See the Vain Die Ugly in Jane Clark's "Crazy Bitches"
See the Vain Die Ugly in Jane Clark's Crazy Bitches
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 2/11/15)
By Danny Peary
It is a fertile time for horror films directed by women. Australian Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Iranian Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night have become cult hits and have had long theatrical runs, including at the IFC Center in New York. Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, a creepy body-snatcher film I can’t stop thinking about, was one of many that recently played on VOD. Jessica Cameron, Tonjia Atomic, and other determined female directors have been churning out micro-budget pictures that play at horror festivals (some only for women directors) or stream online, and have built up large fan bases. Now joining the crowd is Jane Clark, who is best known for her award-winning shorts and a striking 2013 non-horror feature starring Lukas Haas, Meth Head. Her new low-budget slasher comedy, with the inviting title of Crazy Bitches,debutsFriday on VOD and numerous web sites. If 50 Shades of Greyturns out not to be the ideal Valentine’s Day film for you and your honey, Clark’s take on twisted love might be the perfect antidote.
It’s 2015, but characters in horror movies still don’t know better than to spend their holidays in isolated cabins, including ones where ghastly murders have taken place and the killer is still on the loose. In defense of Clark’s crazy bitches who hold a reunion at a ranch far away from civilization, they don’t learn about the past murders until they’ve already unpacked and are thinking about alcohol and sex–and they don’t realize that prior to their arrival, one of them, the sex-crazed Viviana (Candis Cayne, the first transgendered actress to play a starring role on a network TV series, Dirty Sexy Money) met a gruesome fate in the opening scene of the movie.
So Taylor (Samantha Colburn), seductive lesbian Cassie (Cathy DeBuono), Minnie (Liz McGeever), Alice (Victoria Profeta)–who has learned her husband has been sleeping around–Belinda (Guinevere Turner), Dorri (Nayo Wallace), Princess (Mary Jane Wells), and token catty gay guy BJ (Andy Gala) settle in, as Clark writes in her synopsis, “for several days of gossip, girl time and grub. They start off where they always do, old rivalries in place, extreme vanity covering great insecurities, but a true love for each other is underneath the bickering, sniping, and sassing.” But when girls disappear or turn up dead, the survivors “turn on each other, accusing one another of jealousy, chemical imbalance and murder. The accusations are improbable, sort of, but could one of them have actually done it? The weekend turns into a race against death. Who will make it out alive?” I became curious about Crazy Bitches when I saw Jane Clark’s witty, clever video asking for funding for her movie. I was pleased to be able to do the following interview with the amicable director-writer-producer only a month later, in time for her film’s premiere.
Danny Peary: You live in Los Angeles but have been a programmer and board member for the Woods Hole Film Festival in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Are you from either place?
Jane Clark: I grew up in Delaware but spent my summers in Woods Hole as a kid. The Woods Hole Film Festival was the first festival I played at with my first short film, Dog Gone, and from there I developed a friendship with the program director, Judy Laster, and a fondness for what is a really lovely and fun festival. Unfortunately, I had to step down from the board recently because of time constraints.
DP: What was your background that led you into acting and then writing, directing, and producing?
JC: My background is fairly eclectic. I was one of those kids that didn’t know what they wanted to do. My mother wanted me to be a psychologist because she thought I had good intuition about and empathy for people. My parents were academics and really expected the same from me, but to their credit they also were very into the arts so I was raised on theater, musicals, opera–we went to art museums and concert halls. I studied classical piano, played the sax in all three bands in school, and on my down time liked to sketch and read. I was great in creative writing. They were striving to make me a well-balanced individual, which I think they accomplished, but it also backfired on them because I found myself really drawn to be a creator. I started with acting and painting, but when I tried my hand at filmmaking I realized all the disciplines I enjoyed were compacted into this one career–writing, acting, frame, color, texture, music, tempo–all of it are elements to a good film. Then add to that the good intuition and empathy that my mother recognized early on andvoila!
DP: For those of us who watched the late 1990s television series, Chicago Hope, would we have been familiar with your recurring character back then?
