Interview: Directors Annie Clark and Roxanne Benjamin talk XX
A new all-female led horror anthology, XX is a movie that features four segments from four terrific women directors. Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), Annie Clark (a.k.a. singer St. Vincent), Jovanka Vuckovic (The Captured Bird) and Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) make up the team, and each one of their tales of terror is more unnerving than the last. Both Vuckovic’s “The Box” and Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” put the terrors of motherhood on full display, in petrifying stories about children who literally starve themselves to death, and children who aren’t quite… human. Clark, too, comments on the pressure of parenthood, yet takes a more darkly comedic approach, as she illustrates a story about a mom who spends her daughter’s seventh birthday party playing hide the corpse all day long. Benjamin breaks away from the pack by taking her story outside, on a camping trip, as four friends succumb to the ancient powers of the maleficent spirits resting nearby their site. Together, this four pack of fierce female filmmakers bring one of the strongest anthology films in recent memory to the screen, combining their powers to create a movie that is just as exciting as it is important.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with directors Annie Clark and Roxanne Benjamin on behalf of ComingSoon.net, to discuss their delightfully-strange segment “Birthday Party” which Clark directed and Benjamin co-wrote, as well as Benjamin’s ruthless little entry, “Don’t Fall.” In the interview, we talk about crafting a comedic take on death, making a movie with all women during our current suppressive political climate, and missing the opportunity for a perfect cleavage shot.
Read on, and don’t miss XX when it hits theaters on February 17, 2017.
ComingSoon.net: Producer Todd Brown’s only restrictions for this film were that each segment had to be written, directed, and starring a woman. So, given these loose guidelines, how did you go about crafting your stories?
Clark: Mine was based on a true story that a friend told me about a woman waking up in her house and kind of having to deal with a death and do massive things to protect her children. And then also on this toilet paper magazine picture that has like immaculate Italian living room Memphis design thing that has a rug and someone’s feet sticking out from under the rug, that was like my Magna Carta.
Benjamin: We literally started building the story around that shot. Like how did that get there.
Clark: That shot has to happen.
Benjamin: And then mine, I wanted to make like an old school creature feature, like very pulpy kind of dime store horror novel type stuff. The last thing I directed was very kind of, I think slow burn cerebral creeping dread kind of thing, so I just wanted to do like a fun roller coaster jump scare movie.
CS: I love that the mother in Annie’s segment “Birthday Party” is so obsessed with being the perfect suburban mother that she’s willing to go to the lengths of hiding her dead husband just so it doesn’t ruin her daughter’s big neighborhood birthday party. Can you talk about how the stuffy, pristine suburban environment influenced the horror aspect of your segment?
Clark: Well I think a lot of the horror and comedy of the film comes from the style evolution of the set and the characters. Melanie Lynskey is a dream and a gem and nobody else could’ve done it as well as her, but I don’t see it as her wanting to pull off the birthday party to keep up with the Joneses, I see it as her wanting desperately to still give her daughter a nice birthday despite making a series of quick, insane decisions that lead her to an absurdist climax.
Benjamin: Yeah it’s pretty interesting, I found that, and this does bring in the gender divide, like I found that female reviewers or people who have seen the movie completely get that, and get that premise, and why it’s funny.
Clark: Oh really!
Benjamin: Yeah. I heard a few guys like, ‘I just don’t understand why she doesn’t call the cops!’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, you don’t get the whole protecting the child thing.’ Either that or they’ve never lost someone, and they don’t know the great divide of the before and after. There’s a moment that changes everthing for someone, and she’s just trying to keep her kid in that innocence for like one moment longer so her world is still this perfect place. It’s really interesting.
CS: Many of the stories in this anthology revolve around the terrors of motherhood. Why do you think that is? What is the cause of this coincidence?
Clark: It’s gotta be the scariest thing. I mean, creating life and protecting life, look at the world we live in! It’s gotta be the scariest thing on the planet.
CS: “Birthday Party” kind of has this Weekend at Bernie’s darkly comedic vibe to it that plays really well. What was your collaborative process like when you were creating the tone for this segment?
Clark: Roxanne and I co-wrote it and basically about halfway through it we thought we were making this like really heavy, very serious, dark wooden room, mahogany vinyl and cigar smell kind of piece, and then it ended up, we got halfway through and we were like, ‘Oh this is a comedy.’ And I think people felt that way too, when we went it to Sundance, people laughed at stuff we thought was the best. It was like painful, watching Melanie Lynskey in pain and people laughed at it.
