The Ladies of the House/John Stuart Wildman

Pity the man who disturbs the domestic bliss of three cannibal strippers—the titular ladies of the house—in this postfeminist horror film. Director John Stuart Wildman plays on gender roles in the horror-film genre, as well as gender relations in real life, in this candy-colored rendition of a happy home, imitating the bright, sunny carbro prints popular in the ’50s and ’60s, when shows like Father Knows Best were standard fare. Availability: Nationwide on Cable on Demand and iTunes.

DT: What attracted you to this genre?  And do you call it grindhouse, exploitation, horror?

 

JSW: It’s definitely a loving homage to grindhouse, but it’s very much a feminist thriller as well. We purposely didn’t want to be that easy to pin down. We wanted audiences to enjoy themselves and either be scared, filled with a proper amount of dread, or enjoy the dark comedy. We also didn’t want it to be something easily consumed and forgotten. We wanted a film that, when people left the theater, they would have to—pun kind of intended—chew on it some more. We wanted people asking, Is it OK that at a certain point my loyalties shifted to the women?  Is that so wrong?

Both Justina [~ Walford, cowriter] and I love genre films. We consider—only half kiddingly—Oldboy to be our couples movie, so that tells you a lot about us. We’re huge fans of Korean and Japanese horror, which influenced us, as well as many classic influences in the horror genre. Justina and I had written, produced, and directed a lot of theater before we met,  but none of the scripts we already had seemed to be the thing we wanted to do for our first film together. Justina half kiddingly, half in frustration, said, OK, cannibal strippers. And I said, If you write that, I’ll figure out a way to make it. I joined her about midway through the writing process, and five years later, here we are.

 

DT: I loved the way each character meets an end associated with his personality—the fool forever associated with silly plastic google eyes, the glutton disemboweled, the nice guy playing husband forever. It seemed to me like a mashup of Seven with character-as-destiny you find in noir and Westerns.

 

JSW: I love that you say that, because we employ these quickie flash-forwards of each character’s fate. We wanted each of the women to be very clear, iconographic figures—the kind that you would make figurines of. We wanted them to be that strong and that wonderful. We didn’t want a situation where women were victims or survivors or monsters. We wanted to clear the entire deck and have a world where men were superfluous, men were at the service of women completely. They had to negotiate, they had to deal with this world that was not their own, where they had no power whatsoever. The guys follow into that with their personalities, with weaknesses that oftentimes are attributed to women in these films. And their weaknesses bring about their downfall, exactly as you’re saying.

 

DT: What were the drawbacks or restrictions that came with working within this genre?

 

JSW: As far as filmmaking is concerned, there are no restrictions. There are no drawbacks to working within the horror/thriller genre. What’s wonderful about it is that you can bring up sociological issues, you can bring up political issues, you can bring up emotional issues that in a straight drama, and sometimes in a comedy, you sometimes feel you’re just being bludgeoned over the head with. But in a horror film, in a thriller, you can come at it from a different angle. Everybody’s scared about the bad guy, they’re scared about the monster, they’re scared about the horrific situation, and then they realize, Oh, wait a minute, this isn’t even about that, is it? How many times do you read a review, or you yourself are in a theater, and you go, Oh, the monster isn’t the monster, the people are the monster, and the “monster” is just bringing it out of the people.

The drawbacks and restrictions actually come from people’s perceptions—critically, journalistically, film writers. We really worked hard not to make this overtly a horror film, because we knew horror fans would find it. Like me, they sniff them out. They hunt them down. Non-horror-film fans see a poster image, and say, Oh, that’s going to be gory, that’s going to be gross, I don’t want any part of it. Early on we had a teaser poster with our own version of a classic Saul Bass design because we wanted people in more higher-minded critical circles, or even tastewise, to check out our movie and sample it and not be scared away by the prospect of gore or horror.

 

DT: The film is billed as a “postfeminist thriller,” and the heroes are women cannibals who feast on men. Comedy aside, is this your view of postfeminism, or is this a spoof on postfeminism?

 

JSW: Justina hates when I say it’s postfeminist. The two of us debate back and forth, Is it feminist, is it postfeminist?  What does that mean? For me, it means you’re going past the woman-as-monster or woman-as-victim scenario. You’re going past the typical debate about the role of women in these kinds of films. That’s the simple answer. As you dig deeper into it, you get into the idea of, Is it OK for me to be rooting for these women?  They didn’t invite these men into their house. The men encroached on their house, yet we can’t really justify what the women are doing.

