I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Cyberbullying is no doubt a big deal, like any bullying is. But now that we live in the age of the internet, it’s downright scary. It’s easier and more common for people to humiliate, torment and threaten others, while hiding behind the safety of their computer screens.
We’ve been told throughout our lives in order to survive, we must adapt. As the world changes, we must move with it to keep advancing. The same goes for the horror genre. Horror movies are not like they were 20-something years ago, or the good ones at least. Filmmakers have to roll with the changes and refrain from insulting audience’s intelligence.
Phones now have service everywhere, cameras are all around us, and the web is a pit of hate, ready at every moment for someone to mark all over its walls. Again, it’s terrifying to think about… And this is the concept filmmaker Tara Subkoff explores in her directorial debut, #HORROR.
In the film, we follow a group of young girls whose addiction to social media turns their cyberbullying into a night of bloody madness. Simply put, the film tackles how online cruelty can harm you, whether you’re doing the bullying or receiving it.
Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with Subkoff and star Chloë Sevigny (ZODIAC) about the film’s idea of cultural narcissism, horror of the internet and cyberbullying.
#HORROR is visual art. Tara, you’ve taken nature and put it on the grid and made it natural. Whether it’s the clothing, the set decoration or the art work– it’s visually stimulating. Was that a principal part of making the film for you?
Subkoff: “Thank you so much, that means the world to me. This has been my dream to make a film since I was a little kid and my mom was making movies with Super 8 cameras and showing us how you cut the film together and paste it, so I’ve always wanted to make one. I come from doing a lot of visual other-sides of things, like art and fashion. I’m a very visual person and it was super important for the aesthetic of the film to look right.
Plus, I’m such a huge genre fan from being a kid with my brother– we watched everything growing up that we weren’t allowed to watch. We’d have go to other friends’ houses to watch things because my parents were actually quite strict, so we weren’t really allowed to watch anything rated-R. So we’d have to go to other people’s houses– our uncle would let us watch things, too. So [my brother and I] kind of were in cahoots together because we’re only 18 months apart.
I love horror. I think it’s my favorite genre, honestly, because it’s so visual. So I wanted to make an ode to my 80’s growing-up in a way and the horror films and the genre films I remember growing up with, which were so visual and had really strong characters in them and really strong aesthetics.
I also used to go out– this is some good genre gossip, I use to go out with Johnathan Craven, Wes Craven’s son, so I knew Wes really well. I really love early Wes Craven films. I’m a huge, huge fan.”
So the backdrop of the film almost appeared to be a character in itself.
Subkoff: “Oh yeah! Thank you for getting that, that’s super smart.”
The girls in the film, they are absolutely fantastic in the way you directed them, everyone just seemed so natural, which of course is terrifying because 10 and 12 year old are pretty horrible. But how was that directing these girls to be so mean and brutal to each other? Did emotions run high on set?
Subkoff: “I workshopped them two weeks before we started shooting, and I come from doing some improv acting. I really love this woman Silvana Gallardo, who passed away. I used a lot of her techniques. Angelina Jolie used to be in that class. And then also I’d totally have to give it up to [Sevigny] because one of the first scenes they had was with her because [Sevigny] had to shoot first, and I think that having them work with her because they were so blown away and star-struck and impressed really helped. I think how natural, talented, and organic [Sevigny’s] talent is and she really has this brilliance and talent that is so rare with actors today. It comes from I think another time, more of classic 40s film stars.”
Chloë Sevigny: “Aw, shucks.”
Subkoff: “I think once they were working with her they really had to rise to another level and they did. I think also when you’re so young when you’re around things you pick up things, and they really did. I swear, [Sevigny], they got so much better after working with you.”
Sevigny: “They weren’t working with anybody who had actually ever done it before so I think even though you workshopped them for so long and they rehearsed– being around someone else who was comfortable in front of the camera probably helped them be more at ease.”
I wanted to ask you both about the subject of cyberbullying. It’s really becoming such an epidemic, and we have access to celebrities as well through social media. Can you talk a little about what you learned about cyberbullying and being aware?
Subkoff: “At this point, I’ve learned a lot about it. Firstly, it’s loosely based on three different real life instances. I’ve exaggerated it much, much more, but some very close friends of mine, their children were 12 at the time and they were going through pretty bad cyberbullying. One of them even went to boarding school all the way in another country and it followed her there and I thought ‘this is horrible.’ I mean, this is truly a horror story. So for me, it’s much more scary than a ghost, showing what people are capable of.
