Interview with Lucky McKee, writer/director of May, The Woods, and The Woman

This interview was originally published online in August 2011. 

Cult Projections: I presume you started off watching movies on VHS, like I did, at a young age, but then snuck into R-rated films –

Lucky: I didn’t get to sneak into R-rated films ‘cos I lived in the country, you know, so up until the age of about eleven or twelve my family would go to the movies maybe once a year, if we were lucky, so movies were a really, really special thing. We were the last family on the block to have a VCR, so we would rent VCRs for our birthdays, when I was very young, and eventually when I started watching the few movies I could get my hands on, over and over again, I’d say around the time I was twelve I finally had the access I needed, and I started just devouring. I didn’t get to grow up with a lot of that stuff, like a lot of kids do, which is kinda cool ‘cos I saw the films with different eyes. 

CP: Yeah, yeah.

L: There are still a lot of films that everyone grew up on I still haven’t seen. I’m always trying to play catch up, but you’ll never be able to see everything. 

CP: No. So what were some of the horror movies that had first a real impression on you, and inspired you to become a filmmaker?

L: The first was one of the times we rented a VCR for my sister’s birthday, and me and her, and my cousins – all girls – just decided to rent a bunch of horror movies. One of our cousins from the city was gonna scare us by showing us stuff that we’d never seen before, so we watched Psycho II, Carrie, and The Hitcher, which is a pretty damn good triple feature. Psycho II is actually pretty cool. We stayed up late at night, and we were scared to walk down the hallway to go to the bathroom, all that kind of stuff … 

CP: [laughs]

L: … because we lived in a big old house in the country when I was a kid, which made it extra spooky. We just had a blast, and I loved that feeling, that fascination just kinda stuck with me. My dad’s boss, he had a VCR and a massive movie collection, so we got to watch stuff like American Werewolf in London, and Faces of Death, and all this crazy stuff, and I was really young, and it all made such an impression. Like fairy tales make an impression on a child, you know? So it kinda grew from there.

CP: Horror films just are like dark fairy tales.

L: Absolutely. It all comes from the same place. 

CP: So what was it about A Nightmare on Elm Street that impressed you so much that you decided to make your own version?

L: I think it’s just the fact that it deals with the subconscious, which is really exciting. In The Woman I have a dream that opens the film, and the whole movie of The Woods is dreams and nightmares and all that kind of stuff. I love getting inside the subconscious. There’s something really freeing about that. I think David Lynch is probably the best person at creating the subconscious on film without being pretentious. So that’s what I really connected to. The early Nightmare on Elm Street films are so damn creative. 

CP: Certainly the first one. 

L: And the third one has got a lot of amazing stuff in there. I just hooked into it, you know? It’s like fairy tales. That stuff makes such a stark impression on you. 

CP: Following the screening of May at the Sundance Film Festival, how did the movie get picked up by Lion’s Gate?

L: I think Lion’s Gate knew about the film going in, they were really interested in it before we even showed it. My producers had a pretty good relationship with them at that point. It was amazing to show it for the first time, because we’d been working on it for so long that I was nervous that people wouldn’t understand the strange sense of humour that it has. It was a fantastic midnight screening, everyone was just laughing, uncomfortable, emotional, just feeling a whole bunch of different emotions, and Lion’s Gate just jumped right in there and snatched it up. It was a different time ten years ago, and showing The Woman at Sundance in the same category, years later, now it seems companies are more afraid of this kind of stuff. It’s like we’re getting more and more conservative! 

CP: There’s a neo-conservatism happening. 

L: Yeah. 

CP: We could talk for days about that. That’s the beef I have. So would you have predicted the cult following that May was going to create for you from those early screenings? 

L: I don’t think you can predict that sort of thing, I’m just surprised people still talk about it, and it means a lot when people come up to me and tell me how much the movie means to them, emotionally. People tell me the movie has helped them get through hard times. 

CP: It hasn’t dated in a weird kind of way.

L: It’s the same reason I can watch Taxi Driver over and over again; loneliness is something everyone can relate to. I got a lot of my own personal problems out on film, just making it. 

CP: How did you meet Angela Bettis, and did you cast her straight away, or did you audition a lot of women for that role? 

L: I auditioned a hundred girls. We auditioned probably every young twenty-something actress in Hollywood, and Angela walked in one day, and it was hers. She wanted it. She understood it on such a deeper level than any of the others. We saw a lot of very cool people though, like Emily De Ravin, and Elisha Cuthbert who had just come into Hollywood. I was like, wow, this girl’s amazing. 