JC: It wasn’t anything too glamorous. I was a nurse. They never gave my character the same name because I think that would have required giving me a contract, but they liked me and knew they could rely on me to do the job. I ended up doing about 14 episodes over two years. Every now and then someone thinks they recognize me from it, but you’d have to have been a really loyal fan for that to be the case.
DP: At the time you were acting on television and seemingly having a breakthrough, were you thinking of making movies?
JC: That’s the irony of Chicago Hope. It was a great gig because I loved being on that big set and the paycheck was decent. I did initially think that it could lead to something bigger. When it became evident the producers weren’t inclined to give me anything more involved, I wrote an episode with an actress who played another of the other recurring nurses. We worked ourselves into small but significant roles in the hope we would inspire the writers to do the same, but it never happened. I think that’s when I started really getting frustrated with the business. Then the show ended, and I just knew I had to do something more.
DP: Did you lose an interest in acting, even in your own films, or think it would be too hard to write parts for yourself and act and direct at the same time?
JC: Acting is a craft and you operate to a degree with an awareness of the technical aspects of the job. But to be truly present for the people you are acting with, and to deliver as truthful a performance as possible, you also need to be able to work at a certain level of unconsciousness. At least that is how I do my best work. Directing requires an objective eye. You need to be an observer to the actor’s work so you can guide them if and when they need it. I think my job as a director is to provide a safe and trusting place for an actor to take chances. They need to trust that I am there for them 100 percent so when I asked them for something, they know it’s a well-considered request. For me, the two skills, acting and directing, don’t mesh at the same time. I wouldn’t say I’d never act in my own films, but if I did it would be in a small role in a simple scene. I’d certainly be happy to act in someone else’s film though!
DP: Do you think you could have made Meth Head and Crazy Bitches right off the bat or did you need to learn to make features by making your shorts first?
JC: I was attached to direct a feature before I had produced or directed anything. And we came close to getting it funded. We had a star attached, the budget was $1M, and we had several large companies interested. It fell apart–long story–but it was really a lucky thing. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think I could have pulled it off at the level that I expect from myself. When it fell apart, I took a step back, acknowledged that making features was really something I wanted to take a stab at, and then set about teaching myself what I needed to know as a producer and as a director to make sure I had the confidence and knowledge to make my first feature a good one.
DP: Did your shorts have common themes and similar amounts of drama and humor, or did you want to try completely different films each time?
JC: They are each different and similar at the same time. My through line is my love of character–they are all driven by character and relationships. And each script has true story at the core of it, as well as humor–some more, some less–with the exception of The Touch, which is serious and sad. But each is different in the way they look visually and in the type of story I’m telling. I’ve done everything from films dealing with social issues to family films to romantic period dramas.
DP: So it was always your goal to make feature films. I think almost every short filmmaker has that as a goal, but because you are writing a book about making short films, my guess is that you love the form and wouldn’t mind continuing to make shorts.
JC: It has always been my goal to make features for many reasons, not the least of which is that I hope I make a living at this directing thing! I do, however, think shorts are a great learning tool, a calling card for people to see what you are capable of, and in their own right quite fun and challenging. My book sprang from the panels I have done over the years at seminars. I’ve sat on panels with people who have been much more experienced and much higher up the ladder. And I’ve sat in audiences and listened to those same people. And what became apparent is that as esteemed as those other producers and filmmakers are, they are so far removed from the realities of most of the people attending the seminars that they really couldn’t offer specific help. But I could. Most of the people attending those seminars hadn’t made one film yet. Or perhaps they had made a short, but it hadn’t turned out so well. So I thought that since I couldn’t get to every panel and talk to every aspiring filmmaker, I would put it all down and offer my knowledge in a more accessible way. The book works just as well for making a feature, because I never saw short films as being less. Everything I learned to do to make a good short film applies to my feature work as well.
DP: Did you give yourself permission to make Crazy Bitches, a loony film about female characters, because you had already made an intense film about male characters, Meth Head?
