Last month (via Pretty/Scary) I got in touch with Karen Lam, as I'd heard a lot about her debut directorial feature Stained at this years Cannes Film Festival. After I had seen it, I was eager to chat with her as Stained is a very well made & sincere horror film. Since I live in Wales and Karen lives in Canada (i.e. a million miles away), I conducted an interview with her thanks to the gift of the e-mail. What follows is a fascinating, brutally honest account of the highs and lows of being a female film maker, which subsequently offers a much clearer picture of the reality of the industry. This is something that anyone (male or female) who's interested in pursuing a career in film should read.
Q: How did the Stained project develop?
Stained is actually the first feature script I wrote. I was waiting to secure a location for my first short film, "The Cabinet" (which was funding through the National Screen Institute Drama Prize), and I wasn't sure if I could write a feature length screenplay. I got a pirated copy of Final Draft, bought "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder and wrote a short story. I didn't touch the draft again until the fall of 2008 when we received development financing for the script from Telefilm Canada, and I was able to hire Lesley Krueger, my story editor, and I realized the error of my screenwriting ways!
I was inspired to write the screenplay because of some unwitting conversations I had with a girlfriend's two young daughters. They were both tweenies, and already completely obsessed with romantic comedies, wedding dresses and finding The One. It's amazing how young girls will soak in these cultural myths: you're not complete until you find your soul mate, or you can't have a happy life unless you're married with kids, or that life only begins on your wedding day. One of the girls asked me, "Well, what if you're all alone and it's just you and your cats?" And I cheekily responded, "Well, maybe I'm crazy and if I drop dead, my cats will eat me." Which was the kernel for the script. I thought about all the relationships single women form that take the place of traditional relationships, and decided to have a bit of fun with it. Although I'm not sure people might think the relationships in "Stained" are as much fun as I think they are.
In January 2009, I was invited into the Women in the Director's Chair program at the Banff Center, and my director mentor was Kari Skogland ("Fifty Dead Men Walking.). Kari has been incredible successful directing action, thrillers, horror films which I suppose are traditionally male-dominated areas. She gave me some great tips and the program was incredible for letting me practice directing. The hard thing about directing is that, unlike writing, it's hard to practice and you don't really improve unless you get the chance to keep doing it.
For the rest of 2009, my producer Katie Weekley (short film "The Auburn Hills Breakdown") and I tried to get our financing together. It was loose and gelatinous until Bob Crowe and Wally Start from Angel Entertainment convinced us co-produce with them in Saskatchewan, which is where we ended up shooting the film. I had met Bob through another National Screen Institute program, "Totally Television", which had been very encouraging for me as a writer. (They took 7 television series ideas across Canada and my comedy series was selected. It was my first television script, so I was getting strong feedback to keep writing.)
We shot the film in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and did the post production in Vancouver, BC. The film premiered to the market at the Cannes Film Market under the Telefilm "Perspective Canada" showcase. At this point, we haven't even had a live audience screening yet, so I have no idea if it works or not!
Q: What was the experience of making Stained like?
I've been a producer in television and feature films for the last 10 years, having come into the industry as a lawyer. As far as production went, I had a strong financial and creative background in the script materials only. Production was always a bit of a mystery to me, and although I've produced some short films (which is a lot more hand's on than larger productions where I might show up on set once or twice a day), I largely stayed out of the way as a producer. I used to joke that I'd just swan around with a Starbucks and making sure my cel phone was off, trying not to trip over cords.
Directing is a whole other beast because you have to live on set. You're the only person with the final creative answers and there's not a second where people don't need questions answered, or to get your approval. I think there's a fallacy that the job is all creative. It IS very collaborative, and everyone is working on a creative project, but I'd say 75% of the directing job is managerial. You need to make sure your team stays on track, that your communication skills are as clear as they can be, and that the work environment that you've set up allows everyone to do their best work, all the way from your performers all the way down to your crew. I'm grateful that I had a strong background in corporate management, because you can learn the language of set but having weak managerial skills is where a lot of issues arise.
Some of the most valuable lessons I learned was from the Women in the Director's Chair program: (1) the tone of the set is created by the director, (2) have a clear objective for every scene you're directing, and (3) no one but the director is watching the performances. This is probably key. Everyone who is behind the monitor has a job and they're watching their specific thing very closely. As a director, you're aware of what they're doing, but if you're not there for your performers, you're hooped. At the end of the day, the performances have to feel authentic to you. The audience will probably forgive a bump in the dolly, but they're not going to forgive the really flat moment.
Q: Why did you want to become a director?
