Women in Horror Month - Q&A with Ursula Dabrowsky, writer/director of Inner Demon

Cult Projections: What’s the earliest memory you have of “horror”, either on television or in the cinema? How old were you and what effect did it have on you?

Ursula: I grew up Catholic in small town Quebec and when I was a kid, around 8 or 9, every Easter, they would screen The Song of Bernadette on television. It’s a 1943 black and white religious film about a French teenage girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who experiences vivid visions of the Virgin Mary.  I saw this film many times as a kid and it used to freak me out. I lived in fear that the Virgin Mary would suddenly make an appearance right in front of me, in some dark corner of my bedroom or somewhere in the house, in the same way she appeared before Bernadette. You could say it was my first experience of a supernatural horror film and it scared the hell out of me.

CP: What was the first “restricted” movie you saw? Was it on VHS or in the cinema? How “adult” in terms of its horror content was it?

U: A girlfriend and I were underage when we snuck into a reparatory cinema screening of The Exorcist. I remember we both laughed when Regan’s head twisted right round and when she spoke with a demonic voice. Maybe it was nervous laughter on her part, but I remember it just didn’t do it for me. I seriously thought it was comical. And then came the masturbation scene with the crucifix. It was horrific. That shut me up, quick smart. That scene still traumatises me to this day.

CP: Did you watch much horror during your adolescent years? If so, what three movies stand out?

U: Jaws, Christine, and Carrie made the biggest impression on me growing up. But I wasn’t a big horror fan in my teens. I didn’t live near a cinema, so I lost myself in books. I was an avid reader, a total bookworm. I would go to the library at least once a week and would take out a mound of books and have them all read within a month, sometimes in a few weeks. I hated coming out of my room to deal with the real world. I started writing in a diary when I was ten, a habit I’ve never outgrown. In fact, my plan at the age of 12 was to become a writer, not a filmmaker. It wasn’t until I was studying English Literature at uni and my flatmate at the time berated me for studying English and not film, telling me that film was the 20th Century art form, not novels. She was the one who encouraged me to apply to film school. I would have never though of it if it hadn’t been for her.

CP: What were some of the movies you watched as an adult that made you want to become a horror filmmaker? Why these ones?

U: Horror came to me much later in life, but once I discovered it, I’ve been making up for lost time. I went to film school in the 90s and was living in Montreal and the filmmakers that inspired me back then were part of the American DIY crowd. Filmmakers like Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman, Jim Jarmusch.  All New Yorkers. I was heavily influenced by their DIY punk ethic. They inspired me to make my first self-financed feature film, Getting the Dirt on Trish (2001). I started shooting the film in ‘96 and finished it five years later. Trish was a comedy thriller although it wasn’t meant to have any comedy in it at all. I’d always been drawn to crime and mystery novels and suspense films. I wanted to make a suspenseful film, a la Hitchcock, but I cast my friends in the film and, well, I guess I had amusing friends and the comedy just seemed to happen and I decided to keep it in there.  In 2003, I watched a Japanese film called Ju-on: The Grudge and I had an epiphany watching that film. It was such an intense and powerful experience that I was inspired to self-finance and shoot my first psychological horror feature, Family Demons. I wanted to see if I could recreate that sense of impending doom that I felt watching Ju-on. In that same year, I watched Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and I got the same chills watching that film. And that was it, really. Those two films did it for me and I was hooked. I really “got” horror cinema and have been obsessed with the genre ever since.

CP: What do you think about the ongoing criticism directed at the horror movie genre: that it’s a cheap, tawdry, offensive, misogynist, repulsive, unintelligent avenue for exploitation measures?

U: Some of it is, some of it isn’t. I tend to ignore people who spew toxic ignorant black gunk out of their mouths and onto the Internet.  

CP: Despite the criticism the horror movie industry has escalated in the past ten or so years, in regard to the number of movie’s released worldwide. Why do you think so many horror movies are being made?

U: To make money, I should think! Producers, production companies and film studios have finally caught on and are now aware that there is a much larger audience for horror films than they imagined and they are taking advantage of it. Most sales agents/distributors now have a horror “arm” (ie: Arclight/Darclight). If there was a glut of cheap and nasty horror films out on the market before, now it’s even worse. Unless your horror film is a massive hit at an A-list film festival, it’s become even more difficult to be discovered or noticed. Horror audiences have an incredible variety of horror films to choose from now but despite that, I personally still find it difficult to find great horror films. They continue to be few and far between.

CP: What do you think of the term “elevated horror”?

U: It’s a marketing and distribution term used to differentiate B grade horror films from horror films aimed at a more sophisticated horror audience. It helps package a film for buyers and sellers. I don’t think it’s a term used by horror fans. To them, horror is horror.

CP: As a filmmaker what excites you about a horror movie? What are three elements within a horror movie that interest you the most in terms of cinema - in its purest sense?