JC: I really didn’t think about gender with Meth Head except that I wanted to make sure meth addiction was portrayed honestly and felt strongly that meant one of the addicts needed to be a woman. But the decision to make the film was primarily sparked by need. I had lost a family member to meth at about the time my actor friend, John W. McLaughlin, came back into my life and told me he had dropped out because he had become addicted to the drug. He told me really the bookends of his story, how he got in and how he got out, and I was stunned by even those limited details. The fact that two people that I loved were struck down by this drug–one made it out and one didn’t, but both paid a great price–broke my heart. Still, I didn’t think of putting it to film until I was sitting at the awards show at Sundance, frustrated I wasn’t there with a film of my own. I met a woman director there who had won an award and she had made her feature film for $150K and some grants. I thought, dammit!That’s what I have to do, figure out a film I can make for a controlled budget, but about something I can care about, something that would be worth the sacrifices. The idea of Meth Head popped in my head, and I texted John right then and said, “When I get home we need to talk. If you are willing to share your story with me, I think we can make a really powerful movie.” [John W. McLaughlin appeared in Meth Head and Crazy Bitches.]
DP: For decades females didn’t make horror films–and for the most part didn’t see them either. Why do you think there are suddenly many women making really good horror movies, from The Babadook to Honeymoon to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night?
JC: And Crazy Bitches, I hope. I’m not sure, truthfully, but I hope it translates into an easier time for women getting the films financed and distributed in the future. I think there is a difference in films made by women whether horror or any other genre. There is no getting around the reality that men and women are different in many ways, filmmaker or not. And since that is the reality, then of course we often have a different approach to storytelling. Not any better, not any worse, just different. And perhaps, because the woman’s voice hasn’t been heard much it feels fresh right now. Eventually, when women have gained parity in the industry the differences will just be about the artist and not their gender.
DP: Do you like the “cabin in the woods” subgenre or did it serve your purpose?
JC: It served my purpose, but I do like it. I tend to enjoy horror films that keep me suspended in tension and “cabin in the woods” allows for that automatically because there is no easy escape.
DP: Of course, it reminded me of all those cabin in the wilderness movies, but also slasher films in which a secret killer wants revenge on young people, and The Descent, because there are only females who are isolated and in trouble. Were there any horror films that influenced you?
JC: Well Friday the 13th is indelible, but partly because I saw it for the first time on a date. A guy asked me to come over and watch a movie, and that was the movie. Getting scared in a dark room and being alone with a cute guy is part of the memory. The Descent is pretty awesome. I think somewhere along the line, I got caught up in the serious actor thing and stopped watching scary movies for awhile, so my education is stunted and I tend to go back to old school slasher movies and films like The Omen. Specifically to Crazy Bitches, the other film that influenced me wasn’t a horror movie. It wasBridesmaids. Since I am primarily focused on the girls and who they are to each other and within themselves, the horror acts as a fun backdrop but it’s the humor that cements it.
DP: In the production notes you say the genesis of Crazy Bitches was a close friend saying something insensitive to you in order to boost her own ego. How did the idea from the film start with that and expand?
JC: I started thinking about what she said and why she said it. The statement sounded vain, but under it was this huge insecurity. I knew her well enough to understand that. The idea that vanity is really the flip side of insecurity and that those two things are contained in one person gave me the start to the shades of gray I’m always interested in. That expanded out to this idea that we as human beings are very quick to judge others by first impressions, but the truth is that if you take the time to really know someone you will find out they are so much more than what you assumed–or perhaps not even close to what you assumed. The reality is any judgment we lay on someone at first sight is determined as much by their surface appearance and behavior as by our own feelings about ourselves.
DP: While watching your film I was thinking of the four leads in Girls being part of a group (probably with the male leads) that goes to a cabin in the woods and then everyone starts saying insensitive, bitchy things to each other as they always do…and then dealing with somebody trying to kill them off. Is that something similar to your concept of this film? I ask half in jest but as with your characters, those four characters in Girls are insufferable and insensitive and say the worst things to deflate each other but somehow…we get to like them…
JC: Crazy Bitches was written before Girls appeared. I’ve never actually seen the show. But from what I understand, they try to strip the relationships down to an honest truth–girls can be not so nice to each other at times. But here’s the thing. They actually care about each other. At least in Crazy Bitches, they might say things that are insensitive and sometimes they don’t mean to hurt and sometimes they do, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they absolutely love each other.