I actually didn't. I'm not one of those people who came out of the womb with a Super 8 in hand. I did have extensive creative training - I started classical piano training from a really young age (I was playing recitals from the time I was five years old), I painted portraits in a variety of media, dabbled in photography (actually, my botanical photographs are represented at the Elliott Louis Gallery in Vancouver. I majored in English literature in my undergrad, and went to Fashion Design for a year at Ryerson Polytechnical University in Toronto. I'm sure I was the only fashion school drop-out in law school - my first day was very much like the scene from "Legally Blonde." I think my parents were extremely concerned that I was too much of a dilettante, but when I eventually ended up as a producer in the film and television industry, they were relieved that I had found something that used a lot of my creative background.
The directing and writing only came when I had hit a bit of a wall as a producer. I had a few projects that I had been developing in earnest literally implode and I panicked. I wrote my first short film script ("The Cabinet"), and I was ready to throw in the towel and go back to being a lawyer when the National Screen Institute called and said that they had chosen my project for the program. I thought it was some sign from the universe, not that I'm completely superstitious or anything!
Q: What was the experience of your first film production job like?
I started as a producer, even on my first short film project. I had no clue what I was doing, but I ended up casting, chauffeuring, financing, and location managing the nine-day shoot. I even catered and did craft service. I got up every morning at 5 am to do all the cooking - I think I had beef bourguignon, jambalaya, cassoulet…I didn't want anyone quitting because I was force-feeding them pizza every day! I think I was so busy, I don't remember liking or disliking the job.
Q: How dramatically has the International indie film scene changed over the years?
I work in Canada, but North America has a fairly similar industry, only we have more government financing. There's much less money in the system for independent film now, and way more people wanting to do it. When I started, we shot on 16 mm on a hand-cranked Bolex, developed the film ourselves and cut it on a Steinbeck. The technological advances have made filmmaking cheaper and more accessible, but in some ways, cheapened the product to the point where the market isn't willing to pay for their entertainment anymore. If anyone can accord to make a film, why should anyone pay? Youtube, pirating, the global economy - they've all had a real impact on how filmmakers can have a career and survive in this industry.
Q: Do you find it difficult to find the project that you want to make?
It was harder as a producer, before I started writing and directing myself to find the projects hat I really loved. I love horror, but not hard-core blood and guts. I like psychological suspense and thrillers, macabre situations, and am a huge fan of Asian paranormal horror films, and I didn't get very many of those across my desk as a producer. Now, I have the luxury of being a little choosier, and my next steps are in optioning books I love, or co-writing with writers on projects.
Q: Do you have any plans to try and break into the UK indie scene, (or is there more room in the European film industry)?
My first feature film as a producer was a Canada/UK /South Africa production ("The Bone Snatcher"), and my former business partner moved to London. We had tried for years to get more co-productions going prior to our dissolving the company so I have a huge soft spot for the UK. I'm a big fan of "The Descent," and your acting pool is incredibly deep. I just came back from a European co-production program (Transatlantic Partners in Berlin), and I am really excited about working with other European producers on their and my projects. Plus, I do read a lot of European literature, so I'd love to option a book and co-develop with a European partner, particularly in the UK.
Q: Which female directors do you admire?
I have had the chance to be mentored under some incredible female directors. Kari Skogland, for one. Rachel Talalay ("Tank Girl" "Nightmare on Elm Street") lives in Vancouver and I am lucky to count her as both a career mentor and a dear friend now. She's been instrumental in giving me feedback on my career and watched my rough cuts of "Stained" and really kept me from going into the weeds. I recently had the chance to meet and interview Catherine Hardwicke ("Twilight"), and she is absolutely inspirational to me.
For filmmaking, I have always admired the work of Floria Sigismondi ("The Runaways"). I'm a child of music video, so her work with Marilyn Manson and the White Stripes still form the guide posts of my own visual aesthetics. There's not a lot of women directors in fantasy, horror, thrillers, so I have to look at a lot of the male directors in this area, like Guillermo del Toro, or Takeshi Miike, or the Pang Brothers. It's unfortunate, but having met a number of female horror directors in the last few years, I think we can change things!
Q: Which strong female film characters do you admire?
Linda Fiorentino's character in "The Last Seduction." She's wonderfully wicked, smart, and resourceful. The "villain" in Miike's "Audition." Malificent in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," mainly because I love her horns and her attitude. Lisbeth from the Millennium series. Cate Blanchett's "Elizabeth I", mainly for the portrayal and because I see her as the perfect model for how a CEO should run their company/country. I'm fascinated by really strong female characters, who might actually be monstrous. I think it's a theme that runs in a lot of the scripts I've been writing, and characters I love. Not caricatures, like Sharon Stone characters from the 1980s and 90s, which seemed to be male constructs, created in an inauthentic and titillating kind of way.
Q: Can you tell me a little more about your next project?
I'm currently in the midst of polishing up my next feature film script, currently called "Covet". I'm in monster-design time, which is really fun for me. It's a paranormal thriller, loosely based on the Bluebeard fairy tale, which has been a perennial favourite of mine.
Q: Many thanks to Karen Lam, and I wish her all the very best with 'Covet.'
Interview by Rebekah Smith - Abertoir Horror Film Festival