CP: They’re both amazing. 

L: Yeah, like we had our pick of some really amazing people, but Angela just had the quirk. She’s designed to be on camera, she’s got a gift. 

CP: But the support cast is great also. Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris give great performances in it.

L: Oh yeah, yeah. 

CP: They bring an eccentric flavour to it as well, in their own way. 

L: Yeah, absolutely. 

CP: Obviously Dario Argento is an inspiration to you, and there are some references in May. But I was curious that the film Adam [Jeremy Sisto] wants to go see is Trauma, which I think is one of his lesser films. 

L: A lot of people say that, but the reason I have a love for Trauma is because I had made a short film in college, and a very important visual element was the Ophelia painting by Millais, and I had this fascination with taking fine classic art and transposing it to film, and a lot of that came from Scorsese, who takes a lot of influence from great painters. I had just used that painting and I saw Trauma and they use that painting in a similar way. I felt a connection to Argento and they way his films are like watching moving paintings, you know, like Suspiria

CP: Yeah, very expressionistic. 

L: Yeah, I just had a connection with that. But I do it in my own way. And also the Adam character in the film is based on me and a couple of my film buddies, so that’s what I was into at the time and that’s what came out. I wasn’t trying to be an Argentophile and make that statement, because I steal from Hitchcock more than I steal from Argento … because Argento steals from Hitchcock. 

CP: Well, exactly. 

L: But I adore Argento. I always learn something from his films. 

CP: Again, I could talk for days about Argento. Even his failures, there are enough elements within -

L: There’s a lot more going on in those films than people give credit to. 

CP: But he’s an acquired taste as well. 

L: Absolutely, absolutely. 

CP: Nearly all your movies have female protagonists, and I’m curious about this. What is it about women or girls in the central role that appeals to you? 

L: Well, #1: I’m a great admire of women. I was talking to Polly [Pollyanna McIntosh] about this; when I started, when I first wrote May, it was a deeply personal story, and I think I was kinda hiding behind it, being a woman, in a way because women are viewed by a lot of people as being ruled by emotion and ruled by passion and all those things, but I have those same qualities, so I think I was kind of hiding it at first and then I realised that by making May and making my early short films that I worked really well with actresses. For some reason I worked better with them than I did with men, and I was more interested to photograph women, not in a sleazy way, but to show women as the whole beings that they are, not just a surface for the male gaze, but from within!

CP: You employ a magic realism, or there’s surrealism, or there’s a blackly comic tone to your narratives, rather than being very realistic – 

L: And that goes back to the fairy tale thing. I like the fantastic element. Movies are supposed to be magic. It’s like the ending of May when the monster comes to life; that’s impossible, that’s something that would happen in a fairytale. I love that character so much I wanted her to get what she wanted. She’d earned it by that point. 

CP: So you came onboard the Masters of Horror series with really only one horror movie to your name that was May – 

L: And I was finishing The Woods

CP: So was that Mick Garris who approached you on the basis of those two? 

L: Yeah, I’m really good friends with Tobe Hooper, and we’d met at a party shortly after I’d finished May, and he watched May and fell in love with it and I’m obviously a great admirer of him, I’ve studied all his films for a long time, and we became friends, and then they started inviting me to these Master of Horror dinners where all these old-timers would get together and bring some of us young guys in and we’d just talk shop and a lot of those guys recommended me, and there was an open slot, and it was a real honour, ‘cos I grew up on all of their films, and to be a part of that group was amazing. I would never consider myself a master of horror or any of that, I mean, that’s a sales tool, those guys are masters, and to be welcomed into that group and make an original film was really cool. I was the youngest kid working on the show, but I made the most old-fashioned film stylistically, because I was pulling from 30s films and 40s films, and Angela’s performance was more like a stylised performance from that era, so that was kind a funny. And then you get Tobe’s film that looks like it was made a kid from the future! But it was a great honour and a wonderful experience. 

CP: Do you have a favourite from the series? Have you watched them all?

L: I watched most of them from the first season, I didn’t watch any of the second season. 

CP: I love Dario’s Jenifer

L: Yeah, I LOVE Jenifer, I love Tobe’s. 

CP: I liked Cigarette Burns, John Carpenter’s one.

