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NIGHTMARE ROYALE #11: Introducing “WOMEN IN HORROR CENTURY” (Featuring the Kickass Giallo Stylings of Tammi Sutton’s “ISLE OF DOGS”)

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So this year’s “Women In Horror Month” has come and gone, presumably to make room for the annual eleven-straight  “Men In Horror Months!” to follow.

If that sounds silly, that’s because it is. And if it also sounds painfully accurate, that’s because it is.

This is not a qualitative issue, or an affirmative action thang. (As the extraordinary interview with Tammi Sutton is about to make clear.) This is about the difference between how men and women are perceived in the industry. The opportunities (or lack thereof) presented. And how much harder the best female artists have to work in order to cut through, and get recognized at the top of their field.

Sexual bias, of course, ain’t just a problem in horror. It’s still a problem across the cultural board, and most certainly in Hollywood, as broken down in this amazing 4-minute speech by actress/producer Olivia Wilde:

My favorite part starts at about 1:50, when she recounts a live stage reading of the script for AMERICAN PIE, wherein women got to read the male parts, while the men had to read the female. And when the guys realize that the gals are getting all the good lines and big laughs, they start to squirm in their seats and go, “Jesus, I’m bored!”

The punchline, of course, is “WELCOME TO OUR WORLD!” And that perspectivizing trick is one I highly recommend. If you doubt, grab a blockbuster script of your choice (not written by a woman, or Tarantino) and give it a whirl. Get a couple of actorly friends together, and see who has more fun reading it straight (not farcically, but as intended). Go ahead. I dare ya.

Of course, February (the shortest month of the year) is also designated “Black History Month”, a fascinatingly weird juxtaposition of marginalized social realities both crammed into a measly 28 outta 365 days. And the only web presence I’ve found that actually commemorates the two — providing a loving history of black women in horror — is this wonderful Facebook page, which I find myself helplessly combing.

But my point is this: one month outta twelve ain’t doodly-squat. If we wanna turn these things around — engage in the historical process of change — it’s gonna take a little more effort than that. A longer-range plan. With more working days involved.

So I’d like to officially declare this “WOMEN IN HORROR CENTURY!” Starting on February 28, 2014, with the goal of making sexual inequity a thing of the past wrapping up on February 28, 2114, at the absolute latest.

I’m not sayin’ it’s gonna take a hundred years. I’m just sayin’ that it might. Fucking change takes forever. Ask anyone who’s spent centuries waiting.

So if you’re in favor of “WOMEN IN HORROR CENTURY!”, please share the living shit out of this, and spread the meme around. It only works if it catches on. Otherwise, it’s just another slice of gallows humor: kinda funny, till you really think about it.

More than that: think about ways you can actually do something about it. Some of them are very simple, easily applicable, and virtually annoyance-free!

For example: this year, at the World Horror Convention (May 8-11, in Portland, OR), program director Rose O’Keefe isn’t planning any all-female panels talking about the state of women in horror. Instead, she’s simply making sure that there are women (which is to say, more than one) on every single panel, and in every reading block.

So instead of singling out women for their women-ness, she’ll be working on a “artist first, gender whatever” basis: picking capable men and women who are qualified to tackle whatever topic is under discussion, and bring smart thought and entertainment value to the proceedings.

To my mind, there’s no longer any excuse for all-male panels. Nor is there a pressing need for all-female ones. What we’re actually looking for is balance, pure and simple. Awesome artists with something to say, sharing the spotlight. As well they should.

———–

Which brings us back to director/producer Tammi Sutton, who — with her insanely kickass feature ISLE OF DOGS — stakes a unique claim on the modern cinemascape, resuscitating mad Italian Argento-esque giallo style in collision with stark Brit-crime neo-realism. The result is staggering, hard-punching, stunningly visual. And fucking horrific, no matter how you wanna slice it.

I asked her a couple of questions about it, and her responses were far deeper and more thorough than I dared dream.