DP: I would think the hardest thing about making your movie is tone, because it’s a wild ride and often over the top but you do insert some seriousness into it.
JC: Yes, tone is always tricky. But the mantra to the actors was “keep it real.” The humor and pathos being mixed would never work unless the actors embodied their characters truthfully and fully. You walk the line a little bit when it’s appropriate, but if they were playing over-the-top, you’d never buy the characters as real people, and the more serious stuff wouldn’t work. The piece would feel uneven. Instead, because the actors are playing the truth of each moment, the over-the-top moments work because they come from the circumstances that they find themselves in.
DP: I said before that the young women in your movie are a bit hard to like at first–it’s as if they are the only ones who can tolerate each other–but talk about the difficulty of getting us to like your characters and then killing them off?
JC: Because the film, for me, speaks to the damage that words can do, from the thoughtless to the heartless, these women had to be real and if they are real, then you have to feel at least empathy for them. And then they have to die. Because this is after all a horror film! But I liked that challenge and I think it makes the film a more interesting journey because of it.
DP: I believe the deaths viewers will have the hardest time dealing with is of two women who just before they are killed had a conversation where they left vanity behind and were very open about their vulnerabilities to each other–showing tremendous progress in overcoming damage in their lives. Was this something you considered?
JC: My goal was always to make you care about the people who are dying and that means you have to know them a little deeper than on the surface. And I think the contradictions within the scenes and scene-by-scene help with that. I also really like the contradictions. I like humor mixed into a sensitive conversation or anger pressed up against compassion. I like it because that is really true to life. I’ve used it in other films, but I pushed it more in this film than I have before. I think the idea that it was a horror film gave me more liberty to play with the tone, as you mentioned before.
DP: Talk about your cast, including Guinevere Turner, who was terrific in the groundbreaking Fish, and co-wrote with Mary Harron, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page.
JC: Guinevere is awesome. We met at a party. She insisted that I give her a role and thankfully she is a hard person to say no to. I love my entire cast and they each brought their own intelligence and ideas to the characters. Part of my greatest joy in directing is the time I spend both in rehearsal and on the set, learning to understand the actors and finding a way to give each one what they need to do their best work.
DP: I would think that since you wanted friction between the young women, you’d push a bunch of actresses who didn’t know each other into a close space so the tension between them was real. But did they know each other?
JC: Actually, I think it’s just the opposite–actors can “act” tension or annoyance, but the bond between people is more of an organic thing. For instance, in Meth Head, Lukas Haas and Wilson Cruz were friends and had worked together as kids, so finding a true affection for each other was easy because it was real–which was especially helpful because Lukas is straight. With Crazy Bitches, I originally wrote each role for someone I knew. Partly because selfishly I thought it would be fun to work with a bunch of friends. And partly because I was counting on everyone knowing each other, or at least I assumed if they were friends of mine, they would all get along. The idea that all the actors really like each other is particularly important because the characters love each other despite their faults. In the end, not everyone I wrote for was free when we were ready to shoot so I did bring in new people. That made rehearsal even more valuable as it gave them all time to get to know each other a bit. A few of them went out socially beforehand as well to facilitate that camaraderie.
DP: Were there auditions and script readings or was everything too rushed to do that?
JC: Most of the actors were cast well before we shot. But I had to recast four key roles at the last minute, which for me was a potential nightmare. I had one day of auditions set up to accomplish the impossible, and I was ready to push the film back if I couldn’t pull it off. I never leave the level of talent up for grabs, and I am incredibly discerning about my choices, so it was a lucky stroke of fate when one-by-one the right person walked in for each unfilled role. Truthfully, I couldn’t believe it. Three days later we were doing a table read, and the next day we kicked into a week of rehearsals.