Then statistics from cyberbullying, if you guys want those I’m happy to give them. Over 150,000 youths, that means under 18, attempted self-harm last year because of cyberbullying. 70% of kids today feel that parents and teachers and schools don’t handle bullying effectively, and this is in the U.S. I’m part of this organization called Bridge-It, where we’ve developed an app that has gone into 10 schools in New York, which is almost like, you know, how Snapchat erases off the phone? Well, this is a digital platform that schools can put on every kid’s phone and they can report it and then it erases off their phones so other kids can’t tell who reported it and it’s already saved some lives in specific schools. So it helps in terms of changing the climate in schools.”
Do you think cyberbullying has to do with affluence? Because there was a definite relation in the movie between very affluent people and kids and cyberbullying? Do you believe that there is a direct relation with affluence and cyberbullying? Or, is that something you picked in a unique situation of the film?
Sevigny: “I mean, from what I know about it, I don’t think it discriminates against anyone.”
Subkoff: “Agreed, I think it’s a worldwide epidemic. I can give you statistics later on if you want me to follow up on that.”
I read a quote where you said the internet gives some people freedom but you just find it terrifying.
Sevigny: “I think it’s because of being in the public eye and having to deal with the repercussions of bullying even as a 40-year-old woman. I remember when the internet first started booming and my publicist called me and was like ‘the first rule to being a public person in the public: don’t read the comments.’ And I feel like there’s an anonymity there where people feel like they can go off and they’re protected by their anonymity and I think a lot of darkness comes out of that. I think there are certain online publications like Rookie and other things for teenagers where they refuse to print anything negative; whenever there’s a negative comment they erase it. I think that’s a great thing that a lot of other platforms that are geared towards young people should try to apply.”
Did that effect your opinion of the events in the movie, and did that make you want to play the role of Alex Cox more?
Sevigny: “It did! I think the role of Alex is that she more justifies kind of a lack of presence of parents in the household and how maybe if the parents can be more involved in their children and what they’re doing. I think that’s kind of more representative of my role of the absentee parent that seems to be somewhat of an epidemic.”
Do you think that contributes to the overall theme that #HORROR has? Where you know that cyberbullying has gone to a level that’s unprecedented– that no one has seen before, but of course as one of the characters tells her father, ‘we say these things all the time; it’s not meant to be mean.’ What do you guys hope that #HORROR can show the masses about cyberbullying?
Subkoff: “I hope it freaks everyone out. I hope that it raises some awareness to the gravity of it. Just seeing it through the eyes of young girls, whether it’s adults seeing it or children seeing it. It’s a reflection of seeing themselves in a mirror and thinking, ‘oh, my God. We’re actually do this. How horrible. Look at what’s happening to this girl.’ It’s like reading a good book about something or seeing a great film– it’s just a mirror of our times.”
When you play a character that’s so remote to her children and she’s kind of abusive to her assistant, you have to leaven that with something quite likable and I despite all that I found [Alex Cox] likable for some reason and I can’t really explain it. I wanted to know if you’d comment on how you balanced her.
Sevigny: “Well, I think anytime you play a character as despicable as they are you have to find something in them that you love and I feel like I was sympathetic towards her, towards aging, towards her husband having an affair, and there’s different things you can grasp on to make it a reality. Things to see why she’s so selfish– she’s struggling with alcohol abuse, she’s very wrapped up in her own world and trying to kind of fix herself and not necessarily doing a good job of mothering because she’s so self-obsessed.”
Subkoff: ” I always relate to characters that are flawed. I feel like in Hollywood films characters are too perfect so they don’t feel real. I think we as humans relate mostly to flaws and to people who are imperfect and to people who are struggling because we’re all human, we’re all struggling. As much as we want to put on Instagram that everything’s great and seem perfect, we’re not. And as perfect and beautiful as [Alex] looks, she’s deeply unhappy and struggling. And I think that struggle makes her lovable.”
This movie plays on a lot of fears of the unreliable narrator, where you don’t know who’s filming and you don’t know who to trust. What is you ladies’ biggest fear? What’s the type of horror film that makes it difficult for you to sleep at night?
Subkoff: “Oh, for sure mine is THE SHINING. I think THE SHINING is terrifying because of the idea of your husband turning on you or your father. That to me is the scariest thing in the world, that idea that your never really know anyone or what someone has inside of them. That and obviously death, I think those two things are way more profound than anything paranormal.”
Sevigny: “Mine is less deep than [Subkoff’s] but I have been watching THE WALKING DEAD as of late and I feel that the fear of assault for me has been overwhelming. I’m staying in Los Angeles in a house in Venice working on AMERICAN HORROR STORY and I’m just kind of in a neighborhood that I’m not that comfortable in and have been having the terrifying breaking and entering kind of fear. That kind of, ‘is someone hiding behind a door?’ And that to me is the most terrifying. Or, like if someone is pushing in from behind as you are entering the house. I’ve had a couple of nights where I’ve woken up terrified.”
#HORROR opens theatrically and on VOD starting Friday, November 20.