Although Stewart Thorndike grew up as a fan of darker movies and shows such as “The Twilight Zone,” she never thought when she began directing that she’d delving into similar territory once she starting to work behind the camera. And yet coming from a visual arts background where she learned horror could offer an opportunity to be “a little more playful and more creative about the visual world because people are usually in a more altered state,” she found herself drawn to genre films for the same reason she believes audiences are.
“I have this theory that horror films are the most sensual kind of film because all [your] senses are very active, as if you were the protagonist,” says Thorndike.
It was actually only when Thorndike’s own eyes were opened to the lack of female directors making horror films that she decided to embark on “Lyle,” a peculiarly potent and eerie drama concerning a mother named Leah (Gaby Hoffmann) who loses her young son in a freak accident and begins to suspect it wasn’t an accident at all. Given that Leah’s beliefs initially stem from her recent move with her partner (Ingrid Jungermann) to a Brooklyn brownstone with a shady history, it’s not a stretch to imagine Thorndike has her own suspicion of creaky structures, one that has led her and producer Alex Scharfman (“The Heart Machine”) to go outside the system to create and distribute a trio of psychologically frightening female-led flicks, of which “Lyle” is only the start.
To whet the appetite for their second feature “Putney,” which naturally is set at a hotel possessing inexplicable mysteries for four guests inspired to go on an adventure by a TED Talk, Thorndike and Scharfman have put “Lyle” online for anyone to watch for the duration of “Putney”‘s Kickstarter campaign (ending Sept. 18), giving potential backers the unusual opportunity to experience a new film from an exciting new voice for free and the filmmakers to gauge interest in a followup. Shortly after the two launched their campaign, they spoke of breaking the mold with their ambitious three-film plan, the need for more women working in genre and thinking outside the box while working in confined spaces.
How did you become collaborators?
Alex Scharfman: We were introduced by a producing professor at NYU because we both went there at different times and Stew was looking for a producer on a project. We tried to get that off of the ground and it didn’t come together and that was the thing that actually eventually led to “Lyle.”
That previous project “Tacoma” actually went the Kickstarter route too. Did that influence how you designed the campaign for “Putney,” by showing potential backers what you could do with “Lyle”?
Stewart Thorndike: With “Tacoma,” which was also a genre movie, a mother-daughter real estate trip thriller, we had a dream cast and we were really excited about it. But I felt like we were just always in meetings, begging people to help us make our movie happen and the resounding answer seemed to be, “No, this isn’t a movie we think will do well.” [The Kickstarter for “Tacoma”] was really for pre-production funds, like location scouting and casting directors. It wasn’t for a big chunk of money, but some of that attention and money is exactly what helped us get “Lyle” made. Four months after that fell apart, we were going into production on “Lyle.”
AS: Here we’re hoping that there’s proof of an audience and demand, so when we try to go out and make the next film, it’s something that we can really point as evidence of an audience that’s willing to come out and see these kind of films.
“Lyle” actually started life as a web series. How did it become a film?
ST: After “Tacoma,” we didn’t have that many resources, so I was inspired by Ingrid Jungermann’s web show – how she just got things made and did them on her own terms and made them really fast – and I thought it’d be really cool to see a horror web series. I’ve never really seen that and, we were just putting “Lyle” together, but when we actually shot it and looked at everything, it just felt hard to chop into the middle of a horror story even though we kind of designed it to be a web series. So we shot a few more days and made it, what I call, a “featurette.”
It definitely works on those terms, but a one-hour running time would seem to take it out of the conversation for certain types of distribution. Did that contribute to the decision to release it this way?
ST: When we finished it and people responded really well to it, we did consider shooting more, but the film didn’t need it, so we let what the film needed dictate what to do with it. We knew that our odds of distributing it and getting into festivals would increase if we made it longer, but we didn’t want to do that. That was never the goal. We were trying to be punk rock and just make something we really loved and not design it for selling. Then we got into festivals and we actually did get contacted by many distributors, so we had to rethink things, but we decided to stick to our guns and distribute it with this new model like we intended.
Was the idea always there to do three like-minded films?
ST: Initially, we thought we were just putting this movie out there to try and find this audience we believe exists – people who will appreciate female perspective, genre stuff, and horror movies. We just realized that since we’re putting it out there we might as well connect it to the next one we want to do. I don’t think we started “Lyle” with a master plan, but we realized later we had it.
AS: When [Stewart] first sent me “Lyle,” she had the ideas or some outlines or some pages even of the other two scripts and it was like, well, which one of these do we want to make? We have all these ideas that are bloody good and as it went further along with “Lyle,” it was like these are all dramatically related in a lot of ways and they have a similar audience, so it just became a matter of alright, let’s go big by making all of these.
Besides being female-driven horror, do these films have anything else in common thematically?
ST: No. Just horror with women leads and then some gay sex.
AS: Yeah, there’s some of that, but I feel like there’s a lot [Stewart] might not realize, like a lot of mother-daughter issues across all three of them. They’re also all in these confined spaces that really lets these characters draw themselves out, their own histories and backstories with each other.
ST: The third one, which will be our bigger budget one, is not as confined, but after the fiasco of trying to make our first film, “Tacoma,” I did start imposing things that would keep the budget low.
Are those limitations creatively stimulating? One of the great things in “Lyle” is seeing how you’re able to use the space of a small apartment?
ST: They can be. I think it’s always great to have both – to let your mind just go if you want to be in Mars, you should be able to do that if you want to, but limitations are inspiring too because you’re forced to rethink things.
Were there things you learned from this shoot you’ll carry with you to “Putney”?
ST: I’m always learning. One thing that I really walked away with “Lyle” from was working with a great actor and what a collaboration that can be. I’ve worked with good actors in the past and young people who you need to really work to get performances out of, but that’s what’s kind of beautiful and exciting for me and it really made me respect the craft of acting.
What’s the plan for “Putney” in terms of when you might shoot and when audiences might be able to see it?
AS: We’re hoping to shoot this fall. After that, hopefully we’ll have it around festival season and let it take a life of its own.
ST: But we’ve got to find this audience to support “Lyle,” so it all depends on if this new model we’re doing works — if people watch “Lyle” and they like it and they want to chip in a couple of bucks to the next one. We’re doing this experiment and we’re going to know a lot in about five weeks.
Is there something in particular you’re excited about with either “Putney” specifically or these films taken together?
ST: We’re excited to one day have all three of these horror films with all female leads, from a female perspective. Do you see a lot of horror films directed by women?
ST: Yeah, so that’s what I’m excited about. I hate horror films right now. They’re all sadism and silly and gross and it’s one of my favorite genres. I think it’d only be a great thing if more and more women start to do them – any genre films for that matter.