———–

Skipp: How did ISLE OF DOGS come about? Was it a script that came to you, or one you developed, or both?

Sutton:  ISLE OF DOGS was absolutely a project I put together from inception. I had just come off my feature film SUTURES and it had been a “work for hire” situation that I felt I wasn’t able to fully express myself in, and was not completely satisfied on a creative or personal level as a director. Funny, I recently watched SUTURES in French, and I finally, really enjoyed it. I had forgotten how gruesome it was.

After SUTURES, I was in Berlin and ran into my producer friend Travis Stevens. I expressed my appetite to create a film that would satisfy my desires of material I was interested in directing, and simply put, “I wanted to make a film I wanted to watch.” We both understood I was extremely influenced and interested in filming in Europe. While still in Berlin, Travis introduced me to British writer and director Sean Hogan and that was truly the birth of what was to become ISLE OF DOGS. When Sean and I got back to London we started fleshing out what was in my head and the project took off from there.

Skipp: I gotta tell ya, I am nuts for the look, sound, and feel of this film. What steered you toward the stylish, heightened giallo tone you used throughout? Can you talk about the music, the lighting, the colors, the production design, and how these elements came together to create that aesthetic? And why that’s important?

Sutton: I had already made hard decisions to create a stylized universe of my own. It was the absolute lack of not being permitted to express myself from my previous filmmaking attempts that had left me most unsatisfied. That’s why I knew, making my own choices was the most important thing I could do as a director, especially for myself. By far, the most loveable thing I find that attracts me to other films and directors is their ability to show me and give me their fantasies and not apologize or make excuses. Great film directors wear their hearts on their sleeves, they give their most intimate secrets and desires away via the artistic choices they make. It truly is something beautiful, once you start to understand that. Every time you watch a film, you are looking into that director’s soul, no matter what genre the film may be. If you don’t like a film, what you should realize is that you just don’t like the choices somebody else made.

I clearly have a love for Italian giallo films, and have for a very long time. I have also been deeply influenced by Euro Crime and the very unique British Crime films and television that were collectively a major influence in the tone of my film. The choices in music, lighting, colors, and production design are all elements that reach far beyond this film, and very deep into my personal life. If you’ve ever been to my house, it’s no surprise, my personal life looks and feels like a giallo. And now, I’ve even got my own killer soundtrack.

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Skipp: It’s incredible.

Sutton: I adore the soundtrack that Tim Polecat created for ISLE OF DOGS. He’s a guru and expert on music genres period, but his intimate knowledge of Spaghetti Western, giallo, Euro Crime and British Rock-n-Roll, including Northern Soul, culminated with his ability to also write, produce and play that music is unheard of from any other musician I know, and I am eternally in his debt for making such a fantastic, electric soundtrack. He took all of the above music genres that I love and obsess over, and made a uniquely charged score for my film that he simply considers the soundtrack to my life.

Lighting and colors were important choices to me as well on the look of the film. I was working with a new crew in England and I remember there were some questions about my lighting requests that at first confused and baffled just about everyone on set. This was my film, and I had to stand up for myself and make this happen. In particular I have a shot of my beautiful, lead actress Barbara Nedeljakova (HOSTEL) when she enters a nightclub bathroom just before some not-so-nice thing happens to her. Anyway, there is no dialog, but she’s supposed to be an icy bitch and strong, however she’s about to enter into a world of hell. The point was, I wanted to tell the story visually, and I chose lighting instead of a cheesy voice-over. She leans into a blue light to look at herself in the mirror, and when called upon, leans back and is bathed in red light. When you watch the film and pay attention to lighting, which is generally unnoticed, you may catch a glimpse of what I’m talking about.

Skipp: These are precisely the choices I’m asking about. It’s a gorgeous moment.

