Befitting of its modern title, Tara Subkoff’s “#Horror” opens with a sweeping 360-degree shot around a bright red Ferrari in the middle of a forest in the dead of winter that feels like something new. What’s happening in the car isn’t exactly what you would think, the first of several turnabouts the film about a group of overprivileged 12-year-olds who wield their smartphones like machetes when they’re stranded at a posh compound in Connecticut, with their attempts to kill time on social media opening up the door to ultimately killing each other.
Yet in a strange way, “#Horror” is the decadent delight one might suspect from Subkoff, who in spite of her first-time filmmaker status has spent a lifetime in artistic pursuits leading up to it. Never far away from the camera — indie film fans will no doubt recall her touching turn as an actress in Alex Sichel’s “All Over Me,” though she seemed content after starting her fashion line Imitation of Christ to make cameos in friends’ films – Subkoff still seemed to always be just on the periphery of it, either involved in production as she was as an associate producer on Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me” or as a muse for eventual Oscar nominees (whether it’s Hilary Swank, who was said to have consulted with her before “Boys Don’t Cry,” or ex-flames Wes Anderson and Tom Hooper).
As much as Subkoff’s had influence on a variety of pop cultural spheres, one can see the influences they’ve had on her in “#Horror,” outfitting the young girls in haute couture and lining the palatial estate where they gather with bleeding edge contemporary art to add further intimidation while the camera stealthily moves about as if it’s the main culprit for the murders that start to mount up. She’s in on the joke of the high-low culture hybrid she’s created, stylishly executing the cheap thrills that are typically the provenance of down-and-dirty slasher films and urging a distinguished cast that includes Timothy Hutton and Chloe Sevigny to give deliriously chilly, over-the-top performances. (In a particularly perverse maneuver that’s perhaps one of the scarier ideas introduced in “#Horror” for members of a certain generation is that the perpetually youthful Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne, the in-crowd ingenues Subkoff ran with during the late ‘90s, both play moms here.)
Shortly before “#Horror” hits theaters, Subkoff spoke about finally making her feature directorial debut, how she got interested in the subject of cyberbullying, drawing upon her previous experiences on the set and what she’s learned to apply to her next film.
How did you get the directing bug?
I’ve always had it. I was only acting to try to understand filmmaking. I actually left Parsons [at Otis College of Art and Design] and went out [to Los Angeles] for a job assisting director Marco Brambilla, who was at Ridley Scott Associates doing a lot of commercial stuff and then “Demolition Man” for all of his visual presentations. I did so many drawings for “Demolition Man” my wrist almost fell off. Now I tell this to him too because we’re still friendly after all these years, but it was the worst job I have ever had. I dealt with the terrible plumbing at his Hollywood Hills home, dry cleaning, and schlepping around town, and I never got to see the set after all this work that I put in. I [thought], “I’m never going to learn how to be a director like this.” Being a director’s assistant is terrible. Maybe not anymore, but it really was back then.
I had done some acting in high school and really loved it, so I thought it would be possible to be on set as an actor and it would let me learn a craft that then will let me be able to direct actors better. I started auditioning and my first job was “When the Bough Breaks” with Martin Sheen and Ally Walker and I was basically the monster in it. It was pretty genre and I played a boy and girl — [these] mute, deformed twins. I was a genre fan growing up and I used to date Wes Craven’s son Jonathan, so I knew Wes and was a huge fan of his early movies like “Last House on the Left,” “The People Under the Stairs.” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.” In general, I’m a huge fan of these movies that really had something to say like “The Shining” and “Videodrome,” with characters that were complicated and had social commentary. I wanted to make something that felt like that, but with a modern horror that’s happening now, which I feel is cyber bullying.
As someone who’s been in the public spotlight, was this an especially interesting topic?
I don’t know. It was more that my friends, some of whom are older than me and had kids who were 12 at the time were being badly cyberbullied. I was trying to figure out some story I wanted to tell because people were [willing to fund] a genre horror story and I thought, “Okay, I can do that, but I don’t want to do something that’s paranormal or that we’ve seen a million times before.” I was hearing these stories in the news, it felt like from everywhere. I started collecting them – one [started in America] and went all the way to England and more bullying followed her there. The level of suicides that are occurring at an increasing level from this is terrifying.
I was badly bullied between the ages of 10 and 12. I was terrified of [getting on] the bus. My mom was in the hospital at that time and I think kids always know when you’re going through something and they go for it. It was a brutal time for me. The only reprieve from it was being able to come home and have it stop for a little while. Now [with social media], it doesn’t stop. It just keeps going. There was also the idea that this is never going to go away — it’s permanent. The first time you fall in love, or have a boyfriend or girlfriend, your first job or college, it’s there [online] for them to see. It’s really a problem, and it’s so short-sighted of the kids who are doing it not to realize, “I’m really going to affect this person’s life.” Maybe that’s actually part of it — a false empowerment of being able to have that kind of control, but to me it’s a real horror story.
