Last month, Dark Sky Films and XYZ Films announced the production of an historic film: Xx, the first horror anthology written and directed entirely by women. Filmmaker Jovanka Vuckovic is one of the directors on this trail-blazing film - and she's in good company. The other segments will be directed by Jennifer Lynch (Boxing Helena, Surveillance), Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer's Body), and Jen and Sylvia Soska (Dead Hooker In A Trunk, American Mary), with opening credits and interstitials by stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo.
Vuckovic, who is also serving as associate producer on Xx, is a former visual effects artist with a heavy pedigree in the horror genre (she was the editor of Rue Morgue Magazine and has written two non-fiction books about horror). She developed the project with Todd Brown of XYZ Films to help female filmmakers gain more exposure in the genre.
Vuckovic took the plunge into filmmaking in 2010 with her directorial debut The Captured Bird. Executive produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), the short won four Best Short Film awards as it played film fests around the globe. Vuckovic went on to direct two more acclaimed short films, Self Portrait (2012) and The Guest (2013).
Jovanka generously took time out from her hectic schedule to shed some light on Xx for FEARnet, and discuss her past contributions to horror cinema.
FEARnet: To what degree were you involved in the early development of Xx? Were you invited to join the project after it had built momentum, or were you on the front lines of getting the film off the ground?
JOVANKA VUCKOVIC: It's funny, I had the idea about doing an all female horror anthology and was trying to figure out how to get the funding, when out of the blue Todd Brown (of Twitchfilm and XYZ Films) called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing an all-female horror anthology. I nearly fell out of my chair. Talk about good timing! That guy has it!
I have known Todd for many years. I respect and trust him. He’s very progressive, isn’t afraid to take chances, and wanted to give the directors healthy budgets to make the segments properly cinematic. It was like he dropped out of the heavens! So of course I jumped at the chance to be part of the project, which Todd had already been talking to Dark Sky about. He said they were very receptive to the idea, so we put our heads together and started reaching out to the directors on our list. That’s how I earned my associate producer credit on Xx. But Todd is the real reason this film is happening. He pitched the idea to Dark Sky on behalf of XYZ Films. Without XYZ Films’ proven track record, we would never have the generous budgets we have been given to make these films.
The Captured Bird and Self Portrait contain no dialogue. Will your segment of Xx be dialogue-free? If not, was there an inclination to write your segment with zero dialogue?
My Xx segment has dialogue. Those first two short films I did were dialogue-free because I was new at filmmaking and wanted to experiment with cinematic storytelling. They are like little poems. Essentially my "film school". Even The Guest, which has dialogue, is a visual poem.
What can you tell us about the subject matter of your Xx segment?
We are still in the middle of rights negotiations but I can say that I’m adapting a short story - a Bram Stoker Award winner - that I’ve always loved. Existential horror. It seems to be my current groove.
Were the directors of Xx guided to create segments that shared a unifying theme or tone? Or was everyone granted the freedom to go off in different directions and create whatever they wanted?
From the beginning, Todd wanted the directors to be free to make the films they wanted to make. You don’t get that kind of creative freedom anywhere these days. And I’m sure it’s a huge part of the reason why experienced feature filmmakers came on board – besides the fact that it’s just a really fun project. There was some initial discussion about doing segments about gender, but that was quickly abandoned for being too limiting and too predictable. A movie like this is going to be highly politicized anyway. Why force it?
In the end, three of the directors wrote original stories and two of us selected stories we wanted to adapt. I had a crazy body horror story I was writing that I originally planned to do for Xx, but it became too big, so I set it aside for a future feature, and decided to adapt this one short story that I’ve always loved. So the five stories are wildly different and will be connected by interstitials by Mexican stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo. It will be so exciting to see it all come together.
Are there any rituals you engage in while writing a film? Or is the writing process different for each project?
I have an office with a library, but when I write I sit in my dining room and look out the window at my property. I like the light that it gives. It creates a feeling of openness, like the vastness of creativity. In fact, I’m looking at it right now. But that’s just it; sometimes writing is just looking out a window for hours. This story I am adapting is a bit of a puzzle, so I have found myself pacing around the house a lot. I put music on when I remember to, but sometimes I snap out of the trance and realize I’ve been sitting in absolute silence for most of the day. You know, I agonize over the writing. I find it excruciating at times. I feel like in order to be authentic, stories have to hurt. We pay for our stories with pain.
You pulled a great performance out of six-year-old Skyler Wexler, star of The Captured Bird. Previous to shooting this film, Fred Dekker (who directed a whole gaggle of kids for The Monster Squad) gave you advice on directing children. Can you tell us what that advice was?
I reached out to Fred Dekker because, well, I love The Monster Squad. He got some great performances out of those kids. And some of them were really young! He said that basically everything I had learned from Judith Weston (Directing for Actors), I needed to disregard when it comes to working with really young children. For example, you should never tell an adult actor what they are feeling in a given scene, but when it comes to very young kids, that is actually your best approach. Tell them exactly what feeling you want them to express. He said for some scenes in The Monster Squad, he literally stood beside the camera and made faces at the kids that he wanted them to mimic. That helped me immensely.
Your film The Guest does not explain who "the guest" is. Can you comment on this ambiguity?
I’ve had people tell me The Guest was the Devil, a supernatural entity, Barlowe’s own fractured psyche, a vampire, and so on. Who do you think The Guest is? The discussion is far more interesting than the answer.
In terms of making your three short films, then landing on the Xx anthology, do you feel you've been maximizing opportunities as they've presented themselves, or has this progression of films adhered to a plan of attack you designed previous to making your first short?
I’ve been somewhat careful about my decisions. I was approached to do a different anthology but I turned it down because it wasn’t right for me. Someone also reached out to me recently regarding a sequel to an ongoing horror franchise. I wasn’t interested in the slightest. I didn’t work this hard for this many years and go through several careers so that I could sell my soul for money. That would be disastrous for me, professionally and creatively. I’d sooner stay up here in Canada making the films I want to make from time to time with my friends. I just want to make artful horror films that challenge me creatively. If I can’t do that, then I will do something else.
Do you have an idea of what you'd like to make right after Xx?
I have a passion project that I’ve wanted to do as long as I can remember. It’s based on a beautifully grotesque Clive Barker short story. I met with him many years ago when I was too inexperienced to be seriously considered to direct it. He knows how passionate I am about the story. If I could do anything, it would be that film. Some day maybe he will let me direct it. You hear me, Clive? Let’s do it!