chloë sevigny and tara subkoff discuss feminism, friendship, and horror films
As #Horror hits theaters, we speak with its director and star about 20 years of creative collaboration and how Hollywood sexism has reached a tipping point.
Photography Kathy Lo
#Horror looks like a film from the not-so-distant future. It features hyper-cyber graphics, an iPhone app that's somehow more addicting than Instagram, and starkly modernist settings jam-packed with contemporary art. But there's one barb hurled between the film's catty clique of 12-year-olds that feels as though it could have been delivered in any era: "You're just trash from the Stanford Mall." It's a jab that resonated with the film's lead actress and its director Tara Subkoff's longtime creative collaborator, Chloë Sevigny. "Tara and I both grew up in Connecticut, so we come from a similar socioeconomic environment where there was a lot of bullying around your standing in the community," Sevigny explains over the phone. "For me in junior high, there was a lot of 'your mom drives a Honda, you're poor.' Specific lines Tara wrote really touch on the stuff that I lived."
Though Subkoff and Sevigny didn't attend the same Fairfield County high school, their friendship has spanned over 20 years. Before Tara enlisted Chloë as the creative director for avant-art-cum-fashion project Imitation of Christ, the pair boogied down together in Whit Stillman's cult classic Last Days of Disco. While the longtime friends have collaborated on short films in the past (Subkoff directed Sevigny in Magic Hour, a seven minute film which premiered on MOCAtv), #Horror is Subkoff's feature length directorial debut.
The film sees a group of young, wealthy Greenwich girls push each other past simple taunts both on and offline, and their malicious cyber-bullying becomes a night of IRL insanity. Although Sevigny -- who plays Alex, a former model and distant mother -- connected with the slasher social commentary's economic component, both she and Subkoff explain that unlike their childhoods, bullying is often inescapable for today's teens. "Back when Chloë and I were growing up, it stopped the minute you got home. You were with your family and your friends; you weren't connected to everything all the time," says Subkoff. "The thing about today is that it's never over -- you've got a phone."
Last week, #Horror made its New York premiere at the MoMA to a packed house of all ages. As it hits select theaters and Subkoff partners with a new platform to help stop cyberbullying in its tracks, we catch up with the immensely talented duo to learn more.
Tara, what attracted you to horror as a genre?
TS: The biggest consumers of horror films are young girls from the ages of 11 to 16. I think that has something to do with everything painful going on at that age, but I also remember really loving horror films at that age myself -- films like The Last House on the Left, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, Poltergeist. The graphic horror films of that time were amazing; they had these really strong, interesting characters in them and full arcs to their narratives. Today, it's a bit like torture porn with no real story or character development. I really wanted to make it more of ode to the past with characters who have full stories -- who are going through difficult things and are flawed.
Chloë, what attracted you to the role?
CS: Tara has been a friend for almost 20 years now and we have worked on projects from Imitation of Christ to other short films. I've always believed in her as an artist because she's always wanted to say something more or something bigger; she always has a new perspective or point of view. I would jump at the chance to work with any of my friends, but I have to believe in them and their script. Even in the early fashion days, Tara always did something more to challenge people, and I knew she'd do that as a filmmaker.
How important is community and friendship to each of your creative pursuits?
CS: Hugely. I find that when I am working with friends I respect, I am a better actress. When I'm with someone I trust and am comfortable with, it becomes looser and more of a collaboration. And Tara is very open to trying things; we push one take really far and then pull back again. She really was all about performance with me and with the little girls; she let us play and work on it as long as we had to until we got it right. Not that many directors do that, so I thank her wholly for it.
TS: Even on something as low budget as this film, performance is first for me. Chloë is such a rare and incredible talent, sometimes it was hard to move on because you just want to keep going and getting underneath something that might lead to something else. It was such a joy, Chloë, to work with you. I hope that it will happen many many more times.
There's so much amazing contemporary art work featured in the film, which really heightens that sense of affluence and isolation. But what role did wardrobe play?
TS: If we talk about style or clothing, we can make it fashion orientated, or we could talk about character development. Before Anthony Hopkins plays any character -- before he does anything -- he chooses his shoes. I remember reading that and thinking to myself, 'If Anthony Hopkins fucking cares about shoes more than anything else, that says something!' I think that it's crucial to understand clothing as a vehicle for who someone is: how they would walk, how they would move, how they become who they are. For me, Alex is a very specific character in that she's someone who's suffering, and I really wanted her to be so put together -- to have almost an armor on.
I also wanted to ask about the protest you staged during the film's Cannes premiere. What function does protest play in the digital age and why is it important that younger people get involved?
TS: I love protests. Things make me angry and frustrated and I think it's important to stand up for what you believe in -- to have a voice and be able to communicate it. I thought it was just going to be a few people, but almost 75 girls showed up. My French is extremely bad and most of them didn't speak English, but I think they came together because they really care about this: they had been affected by cyberbullying or had friends who were. It was really amazing to witness that. Now, I'm working with Bridg-it, which is an online social platform that has just been launched into 11 schools in the New York area. Kids can make a quick report when they see someone's in trouble or being bullied, and immediately after they've done so, it erases off their phone like Snapchat so they can't be harassed. It's a faster, safer, and quicker way of reporting, and it already helped change the cyberbullying climate in schools -- and possibly saved lives.
Recently, there has been much conversation about sexism in the film industry. Why is it important to fight for gender equality and diverse representation both on and off screen?
TS: Well, I have a question for you. Movies that are geared towards women: what are they about?
TS: Who makes them?
TS: So why are we going to see them? It's no easy feat to make a film that's not about men, have it be distributed, have people support it and be interested in it -- at all. I tried to hire as many women on this film for all the jobs that usually men do because I feel women truly have to take a stand and be far more supportive of each other. We can say 'we should, we should, we should' all day long, but what are we doing about it? Do something, make something, be part of a solution. Chloë has been so supportive of me. She's an incredible role model.
CS: I've been working in film for about 20 years and I think I've only worked with three female directors. I'm developing a new TV series with a female director and producer, and we're trying to hire and put as many women in positions of power as possible. Slowly, I feel like there is a shift happening, but it's just a male dominated industry -- a male dominated world. Patriarchy is something women are always battling; we always have to fight harder and be smarter. There is a tide turning, but there are still all these old stereotypes that we have to fight and prove wrong. Be positive, create, keep trying, keep working, keep doing.
What do you hope people take from this film? If not a lesson, what questions or discussions do you hope it raises?
TS: I hope it empowers people to really think and not just follow, not just do. I want to provoke people to think about what our actions say, to think about consequences, about empathy.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Kathy Lo