This Women in Horror Month I’m celebrating some of the women who focus on short horror films. Every day from now until the end of the February, I’ll be featuring a new Sinister Seven interview with a different short horror film director to talk about what it’s like to be a woman in the business of giving us big scares in small doses.
Last year I got to take a look at Laurel Vail’s horror short film directorial debut, What Metal Girls Are Into. Vail injects a lot of humor and a few well-placed splashes of blood to give us a cathartic depiction of the ways that women deal with toxic masculinity. In the interview below, Vail talks about how her experiences influence her work and the the lessons she learned from making her first short film.
What attracts you to the short film medium? If you’ve also done feature length movies, how do they differ (other than length)?
From a practical standpoint, I’m just starting out, so I needed to do something small so I could raise enough money and get the experience I’m looking for from it. For me it was like crash-course film school. I plan to do at least one more short before even attempting a feature. I know I have more to learn and a short is still manageable for me to produce on my own.
Creatively, shorts are fun because you can be more experimental, use less traditional story-telling methods, and get away with things that feel silly in a feature length project. My short is pretty traditional as far as story-telling style, but it’s very on-the-nose. This is why I haven’t fully worked out what a feature length version of the film will be. It can’t just be a stretched out version of the same thing. It would feel obvious and goofy in many ways. That wouldn’t be what I want. So both types of film have their benefits and drawbacks as far as story-telling.
Edgar Allan Poe believed that a good short story achieves a “singular effect” that elicits one strong emotion from the reader throughout. Do you believe this to be true of short films?
Yes. I think this goes back to the creative benefits of short form content. If the main goal is to get a specific reaction. You have a lot of freedom in ways to get there. If you only need 2 minutes for a crazy jump scare, great! Short film success! You can spend a few minutes building up suspense, and then have a fun twist. You don’t have to spend time developing a character’s backstory or their full hero’s journey. It’s an efficient medium, designed to be effective without all the things you (traditionally) need for an effective feature. You can still use traditional structure on a smaller scale for short film, but you don’t really have to for it to still be effective.
A lot of short films have an independent, DIY vibe. What are some of the benefits and the challenges of making films in those circumstances?
Since short films almost never make any money, it’s rare to find traditional investors when you’re raising funds. I went with a crowdfunding site, so I asked everyone I know to throw me a little bit of money. It’s easier to convince someone to give you $10 than $1,000 for zero return (besides supporting the arts). That’s not to say it’s impossible, but for horror films, you’re unlikely to get any grant money, etc. So the challenges are the same as making a low budget feature. There’s just less money at stake. It helps to write with a budget in mind and then be very prepared before you are shooting so you don’t have too many unexpected expenses on set.
Do you deliberately convey your experiences as a woman through your short films, or do you just make a film and whatever comes through is incidental?
For WMGAI, I definitely conveyed my (and let’s be honest, all women’s) experiences with male entitlement. One of my favorite stories from the festival run was when it played at Filmquest and another film with Matt Mercer (Heartless) also screened. A male audience member noted that it was a really funny coincidence that Matt’s characters in both films tell women to smile. My response, and the response of every woman in the room, was, “It’s not a coincidence.” That night, a bunch of men learned that this happens to all women, all the time, and many were very surprised. My film is an extreme version of male entitlement since it’s a horror film, but it still speaks to a lot of women’s daily experience. As far as future projects, they might not be overtly dealing with misogyny, but as a woman, I assume the female perspective is going to bleed through anything I do. At the very least I hope that I have well-rounded female characters. Also, one of the scripts I’m currently working on is partly about good masculinity, so it’s going to have a female point of view of being a good man. If men can tell women’s stories, women can also tell men’s.
With countless stories of misogyny affecting feature productions on both studio and independent films alike, do you find you get to bypass some of those issues and have more control on these short film productions? Are there still hurdles that you face as a woman that men wouldn’t have to deal with?
I produced my short film, so I didn’t have to answer to anyone. What I don’t know is if it affected my festival run. The film played a lot though, so it’s hard to say. If I was rejected from some for misogynistic reasons, I would never know the difference.
What advice would you give a woman looking to make their first short horror film?
Do it! Now, how to go about it is more complicated. First, decide why you are doing it. From there you can determine if it’s worth trying for a bigger budget. If it’s something that can be done on a very low budget (just for fun or to get the practice in), try getting friends together to make it happen. If it’s something you want to be more of a calling card to really pursue this as a career, then it might be worth it to take your time and raise the money so it has a higher production value. Deciding your “why” is going to inform your “how.” The short I made was my first, but I’ve spent enough time on sets as an actor, or production assistant, to feel comfortable making more of a calling card piece. But I realized I still have a lot to learn, so my next project will probably be very low budget, more for practice than prestige. The production quality might not be as high, but I know why I’m doing it and that’s OK.
What are some short horror films created by women that people should be seeking out (of course, please include your own)?
There are a lot I saw on my festival run last year. There are more I’m surely forgetting, but we’ll start here:
- Jax in Love, directed by Rakefet Abergel (watch trailer here)
- Lunch Ladies, written/produced by Clarissa Jacobson (watch trailer here)
- To Catch a Fly, directed by Sanne Kortooms (watch trailer here)
- I Baked Him a Cake, directed by Vanessa Ionta Wright (watch trailer here)
- Flow, directed by Shelagh Rowan-Legg (watch trailer here)
- Lady Hunters, directed by Angela Atwood (watch trailer here)
- The Spectacular Summer of Waredog and Amy, directed by Sylvia Batey Alcalá (website)
- Alfred J. Hemlock, co-written by Melissa Lyons (watch trailer here)