I don’t ever work without rehearsals because the reality is that once we are shooting, it is fast and furious. We blocked out most of the scenes ahead of time and then talked about intention and how each of the characters relates in the scene at hand. I also had conversations with the actors to discuss their own motivations, backstory, etc. After blocking and conversation, we’d run the scene until we had worked out the kinks. We also used that time to do some improv, which gleaned a few comedic gems. With all of that under the skin, we could show up on the day and not spend valuable shooting time working things out off camera.
DP: Usually, a writer-director will say she or he is part of every character. I’m going to guess that you know all these women very well but none of them are you.
JC: Actually, some are less of me and more based on people I know. That said, Princess and Taylor are the closest to me. It may seem counter-intuitive because they are very different people, but we’re all complex and these two women represent my duality.
DP: Taylor is supposedly a virgin who is afraid of sex, with men or women. Usually virgins survive in slasher movies because they have their wits about them, but Taylor is clearly vulnerable. Princess is super smart yet she has the stupidest name and she is stupid in wanting sex and more sex with imbecile ranch hand Gareth [Blake Berris], putting herself in danger. Does sex neutralize intelligence?
JC: No. Insecurity does. Princess doesn’t have sex with Gareth because she’s horny (though he is awfully cute.) She is insecure about her physical appeal. Getting Gareth’s attention and turning him on (albeit on a short-term basis) reassures her that she is an attractive individual. Because it isn’t real however, every time she sleeps with a guy and he moves on, her low self-worth is re-activated and she needs to repeat the action. That makes her appear as if she’s some confident sexed-up being, but she’s actually just the opposite. Now Viviana is truly a powerfully sexual woman.
DP: I thought it was interesting that the most tension between characters is between gay BJ and lesbian Cassie. Does he feel threatened by her, and not just physically?
JC: I’m not sure he feels threatened by her physically, truthfully. He’s like a smart and feisty little dog that thinks he can challenge the big German Shepard. It is more his ego that is threatened. Every time he tries to take charge, Cassie steps in and everyone follows her instead. He also, over the course of the film, starts to feel like his friendship with his BFF, Minnie, is threatened. At the same time BJ and Cassie do have a common bond in that they both came out when that was a harder thing to do, and at times, BJ actually rises to Cassie’s defense. No relationship is without jealousy, envy, and resentment even when it exists because of love and commonality.
DP: In typical cabin in the woods-wilderness movies, almost all the guys and the female bimbos think about sex all the time. In your film Cassie and Gareth are the two who try to seduce every woman. Talk about that and whether you were trying to draw a parallel between them, at least before she rethinks her position in a scene with Minnie.
JC: I liked the parallels because I like stripping away the difference between gay and straight.
DP: Talk about directing group scenes and intimate two-character scenes. Which do you prefer?
JC: They each have their beauty. I couldn’t pick one over the other. Two person scenes are quiet intimate experiences, which can be really special. And I will say the more people in the scene the more difficult the job, because I still need to be guiding each of those people to their best work. It compounds when you add the fact that I do a two-camera shoot, in which case I’m also dealing with two monitors and two different views. But that challenge, when executed well, is also part of the thrill.
DP: What was the reaction to your film at the recent Desperado LGBT Film Festival in Phoenix?
JC: We had so much fun! We’ve played about 20 events this past fall and summer, and I’ve made it to about 10 of those. Desperado was our last US festival and the audience was terrific. Most stayed for the Q&A and there was a line of people who wanted to jump in on photos so it was a full night!
DP: I’m sure there was a big laugh each time Cassie complains, “Fuckin’ straight girls!”
JC: That always gets a laugh, straight/gay, men/women, doesn’t matter.
DP: Talk about the making of this film because I know there were a lot of difficulties because of time and location.
JC: It was tough. I’m lucky I had low-budget boot camp making Elena Undone [which Clark produced in 2010 for writer-director Nicole Conn] and Meth Head because I wouldn’t have made it through otherwise. There is a real skill in making limited funding and 15 days of shooting work. We started by shooting six nights in a row because I had to be out of the house before the owner returned from a trip, which started the production in a challenging way. It was blistering hot, which was not only physically uncomfortable for everyone, but it was stressful because the whole film was built around rain and thunderstorms. We stood in horse manure for a couple of hours for one scene. That was fun. We had blood gag knives that didn’t work, equipment that was defective, and a makeup trailer that lost electricity in the first hour. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. It could easily have blown up on me if the crew had rebelled, but no one did. We really became a team in that all-for-one and one-for-all kind of way.
