By Nicole Veneto
“Everybody in this industry right now is looking for like, female beards to rescue them, but that’s not what we’re here for.”
Ahead of the VoD release of the horror/satire I Blame Society, I sat down with writer, director, and star Gillian Wallace Horvat to discuss her madcap mockumentary on making a movie about becoming a serial killer. We talked about the appeal of “strong female protagonists” in the shadow of #MeToo, the current state of the male liberal Hollywood hegemony, and the irritating laziness of found-footage films. I Blame Society is Horvat’s feature-length debut, but she already boasts an impressive resume of collaborators on her previous projects, including Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters and the late Anton Yelchin. She also worked as an archivist for the Samuel Fuller estate and produced the documentary A Fuller Life based on the director’s personal memoirs.
I Blame Society is available to rent on VoD beginning February 12. Her previous two shorts (Fingerbang Bang and Whiskey Fist) are available to watch on Vimeo, The documentary A Fuller Life is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Arts Fuse: I really loved the meta aspect of I Blame Society, the fact that you incorporate so many layers of reality and unreality into the self-conscious setup: as director and star you play the film’s protagonist as well as incorporate real documentary footage. The result is that the movie explores serious themes, but it is also off-the-wall bonkers. There’s something very relatable about how your character’s frustration builds into gleefully murderous madness. Does this sense of being so beaten down and frustrated that you feel you’re going insane come from a very personal place?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: Many, many women and also many gay men and people of color can identify with the character’s outsider nature, with her feeling of frustration and the state of post-#MeToo complacency. There’s a disturbing lack of transparency in the film industry today: it’s kind of like, “Listen, we fired those guys, the problem is solved. Would you shut up about it? Like don’t worry, everything is fine and you’re equal now.” That hypocrisy has become more aggravating. Before, men were transparently misogynistic. And now they’re really scared, so they just gaslight you instead. I prefer transparency; I like to know where I stand with people. I trust a misogynist far more than a passive-aggressive person because, with a misogynist, it’s like “You know what, maybe there’s a way forward?” Views can change. But being passive-aggressive isn’t about having a view — it’s about the kind of person that you are. Those are the decisions you’ve made about how you wanna live your life. There’s nothing I can do about that, and you should just throw yourself down a fucking well.
AF: The film poses the question of what constitutes a “likeable” female character or a “strong female lead.” You pretty explicitly critique these concepts as hollow PR moves developed in focus groups run by male movie investors. There’s always been a market for stories about women going out of their minds and lashing out at the world that’s wronged them, hence the film’s title. What are your thoughts about these appeals toward female “likeability” over “relatability” in this post-#MetToo era?
GWH: Politics are about polarization rather than consensus now, but in a good way. The discussion is more out in the open. The people who identify with the outsiderness of [fictional] Gillian’s character — basically everybody who’s not a straight white guy of a certain age — find it easy to identify with her. And because of that they can journey in her shoes comfortably and watch the movie at a remove where they are entertained by all of the violence and mayhem. But there are some people who watch the film — usually they are white men of a certain age and straight men — and they feel she doesn’t have a good enough reason to do what she does. Some reviewers don’t find her likeable, they don’t find her believable, and I think that’s because of their subjectivity. They don’t wanna find somebody like that credible because it questions their complacency and their complicity. Nobody wants to feel complicit. I’m sure that every single one of these guys probably identifies as liberal or probably neoliberal. They wanna think they’re good guys and they love their daughters and their moms and whatever. When they see somebody that angry, they don’t wanna feel that it’s justified, especially if they feel like they could have unconsciously played some part in her ire.
AF: Your main target isn’t a Weinstein stand-in or a cabal of predatory producers, but the neoliberal hegemony of the Hollywood system and its male gatekeepers. Nothing materially has changed, especially for independent female filmmakers like yourself. The new concern for female voices in Hollywood has become a new marketing opportunity to a lot of people. It seems as if every up and coming female director is being recruited to direct a Marvel movie.
