One of the most horrifying aspects of transitioning into adolescence for every generation is the potential for those new teens to be ridiculed by their peers. Preparing to become a teenager is even more terrifying today, however, as that devastating taunting has moved from only happening by their peers at school to now occurring all of the time by people around the world online. That harrowing transition into cyberbulling is grippingly showcased in the new horror film, ‘#Horror,’ which marks the feature film writing, directing, producing and production design debuts of actress Tara Subkoff. The drama, which is being distributed into theaters in New York and L.A., and on VOD nationwide, today by IFC Midnight, showcases how people’s growing obsession with posting their lives online has gone too far, and virtual terror has become all too real.
‘#Horror’ opens in the middle of an isolated area of the woods in Connecticut, with Mr. Cox (Balthazar Getty) and his decade-younger assistant, Lisa (Lydia Hearst), having an affair in his Ferrari. After then receiving a resentful phone call from his wife, Alex (Chloe Sevigny), who questions why he isn’t spending time with her, since it’s their anniversary, both he and Lisa are violently attacked. Since she’s desperately trying to find meaning in her self-proclaimed unfulfilling life, and move past her husband’s cheating, Alex, who’s a recovering alcoholic, decides to attend an addiction meeting in town. She also allows their 12-year old daughter, Sofia (Bridget McGarry), to have several of her friends sleep over at their desolate mansion, which is full of priceless art, jewelry and clothing that captivates the pre-teen’s classmates.
So Sofia invites her fellow affluent and popular classmates, including mean girls Cat (Haley Murphy), Sam (Sadie Seelert), Francesca (Mina Sundwall) and Georgie (Emma Adler), to come over to her house. While the girls question why Sofia invited Sam, who just transferred to their school and is embarrassed about the lack of money her mother (Natasha Lyonne) has, the hostess initially seems determined to defend their new classmate.
But as the night continues, Sofia and her friends become increasingly driven to emotionally torment each other about their biggest insecurities, particularly by cyberbullying each other on their phones. Cat, who’s still upset about her mother’s recent death, defends herself by attacking the group with the meanest insults, which leads Sofia to order her to leave. So Cat desperately calls her father, Dr. White (Timothy Hutton), and asks him to pick her up. When he later arrives at the Cox house, he announces that he can’t find his daughter, who frantically went wandering into the woods by herself. It’s only when the four remaining girls and Dr. White determinedly set out to find Cat, and also start defending themselves against each other’s emotional attacks, do Sofia and her friends finally realize the negative impact their actions have on each other.
Subkoff took the time recently to talk about making her feature film writing, directing, producing and production design debuts on ‘#Horror’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker emotionally discussed how her inspiration for penning and helming the horror drama was partially inspired by her experiences of being targeted on the bus by her classmates when she was a pre-teen, and how bullying has become even more damaging today, as it follows children online; how she was determined to cast girls who were really 12-years-old as the middle school characters, as bullying often harms pre-teens the most; and how there aren’t many stunts in the film, and how she made action sequences look bigger than they really are, particularly through film noir camera tricks and cutaways of the performances.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film writing debut with the new horror film, ‘#Horror,’ which follows a group of preteen girls living in a suburban world of money and privilege. But when their obsession with a disturbing online game goes too far, virtual terror becomes all too real. What was your inspiration for penning the script for the drama? Why did you feel it was important to showcase the devastating emotional effects of cyberbullying?
Tara Subkoff (TS): Well, I was bullied from the time I was about 10 to when I was 12. I think the worst happened when I was 12. It happened to me while I was on the bus, so I would dread going on the bus so much. But it was an isolated incident that only happened on the bus, and then when I got home, it was over until the next day. It was rough, but I could enjoy my normal family life and the time I spent with my friends.
While what I went through was bad, what happens today is worse. Cyberbullying follows kids everywhere, so that really inspired me. I thought this type of bullying was much scarier than any other type of horror film. What happens online is available for all the world to see. So to me, that’s really a horror story. I wanted to write something that felt like an honest depiction of what it feels like to experience that, and where we’re headed with it, as a culture.