U: Everything about a well-executed horror film excites me. The story, the characters, what’s at stake, the special effects makeup, the use of prosthetics, the camera work, the lighting, the direction, the performances, the sound design, the music score ... All of it. I’m excited about watching and experiencing a horror filmmaker’s mastery of the craft. I get super excited when I see all these elements come together perfectly. And when they don’t, I think about why it didn’t work. This helps me learn my craft. Usually the horror films that don’t grab me are the ones where the script was weak or they’re about something that doesn’t interest me. I tend to prefer metaphysical, psychological and/or philosophical horror. Horror films need to be about something to work for me. They need an added layer, a depth, a metaphor that represents something that adds interest. I aim to create my own horror films in the same way.

CP: What five horror filmmakers, and their films, understand, implicitly, what makes a great horror movie?

U: Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Srdan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds), Roman Polanski (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby), Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on: The Grudge).

CP: What are a few female roles within the horror genre that are memorable for you?

U: Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Mylene Jampanoi (Martyrs), Beatrice Dalle (Inside, Trouble Every Day), Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror), Isabelle Adjani (Possession) and recently, Essie Davies (The Babadook). I also have to say that Sarah Jeavons did an incredible job in her first acting role in Inner Demon. I think she’s up there when it comes to memorable performances.

CP: What’s your favourite horror movie directed by a woman?

U: Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton’s Ellis’ American Psycho.

CP: Tell me a little about the making of first two parts of your Demon trilogy: what did you enjoy most about the process of Family Demons and what did you dislike the most? And what about Inner Demon?

U: Making Family Demons had its challenges, but when I look back on the experience, it was a joy compared to the making of Inner Demon. Inner Demon was particularly challenging. So much so, there were times I felt as though Inner Demon was cursed, that’s how bad it got. It seemed that for every one right thing that would happen, five things would take its place and go pear-shaped. But you know the saying about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? It’s true. I have grown much more resilient from the Inner Demon experience. I have gained more experience. I have learned heaps more about what to do and what not to do and I’ll be carrying those lessons over to my next film. In fact, I’m so looking forward to making my next horror film and putting those lessons into practice because, as much as I think Inner Demon is a strong film, I know I can do even better.

CP: Has the screenwriting process got any easier? What part of the entire filmmaking process do you enjoy the most and why?

U: The screenwriting process never gets easier.  Not for me. In fact, it’s getting harder. The more you become aware of the importance of the screenplay in creating great work, the more pressure there is on the writing process. There is pressure to get it right and pressure to surpass what you’ve done before. Writing is my least favorite part of filmmaking. How ironic, eh? Here I was at the age of 12, wanting to be a writer. Be careful what you wish for!  I find screenwriting utterly grueling. My fear is that the audience will find my stories predictable. So I work hard to avoid that. When I’ve completed the shooting script, there is a real sense of accomplishment but the writing process itself is draining. Directing is also difficult, working out the kinds of shots that will best visualize the script, making it all work, being on top of everything, etc. It’s all hard work but I want to get really good at the craft, so I put a lot of effort in. Besides, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it and a large part of me clearly does. I would say what I do enjoy because it comes more easily to me is casting the actors. I enjoy meeting actors. I find them fearless, brave souls and really appreciate their energy and what they bring to my work. I usually go with my instincts and my emotional responses to find the right person for a role. So far that has worked for me.

CP: You worked with low-budgets for the first two movies in the trilogy. I know you hope to have a proper budget for the third. Specifically, what three elements do you hope to have for Demonheart, that as a filmmaker you were unable to achieve or indulge in with Inner Demon?

U: So far with my films, I’ve taken on all the roles of writer, director, and producer. Main reason I do this is because I can’t find anyone else who is as committed as I am to getting my horror films made. I now hope to find an experienced producer who can help me seek financing for my next project and can see the project through from start to completion. Once a decent budget is made available, everything else I’d like to have for the next project will fall into place. I can negotiate for things such as having more time in pre, prod, and post, the crew I’d like to work with, building a studio vs shooting on location, things like that.

CP: Do you think there should be taboos in the horror genre?

U: You’re talking to someone who thinks A Serbian Film is a horror masterpiece. So no.

CP: What do you think of the whole recent taming of the horror movie, with directors being told to re-cut their movies in order to appease the censors and fit with executive producers’ demands for more bums on seats? It’s rife in Hollywood, but how much of an effect will it have ultimately on the wider indie and underground scene?

U: Censorship. It’s a two edged sword. On one hand, you want filmmakers to be free to create what they want, but on the other hand, that freedom can be abused. What crosses the line for some, may not for others. It’s an ongoing debate. I don’t have all the answers to that question. I haven’t had to face a censorship board asking me to make cuts to my films. I hope I never have to. But if I did, I would hope that my sales agent or distributor would fight for the film to be shown to audiences the way I intended.

CP: And finally, if you could adapt any horror novel and remake any horror movie, what would they be?

U: I still have original ideas for horror films that I'd like to look at doing before I start thinking about adapting a horror novel. As for a remake, I would love to have a go at Bo Arne Vibenius' They Call Her One Eye (AKA Thriller - A Cruel Picture). I'm surprised it hasn't been done. But really, I would hope that I can keep coming up with original ideas, no matter how much I bitch about how hard it is to write, so that I won't have to rely on adaptations or remakes.

CP: Thank you Ursula!