L: Yeah, a lot of people are fond of that one, but that one didn’t strike me too much, a little too much talking. 

CP: I’ve read Off Season, which is one of my favourite horror novels.

L: It’s intense. 

CP: I haven’t seen Offspring, but I’m curious is the role of The Woman in Off Season, or does she first appear in OffSpring? 

L: I think she is in Off Season. I think she might be one of the younger members of the tribes and by the time we get to Offspring she’s running the show, by the end of Offspring she loses her whole family and she’s on her own again. That’s where I picked it up. 

CP: So did you see Offspring and loved that character [The Woman] and thought I want to make a movie with her in the lead? 

L: I was invited by Andrew van den Houten and Jack Ketchum to see the film in New York once it was completed. They wanted to know if I had any ideas of a way to continue it, and I did, because I was familiar with the novel, but I said you gotta let me make my kind of movie, you gotta let me go in a completely different way, this isn’t just gonna be rinse and repeat, which is what horror sequels usually are. And so they let me do my own thing, final cut, let me use all the artists I wanted to use. 

CP: Would you have persevered if Pollyanna hadn’t come onboard?

L: I don’t think so; because she was the reason I wanted it. 

CP: I’m fascinated as to why The Woman is causing controversy. 

L: [laughs] So am I. 

CP: Having read some of the hype and all these overseas critics’ quotes I came into the screening expecting something a lot more shocking and disturbing. And in the Q&A following the screening you mentioned that you’ve been disappointed with the current state of the American horror scene and you wanted to inject some subversive vitality into the American horror movie. There was mention of the European horror movies, and I thought of the French films such as Martyrs, Frontiers, Inside – 

L: Yeah. 

CP: - the Spanish Kidnapped, the South Korean I Saw the Devil

L: I haven’t seen that yet, I want to see that. 

CP: - A Serbian Film, so I was anticipating that we were building up and we were going to see something quite hardcore, and then I found that your direction was, considering the amount of bloodletting and gore, quite restrained. Even the rape was more suggestive than I was expecting. 

L: Yeah. 

CP: So I was wondering was this level of restraint partly you decision to appease the MPAA so you wouldn’t get into trouble with censorship? 

L: It’s personal taste really. I think if you bludgeon somebody with sex and violence so much that loses its effect. Some people do it brilliantly, like Martyrs is a good example, I mean that movie just goes so graphic and brutal, in a visceral sort of a way. I think it all came down to personal taste. I got children in some pretty rough sort of situations, so I was shooting that stuff in such a way that I could still look at myself in the mirror in the morning; it was all just personal taste. I do think about the ratings. I didn’t think we were going to get an R-rating, just because of the subject matter, and I always get a hard time in the censor’s area because of the psychological impact of the film. I didn’t expect to get an R-rating, but we got one, and the guy at the ratings board loved the movie, he was “Oh, you’re gonna do great with this! This is awesome!” 

CP: The MPAA’s criteria still baffles me. 

L: They gave me an R-rating for The Woods and there’s nothing in The Woods. There’s much worse stuff on television every night that’s disgusting you know. 

CP: I hate this new term “elevated horror”, I don’t think horror should be debased in this way. 

L: Horror has been the moneymaking stepchild for a long, long time. Horror always does well, but it’s not given the artistic respect. The same thing happened to Hitchcock when he was making films, he wasn’t given artistic respect, he was just looked at as a showman, as an entertainer. It took the French to show people that no, there’s a fucking artist here. But at the same time I think there’s just as many romantic comedies made with a lack of care, as there are horror films. I think the romantic comedy is a more piss-poor genre than the horror genre. That’s part of the reason I wanna make a romantic comedy some day, you know. 

CP: And do the Lucky twist. 

L: Yeah, exactly. I’m not trying to talk down on anybody’s horror film and I’m not trying to say that my shit doesn’t stink and that my horror films are more important than other person’s horror films, ‘cos fuck I grew up on horror films. I like a good, silly, straightforward … you know? I like stuff that’s not full of shit. I like the lack of pretension in horror. 

CP: I was reading one critic’s response to The Woman, asking “Has horror gone too far?” and I was thinking, well that’s a load of bollocks. 

L: That’s horror’s job. 

CP: Outside of making a real snuff movie … 

L: … that’s a load of shit. Yeah. Go back and watch Straw Dogs, that’s a fuckin’ horror movie. 

CP: Do you think there are taboos in horror and also what are the elements a great horror movie should possess? 