I’m involved in a project called Bridg-it. It’s a digital app that has been launched in about 10 schools in New York. It allows kids to report bullying on their phones. The report goes to a multitude of different teachers and school officials, so that kids don’t have to be seen talking to a teacher or going into the principal’s office. After they report the bullying, it’s immediately erased from their phone. So I’m an advocate of finding solutions for this problem, because I’m very passionate about the cause.
SY: Besides penning the screenplay for ‘#Horror,’ you also made your feature film directorial debut on the drama. What was your experience of making your directorial debut on the film? How did writing the screenplay influence the way you approached helming the movie?
TS: I can’t imagine not doing both. With my background, which includes creative performances and shows, I can’t imagine not directing something I wrote. I also can’t conceptualize writing something for someone else.
SY: The movie features a talented ensemble cast of veteran and up-and-coming actors, including Chloe Sevigny, Timothy Hutton, Natasha Lyonne, Balthazar Getty, Taryn Manning, Stella Schnabel, Sadie Seelert, Haley Murphy, Bridget McGarry, Blue Lindberg, Mina Sundwall, Emma Adler, Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Lydia Hearst. What was the process of finding the actors you wanted to play both the parents and pre-teen girls for the drama?
TS: Well, I’m also an actress and dancer, and do a hybrid of art, performance and fashion shows. So I’ve done a lot of casting for different kinds of acts and out-of-the box performances.
But casting the movie was really special for me. It was all about sustaining the acting throughout the entire film, instead of just for one live performance. I wrote roles for some actors I know, and I’m aware of their talent. So I wrote something for Chloe Sevigny, and I really wanted Natasha Lyonne to play the part (of Sam’s mother). I also wanted Lydia Hearst, and I wrote a role for Stella Schnabel.
But casting the girls’ roles was challenging, but it was good. I really got into arguments with some friends of mine in the business who said, “Tara, you can’t have the girls be so young; they have to be at least 16.” If I made this as a Hollywood movie, I probably would had to have 18-year-olds play those 16-year-old characters.
But I didn’t want to make a Hollywood film. I wanted to make something unique and honest, and that would have its own voice. I also wanted to show who bullying hits the hardest and the most, which are 12-year-old girls. So I really had to cast actual 12-year-olds, and I did.
All of the actresses who play the young girls are actually 12. Some of them turned 13 while we were shooting, but they were all 12 when they started. It was very important to me that they be pre-teens, because at this age, you’re in between still being a kid and evolving into a teenager. There’s a vulnerability to that age, as there’s a child quality that’s still there.
I also wanted the girls to have real, natural talent, as well as a star quality. So it was definitely difficult to find them. But I think everyone who was cast in these roles were exceptional and incredible to work with, and we all got along well.
SY: Since the girls’ characters become increasingly mean-spirited towards each other as the night continues throughout ‘#Horror,’ what was the process of working with the younger actresses to capture the mean spirit that’s often seen in middle school?
TS: I don’t think there was a lot of room for collaboration, but I did improvise and workshop with them. We also rehearsed for over a month before we started shooting.
I knew it was going to be a tough shoot, as we only had three weeks for production. We were filming during the middle of winter, and there were three huge blizzards that happened during the shoot.
Since it was a tough shoot, I’m glad we rehearsed for so long. I also taught the actors some New York theater exercises from a teacher I have worked with, Silvana Gallardo, who has since passed away. But Angelina Jolie and some other great actors were in my class. I learned a lot from Silvana, so I taught my actors these exercises. I think they helped the actors achieve their emotional needs that they each need for the challenging roles they had to portray.
SY: Not only are the characters isolated within the Cox house, as there aren’t any close neighbors, but they’re also secluded in part because the story’s set in winter, and it’s often snowing throughout the story. Why did you feel it was essential to set the plot during winter to help emphasize the characters’ physical and emotional isolation?
TS: Well, I grew up in Connecticut, so I’m very familiar with the isolation and claustrophobia. They’re both brought on by the weather and the people there. There are nice people in Connecticut, but overall, there’s an elitism that I find to be really claustrophobic. There’s a need to keep up with the Joneses. Everyone’s focused on how much money everyone has. I think we’re focused too much on that as a culture. So I wanted to depict our emphasis on the one percent of the one percent.