Benjamin: Hilarious! A woman unhinged. And then we found this glass house, like literally, how much more metaphorical can you get? These Eichler houses which are just all windows, sixties houses that are just like tract houses which are just gorgeous. It’s all glass, and its just air and light and everything in here just has to be poppy and oversaturated and ridiculous, and she’s just living so much in the idea of like, you have to conform, everyone’s watching.
Clark: And everyone else is just so very stylized and she’s like Elizabeth Taylor and Leonard Cohen with her torn robe, and she never had a chance. That lady never had a chance.
CS: Mary in “Birthday Party” is covering up her husband’s dead body, Gretchen becomes the predator who chases everybody down in “Don’t Fall” — was it a conscious decision to create female leads who weren’t the victim, and kind of steer it away from the typical final girl scenario and do something a little different?
Benjamin: It’s weird, it’s something that never even occurred to me. Maybe that’s the whole male gaze thing that everybody keeps talking about? I never saw these women as on a pedestal, I never saw them as victims or whatever, like they’re flawed, just normal people, they’re not like the ideal, they’re not the like keep them as like in the little snow globe and protect them people, they’re just people with like ups and downs and good things and bad things. Somebody pointed out that one of the shots that I have of Angela like looking up on the wall isn’t a cleavage shot, and they were like, if that was directed by a man, it would be a cleavage shot, but like, my first thought was, ‘Oh man, I should’ve made that a cleavage shot!’ It was like a perfect opportunity for some cleve and I totally f*cked it up. I totally blew it.
Clark: You totally blew it. I mean I have Melanie Lynskey in just, on full display the whole movie I mean my movie starts with a butt.
CS: One thing I noticed about Roxanne’s shorts both in Southbound and in XX is that they both take place in these wide open middle of nowhere desert locations. How does setting your segments outside and kind of getting back to nature inform your storytelling?
Benjamin: It’s so weird because the thing I just wrote completely takes place outside, too. The whole thing takes place outside. I think it comes from growing up that way, like growing up in the woods like an animal. Also, I have never had a chance to make a movie that has real money behind it, so you try to get as much production value as you can, in any way that you can, and there’s no better way to get that than anamorphic grandiose vistas in the middle of the desert.
CS: Do you think, or don’t you think, given our current political climate that it’s more important than ever before to give a voice not only to female filmmakers, but to minorities of all kind?
Clark: Yes. Unequivocally, without elaboration, yes.
Benjamin: Yes. It’s been pointed out a lot in the last couple of weeks about how there’s only about seven percent of working feature directors that are women and it’s kind of crazy, because over fifty percent of film school grads are women, and like we never went to film school, but like, if it’s over fifty percent of that grouping are female, plus all of the people who didn’t go to film school, that are women, or let’s just say non-white male, I think we’re losing out on a vast swath of perspectives of like the human experience. Which is a total bummer man, it’s like a super bummer man. I wanna see the triumph of the human spirit.
CS: One thing I loved about Roxanne’s segment is how violent and vicious it is, and it’s actually like really scary. There’s always going to be some people out there who are like, ‘Oh, women can’t do horror,’ but that segment is like scarier than anything I’ve seen recently. Was it your intention to be like, ‘I’m gonna make the scariest, bloodiest segment of them all’ or was that just like how it turned out? How do you think that women’s perspective gives them a different approach to horror?
Benjamin: Not in terms of like, the other pieces, I think it’s just a matter of like, you know, I was coming out of doing Southbound where my piece is very much like, slow burn, kind of almost like gaslighting by demons type thing, that has like humor in it as well, but I wanted to do something that was just like, old school shit that scared me as a kid. It’s funny you bring up that whole female genre thing though, because there’s this finance company that specifically finances female movies right now, like female-directed movies, and a lot of the stuff that’s getting sent to them by agents and managers are romantic comedies. And they’re like, ‘Please send us genre stuff! Anything!’ and it’s just so funny that of course these gatekeepers think like, ‘Oh, they wanna make female movies, send them all the rom coms!’
Clark: A rom com is our idea of horror.
XX will be available in theaters, On Demand, iTunes and Amazon Video on February 17.