It’s no easy feat, but you actually make social media visually and aurally frightening. When somebody reaches for a cell phone, it actually feels like a dagger. How did the sound design come about?
I’m half-deaf, so I hear sounds a little bit differently. That’s only been the last six years. I wanted to put in small sounds, like clicking or some typing, which is hell for me because that’s the only thing I can hear and I can’t tell where sounds are coming from. I wanted to collaborate with a sound designer on having that be the norm — to just be able to hear these small sounds and have them be louder and louder and louder and to escalate. I also think that when someone’s losing it, things speed up, so the movie also gains momentum. All of these things were planned in the script very much to be a part of the story. On the video art, that was a collaboration with Tabor Robak on all the animation to be very strong in feeling — it’s another whole world that’s much more beautiful than the normal world, brighter with much more saturated color.
The house is also filled with all this high-end art that’s seemingly repurposed to become creepy, particularly this one great painting with the throbbing egg yolk, which adds to the anxiety.
Oh yeah, that’s Urs Fischer, my husband. Adam Tenenbaum, who’s at AST Studios, created the animation for [the painting]. He’s fantastically talented. I found him through Jordan Wolfson, a friend of mine who collaborated with me to find him and be able to do that with some of the art. There are some things in there that are really subtle. Like an eye blinking that you can almost miss. These things were really important because art resonates so much for me. There’s a feeling in it and a power to it and I wanted to have that be alive in the room and have [the paintings] be almost their own characters.
Where’d you find this amazing house?
In Bedford, New York. I really wanted something in Greenwich, Connecticut because the story’s set there, but it’s literally a two-minute walk away. We also shot on location at Greenwich, Connecticut too. No easy feat.
This has one of the best opening shots I’ve seen in some time – How did it come about?
That was not easy to get in a snow storm, but I really wanted it. My producer Brandon Walsh, who acted a little bit as my first [assistant director] and I were really like, “We’ve got to get this shot.” I had the best steadicam [operator] in the business, who luckily is friends with Brandon, so he came out for a few days as a favor. I do not know how we got it because it was freezing. When I say freezing, it was like where you have to shake up hot packs and stuff them into your boots. I grew up in Connecticut and I really wanted that feeling of isolation and being stuck, [the environment] being empty and abandoned. I wanted you to get the whole surroundings of it and almost feel like something was about to happen.
It was really fun to get it in one shot. I love Scorsese and these brilliant geniuses of our time — Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Bennett Miller — I’ve been lucky enough to know them all. and they have this [idea], “Let’s get it all in one,” so I wanted to at least be able to do that for the opening shot. [But in general] I wanted it to have a real point of view, and a real feeling and movement. [I was inspired by] those classic shots in any genre or horror film where you’re scared from all of it together — the sound design, the shot, the camera movement.
There’s a really revealing scene midway through where the girls are confessing their fears to one another that’s intense solely because of the performances. Did being an actress yourself help bring those kind of emotions out of them?
Yeah. I taught them all my tricks. We workshopped for probably two-and-a-half weeks before we started shooting and I worked with them probably six or seven times. When I was a young actress, I used to go to an emotional Improv class by Silvana Gallardo, who is now passed away, but she was an incredible teacher. Actually, Angelina Jolie was in the class and [Silvana] did these very old school theater method acting exercises like breathing techniques. I taught [our actresses] all of that. They were all 12 at the time, but they really got it and because it’s so physical, I think that helped tremendously. That’s the idea of wanting to learn that stuff before directing your first film. I do not know how I would have done it had I not gone through all of that myself.
Now that you’ve finally made your first feature, was this as creatively satisfying as you thought it would be?
Yes. It’s so hard though. I don’t want to complain because I’m so grateful that I got to do it. Of course now I think every filmmaker, if they’re honest, says, “I would have done everything differently had I known” and you just learn so much. I had an 18-day shoot where I lost three days, so that was really tough with kids and those locations and all the scenes. I would definitely figured out more time, and allocated something else from post and put it into shooting days. It also took me a long time to edit and collage it together with the video art. But I feel really good about this one.
Darren Aronofsky gave me advice. He’s like, “Pick your battles, but fight them hard.” It’s true. I knew we needed to shoot one more day because there was a snowstorm coming to get those shots of the snow and the things that you need. Everyone was like, “No, no. We’ll just do reshoots,” but there was no chance in hell we were ever going to do reshoots on my kind of budget. I think I was so tired that I believed them. I should have just fought for that extra few days. Next time I’ll do that. That’s the good thing about experience. You know better for the next time.
“#Horror” opens on November 20th in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema and New York at the IFC Center. It will open in more cities on November 27th and be available on demand.