 

DT: One of the women actually says that in the film.

 

JSW: Exactly. So we didn’t want to make it that easy. Yes, we wanted to give you clues as to where we might lean, but we didn’t want to make it an open-and-shut case.

 

DT: What were the filmic inspirations you talked about earlier?

 

JSW: Oldboy, as I mentioned, visually, stylistically. Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. We did one shot that was a blatant homage to a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That one actually goes hand in hand with The Devil’s Rejects, because they’re family films in a weird way. They’re films with very tight-knit families that are horrific from the outside, but on the inside, they care about each other. So you go, Wait a minute—if I can dismiss all this terrible, horrific stuff that I’m seeing and look at it purely from the point of view of whether this is a loving, caring family to each other, yeah, they are. Stylewise, Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. The use of color was very key to what we were doing. Very precise.

Definitely the French films Martyrs and Inside. There’s an intensity to those. Halfway through the scripting process, we sat down and watched an Asian anthology film called Three Extremes. After Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, we turned off the TV, looked at each other, and said, We’re writing an afterschool special compared to what we’ve just watched—we have to step it up. It also made us reassess American-produced horror films. Why can’t we approach that type of intensity that Korean cinema often has, that this spate of French films has? And can we? That made us scrutinize ourselves much more carefully.

 

DT: What was it about those other films that you felt American films didn’t match?

 

JSW: The classic example I always give is in the original Oldboy. There’s a scene where the protagonist, to show regret and remorse and apology to the antagonist, cuts off his own tongue. That’s not something American films or American filmmakers would go to: I will get revenge on you, I will do this bad thing to you by doing this to myself. That’s a whole other level of intensity. That’s something we just don’t do, and it’s something I think we miss. That’s why we’re looking to French and Korean films. Even in the best American films there’s something lacking. We’re just pulling up short. We’re limiting ourselves because we say, Our audiences can’t take that. I think our audiences can take it if it’s in the right context, and I think it really can devastate an audience emotionally in a way they never forget.

 

DT: And what about French films?

 

JWS: In the same way, it was Martyrs, Inside, Frontiers, High Tension. They had this amazing run of films, and they’re just devastating. Films you’ll never forget. In a good way. You know they say there are some things you can’t unsee?  Those are films that definitely fall in that category, and very much by design.

 

DT: You based the look of the film on Richard Miller’s tricolor process. Why, and how did you achieve the same look in Ladies of the House?

 

JSW: Just by happenstance, Justina and I went to an exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angles, and they had most of Richard C. Miller’s work there—the carbro process, the tricolor process. There was a saturation, a presentation to the colors that’s very much associated with the ’50s and early ’60s. It was used in advertising quite a bit, and there was something about it that instantly created a surreal world. We desperately wanted that for the world these women live in—the romance, this ’50s, Norman Rockwell pinup kind of lifestyle. When we get into their house, that’s the world they build for each other. We wanted to heighten that, but we still wanted to keep it real. We didn’t want to make it a cartoon.

When you see horror films, oftentimes it’s dingy, it’s grungy, it’s brown, it’s dirty, it’s gross. There’s a grime associated with horror that makes you say, That’s just disgusting. I don’t want to be in that world. So we said, Let’s go the opposite direction in this candy-colored way. Let’s drop these guys right smack dab in the middle of it. And then, as clues, we went further, color-coding each of the characters and each of their rooms. When you meet the Lin character, the first thing you see is this stripper’s bustier. It’s black and it’s yellow and you go, It’s a bumblebee. You have these visual clues. Or Melody Sisk, who plays Getty, is always in blues—strong, manly colors. She has this style that’s very much Rosie the Riveter. You can have all the sound turned off and you’ll get the idea, She’s the matriarch, she’s the mom, she’s the patriarch, she’s the dad. Crystal, who’s always in pink, is the baby. Does it really play on people?  It’s arguable. When a character’s dressed in purple, do audiences know it’s oftentimes a harbinger of death?  You don’t know, but you put it in there because it may work on them.

 

DT: How did you achieve those colors?  Were the rooms painted those colors, or did you do it in post?

