XX is an all-female helmed horror anthology that features four tales that are written and directed by and starring women. The filmmakers all come from different backgrounds and experiences and all explore different aspects of the genre, whether it’s Karyn Kusama and the good vs. evil struggle in Her Only Living Son, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) and her darkly comic directorial debut The Birthday Party, Roxanne Benjamin (who also co-wrote The Birthday Party with Clark) and the scary Don’t Fall, or Jovanka Vuckovic and the unsettling story of The Box. And then, there’s award-winning animator Sofia Carrillo, who wraps the four stories together.
At the film’s press day, Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark sat down with Collider to talk about how they got involved with XX, their unusual first meeting when Clark was dressed up as a Star Wars character, their experience of writing together, the guidelines they had for their own segments of the film, how much their stories evolved, the process of figuring out how they wanted to shoot and on what camera, and the challenges in making the type of films you want to direct.
Collider: How did this come about for you guys?
ANNIE CLARK: I think it was the brainchild of Todd Brown, a producer, and Jovanka Vuckovic. And then, Sofia Carrillo was the next to come in and be a part of the anthology. And then, we got a call from Todd Brown in late 2015. I remember because I was in England and I had gone to a Star Wars premiere. I was so humiliated because I was made to dress up as a character, and I’d never seen Star Wars, so I felt like such a fraud. I didn’t care. I was a druid looking thing. It was one of the more humiliating experiences of my life.
ROXANNE BENJAMIN: Please tell me that’s the costume you were in when we had our first phone call!
CLARK: Yes! I was dressed as a druid, sitting in the lobby of a Loews Hotel in London. I was like, “Yeah, I really think I can direct a horror film. This sounds really interesting!”
BENJAMIN: So, that’s how we met!
CLARK: It was so humiliating!
Annie, had you even been considering directing before this?
CLARK: No! I mean, there are things that I’ve done that have some correlation and I have some transferrable skills, but it wasn’t until Todd had called me and asked me to do it, and paired me up with Roxie. The rest is history!
How did you react when the idea was suggested to you?
CLARK: It never happens that people say, “Here’s some money. Do something creative and don’t worry about it.” It’s the dream, and it never happens. It doesn’t happen in the music industry. I don’t think it happens in the film industry. So, I jumped at the chance!
How was the experience of teaming up to write this together?
BENJAMIN: I’ve done a lot of these anthologies, but this is the first one where I was brought in later in the process, as a hired gun to produce something. I didn’t know how that was gonna be, but it was actually a really fun, collaborative experience. We got to write it together, and it’s my first time working with both a female director and a first-time director. It was a breeze, really. I hate to do that thing of, “It was a fun time and everyone got along,” but it really is true. It was a great experience. And I’ve produced a lot of stuff, but I haven’t directed that much. It was a learning by doing thing, which I think is good for anyone who’s thinking about directing. Just fuckin’ do it! Jump into the fuckin’ fire and see if you can swim! And then, working with someone where it was their first time, and being like, “Here’s the actual mechanics of what happens,” clarified it for me, as well.
CLARK: And that was so helpful. She was like, “Explain to the actors what they’re going to be doing in this shot.” And I was like, “Oh!”
These short films don’t really have specific good guys and bad guys, and instead let you make up your mind about what’s going on. Was that intentional? Did you guys talk to each other about that?
BENJAMIN: Not individually, no. Each one of the segments was created so much in a vacuum, outside of ours because we worked together on The Birthday Party. But they’re short films, so you have more lee-way with story and letting it be its own thing than with a traditional three-act structure. You get to play a little more, particularly with these.
Was it wide open, as far as the type of story you could tell for this, or were there restrictions?
CLARK: Apparently, there was a memo. The only precepts to being able to do the thing was that the main characters had to be women, and it had to be written and directed by a woman. Roxanne and I somehow missed the memo that it had to star a woman. It just so happened that it worked out that we were gravitating toward that.
BENJAMIN: They must have read our stuff and been like, “Oh, yeah, they read the email!”
CLARK: But it was a complete coincidence. I never read the emails.
Did your segment of this film evolve quite a bit, or is what we see what you had wanted and intended to do?
BENJAMIN: I think it always evolves in the process, but the core stays the same. The ideal is that what you started out with is what you end up with, and the vision you had in your head is what you see on the screen, or at least as close as possible. But there are also discoveries in the writing process and the production process, and then also in editing, where you find these happy accidents that make things better. And then, later, you can say that they were just completely intentional, part of the theme and exactly what you were going for, and that you’re a genius.
CLARK: I really love those accidents and the things you discover through the process of actually implementing the plan. If the DNA is solid and the POV is solid, then it will be all right, one way or the other, even if it doesn’t end up exactly how you planned it. Originally, with The Birthday Party, it was a really heavy, wooden, candelabra tone. And then, as we got more and more into it, we realized that it was a comedy and that it should be stylized.
BENJAMIN: I don’t think we had the singing telegram until that point ‘cause it was so serious with how she was going to get through it and what the interruptions would be. A boom box dancing bear was not in the original DNA.
CLARK: No, it wasn’t, but it really worked out, in the end. It’s Joe Swanberg’s finest role.
Did you have any requirements for the length of your film?
BENJAMIN: I think there was a requirement for the minimum it could be.
CLARK: I think 15 minutes was the minimum. I don’t think there was a maximum.
How did you decide the way you wanted to shoot your segment and the camera you wanted to use?
CLARK: I know all of the technical stuff with music, but I don’t know any of the technical stuff with film. They were talking lenses and throwing out all of this lingo, and I was just whispering in Roxanne’s ear, “What is that?!” But in anything, if you surround yourself with talented people, the whole thing is about collaboration.
BENJAMIN: The things that I don’t know, I find someone who knows that better than I do and that I trust, and I let them bring to me the best decision for that kind of thing. That is where the collaboration comes in. I’ve worked with the same D.P. on everything I’ve done, Tarin Anderson, and she worked on Annie’s, as well. She’s a big part of that partnership. And we used a Red Epic camera.
CLARK: Not to press too hard on the female film thing, but it just ended up that so much of the cast and crew was female.
Roxanne, since you’ve worked in various areas of the business, what was it that drew you to directing and is it something you want to do more of?
BENJAMIN: Oh, yeah, absolutely! It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I love working with other directors. It’s why I like working on these anthology projects. Ultimately, TV would be great because you’re getting to work with so many different voices and collaborate with so many different people, in such a short amount of time. No one offered to give me money to make a thing before, and it wasn’t until Southbound that one of the producers came to me and said, “We have financing to make another anthology.” And I said, “Great, I’ll only do it, if I can direct!” And they were like, “Okay!” So, that was a caveat to my coming on board to help make this movie. In no other way would that have happened. Nobody is going to just walk up to you and say, “Hey, you know what? You should be a director!”
Then, have you thought about how you make it happen, for the next time and for the future?
BENJAMIN: You keep building a body of work, hoping that it leads to the next thing and the next thing. Unfortunately, in indie film, a lot of the time, it just leads to another thing that’s at the same level. It’s harder and harder, in the indie film climate that we’re in now. In terms of the financial model for indie film, it’s harder to get bigger budgets to make things, so you have to keep making the same level of thing, or finding new ways to do that, that still make an interesting film. Sometimes those limitations are helpful, and sometimes it’s just a limitation. So, if anyone wants to give us big bags of money, we’re ready to accept it, is what I’m saying.
Annie, now that you’ve had the experience, are you looking to direct again?
CLARK: Yeah, I love it and I would love to do it again.
XX is out in theaters and on VOD on February 17th.