XX is the latest anthology horror film to grace the silver screen, with four short films culminating in one terrifying whole. What makes XX stand apart from the other horror anthology films, aside from the fact that every short is really good, is the fact that each of the short films in the movie are written, directed, and starring women. Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic, Roxanne Benjamin, and Annie Clark, known as the musician St. Vincent, direct their shorts with animated segments by Sofìa Carrillo serving as the creepy glue tying the shorts all together. Recently I sat down with this quintet of female filmmakers to discuss XX and the constant obstacles faced by women in the entertainment industry.
“The only controlling ideas were that it had be written by women, directed by a woman, and star a woman in the lead role,” Jovanka Vuckovic said of the guiding principles behind XX. “And then with that we said, ‘Do whatever you want,’ which is extremely rare and probably the only time in our collective careers that we’re just being told to do anything that you want.”
It took a while for the segments of XX to merge into a whole. “We shot this movie over three different countries over multiple unions. I shot mine in Toronto,” Vuckovic said of her segment, The Box.
“Because it was around Christmas, the story was missing a Christmas dinner scene,” Vuckovic explains of a ghastly scene in her short. “So I wanted to do this grotesque tableau where they’re basically – she’s the turkey dinner and they’re having this very civilized meal. They’re using knives and forks. It’s not like they’re eating her like zombies with their hands. I felt it need to have this Christmas dinner scene, very Norman Rockwell. My inspirations for the lighting and everything was Norman Rockwell. I was trying to make it look like a Christmas card.”
The dinner scene allowed Vuckovic to revel in her gorehound tendencies as a filmmaker. “My favorite thing that we did was the dinner scene, and I was looking forward to that day out of all the five days. I’m like, ‘Is it day five yet?’ Because I just wanted to do the gore stuff, because for me it’s like kid in a candy store,” she explained. “That stuff is so fun when you see a gag and it’s effective and you know that it’s playing and working well, it’s just so much fun and so exciting. I was very lucky to have Paul Jones and his entire team of prosthetic people build like half a body basically, like a whole leg and an arm and pieces that they were going to carve away.”
For Roxanne Benjamin, she looked to classic horror for the inspiration behind her thrilling segment Don’t Fall. “What I wanted to do, my inspiration for it was old school kind of pulpy EC Comics kind of color drenched in the middle of desaturation,” Benjamin said. “I had just finished something that was like a slower burn, more creeping dread kind of story so I was ready and primed to do something that was more like jump scary, action oriented.”
Bringing her horrific creation to life, Benjamin worked with a team of makeup artists. “I worked with Russell FX, Josh and Sierra Russell. They worked with me on Southbound, too. They are way more talented than I should be able to afford for the stuff that I work on. They’re amazing,” she said of her collaborators. “Sierra was like, ‘What about little teeth? You always see huge teeth in everything but there’s something really gnarly about little teeth.’ I was like, ‘I can’t handle little teeth.’ Just rows of little teeth that just gross me out.”
For Annie Clark, making a movie was stepping into an entirely new realm of the entertainment industry. “I’m coming from the music industry where if you get given money to make a thing you’re gonna pay it back,” Clark said. “Bloodletting.”
Clark’s short, The Birthday Party, is co-written with Roxanne Benjamin but it doesn’t quite reach levels of horror as much as pitch-black comedy. “It was at first this dark, brooding – what a mother won’t do to sacrifice for her child. And then we got halfway through it and were like this is a comedy. We just pushed that,” Annie Clark explained of the film’s difference in tone compared to the other segments.
Starring Melanie Lynskey, The Birthday Party was one of the last shorts to come together and marks Annie Clark’s directorial debut. “I missed the memo that it had to star a female lead but I did it anyway, so I’m so glad that that worked out,” she said of getting her short together. “I kind of wanted to walk in a little bit blind because I was walking in so blind already. I know it sounds like I’m being a proponent of ignorance, but I didn’t exactly want – there was no way in a short order to catch up to where these ladies are in their directorial careers and visions. So I just thought, well, I’ll just do my own thing and hope that it fits in somehow and I was thrilled at how well all the pieces worked together.”
The terror of The Birthday Party isn’t the typical aspect of horror. Instead, Annie Clark opted for something often in plain sight but insidious nonetheless. “I would say part of the horror is the way in which women get trained to be misogynists,” she said. “So there’s a lot of women being cruel to other women.”