GWH: I’m very happy and supportive of those women who are out there directing Marvel movies because, number one, they deserve that [production] money. They should get that money. Number two, it positions them to do something else that might be more personal. So I understand that it’s an irresistible offer. But it is not as if anybody should point to that and say, “Look! The door’s open for women!” They’ve opened the door for women to direct ideas and characters that were conceived by men that reflect men’s opinions of the world and the systems they believe exist and the hierarchy they respect. Female filmmakers are being co-opted into this system. Of course, they benefit from it and they can bring a fresh perspective: some of what they think is going to show up on screen. But it’s not like they’re giving these women or any of the men a free hand either. All these Marvel movies are directed by committee; the men in the Marvel hierarchy who are in control are very experienced comic book writers. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with women’s opinions yet. Still, it wants to do the right thing
AF: But wanting to do the right thing isn’t the same thing as actually committing to doing the right thing.
GWH: They want to give women jobs, they want to give women a seat at the table. But they also want business to go on as usual and they want to feel comfortable. They don’t know what original ideas by women really look like, just what it will mean to have women’s voices represented on screen. To me, it is clear that it would work because half of the audience is made up of women, so you’re going to appeal to them. They’re going to show up, they’re going to enjoy it and think it’s authentic. That’s one of the amazing things about the new Wonder Woman movie. I haven’t seen it, but the discourse around it is like, wow, Patty Jenkins made this first movie that was like a big hit and everybody loved it. She failed with the second one and fell flat on her face, but it had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman. It was because of a bad script and ethnic stereotypes. She’s gonna get to make another Wonder Woman film. She’s gonna get to fail and pick herself up and do it again, just like they would treat any guy. I find that comforting.
AF: Mockumentary/found-footage format is often used as a cheap gimmick. Even in bigger-budget found-footage films like the Paranormal Activity movies, it’s obvious it was shot with studio-grade cameras and edited in post-production to look like it was filmed on an iPhone or whatever. Here you had good reasons for turning the cameras on herself: the more you descend into madness, the more you film yourself. How did your background in documentary filmmaking inform your approach here?
GWH: The film’s formalist rigor has more to do with my OCD nature. And the fact that I am frustrated when I see people shooting on Reds and Alexas and then add in some digital grain and claim it was “Shot on a phone.” The issue is that these directors don’t know how to harness the authenticity they’re looking for. They seem to be picking and choosing in a really lazy way. It’s not just cinephiles or cinematographers who find it irritating that there are these inconsistencies. I think anybody can pick up on them and feel the shoddiness of it.
AF: How much of the script was written beforehand? Was there a lot of ad-libbing?
GWH: The first half of the movie contains more ad-libbing because there was more room in the shooting schedule for playing around. The cameras were locked down so we could do as many takes as we had time for and not worry about coverage, knowing that it was all gonna be single take or jump cuts anyway. When the movie grows more complicated it gains that “cinematic look,” so we had less time for any ad-libbing. Chase [Williamson, co-writer and co-star] and I wrote a script and we stuck to it. The place where there is the most ad-libbing is the end of the first scene. I wasn’t supposed to cry. That was just me. Another ad-libbed section is based on a meeting I had at a pretty well-known genre production company. Instead of wanting me to direct this script that I wrote about women that was my idea, the producers spent most of the meeting trying to convince me I should direct a script written by their male friend. They thought that in the post-#MeToo climate that a script a man had written with a female lead needed a female director. Instead of wanting me to direct this script I wrote about women that was my idea, they wanted me to rescue — because of #MeToo-ness — a script that a male friend had written about women. This wasn’t a Hollywood company; it is a relatively big indie company. Everybody in this industry right now is looking for like, female beards to rescue them, but that’s not what we’re here for.
AF: What’s the perfect murder weapon in your opinion? Mine’s an icicle, but I’m pretty sure I ripped that off from The Lovely Bones.
GWH: No, no, no! The icicle is the famous key to that famous locked room mystery. The icicle was the murder weapon in the the first locked room mystery. But yeah, that is a classic weapon. For me, it’s a weapon that won’t get you, your hands, or your body dirty. You don’t wanna be covered in blood because how are you gonna make your escape? Too much work to burn your clothes or bury them or something like that so it would be something that was relatively hands-free. Like maybe a BlueTooth headset; that would be the perfect murder weapon.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.