The Devil’s Chair, as an art department assistant. It was three weeks of night shoots; just painting walls, getting covered in fake blood, and not really sleeping; I just thought it was the best thing in the world. I remember, towards the end — and you become quite emotional towards the end of big jobs because you become like a little family — it was like 4 am and I thought, ‘I think I found what I am supposed to be doing.’ 

SHOCK: So what was your next step?

LIGHT: I moved to London and did lots of low budget stuff. Did some production design and art direction on low-budget horror films and web series and stuff. After working on some really low budget stuff, I thought that if these guys can do this, I honestly think I can do this. So I made my first short film with a bunch of mates, which is just a silly little five-minute thing. Then, I did a few little music videos, just begging all of my friends in bands to let me do videos for them. I got more ambitious and shot my next short film in Nevada because I wanted to try and prove that I could be a director. After that I knew I had to make another short film, and that is the point that Ed approached me with the script for THE HERD. 

SHOCK: There is a lot going on in the film, in terms of the way it deals with the central premise. When Ed came to you with the idea for THE HERD, how formed was it?

LIGHT: There were a lot of drafts. After he brought it to me, it kind of sat on the shelf for a while, and, then, we focused on it and we worked together quite a lot on shaping the script. We had to make it shootable and it was very important that there had to be a reason that these things were going on; it was very important to make sure that it wasn’t strictly an animal rights story but that it was a horror story as well. We needed something that would cater to everybody but still get the message across. 

SHOCK: So, from the beginning, it was always first and foremost about relating the human condition to the treatment of animals?

LIGHT: Yes, definitely. That was the whole purpose of the story from day one. Ed wrote it out of his frustrations of having to explain to people why he doesn’t drink milk, why he doesn’t eat cheese. The purpose was always to show women in cages being milked and impregnated to represent the dairy cow and diary industry.

SHOCK: And people often make this connection, between feminism and veganism, even though a disconnect between the movements does also very much exist.

LIGHT: It’s kind of frustrating once you understand the connection between feminism and veganism. Recently I emailed something about the subject to the Vegan Feminist Network, and she answered back that, ‘unfortunately there are many feminists that don’t make that connection.’ It’s very frustrating when you come across people who are very strong believers in feminism, who are eating meat or are just vegetarians, and trying to explain to them that there is a connection; that we should be together in this. Trying to explain that and getting funny looks from people or to try and not get in massive arguments with them because they are still your friends and you still respect them (although, part of you has died inside) [laughs]. A lot of people don’t make the connection being female isn’t exclusive to humans, that these cows, pigs and sheep are abused for their reproductive systems. Non humans and humans: people just don’t see them as equal, do they? We just recently got accused of being misogynistic with the film and preachy, which we found really hard to understand because the person obviously just did not get the whole point of the film. Humans think they are above other species. It is so frustrating.

SHOCK: It’s a very bizarre thing to call the film misogynistic, because even if you separate the film from the animal rights issues (which you feasibly can do—until the credit roll), it still plays out as an analogy to the treatment of women in society. There is no pleasure to be derived from the visuals on screen.

LIGHT: You come across people all the time who, the minute they find out you are vegan, immediately put their own guilt towards you and start attacking the fact that you are a vegan. That is why I chose to put the montage of [dairy industry and slaughterhouse footage] at the end because, as a standalone film without the credits, people wouldn’t understand what we were exactly saying. And when it begins, everyone goes silent – sometimes there are nervous giggles – but then they begin to make the connection. I get so caught up in trying to explain the main point of the film, the animal rights analogy, that its easy to overlook the analogies of the treatment of women in society, the pressure to be female, to live under religious oppression, to live as second class citizens in communities, in the workplace. No equal pay, to look a certain way, to live up to these impossible ideals. In many cases to be nothing more than mothers. There isn’t equality within our own species, let alone another one.

SHOCK: I feel like if you placed it at the beginning people would check out before they even had the chance to become emotionally invested. Was that the idea, to kind of trick them into realizing something they may otherwise be uncomfortable connecting?

LIGHT: Yes, but it was more a case of showing the viewer the true meaning of the film, because I feel that perhaps if that wasn’t there, they wouldn’t get the point of it all. Indeed, despite the few reviewers who have accused us of hammering home our agenda, others still miss the point entirely. It is a political film, and there are people who may not agree with it, or may be offended, but I think if you’re going to make a film with a message, you want that message to be clear.

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SHOCK: How has the reaction been from audiences?

LIGHT: Lots of people have sent really positive messages to us, through our Facebook page, saying, ‘I’m so glad that you made this film,’ or, ‘I always thought this should be a film.’ From the animal rights point of view, the positive comments that we have had have been really overwhelming. One of actors, Dylan [Barnes] — who plays the really nasty guy — was a meat eater and, since working on the film, he has slowly been trying to get himself into veganism. And, one of our producers went vegan straight after the film as well. So it is working, which was the whole point of what we were trying to do. Its nerve-racking because you know the majority of your audience won’t invest so much of their personal beliefs into the story, like we have. So it’s nice to play to these people who have never even thought about it. Through lack of education, people have never even really thought about this stuff, like that cows have to be pregnant to produce milk. It’s like, humans have to be pregnant to produce milk; it’s exactly the same thing.
When I can finally put this online, after we’ve done all of our festivals, it’s going to be great. Especially with what is going on with the dairy industry in the UK. We are, now, starting to hear about how dairy farms are feeling pressure. Obviously, a lot of the time people are selfish and think, ‘oh, I am going to stop drinking milk because I see there are chemicals in it and its bad for me,’ which, at least, there is a change. But I think that people still need to realize that, actually, ‘hang on a second, look at how these cows have been enslaved their whole lives’ and that we shouldn’t control and treat them like they are just property and products.

SHOCK: What’s next for you? Is the possibility of a feature film on the horizon?

LIGHT: We are bringing out a limited edition cassette tape of the film’s music, so I am just waiting to sort that out. I think the music is so standalone brilliant and I am into that punk rock kind of thing: put it out on a limited cassette like it was something from a punk band or something [laughs]. I have written a feature but being a first time feature director, realistically, people won’t want to give me much money. So I’ve written a really low budget feature film that I want to shoot in my hometown. Unless someone came up to me with a really good script and had all the money in place and they were also a producer, and said ‘we really want you to direct this short film,’ I would [laugh] but right now its so much hard work. I put so much money and effort into making THE HERD, because I treated it as if it was a feature. This time next year, I really want to be making a feature film. But, now, I’m looking forward to getting THE HERD online. I am looking into some sort of platform where I can put it online and people can pay like two pounds, and one pound goes to the fees of putting it up there and the other pound goes to animal sanctuary in the UK somewhere…