Sutton: The language of film reaches beyond the barriers of story, script, and dialog. This was an early day of shooting on set, and once the crew saw what I was trying to explain in the monitor on playback of the first take, not one single person on the film, ever questioned my lighting choices or set-ups again.

My own personal background as an art director and production designer played a large role in the overall visual look of the film. This also goes back to Italian filmmaking. I personally made prop decisions, set dressing and wardrobe final choices on everything. The upstairs bathroom in the set of the main house we filmed in is something people love and often ask me about.

Skipp: I can’t believe how fucking amazing that bathroom is!

Sutton: It was a set. I knew we were going to need a larger bathroom than existed and knew in my head, I was going to create a dream bathroom I would want in my own house. I was having trouble committing to this set piece until one day, while in London, I ended up in a home improvement store to buy the claw-foot tub I needed, and while poking around, I looked up and saw the wall paper of my dreams. I knew I was complete, and knew what my set was going to look like. If this seems silly to you, it’s not, it was a “fuck me” moment, and it was grand. This is the kinda shit directors live for. If you think we make movies for good reviews and a pat on the back, you got us directors all wrong, or at least you got me wrong. I enjoy and live for the entire journey, every detail is as important as each other.

Skipp: You also have one of the most elegant masked killers in horror history. Such a striking look. I was amazed I’d never seen it before.

Sutton: My amazing costume designer and I looked at film history’s take on every single option of villain masks imaginable. I exhausted the obvious quickly and finally went with what I thought was creepy, but sexy. It was probably the most difficult choice I had to make artistically. I knew there might be obvious comparisons; however, this is what I wanted to see at the end of the day. One thing I was sure he needed was black leather gloves, I got a thing for them. That’s a solid constant in my world.

Skipp: How conscious were you of using horror effects (punishing violence, shocking imagery) to goose your crime story?

Sutton: I’ve never been asked if I was conscious of using horror effects before. To be honest, I never thought about it. Punishing violence and shocking imagery are nothing I strive to create for effect or to enhance a situation, not consciously anyway. I just feel a responsibility to show the brutal truth about violence and all it has to offer. Real violence and cruelty are something I’m attracted to and not because I love it or want it in my life, but because I am trying to understand human nature, all for selfish reasons on my own journey.

I know the final cut of ISLE OF DOGS is an extremely nasty, gritty, violent piece of work. However, I filmed more way over the top horrific effects, that in the final edit I made choices to scale back on. Now the film has been released, and starts gathering fans, I may selectively release additional extended scenes that show how much farther I was willing to go. I didn’t hold back on the release, I just didn’t want to beat a dead horse. There is still a value to the imagination, and that’s the sentiment I wanted to hold intact.

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Barbara Nedeljakova in ISLE OF DOGS

Skipp: Do you like it when genres cross-pollinate, rub off on each other? Given a chance, would you be more of a purist? Or do you think genres ought to collide more often?

Sutton: I’m a film addict and have a ridiculous collection, there is no way I could ever be a purist, genres have to cross-pollinate. I have thousands of films that are in my head, they all have different emotional values and are all associated with times and experiences in my life, just like music, food, lovers, travel, etc. There’s no bridge or barriers to keep them separate. And I like it like that. I’ve had some amazing journeys and I love them all. To try to define my life and my work is a useless feat I have no interest in categorizing.

Skipp: Do you have any particular films or directors that particularly inspired you on this one, or in general?

Sutton: To be genre specific on directors or films that inspired me, hell yes, I can spend all night talking about them, and I have. At the end of the day, I’m a full-time filmmaker, not a film-school teacher. I could make a laundry list of inspirations, but it would shoot-out much further beyond directors and film titles, because it’d be overrun with music, locations, designers, artists, genres, and so on.

Skipp: Fair enough!

