I love horror movies. Not just on Halloween, but all year round. I simply can’t get enough of the terrifying concepts they explore and the expert social and political commentary behind a good horror film. I particularly love indie horror films because they’re just so raw and unique.
So this year I’m celebrating Halloween by getting inside the mind of horror filmmaker Simone Kisiel, founder of Magic Dog Productions. As an avid horror fan, I feel that it’s my responsibility to support women in horror. The days of the “scream queen” stereotype are long over. Not only do women play a variety of different characters in horror films, they’re writers, directors and producers who are working hard to give horror a new and even more terrifying perspective. Now let’s meet Simone.
1. What are some of your favorite horror movies?
My favorite type of horror is realistic horror (doesn’t rely on supernatural happenings or unrealistic stupidity of characters) such as “Goodnight Mommy” or “You’re Next”. I also really love horrors that take a serious right turn like “The Babadook” and “From Dusk Till Dawn”. I also love Hitchcock and really old/ridiculous horrors like “Creature From The Black Lagoon” and the original “Mummy” because I still think they’re scary but also hilarious.
2. How did you first become interested in horror and making horror films?
I grew up with an older brother who loves “The X-Files” and a dad who loves the classics. When I was a little girl my favorite movie was “Die Hard” and as I got older I realized that what interested me most was the side of humans that we all try to hide. The side of each of us that is twisted, dark, bizarre and dangerous. I think we all have it in us to some extent which is why we are equal parts terrified of and fascinated by the horror genre.
3. What challenges do you face as a female horror director?
When I tell people that I direct horror films the most common reaction is laughter. People actually fairly regularly laugh in my face because the idea of a woman directing a scary movie is more likely to be a joke than reality. I have news for these people; men do not have a monopoly on fear and evil. In fact, I think women probably have a broader and more fully encompassing understanding of what fear and evil really is. Especially if they’ve lived in NYC.
4. What advice do you have for women looking to become directors?
Keep your eyes open. Watch people, listen to everything, absorb it all. I think general experience and specific knowledge are what make a good director. That said, work begets work. Don’t turn down that PA job because you only want to direct. Get in there and work your way up. My formal education is in acting, which I rarely do anymore. Every single opportunity/relationship/project is a stepping stone. Use them all!
5. Horror movies are full of social and political commentary. What’s a subject you’d like an upcoming film to explore that the genre hasn’t yet?
I want so desperately to see a horror film that stars women, both as the victim and the villain, where they aren’t required to take their shirts off and run around screaming. I think women are smart, savvy and sophisticated. We’re not dumb enough to walk into that dark basement or to not call the police. So I decided to make a film about women (for everyone) that doesn’t rely on graphic violence or explicit sexuality, but instead is based on the premise that horror begins in the mind and in the imagination of the audience. “BUGS: A Trilogy“ is a psychological horror film based on real terrors that women face such as a violent child, an infection or an infestation.
6. What projects are you working on right now?
The main project I’m working on is a feature film in the style of the 1975 classic “Trilogy of Terror” called “BUGS: A Trilogy“. Women and men can watch these three shorts and know that they represent horrors we have to live with every day and fears that are all too real.
A babysitter with a clever and violent ward. A patient who mistrusts the doctor’s orders. A young woman haunted by a malevolent presence. And the terror that ties them all together: BUGS. On their own, spiders, parasites and bedbugs hold their own private horror for those who are beset by the quiet scuttles and slurps of inhuman creatures. But for Diane, Hannah and Elena, three varied yet eerily similar women, these bugs represent the larger horrors of paranoia, helplessness and abandonment.
7. What are some perceptions of horror films that you’d like to see changed?
That they’re all disgusting. That only sick people watch horror. That only boys or men would ever like horror. I’d like it to be acknowledged that people like horror films because feeling fear (or anxiousness or excitement) is one way of feeling alive. Of testing the limits of what we can handle, what we can imagine. When I watch horror films I am constantly thinking “Oh yeah totally that’s what I would do” or “NO! WHY! THAT’S A HORRIBLE IDEA WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?!” The science around dreams indicates that we have them so that our brain can test out actions and behaviors in certain situations. Since evolutionarily speaking we no longer have to fear tigers or wolves, we dream about losing our wallets or standing naked in front of our coworkers. Our brains are anticipating conflicts that haven’t come up yet. Horror is like that. It’s a way to explore the disturbing without putting ourselves in bodily harm. It genuinely serves a purpose.
8. Which horror movie directors do you look up to most?
My favorite director of all time is Alfred Hitchcock. He’s the reason why I make films. He will forever be the master of suspense. He taught me that there is something tangible in the corners of possibility, that if done correctly, more fear and anxiety can be generated by not showing the murder occur. There is weight in potential. I hope to master that skill in my career.
Additionally, I really look up to Jennifer Kent who wrote and directed “The Babadook”, which was an intensely real and deliciously horrifying film. I also admire Mary Harron who directed “American Psycho” and Jen and Sylvia Soska who co-directed and co-wrote “American Mary”.
9. What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened to you on set?
I shot part 1 of “BUGS: A Trilogy” in my apartment. Right after we wrapped I tiedied up, picked up my dog and then had to head out for a brief meeting. When I returned I walked in on a bloody massacre. There was blood EVERYWHERE. All over the carpet, on the walls, on the floor, on the couch and all over my dog who was lying like road kill on the carpet. My first thought was that someone had come in and stabbed my dog to death. My heart stopped and my blood ran cold as I screamed “MERLIN!?” He sat up, tongue lolling out and trotted over to me with his big, goofy grin. My shock and terror slowly turned to anger as I realized that Merlin was fine, he had just unzipped my bag and opened a zip-lock bag and removed the fake blood to chew on. Believing fully for a few seconds that someone had come by to murder my dog after a shoot was the craziest thing that ever happened to be me on set. (Merlin was fine, it was blood that’s safe to use in your mouth.)
10. What’s your ultimate goal as a horror director?
My goal as a director is to create films that my audience can enjoy on a visceral and thought provoking level. I want to make films that scare you and make you wonder, where female characters aren’t stripped down to over-sexualized stereotypes. I want you to think twice about that dark street corner or that creepy motel and then I want you to feel empowered because you’re a cunning, intelligent person who is yourself capable of violence, if need be.
I want to level the playing field by bringing female villains and heroines to the big screen and I’d like to see Hollywood have a more equal representation of women in creative and decision making roles. The ACLU has called for an investigation into discriminatory hiring practices in Hollywood because over the last 17 years women represent only 7% of directors, 11% of writers, and 18% of editors in the most successful films. I’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign because the likelihood of being hired as a female director in Hollywood is literally 7%. I want the next generation of female filmmakers to not face this uphill battle in pursuing their dreams.