American director Lucky McKee talks to Screen about the controversy surrounding his latest film, The Woman, writing with Jack Ketchum, and why he really wants to make a romantic comedy.
The Woman stars Pollyanna McIntosh reprising her role from producer Andrew Van Der Houten’s 2009 film Offspring as the last remaining member of a savage clan who is captured by a country lawyer who attempts to ‘civilise’ her.
Also starring McKee regular Angela Bettis and Sean Bridgers, it courted some controversy after its world premiere at Sundance when an audience member got upset about its content and posted a video on YouTube.
Following a North American distribution deal with The Collective and Bloody Disgusting Selects with AMC Theatres showing it across the country, the film has just had its Canadian premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival and receives its UK premiere at this week’s FrightFest.
How did the collaboration with Jack Ketchum come about? Was the book written before or after the script?
We wrote both the book and the script simultaneously, all that was done before we even started filming. When I got my first big studio job, I optioned a book of his for my friend Chris Sivertson and Chris took that option and wrote the script and got the movie made within a year. That was where the relationship started with Ketchum. He really liked a movie I made called May and we just stayed friends over the years. I tried to make one of his novels, Red, and that fell apart for me about halfway through shooting. Someone else finished it, so this was my chance to do my full Ketchum movie. Andrew Van Den Houten [The Woman producer] showed me his movie Offspring and I went to New York and pitched them my idea of how to continue the story and they really liked it and we just decided to write the book and the script together, so that’s how it started.
Did Pollyanna McIntosh get involved because of Offspring?
Yeah. I wasn’t even going to pitch my story if I didn’t like the lady playing the woman and Pollyanna’s just awesome, she’s fantastic in it. I thought I could take her some different places with this one.
How about the rest of the cast? Angela Bettis has been working with you since May…
Well she’s pretty good. She’s really versatile and she’s just easy to write for and she understands my writing. She’s a dear, dear friend; she’s like a long lost sister. We just have a really close relationship. The father character, played by Sean Bridgers, actually came through Angela. She’d been trying to get me to work with Sean for years and we finally found the right project and really hit it off. Most of my films have been female-driven so I don’t really work with a lot of men, but Sean was totally my type of actor. He just killed it, he was just fantastic.
Then the kids, the youngest daughter, the five-year-old, we actually discovered at a horror convention and happened to have mutual friends with her parents and said ‘hey, do you think she’ll ever want to be in a movie?’ She looks like she can be Angela’s daughter, red hair, big brown eyes, really cute little girl and she was really interested in trying acting and was better than anybody that we auditioned in New York.
The only part we auditioned for and cast of the main characters was the young 12-year-old boy Brian. We cast him out in New York and he was the last audition tape that we saw. We were like ‘oh, we’re never going to find him’ and all of a sudden, this kid came on and I was like that’s the one. He looks like he’s out of a Kubrick movie or something like that. That kid’s going to be huge and it was a real honour for me to be able to put him in his first film in such a crazy role.
Was it hard with the child actors to try and get the parents to agree to appear in this kind of movie?
You’re auditioning the parents just as much as you are the kids because there are a lot of kids that their parents are actually bullying them into acting and I only want to work with kids that want to do it, that really enjoy it and love it. With both these kids, that was the case. Their parents were really cool and it was about having the proper discussions with them in order to organise things in such a way where you’re not putting the kid in any sort of situation they shouldn’t be in. That’s my responsibility and I don’t take it lightly.
How did you go about directing the cast in terms of the more extreme elements of the script?
Well obviously they had the script and the novel to go on. They had all of our discussions that we had ahead of time and always when I’m preparing an actor, especially with the stuff that I had to put Pollyanna through in this film, we just talked about the hardest stuff first and she wanted to know how I was going to handle it. She wasn’t sure she wanted to do the movie after she read the script and then I talked to her about it and the way I wanted to handle some of the more extreme elements of the film and that made her more comfortable. She trusted me and it’s all about creating the most comfortable atmosphere that you can for your actors.
