women in hollywood

The Women Directors of XX Are Exorcising Their Demons Onscreen

Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Jovanka Vuckovic, and Sofìa Carrillo. Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

The latest entry in female-led horror is a unique beast indeed. XX is the first horror anthology movie (the movie is made up of four vignettes) to feature women calling the shots, both behind the camera as writers and directors, and in front of it as central characters. Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark (better known as St. Vincent, in her directorial debut), Karyn Kusama, and Roxanne Benjamin directed the four creepy tales about women on the verge of various breakdowns that make up the film, along with an exquisitely strange stop-motion wraparound by Sofìa Carrillo. The Cut talked to the group — minus Kusama, who was busy marching on Washington — during a very snowy day in Sundance to discuss murder, mayhem, and male directors.

Okay so how tired are you guys about talking about gender? On a scale from 1 to 10?

Annie Clark: It’s funny. it’s a question that I have evaded in my ten years of being in the music industry. I have sidestepped that question. For some reason, doing this, and maybe it’s the climate right now, I’m just like, “Yeah, fuck it,” and I’m angry and incensed about the inequality [in filmmaking].

Jovanka Vuckovic: I’ve been getting asked that question for as long as I can remember because I used to run a horror magazine [Rue Morgue], and I was the only woman running a horror magazine in the world, so it was always, what’s it like being a woman in horror? This is no different. What’s it like being a woman filmmaker?

AC: Yes, also, what are we supposed to compare it to? No one asks a man, what’s it like to be a man film director?

What specifically attracts each of you to horror? Is it catharsis, shock, thrill, gross out, what is it?

JV: I really think that H.P. Lovecraft said it best when he said, “Fear is the oldest emotion of mankind, and the oldest fear is fear of the unknown.” I’m paraphrasing. Something like that. What he means is that we get to know the unknowable through horror stories. It helps us exorcise our anxieties and our own personal demons in a very safe way.

AC: That’s the great thing about art is that it can safely take you to the precipice and let you explore that which is scary to you.

Roxanne Benjamin: It’s like being in a state of fight or flight with no real danger allows you to deal with real danger in a more productive way, I would say.

It’s such a funny thing that we consume media to scare ourselves to get ready for the real world. It’s also a uniquely female experience because there’s so much that’s scary.

JV: But I actually am afraid of being murdered. [Laughs.] I actually am afraid of being harmed by some dude. I walk with my keys to my car with the key sticking out when I’m in underground parking lots. I’m absolutely horrified and just rushing, rushing to my car. I fear being harmed by someone. Usually men.

RB: Where I live in L.A., the parking is horrible. I usually have to park quite a few blocks away from my house. If I’m coming home late at night, I will walk home with 9 and 1 dialed on my phone. Ready to hit the other 1.

JV: I actually talk and pretend like I’m talking to somebody! Karen [Kusama] was saying that women have a lot of things to be “fucking afraid of,” in that Hollywood Reporter article. She’s right. We live in fear every day for our safety, our well-being. When a guy is walking too closely behind us, we’ll walk across the street. If he crosses, holy shit, panic attack. That’s the very real experience. I get in the car and I lock the door right away … We still do these things, and in spite of the fear, we do it anyway. We can’t succumb and just live inside and not go outside.

RB: I think that’s why maybe we gravitate towards genre, because you have to let that out somehow.

How is the state of female representation in horror movies? Is it getting better or worse? Is part of the idea behind projects like XX to change how women are seen onscreen?

RB: I think the issue is more that “horror” as a genre is still perceived by many through a very narrow definition. Horror films aren’t just big-budget slashers and studio remakes featuring high-school girls. Films like Raw, The Witch, The Babadook, Under the Shadow, The Invitation — all have fully realized female characters. The disconnect seems to be what is more of the corporate sell of “horror” to fans from these mass-produced cookie-cutter films that are being put in 3,000 theaters. There’s always the exception of course, but I’d say as a whole the independent-film community features much more fully rounded female characters — with both flaws and strengths, both good and bad tendencies … You know, almost like humans.

JV: I’ve been a horror fan all my life, and have been working professionally as a woman in various areas of the horror genre for most of my adult life. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies and can say with authority that women have historically been misrepresented in front of the camera and underrepresented behind it. The horror genre isn’t inherently sexist, but it is nevertheless festooned with gender stereotyping. We’ve been pincushions and knife fodder far more than we’ve been final girls. And while the final girl — as resourceful and strong and she is, the last to face the killer and make it out alive — is still unfortunately a trope. She’s not a real person.

Now that more women are making horror films, we are seeing “feminist” horror films emerge. Now before you get your boxer briefs in a knot, feminist horror isn’t about women hating men, it’s about women being depicted as actual human beings. That’s all. We created XX in direct response to the lack of opportunities for women directors in the film business, particularly in the horror genre. While the overall numbers are more grim than they’ve ever been (7 percent of all working directors are women), XX offers a glimmer of hope to other women directors and future generations

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

These Female Directors Are Exorcising Their Demons Onscreen