L: Gosh, I dunno, I can’t really call that. I’m just trying to make stuff that has horror elements that’s interesting to me. That’s kind of a tough one to answer. I don’t have the answers. I’m just trying to make my films and I respect anybody who can make a film, as long as they’re doing it with seriousness and care. 

CP: Now the role of the husband and father in The Woman, his psychopathic behaviour, and the dark comic tone that started to emerge as the movie went along reminded me of a movie called The Stepfather that I’m a big fan of. I was curious if there was any inspiration from that?

L: Nah, I haven’t seen it. 

CP: You haven’t seen it? Interesting. 

L: But that part probably comes from Hitchcock. My villain in this film is very much in the Hitchcock tradition, like Shadow of a Doubt, the Joseph Cotton very clean-cut, very well-spoken, but there’s just rot underneath that surface. I’ve always liked that kind of a villain, he’s not twirling his mustache, he looks like you and me. 

CP: How important is humour in a horror movie? Can a horror movie work with little or no humour?

L: I’m sure it can work for somebody else, but for my personal tastes, I need levity in there, because I have to live with this thing every day working on it, and if it’s all just a grind and it’s just awful, and it’s all just one note then … That’s why The Road didn’t work for me, it’s all just doom and gloom, there’s no hope in it, there’s no chance for hope, there’s no sense of humour. It’s just not something I’m interested in making. I think life is ups and downs; it’s not all just one thing. I love humour, and I have a really dark sense of humour with my friends. 

CP: That’s the best kind, not just slap-in-the-face-here’s-the-joke, but character based, cumulative. 

L: It’s humour out of discomfort or absurdity. 

CP: Exactly. Coming back to sequels, obviously The Woman is different than your average sequel, it’s quite self-contained, what’s your opinion on remakes and Hollywood’s increasingly lazy attitude with remakes and sequels? 

L: It’s gotten really bad, like it’s overtaken everything, brand names is all there is, like “I don’t wanna try this new soda, I wanna try the one that says Coke on it,” you know? But look at how many great remakes there’ve been. Look at The Thing, look at Cape Fear, there’s countless good ones. But it’s not something that I’m particularly interested in pursuing. It would have to be something I feel I could take to another place in my own way. Everything’s all about branding right now. I don’t know how we’re gonna get out form under that. There’s a bigger and bigger divide between independent film and studio film, and hopefully people will start getting tired of having the same crap shoved down their throat over and over again and they will start going back and seeking out these films. It always happens in cycles, it happened in the 70s, it happened in the early 90s, and it’s about to happen again. I would like to be part of a new wave as opposed to just tugging the line for the big money guys. 

CP: If you were offered a remake would there be anything that would be a deciding factor in whether you’d accept the job?

L: The political structure, especially if it was for a studio. I would have to have a lot of protection around me because I don’t make my movies by committee; I make my movies with my team, with a group of artists, not with a group of suits. There’s a lot of guys who’ll be watching your film and playing around on their Blackberrys and iPhones the entire time, not even watching the film, and then turn around and give you notes on your film, I can’t deal with people like that. So I need a layer of protection between me and that if I’m ever gonna go into that world again. 

CP: Yeah. So, how likely is a sequel to The Woman? The Family, maybe? 

L: The only thing that will dictate that is how well it does. And it has to be the right idea for me to want to be involved. I’m going to do a noir film next. 

CP: Will that be an original screenplay?

L: It’s based on a Ketchum novella that I’ve been optioning for about ten years called The Passenger. So I’m really excited about that, but it will be a real change of pace for me, a much more fast-paced film. All my films so far are kind of slow burns that build to this crazy crescendo. This one’s gonna be hard to keep up with. I’m gonna use a lot of the same people, the same team. I’ve got the script on the operating table right now, kinda Lucky-izing it. 

CP: I love noir.

L: Yeah, me too. I like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker; I’m looking at a lot of that early stuff. At that time those movies had real bite, and were gritty, so I wanna do something in a modern context, that’s from that same tradition. 

CP: Nice. Well, that’s about it. 

L: Okay, well, was good talking with you, it went by quick. 

CP: It did, it did. I mean with beer in hand … 

L: Yeah, we could talk all day … 

Lucky McKee went on to direct a second version of All Cheerleaders Die (2013), which he originally co-directed on video in 2001, and one of the ten segments in Tales of Halloween (2015).