Every actor is different, every actor has different needs; for instance the 12-year-old boy, I would shoot a take with him and say ‘what do you think about trying it this way’ and he’d go OK and he’d try it that way and I’d go ‘ah, you were right the first time, don’t listen to me, do what you were doing’. I would screw him up you know. But other actors, they’re feeling their way into it. When I shoot with Angela, we just don’t go for the same thing over and over on multiple takes, she tries to give me a variety pack so when I get into the editing room, you find the character that way and it’s the same way we did May. We’d do like a more subtle version, then a more goofy version, then something’s that more in-between and over the course of shooting, you find the character that way and you know what sounds right and feels right. It’s a very organic process.
You talk about pushing yourself, is The Woman as extreme as you’ve gone in your career so far?
Absolutely. I don’t know if I can go any darker. I know I make people uncomfortable for some reason with the characters I put on screen. The next thing I’m going to make is more a noir film. It definitely has its harsh elements and it’s based on a Ketchum novella.
But really, I want to start doing more comedies. I want to do a romantic comedy really bad because romantic comedies are in worse shape than any genre. They’re just so strangled by formula now and if you go back to the ’30s and ’40s, they’re just making brilliant stuff, beautiful stories, really funny and not so damn formulaic. That’s always what we’re trying to do is challenge formula. Everybody’s just so used to getting the same stuff crammed down their throats over and over again.
That’s why it’s hard to get my movies made. The studios try to either latch onto a trend or establish a trend and just run it into the fucking ground until you just can’t stand it anymore. You had the Japanese horror remakes and now we’re going through everything post-Hostel and Saw, it’s just gets so old and they’re claiming to be hardcore and they’re not. The only thing they’re hardcore in is their violence but they’re not going into the human mind enough and the darkness there because there’s a lot and we all have it.
Talking about controversy, we have to mention Sundance. Was that a case of controversy turning into good publicity?
All it’s done is sell more tickets. That guy went off at Sundance and a few days later, it had like 60,000 hits on YouTube and all the comments were people like’ if it pissed this guy off this much, I’ve gotta see it now’. They want to see if they can put themselves through it and ultimately when they see the movie, it still hits them differently than they were probably expecting because it’s not just about shock. It’s about showing people that look and sound like you and me but are doing some really awful things behind closed doors which is scary.
Any problems with censorship?
None. We cleared in Australia, we cleared in England. I was really worried about England. There is a part of me that was hoping it’d be a video nasty in the UK. Stuff like Peeping Tom and Clockwork Orange, I love all that stuff. I’m a big Powell & Pressburger fan and making Peeping Tom over there kind of buried their careers and it’s just as important a film as Psycho. So far, we haven’t had any problems. We’ve got an R rating, I was very careful with how I made the film.
How do you feel your directing style has changed since your first film, All Cheerleaders Die?
It’s funny you bring up All Cheerleaders Die because The Woman actually has elements of every film I’ve made in it. It’s got a lot of the lessons I’ve learned and it’s all added up to the style of this film and it’s almost like a bookend to everything I’ve done up to this point. I’m hoping the next thing I make is a real big stylistic shift and pace because most of the movies I’ve made are slow burns and the pace is a very deliberate, some would call slow, pace that builds to an explosion at the end. On The Woman, it just felt right. It’s not as overdrawn a picture as my earlier films, I didn’t have to go over it so many times because I had a lot better idea of what I wanted and how to get there efficiently.
So there’s elements of All Cheerleaders Die in there, elements of May, elements of The Woods and when you make this stuff, you also try to challenge yourself to go for a step you know you failed at, or you feel you failed at, and conquer it and I was able to do that in a lot of areas on The Woman. With the use of special effects and action, our attitude was it can never be good enough when you finish a shot, it’s got to be good and I did more takes than I’ve ever done before. I was more of a prick on this shoot; I wasn’t an asshole, but I was a prick, we had to get it right.
And finally, where do you believe your main strength lies in directing?
It just feels right when I’m on a set. I’m not the type of person that likes to stand up in front of a group of people and be the centre of attention or anything like that but when I’m on a set, and a lot of people talk about how hard directing is, but I don’t think it’s hard, I think it’s fun. I always feel ten-foot tall and bulletproof when I’m making a movie.