DP: Talk about working with your cinematographer, Cecilia Guerrero–again.
JC: I adore her. She was my second camera on Meth Head and we got to know each other a bit as artists on that film. She had a great eye for detail and a great spirit as well. I’ve had some talented DPs over the years, but ours was the easiest relationship I’ve ever developed with one. We talked a lot about the mood and the lighting and the idea of creating dark corners where scary things could be hiding, which she did beautifully. We spent a lot of time in the days leading up to the shoot talking through my diagrams (I do shot lists and diagrams but not storyboards) and bringing her ideas to my vision. We actually stayed in an RV on the property the first six days so we could have more time to work each afternoon before the shooting day started.
DP: I like the music, including “Crimson and Clover” by someone who sounds a little like Susannah Hoffs. How did you want to use your soundtrack?
JC: I think music can either enhance a film or cause the audience to bump out, and it’s a tricky process finding the right material and using it well. I have gotten a lot of compliments on both the Crazy Bitches and Meth Head soundtracks, so I think I do pretty well in my choices. I have a music supervisor, Jennifer Corday, who is connected with great, fresh talent. I also tapped friends to give me music, and I had some musicians that came through referrals. The “Crimson & Clover” track was a fluke. On little films like this you really can’t afford a song like that. I was looking only for temp music for that scene so that I could cut the scene. But as my composer likes to say, I fell into “temp love.” I couldn’t see the scene without it. So I got the publishing rights then asked my friend Edith Crash to work with me on a rendition that would go with the cut. My composer, Charlton Pettus, is also a music producer so he came on to meld the pieces into a beautiful whole.
DP: Is there a point where we’re supposed to solve the mystery about the identity of the killer or killers, or is that impossible until “the reveal” at the end? Or even impossible after that because you are not revealing everything?
JC: Ha! No, I’m not revealing everything. Some things you’ll just have to wait to find out in Crazier Bitches! There are clues all the way through, though. It’s pretty dense material and it goes fast. A lot of the clues are subtle, but some people have gotten at least part of it. I’ve been told by a few fans who have gone to several different festivals that they actually liked it better on repeat viewing because once you know who did it, you could stop figuring and start noticing much more of the detail.
DP: I’d correct them by saying “you know one person who did it.” So the open ending will be leading to Crazier Bitchesand Craziest Bitches?
JC: With any luck and a serious investor, yes! I’ve got the concept for Crazier Bitches and a business plan for both films, and I’d like finance both films together and shoot them back-to-back.
DP: Where does this film fit into your career as a whole?
JC: It is my master plan to always be learning and growing and challenging myself. And to never fall into sameness. So jumping from the intensity of Meth Head to the insanity of Crazy Bitches is a great start. I admit I have gotten slightly hooked on horror and, besides completing my Bitches trilogy, I have written and am dying to make a ghostly love story and I am writing another project for Candis Cayne that is a more serious slasher. Also I have a detective/serial killer film set up to shoot in Paris as soon as we can find our leads, and I’m interested in writing a biopic. So while I will probably live a little longer in the horror world, I will also be expanding out to new genres and returning to a few older ones as well.
DP: How and when can people see Crazy Bitches?
JC: On February 13th, we release Crazy Bitches on the Web on sites like iTunes, YouTube, Googleplay, and Vudu; and on VOD on pretty much every cable and satellite TV platform including Time/Warner, Comcast, Charter, DiSH, ATT Uverse, and Verizon FiOS. The DVD and Blu-ray will come out on April 1, and we expect to launch internationally sometime in early May. If enough fans are interested, we may take Crazy Bitches on a mini-theatrical tour on Halloween. People can keep up with us on the website www.thecrazybitchesmovie.com, Facebook at thecrazybnation, and Twitter at @CrazyBitchesMov.