 

JSW: It was both. In real life, Justina and I never argue. But in production, in writing, in preproduction, we would have these very passionate fights about color. I’d say, The lingerie needs to be a deep royal purple, and she’d say, The lavender’s fine. The color schemes in the house and the production design by Adam Dietrich were very, very specific. It was done both in camera, and then we also enhanced it with the color grading as well. So we started off with having everything very precisely done, and then, as we were doing the finishing work, we would tweak things even more to push them over the top.

 

DT: You shot the entire film with a Canon 5D. How was it?

 

JSW: We went back and forth on whether we would shoot this on a Red or on a D-SLR. Who sold me on the D-SLR was Sebastian Gutierrez. I was interviewing him in the Four Seasons at South by Southwest. While we were relaxing, I was talking about my film, and he said, You’ve got to shoot it on a D-SLR, and here’s why. He gets up and starts running around and ducking behind potted plants, saying, You can do this with it because it’s small.

We initially thought we were going to be shooting in this house we bought specifically for the film. It was a tiny house, and we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of room. A small camera would give us the versatility to move in and out of scenes, to not be setting everything up on a big tripod, so immediately that was a big win. As for quality, I looked at a lot of online tests and films that had been shot with that camera, and I was happy with the quality.

 

DT: You’ve been in the film industry for a long time, but this is your feature directorial debut. What did you learn about filmmaking you didn’t know before?

 

JSW: I knew a lot of things commonsense-wise going into this. Very, very early on I was an actor. Then I got a real job and started working at agencies and eventually in public relations. I know a ton of filmmakers from my work life, and I review and write about films myself. So I knew a lot of things and what to expect. But what I learned was the practical knowledge of improvising on a set, of managing a crew, being a leader on a set.

We had an amazing crew and we had a very smooth shot, but you occasionally have times where there’s a little malaise; that just happens. At one point, I said to one of our producers, I’m going to have to be Bad Daddy tomorrow. She stopped me and said, No you can’t. You have to be the cheerleader. I will be Bad Daddy as a producer. You have to be the force of positivity, the force of good. You have to be that guy until you cannot any longer. Until you absolutely have to do something, but until that time, you’re pumping everybody up. You’re keeping everybody excited and eager to work, and you let me and the other producers clamp down on people.

The other big educational thing is what happens when you’re done filming and you’re beyond post, and you’re now getting the film ready to actually put in the theater, or you’ve sold the film and now you have to deliver it, or, like this one, put it on VOD or in a DVD box. You have to deal with music rights, which is the bane of everyone’s existence. Until you’ve done it, you say, OK, I can see where that would be a pain. But you don’t really know until you have a scene and go, I really want to use this song, but I do not have $50,000 to spend on this one damn tune. And then there’s other things, like errors and omissions insurance, and copyrights, and chain of title, and bookkeeping—things like that. You’re saying, I made a movie. I directed actors. I put scenes together. What is this other stuff? Well, this other stuff is stuff you still have to do. Your job is not done unless you’re with a studio that’s taking all that off your hands and you can now just be an artist and go off to the spa. If you’re an independent filmmaker, you’re doing it on your own, and all that stuff is part of your job. That was a huge lesson.

 

DT: What’s your next project?

 

JSW: We have two shorts that should make the rounds in festivals next year. As far as a feature, we have a couple of projects on the horizon. One would basically be our version of a zombie film, which means that it’s not a zombie film at all but is the closest we can come. Expect kind-of zombies. And expect a love story. Because it’s also the closest we could come to a love story. The second project is much more experimental—not a genre film but a comedy that would take us back to our version of the old Playboy After Dark TV show. It’s something that’s fascinated me as a period piece and as a commentary on where we are with gender relations.

 

DT: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the film?

 

JSW: One of the goals we were trying for was, What if Doulas Sirk directed The Texas Chainsaw Maassacre? I say that to give people a flavor of what we were trying for. I’m not saying that I actually achieved that, that it’s a slam-dunk that you would watch it and say, Yeah, that’s Douglas Sirk, but I want people to be informed, to have that in their head. I don’t want a typical moviegoing experience for the people whose behinds I’m putting in seats. I want them to be prepared for what they’re going to see, and if you have that in your head, I think you’ll be ready for what we did.

I really don’t want to be put in a horror or genre ghetto, because as a film fan I look for something extra when I’m going to films like this—films like The Babadook, films like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I want those things where films are reaching for a little bit extra. If that makes me happy as an audience member, why wouldn’t it make that audience member happy as well?

 

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