Q&A: “LYLE” Director Stewart Thorndike on Self-Distribution, Personal Horror and Female-Driven Film
Out today, entirely free here, is Stewart Thorndike’s LYLE. Independently produced and starring acclaimed actress Gaby Hoffmann, the “lesbian ROSEMARY’S BABY” (as the filmmaker lightly refers to it) was crafted from a personal desire that meshes with a larger need in cinema, and one that’s increasingly being met in horror: more representation, new perspectives and diversity onscreen. Thorndike spoke with FANGORIA about LYLE, its beginnings and the plan its lead to.
As LYLE goes online, Thorndike and her team launch a Kickstarter for PUTNEY, the second in an envisioned trio of genre films focused on female characters. The director is hoping that admirers of this first feature will in turn support the second and help prove, contrary to a strange belief, that there is an audience for women in film and women in horror.
FANGORIA: How did you find yourself drawn to horror film?
STEWART THORNDIKE: I think I’ve always been attracted to stories where bad things happen to people. I like genre movies in general. As a filmmaker, I think they’re more visually exciting for me, but the kind of horror genre stuff that I’m attracted to was always there. I feel compelled. It was the first stuff that I ever started writing years and years and years ago. Then I sort of felt like it was not important, or it wasn’t “serious,” but I let myself go back to it.
I don’t’ have a good answer for you [laughs]! Here’s my smart answer: I feel like you can exaggerate your scenes that you’re interested in to the biggest point.
FANG: It’s out there that LYLE is inspired by ROSEMARY’S BABY, but you smartly transport some of the ideas of films like it. When Leah says she feels creepy, or the place is too big, in reality she’s only in a two bedroom apartment. But that’s reality; that is really big for most.
THORNDIKE: That’s really funny. I didn’t even think of that.
FANG: Plus, Leah is alone in this crowd of industry people. June, her girlfriend, has her crowd and that’s what helps drive the paranoia.
THORNDIKE: She feels alone and claustrophobic for a lot of reasons, and that’s a main one. In my head, it goes even deeper than that. She knows there’s something wrong with her relationship and that there always has been, but she’s opting for safety over facing a scary reality.
FANG: How did this story come together?
THORNDIKE: The long story is that I was trying to make my first feature TACOMA, which was a thriller. We had a dream cast, and we worked really hard but could never raise the money. It was really frustrating. At the same time I was dating Ingrid [Jungermann], who plays June in the movie. She went on a trip, or something and I was really upset. I was mad because I wanted to have a child and she didn’t. I was in the shower and I just got overwhelmed by this idea of “she’s bad.” All of a sudden, this story came to me that she was preventing my babies [laughs].
And the whole story, I just kind of jotted down. I looked at it—it all happened really fast in that morning or that afternoon—and I thought, “Oh, I just wrote ROSEMARY’S BABY.” Then I thought, “Oh, a lesbian ROSEMARY’S BABY is really exciting to me.” Instead of having gay stories about how hard it is to be gay, it’s just part of the tapestry—it normalizes it. It’s like, I like genre movies. I like horror films. I want to see gay people being in those movies where that doesn’t become a twist to the story.
FANG: Being that Ingrid plays June, and you just kind of openly said that to me about how you felt, I assume she knows where the story came from. What was it like collaborating in that way?
THORNDIKE: She didn’t even know that until we were in a Q&A at our premiere in LA at OUTFest! She was on stage with me. She takes everything in stride. She thinks everything’s funny.
FANG: LYLE seems to be normalizing a lesbian relationship most notably in how Leah and June are falling into sort of mundane familial roles. She’s staying at home. June is working. June is aggressively focused on having a son, Leah isn’t. They’re both alienated from each other.
THORNDIKE: And you’re saying that leads to the horror, too? Absolutely. Clearly, this woman needs to make a lot of changes to have a full, rich life and she’s just avoiding them. She should be doing something, because she has a lot to offer.
FANG: You’re distributing LYLE online for free. What went into that decision?
THORNDIKE: The way that we decided to go online is sort of going back to the story of trying to get TACOMA made, and how we couldn’t raise the money. I felt really disempowered. I got a tiny amount of money together to just make LYLE, and all these talented people I was going to work with on TACOMA, and other people, agreed to work with me and I just took advantage of everybody. It made me feel like I had control over the stories I wanted to tell. There’s that whole thing about movies with women not making their money back, or Hollywood not supporting them, saying there’s no audience. I can’t really define the insidious reason why that doesn’t happen, or why they say there’s no audience, but this was a way for me to make a story and feel control over it.
And so, it did much better than we thought. When we premiered, we were getting lots of attention. All of a sudden we did feel like, “Oh wow, we now have this option to go a traditional route.” But then, we didn’t do it in that spirit. It was hard to make the decision, to all of a sudden have this opportunity to potentially go and make some money back from the movie after a year of totally impoverishing myself. We just decided we would stick to our model, stick to our guns.