The most established of the directors of XX is Karyn Kusama, who last scored an indie hit with The Invitation. Her short, Her Only Living Son, is a take on the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, and Kusama isn’t shy about the influence of Roman Polanski’s classic. “It was kind of like a meta experiment for me,” Kusama says of Her Only Living Son. “I think a lot of genre stories depend on familiarity with certain tropes, and I just wanted to push that and just make a speculative reimagining of an outcome of a very popular sort of classic. It was meant to be kind of deriving from this narrative we have in our head. I always imagined from the classic film what would’ve happened had Charles Grodin’s character as her original doctor had just believed her story, what would the outcome be.”
Kusama elaborated on the terrifying makeup effects used on the teenager at the center of her contribution to XX. “Because I really was trying to think about Rosemary’s Baby as a direct descendant, I kept thinking of that line at the end of Polanski’s film where one of the neighbors says, ‘Look at his little hands.’ I wanted to play with the idea of nails because I feel when men have really long nails, it’s just so strange. I just wanted to play around with the idea that in order to kind of keep his humanity he had to keep clipping back his nails, which were growing far too fast.”
Piecing these shorts together are the animated segments from Sofìa Carrillo, who had not seen the shorts that comprise the film. “It had to connect all of the stories,” Carrillo explained. “I did have to have a logline. I did ask for a logline of each of those stories, so I could have some kind of clue about what was going to happen. At the end, it was also kind of a blind thing.”
“In a very, very succinct way, she managed to in like 90 seconds make my short, which took me 12 minutes to ramble on and explain, she cut down to 90 seconds in a way that got right to the heart of it,” Roxanne Benjamin said of Carrillo’s animated segments.
XX may be a genre film that is exploring different incarnations of horror, it’s also bringing forth further discussion about Hollywood diversity and the immense gender gap in the number of female directors who are working. Each of the filmmakers behind XX have had to face obstacles in people doubting their talents and skills for no other reason than their gender. But that’s not going to slow any of them down from pushing forward and bringing their vision to the screen.
“The same obstacles that prevent women from progressing in any discipline,” Jovanka Vuckovic says of the obstacles she’s faced as a female director. “It’s a complex problem. I don’t know why there’s only seven percent of all working director, there’s only seven percent that are women. I don’t know exactly why that is.”
“It’s kind of related to what Annie was talking about in terms of an internalized misogyny,” Karyn Kusama said of the issues of sexism in Hollywood. “I think what happens is even if gains are made at the hiring and management levels in the entertainment industry and there’s the opportunity for, frankly, more women to be hiring women they often choose not to. In many respects it’s often a man who needs to hire you to legitimize your place on the food chain. We just need to be seeing more women in positions of power supporting other women. That’s just going to be one massive component to things changing. Until it does it’s very hard to move the needle, in my opinion.”
“In the last 100 years, 90 percent of all films that have been made have been made by men. So that includes horror films,” Vuckovic explained. “So women have a hard time breaking into film in general, right? I don’t think that the horror genre is inherently sexist or anything like that. No genre can be, but the film industry can be. I think there’s a real barrier between when a person makes a movie like this or Jennifer Kent making The Babadook or Julia [Ducournau], who made Raw, it’s the next step that’s the biggest leap usually. So they’ll make their first movie and the next one is the hardest hurdle. That’s usually a problem. There’s a lot of first-time filmmakers, women filmmakers, there’s not so many second and third features from women.”
“I feel like that’s something I keep hearing, too, is how you see male filmmakers on the indie side who get this break into larger studio films or larger budget films and you don’t see that on the female filmmaker side,” Roxanne Benjamin added.
“Look where we are politically. Ultimately, we still have a culturally internalized fear of allowing women to be effective in leadership roles,” Kusama says of the ongoing issue. “It’s just the harder mountain to climb. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t climb it. It just feels like a harder journey. At least it has for me. That doesn’t mean any of us should stop or any of us should stop wanting it. I’m sure there’s some larger cultural analysis we could be making because women obviously beyond how they occupy the population in sheer numbers we are the givers of life to humanity, so I feel sort of passionate about changing the conversation because it feels too limiting and binary.”