Originally, we had written the story to be set in the fall, but I’m glad we pushed it back to take place during the winter. But it was a tough shoot, and I actually lost three of my shooting days because of the weather. Some of my crew was actually involved a van accident during filming, and my costume designer wasn’t able to make it to the set for the rest of the shoot. That drastic weather really does happen in Connecticut, so I think that aspect of life there is really important to the story.
SY: Since ‘#Horror’ is primarily set in the Cox house, how did you find the location where you wanted to shoot the drama? What was the process of filming in the house once you began production?
TS: Well, the film is set in Greenwich, and I’m originally from the same country of Fairfield. Greenwich is the wealthiest town in Fairfield. My father was an antiques dealer, and he would often sell and deliver things to different clients throughout Greenwich.
Growing up, I was like Sadie’s character, Sam, who was embarrassed by her mom’s car. Everyone else had a lot more money in our community, and we were just the people who were delivering the furniture to the neighbors’ houses.
The houses in Greenwich are extremely enormous, and have a lot of land around them. The neighbors could be miles away. It’s all about the idea of luxury and the almost falsified feeling of country, because we were very close to New York City. Without traffic, you could drive into the city in about 40 minutes.
So there’s this false feeling of country and the safety and security that’s supposed to come along with (living in Greenwich). But if you are so far from your neighbors, no matter what type of environment you’re in, what do you do if someone does come into your house? So the idea of safety in suburbia is interesting to me. That idea really influenced how I wrote the story.
But the story’s setting was also influenced by what we could afford, because this is a very low-budget movie. I’m very proud of what we were able to achieve overall on our budget. I’m also very proud of the production design, which I worked on with my brother, Daniel. We really wanted to find a house that was authentic to what I wrote, as well as what an art collector’s house would look like. It took awhile for us to find the right house, but we eventually did find it, and I think we made it work.
SY: Speaking of the film’s design, besides writing and directing the horror film, you also made your feature film production designing debut on the drama. What was the experience of creating the overall look of the house where the majority of the film is set, especially with all of the artwork the Coxs collect? Did you create an image of what you wanted the house to look like as you were penning the script?
TS: I had actually learned from another script that I had written in the past that ended up falling apart, and I didn’t end up making. I had a lot of battles with that one, because I didn’t put specifics into the script. I wrote that it was such-and-such architect’s home, and it had such-and-such’s art work in it. I just thought that since I was also going to direct the movie, I could decide on the specific details later.
But what I realized pretty quickly during that difficult experience was that if you don’t write the details in the script, there are other people who can help determine if they’re important or not. You also don’t need to have a certain type of budget to secure a certain type of house. So as a result of what I went through before, I realized that I will probably always write my own scripts, so I can put my own details into everything.
I also find that the designs are very generic in studio films, and there aren’t any specific details. But I don’t like those types of films, and they’re not what appeals to me. I do really love films from the past, whether those made by Dario Argento or Wes Craven early in his career, or those made in the vein of ‘The Shining’ or ‘The Exorcist.’ There are such specifics in these types of movies. There’s a real level of detail that’s given to the production design and clothing, and as a filmmaker, I appreciate those specifics.
I really like the idea that a movie is moving pictures. The images that you put on the screen are really important as you’re telling a story. All of those visuals, whether someone understands them or not, aren’t important, but people will pick up on them. So it’s important not to dumb down audiences, and find the cheapest option to tell a story. I also think it’s important to focus on the richness in all of the details, and make them authentic to the world that the film’s set in.
SY: ‘#Horror’ is driven in part by its action and stunt sequences, particularly once the cyberbullying is brought into the real world and the characters start being physically attacked. What was the process of creating the action sequences?
TS: Well, we had a stunt coordinator (Jen Weissenberg) on the set, as it was important for me to have the girls do the stunts themselves. So we worked on things that were achievable, given their age, and the fact that this was their first feature film.
But there actually aren’t a tremendous amount of stunts in the film. There were a lot of things that I cheated to make them look bigger than they really are, particularly through film noir camera tricks and cutaways of the performances. I love the film noir genre, so I was happy to do so many things that have such a big style for the film. So viewers will think they see something bigger than they actually did.
Written by: Karen Benardello