We decided to be a little bit punk rock about it and just put it online for free and see if we could find an audience that did like this kind of film and would support the next one. We’re doing this trilogy. There’s a model, we’re hoping there is an audience that wants to see female-driven horror from a female perspective with female actors.
FANG: Why do you think that atmosphere of people saying “there’s no audience” pervades when it’s increasingly being proven wrong?
THORNDIKE: I don’t know! Because people don’t like change? Because the people in charge think they know more than the facts? I just don’t know. My guess is it’s one of those dumb things people do where change happens and it’s a big resistance, and all the new things spring up. It’s the last little death ting.
FANG: I hope so. Now, you’re starting to see interesting takes that are different.
THORNDIKE: You mean, just because it’s a female perspective.
FANG: Yeah, it’s female perspectives. It’s LGBT perspectives. As far as what your plans are, what does female-driven horror mean to you?
THORNDIKE: The term “female-driven” to me just means that women are the main characters and it’s coming from me, because I’m a woman [laughs]. I never sit around and think too much about the difference between male and female horror. I didn’t really even know it was a thing that would be a topic until after I made the film. I always liked horror films. I didn’t even know that there were really no horror films directed by women, not that many mainstream horror films.
FANG: That’s starting to be a misconception, too.
THORNDIKE: I want to hear what you have to say about that!
FANG: Maybe it’s skewed, because I’m thinking in festival terms, but my favorite movies this year alone so far have been genre films directed by women. Films like THE BABADOOK, THE MIDNIGHT SWIM, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. But outside of just directing, I see female producers, I see festivals being run by women, being programmed by women.
THORNDIKE: I guess there’s just more men making movies? I thought maybe the mystery is if you look at where the money flows. There’s just as many women making shorts as guys, and then all of a sudden it drops off.
FANG: So, what’s PUTNEY about?
THORNDIKE: It’s a haunted TED Talk. It’s about this woman who gets inspired by this TED Talk about being vulnerable and connectivity, and decides to take her girlfriend—they’re having problems—and their estranged best friend to the hotel her mom used to run that’s now closed down for a couple of seasons. The strange best friend brings along an uninvited guest who ends up kind of ruining the special reunion. It gets weirder and weirder once they get up there. She injures her leg, and they kind of start to get bad advice from the TED Talk and how to handle this problem. It gets bad.
FANG: I love putting a TED Talk in a horrible light.
THORNDIKE: I like to take things that are very comfortable and make them evil.
FANG: You’re also coming at the film from an LGBT perspective.
THORNDIKE: I never really have a political agenda, at all. I just sort of want to tell my stories. I date guys and girls, but when I want to be the most romantic, or the most scary, or the most emotional, I usually make it two women. To me, girls are the bigger, more complicated, emotional love. I do know that I don’t like movies very often which are about “it’s hard to be gay.” I just don’t relate to it.
FANG: It goes back to discussing representation before, where the characters just are.
THORNDIKE: Yeah, if you ask me as an audience member, I want to see it in movies. I’m hungry for that. As a filmmaker, I don’t think about it. I just do what I’m compelled to write.
FANG: One of the things I like about LYLE is its Skype scene. Much of it is set up as a typical eerie shock, but it goes a more emotionally horrifying place.
THORNDIKE: People really respond to that scene, and they don’t quite know why. I’ve tried to say that I think it’s kind of disrespectful. It’s kind of appalling to treat a death that way. But I think what you’re saying is what it is. You’re kind of braced for one thing, because you know horror.
FANG: Can you discuss actually making LYLE? It seems such a small budget. You’re obviously not closing down a street for Gaby Hoffmann to run through.
THORNDIKE: No, everything was stolen and crazy. I can’t believe we have a movie. We did the whole movie in five days, and three more days later just to make it a little longer. We did it really fast. The tub scene was a logistical nightmare. We had this tiny crew and two PA’s that day since we knew this was our big finale. They were in charge of making the tub just right. The water turned cold, and suddenly you have this tub with gallons and you couldn’t get the water out and it was freezing. We basically just had to send everybody home and rush through. The outside scene, we did that so fast, because we had to the tub scene and squeeze them all in together. Keeping the water warm was really hard, and getting the cold water out was really hard because our pump broke. It was a disaster. There was water splashing on lights, we were dumping water out the window…
FANG: LYLE is very rooted in paranoid atmosphere. Do you have any desire to make something more spookhouse-oriented?
THORNDIKE: No. Making these movies, it’s kind of an emotional thing I’m trying to get out, instead of thinking if it’s scary. For me, fear and depression are very related. Melancholy and dread, that’s what I’m always going for.
You can watch LYLE free at its official site.