Sutton: A famous director asked me a similar question over a decade ago, and I felt at the time, I was giving the same pedestrian answer, I am giving now, which still holds true: I love Bava, Fulci, Castellari, Di Leo, Lenzi, Ercoli, Martino and a bunch of other Italian genre filmmakers. To grasp British crime films, you almost had to have experienced them when they came out or have lived with the real-life experiences. Not that it’s limited, but I can’t imagine having a grasp on the English culture, even modern-day, without living there and absorbing the culture, which I did full-time. I also can’t imagine making a Euro-film without living and traveling across France and Italy to absorb their universe with a passion, which I also had the gift of experiencing.

If you’re wondering, nobody handed this to me. I made choices, and decisions, and sacrifices to physically put myself on the road to my destiny and created my own journey. I knew what I loved, I knew where I needed to be, and I was hell-bent on getting there, and I did.

Skipp: You’re an American director shooting in England. Does that pose any special challenges? Were you treated differently than here in the States, as the woman running the show, or no?

Sutton: Once I got legal to work in England — which wasn’t easy, but it was a dream come true — I was faced with the typical producer/director challenges that are universal across the board. Where are we filming, crewing, production needs, and so on? Of course every country, area, job is different. You figure it out, and get on with it. We filmed in London, and out in the countryside. It was similar dealing with shooting in Los Angeles and then moving production to the middle of nowhere. We had a glorious time out in the English countryside. An experience I would revisit again on my latest film WHISPERS. Small towns are small towns on an international level. The villages of the world hold the best adventures and secrets anyone could hope to experience.

Skipp: Do you wanna talk about the sexual disparities in the film biz? The different expectations (or lack thereof) you face as a female filmmaker? And what it might take to finally blow past that?

Sutton: Do I want to talk about the sexual disparities in the film biz? Not really. I make super-nasty, violent, gritty, feature films that get international distribution. I’d have to make up lies about discrimination. Almost every film I have written, produced, or directed has had international distribution or is in active development and on its way to a screen somewhere. Every feature film I have produced or directed has been released internationally.

Skipp: Do you think there are any genuine differences between male and female filmmakers, aside from the wide disparity of opportunities available? For example: ISLE OF DOGS could be described as a “masculine” film, but that would ignore the beautiful layers of aesthetic nuance. So I think of it as both muscular and artistic, rather than masculine or feminine. Does that make sense, or is that just bullshit?

Sutton: There are no differences between myself and male film directors. I know and love and respect many of them, especially genre related filmmakers. It really is a small world. I don’t think we have different skill sets or influences as human beings or fans of previous films before us, that were obvious influences, to even consider that. I’d be embarrassed and unlikely to use anything to suggest my filmmaking is female-centric. I am sure, I am not sure, if that even means anything. I’m absolutely flattered by your description that you feel my film ISLE OF DOGS is both muscular and artistic. 

Skipp: Any advice for the women in the biz? Any advice for the men?

Sutton: My advice is universal: Fuck and Love ABOVE THE LINE.

Skipp: Nice! So what’s next for you?

Sutton: WEREWOLVES & MOTORCYCLES

Skipp: And what would you most like to see in future horror/cross-genre film? What directions would you like dark cinema to head?

Sutton: I love all new films, I am excited to see what the future offers us. I like surprises.

Skipp: Me, too! THANKS, TAMMI! That was great!

Sutton: Awesome!

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About the author
John Skipp
John Skipp is a New York Times bestselling author/editor/filmmaker, zombie godfather, compulsive collaborator, musical pornographer, black-humored optimist and all-around Renaissance mutant. His early novels from the 1980s and 90s pioneered the graphic, subversive, high-energy form known as splatterpunk. His anthology Book of the Dead was the beginning of modern post-Romero zombie literature. His work ranges from hardcore horror to whacked-out Bizarro to scathing social satire, all brought together with his trademark cinematic pace and intimate, unflinching, unmistakable voice. From young agitator to hilarious elder statesman, Skipp remains one of genre fiction's most colorful characters. Visit him at Facebook, or on Twitter @YerPalSkipp
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